Wednesday, July 29, 2009

6 days of racing in the arctic circle

The Tour de l'Abitibi is renowned for both the fact that it is North America's only junior Nations Cup race and the fact that the town of Val d'Or in which it takes place is basically in the North Pole. My journey to the tundra started in Kentucky, where I had just finished the UCI 2.1 Tour of Red River Gorge. Since Hot Tubes would not be going to the Tour de l'Abitibi, I travelled as a guest member of the Wisconsin based team the Baraboo Sharks, who had been in need of a sixth rider. The sharks and I loaded up our bikes and equipment in the trailer and packed into our team manager, Mark Meyer's SUV. I got to know my new teammates quite well in the two day journey to Val d'Or. We finally arrived, to a much cooler climate than that which we had left in Kentucky. The race "hotel" was the town's high school, where each team was given one classroom for a weeks lodging and bike maintenance. Sleeping arrangements were the lines of foam pads on the floor. I was actually pretty pumped, since this would be the first time I got to sleep in class without getting in trouble.
The Tour de l'Abitibi consists of 7 stages over 6 days in and around the town of Val d'Or. Most of the stages consisted of about 90km on a dead flat, dead straight, wide road from some town, into Val d'Or, followed by a bunch of dangerous circuits through town. The townspeople are very enthusiastic about their race, which I suppose gives them a distraction from hunting polar bears.

Day One's stage ended in the standard sprint finish. The favorite's all took a couple digs in the last few laps, but sprinting powerhouse team Austria brought everything back in time for their sprinter to take the win. Stage 2 included a gravel section early in, so I made sure to stay near the front for it. Soon I was in a breakaway group of about 15 riders who were working together well. The break was rolling pretty fast and built up a gap of over three minutes by the time we hit the circuits in town. Attacks came thick and fast from the USA and Canadian National teams, and Canadian rider (and fellow Hot Tuber) Stuart Wight took the win ahead of Charlie Avis and Antoine Duchesne. This pretty much meant that the overall winner would be one of the dozen or so riders who had gained so much time on the pack.
The next day's Time Trial is the signature stage of the race. The 15km race is different from any other I have ever done, since it started underground. Based on our start times, we were taken in waves in a mine-cart (which kind of looks like a tractor-wagon combo) down a narrow mine-shaft. We were told to don our tt helmets for the way down, since the roof was so low. Lighting was scarce, and we all looked a bit apprehensive when we saw how dark the subterranean corners were that we would have to navigate. Once underground, we were kept in a holding room/cave that had water and some oranges. The temperature was under 50degrees, even though it was reaching the mid to high 70's up above. For a warm-up, we were each given 5 minutes on a fitness-center-like stationary bike and then exactly five minutes on our own bike. Race commissares and mine workers who looked like they meant business timed us with a stop watch and made sure that no one snuck any extra seconds of warm up in. Feeling like I was in some kind of far-fetched movie, I received my count-down and started, knowing that this could be one of the most important time trials I have done so far. While climbing the mine shaft, I remembered to stay seated, so that my tires would not slip on the wet rock, and so I wouldn't hit my head on the low ceiling. I also tried to remember where the sharp left hand corner was, where a lone light had recently died. Very grateful that my team had installed small lights on the front of my bike, I finally popped out on the surface.

Once my underground adventure was done with, I got down to the business of turning over the pedals as fast as I could. I felt strong and was able to catch my one and two minute men by the finish. After returning to the school, the results arrived and said that I had finished 4th in the stage and was 3rd overall, behind the USA National team's Andrew Barker and Charlie Avis. I was also in the blue jersey of best 17 year old rider. In the evening, we had a 50km out and back road race. This time it was pouring rain and very cold. Now with a jersey and a GC position to worry about, I got even more perturbed by sketchy shenanigans going on in the pack. We finished safely in a group sprint.

The rest of the week consisted of staying out of the multitude of crashes that went on in the windy flat roads that we raced over. 4th place rider Taylor Gunnman from the New Zealand National team took some time bonuses to displace me from 3rd overall. My moment of panic happened on the 5th stage, when I went down in a crash and had to chase back on with a spare bike. Fortunately some teammates were on hand to help me back and I didn't lose any time.

