Sunday, 23 April
Today was the big road race stage at the Willamette Valley Classic. It featured two BIG climbs (3+ miles each), three not-quite-so-big climbs (~1 mile), as well as some things that were definitely bigger than rollers. The second half of the stage was on roads I had raced on before; the first half was new. We rode 70 miles, the same as the eliter men’s categories. In a nutshell, it was an absolutely spectacular day on the bike, in spite of an operator error that cost me any hopes of GC respectability. It wasn't epic, it was just good, hard fun.
Our race started at 8:50, when it was all of about 45 degrees. You knew it was going to warm up, but it was hard to convince yourself that you didn’t want long sleeves or shoe covers or knee warmers. The race staged and finished at the King Estate Winery, which perches on top of a BIG hill near Lorane. So the first half-mile of the race was really frigid going downhill.
We rolled along in the valley at such an amiable pace that our follow official pulled up next to us and asked if we knew we were racing! The tempo on the first little hill was pretty moderate, and I don’t think anyone got seriously gapped off. We had our pack pee stop; I had chosen the right day to not wear bib shorts. The first BIG climb came about 20 miles in, and it was probably 3-4 miles long; the course profile shows 1000 feet of elevation gain. Riders kept going off the back until we were down to 10, with Leah setting tempo most of the time. I hung in there all the way to the top, and down the other side, but nobody wanted to drive the pace and the whole field caught back on within a few miles.
The next climb wasn’t so big, but I wasn’t expecting it. I had worked my way through my gears until I was riding on my 50x23, so of course when I shifted onto the little ring, the chain came off. I guess I forgot to turn in my fred license when I upgraded to cat 2. The hill was steep enough at this stage that I didn’t have enough momentum to give me time to get it back on by pedaling, so I had to stop, get off the bike, and put the chain back on. 300 meters off the back is a big gap on a climb when there’s more horsepower at the front than you’ll ever muster. I worked and worked and passed riders. When the pack turned onto Siuslaw River Road—which is where the course became familiar—I was still 200m off the back. Chase, chase some more, and finally I got back on. The double-whammy problem was that Siuslaw has some pretty substantial rollers and I need recovery time after an effort like that. Bad combo. We came to a hill right away, somebody punched it, and I was out the back again.
After that, as they say, I was no longer racing; I was just riding my bike. I rode in little groups of different women. I rode away from some on the climbs, and one rode away from me on the descents. I had a good deal going for a while with Deb on the rollers; I rode on the front on the uphill and sat on her wheel on the downhill. I never got reattached to the front group, and probably I would not have stayed if I had. I set tempo for my little group (which had a different composition at the top than at the bottom) up all of the Wolf Creek climb, and then again on the 5 miles of false flat into a headwind before the descent down to Territorial Highway. At the bottom of the hill, I was riding solo again for the longest time (trying to catch Maria who was maybe 300m up the road) until Allison and Kori came by, and I hung on to the Allison train all the way to the finish. We lost Kori on the last little hill coming up to the mondo climb back up to the finish at the winery.
This was a PERFECT course. The scenery was amazing. You wonder how riding through trees can be so great, but in the Willamette Valley they are dripping with moss, they are just now starting to leaf out, and the sun was trickling through them all. They make a canopy over the road in a lot of places. And there is NOBODY else on the roads. (Except chipmunks!)
Most of the roads were nice 2-lane affairs with a yellow line down the midde. But this is “Willamette” after all, and we had a fair distance on patched, gravely little one-lane BLM/logging roads with branches and fallen trees across half the lane in places. No traffic. More trees. It was truly a taste of the old Tour of Willamette. The kind of stuff we don’t have at home. (Me saying I liked riding on gravel and broken pavement ranks right up there with yesterday’s fun in a technical circuit race for unlikeliness.) The climb where I dropped my chain was on a bitsy little road with no centerline, and you couldn't tell where the edge of the road was because it was covered in gravel and needles. We were given the "whole road" on the first big climb where I stayed with the front group, and it was nice to be able to take the shortest line through some of the corners. After patroling the yellow line like it was the edge of the universe in our two previous road stages, the officials must have figured out there hadn't been cars out on the roads we were on today in months.
After the feed zone on Siuslaw River Road (who were all those people who knew my name?), there’s about a mile of descending with some tight turns. We rode this road last summer in the Co-Motion Classic on the tandem, and as I went around the bends at the top following Allison’s wheel, I was wondering how on earth I managed to hang on to the tandem which was undoubtedly going a lot faster than I had the nerves to go on my own. As if to jar me out of my reverie, a chipmunk scooted out onto the road, stopped about a foot from Allison’s wheel, and turned around. I’m not sure who was more frightened: me, Allison, or the chipmunk!
Getting to race with Alice is always fun because you know she loves the sport but she doesn't treat it like rocket science and is just out for a good, hard effort. There aren't many wheels I would rather ride on because you just KNOW she's got the bike handling skills to avoid anything. It was great to see her in the front group on the big climbs today. Maybe someday we'll have to get her to take a time trial seriously. It was also good (in a perverse sort of way--you know she'll make you suffer) to have Leah back after her crash at Cascade last July. And it was a pleasure to race in an elite women's peloton. After the first day, there was not a sketchy wheel in the bunch. It's going to be hard to go back to Tuesday nights with masters and cat 4-5 men.
Oh, and the weather? For all those people who didn’t come to this race “because it always rains at Willamette,” it was 70 degrees and not a cloud in the sky at our finish.
I think maybe I had more fun today being a fred out the back than I would have if I had been trying my damnedest not to get dropped by the pros and 1s in our pro-1-2 field. I didn’t win, I wasn’t even the first loser, but I had a lot of fun. It was one of those days that makes me appreciate being able to race my bike and ranks right up there in top 10 days on the bike. Thanks to Richard Sweet and his army of volunteers and OBRA folks for starting a new Willamette Valley tradition. It really is a “Classic”!