Shelby's First Charter Criterium
Xcelerate Twilight Criterium
The most prestigious criterium weekend in the USA just ended. It is 8am Sunday morning, and I didn't get back from the Xcelerate Athens Twilight until 2am. Our hosts, Rob Mahan and Kathleen Boak, have opened their house in the woods to team 7UP/Colorado Cyclist, and the loudest noises are the birds, the clock ticking, and my computer humming. My team-mates partied at the UGA bars until 4 and are sleeping in. Except for Kevin Monahan, who is replaying the last lap over and over in his mind and hasn't slept a wink.
Between last night and Shelby I went through disappointment, fear, fun, introspection, homesickness, and euphoria. None of these mental states were as powerful as, say, the disappointment of losing the 1992 Olympic Trials or the 2000 US Pro championship in Philly, or the joy of marrying Dawn. But for an American domestic-based bike racer, this weekend can pack in the emotions.
It was at Athens in '94 that a drunk caused a last lap accident that compressed two vertebrae in my back, Athens in '97 where I got back on the horse, faced my fears, and finished 2nd.
This year the race had $5,200 in cash primes plus Monroe Tire was kicking in a $500 set of Michelin car tires, and the prize list was a whopping $17,000. This isn't much compared to pro golf but it's great for US cyclists and many promoters should follow the Mike Keeley's fundraising blueprint.
After being sick ever since the Tour of Willamette and riding very few miles in the past 10 days, I looked forward to the wide, smooth, daylight course as a chance to find my legs again. A bad stomach meant that I haven't been able to store energy for a couple days now, so I didn't know how much fuel I had in my tank. I was active at the front from the gun, but my team-mates were still warming into it and after I'd covered about 10 attacks in a row I drifted back through the bunch to rally my troops and get some help.
Of course, this was just when the big breakaway of the day rolled away. Glen Mitchell (Navigators) and Wohlberg (Saturn) gained 45 seconds on us in just a few laps. They were away for about 20 laps and they pulled in half of the day's prime money. At 45 seconds it was possible that they could lap us if an organized chase wasn't mounted. I did a huge amount of work alongside Mercury and Prime Alliance, and finally the break tired out. At 10 laps to go we had Juan Carlos in a three- man break with Klasna (Saturn) and it looked promising. But it didn't stick and when Matt Decanio (Saturn) lit it up with about five to go, the field split.
I found myself in a small group just behind Matt, and I was out of energy. Jamie Paulonetti (Netzero) shot across to Matt, then Littlehales (Navigators) attacked us for 3rd, and I couldn't follow either one. Phil Zaicek (Mercury) kept looking at me, thinking I'd go next, but I couldn't put any pressure on the pedals. I kept hoping my team-mates would see me floundering and line it up for Charles and Juan, but they thought I was being cagey or something, and the field wasn't closing on us. Jonas Carney (Prime Alliance) had crashed heavily three laps to go so his team wasn't bringing it back together. I came out of the last turn at the head of the remainder of the break, and tried to muster some energy to at least take fourth. I was passed in the last 25 meters by three guys, so it was a disappointing finish for us.
That night I played the race over and over in my mind, taking the team leader's responsibility for our team's mistakes. When I finally fell asleep, my legs ached and awoke me hourly. Saturday morning we went for a 30 mile ride and I was 100 per cent recovered, and feeling great.
Dave and I got to talking about last year's Australia trip and we missed our exit, nearly driving all the way to Atlanta. We had to back-road backtrack to get to Athens.
200 riders in the race. Fewer top pros, big disparity in ability levels. I knew that was a recipe for lapped rider interference. I rode the first 20 laps in the top five, and watched in amazement as the lead car and motorcycle managed to protect us from drunks, clear a path through huge groups of lapped riders, and still maintain control. We would run up on the back of the motorcycle every now and then (especially when Klasna was attacking!) and a few times I saw the car just pull out of the way when the driver thought he couldn't make it through the mess of riders being lapped or being reinserted into the race after a free lap.
You are supposed to get a free lap after a flat or crash. The pit officials must have been tearing their hair out because every lap 20 guys would come into the pit claiming a crash, and there was no way to keep track.
Eventually an eight-man break formed. 7UP/Colorado Cyclist had me and Kevin Monahan; Netzero had Graeme and MJ; Saturn had Trent and Eric; Navigators had Glen Mitchell; and Mercury had national crit champ Derek Bouchard Hall. Kevin and I marked Trent and Eric, who were attacking fiercely. I could get on Trent's wheel, but I couldn't take a turn after the effort of catching him. So a Johnny L/Trent match-up wasn't to be tonight. I knew as we lapped both halves of the field that it was going to be up to Kevin. This action is just too crazy for me. To win this race you have to ride the last lap at 100 per cent on the brink of traction, and I don't take those chances.
Here's where the euphoria started. Netzero was leading it out for Graeme, my team was loosely organized just behind them, and I was sitting about 10 guys back on Derek's wheel. Two laps to go. Guys are sliding out, tangling with the fences, crashing everywhere. It's like a video game at 188 beats per minute. The roar of the crowd has melted away, and my oxygen-starved brain is completely devoted to cornering technique and avoiding falling riders.
One lap to go, entering the tight first turn. Derek slides out, and I' m going to T-bone him. Brakes on hard… oops too hard… starting to slide out myself… let go of brakes… hold breath… c'mon, Derek, slide a little faster, pull in your hand dammit, or I'm running over it… pop out of my right pedal… nnnnnn, huh… YEAH! Whew! Click back in, shift, second turn, whoosh, there goes Mitchell on the inside, the Netzero/7UP battle ahead is gone, huge gap. Jump on Mitchell. At least I'll beat one guy from the break. I don't know how many of the break are up the road now, after having nearly dumped it back there, but I'm safe now.
Mitchell has it dialed up and smooth, the race is up the road, nobody is going to crash us back here for tenth place or whatever. OK, well maybe Rahsan Bahati will come out of nowhere and pull another crazy stunt, taking me down. I easily come around Mitchell at 200m to go. Holy moly, I can't believe I stayed up. It is 20 minutes later, as I'm circling the course slowly, slapping hands with the fans, that I find out Kevin was third and I was fourth. After Kevin got out of dope testing, we went over to see about collecting our primes. The race officials were exhausted after a 20 hour day and couldn't get it together, and the prime list is missing. Oh well. What a race anyway. Good job to Netzero and Graeme. And we are going to blow you guys away next time!
Small race today. There will be lots of hungover riders on the line. I'll write about it from the plane on the way to New Mexico.