May 24, 2014
Winston-Salem North Carolina
Weather: warm, humid, 80-85
Teammates: Dave "Beardo" Allen and Chris "Donkey" Hobbs
Course: Rolling 18.2 mile loop, 4 laps.
Matt found a sweet AirBnB house on the outskirts of Winston-Salem that comfortably slept 6 - which was perfect because we brought 6 guys - Prez, Dr. Cox, Ringer, Donkey, Beardo, and myself. It was a truly relaxing place to retreat to between events and it was like "Team Camp Lite" having everyone around watching the Giro, cooking, drinking, preparing for the races, and cracking up at Hobbs, well...being Hobbs.
We knew that with 8 riders including multiple former and current national (and world) champions, that Peet's would bring the race to the rest of us. There were a bunch of teams from around the country with two to three riders, a couple with four. Given our limited resources, our plan was to watch for dangerous breaks with two or more riders including a Peet's rider - and to conserve and react to the race with Hobbs slaying himself to keep Dave and myself in contention and ready for anything in the finale.
There was a full field of 150 so Dave and I staged early in the designated section, but somehow we still ended up getting snaked by the more "savvy" riders - which turned out to be like 60% of the field - that sneaked their way in at the last minute in front of us. This included Donkey, who was contentedly sitting in the front row while Dave and I sat like 15 rows back chatting with a couple of old friends from the Southeast racing scene that we knew from way back when...
After the neutral roll out, the field went full width of the road, and we were stuck for a bit, but were able to finally move up as a few attacks went. I have to say the first few miles set the tone for the rest of the week; With Nationals on the line, everyone seemed willing to take a few extra risks to get to the front. I don't recall any crashes early on, but there was a lot of chopping and some questionable behavior, and there were more than a few riders that clearly didn't belong in a big experienced field that included the fastest Masters in the country. Dave, Hobbs, and I passed each other here and there throughout the first lap, with Hobbs ever-present near the front and Dave and I sitting about 20 back, moving up when prudent. One thing became abundantly clear on the first lap - this course was not going to be nearly as challenging as we'd thought on the pre-ride the day before. The speed with which we hit the hills in the group would usually power us most of the way up the little rises on the course, and the guys in the back were getting a free ride. At 25mph, the short stinging rollers were now just rollers. Bummer.
On Lap 1, Dan Martin rolled away solo. We were content to let him go, and while I think there were a few bridge attempts, he pretty much stayed out there on his own for the first lap and into the second lap. Most attacks were brought back quickly because there were just too many fresh horses to let more than one guy roll away. Donkey was up front bridging gaps here and there.
On Lap 2, Martin was re-absorbed and the pace heated up as some of the heavy-hitters from around the country took a stab at getting away. Nobody really got anywhere and while the field got pretty strung out here and there, sitting in wasn't difficult. I was not planning to go with anything until the final lap, if at all. Dave and Hobbs (and myself) covered a few attacks, because we were in position to, but every gap was quickly bridged by the guys that just couldn't be left behind. The Peet's riders were putting in digs here and there. A few of the danger men like Phipps, Giles, Richard Feldman, and my old friend Gordon Stiel from Charlotte put in some short-lived attacks, but nobody was having it.
Lap 3 saw Martin roll away again and got 30 secs. pretty quickly, then a number of riders tried to bridge - one of whom apparently succeeded. There was still a lot of racing left so we weren't concerned - the periodic attacks seemed to be keeping the break within 2 min and I was hopeful that it would come back on the last lap, especially considering Martin had been out there all day - which was pretty bad-ass.
On Lap 4, Martin was still away and within 15K to go we got a time check of 1:20 to Martin. And it was unclear how many guys were up there (I thought 2-3). After a few more km's with no real collective effort by any other teams, Dave and I decided we might need to unleash the Donkey a bit early.
We were pretty sure he wanted to anyway. So...I worked my way to front and gave him the news.
While we were chatting some guy hollered from behind us: "C'mon Mike's, stop f#$king around!"
Yeah...you may as well have hit the Donkey with a whip, because within 4K of of the "Donkey Show", Dan Martin, who had dropped his breakaway companion, was safely back in the pack. Hee-haw, good Donkey.
