It was an amazing week in Arkansas at the Joe Martin Stage Race. The ELBOWZ Racing team had a successful event and accomplished one of its goals – an NRC win. We were also able to grab another couple spots on the podium with a second and third, as well as winning the Best Young Rider Jersey.
The Joe Martin Stage Race was my first big race since breaking my clavicle in a crash just a month an a half prior. My personal goals were to get my feet wet racing again, and help the other guys on the team maintain their GC positions and set them up for finishes.
The race started with a 2.5 mile uphill time trial. We have some very capable riders for an event like this, such as Heath Blackgrove, Joseph Schmalz, and Christian Helmig, and they didn’t disappoint. Joseph ended up 15 seconds back and got the Best Young Rider jersey. Christian was 19 seconds back. Heath mistimed the ride and was some 33 seconds back. With such a good showing in the time trial, the team knew we had a lot of options for the rest of the race. And as for myself, I knew my legs were good as I finished the time trial with a strong sprint at the end.
Friday’s stage was a 110 mile road race with some rollers, crosswinds, and a significant climb of nine miles between 70 and 80 miles in. We wanted to be active as a team and possibly be represented in the break. Personally, I was a little nervous about racing again after my injury and wanted the safety of being in the break. I put in some digs early on and was in a decent move containing some good engines, but it was swallowed back up, and then countered by a solo attack from Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies).
The peloton was happy with just one rider off the front so I was able to get recovered. Coming into the long climb, there was a select group that went early on the climb and sat about 20 seconds off the front. As the climb continued, I felt better and better, moving my way nearer the front. Towards the top, GC leader, Francisco Mancebo (Competitive Cyclist), lit up the front of the race and all the GC contenders were in the group, including my teammate Joseph Schmalz. I really wanted to be there with Joe and help him out in that group of eight or so. Coming near the crest of the climb, I was able to bridge across the gap and went straight tot the front, telling Joe to sit on and recover. I pressed on the gas and was only given help from an occasional rider or two from the break. I was hopping that the riders would see the opportunity to isolate Mancebo without his team, but 10 to 15 miles later, we were caught.
On the run into the finish, the pace picked up as the break had gotten a gap of near a minute. Sprinters teams took charge in making it a field sprint. In the final 10 K our team had 5 guys left: Christian, Sean, Heath, Joseph and me. At about 6 K to go, Christian came off the pace with some cramps. Then, about 1.5 K from the finish, there was a series of turns – right, left, right. This is where Heath pulled us through to the front, and then unfortunately he had a puncture, so he too came out of the group. The break was caught with about 1K to go on the first roller. At that point Sean was on the front and on the gas, and I was right on his wheel. He brought me to the final corner and I stood on the pedals and gave what I had to lead Joe to the finish. As I pulled off, I didn’t’ see Joe come by until about ten riders back. Somewhere in the chaos of the corners, he was bumped off my wheel losing position, finishing the race in ninth place.
Day three was a 115 mile road race on a 23.4-mile loop. Orders were for Joe and me to sit in and save it for the finish. Sparing the details of the entire stage, the race came down to a chaotic drag race to the finish. Leading into it, Bissell was all assembled at the front and hungry for the win. With 2 K to go, we were creeping up on their outside right. They seemed a bit nervous and aware of our presence and tried to squeeze us out on the curb. Unfortunately for them, they had a touch of wheels and a couple of them went down. We were all able to make our way through safely and then reassembled.
With the finish in sight, a slight rise greeted us. We kept the gas on, and I yelled to Joe, “Let me out! Let me out!” I opened up my sprint early, created a gap and kept it, taking the stage win. It was incredible. I’ve never felt so happy and so a part of a team. I knew that I could not have done it without those guys guiding me through the race and through the finish.
On tap for the last day was a criterium, considered one of the hardest in the country. I had actually competed in the Joe Martin Stage Race back in 2006, but never made it to the crit so I was excited to finally get my chance.
The crit course offered some really technical areas and some high-speed descents, which, as the race goes on and riders become fatigued, introduces some questionable riding decisions. With two laps to go, Sean was on the front keeping the pace up, as he had guided me up. Heath was with me on the final lap and brought me to the wheel of Eric Young (Bissell), the current USPRO Crit Champion. Young’s teammate, Andrew Dahlheim, drilled it on the bottom of the course all the way to the final corner. The finish was on an uphill headwind sprint. I had a little gap to close to Young, and as I did I immediately tried to come around him. I could only match him, but not get around him. Young took the win, but I finished second, getting a second podium finish in just two days.
It was an incredible weekend for the team, leaving us excited about the year and what else we may be able to achieve. I really feel lucky to be apart of this team. Both on the race course and off, the team gels together and has some of the best camaraderie I’ve been around. Everyone is willing to lay it on the line for each other to get the job done. No egos involved and such great times off the bike.
Author: Eric Marcotte