Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tour of Walla Walla 2010: 3 races, 2 days, in the Big Ring

The Tour of Walla Walla stage race - apparently a big deal in Northwest racing, though I'd never heard of it until last year when I started racing. All the big teams from WA/OR/ID/Canada send people (8 per team per Category max) to this race, as there is some serious money up for grabs - over $10,000 in cash overall.

And with over 90 Cat 4's alone, the races were sure to be challenging and risky - just what we came here for.

What's a Stage Race?

In cycling, a stage race is when you compete in a number of events over a number of consecutive days, and a leader emerges based on finishing times. The overall leader is the "General Contender" or GC rider.

And besides adding up your cumulative time, you also have to deal with "time cuts" - if you are more than 20% behind the GC leader in your Category, then you are pulled from the whole over race. Of course, nobody wants that but it happens. And depending on how fast the winner was, it could happen all too easily if you did really bad in the TT.

The most famous stage races being the Tour de France and the Giro - so instead of a few weeks of racing, us Cat 4's just did two days worth. The 3's were doing four days with a 75-mile RR, while the 1/2's did four days with a 95-mile RR. Wow.

My race schedule:

  • Saturday 9:10 AM Walla Walla TT start - 9.3 mile course, with a little climb in the middle. I'm not a fan of TTs, but your "GC" position pretty much hangs off of this.. so I wanted to do well of course, but didn't have any aspirations of really cracking the top 10 at all.
  • Saturday 4:05 AM 25-minute Walla Walla Criterium (with photos) - .59 mile course (I think this is the one we did, the "old" course), 6 turns, my kind of race. 25 minutes is not very long for Cat 4's, so it was going to be a fast race for sure. I'm not a sprinter but I can hold position up front and seem to be able to pass a lot of people in corners (e.g. handling). And with all those turns, positioning would be key (it always is in crits anyway, but in a technical one like this especially)
  • Sunday 8:05 AM 58-mile Waitsburg Road Race - featuring a 3km-long climb finish on a steady 5% grade. But like I've been saying a lot lately, "I used to think I was a good climber, then I started racing." That finish was sure to hurt, and we were actually start the race on it (neutral, ~8 mph), then going to do it during the race was well (on the short loop), at the start of the second lap, then do the "long loop", then of course the finish after 56 miles..
  • Local race lore says that Cat 5's have been popped off the back of that neutral climb start! Ouch.
The great thing about stage races it that it awards consistency rather than specialization. There may be people who can TT really well, or sprint really well, or do road races really well, but can you do all three better than you competitors?

I didn't have plans on taking the overall GC, I'm more concerned about points for the Cat 3 upgrade. (have 3 out of 20 needed so far) I knew I wasn't going to do all that well in the TT, but that I had a fighting chance at points in the crit & road race. (top 6 needed in the crit, top 9 in the road race - no points available from TTs for the 4->3 upgrade)

With my randonneuring background I hoped that recovery - key in a multi-day race - would be to my advantage.

Stage 1: Saturday Time Trial

After failing hard at the Frostbite TT earlier this year, I wanted to at least not get cut from the overall race.. I thought the winner would be closer to 20 minutes, so I would need to get in under 24:00.

You don't have to have a dedicated TT bike for this event, though it certainly helps. And many in the 4/5's are rocking nice TT bikes with aero wheels, TT helments, the whole deal. I just threw my clip-on aero bars on the Raleigh (w/ Open Pros), scooted the seat forward, put on some "aero" booties, and got ready to suffer. The TT is really about how long can you sustain the pain, right? Can you meter it out correctly, or will you fizzle too soon? Or not go hard enough?

I figured I needed to put in a good dig on the uphill section, but that I needed something for the way down. You can't just coast down in a race like this, you've got keep pushing, and sometimes that can be harder than pushing hard uphill (in terms of power). You've really got to spin fast in order to get much power when doing over 30 mph.. but I know that my strength, if anything, is on the uphill, so I would put in my work there, and hope for the best after that. Perhaps a bad plan but it was enough to get me through the race.

