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On Not Going to the Paralympic Games

It’s been 2 weeks since the qualifying race for the Paralympic Games and I have finally sorted my thoughts enough to be able to put them in writing. 

I did not make the Paralympic Games Team, this was a fact I was aware of during the qualifying race when I was passed just before the halfway point by Sam.  Sam started 1 minute behind me and being in the same disability category he was going to decimate my time.  It’s disheartening to have another 15 minutes left in a race when you know your race is pretty much over, but I finished strong and ended up riding a decent Time Trial by my standards. 

This is not the first time I have failed to qualify for the games but in 2008 I knew I wasn’t strong enough so it wasn’t really disappointing then.  In reality, my non-qualification goes back to Track Worlds where I had an overall terrible event and did not podium which left qualifying to a road time trial.  I worked on it but did not make the gains I needed.

This non-selection is NOT a lot of things.  It is not the end of the world, my cycling career, or my association with the National Team.  The attention of the National Team will be turned to next year’s World Cups and World Chamionship and to the 2016 Games as soon as London is over.  The London Team is very small compared to a Worlds Team so I’ll be right there in the mix for selection to those events.  I have been relegated to the “National B Team” for now.  It’s a sort of ambiguous status, but I think it means I’m supposed to train and race locally through the end of the season.

Coming to grips with it has been mentally tough.  It took me over 2 weeks to admit to myself that I have had a great season in 2012, but that is the truth.  I have met or exceeded every goal I’ve had this season but 2.  Games qualification and I wanted to win the Roan Groan road race.  I was primed to win that one, or at worst, podium but I crashed and had to chase solo for a long time before I finished 7th.  Not exactly a failure.  

There is an assumption that being a disabled athlete means the Paralympic Games but I do not want my identity as a bike racer, or person, tied to making or not making a games team.  Paralympic Cycling in the United States is all about Time Trials.  Road racing, climbing, and sprinting are all disregarded in favor of racing the clock.  It makes for easy selections.  It’s hard to advocate for a different system for a few reasons.  You will need 4-5 guys in a race to put together an effective road race team.  This takes a lot of slots for hunting one or two medals which may not be considered an effective allocation of resources.  Then there is the issue of the compensation system only awarding bonus money and stipends based solely on finishing places.  You would be asking athletes to go to a race as domestiques with no potential for getting paid.  Conundrum.  As a team we are expected to train, race, and conduct ourselves as professionals but professionals get paid.  Putting together a team of 4 for the purpose of one getting a result means those other 3 are going to be in more of a financial pinch the rest of the year. 

A big issue that comes down from international regulations is the lack of course diversity.  Because they want to use the same course for every disability category you end up with a lot of flat to rolling courses and sometimes they can be technical.  The fact is that a challenging course for someone with a high spinal injury and no core control is not going to be that challenging for someone much less disabled.  Almost all of the courses used in international paracycling races are sprinters courses.  A lot of breakaways have been successful over the years but as fields get stronger and the depth increases the ability of a select few to break away at will is dwindling.  Climbing hasn’t been rewarded in the past 5 years and the strong men are being boxed out of the road races with every passing year with no change through at least 2014.  Without a train you need a sprinter that can position himself and poach other leadouts, but that has it’s flaws as was seen in Stage 5 of this year’s Tour.

It brings me to the question of what I want to do and what I enjoy about bike racing.  I like climbing, mass start track racing, and racing as a team as a domestique and as a leader.  I am going to continue working on Time Trialing with the goal of being selected to future national teams (and for stage racing).  Because I don’t see a change in the available races I will try to mold myself into a usable racer.  That said, I will probably build my seasons around the climbing races, River Falls, Gila, Roan Groan, French Broad.  That’s where my talents really shine through and it’s fun.  

The dates aren’t set but I am moving to Greenville, SC.  I’ve lived at the Olympic Training Center for 2.5 years and it has been a great experience, but I am tired of being broke, I’m tired of having to budget out trips to nats months in advance, and I’m tired of riding a janky road bike.  I have work lined up and am very fortunate that it will allow me to train nearly full time for most of the year.  

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Final Thoughts on Gila

The last I’ll say about Gila on my blog.

