This is a loooong race report (the product of a 4.5 hour flight with WiFi access) so here are some tunes to listen to while reading
Warm and thick like fresh candle wax, blood flowed down my held aloft arm and dripped off my elbow. Sprawled out on my back; feet and ankles contorted, twisted and still clipped into the pedals, sharp gravel pressed into my shoulder blades. I pondered aloud: “how in the world did that just happen?”
This was the scene about a week and a half ago, between the 2nd and 3rd laps of the Prairie City Mountain Bike Race Series (aka, the Greater Sacramento Area Wednesday Night World Championships), when feeling completely burnt out on the format of quick, intense, short duration mountain bike racing, my eyes caught the enticing gleam of sunlight reflecting off a cold Coors Light silver bullet that was being dangled in my direction. “oh yeah sure I’ll take that”. Wrong move: Eyes on gleaming shiny beer can with an unbalanced reach plus front tire rolling into unseen patch of soft fresh gravel equals front tire unweighted and washed out and a trip to Urgent Care for a slow 10-day tattoo of something resembling railroad tracks via 6 black nylon stitches.
I’ve always primarily been a single speed mountain racer, followed by some dabbling in cyclocross, and then in a very distant third…road racing. However, given my current state of burnout on mountain bike racing, the crash and stitches in my arm were enough cause for me to give in to my friends urging that I skip the Mountain Bike Stage Race at Folsom Cyclebration and sign up for the Cat 5, er I mean, Elite 5, Road Bike Omnium with them instead. For the past several years, I’ve done the Mountain Bike Stage Race, which consists of an individual time trial (which is actually REALLY fun), a short track event, and a traditional cross country race over 2 or 3 days, sweeping the single speed expert categories in all three events for the past 2 years. So I figured it would be good timing to step outside of my comfort zone and sign up for the Road Omnium instead which consists of an individual time trial on Friday, a criterium on Saturday, and finally a Circuit Race on Sunday.
After signing up for the road omnium, I looked closer at the schedule, and realized that despite signing up for three road races, there would be enough time in the schedule to also race two (out of the three) mountain bike events: the Pro Open Short Track Saturday morning and the Pro Open MTB time trial on Saturday afternoon (both of which I would race on my single speed). Five races in three days sounded like a recipe for a great time…so I went for it.
The Independent Fabrication Ti Deluxe 29’er single speed, and the Independent Fabrication SSR MAX, would be my weapons.
And the race would shake out like this:
Friday: Individual road time trial
Saturday: 8:00 AM – 30 minute Elite 5 road criterium
9:00 AM – 45 minute Pro Open MTB short track
4:30 PM – approximate 20 – 25 minute Pro Open MTB time trial
Sunday: 8:50 AM – 45 minute Elite 5 road circuit race
A lot of racing, but not a lot of cumulative time, so I figured it would be doable. Here’s sort of how the racing went down:
Friday: Elite 5 Individual road time trial
Not too much to say here, except it really freaking hurt. Being a single speed mountain biker, my strength is usually throwing down watts up short punchy climbs, and not consistent long leg searing power output staring at open flat stretches of hot shiny pavement. I don’t own any aero bikes, aero wheels, aero shoe covers, aero anything…but I figured since it was the 5’s, perhaps not many others would either. I was able to borrow a friend’s aero helmet that he used for Race Across America (RAAM) last year, so at least I’d have some assistance from a mullet vector helping me along.
After getting some professional number pinning advice from fellow Folsom Bike team mate and Pro/1/2 racer, Mary Maroon (thanks Mary!), it was off to the start line where we’d go off in 30 second intervals. It was hot. It was hard. I put myself in the hurt locker. I caught and passed the three riders who started ahead of me and hoped that meant I’d snag a decent time in my category. Ended up getting 4th and my friends and team mates Dave Brandeberry and Pat Murphy put down solid times as well. Weekend was off to a decent start.
