Merco Cycling Classic: David Beats Goliath
by Matthew Carinio
February has already been a dream month for me, winning 8 out of 11 races, but these events have been stepping-stones to the first real target of the season at Merco. Twelve months ago, I was at Merco dealing with severe knee pain that ended up being tendinitis and would keep me off my bike for the spring. I was thankful to be racing this time around with my legs in proper working order. I was also very happy to be heading to the race with my amazing teammates Craig Nunes, Nate Erickson, Blake Reed, and Patrick Hampton.
The Merco Cycling classic is the biggest stage race for Masters in California. The four stage format of RR, TT, Crit, and RR means that opportunities for all types of riders exist. It also guarantees all the big road teams (like Monster Media, Folsom, and PrimeTime) will be there to impose their dominance.
The first stage is a 70-mile, lumpy road race on a 12 mile loop. The main feature is a 3 kilometer climb that averages 8% and tops out 10 miles from the finish. Having done this course twice before, I knew that the climb was where the decision had to be made. Due to its not being very long or steep, in order eliminate riders the pace had to be hard from the very bottom. Before the stage, Folsom’s Dan Bryant asked me who on “the green team” he should look out for. My reply was simply, “all of them.”
The first two laps saw the usual Hail Mary attempts, but the 8k of false flat that leads to the climb put a damper on most of those dreams. With the pace on the climb the first two times being very mellow, I was surprised to hear that things were already getting strung out in the field. I alerted my team that the third time up the climb I would test the legs. A slim and trim Chris DeMarchi was setting the pace on the first 500 meters and I was sitting on his wheel as we made the narrow, left-hand turn to the steeper ramps. I stood on the pedals and wouldn’t turn around for another 5 minutes.
With a little less than 1 km to the top, I took my first peek behind and noticed a very small group of riders with me: Gary Douville and Tony Restuccia from Monster Media, Dan Bryant from Folsom, Kevin Klein from PrimeTime, and my teammate Craig Nunes. Over the top we went. The 6 of us had a difficult time agreeing and getting organized, which allowed a group of 10 riders to come back to us. That group included two more from Monster Media Chris, DeMarchi and Brian Cook.
Bryant came up to me at that point and said something to the effect of, “you weren’t joking, those green guys are everywhere.” The real race was underway.
By the time we reached the bottom of the climb for the fourth time our gap over the field was already 2 minutes. The first objective was reached. A majority of the field was now out of contention for the rest of the week. I told Craig that we should just follow on the climb so that we can keep as many riders together over the top and use them to extend our lead over the field during the next lap. We did just that and the pace was gentle as we let others set the pace on the climb. Over the top we went, and soon after DeMarchi and Michael Sayers launch a cheeky attack on one of the rollers heading back to the start. Our group hesitated and their gap quickly got to 45 seconds. Craig and I hit the front and we got a little help from some of the other riders, but most of the group seemed content to sit behind the 3 other Monster riders who were doing their job of defending their rider ahead.
Craig asked if I could bridge on the climb and I said, “if it’s 30 seconds, I’d feel good about it.” The gap to Sayers and DeMarchi was 40 seconds as we passed the finish and gott bell for the last lap. Immediately, as the climb started I hit the front and set tempo. I saw that DeMarchi dropped Sayers on the early slopes. A few minutes later, only a few riders were left on my wheel: Douville, Restuccia, Bryant, Nunes, and Klein. With 1km to the top, we finally caught DeMarchi and I heard him shout to his teammates, “don’t work with them if I get gapped.”
I immediately turned off the power and told Craig not to ride, as I didn’t want to tow Douville and Restuccia around with DeMarchi dangling behind us after the climb. I knew three Monster riders working in the break was better than two sitting on for the run into the finish. Over the top for the final climb and toward the finish we went, and Klein was sitting on the back complaining about something or another.
