“Today we all need to dig deep, more than we ever have this season,” I was telling my NOW and Novartis for MS team in our pre-race meeting. We all sat huddled together in the chairs outside our team van, with serious faces, none of the usual jokes being thrown around like cheap popcorn.
“And then go even deeper,” chimed in our sport director Kurt Stockton.
We had a yellow jersey to defend in the final stage of the Cascade Cycling Classic, and we only had it by four seconds. Last night we had screwed up the criterium and the worst possible scenario unfolded: Carmen Small (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) won and secured the ten second time bonus to move within a hair’s breadth of our teammate, and overall race leader, AP (Alison Powers).
“I raced with my head up my ass yesterday,” AP apologized to us. “But today I am back, I am ready, and I feel confident about the race.”
Those were the words we needed to hear. After the criterium AP had broke down. It was not the Alison we knew. She had raced to lose the jersey, not raced to win it. But we all were to blame. None of us raced the criterium liked we normally do, and in the end Carmen Small, Jade Wilcoxson and the Optum team handed us a lesson in racing crits. Not only did they win the race, they won all the point sprints and most of the cash primes. Two words sum up last night: we sucked.
However, today I could sense the difference among my teammates. I, for one, had better legs – they felt like they should on the final day of a hard stage race, where I always get stronger as the race progresses. BethBikes (Beth Newell), our trackie-turned-roadie who is still learning the ropes, had a terrible time with the crit and was ready to make amends. Pokey-Gokey (Christina Gokey-Smith), our sprinter, was antsy, knowing she was about to enter the big-time hurt zone. Hills, you must understand, are not her thing. Even Dr. DevonGo (Devon Gorry) – our team economist –with her bright, cheery persona, always smiling, had on her game-face, the face of total concentration, the one we only see when she is preparing another excel spread-sheet calculating out the team’s prize money split, or dividing up the food bill.
It was game-on for the NOW and Novartis for MS team. We were ready to defend the yellow, win the overall for the first time in the short history of our team, and do it in the one of biggest, most prestigious stage races for women on the US National Racing Calendar.
The Optum team did not disappoint – they came out with all guns firing. Jade Wilcoxson, like a classic Winchester rifle, gave a wild west show – with a shortened race this year to 3 laps from 4, it was full-on attacks from the green jersey clad Optum rider.
We had three riders we could not let go in a break: Carmen Small at 4 seconds; Megan Guarnier (Tibco) at 18 seconds; and Wilcoxson at 36 seconds. Everyone else we were happy to give free rein to; we simply needed to control the break with the team setting tempo at the front. In fact, a break of non-threats up the road is what we wanted so they would eat up the time bonus seconds at the finish.
Over the QOM (queen of the mountain) climb the first time, with team Optum pushing the pace, they isolated Alison from us. Fortunately Megan Guarnier was in the same boat with no teammates in the small select group a handful of seconds ahead and the Tibco team chased hard. This allowed the NOW team to save some energy and we let them do the work. Whew. One dangerous bullet dodged.
Shortly after this we lost Olivia Dillon to a crash. That was a huge blow to the team losing a pair of our strongest legs, but we just buckled down and did not let that phase us, concentrating instead on lap two ahead. Our focus remained on defending yellow and we shoved the crash out of our heads.
I chatted with team captain Robin Farina at the start of the second lap. We could not let what just happened, happen again. We needed to be closer to AP over the top next time so she would not be isolated and exposed to the attacks of Optum. We needed to dig a little deeper.
In the second lap there were flurry of attacks from various riders, but it was only when we saw our three main threats go up the road did we immediately react. At one point we had the team set a light tempo when riders that were only a minute back in the general classification slipped off the front. But the wind made it difficult for them to gain time and we probably should have let them have more lead when a flash of green countered.
Jade again! We shut down her moves but I have to say she was relentless. However, the team’s plan was simple: AP followed Carmen around the entire race and the rest of the team’s job was to keep Jade in the bunch. Ha! Keep Jade in the bunch. Jade was not so easy to keep in the bunch.
When Jade, yet again, slipped off in a large group at the start of lap three, our final circuit, it was when AP had gone back to the team car to talk with our director Kurt. A moment where we were not attentive and bam! Jade is gone. But there was no panic in our team. I asked (okay maybe yelled, but not like Robin, who screams) to BethBikes to get to the front and bring that back. Beth pulled for a few kilometers, keeping the break in sight. She blew, but her job was done. Amends made.
On the descent Devon took over from Beth. Robin shared the work with me up the feed-zone climb, and by the top the break was only fifteen seconds clear. Perfect. We knew that Jade was driving the break and we still had teammates to burn. If we could fatigue Jade, we eliminated a huge threat with the finish of the race looming. Only ten kilometers remained.
Pokey-Gokey had covered the break for us and was just sitting on. A big effort for her. If we needed to, we could always pull her out to help chase. But there was no need. Big DevonGo (yes she is a six-footer) took over at the top of the climb and with her huge engine slowly pulled us back to the escapees. Robin and I sat behind the huge draft, saving our energy for the final climb and the rollers to the finish. With the two of us still in reserve, Devon dug deep and turned the pedals over steadily, and smoothly, never giving in, or revealing the pain that I knew she was going through. That kind of selfless riding can bring a tear to my eye. And for those who know me, that means something!
As we latched on to the break Devon exploded and was gone. As we neared the final ascent I was feeling very good about the current situation. Jade was showing obvious signs of fatigue, and we only had to carefully watch Carmen Small and Megan Guarnier. At this point AP was not going to let either of them go, and Robin and myself were still there to help.
The attack on the climb came from Exergy’s KMac (Kristen McGrath). She was over a minute back in the overall, and with only a fistful of kilometers remaining she would not be able to gain that time. Plus, she would take the ten second time bonus. Other’s tried to follow and we let all go, watching only Small, Guarnier, and Jade – bless her heart, she still tried to the bitter end.
Only KMac had the legs to hold off the whittled down bunch to the finish. She won with seven seconds to spare. AP stuck to Carmen’s wheel and this time she had no problem to come around her, placing third on the stage and securing the yellow jersey.
The picture at the finish explains everything. The yellow jersey crossing the finish, and in the background you see me with my arm in the air, looking behind, searching for Robin, also with her arm raised high.
It takes teamwork to win.