"Dude, calm down," said my team director, Jonas Carney, as I hobbled into the pit of the Redlands Bicycle Classic Criterium. I was angry. Only minutes earlier I had consumed a Clif caffeinated gel, and its effects were kicking in right when I had originally hoped. This shot of caffeine, combined with the onset of adrenaline from racing an NRC level crit was supposed to propel me to a strong finish. However, the concoction of caffeine and adrenaline, when mixed with the nausea brought on from slamming into a steel barrier at 30km/h, instead resulted in all my rational thoughts crawling into the most remote spaces of my brain.
"Where the f_*!k is Phil" I yelled, as I held my left side and grimaced from what felt like I had just been Shorykened by Ryu from Street Fighter. "Dude, you need to calm down," Jonas said. "Ok," I said, and looked down at my pinky finger, which had a piece of skin dangling from its side, and then said, "I think I am going to puke."
At the end of the fourth stage of the Redlands Bicycle Classic for a brief moment, I probably could have killed Phil Gaimon. Not a day earlier, Phil and I were cruising down Oak Glen Road on our bikes, with the sun on our faces, laughing it up. A day later, murdering him was an urge that crossed my mind. Emotionally, stage racing is a roller coaster, and the 2015 Redlands Bicycle Classic (RBC) was no exception to this theme.
After contracting bronchitis two weeks prior to RBC, and having my wife, Elly and training partner, Braydon Bourne, watch me sleep 15 hours a day, and mope around our rental cabin in Big Bear, California, I was worried that I would be little more than a wallflower at this race.
Getting sick in Big Bear sucked. With the great riding in the area, and the whole purpose of my stay in this mountain town being to train, getting sick there made me feel like an eight-year-old who gets sick at Disney Land. As Elly would return from a run, or when I would watch Braydon head out for a ride, I would entertain the idea of jumping on my bike, but then a yellow slug would come rocketing out of my lungs, and the sudden urge to take a five-hour nap would keep me relegated to the couch.
However, after a solid course of antibiotics, and some recon rides in the Inland Empire (Mt. Baldy for Tour of California, and the RBC stage 3 mountaintop finish) I started to get my legs back, and by the time we were making our way up the first climb of stage 1, I felt pretty much back to normal.
Stage 1 and 2 of RBC, for me at least, was relatively uneventful. I won a time bonus, and then lost all of that time bonus, and a lot more, the following day in the time trial. For our team though, stage 2 was a big success. Tom Zirbel won his second consecutive RBC TT, and Phil had a great ride to place himself second in the general classification, and well ahead of the other climbers in the field. Going into stage 3, a mountaintop finish, it would be the team's role to protect Phil and myself throughout the day, and when we hit the final climb, give us a lead-out. Once the climb started, my role would be to ride on the front with Phil in my draft, in an effort to drop as many GC threats as possible.
Fortunately, I had a good day, and after a lead-out from the boys, in the final 4.5km of the race, I set a tempo that I was pretty confident I could sustain, and hoped would be enough to whittle the field down to as few riders as possible. Each time I looked behind, I would see a few more riders falling back, and I would hear Phil on my wheel saying something motivating.
With less than a kilometre left in the climb, Gavin Mannion, a teammate of mine last year, attacked and Phil quickly followed. Not wanting to drag any riders across to Phil, who looked poised to win the stage, I watched the two riders go up the road. Then, Adrien Costa, a 17-year old kid, who will likely be making far more money next year than I was making at 18 (or 27 for that matter), attacked, and I got a free ride for the next 500m, and a front row seat to Phil attacking Gavin and charging to his first yellow jersey of the season. Having been able to draft Costa on the final portion of the ascent, I was able to kick past him, and catch Mannion before crossing the line.
I have seen tactics like these employed before in races on TV, but to have executed them, and reaped their rewards in the form of a one-two finish, was awesome, and a highlight in a season, that for me, has already been more than I could have wanted. So, as we cruised down Oak Glen road, still high from a win, and confident in the lead Phil had established in the GC, it was hard to imagine that not 24 hours later, I could have killed him.
Stage 4 of RBC, a crit through the town of Redlands, until four laps to go, was a blast. With Phil in yellow, and a team of experienced and talented riders supporting Phil and I in the GC hunt, I got to enjoy what a climber, such as myself, pines for every time they are thrown in a NCC crit because their DS thinks they need to work on their speed. I got to sit at the tail end of our team's pace train. As riders fought for my wheel, I got to ride the best line on each corner, in the wonderful draft created by my teammates. It was glorious, and I am willing to wager, that the energy that I expended over the course of this race was probably a quarter of what eventual stage 4 winner, Brendan Rhim, had expended. This level of efficiency, though, is mainly due to the fact that I spent the final four laps of this race sitting in the pit nursing my wounds, and piecing together what had just happened.
Going into the penultimate corner of this course, and coming up on four laps to go, in a fraction of a second, Phil's rear wheel, the wheel I was directly following, went from being at a 45 degree angle to parallel with the road. In that brief moment, where time seemed to move at the same pace as an NFL touchdown replay, I tried to dodge Phil's skidding bike and body. Since I was on Phil's outside, I had to choose whether to hit him, or try to squeeze through the ever-decreasing gap between Phil and the steel barriers. I rolled the dice, and did not make it. Man, I hit that fence hard. As stars twinkled in my vision, and my brain re-calibrated, I took stock of my wounds, and began to worry that the pain in my ribs, and the throbbing in my hand, would lead to missed days of training, and lackluster results in the races to come. I panicked, and Phil quickly became my scapegoat for my prognosticated failures in the RBC and later in the season.
Fortunately, Jonas was able to calm me down, and after a few moments, I was able to collect myself, realize my season was not over, and remind myself that in my grand tally of crashes due to someone else's fault versus crashes caused by me, this one did not come close to balancing the scales. Also, due to the new NRC rules, Phil, myself, and several other riders who went down in the crash, were given the same time as the field, as the crash occurred after the break had entered the final four laps.
With some bruised ribs, and bloodied pinky finger, I started stage 5 feeling pretty awful, and praying that my services would not be vital to Phil's defense of yellow. The final stage of RBC is considered to be the hardest day of this race, but, with all of my teammates; Tom Zirbel, Tom Soladay, Bjørn Selander, Jesse Anthony, Pierrick Naud, and Will Routley burying themselves in an effort to keep the pace high, and the breakaway from gaining more time than Phil held on the field, I was able to simply sit behind wheels and grimace as we hit each crack and bump in the road. Our team rode amazingly on the final day, and in the very brief moment that Phil was isolated, he proved why he was the strongest guy in the race.
Up next: Gila
Canada's Michael Woods is a former middle-distance runner turned road cyclist and he races for the US Continental outfit Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies. You can follow his blogs on Cyclingnews during the 2015 season, on his website: https://rustywoods.wordpress.com, and catch him on Twitter @rusty_woods.