A Dream Realized: 40-44 Masters National Championship Road Race Report
The National Anthem has just concluded. Good lucks, handshakes and respectful nods are nervously being given throughout the 80 riders surrounding me. “This is what it’s all about!”, booms over the PA in the familiar voice of Dave Towle. I turn to my ArtsCyclery.com/Wild Horse Wines teammate, Nate Erickson, and smile. The Masters National Championship Road Race is about to begin.
This year, the 110km course started and finished at the top of Mt. Bachelor just outside Bend, OR. The route was also identical to the 1st stage of the Cascade Cycling Classic for Masters, a stage that I was fortunate enough to have won just 6 weeks ago. Having raced Cascade the past 4 years and ridden the final climb at least 20 times I was very familiar with the terrain and the strategy was simple; make sure the race is together at the bottom of the final 8 km climb to the finish.
Descending off the mountain at speeds reaching 80km/hr, I found Chris Phipps, NorCal Masters cycling’s most dominant rider and the competitor I believed would be my biggest rival in the race. “You know my team’s tactics today?”, he asked. “Keep it together?”, I hopefully replied. He nodded. I told him that Nate was here for that exact reason and would contribute to the 4 riders at Phipps’ disposal. A gentleman’s agreement was made.
The night before the race, sitting in the living room of our team house in Bend, Nate and I discussed the strategy that would give our team the best opportunity to win: 1) The race must be together at the base of the final climb, and 2) He had to deliver and keep me in the top 5 of the pack the final 2 km’s leading to the base. Nate would not be saving any energy to get a result of any kind. As soon as the base of the climb was reached, his job would be done and his race would be over; without hesitation he agreed.
After 20km’s, the pack made the right-hand turn off the decent, and we entered into the narrow roads and rolling hills surrounded by dense trees that would be our terrain for the next 60km’s. Traditionally, this is the part of the course where attacks are attempted but never succeed. However in this race, this was the area where things didn’t necessarily go according to plan. With Phipps’ team riding a steady tempo at the front, a handful of breakaway attempts were brought back and all seemed well. But when his first wave of domestiques were spent after 50 km’s of tempo riding, the pack momentarily slowed. This was when I saw 4 riders (led by Monster Media’s Chris DeMarchi) seize the moment and quickly gain 15 seconds on the field. Nate began to organize the chase with about 7 other riders whowere also there to help keep the race together for their team leaders. Every time I looked down at my computer we are doing in excess of 50 kms/hr and the gapappeared to be 30 seconds. Everything seemed under control.
We exited the forest and the pack made the right-hand turn onto the wider road back to Mt. Bachelor, I knew the winds would start to turn into our faces a bit and the rollers over the this 30 km’s section would slowly wear on the 4 riders up ahead. Over the next 20 km’s I saw riders dropping back through the pack, faces dejected and completely spent from riding 50 kms/hr at the front of the field in an effort to keep the breakaway in check. As each rider slipped back never to be seen from again, the breakaway became a smaller speck up the road and the follow carswere now barely noticeable. The lead motto informed us the gap had grown to 1:15 with 20km’s remaining. I made my way toward the front of the field to get a closer look at the riders setting the pace, and to my horror there was only one rider left with 2 Monster Media riders on his wheel. For the first time the alarm bells started to ring. Nate needed help, and fast.
Phipps also recognized the situation was becoming desperate and sent his super-domestique, Ken Gallardo (winner of the Tour of Gila), to the front to assist Nate. Two more riders joined them in the chase as I sat 5th wheel allowing them to work unimpeded. After 10 minutes or so the race moto drifted back from the break to inform us of the gap. I heard 45 seconds and felt a sense of relief. There were 15 km’s to go. The pack hits the first set of rollers. I saw that the break had exploded and DeMarchi was on his own. He fought to make it over the last little rise with the front of the pack before the race to the bottom of the climb began. As I passed, I give him a pat on the back and a thumbs up. He always has my respect.
The preliminaries were now over and the final tactic was put into play. Nate and I linked up, and over the next few km’s he kept me safe in 5th position. I took notice of the familiar landmarks that lead to the final decisive climb, the lake on the right, the straight stretch just before the slight right-hand bend, the climb was just around the corner and I was ready. I felt the gradient under my wheels, and I immediately stood on the pedals. Imploring the same tactic I used in Cascade, I wanted to eliminate as many riders as quickly as possible. This had been my plan all along. The first 3 km’s of the climb were the hardest. Averaging 8% with extended pitches of 10%, I knew this was where the selection must be made. After 30 seconds, I settled into a rhythm and looked down for a quick power check. 460 watts was staring me in the face. It was the last time I looked at my computer. I turned around to see what damage was being done. The pack was single file and exploding. I kept the pressure on as the climb got a bit steeper. I turned around again for another check and saw Kirk Bausch on my wheel. He pulled out of line, and disappeared. I believe I heard him say ‘good luck’, or something to that effect. I thought to myself, ‘what a nice guy’. The gradient was now 10%, I was suffering but kept my foot on the gas. I told myself this was the right play but something didn’t feel right. The wind was a little stronger than normal and worked against me. I was quickly snapped back into the moment as I heard somebody begin an attack. Phipps was in full flight coming over the top of me with his Contador-like acceleration. I increased my cadence and found his wheel. I was near the limit, but wanted to see the damage again. A quick glance, and there was only one rider with us and a sizable gap back to the field. The third rider didn’t last long and itwas now just Phipps and I. I knew what was coming and it was not going to feel pleasant. Phipps clicked up the gears and stood on the pedals for another acceleration. I rode on his shoulder, determined to not let him break me. He sat back down. I knew the rest wouldn’t last for long as we have battled Phipps on many climbs this season. He stood again; he wanted to break me bad. I called upon the hundreds of 10 and 20-minute hill repeats I have done this season. I remained calm.
