Photo Credit: Leman Northway
What a race! I went into it not sure what to expect, and I came out of it second overall and crowned the Iowa Cat 4 Men’s Road Race State Champion!
Intro: This was it, the big “A” road race for me. I had hesitated to target this race, because the Cat 4 race was 64 miles long. Prior to this race I had never raced over 40 miles, and almost never rode any further than 45 miles (racing or training)! But after getting a win in a 40 mile road race in late June, I felt like I had to give this race a go. Thus I dropped any pretense of “speed work” and focused solely on improving my ability to ride at race pace for 60-70 miles.
Course/Conditions: It was a hot day (for Iowa), with temps in the 80s. The course is completely exposed with not a hint of shade. As for the course itself, it is a 32 mile clockwise loop, done twice. For the most part it’s extremely flat, but the one southbound stretch includes a couple hills with gradients up to 6% or 7%, and stretching close to a mile.
Field: The Men’s Cat 4 field had 18 starters. I knew a small handful of them, but in general I was fairly clueless about my competition. There were no significant team showings.
Strategy: I strongly believed that this race was going to boil down to fitness, and in particular the ability to ride at race pace for longer than most of us are comfortable with. Due to how flat the course was I fully expected a sprint finish. I felt like if the pace could stay high enough and I had trained properly then I had an excellent chance at finishing well.
My strategy was focused on proper training. I always do the weekly group rides which are at least as fast as race pace, but only last 35 to 40 miles. Thus I knew that I wasn’t yet properly prepared to race 65 miles. I also knew that on solo rides there was no way I could push myself hard enough for that long. Thus my strategy was to tack 25 to 30 miles onto the front of my weekly group rides. This way I would get in the proper distance, and finish fast just like in a real race. I dropped my intervals sessions down to once a week and instead planned my week around this one long ride.
When race day came and I saw how hot it was I knew that winning would boil down to survival. I packed up three water bottles, two Clif bars and a pack of energy gummies and headed out.
Photo Credit: Leman Northmay
Racing: Things started out very controlled and I vowed to just sit in. As expected, a couple people tried some early attacks, but things were quickly shut down. About halfway through the first lap everything had settled down and we were cruising along. Somewhat surprisingly, someone that almost none of us knew went off the front on the flats. The peloton basically ignored it, because it seemed unlikely that someone would stay away for the next 45+ miles.
For the second half of the first lap we put in some chase efforts. Once we made up enough ground that it looked like a catch was inevitable. The peloton slowed up with the intention of letting the guy dangle out front and wear himself out. Instead he went away again! By the start of the second lap he was out of sight and would stay that way for the race. The guy was from Illinois and thus was not eligible for the Iowa State medals.
Going southbound on the second lap we approached the only steep hills on the course. I expected that the peloton would crawl up them to conserve energy. But I knew that this was the only part of the course that actually suited me well. My legs were feeling good so I went to the front and set a decent pace. I did this on the first two steep hills, and it did indeed seem to stop everyone from just crawling up it. This was a weird experience for me, because I was in a sort of in-between state. I did not believe that I could go solo off the front, so it didn’t make sense for me to go 100% on the hills. But I also wanted everyone to feel like they had to keep me in sight, in order to force them to work. I believe that I basically accomplished this, though with a better FTP I would have had more options.
As we entered the last 15 miles of the race guys started cramping up. As I expected, most people simply hadn’t put in the miles to prepare their bodies for this race. Although I was tired my muscles were doing fine. It was encouraging to see others around me suffering, because I knew that meant that I had a good chance. I made sure to keep position in the last couple miles, and was positive it would all come down to a sprint.
I fought intensely for position in that last mile or so. I’ve had some problems recently starting the sprint from too far back, and when someone up front jumps I just run out of room to catch them. So I lined up about fifth wheel in our fast, single-file line. I was careful to not get boxed in, and in fact was even successful in forcing another sprinter to get boxed in.
As we approached the 200m to go sign the pace was high and so still no one had jumped. Our line was far to the right side of the road, and I realized that there was a chance of getting stuck since there was another group on my left. Right then I noticed that the right side had a small gap that I could get through. Since we had just passed the 200m sign I knew I had the legs to finish it off, so I jumped hard. I heard people yelling that I had gone, but no one got on my wheel and I immediately had a good gap. About 25m before the line I glanced back and saw I easily had it and so I let up a bit and cruised across the line. I ended up winning the bunch sprint (and thus second overall) by a few bike lengths. The guy who went up the road early ended up winning by a over a minute! Big kudos to him and a very strong effort.
What I Learned:
- Specific preparation can make all the difference. Early in the season I had no plans to target this race because I felt like it didn’t suit me. The relatively few hills and lots of long straights meant that my strengths wouldn’t be much utilized. The finish is a long and slightly downhill drag, so I knew the sprint would favor the pure power guys, which I’m not (I’m more power-to-weight). And yet by doing specific preparation, and in particular preparation that many others weren’t willing to do, I was able to succeed.
- Use your strengths, even if they won’t win you the race. On the second lap as we approached the few steep hills I knew that everyone was starting to tire a bit, and left to our own devices we would take it easy up the hills. Since climbing is one of my strengths I decided to act. I went to the front and put out 300 to 500 watts up the hills. These numbers aren’t huge, but since I’m quite light this meant that all the heavier guys needed to be doing much more to keep up. I wasn’t trying to break away, but by keeping the pace high I put some people into the red. This wasn’t a race winning move, but I do believe that it helped me in the end. Marginal gains, as they say.
Analysis: In my three seasons of racing, this race was my most satisfying. Allow me a quick digression: I used to be very into weightlifting. After doing that for several years I realized how simple it is to change your body. Most people feel like it’s impossible to lose weight or bulk up. But that weightlifting experience showed me that these things are very do-able, you just have to commit to it and put in the work (which is why I say “simple”, and not “easy”). This race showed me the same thing for racing. I had tried preparing for races before, but I never really got the results or fitness I wanted. This race was the longest specific preparation period I’ve had for a race. Seeing how it paid off has really showed me that I can do this again for other races. This greatly boosted my confidence and has me looking forward to some specific races next season!
This was my last race of the season and I’m taking a couple weeks off before starting up training for the 2016 race season. In the coming weeks I’ll write up a post about my plans and goals for next season. Until then, good luck and happy racing and training!