Saturday – Elite 5 criterium, Pro Open MTB Short Track, & Pro Open MTB Time Trial
I was surprised to find myself looking forward to the criterium. They’ve always kind of freaked me out and I’ve only ever done one other where I finished basically dead last. This time however, I had Pat and Dave to work with as a team and we agreed to maybe take just one or two pulls at the front to hit the legs, then mostly chill out and conserve energy for a run at the win on the final lap.
Talking race strategy with Dave on the start line (Photo by Alex Chiu)
With three team members, Folsom Bike was one of the smaller groups out there with a few other local teams such as Rio Strada, Victory Velo, Synergized and Bicycles Plus having a few more. Race started and things went really smooth. Most riders were riding safe and I really didn’t see anything sketchy or pick out anyone riding particularly erratically, which was nice. After settling in after a lap or two Dave, Pat, and I found each other and agreed to go to the front to take some turns pulling. We put in some efforts, then settled back in and I had fun floating around the pack, trying to get a feel for what it’s like riding from the back of the pack, the middle, taking the inside on turns, then taking the outside, and generally trying to learn as much as I could about this particular racing format. One thing I learned was how surprisingly quick and easy it could be to move from the back to the front of the pack in certain areas of the course when the group would tend to bunch up and mushroom. Experience noted, filed away.
With two laps to go the pace finally began to quicken. A few started pulling hard, and some others reacted by grabbing wheels and driving the pace, but I floated toward the back 1/3 and regrouped with Dave and Pat. We made our plans on how to drive to the front on the last lap, and once the bell rung signaling one to go, we were together and in position. We wound our way from the back third to the middle, and with half a lap to go, I swerved out of Pat and Dave’s draft, moved to the far outside of the group, and started making my way up to the top 5 riders as the pack mushroomed a bit allowing me to quickly gain ground.
My original plan was to be in the top 5 or 6, as we sailed through the last turn and into the finishing sprint. But as we were still 100 yards or so away from the final turn, I realized I had a ton of momentum as I came up on the outside of the front group and they had no idea I was there. Seeing an opportunity, I dropped down a gear and started sprinting hoping to get to the last turn with a crapload of momentum and surprise on my side. It worked. My momentum carried me into first about 30 yards before the last turn, and I swung around the outside setting up for the apex, a gap quickly opening up. Stayed off the brakes, accelerated through, full power down, and I looked back and saw absolutely no one giving chase.
Pat celebrating the win..
I was surprised to see a huge gap, and for an instant, as I crossed the finish line, I actually wondered if I jumped one lap too early and we had another to go. But then I saw everyone else sitting up and taking their hands off the bars, so that’s when I realized I had won. Holy crap…never thought I would win a crit. “How in the world did that just happen?”
Crossing the line (Photo by Alex Chiu)
I couldn’t stick around for the podium as after a brief conversation with Ken Todd from BP, I had to bail straight to my car to get over toRodeo Park for the start of the MTB Short Track (Photo by Alex Chiu):
MTB Short Track – Pro Open
I arrived at Rodeo Par kwith 15 minutes to spare. Just enough time to lock the road bike on the roof, grab the mountain bike, hustle on over to registration to grab my number plate, and then pedal around half the course to get a feel for how it would go, then head to the start line still wearing the race number pinned to my jersey from the criterium.
Turnout for this race was fairly low (probably due to a few other high profile MTB races going on closer to the Bay Area keeping those riders from making the trip to Folsom), but the competition in Pro Open would be extremely fast. Pro roadie, Paul Mach, was here taking a break from his road bike (kind of the opposite of what I was doing). Paul rides for the Kenda / 5-Hour Energy team and has raced in the Tour of California and other high profile races around the country. I believe he won the overall GC at theMt.Hood Cycling Classic a year or two ago. Also on the start line was Dan Garcia from Victory Velo who has been tearing up the Prairie City races lately, and Kass Feurhelm from Folsom Bike. I’ve never met Kass before, but as he introduced himself and mentioned that he “rides with Jared Kessler a lot”, he instantly went from unknown soldier to my favorite to win the race in an instant. If you’re hanging and riding with Kessler on a MTB, you are fast by default.
