The race was four times over a 24 mile circuit. The terrain was flat to rolling, with minimal wind. Sunny skies, around 50F at the 8:05 AM start, but the day warmed rapidly to 70F. Cattle pastures and almond orchards, with thousands of trees frilled by the white flowers of spring, lined the rural course. A beautiful setting and a beautiful day.
The fourth and final stage started with 64 participants, down from the 74 the first stage had. Our GC man, Chris Phipps, had been in yellow since the first day, when he finished 1:08 ahead of Chris Lyman (Specialized) and got a 10s bonus for winning the stage. Chris rode a strong time trial against Lyman, who is a National Champion in the discipline, but ended up with his lead trimmed down to 0:56. The crit finished in a pack, so no time changes came from that event. So the last race began with Chris in yellow by 0:56 and the eight of us expecting an onslaught from Specialized to try and erase their deficit.
The night before, we had discussed at length how to best protect Chris and the yellow jersey during the race. With 8 strong riders on the team, we actually had a lot of good options, and eventually settled on a conservative phased-defense strategy. Alex and Arthur would ride near the front on the first lap, covering all attacks, while Hans and Dan would be riding a little further back and resting for later laps. Paul, myself, and Chris would hide in the pack and stay out of the wind. On lap two, Dan and Hans would take point on the peloton, with Alex and Arthur falling back with Ron to provide support. The plan then was that Paul and I would take up point on the 3rd and 4th laps, with the others able to support us as needed. With no climbs and little wind, it seemed entirely possible that the field could stay together, and so any of us who wound up following attacks were under strict orders to sit like anchors on the back, no matter how good the break looked. Finishing with an intact peloton meant a comfortable victory for Chris and success for the team, and that’s what we were aiming for.
The first lap was quick, with a lot of tentative attacks that were covered with only moderate difficulty by Ron, Arthur, and Alex. The pavement was very poor, pave-class bumpy for several kilometers in places, so although we had a full road closure and use of the entire width of the road, there were some sections where it was difficult to move up through the field. There were also sprint points awarded at the finish line each time around, so the guys in contention for the sprint jersey lit the field up the first time around, but they let up after the sprint and the long line that had formed coalesced back into a tight peloton in the feed zone that came immediately afteward. The second lap was much like the first, with Dan, Alex, and Hans keeping everything in check nicely.
The second time around, the field got stretched out again for the sprint points, and I found myself 100-150 meters from the front, with Phipps only a few places ahead of me. And here we made a major tactical error, because that lined-out field had Chris Lyman and Craig Roemer of Specialized near the front of it, and they are both world-class TT guys. They took the opportunity and punched it through the feed and soon had 50 meters on the field, but none of us knew they were in there. Hans, thank god, had positioned himself well and was able to latch onto the train as it left the station. I saw the group of 9-11 with a little gap, but could see that Hans was with them, so I figured the move was covered and would drift back to us. Chris was near me but I didn’t see Paul, who I’d been taking my tactical cues from all weekend, going to the front to chase, so I elected to sit and wait. Huge mistake.
It turned out that Paul had experienced a major mechanical malfunction during the middle of the first lap and was struggling to get back to a 28+ mph peloton with only a few functional gears (Paul later packed it in when it became clear that no amount of desire or work would get him back into the race). None of us knew this at the time. The first indication I had of exactly how much peril we faced was when I saw Ron rush up and try to launch Chris off to bridge to the group, which by now was several hundred meters away. Predicatably, the field lit up as soon as they saw the yellow jersey at the front. Chris was unable to get a gap as red-and-white Specialized jerseys swarmed all over his tail. I still didn’t realize that Lyman and Roemer were in the break at this point, but I knew that I had to go try and pull the break back. I went to the front and started the donkey drill in earnest. I think I did start to drag them back a bit and at one point I really felt like I was going to succeed, but they (Lyman, Roemer, Diego Garavito – 3rd on GC, Brian Choi, Nick Theobald, Jens Hillen – 4th on GC, Kevin Klein – 5th on GC) got more organized and I started to tire and their lead began to expand out as we reached the mid-point of the 3rd lap.
