Monday, May 01, 2006

Tour of Shenandoah Report

Tour of Shenandoah

April 26-30th 2006

The first big stage race of 2006 for me…and what a race! This year’s edition was 6 days, 7 stages over some of the toughest courses I have ever raced on….and that includes the big NRC events I have done in the last 15 years.

My A&F teammate Jered Gruber and I partnered up with Phil Southerland to form Team Type 1 / A& F. Phil is a diabetic, as is the promoter of the Tour of Shenandoah. Phil’s goal is to raise $$ for diabetes research and promote awareness. On Wednesday evening they had a silent auction to raise $$ and Phil gave a great talk. I actually learned quite a bit, and was happy to be a part of the event.

Stage 1 was a 2.6 mile prologue TT in Dayton, VA, starting downtown and, after a mile of so of flat, climbing up Mole Hill. The course was a fantastic prologue, fast to start and hard. Since they sent us out in alphabetical order, I was first off out of close to 100 riders. Normally I hate being the first to go, with nothing but empty road to see ahead, but this day it was great. I got lots of announcer time as I was the first to kick off the tour. I went well, but short TTs are not my specialty. I opted to use the full TT rig which was a good choice and put up a time of about 7 minutes flat, only good enough for 30 somethingth place. Tom Zirbel from the Priority Health team put in an unbelievably fast time to take the first leader’s jersey.

Stage 2 was a 30 mile flat/fast evening criterium in downtown Harrisonburg, VA. Good crowds and an average speed of nearly 30mph made the race fast, but not difficult to hang in. I made 2 pointless attacks to test the legs and generally felt good. 2 Fiora di Friutta riders got away with 2 laps to go and stuck it for the win. Local Asheville part-time resident Dan Timmerman was the impressive winner.

Stage 3 was the start of the 3 back to back 100 mile mountain road stages. Starting in Staunton and finishing 105 miles and 2 huge climbs later in Hot Springs, the race was aggressive from the start and I was right there. For some dumb reason I really wanted to be in the early break today, so I went for it…again and again, making all the splits in the first few miles until something finally stuck. This initial group of 5 or 6 quickly turned into a group of 12-15 and the cooperation disappeared. That means more attacks. I must have covered 100 attacks in the first 5 miles, but it was worth it and we soon had a split of 7 riders working hard together: 2 riders from Priority, 2 from AEG Toshiba, 1 Fiora, 1 RiteAide (Christoph!) and me. We HAMMERED for miles. The roads were rolling and fast. We built a significant advantage that by mile 50 had turned into over a 5 minute lead. The first big KOM climb of the day was at mile 57. I thought I could make it with these guys, but I was wrong. They attacked like crazy before and on the climb and guess who was off the back chasing….me. The break split in 3 parts: 3 x 3 x 1. I was only 15 seconds behind the guys in front of me going over the top, but when they regrouped with the other 3 and started working together on the downhill I started losing ground quickly..and my legs started to give out. I took the downhill alone and started across the flat section. At this point Josh Dillon had come across to me from a chase group and I hopped on his wheel. We got about 20 seconds to the break, then I couldn’t hold on any more and was back to riding alone watching him ride across solo. A few miles later the remains of the chase caught me …but again I couldn’t hold on and rode the next 10 miles alone until the field finally caught me with only about 5 miles to go before the last big climb of the day. I was spent and when we hit the climb I went out the back like a brick. I struggled the last 10 miles with 4 or 5 other riders, and then caught a bigger group with just a couple miles to the finish to lose a whopping 18 minutes on the stage. At least Mike Cody who was in the early break with me ended up in this group as well. Christoph had come apart on the last climb and lost 6 minutes also. All in all only 2 of the original 7 man break made it to the finish in front.

I was quite disappointed after the stage with losing so much time and with coming apart so badly. I made the mistake of thinking I could ride toe to toe with the young pro guys…but the big hand of reality came down and put paid to that notion….still.. I guess I am glad I tried. Jared had a good race and finished in the second group just a couple of minutes back from the leaders. This night we stayed at the beautiful, historic Homestead Resort. The Homestead was opened in 1766 and is a posh resort…not the kind of place bike racer get to frequent often.

