Copperopolis Road Race is hands-down my favorite race of the season: a race so prestigious in NorCal folklore that true hard-men of the sport show up in Milton, CA for the opportunity to battle for the great honor of attaining a bunny rabbit t-shirt and maybe enough money for an In-N-Out burger. Every year that I’ve done this race I’ve endured an amount of pain that makes me question my sanity as a normal human being and yet each year I can’t wait for the next go-around. This was my 7th time racing Copperopolis, starting at 15 years old in the juniors field, when the race was significantly shorter, but still excruciatingly painful. The Central Valley is beautiful in the spring, and I have been fortunate enough to experience this thanks to incredible road races promoted in Northern California by Robert Leibold and his Velo-promo crew.

            This year, rather than awake at 4am at home, I decided to check off a bucket list item and drive to Copperopolis on Friday, in order to ride a lap of the course and and camp that night on course. It was a wonderful to wake up at 6am the next morning as cars piled into the parking lot, knowing most have already been awake for a few hours. I already felt I had a slight advantage given my extra rest.

Our team plan was to involve me in the early break, and I was excited for this opportunity to help take pressure off my team leaders. Especially because I knew I had an equipment advantage to be off the front with my Specialized Venge, Evade helmet, Zipp 404s, and custom Capo aero jersey.

The race started off freezing cold down a fast, bumpy stretch of NorCal Pave, and so I was excited to hit the climb in order to warm-up my body. As we crested the initial rise of the climb, I saw a gap on the right and took the opportunity to get the race rolling. I rode as hard as I could up the climb, hoping to create some distance from the pack and hoping that my legs would respond to the effort. A few years earlier I had been involved in the early break and was dropped halfway up the climb and re-integrated into the pack, an embarrassment I did not want to repeat. I crested the climb thankful to have the company of Herbalife p/b Marc Pro – Strava rider, Matt Chatlaong, with me. We worked well together and were later aided by teammate Roman Kilun, but we were not able to gain much of an advantage and Matt and I were re-absorbed the second time up the climb, with only 4 laps to go…

I made it over the climb the second time with the pace increasingly more difficult as some of the strong guys in the field began to stretch their legs and I was still recovering from the effort off the front. Another break of 2 riders went off the front and our team was once again represented this time with Nate English. Nate is a scary rider to let off the front because he is strong enough to solo the entire race while feeling no pain. Herbalife recognized the need to start chasing, so they sent their team to the front to ride a hard tempo. I took the opportunity to chug as much Osmo drink mix as I could handle and I dreamed of the extra power I would have from my delicious orange flavored drink. I sat behind the Herbalife train surrounded by teammates and sang a nice little tune: “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day, I got a beautiful feeling, everything’s going my way”. Little did I know, it was actually Justin Rossi that must have been singing.

The rest of the race became a blur for me. The three pro riders from IRT Racing started to push the pace on the climbs and the third time up climb I suffered alongside teammate Marcus Smith. We encouraged each other to dig a little deeper. Luckily our team leaders still looked fresh and I was confident they would take care of business. On  the third lap, I barely held on to the back of the pack as attacks soared. I was even dropped near the end of the lap, but to my joy the field was neutralized during the descent and I was able to rejoin, if only for a short while longer, before my ultimate demise the fourth time up the climb.

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The next time up the climb, the race truly began: former Team Mike’s Bikes rider-turned pro, Walton Brush, flexed his muscles and showed why he’s making the big bucks and shredded the field. Colin Daw didn’t even notice that it had been difficult and like a true mountain biker, saw the pace ease up over the top of the climb and decided that he wanted to ride even harder. Justin Rossi saw the fluorescent capo clothing off the front of the race and decided it was finally time to get involved. It was then that Sam Bassetti from IRT Racing saw the race-winning move forming and decided that he would drag another Team Mike’s Bikes rider (Chris Reikert) to the break. Thanks Sam!

The stage was set and we felt we had played our cards to perfection with our two best riders in a 4-man break. The break worked well together and gained time on what was left of the field. They reached the final lap and on the main climb Rossi began to show that he was the strongest rider in the race. His incessant accelerations throughout the climb were enough to punish Colin and Chris and eventually drop Bassetti. It was down to 3, with strong-man Nate English and NorCal's new favorite writer Chris Harland-Dunaway not too far behind.

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Team Mikes Bike's had the advantage of having two riders in a 3-man break, so Colin and Chris began to attack Justin to try and weaken him. (The impressive thing about this lead group is that all three of these guys work full-time jobs.) On this particular day, Justin showed no weakness while Chris began to catch a bad case of the cramps. Change of plans: they decided to work with Justin in order to beat him in the sprint. Unfortunately, Colin too was overcome with cramps at the bottom of the critical power climb, just 10 minutes from the finish. Justin sensed weakness (or saw Colin stop pedaling and clutch his leg), then turned on his turbo-jets and stormed away. As I stood at the finish line waiting to watch the drama unfold, an Herbalife jersey came flashing by and the sounds of victory that came from Rossi could only be described by Katy Perry: “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire, 'cause I am a champion and you're gonna hear me roar." A worthy champion with an incredible passion and proper excitement to win The classic of NorCal. Team Mike’s Bikes put in a strong effort to finish 2nd, 3rd, and 4th as we continue to search for our elusive season-opening victory.

-Tyler Brandt