Fortunately, there were was one other team, Veloce from Oregon, who had the 4th place GC man and had also missed the break. Two of them came to the front and started rotating through strongly with Chris and I. With the pace as high as we had it, it took a little while, but eventually Dan and Alex also came to the front and we had 4-6 of us pulling hard. We now learned that Roemer and Lyman were in the break, and they continued to pull slowly away from us, even with 5-6 of us rotating through at our limits. I have never worked so hard, desperately fighting fatigue and despair as we watched the winning break receding into the distance. We weren’t getting a lot of information on the gap, but it it was clearly over a minute and the yellow jersey looked lost due to our inattention.
Chris had been putting in strong pulls throughout this chase, and as we got towards the end of the 3rd lap, I had to admit to him that I wasn’t going to be able to keep the pace up much longer. I tried every ‘shut up, legs’ technique I’ve ever heard of to keep going, but there came a point where mind-over-matter simply wasn’t working any more. Alex and Dan also started reaching their limits as well, and we had to start dropping back into the 30-rider pack to recover for a while. All of us went back to the front repeatedly to try and lend a hand, but our chase was not that of ravenous hyenas, rather more like that of the desperate lone zebra trying to outrun a closing predator. And here’s where I have to really tip my hat to Chris. Clearly the strongest rider on the team, Chris also displayed enormous metaphorical heart as well as literal heart-and-lungs. The responsibility for the chase fell on him alone for extended periods of time on the last lap. Head down, legs pumping furiously, he drove the pack on single-handedly for long stretches while half a dozen Specialized riders coasted along in his wake, laughing at his seemingly futile struggle. Truly an awesome display of character and resolve, I learned a lot about what ‘never say die’ really means by watching Chris in this race, and every time I could, I went up to try and give him at least a little help. Arthur came up to me with gels and water, which probably saved me from dying on the side of the road and let me do a few more pulls. But we hadn’t even seen the break in a 30 minutes or more, and it increasingly looked as though the day was going to end as a cataclysmic disaster. With maybe 10k to go, we got the first glimmer of hope – we caught sight of the chase group up the road as they crested a rolling hill. Although they still looked impossibly far away, at least we could see them.
Chris continued to pound away at the front, and the pack seemed to take some interest in the chase for the first time too. The pace picked up to a level where I was struggling to hold on, but it definitely picked up as we approached the finish, which ended with a slight climb. Although the group finished strong (hell, most of them hadn’t seen the wind in 75 miles), when we crossed the line it still seemed that we’d blown the lead and race. Chris, understandably tired and upset after the herculean effort he’d put in, had torn the yellow jersey off by a hundred meters past the finish line and rode off. I couldn’t imagine the frustration he was feeling, and figured that nothing I could say would make it any better. The rest of us congregated around the food tent and lamented our screw up, debating how long was appropriate to wait before going to offer our apologies to Chris.
But then things started to get interesting. It turned out that Hans had been very crafty up there in that break. Roemer and Lyman had been putting in a lot of effort to keep themselves away and they were tired. Their breakaway companions knew how strong they were and how much it meant for them to keep the break alive, so it sounded like everyone else only put in just enough work to stay away. Strong as they are, even Lyman and Roemer can’t ride that hard for that long without effect. As they tired, Hans made a gutsy and tactically brilliant move. He attacked the break to draw out riders seeking the stage win and break up the group. And it worked, because the guys who’d been sitting in the Specialized wake lit it up and Lyman and Roemer got gapped. At the finish, Lyman was 7s back from the winner and Roemer 24s. This made all the difference in the world.
As big a mistake we made in letting that break go, Lyman made an even bigger one in not pushing himself just a little bit harder to stay with the finishing sprint. When the times were tallied, Chris was in yellow by one second. One second! When I heard that, I felt a huge rush of relief. I still felt like a dolt for missing the break, but at least we dodged the bullet and took the final yellow jersey that Chris so richly deserved. I was filled with pride to have been part of the Iron Data/Thirsty Bear team when they called Chris up for the final presentation. My happiness was on several levels. Largely for Chris and the grit he showed when all looked lost, but also for Hans who derailed the sprinters train with more than 1km to go. And for Ron, Alex, Arthur, Dan, and Paul, each of who eagerly and unselfishly worked their asses off to make the result possible in every race. I don’t think you could dream up a more dramatic series of twists and turns to a bike race, or a better example of why the sport is so great.
And thus concluded what for me ranks as the most exciting, physically demanding, emotionally draining, and personally satisfying weekend of racing I have ever done.
Diego Garavito (Team Clover) points jersey winner, Christopher Phipps (IronDataThirstyBearCycling.com) GC winner, Jens Hillen (Gnarlube) 45+ winner