Stage 1 - March 13: Riverside Mt. Roubidoux Prologue Time Trial, 5km
Our star sprinter Dave McCook is still recovering from an auto accident, and couldn't race Redlands for us. Ryan is filling the position, and we also have Doug (tendonitis all better) Clark, Oscar, the Wolverine (Andrew), and Charles.
Michael Barry (Saturn) was my 30 second man (the guy starting right ahead of me) and Derek Bouchard Hall (Mercury) was behind me. DBH has a great track record in this type of event, so I figured that if I could make it to the finish without being caught by him that I'd turn a respectable time. Unfortunately, he blew to bits. He only put about 10 sec into me and it turned out that we all got smoked. To the tune of 81st out of 175 guys. So I remind myself that my goals are months away.
Stage 2 - March 14: Highland Circuit Race, 4 laps 160km/100 miles
On the ride from the finish to our host house we were passed by an old Buick driven by a lunatic who yelled "I hate bicyclists!". There was another guy slumped in the back seat. The driver skidded to a stop at a red light, and we pulled up to it as well. He had the window rolled up now, and he looked at us nervously, then held up the peace symbol with his fingers. Andrew and I laughed at his antics as he roared off.
Our host house is the Robertson's, at the top of Sunset road. It is a totally sweet setup, check out the attached picture of my room! They have barns, 4 horses, a huge wine cellar, the obligatory Porsche, and 3 garages. We joke about needing a road map and ride food to make it from one part of the house to another.
Stage 3 - March 15: Individual Time Trial, 20km
Every year that I go all out for this event I place between 20th and 70th, so I figured I'd just try to ride at 90%, save energy for the weekend, and see what my heart rate curve looked like. After downloading my Polar, it looks really good and I'm feeling more confident than ever for Nationals in a few months.
Roland Green smoked everyone again. US Postal will have their work cut out for them at Oak Glen.
Stage 4 - March 16: Redlands-Oak Glen Road Race, 174km
The organizers have added in another climb at the midpoint of the race, and some more winding roads to go with it. This change to the course would have a much greater effect than anyone could have anticipated, even though there were no attacks over it.
The stage began aggressively as always. Clark and I both made it into the first 25 man split on the first King of the Mountain climb, which Clark won just as the field caught the group. Going into the traditional breakaway point on this course, (a treelined, straight flat narrow divided road) Clark was the last man across to a group of 28 riders. I was right there and I'm still kicking myself for not going for it too. Saturn had Klasna, Wohlberg and M.McCormack in there, Prime Alliance had three, Mercury was represented, and Postal had two workers in there.
As Saturn went to the front of the main bunch to slow the pace down, a Postal rider in the field flatted. This was crucial bad luck because it delayed the start of their chase effort. The front group quickly built a 4 minute lead while Postal got reorganized, even calling back the two riders they had up there. Here's where the mid race climb and twisty roads factored in: these course features made it much harder for a team chase effort to roll fast and smooth. With 25 km to go until the climb, the gap to the leaders was still over 4 minutes and Postal tried to bluff. They quit chasing and demanded that Mercury take some responsibility. Mercury professed faith in their man Baden Cooke in the break. So Postal went back to work for a while. But everyone knew that while Cooke is fast he's not their top climber, so eventually Mercury took over the mantle and dropped the hammer at the front.
As we made the left onto the climb, the gap was still over 3 minutes. Our man Clark Sheehan had won 2 and placed 2nd in the 3 mountain climbs during the stage, but our lack of pre Redlands race preparation showed through as Clark came to pieces on the ascent to Oak Glen. Clark made the time cut by just one minute, with 58 riders not making it. It was easily missed: a rider could be in the main bunch at the base of Oak Glen with about 8km to the finish, and if he didn't climb fast could lose 8 minutes to the pack and miss the time cut. All of us 7UP/Colorado Cyclist riders made the cut and stayed fresh for our big goals this weekend.
Stage 5 - March 17: Downtown Redlands Criterium, 90 min
OK, gloves off, time to race. Here's the problem - we didn't line anybody up at the front and we all had a poor start position. Horner attacked right away, with Klasna marking him. With Saturn and Mercury having their top men in the break, they went to the front and shut it down in the many corners. Postal was left out and they tried to get organized, and I was so far back for the first 5 laps I didn't even know there was a 15 second danger break. I was calmly and steadily moving up until I finally heard over my radio at 6 laps into the race that Horner, Klasna, Gragus and Ryan Miller were away.
