This past Sunday, June 5th, was the final road race of the So Cal cycling schedule so it was important for our Swami's team to have a good presence.
The 93-mile race in the oil fields outside Bakersfield was challenging as the course included long stretches of exposed road to the wind and sun, sections littered with potholes that resembled Belgian cobbles, a gradual four-mile climb and a twisting descent.
We had five teammates in the race which gave us firepower and allowed us each to take up a roll within the race. The night before we gathered for a team dinner and discussed our war plan.
Our youngest rider, Matt Shackley, covered each and every early breakaway move in an effort to keep our team represented in case one of the moves stuck. Pascal Bonaventure, who had raced, and won, the 40-plus race the previous day, was glued near the front of the pack and always provided me with a safe wheel to follow through the field. Trevor Haag came into the race a bit under trained and had some difficulty, and Chris Burnam came into his own during the third lap and towed me back into the lead group after I slipped out of the group the final time up the climb. Last, but not to be forgotten, were Miles and Daniel who selflessly handed us feeds after each lap. Without those two, five Swami's would have entered the scorching oil fields and not made it out alive.
Going into the race, I knew my fitness was getting better with each passing week, so I thought if the climb was not ultra selective I would have a chance to fight it out in the final miles. At the same time, I did not like my chances in a bunch sprint.
The first lap was ho-hum as one lone rider went off the front and built a one-and-a-half minute lead. This did not cause too much panic in the group though as that breakaway rider was a weak climber and was merely trying to make it over the climb to avoid getting dropped. Some minor attacks went but they always were neutralized.
The second time up the climb at the 50-mile mark into the race, the pace was elevated and cracks formed in the group. I managed to stay at the front and tried to keep the pressure on all the way over the top of the climb. However, once off the descent, the pace slowed again the dropped riders from the climb were eventually able to rejoin.
A rider I have a great deal of respect for, Eric Marcotte, did not have any teammate support in this race and kept urging others to keep the pace high. When riders wouldn't respond, he would ride off the front in an effort to instigate some breakaway companions. Each time he went, I rode off with him and we took pull after pull but every gap was eventually closed.
At the 70-mile mark, the third time we hit the section of road littered with potholes, the race official who had been following us, waved the entire peloton to a halt and we sat unable to pedal for five minutes while he chewed riders out for crossing over the yellow line at various points during the race. This forced pit stop allowed dropped riders to rejoin the group and we were a massive group of fifty-plus riders going into the final 20-miles of the race.
A few riders raced away as the official was finishing up his lecture - which was bush league - and it seemed to distract the peloton for a few minutes before we organized a hard tempo again. With two miles to the base of the climb, I jumped off the front and was again joined by Marcotte, a few CashCall riders and Pascal and I thought we had the right mix of riders to crack the race open. However, the group caught us at the base of the climb and attacks started from there.
The third time up the climb was brutal and I lost contact with the leaders after the first mile. I dangled off the back and held the wheel of another rider until I felt him start to slip. I jumped around him and grabbed the wheel of another guy. We started to pull back to the end of the group in the final mile but the elastic snapped before we caught on. A slight flat section allowed us to get our rhythm back and it was then Burnam rode up and set an even paced tempo. He saved our group and he didn't ask anyone else for help. He rode steady and got us to the top of the climb. Once we hit the last flat section before the downhill, I found my legs again and slotted in to help with pulls.
It took us four miles of steady chasing, but we locked on to the group at the base of the climb. I went right back to the front of the group as psychologically I find it easier to ride and react to attacks from that position. Every few miles attacks were launched, mostly from CashCall riders, who did a great job of instigating all afternoon. Once all the hills on the course were behind us, we had five miles in the crosswinds back to the start/finish area. Knowing I would be out of contention in a sprint, I attempted a move off the front and was joined by a few riders - including Burnam - and we swapped pulls for a mile. We were reeled back in and off went a counter attack. The pace stayed hot for the last two miles and within the last mile, I slid off the back of the group and found myself riding with Burnam and a RideClean rider. We hovered a few meters off the back of the group but were too far off to contend for the final sprint.
In the final kilometer - a false flat rise - a handful of riders tangled wheels as the sprint was winding up. We watched as the boys raced for the podium pecking order and when we crossed the line a few seconds later we heard Cashcall's David Santos took the win with two riders from the NOW-MS team finishing second and third. Pascal, and his 42 years of life experiences, grabbed ninth and beat dozens of racers half his age. He finished as the top Swami. I rolled across in 20th and Burnam was on my shoulder and was 22nd. Shackley, who was a beast throughout the day, finished a few minutes back but made the top 30. Jason Holden, who races for Wolf Pack, but was Friend of Swami (FOS) for the weekend finished 35th in his second Cat 1/2 race.
Despite not grabbing a podium spot, this was an improvement for the team as our guys showed maturity and raced aggressively and stayed near the front of the race. We helped one another out on the course and rode with guts.
Until next time, ride on.