The last time I wrote a race report (following my broken pelvis at Giro del Cielo) I ended by saying that my 2017 season was over but that, “I was already looking forward to 2018.” Well, it turns out that my 2017 season was not over. After some gentle nudging from the team – looking at you Dan – and my own mom basically saying, “You’re a wuss if you don’t race,” I hesitantly entered the Green Mountain Stage Race. After all, I couldn’t pass up the chance to nerd-out over bikes with my good friends for 4.5 days even if I had no idea what to expect from my fitness or ability to place well.
Stage 1 ITT:
Last year during the TT I set personal power records for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and 15 minutes. But while I was putting out massive power by my standards, I was doing so at the expense of aerodynamics and I lost a lot of time because of it. This year, knowing that my sudden return from injury only had me at about 90% strength, I made a conscious effort to focus more on the “free speed” of becoming slippery to the wind instead of putting out raw watts – I stayed in the saddle for nearly the whole climb and got as compact as I could in the drops on the descent. While my power was nearly 20 watts lower than the previous year, my focus on aerodynamics seemed to have paid off as I crossed the line in the exact same time! I was ecstatic that my effort netted me a second-place finish and after some Strava creeping, I made a mental note that the guy who finished first was putting out power that made him undoubtedly the strongest guy in the field.
Stage 2 Road Race:
If I told you that I wasn’t nervous lining up for my first mass-start race since my accident at Giro del Cielo, I would be telling a bold-faced lie. Once racing started, I made my way to the front and tried to be in the top 5-10 wheels at absolutely all times to calm my nerves about being in a tight pack. My initial attempt to break up the field over the first climb failed, though the guy in the yellow jersey who I had marked made his climbing prowess known when he blew by me near the top.
The middle miles were fairly uneventful, though I did have a lot of fun riding “Team Sky style” with Andy, Pat, and Sasha for a little while on some flats and the field mostly stayed together until we hit the dirt road climb about 2/3rds of the way through the race. My rival went to the front and drilled it; I went pretty deep just to stay on his wheel and was almost relieved when we crested the hill to face down the terrifying dirt descent that I had been dreading. Though I thought I was going pretty fast, about 8 guys smoked by me at different points and I was counting down the seconds until we would be back on pavement. After an eternal one-minute-and-forty-seconds at nearly 35mph, we were back on a smooth road before taking a hard right turn to signify the finish of the descent. No problem.
Actually, there was a problem. The group of 8 or so who passed me on the descent had opened up about a 7 second gap on the downhill and through the turn. While they appeared to be pretty close, it required a leg-scorching, ear-ringing, I’m-beginning-to taste-blood type of 2.5 minute effort to latch back onto the group as they tried to escape the shredded field. Once I recovered from my bridge, I began taking pulls in hopes that we could turn our small group into a real breakaway. Unfortunately, the organization quickly eroded and it was gruppo compacto as the stragglers of the peloton caught us over the next few kilometers.
With about 3 miles to go and the field slowing before the final sprint wind-up, Sasha launched off the front in a heroic solo move. I went to the front to ride false tempo, do some blocking, and try and shut down attacks, but unfortunately the 2k to go sign motivated people enough to reel him in only 500m before the line. At this point I just tried to stay out of the way as the sprinters did their thing. I was pretty happy with a field finish even though some bonus seconds netted by another rider pushed me back a spot into 3rd on GC.
Stage 3 Mountain Stage:
Obsessively checking the weather every hour before the race, I was relieved to see that there was only a “50% chance” of rain at the start. As we staged, it was misty, windy, and cold, but it was not actively raining. “Good,” I thought, “I can always bail if it starts to pour but it’s OK right now!”
Well literally a mile into the neutral start, the heavens opened up and torrential rain met us head-on. As hostilities began, I again went towards the front for safety, to avoid the wheel-spray of my fellow riders, and simply to do more work so that I could get my body temperature up in the freezing wet conditions.
