However new I am to cycling, I am not new to having fun while pushing hard and testing physical and mental limits. I have a lot of experience in this area.
I also don't mention names much in my previous stories but for your, the reader's, sake I am going to in this one. It might be weird but we will get thru it. Promise.
So let's begin - Lesson 1 - The Green Mountain Stage Race is a 4-day cycling event that takes place in Vermont. I am brand spanking new to cycling so I am in "Category 4/5" or "Cat 4/5" for short. Racing in "Cat 3" is earned by racing more and acquiring points by winning races. There is also Cat 2 and Cat 1. The experience level going higher and higher. Each category races separately.
A "Stage Race" means that there is a number of different events where cyclists earn points and/or time bonuses against their competition, and thus a ranking amongst their respective category. The Tour de France is a 21 day "stage race" where the overall winner is determined by the fastest time in the "general category" (or "GC") ranking. There are also points awarded to competitors for "King/Queen of the Mountains" (or "KOM") challenges and "Sprint" challenges, but for time sake we will come back to those later. Click the links for more details on speed and strava files, pictures, and/or videos. Click the pictures to make them bigger.
My Drishti was set on competing for the GC and overall win.
That being said - I also recognize that this is the Cat 4/5 race - I know it is not the pros or even the Tour de France. It is very small-time compared to those races. I promise to describe things truthfully, and descriptive as I can/know how. I also promise to try my best to keep you on the edge of your seat and make you think that you are reading a description of the TdF.
2017 Green Mountain Stage Race (GMSR)
For story's sake, this weekend starts with a fist bump early Monday morning in Burlington, Vermont. It was Labor Day and 3 blocks of the city were closed and barricaded off for the final day of racing. The fist bump was of the most unexpectedness: an enthusiastic presentation of four smaller knuckles outstretched upward on a young arm. Though his arm reached only up to my chest and his closed fist was much smaller than my own, it was rock solid and steady. I was immediately jealous of these traits as I returned the "knuckle-tap" with a loosely closed hand that trembled with nerves.
"I hope you keep that yellow jersey!" he said without inhibition, even though I was a complete stranger.
"Thanks, Big Man! I appreciate that a lot!" I said half-bewildered and very surprised by the encounter. I was straddling my bike in full race gear with a bandana tied under my matte-black helmet and full reflective aviators that hid the uncertainty in my eyes. "What's your name, buddy?"
"My name's Everette and my dad's racing right now and he's doing really well in the sprints and in the GC! I hope he wins but there is a bit of gap right now and I don't know if they'll bridge it up! Not to mention there are only a couple laps to go until the next prime!" he sputtered quickly. He was surprised when it took me a minute to process all the information. He had all this information ready to go in his head which was at an awkward height where could barely peep over the top of guard rail but wasn't quite short enough to see under it either. I watched an unapologetic look of disappointment wash across his face when the most intelligent and engaging response I could muster was, "That's really cool. I hope he wins too!"
I had barely a clue what he was talking about and the clue that I did have was all learned the previous night -sleepless and frantically trying to figure out how to race a "crit".
Crit - bike race where the course is deliberately short with lots of corners designed to test cyclists' strategy and bike handling skills. One small mishap likely means a crash.
My hands were shaking with nerves for two reasons. One, because I had never really raced a "crit" before; two, because I just borrowed a bike pump from a guy who wiped out pretty badly who was in an earlier race for a different category. He had road rash all down his left side and said "Yeah, that sucked but at least my head didn't hit the curb... here's my pump. Good luck out there! Defend that yellow jersey of yours!" I pumped up my tires silently and went out to warm up a bit.
Let's back up again - The yellow jersey in cycling is given to the current leader in GC points. It is an awesome honor to wear the jersey but it also is intended to make it easier for the rest of the racers to know who is leading in points, AKA, who they have to beat.
The crit is the final stage of the GMSR. The time was getting closer and everyone began making their way to the entry corner of the race (because course it totally blocked off, there is only one way to enter the actual course). A few of my teammates and friends made a big deal about how I was going to get a "call up" and how that was going to be a big help in the crit. I asked a couple times what that was but I didn't really understand to be honest. "It's simple," Tim and Dan said, "They call you up to the start line. What don't you get?" I am not quite sure what I didn't get but I still didn't understand. Everyone was bunched up in the entry area and the announcer began talking.
"One second!" I yelled. "I'll be right back." I pedaled up to the opposite corner, took out my headphones and phone, and left them with my lovely lady, Suz. I sucked back a HOTSHOT and made my way back to the group.
