By Liam Donoghue | May 24, 2012
Race name: West Michigan Stage Race
Race date: Saturday, May 19, 2012
Part One. The Time Trial.
“I want a photo of you, just the way you are,” Peter yells at me across the road. I’m staged in the time trial start house, maybe five minutes before I go off. He mentions my lightweight (for 2006) aluminum climbing wheels. He laughs at my clip-on aero bars atop my six-year-old road bike frame. And the idiotic mutton chops I decided to sport for the occasion. Compared to the guys in front of and behind me, as well as the masters racers who were already cooling down on their trainers nearby, I looked the part of the Cat 4 racer who hadn’t yet amassed enough equipment to compete properly at this level. Except for the $200 skinsuit with thumbholes. That surely made me look fast. But to Peter — pontificating on the dichotomy of how fast I am versus how fast I look, seeing my lack of fully aerodynamic gear, like a big red sore thumb in the company of nine perfect digits — it’s as if I’m rocking a Schwinn hybrid amidst tens of thousands of dollars of deep-dish carbon fiber. I’m the hairy-legged dude who shows up to the race with a Bert & Ernie Primal Wear jersey. Bet you $50 I pass at least two guys, I think to myself, and laugh.
I spend the next 15 minutes trying to dodge the wind. I could only avoid it so much. I screwed up the pacing, didn’t scout the course to know the exact point of the turnaround, and planned for a 17-minute effort when the course was shorter and faster than last year and ended up a 15-minute effort. Whoops.
I was 8th on GC, Peter was 10 seconds behind me in 10th, and two Bissell/ABG/NUVO riders were 1-2. Not cool.
Part Two. Criterium. New. Improved.
Important things to note: four 10-second time bonus primes would be given out throughout our 60-minute race, in addition to 30-, 20- and 10-second time bonuses for the top three placings at the finish, respectively. Coolest thing: turns! A course like Sherman Park works when it’s a standalone event, because breaks will be allowed to get off. But in a stage race where 90 seconds separates first place from 20th place, a circular crit course will end in a bunch sprint, sure as you’re born. Which is how it played out last year. But this year there were turns!
As is to be expected in a stage race like this, everyone was extremely close on GC, so those time bonuses would inevitably shake up the classification. Meaning each one would be hotly contested. Knowing how I fared in them last year (poorly) I deflected all potential time bonus dreams to HVAC Slinger and Future Cat 1 Peter Strittmatter. If I could somehow rack one up, I’d move up to 6th on GC, and if Peter could rack one up, he’d move up to 8th on GC. If he wins two of them… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
The plan was essentially if he or I were near the front when they called a time prime, we’d give her a go. Preferably with me leading him out or moving him up. But otherwise, I was just thinking try to be near the front late and give Peter a shot to sprint for the mega 30-second bonus. Wishful thinking.
Prime one comes along and Peter is near enough to the front that he goes for it. I am not involved. Poor clip in means I took a few laps to get anywhere near the front of the race. Peter gets pipped at the line, and the group comes back together. Several laps later I pull alongside Peter as the prime bell is clanging away to signify another 10-second bonus and ask him, “You want to go for it?” I believe his exact words were: “Ehhh.” OK. Save it for the finish.
Prime two is nabbed by Nate Williams, the Bissell/ABG/NUVO rider who was in 2nd on GC coming into today. I wonder to myself if this is all part of Bissell’s plan; perhaps Nate is the better sprinter of the 1-2 Bissell combo and they plan to pass the leader’s jersey off to him via time bonuses? When he would later win a second time bonus sprint, moving into virtual GC leader, I knew this was the case.
For whatever reason, maybe just to see if I can, maybe because I feel I won’t have a chance in the inevitable bunch sprint finish, I decide to put in a monster dig for the 3rd time bonus prime. Rather than sprint for it though, I decide it’d be much more fun to go from well over a half-lap out. So I do.
Last year, the course was just a big circle around the Kent Intermediate Schools, with two almost-turns. This year, it was the same circle, but with two pie chunks taken out; two separate left-right-lefts into and out of the parking lots. In my head, all I could think was genus edition.
Which meant it was more technical than last year (i.e. there are more than zero turns), and more chance that a solo rider could go on a ¾-lap flier and hold it off for 10 glorious seconds of time bonus. I take my chance. About halfway around the orange Sports & Leisure wedge (how appropriate), I attack, and don’t look back. I’m lying. I look back many times, to see how close all the other guys are to stealing what’s rightfully mine. I gain a second on the chasers in each of the left-right-left parking lots, generally taking the turns better and faster than the groups behind me. I make the final left turn and pedal furiously toward the finish line. I look back and see I have enough time to slow down, catch my breath, take the time bonus (success!) and try to hop on the Bissell Express that’s coming through.
Lots of times a prime can be the cause of a split in the field, as the peloton stretches out and people hit their limits, so anytime you’re attacking for a prime you must be aware of this possibility. I miss the first group, as I’m gasping like I just won the race (nope, still 10+ laps to go!), so I wait for the next group of three and hop on. I suspect at this stage in the race, Bissell may be willing to go for it, having a big group of teammates working the field over back there, and knowing we all get the same time even if there are time gaps (always read the race bible carefully). So long as no one goes a lap up, everyone gets the same time as the winner. But hopes for a seven-man breakaway with four or five Bissell guys is not in the cards, as they all immediately sit up. So it goes. Everyone is back together. But I’m up 10 seconds!
