Returning to Bend this year for the Cascade Cycling Classic was literally coming full circle. Everything looked the same (down to the road construction), and it felt both like no time had passed at all and like it had been a million years. As with the 2014 race, I was planning on it being the last of my cycling career, so I had a lot of the same thoughts and fears and sense of being unmoored.
Yet there was a finality to it all that was new. In signing on and racing with pro team Visit Dallas Cycling p/b Noise4Good for 2015, I’d gone to the end of the road, and even if that road had ended in the same place where it had started in Oregon’s High Desert, my questions had been answered along the way. Yes, racing at a professional level was something I was physically strong enough to do. No, I wasn’t ever going to be a team’s GC rider, or make it to the Olympics or even Europe. My weaknesses, which had been easy to mask when I could cherry-pick my races, were all too clear after a season of racing events like Redlands and Nationals and the men’s P123 at the Driveway. Where other riders commit themselves, body and soul, I hang back. I can push my own body to its limits, but I can’t shove another rider out of the way. I have a pathological fear of sweeping left turns, and I dislike tight spaces. Pre-race anxiety turns me inside out, and even the most minor of equipment changes can throw a wrench into my training. In short, mentally and technically, I’m a shit bike racer.
In 2014, I won the last stage of Cascade, the Awbrey Butte Circuit Race, by bridging up to another rider in the final miles. That was my first and last pro win, just as 2015 has been my first and last year of competing as a pro rider.
I went into the five days of the 2015 Cascade Cycling Classic in the best fitness of my life, riding for one of the top teams in the U.S. pro peloton. I didn’t come anywhere close to the podium, and I offer a limited perspective at times (this is a domestique’s race report through and through), but it describes what for me was an unforgettable experience, the denouement of an immensely difficult but rewarding season as a career athlete.
Stage 1, Mackenzie Pass Road Race –
|Exploring Mackenzie Pass on the pre-ride|
Stage one was 81 miles, starting from the small town of Madras and ending at the Dee Wright Observatory on Mackenzie Pass. The route is unremarkable until you start the gradual climb out of the town of Sisters—a small road lined by national forest and, at the top, passing through a beautiful lava field that Theo firmly believes is inhabited by dragons. The only real steepness comes at the end in the final six or seven miles, and even then, it’s nothing that would satisfy the appetite of a true climber.
The race got off to a slow start, a conversational pace. I went to the front just to be away from the back, and there my teammates noticed the unwrapped shot blocks hitching a ride on my top tube. A note for converted triathletes: you can pee in your chamois, spit and blow snot in fountains, crash yourself out… But shot blocks on the top tube? You’re talking cardinal sin and endless teasing. It was an experiment I’d only tried in a pro race once before (which had gone unnoticed that time), and was meant to help me remember to eat early. I have to admit I’ve never been a fashionable roadie or one to adhere to custom, but lord have mercy, I won’t do that again.
Early in the race, Amber and a Twenty16 rider pulled off the road for a pee stop. Four or five others stopped on the other side of the road when they saw what was happening. I coasted briefly, never having executed a mid-race pee break before, but in the end decided I’d regret it if I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.
At my first pro race in 2012 when I was guest riding for Landis Trek, my husband had driven the team car the last day and saw a rider pull just off the road to pee solo; he said he thought at first she had a bee in her clothes. This could have described me as I stopped, threw my bike down, tore off my jersey and bibs, and tried my best to pee like the wind as I saw the comm car go by and the other riders beginning to get on their bikes. Quasi successful, I threw my leg over the bike and chased the others with jersey open and flapping. The field was going easy, so it wasn’t hard for us to rejoin. As I sat up no hands at the back and zipped my jersey up, I congratulated myself on finally being a real pro: I’d just speed-peed behind desert foliage about four inches tall, in full view of the caravan, and managed to get all my clothes back on.
|View of the finish, day before the race|
As we neared Sisters, we got word that we’d need to pick up the pace and start closing the gap to the break for our GC rider, Amber Neben. Amber would hit the gas from the right turn onto the last steep, twisting miles to the finish, shadowed by our other climber Anna Sanders, so the rest of us were to drive it on the gradual climb (more like a false flat) to that point. Amber and Anna played gatekeepers while Olivia Dillon, Nina Laughlin, Mia Manganello, and I rotated at the front. This was the first time I’d ever really been in a successful team paceline at the front, and it felt both good and bad. It was exhilarating to be a part of the effort, and I was happy to finally be going consistently hard. But with the excitement it was hard to stay steady, and I literally forgot to slow every time I moved over on the front: brain off, legs on. It was also difficult knowing that by doing my job well I was digging a hole for myself before the most crucial point of the race, that I was going to be done and dusted before the peloton really started moving.