A mile later, DeMarchi yelled that Klein was gone. I don’t bother to turn around to see what happened, but apparently DeMarchi wasn’t having any of Klein’s antics and he rode him off the back. We got a time check to the chase group of 10 riders (1 minute) with five kilometers to go. Douville, Restuccia, and Nunes were working with Bryant, me, and DeMarchi saving it for the finish. With 300 meters to go Bryant, jumped. I stayed patient and, with 200 meters to go, DeMarchi and I jumped at the same time. I was in the 11 and it was spinning over nicely. 50 meters from the line, I looked to both sides and nobody was around. I know DeMarchi’s experience and credentials as a top sprinter, so this win felt good. The stage was fruitful for the team, as we walked away with all three jerseys at the end of the day: GC, Points, and 45+ GC. With the time bonus at the finish, I would take a 10 second lead on Bryant, 6 seconds on Douville, and 4 seconds on DeMarchi heading into Stage 2’s 12 mile time trial.
My strategy for the time trial was the same as any other: give 100% effort and the time is what it is. When I crossed the finish, I was a little disappointed as I knew I left some time on the road. When I heard that Bryant had beaten me by 14 seconds and moved into the yellow jersey by 4 seconds it didn’t feel good. He did a great ride and deserved the victory. I knew he would be the man to beat on that stage and he proved me right.
That night at dinner, I told the team that for tactical reasons it would be to our advantage to have the yellow jersey heading into Stage 4. The only way to do that was to get one of the time bonuses for a top three finish in the crit. Easier said than done against a stacked crit field and riders whose only chance of victory all week would be in the criterium. I do about 3 crits per year, so we’d have our work cut out for us. After discussing the plan for the following day, we were confident in what we wanted to do. We would help Monster and Primetime keep the race together for their sprinters so that all three bonuses were available and get me into the last turn in the top five. The last 300 meters were up to me.
Merco’s crit is a fairly technical and fast course. It makes moving up very difficult, so positioning is vital throughout the day. The race went as expected with any dangerous moves being pulled back by Monster, Primetime, and my teammate Nate Erickson. Heading into the final few laps, I was able to slot in behind Monster’s lead out of 4 riders and PrimeTime’s Dean LeBerge. The final turn is 350 meters from the line and, as we rounded the corner, my focus was solely on getting into the top 3 by the line.
200 meters from the finish, Kayle Leogrande looked good for the win and DeMarchi and DeBerge were a bike length up on me as I struggled to make any headway on them. I told myself that 4th place was worthless and I was determined to pass one of those guys before the line. A few more turns on the pedals, a bike throw at the finish, and I pipped DeMarchi for 3rd place. The 4 second bonus was mine and I knew we had retaken the lead. It took a while for the officials to figure out the tie-breaker, but I was back in yellow and I held onto the green jersey. Craig also held onto his lead in the 45+ GC blue jersey and, to top it off, Nate Erickson won the most passionate rider award in the crit for all of his hard work. Our little team was taking on the best the race had to offer and we were more than holding our own.
At the team dinner that night, I outlined our plan heading into the final stage’s flat, 95-mile road race. I not only wanted keep the yellow jersey, I wanted to defend the green jersey and keep Craig safely in blue. I told the team we were going to put our stamp on the race and take home all the prizes. The things we had to consider were: 1) I was equal on time with Bryant with time bonuses available at the finish of 10, 6, and 4 seconds. 2) A slim, 9-point lead on DeMarchi for the points jersey with 25 points available for the stage win and points to the top 5 at the finish line on each of the first three laps. 3) Craig held a 1:15 lead over Klein for the 45+ jersey. I outlined our strategy and it was going to be a bit unconventional. I had never seen it executed in a race before, but I was confident that it was the right play given what we were trying to accomplish. I also knew that quite a few riders would question what we were doing, but if they weren’t smart enough to recognize our strategy, that’s on them.
As the first lap unfolded, our plan was put into play. It was later relayed to me during this initial lap that a rider was seen flipping off one of my teammates behind their back as the frustration to what we were doing was starting to be felt in the group. That NorCal rider and team is now on my “list” for future reference. With the first points sprint approaching, Monster put DeMarchi in position and I was on his wheel. In the sprint, Jan Weissenberger nipped DeMarchi and I got boxed in against the barriers and settled for 3rd.
Chris was 8 points back. The second lap was more of the same and Monster again put 3 riders at the front for DeMarchi’s points sprint. I decided to lead it out myself and, with 250 meters to go, DeMarchi was on my wheel. I stayed seated and as he tried to pass me I went hard enough to beat him, but not any harder. I took the sprint by less than ½ a wheel. Back to a 9 point lead.
