Monday, February 24, 2014

Valley of the Sun stage race

VOS was my first stage race. As a cat 3, I feel this is something I should have experienced by now, but there aren't too many options in the So Cal area, and getting 3 days off in a row isn't exactly easy either. My sister lives in Phoenix and she just had her first son, and my first nephew! What a great excuse for an extended vacation to the desert.

Kyle and I left after a fiasco of a Thursday and arrived into Phoenix pretty late. We had decent start times all weekend at around noon each day and Meg's place was conveniently located between all three locations.

The time trial kicked off the race on Friday. As a triathlete, this is something that I saw myself doing okay at, but I was also realistic. Kermit had been out of the house twice since September {a week before this race} and I had been riding twice weekly throughout the winter on Super Grover. Hopes were high, expectations were low. Negative self talk is an interesting beast when racing against the clock. I had looked at the times from last year and had an idea of where I wanted to average. The 30 second intervals kept the racers spread out through the course, but the girl before me was a no show - meaning no carrot ahead to keep me on track.

Time Trial
The course is a 14.4 mile, out and back mostly flat course. I choose to not bring a bottle, and being the spoiled triathlete, I was missing that straw in the dry air of AZ. I kept using the mantra "you can't take back that pedal stroke, so keep pushing" and kept my neck relaxed between my shoulders. I felt pretty steady throughout, yet had wished I pushed harder the last 3 miles, with it being a slightly negative grade. Ended up 7th on the stage, 1:30ish back on the leader. 193 average HR (Threshold from training camp) 23.2mph for 37:26.

All this time I was concerned about the time trial, and getting back on Kermit, I didn't even look at the distance for the road race, 62 miles, or that it was a combined race with the Pro1/2 field. Which actually included real international pros. Awesome.

Road Race
Got to the start and didn't even bother breaking out the trainer for warmups {or: we didn't leave enough time for that} and I warmed up on the ride to the start line. Super thanks to the dragon girls for the pre-race Coke.

The road race loops 3.8 times around a 16 mile triangle course and is in the middle of the desert. There is one 3.5k climb each loop, one road which is primarily flat/downhill, and 1 section of pure flat. It started off with a bang at 12:01 and I was sitting towards the rear of the pack for most of the race. Centerline rule was in effect and which made it hard to move up and not worth it. It wasn't a technical course by any means and the pavement was decent.

Back to the race. Lap 1, sat in, the climb approached, hung on as long as possible, followed a good consistent wheel and made it to the top, separated from the main pack but with about 9 girls. I started barking orders about working together, it'd get going, and then someone would attack {the chase group, odd} and f'up what we had going. We'd eventually reel her back in and I'd again bark orders. "Attacking the chase isn't going to help anyone, especially yourself. Work together and we'll get back on." Luckily we finally did, just before the first corner of the second lap.  Saw Shannon and explained how retarded I had to work to catch back on and how exhausted I was from that effort to hang on up the hill.

Loop 2, sat in, the climb approached, and again I followed a good consistent wheel at my absolute max threshold HR and power. Got to the top and we had about 8 girls together, but not working efficiently. I was again barking orders and the "Twenty-16" pro girls were the only ones helping to keep things smooth. It's amazing to me how you can be at least a Cat 3 and not know how to properly paceline. I hope they learned something and didn't take my barking voice the wrong way. However, this time we weren't so lucky and we never caught the pack.

Great, we had a group of dysfunctional pace liners going into loop 3, and I was seriously wondering how much longer I could take it, asking myself why I continue to punish my mind and body on my bike in the middle of the freakin desert. We passed dragon Erin who had a misfortunate flat and had to pull out. We made it to the flat section after corner 2 and we started to drop some stragglers. After a severe yelling by one of the pros to either get in the paceline and work, or get out, we had our group somewhat functioning. We arrived at the climb for the third time and I cannot believe I have to do this two more times. A functioning member of our group with a powertap {I spent some serious time focusing on that hub, begging myself to just hang on} dragged me up that entire climb. I was pushing 260+ and HR was above threshold. We got to the top and I looked back and no one was on my wheel. A half mile later and we had two of the pro1/2 girls catch back on and luckily for me, none of the Cat 3 girls made it with them! So we were 4 strong going onto the final lap.

