Upon warm-up, I was struck by the size of the course: Wide roads, towering buildings, and huge, illuminated billboards made the women's field and me look and feel tiny. On Saturday, jarring engine roars gave way to the whisper of carbon wheels and delicate clicking of gears for the first ever bike race to take place at the Circuit of the Americas.
The Women's Open (open to all categories) field of 28 lined up for at neutral start up the hill, at which point the official race began. Following the uphill is a left-hand turn into a downhill that goes right. You will see from the footage, courtesy of Kathleen Hattaway (Jubilee Subaru), that, besides a few surges, not much happens in the first two laps of the race.
The first lap was a chance to learn the lines of the course's sweeping turns, when to recover or attack, and how to take the climb. From the moment we made the turn into a headwind on a flat straightaway, the group stretched into a single-file line (you'll also see that in the video). That stretch was the hardest, most dangerous of the course, which made it the best place to breakaway. After one lap, I had to re-think my strategy: Going in, I thought I could put in a quick attack on the hill to get a break going or follow suit to whomever attacked. The hill, however, proved longer than I thought, and the immediate downhill would give those who really wanted it a chance to catch back on. Another factor was the finish: It was long and straight; however, leading up to it were two tight turns where position was everything; you needed to be in the top three coming out of the turns to have any chance at winning the sprint.
A lot of my training lately has focused on building the fitness necessary to initiate and stay in a breakaway on longer road races, not cornering, and sprinting in the last 1K of a crit, so I knew my only chance of doing well was to be in the winning break. The break started early on the third lap after the hill. Teammates and pros Ginny King and Mina Pizzini (King Racing Group), along with Category one racer Mandy Heintz (Shama Cycles), pushed the pace up the hill, drilled the downhill, then kept pressure strong until we hit headwind where all attempts to chase were even harder as their gap grew. I was struggling uphill, midpack, when the decisive move happened and, by the time I worked my way up, my attacks spurred a few small attempts to bridge from other teams not in the break. We were simply too tired and not organized enough to catch up. For the twelve of us now left in the chase group, fourth place would come down to a sprint, which, for me, was bad news.
The other bad news was that my teammate, Sammi Runnels (ATC Racing), dropped her chain when changing gears from the uphill to the downhill, which took her out of the race. This was disappointing because Sammi is our best climber and sprinter and had the best chance at doing well in a pack finish. Now ATC was down to Marla Briley and me. We can climb and surge all day but, against Jen McRae (787), Hattaway (Jubilee), and Jennifer Wagner (Shama Cycles), we had no chance in a sprint finish. Our only hope was for me to get into a second breakaway with one other strong woman. I attacked into the wind again and again but couldn't get organized with anyone. I attacked until my attacks became slower than the overall speed of the group! I heard Hattaway say that she was going to try to get away on the final lap up the hill. I was sure to get to her wheel on the straightaway leading up to the final climb. I stuck to her wheel as we climbed, which took everything I had. My legs could barely pedal enough to change gears for the downhill. Pedal! My mind screamed at my legs to turn over, but the few seconds of delay in their response blew my shot at solidifying a gap, at which point I sat in, responded to surges, and finished at the back of our group for 13th. In the winning break, Heintz won by sprinting as early as possible and enduring the pain longer than King and Pizzini, who took the well-deserved second and third slots. McRae won the pack sprint for fourth.
Saturday's COTA race was hot, hilly, and high spirited. In addition to the usual race gang, old friends came out for "Ride the Americas." Every volunteer, racer, rider, and spectator was just as thrilled to be there as me. I took away lessons that will help focus my training and make me a better racer. The saying "train your weakness, race your strength" will continue to apply as I work toward being a decent sprinter and, especially for next weekend's road race in Chapel Hill, use my ability to ride hard and long to get a good result.
Check out next week's blog for the scoop on Chapel Hill, but, until then, see you on the road!