Got in a decent 30 minute warm-up rolling around up and down a local road near the start at the community college, though I wish I'd just brought the trainer I never use (was too lazy to pack it). I had put on some Conti "Supersonic" tires that are light and thin for the crit, but forgot I'd have to use them in the TT too. They weren't super worn but the trade-off is of course puncture protection - get a flat in the TT and it's over. But by the time my start rolled around, I'd forgotten about any tire worries, it was all about pacing and suffering.

The First Rate Mortgage guy in front of me looked strong and had some decent aero gear, so he was a good "carrot" to chase. Each rider starts 30 seconds apart, so you at least have someone to go after (unless you started first), and have someone chasing you - both great motivators.

I tried to get off to an easy start, and save something for the hill. We drove the course the night before, and got an idea of the layout/grade, but the hill of course seemed more looming when I saw the climb in the daylight, on the bike, in the race, heart pumping hard. My carrot was just in front, perhaps 30 meters up the road.

Overtaking can be tricky though - you don't want to have to do some hard acceleration to get around the carrot, since that will cook you and you'll slow down as soon as you pass, and probably get passed. I just kept it in the big ring, cross-chained at 53x25, and jammed up the hill out of the saddle. It hurt.

Passed the guy, tried to say something like "I hate TTs, this hurts!" but I doubt he heard it through my heavy breathing and drooling. Kept turning over the pedals, even though the pain was growing, and knew that I could have some sense of recovery - if only a little - on the downhill side.

As I crested the hill I felt the hurt from that hard climb, and was just happy to be over the top - the rest was downhill or flat from here, in theory. The only problem was that I needed to recover, and probably coasted too much (a running theme lately) here and there. Felt like I was spinning out the 53x12 and that just might have been the case, especially when tired.

After a minute or two I heard the sound of a bike behind me - oh no! My laziness had come back to bite me, and I was now being caught by someone, maybe the guy I'd passed earlier? Nope, this was someone that started behind me somewhere, and was in a full aero setup with a good, low, position. I was doing 30-something and he flew past me! Better aero, obviously good fitness, and probably perhaps 55x11 to boot.

But this put a new wind in my sails, and once again I had someone to chase. Of course you can't draft in a TT like this, but you can give chase after they've passed you. But he was gaining distance on me and getting smaller and smaller. The 3k sign came, I think it was, and all of a sudden I look back to see the First Rate Mortgage guy closing in. Dammit! Pacing had failed, because now I was going too slow. But again good motivation to keep on pushing.

The last 500m had a little riser, but I hit it hard (or tried to), took the right turn at 200 meters to go, and gave it really all I could. For some reason all those seconds I lost while resting/costing/being lazy during the TT all of a sudden mattered to me, the results sheet with split-second differences flashing in my mind. It hurt but I put in a sprint and came in decently fast.

But in the end my time was 23:55 (22.57 mph average) - 38th place out of 82 riders. Not too hot. Pacing is definitely something I need to work on, along with the aero position, and of course overall strength endurance. A pretty low bar I should be able to raise next year..

The winner did a time of 21:04, a good 30 seconds in front of 2nd place! (25.6 mph avg)

Saturday Walla Walla Cat 4 25-minute Crit

So with the flat technical course, 80-something Cat 4's (you could call us beginners), I was expecting a huge crashfest like the Ballard Crit was last year. Rolled around local streets with Josh, a good sprinter on our team, and got ready for a what promised to be a snappy race. Set in downtown Walla Walla, with lots of spectators, there was a little pressure too.

Since it was only 25 minutes long we all knew that the contenders in the race were really going to make it hurt for everyone else. (In the 4's, this is plenty of time to do so)

The lineup was funny - after the Women's 4's race was done, the officials said, "Cat 4 men, take a practice lap!" But instead all 80 guys except me did a 10-foot sprint/run for the start line. I was actually looking forward to seeing the course, as I had no idea what it really looked like yet - but the pre-race for the line caught me off guard. Talked to a Cycle-U guy (was it Jed?) that said he and a few others really did take a warm-up lap, and ended up lining up at the back of the pack.