"We can start now?" The race official joked as we all sat waiting to be released to the start line. I zoned back out. Apparently, the announcer called my name. I didn't hear it. I didn't really hear anything until the kid next to me nudged me and said, "That's you, bro."
"What do I do?" I asked.
"Get up there, dude!" he poked fun because he must have thought I was joking.
"Oh." I pedaled up 500 feet to the start line alone as everyone cheered. I don't do well with boasting and/or inequality in any aspect of life and the solo-pedal up to the line was super awkward for me. He then "called up" the 2nd and 3rd place guys to the start line. Then allowed everyone else to the line. We stood there for two minutes. Longest two minutes of my short lived cycling career. I was in the lead. 10 seconds behind me was a kid named Robbie. 10 seconds behind him was Berk. First place thru 3rd place all within 20seconds of each other. It was anyone's race, really. The difference being that Robbie had his teammate, Rees, at the starting line with him; and Berk had his teammate, Dustin, at the starting line with him as well. I, on the other hand, was solo and had no idea what I was doing.
Stage 1 of the GMSR is a (mostly) uphill "Time Trial." A time trial is a race against the clock. Each rider is released on to the course in 30-second intervals and the times recorded individually. Coming from a triathlon background, I have a lot of experience in time-trialing and knew I was going to fair decently. The effort is totally individual. Drafting off of the other riders on the course is not allowed. Drafting is when one cyclist will ride close behind another rider. The rider up front does a lot more work than the person in the back, because the person in the back does not have to fight air resistance they both travel at the same speed.
|TT in action|
A "watt" is a unit of power commonly used by cyclists to quantify effort. It is basically how hard someone can push the pedals. Think of it as weights on a barbell in a gym. It just measures how much overall work you can do on a bike. 388watts for 15minutes is right on point for me. For comparison's sake, 388watts is equal to half of a "horsepower" when describing an engine in a car. Not too shabby considering I run on infinity miles per gallon, eh? On to stage 2.
|Torin doning the Yellow Jersey after the TT|
On my way down from where I was staying to the start of stage two, I stopped at a coffee shop in Rochester. I was in my bike attire and ready to get in, get a coffee, and get on my way. However, a woman came up to me at the register and introduced herself and asked how the race was going. She was clearly excited about it and wanted to chat. I didn't have much time but I ended up learning that her son actually won the GMSR a couple years ago and was now off racing somewhere else as part of a different team. We actually ended up chatting for a little longer than I noticed and though I wish I could have talked more, I was now later than I wanted to be. I told her it was awesome meeting her and her husband and left for the start line. After random encounters like that, I now had a big smile, a new friend, and a great feeling overall. I didn't really expect to talk with either of them again despite them telling me that they were volunteering on the course for stage 3. At most, I'd wave to them on the course as I passed by. Nevertheless, Vermonters are some of the best people on the planet.
Stage 2 was 54 miles and called The Bridged Resort Circuit Race. It was my very first race on a road bike and to be completely unfiltered and frank it was not much different than my very first sexual encounter with another human.
At first, much like I did with the opposite sex as a teenager, I built up both experiences in my head a lot more than I should have. I "put the bike race on a pedestal" if you will.
Thru inexperience in each, they were both very uneventful, they were both over a lot faster than I wanted them to be, and left me wondering "Did I do that right?" "Was that good for you guys, too?" I was very unsatisfied.
There were a few failed attempts to break the pack up (this is when a few riders will start power up ahead of everyone else and start working together to "break away" from the pack). This is when a "gap" forms. When cyclists refer to a "gap" they mean the distance between the leaders and the rest of the pack. But when a gap forms, the pack usually starts to work together a lot better to get everyone back together. The burden of reeling everyone back into the pack is usually on the person in the leader jersey. On the contrary, the pack rarely lets the person in the yellow jersey get away because everyone knows who he is and, in our case for the cat 4/5 group, the leader had 26seconds on everyone else.
Torin wore the jersey well for Stage 2; too well. Typically the person in the yellow jersey will shy away from taking pulls up front and doing more work than he has to. He has 26seconds to give after all. It's our job to beat him... he doesn't have to beat us. As long as the pack stays together and finishes together with the same time, the time will get added to our time from the previous day for the overall results. If all the finishing times are the same, he stays in the lead. Again, it doesn't matter how fast or slow we go today if we all stay together and get the same time because he won the Time Trial yesterday by 26 seconds... Torin did a lot more work than he had to.
