Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

cyclist climbing a mountain

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

The Green Mountain Stage Race

Biting off more than you can chew can be a good thing, sometimes. Many of you know that we have sponsored an amateur cycling team for about 5 years now.  Emma and I are both in love with anything that involves a bicycle. I had been racing for many years on other teams and instead of promoting other companies I thought, “why not promote my own company by racing and riding with the Zenberry logo all over my team kit (uniform)?”  We are a small team with a few successes but we all love racing and riding together when we can.  The 2018 season was sparse on racing but it was going to end with some unforeseen challenges.

I usually plan my training so I peak (be in top physical racing shape) twice per year.  Once at the end of Spring and then again at the end of Summer.  My favorite race in the world is on Labor Day weekend called the Green Mountain Stage Race (GMSR).  This event is 4 days of really tough racing, drawing talented racers from across the US and Canada. This year the Pro/1 race had pros from New Zealand, France and Canada as well as the talented Pro Tour racer, Nate Brown (EF Education), who has finished the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.  In 2017 he wore the Polka Dot (KOM) jersey at the Tour for 2 days making him the only American in history to do so.  Yeah, he was at GMSR and guess what?  He didn’t win.  That shows how tough this race is. I was never so happy to not be a Cat 1, that’s for sure.

Stage 1 is a short but painful time trial where you race, one at a time, against the clock.  The winner has the fastest time over the course.

Stage 2 this year was a 76 mile circuit race with one good climb each lap.

Stage 3 is always the Queen Stage (toughest stage of a stage race) which has lots of climbing and finishes on the top of Appalachian Gap which is the highest paved road in Vermont that is open all 12 months of the year.  It also touts an average gradient of 10% and sustained sections well over 16% and a max of 20% (which painfully comes in the last 500m).  It is not an easy climb even if you just start from the bottom.  This year we will have raced for 100 miles before we hit the base of the climb.

Stage 4 is the Burlington Crit in downtown Burlington, VT.  A criterium race is a short, technical loop, usually of about 1-2km long, on city streets with three or four 90 degree turns.  It is an all-out effort that requires a lot of bike handling skill and high-end fitness.  The Burlington Crit has 6 turns and a slightly uphill start/finishing straight.  I’m not a great crit racer but I love this crit.

I’ve been racing here for nearly 15 years. I started way back as a Cat 4 racers that didn’t know any better.  I quickly fell in love with the race even though I got my butt kicked.  I have gradually moved up the ranks and have been a Cat 2 racer for the past 5 years. Because I’m “old” now (44), I often opt to race in the Masters 40+ races when I can.  They tend to be a little safer (young men can take a lot of risks that can cause life-changing injuries and even death in this sport), a bit shorter and a bit slower than the upper categories (Cat 1 and Cat 2).  2018 however, threw a wrench into my plans.

After very low registration in the 40+ race, the organizer had to cancel the Masters 40+.  So, I either had to skip the race or jump into the very tough Cat 2 field.  I wasn’t sure what to do because of my fitness level, lack of racing in the summer, and the caliber of racers that show up to GMSR.  It is one of the biggest races for amateurs in the North East.  Many future pros have raced here. This isn’t your usual local race whether considering terrain or caliber of racers.  If you can do well here, you are fit.

In the end, I figured I would go up and enjoy the race with no expectations.  After all, this has become our Labor Day tradition. My only goal was to finish all 4 stages.  There is a 20% time cut on each stage so if you get dropped early, you could get kicked out of the race.  Also, at the stage 4 the Burlington Crit, you will get pulled if you get dropped because it’s too dangerous to allow dropped riders to stay on the course.

The other worry I had was the Queen Stage which the Pro/1 and Cat 2 men all do 103.5 miles instead of the 64 miles that all other racers do.  Now, I’ve done many 100 mile rides (usually one per week, at least) and I even did a 202 mile ride a few years ago (I’ll never do that again) but I’ve never actually raced a race that was that long.  Add in the 3 big climbs we were going to do and the fact that many of the guys in the race were young enough to be my son, seriously, I had some reservations about being able to finish within the time cut.

Stage 1 Time Trial

My TT wasn’t great and I was 39th out of 53 starters.  I knew I wasn’t going to win but I felt I was slower than I should have been.

Cyclist standing under American Flag

Ready for the GMSR TT

Stage 2 Circuit Race

Stage 2 was on a brand new course and it was 76 miles, not short.  My legs felt great but I didn’t go crazy and try to get into a breakaway.  I did feel good enough to do some work on the front when it was my turn though.  More than I can say about many others in the field.  It came down to a field sprint (I can’t sprint, I’m a climber) and I just got out of the way to avoid any crashes that might occur.  I finished safely and moved up on the general classification (GC) to 32nd.  Not bad.  It’s always good to move in the right direction after each stage.

Stage 3 (Queen Stage)

At the stage 3 start I was a bit more nervous than usual.  I was in unknown territory and wasn’t sure how my body was going to react.  Emma was in the feed zone to get me some more fluids which was the only thing that would make this stage possible for me.  There is no way I could finish 103 miles with only 2 bottles to drink from.

Lucky for me a small break away got clear after only about 10 miles of racing and long before the climbs started.  See, the King of the Mountains (KOM) competition gives points to the first 5 riders over any KOM climb.  So, the pace can be ballistic if the race is all together.  With them gone and no points available to anyone in the peloton, we climbed the climbs at a hard but manageable pace with no attacking.

