It should be no surprise that I’m known for being a crit specialist. In the last seven years I’ve spent most of my career leapfrogging around from one twilight criterium to another, chasing after the races that drew the biggest crowds and the largest prize purses. It’s a pretty exhilarating lifestyle for a guy in his early twenties, but only finding success in crits has left me feeling somewhat incomplete with the accomplishments I’ve had in my career. When I learned that the team was broadening its focus to include some key national road events (NRC) I was thrilled to have the opportunity to try to broaden mine.
My first road event for this season was in Fayetteville, Arkansas at the Joe Martin Stage race.
I know Fayetteville seems like a strange place to have a bike races but the event has been around for a long time. It started in 1978 and quickly grew to one of the bigger multi-day events in the US. It further improved its stature this year by becoming one of the only multi day UCI events in the US. So in addition to the beautiful roads and nice people we met while racing there (thank you to the Crabtree family, our gracious hosts), this race has a long history and attendance by some of the biggest names in US cycling.
In addition to this being my first road event of the season, Friday’s stage was also my first time racing with our new teammate Fabio Calabria. He was hired because he has a lot of experience racing the NRC and, as I quickly learned, he also happens to be pretty scrappy guy in the finish. Our skills and experience seem to complement each other quite well. Going into the stage 1 thought that I was going have trouble with the two final punchy climbs leading into the finish and we all agreed that me helping Fabio navigate the final few turns would be the best use of my skills. I had my doubts that he could follow me in a sprint, but I also wasn’t too convinced I’d make it there myself. Needlesstosay, it was a huge relief when inside the final kilometer I went from 50th position in the field to inside the top twenty through the final two tight turns and then Fabio popped around me as I started to lose contact with the leaders over the little climb leading to the finishing sprint.
Fabio’s finish was far from a win, but to be completely honest going into this race we had some bruised egos from the last few races. So even though we got beat in the sprint on Friday’s stage it was a huge relief for the team and an important moment for myself to even be in contention at the end of the day.
When I lose a sprint in a crit there is often only a few meters between winning and placing outside the top ten and its usually the small split second decisions that I made in the final meters of the race that I attribute to winning vs losing. I find myself replaying the finish in my head over and over thinking about what mistakes I need to correct so that I next time I’ll take the win. But then I’m able to quickly shake off my disappointment because I know next time things will be different. Losing may not be that simple to some people, but I’m confident in criteriums and especially in sprints and I know what I can do. That confidence and reassurance is what helps me be able to start the next race truly thinking I can win if I dont mess up like I did the last time. However, things haven’t been that clear for me in my years of trying to figure out how to be competitive in stage races. I’ve only done a few races, but all of them have been super mountainous and my game plan has always been survival so I can make it to the crit stage. It hasn’t been a very empowering mindset to have especially when it's contrasted with how I feel when I race criteriums.
It wasn’t until after Joe Martin that it finally made sense to me why Frankie Andreu made me do sprint drills with with Phil Gaimon at Kenda team camp in 2012. He never told me why he made us do it, but I realize now that he did it to reassure me of that same feelings I have in a criterium, and that even after nearly the entire team dropped me in the mountains that day that I could still dust everyone including the guy causing me the most pain once things flattened out. It seems like an obvious and maybe meaningless demonstration but the ease in which I repeatedly beat Phil while seated as he sprinted all out has never resonated with me until I was in a position where just surviving the race wasn’t the only thing on my mind.
After repeated disappointing results in the spring races the team is hanging on to itsimprovements as a sign of a change in momentum. In reality though, I think that we’re just finally starting to do races that utilize the skills we have as a team. We’ve shown that we can win crits, so as long as we continue to race flatter more aggressive races then I think we’ll continue find ourselves improving and becoming more competitive in stage races. I have so much more to learn and I think it’s fair to say the same about us as a team; but by having Fabio in the lead group and for me to be in sight of the winner as he raised his arms crossing the line, it puts us all a lot closer to our goals than ever before.
I wish that I could say that things continued to improve for me through stage 2 but the 7k feet of climbing over 110 miles proved to be a bit too much for me at this point. I managed to stay with the group until the last time up the climb but I lost contact with just enough time to not be able to catch back on the descent. It was really disappointing and I was bummed out because I felt like I was so close to making it over. Unlike times before though, I finally took a moment to appreciate the company of other talented sprinters and riders around me and it gave me some comfort in knowing that this day I wasn’t the only good rider racing for survival and that things would be different next time.
It turned out that Fabio finished 11th on the stage. It was an awesome finish for him and for the team. I wish that I could have been there to help him, and I can only imagine how things would have changed, but given the carnage I rode past in the final kilometers, maybe it was a blessing to us both that I wasn’t there to guide him through through the last kilometer of the race.
I can’t say that Fabio’s luck continued to improve on the 3rd stage because he took a hard spill that cut his race short, but he escaped with only some cuts and bruises and we all left Joe Martin in one piece and with an enthusiasm that I’m sure will carry us to continued improvement and future success throughout the season.
Our next big event will be the Grand Prix Cycliste de Saguenay at the end of May. I’m really excited for it because because it’s only a few hours north of my house into Canada and because I have a much clearer idea of what I need to do to have a better race than what I had in Arkansas. It is going to be a great trip for me and for the team, I know it!