After 50 miles of Nate, Blake, and Patrick executing our plan to perfection, I hadn’t had to do a thing save for those two efforts. Mid-way through the third of four laps, three riders jumped clear: Coxworth from Monster Media, Briggs from PrimeTime, and Roemer from Specialized. I immediately recognized that it was a great combination for us since Monster and Primetime would be happy to see it go for the stage win. None of the riders in the break were within 5 minutes on GC, all of the big points for DeMarchi to win the points jersey would be eliminated, and all the time bonuses for Bryant would disappear as well. I told my team to stop riding and over the next 12 miles the gap went out to a minute. Other riders and teams who missed the move and still wanted to win the stage kept it at the minute advantage.
As we headed into the fourth and final lap, Briggs got dropped from the break. Not good for us, as PrimeTime would now want to bring it back and if they did all of our jerseys would again be in jeopardy. Not long after that, Roemer got dropped and Coxworth was on his own 30 seconds ahead of the pack.
A few miles later, I noticed the speed had significantly increased. We were single file in the gutter on the slight crosswind section of the course 10 miles from the finish. I looked up and Craig was raging on the front. I asked Blake if he knew what’s up and he didn’t. I had spoken to Craig a lap earlier and he was getting anxious (and bored), so I figured he was trying to make the race harder towards the end to soften up some legs. But I noticed he was riding Coxworth back, which we didn’t want. I finally made my way up to have a chat and he informed me that Klein was up the road and had bridged to Coxworth.
I swear that Klein is a chameleon sometimes, as nobody really saw him make his move.
In all honesty, I didn’t really believe it was Klein up the road. Craig went to the back of the field to double-check and came back to the front. Klein was nowhere in the group and the gap was 1 minute with 8 miles to go. Another 20 seconds and Klein would take Craig’s jersey. I informed Nate and Blake that they needed to ride the front and keep the break at 30 seconds. That’s a tough task since, they had both been working tirelessly for the past 80 miles. I didn’t mind Coxworth and Klein staying ahead to take bonuses and points away from our real challengers, but we had to be diligent their lead didn’t get any bigger.
Nate, Blake, and Craig started to rotate and keep things in check as I sat 4th wheel and let them work unobstructed. Behind me was a line of Monster and PrimeTime riders happy to see our team suffering. With 8k to go, Blake and Nate had both reached their limit and it was up to Craig to do a majority of the work himself to retain his jersey. I did what I could to help him, but I needed to save a bit for the finish in case Bryant had plans of taking the 3rd place time bonus that could still move him into yellow.
It did cross my mind that we could lose all three jerseys, but I was determined we weren’t going to let that happen. We headed into the final 3k of rollers and the gap looked about 30 seconds. The jockeying for the final placing began. I had to do two things: make sure Bryant didn’t get third and beat DeMarchi at the finish. Monster put 4-5 riders at the front heading into the final kilometer and I was a little to far back for my liking, so I went to the front myself at the bottom of the last kicker. I figured that if I was going to lose they were going to have to come around me.
The pace slowed a bit and Craig moved up on the other side of the road. He looked over to me and I nodded. One of the last things Craig and I talked about the night before was this exact scenario. If two riders were up the road, he should take a flyer and try to get the 3rd place time bonus so it wasn’t available for Bryant. He attacked, but he got caught at the top of the hill 400 meters from the line.
I was sitting in 3rd as the sprint opened up. I saw two riders pass me. Neither of them Bryant or DeMarchi. The time bonus was gone. A few more riders passed who didn’t concern me and more points were being taken. I came across the line 7th on the stage. We had done it! I was fortunate enough to take home the yellow and green jerseys and craig took home the blue. David had beaten the Goliaths.
The Merco Cycling Classic was the ArtsCyclery team’s best ever race. We rode unselfishly and with total commitment to our plans. We don’t have lot of riders, a big budget, or the most recognizable names in the masters peloton, but we make up for it with our camaraderie and passion to ride the proper way as a team. Kudos to Nate Erickson, Patrick Hampton, and Blake Reed for the sacrifices they made out on the road over the four days of racing. They deserve these jerseys as much as Craig and I do. Thanks to our sponsors ArtsCyclery, Fluid, and Voler for believing in us. And, finally, props to Monster Media, PrimeTime, and Folsom for racing hard. Next stop, San Dimas.
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