Race Report: Giro del Cielo

Last year, an untimely crash (though no crash is ever timely), kept me away from the start-line at the Giro del Cielo. It's been marked on my calendar since. Here's how the weekend finally unfolded. 

A New Format

This year's Giro del Cielo made a few changes to the race that we've grown accustomed to over the past several years. Gone was the somewhat easy road race, replaced with an incredibly challenging course defined by punchy climbs and an tough uphill finish. And the other key difference, the road race was now stage one, with the TT and crit taking place on Sunday. 

Without much (read any) insight into the new road course, we planned to arrive early and discuss strategy amongst our four riders. We knew we'd have options if the course was anything like last year's. What we weren't planning on was nearly 5,000 feet of climbing in the short 50 mile stage. As other fields came through the finish in pieces, we realized things might play out a bit differently than we had planned. 

Hilly AF

When the race promoter asked the field whether we wanted to ride 8 or 9 laps of the course, we should have known it would be a hard stage. Perhaps we had recessed it to the back of our minds, as bike racers often do, woefully hopeful to make it through without too much suffering. 

An uneventful first lap turned into an even less eventful following lap, as the bunch meandered along the new course. Perhaps intimidated by the heat of the 12:30pm start, or the sheer amount of unexpected climbing, the peloton was not highly motivated. Multiple yellow line violations kept us entertained as we called out the riders for their egregious violations and blatant disregard for one of the primary rules of USAC racing. Nevertheless, we continued along at our passive pace, with a false tempo being set on the front by less-than-willing riders. 

I was bored. I felt good. I punched out of the group at the start of the first kicker. A single rider followed me as I established a small gap. I flicked my elbow to call him through; refusing, he said the group was on our tail and it was futile. I quickly rose out of the saddle and put in a second dig, reaffirming my commitment to the cause. And so there I was, alone on the road with nearly half of the race to go and a sizable peloton of fresh legs not far behind me. It was futile, but I soldiered on over the second climb and down a quick descent where I used my disc brakes to their full advantage. Braking late into a hard right hand turn, I held more momentum than the previous laps and started the third climb with speed. However, I was never going to stick a solo move like this and the bunch was soon clipping at my heels. 

Frustratingly, the group didn't reel me in but simply sat on my wheel as we ascended the last kickers. And, not learning my lesson, I was soon on the attack again. This time, I had recovered a bit on the flats and gradual descents after the tough climbing of the circuit, and was able to kick again with full strength. Unsurprisingly, no one came with me. I sat up and waiting for the bunch to absorb me once again, my funny-business for the day was done. Ted quickly offered up words of encouragement and reiterated that we should bide our time and wait for opportunity at the finish. 

As we rounded the final corner into the short ascent to the finish, I was locked onto Ted's wheel. We were a bit far back, but could make up the placings in the next half-mile or so. My legs were heavy, and my hamstrings protested as we accelerated out of the corner. How I regretted those two full-gas attacks now. No time for regrets though, we were still fully in the race for a result. The pace was quickening and riders were drifting back, unable to cope with the grade. I was out of the saddle, but not yet full tilt, biding my time. My legs screamed back at me, but with the finish nearing, I knew I could coax one more effort out of them. Gears clicked and riders shouted as they jostled in the sprint. I was elbow to elbow with a few riders as I squeezed through openings, finding my way near the front. Across the line I was just off the podium, a solid fifth place. 

The new road race has injected a new degree of intensity into the Giro del Cielo, complementing a regional favorite crit course and a challenging time trial. Where short stage races of this kind are often defined by one single stage, the Giro serves up three winners in under 48 hours of racing. 

Keep it Classic

With the road race concluding in the mid-afternoon, leaving our bodies nearly devoid of water and salt, we set course (in cars) for the nearest diner. While people think that classic Americana diners still define New York City living, nothing beats a small town diner that's been around for at least a half century. Their menu may be suspiciously large, but you're really only there for one reason - all-day breakfast and post-bike race portion sizes. 

Inevitably the conversation died down to the odd satisfied grunt as our group settled into the meal. Only when the plates were clean did we begin to liven up again, recapping the madness of the road race that had left us in this depleted state. After the satisfying meal, our racing troupe split to head to our respective accommodations for the evening. In keeping with the classic Americana vibes of the afternoon, we set course for a tiny motel just over the border in Milford, PA. 

A booking error, which we will not address in detail, meant that Travis and I were suddenly lacking accommodations for the evening. Luckily, our teammate Ted offered the spare bed in his room to allow us to cram way too many bikes and people into one tiny motel room - just as stage racing should be done. 

After half watching Mr. Deeds on the only TV channel, we turned off the lights and tucked in for the night. For me the evening was restless, as my tired body fought with my nervous mind for sleep. I was already focused on tomorrow - we had everything to play for. 

Feel the Rhythm, Feel the Rhyme... 

Erwin Kersten

Nope, it wasn't bobsled time. Sunday morning meant TT time; the first of two Sunday stages. I had a decent road race, until the last kicker towards the finish where I cramped up in both legs, finishing 9th. Burgers, a local IPA & a NJ motel bed proved to be adequate recovery material, and the legs felt alright again in the morning. Speaking of which, that NJ motel would've been a great excuse if said TT hadn't gone to plan: my girlfriend and I got locked inside (!) our room and had to climb out via the window, meaning Colin, Ted and Travis were well into their warm-up when I finally rocked-up 15min before my start time...

Luckily, excuses didn't prove necessary. Despite it being only my second TT ever (KSR this summer being the first), I felt good during the 13 mile rolling course. For New Yorkers who haven't never made it out to this neck of the woods, imagine a slightly longer 'River Road-style' loop, following the original 'Old Mine Rd TT' course. 

