Go Dad Go!

A self-important blog about riding bikes, raising kids and the all-too-rare nexus of these two pursuits.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Copperopolis 2009

The Copperopolis Road Race is known as "the Paris-Roubaix of Northern California," but most who have raced it believe that to be a misnomer. Yes, the roads are rough, but -- as it's very hip to write in one's cycling blog, I've learned -- they're not that rough. They're a patchwork of slapdash repaving with the occasional pothole, but the pavement is nothing like the slick cobbles of that race in Northern Europe.

But Copperopolis has some other distinguishing features: a 1,300 foot stair-climb that increases in steepness towards the top; perennially strong winds that kick in right after cresting that leg-sapping hill; and a twisty, chattery descent that sends bottles flying (and the occasional rider too). So it's a different kind of race, but it's one I've grown to love.

Ironic, that; four years ago I decided to race at Copperopolis for one reason: it's convenient. It starts in the "town" of Milton (really just a couple of farms and a three-way crossroads), 30 minutes from Karen's parents' place, and it's traditionally held the Saturday before Easter. Against my visceral judgment, then, I raced with the 4s in '06 and finished mid-pack. In '07 I raced with the masters 4s -- twice around the 22-mile loop -- and finished fourth. In '08 I took on the masters 1/2/3s -- 3 laps this time -- got dropped on the second trip up the climb...but found myself having grown to enjoy the race, despite its danger, its joint- and bike-fatiguing surfaces and my flagging results.

So going into this year I was feeling less than confident. I'd decided, oddly, to ride four laps, or 88 miles, with the 3s; if there was any rationale, I think I'd figured that the 3s typically lack the uber-climbers one faces with the masters 1/2/3s, so maybe I could hang in longer. But having last ridden longer than 70 miles in August, and having trained less than last year, I'd decided that I'd treat this one like a slightly competitive charity ride (the last way I'd ridden that far).

Joining me for the ride were my teammates, the brothers Long. (Actually Toby and Maury just share a last name; look at them for a moment or speak with them for ten seconds and you'll conclude they're not related.) I warmed up with Toby on some of the course's smoother roads, very nervous for the sufferfest to come, but happy to be out on a chilly, but pleasantly sunny spring morning.

The first lap did nothing to soothe my neves, as we scaled the climb at a very brisk pace; I'd told myself I'd pay attention to the scenery this year, including the spectacular canyon that parallels the big ascent, but instead found myself watching the wheel in front of me. I crested at the back of the pack, with about ten of our field of sixty or so already having dropped off behind me.

The pace stayed high through the rollers around the reservoir (the one that I didn't know existed after two years of doing this race, until someone asked me about it and I realized I was always too blown to look around at the top of the climb) and into the farms, getting gapped and having to work too hard to close going into the long, straight stretch between farms; there I determined that I'd pay better attention and not find myself without a draft, especially as the wind kicked up, which it invariably does.

As we took the second, smaller climb a bit less aggressively, I prepared myself for the famously bouncy descent; on the way down I began to hear a knocking, not a typical ting-ting-ting of cable against aluminum, but something louder and far more foreboding. Not sure what to do I eased up towards the bottom of the descent, the section where the curves loosen and guys tend to open things up, and the hunt-and-pecking of the top section becomes a trained-secretary's 90 WPM. I gripped my bars far more tightly than I was supposed to, hearing that knocking come louder and louder, and just as things smoothed out I looked ahead and found myself again gapped. I waited shamelessly for someone to come by -- I knew someone would -- and tow me back to the group. I grabbed a drink as we passed through the finishing area and thought, "One down."

Blessedly, as would befit this Easter weekend, our pace eased up on lap two. At the top of the big climb a few guys escaped off the front, and we in the field were clearly comfortable letting them go. As the pace fell the level of conversation rose, and it became apparent that no one was up for 88 miles of intensity. Toby looked great ascending through the canyon, and I followed his wheel, conscious not to work any harder than necessary. With the easier pace I was able to listen closely to the knocking in my bike, and though I wasn't sure where it was coming from, I mostly convinced myself there was no cause for concern. Irrationality reigns when trying to coax one's self through a bike race.

Heading up the ascent on lap three I found myself oddly comfortable with the pace, and even began to consider that I might be able to finish the race strongly. Knowing that I climb best when I can establish a rhythm, and that doing so is virtually impossible when following wheels on a bumpy road, I lifted the pace just slightly coming off the smooth, repaved section, so that I could follow my own line through the potholed steep pitch about two thirds of the way up. Maury stayed close, as did a couple of other guys, but we managed to string things out as few seemed to want to follow. I started thinking, surprisingly rationally, that my best bet in this race would be to whittle things down on the climbs, so I took the pace up once more, still working shy of the red line. We crested, and I was in front, and the sun was shining, and I realized that I would finish the race and had a shot at a strong result...and then I looked back and learned that my pace had proven far from selective, as a good 20 racers still trailed closely.

Another five or ten caught on in the next few miles as we let the pace settle again, and I had a chance to appreciate the scenery. It really is a spectacular course. Nestled in the Sierra foothills, in what I believe is considered gold country, the fields and surrounding forest were a lush green. I'd sworn I wouldn't ride the race if it had been raining, and I realized as we approached the end of our third lap that the timing had been perfect: not only was it a spectacularly clear day, but the recent rains had cooled things off while holding off summer's brown for another week.

