I’m pleasantly surprised to be writing this win report, though I’m afraid I can hardly hope to fill the shoes of other recent pedal Racing winners like David McNeill! I’m going to spend a couple paragraphs describing how I got into racing, as I think it will act as a message of hope, coming from someone like myself with no obvious talent nor much racing experience.
I’m 42 years old and 2016 is my first racing season. I moved to Colorado in June, 2011, and I vividly remember my first ride – on a 35-pound hybrid – up Lookout Mountain. Windy Saddle wasn’t windy, but when I breathlessly asked my friend to stop there, I was certainly winded! Smart money would have just quit, but over the next few seasons, my seriousness and fitness improved, while my bike – and body – weight declined. Since then, I’ve done many of the “serious” recreational rides such as the Triple Bypass and the Golden Gran Fondo.
I have to thank (blame?) Strava for pushing me into racing. A geophysicist by training, I’ve always been a “numbers guy” and pretty competitive. Through a shameless case of “Strava Stalking”, I found a fast local group ride — Park Hill Peloton (PHP) – which follows an out-and-back course through Cherry Creek State Park and draws many of the best local racers. I recall being quite scared on the first few rides with the speed and close proximity of group rides. Since October, 2014, I’ve ridden PHP about 50 times. At first, I’d get dropped nearly as soon as the group entered the Park. It’s taken me 18 months, but this season, I have finally been able to hang on over the entire course with the lead group.
The reader may be wondering how/if this background relates to racing. Until I started riding PHP, I had no idea that grown men raced bikes competitively! Had I known, I still wouldn’t have visualized myself racing. Even after fellow PHP rider Mark Stookesberry invited me to join pedal last year, I still didn’t think I had what it took to race competitively.
My first race was the Buff Gold Road Race, where I took fourth, and had I not been sent into a farmer’s field by the guy who took third, I would’ve landed on the podium! I took another fourth at the Clasica de Rio Grande.
Clearly, and surprisingly, I had the group riding prowess and strength to hold the lead group in Cat 5 races, but did I have the strength to WIN the OZ Road Race? Everyone told me that “Cat 5 breakaways never work,” but after reading about David’s very cool Clasica de Rio Grande victory, I was intrigued. Pedal had several strong riders at the OZ Race. I wondered if we could make a breakaway work.
The OZ Race spends several miles on Imboden Road; this year, the northwest wind (and loose dirt) punished the field and kept the initial pace slow. I had been frustrated on my first two races by the fairly sedate pace, culminating with a bunch sprint. I’m not a sprinter, nor am I a climber, but I have “diesel power”, and I vowed to thin the field on this long and flat course.
After the right turn onto E. 88th Ave., the headwind turned into a tailwind, and Stephen Douglas and I picked up the pace. By mile 10, the 22-man group was showing cracks, and by mile 13, had been blown apart, with a surviving lead group of perhaps 8 riders.
Being 6’8” and a fairly heavy (for bike racing) 205 pounds, I thrive on mild downhills with tailwinds. To test the field, I went off the front at mile 15 and was joined by Bruce Johnson. We worked together and opened a 10-second gap, which persisted for another several miles, until we were chased down by Joe Clemens of Primal and Tyler Peterson of Old School. I was hoping to see the chartreuse sleeve of Stephen, but alas, he did not make it, though he finished a strong 6th.
Our four-man breakaway worked very efficiently for the next 20 miles, echeloning into the head/crosswind on the westbound return leg and opened a 3-minute gap with the chase group. By mile 35 of this 37+ mile race, “Teamwork” gave way to probing, but all four riders held on. Nearing the final hard left into the finish chute, Joe, who is a strong sprinter (and all-around rider) gained a strong inside lead position. However, he failed to negotiate the turn and he tangled with the other two riders (but thankfully stayed upright), and I cruised in for a victory. After a couple heartbreaking 4th place finishes, I eagerly drank from the fountain of luck!
Lessons learned? Apparently Cat 5 breakaways CAN work, but I don’t think you can extrapolate this result to a Cat 4 or higher race. This breakaway worked because 1) we were able to drop 2/3 of the riders very quickly, and 2) the chase group was comparable in size to the breakaway group! The Cat 4 fields are usually much larger, so I find it hard to believe that a 4-man breakaway could reliably maintain a lead, in the absence of some type of disruption or confusion, like pedal SM4 had at Rio.
The windy conditions favor the large riders like me, and I felt that I could use them to my advantage in a breakaway, without having to worry about a large hill to blow up on.
Finally, I can’t under-emphasize the important role that the fast group riding (PHP) has played in my racing experience to date. If you can’t find a fast group ride, then race as much as you can. There’s no substitute for intense interval training, in a group setting.
You learn how to comfortably hold the wheels of other riders – if you’re nervous, you’re stiff and probably wasting energy. You learn valuable lessons on positioning.
One lesson I’ve learned, as a relatively weak climber, is to NEVER be ON the front on the lead up to a hill. NEAR the front is great. I try to move up as far as possible when the other riders fatigue. Since I’m near the front, if I flag, I can safely fall back a few positions without losing the lead group.
You learn how to gauge whether another rider is strong or weak.