Attendance at the Montana Collegiate Omnium is likely the lowest of all the NWCCC races. For the western-most schools in the conference, the drive is as much as 14 hours by car. For Boise State, it's a mere 8 hours, which is more of an average length than an anomaly. But for me, making the drive alone in less that 24 hours proved difficult. Had it not been for the fact I was the third member of the Bronco contingent, coincidentally the minimum number required for participation in the team time trial, I might have made the argument that I should not attend. After all, I had been sick for more than a week, traveled to New Orleans, and spent a sum total of 11 contiguous days off the bike since my 4th place finish in the Boise race. Not good preparation for a road race event of 40 miles, 2,800 feet of climbing, including a 5K finishing crawl at more that 8% average grade. Yet, I loaded up the car on Friday and made the trip.
The weather forecast offered a foreboding prognosis of 40 degrees, high wind, and a 40% chance of snow for the Bozeman. Thankfully, the actual race conditions were vastly different. When the 24 riders in the D flight rolled off the start line the sun was shining, the wind mild, and the temperature hovered over 60. It would turn out to be a mixed blessing for some.
The 1/2 mile of the initial neutral roll-out was flat but it changed sharply shortly after. A 1.5 mile climb at 4-5% marked the official beginning of the race. For some reason, the race officials had decided to launch the Men's C just 30 seconds before our flight which meant the possibility existed that we might catch that group, which was not allowed. For that reason, we found ourselves holding back early. After the initial climb and moderate descent, we turned into the wind, now hovering at 10 mph, and made a steady effort toward a protracted 3-mile Category 3 climb.
Worried about my recent lack of fitness, I had genuine concern about the pace climbing that hill. My #1 goal of the race was to make it to the final climb with the leaders. After that, it would all sort itself out. So, I positioned myself at the front of the group and set the pace up that climb. Some would argue that it was too much work too early, but knowing I could get dropped if the pace was too high, it made more sense to dictate rather than follow.
At the top of the climb the group relaxed and settled in. I announced to the leading group that I was going to drift back and catch the bulk of the group on the helmet cam. As I got to the back of the group JT, a University of Idaho rider, attacked in an attempt to trim me from the group. Thankfully I was moving forward rather than back when it happened and was able to react in time. However, the attack turned into a full-out assault on the field. Long and thin, the previously calm group turned into “pain train” for the next 5 minutes. More than once, I found myself bargaining with my legs to just hang in 30 more seconds. After that time, I supposed, it would be over and settle down. Somehow, I managed to climb back to the leading group.
We started with 24 riders but after the surge the group had just 18 riders left in the field. I felt bad for those now off the back. The wind was picking up cutting across the field now making it miserable to be alone. I gave grief to JT and the other guys who tried to drop me and while it was good humored, I wanted some revenge.
After about 20 minutes of recovery and no sign of motivation from the group, I began to think about how we might thin this group out a little more. I wanted to get to the base of the final climb with as small a lead group as I could. It gave me the best chance of a strong finish. I didn’t have the legs for any kind of real solo effort but thought if I could get the tempo up again, it might thin out. I waited for an opportunity where we had as strong a cross wind as we could find with rolling terrain to make it harder on any chasers. After drifting back into the group I wound up and attacked at +10 mph past the group and immediately guttered on the right side to prevent anyone from getting in my slipstream. I gave myself 30 seconds of all out sprint effort and then backed off to a high tempo. I managed to get a gap of what looked like 10-15 seconds ever the group.
JT was the only one to chase immediately, which was surprising, or perhaps insulting. They were letting the old man go on a flyer. After a couple of minutes, JT bridged up and passed. He might have thought I would come with him, but it was never my intention to get in a break. I just wanted the group to thin out due to an increased pace. Eventually, the group caught my wheel, now short 7 more riders. The move had trimmed the group to a total of 10.
As the group caught me, I said “let him dangle,” referring to JT. After his untimely attack on me, it was nice to see him alone in the wind working hard. He spent 20 minutes alone in front of the group before the decision was made to reel him in. Oregon and Washington, who each had two riders in our group, worked to pull back the 20 seconds and return him to the group of 10. As he fell back in, I gave him a satisfied smile and congratulated him on his flyer. He looked pale and complained that he should have brought more water and food.
With 6 miles to go before the climb, we turned into a box river canyon that offered up a tail wind for the first time since we started. The combination of the ease and beauty of this part of the course had all of us chatting. Everyone knew this was the top 10 and that the final climb would decide it all. Tactics wouldn’t be of much benefit; it was all about climbing ability now.
We rounded the turn and began the more than 3-mile climb. The group thinned out immediately as some riders charged the hill. I elected to hang back, spin a high cadence, and not risk a melt down until the end was in sight. I am not a strong climber, did not have the preparation for this race, and was content with a top 10 finish. Likely, others would melt down and my steady pace and conservation would allow me to pass them. All riders settled into a similar pace and were spread out over less than 75 yards. It seemed like a solid plan.
A little less than a mile into the climb, JT collapsed onto his handlebars. The heat, prolonged effort, and lack of hydration and nutrition on the ride had taken its toll. He lucky rolled off his bike on to the shoulder, preventing any serious road rash but started to convulse immediately. I jumped off my bike and did my best to render aid. I gave him water and flagged down the follow car containing the race officials. The decision was made to call an ambulance. I managed to get a couple of smiles out of him after describing that his “hero” was here and that I should get points for hanging out with him.
Obviously, he was suffering from severe dehydration, which was confirmed by the ER. He was eventually transported to the hospital in Butte where he was released later in the evening. JT is well and will likely race this coming weekend at championships. I feel a little guilt for telling the group to “let him dangle” as a retaliation from his ill-timed attack, but am also confident that he was not prepared for the race. I don’t know that my “el patron” influence made all that much of a difference in the grand scheme but he’s okay.
After about 5 minutes of supporting JT on the side of the road my mind returned to the race that I had all but abandoned. No other riders from the D field had passed while we waited for medical help. All told we put more that 8 minutes on the next grouping in our field and when I realized that only 8 riders from our group had ventured up the mountain, it occurred to be that one point was still available. Our division pays points through 9 positions and no one had passed to claim that spot. With JT in good hands, I hopped back on the bike and proceeded to finish the race. I arrived at the top to find our group chatting about the finish, course, and tactics of the race. Everyone was happy to hear that our comrade was going to be okay.
It really was a good race. I feel confident that I would have finished 3-4 places higher if I had continued, but would have never forgiven myself for not stopping. It was not a regular crash where a rider loses control, but rather a bona fide crisis caused by exhaustion. It’s great to race in a group where you get to know one another and genuinely care about the well-being of the guys you compete against.
Next week is the final event of the collegiate racing season. The championship road race will be in Palouse, WA and features a course that favors me. With what I have learned this season, I think I have the ability to finish at least in the top 10 and maybe higher.