Heading into the fourth lap, I had two thoughts: (1) I'm tired, but no more so than these other guys, from what I can tell; and (2) That knocking noise hasn't gone away yet. I wasn't up to attacking the climb, but I decided I could ride towards the front. I followed a suddenly strong Maury and a couple of other guys, evolving from a rhythmic tempo at the base to a Mancebo-like, assymetrical lurch over the handlebars, grinding through the steep section, but as we rounded the final curve and approached the smoother road at the top of the ascent, there was just one rider around. Rather than look back, I gave it a little push, thinking maybe we could get a gap, maybe the two of us, or heck, five or six of us could ride away -- but again, a steady stream of racers followed, a few, small gaps between groups of two and three, gaps that quickly closed as we again formed a solid, unglorious peloton. We'd shaken a few and were down to fifteen, but any hopes I'd had of riding the final lap with a t-shirt securely in place (they go to the top six) were dashed.

I looked around and saw that Toby had made our selection, and Maury was definitely still there. Feeling like I still had a bit in the tank, I told Maury that I was thinking of trying to bridge up to the break up the road, but when we turned west and felt the wind (not to mention my aching legs) I thought better of it. So instead I took stock. I figured:
  • I was really, really tired -- but again, no more than anyone else, from what I could tell.
  • The final climb typically doesn't separate things enough that they don't come together on the descent and the final run-up to the finish.
  • I'm a lousy sprinter and a worse descender.
  • The knocking in my bike was only getting worse.
  • We were entering a cross-wind section.
  • I had two teammates still in this chase group -- which wasn't really chasing very hard.
I concluded that I did thus need to try something before the climb, something to break things up. Just as I was trying to summon the gumption to do so, with about six miles to go in the race, I saw Maury, who I figured was our best bet for a strong result, go to the front. That was the impetus I needed: not wanting him to use any more energy than necessary before the finish, I rode next to him and said something I've wanted to say mid-race ever since hearing the expression:

"Get on my wheel, Maury; we're going to put these guys in the gutter."

With that I rode ahead of Maury and veered to the downwind side of the road. I left just enough room for him to tuck in behind me, and little enough that anyone else could get an advantage. I looked ahead and saw the soft shoulder, the erratic road's edge, and imagined a line of fifteen guys behind me, fighting for a spot, trying to hold on as I surged towards the final climb. We'd cause gaps, I thought, shake at least half the group loose, and then we'd hit the climb with Maury, and hopefully Toby still there and feeling strong. They'd take the climb with just a few other guys as I blocked, and I'd watch them fly down the descent and towards the finish, passing the break as they streaked towards a 1-2 finish; later they'd hand me a t-shirt, thanking me for playing a key role in Team Oakland's big day...

Only when I looked back, everyone was there. All fifteen. If it hadn't been so windy someone probably would have been whistling, just to let me know he was unimpressed.

But saying "put them in the gutter" was really fun.

So instead I headed into the final climb nearly blown, and really wondering what to do. I managed to crest about halfway back of the first of our group, but as we started down the screamer of a downhill, for the first time all day really racing the descent, I started gripping. "What am I thinking?" I wondered. "For all I know that noise is a steer tube, or a hub about to blow apart. I'm going 40 mph, risking my neck (literally) for...a t-shirt?"

Wimpy, yes. But I'd spent the race listening to this very obvious noise, and listening to guys asking me, "Dude, what's that noise." Disconcerting, to say the least. So I backed off. I braked going into the turns, and especially into the jarring final section, the one where I could most easily imagine my fork snapping and my flying ass-over-tea kettle (what does that mean?) into the ditch, and into the back of an ambulance that would take an hour to arrive from Modesto or Stockton.

I backed off, and I thus hit the base of the descent at the back of the group. From there fireworks started, as Phil & Paul would say, and I watched it all: we passed riders from other categories just as we started up the final climb to the finish, swerving left around them, and one of our guys punched it very early, with a good kilometer to go. Maury went soon after, too early, I thought, but clearly he was feeling good. We dodged another other-category racer or two, and someone swung left in front of me. I caught sight of Toby moving up on the left and then easing towards the center -- and then I thought, "What am I doing? I still have a little something left!" I stepped on the pedals with about 100 meters to go, but I was too late, and too far back. I passed a few guys and finished around 12th in the field. We'd passed one of the guys from the break, I later learned, so add two to any field-sprint result: Toby, who'd told me it was all he could do to finish the big climb with our group, managed a very admirable 2nd in the field, 4th overall, earning more upgrade points -- and my coveted t-shirt.

So my result left something to be desired, but in perspective, I was thrilled; I'd come hoping to finish, and I'd outdone those expectations. Now, of course, everything would change: I'd go home and find some more races, and talk to Karen about kicking my training into gear, and figure out where I could race while we're traveling this summer -- all a far cry from the hang-it-up statements I'd been making over the previous few weeks.

Toby and I rode around, letting our legs recover and hoping to watch Levi Leipheimer finish with the pros. I stopped and tested my bike, trying to figure out where the awful knocking was coming from. I dropped the front wheel, and knocked the head tube, and the front brake, and held the brakes while scooting the bike back and forth to test the headset...but heard nothing. Then Toby said, "Mike, it's your bag." I told him it couldn't be, that the noise was coming from the front of the bike. "Check it out," he said, "it's your bag." I rode over some bumps, holding my seatbag firmly so that nothing could rattle -- or knock -- and heard...nothing. I let go, and the knocking started again. It was my bag.

So could I have flown down the descent, and positioned myself well, and won that t-shirt?

No matter. It was a spectacular day. Much better than expected, which is about the best that one can expect to be able to say.


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