It seems like it’s been an abysmal year for the American road racing calendar.
First, The Tour of the Gila showed record-low turnout rates for competitors in both the men’s and women’s field, with word getting around the peloton that the race organizer/owner was funding the event on his own dime and that it may not even happen in 2019.
Next, the Cascade Cycling Classic came to untimely doom before it even had a chance to showcase itself in its new four-day format early in the spring rather than in the middle of the summer.
Then came North Star Gran Prix, one of my biggest targets of the year, taken out by road construction and not enough time to build new courses.
It short, two of the biggest stage races left in the country were dead, in conjunction with a handful of the NorCal classics that made up the bread and butter of our team’s local racing schedule.
The consistent refrain that most American cyclists have uttered this year has been, “Dude, road cycling is dying,” followed by a sigh. Maybe a couple of tears. A sob here and there. RIP. Ashes to ashes, am I right?
I was frustrated more than anything else, as this meant that what I thought would be a jam-packed racing schedule from April well into late-August had suddenly been chopped in half, and by the time I finished Redlands in early May, I was staring down the barrel of potentially another two months off from racing.
But then thanks pretty much entirely to the effort of teammate and local stud, Quinten Kirby, and his tremendous 8th place finish at the Dana Point Gran Prix, the team qualified for its first outing at USA Cycling Professional National Championships, in Knoxville, Tennessee.
So three of us, Quinten, Gavin, and I, shipped ourselves and our bikes out to Washington, DC, from which point my dad drove us to Sterling, Virgina, where would meet up with Justin Mauch and his dad, who was amazing enough to drive us all down, with our bikes in their trailer, to Knoxville.
All in all, for the Californians, it was a long endeavor to try and make our mark in the Pro ranks, but, spoiler alert, I would say it was well worth it.
Day 1: The Time Trial – Oak Ridge, Tennessee
There was not that much to say about today, other than it was one of hot and cold emotions. Justin, one of the first to go off, was having a great day and was poised for a fast time on the course when an untimely flat and a miscommunication with his dad in the follow car left him stranded in the middle of the eleven-kilometer loop about three kilometers from the finish. To add insult to injury, it was pouring rain as he waited for a ride back (but, if I do say, it made for one amazing photo that I believe went minorly viral).
I would ride a technically conservative race, not wanting to take chances on the u-turns in the course, of which there were three per lap, making for nine total over the thirty-three kilometers. I clearly lost time on each of the turnarounds, having to downshift to a super-low gear and brake early enough so that my carbon rims could slow down in time in the rain, but I was simply glad to stay upright.
The flat/super-punchy nature of the course ended up suiting me extremely well, and I would roll through the finish to solidify 10th place and best amateur finisher, arguably the biggest result of my cycling “career” (if you can call it that) to date, and the most excited I had been over an effort in a really long time.
Day 2: The Crit – Downtown Knoxville
Watching the women before the start of our race, I was getting anxious. Knoxville weather is particularly temperamental coming from a place like SoCal, where if the weather is anything less than 72 and sunny, it becomes a topic of conversation for the duration of the ride. “Can you believe this bullsh*t” is a phrase you’ll often hear on the coastal highways of San Diego where I live when someone spots a cloud.
Luckily the weather got its act together before our race, and we were able to avoid going over the crosswalks of death that are a course-feature slip and slide whenever even a little bit of drizzle gets on them. You know the kind I’m talking about.
I hate those crosswalks and everything they stand for.
Mauch must’ve had an extra shot of espresso with his high-octane gasoline that afternoon because he would not let up, throwing a volley of attack after attack and stringing out the field like a man running from the police (I cannot confirm nor deny whether this was actually the case).
I would throw in an attack of my own and would even get off solo for two laps. My saddle had slipped at that point and my buttcheeks were on fire, but being by yourself off the front of a course is always special. The sound of everyone else breathing hard, yelling, and the gun-shot clicking of their bikes shifting gears usually drowns everything else out, but in a last-ditch effort to get away alone, you have the pleasure of getting to hear everything the spectators yell at you.
“I LOVE YOUR MUSTACHE” was a popular one, which made me feel good and manly, since I only started being able to grow facial hair a couple years ago.
My solo parade through downtown Knoxville was quickly brought to a close, however, as I was reeled in and absorbed back into the peloton.
The course itself was a fast and hilly one, with juuuuust not enough technicality to allow a breakaway to actually break away, and upon realizing that this crit would inevitably end in a sprint, I sat in and waited until it was time to help Quinten to the front.
Two laps to go, I tried my best to shepherd him through the wind on the hill and the subsequent downhill through the finish line going into one lap to go. I would continue to pedal during the hill on the next lap until I literally couldn’t anymore and popped off just near the top as the contenders motored their way around me, with Quinten hot on their heels.
