Coming off of Nationals last year, I knew I had to go back. It’s such an incredible experience and I knew it would only be better with a larger crew. From the beginning, I knew we would be bringing Scott Cox and myself for the 40-44s and Dave Allen and John Funke for the 45-49s. Not a bad squad. But then we got the news that Dana Williams (reigning National Crit Champ) would be joining us and Senor Donkey Chris Hobbs would be joining the 45-49’s, and the excitement reached a fever pitch. I got even more excited when I got my first glimpse of the road course in North Carolina and thought the more rolling terrain would be more suitable for me than a long finish climb. Apparently hundreds of other Masters racers from around the country felt the same way as our field grew to over 100 riders and the 45-49 reached 150. I had my target set on the road race and I also planned to race the crit in support of Scott. Only having three riders in such a large field would be a challenge but I knew there was not another threesome with our collective strength. My preparations had gone as well as I could expect given the balancing act between family, work, and training. 5am gym sessions in the local pumpatorium over the winter gave way to squeezing in intervals on my commute to work. I felt stronger than ever coming out of the off season and my early season training progressed well. I have to give a shout out to my coach, friend, and super domestique Dana Williams for his razor sharp coaching plans and guidance through the mental ups and downs of prepping for a big event. He has a tall order trying to get me fit for 3.5 hr road races in less than 8 hrs/week of riding. And you can’t underestimate the value of racing in the 35+ field in the NCNCA. It’s basically a nationals level race every weekend. Add in the crazy strong Marin group rides and I was able to get a decent amount of “racing” in the legs with the limited number of races I’m able to do. And the high speed cornering skills honed during the famous Chicken Ride would ultimately serve me well in the technical crit.
The Road Race
We all flew together on Sunday before the road race on Tuesday and luckily all our bikes arrived in the right place at the right time and with no damage - 1st challenge defeated! Monday morning, we got a late start due to the time change but drove over to the road course and drove a lap, then kitted up to ride it. The terrain was beautiful, rolling roads through lush green forests with picturesque houses and farms along the route.
Our initial assessment of the course was that it was going to be a hard man’s race and a race of attrition. We were to do 4 laps of an 18 mile circuit with about 1200 ft. of climbing per lap. Turns out, we were wrong about that attrition thing. We came up with a plan to ride conservatively for the first three laps while making sure we were represented in any large moves. We wanted to make the race as easy as possible while not losing it, and then go all in when it was time to win it, either by getting in the winning move or a leadout if we were all together. We discussed all the possible scenarios but in the end, we had no idea what to expect. With so many riders, no team with big numbers, and not knowing anything about most of the competition, we knew our success would come down to making good decisions at the right time. Luckily, a lot of the top 10-15 riders on the USA Cycling Race Predictor were CA guys who we knew so we had a decent number of guys to watch and we knew nothing would stay away without a couple of them.
Race day came and along with it the nerves. I’m accustomed to early road race starts so figuring out what to do with myself all day before a late afternoon start was not fun. You can only check your tire pressure so many times… We downed our pre race Beet Juice (a theme for the week) and kitted up. After a minimal warmup, we found a spot in the staging area with some shade and tried to relax. All three of us were lined up in the first few rows as we knew a good start would make our lives much easier. Even with the full road available, tying to move up in a field of 115 takes effort that we were hoping to save. The start was neutral as we had to negotiate a couple of traffic circles and then the course started with a little descent. After some initial sketchiness and a scary dropped water bottle, I settled in to the top 20 wheels and it was on. Scott and Dana were right there as well and we rolled along at a good clip. The course had three “climbs” (not more than 200 feet in elevation) but all of them followed a descent. We hit the first one and rolled right up the other side. A few single attacks went but nothing really serious. The first serious attack was when Derek Brauch from Surf City in SoCal got off the front. He was one of the three SoCal riders we were watching, along with Rudy Napolitano from Velo Pasadena and Phil Tintsman from Monster Media. I rolled up to Rudy and asked about Derek and he said he likes to go early and has had success making it stick so we couldn’t sleep on him, but it was still way early and there was a lot of road left to cover. The theme that started to develop and continued through the whole race was that no one wanted to initiate a break, but everyone wanted to be in one. So a single rider or maybe two would get off the front, establish a small gap, and then everyone looked for the bridge. Ultimately, this is what doomed each break attempt. At one point, NorCal strongman Jeromy Cottell was in a three man break and as we passed through the start/finish and started lap 2, I was on the front and rolling fast. Another rider jumped and I chased him and we went through the narrow traffic circles and had a gap on the field. Jeromy’s group was about 10 sec up the road. But as was the case all day, our bridge set off alarm bells and we were chased down before we got too far. We were brought back as we made a sharp left which would string out the field a bit and disrupt anyone chasing. So I jumped again and went hard down the hill into the first climb. I was hoping all of my #aeroiseverything gear would get me across. The Venge ViAS performed like magic carpet and I rolled up to them. But there were 100+ riders coming after me and the break sat up as I got there. More of the same followed with Dana and Scott never being far from the front and Scott jumping on anything dangerous. The racing was very dynamic with lots of surges, which quietly takes it’s toll on your legs. After the next two “climbs”, I realized that in fact this course was not hard enough for it to really be a race of attrition. With the descents into the climbs and the size and speed of the field, we pretty much just rolled up them and the only hard part was the false flats at the top. This race was going to come down to a late break or a field sprint, meaning tactics and decision making were going to be crucial.
