by Kristabel Doebel-Hickok
I overheard a racer in Sunday’s field say something like, “there is no better way to learn than to be thrown into the fire.” That pretty much sums up why I was at the Merco Classic Stage Race. It was my first stage race, individual TT, and experience beyond the local SoCal races.
Stage 1 was the MID road race, which sounded the least daunting of the 4 stages; except that it would be my first glimmer of higher level of competition. I started at the back so I could just watch what happens for a while. Unfortunately, I found that moving up in such a huge field (60+ racers) is not easy and it’s hard to really follow what’s going on from the very back. I spent most of the race moving up a bit by riding on the outside of the pack and then giving up wheel after wheel to return to the back of the pack on the relatively flat sections and trying to climb hard on the steep section although the super rough road made that quite the challenge. I held my own in the first main pack after the break, but felt a bit lost and uncertain of my role among such loaded teams and constant shuffling of wheels. I finished 16th, 3’25” behind the leader.
I entered Stage 2, a 12 mile TT, expecting to drop to around 25th in the GC because I knew I would be giving up a significant amount of time due to not having a TT bike/bars/wheels. I wasn’t too disappointed when I placed 39th with 30’53” (4’32” gap) and moved to 25th in the GC. However, I was a bit frustrated with how I rode. The idea when you attempt a new event is to make mistakes that you don’t know are mistakes and then don’t make them at the next race. The idea is not to make mistakes that you know before the race are a bad idea, and I did quite a few of those. I knew standing up was not aero, yet I stood up 3 times on the rollers (looking back at my Garmin, I can see that I dropped from around 20 mph to 16-17 mph). I came to a crawl at the turnaround and looked back far too many times. All bad, all habits that I had confirmed with my coach (Ron Peterson) the night before the race had no place in a TT. Yet they all happened. However, I did nail a couple important things: my effort was exactly what I was shooting for (heart rate in the high 170s to 180s and finally 190s) and I gave it everything I had even if those watts didn’t translate into a ton of speed with my road equipment and no practice in a TT position.
No matter how long I spent trying to mentally prepare for Stage 3, the 8 corner crit, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. The only technical crit I had done was the Brentwood Grand Prix, and I ended that 55-minute race with nothing left. I asked one of my big buddies in cycling, Joy, if this would be similar to that and I was told to expect an even more intense race. She also told me to ride over the reflectors/bumps on the less than smooth road like they aren’t even there, some of the best advice for handling this beast of a race.
Eight corners made it feel like we were always slowing to corner, cornering, or sprinting out of a corner. It also meant that when I started at the back of the field, I had trouble moving up because when I used the short straightaways to power up a few wheels, I would find myself uncertain of how to get back into the lineup or create a new line for the corner, so I would end up right back where I started.
Around lap 4, my hands went numb, and by lap 9 I had hardly any braking power so I started shaking out my hands each lap. Being at the back allowed me a bit more freedom to do such things, but it also meant getting gapped a lot more and being behind a crash and having to chase back to the main pack. When I finally crossed the line in 31st (1’09” behind along with places 7-46), I realized my feet and hands were totally numb, my face was tingly and covered in salt, and my hamstring connectors were in some serious pain (thin little shorts will have your saddle dig into them). I also quickly realized that there is no better way to work on your bike handling skills than to do a super speedy, 8-corner crit on a rough road.
I entered the final stage, a 72 mile road race, with nothing to lose (GC standing unlikely to drop) and plenty to learn. I figured I would try getting into a break if I felt good, and I did. So when I saw some Optum riders starting to get something rolling, I eagerly went up front to help out. They asked if I was going to work, I said yes, and with a nice push into the rotation I was eagerly learning how to rotate through without forming gaps.
I thought we were settling in quite nicely, working well together, and maybe this break could work. I wanted to look back to see if we had much of a gap, but after looking back far too much in stages 1 and 2, I resisted the urge for a few minutes. Then I took a look back and saw the whole field sitting on the rotation of Ina, me, and several Optum racers. When I informed Optum of this and they seemed unconcerned, I realized we were simply chasing a break, not bridging up to it or forming one of our own. I felt stupid, voiced as much several times, and returned to the main pack with an Optum racer agreeing that it was best for me to do so and Evelyn greeting me with a “good job, Tink.” I shifted to the back of the pack to recover and think about what I could do that would actually be productive for me in the race. I decided I could eat a gel and down my Endurafuel. I remained pretty well hidden in the pack (behind a 3 person break) through the finishing sprint where I tried to find my way through the wheels to sprint to the line and move up one place in the GC to 24th.
The Merco Classic was an incredibly well run event with so many supportive people and class-act racers. I can’t wait for next year!