"It's really rough, hot and hard. It almost puts Copperopolis to shame". This was the consistent message I received from others who had previously raced Leesville Gap Road Race. This made the race even more intriguing to me because I had done Copperopolis for the first time earlier this year and it definitely was rough and tough. But considering the race took place in a town called Williams, and I knew that a good hard race would make me stronger for the upcoming BC Superweek races (that myself and five other Team Mike's Bike members will go contest), I decided to do it.
The P12 race had a good turnout. Many local teams were represented by some of their strong riders. Marco Strava Pro seemed to have the most number of teammates with strongmen Charles (Chuck) Hutcheson, Kris Lunning and Keith Hillier set to light things up. But not to be outdone, two well known pros from the area, Max Jenkins of Competitive Cyclist and Kirk Carlsen riding for Full Circle (former Garmin Development rider), were also in the mix.
Team Mike's Bikes had three riders: myself, Eric Riggs and Tyler Brandt. Our plan was for Eric to get off the front early to get up and over the climb with the top riders. Tyler and I were to work together, mark moves and stay at the front over the rough terrain so we could pick our line and minimize our chances of any mishaps. Eric and Tyler gave me a quick run down of the race which went something like this: about five miles of smooth pavement, cross a highway and the roads turn to (beep) for about 20 miles; pot holes and water run off trenches on a mix of gravel and pavement, which takes you up to the top of the climb then down a descent to a valley. Here the roads turn much better and are good getting out of the valley, down a fast descent and back to the finish just outside Williams.
My main concern was getting over the climb in decent position. I was told it was about 20 minutes so I knew I was going to have to dig deep because I'm definitely not a climber. I've focused more on crits this year (due to a young family with two boys under two and running my business) so I didn't think my chances were that great to hang with the climbers. But hopefully I could manage my losses by the top and work with a group to get back to the lead group if needed.
The race rolled out of Williams under neutral for the first few miles. As soon as the neutral motorcycle peeled off, Chuck Hutcheson accelerated past the front of the main group and looked back and asked jokingly 'can I attack now?'. Nobody responded so off he went. I was leading the pack and decided to keep a decent pace in order to manage the gap so Eric wouldn't have as much work to do when he decided to make his own move. I didn't have too wait long to see Eric accelerating past me and in pursuit of Chuck. And nobody went with him either. That was good for Tyler and I. The main pack continued to roll and I soon saw the highway we were to cross before the rough roads. Little did I know what was in store.
As soon as we hit the rough road, Kris Lunning of Marco Pro accelerated really hard off the front. Holy moly, when Tyler and Eric told me there would be pot holes, I didn't imagine the entire road being blanketed with them. The only thing that could be done was to go after Kris. As soon as he was brought back, another group of riders launched off the front. In this move was Max Jenkins. Ppsssssssss, the first flat of the race...and it was Max. Unlucky! I thought to myself 'this changes the complexion of the race.'. On we went. Tyler and I maintained our position close to the front. The rough roads started to go up but not as severely as I thought. Well, that's because the real climb hadn't started.
The pace was pretty good and I could tell the group was dwindling. We rounded a left turn and 'bam', the road pitched up. Now we were on the real climb. Up, up we went. I'd say at about half way up the climb, the group was down to about seven or eight riders. This is where my 'elastic' popped and the group began to ride away. Fortunately for me, another rider from Whole Athlete was in the same world of hurt. All we could do was continue on to the top. We work together and soon were joined by a Specialized rider (which I later found out was the wiley NorCal veteran and multiple National Champion Kevin Metcalfe). The three of us went over the top together and began the hectic descent. In the valley we came up on Jakob Berkman and he jumped on with us. The roads finally smoothened out and we soon found out our gap was 1:30 to the front group of four riders, which Eric was in.
Out the valley, up a short climb and down a steep descent we went. Here I have to give a few 'shout outs' to our team sponsors, Specialized and Zipp. The aerodynamics of my Venge frame combined with my Zipp 404 wheels allowed me to easily accelerate away from my group on the descent. We came back together as the road flatted out and continued to working in a nice paceline.
The one feed zone came on a short climb about 20 miles from the finish. As we approached it, I could see another rider up the road. It was Eric. He joined us and we were now five. We were on the home stretch. Would we be able to catch the lead group of four? We pushed on. Big props to Eric because he was burying himself each time he hit the front even though fatigue got the best of him in the lead group (he's the ultimate team player, a big asset to Team Mike's Bikes).
The race marshall on a motor bike was giving us splits. The gap was slowly coming down. As we came onto the flat farmland and turned a corner, in the distance it seemed like I could see a group of riders. As the miles continued to tick down, I soon realized what I saw in the distance was the lead group of four. We were closing the gap down. It was now under a minute but I didn't know how many miles were left in the race. Then one of the riders from the lead group dropped off the pace and soon joined our group. It was Kris L of Marco Pro. With his teammate, Chuck, in the lead group, there was no way he was going to do any work. He sat on the back as we pressed on. We made a 90 degree turn to the left (what ended up being the last one) and the lead group was pretty close (turns out it was 16 seconds, thanks to http://raceshape.com/strava-segments/616208?kom=1&rides=208579835, a cool website I came across, thanks to Kevin's twitter). The lead group saw us coming and accelerated. The gap started to open up again, and unfortunately nobody in the chase group had enough energy to match them.
As Eric finished putting in a strong pull, he said 'good luck dude' as he drifted back passed me. I soon realized he was cooked and I was on my own to fend for fourth place. As we approached the 1 km sign, Kevin attacked and nobody responded. But we kept the pace going. At about 300 meters to go, the Whole Athlete rider was the first to accelerate. Kris jumped on his wheel and I jumped on his. We were closing on Kevin. Kris passed the Whole Athlete rider, then I passed Kris but wasn't able to catch Kevin. 5th place it was.
What a fun race. It was definitely rough as expected, but that's what made it challenging and fun. Eric ended up finishing 8th. Unfortunately, bad luck got the best of Tyler as he flatted at mile 24.