The first 15 miles, though cold and unpleasant, were actually fairly tame. When we took the turn to begin the run-up to Middlebury Gap, I got in position near the front but immediately stopped pedaling every time I actually saw the wind as I was trying to save myself for the real climb.
When I saw the road really pitch up, I pressed the lap button on my Garmin and began riding at a heavy pace that I knew I could sustain for just about 10 painful minutes. Several minutes later I looked back and saw that I had established a gap on most of the field but that my rival was coming up to me fast. With about 500m to go in the climb, he passed me with a ferocity that I had no response to. I knew that if it came down to it on the day’s final climb on App Gap, he would roast me.
Fortunately he was not a great descender and I caught him on the way down, as did the third man over the climb who proceeded to fly right on by the both of us. Over the next 10 minutes, more and more members of the field that had broken up over Middlebury Gap caught up until there was a solid group of about 40 with the lone leader extending his advantage to a steady minute.
Things basically stayed that way for the next 15 miles as we approached the flatlands leading up to Baby Gap. With about 2 miles to go before the actual turn onto said climb, one rider launched off on his own; no one in the disinterested field seemed to want to chase. I saw my opportunity and – as I was only about 5 wheels back at this point – I was able to react quickly and begin bridging the gap to him. A brief glance back several minutes later revealed a roughly 30 second advantage over the field as we turned onto Baby Gap. I began tapping out a hard tempo on the climb and my break-mate explained that he would help me pull on the downhill stretch to App Gap if I would pull him up this climb. Fine with me.
As we crested, the moto informed us that we were reeling in the lone leader but I could not discern our advantage over the main field nor could I see them behind us in the thick fog and rain. Oh well, no matter. However close they were wasn’t going to change the fact that I had committed to the move and was going to go full-gas until the finish or my legs shut down.
True to his word, my companion and I traded pulls on the downhill/flats preceding App Gap and by the time we began the final climb the lone leader was only seconds ahead of us. About 1/4th of the way up, I simultaneously caught the leader and dropped my break-mate. The man who had been off the front since Middlebury put up a valiant fight but his previous efforts took a toll on him and he fell off my wheel soon thereafter.
I spent the next 10 minutes seriously grinding my way toward the finish against the savage grade, rain, and wind. The kilometers ticked off at a glacial pace but when I saw the 1k marker, I knew that I could tough it out. The final 4 minutes were both excruciating and exhilarating as I knew that only an act of God would prevent me from crossing first. And cross first I did, nearly collapsing off my bike as I rolled through the finish line. But the exhaustion and cold were nothing compared to the thrill of winning the mountain stage in such epic conditions when I could barely walk only 6 weeks ago.
Stage 4 Burlington Criterium:
Crits have never been my thing, especially since breaking my collarbone in one earlier in the year. The fact the GMSR crit is notoriously one of the most technical crits around didn’t exactly help my nerves. However, my 1 minute lead on the GC from stage 3 was enough incentive to get me to the starting line to try and seal the overall win. It also helped tremendously to joke around with Andy and Sasha before the race to calm down.
Being the yellow jersey holder afforded me the advantage of a front-and-center callup/position on the start line. Unlike last year, I actually hit the clip-in and was in a decent position for the first several laps. Ever one for a breakaway, Sasha was off the front for a while and it was encouraging to see him up the road and doing well before things eventually came back together.
However, the cumulative fatigue of the previous days’ efforts soon caught up to me and after about 5 laps near the front in a good position, I began to lose wheels on the hill through the finishing straight. This trend continued for the next 25 minutes as I continued my migration toward the back of the field until I was the second-to-last person in the main pack. Fortunately the only person behind me was my GC rival in second place!
Mercifully there were no major crashes or field splits and things stayed together over the course of the race. When I saw the lap counter hit “3 to go” I knew that it was in the bag. Although I crossed the line technically with the same time as the winner, I was nowhere near the front (or the action) by that time. However, I was beside myself with joy at 1) finishing all 4 stages with my skin and bones intact and 2) netting the overall GC win and my Cat 2 upgrade!