Here's the pack, getting ready for the race in downtown Walla Walla:


Unlike a road race, starting position in a crit can matter a lot, depending on how good you are at moving up in a fast and tight race. Some people don't have the speed, some don't have confidence, some don't have either. Also, you have to be able to clip into your pedals quickly in a crit; you'll find that at least 30% of the field in any race can't actually do this. Many are found looking down and fumbling with their pedals while everyone else is sprinting away.

Josh & I started in the back, but really only one or two rows back, I wasn't too worried. I've gotten pretty good getting into my Speedplays quickly, so when we started I passed probably 30 people in the first 10 seconds.

Here's a shot of the 4's rolling out - GO GO GO!!


We got up to speed and got ready for the first turn, and 90-degree right. Nice and quick, you could really dive around it with a good line. The turns came so quick that you were barely getting upright out of one before you were entering another. And somehow I seem to have some kind of magical cornering skill, where I can pretty much pass people at will on the corners.

Once I got up to the top 10-15 of the race, I just tried to hang on to that position.


Here's the front end of the pack, with me hiding a little further back - checking out how much time was left - easier to look to the left and see the big clock than the tiny one on my handlebars.

Closing a gap at some point after a prime, I think - the great Raleigh Prestige under me, transferring power to the road efficiently:
img (disclaimer on bike fit - I forgot to put the seat back in normal position, it was jammed way forward after the TT earlier in the day)

A helping push from a team mate? Sometimes that's all it takes to stay in the race.

Josh was really strong, and at one point about half way through the race he got on the front and strung it out. (e.g. went fast, turning a "pack" into a huge paceline) - in the end this would be crucial to our placing in many ways - he's got good handling skills and was taking great lines through the corners, allowing those of us just behind him to ride nice and smooth.

The less braking you do, the less work you have to do to get back up to speed, and the less gaps you have to close. Resting is key, as it always is.

The primes in this race were cool - helmet for 1st place, cash for 2nd, etc - but I as usual ignored them. You might get bragging rights and even cash from primes, but you don't get upgrade points from them and that's all I'm after here.

In the last 5-10 laps we sat in the top 5 positions or so, Josh and I pretty much sitting pretty and waiting to pounce out of the last corner. In a race like this with not much space between corners, we knew that the final placings would be more or less the same as it was coming out of the last corner (or last few in this crit).


When the last lap came I expected more fireworks, but we just held the quick pace and since it was fast enough nobody could, or wanted to, come around. For some reason it didn't feel like a final sprint - I think I was confused since I felt somewhat rested - and when the final turn, we all stood up and gave it our best.

Sure enough, our positions more or less held, and I came in for 5th place! Josh got 4th right in front of me, and Jordan almost passed me (as I was coasting a bit once again in a sprint, no lie), coming in for 6th. I must be "aiming" my bike throw for the line and am just quitting to early - hopefully a little racing on the velodrome this summer will help iron out my inefficient sprint.

Still, even without a great sprint, I was able to place well based mostly on bike handling skills combined with some power. Sweet. Points!! (this gave me two more, so now I should have 5 out of the 20 required)

Sunday Waitsburg 58-mile Road Race

This was the "big one" for us - 58 miles and a decent amount of climbing (we did two loops: short, long) after a day of racing.

The neutral rollup on the big hill wasn't too bad, and at 8 or so mph I wasn't hurting at all, just chatting and it was a good warm-up. Which I needed, since I didn't get there with enough time to really get one in.

It was nice to be able to get a feel for the climb without having to race it just yet - and I chatted with a guy who said this was his local "training hill" and was gunning for a win today. Nathan Banner(?) I think his name was - younger guy, but apparently plenty strong. Lots of strong juniors in the 3/4/5's this year for sure, always impressive. (I see now he won the Cat 5 GC here last year, and also has an mtb/cross background)

After we got over the climb the race was on, and we sped it up a good deal. A nice downhill followed by some flats. I started in the middle of the pack or so, and decided to move up after a few minutes of cruising. The pace was pretty easy and I wanted to scope out who was up front today.

