The Diamond Valley Road Race hit me on Saturday like a punch in the gut. Our well-tempered pack of not much more than 30 riders started peacefully enough: we rode civilly from starting area to begin the first of five laps of the 11.4 mile course. My goal: stay near the front to have a good position on the subsequent climb. This is something I'd failed to do each of my previous two rides here, and in each case it cost me added anaerobic stress during the beginning of the two-part climb. In each case I'd managed to survive these efforts, move up during the race, and exploit general attrition to place (for me) fairly well. But it's always easier climbing from the front than the back: position on a climb this short is money in the bank worth more than any weight-weenie gram shaving.
I'd arrived with Cara to our campground late Friday afternoon. A solid night's rest camping at Grover Hot Springs, then a relaxed breakfast, and I still arrived to the race two full hours before my 11:20 am start. I knew the altitude was an issue, and so had focused particularly on hydration since my arrival in camp. After registering and dealing with a brake pad issue (use Campy, not Shimano-compatible pads on Zero Gravity brakes...), I had plenty of time for a leisurely tour of the course before my start.
The wind was where I wanted it: a headwind on the descent, a tailwind at the finish. This basically neutralized the descent: the big gravity-assisted power-maniacs couldn't cause any damage there, while the approach to the finish with its combination of gentle upslope and wind from the tail would favor a longer attack rather than the late sprint which a headwind rewards. If I had a chance for a good result, for example top ten would be nice, then these were the conditions which would maximize it. I was 11th in 2007, so top ten was realistic, I thought.
Soon after the start we began the descent of Carson River Road. Chris Phipps almost immediately moved up on the right side. That was the way it should be done. Flash-back to last year when Mike Hutchison moved up across the center-line on the left: he subsequently attacked with Chris Wire and Mike Taylor, staying away the rest of the race. Honestly I hoped Chris would also get away today. He can probably sustain around a half-watt-per-kilogram more than me and is training for the pro race at the Tour of Utah. The sooner the Chrises Phipps and Wire (back this year) were gone, the more likely the pace would suit my fitness and ability.
Sure enough, the headwind was a big factor, compressing the small pack on the gradual descent. Hanging in the back row was easy enough, but not the right thing to do. Nevertheless my inherent distrust of what I can't see (and riders with whom I've not ridden) did me in. I wasn't willing to do what needed to be done to move. To do what Chris had done. "I belong at the front, so that's where I'm going." Instead, as usual, I was more worried about my dermis staying epi than about my pre-stated goal.
The view down the first climb, from SteepHill.tv
Whatever I expected from the climb, it wasn't what happened. The peace absolutely exploded the moment we'd turned onto Diamond Valley Road. From nervous and easy to near-maximal effort in the reduced air, I was in trouble. Take it easy, I told myself, pace yourself and you'll be fine. But I wasn't fine. The group had gapped me, and the gap was growing. I was left with a few stragglers, struggling up this harmless-looking hill in the dry heat.
I was despirited, to put it lightly. A few riders caught me from behind on the false flat following the second part of the main climb just as I overtook another. We were four. There was still hope: we could regain the pack which would unwilling and unable to sustain the hard effort to the end of the now gradual climb to the feed zone not far past the finish line. One rider pulled, then it was my turn. A quick pull, not too much, just enough to keep it moving, then I moved aside. But then the next guy in line drilled it, catching me too depleted to respond. I was gapped.
They hovered in front of me for awhile. If it hadn't been for that pointless acceleration, I'd have been able to follow. But then this gap also grew. Eventually, when I had a clean line of sight, I saw the main pack ahead, but no sign of the chasing three. It seemed they'd recaptured the main group. I, on the other hand, had little chance to do anything but pick off stragglers. I settled in for the long haul. Only 50 miles.
But it proved to be a long 50 miles. In the heat, with the combination of the headwind on the descent and the grind of the long gradual climb back to the feed zone, the vast majority exposed to the bright sun, it was seemed further. Thank heaven I had Cara in the feed zone. Her super-smooth hand-offs of chilled carbohydrate solution kept me going. And also thanks to Greg's wife Sam who cheered me as she walk-ran a counter-race circuit of the course. Dropping out simply wasn't an option.
I'd hoped to maybe hold off the non-championship E3-E4-E5 race, but no luck there. It had shattered into three groups, each of which passed me between laps 4 and 5. Fortunately I was never lapped by the 30+ or 35+ packs, which had started 10 minutes and 5 minutes before me. So I was riding steadily if not particularly fast.
Finally I finished, probably 10 minutes or more behind winner Chris Phills, far more depleted than I though justified for the sub-60 mile distance of the race. I'd logged close to 70 total for the day, but with the heat and altitude, it clearly felt like more. When the results were posted, numbers only, I was 20th of maybe 23 finishers. Persistence had paid off in a result higher than I probably deserved.
But despite not meeting my goal of top 10, the weekend was still a winner. Camping at Grover Hot Springs with Cara was a blast. Even if we couldn't hike or ride together because of her slowly recovering knee injury, even with the too-frequent engine noise from the many vehicles at the park, how can one go wrong in a tent under the tall trees in the pleasantly cool night? I slept from dusk to dawn, as we were designed to do, at least an hour more than I usually get in our world of artificial light and the constant temptation of the internet.
On Sunday, after we'd packed and soaked in the hot spring, we drove the four miles down to Markleeville for a wonderful salad lunch at the deli. Then I unloaded my bike again and recalled the Death Ride by riding the 21 miles to the Kit Carson summit. The last 15 miles or so are a long grind in the windy heat (1:13 from Woodfords to the pass) with far more traffic than I'd prefer, some even unfriendly. But who can deny the magic of a Sierra pass? Still blissfully unaware of the results of the Tour the day before, I bonded with racers in France who'd ridden the Ventoux: similar distance, similar conditions, even if Ventoux is considerably steeper.