The end of the steep 3 km’s was nearly over, and a relatively flat 1 km section followed. I knew that if you were in the lead at this juncture you were committed. Normally, this is where you want to be, but the wind was stronger than normal. I took a peek to see the damage of Phipp’s 10+ accelerations over the last few km’s and to my surprise I saw that Richard Feldman, World TT Champion, and winner of the TT the previous day, was riding tempo with 2 riders in tow and was only 10 seconds behind. Phipps and I were about to crest the last steep rise and hit this decisive stretch. I made a split-second decision that I felt would give me the best opportunity to win; I sat up. Chris made one final acceleration and gained 50 meters quickly.
I dropped back to the Feldman group to assess who was there, Feldman, Dan Bryant from NorCal, and Jeff Hartman from Boulder. As Feldman flexed his muscle on the shallower gradient and into the wind, I slid into 4th wheel and kept an eye on Phipps up the road and our pace. Hartman contributed, Bryant was struggling and I made sure that I was positioned last, in an attempt to hide as long as possible. Phipps had 15 seconds as the final steep 500m ramp approached, we were 4 km’s from the finish.
Feldman had enough and sensed games wer being played. He pulled off and nearly came to a stop declaring, “I have my stripes, you guys have to earn yours”. He was right. I quickly hit the front to continue at a pace that I knew would keep our small group harmonious, but no faster. Bryant and Hartman pulled through as Feldman now sat at the back. After a few rotations, Feldman was happy to assist and hit the front again. Phipps was still dangling at 15 seconds but had been fighting into the headwind by himself for the last few minutes. Thingswere working out, but errors could still be made. I couldn’t let Phipps go over the final ramp by himself and risk my group playing games and watching the jersey ride away. I saw the 3km to go sign half way up the last steep pitch and put in a little dig that brought me up to Phipps. He looked to be laboring as I started to pass. I turned around and everybody was on the verge of shattering with 10 meters between each rider. The headwind over this final ramp is always the strongest and I knew it would be stronger during this race. I also knew three riders in my group were on the podium of the TT the day before (I finished 7th). My gap was not big enough. I sat up again and gambled on the sprint. We were 2 km’s from the finish.
I drifted to the back of our 5 man group. A podium is guaranteed, but as I told Nate during our conversation the night before, only the jersey mattered today. It was time to be diligent to the attacks that would come as the gradient eased. Sure enough Phipps gave it a go and tried to surprise us, I waited before making a move and Feldman closed the gap. Hartman jumped, I stayed patient again, and the gapwas again closed. The moto pulled up and said we had 45 seconds on the next rider. The Stars and Stripes would officially be decided in a sprint among the five of us.
We made the final turn toward the finish and quickly passed the 1KM to go sign. The wind was now strong at our backs. I moved into 4th position putting the riders I wanted to keep an eye on in front of me. Hartman was left at the front, followed by Feldman, Phipps, myself, and Bryant. I saved the legs, spun a light gear knowing in 30 seconds everybody would lay their final cards on the table. I soon saw the fencing that lead into the finish. I clicked up a few gears, ready for the first move. With 300 meters to go, Feldman was the first to jump and moved to the right to pass Hartman. He was followed quickly with Phipps on his wheel. Hartman reacted and was side by side with Feldman. We were 200 meters from the line and I saw an opening form between Hartman and Feldman, and started to move through the small gap but there was not enough room. I let off the pedals looking for a space as the narrow one lane finish straight bends slightly to the right 100 meters from the line. My momentum slowed and I slightly panicked. Did I just make an irreversible error? Hartman and Feldman moved in unison to the right, still side by side, which opened up the left side of the road. I clicked into the 11 andwent wide. I came along beside them and pulled even. 50 meters from the line, I saw the finish but didn’t feel the pedals. I took a peek and they were 2 bike lengths behind. It felt like a dream as the line rushed toward me. 10 meters from the line I emotionally broke down. “It is happening”, I told myself. Grasping my head in disbelief before punching the air I crossed the line. I have done it!!!
I slammed on the breaks just after the finish and crumbled to the ground. All of my emotions came out uncontrollably. It was a feeling I will never forget and I hope one that everybody who reads this report will have an opportunity to experience in his or her lifetime. Nate’s wife Amy ran over to give me a hug. We were both emotional as to what just happened. I was ushered off to doping control but the entire time I was in shock. I have pictured this in my head for the last 12 months but it still didn’t seem real. I tried to soak in the moment as best as possible.
Exiting doping control, I rushed to Nate and my other teammates whowere preparing for their own races. Lots of hugs and tears were shed at the team car over the next 15 minutes. The little team from San Luis Obispo won the biggest race in the country. It was my 12th win of the season but this was really the only one I wanted to win.
I would like to thank my teammates (Nate Erickson, Craig Nunes, Patrick Hampton and Blake Reed) who have supported me all season and this win is as much theirs as it is mine, to our sponsors for their unwavering support, to my parents who have always encouraged me to follow my passions, and lastly to my wife Monica and 3 children who have been by my side every step of the way. I couldn’t have done it without you all!
I look forward to wearing the Stars and Stripes jersey with pride next year and will do my best to represent it well.