By Ariel Herrmann -- Leesville Gap RR (P/1/2) -- 06/30/12
Bedtime on the morning of the Leesville Gap road race found me apprehensive about the day to come. No worries about equipment ? I had mounted fresh wide tires on wheels just trued at The Freewheel, my chain was lubed, the requisite all-around bolt check complete ? but the solid 4 hours until my alarm would ring was a bit disconcerting. Last year I?d managed my best result to date at Leesville Gap (9th overall, first in the chase group) on two hours of sleep after a solid night on the town; would doubling my pre-race rest upset a delicate balance? The strong ale that had accompanied dinner eventually brought the questions to a halt. An answer, in any case, would come before noon.
Leesville Gap is a classic of Northern California racing. The single-loop course of just over 100km features enough variety to fill races of double the distance: a parade start through a farming town somewhere off I-5; a solid 300m/6km climb a third of the way in; a couple of short dirt sections and a few little rollers after the rough descent from the summit; and a dead-flat headwind stretch in the 30km to the finish. In between lie long stretches of what once was pavement, marred by decades of accumulated potholes and haphazard patch work that makes Boston (or San Francisco) roads look like velodrome tracks of the finest Siberian pine. In short, it?s about as far as one can get from a nondescript office park crit ? which explains why it?s worth waking up at an hour resembling a weekend bedtime and toeing the line when one could instead be dreaming of prime sprints, rather than sleeping in and tackling an afternoon race with 100 times the prize money some other day.
In typical form, I rolled up to the line with 30 seconds to spare, where less punctual teammates Ethan and Ryan (when did one ever claim to be ?fashionably early??) were busy surveying the rest of the field that likewise had jumped the gun in arriving at the start. A whistle blew, we rolled out through town, and I waited for morning coffee and sunlight to have some effect while drifting through the field.
Predictably, a Marc Pro-Strava rider attacked in the early miles and quickly gained a large gap, followed shortly by one of the Mike?s Bikes crew. With the two dominant teams setting a relaxed pace at the front and the roads still smooth and flat, the rest of the pack feigned sleep, content to leave the real racing for the selective terrain ahead. Ethan took the opportunity to pause for a nature break after rolling off for a head start, drawing out one confused rider whose powerful bridge attempt caught up with him just as he pulled to the side of the road. After a brief stint pacing Ethan back to the group, our Metromint crew took up prime spots at the back of the 40-strong field ? an ideal location for balancing awareness of any attack that might happen, with ignorance about the identity of the riders involved and inability to respond.
As we hit the broken pavement, the pace abruptly quickened as strong riders left out of the break took to the front to choose their lines. Tires and tubes quickly succumbed to the road?s harsh contours, and by the time the road really pitched up perhaps a dozen riders had suffered flats. Ethan and Ryan joined Max Jenkins (Competitive Cyclist), Michael Jasinski (Wonderful Pistachios), ex-Garmin pro Kirk Carlsen (whatever ?prooff? is), two Marc Pro-Strava riders, and more. I managed to remain largely oblivious to the carnage and somehow found my way at the front of the group as Adam Switters (XO Communications) set pace up the climb, followed by a Ritte U23 rider.
I didn?t fully appreciate the gap that had opened until we neared the summit. (Note for the future: a lack of curses from behind when one falls off the pace may be a good, if late, indication.) In any case, there was little time for reflection at this point, and rather little oxygen left for thought besides. We avoided death on the descent and in quick succession (and don?t quote me on the order of events here) caught up to the last of the early breakaway in the form of Marc Pro-Strava?s Chuck Hutcheson, were joined by a Mike?s Bikes and Marc Pro-Strava rider from behind, and lost the Ritte rider to a flat and the Mike?s Bikes guy to some terrain feature or other.
With the break down to four riders and with 50km left to ride, it was time to take stock ? and quickly find myself in danger: Marc Pro-Strava?s Hutcheson, who hasn?t missed a podium finish in about his last 200 races, and who attacked our 2-man breakaway for the win in the Golden State circuit race in May; his teammate Kris Lunning, who recently scorched to a 90-second victory over yours truly in the district time trial championship; and Switters (ex-pro, former junior national champion and Pescadero road race winner, etc.), who three weeks ago had taken the win over Chuck from a 2-man breakaway in the Folsom circuit race. (Take note; this will be important later.) Behind our group the picture was hardly better: Mike?s Bikes, with a strong squad and no longer in the break, surely would be chasing hard; the flat-plagued pros might be close behind ? last year, Paul Mach overcame two flat tires and only failed to finish with the lead group after suffering his third puncture in the final 5km; my teammates were probably out of the picture and my sprint nonexistent. No cause for alarm.
In the breakaway, with no protected riders ahead and with no designated sprinters behind; with no time-gap calculus as in a stage race; and with no vendetta against one?s companions, each rider takes his turn and maintains the group?s advantage, until things go crazy and everyone starts attacking each other in the final kilometers ? or at least I think that?s how it?s taught. I must have slept through the lesson on repeated games, wherein one rider finishes second to his breakaway companion in a race three weeks prior. Accounts of the finale at Folsom vary (I was too busy in the field sprint to notice, making mediocre use of an excellent leadout from Rob Dahl), but second-place Chuck felt wronged by the distribution of labor in the last half-lap then, and saw our current breakaway as an opportunity for retribution. Never mind whether facing the final kilometer or 40km to the finish ? clearly, it?s the principle that counts.
With Chuck claiming fatigue and Kris protecting his teammate, Switters and I shared most of the work as our gap hovered between 1:30 and two minutes. A bluff-calling exercise extracted a few more pulls from the Marc Pro-Strava pair, until their attacks started over 15km from the line. Chuck and Kris alternated attacks; Switters and I covered them in turn, with little effect beyond lowering the level of discourse in our group and eroding our advantage over the chasers. Chuck did succeed in dropping his teammate with one particularly strong move, and with our numbers even and the chase closing in, we at last worked together to open up the gap for the last 5km before the games began anew. As we slowed after the first volley inside 1km, I used up my last dim match to get a gap. A well-rested Chuck came around easily, followed shortly by Switters. I was left to take third, my best road race result to date, and with enough daylight ahead of the chase at least to salvage an awkward finish-line pose for the sponsors.
After we crossed the line, Chuck turned back and expressed his regrets. He felt he had to settle a score. I was just collateral damage.