June 29, 2016 – John Degenkolb said he was feeling... Read more →
I hadn’t raced my bike since late May. The plan was to take a month off and then pick back up in July. A solid month of rest and beer would rejuvenate my legs, refresh my mind, and restore the killer competitive spirit that had led to so many 57th and lower placings over the first part of a very successful road season.
Photo by Kare Dehlie Thorstad
In July, however, a strange thing happened. Instead of jumping back into racing with a vengeance, I found myself discovering ever more first-rate reasons not to race. I couldn’t do the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix because it wasn’t technical enough for a pro bike handler like me, and plus, it was too dangerous. Way too many crashes, and anyway I’m so over racing crits.
Ontario the following week was a non-starter as well. It’s not too far, but the afternoon return traffic on the 10 is just not how I plan to spend my Sunday. The prize list sucks balls too, especially once you get down into 50th place and lower. And it’s another boring crit. If I’m going to race my bike, I need a real challenge.
Sherman Pass Road Race looked good on paper, but frankly it was too far away and had too much climbing. Fifty-three miles with 8,700 feet of elevation? Are you kidding? That’s a race for pure climbers, not all-around journeymen like me. Also, road races just don’t have enough riders in my age category, so they’re more like time trials, and I’m not driving all day out to the Sierras to do a time trial.
The Carlsbad Grand Prix was a pretty solid crit, slightly technical, not too far, solid field, and one of the most important races for my team sponsor, SPY Optic. But that course is occasionally susceptible to strong headwinds on the back side of the course. I am more of a tactical rider rather than the kind of guy who can charge into the wind off the front for 45 minutes. Pass.
The CBR crit the following weekend was too close to home. I get tired of seeing the same old faces. Plus, the course is too easy and my race goes off too early, before the wind kicks up. I prefer a race that has some tough challenges, that require you to fight the elements, not just tactically sit around all day.
The following weekend I was tempted to go to the Death Valley Omnium, but at this time of year, and with global heating, it’s too hot. Plus, omniums are no good. It should be a stage race. I’m really more of a stage racer, a GC kind of rider than anything else.
Brentwood Grand Prix was one that I had circled on my calendar because it really caters to all my strengths. It’s close to home, but not too close. The course is technical but not dangerous. There are opportunities for a smart breakaway tactician like me, and it has a slight bump before the finish which really suits my powerful seated accelerations. But the morning of the race it was misty and I didn’t want to race on a course where it had been damp several hours before my event.
So now it was mid-August and there was one race left on the calendar, the San Marcos crit. Fortunately, it is the perfect course for me and one I have excelled on in the past. Last year’s 49th placing was a huge step up, and the year before I finished the 45-plus race and the 35-plus race.
The only down side was that out of 42 riders our squad only had about ten guys, so even though we were short on manpower we’d have to figure something out. Before the race Mike and I were warming up. “How’re the legs?” I asked.
“Haven’t been training too much since my injury, but I’ll do the 45+ and the 35+ for the fitness.”
“The only time I did the 45+ and the 35+ races it felt like getting circumcised with a rusty file,” I advised.
Our team strategy was simple: pedal faster than everyone else. The only problem was that “everyone else” included Thurlow Rogers a/k/a The Hand of God a/k/a THOG, and Mark Noble. Check his race results this year on the USAC web site and cringe.
The San Marcos course is a simple four-corner crit with a dogleg. On the first lap we made the first turn and flew down the long downhill, which funnels through a bottleneck turn lined with cones on the left that separate idiot bicycle racers going way too fast from idiot motorists who are also going way too fast. I watched in terror as everyone scrunched up their brakes and threaded the narrow turn.
Those of us at the back then accelerated from zero back up to 37 and whipped along the flat crosswind section in a single file until we hit turn three, another accordion turn that shunts a wide, fast moving peloton into two narrow lanes also marked with cones on the left and death on the right. Poor positioning again meant another 0-30 acceleration, but at least it was with a tailwind.
Finally we hit turn four, a wider, safer turn that goes bolt-uphill. If you’re well positioned towards the front, the momentum of the pack will carry you halfway up the incline, but if you’re flogging in the rear, decelerating at the turn due to the clogstacles in front of you, it takes a 1500-watt effort to make it up the little hill. Or a 1200-watt effort if that’s all you have. Or, yes, 750.
Then the road flattens and does a little chicane and then goes up again. This is the part where, if you’ve played it right, you still have to dig deep to roll over the top. If you’ve played it wrong, or in the key of B, it’s the worst nightmare imaginable of all sharps and flats.
Since I had felt great on the starting line, the place where I typically do my best work, I was amazed at the sensations in my legs after one measly lap, sensations that corresponded perfectly to the quit gene. “No problem,” I said to myself. “I’ll feel better on the next lap.”
I did in fact feel better, but only because I didn’t follow the guy in front of me too closely. On the downhill screamer his rear wheel hit the manhole cover and slipped. He over-corrected and shot out between the cones into traffic. If he’d been going any faster he would have high-sided into a solemn graveside service.
I looked over at Mike. “Still thinking about that 35+ race in a couple of hours?”
“No,” he said.
We finished the second lap and the quit gene hadn’t stopped screaming. On the third lap the winning breakaway went. Shockingly and against all predictions, it was THOG and Noble. Since we comprised 1/4 of the field, it was a matter of course that we had a teammate in the break.
I dashed to the front and slowed the pack to a crawl. Using my patented Chicken Little cornering technique, for two laps I went so slowly through each turn that every Garmin in the peloton began to emit “rider paused” warning beeps. Finally, confident that the invisible break had enough pavement to hold their gap, I rolled back into the field. My work was done.
King Harold came up to me. “Dude,” he said. “What the fuck were you doing?”
“Blocking,” I said, filling with satisfaction of a job well done.
“Well great fucking job, wanker. We don’t have anyone in the friggin’ break. You just gave the two fastest guys in California an additional forty-five seconds. Not like they need it.”
“Oh, yeah, tough guy?” I said. “Then maybe you should just go chase them yourself.”
King Harold shook his head and leaped out of the pack. Since it was a 23-mph headwind and we had just started up the impossible hill, no one even thought about following. With THOG and Noble going as hard as they could, King Harold donated a lung and a kidney to the crit deities, put his head down, and crossed over the forty-five second gap.
Although the timers only had the gap at 45 seconds, the person bridging had to calculate the gap based on Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which meant that, out in the wind, alone, sad, missing his mommy, and knowing that his entire team was tucked cozily on the wheel of everyone else, it felt like about twelve thousand millenia.
Somehow, bending the rules of space and time, King Harold bridged across after two-and-a-half laps of incomprehensible, childbirth-like suffering. He didn’t win (who “wins” against THOG and Noble?), but he salvaged the team’s reputation enough so that post-race we could all sit around at the team beer tent and tell him how we would have gone with him if we’d been in a better position.
“Dude,” I said. “I so wish I had been with you to help.”
“Man,” said DJ. “I was too far back to follow when you jumped. Wish I could have helped.”
“Idiots,” said a bystander. “You had ten out of 40 riders. How did you not win this race?”
“Gentlemen,” said MMX. “Have another fine brew from Lost Abbey.”
While the other teams, resplendent in victory, posed for photos on unstable Tinkertoy podium blocks, we enjoyed even more fermented farm products. They were covered in sweat and glory, but we were covered in the rosy, hops-infused glow of not giving a flying fuck. Now that is “winning.”
June 29, 2016 – John Degenkolb said he was feeling... Read more →