I saw Shannon up ahead, alone, and mentioned to the girls working with me that she was my competitor. We were pacelining by her and she managed to grab onto the train, mentioning she cracked just before the top. After a couple rotations and switching the pattern, she cramped and had to sit up. Turned corner one for the final lap and I was starting to feel signs of fatigue.

Food: I had a Gu each of the two laps prior and had APX in both of my 24 oz bottles trying to conserve, drinking only half a bottle a lap. Luckily there was a feed zone on the climb, and even better, someone was giving out free water. Both laps 2 and 3, I grabbed a bottle and took a triathlete shower. Sorry to whomever was in the area for the nastiness that was coming off myself and my bike. I told Kyle the next day that I think I lost a part of my soul on my bike during the race. Poor Super Grover has never been so dirty from a single day of riding.

Back at it, the final lap on the flat section left me for dead, and it was all I had to turn the corner for the 4th time up that climb. It was nice to see the paceline work get dialed on the last lap, but that all ended once the road turned up. The Pro1/2 girls kicked it into high gear and Shannon and I were left to fend for ourselves. She was definitely the stronger of the two on the day> I sat on her wheel and tried twice to stand and attack, and both times was shutdown by my legs only moments after the attack. In the end, she out sprinted me and we both crossed the line utterly shattered in 4th and 5th place respectively, around 6min back on the main group. I was now 7:45 down on the leader but ended up moving to 5th in the general classification, thanks to the efforts of the functioning pace line chase group. We averaged 23+mph for 62 miles; the fastest I've ridden that distance ever and it included a longer yet less steep Torrey Pines climb, four times. Ouch. 183 average HR and 185 watts for 2:43.

Our poor souls for husbands were racing the Cat 3 men's race which had to tackle 4.8 laps and finished just shortly after we did, in the same family order. As we were riding back to the car, my butt cramped so badly, I couldn't pedal while sitting down. Not good.

I have no idea how I got out of bed on Sunday. I've been battling some allergies/sickness since Tuesday and with the dry air and exercise induced asthma mixed in, along with a newborn baby sleeping schedule and ass cramp, I was a train wreck. Kyle's 40 min criterium started at 12:35 and mine directly followed at 1:20, so the relaxed morning was possible and much welcomed.  I had an okay 40ish min warmup on the trainer that my legs and butt didn't agree with it, but I knew it'd be worth it once the race started. Pre-race jitters were at a minimum as racing for the third day and the conservation of energy was imparitive.

I got to the line and was sitting third row after call-ups and stayed pretty much at the back of the pack for the entire 40 minutes. After the effort from the RR, my only tactic was to hang on and watch the show unfold; or suck wheel as hard as possible. I was in sheer survival mode, and as usual, wondering how the heck a)  I can hang on for any longer and b) are these ladies pulling the pack this strong?! At 12 min in, the string is just about to snap, and I'm just about to give up and pull out. I was forced to put in a major effort (600watts) on the long back straightaway, as the girl in front of me was getting gapped and I knew this was going to be a pivotal split in the group moment. {post-race, Shannon told me she cracked at this point}

Thank goodness for corners, or these girls would've ridden me off their wheels, had this been a drag race. I looked back and a LOT of people were dropped from that effort. I was continually hanging by a string on the back of the pack, choosing whatever line into the corner that looked the easiest; one that led to a consistent effort out of the corner, as standing was not an option for my legs.