After the 2nd KOM climb which is really steep and long, I was still with what was left of the peloton.  We hadn’t caught the break away yet but I really didn’t care.  I was just happy to be there.  There were 2 more smaller climbs before we hit the monster, ApGap, and I was still in contact and seemed to be doing better than many of my younger race-mates.

The Final Climb

We hit the bottom of ApGap with about 100.5 miles in our legs! I wouldn’t say I was feeling crisp but I felt ok.  I know the climb well so I knew to just sit tight and save my energy.  Our group was about 22 guys (not counting those who were dropped already or those up ahead in the winning break away) which was quickly whittled down to maybe a half dozen.  I was still climbing well but started to feel the bite of the many miles in my legs. On one of the tougher steep sections I had to let the group go and ride at my own pace.  They didn’t get too far up the road by the finish and I managed a brave face when I came past Emma who was filming me with her phone.

I was even able to jokingly ask her if I had won.  I can’t stop watching the video because the way I looked in the video didn’t match the agony I was feeling (better displayed in the photo below a few seconds after I had passed).  I’ve been told that I have a good poke face when racing but this was the first time I actually witnessed it myself (via the video).  I crossed the finish line a few seconds later and collapsed onto my handlebars, gasping and drooling.  The climb is so hard that they have EMTs checking vital signs and volunteers pushing racers out of the way once their legs give out.  Fulfilling the compromise the legs made with the brain halfway up the climb (“just get me to the finish line, that’s all”).  The legs punch out the second they cross the line. It wasn’t a win but it felt really good to be able to more than accomplish my goal. Plus, I learned just what my body was capable of, racing my first 100 mile road race.

cyclist climbing a mountain

Finish Line on ApGap

I ended up finishing 23rd on the stage and moving up to 23rd on GC (remember I was 39th after the TT).  I was thrilled to have beaten more than 50% of the starters despite being one of the oldest guys in the race.  Powered by Zenberry?  Hells yeah!  One more test: The Burlington Crit.  Crits are my weakest discipline but I’ve only ever been pulled from 1 crit in my 15 years of racing and that was due to poor positioning and not lack of fitness or ability.  You can only close so many gaps when the pace is all-out.  I’ve learned to survive with my limited talent and I planned on surviving this Cat 2 crit.

Stage 4 Burlington Crit

Burlington, VT sits on the shores of Lake Champlain.  It’s a college town with a great vibe especially on Labor Day Weekend with all of the students back in town.  Great restaurants, coffee shops, juice bars and some old architecture mixed with contrasting electric car charging stations. The town was buzzing by afternoon.

marina with boats on lake champlain

Lake Champlain

Labor Day is unusually hot and humid.  Forecast is 88 degrees with about 89% humidity.  My least favorite riding weather and I had to do the hardest crit of my life after 3 days of hard racing.  Not optimal.  I warmed up on my stationary trainer in the parking garage of our hotel.  It was shaded but still too hot.

bicycle in a parking garage

It’s not Team Sky but it will do.

In bike racing, the shorter the race, the longer the warm up.  A crit goes to max effort right from the start and doesn’t let up.  So if you’re not warmed up, you are likely to get dropped in the first 4 laps.  I did a good 30 min warm up, leaving me soaked in sweat.  I rehydrated and rode to the start line with a pit in my stomach.  Some of the guys looked like track sprinters.  One of their legs were 2 of mine.

I just had to make it through the first 5 laps.  By then a rhythm gets established and if you’re not “in the red” you have a good chance of surviving.  That Cat 2 was doing 34 laps which they estimated would take an 1 hour and 15 minutes.  There were also time bonus laps, primes (pronounced preemes) which means cash money for the first one across the line, and Sprint jersey points (like the KOM competition there is a sprint competition).  These came about every 5 laps so it would go ballistic because there were various different races within the race.  Not good for the 127lb climbing weenie just trying to finish.

The race was very fast and there was never any let up.  I finally got into a rhythm but I was never comfortable like I tended to be in the 40+ race.  I was on the limit the entire crit.  It was all a blur but then at one point when I finally remembered to look up, I saw on the lap card, 4 to go!  Really?  My suffering was soon to be over? At that point I realized I was going to finish!!!!  Again, I just held on and got out of the way to avoid crashes in the finish and took 29th. We finished in 56 min.  Much faster than the estimated 75 min.

cyclist racing in a group

Holding my own in the Cat 2 Crit

It was time to celebrate and we did just that with a great dinner at our favorite place in Burlington, Hen of the Wood and a few beers from The Alchemist (Vermont has some of the best breweries in the nation).  I was so happy that I decided to go do a race that was outside of my comfort zone.  I learned so much about what my 44 year old body can still do.  I finished 23rd on GC and if I had a TT I know I’m capable of I might have had a top 20 in the Cat 2.  Not bad.

I couldn’t have done any of this without my wife, Emma.  She was there in the feed zones to give me water, helped cook nutritious meals, brought me coffee and warm clothes at the finish line, and drove me back to our rental house so I could recover.  She also took many photos and videos of the experience so we can remember the race when we are old(er) and grey(er).

Stage racing is a team sport

A few other of our favorite places to eat, drink and be merry at this race (Waitsfield, Warren, Burlington):

American Flatbread (Waitsfield)

Blue Stone (Waitsfield)

Hill Farmstead (Beer)

Muddy Waters (Coffee)

Penny Cluse (Breakfast, Burlington)

 

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