Winning – It Could Happen to You

Many riders enter races for which they are not suited. Skinny little climbers enter flat crits with huge fields. Big-muscled sprinters enter hilly road races. For the most part the results are as expected. One needs powerful legs to win a sprint, and one needs to be light to be fastest to the top of a hill. Still many riders fail to understand the connection between their build and their results and keep coming back for more punishment week after week. Once in a very rare while, it pays off.

Flat crits aren’t always won by sprinters. Sometimes a hilly road race doesn’t favor the climbers. Occasionally a rider manages to follow the obvious but not usually so useful advice that one should adopt a strategy that maximizes one’s strengths and minimizes one’s weaknesses and somehow wins a race for which he or she is not suited.

One year in the mid-90s I entered the short-lived, 3-stage Redding Classic Stage Race near Mt Shasta in far Northern California. It consisted of a short hill-climb time-trial and a very hilly road race on Saturday, followed by a criterium with several tight corners and another hill on Sunday. It was a small race with a $100 first prize and about 30 entrants. Most of the riders were solo or with one team-mate. There was one team with four guys.

Given the course and how far the race was from population centers most of the entrants probably thought of themselves as climbers. It certainly looked like a climbers’ race. That year, at 5’11” and 162 pounds I was anything but a climber. I had no body fat, but was still heavy. I was getting dropped not only on real hills but even on power climbs of a kilometer or so. My only team-mate in this event was a trackie and crit specialist, even less useful than I in the hills. The one thing I had going for me was serious toughness. My coach had me doing 100 mile rides on rolling terrain in the 53×12 every other week, and I’d recently finished an insanely hard off-season lifting program, culminating with sessions that included 8 sets of 40 partial squats with 240 pounds on my back. I might not have been the fastest up hills, but I could keep pushing hard indefinitely without thinking about it. Compared to what I had done in training, racing felt easy.

An Okay Time Trial, Considering

I felt great in my tune-up ride Friday afternoon and ate bagels and Italian food continuously that night. Saturday morning I got for an early breakfast and got a pretty good warm-up for the steep, hill-climb time-trial. As I noted, I was not a climber, and knowing there was a hilly road stage that afternoon, I decided to save what I could. I managed 10th at about 45 seconds without blowing myself up. The rest of the riders were pretty evenly distributed in front of and behind me. One young rider had a mechanical as his rear-derailleur exploded, scattering parts all over the road, so he got the same time as the last finisher of the TT. Apparently he had done his own overhaul and not torqued all the bolts quite enough.
The winner of the time trial was a member of the four-person team.

A Better than Okay Road Stage

I figured that there was little chance of a significant gap opening in a one-hour criterium, so if I wanted to place well in the over-all G.C., the road stage was the place to make my move. The description said it was 66 miles. The stage started with a few miles of flat and then a hard multi-mile climb onto the main hilly loop. Several times around the loop and then back down what should have been a six-mile descent brought us to a final hump and a half-mile sprint to the finish.

After the hill climb I ate, drank, stretched and spun on the trainer, so I was loose, hydrated and energetic for the road race. The weather report called for 80 degrees and sunny. I had no feeder so I put two bottles on the bike and one extra in my jersey pocket.

The Big Team with the G.C. leader had four climbers. They decided to protect their leader by pushing the pace on the flat and the lead-in hill to discourage breakaways. I was dropped just a few miles into the hill despite going as hard as I could. I kept riding hard. Fortunately the peloton must have tired somewhat. Another non-climber came by and led me back up after ten minutes or so of max-effort chasing. As the pack went around the hilly loop I was dropped and caught back on no less than six more times, each time going all out, gasping and straining at the pedals. The field went as hard as they could trying to lose people on the steeper pitches. It worked on me, but I made up time as the road leveled out. Each time I got dropped it got a little easier to come back. Each time I recaught on a downhill or flat, I moved as far up as I could before the next climb, but got dropped again and had to claw my way back.

After my sixth cycle of getting dropped and regaining the field I was able to roll through the pack and off the front with only an endurance-pace effort. One rider jumped to catch me and brought along the remaining pack. I settled into about eighth spot and then gently rolled off the front again. The same rider jumped, forcing all the others to jump as well. I was caught again. I “attacked” a total of six times, never going hard enough to get out of breath but just cruising away from the exhausted and dawdling group. Each time I was pleased to hear the pack arrive panting and gasping led by the same guy. By the fifth attack, which I made as we entered the final hilly loop, the pack must have decided that I was some kind of idiot who couldn’t figure out that I wasn’t going to get away, or maybe they decided to save their effort for the last time up the hill. In any case, they didn’t chase, and I got away and quickly out of sight. I got enough of a lead that I could climb most of the way up the final hill at a comfortable pace before I was caught again by the hard charging pack. I was thus able to stay with the leaders over the top that vital last time. That was their mistake.

The weather man turned out to have been wrong that day. Rather than 80 degrees and sunny it was mid-60s and cloudy, so I still had more than a full water bottle left as we crested the hill the last time.

Heavy Guy’s Revenge

The race ended with a long, straight descent. My weight and that extra bottle of water were now my advantages. I attacked one more time over the crest and into that downhill. Two riders came with me: The older guy who had taken second in the hill climb and the young guy of the exploded derailleur, who turned out to be the strongest rider in the race, even if he was not a great mechanic. The three of us traded pace as hard as we could down the very long hill, watching our cyclometers and getting ready to sprint as we approached 66 miles.
As we hammered down the hill, the second place guy claimed weakness and tried to sit on so I attacked him hard a few times and told him that I was going to attack him again and again until he either started to work or got dropped, so he restarted taking his pulls. Finally after 70 miles, with the pack no-where in sight behind us, we saw a hump a mile or so ahead. The young guy attacked on the final hump and I couldn’t stay with him, while the second place TT guy couldn’t stay with me, so we came in at about 15 and 30 seconds. Amazingly the pack didn’t show up for another 90 seconds. Throwing in the bonuses for top-3 on the stage, I went into the final crit with a 50 second lead over the young guy in second place, and about one to two minutes over most everyone else.

Wrapping it Up

I was feeling pretty blown before the crit but fortunately I still had my trackie team-mate. He wasn’t strong enough to drive the pace by himself, so I asked him to stay near the front, to push the pace only if it dropped and to close gaps if anyone tried to get away. He did a heroic job, taking a lot of abuse from the teams that hoped to over-haul me, but never letting anyone get away. The other teams asked why his lazy team-mate wasn’t coming to the front. They seemed to think that as race leader it was my job to protect my lead myself! That’s what friends are for! With a few laps to go when my buddy had done his job, I moved to the front myself and struggled to keep the race together. The young guy who had moved himself into second place with his road stage finish finally got away with half a lap to go and picked up about 5 seconds, plus a 20 second winner’s bonus. Thus I won G.C. by 25 seconds!

It Really Can Happen

When I have a client who is strong but not the “right kind of strong” for a particular race, I think back on my experience at the Redding Classic Stage Race. If one is willing to suffer hard enough, if one is tough enough, if one does what has to be done no matter how hopeless it seems, how many times one gets dropped, or how much it hurts, one can do well in a race for which one isn’t suited. I know this and can say it with confidence because once upon a time, it happened to me.