So anyways, besides a few small and short attempts at a break, no one did anything. Everyone finished at the same time. The only other thing I am going to add to this description of stage 2 was that there was a "GC Time Bonus" to the actual first 5 people across the line. So even though we all finished in the same time, the first person across the line got a 15-second bonus deducted from their overall standing in the GC time. This doesn't mean much for the single stage of racing but is pretty huge for the overall GC standings. Robbie finished first across the line.
My analysis is here. To sum it up, I averaged 215 watts and the group finished at 2hrs and 16min. I made a couple of moves but lacked the bike racing experience, confidence, and intuitiveness to have instigated any more than I did. I was so frustrated at the end that I put my running shoes on immediately after the ride and peeled off 4 miles at about 7min/mile pace. Not the best idea when we have another 65 miles to ride tomorrow but honestly, I felt like we didn't even ride at all. To put in in perspective, I could have covered the same distance faster by myself. The Monday before the race I rode the stationary trainer for five and a half hours at a harder effort level than we rode stage two. However, I was still in 2nd place overall GC. Behind by 26 seconds, heading into stage three with fresh legs.
|Stage two finish|
The kid in 3rd place going into Stage 3 was from Vermont and a phenomenal climber. Torin, still in first place is also an incredible climber. Had conditions been different on Sunday morning I am almost positive Stage 3 and the overall race would have ended differently. I was just as surprised as the rest of the field when I noticed that the kid only 2 seconds behind me in the running for GC, going into his strong suit, on his home turf, did not sign in to ride. I did a mini-happy dance in my head but then was brought cruelly back to reality a half of a second later when I remembered it was 42 degrees out and downpouring. I went back to my car after I signed in. I needed to stay as warm as I could. When I got back to my car I noticed a message on Facebook from a stranger that immediately warmed my heart again (unfortunately not my fingers though).
It was from the woman I had met yesterday, wishing me luck. I always shy away from telling people specific times or standings when they ask, "How did XXX race go?" Clearly, people want to know numbers and placings but speed and times are all relative and I try to honor that as best I can. I also try and focus on how much fun I had and how awesome the people and crowd were at the race more than how "fast" or "slow" everyone went. When I met Tamme at the coffee shop, she asked these leading questions. Deep down I knew she wanted a number, a time, how fast I went. My superego (accorind to Frued) decided to dodge the inquiry and just talk about how awesome the day was, how nice a freshly paved road was, and how I am looking forward to racing more. If I had told her a specific time, the conversation is immediately taken over by times and performances (which in my opinion, is not much of a conversation) but if I talk about how awesome everything else is and how lovely Vermont is, and how awesome everyone around the race and/or event is... it invokes a "next level" conversation. Tamme, her husband, the barista, and I did just that... we had a great conversation and got to know each other, rather than compare times and have a surface level conversation. If I had told her my time, Tamme might not have decided to look the results up herself and track me down on Facebook to send me this truly lovely message...
Knowing they were going to be cheering me, a complete stranger on, kept me happy. I didn't quite know if Suz was going to be able to get on the course or where she was going to be so knowing exactly where Tamme and Bill were going to be helped. They were going to be right around mile 60 out of a 65mile ride. I wanted to get there and I wanted to be in first. For time's sake, I'll spare the details, the first 60miles were freezing cold and uneventful again. The only thing I can really recall is getting made fun of for wearing ski gloves and winter "booty" shoe covers. They were heavy and soaked, but I could feel all my fingers and toes for the entirety of the race. Numb limbs don't climb mountain roads well. Stage 3 consisted of climbing 1,200ft up Middlebury Gap, then riding down, and was to finish on the top of App Gap, a 1,600ft climb.
I was warm the whole ride and I sang, "if you like Pina Coladas... gettin' caught in the rain...." As we started the turn onto the final climb. I stripped off my booties and gloves and tossed them to the side of the road (I went back and picked them up later). Half-way up the road around mile 58 I heard Torin yell, "This fucking sucks!" It was right then I knew the day was mine. In my head I was still singing, Tamme and Bill were right up the road, and my legs felt great.
|The finish Line at the top of app gap|
|App gap finish line - Robbie up front. Me directly behind him. Like I said, the kid rides with heart.|
My good friend and fellow teammate, Dan, started 10min before my group. He was in the 50+ division. He was a big reason why I got into cycling and pretty much the only reason I signed up for GMSR. My group was closing in on him up ahead. I had to put on a show. I threw down a couple hard pedal strokes to break away from the group and lead everyone by Dan. He yelled. "Go gettem, Haff!" and I replied with, "I am about to light App Gap on FIRE!! WOOOOOO!!! LET'S GOOOOO!!!"
