Race photos by Jason Neben
Other riders in Texas called me “the triathlete” for my first one or two years of racing on the road. At the time I thought they’d misunderstood just how brief my experience with tri really was, or were basing the judgment on sock height. I realize now, however, that I could have earned it purely by riding style. On the front, off the front, to the side, dangling on the back—if there was a way for me to be in the wind, I’d find it.
|Anna Grace Christiansen celebrating the win.|
This year I’m racing in a setting where my competitors have just as much horsepower or significantly more than me. I’m learning a new bit of vocabulary in the national pro races, a synonym for non-drafting: It’s called “dropped.”
Bike racing is more lived than learned. Riding in a pack is fluid and instinctive, like a language, and to speak that language you have to immerse yourself in it. If you just focus on the things that you’re comfortable with or naturally good at, whether that’s crit racing or time trialing or road racing, eventually you’ll find yourself in a situation where you’re asked to be a complete rider and you come up lacking. And even if you do manage to be successful, if you’re honest with yourself you'll always wonder how much more you could have done if you’d done it right.
This year is a crash course for me—no pun intended, and knock on wood—in the skills I should have picked up a long time ago. (I mean, come on, what more can you ask for when the Driveway Series is practically in your backyard?) I also intend for it to be my final season of bike racing. Here’s hoping, now that I’ve buckled down, that I’m a quick study.
|Amber Neben with hand cyclist Jenna Rollman. Dare to Be Project.|
I’m a pseudo-climber and pseudo-TTer, so I was expected to do well. I finished 17th in the stage at 19:06. The effort was in line with the lower range of my power goal, but even as I crossed the line huffing and puffing I had the sense that I could have gone harder. Regardless of finishing place, in a TT you just want to know that you left nothing on the table. At San Dimas on the descent back to the start you should feel like Pac-Man gathering up the pieces of your soul you left behind on the way up.
It was a great day for the team, though—Amber Neben was in the yellow jersey with a finishing time of 17:15, roughly 30 seconds ahead of Team Optum p/b Kelly Benefit’s Brianna Walle. And my teammates Flavia Oliveira and Anna Sanders placed seventh and eighth.
Later that night, however, we had a very unexpected and unwelcome surprise. On our way to dinner, Amber called. She’d broken her little toe while unloading the car. The injury changed everything and nothing. Amber was still determined to ride, but it made our job as her teammates all that more important.
My job, along with my teammates Anna Grace Christiansen and Beth Ann Orton, was mostly just to set tempo at the front. Anything that went or that snuck off too far, we were to steadily close down. Not much went. And I wasn’t very good at my job, which means I provide a somewhat limited perspective on what happened during the race. I was like a satellite orbiting the peloton, either killing myself at the front or at the back, and often completely in the dark about what was happening in the race. At one point I was gapped with a group at the back and had to fight for a long time to get back on. The race set a new normalized power record for me in the 2.5-hour range (which previously had been the cat 2 men’s race at day one of Lago Vista), but most of the time I was working hard in a way that wasn’t useful to anyone.
Flavia and Anna were in a break that went around the last QOM; the situation was dangerous for Optum, and they had to chase hard to bring it back. Olivia attacked ahead of the third time bonus, preventing Brie from getting those seconds. On the last lap, Flavia broke away on the climb with Optum's Lex Albrecht and Team TIBCO's Kristabel Doebl-Hickok. Lex attacked the breakaway in the closing 500 meters, and as the field caught at the line, she took the win. Optum swept the podium, with Brianna Walle in second and Leah Kirchmann in third, but the silver lining for us was that Brie hadn't gotten the first-place time bonus. Unfortunately, Amber had been gapped at the finish, losing three seconds, and Brie had made up about half the GC time with other time bonuses. With the broken toe, Amber was having difficulty standing up in the saddle and had thrown up twice, but she had finished third in the sprints two times to gain two seconds, which mitigated a little of the damage. At the end of the day, we still had the yellow jersey and 16 seconds on Optum. Roughly a third of the field hadn't made the time cut and wouldn't start on Sunday.
The start of the crit was nerve-wracking. In order to take GC, Brie would have to either get in a break without Amber, or she'd have to get all the sprint bonuses, win the stage, and gap Amber at the finish. Any and all of those things were our job as her teammates to prevent.
|Kat's solo break|
Brie won the bonus sprints at 20 minutes and 40 minutes. Optum was putting on a truly impressive performance. My teammates were controlling the front of the race or attacking. Anna Grace had put in a Herculean effort before the first bonus sprint in a solo move, missing out on winning the sprint by less than a width of a tire.
Again, I wasn’t being as useful as I could have been, but I did manage to see the front of a pro crit for the first time in my career. Around 24 minutes, I put in a hard attack and got away solo for roughly a lap and a half. It was thrilling to be in front of the race rather than dangling behind it, and I pushed myself hard. After I was caught, I was mostly just struggling to hang on, but eventually attacked again around 45 minutes. Though I was told later it wasn’t good for the team timing-wise, it happened to be a merchandise prime lap. When I won that just before getting passed, it felt like a major victory. Yes, I was aware no one else cared enough about the prime to go for it, and yes, I was still in way over my head, but it felt really good to do something. Unlike the crit at Valley of the Sun a month before, I hadn’t been completely invisible here.
Just before we started the final lap, there was a bad crash on the last right turn. Several big names went down hard, including Alison Tetrick of Optum. My teammate Mia Manganello got caught up in it, breaking her bike frame, but otherwise got up with only minimal roadrash. I was at the back and was able to squeeze by the chaos on the right, but I’d had to slow and lost the pack. I was digging deep around the next few turns to catch back on—my goal was to at least catch the group of riders just ahead who’d also gotten gapped by the crash—but then the moto approached and neutralized everyone still in the race. We rolled slowly back up to the start line, and when they started us again, they gave us three laps to go instead of one. I think everyone felt bad for Amber Gafney of TWENTY16 p/b SHO-AIR, who’d been 8 seconds off the front before the crash and would almost definitely have won the race (which also would have suited our team). The officials gave her a few seconds’ headstart, but now the game had completely changed.
Brie finished first in the stage and Amber with the pack. It was tight, literally coming down to the last .7 seconds from the TT, but Amber was the GC winner! Team director Scott Warren and our mechanical miracle-workers for the weekend Ryan Szabo and Clint Sparks busted out a bottle of champagne, and we celebrated the first big victory of the year, exhausted and sweaty and hungry as lions, but overwhelmingly happy.
The San Dimas Stage Race was a vindication for our team. We’d been denied an invitation to one of the big national races this year. The victory was a statement, loud and clear: we have everything it takes to win.
Next up, the Redlands Bicycle Classic!
Fun video of the San Dimas crit
San Dimas Stage Race
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|Next up, Redlands! April 8-12|