Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Friday, May 2, 2014

Babies, Demons, Bike Racing
Race Report from the 2014 Joe Martin Stage Race

by Kat Hunter

This time last year, I was in the last month of pregnancy. My off-kilter hugeness made an hour in the saddle feel like balancing an elephant on a toothpick. But even then, the Joe Martin Stage Race in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was on my radar—it would be the big race of my first season post-baby, the closest and least logistically complicated event on the National Racing Calendar.

After my son was born last June, I put in more hours on the bike than I ever had before, especially during the winter off season. It was a way for me to get back in shape and to preserve a sense of self in the midst of motherhood. I was also working hard to prove a point. When you announce a pregnancy, your family and non-athlete friends will be overjoyed; your cyclist friends will offer the same outward felicitations, but you’ll see a sorrowful and wary expression in their eyes, as if you’ve contracted some lethal and possibly contagious flesh-eating disease. I wanted to show that athletic competition and child-rearing aren’t mutually exclusive, that kids aren’t the death of fun.

When Theo was around six months old, I was making 15 watts more for most durations. As the baby weight came off, the extra power translated to a heady, superwoman-esque feeling. I could hang with moves with the guys on my regular Wednesday-morning group ride that had seemed impossible before. I had new, almost magical powers of recovery. Mandy Heintz of Haute Wheels Racing beat me in the sprint at all of the early season Texas races, but it was usually just her and me battling it out at the end in a two-woman break. At the Fayetteville (Texas) Stage Race in March, I won all three stages, and my TT time would have put me 15th in the men’s 2/3 field. 

However, I’d also unearthed some new demons. Whether it was my crash in August, my tendency to train alone, the hormonal differences of breastfeeding, or motherhood in general, I’d become cat 5 bad at cornering, descending, maneuvering in the pack, holding wheels...basically anything that involved having a proverbial pair. This made Joe Martin a big question mark. I knew I could do well in the time trial, but for the rest, I oscillated between thinking I could podium to worrying I’d get dropped in the first five minutes. 

Hello Joe
The National Racing Calendar is a collection of pro races around the country. At Joe Martin, the pro women’s race is open to cat 1/ 2 amateur teams and individual riders. 

In 2012, as a guest rider for teams at the Gila and Nature Valley stage races, I’d come to know what to expect from NRC racing: the bells and whistles, the mix of pro teams from all over the country and world, the race caravan, the large field size, the rolling enclosures that give the peloton the full breadth of the road, and the pace—screaming fast compared to anything I’ve ever experienced locally.  The talent-dense NRC scene gives you a new concept of a “strong” rider.

Joe Martin, going on its 37th year, takes place in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. In April, the temperatures are mild, and the dogwoods and redbuds are blooming. It’s a beautiful setting. More than one person described the city of Fayetteville as “like the Austin of 30 years ago,” which for me conjures up the idea of a friendlier, less-generic hippydom with elbowroom. The team rented a house about 30 minutes south in the mountains near Winslow, where “remote” is something of an understatement. Big glass windows overlooked the hills beyond, and thick woods surrounded us on all sides. Our closest neighbors seemed to be a pair of wild turkeys.
The drive from Austin was about eight hours. Playing the roles of team manager and team car driver, my husband, Jack, took five days off of work for the trip, and my mother came to stay for the week, as well, driving six plus hours from Nacogdoches to be the world’s most amazing babysitter.

My ATC Racing teammate Sammi Runnels got her cat 2 upgrade the week before, which allowed her to enter the pro race with me. It was Sammi’s first-ever NRC event, and she would put in a truly impressive performance over the course of the next four days. Our teammates Lori Bergeron and Anne Flanagan, both cat 3s, signed up for the cat 3/4 and masters amateur races held on Saturday and Sunday. They also did a bang-up job, with Lori placing eighth in GC and Anne placing third in the 50+ GC and fourth in the overall masters GC.   

Bicycles Outback crafts a racing Prius with a little tech.
So far from home, familiar faces from the local race scene almost felt like teammates, too; there’s a certain kinship in being in over your head together. Ginny King (King Racing Group), Kim Jennings and Michelle Montoya (Bicycles Outback/Lifevantage), and the Haute Wheels squad of Mandy Heintz, Ash Duban, Allison Atkinson, and Danielle Bradley were there. The trusty Prius was on standby for carrying gear and bottles for the other solo riders and small teams. 

Day 1 - Time trial.  
The 2.5-mile TT starts at Devil’s Den State Park, with a steady 680-foot climb up an average 6.8 percent grade (10 percent in most places) to finish at the crest of the park road. 

The vast majority of riders use road bikes for the TT, and even my aero-obsessed husband agreed that here weight mattered more. (His ideal plan, given unlimited resources, would be to build up a  TT bike that met the UCI minimum of 6.8 kilograms. ) Traversing into the enemy camp of weight weeniedom, Jack did what he could to shave down the grams. When I noticed my bar plugs were missing, I thought he’d gone off the deep end, but it turned out he was just worried that wine corks wouldn’t pass UCI muster. All said and done, with the heavy HED Jet 9 powertap wheel, the Boardman weighed in at 7.5 kilograms. 

I was slotted to start first. Holding my bike in the start house, I was one bright orange, pseudo-lightweight ball of anxiety. The pro riders under the tent were calm, chatting; I looked like a possum about to jump out of its skin and run the 100-meter dash. 

On the line, one official held my bike while the other counted off the last five seconds with his hand. Five, four, three, two, one... a sickening crescendo, heart in throat, a feeling like the guillotine coming down. But at the end of it, at last, came the opportunity to release all that pent-up nervousness like a balloon while the rest of me was propelled forward. 
The first few minutes always feel so good. I was supposed to start around 270 watts—the first 0.2 miles are downhill—and then push it up to 320 for the steepest parts, 300 for the rest. I started out a little too hard, and it caught up to me later. The middle of a TT is always the most difficult—the initial jolt of adrenaline has faded, and the end still seems impossibly far away. Doubt creeps in and tells me I can’t hold the numbers.

The park road twists through forest, dogwoods standing out in stark splashes of white in the understory. I recommend a preride of the course so you can appreciate the scenery. Day of, I just watched the powertap screen and counted the turns. As I came up the last steep rise to the line, I felt like I had no extra kick to give, so I knew I’d done a decent job of pacing it. Going first ended up being a blessing in disguise, as it started raining just after my finish. Sammi’s start coincided with the worst part of the downpour. 

Jack & Theo at Devil's Den.
I came in at 10:07 and 8th place, very close to the goal I’d set for myself. Sammi was 32nd out of 61 riders with a time of 11:25, with no power meter and very little prior TT experience. Mandy Heintz (Guru Cycles p/b Haute Wheels), my fiercest local competitor, had missed her start time by 30 seconds because of a saddle tilt issue, so was farther down than she would have been. Lauren Stephens (Team TIBCO/To The Top), whose hometown is Dallas, had the fastest time of 9:32, coming in six seconds ahead of world time trial champion and Olympian Amber Neben (FCS|Zngine p/b Mr. Restore). 

Day 2 – Road Race.
The first road race had perfect weather, sunny and mild. For the men’s pro and 1/2 fields, the course was a 110-mile loop from Fayetteville. The women’s race was a point-to-point of 61.2 miles starting in Cedarville.

The field was roughly 60 riders, which is average or even small for most amateur men’s races; compared to Texas women’s fields, however, it was quite a crowd. I found myself at the back as we rolled out for the neutral start. The peloton stretched all the way across the road, everyone already jostling for position, with the front row breathing down the bumper of the official’s car. Jasmin Glaesser (TIBCO), who had the white under-23 jersey from the day before and would hold on to it for the duration of the stage race, had a mechanical just after the start, so the neutral car held us back a little longer to let her rejoin. The car slowed almost too much, and the awkward inching forward—pedal pedal BRAKKKKKE pedal grumble BRAKKKKE pedal BRAKKKKE—had my anxiety levels back at their possum-out-of-skin levels. 
Taking notes on the top tube

I had one goal for the day: Make the selection. I knew I couldn’t do that sitting at the back. At the 2012 Gila, my first NRC race, I hadn’t even seen the moves when they went, much less been in a position to follow. I was nervous this would be the same way. Just a few miles into the race, I summoned up my courage and moved up in a section where the front of the peloton was riding single file. I sailed by the middle, and then the upper middle, and then I got nervous about whose wheel to take and just kept sailing all the way to the very front of the peloton. I was first wheel in front of a (probably very surprised) TIBCO rider. I kept going hard up the next hill or two out of sheer momentum. Later I asked Sammi if she saw me up there, and in typical, matter-of-fact Sammi fashion, she said, “Yeah, that was weird.”

Eventually the pro riders came around me, and life in the peloton reverted to normal. I drifted fairly quickly back to my position in the rear, but now that I’d opened up my legs and convinced myself I could be up there, I was more relaxed. I knew that 22 miles in, there would be around 1,000 feet of climbing in 12 miles. That’s where the decisive move would be. I just had to be ready for it.

The culling of the herd was more gradual than I’d expected. It just seemed like an endless upward slog, with riders popping off the back one by one. I was happy to see that Sammi had made the move and was hanging on with me at the back. When we finally hit a section that appeared fairly flat, I started to panic because my bike felt so slow and heavy. I was convinced I had a slow flat, and I was waiting for a moment when I could ask Sammi to give me her objective opinion. But then we hit another rise and Sammi was gone. I realized my tire wasn’t flat; this race was just very hard. 

Sammi was the last of the hardwomen to drop from the group—it was now TIBCO, FCS, Colavita, the Mexican National Team, Haute Wheel’s Mandy Heintz, and me dangling onto the back. Hanging on for all I was worth and absorbing the very different feel of the race, I wasn’t entirely aware of what was going on, but I could see Lauren’s pink GC leader jersey in our group, so I knew I was doing okay.

In the final miles, all hell broke loose. Everything seemed to be moving at the speed of light, an organized chaos of the major teams attacking and covering and countering, but it was beautiful to see and to be a part of. The speed was higher than anything I’d ever experienced in a women’s race.

A break of three finally got away in the final kilometers. I came in with the rest of the group for the crit-like finish through town. It was a left turn, a short jog to a right turn, and a small hill before another sharp right turn into the finish. My courage failed me. I was at the back for the first left and right turns, climbed the hill hard, and then sat on the back again for the final right, braking for it even though I was already well off the wheel in front of me. Though I’d bungled the finishing sprint, I was still very happy with the result: 12th place in the stage and now 10th in GC.  

That night we met up with Anne and Lori, who’d arrived for the weekend races. Before we headed back to our rustic accommodations, we ate at the swanky Green House Grill. While on the spendy side, the food and the service were great, with plenty of vegetarian options and a nice selection of all-local draft beers.

Day 3 - Road Race. 
The second road race was 8.5 miles out to a 23-mile loop, which we were to complete twice before returning to the start/finish in Prairie Grove. The race had roughly the same amount of climbing as the previous day, but it was a series of rolling hills rather than the one steady grind. The roads were a little narrower, though still plenty wide enough and well paved. I’d been warned of one tricky descent, a fairly steep hill that ended in a hard right turn. It wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined, but it was easy to get gapped there if you hung too far back, since the turn was followed by another downhill.

"safety first"
Before the start, Jack told me I was getting better at game face. I was feeling more confident, but the jitters were still with me. When I got on the trainer to warm up, I forgot to take my helmet off.

The first move went shortly after the turn onto the loop and had a rider from each of the major teams. Michelle Montoya (Bicycles Outback) also made the move initially. They stuck it for a very long time, at one point holding on to a 4.5-minute gap. I was surprised, since Stephens and Neben, first and second in GC, were still with the main pack. But the pros have this kind of thing dialed in. They got down to business on the hilly section on the second lap, pushing hard to catch their own riders to preserve the GC lead. About half of the field fell off there. Today the selection was a larger group, and of the familiar faces and kits I could see Sammi, Mandy, and Ginny. 

I was close enough to the GC lead to be a marked rider. Both days if I tried to go with a move, there was a chatter from the peloton; they pulled me and any group I was with back immediately. I tried attacking twice during the second race, half-knowing it was senseless, but again just wanting to assert some kind of presence in the race, if only to remind myself I was still there. 

