2009 Dunnigan Hills Road Race

Dunnigan Hills RR
Yolo, CA
Weather: 512 mph winds, 234 F temperature, no exaggerations.
Teammates: James Badia, Rob MacNeill, Ryan Parnes, Billy Crane, Matt Beebe, Neil Harrington, Greg Gomez, Matt Morenzoni, Bo Hebenstreit
Placing: 3rd of 60

I’m sure you’re kindly attempting to hide your astonishment, but I can still sense it from here. I feel remarkably uncomfortable writing this report; we all know I’m no road racer. Nevertheless, I’m contractually obligated to compose a report, so bear with me as I muddle my way through 86 miles of misery.

The Dunnigan Hills RR–or any race that contains extended crosswind sections–provides a unique glimpse into the human psyche. Two facets of the mind reflect particularly brightly when exposed to the harsh elements of the Central Valley: self-preservation and desire.

Desire is an obvious and uninteresting topic; bike racing hurts, and if you lack the desire to win, you will fail.

Self-preservation, on the other hand, tends not to expose itself often in P/1/2 racing. Typically–with many frightening exceptions–category 1 and 2 bike racers are comfortable riding in close proximity, cornering at high speed, and coping with aggressive racing. However, when confronted with a stiff crosswind, only the truly confident cyclist will prevail. Criterium racing is dangerous, and requires a certain amount of disregard for one’s own safety; crosswind racing, when done successfully, is sheer madness.

Of particular relevance to Dunnigan Hills is the battle between desire and self-preservation. No matter how well-positioned you are, you will inevitably find yourself flirting with the double-yellow, squinting through bloodshot eyes, pedaling as hard as your feeble amateur legs allow, yet struggling to maintain contact with the rider ahead.

You are then faced with three options: cross the centerline to maintain a draft, pedal harder, or drop off the pace. To observe your fellow racers at this moment speaks volumes about their character, and I recommend you observe carefully; you will gain invaluable knowledge about your competitors.

A weak man, one without morals, without sense of self-preservation, will cross the yellow line. This man cares little about his own safety (much less those behind him), and cares even less about the official’s watchful eye. This is likely the same man that dives the final corner of a criterium, jeopardizing everyone’s skin. I never trust such uncouth cyclists.

A different brand of weak man, this time with no fortitude and no desire, will simply slow his cadence and tell himself he’s “having a bad day.” He will unceremoniously exit the race at the feed zone.

A strong man will concede that his opponent’s pace is fast, but not fast enough. His desire to win is temporarily eclipsed by the desire to simply hang on. But should he hang on, the strong man will eventually have the opportunity to gutter his opponents, to inflict pain upon those behind him. That is the truly beautiful part of racing in crosswinds: if you are strong, you can mercilessly crush the spirits of your competitors.

Impassioned, overwrought, superfluous soliloquies aside, let’s discuss this year’s edition of the race in earnest.

The first 43 miles of this race were controlled, predictable, and eerily calm thanks to a valiant first-kilometer attack by Billy Crane and Bo Hebenstreit. As the race rolled out of town–while I was exchanging banal comments with friends and generally running my loud mouth–my teammates were attacking with reckless abandon. They succeeded in establishing a ten-man breakaway before I had fully awakened from the previous night’s sleep. Well done, lads.

Many riders, having missed this early move, were forced to frantically drive the pace; meanwhile, Ryan Parnes and I were able to stay protected from the brutal winds, safe in the knowledge that our teammates were fighting the wind minutes ahead of us.

Alas, this “calm before the storm” was exactly that, and heading into the second lap it was apparent that the race was preparing to blow apart. As we hit the first exposed crosswind section, Andres Gil (Pacific State Bank) and Kevin Klein (Klein Real Estate) attacked hard up the centerline, guttering the field. I found myself in the position described above, flirting with the centerline, contemplating dropping out or committing vehicular Hari-Kari with oncoming traffic.

It was during this tumultuous period that I began cursing Ryan’s name between my ragged breaths. Why? While I was questioning my manhood, Ryan appeared invincible. Neither the wind nor the pace seemed to faze that hairy abomination. Spurred on by anger at Ryan’s apparent strength, I pedaled with all my might. After several miles of torment, we collectively looked around to find that Klein, Gil, Parnes, Evan Huffman (Lombardi) and I were alone, with the peloton nowhere in sight.