"resting spots"
Three corners later and the pace finally let up. Thank my lucky stars! I was literally able to start swapping blood flow over to my brain, process what just happened and understand my surroundings. I was using my LASIK in search for 900 {cat3} numbers amongst the 600 {cat1/2} riders and after multiple scans I noticed only two others. They were both wearing bright green helmets and were easy to spot. Also I noticed the lap cards {thank you Jesus! 5 to go!} and started going between strategizing my plot to get those green girls, and fantasizing about winning outright. Fantasies are hilarious, especially when lacking oxygen. Somehow I snapped out of it, especially on those downright brutal straight segments, and found myself praying for corners. With 2 to go, I did my usual find a wheel and move up, but none of the girls around me looked like they were interested in that proposition. They were like me, verging on cracking and a finish would be considered a great feat. With one to go I went in search of the green girls' wheels and flew through the last corner launching myself wide {if you do this race, do NOT take this line} and stood up to sprint down the final drag over many large manhole rises in the pavement. Bumping my way down the road, wondering how I wasn't eating shit, passing those non-sprinting pack riders, I somehow got over the line. 195 power, 186 HR, 25.8mph for 41 minutes. Ouch.

We rolled around on our cool down lap and I was scanning for 900s and then it hit me. I think I won! 

It's pretty odd, mixing fields and not really sure how you ended up until the results are posted. I suppose it's a bit like triathlon where it's pretty rare to actually be the first across the line. 

Cat 3 criterium podium
I came to AZ without many expectations and after Saturday I was not expecting to podium on Sunday. Racing in the same stretch of road as Evelyn Stevens was an honor. Having Jax there to cheer me on was even better. 

Jax and I after the race
Ah, women's cycling. How you continue to grow is a mystery. Teammate Greg put it best, "women cyclists eat their young" {the established women can be pretty catty towards newcomers.} Back in AZ, it was reported in the head referee communique { }
after the road race that a cat3 rider was pushed up the final climb by a cat1/2 rider, which is illegal. If he knew who it was, they would both have been disqualified. That same rider was dropped and lapped twice by the main field during the criterium, yet still rewarded 2nd in the GC based on time alone. I did not see the infraction, nor did I care to protest why she wasn't pulled from the crit after being lapped twice and thus not completing the same amount of distance in the crit as the main field {which included me}. They gave her the same finish time as the last lapped rider, moving her down one spot in the GC. 

Because Shannon got dropped and lapped once, I gained back my losses on the TT and RR and moved up to 4th in the GC.
Cat 3 GC overall podium

After the dust has settled and we are on our way back to the beach, I've had some time to reflect back. 

I have no intention to move up categories. The training required to hang with those ladies is insane, not to mention the natural talent required to try. Having a full time job and a love for potato chips leaves me content where I'm at. 

Combining categories isn't optimal. A local 1-3 race is okay but domestic or international pros change the game. We become spectators and that's only if we are able to hang on the back and our own race tactics go out the door. 

Racing is fun when you are a part of the action and not just drug along the course like cans behind a "Just-Married" corvette. 

When I was a Cat4, I only remember racing with the 1/2s once. Most of my races were 4 only or 3/4 combined, but scored separately. I went through phases of participation, from getting dropped, hanging on, having a chance to sprint, getting caught behind a crash, bridging gaps, chasing breaks and finally winning a race. Average speeds were between 21-23mph. Do-able. Sunday? 25.7mph with the cool down lap. 

Lately, there are more female races lumped together which gives women's racing a steep learning curve. And that's if you make it through your first experience. Having two separate races {3/4 and 1-3} gives the newbies a chance at experiencing being something other than a spectator. As a 4, I liked the combined 3/4 races better than the 4 only, because you got a change to lean from more experienced riders and they were usually slightly faster {and safer} than a 4 only race.  And now as a 3, I love the option to race twice! 

Stage races are fun, but exhausting and require organization and planning. A Sherpa is helpful, especially if said Sherpa isn't also a racer. But swapping race stores after an epic day is something I would not trade. Kyle is my perfect racer husband, even through it may not seem so in the chaos and crabbiness of pre-race rituals. He gives me the drive to dig deeper and perform as I do. 

On a final note, Phoenix is hot and dry. Luckily not so hot this weekend. It could've been worse. My sister and brother-in-law have an amazing new addition to their family and are wonderful parents already. Happiness and love to little Jax. I miss him already! 

Oh and we had some spare time between stages to work on a small Pinterest gift: a bench for their patio. Cushions will be crafted when I head back in a couple of weeks. 

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