Typically I relax for criterium staging and use my legs and lungs to move up during the race. Given the caliber of riders I was up against, however, I staged about 45 minutes beforehand, and was determined to be sneaky about it. Eventually I found myself following Micheal Creed and Mike Friedman of Kelly-Optum, and I think Ivan Dominguez was in our little staging group as well. I figured I was in like flynn. The race officials saw us and moved us to THE OFFICIAL staging coralle. There were about 50 of us. The full field consisted of 146.
It was only after the released us onto the course that we saw the other 90-some-odd riders who must have been already parked on the course, exactly where we were before we were all moved. That's how it goes sometimes.
While we were in the coralle, a photographer wearing press credentials was snapping a personal pic using his iphone: he was holding out a Barbie doll and posing her in front of us. Must be a photo-collection thing. In any event, we all noticed, and the photographer asked a rider if he wouldn't mind holding the doll for a shot. The rider, who was non-other than Mike Friedman, awkwardly agreed and was obviously not in practice for doll-photo-taking. Some of the other riders told Mike to get her to do a pose, and I suggested he have her Tebow for the camera. Friedman informed me that he did not know what it was to 'Tebow'.
Like, totally for serious?
A few awkward minutes later, our photographer had his picture of Barbie Tebowing on Mike Friedman's handlebars, and we all gained a great new memory of the most awkward photo a famous pro cyclist had to take. I hope that shot surfaces up somewhere.
Back to the race.
As the gun went off, my plan was to weather the early panic that would likely ensue with riders frantically sprinting their way to the front. On lap 3, I hit a modestly sized pothole, but at the speeds we were going I felt like I had fallen into the Grand Canyon. This strike caused my handlebars to rotate downwards by a few inches. Those few inches felt like MILES to my back and lungs. Fortunately, I was caught up in a small crash perhaps 5 or 6 laps later. I didn't receive any battle damage, and used my time in the pits to correct my handlebars. AHHH, RELIEF.
Upon re-entry I focused once again on picking a smart time to move up. Some riders were starting to fade and fall in-line, but others were still very antsy. I reasoned that as soon as the guys around me tired out a little bit more, I would begin my slow charge to the front. It was around this time that Kelly-Optum decided to throttle the race. Where I was riding, their effort was noteable. The field went from about 2-4 wide towards the back to single-file and gapped in an instant. This pressure remained for the entire race, and there was no opportunity to move up efficiently. I was sure that SOMETHING was going to happen up the road that would cause a regroup and a slight respite in the pace to allow me to cruise up front, but as it would turn out, there would be no easy way to advance.
At around 15 to go, guys started blowing up and leaving wide gaps to close. Making up these spaces did some damage to me. Beginning at 9-to-go, I started channeling Lindsay Bayer's in-race-through-process on focusing on a single goal: finish this race. I was perfectly fine where I was, but the chance of there being a major split was very real, and I wanted to finish in the main group. Fortunately, nothing crazy happened in the closing laps, and I rolled in with my first Pro-1 Criterium under my belt.
I felt a little bit like a chump thinking that I could sag at the back of a pro race and then make my way to the front late. The reason guys were going ballistic early is because that was the only good time to move up. I know of two riders who were where I was and made it to the foward part of the field: Tim Rugg (who finished 6th), and my teammate Conner McCutcheon.
Another sour thought is how little I was able to help my teammates. I found Evan Fader a few times, but I couldn't drag him up to a better position. The same happened with Conner. I spent a lap trying to shield him from a crosswind when he was half-wheeled. He was able to advance a few positions from this, but I never did get back up with him to help out some more. For most of the race, I was about 15 riders back from Tony Olsen, another Nature Valley Pro Chase teammate. I saw him battling hard and I desperately wanted to go give him a big body to sit behind (he's our resident featherweight). Unfortunately, I kept being chopped in corners by the same 3 or 4 guys when I was trying to claw my way up to Tony. While Tony ended up finishing just fine on his own, that 'sheparding' instinct I have was driving me nuts: seeing him get pushed out into the wind was bugging the crap out of me, and I wanted to put an end to that.
When all was said and done, we did well. No mishaps for our team, and Jamie and Conner moved up a few positions in the General Classification. Our host house family came out to cheer for us which was a HUGE motivator. Having a friendly face on the sidelines really does make a difference! A few of the Nature Valley Pro Chase girls also hung around after their race to see us in ours. Little Bri was there because she had retained her top-amateur's jersey, and Lindsay Bayer cracked a top-10! They helped talk me down from my post-race blues (not because I was particularly dissapointed in my result, but more of being a non-factor for my mates and just being drained and wiped in general).
After a relaxing van ride with Tony and Conner in which much pasta was devoured and many beer-mixed-drink recipes were exchanged, we arrived at our host house in Stillwater and shared our war stories with our gracious host family.
I could get used to this :)