Towards the end of lap 2, we finally got what was coming to us. Nature had teased us from our homes with dry streets and partially sunny skies, but now she had us by the downtube shifters, and she let us have it. I hadn’t been paying attention to the horizon, and when the wall of water hit, it hit so suddenly that I actually laughed out loud. Then I coughed a bit because there was so much moisture in the air it actually triggered my gag reflex.
Ahhhhhhh. Piece Of Cake! For many Oregon and Washington racers this is the first road race of the year. Sure, if you were hardcore you could do Cherry Pie, Banana Belt, or one of the other food-inspired early season races. If you were like me though and you kept putting off the “real” training, then Piece Of Cake was always a safe race #1 because it promised a near pancake-flat course and possibly mellow springlike conditions. There was only one problem with both of those assumptions this year: The race promoters had discovered irony. The new and improved Piece Of Cake had decided to model itself after the Belgian Classics. The Belgian Classics are the races we bike racers love to watch and imagine ourselves doing (and dominating). The miles of brutal cobble stones, the nasty rain, the relentless winds. Ingredients like that make The Classics the stuff cycling heroes are made of.
Of course, what we seem to forget when imagining ourselves doing The Classics is that they have miles of brutal cobble stones, nasty rain, and relentless winds. None of this mattered to me though as I chatted with my team mate Steve D. on the way down to the race on Saturday.
“This race is going to be awesome, even if nature throws the kitchen sink at us we can just pretend we’re over in Europe rolling with the big dogs!” I said. Looking out at the sky though, it appeared that nature had other plans. The early morning rain at my house had tapered off and I now saw blue sky poking through. As the sublime Oregon countryside rolled by, I didn’t mind the thought that our race might not be one for the story books as far as the weather was concerned. It was beautiful out there!
Everyone knew that this Piece Of Cake had a new course, and that it had a good gravel stretch for the first time ever. It was for this reason that I left my svelte Felt road bike at home and loaded The Warpig on the roof rack. The Warpig has delivered me to semi-victory in many a cyclocross race, and having trained on her on the road all winter I felt she did well enough as a road bike to use in a race with possibly destructive road conditions. I had her shod in the most durable, the heaviest, the most dead feeling wheels in my entire cycling stable: My wife’s Shimano wheels and no-name 25mm tires. These wheels were the bike equivalent of Hummer rubber: Big, ugly, heavy, and very very fuel inefficient. That didn’t matter though, because if this course was going to be nasty, I wanted to finish at all costs. I had a secondary motive for wanting to finish besides my pride alone: Piece Of Cake might just be my last OBRA road race because of our impending move to the Rockies.
As the race got underway I was unsure of what to expect from myself, but I was 100% sure of what to expect from some 25 year old college student somewhere in the peleton with me: The first mile attack. The first mile attack is an absolutely useless and unwarranted race tactic, but that never discourages it’s use. It usually involves ramping up the pace of the peleton to 750 watts for no reason at all, and usually serves to give more reasonable racers (like me) a bout of exercise induced asthma. Actually, maybe that is its intended purpose. What made this first mile attack extra special this time around was that it was launched immediately upon our arrival at the gravel portion of the course.
What had started as a fairly mellow race quickly turned into a scene from Saving Private Ryan. That may seem overly dramatic, but there really isn’t a better way for me to describe the sensation of riding in close quarters with a bunch of other guys while huge bits of gravel fire from our wheels and ricochet repeatedly off our bikes. It sounded like a machine gun battle! With battle comes carnage and the carnage came swiftly to our group. Almost immediately guys started pulling off the road to the left and to the right with flats. 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10. I couldn’t believe how quickly our ranks were thinning out! What thinned us even further was the pace. It went so fast so quickly that gaps opened up before I or many others could react. I would sit on a wheel to stay out of the wind, and when I’d look up I’d see that there were 20 feet between the guy I was drafting and the next wheel up. Already at my threshold, I had to sprint around to get back in the group or risk being dropped before we had even completed a quarter lap. Through the gravel battlefield I repeated this process about a half dozen times until I clawed my way into the relative safety of the main group. I resolved to keep a closer eye on who I was following after that. Getting caught out on a windy day is a big racing no-no.
As suddenly as it began, the gravel section ended. Our return to pavement brought with it the sensation of being on the smoothest blacktop ever laid. It felt like I was floating on air. Sweet relief! Or so I thought. What came next actually turned out to be harder than the gravel: The headwinds and echelons. Even though the Piece Of Cake course was nearly flat, the wind conditions robbed us of ever really having a section to recover. It took much concentration to stay tucked in correctly and to properly match the ebbs and flows of the peleton’s speed. I really had to dig deep on this section of the course. Every chance I had I coasted. If I could drop into a full aero tuck I did. I probably looked ridiculous in an aero tuck down a 2% grade, but I was determined to save every watt possible. I knew I had come into this race under trained, and I was determined to hang on tight by racing smart. “Sit in to win” was the way my other friend Scott Goodrich had phrased it. I had no expectations of winning, but I didn’t want to get dropped.
