It’s been a little under a week since I completed my first Copperopolis, and I’m still managing to find tiny little asphalt bits in places I didn’t even know existed. I guess that’s why they call it asphalt. Get it? Because it gets stuck in your butt, and the the suffix “-phalt” is homonymous with “fault,” which is another word for “crack”?
The point of that joke was not to make you laugh (though I hope it did), but rather force you to mutter to yourself, “God this is awful,” which is what I found myself saying all throughout the race. It’s hard to receive an empathic response from readers who have never completed this event, but I’m trying my best to put you in the mindset.
Touted as the “Paris-Roubaix of California” in some circles, Copperopolis Road Race doesn’t actually occur in Copperopolis proper, but rather a neighboring town, Oakdale, which is slightly southwest of the race’s namesake.
The course itself is brutal 35-kilometer long loop (to be completed five times) laden with various two- to three-minute long rollers, a main climb that about ten to fifteen minutes long, and some of the worst pavement taxpayers can marvel to see on their roads.
The most characteristic feature of this race, however, is not necessarily the crappy pavement, but rather the areas in which said crappy pavement was intended to be fixed. Instead of being completely re-paved, the road itself now appears a mish-mash of bone-chattering farm road punctuated by hundred-meter stretches of buttery smooth tarmac. The stark transition between the two is like when you’ve managed to get your shower water to be the perfect temperature, and you’re reveling in the pleasures of just standing there letting the warm stream massage your head, and then BOOM! Someone takes a big ol’ poop and has to flush the toilet and you are suddenly being boiled alive.
In between these longer stretches of tarmac are the real gems, which are the patches of asphalt meant to fill in the potholes that would otherwise eat wheels. From these, riders can really get the best feel for the road simply because it’ll fly up right in your face and eventually end up in your mouth, to add some extra crunchy industrial granola to your energy bar.
The main break of the day would go after a couple kilometers into the second lap. The group would contain Dillon Hollinger and Stephen Vogel from Mike’s Bikes, Zach Morvant from Dolce Vita Freewheel, Tim McBirney of Cycle Sport, and my teammate Gavin Murray.
Gavin has been having a great season, with a win at Bariani Road Race and a second place finish in the road race at Chico Stage Race, to name a few standout results as of late, so I was completely content to let the group go. The composition was right, and pretty much all the teams that had numbers on their side were represented, so the peloton and I appeared in agreement.
A couple flyers attempted to go up the road, but the Mike’s Bikes crew marked everything, and eventually everyone settled down and began petitioning for a pee break.
The pee break would never come, however, for on the second lap we rolled by Tim McBirney of Cycle Sport at the side of the road attempting to fix a flat, which meant that his team was no longer represented in the break. With six guys starting the race, they had the horsepower to start driving the pace, which they promptly did, sending their team to the front.
The effort would soon gas a lot of their riders, however, and they slowly fell back into the pack, which began to settle down again. At this point, one of their riders, Jackson Duncan, attacked, with Cam Bronstein of Mike’s artfully glued to his wheel. They would eventually catch the break.
I, however, was caught within the group when Jackson went, and was unable to respond. Luckily, I was still optimistic, as I still had a teammate in the break…or so I thought.
In the final kilometers of the fourth of five laps, I was neatly behind riders trying not to eat wind, the peloton now having been winnowed down to half the number of starters, when I suddenly saw Gavin at the side of the road.
My next series of thoughts should come with a preface: on lap one, my saddle had slipped to a degree in which the tip was almost parallel with the seatpost, so for the majority of the race I was in agony, unable to find a comfortable position to sit, and fighting to keep my knees from imploding and struggling to avoid opening up the saddle sore on my inner thigh–already deeper than the Mariana Trench–anymore than it already had been. So the long and short of it was that I was exhausted, angry, and just a couple more bumps in the road away from being torn in half.
So when I saw Gavin at the side of the road, holding his hand up in the peace sign, it didn’t register to me that he was just casually saying hello while he fixed his flat as we passed by, but rather I thought he was telling us he had placed second.
“Oh cool, I think Gavin got second!” I said out loud to the group. The ones within earshot turned to me, and as if in sympathy for how dumb I was, spoke in the tone one uses when explaining to a child that the math they did was wrong, and that two plus two is not in fact five.
“Actually, dude, I think he just flatted out. I mean, think about it. We’re on the other side of the course. How could he have finished the race, then made his way over here to tell us that?”
This was a sad moment for me, not only because I keep managing to one-up myself with the genuinely stupid things I do on the bike (re: attacking in a stage in the Dominican Republic thinking that there was five kilometers to go instead of forty), but also because this meant that I now had to chase.
I attempted to rally together (wait for the pun) Evan Huffman of Rally Cycling (HA!) and Cooper Shanks of Dolce Vita, whose teammate had been dropped from the break and caught long before, but our organization fell apart, and going into the last lap and the last main climb, it just became a matter of attrition. The already small group we had would be winnowed down yet again to just four riders left after break: Chris Reikert and Aria Kiani of Mike’s Bikes, RJ Pearce of Cycle Sport, and me.
Having caught and dropped Jackson Duncan, our impression was that there were now three Mike’s Bikes riders up the road and that we were riding for minor places. We then sat up, realizing nobody would be catching up anytime soon and started chatted, just waiting for the dang interminable race to finish.
Reikert would attack several times, but we all held on, and we would arrive into the last three kilometers of the race together, realizing that it would be a sprint for fourth, and we may as well relax until then.
And then we saw Dillon. Gosh dangit.
It’s true what people had told me about this race: that it all boiled down to attrition and simply who could keep pedaling their freakin’ bike. Lo and behold, Dillon ended up being one of the casualties of the cumulative fatigue and had been dropped from the break as well, and we promptly passed him right before the final three-minute roller that led into the descent.
Aria and RJ had been chatting behind me and Reikert as we passed Hollinger, and I could see Reikert thinking it over and finally he called to his teammate behind him to lightly explain the situation: “Hey Aria. Shut up, let’s race bikes. Third is up for grabs.”
And race bikes we did. Aria would throw some haymakers up the riser, but RJ and I would reel him in and we all would arrive to the bone-chattering descent together. At one point, Reikert would get a bit of a gap on me on the downhill that I would have to make up for on a tiny kicker leading into the last kilometer, but with 300 meters to go, we were all together.
Aria struck first. He accelerated out of his saddle coming past us on our left. I could hear Reikert cry out, “GO ARIA! DON’T STOP BABY, JUST GO!!” I stalled in reacting, but to my luck, so did RJ, who I knew could easily outsprint me. Thankfully, his moment’s hesitation played perfectually to my advantage, as I was able to get a good bit of acceleration in the slight dip that led to the finishing kicker. The extra weight I had on RJ would pay dividends, as I was able to carry my momentum through the uphill, getting a gap on RJ and passing Aria, who was steadily becoming bogged down in lactic from his effort.
I would cross the line for third, with Stephen Vogel taking the win and Cam Bronstein finishing right behind him.
If you want to see some data from the race and the course itself, check out my strava activity link.
Photo credit goes to the wonderful Alex Chiu (instagram @acaurora). If you wish to see more photos from the 2018 Copperopolis Road Race, please visit his webpage. As always, support your local photographers and their amazing work!