Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Packfill in Russellville

Arkansas: round 2. After Joe Martin, we headed down to Russellville AR for the Tri - Peaks Stage race. We stayed in a hotel mon-wed nights and moved into our host housing on thursday evening. During the week we did recon on the new road courses....both of which were diffrent than previous years. As with most of the big races this season the field for this event would be much larger than last year...and tougher....with more of the big teams attending.

Friday evening's crit was every bit as hard as last year's for the first half. So hard in fact that I was dropped from the lead group 2 or 3 times...having to claw my way back. In one instance I was dropped so hard it took me (and 2 other guys) a full lap to get back onto the lead group...and this was only possible because the front slowed a bit. Finally a break went and the field slowed down to a manageable...even pleasant pace for the remainder of the race. The large break of 11 finished about 40 seconds clear of the field. I was certainly not concerned about that. 4 of us finished with the field and 2 lost a couple of minutes ...not bad....Mark even managed 2nd in the field sprint.

This race finishes on sunday with a 2 mile 20%+ climb to the top of Mt. Nebo. This is where the GC is decided and much time is gained or lost. With this in mind the team tactic/goal was to conserve, try to make the splits in the road races, finish with the field saturday and stay with the front group sunday getting to the last climb with as little time loss as possible....then do a good climb. This was not going to be as easy as it sounds with 3 tough climbs on saturday before the finish and 2 before the last one sunday.

The race stated at 7:30 AM saturday...95 miles with 3 substantial climbs and a flat run-in to the finish. Shortly after the first climb a break went up the road...ok...then another large chase group went. I thought that with such a large group up the road and the majority of team leaders still in the field we would see a big chase toward the end of the stage and either catch the group or finish close behind. I was wrong. The big teams gambled, no real chase happened, and the break finished 2 minutes up on us....with over 20 guys! I was a bit confused by Toyota and Health Net's tactic here...but I figured they must have something up their sleeves for tomorrow. I was really dissappointed after the race. We basically just rode around with the field all day. While I thought this was an ok idea, it dawned on me that we didn't really RACE. We should have had at least one guy in the break....we needed to at least try to race with these guys...otherwise we are just packfill. On a positive note AEG Toshiba stole the glory from the big boys today...score one for the underdogs....Toyota had 3 guys in the break and didn't even get top 3 on the stage....AND lost the lead of the race.

Stage 3: 85 miles with 2 intermediate climbs and the mountian top finish. We started fast again today, but a few miles later AEG had the race under control setting tempo on the front. 2 riders got up the road. I was riding near the front talking to Reid telling him I was going to wait until after the first climb to try to go with a move. I was afraid that if I went too early, and was caught before the climb I might get dropped for good. As I was riding up the line I passed the race leader who was telling his guys on the radio that they didn't need to chase the riders off the front down, but just keep a steady tempo. It dawned on me that this was the perfect time to get a break going. With a team controlling the front riding steady, but not chasing a small less than dangerous breakaway. The next thing I knew I was attacking, trying to get to the 2 riders up the road.

I probably waited too long to attack because it was a difficult bridge that took over a mile...ouch...but I got there and felt surprisingly good. We rolled along pretty well and got out of sight. All 3 of us knew that we needed to get some time before the first climb. If we could make it over clear of the field, we had a chance to stay away for a long time....I had no illusions of making it all day....but at least I was racing. We hit the climb and it hurt. Stu Gillespie (TIAA CREFF) did most of the pace setting on the climb, I pulled through some, but the other guy was just hanging on. We were going as hard as we could and it hurt. On the second to last pitch I still could not see the field, but we could feel that we were peing pressed from behind. Just as we hit the last pitch Tony Cruz comes flying by with about 6 guys in tow. Damn...I thought this might be a break...not that I could have stayed with them over the top, but I looked back and the field was strung out chasing right behind. It took every last ounce of energy I had to remain in contact with the group going over the top. So much for a long break...it lasted all of 8 miles. I was bummed....but realized that now it was time to sit in, and try to recover for the 2nd climb, then the final race to the top of Nebo.

The field rolled fast and no other real breaks materialized the rest of the day. I had a spot of trouble on the 2nd climb, but was able to chase back on the downhill. As we rounded the final turns to the last climb the big teams lined out the field and there were gaps everywhere. At this point I was really feeling the heat (over 90 degrees) and just could not make the front as we hit the climb. The climb up the face of Nebo is like nothing else I have seen. It is just over 2 miles, and only takes about 15 minutes, but it is the steepest bit of road I have ever raced on. At one point there are 8 switchbacks that are over 23% grade. Unlike previous years where I have raced this climb well....this year I was spent, and feeling the early effects of heat exhaustion as we hit the lower steeps. It was hard enough just to get up it this year....I suffered badly. Last year I was only 2.5 minutes behind the stage winner going up this thing...this year I don't even want to know how far back I was. All of the team finished within a short time of each other...except for Reid. We had decided to wait at the finish and all ride back to the cars together. Reid had crashed on the first climb and never made it back to the field. We waited a while, but then realized he may already be back at the cars waiting depending on how serious his crash was...so we headed down. 2/3 of the way down we saw Reid heading up....cool....we were all going to finish. We waited at the bottom for him to come down and heard his story. He had not been able to regain contact after the crash...and rode 70 miles essentially alone....and I thought I had a tough day!

After showereing and packing at our great host families house (Gary and Jane Barnes) we hit the road for a long 11 hour drive back to Asheville. I have to say I am a bit down on my performance over the last couple of weeks. I feel mentally and physically exhausted. While I think my general fitness is good...my climbing is not up to par...not even as good as last year at this time....Now I need to regroup, recover, analyze my training and do what needs to be done to get where I need to be for my goal races.


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