Tim Hall - Concrete Jungle PDF Print Write e-mail

I recently traveled to my favorite racing town of St. Louis for the Mid Town Alley Grand Prix and the Tour de Grove, an NRC event. 

I have raced in the Gateway City countless times, and this event proved once again why making the 4 hour drive to St. Louis is worth the effort.  I brought along teammate Mathew Meunier as well as Aubrey Moore of Hincapie Development, both are signees to my Cumberland University cycling team for the upcoming fall.  Mathew and Aubrey were slated to compete in the Cat 2/3 races while I was to go toe-to-toe with a full contingent of teams such as Jelly Belly, Kelley Benefit Strategies and Rubicon-Orbea in the Pro/1 events.  It wasn’t that long ago some of these guys were racing in the Tour of California, and now here I am lining up with them to smoke the streets of STL at 30+ mph.

Going into a race like this can be a little nerve racking as several more pro teams were supposed to attend, but with an NRC event in D.C. on Saturday and the Tour de Beauce shortly following it meant teams were stretched thin.  Disappointingly, more pro teams chose something other than St. Louis, which resulted in field sizes of 45 to 55 in our Pro/1 races.  With such small fields combined with outstanding talent it means there is no place to hide.

Saturday’s race was the Mid Town Alley Grand Prix on a wide open 4-corner course slightly over 1 mile in length.  A few minutes before the start of our 75 minute race the skies opened up and began pounding down huge rain drops and stiff winds.  Everyone let out some air in their tires and listened as the official held on to her hat saying, “we will only stop this race if it starts lightning!”  While lightning is all we lacked I was more concerned about the water logged course, the visibility and whether or not I’d get blown off my bike!

Thankfully the first lap everybody respected the wet corners in such bad conditions, but after that you were on your own as I managed to avoid at least five crashes in turns 1 and 2.  I’ve never raced a criterium in such wet conditions, only to have it stop raining, dry a little, and then begin to rain even worse than before!  The long straight-aways on both sides were fast and strung out, but I found myself able to hang in latter half of the pack all race.  However, with 10 minutes to go and the rain at its worst the guys in front ramped up the speed, which created several splits in the group.  I found myself on the wheel of a Kelly Benefits rider thinking “yes, here’s my ticket to the group!”  He confidently powered up to the lead group while I simply couldn’t hold his wheel.  I finished the final few laps with two other guys and rolled in for 18th, but in the money!

The following day was the NRC event Tour de Grove.  It was a 2.6 mile course with about 13 turns, and we were doing 28 laps for over 70 miles.  With $15,000 on the line it meant none of those laps would be easy.  To make it easier on myself I secured a starting spot on the front row.  There’s no sense in starting too far back when I can begin near the front and do my best to hold position.  The speed is the same, but it’s more fluid and steady closer to the front as opposed to the accordion effect in the back.

From the gun it was fast with attempts by the stronger teams to get a break established.  It didn’t take long before my starting position diminished and I was back in the latter half.  I kept a close eye not only on the wheels in front of me, but also listened for the revving engine of the motorcycle official behind.  When you hear the sound of the moto you know you’d better buckle down because you’re close to becoming the last man standing. 

Things began to take shape after 4 or 5 laps as Kelly Benefits managed to get two of their guys up the road.  There were several groups split behind them; a pack chasing that grew over time led by Jelly Belly, and then my group still maintaining visibility of it all.  All this took time to develop, but in the moment my group still felt like the main pack considering the size and depth we still had.  In hindsight my thinking was far from correct!

The crucial moment happened shortly after a feed when a Jelly Belly and Kelly Benefits rider rolled away (not attacked) from our group on the right side with a familiar masters rider on their wheel sitting on.  I was a few bike lengths back on the left side and could tell they were going to make the lead chase pack.  In my head several thoughts quickly ran through: 1) crap, wrong place/wrong time, 2) do I have it in me to give it everything and get on their wheels, 3) will I blow up in the process or shortly after, and/or 4) should I hold tight with the group I was currently with?  As I’m processing all this it became too late to react, but I looked around my remaining group and felt pretty confident.  I saw Jonathan Jacob from NUVO, a Jelly Belly guy, two guys from Rubicon-Orbea (one of them got 2nd the day before) and several others and thought, “ok, this isn’t too shabby here.”  Mistake. 

Looking back I realize those three who rode off from our group weren’t killing it as much as my group lost steam and momentum.  We had only raced half the race and I didn’t believe the rest of the guys in my group had nothing left, but I was wrong.  Only myself and a couple of others had any gas in the critical moment to reach the leaders.  Early on after finishing a long pull I pulled aside, but one of the Rubicon-Orbea guys behind me said he was cooked and unable to continue the momentum.  Right then I knew our group was over, and at that point we could still see the three guys ahead.  The leaders got faster, we got slower, and it didn’t take long before we couldn’t see them. 

We raced a few more laps together before the officials gave us one to go to sprint finish early.  That last lap was fun as we all put in attacks, chased, and attacked some more.  If only everyone had possessed that much power when it mattered most we might have made the lead split.  I ended up getting 6th in our final lap attacks to end up in 31st for the day.  I knew sooner or later we’d get pulled, but I was hoping to race a few more laps considering the leaders were far from lapping us.  Finishing early may have been a blessing in disguise because a few laps later the skies opened up with another long severe thunderstorm with wind and lightning.  It got so bad the officials gave the leaders the bell lap with 7 laps to go, and in the end the two Kelly Benefits riders held on to their advantage to go 1-2.  The race started with a little over 50 guys, but only 25 made the front split.

The most exciting thing during the weekend was Mathew Meunier of our NashvilleCyclist.com team bridging to the breakaway in his Cat 2/3 race on Sunday.  There were 100 starters in his race, and at a critical juncture he bridged up to 10 guys as they held off the charging group in the remaining five laps.  Mathew ended up 11th overall, but he was the first Cat 3 finisher with all Cat 2s gobbling up the top 10 in the break.  I have never seen a smile so big on someone for getting 11th!  It was a pretty awesome effort to watch as he bridged up, and is a huge accomplishment in such a talented field.  Congratulations Mathew, now do it again!

What do I take away from this weekend’s experience?

While I did get split from the lead group on both days I was never in a position of completely falling to pieces.  I realize that may sound strange, but it boiled down to my position at critical moments as well not having enough power or confidence to bridge during those moments.  At no point was I so anaerobic that I fell apart, but considering what happened I ought to have risked a bit more for that possibility.  I had also placed too much trust in the strength of the riders in front and around me when instead I should have relied solely on myself for better positioning.

My goals going into this weekend were to be with the pack, avoid those really difficult efforts, remain in one piece, not dangle off the back struggling – and on these I was mostly successful.  I failed to plan for what actually happened though, but I knew racing at this level would challenge me mentally by placing me in unfamiliar situations.  Lessons learned.

Without question I will have to think differently and try new personal strategies.  Traditional thinking will get me to a certain point, but I will have to project myself into uncomfortable situations before I hit my personal ceiling of ability. I’m realizing more change will need to come from my head more than from my legs.