‘Not with a bang, but a whimper’
It was supposed to be the pinnacle of my season. It was the target I set at the beginning of the year. The Green Mountain Stage Race (GMSR), held over Labor Day weekend in northern Vermont, is New England’s capstone racing event of the year. GMSR draws a large and competitive field from across the region, and the parcours is the stuff of legend. Two difficult climbing stages (one with a grueling summit finish atop Appalachian Gap) are bracketed by a Merckx-style, climber-friendly time-trial and a crit in the heart of downtown Burlington.
Truth be told, I was dreading it. Months ago I’d looked toward GMSR as a chance to go out with a bang. But in the weeks leading up to the race, it was hard for me to imagine the season culminating in anything but a whimper. Instead of peaking, I was procrastinating. All I really wanted was to slink into the off-season after a mentally- and physically-taxing seven months. I even waited until the night before registration closed to sign-up for the race, prompted by little more than a fleeting flash of FOMO. However the racing might turn out–I rationalized–it would be a fun weekend in a house full of teammates and their better halves in rural Vermont. Plus, those better halves were rumored to have supreme culinary skills. We’d be eating like kings, in any event.
Friday began with an early morning time trial start. The strain and thrashing of the all-out effort left me with lungs that burnt and legs that seared. My best laid plans to shave 30 seconds off last year’s time and place in the top 10 were foiled by an effort that was a disappointing 12 seconds slower than the year prior. I finished nearly two minutes down in a decidedly less-respectable 60th place (the field was composed of just 70 riders). Despite having had to endure an effort of only 16 minutes, I spent the remainder of the day succumbing to an ever-deeper feeling of fatigue. With 72 miles and more than 5,000 feet of climbing on the cards for the next day, I grew increasingly less optimistic about my capacity to perform well over what remained of GMSR.
‘Testing the waters’
On Saturday morning we rolled off the start line into the freshness of low-lying fog. The race route starts with a nearly two mile climb, and with King of the Mountain points on offer at the summit, things generally kick-off right away. My teammate, Ryan McGarrity (a.k.a. ‘McGarrity’), and I made sure to get in a good warm-up and stayed close to the front to avoid being spit out the back under the pressure of the early surges. Breaks went, breaks were reeled back in, and the sprinters battled it out each lap of the 18-mile circuit for the day’s sprint points.
The flat finish favored the sprinters, and since neither McGarrity nor I can lay claim to being one, we had spoken the night before about attacking in the hope of catching some teams off guard. I went first, coordinating a two-man breakaway attempt with another NYC-based racer, David Taylor. We attacked on a small rise with three miles to go. We cooperated well together and our gap endured until the last mile of racing. Having been swept up by the pack, the peloton barreled toward the finish. Ryan battled to stay at the head of affairs and managed to finish 11th, a tire width outside the Top 10. This was definitely a result to be proud of, especially as McGarrity had spent the better part of the season out with an injury. We celebrated by heading to nearby Warren Falls and jumping off a 20 foot cliff into the river below.
‘Sometimes your cards ain’t worth a dime, if you don’t lay ‘em down’
Sunday’s Queen Stage, with its 6,400 feet of climbing and finish atop Appalachian Gap (commonly referred to as ‘App Gap’), tends to inspire such awe that the racing is quite conservative. The peloton typically rides gruppo compatto to the climbs, the climbers then move to the front and drop the hammer, and a significantly reduced bunch reforms on the descents. This pattern repeats itself over and over throughout the 65-mile race until just a few guys are left battling for the podium spots by the top of App Gap.
“What if we flipped the script?”—McGarrity and I asked each other following the descent off Middlebury Gap, the first big climb of the day. We had both been sitting about 20-25th over the first climb. If we just let things play out as a war of attrition and a contest of pure, aerobic fitness up the climbs we suspected that we’d find ourselves in more of less the same position at the end. So, we agreed to attack.
McGarrity went first, about 45 miles into the race. Several riders followed, and a group of about eight formed up the road. With such horsepower, the peloton soon grew nervous and started to chase in earnest to bring it back. We road strung out for six or seven miles to make the catch, and all I had to do was sit in the wheels, out of the wind and let other riders do the work as I had a teammate in the break. It all came back together, and a few miles later, McGarrity—indefatigable as he is—went again! While his second move was this time more quickly snuffed out by the attentive group, it created an opportunity for me to immediately counter-attack.
About 30 seconds into the move I checked over my shoulder. No one was coming with me. A flicker of self-doubt about my ability to stick a solo move for the next 10 miles and two big climbs caused my pace to slow. I checked over my shoulder again. Yes! My same break companion from yesterday, David, was bridging. He reached me moments later, and we put our heads down and started taking 10-second pulls each. The race moto pulled up alongside us and informed, “The gap is 30 seconds”. And then just a short time later, “45 seconds”. As we made a right-hand-turn onto the lower slopes of Baby Gap, the day’s penultimate climb, we heard the moto official bark, “A minute 45 on the peloton”. This would mark the only time David spoke to me during the entire breakaway, “This is a race winning gap,” he wheezed under the strain of his effort. David has a distinguished palmarès, whereas I’d never been in this situation before. His words carried a powerful credibility, and I pedaled harder.
I lost David’s wheel near the top of Baby Gap, but managed to hold him on a leash of about 15 seconds to the base of App Gap. David was my carrot. I just had to keep him in sight. But, through the first couple of switch-backs up App Gap he slid out of view. I focused on riding as hard as possible to the top, and tried to ignore the twitch of impending cramps in my legs. I never looked back. I didn’t want to know whether, or how fast, the chasers might be closing in on me.
In the last 500m, where the gradient hits 20%, I was out of the saddle, all over my bike, lurching forward, willing myself to the line. The voice of one spectator stood out in the final 200m, “Two behind you, coming up fast.” I tried to extract every ounce of power out of my legs and used my entire body weight to drive down into the pedals. In the end, I was passed in the final 150m and came across the line in 4th. I nearly collapsed under the effort, and had to be held up by two volunteers. While I finished just off the podium, the day’s performance was good enough to lift me into 10th overall.
I felt a fair amount of trepidation heading into the Burlington crit. Not only was I concerned about protecting my place in the overall standings, but this marked a return to the scene of crash in 2014 that left me with a dislocated shoulder and weeks of rehabilitation. My crit experiences have always been intense. It’s 50 minutes of riding more or less at the limit. I knew what I was in for, it was just a matter of being mentally ready for the suffering. I’d taken care to memorize the bib numbers of those that threatened my spot on the General Classification, and had a plan to sprint for one of the time bonus primes on offer mid-way through the race. A four-man move managed to get away, and fortunately it didn’t contain any riders that could knock me out of the top 10. I was able to secure a four-second time bonus that preserved my place in the General Classification, and felt a mixture of relief and satisfaction upon crossing the line. GMSR 2015 was done. Now, bring on the off-season!