Panic!! I dispensed with the steady move to the front and rocketed up there to see what I could do to get 7UP/Colorado Cyclist back into the race. I pulled hard with Tony Cruz and Julian Dean (Postal), Rogers (Mapei), and a Navigators rider. But our pulls were disjointed, too long, too slow, and we continued losing huge chunks of time on the break. When the break came within 30 seconds of lapping us, we gave up.
It's really hard answering the questions of our fans, host family, sponsors, and team director when they ask how we did. Training cannot match racing for pre-season preparation, and most of the good guys we are going up against were in the Tour of Langkawi (Malaysia) or the Tour of Murcia (Spain) before coming here. Knowing that we were behind the 8 ball in fitness, we decided to sacrifice any opportunities in the first 4 days of racing here to save it all up for the weekend. And then we blew it and missed a first lap successful breakaway.
To Gord Fraser (Mercury) and Eric Wohlberg (Saturn) who asked us why I was chasing the break so hard and why I was helping Postal, I reply now that bike racing 101 says that if you want to win the stage you have to have a man in the leading group. I just wish I had my April fitness now: maybe then I could have represented 7UP/Colorado Cyclist in the break today.
Stage 6 - March 18: Sunset Loop Road Race, 142 km
After finishing 2nd to Trent Klasna in this stage last year, I'm gunning for a win today. It's a tall order as I'm facing fitness and knee issues at the moment, but racing at this level is really mental. If the knee holds together I think I have a good shot at it.
The race starts in a couple hours, so it's time to get a last bite of food, lay out the gear, and watch some TV to take my mind off of the race. You don't want to think about an important race too much, because being nervous burns a lot of energy.
A few hours later...
Well, lady luck took her toll today. This was to be the day that I put myself back on the map by scoring a long shot victory, especially after last year's oh so close 2nd place. We left downtown at Mach 1 and Clark (our mountain points leader) was right at the front trying to set himself up to take the points at the top of the circuit, lap one. I sat back a bit, trying to ride way into the race. Overall race leader Trent Klasna's Saturn team was all lined up at the front, and they let seven guys go right away.
Clark missed this move, while Levi Leipheimer of US Postal was in there and going for the mountain points. The first two laps were at an absolutely ballistic pace and I can't believe the break was staying away, much less gaining time on us. The fighting for position was incessant and mentally taxing. But I knew that the field would soon be whittled down and the positioning battles would peter out. Saturn decided if they couldn't catch the break right away they'd just set a hard but sustainable tempo and try to keep two workers fresh to help Klasna when the big attacks came.
At the beginning of lap six Mercury's Chris Horner LIT IT UP from the bottom of the climb, and I found myself wondering why I was struggling so much to maintain contact. Halfway up I realized what that reason was: a rear tire going soft. Any of the other laps and I could have recovered from a wheel change, but this lap was way too fast. My neutral support wheel change was a minute long and while I made a big effort, it wasn't nearly enough to catch back up.
Meanwhile, Clark was enduring his own battles. For a while the old Sheehan was poking through with flashes of his impending fitness. With less than two laps to go, he made a big effort on the climb to close the gap to the leaders solo. He came within five seconds of making contact with the back of the leaders when a surge at the front sealed his fate: eventually finishing in the second group. Soon, Shark!
On the upside, our team didn't get in any crashes and most of us finished, and my knee isn't getting any worse. And I had tons of fun for the five laps that I was in the main bunch. This is my favorite course of the entire domestic season: it's like riding a roller coaster that doesn't end every 2 minutes. On the descent you can hit speeds of over 50 mph and the corners require only the lightest touch on the brakes, if at all. The crowds were really supportive too. Only when you are just training in the 3rd group (the "grupetto") you don't really want people to cheer for you, because the real race is way up ahead.
For those of you checking to see how I did overall, I actually finished in the group with my teammates Doug and Charles. I even made sure to announce my number twice to the officials taking numbers, but they missed me and listed me DNF. That after actually riding the distance. Ah well, training was the main goal to finishing anyway.
Back at the Robertson's mansion, we drowned our temporary woes in another great dinner, small portions of high end wine from the huge wine cellar, and conversation around the outdoor fireplace. Next up, a hugely motivated and nearly up to speed 7UP/Colorado Cyclist squad will take on the same competitors at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey.
At one month, this is the longest trip I've taken away from my lovely wife Dawn since we were married in 1995. I miss her and my Doberman, but this extended trip should pay big dividends in preparation for my late May/ early June goals. And I'm to be home 20 out of 30 days in April!