He would go on to finish in 8th, the second top-ten for the team in as many days.
Day 3: The Rest Day
We woke up, ate breakfast, spun a bit, and took a fat nap. I love rest days between big races because it’s one of the few days in which I barely ride my bike, but good practice dictates you still get to eat a lot to help recover from the previous day and prepare for the following one.
Fine by me. Where are the leftovers?
Day 4: The Road Race
I’ll preface this with the anecdote that was overhead from veteran domestic pro rider, Ben Wolfe, after the race was done, in which he acknowledged that this was the hardest US Pro Nats road race in his recent memory.
I can concur. Quite difficult.
From the gun, it was on, and the course itself, a winding circuit that passed through downtown Knoxville (on the same finish as the crit course, actually) and the surrounding neighborhoods did not provide many points for active recovery. Less than five minutes into the race we were on Clinch Hill, a knee-grinding, square-pedaling uphill drag, topping out at around eighteen percent at its steepest gradient, and the course’s defining feature.
Following Clinch Hill was Davenport descent, one of the fastest descents I’ve ever done in a race. Over the course of only 20-30 seconds of descending, I was able to hit the fastest speed I had ever gone on a bicycle at the time, which was 57 mph. The best part about that hill was a dip in the road at the bottom of its first section. With every descent, the G-Force built up from nearing terminal velocity combined with slamming into the dip forced my taint into my saddle so hard that I a) thought I was going to snap my frame, and b) was forced to question whether I was doing damage to my nether-regions.
Answer to the latter: of course I was! Oh well. All in the name of a result. (It would turn out later it was a little painful to pee, but it was so worth it. O! The glory of youth.)
Another interesting feature of the course was it brought the peloton out and back along the James White Parkway, a fascinating example of Tennessean urban expansion left unfulfilled. It’s a highway that literally goes to nowhere. You head out on what looks like a perfectly normal road, with three lanes on either side of a grass median, but then it just ends, the rest of the road consumed by the surrounding encroaching tree-line.
It was this turnaround at the tree line that allowed everyone in the peloton to know exactly where they were relative to everyone else, for you could see the breakaway and chase groups coming from the opposite direction before you made the turnaround.
By lap three, the race had exploded, with a break of 20, a chase of 30, and gruppetto of 50 all at different points along the road. I distinctly remember Justin riding up next to me and saying very calmly and matter-of-factly, “I think we’re in the gruppetto.”
“What? No. Look how many people there are here.”
“Yeah, but look up ahead.”
Well, shoot, would you look at that. Sure enough, we were in the gruppetto, and it would be a long next couple of laps of the group raging through the course to try and catch the riders up the road.
I had followed a couple moves here and there, but about 9 laps into the 15-lap race of the 12.5-kilometer circuit, Neilson Powless of LottonNL-Jumbo attacked to bridge to the break. I figured that in the group I was with (an assortment of current and former WorldTour riders and Pro-Conti and Conti riders from some of the best domestic programs in the country) there was no chance I was going to do any better than last place from the group even if I did play it conservatively, so I said to myself, in as many words, “F–k it,” and attacked and tried to bridge across.
For the second time that weekend, I was out alone and was able to enjoy some quality time by myself.
And then it started raining.
And then there was lightning.
It all felt so dramatic and exciting, especially when a moto-official came up to me carrying a TV camera and got about ten inches from my face and began to film. I knew that this was going on a livestream somewhere, and it would end up on the local news later that night. I had to play it cool. I had to look like I was barely working (when in reality I was tamping down dry-heaves).
But what did I do instead? I looked directly into the camera, smiled a big dumb smile (the look only a person who majored in two humanities degrees and is currently faking his way through adulthood can manage) and waved. You know, like an idiot.
I don’t know why I did it. I don’t even know if anybody saw it. But I think I had made a promise to myself that if ever a camera did get in my face when I was racing my bike on account of me doing something that the TV directors thought worthy of portraying, I would at least give my parents a symbolic wave, just to let them know, if not in person then certainly in spirit, that despite being deep in the paincave, I was still out here doing what I loved.
I’ll spoil the end and just let you know that I did not catch the break. I, in fact, got caught by the chase and was promptly ejected out the back and pulled early and finished 23rd. But I once again finished as best amateur and was proud of how I and the team had ridden throughout the day, and throughout the weekend.
But the greatest takeaway from the weekend was not results. It was not the satisfaction of knowing Gavin, Justin, Quinten, and I had ridden our keesters off. No. It was the photo below.
Quinten is my hero. Nothing like cracking open a cold one with the boys.