Contrary to KSR (and most TT formats), the start times were set ahead of the weekend, which meant one has no idea where the potential other racers you're overtaking stand on GC, making it less of an indicator how well you're doing. 

All 4 of us felt we had done what we could, give and take a few imperfections due to not being very familiar with the course. The waiting game started when the officials told us the results would only be posted at the Sussex Fairgrounds, home to the Crit and final stage. Via a pitstop at Firehouse Bagel Co together with the guys at the 5th Floor, we arrived at the Fairground where we got the confirmation that exceeded our expectations: 3 of us in the top 5, and my time of 30min 29sec meant victory in the TT stage. Ted got second, Colin got 4th and Travis got 26th (Merckx style). Any TTT's happening in the NY area, anyone?

Our final stage was scheduled for 3:25 pm, so the rest of the afternoon was spent (together with our friends at CityMD) watching the womens & other mens races, hiding from the sun underneath a tree by the side of the course. Matt had driven up to race the M1/2 field, which made for a great 'Team hang'.

Round 3...

"So what's the plan, guys?" asked Josh from RBNY, leading the GC ahead of the third and final stage. 

"Just beating you." replied Erwin with a smile.

"Haha, sounds familiar."

We rolled up to the line mid-pack, happy to have added firepower in the form of Corey, who joined us just for Sunday's races having attended a wedding the day before. Without warning or a pre-race announcement from the officials, the whistle blew and we were racing. 

Caught off guard, the field jumped into action, sprinting up to speed and around the first corner. Everyone jockeyed and jostled, as the group frantically sought order and control from the front of the race. Luckily, a few riders clipped off the front and saw the pace stay high through the first few laps. 

I finally made my way through the pack to settle onto Josh's wheel. Erwin and Ted quickly made their way up the group to sit near the front, while I, on Josh's wheel, sat just around the top-ten wheels. That's when things got spicy. 

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Erwin, always keen to get in a breakaway, followed wheels and found himself just off the front amongst a small group. Josh, sensing danger, clicked down a gear and sprinted to close the gap, while I, on Josh's wheel, responded to his accelleration. A lap or so later, it was Ted who rolled off the front, forcing Josh to close yet another gap, and I, on Josh's wheel, to respond. 

Growing tired of this game, Josh from RBNY put in a few digs himself, looking to catch Erwin or Ted of guard. But I, on Josh's wheel, was stuck like glue. We continued at this game, always near the front for nearly the entire race, when out of nowhere the lap counter read 4 to go. 

With Erwin, Ted and Corey all riding near the front, I felt confident in our strategy. 

As we came around for three laps to go, Erwin punched it and got a gap. He was joined by a few riders, and managed to get a few hundred feet up the road. Josh was forced to close it and accelerated hard, but I, on Josh's wheel, spun up and hung tight. As we came around the back straight, I took a gamble and left my mark to move ahead and fight in the top few wheels. 

With one-to-go, Corey moved to the front and I settled onto his wheel. This is exactly where we wanted this. But Corey hit the wind early, and was forced to keep the pace high with half a lap remaining. I shouted words of encouragement, dictating the pace to ensure we wouldn't get swarmed by the charging pack. All we had to do was make it through the hard left unscathed, I'd have to go long. I worried where Josh was placed, had the tables turned? Was he now stuck to my wheel, waiting to sprint around me in the finish? 

There was no time to worry. Corey made it through the final bend, but faded on the short uphill drag-drifting back, job done. I held my effort, but sprinted to speed as another rider punched past. He had a gap, and I was eating wind way too early. I kept the power down with the finish a few hundred yards up the road, everyone's tired now, I just had to believe in my ability. As we opened up a second sprint in the finishing straight, another rider surged past me. I kept kicking to the line, and threw my bike for insurance. Third. 

But where were the GC contenders? I turned to see Erwin and Josh/RBNY just behind me, not more than a few places back. Had we done enough?

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Was it enough?!

I was pleased with that result, I had improved with each stage, from 5th to 4th to 3rd, and fought hard in the crit to improve our position on GC. I had pretty much assumed that Erwin and I would be 2nd and 3rd on GC, having battled in the crit but finished close with Josh of RBNY (the GC leader). I had marked Josh's wheel as Ted and Erwin followed wheels up the road, and clung like glue to ensure we never missed a move. A GC podium was a great result.

"YOU!" Erwin shouted, pointing at me from the officials' tent a few hundred feet away. I shrugged at Travis, wondering what was next. "You got it!" Erwin exclaimed. Bounding down a small grassy rise that served as the parking lot, I wasn't quite sure I believed what he had said. As recounted by several witnesses, my run down the hill should best be remembered in slow-motion, as if from some romantic comedy. We high-fived and embraced as Ted and Travis joined the party, collectively realizing that we had secured 1st, 3rd, and 6th on the GC and swept the team GC.

Ironically, my weekend had begun quite sluggishly. I wasn't fully stoked on a weekend away and was nervous about the compiled stress of a stage race. It was a big demand on the body and mind and I couldn't psych myself up as Travis and I drove out to Saturday's road race. There had been pressure on me all year, self-inflicted of course, to get a big result in racing. This was to be the season, I had been more selfish, made sacrifices bigger than years past, surely it would all pay off at some point. I had to trust in myself to race like I knew I could. The consistency paid off: fifth in the road race, fourth in the time trial and third in the criterium stacked up to the overall win. I didn't get to raise my hands at the line, or feel the immediate rush of a win out on the road. But when everything comes together in the end, trust me, it's just as sweet. 

 1st GC (Colin), 3rd GC (Erwin), 6th GC (Ted), Team Overall GC and a blank check!

1st GC (Colin), 3rd GC (Erwin), 6th GC (Ted), Team Overall GC and a blank check!