With nothing to lose, we worked well together, everyone taking even pulls into the rugged crosswind. By the time we reached the right-hand turn into a headwind, we had caught a chase group of five, and could see the lead group dangling less than a minute ahead. A few pedal strokes later, and we swallowed them up. As I passed a withering Billy and remarkably stoic Bo, I said, “Great job. Thanks guys.” Now the pressure was on Ryan and I; our teammates had suffered greatly, and I would be damned if they had suffered in vain.

Now, a group of twenty riders is at least ten riders too many, so Ryan and I moved to the front. We knew we had to increase the pace and shed some baggage. Unfortunately that likely meant shedding some teammates as well; no one said the life of a domestique was glamorous, or even fair. When we first caught the lead group, Billy said to me, “I’m pretty toast, but let me know what to do, and I’ll try.” Knowing that he was about to suffer at the hands of his own teammates, I simply smiled and said, “Just rest up a bit, you’ve done your job.”

Ryan went first, hitting the gas hard, and I pulled through in an attempt to imitate his display of power.

I only wanted to shred the group and inflict unholy suffering upon those who were weak, but nothing more. I swear, I had absolutely no intention of “attacking,” in spite of Ryan’s insistence to the contrary. An attack with 30 miles of head/crosswind remaining would be patently moronic.

In spite of my intentions, I ended up with a gap on the field. Well, #$*%. Once you’re off the front, you might as well keep going. I put my head down and punished myself for my idiocy, riding alone in agony through the majority of the final crosswind section.

Thankfully, JD Bergman (Clif Bar) relieved me of my lonesome burden as we entered the long, undulating headwind section of the course. Shortly thereafter, we were joined by Andres Gil, Evan Huffman, and a rider I still can’t identify. Judging by the miles of empty road behind us, this group of five was destined for success, even with 20 miles to the finish.

Like my overworked oxen in the video game “The Oregon Trail,” we set a grueling pace all the way through the headwind. We crossed I-5 with a three minute gap on the chasers, and nothing but flat, smooth, tailwind-assisted roads to the finish. We were clear, and I could finish no worse than 5th. Most importantly, I was confident in my sprint.

Hubris always strikes at the most inopportune times; just ask Oedipus. Now, that’s an overly dramatic comparison, of course. I managed to avoid any uncomfortable encounters with female family members and didn’t gouge my eyes out.

However, a left-leg muscle I never knew existed took issue with my confidence and, without warning, cramped violently and painfully. My breakmates looked on with surprise (and probably amusement) as I began to yelp frantically, coasting off the back while massaging my rebellious leg.

My race was over with only 10k remaining. I couldn’t pedal, and I glanced toward the shoulder, searching for a soft place to land. I fumbled with my bottles, swallowing the last few milliliters so that I might remain alive until the EMT’s arrived.

That’s when I realized that I was coasting along at 20 mph, courtesy of the incredible tailwind. Reinvigorated, I continued some massaging, interspersed with some stretching, and finally loosened my leg to the point where I felt comfortable turning the pedals. I was nearly 40 seconds behind the leaders at this point, and I was very grumpy.

I wasted every ounce of willpower remaining in my body, and clawed myself back to the leaders as they passed the 1k to go sign. They were surprised again (though probably significantly less amused).

I won’t belabor the finish. I was completely worked, and in no state of mind to adequately judge distances. The 5th, unidentified rider in the break jumped very early while the rest of us looked at each other. He won, and a heartfelt congratulations to him. I sprinted gingerly (to avoid cramping) and came across the line in third, behind Andres Gil.

Suffice to say, I hate road races, and justifiably so. I’ve not been that miserable after a bike race in a long time.

Letter Grades:

Tactics: D- (Ryan was supposed to be the leader, and I blew it)
Teamwork: A+ (Bo and Billy are studs)
Finish: C (Classic rookie move: letting someone else win)
Race Report Length: A+ (If you’re still reading this, get a life)
Style: F (The Velopromo T-shirt has a photograph of Mike Vella on it)

Overall: B+ (My teammates’ good work almost offsets my failure)

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