Going into the circuit race on the second to last day, I figured it would be my best chance to make up the 25 seconds I was from first place overall. I bided my time and waited until the last two 9-kilometer laps. Then I started attacking. I put in 4 attacks and each time got a gap with a couple other riders, but wasn't able to stay away in front of the USA, Austrian, and New Zealand national teams that were chasing. The day ended in another field sprint won by (surprise!) Austria. That night, I started feeling awful. The cold that I had felt coming on had gotten exponentially worse after racing in the rain all week.

I started the last stage feeling pretty out of it, with a doozy of a cold; but it was my birthday and I was in a leader's jersey and I figured I might as well take one more shot at the win. Out on the road, I managed to take second in a time sprint, which put me into 3rd place overall again. Gunmann won the next one and I got third, so I was back in 4th, but a little closer to the overall win. In the town circuits, it was pouring rain and there were crashes just about every corner. With two laps to go I gave a last-gasp attack. I got a gap and pretty much was riding all out, but once again got hauled back with one lap to go. I finished, managing to circumnavigate the huge pile-up in the last corner, to end my Tour de l'Abitibi.

Racing all-out in the rain with a bad cold probably wasn't a great idea, and within a couple of hours I felt like I might die. I talked to the race doctor about some cold medicine or something, but with Nationals coming up, I couldn't take anything, since it might cause a positive test result. So I staggered to the awards ceremony, which they made a huge production out of. I also got a "happy birthday" from the announcer when I collected my best young rider trophy, so I was pretty pumped. I think some people thought I was drunk, but I was actually just really sick.

And with that, the Tour de l'Abitibi came to a close, and the Sharks and I packed up our bags and began the long drive to Wisconsin. I was pretty happy with my first 6-day stage race, and felt like I had already made big improvements from just a month or two earlier. I collected 4th overall, 19 seconds down, and the best young rider's jersey. All this less than a year after I thought my cycling might be over from breaking my leg.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

UCI racing hits the US at the Tour of Red River Gorge

The USA has never had a UCI junior race, so I suppose when it finally came about it might as well be in the center of US racing country. Of course, to the locals of the Kentucky towns we passed through, racing that didn't involve four legs or four engines was a foreign affair. So my Hot Tubes teammates and I arrived in Lexington, KY ready to give the locals, and the field, a demonstration of international racing. The UCI 2.1 Tour of Red River Gorge featured four days and five stages of racing in the South-East's trademark steep hills and hot weather.

In accordance with UCI rules, all teams stayed at the race provided "hotel", otherwise known as the freshman dorms at the University of Kentucky. Besides the cockroaches in the bathroom and the bunk beds threatening to crash down at any minute, accommodations and food were pretty good.

The other interesting aspect of an international race in the US was the race caravan, which 90% of the riders and team directors were not accustomed to. Stage 1 was a 1.6km prologue. Not exactly my favorite distance, but how much time can you really lose in one mile? Of course, I quickly gave up any thoughts I may have had of becoming a kilo rider, when I lost 8 seconds off the best time of two minutes. None of my teammates managed to crack the top three, so we went into the afternoon's road race without having to defend the yellow jersey.

Stage 2 went off that afternoon in the hottest part of the day. The hilly course took its toll on the riders but most of the pack stayed together for the first half of the race. Ian Boswell snuck into an early move with about 8 riders, and I bridged across with two other riders about 35km in. My teammate Nate Brown came across shortly thereafter, and we started driving it. The gap got up to about a minute and we just kept hammering. The race was pretty uneventful from there in besides a missed turn that split our group up a bit. With 5km to go there were only six riders left, half of them Hot Tubes riders. I attacked and got a gap. When I was just starting to run out of steam, Nate bridged up to me. We drove it in as hard as we could and finished 1-2, giving me my first UCI stage win. Behind, Ian Boswell gave the rest of the group the slip to steal some more seconds from the group. Nate took the Yellow Jersey and I took both the Red points jersey and the White best 17-year old rider's jersey. In exchange, the three of us had to donate a goodly amount of urine to the USADA dope police after the race.