Kass gunned it from the start and I never saw him again. Just as I thought, he was fast and skilled. He won. For the first 3 laps, I had a nice gap on Mach, but each time we’d go through the flat and wide open section around the baseball fields, he would gain back a ton of time. I was totally spun out on my single speed, and this flat section was really sucking the wind and life out of me. So with two laps to go, Paul caught me and there was no way I was going to be able to hold his wheel. Impressive speed for sure. With a lap to go, and knowing there was no way I could catch Paul, I sat up and cruised thinking I should conserve some energy for the MTB time trial later in the afternoon. I wasn’t able to match Paul on this short track course, but I had a feeling that the time trial later in the day would be better suited to my strengths as there were no wide open flat sections where Paul could use his gears and superior flat-out power to ownerize me. And I could use my single-speed power up all the punchy hills and quick corners that peppered the track.
I skipped the short track podium to head home as quick as I could to eat some food, kick my feet up and relax a bit before the time trial.
MTB Time Trial – Pro Open
I love the MTB time trial. Being a former competitive skier (mogul competitions way back in high school and college, then big mountain free skiing events more recently), I’m pretty familiar with the anticipatory vibe and nervous energy that can build up in a gated start-house format (see here):
It’s always a shot of adrenalin when the rider in front of you goes off, and you have the next 30 seconds left to count down and get your last visualizations of the course straight in your head and mentally prepare yourself to just rip the crap out of whatever is in front of you.
There were only three of us in Pro Open class for the time trial. Paul Mach would go off first, then me on my single speed (34×15 gear 29’er), then Matt Obregon 30 seconds behind me. Last year in this event, I was able to put down the fastest overall time, and this year my goal was the same. So as Paul pushed off and pedaled away, I focused my thoughts on making up his 30 gap and catching him within the first few miles. I knew if I could do that, and he suddenly saw me on his tire, I might be able to get in his head a bit helping to neutralize some of his speed and power. “5 seconds Ron”. Yeah catch him. Don’t just beat him. Make up the 30 second gap. “3” Catch him. “2” Then pass him. “1”. Then I’ll have it. “GO!”
I love the feeling of jumping out of an individual starting “gate”. It reminds me of past skiing competition and puts me right into my happy place. The first mile or two of the time trial course is the most technical. There’s some rocky, narrow singletrack that I have a difficult time carrying momentum on my single speed so it can be very easy for me lose a lot of time here. Following the singletrack are a series of STEEP banked, switchback climbs that I need to punch at 110% to stay on top of my gear. Then after the steep switchbacks it’s a gradual straightaway climb which leads into a densely wooded tight singletrack section before hitting the wide open rollers and punchy ups and downs of the prison property proper. After gunning it up the steep switchback climbs, I already caught a glimpse of Paul’s helmet cresting the hill in front of me. He’s right there, it’s go time:
He’s in sight and doesn’t see me yet. Don’t’ let up, keep the power down, keep the power up, only a few more minutes of legs and lungs burning and you’re on his wheel. Don’t worry about Matt, just catch Paul. It freaking hurts. Stay on top of the gear. It HURTS!. Shut-up. It’s only 15 minutes of your life, suck it up, don’t let up, more power, less brake, DON’T brake, eyes up, elbows out, wait better brake there or you’re gonna fly off the damn course!, I said eyes UP, block out the searing, breathe. BREATHE.