When Amber came around us and started motoring up I was able to stay with the front group for a very short bit, but soon I knew if I didn’t back off I would blow up so hard I’d be one of the last across the finish line. I hung on to the first splinter group, huffing and puffing. The next few miles were the most difficult for me, each passing so slowly, but after a while I started to recover even though the pace was hard. It was an exciting, new kind of feeling, getting my legs back underneath me after such a big effort. I even had a little bit of a sprint at the end, finishing 19th on the stage toward the front of the group I’d been with. From the pack, Kristin Armstrong (Twenty16) had taken first at the line, with Amber in second. Andrea Dvorak (Twenty16), who’d been in the initial break, finished third.
My husband had packed his bike in the rent car to get a ride in. While Jack rode back down to Sisters, I drove Theo in the car. Mommy hat back on, I felt strange and muddled, exhausted and elated from a race that I knew had been one of my best even if the result didn’t show it. As for Theo, after a morning of screaming “Go fast!” at the riders and looking for dragons among the rocks, sleep was near instant when the car was in motion.
Stage 2, Crooked River Time Trial –
The mid-morning, 16-mile TT started about an hour’s drive east of Bend in rolling farm country. The course is a fun one, with gentle curves and mild elevation changes that keep you entertained without really adding anything technical. The winds can be strong, however.
In my other most recent TTs this year, I started too hard and faded fast; the heat was usually a factor. It’s a miserable experience, burning your matches early and then feeling like you’re fighting a losing battle the whole race. At the Prineville TT the temperature was probably in the low 70s and I was actually wearing my long-sleeved skinsuit, but I still aimed low versus high. My husband, also my coach, said to start at 260 watts and pick it up to 270 at the turnaround if I was still feeling good.
I felt amazing the entire time, and the miles flew by. I was able to pick it up over 270 on the way back, and I finished the last few minutes fast enough that I knew I’d gone too easy on the leg out. All in all, however, it was a much better feeling than the last three or four TTs I’d done, and I was very satisfied with it. The time was about the same as last year, but I’m on completely different equipment, and it was a different day with different conditions; the average power was significantly higher. I placed 9th among the pro women. Armstrong had set the fast time of the day (34 minutes), with Amber in second and Leah Thomas (Metromint Cycling p/b The Freewheel) in third. My teammates Beth Ann and Anna had finished fifth and sixth.
Stage 3, Cascade Lakes Road Race –
The Mackenzie Pass stage had been a new course for everyone (it had been run the opposite direction previously), but like the TT course, Cascade Lakes was a route I was familiar with from last year. In 2014, however, the race had been an NRC event, and there had been a completely different dynamic between the teams in attendance. This week, Amber was sitting second in GC, and the feeling I got throughout was that if anything was going to happen, it would always start with us.
Just before the race I was instructed to put in the first attack at the start of the uphill section, a slog that continued gradually upward for something like 15 miles. I knew that it was possible, but unlikely, that mine would be the break that got away. Everyone was going to be fresh to follow the first move, no matter how hard the acceleration, and it was only after the peloton had been run through the wringer a few times that they’d let something slip off the front. It also had to be the right mix of riders from the various teams.
When I went, my teammate Mia was on my wheel, and a handful of others quickly joined. I put in a harder dig than I’d really meant to—it was reminiscent of last year in the same stage when I’d initiated the break that stuck and then had been dropped from it a few miles later. Fortunately, I hadn’t pushed it quite as hard, but I was still feeling winded when the field (very quickly) caught us. My teammates Amanda and Nina countered with a handful of other riders in tow, and this would be the move that stuck. The right mix for most of the teams made the move or bridged to it, so the peloton let them go and we slowed again. I quickly regretted not following the riders who had bridged up, though for about an hour after that point I had a wicked case of heartburn, or whatever you call it when something about the combination of when and what you put in your stomach goes terribly wrong and makes you wonder if you’re having a heart attack. I drifted back and sat last wheel, burping like a sailor.
Metromint hadn’t made the break, and their rider Leah Thomas was then third in GC, so they were the only organized team moving things along. It seemed like they were holding the gap around 2:40, which might have been golden for us if there hadn’t been a crash at mile 43 (estimating from the power file) in the middle of the pack shortly after a left turn. My best guess was that someone touched wheels. The crash took out Mia, who must have gotten up immediately; I was surprised when I saw her again so quickly. Leah Thomas had gone down and rejoined, as well, but in the lull we’d lost about two minutes on the break, and no one was working the front anymore.
|Crit day coffee stop, caffeinated riders + the amazing Annalisa Fish, master PT|
Mia is the team’s undisputed crit star. I’d long ago labelled her a “sprinter,” but this week I seemed to always be riding around or with her, and holy Moses that woman is fast in everything. I started wondering toward the end of our effort at the front—which pretty much mirrored my all-out TT from the day before, except it was in the middle of a 73-mile road race—if I was going to make it to where the others were supposed to take over. By the feed zone, Mia and I had closed two minutes or so on the break, essentially only regaining the ground we’d lost during the crash.
