Joe Martin Stage Race, May 18-21st, Fayetteville, AR
Day 1 of Joe Martin was a 111k road race with a climb up Devil’s Den in the middle, a 3.75k segment with seven switchbacks followed by another 4-5 rolling ks. Going into the race, I was really nervous because the field had 117 starters, just a handful smaller than Redlands. We were a team of five, three Orion and two guest riders doing their first ever stage race. I tried to impart as much wisdom as I had (not much) to make them feel less nervous while internally freaking out myself. Our only goal was to stay safe, learn, and rely on each other when we could for support. I had done this race last year and recalled what I could to pass on the relevant information. We were self-supported without staff or a follow car so we had to plan our race transport, set-up, and gear accordingly. Luckily, there's always neutral tech support at these events and we've become good friends in the last couple of years.
As the field rolled out for a 2k neutral, I heard someone's tire hiss not even 30 seconds in. The field slowed to a crawl. The officials were waiting for the rider to rejoin since we were still in neutral. Flats were going to be the theme of the day and the race as a whole. Finally, the red flag was down and we were racing. I positioned myself on the right side mid-pack because while there was a rolling enclosure for the field, we were on a single-lane road and still had oncoming traffic. The cars had to stop for us, but they didn’t always have the space to pull off on the side so the field was in constant in-and-out movement on the left. The course rolled up and down for the first hour or so and coming up at 37k was a fast 5k descent with a couple tight corners. That's where I lost time and burned matches last year because I was caught off guard chit-chatting in the back when the speed picked up and the pack pulled away. I chased back on, but began the climb up Devil’s Den last and gassed and even though I passed a good chunk of riders, I never connected with the front group. I didn’t want to make the same mistake this year so kept an eye on the passing ks and stayed with the field.
(start of the Devil's Den climb)
After the climb, I was in the second chase group and we worked to chase the front of about twenty riders with a 20-30 sec gap. One peculiar thing about some riders from bigger teams is their habit of telling others to pull without any of their own contribution. One of those riders was shouting from the back we needed to close the gap, otherwise we’ll lose time on GC and never see the front again. Who would have thought. We did close the gap, (no thanks to our cheerleader) and rolled easy for a bit as a group of about 30 riders. I took the time to catch up on water from neutral support and relaxed. In my mind, this was the group that was going to make it back first. Granted, I was only drawing that conclusion from last year’s race because my own chase group never bridged so I was relieved thinking this was it. The remainder of the course was mostly flat with some rollers and a sprint finish which is safer with a smaller group. My relief was dashed about 20 minutes later when the second group of about 40 riders bridged. There went my imagined peaceful rest of the race. After we turned off the wide highway onto a single lane, the road went up and the field strung out. I pushed as hard as I could as once again, I had to cover more ground from the back. Splits were happening and I wanted to make it back with the front so bad. Fast downhills followed, I focused on taking good lines, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Florence, a friend from the Cardinal Classic team, come down hard. It looked bad, not like something someone could get up from and finish the race. There wasn’t a string of riders behind her, but I heard brakes. Crashes happen so fast and there's not much to process in the moment, but to keep going if you weren't involved. She eventually rejoined torn up and bloody, and besides looking like she’s been to war and back, I was relieved she seemed okay. After the road flattened I was solo chasing the front, but a train of riders quickly caught on. This is where I get yelled at to keep working and pulling again to close the gap while the rider refused to pull through. Pros are so funny sometimes. A couple other riders joined my efforts and we rotated to finally close the gap and were back together with 15k to go.
Since our group was huge again, I decided I was going to focus on just crossing the finish line safely. However, with 2k to go, something happened at the front and we were all crashing. I had nowhere to go but into the pile of crashed riders, which was somewhat of a soft landing. My foot was stuck in someone's frame and from the way the rider was yanking on her bike to get it free made me think she was out to finish the job the crash didn’t. There were riders down across the width of the road, a small group kept rolling unaffected while the rest were untangling themselves off the ground, holding on to their elbows, shoulders, sitting down on the sides, groaning, and inspecting their bikes. According to my TrainingPeaks, the mass pile-up happened while we were doing 32 mi/hr. Since our group was inside the last 3k of the race, the 3k rule applied. We all got the same finishing time so people rolled at their own pace. The day left much to be desired with a crash that size and later finding out some riders broke bones and went to the hospital. Our riders made it relatively unscathed, Mairen and I were in the front group, but weren't injured. Erika was in a second group and unaffected by the crash. Cheyenne, unfortunately, suffered a flat, but neutral support was ahead so she had to fix it herself and chase back on, and Catherine didn't make time cut.