Lessons Learned

  • Always position yourself in the front third of riders before a decisive section. You can be the strongest climber/crosswind rider/sprinter/whatever but you can’t do jack if you are sitting 40th wheel when the attacks fly.
  • Make sure your brakes will accept your teammate’s wheels if you are a protected rider.
  • Conserve, conserve, conserve. You will need that energy later in the race. But when you do go, unleash all of that pent up fury. It’s an adaptation of Coggan and Hunter’s pearl of wisdom that the guy that pedals least, then pedals hardest, will win.
  • I need 300 calories and 3 small salt packets in my first bottle during a long race. It’s kind of nasty tasting but I need it at the end of the day.
  • Working as a team makes racing so much more enjoyable. Returning the favor of doing work is remarkably gratifying.
  • Never give up until you are truly and 100% dropped. The peloton might slow down and you might finish on the same time instead of 4 minutes down.
  • You can study a course map but there is no substitute for riding the decisive sections.
  • Make friends, give someone a tow back to the group, a gel, a sip of water, a spot in the line. They might save your day in a future race.
  • Patch things up with your enemies. Bike racing is dangerous and things get nervous, you bump bars, yell, maybe exchange a few curses. Be the bigger person and apologize afterwards, you never know when you’ll be that person’s help in the future.
  • Ride hard, ride well, people will respect you.
  • It’s nothing like a grand tour, but racing a crazy hard 5 day stage race will change you as a bike rider.
  • A few crippled kids can toss you in the hurt box. Don’t feel bad for us, feel happy that we love riding and racing bikes as much as you do.

Grit

A few weeks ago Jon accused me, and rightfully so, of having less grit than he does. Thing is, that was all I had when I started riding. I had the ability to ride way over my head because I was able to embrace the suffering. I lost a lot of that over the past few years, but I feel I went a long way in getting it back at Gila.

Cat2

I’m sitting here now with 16 of the required 25 points to upgrade to Cat2; assuming I carry the same fitness and tactical awareness into my next racing block I should collect those points quickly. I’d like a win or two before I upgrade. I’d like a bit more tactical sense, confidence, and strength before I throw myself into the big-boy bike races.

Next Year’s Gila

I’d love to go back and the assumption is that our Cat3 team will all be in the 2’s which gives us 5 in the Cat1/2 race. It will be fun to race with the larger team, but I realize it will be so much harder. I can’t wait!

Tour of the southeast

I’ll arrive in Columbia, SC this week and be there through late June. I don’t expect to do much in the way of real riding ’till Sunday or Monday though. I’mm guessing Monday will be 3-4 hours of general endurance miles if anyone reading this wants to join. Tuesday will be 2×20 on the TT and I’ll cruise over to the crit to heckle spectate that evening.  I’ll be in Asheville for the Mellowdrome crit on Wed and the amazing riding on Thursday. I do believe in intervals, but I don’t believe in Super Secret Training so all of my rides are open to company and my schedule is fairly flexible, so let me know if you want to ride.

Roan Groan RR

A road race with a long, steep finishing climb. I’ll be targeting that.

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Tour of the Gila: Stage 5

Waking up before 6am to race the Gila Monster wasn’t hard, I could not sleep.  If I had great legs I could contend for the stage win and move into the top 10 on GC from 15th.  I was excited and hoped my body would be up for it.

Stage 5 was 72 miles and the reverse loop from stage 2 with the finish at the top of a 2-tiered climb.  The first 40 miles to the feed zone went by very quickly.  We blitzed over the Cat3 climb 10 miles in, but no one seemed too hurt by the ascent. If the first 40 miles were fast, the next 15 with 1000ft of lost elevation were blazing.  A break was 3 minutes up the road and Sam took it upon himself to mitigate that gap.