Stage 4 was another mountain road race day. 110 miles from Hot Springs to Buena Vista, over numerous big climbs including the daunting Vesuvious climb. It was fast from the start again and a break finally got off and up the road. Vesuvious was just past the mid-way point in the race and I was hoping I could do a good enough climb to keep me near the front of the race. We hit the climb with the break just a couple minutes ahead of the field. They hit it hard too. I remembered this climb from last year…almost 30 minutes of steep climbing. I set into my long climb mode and while I couldn’t hang with the front 10 or 15 riders I was not too far behind, picking up the shrapnel the was being shelled out of the front group. I went over the top after a solid steady (painful) climb less than a minute behind the leaders. We had a group of 10 or so and chased hard on the extremely long downhill. When we hit the flat at the bottom we could see the leaders and after a few more miles we were with them. Of course I attacked right away, but was chased immediately. We rode fast but mostly steady toward the final 2 back to back climbs of the day. I was feeling good. With about 17 miles to go, just before the base of the second to last climb I put in a solid attack and got the company of about 5 riders…..and the group was letting us go. We quickly got a gap of 30 seconds, but only 2 or 3 of us were working. Finally an LSV rider attacked and was going away from our group. I set out after him alone just as the climb started. I chased him all the way up the climb about 10 seconds behind, but could not make it up to him. I felt great and was well out of sight of any chase until about 1km to go on the climb. At this point I saw the hitters coming after us. 3 riders passed me and I could not even think about getting the wheel, then Josh Dillon (again!) came flying by. At this point I could see the summit, but I could also see what was left of the group behind coming up quickly. I rode hard until the road started to top out, then soft pedaled and waited for the group which was now less than 25 riders. I held them on the down hill and part way up the final climb, but again had to let them go…they were breaking into small groups at this point. Unfortunately I had to do the final descent to the finish alone into a headwind, but it was quite fun to have the entire road to myself…both lanes, all out as fast as I could go. The crowds were great at the finish and I came in just a couple minutes down with only about 20 riders ahead of me. I was very pleased with the ride today.

Stage 5 was a relentlessly rolling 95 mile course from Lexington to Bedford. My legs hurt today. I tried to go with an early move and just could not get my legs to go. I almost went out the back on the first climb! After going over this climb and rolling down a fast downhill, we hit a stretch of dirt road. There were lots of punctures. I thought I was OK, but just at the end of the section my rear wheel went flat. The guys were hammering all out at the front and here I was waiting a couple of minutes for neutral support to give me a wheel. SRAM support finally hooked me up and I was on my way…but I was sure I would never get back on …and it was just 10 miles into the race! The thought of 90 miles alone was not pleasant…but the SRAM guy came to the rescue pacing me and 2 other riders back to the group. Doing 35mph behind a support car with no visibility on twisting up and down narrow roads was a harrowing experience and I almost came off a couple of times. We made it back…..but there was still 80 miles to go. My legs felt bad at the start, but now they were destroyed and I suffered horribly through most of this stage. The longest climb was just a few KMs long and not too steep, so I survived that. Christoph had been in the break again and secured the KOM jersey, so that was good. This stage just got harder and as we went. We turned onto extremely narrow, winding, up and down roads that split the field at about mile 60. After much chasing it came back together, but a break of 15 had gotten away, never to be seen until the finish. With about 10 miles to go, the race just turned off. The leaders were gone and we finally started riding slow for the first time in 4 days…until, of course, about 5 miles to go, when the after burners were lit again. The run-in to the finish was really fun. Jared and I actually went to the front and led out the field sprint. I took it from about 1KM to less than 200 meters before the guys came around….it felt great to finish the stage strong after such a tough day. After this stage we had to bum a ride off the lovely podium girl Rene to get to our hotel for the last 2 nights in Natural Bridge, VA.

Stage 6 was a 14 mile difficult rolling time trial. With tired legs and a low GC position it was a little difficult to force the effort today…but I put in a good ride, suffering all the way for a time of 32:30 and 15th on the stage. Very rarely do I finish a TT unhappy with my performance, but today was one of those days…I felt like I could have gotten a top 10 time.

Stage 7, the final stage of the race was a tough crit in downtown Waynesboro. With a nasty hill to negotiate 33 times it was not a foregone conclusion to stay in the race. With some cold symptoms coming on and very sore legs I was a little worried…but it turned out fine. It was a fast, hard race, but I stayed out of trouble and finished with the field, as did Jared.

I had a great time doing the race this year. The courses and the organization were the best ever for this 4 year old event… and the people, competition and scenery was top notch. I was very surprised at the level of the racing from the teams present. The young pro riders who dominated this event are the ones who we will be reading about racing in Europe in just a few years. Overall winner Brent Bookwalter is soon to be a super star and there are more lining up behind him. A big thanks and congratulations for such a great event go out to race organizers Matt Butterman and Dave LeMay.

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