Day 2 of Joe Martin was a road race running opposite of day 1 descending Devil’s Den instead of climbing it with an added climb up Mt Sequoyah at the end. The weather looked bad, it stormed all night and was still raining in the morning. Our start times this year were moved from 11am to 1:30pm and while that wasn’t ideal, by the time we lined up, the rain stopped and roads began drying out, lucky us. I was super nervous about this day. Last year I had a bad crash in the first switchback down Devil’s Den and had a concussion that prevented me from training and racing. I didn’t preview the descent, only noted the dangerous switchbacks on my stem notes starting at 48k, but didn’t anticipate how quick the first tight, right-hand u-turn, came up. It was a bit of a blind corner and I was on the inside on the approach going 42 mi/hr. As soon as we rounded and there it was, I panicked, grabbed my brakes, and my front wheel washed out. Apparently I screamed, but I don’t remember. I do, however, remember how my head bounced off the pavement and thinking I’ve had to have cracked the helmet. As mentioned, we’re a small team, we don’t have support staff that goes to races with us, let alone a team doctor. I only had minor road rash (and later a ginormous bruise on my hip) and wanted to finish the race because I felt fit and didn’t want to miss out. I got back on my bike and kept going.
(visible injury from last year's crash) (invisible injury-cracked helmet)
I set all sorts of power PRs chasing back on, but never saw the front again. Later that night, I developed a headache and my head felt hot. I ate a pint of ice cream to induce a brain freeze and it kinda worked. I finished the rest of the race which in hindsight, I shouldn’t have. I then went home and resumed training too soon and made it worse. By the time I felt like pressure was no longer coming back, I was second guessing every peculiar and ‘out of place’ feeling I had while riding. The pressure was gone by cross season, but came back when I caught COVID in October. This concussion had a hell of a run so this year I previewed the living day out of the descent to be ready. Starting on Sunday when I got to Fayetteville and every day till Wednesday, day before the race, I was doing my easy rides and openers up and down and around Devil’s Den. The goal was to be able to descend the climb in my sleep and I got pretty good at it.
(selfie with the crash corner during preview)
I held my breath approaching the descent, hoping the field slows enough that it doesn’t catch anyone by surprise and luckily, the first switchback went without incident. I was farther towards the back again, but was passing people in the corners while they were going wide. I was so excited it was going well and I was moving up. And then I felt it. The dreaded feeling of the rim coming in contact with the pavement. I had a rear flat. At least it was a sudden one and not a slow leak which is what took Florence out the day before. I stopped and threw my hand up for neutral support. There went my hopes and dreams of having a decent race once again. Last year a crash, this year a flat. I set off chasing after neutral swapped the wheel, but never made contact. By the end I spent almost two hours on my own and lost 18 minutes.
(solo chase, 10k to go)
I wasn’t gaining that time back in the remaining two days even if I somehow won both because all we had left was a 5k time trial up Devil’s Den (I’m starting to think they really like that segment), and a 50 minute criterium. Because I was so far back, there were no official moto bikes or commissaire cars. A good handful of times I wondered if I made a wrong turn and let off the pace. I kept my eyes extra open for race related signs because it was traffic as usual, but luckily, my teammate Catherine (time cut the day before and stood in the feeding zone for us), eventually caught up and drove behind me with her hazards flashing. That made me feel so much safer and from sign to sign I made it back. Climbing up Mt Sequoyah I also had a brief identity crisis. I was having to zigzag to make it up the steep gradient (maxes out at 28%) and was just so on the limit. On the limit I could understand, I pushed hard trying to catch up, but to zigzag? Turns out, the neutral wheel had a much smaller cassette (a 28t according to Catherine) while I ride a 34 cuz I like my knees. I was glad that wasn't the case and the day was finally over. Everyone else on the team also finished before me safe and sound without any mechanicals. And then as soon as we stopped racing the rain picked up, at least the weather had perfect timing.