Stage 3 was a hard time trial of about 25km and lots of hills. I got to start in the bright red points leader skinsuit, so I'm pretty sure nobody missed me as I rode around the course. Only a couple of kilometers in I could tell that I was not on a great day and was struggling on every climb. I forced the peddles around and rolled into the finish with the 9th best time. Teammate Lawson Craddock took the time trial win in spectacular fashion and Nate Brown defended his yellow jersey with a fast 2nd place time. With me keeping the white and red jerseys, Hot Tubes had all but the climber's polka dot jersey and the top gc spots.

Going into Thursday's Stage 4 epic Battle of the Byway road race, we knew there were only a few riders we really needed to watch, but we could expect aggressive riding from just about everyone. The 115km stage featured 8,000 feet of climbing and a long/unlighted tunnel. The race started off with the Garmin team ramping it up at the front. While we were bewildered by their tactics, it certainly helped our cause, since it kept breaks from going up the road and made it a little bit safer. We all just rode in the pack until we hit the first KOM, and then we ramped up the pace. The interesting thing about the KOM was that it was about a kilometer passed the top, on a windy descent. We hit the top of the climb, and then disappeared into a long tunnel. The one light bulb in the middle had the affect of maybe a single candle, so I just pointed my bike in a straight line and hoped for the best. We emerged from the tunnel and then started our descent.

Then all hell broke loose. Nate's chain got stuck. Less than 100 meters later, Lawson's tire blew up. Gavin and Stuart went back to help them return while Ian and I tried to slow down the front. All the other teams saw what had happened and started driving it. Our team caught back up, but then Gavin went down in one of the massive wrecks that took place on the descent, sliding about 30 feet. Stuart couldn't recover from his massive effort and was dropped on the next climb.

By the end of the stage however, the race weeded out riders a couple at a time, and we were left with maybe 8 riders, 4 of whom were Hot Tubes. In the ensuing attacks Nate finished just behind Jacob Rathe and I came in about 45 seconds later in 6th place. Once again, the heat had taken a huge toll on me and I spent the next half hour with my head in an ice-soaked towel.

We started the final stage on friday having all the jersey's except for polka-dot, and the top four in GC. This being a criterium, the general idea was to just stay out of trouble. This was my first twilight criterium, so I was pretty pumped. I forgoed a warm-up, so the first 15 minutes of the 90 minute race were pretty painful. Eventually, I found myself in a breakaway with Cody Foster, Graham Dewart, Ryan Eastman, Ty Magner, and my teammate Gavin Mannion. The gap never got much bigger than 20 seconds, but with dark coming on and a ever growing crowd, we kept pushing the pace. Much of the spectators were drunk by then, and I think they decided that horses and cars be darned, they were ready to party for any race. The group came down to 4 riders, and with less than two laps left I couldn't cover an attack and got gapped. Gavin took the sprint and I rode in 6 seconds later for fourth. Nate took the field sprint behind and my efforts had moved me into 3rd overall and the white jersey. We had our podium ceremony and then rode back to the dorms. I had had a pretty good week, finishing in the breakaway on every stage as well as getting a stage win, so I can certainly draw some confidence from that.

We packed our bags and the next morning we took off in different directions. The rest of the team went to finish preparations for the World Championships. Since I had not been selected for World's, I travelled with the Wisconsin based team, The Baraboo Sharks, to the Tour de l'Abitibi in Canada.

Team presentations are tonight and racing starts tomorrow, so I am excited and hope my good form carries over to some more results here in the Artic circle!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Fitchburg stages 3&4

The Fitchburg road race featured the chance to either lose or gain huge chunks of time. The 4 ten mile circuits had tough climbs and a 50+ mph descent. For our team this was a chance to clinch the overall victory. The plan was for Ben Gabardi to cover the early moves, and for the rest of us to look for our chances later on. Ben made sure no one of importance was able to get away, and then Nate rode a fast tempo up the climb. By the time we reached the top, all that was left was our team, Charlie Avis, and Nathan Wilson. Then Nate, Lawson, and Gavin attacked again with Nathan Wilson on their wheel. The rest of us went back to the pack and started policing the pack to keep groups from getting across. I followed a Hincapie rider on an attack, and then saw that Gavin had had bike trouble and been dropped out of the breakaway. I bridged up to him and we decided to see if we could get back to the leaders. The pack, however, was chasing all out, and we finally gave up and went back to the pack.