By the time we rounded out the first lap and headed into the gravel for the second time my legs had warmed up and the 25 year old college student had calmed down. I have to say that I really enjoyed the gravel the second time through. As soon as we hit it I felt like I was somehow a little more at home than most of the other riders. I think my fatty tires and cyclocross bike had something to do with that, and I think it also may have had to do with having just a little more experience than average in the dirt. Strangely, the gravel road turned into my recovery portion of the course. This isn’t to stay that the flats stopped happening or the bullets stopped flying, but all that faded to the background and I felt genuine happiness as I navigated the potholes. It was at this time that the rain also started falling. It was a pleasant rain though, and it gave the whole experience of the day just a bit more Spring Classic feeling.
As we returned to the pavement I returned to survival mode. I crouched tight, coasted hard, and stayed out of the wind at all cost. When the group surged or the speed ramped up my legs protested and the precursors to cramps announced themselves. In the early season road races my untrained legs just don’t have the miles in them, and they almost always cramp to some degree or another. I guzzled water and gels in an effort to fight the cramps off as long as possible.
It was then that the hail hit. I didn’t know that it was hail at first, I thought it was just rain that happened to sting more than average. The temperature dropped about 15 degrees in just a hand full of minutes. My shoes went from dry to completely waterlogged instantly. My body didn’t know what to make of what was going on. I started not recognizing the sensations my legs were making. I couldn’t really feel them. I looked down and they were still moving, but they didn’t feel right. I didn’t think it was cramps, it didn’t register as pain. What was it? I concluded that the outsides of my legs must be numb from the cold, but the insides of my legs must still have had feeling. It was an otherworldly sensation! I actually thought to myself that it could be a good thing overall… maybe it would hold off the cramps a little longer!
We hit the gravel for the final time on lap 3. This time it was a bit more wet and the peleton of about 40 starters had been whittled down to about 20 survivors. Some of the stronger riders went to the front to put another round of hurt on the group. I hung on a best I could but there were a few times when the wheel in front of my rode away and I could do nothing to bring it back. I tried to stay calm. I knew the group had surged and sat up many times during the day. When they sat up one more time I caught back on and added a bit more resolve to the effort. This race was truly a new experience for me. Never before had I felt so out-classed physically yet used my mind to hang in there just a little longer. It dawned on me that I didn’t really even know what my limits were: The mind and body cooperate in mysterious ways.
Actually, I found out what my limits were a little later in the lap, on the windy part of the course. As the group, now down to 15, neared the final rise, it surged to swallow up a rider who was off the front. When the pace rose I attempted to match it but nothing happened. I looked down and willed my legs to move faster but they wouldn’t respond. They didn’t hurt, they weren’t cramping, they just wouldn’t do what I told them to. I was totally maxed out and finally completely outclassed. I had been holding onto a little bit of pride for having survived this long into the race with the lead group, but now my pride rode away from me with the other 14 guys that were left. It happened very suddenly and I was left in a state of semi-shock. For some reason my thoughts flashed to the DS and what I would tell her when I got home. “I held on longer than I thought I would anyway, all I really wanted to do was finish”. I didn’t feel any better. I was dropped and it sucked.
I rode along for a minute before something interesting happened: I looked up the road and saw that the group had sat up. We were only five miles from the finish but they’d hit a big headwind again and nobody wanted to work. Their pace slowed briefly to less than 15mph. All was not lost! I put my head down and went into the pain cave. It took everything I had to go what must have been 16mph and make up ground, but I knew I had a chance to get back on and I was driven by desperation. Within 30 or so seconds I had once again found the safety of a wheel, and I tucked back into the group. Nobody had even noticed that I was missing. I was hit with wave after wave of relief to be back in the action. I was giddy! The end was near and I was still here.
Over the next few miles the pace remained slow and my legs got an unexpected break. On the final left hand turn I knew we were not far from the 1k sign and lowered to the drops and stood in the saddle to test my sprint. As I attempted to downshift I discovered something new: my gears no longer worked. I was unsure of the cause (later determined to be mud in the housing) but no amount of fiddling could coax a higher gear out of my cogstack. I was stuck somewhere near the middle of the cog stack. I didn’t have time to get upset as we passed the 1k sign. The pace once again rose and I played the cards I was dealt.
The final sprint happened in semi slow motion. I don’t mean that metaphorically, I mean it literally. Everyone who was still left in our group was completely and utterly worked. The whole final lap I thought everyone else was saving it for the final kick, but when the final kick came nobody had anything left. Our speed did go up and some sort of “sprinting” occurred, but I’d wager that our top speed was barely over 25mph. I sprinted as well as I could all things considered, and I crossed the line well enough for a 10th place on the day. This for me was beyond my wildest expectations, survival was all I had truly gone into it hoping for.
In some ways I had done this race only because it was my last nostalgic lap around Oregon, I was not “properly” prepared or trained for a true battle; a first road race of the season. What I ended up with though was one of my favorite race experiences of all time. Our measly 54 miles and mild gravel section couldn’t really shake a stick at a true Belgian Classic, but on Saturday our local race was a true Hell Of The Northwest.