That was all I needed. A few minutes up the road I saw Tamme and Bill. They started jumping up and down in the rain. "FOUR-FOUR-TWO... THAT'S BILLY! GO BILLY!! GOOOO!" I went. Hard. I powered up the last 2.5miles of App Gap in the howling winds and sideways rain in under 16min and with more power than I put out for the Stage 1 Time Trial. Robbie was right behind me most of the climb and we both put a hurting on one another. The best kind of hurt. Robbie rode with a lot of heart and was able to power by me with 200meters to go. I finished in 4th place for the stage but I got what I wanted. The yellow jersey and the lead on the GC going into the last stage. I think an unspoken bond forms between two people who suffer like that together. I threw my bike down at the top and Robbie and I hugged it out - I'll remember that climb forever.
The bond was moments later half-broken when we both saw the GC standings. I was up front, he was 2nd by 10seconds and Berk made up a ton of time by winning the stage, putting him in 3rd over all (remember that the GC rankings are cumulative times from all stages) only 10 seconds behind Robbie. 4th place was 1min 12sec behind so despite an epic implosion by one of us, this would be the final podium... but in what order would be determined by Stage 4 - The Crit.
Berk and I rode down the backside of Middlebury Gap together (this was immediately after the first climb of the ride) with another strong rider named Luis. Out of all the riders in the race, these two were my kind of people. We would yell and hoot and holler at each other the whole way down the mountain chasing the lead pack down like little kids... Little kids who almost forgot that it was still low-40s, pouring rain, and epically wet and slippery... we topped out at 49miles per hour and didn't blink an eye. We literally didn't blink an eye; to do so would have meant crashing.
"I'M WITH YOU! GO GO GO GO!!"
Suz and I invited Berk, his girlfriend, and his teammate, Dustin, back to our place for dinner. Lot's of bike talk ensued. I learned that Dustin's brother was killed a few years back in a cycling accident with a truck in Boston. Long story short, I had an eerily similar encounter with a garbage truck going thru Harvard Square. It was early in the morning, I was heading south on Mass Ave and the dump truck was on my left, taking a right-hand turn without a turn signal on. I do not particularly enjoy being right next to a truck like that on the road so I sped up to pass it just as it began to make its turn. I locked up the brakes and skidded into the side of the truck; specifically, the gas tank. I ricocheted off and onto the curb. Had I been going slightly faster, I would have been engulfed by the front right wheel well; had I been going slower, I would have been underneath the rear wheels. Being a cyclist in the city is incredibly dangerous even if you do everything correctly. A lot of cyclists do not do anything correctly and it gives us all a bad rap. People in automobiles get insanely annoyed with bikers - sometimes because we are doing something inappropriate and we might deserve a honk from the horn. Please if you are driving remember that you are in a 2,000+ lbs vehicle and you might not see the huge crack in the road that a biker swerved to avoid or any other obstacles out there.
On that aside, let me take you back to the very beginning of my story and the starting line of the crit where I stood with all of these men and more for one last race of the weekend.
I need to set the stage further here so bear with me...
I will lead off by saying that (almost) all is fair when it comes to bike racing - less any physical or malicious contact or actions a rider can go as fast or slow as they want and they can fight for position behind other riders wheels as aggressively as they want. Though I had an awesome time riding with Robbie and Rees over the stages, and just shared a really awesome meal with Berk and Dustin, they are both on the same teams respectively. They are going to team up against me and against each other for their team to get the win. Dustin helping Berk and Rees helping Robbie. This is just how it goes.
Throughout the stages, I also made a few friends, though. Torin was out of the running for the GC but is a phenomenal crit racer - he didn't have a teammate in the race so maybe he'd help me a little. We got along great and shared "kudos" on Strava. I gave Arturo an extra HOTSHOT at the start of Middlebury gap yesterday when he complained of cramping. I gave a bunch of lead-outs thru the previous days to people who were no longer in the running for GC. I was hoping to call in a favor or two from these guys but you never know how races are going to go (especially me as I haven't ever raced before).
