Going in to the evening criterium for stage 4 of the Redlands Bicycle Classic, it’s not hard to think you’ve only made it half way though the race. The course is basically flat, but has more than a half dozen turns, screaming crowds, and a long finishing straight which can snap the chord to riders not up to the task. With Justin in the White Jersey, our pre-race team meeting was brief “it’s a crit”. Marc Pro – Strava’s Matt Chatlaong positioned himself in the break away in the 21 year old’s first NRC criterium. While the rest of us got sucked along in the Smart Stop-controlled field, we were stoked to see Matt Chat earn MPS some face time. The break eventually split up and Matt got reabsorbed into the field, but the excellent positioning and power was a good foreshadow of great things to come.
I don’t typically get nerves before races, but before the Sunset Road Race, I do. It is formulaic for the final day of an NRC stage race to be the hardest and Sunset does not disappoint. After a few hot laps on the criterium course the peloton rolls to the Sunset Loop. The ride to the loop could be the hardest part of the race, and if you check my Strava “power curve” you’ll see that my highest sustained powers were indeed at the start of the race. Last year I was not mentally prepared for this first surge so I was dropped on the second lap. This time, however, I positioned myself close to the front and focused on keeping a good wheel up the climb. Within the first two laps of 12 the 160-rider peloton had been reduced to about 60. With the mountains leader from Jamis/HB trying to attack and secure the jersey the first few laps were brutal. The weather was hot too which made the feed zone chaotic. Finally the field slowed slightly with about 7 to go as Smart Stop controlled a steady pace. I made sure to hand off bottles to Justin and keep him as close to the front as possible. With 4 laps to go, the speed increased again as the field started catching the break. Each time of the final 4 was on the limit, with riders cracking each time. I was had good legs so I managed to bridge gaps and keep Justin in the front group. Max Jenkins did the impossible by flatting on the course, getting a change, and chasing back on, but was probably weakened as a result (although he would not admit it). On the penultimate lap, I had to dig exceptionally deep to stay with the leaders, and I knew in the back of my head that the final lap was going to be off the charts. Sure enough on the final time though the climb, people were flying backwards and forwards. Justin was struggling so I dropped back to pace him back to the leaders. Through the KOM we were probably 30 seconds back with the field in sight but couldn’t close the gap as Bissel Devo counter attacked the break up front. Max dropped back to help and I handed Justin off to him, gave one last hard pull into the headwind and dropped anchor. In the end Justin and Max would pull the long way downhill back to Redlands and loose the white Jersey by only a few seconds. It was a bittersweet way to end the race, having lost the Jersey, but really excellent to contribute to the team effort and ride Sunset with the best in the country.