It was pretty evident that the breakaway would stick, and all we were concerned with was mopping up the remaining places. Ian Boswell and I found ourself off the front with two other riders in the last lap. The pack chased us hard again but we stayed away to the finish. Lawson won the stage up ahead and Nate retained his overall lead.

Going into the final stage's citerium we knew that we had the GC pretty much wrapped up but we didn't intend to be caught napping if some spirited riders decided to go on any Hail Mary attacks. In fact, we decided to start it off on the offensive, and Lawson attacked early, taking Charlie Avis with him. I bridged up to the group, and we started riding hard. A few laps before the finish, Gavin started bridging. I stayed with Charlie while Lawson sat up and waited for Gavin. He then helped Gavin make it up the rest of the way while I sat on Charlie's wheel. With the odds three to one in our favor, we started attacking in the last lap, but were unable to shake a resilient Charlie Avis. The pack was starting to close in, so I just hit the front and rode hard to the last corner. Gavin jumped and took the win. Unfortunately, I was gapped before the line and lost several seconds, which cost me my top five GC spot. Not that it really mattered, Hot Tubes won every stage, the points classification, and 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th on GC.

After our crit, we hung out to watch the Pro crit, where we were treated to an epic finish to Fitchburg's 50th anniversery race. Now I am staying at Toby's house with my teammates and getting ready to go to the Tour of Red River Gorge in Kentucky; followed by Tour de l'Abitibi. Most important, bragging rights are on the line for tomorrow's wednesday time trial.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Fitchburg Stages 1&2

Fitchburg is the beginning of my second big block of races. Since getting back from World's Qualifiers in Tennessee, I hadn't done much racing other than some practice crits and time trials and the Housatonic Hills Pro/1/2 road race where I came in 7th.

When I arrived at Toby's house this past wednesday, it was cold and pouring rain. Conditions didn't change much by thursday morning's time trial, when I was awoken by the sound of pounding rain and deafening lightning strikes. The fact that I was comfortably lying on a mattress was made even better by the knowledge that my family was tenting in a campground and probably swimming by now.

The time trial was happily uneventful and I came in 4th place. Nate won with an average speed of over 29mph, and the team took 3rd, 9th, and 12th places. The next day's stage was a fast circuit race of 22 miles featuring a hard 5oo meter hill. Before the race, I was informed by certain doubters that a breakaway was impossible on this course and had never succeeded. Most of our team got front row call ups for the start of the race, so we began with good position. Nothing much happened early on other than a short-lived breakaway of 5 riders that I tagged along with. Then my teammate Ian Boswell attacked and was holding a slim lead over the field. When Nathan Wilson, who was sitting top ten after the time trial, went to bridge across I covered the move and soon found myself in a three man group just off the front.

We rode hard but the pack was strung out and doing about 40mph down the wide slightly downhill back stretch of the course. They brought the gap down to about 5 seconds, and it looked like our little adventure off the front was done. But we kept hammering and the next time I looked back the gap had shot back up again. Another rider had bridged across while we were close to the pack so now we had 4 riders. We drove the break hard until the finish. Boswell took the win and I came in with the same time at 4th place. The pack came in nearly a minute down. Ian had also taken some points sprints so he had captured the green jersey. Nate Brown kept his leader's jersey behind, and I moved up to 2nd place in the overall.

Afterwords, we came back to watch the pro race. The thunderclouds that had been looming all day finally rolled in and the race took place under a deluge. A breakaway including Vermont boy Will Duggan and Cyclo-cross champion Tim Johnson held off a hard chasing pack to the finish. The pain on their faces gave me a good idea of what to expect in a couple years.

With two out of four stages completed, our team is in good position to take the lead all the way through the final stage. I'm also considering sending my family some snorkels to help with the camping in the flood water.