images: Alex Chiu
It’s noon Saturday, and the team is circled around the Sienna with anxious anticipation and excitement for the Stage 2 Road Race. The day before had been a disappointment, with Colin getting taken down hard by a crashed rider in the sprint from near-perfect position for a strong finish, after the efforts of the rest of the team to get him there in the last lap. While he was pretty bruised up and nursing some road rash, he was kitted up in his fresh Capo stars’n’stripes skinsuit and ready to go, having been at the venue since the crack of dawn to support his girlfriend’s early morning race.
The mood was tense – we’d done well at Chico before, but this year was a bigger, stronger field than ever before, and we’d have our work cut out for us. The plan was to hope for the windiest conditions possible, using our numbers and our course knowledge to outsmart and outride the competition, hopefully stacking a break that would stick to the line from halfway into lap one or halfway into lap two.
The start of the race was mellow, with a few of the guys following early moves just to make sure we were represented. A small group (maybe 5?) got a threatening advantage with just a few miles to go to the gravel run-up, but H24/Marc Pro seemed to have no trouble chasing it down. In fact, that would become a theme of the day – on every section but the gravel, it seemed like H24 was content to sit on the front or chase, like it was training camp v2.
The gravel came, and Mike’s had all our riders in good position, although it was hard to tell exactly who was up front when the attacks started to fly about a mile before the gravel. The lead-in to the 4-mile gravel section is on the crappiest road imaginable, full of potholes, loose filling, and general cause for mayhem. I (Colin) managed to sneak up the right side on the slight downhill within site of the gravel, entering it in the first few wheels alongside Will Routely of Rally. Being a mountain biker, I thought I was pretty good at this gravel thing, but I found it hard to stick with the front few guys. It was like I was pushing as hard as I could, but only getting 80% of the power to my legs/wheels. I think it was the impact of the crash from the day before, but it felt like I was stuck in sand for the entire thing.
I dangled on the back of the lead group of ~30 guys, but made it through fine and was glad for a brief respite through the feed zone. I then made my way to the front once again, preparing for an onslaught of attacks into the flat, straight, cross-windy section that has been the defining factor on course the past two years. It looked like most of our team was there at the front, ready to make something happen. Unfortunately for our planned tactics, the wind never materialized into anything decisive, and the group (still 60-70 strong) rode pretty much together until the next lap, with only a bit of mayhem for the points sprint mid-race, where all but a few hopefuls seemed content to let Sean Bennett stay in Green.
The second time through the gravel was much like the first, but it whittled the front group down to maybe 40-45 guys. Again, I snuck up with only a couple hundred meters to spare, entering the gravel on the front and again trying to ride like the mountain biker I am. This time through hurt even worse. and I wasn’t even CLOSE to my average power of years past. In fact, this was possibly my lowest average (+normalized) power race ever… Why was I hurting so much?! But I persevered, exiting the gravel about 25 wheels back, and clawing my way onto the back of the group. This time, there was no respite in the feed zone, just a few solemn words of encouragement, ‘Come on, Daw’ from none other than Justin Rossi as we both tried to hang onto the raging attacks from the front of the pack. In the next few km’s, more attacks flew, and I thought the race would split apart then. However, everything got brought back, and once again, a surprising lack of attacks through the usually-decisive crosswind section meant that I could recuperate a bit and focus on how I was going to sprint for the win.
At one point, with maybe 40 minutes left to race, our teammate Adam Switters got off the front solo, and the group was content to sit up and let him get some space. In fact, he got almost a minute on us before a couple of teams decided to sit on the front and bring him back before the right turn into the final ~15km to keep him from being a threat. The last 10km were surprisingly non-decisive, and the last 3-4km saw Rally assume the front to lead out Huff. At this point, I had Cam, Reese, and Roman there riding me right up to the side of the Rally train, and with 1km to go we expected it to get hard. However, Rally never really picked up the pace, and we were left wondering who would go first.
The first onslaught of sprint hopefuls jumped before 500m to go, on the second-to-last rise, so I yelled at Roman to accelerate. He did, and the Optum train responded as well. The rest is a blur, but I remember some early fliers from behind us getting quite a gap, while the eventual podium finishers rode those wheels to perfection. I was left to open up my effort at the bottom of the last rise, at least 250m from the line and with 10-12 riders ahead of me. I cranked up the rise with jello legs, passed a few guys on the long false-flat drag to the line for an 8th place finish. I was OK with it, considering the 38mph crash the day before, but it was not the redemption I was looking for after last year’s close 2nd place finish. In hindsight, 6 of the 7 guys ahead of me were pros, and I should be pleased with such a finish, but coming off such a great year for the team in 2015, we’re all hungry for wins!
We ate a big dinner in downtown Chico, debriefing the race, sharing war stories from the gravel, and getting ready for a hard TT the next morning. We were all excited to see what Cam Piper, our new teammate and solid GC contender could do with his #aeroiseverything setup, and a few of us were looking to stay in contention for a strong overall finish.