Now thinking of the finish, we knew it was going to be total bedlam with probably 120+ guys left in the field - and half of them still thought they (we) had a chance. I was pretty sure with Martin being pretty tired from the break(s), that Laberge might be their guy after all - and perhaps with 70 miles in our legs I might have slightly better odds than usual - so I got the back of the Peet's train with about 10K to go just as everyone started getting really uptight. Dave was right behind me at that point and we were going to see what happens and help each other out if the cards fell accordingly. The remaining Peet's guys came up front and this looked like it was going to be a good plan. One thing that occurred to me this point was that Theobald wasn't up front much and was probably conserving. Sure enough, at around 5-6km to go, Nick rolled off with a Kelly Benefits guy (Frederick Norton). I thought there was way too much power left in the field to let this slip away. But they kept working at it...and dangling...
Inside 4km to go, Theobald and Norton were still off and nobody wanted to seal the deal (our Donkey was apparently trapped behind some 80-90 riders after his effort, unable to get back to the front) - and Peet's and Kelly riders seemed content to let them dangle. As a result, the final km's became a total low-speed swarm/crash-fest. I was tenaciously holding Dean's wheel and getting swarmed and bumped from all sides - but thinking of the work that Hobbs did, I was not going to give this up. With every swarm, the Peet's guys up front would up the tempo just enough to keep us at the pointy end without actually catching Nick - which was pretty slick riding by Peet's. But the break was SOOO close I REALLY thought they were coming back.
The first crash happened immediately behind me at around 4km, which I know Dave/Hobbs got hung up behind. It sounded nasty. Up front though, that relieved a little tension and I started looking to the finish and anticipating the sprint. A few more crashes, further back, could be heard, and the number of riders up front was thinning out. I was intent on finishing this thing and was feeling good, in spite of the number of fresh guys around.
The final 1km was a bit of a blur for me - I think the Peet's guys were all burned off except Dean, and there were a few guys in front trying to bridge the gap as we closed in on the break. I was patient, and waited...and waited... And then, oh God! All of a sudden we were 250M from the finish and the guys in front of Dean were starting their sprint, and it occurred to me that Dean isn't going to sprint. Alarm bells started going off and I went, knowing full well it was too late. I did my sprint at somewhere below 100% effort - because of the number of guys I had to pick my way through that were here and there on the road. In the last 100m I probably needled my way through 6-7 guys, and squeaked by the guy in 3rd probably 10m before the line. Nick was celebrating as I rolled up to him after the line. I was simultaneously really happy for Nick, really psyched at getting a medal, and a bit let down at myself for waiting too long to give myself a real chance of catching Nick - who had a nice comfortable margin and did a huge effort at the finish to put a few bike lengths into Norton in 2nd.
Honestly, I can't think of a more deserving rider in NorCal to wear the Stars and Stripes than Nick Theobald - a selfless rider that races with heart and aggression, and gives everything for his Peet's teammates. Just standing up there next to him - representing NorCal with him on the national stage - was truly an honor. The Peet's guys rode a terrific race and I could tell they were ecstatic to give Nick the win that he deserved.
And winning Bronze at Nationals was honestly more than I expected from this tired old body that is only getting a couple days of racing per month. But damn, I was close, and the stars actually aligned in a way that offered me a shot at the title and earned me a solid spot on the podium.
And then there is this awesome team of riders - I can't say enough about how this Mike's Bikes team operates and how we inspire and motivate each other, mostly through our actions. Hobbs flew across the country with the sole intent of sacrificing himself for us, and Dave willing to give his all for whatever outcome looked most promising - offering to lead me out if it came down to it. Honestly, these were the biggest motivators in hurling myself into the ridiculous fray that was the last 10km of this race - it was definitely a bit nerve-wracking and scary, even, but in the end it was worth the effort, and the reward.
One more thing: a HUGE assist to Sally and Dick (Scott's parents) who sat sweltering in the sun on a hot and humid afternoon, in their homemade Mike's Bikes T-Shirts, holding out bottles like pros. I drank every drop of my Osmo and we would not have made it to the finish line without them. Scott, please give your parents our sincerest thanks for EVERYTHING they did to help out.