Strategically, our team had messed up. Everything we did was not as planned, or too late, or involved the wrong people. Amber and the others took the pace up after the feed zone and dropped many riders (including Mia and me), but the major players were still with them, and the break that had been up the road nearly all day survived to the end. From the break, Dvorak (Twenty16) finished first and was now in the yellow jersey. Abigail Mickey (the only rider at the race representing UnitedHealthcare) took second on the stage, and my teammate Amanda finished third. Nina took sixth.
The last 10 or so miles of this stage were pure hell for me. Both my knees were aching, and my body was done. It was all I could do to hang on the back of the dropped group I was with, finishing 32nd.
Stage 4, Downtown Criterium –
The crit course is a simple rectangle. In 2014 it was left-hand turns, but this year it was reversed. Right turns are generally better for me, so I was happy enough, though the last turn before the finish (pictured below) is downhill and a little unsettling. The crowd was great, and there were tons of primes. It seemed like every time around the loop someone was making a couple hundred bucks. The sprint jersey was also being hotly contested, which made it a fun race to watch from the sidelines.
|Photo by Tim Schallberger|
As for me…I hate crits. My teammates were on the front, and I was on the back. And that was a very brutal place to be. As predicted, Twenty16 was flying from the gun and a hefty portion of the field was shelled in the first few laps. Rumor had it our average speed was higher than the pro men’s race. The good thing was that this kept things safe, with zero crashes as far as I could see and hear.
On the rare occasion when things would slow during the race, I would think, “I need to get up there. I can attack.” But then fear would take over. I worried, once I was caught and back in the field, that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the surges. I knew without a doubt that I’d go right back to my place at the end of the line, where it was already all I could do just to hang on. I also worried I’d go at the wrong moment, when the team was trying to set something else up. So I did nothing, and I regretted it.
In the final sprint to the line, Mia took second behind Lauren Hall (Twenty16), which was an exciting result. I was 39th with a pack finish time.
Stage 5, Awbrey Butte Circuit Race –
|Finishing sprint, Denise Ramsden and Amanda Miller. |
Photo by Tim Schallberger.
This year, I was hanging back again, but my teammates called me out on it. From the second lap on, our team was attacking. Before the start I thought my legs were doing okay—they certainly felt better than they did before the 2014 race—but from the first time I tried to put them in use they were disappointingly empty. I had no acceleration. And I also had no sense of timing. I managed to wear myself out quickly with no real net gain for the team.
A small break got away in the third lap with a few of our riders in it. In the peloton, Amber told me just after the climb up Archie Briggs that she was going to attack on the hill after the big descent and get up there to them. She was able to drift around and give most of our riders a heads up. Though I was in the loop, I still wasn’t in a good place to follow the move and missed it. By the time I’d moved up and onto a wheel, I was gassed. Mia was able to stick it just ahead of me and tucked in behind Armstrong. As they gapped me, again I was thinking, “She’s supposed to be a sprinter.”
I thought that was it, that would be the selection that made it to the end, but the group was caught. At the finale it would be the two-woman break just after the feed zone that would survive: Amanda from our team and Denise Ramsden from Trek Red Truck Racing p/b Mosaic Homes. Amanda crossed the finish line first, triumphantly taking the stage win.
I started at the back of the main pack, or what was left of it, on the final turn and finished 13th. I’d nearly been dropped on the preceding hills, but there was something about the finish and the length of the hill that brought my legs back to life again, and I was sprinting with all that I had left, mouth hanging open, for no real reason other than I knew this might be the last time I ever had a chance to do it.
|Podium presentation for "most aggressive team": from left, Olivia Dillon, Beth Ann Orton, Amanda Miller, Mia Manganello, Anna Sanders, Amber Neben, Nina Laughlin, Kat Hunter|
It was a strange, inverted feeling of déjà vu to ride up on Amanda stopped just past the finish line, the team surrounding her and patting her on the back. That had been me, last year. What did I feel? Was I jealous, happy, relieved, disappointed? In my very honest emotional inventory I came up with a little of all of the above, but really I mostly felt one thing—bone tired. Though I hadn’t done much to make it happen, the team had gotten the stage win. Amber took third in GC behind Dvorak and Armstrong. We also stood up on the podium for the impromptu award of “most aggressive team.” I was proud to be in their midst.
Whatever the day and the race had been, it was over. That’s what I thought, as I strapped Theo in his carseat and we left Bend for the Portland airport: it really was over this time. There was both sadness and satisfaction in closing the book on this segment of my life, simultaneously a feeling of freedom and a feeling of loss. But hey, I reminded myself, eyes always forward when careening down the rabbit hole. You never know, good or bad, what you’re going to run into. On to the next big adventure.
|Oregon provides a cheesy leaving-day rainbow photo op.|