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Groad Trip: The game has changed

After mid-race frustration and post-race social media bickering, 'this old dog got taught a new trick.'

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My weekend was one of stark contrast.

After the Leadville Trail 100 I was on a high. My day had been just dandy. I’d traveled to Colorado from sea level the day before without any altitude preparation and zero expectation — just to pedal hard and enjoy the bike race. When the finish line was behind me, I’d somehow managed a top 10 and gained some solid Life Time Grand Prix points, which was a pleasant surprise.

However, what meant more to me was how many folks and competitors came up to me, even mid-race, to tell me congrats on becoming a father. My cup overflowed with gratitude at how tight-knit this space is. Big Tall Wayne and I then enjoyed a road trip to Steamboat Springs and readied ourselves for round 2 of the LeadBoat Challenge.

Lining up for day 2, I felt surprisingly OK from a fatigue standpoint, but the altitude had really caught up with me. I felt redlined early and often. I knew I wouldn’t contend against the best on the day, but I was still going to give it all I had and embrace the race.

SBT GRVL is one heck of a beautiful course; the scenery is iconic. The town rolls out the red carpet and the expo/festival is one of the coolest settings in all of gravel. SBT GRVL prides itself on top quality professionalism; from their communications, to their ethical stances, to their aid station distances and volunteers — everything is top notch.

They also have a robust prize purse for the pros, and were one of the first to really lead the charge in that space. They deserve a lot of credit for the reinvigoration of professional off-road racing that myself and my cohorts benefit from right now.

The race — and the aid stations

I’d noticed a minority of the total riders had extra bottles or hydration vests at the start line, but I also noticed that same minority held many of the race favorites. I made a note to conserve my bottles a bit longer than normal just in case there wouldn’t be any early stops.

The day started out calmly and predictably; a dangerous break with three of the strongest riders in the race and eventual second place Freddy Ovett had gone up the road early, but there were still six hours to race and only three of them. The game of attrition began as different riders pushed the pace through different sectors of the route.

Feed zones are as unique as each race in gravel. The way riders race Unbound is very different than they way they race The Mid South.

Generally with aid stations, if the race isn’t “on” such as chasing a breakaway or attacking through a sector, those of us at the front lay down arms for a quick minute, take care of ourselves, and then pick up the race after exiting. It is a beautiful moment of sportsmanship.

We don’t need to stop at every aid, it usually only happens once or twice per race when a majority are out of water. Coming into an aid some riders will start to ask others if they’re cool with a water stop. Get enough strong riders on board and there’s power in numbers should anyone try something. It’s an in-the-moment discussion that usually happens just before an upcoming station.

And, it’s very nuanced.

For example, at Aid 2 these discussions never took place beforehand and there happened to be a jeep track with a rough descent just before. I went to the front here and pushed the pace before, and through the feed. I never considered this to be a fill point for the majority. Others I’ve asked said they didn’t think they were stopping there either, and I never considered it as I was still well supplied with my two bottles.

The race dynamic changed however between Aid 2 and Aid 3.

The SBT course is not as selective in the first half of the course; the peloton stays large for longer. That breakaway gained a hefty margin due to a lack of a unified chase. I still thought we could chase them down in the second half, but some of my colleagues were becoming extremely exasperated at watching the race go up the road.

Thus, as we rolled into Aid 3 — at the mid-point of the course — at a controlled pace, those of us carrying only bottles collectively agreed to stop and fill. In my opinion, that was well communicated. I went as far as to hold my bottle up in the air to the group and make a “T” sign for time out.

Those with hydration packs didn’t stop. I didn’t expect them to literally stop and wait, but generally in feed zones, as with pee stops, the group holds the same pace to allow others to chase back on. This has been the case in nearly every race I’ve done.

I rolled in, was as efficient as possible, and readied to catch back up. Only once I had a clear view, the 15 or so that didn’t stop were far up the road. There was an injection in the pace, a conscious acceleration. I was honestly flabbergasted. There was a first chasing group including riders like Nathan Haas and Brennan Wertz who had only filled one bottle or saw what was happening and aborted their feed, and there was my group about a minute down.

The front group continued to pull away and they were going fast enough that riders were being dropped from their group. This was definitely faster than before we’d entered the feed zone and these riders had taken advantage of the purposeful stop by others to create the gap.

In my mind, that was unsportsmanlike.

For the attacking group, they felt they had paid their penalty of lugging the extra weight of their hydration packs and could now seize the opportunity. There wasn’t any ill-will, cohesion, or a premeditated plan by these riders, but a recognition in the moment of a chance to mount a unified chase, and with a smaller group it’s easier to organize. It was another instant mid-race decision (just like feed zone stops) where there was an alignment of interests in a common goal.

It took us about an hour of full-gas chasing to get back and when I did regain contact I was torched, my day was done. I had made it my only goal just to get up there to give them a piece of my mind.

I wasn’t bitter about losing out on a personal result; I knew based on my preparation I wasn’t going to compete against the best this weekend. It was about how the race was raced.

The fallout

I also want to categorically deny the report of having told riders the race was over and to ride for fourth. I never believed that to be the case.

Admittedly, I was blinded to objectivity, and I could only see it one way in the moment. Words were said from both sides, and the defensiveness I perceived in their voices only served to reinforce their guilt in my mind.

Once the verbal exchange was done I was promptly dropped and found a group to roll home with. I made it my goal to find some fun in the rest of the day and release my frustration. I obviously couldn’t let it all go however, because I made a snide remark on social media, and well, we all know how those turn out.

I was chagrined and angry these riders took away part of what I believe makes gravel unique. To be clear, Keegan was the best rider in my opinion and would have won regardless. I respect him and the others in the top 10 immensely, and I regret that our bickering detracted from the sporting pursuit.

For losing my temper on social media, I am truly sorry. It should have been dealt with over parking lot beers instead.

Now, here’s where I’m wrong, and I’ll own it. It’s taken some discussions and apologies, but I can now see the other side of the fence.

I’ll admit I’ve become too protective of what gravel felt like when I entered it, and I need to respect others’ way of doing it better. The riders like Keegan, Payson, and Russell I admonished are friends, and as of writing this we are all good and this is water under the bridge.

Choosing one’s hydration strategy is a tactic and can be akin to tire pressure or gearing. There aren’t rules around this sort of thing, and I’m not in the position to be a policeman. The game has changed. It honestly didn’t occur to me to never stop in this 140-mile race, but this old dog got taught a new trick.

At this point all I can do is tip my hat because their tactic was a better one. I guess you could say I got caught with my pants down and stumbled trying to pull them back up.

In the end, the strongest riders prevailed.

Careful gear selection and race strategy has always been a significant part of the discipline, and this is a story of two approaches colliding.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.