As we crossed the 3rd bridge crossing and entered the prison property proper, I was 5 seconds behind Paul. I caught him, asked to pass, then moved around. We chatted briefly how fun this course can be to ride fast and we rode together for quite a bit. I led us around the majority of the course, but with one last steep puncher climb to go before the long downhill along the prison entrance road to the levee, I yielded to Paul and told him to feel free to get around me if he wanted as I was absolutely redlined trying to stay on top of my gear. He moved around, gapped me by about 10 seconds as he made the turn onto the downhill, and I had to put in my biggest dig of the day as I realized that this was a moment where I could lose the race. At the bottom of this downhill was the one flat section where Paul could really put his awesome power to work. And I knew my top speed on the flat levee would be limited by my 34×15 gear, thus it was the one threatening spot where I could lose those 30 seconds that I worked so hard to make up at the beginning. Once again, it was go time:
Head down and spin your ass off. Rap it hard. Then coast. Rap it hard. Then coast. Paul’s ahead but he’s pulling away. He just passed that gate. How far is the gap? Start counting. Spin hard. 5 seconds. Spin harder. 8 seconds. Oh crap don’t spin that hard. 10 seconds. Pass the gate. 15 second gap. That means I’m still virtually 15 seconds in the lead. He’s pulling farther way. Spin harder! No, wait, spin smoother. Shift. You idiot you can’t shift. Shit, spin harder AND smoother! Looks like a 20 second gap now. Shit. How much freaking farther is this damn levee! Oh there’s Frank standing on the side of the trail. He must be at the turn that signals the turn back onto the singletrack. This is almost over. Inside voice: “Hi Frank”. I can’t breathe. Frank yells “20 seconds”. I throw up in my mouth a little.
One last rocky climb to the rodeo and I dig hard again and absolutely punch it for all I’m worth with all I’ve got left. It sucked, but it worked, as I entered the rodeo infield only 10 seconds behind Paul. At this point, there was really only a minute or two of racing left so I knew all I had to do was manage this little distance between us and I have it. Punch the last pavement, sprint through the finish. Done. I’m done. Folsom Bike / Independent Fabrication takes the overall win with the fastest time of the day in the time trial. Paul Mach second. Matt Obregon third.
Day Three, Sunday – Elite 5 Circuit Race
At the start of the day on Sunday, I was in an interesting position: With a 4th in the time trial, and a win in the criterium, I was sitting in 1st Overall for the Elite 5 Road Omnium overall title by a margin of 13 points. At the same time, with my 3rd Place in the MTB Short Track, and the win in the MTB TT, I was tied with Paul Mach for 1st Place Overall in Pro Open in the MTB Stage Race with 38 points a piece. Oh man it would have been sweet to try and win the overall for both! But unfortunately, I had to make a choice as the Circuit Race started at 8:50 AM and the last race in the MTB Stage Race, the 24 mile Cross-Country started at 9:00 AM. Impossible to do both, so I went with the Circuit Race following through on my goal of trying to do something different this year.
With a nice 13 point gap in the overall Omnium standings, I felt I didn’t need to risk much in this race. It would be nice to try to win, but figured I would just need a top 10. Dave and Pat said that they were going to work for me to help keep me at the front of the pack and chase down any breaks. They did exactly as they said, and were a huge help in keeping me out of trouble, and telling me to back off from time to time and reminding me to let others drive the pace.
Photo by Alex Chiu
Race went smoothly, and with no successful breakaways it came down to a massive bunch sprint. Jon Hyatt from Bicycles Plus ramped up the pace HARD as we exited the last time through the tight round-about and led the charge around the last right-hand turn onto the finishing straight. Through this turn I think I was top 10 and just put my head down and started sprinting. I wasn’t really sure what was going on as I started passing riders but could also sense other riders moving up and passing me at the same time. The chaos of a bunch sprint. I crossed the finish line in 6th and just as I cross, I look up and see Dave just slightly ahead of me and off to the side. Dave nabbed a 3rd and earned a podium spot with a massive effort to sprint onto the podium coming from about 15th position through the last turn. And Pat ended up right on my wheel in 7th. Three Folsom Bike riders in the top 10 and my 6th place was enough to hang onto 1st Place for the overall Omnium win.
Felt damn good. 1st in the Elite5 Omnium and ended up in 2nd Overall in Pro Open for the MTB Stage Race. But like my crash at Prairie City at the beginning of this write up, I asked aloud, “How in the world did that just happen?”. Thanks for reading.
Photo by Kasea Hutchins: