Monday, April 25, 2011

Wind and Wine in Walla Walla

I did my first stage race of 2011 this past weekend, the Tour of Walla Walla.  One of the biggest regional races, this show has usually drawn a very competitive field across all categories.  This year was no exception for the Women Cat 4 field- most of the top ladies from the local races were there, along with some really fast ladies from Eastern Washington and Canada. 

Our races included a Saturday morning 9.3 mile time trial, a 25 minute criterium or "crit" in the afternoon, and the rather hilly Kellogg Hollow Road Race Sunday morning (37 miles, five moderate climbs for about 1900 feet of climbing total). I've been loosely following a training plan which has me peaking in time for July's criterium races, so I came into this race planning on using it mostly as training.

Here's a stage-by-stage account...

Time Trial: 
I woke up at 5:30 am not quite in race mode.  We had driven over late and gotten a little mixed up on the way, but we finally pulled in around midnight.  I could have slept but I really wanted to get the snaps on the baby jersey, so I pounded snaps while Chad drove.

  My start time was at an ungodly hour of 7:08 in the morning (seriously! inhumane, I tell you!)  Uh, here's a quick confession- I don't really like time trials.  I tend to avoid them (this would be my second one in over a year of racing), as I'm not naturally good at them, and I basically blow them off and don't do any preparation for them.  Case in point- I didn't put my time trial bars on until Saturday morning, nearly missing my start as I adjusted them.  Oh well, no matter- the friendly race officials held my bike for me at the start, gave me the coundown, and I was off!  Despite my lack of preparation and training for this event, I was feeling pretty confident in my ability to at least catch one or two women in front of me- I didn't recognize their names on the start list so I figured they must be slow!  LB from Group Health was starting about 2 minutes behind me, and she's one of the strongest time trialers out there, so I figured if I could hold her off, or at least  try to not get passed by her until the last 5k or so, I'd be sitting in a good spot. 

I started out way fast- my heart rate crept up to about 193 and hung out there for a few minutes.  I was gaining on the woman in front of me, when a burning sensation began to creep up my legs and I started to get even more out of breath.  The lady in front of me who had been getting gradually larger as I approached was now starting to get smaller.... I was totally blowing myself up, having gone out too fast from the start.  Whoops!

I tried to reel it in a little bit, but I came around a right hand turn and felt the wind coming directly at me as the road in front of me curved upward into a significant hill.  A look at my computer revealed that I was going slower, and slower, and slower and slower, although my heart rate was pumping along at a chirpy 191 bpm.  I was really starting to suffer, letting my mind wander all over the place.  I noticed a dead possum alongside the road, his face contorted into an expression of pain, which I totally related to in that moment.  A Phish song jumped into my head... "I was riding down the road one day.... and someone hit a possum....."

The hill appeared to go on and on, getting just a little bit steeper.  I stood up and pushed, but immediately sat back down, cooked.  The spedometer said I was going 8mph.  About 3/4 of the way up the hill I noticed the 10k sign, which meant that we were halfway done.  WTF?  Only halfway?  Arrrrghhh. I was in pain.  Just then LB blew by me, saying something about "hey, you can rest on the downhill!".  I was clearly not having a great race. 

"Possum, possum, possum, possum..... possum!  The road is your end!" 

A couple of other girls drifted by me as I struggled to get to the top of the climb.  Thankfully, I made it to the top without puking and shifted up into my big ring for the descent, which consisted of long, sweeping, turns and some fun wind currents whipping around.  It was the total opposite feeling of before, I felt like I was flying.  So much fun.

I crossed the finish line not quite in last place but close to it- oh well.  Looks like I need to get some more TT training in before the next stage race.

Crit:  The crit took place in downtown Walla Walla, a twisty turny course with 8 (yes 8!) corners.  I lined up in the second row behind most of my teammates and had a good start when the gun went off.  The pace was insane- super strong girls pressing from the front of the pack, and I was hanging on for dear life for the first three laps.

On the back side of the fourth lap, I was following someone from Blue Rooster (I think it was Sharon Gregg but I can't confirm), when all of a sudden I saw her wheel buckle. She started to wobble, then came flying towards me as I maneuvered to keep out of her way.  I moved left to dart around her, but all of a sudden her leg was in the line I was moving into.  I'm not sure whether I bunny hopped or just swerved around her, but somehow I managed to stay upright and get around her.  When I looked up, though, I was 4-5 bike lengths off the pack, which was moving along at a good clip.  I chased with Barb for a good 2 laps, but that was that- we were dropped.  Oh, and there was another crash on the front of the stretch, which we came around and saw the aftermath of- two girls down, clutching body parts, it didn't look pretty.  The officials whistled at us which usually means we've been pulled, but then they motioned us through to keep going.  We finished the race but were both disappointed that we had been kicked through a mechanical.  Huge shout out to our teammate Tina, who got caught up in the crash and banged up her elbow, but somehow managed to come in 10th.  Way to ride Tina!!!!  Hot Stuff!

Barb cranking

All the Cat 4 team ladies of the TOWW (minus Abby)

Mirna in hot pursuit in the crit

Chad with his mom Debbie and Bob (hot poop, Chad!)

Sarah and Anthony

Theresa and Chad goofing off

Kellogg Hollow Road Race:  I spent some time Saturday evening driving this course and  was convinced that it would be a training ride for me, given my lack of conditioning for climbing and my poor TT showing from Saturday morning.  We had approximately 1900 feet of climbing to do in just under 40 miles, which isn't the hilliest bike ride I've ever done but it is easily the most hilly road race I've yet attempted.  I assumed my legs would be blown up from Saturday so I was excited to just relax and enjoy the scenery, maybe hook up with a teammate or two to keep things interesting.

I managed to hang with the pack up the first climb, which was about what I predicted.  I started to slip off the back a little ways into the second climb.  I found Abby, and she and I and another rider worked to chase back on.  We stayed in visual contact with the pack for quite awhile- 3-4 miles, maybe.  At times it was looking like we were going to catch them, but every time we neared the tail end, the peleton would take off again.  At one point I looked at my computer and we were chugging along at 25 mph, but not making any ground on them- they were absolutely hauling.  Some super fast ladies out there this weekend, I honestly didn't feel bad about getting dropped at those paces.  At the base of the next climb Abby and I sat up and let it go.  We heard teammates Barb and Angela calling at us from a few hundred yards back to wait, so we soft pedaled until all four of us were together.  I headed out up the climb and surprisingly, my legs felt great- I had ridden the hurt right out of them!  I kept the spin nice and mellow, and settled into a rhythmic breath pattern, enjoying the crisp cool sunshine and the scenery- the rolling green hills of the palouse were a familiar, comforting site to this E. Washington gal. The grades really favored me, also- for some reason I really like climbing up something with a 3-4% grade.  I feel like I can just keep spinning and spinning and I don't fatigue really.

Anyhow, we ambled up the climb, then spread out for a screaming, windy, super fun and fast descent.  I had a big huge grin on my face the entire way down.  At the bottom, I waited for the other ladies to finish descending then we regrouped again.  We started along in a rotating paceline through the flat portions of the course, and that was really fun- we would zip along taking short pulls, protecting each other from the wind, and we blew by women working solo as if they were standing still.  SO fun!!

We did more or less the same thing up the next two climbs- I set out a nice gradual pace in the front and the rest of the team lined up in the wind behind me.  A van full of team husbands was waiting at the top, cheering us along, which was just wonderful- Chad was there taking photos and yelling for us, Aaron, Jack and Mike were hollering and cheering, and Anthony ran next to us, TDF style, to tell us that there was a one girl break at the front of the race and that Sarah was in the first chase group, 30 seconds back.  Woo hoo!  That was great news!

Getting the race report

We crested the hill and were immediately hit by a 20+ mph side wind ripping across the wheat as we began descending.  I held on tight to my handlebars and leaned way into the wind, to my left, but my wheels still wanted to jerk violently to the right.  Whew!  It was a bit scary but also pretty thrilling to be fighting the wind in that way.  I slowed a bit until the descent took a big turn to the right, the wind coming from my back now, and absolutely careened down the hill into the next valley, eyes watering and mouth open in a big grin.  Man, I just LOVE riding my bicycle down hill.  The feeling of a fast, heart pounding descent is pretty tough to beat.

At the bottom, I waited again for my teammates, not wanting to do anything in that wind on my own!  We formed another paceline and swallowed up another girl out there, blasting by her as if she was standing still.

After a few miles of the rotating paceline, and after a couple of long 25mph hauls by Barb (she is such an inspiration!  57 years old, coming back from a knee replacement, and TT'ing all of us into the ground!) we found ourselves at the base of the final climb of the day.  Again, I popped out to the front and set a pace, feeling rested and relatively fresh, especially considering how much work those girls who were out there on their own were doing.  We continued up and up to the crest, then started our final descent.  We regrouped at the bottom more quickly into our paceline, and really ate some women up- I think we caught four in the last 5 km.  Most of them seemed too dazed to try to ride with us, but one Whitman racer, Rachel, appeared to be feeling pretty good and jumped right into our rotation, doing her share of the work to get us to the finish line.

I was happy to have her there, as it meant less overall work for me, but she also presented a bit of an unknown in terms of finishing strategy.  Before she joined us, we had agreed that I'd be the one to sit on until a sprint finish, as a reward for putting my good legs to work as the first one up most of the climbs for the day.  Now, though, I wasn't sure what to do.  As we dropped within the final 1k, we stopped rotating and we let Rachel lead us across the flat.  We could see the finish line clearly, as it was a big, long, flat section, and the line seemed to be much closer than it was.  I was sitting on her wheel in 2nd position, which was ideal.... patience, I told myself, patience.... but I couldn't wait!  What if they had forgotten to put up the 200m sign?  What if she was super quick and there wasn't time for me to come around?  Pop!  I came out of the line and shot around her wheel, only realizing too late that we were still 400m from the finish.  I managed to get 2-3 bike lengths on her, but in just a few quick seconds she wheeled past me and we were now inside the 200m mark.  I was cooked- all sprinted out.  Damn!  Barb saw this all unfold from the third position, and when I died out she came around me and Rachel both to take the win at the line.  Abby, who was right behind Barb, graciously let me beat her by a half wheel (although she could have easily come out around me to beat me, thanks Ab!).  I was bummed I had missed my opportunity to practice a sprint, but I was happy Barb had the presence of mind to come around the Whitman girl, rather than let her take advantage of all of our hard team work.
Rachel a bit ahead of me (see the purple bar tape in back?)

Crossing the finish

Angela finishing

Happy bikes

Van full of husbands (and racers too)

In the end it was a fabulous day- one of the best days of road racing I've had in awhile.  I can't wait to do more races like that one!  Yeah!!!

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