Spoiler alert: I won! This was my first even win, so I’m incredibly stoked to have finally won a race. I really learned a lot today, so I’ll try my best to pass that on to you the reader, but also to help remind my future-self!
I know I don’t look too excited here, I think I was still in shock!
Intro: I outlined a lot of details in my strategy post, so I’ll be brief here. This was my second “A” race this season. I chose it because it traditionally has a relatively small turnout, and I thought the parcours suited me pretty well. After a fairly successful crit the weekend before I had some confidence about this race. While warming up I was able to tell myself with a straight face that I could win this race. That was the first time that’s happened to me.
Course/Conditions: The course is a 20 mile loop ridden counterclockwise, done twice. The roads are typical Iowa country roads — lightly rolling and fully exposed. As you can see from the Strava image above there are two or three decent sized hills, but the final hill was by far the most serious. It was steeper than the others, and mostly flattened out for the last 200 meters. Thus you would get good and tired going up the hill, and then had to sprint to finish it off.
Field: The Men’s Cat 4 field had 16 starters. This ended up being a very strong field, including guys who had won some big local races. Only one team was well represented (Sakari, with 5 guys). I only knew one or two guys, so I was pretty clueless what everyone’s strengths and weaknesses were.
Strategy: I did a whole post on this, so I’ll be brief here. Suffice to say, I wanted to be in a break if one happened. If not I planned to sit in and conserve energy. The finish line was at the top of a fairly steep hill:
I knew that this finish would suit me well since I am both light and can sprint fairly well. The beginning slopes were 5%-6%, and as you can see it eventually flattened out. I knew that if I tried to go for it at the bottom of the hill I would be dead by the top. Thus I planned to hold back as long as possible.
Racing: Racing started out very calm. At the first corner someone launched a soft attack, but it was quickly absorbed. This continued throughout the first lap, but everyone was very fresh and had the legs to chase attacks down. If one member from a team went up the road I was sure to jump on their wheel. Today I was racing to win, and being a one man team I needed to cover any potentially dangerous moves. I covered two or three such moves, but nothing really came of them.
As the second lap got on it became more and more obvious that a bunch sprint was the most likely outcome. The one well represented team had the bad habit of chasing down their own teammates, so it seemed unlikely any break would get away. I moved towards the back of the pack and got as sheltered as I could. Each time we approached a corner I would move up in the pack since attacks out of corners were very common.
Coming into the final finishing straight (~6-7 miles long) another attack came out of the corner. The pace stayed high and I just got into the drops and focused on positioning. About three miles out two guys went off the front. Two guys in front of me looked like they were gearing up to chase the breakaway down, so I jumped on their wheel. It looked like they were starting to echelon, but then they just calmly went back to riding. I shouted at the guy in front of me to keep echeloning. He calmly told me that there was no way in hell the two out front would stay away. At this point my only choices were to trust him and sit in, or try to bridge a ten second gap at 30+ mph. The latter seemed nearly impossible for me, so I got in line and waited it out. In fact he was completely correct. He noticed that the high speeds and stacked peloton meant that there was no way those two could maintain their gap.
As we approached the downhill leading to the final hill it became clear that we would indeed catch the break. I made sure to stay in the first few people and positioned myself behind someone who had been riding strong and seemed to still have energy. The yellow line rule was in effect even at the finish, so I knew that if I got stuck behind someone who was gassed I would be done for. We carried a very fast speed up the beginning of the hill. People started to launch attacks as soon as we hit the bottom, but I kept reminding myself to wait. About halfway up the hill I wanted to launch, but I realized that not only hadn’t we reached the 200 meters to go sign, but it wasn’t even visible yet! So I held back and kept on a wheel. Finally we hit the 200m sign and I launched. I pulled up next to the guy I was following and mashed the pedals like I never have before. About 25 meters from the line I truly believed my legs were about to seize up completely. At this point I had been gaining on him and had just pulled up even. I knew that if I stopped then I would certainly lose the race. Thus I forced myself to put out a couple more pedal strokes. I did a bike throw slightly earlier than I normally would have and saw that I was nearly even with two other racers.
I believed that I had won it, but wasn’t confident enough in that to say it outloud. In fact, the guy next to me cheered like he had won it. So I quietly rode around for a couple minutes to cool down. Whenever anyone asked me how I did I would just say “good”, and say that I wasn’t sure where I got. After a couple minutes I rode back to the start line and asked the USA Cycling official what the finishing order was. It was fantastic to hear my number read first! In that final sprint when I was gaining on the rider in front of me I had the realization that I could win this race! As the power was going out of my legs I started to think I would lose it, but my mind quickly forced me to give that extra tiny bit. It ended up being just enough!
What I Learned:
- Winning involves a lot of luck. If the guy in front of me at the end would have been gassed I would have been stuck. With the centerline rule in effect I would have had nowhere to go. It felt great to win, but it also put it in perspective for me. Had I been pinned behind someone at the last minute, or had I been 2% more fatigued I would have been knocked down to 2nd or 3rd place, at least. And yet I would be the same rider and done almost exactly the same work. So while I need to keep a winning mindset, I also need to realize that winning is unusual. So many tiny factors have to go right. Some of those factors you have control over, but many of them you don’t.
- As I cat up the other riders become much stronger. Teams are more invested in bringing back breakaways, and a small group of riders is much less likely to stay away. This race taught me just how important breakaway group composition is. I know see that what constitutes a strong break relies on many factors: teams, number of riders, distance left, current speed and terrain. This is something that I really feel like I’ll need to learn through experience.
Analysis: Every time I do well in a race I always go into future ones with a much stronger mindset. So the fact that I have a “W” under my belt means that I can truly picture myself as a winner. But as I mentioned in the first “What I Learned”, I also know that winning is a very slippery thing. What I don’t want to do is get in my head that I need to win to feel good about myself. I see that training hard and racing smart means I can get myself 95% of the way there. But that last 5% is a tricky thing, and can spell the difference between winning and being off the podium.
Lastly, this race showed me that as I progress racing gets much more complex. Everyone I’m racing with has experience, and everyone has seen at least as much as I have. Thus you need the ability to make complex calculations on the fly in order to determine the best move. Some of this will come from analyzing the race ahead of time or in the moment, but some of it will only come from experience. I need to continue working on both to do my best.