By Daniel Holloway It had been four years since I last raced Merco, then it was a RR and a Crit. Like many of us from Nor Cal it is another week in the pocket of California that most people try to avoid, but the race organization has done an incredible job to make it a must attend race for anyone wanting to start their season off with a bang.
Having never done Merco as a stage race, the "new" road race was a first for me. I asked teammates who had done the race before what the major climb most resembled of other Nor Cal classics. I got an idea of what it was like – I needed to be at the front when it got narrow at the bottom of the climb, and then close my eyes until it was over.
The race started off rather mellow, not sure why, but I was happy none the less. My job of the day was to make around the front group, not put in too many efforts and just follow the group. In previous years, the race has blown apart or stayed mostly intact for a field sprint. A break went away before the second time up the climb that more or less stayed away the whole day, things got shuffled around a few laps later and four guys ended up off the front at the end. Going over the climb the last time I had incredible help from my teammate Switters to reattach me to the group on the decent. As I was collecting my thoughts Roman came back to see how I was feeling, a gaze of silence and then a grunt he just said "it may all come back, let’s win a bike race today".
After the left turn back on the road to the finish I started to come back around, the finish was coming and that always helps start the engine. In the group we had Eric, Adam, Roman and myself, at roughly 5k to go we were all lined up on the left together. As Eric started to move us up to the front, a large crash took place on the right side of the group. It spread to the left quickly and Adam, Roman and I ended up in the dirt. Each one further than the other, as I was getting myself back on the pavement, Adam and Roman were off to the races to tag on to the front group, just out of shouting distance to let them know I had made it out alive. Adam got caught out behind another crash with 1k to go and I rolled in with a group 40 seconds or so behind. Ying and Yang to the day was that I was climbing alright and ready to sprint after a tough day, but I was disappointed I couldn't repay the guys with a result for how much they helped getting me through the day.
The TT was, well, a TT. With no TT bike it was going to be more a mental battle than a physical one. Things took a turn and I was able to borrow a teammate's bike who started earlier in the day. With only a saddle adjustment, I was riding around feeling fast. Well long story short, my ass hated me for the next 28 minutes and then continued to let me know well into that evening. I guess it was better than drop bars that day, I don't envy the guys who had to use them.
The criterium came next with a new course, shaped like a C – two long straightaways with four corners on each end. As always, it was ideal to ride in the front to avoid the yo-yo effect and be able to see the race develop. A small group went off the front rather quick with our teammate Roman and Bissell settled on the front. But trying to stay at the front was wasting more energy than it was worth. I moved to back third of the field and went with the eb and flow and waited for the guys wasting energy battling one another for the back of the Bissell train. Roughly the half way point I started to move back up, sure enough it was much easier to get there and then slot in, a lot of guys were starting to get tired. Sure enough a crash happens as a rider got caught up on an orange fence on the inside of corner two. Those fences should be banned from bike races, they cause way more trouble than they prevent. I have never seen a spectator get buzzed from being to close on a corner and stand in the exact same spot the next lap.
The downed rider needed a stretcher and the field was neutralized. I was a bit miffed that all of the tired riders would get a rest and be ready to dive bomb corners at the front for no reason on the restart. But rider safety first, I had to chill out. (I hope the rider is alright and has a quick recovery) Shortly after the restart the tired riders started to fall back as the pace was lifted to bring the breakaway back before the finish. Going into the last lap I was too far back to make up much ground before the last couple corners, I came out of the last corner maybe 10 back and ended up 4th sprinting seated as my bike was having some shifting issues. First and second were out of reach but 3rd was possible. Another day of good and bad. I came away with all my skin after one dicey crit, but I wasn't on the podium when the team did the job to get me there.
The final RR. It had been well over 10 months since I did a race of that length I was a touch nervous. I know the course pretty well and it can be really difficult if the wind comes out to play. As soon as the riders were released to race it was game on. I was more or less dropped the first couple K and had to do a little chasing, not an ideal way to start the day. Once in the group it was easier to roll along in the field that was doing 50+ K kph. TMB Incase was on the watch and wanted to be in the breakaway of the day. Everyone in the group had the same objective, we cruised the first lap at 48 kph. The pace didn't slow and the trend continued for the next few laps. A small break formed and Bissell was content to give it some room and they pulled over for a pee break with some teammates. I joined knowing that I would get a free ride back, as long as I was finished in time. The field wasn't all that okay with it and started to go on the attack. The chase back took a little longer than expected, but it eventually happened.
On the next lap Optum threw down a couple team attacks to launch Zirbel with a couple teammates to get up the road and put pressure on Bissell. It took a couple tries, but soon enough Zirbel was off the front with Olheiser from CashCall, two of the best TT guys in the race. It was a fun race to watch and the duo pulled out a gap on the Bissell train. It took a lap and half for Tom to be reeled in, Mike popped a little bit earlier. The race was now looking at a field sprint, I was feeling good thanks to our team chefs Ryan and Heather and our sponsor OSMO. I normally don't ever drink mix in races, it just makes my guts turn inside out and cramp. During the race I ended up having 3 bottles of OSMO without thinking about it, the flavors aren't over powering and fantastic on my guts. I was happy to be hydrated all day. In the last 10k of the race the team stayed alert to make sure we were together and were ready to close any gaps caused by the wind that started to pick up.
Going into the last 5k I was on Roman’s wheel, avoiding the chaos we moved up on the Snelling feed zone climb. Not intending to go all the way to the front, we ended up there on the decent. Roman stayed cool as a cucumber and kept me out of the wind. The next couple K were small ups and downs, a few attacks went but were closed down in one way or another. I found myself on Hansen's wheel, the right place to be. Things were getting shuffled around as there wasn't a full on lead out. Cresting the last roller into the finish I was in great position, as we raced by the 200m to go sign no one had opened the sprint. I launched my sprint first, pulling ahead slightly from the rest of the field but the finish line seemed to not get any closer. With my head down I could see the guys moving up along my ride side, legs in agony I continued to push. With a bike throw at the line between three of us I ended up 3rd. Ten meters to early was the first thing that came to mind, ten meters.
All in all TMB/Incase had a great Merco stage race. I am disappointed that I couldn't get the W the team worked so hard for, but I left Merco motivated and very thankful for the efforts of all my teammates. 2 top 5's isn't too bad after all.