I've raced Sunapee three times in the last four years. A good finish there seems to elude me. In '05, I placed 22nd in the 4/5's. In '06, I placed 7th in the M35+. I wussed out in '07 due bone chilling rain. Last year I placed 19th in the M45+. The course favors neither pure sprinters nor pure hill climbers. Neither does the Turtle Pond course, but I've won that one two times in a row now. I trained hard for the past week, slept poorly last night, and pretty much was relegated to the fact Sunapee was going to be a race of survival for me.
I was psyched to find ideal weather. It was just warm enough that long layers weren't needed. That meant probability of cramping should be low. A pretty nasty east wind was brewing up though, and that would surely play a factor in the race.
At the Wednesday night Exeter Cycles ride, two guys approached me about Sunapee. One was Michael Claus (OA/Cyclemania), the other was Keith Button (NorEast Cycling). Michael thought it would be great if OA could get Stuart Abramson in a break with me. I have no idea if Stuart knew about this or not. Keith hung with the killer lead Exeter group Wednesday and took 2nd at Sunapee in '07. He was interested in working with me too. Yeah, this would be cool, but what are the odds of that really happening?
I knew of Stuart from hillclimb races. He smoked me on Mt Washington a few years ago and will probably do so again this year. I see he's signed up. But I didn't know him by face. Lining up, I asked a random OA/Cyclemania guy which one Stuart was. That proved to be a very valuable piece of info. The fields were limited to 75 riders this year due to road construction. I shuddered when I saw the funnel we'd have to go through at high speeds on the drive in. Our field max'd out. There were at least 10 OA/Cyclemania guys there. I had three IBC teammates with me, Kevin Young, Mike Harris and Brian Anderson. I guess Paul Curley (Gearworks) was doing the same thing as I before the race, asking my teammates "which one of you guys is Doug Jansen?" I spoiled his sprint finish at Turtle Pond a couple weeks ago.
We go off at 9:20am. I'm shivering to start, but I knew the internal fire would be roaring in a few minutes. We no more than go "live" after getting out of the rotary, than OA sends a guy off the front. It wasn't Stuart. They have other contenders in the ranks though. Should I worry about it? Look around. Is anybody else worried about it? OA didn't seem to be blocking and the guy didn't drill it. Perhaps they were just testing the waters. In the first few miles, a few more of these launches occurred, most of them with an OA guy in them. There would be no point in going with a break if there wasn't an OA guy in it. They had enough firepower to viciously gun down anything that didn't represent them.
Our field survived the big hills on Rt 11 intact. We veer off onto Rt 103A. This begins the next series of rollers with a couple nasty ones mid way. Stuart lights it up on the steep one. It is still early in the race, but I felt maybe this could be the move. It only will be if I meant it when going with Stuart. Amazingly, Keith was right there too. So was Tyler Munroe (CCB) and Rick Sorenson (Battenkill-United). I'd love to take credit in initiating the move, but that goes to Stuart. The pace was surreal. We crested the top with a huge gap to the field. We had the right teams represented and no spoilers (you'll have to guess who they are). Hammer time. Keith completely killed the descents. This helped the nascent split to stick. Tyler played the role of crew leader, as we certainly weren't very synchronized to start. Once we got a paceline going, we began to grow the gap, just barely.
The nice thing being in a small break so early was that we weren't going to get squeezed through the ringer merging onto Rt 103. We could go nice and wide and hammer all the way through the construction. Climbing on Rt 103, the field was always in sight. I had moments of doubt. I think the others did too. You gotta try though, right? It ain't over 'till its over. We get back to the big rollers on Rt 11. Keith starts having trouble and we lose him. Now we have most of a lap to go with just four guys and the field maybe only a minute or so back. We were fighting a vicious wind here too. I'm learning this can actually work in a break away's favor. Nobody likes to work into the wind. You need really strong team commitment to continue hammering into the wind to bring back a break. If not, the "let the other teams do it" mentality takes over, and a dedicated break away group rides away. I think some of this went on today.