Towards the end of the second lap, we rolled through the feedzone where our top notch support crew (Mr. and Mrs. Cox) was handing us bottles, resplendent in their custom painted Mike’s Bikes T-Shirts. They were the true MVP’s of this race as there was no neutral feed and this NorCal guy doesn’t fare well in humidity. Scott and I had gone to the back to get bottles and the feedzone was a shitshow with guys going in all directions and bottles flying. But we all had successful handoffs and got back to racing. Apparently some guys went hard through there (a d-bag move in my opinion) and as we got back in the mix, a large group of 12-15 riders had gotten a gap. Dana and I went to work on the front holding a steady tempo, but with a little extra as this could be dangerous. My hope was that a group that big wouldn’t work well together and if we organized a steady chase, we could get them back. And that’s what happened. We were all back together by the start of the 3rd lap.
We started the third lap and I was getting worried that this was going to come down to a mass sprint, which was my least desirable outcome. I considered altering our plan and maybe try to force something but it seemed that we were very well marked. Scott put in a good dig and got a small gap but as was the case all day, everyone else wanted to go with him. My memory is fuzzy but I think this continued for the rest of the third lap. Attacks and chases, then more attacks and chases. Scott again was all over everything, so much so that I asked him to chill a bit. Based on how the race was progressing, we were going to need him in the finish. I was starting to feel some fatigue and was worried how the legs would hold up. I ate and drank as much as I could but it was hard to find opportunities to take your hands off the bar. I was either going hard chasing a wheel or in the middle of a 100 rider group doing 30 mph.
We started the final lap, and it felt like the race really began. Staying focused and maintaining concentration was crucial as this is where a small group could slip off the front and game over. I was worried about Rudy and Phil as I hadn’t seem them in a while. They are very smart and strong bike racers so maybe they had been sitting in, waiting for this time to pounce, while we burned too many matches through the middle of the race. About the middle of the last lap, one of the pre-race favorites, Oleg Tanovitsky from Lupus got off the front solo. Luckily other riders were there to keep him in check and he didn’t get that far, even though he was off the front for a while. We brought him back and I was sitting about 4th wheel on the left side of the road. And then Rudy rolls off the front from the right side and looks back and no one responds. He looks back again and smiles. Even though he was wearing dark glasses, I swear he was looking me in the eye and either daring me to go or inviting me along. Either way, I bit and attacked hard to get up to his wheel. He responded with a strong pull and another rider had come with me. We immediately got into a good rotation. We all were taking good pulls and got a good gap pretty quick. But then I looked back quickly over a riser and saw riders coming. I thought we were being caught but it was three riders that had bridged up. Now we were six and it was the perfect mix. All six of us worked seamlessly together and we pushed hard up the last climb and the long false flat though the feedzone. I was surprised to hear that we already had a minute on the field.
With only 10K to go, we had a good chance of staying away, and hopefully my presence there allowed Scott and Dana to surf wheels if there was a chase. We continued to work well together with one guy skipping a pull occasionally, of course he was the most vocal about keeping it tight and staying on it. We crossed the freeway and the 5K to go sign and the field was still out of sight. I was now all in and if we got brought back, we had two of the fastest finishers in the country, a pretty good scenario. But the gap continued to hold, falling only to 49 sec by 3K to go. I decided to key on Rudy thinking he’d probably attack from a ways out rather than sprint. I organized myself in the rotation so I could see him as much as possible. We continued to rotate smoothly until the 1K sign. I rolled through the front as we passed it and that was going to be my last pull. The cat and mouse game began and we fanned over the road. I was on Rudy’s wheel, ready to follow him. The finish is slightly uphill so I knew a long sprint would be hard. At the same time, at the end of a long road race, when guys are tired, it’s often the guy who gets the first jump that holds on. And that’s what happened here. Rudy wasn’t going and I was starting to think about going early when Ken Vida from VeloBrew in Forida jumped hard up the right with another guy chasing. I went after them and came around Rudy. Ken already had several bike lengths and I was just hoping he’d fade. The second guy had a small gap to me and I focused on closing that. I was able to close the gap but he still beat me by a bike length and I rolled across for 3rd.I felt a mixture of joy and disappointment as I knew I made a mistake that possibly cost me the win but stoked that I made the right move to get in the right break and was able to secure a true spot on the podium, no more fauxdium for this guy!
