A year ago in Walla Walla, I raced in my first collegiate RR at age 39. A combination of poor pre-race nutrition and terrible hydration skills resulted in calf cramps that ultimately ended my hopes of finishing with the group. Off the back on the penultimate climb, I watched the infinitely more aerodynamic peloton disappear into the distance. If any race motivated me to train harder, learn more, and perform better, it was Walla Walla.
Returning a year later, I felt as prepared as I could be for this climb-heavy race. Although short, this 30-mile event featured two laps with a handful of 120-degree turns, 3 punchy short climbs, and a 4-mile chip seal (mostly loose gravel) section that resulted in being pelted with rocks. It was a difficult course but allowed for stronger riders to have some success.
Having learned from previous races the dangers of starting in the back of the field, my teammate Jace and I elected to go to the start much earlier than normal to get a spot on the line. We rolled out on the front of the ¼ mile neutralized start and avoided a slow-speed crash that caused early drama in the rear of the field. This also put us into position to stay connected to any early attacks off the front of the field. I had made the decision that I would try and get in an early break if one developed and that Jace would also try and come with me. An Oregon rider, Alex made a couple of half-hearted attempts to open it up early but quickly have up when we got to him. In hindsight, we should have counter-attacked if we had hopes of breaking loose early but the fear of using all of my energy in a break kept these aspirations in check. As a rider who is 15-20 years older than most in the D field, I have to rely on far more strategy and conservation than explosive power.
We employed the standard tactics successfully in the last couple races. We tried to stay in the front ¼ of the field. Jace and I let others (when possible) bridge any gaps that form. We also moved up in advance of corners to prevent being strung out like the back of the field. As the race progressed, we would jump on all attacks and abandon them as counter attacks would come by. The motto was “go with everything.” On the climbs, we would position ourselves on the front. It was as smart an effort as I think I (we) have ever put together.
The front was always churning, if you weren’t moving up, you were being overtaken by riders trying to do the same. Within the race of 50, there was a group of about 20 riders who were fighting for control. This created situations where attacks would string out the group causing gaps. At one point while climbing a hill, a gap formed that quickly separated the group by 50 yards in a matter of 30 seconds. The rider (WSU) on the front of our group had come up empty on the hill and allowed it to form. He signaled for me to pass and the responsibility fell on me to bridge the gap or risk, allowing the group of 7 get away. I checked to see if my teammate was still on my wheel and, seeing he was, put down 60 seconds of seriously hard effort to close the gap with the remainder of the main field in tow. It was rewarding to hear the guys congratulate me for pulling it back. As the elder statesman in the group, I am happy when I can contribute. It builds a ton of respect and confidence with the other riders when you are willing to do your share.
The miles clicked by with occasional attacks that yielded little more than momentary accelerations. It was clear to all of us that the core of the group was strong enough to stay with any move on the flat. We anticipated that the REAL move would come on the big climb on the second lap. It was position about 10 miles from the end and could be stiff enough of a hill to allow a rider or group to break away of they were a fast climber. As we rounded 120˚ the corner to the hill, Jace and I were on the front. Two Idaho riders sprinted past to charge the climb and get a gap. They passed so quickly there was no opportunity to catch on. The field accelerated wildly to try and get to the top of the mile-long climb. Ultimately, two of the three Idaho riders and one Western Washington rider would get free of the now dwindling main field. After the climb, the large main field had been wrecked by the attack and only 12 riders remain. Among the 10+ casualties now off the back was my teammate Jace. I had managed to give everything I thought I had left to the effort and stay in the mix.
With 3 riders in the break and 11 in a defacto chase group, we made efforts to reel them back in. Another short, punchy climb 1 mile later allowed myself and 2 Gonzaga riders to get free of the tired chase group. Coordinating and working together, our trio managed to put another 30 seconds between us and the 8 remaining riders. We were even beginning to close the gap between the leaders, and us now 1 minute ahead up the road. Sadly, the riders behind were not about to let us go as they had the 3 leaders. About 5 minutes and 2 miles after it had begun, our chase group was captured by the 8 riders.
We continued to work to pull back the leaders but were running out of time. Just a few miles from the finish, the 3rd Idaho rider managed to disrupt the chase effort and allow them to at least maintain their lead. I tried to organize the riders to chase and get him off the front but it was too late. His tactic had worked perfectly and his teammates would finishing in 1st and 3rd.
We queued up for the final bunch-sprint with the group of 12 riders. I found myself in excellent position with 1k to go sitting 4th wheel. The pace was high but not high enough. Oregon State managed to launch a rider inside of 500m and the group went nuts. The remain riders surged to prevent being left behind and everyone clambered for a wheel to follow. I chased but found that all energy left in my legs was gone. I stayed on the wheel of a WWU rider as long as I could hoping to get around him or jump on the wheel of a passing sprinter but it was not to be. I ended up getting a great look at the sprint finish though. Of the 11 in our group I finished 10th, which gave me 13th overall.
To some this might be a disappointing end to a 90 minute road race, but not to me. From my perspective, I rode strategic and smart all day. I positioned myself and my teammate in the right spot throughout the race. When it was necessary to give everything to stay with an attack, crush a climb, and work with other riders, I did what I should have. There was still much I could learn from this race, but staying with the fastest riders in our peloton, dropping ¾ of the field, and getting in a fast moving chase tells me more about the improvement in my riding and racing than final placement could have.
There are so many ways to categorize success in bike racing other than final position. I am proud to have discovered different ways to “win”.