Two laps of this gives about 4000ft of climbing
On the last part of Rt 11, we caught the Cat 4 field. This was a mess. Traffic was backed up behind them. This meant we had trouble bombing down the one hill plugged with traffic. With just four riders, we got around the large field fairly easily. I think the Master 45+ main field had a little more trouble. Not sure if we had a net advantage or it was a wash.
Our break away gets into the Rt 103A rollers, where we started the break. Now I'm not feeling so great anymore. I had been setting pace on most of the climbs. My tendency was to go too hard for the other guys. We all needed each other, so I had to throttle back just a tad. Now I felt early cramping coming on. How can this be? It was so cool out and only 90 minutes into a race. True, the last 60 minutes have pretty much been threshold+ time-trail effort. I didn't expect it though. I just pretended it wasn't happening. I think the other guys were getting tired too, as I sensed more coasting or soft pedaling on the descents. I came up a few times to max out the speed on descents. This is one place the field usually does not work at all, and we couldn't afford to waste this "bandwidth."
We passed another sizable group, maybe dropped 35+'s. They latched on. Our follow car had some words with them about that. We round the corner through the construction one more time. On the ensuing Rt 103 climb, I could see our field not far back. As long as we continued to work it, I thought we'd be ok to the finish. Sensing the fatigue in my break mates, I contemplated going early on the four-step climb on Rt 103. If I failed, I figured the worst I'd do is fourth place anyway. Then I thought if I stayed with the group, I'd surely be able to beat one of them up the finishing grade and at least claim a podium spot. I'm sure the others were thinking these thoughts too. I tested the waters at one point. I don't think they would have let me go without a fight. I decided to ride this train all the way home.
Finally, we reach the high point on Rt 103 before descending to the rotary. We don't see the chasing field, but I know they are just below the lip we came up. We all sat up anyway. I got stuck up front with about 1km to go. I coasted all the way down to the rotary. Still up front. We coast around the rotary. Still nothing happening. We soft pedal into the bottom of the finishing climb. I think we slowed to about 10mph here. Either Rick or Stuart said "so now what?" Nobody wanted to go first. It was one of the more extreme games of cat and mouse I've experienced in a race. Then I think it was Rick that said "hey guys, they're coming!" Oh crap. He launched, I grabbed his wheel. We were maybe half way up the initial steeper part at the bottom. To my surprise, Stuart and Tyler did not respond as quickly. The grade slackens for a bit, then there is one more little steep bit to the line. There's that moment in a race that's like "shit, I could win this thing!" - that extreme moment of adrenaline. Should I try to go around Rick now on the flatter part? It was still a ways to the line and he could draft me for several seconds and come back around. If I waited, I was afraid Tyler or Stuart would catch back up. I went for it then. Rick wasn't able to grab my wheel. I had a few bike lengths on him when I crossed the line for the win. I nearly fell over after crossing the line. I no more than stopped and whoosh, the rest of the field came though. If we had dicked around any longer, we surely would have been swarmed.
Finally, the Sunapee curse has been broken. I thought a win here today was a very long shot. Luck plays a role in bike racing. We happened to have the right guys in the right place at the right time, although three of us were watching each other. I learned after the race that my teammate Brian blocked for me. No doubt Stuart's and Tyler's teammates did the same for them. I talked with Mystic Velo after the race. I guess they and Gearworks put in a lot of chase effort. We had a superb break away group. Everybody worked hard, and I wasn't the only one having cramping problems at the end. This was possibly the hardest earned win for me yet and one of the most satisfying. I believe it was my fastest Sunapee race to date, around 1hr, 53min. I have a topic for a future post brewing. It will be on how ad hoc alliances are formed during cycling races. Not sure if this happens in other sports or not. It certainly makes cycling more sophisticated than stick and ball sports.