Pictured below. Described: 1 kilometer (.62 miles) per lap. A 6-corner, very technical course in the heart of downtown Burlington, Vermont. The course has some irregular pavement, cobblestones, manhole covers and grates. Due to the technical nature of this course and irregular surface conditions, participants are encouraged to make a walking inspection of the course. USE EXTREME CAUTION
25 laps with sprint "bonuses" - Basically, the first four people across the line on the 5th lap and on the 15th lap get 8,6,4,3 seconds subtracted from their GC time respectively. The winner of the crit over all gets 15 seconds subtracted and then 11, 8, 5, 3 for the next four riders. This ensures for an exciting race. The person in the yellow jersey has to defend and carefully plan moves to not burn their legs out going for bonuses but also keep track of everyone else in contention. For example, a rider could be the first across the line for laps 5 and 15 and then sit back resting in the draft of other riders, then sprint up to take the win on the last lap because he hasn't put in as much of an effort to keep up with the pack. In this case, all other things being equal, the winning rider would 31 bonus seconds PLUS however much time he actually won the race by.
|My race was almost over after the first turn... Close encounter with the barrier.|
|Torin and Robbie working well together off the front.|
|Rees still guarding my wheel|
I not only gave back the 8-second cushion I had, but Torin and Robbie looked strong up in the front, and I apparently had no help and my legs were roasted. We took the first corner of the race again and I heard a spectator yell "9 seconds!" meaning that Torin and Robbie were 9 seconds ahead of the pack.
I was fucked.
I was also being fucked with. And I didn't have any idea how to fuck back. I had to do something though. With a stroke of luck, the sprint of the 15th lap mixed up the pack behind me a little bit and Rees was right in front of me after the first turn. I yelled out loud, "FUCK!" three times. I saw Rees grin and that sparked an idea. I yelled up to him, "YOU OWE ME ONE! LET'S GO DUDE PICK IT UP!"
|This is Robbie and Torin pulling away up in the front of the pack.|
However, I didn't yell to Rees and truly think he was going to repay me for the pull I just hand fed him. I yelled up to him in hopes I'd catch him off guard. I was Lt. Kaffee screaming at Col. Jessep. DID YOU ORDER THE CODE RED!?!?!
Rees reactively yelled back at me with a snarl, "I don't owe you shit, dude! I don't owe you a damn thing!!"
|Rees covering my wheel tight STILL!|
Out of nowhere, Berk and Alvaro BLASTED by him. I hopped right on with the two of them. Alvaro was on Team Patch and I had friended them at the end of stage 2 as well. They raced super hard and no doubt raced incredibly well together.
If Rees wanted to put the nail in the coffin, all he would have had to do was keep his cool, accelerate thru and fake me out. Essentially, he just had to act like he was going to help me catch up to his teammate and Torin but really sandbag his pulls and slow the pack down. Instead, he yelled back, "YOU'RE GODDAMN RIGHT I ORDERED THE CODE RED!"
|Leading the Pack|
We caught them with 5 laps to go and I resumed my place at the front of the pack. If I could have beat my chest without crashing right then, I would have.
I completely sandbagged the 20th lap. Then again the 21st. I was barely pedaling. A different spectator on the backside of the course yelled, "Come on!!! What are you doing?!?"
Benjamin D Bloom took some epic pictures of this race. The full gallery is here.
A couple other people jumped up in front for laps 22-24 but not at a pace that could have shaken Robbie or I. We knew it was on. And he knew he had to make the first move. I thought they were going to attack with a team effort but Robbie caught me off guard heading down the hill to end lap 24 and start lap 25. He was bombing and took an inside line of the corner so tight and fast I thought for sure he was going straight into the barrier.
This kind of move takes a whole lot of heart, it takes even more guts and a whole lot of skill. I tried but given the previous efforts, I couldn't come close to matching the line he took around the corner or the power he was pushing. He was off like a bandit. I gained a ton of respect for him and how much heart that move took Robbie to make. I could barely hold his draft. We started the final lap pushing 734watts for 12seconds and then opened a gap on the group. We bombed around the course at 27mph taking turns I had no idea I was capable of. It was just him and I. But, the way he raced, I was happy he won the stage.
If you need video evidence of any of this feel free to watch the Strava Fly By here. It color codes all of us who uploaded a GPS file. I get chills re-watching it. And I get chills re-reading some of the comments on my Strava files.
The overall gap between Robbie and I was 4 seconds..... 6hours and 24minutes determined by 4 seconds.
Here is a link to the finish line video.
Dan, Tim, and I recapped over a beer and fries. Luis (the guy Berk and I bombed down Middlebury gap with) and his friend, Edison, who also raced. Came up and asked to get a picture with me. I held back tears as we snapped a few pictures and they both sat down with their daughters and wives on the patio as we watched the woman's race. I used part of the $280 to cover my table's food and beers and then used the rest to tacitly cover their two families' tab.
This weekend of racing not only brought out the best in a lot of people, but it moved me. Truly deeply moved.