Scott and Dana were tremendous throughout the whole race. Lots of guys complimented us after on how we raced and were able to be so involved and active with only three guys. It’s awesome to race with these guys knowing that we had several cards to play and could react and be there in many different scenarios. It just happened to be my card that ended up in the final break. Thanks guys for your tremendous support and hard work!
We had a day in between the road race and the crit so we headed out for a spin and a coffee stop in Kernersville. After getting lost and some google mapping, we found a good stretch of road to do some fartlek style accelerations and finished at the Wired Coffee Bar. I’m not sure if anyone in this town had ever seen cyclists before, let alone 6 guys in matching kits. We caused quite a stir as the owner of the coffee shop started taking pictures of us drinking her coffee. She was so excited to post on her Facebook page that we were there. We sat outside in a little alley between all the shops and all the local shop owners came out to say hi. A local chocolatier came out and gave us fresh chocolate covered bananas, his friend from a fedex style store came to take more pics with us and our bikes. She was so excited we were there she called her friend at the local newspaper to come interview us but luckily nothing came of it. Then the jewelry shop owner came out and chatted with us and I ended up getting some ear rings for my daughter.
After the ride, Scott, Dave and I headed into Winston Salem to grab lunch and walk the crit course. After a delicious modern southern lunch and a refreshing Beet Gose, we drove over to the fairgrounds where the crit was to be held. The majority of the 8ish turn course was held on the fairgrounds and defined by barriers. It looked pretty damn sketchy and tight for a huge field of jacked up racers. The course started with an immediate right turn and into a hard left, where the inside apex of the turn had been brought out to cover a storm drain. Then an immediate right on to Deacon St. and another right onto Shorefield. There was a slight rise and then a shallow descent into an off camber right turn that brought you back up into the fairgrounds. A quick left and then a long straight that funnels into a long 180 deg sweeper to the right. Then there was a very bizarre and way too sharp and tight chicane which dumped you into the finish straight less than 100 m from the line. Fear set in as the three of us started to envision all the crashes that could occur and how difficult it would be to move up. I’ll admit I didn’t get much sleep that night…
The plan was similar to the road race but we were working for Scott. Dana and I had to cover dangerous breaks and assuming it was all together, I would either take a flyer at 2 to go to cause a reaction that could provide the early part of a leadout. Or take control of the front with 1 to go. Then Dana would try to get Scott down the backside into the long sweeper. From there, Scott would hopefully take it home as there was not really much room to come around anyone.
We arrived early as we knew positioning was extra crucial and we wanted to get to staging early. Thankfully, the organizers had straightened out the crazy chicane so it was a more gentle and wide curve from the end of the sweeper to the start/finish chute. But while warming up, we were able to watch the 35-39 and it was a crash fest. Turn 2 (the extra sharp one that came around the storm drain) was the main culprit so after were were called up, they changed that one, exposing the drain but making the turn safer. It was a good thing because the drain was not an issue to ride over. But the delay meant more time in the sun. All in all, we sat in the sun for 40 min before the race started. Not ideal but all 80+ riders were in the same boat. I wasn’t sure how it would affect me as we had a long race at 75 minutes.
The first lap was neutral so we could get a look at the course, something I’ve never experienced before. Thankfully, most guys respected the staging position and there wasn’t too much jockeying. Dana, Scott and I were in the top 20 as the race began. Luckily it was fast from the beginning, which strung out the field and kept it safe. Similar to the road race, the attacks started but everyone jumped on everything. It took me a while to get used to the course, the corners, and where moving up was possible. For the most part, everyone rode safe, I got chopped a couple of times but anticipated it and backed off. The first goal of this race was to stay upright and maintain all my skin.