A few laps later Williams easily takes that second time bonus I alluded to earlier, and the race is on full-gas. We have maybe six laps to go, and Jake Rytlewski, former Kenda, current Astellas, strong dude, is right behind me. This is a good time to jump. Surely he’ll go with me, maybe we can make it stick, I can magically outsprint him in the end. I jump. Rytlewski follows. We have a very small gap. Small, but not negligible, at this point in the race. Bissell and others are not content to give us any kind of leash. After maybe ½ a lap, I give up and go back while Jake plods on for a couple hundred extra meters. I was upset it didn’t even come close to working, especially because I didn’t feel particularly good while putting in the effort. Again: not cool.
Five laps to go. Bissell comes to the front, setting a hard tempo. With nine of them in the race, and most of them in the top 20 wheels, it feels claustrophobic. So many Bissell guys. This must be how a dust mite feels when it’s about to get vacuumed up. Four laps to go. I’m trying to stick to the front 10 wheels. Three laps to go. Now two. A green train zooms along and sets up at the head of the race. It’s three guys from Priority Health, and one guy from Carbon Racing. Do not confuse the two teams, despite their exact same neon green and black kit color scheme. One has thin grey pinstripes and the other doesn’t. We take the final left turn and know we’re going to hear the bell for one lap to go. I’m sitting sixth wheel, behind Bissell’s Alex Vanias, winner of the time trial earlier that day and the GC in the Cat 1-2 Joe Martin Stage Race last month. In front of him is the aforementioned train of green. Peter is slotted in several guys behind me, 11th wheel to be exact. Priority Health are setting a hard pace at the front, trying to lead out for their sprinter sitting a comfortable third wheel, but coming around the yellow History wedge portion of the course, they seem to slow down, or maybe my brain just wants me to think they’re slowing down and that I have a chance. We’re strung out single-file on the right side of the course, setting up for the left turn. I attack on the left side, about 800 meters to go to the finish, sprinting as if the left turn coming up is actually the end of the race. I take the turn inside-out — on that turn, one could keep speed and just swing out wide — and continue to hammer it.
This time I don’t look back. I’m through the turn and behind me I hear a gunshot. Someone just got shot with a massive revolver, like shot dead with whatever the opposite of a silencer is. I imagine gallons of blood splattered everyw— Oh, that must have been Peter’s wheel exploding. Call it women’s intuition, but I just knew it was Peter involved in something catastrophic. No time to think about that, though. Task at hand, Liam. Task at hand.
I set up for the slowest turn of the course, the last right-hander. The course doubles back on itself enough that I can sense, without directly looking for them, how close the Priority and Bissell guys are, but there’s still 400 meters and one turn to the finish. I take the turn, and have a gap. From here it’s just aggression and desire and multiple repetitive circular movements of my legs. I hold off the charging pack and win, jubilantly throwing my arms in the air like a crazy person, immediately asking the other guys if it was Peter who went down.
[Photo courtesy Julia Williams]
As I ask, I realize Peter’s tire exploding may have taken a significant impetus out of any riders behind him at the time, and it may have slowed the field down just enough to secure my escape. And surely he moved up from 11th wheel by the time he made that turn. I get confirmation that it was him, but that he kept the bike upright. I can’t be fully happy, as I know if he hadn’t blown a tire, there may have been two of us on the podium. Bummer. Still very happy, and glad he didn’t go down.
The win gives me 30 seconds of time bonus, and the extra 10-second sprint I won meant I was now 2nd place on GC, in a Bissell sandwich: five seconds behind Nate Williams in 1st place and five seconds in front of Alex Vanias in 3rd place. Oh, what a painful road race it will be tomorrow.
Part three. Road Race. Another surprise? (Hint: No.)
I spend the majority of the race thinking about how awesome I would be if I somehow get a time bonus at the line (again 30-, 20- and 10-second bonuses up for grabs at the finish), beat Nate, and steal 1st place from Bissell. I’d probably be the coolest person I knew, and I know that guy from the Dos Equis commercials. Similar to how I daydream about what I’d do with millions in lottery winnings, I think about how many babes I would get, how brilliant my race report on the xXx Racing website would be, how many millions of dollars in sponsorship money I would make, and how many sets of Podium Legs I would buy from Phil Gaimon.
Then we raced, I didn’t do much, tried futilely to attack near the end, finished with the main bunch, 10 seconds or so back from a small break that had a few Bissell dudes in it (who won, obviously), finishing right next to Nate, hanging on to my 2nd place overall.
Ask Peter how his race went, though. He was up at the front all day, working like a dog, trying to get into a bunch of early moves to cover my GC position, then recruiting other teams to help bring moves back, then hanging tough at the end when things started heating up on the flat run-in to the finish. “That was the hardest race I’ve ever done,” he says, immediately after the finish. He rode a lot harder than I did to protect my GC, and for that I’m grateful.
We managed to pull off a stage win, a 2nd and 11th place on GC, and two top 10s in the time trial. Not a bad weekend.
I’ve heard, from numerous sources, that it is ill-advised to bring a knife to a gunfight. Luckily Peter and I stopped at the gun shop on the way out of town. BOOM!
They say it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Luckily Peter and I prefer cats. SCHNAP!
What did one bike-racing earthquake say to the other bike-racing earthquake? It wasn’t my fault! Hooooo, that doesn’t even have anything to do with anything!
Big, big thanks to Al, our gracious host in Marne, MI. Much appreciated.
Chapeau to Bissell for generally slaying it over the course of the weekend. Hope to see them (and every human reading this) at Galena June 8-10 for some more stage racing action!