Masters 45+. The Tokeneke Road Race was my 100th bicycle race. This includes many MTB and hillclimb races. I've only done 27 USCF mass-start road races. Some masters will do this in a season. The more road races I do, the more I learn how little I know about racing tactics. Today I learned how teamwork can turn a race around whose outcome seemed certain to me. I anticipated a hard race, and hard it was.
If you had asked me at the starting line who was going to take the top three positions, I would have said John Funk (Cycle Fitness), Dzmitry Buben (CCB), and Gerry Clapper (Benidorm), but not in any particular order. Read on to see how these three took the top three spots.
Almost from the get go, Bill Thompson (CCC/Keltic) and Frank Jennings (Gearworks) got away clean. Normally, I would fret over something like this. Thompson has won several races this season. But Cycle Fitness had three other guys in the race besides Funk, including Mark Luzio, Tom Officer, and Randy Kirk. I figured they weren't going to let this get too out of hand. Clapper had a very strong teammate with him too.
Jennings dropped back and Thompson kept going solo. Then we got to the climbing on 181. The pace got serious. I went into an anaerobic stupor and stayed there for the rest of the race, so some details might be sketchy. Around the second or third wall on 181, Buben launches off the front. He quickly caught Thompson and they worked together on the descent. Buben dropped Thompson on the climb to the KOM (also the finish line on lap two). Buben grew his lead. I've been told he wins this race every year. Buben won it decisively last year solo from first lap. I figured he had clinched the win half way into the race. Our chase effort up the finishing climb was hard with sizable group, yet Buben continued to gain on us.
Beginning lap two, Cycle Fitness guys came to the front repeatedly to keep the pace up. Often these would feel like mini attacks, the acceleration was so sudden. This certainly started to wear me down. Beginning the stair step climb on 181, we begin to bring down the time gap to Buben. Luzio and Clapper put in some killer efforts here, and I was sure I was going to get popped out of this dwindling chase group.
After the Cycle Fitness guys with help from Benidorm brought the gap to Buben down to manageable size and softened the rest of us up, Funk came to the front. I was quite sure I was going to hurl after an effort he put in. We were down to five guys with sizable gap to next splinter group. Funk pleaded for me to keep it going and pull through, but I was completely gassed. I wasn't trying to be a dink by sitting in on another's hard effort. So it was just Funk, Alec Petro (Team Psycho, who won Bow last weekend), Paul Wonsavage (Onion River Sports), Clapper and myself.
With the rest of us gassed, Funk made his move. He took off like being shot out of a mortar. I had absolutely nothing to respond with. I can only assume the others were equally gassed, as nobody tried to go with Funk. I've witnessed John make this move in several races now, and I'm amazed each time. He's a whole different level of rider and one of the nicest guys you'll meet in the masters field too.
Funk quickly caught Buben while the four of us worked to maintain our feeble gap to the next chase group. We got caught by another 5-6 riders on the descent. With Funk and Buben up the road, I figured we'd be going for 3rd place. I was hoping I had enough left in my legs for a top 10, as if I came in last in this group, I'd be looking at around 12th place.
We hit the finishing climb and everybody sat up initially. I didn't want another five riders latching on, so I picked up the pace a little bit, still in an anaerobic stupor. Clapper pulls along side and asked how I was doing, not even breathing hard. Oh, was I in trouble. Last year I went head to head with Gerry up this hill for second place and nipped him at the line. This year it was for third. Gerry and I quickly found ourselves separated from the rest of the 10 guys in our group. The gap grew nicely, but Gerry has no limit to how many times he can upshift while standing, climbing a big hill. He rode me off his wheel. I figured I was going to do no worse than 4th place at this point anyway. Amazingly, Clapper caught Buben before the line and took 2nd. Funk dropped Buben beginning the finishing climb and claimed a solid win. I held on for 4th as riders were gaining on me. The time splits weren't posted, but I assume we all came through one at a time. Clapper had at least 20 seconds on me, and it was at least that to the next guy behind me.
So the Cycle Fitness guys claimed a well-earned win today. The combination of wearing the rest of us down, thinning our ranks, and bringing Funk close enough to catch Buben without taking others along was a winning strategy. I was very happy with 4th place. This was the hardest race I've done so far this season in terms of percentage of race I spent in the "red zone." Cool temps were a huge factor in not blowing a thermal fuse or cramping up. This will probably be my last road race this season. I have three more hillclimbs lined up, including Mt Washington on the 16th. Then it's time to break out the roller skis.