I was generally able to stay in the top third of the field making most of my progress on the two long backside straights which had a pretty good headwind by this point. It took a constant effort as being on the wrong wheel or side of the field could cost you 20 spots in just seconds. Then it could take laps to get that back. Dana and I marked some moves and tried to get off the front but no one was having it. Dana would cause quite a stir when he’d try to get off the front or bridge to a rider. I guess being the reigning national champ has consequences. :) We were marking the same guys as the road race - all the strong CA guys plus a few more we learned about in the road race, like the winner, Ken. About halfway into the 75 minute race a group of 4 got off the front with Jeromy Cottell (Specialized Masters) involved. He’s a motor and can drive a break all the way to the end. I saw it go but was too far back to do anything and Dana and Scott were in the same boat. Their gap grew to almost 30 sec and after a while, two more snuck off the front to try to bridge, Phil Tintsman from Monster Media and Jan Weissenberger from Thirsty Bear, two incredibly strong and aggressive riders. And again we missed the move. I thought the race was over at that point and we had missed our chance. I was feeling pretty crappy and I struggled to maintain the acceleration coming out of turn 4 that went into a slight riser. But I finally figured out how to get on the gas going into it and carry more momentum up. Dana was doing a ton of work on the front to chase/manage the gap but wasn’t getting much help. Scott even had to help on the front even though he was supposed to sit in as much as possible. I battled my way back to the front and rolled up to Dana who said we had to bring this back. We each pulled for a lap and it didn’t feel like the gap shrunk much. The bridging group had joined the front four and it looked like it was game over.
But we stayed on it, trying to chase and hoping others would help. We were now in the lap cards and probably down to about 6 or 8 to go. Rudy went to the front and put in a big pull as did Oleg and sure enough the gap began to fall. I remember hearing 13 sec and was marking our progress by where they were coming out of the long sweeper as we went into it. Somewhere around 4 to go we caught them heading into the sweeper. I thought were all together but apparently Phil and Paul Martin from First Internet Bank had snuck off right as we caught the others. And they got their gap back to 10+ sec. We were on 3 to go and going into the sweeper. I rolled by the outside of Dana and he yelled “it’s time to go”. I knew we were approaching 2 to go and that was when I was supposed to take my flyer. My first thought was even with a break, it still seemed like a good idea. If I could jump, and cause a reaction, it would help Scott and Dana stay safe near the front of the single file line and help bring back the remaining two riders. So I jumped hard exiting the sweeper. I pushed through the chicane and had a small gap through the start/finish chute. Just to the left of the chicane, the 45-49’s were staging and I heard them yelling like crazy to go! Turns out it wasn’t just my team mates, all the NorCal guys were cheering. I put my head down and was determined to get across. My gap to the field had extended to maybe 8-10 sec by the time I exited onto Deacon and I could see the two up ahead. I got close to them on the 1st back straight but Paul Martin attacked as I got to within 10 meters. Phil followed and the gap grew. I dug deep and held my effort steady but I thought that was it. But they were either tired or playing games with each other. I almost closed it again approaching the sweeper and Paul went again and again the gap grew. I tried to maintain my power and be as fast and possible. They had just a few seconds on me as I passed the the staging area again to a mass of cheers. I’m not sure, but I think the announcer had written me off at this point. But I was determined to prove him wrong and stayed on it and flew through turns 1, 2, and 3. I was closing and as I made turn 4 and headed onto the back straight, I was almost there. This time, no attack. I rolled up to them and they sort of sat up for a sec. I rolled by them and Phil jumped on my wheel and the three of us entered the fairgrounds and made the left onto the second straight.
I was on the front but it was too late to play any games. I ramped up the pace and decided to go hard into the sweeper as that’s how the previous race was won and it was a technical finish which meant that passing would be hard. Also, if I was going to lose, it wasn’t gonna be like the road race where I waited too long. These guys were going to have to earn it. I accelerated through the long sweeper, hugging the inside, my 26c Turbo Cottons gripping like crazy. All of a sudden at the apex of the turn, I heard the distinctive sound of a rider going down. I exited the turn and a quick glance back showed that Phil had slid out and caused Paul to react and get around him. I went as hard as I could, got through the chicane onto the finish straight and looked back again. Paul was charging hard but the gap was too big. I was able to post up in absolute disbelief that I crossed the line first and won Nationals. I spoke to Phil afterwards and he said he clipped a pedal in the turn and just washed out (quick shoutout to the cornering clearence of my Look Keos!). A bummer for him because he rode a great race and that’s not how I wanted it to finish. But I don’t think any race like this is won without a little luck. And to top it off, Dana was able to stay near the front and sprint for third to double up our podium presence!
I truly wish the race would have played out for Scott but like in the road race, it’s a testament to our team that we can have success in so many scenarios.
All in all, a week I’ll never forget. I’m thankful for the support of Scott and Dana in the races, and the friendship and camaraderie from the 45 squad. It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet, maybe it never will. Bike racing is a funny sport, you need a combination of fitness, team tactics, the best equipment and a little luck and I’m thankful I had all of them on my side.