The final miles were another frantic shuffle. On the straight road back into town, I balked again, this time because I was imagining a massive pack finish. With 5K to go, I think I was sitting last wheel in the group. This finish was more straightforward than the first road race, with a left turn and then a right turn before a short straightaway to the line. By the time I started moving up, it was eons too late. Stephens had put in a hard attack and shattered the field. I passed little pods of riders, and the lead pack was just in front as I made it to the final corner and sprinted by myself in no man’s land for 13th place, moving up to 8th in GC. 

Lauren Stephens finished first, with fellow TIBCO rider Joanne Kiesanowski in second. Mandy, displaying her skill with positioning and sprinting, took third for her first NRC podium.
Day 4 – Crit of Doom. 

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Sammi at the crit start.
If you want to get all my demons together for a party, just schedule a rainy crit on the last day of a stage race where I’m currently holding on to a top 10 position in GC.

I was not-so-secretly hoping the stage would be cancelled. We’d been hearing about the tornado threat for several days. Shortly after we arrived at the race site in downtown Fayetteville, the masters’ crit was shortened by a lap for lightning. I walked the course in my street clothes, holding on to the hope that they’d just let GC stand as it was and tell us to all go home.
No such luck. I put on my kit, my $2 clear safety glasses, and my lucky black socks. I consoled myself with the one thing I had going for me—the big hill on the course. I knew it would thin out the group and give me a chance to move up. For me, this race would be pure survival. 

We took off from the line at a sprint. Two wheels or so ahead of me, a rider had problems with her pedals or gearing, and there was a squeal of brakes and cry of indignation from the pack as she more or less stalled in the first corner. When we came back around to the big hill, a rider went down in front of Meg Hendricks, guest rider for Haute Wheels, and she rode over her BMX-style, managing to stay up.
Meg Hendricks rides over a downed rider.
Pride warred with fear. I wanted very badly not to do this at all, but I also wanted very badly to stay in the top 10 in GC. All I had to do, I kept telling myself, was make sure I stayed on the back of the main group. 

The roads were almost dry at the start, and just as soon as the pack had slimmed down to a more manageable size and I was starting to feel somewhat comfortable with the turns, fat drops of rain began to fall. We navigated the really steep downhill and made the turn at the bottom okay, but at the next left, the front of the pack slid out into a pileup of riders, with Stephens, Neben, and Glaesser among them. Neben, who’d still been second in GC with a comfortable margin after Saturday’s road race, was out of the race. I rode around them and closed the gap to the group in front. I told myself I was doing okay, I could do this. And then my rear tire slid about three feet on a wet manhole cover. My courage flying in tatters like a white flag, I came off the back at nearly every left corner after that, fighting my way back on tooth and nail. The moto official hovered just behind me at these junctures, ready to pass. “Not yet,” I kept saying in my head. “Not yet.”    

At this point, my inner demons were camped out at the bottom of the big descent with a cooler of beer to heckle me each time I came around, white knuckled and clenching the brakes. I started talking to myself out loud. I counted laps. I dodged the riders who’d been riding scared like me and were now popping off the back. Each time I had to sprint hard to catch back on after a turn or at the steep uphill, I was digging so deep I was sure I would be done, but each time my batteries recharged just enough to let me make the next effort. I felt like Lazarus playing “Red light/Green light.”

Eventually a break went off the front: Stephens, Laura Brown (Colavita), Kiesanowski, and Scotti Wilborne (TIBCO). I didn’t care; breathing as loud as a train, I was wholly focused on the wheel in front of me. But in the final meters I actually sprinted around some riders on the hill, surprising no one more than myself. I came in 10th on the stage, finishing overall at sixth in GC. Sammi, gapped after the leaders’ crash, finished 25th in the stage and 26th in the overall GC. 

Overall GC podium, top 8
The sense of elation that I'd felt as soon as I’d crossed the line stayed with me the rest of the day. The crit was the stage I was the most proud of. I hadn’t ridden it well, not at all, but I hadn’t given up and had accomplished more than I’d ever dreamed was possible. Maybe my demons are still with me at the moment, but at least they’ve been relegated to the backseat.

My son had his own landmark victory during the trip. Theo started walking on his own, making gravity-defying forays from one room of the house to another. The grin on his face was something like mine on the podium, I think, a half-surprised expression that said, “Hey, would you look at that.”

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