By Travis McCabe (Elbowz)
Tulsa Tough is a race that a lot of racers look forward to each year, and this year was no exception. I think it is safe to say that Tulsa Tough is our favorite race of the year, and with Eric winning on Cry Baby Hill last year we were coming into the race with high expectations. I was excited to have a full squad, since it would be the first NCC series where we would have everyone. After racing the Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic, we all knew how much firepower we had and we were wanting to show it off the crowd. We all knew how difficult it would be to line up against United Healthcare and take on such a powerful and efficient team, but we were up to the challenge and confident in each other’s abilities.
Friday night’s race around the Blue Dome district in downtown Tulsa tends to tell the same tale each year. It’s a blazing-fast, 8-corner course that ends with a sprint finish. Our plan was to try and initiate a breakaway, forcing UHC to work off a couple of their guys, and then, with 1.5 laps to go, try to jump their train and have Eric lead me out into the sprint. Of course, racing is always easier said than done. We stayed quite active throughout the race, grabbing the major primes trying to initiate a breakaway, which we eventually did. It was a solo break by one of our Liwi strongmen, Logan Hutchings. Having one guy off the front was great for coverage for the team, but it didn’t quite put any fear into UHC.
It became evident that the rest of the field was content with fighting for each other’s wheels behind the UHC train instead of playing some other cards. When so many people are fighting for only a few wheels the race becomes very dangerous, and this race proved no different. Crashes were consistent throughout the one-hour race with the game changer coming with 3 laps to go. On the 2nd corner someone pushed his luck just a little too far and what seemed like half the field went down. Caught in the crash were 3 of my teammates, leaving only Eric (who was one of the last riders to make it) and me to fend for ourselves. The next two laps were so fast that it was difficult to make up any ground. I was content with sitting top 10 and finished 9th in the sprint with Eric 23rd. UHC once again swept the podium.
After Friday night’s race it was apparent that no teams wanted to initiate a serious breakaway, so we took it into our own hands to make the race as hard as we could. Our plan was to launch at least 2 guys in any move and save me for the sprint if it came down to it. Right away, a group of four men were off the front with one of them containing team captain Heath Blackgrove. Shortly after, two more bridged across. This time we had our breakaway specialist Eric Marcotte joining Heath in the break. It was only a matter of 10-15 minutes before it was just the two of them working together to stay away. The two of them quickly established a 40-second gap on the field and were able to sustain the space for the majority of the race. Even when the gap was at 40 seconds there were multiple attacks from the other amateur teams who were dismally trying to bridge across, instead of sitting back and forcing United to work and bring the two back. Once United organized at the front, it took them multiple laps before a dent was put into the 40-second gap of Eric and Heath. At one lap reading the two had only 28 seconds, but within a few more laps the gap was back up to 32 seconds. For those few laps there was hope that they might stick it, or at least wear United down enough to the point where there would be a chance to jump what was left of them at the end. Then, for reasons unknown, another team came to the front to assist UHC. Instead of four men working to bring back the two, there was 6-7. Our chances went out the window at that point and I was in position and preparing for the field sprint. Eric and Heath’s brave attempt to steal a victory was crushed with 4 laps to go and the fight to sit behind the Blue Train was on. On the last lap, I managed to latch onto one of the UHC riders’ wheel and I was sitting 6th position. Unfortunately, a gap opened up into the last corner and I was forced to sprint to hold 5th place.
The team was a little disappointed by the outcome of the race, but we were also grateful to become fan favorites at Tulsa and we were now even more determined to place on the podium at Sunday’s marquee event. Again, the plan from the start was to race aggressively and initiate a break, ideally saving me and Eric for the end. But with the energy of the crowd, I became a little too excited and attacked the field, bringing along only one other rider. We worked together smoothly until 3 more bridged across. With 5 of us working together we began to gain time on the field. Primes began to be thrown our way, which created a bit of chaos in the break and eventually we lost the three that bridged across. With only two of us left and less than 8 laps to go, we did our best to stay off the front and I tried to grab as many crowd primes as I could on top of Cry Baby Hill. It was only 6 bucks, but it was the most rewarding $6.00 I have ever received! We were brought back in by the blue train once again with 4 laps to go, so I did what I could to recover and found Eric and the rest of the team as quickly as I could. Coming into the final climb up Cry Baby Hill, I knew Eric was on my wheel, so I gave it whatever I had left to get up and over the climb, dropping him off onto Karl Menzies’ wheel. I left it up to him to fight for position from there. I fell back and tried to just follow wheels so I could still finish in the money. Eric finally broke the podium sweep of UHC and finished 3rd. I finished 9th and ended up 5th in the omnium.
At the end of this weekend I think we are all happy with our results and grateful that we were all able to keep the rubber on the pavement…well, except for Andres Diaz, he managed to crash on the climb up Cry Baby Hill! (amateur move!) Hats off to United Health Care. Those guys are truly professional racers and have criterium racing down to a “t”. We had such an amazing time in Tulsa, on and off the bikes, that we are all looking forward to racing it again in 2014! By far my favorite race of the year thus far!