We started climbing around mile 55 and after a mile of gaining vertical I was in the front group of 8.  We had the race leader, 3 Slipstreams, and 3 other solo riders.  It was a perfect climb for me, better than the first day.  It was a steep tempo climb with the occassional kick to hurt people. Unfortunately I did not have great legs, I had legs that were sort of good enough.  The attacks started flying after we had established our lead.   Slipstream, with a rider 1 minute down on the overall, were trying to dislodge the leader and the other guys in the break wanted solo victory.  Me?  I was getting dropped and clawing my way back to the group for most of these digs and this stuff started with 20km to go.  I just refused to accept my fate and fall off the group.  It only got worse as the grade dropped to 2 or 3%.  The riders could recover in the draft before launching another attack.  Then I managed to get myself dropped on a tight turn on the descent.  As I watched my race ride away I turned my brain off and dropped off the hill with the least amount of caution I have ever mustered on a descent.  I caught the group right before 4km to go and knew I was in for a long ride to the line.  The attacks came less frequently as we started climbing again.  The group figured out that no one was strong enough to go solo and it would come down to a hill sprint.  This would usually be good for me but again with the less-than-great legs.

The sprint started with 300 meters to go on a very steep kicker and I had absolutely nothing left.  I rolled in 8th, last of the lead group.
I moved up 3 places on GC to 12th, I was hoping for a top-10 but I would have needed the stage winning legs to pull that out.

Jon finished first out of the chase group in 9th and finished 7th on GC giving the US Para Cat3 team another 3 top-10s for the race.

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Tour of the Gila: Stage 4

While I was studying the race bible I had marked stage 4 as a “recovery crit” but our team director told us to go win the stage which meant I would be playing the roll of domestique (helper). It would be my job to make sure things stayed together so Sam could sprint for victory.

I started on the front row and found myself chasing an immediate attack from one of the Slipstream Juniors. That effort put the hurt on me and I drifted back also trying to figure out the lines on the course. It was pretty bumpy and broken in places. After a few laps I had a good read of the course, which meant I threw caution to the wind and rode my bike like a bucking horse. I decided to go to the front to help patrol and wouldn’t you know that right about that time another Slipstream Junior goes off the front. So I chased him down and drifted back to recover, a few laps later, the exact same thing happened.

With 2 laps to race I was moving to the front to get into our leadout train when someone in front of me started pinballing around the group and nearly crashed, jam on the brakes and go from 12th to 50th. Crap, now I’m useless to my team.

Sam placed 2nd and lost the race by a bike throw. Jon was 4th wheel on the finishing straight when the GC leader crashed in front of him. That was pretty silly on the leader’s part to try to be in an inconsequential sprint and it cost our team another podium. I finished safely in the group and on same time.

As for the recovery crit, hah, we raced at an average speed of 26.5mph on a pretty hard course.

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Tour of the Gila: Stage 3

The morning of Stage 3 was rough with the fatigue of racing 150 miles at 6000ft. of elevation over the past 2 days. Start times were around 3pm so it allowed time to sit in the bed, eat at my leisure, and roll the 5 miles to the course at a lazy pace. I have mentioned before that Road Time Trials are my achillies heel so the plan on the day was to go hard and try to minimize my losses.

The weather would naturally choose to add to my woes with a sustained crosswind of 20mph with gusts to 30mph. I started with the goal of not going too hard in the first 3 minutes and ramping into powering over the climbs and recovering a bit on the descents.

In the end I lost 3:17 to the winner and 2:43 to the GC leader. I dropped to 15th on GC at 4:35 behind the leader which effectively killed my hope of a GC podium.

On the plus side I was able to bomb the final descent at 40+mph in the aerobars. I have never really trusted myself in the aerobars descending and even less in 30mph wind gusts so I’m slowing working out the fear limiters I’ve dealt with. Also, I only dropped a little over 2 minutes to my teammate Jon who put 3 minutes into me in a shorter TT with less wind 2 weeks ago. I am progressing, but it’s hard to be patient when I see races slipping out of my grasp.

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Tour of the Gila: Stage 2

The US Paralympics Cycling Team Cat3 contingent had a great showing during the first stage with me in 3rd, Jon Copsey 15th, and Sam Kavanaugh 30th. We were present during the race and a lot of people took notice. Sam is missing his leg below the knee and the number 1 google search linking to my blog right now is “Tour of the Gila amputee” so that’s pretty cool.