Day 3 was a 5k time trial up Devil’s Den with rolling last 2k. Warming up I felt relatively okay and planned my pacing strategy. Last year I got a time of 12:14 and averaged 295 watts. I thought I’d start out around 280 this time and pick it up over 300 towards the end. While clipped in waiting for my green light, I pedaled backwards to reposition my feet and my chain dropped into the small chainring. With 15 seconds to go I unclipped, picked up my back wheel, and spun the crank forward to transfer the chain back to the big chainring. Last five seconds were relatively calm and I had a good start.
Uphill time trials are my favorite. Nobody two inches from your wheel and it’s just you against the clock. I went out fast and basically threw my pacing strategy out the window. It’s hard to pace for such a short effort and I’m yet to master the art. I settled on pushing as hard as I could and didn’t feel like I was fading until I got to 2km to go which was the fast downhill into a 1 km drag to the finish. I allowed a few seconds of rest and picked up my pace again. Because I lost so much time the day before, I was far lower on GC and started earlier since time trials run in reverse GC order. I caught two people which gave me extra motivation to not fade as they were carrots I was chasing that I could actually catch. This time, I averaged 285 watts and had a time of 12:19, 37th on the day with winning time being 10:58. I felt pretty good about my TT performance, but was frustrated about the first two days as a whole. Barring any disasters, the GC is set after the road races so I was ready to get the last day over with along with the next 52 weeks so I can come back and give the race another go.
Crit day! Except not all happy and excited, more like dreading and crying. Though last year I actually enjoyed this crit. A 1.2 mile long course with a couple weaving corners, a fast, wide descent, and an equally wide punchy hill finish, nothing too technical. I felt fit and the repeated efforts seemed easy so I hung back and let the crit enthusiasts have their day (though did develop a headache towards the end).
This year though, the field was 95 riders strong and with every stage race thus far, everyone just seemed so much faster and fitter. We hypothesized it was either thanks to the forced break from racing during COVID and/or people doing a ton of secret training while in lockdown with 'Eye of the Tiger' on repeat. I was busy recovering from the insomnia/anemia combo from overtraining in 2019 so am a bit late to the ‘having raging fitness’ party.
Warming up my legs felt tired and I was not looking forward to lining up. Sad to say, mentally I was checked out and halfway home. Literally with at least half an hour to start, riders were lined up at the course entrance while a different field was still racing. They were willing to trade warm-up time for good positioning and it made sense. Moving around 95 riders on a short course is really hard. You can spend the time getting in a good warm-up, but have a bad starting position because you didn’t camp out and burn matches moving up, or you can let the body cool down, have a good starting position, and grit your teeth through the first few laps while your body gets used to the all-out accelerations. I definitely did not win the race to the start line. I didn’t want to race at all because I was tired so let myself self-sabotage instead of doing what I could to better my chances. As the race got going and the field stretched out I knew I wasn’t going to see the mid-pack, let alone the front. While I was rounding the corner to take the downhill, the front was already taking the next turn 3 blocks down. People were dropping and opening gaps and I was playing a losing game closing them. We had 16 laps and at around 10-11 I was on my own, unable to bridge anymore. With every lap after I hoped the official would wave me off the course, I was so miserable. Eventually, two other riders joined, but we weren’t waved off course till 3 laps to go. What a drastically different experience compared to last year. I kept reminding myself I didn’t have an easy race leading up, there were 30 more riders in the crit compared to last year, and I hadn’t spent half of 2021 worrying about my head. Still though, I left feeling disappointed because even though I didn't want to race, I could have helped myself position well. Luckily though, my teammates successfully finished their first stage race excited to be back next year and Catherine won the omnium in the cat 2/3 after her unfortunate Day 1 time cut. Disappointments aside, I can't wait to be back next year either and put all I've learned to practice and finally have the race I want.