California, March 18, 2005
The week after returning from Chile's summer to Iowa's winter, I recovered in just four days from the head cold everyone was getting at the end of the race. We put our Ames house on the market, and as luck would have it the roof developed a major leak, which I had to arrange to have fixed. The water-damaged ceilings took me a few days to repair. An Arctic cold front socked in Iowa and I got out for a few 2 to 3 hour rides at wind chills of below 10 degrees F. I can't go to the first NRC races on two weeks zero training.
We are going to be a one-car family for the move and Dawn's job hunt. Not only am I totally buried (car dealers say "upside down") in the old Mercedes; I'm mildly sentimental about it. So the Saab has to go, which means spending a few thousand more to get the Benz into reliable daily driver condition. Between the Benz transmission, the unforeseen expense on the roof, the preseason Chile trip, and a major repair for the Asheville house, I could have budgeted better this spring. Ah, the difference between winning in Europe and winning in America! Just when I'm wondering why I spent nearly two decades in this sport, I read Joe Papp's Tour of Cuba entries on CyclingNews. Having read recently about high rollers in the European peloton and their lavish lifestyles, it takes Joe's superb writing to remind me of how good we Americans have it, and why I love cycling.
The Super 8 motel in Merced became our home for 12 days, with four NRC races in store and the unlimited mountain roads of Mariposa County at our doorstep. With this kind of magnificent terrain all around us, you have to wonder why all four races are pancake flat. One reason might be the condition of the roads. Many Americans take high quality infrastructure for granted. For two decades now, gas tax funds meant for highway and bridge maintenance have been robbed to fill gaps in the general state accounts. Imperceptibly the roads we all drive (or ride) on have worsened. Rural roads like those of Mariposa County are the worst off. Due to their extremely low traffic demand there isn't much call for keeping them up.
My favorite ride while in Merced heads east for an hour through flat orchards. From LeGrand you pick up White Rock Road. In four outings on this 50 kilometer long road, I never saw more than two vehicles per ride. At the county line the road narrows and the pavement becomes riddled with craters. Spring green foothills materialize out of the morning mist, and behind them in the faint distance you can see snow capped peaks marching north to south. The free-range cattle here aren't used to bikes and they will stampede at the least provocation. A creek burbles alongside and the landscape gradually adds stunted trees and piles of rocks. Spring flowers in yellow, white and purple line the road and I wonder how long it will be before my body reacts to the allergen antibodies which are undoubtedly building up in my system. At the 'pavement ends' sign the road becomes much easier to ride, the hard pack dirt is free of flat-causing gravel and now you can turn more of your attention from dodging holes to admiring the scenery. The ride just gets better from here: occasional farmhouses but no highways, utility poles, or subdivisions. Land prices are jumping 30 percent a year. As much as people in the know wished it were like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, the secret is getting out. With spectacular vistas and proximity to Yosemite, Mariposa is one of the last affordable and desirable places in California. Does anyone out there want to start a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) with me?
Time to race
The races went okay for us. It certainly wasn't a Health Net presented by Maxxis steamroller. This year will be very competitive. Not only Colavita but also Advantage Benefits, Jelly Belly, Subway, Symmetrics, Kodak/Sierra Nevada, TIAA-CREF, and Sea Silver are amongst the many teams gunning for us. It seems that Navigators is pursuing more of a European agenda this year. Good for them, I hope it stops snowing on their races soon. We'll just be thankful for competitive racing in the warmth and sunshine stateside, and hope that it prepares us well for the international fields we will face at Georgia and Philly week. On the upside, Merced and Fresno organizers gave us road races of 195 and 180 kilometers respectively. Race organizers take note: if you want a full pro/1 field, link up with other promoters to build a "mini swing" of your region and include long, hard races that are good prep for our biggest goals. Big prize lists and media exposure are good draws, but with high transportation costs it makes sense to send the vans, trailers, and riders out only if there is a full schedule of races to do. A good example is the Arkansas NRC races that bookend a critical buildup week to Philly.