Stage 2 was 78 miles with about twice as much climbing as stage 1, but it was broken up throughout the day. Riding high off of day one and looking to defend my GC (overall) placing Sam and Jon set about controlling the early pace. The first climb of the day started around mile 6 and we hit it at the front where we needed to be. Several other riders and the Slipstream Juniors team decided to take point so we let them set the pace and drifted a few rows back and got Jon and Sam out of the wind. Things were just dandy until my front tire went soft around mile 10; thankfully I was right behind Sam and he gave me his wheel. He was riding a much wider wheel so I had to fully open my brakes, this would become important later. Jon had dropped out of the group to pull me back into the field. I was safely back in the group less than 1 minute after I flatted so it was a great display of teamwork!

I lost a few seconds on the nasty descent and got into a chase group of 4. We were able to make it back to the group without too much energy wasted. Once that was done I set about the task of eating and drinking. Miles 40-65 were pretty sedate with the occassional attack thrown out.

Things went sideways around mile 65 and during the second feed zone. I took my bottles just fine, but I was getting dropped on what should have been an easy climb for me. Once isolated I could hear it, swoosh…..swoosh…..swoosh. Any time I was riding hard my front wheel was rubbing against the brake pad and had been for the last 55 miles with another 13 to go. Armed with the realization that I, in fact, did not suck at riding a bike I fought like hell on the descent and the next big roller to catch back on. I was dropped again during an acceleration and chased back on. This happened 2 or 3 times after the feed zone. The final time I made my way back into the group the moto ref said, “You just refuse to die!” All I could do was nod, my mouth was dry, my eyes were crossed, all I could think of was getting to the line with the group because of the selfless way my teammates had ridden. I did manage to lose 24 seconds during the sprint to the line, but it was a much smaller loss than I could have sustained.

So why didn’t I just open my brakes a bit more?  The cam was completely open and I was too oxygen deprived to figure out which righty was tighty and go the other way.  The last thing I wanted to do was to close the brakes further.

I sat at 8th on GC after the stage with hopes of a podium finish still alive and staring a TT in the face on the next day.

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Cat3 Tour of the Gila: Stage 1

I was nervous in the weeks leading up to this race, I had mentally reached the point where this was the race that would determine whether I actually had any bike racing ability or I was just wasting my time. A 2nd place in a crit 2 weeks ago and a very solid training ride with the best climber in CO without a pro contract (and better than a lot on contract) 3 days before Gila really boosted my confidence and calmed my nerves. Still, a local crit and a training ride are not the same as the hardest Cat3 race in the country.

Stage 1 was a 73 mile point-to-point race with some big-ring rollers leading into the final climb. The group of 73 seemed to be a bit nervous for the first 10 miles and then everyone realized we still had 60 miles today and 200 miles of racing the following 4 days. My plan was to sit in and do absolutely nothing until we hit the climb. The hardest thing I did in the first 65 miles was eating and drinking, I was already looking ahead to the rest of the week but taking on that much nutrition was a bit difficult.

We reached the first part of the climb and I will admit I was positioned too far to the back. Gaps started forming right away and I found myself picking my way through the debris. Over half of the field was dropped on the lower slopes of the climb but a few caught on when we hit the false flat leading to the final 2.8 mile climb. At the base of the final climb a group of 4 or 5 went up the road but I found myself riding through the shrapnel again. At 3k to go I was solidly in the top 10, counting heads and looking for signs of fatigue. We hit some very steep kickers and I dropped into the 28, I was very happy to have such a small gear, and suddenly I found myself on the front of the group of 6 chasing down the break. With 2k to go I had dropped the chase group and had reeled in a few of the break that had went too deep. 2k to 1k was ridiculously long and was the segment where I reeled in the 3rd guy on the road. I started losing a bit of steam at 1k but I desperately wanted to maintain my position. 1k to 500m was torture, 500m to 200m felt like an eternity. I looked back to see someone trying to sprint me to the line so I put in a few hard pedal strokes and crossed the line 3rd and 1 second up on 4th.
The guy that won finished 1 minute ahead of second and I finished at 1:15. The leader has a commanding lead but 2nd-21st are separated by less than 2 minutes leaving the GC fight and the podium fight, in particular, wide open.

As for my fears going into the race, that’s all gone. I went from doubting my abilities to thinking about how to win. It feels great.

I wasted a lot of energy moving through the group at the start of the climbs and missed an opportunity to go with the winning move. My project for the rest of the week is to hit the climbs near the front of the group so I don’t waste time or energy. I can climb with the fastest guys here, I just have to be near them when they go.

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