Back to Merced/Fresno: We helped Gord take two out of four, while Colavita's JJ Haedo won the other two. The underground story is the friction between members of Health Net and Jelly Belly for a move that Dave McCook pulled in the finale of the Fresno road race. I didn't see it, but apparently Dave battled with one of our sprinters going into a tight right hand turn and couldn't make it. He went straight and effectively ran our guy off the road. Personally I like Dave McCook. He's absolutely a crazy bike racer and a controlled nutcase behind the wheel of a car, but he's a good guy. Anyway, his move cost one of our sprinters a chance to win, and thankfully it didn't end in a crash. There is tremendous pressure on us to win in Health Net's home state, and while Fresno isn't huge it is immediately preceding races that are more important to our sponsor. Even Lance makes mistakes, and I've made a ton myself. Most important is how we rebound from adversity. And rebound we did…
I didn't feel strong until the fourth race, a hard criterium in Fresno. While I sacrificed 30 minutes of warmup to try and get a front line start, it wasn't to be and by the time the gun went off I was in the back row. I didn't worry too much about it, since I was coiled up like a spring. Within two laps I'd passed 120 guys and set about attacking relentlessly. With all of us Health Net guys on the same page, we kept reshuffling the breaks until we had one that excluded our nemesis team Colavita. This is done by working hard any time they are absent from a move, while not contributing to any break that they have made. We got Sayers and Ollenrenshaw in the move of the day. The other guys in the break gave up working when Sayers started attacking. To anyone who would criticize Sayer's tactics, an easy response is: "where were you when Mike rode flat stick for 160 kilometers at Philly and San Fran last year? What? Sitting on? Okay then. No further questions, your honor."
It backfired for most of our opponents in the break. Some of them quit working and went from a guaranteed placing to nothing. From five to go we were driving the peloton hard, and at two to go I sold out everything to sweep up the dysfunctional breakaway going into the bell lap. Sayers slotted in to take a hard pull, then Mike Jones took over and got Wherry most of the way through the last lap. When Chris pulled off in the final corner, it was short work for Gord and Ivan to go 1-2. Chris was drifting back (he ended up 11th) and never heard the furious sounds of scraping metal behind him. My talented 20 yr old neo pro Ames friend Wes Hartman (Advantage Benefits / Endeavor) crashed hard while trying to make top ten. Concussion, stitches and a collarbone break were the unfortunate results, but Wes will benefit from time off after super hard preseason training in Arizona. To reiterate a golden rule of bike racing; when you aren't in contention for the podium, for God's sake take it easy and stay upright to race again another day. I realize it's much easier for a guy with a resume to say that than a youngster still trying to make a mark.
After a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam ride down to LA, we're installed into yet another motel. Like most California motels, it's built 30 meters from the freeway and the roar of traffic is much louder here than up in Merced. It's such that the team mechanics in the parking lot must shout to be heard. I'm so looking forward to home and then the Robertson's quiet Sunset Drive home in Redlands after nearly three weeks of motels.
Record-breaking winter precipitation means that the mountains surrounding the LA basin are completely white. Fifteen years ago, when I first came out here to race, the smog was so bad that you never saw them. Thanks to strict emissions controls and the fact that so few non-catalyst equipped cars are on the road nowadays, the smog is present but does not totally obscure the surrounding grandeur. With 10 million people squished together and a tangled spaghetti of omnipresent freeways interlacing all life here, it is a bit of a shock after Mariposa County. We had more road ragin' drivers buzz us in one ride here than in an entire week up north. Why anyone would want to live in an environment leading to so much daily stress is beyond me. The southbound freeway outside our motel window rarely exceeds 20 mph (30 km/h).
My roommate this week is Mike (facetiously "So Pro") Jones. We rode together up to the time trial climb. Due to mountainside erosion, this road has been under repair for two years now. A big sign bans bicycles from riding up here despite the perfection of the route for cyclists and the absolute quiet that zero traffic affords. Perhaps the road construction crews just don't want to slow down for cyclists while they are charging up and down the sinewy mountain during the five percent of the time that they are actually doing anything constructive. Check out www.soprojones.com for a great picture I took of Jones doing some damage of his own to the roadway. That broken bit of road is the reason that today's first stage of the San Dimas Stage Race (SDSR, formerly Pomona) had to be shortened from 8 to 3.8 miles. The safety nazis in charge of the mountain must think that we're absolute dummies, incapable of negotiating a lane and a half of perfect pavement around the problem. Oh well.
Email John at firstname.lastname@example.org