The pace seemed pretty relaxed and I sat about 10th wheel, and decided in a split second that I was gonna attack. The guy to my left gave some space, and it allowed me to get out into the open, but still about 5-10 riders back from the front, and got out of the saddle and wound up a decent sprint (1000-something watts for 5 seconds) to get away.

Off The Front - My First Real Breakaway

So I went - at first the plan was to do a "fake" jump, just enough to get people to chase and animate the race a little. But before I knew it I was in the middle of "real" jump, and saw 1000+ watts flash on the screen. So yeah I gave it my all, and combination of factors allowed me to get some distance on the pack:
  • I'm a generally unknown rider in the peloton, almost 3 minutes behind GC
  • I went only 9 miles into a 58 mile hilly race - this was probably the equivalent of the no-name French riders way back on GC in the TdF breaking away from the gun on a 200 km road race. Maybe get a little camera-time for the sponsors, get your name known - and who knows, sometimes these things work!
  • I had good enough speed to get off the front - looking back I held 28.x mph for a minute, way faster than usual! When I got away it was on a 1-2% downhill and there must've been a tailwind.
So based on all those factors I found myself pegging it, laying it all down, way early in the race. The phrase, "you never know unless you go" came to mind a bunch. Put in some good work and didn't look back for minutes, got into the zone.

The moto referee came up beside me, to my surprise, giving me a time check! Cool, my first time check this must mean I'm doing it right. "25 seconds, and no response from the pack." Only a few minutes into my solo effort and the pain was there but manageable, and getting time checks helped a ton with motivation, and just knowing what was going on with the race.

It was just me, a lead car, and sometimes the moto ref, surrounded by brown and green fields, and blue skies, riding over rolling hills. Kinda surreal. Just kept looking down at my faux-pro white booties and telling the legs to keep on going, let's see what happens. Don't give up until they catch you, that's the only way this will work. Don't look back, it doesn't matter how close they are, just keep chugging. And don't think about how long to go..

Moto guy came up and the time check was "35-second gap, still no attacks." I gave him a thumbs up and kept pressing on. Wow, my gap was growing!

There was a medium-size hill along the way, and I really had to jam up it, but felt like the 16-ish mph I was doing wouldn't match the pack's 18-20.. but I kept going, to see if I could make it over the top. I did! The downhill was fast at 35+ mph, but I figured the pack would be doing a good 40 mph here.. but I kept going.

To my surprise the pack was still a small blob behind me a few minutes later.

I then went into a cycle of pedaling hard for a minute, sitting up, looking back, giving up, then getting a 3rd or 4th wind and attacking my own attack, as they say.

The pain would kick in again, and I'd sit up. There were 3-4 times were I literally sat up, stretched, took some sips of water, and looked around. Nobody bridging, pack not strung out, and they're still way back there. Then the moto guy would roll up and the time-check was still 45 seconds, and I told him I was done. But he said I was looking good and I might as well try, or something, and it was just enough motivation (combined with a little rest) to get back in the drops and start hammering again.

Then we took a few turns and entered what had to be Main Street in Waitsburg, with a few scattered buildings, people, and volunteers lining the street. Rolling through this little town with a lead car and a nice big gap felt just great - I think a little kid cheered me on, which was fun - and I hammered through the left/right corners, hoping my lines were going to be faster than most of the pack's.

And they might have been great lines, but the pack had closed a good deal of space coming out of town, and I looked back and thought I saw someone trying to bridge up. I slowed a tad and waved them up, but it was to no avail. (Or did I imagine that part?)

I knew the break was about to end, and the big 3km climb was coming up (this is only about 21 miles into the 58 mile race) - but I still wanted to give it my best, and I hit the climb solo, with the pack not too far behind.

Surviving the Climb?

When I started the 3km climb I had thoughts of just maybe making it over the top alone, or with a small group, and getting a nice gap back - you know, like how the pros do it!!

But my legs, heart, and lungs had had enough, and the pack consumed me. After about 38 minutes and 12-ish miles, my breakaway was done, but I couldn't rest just yet. Still 2.5 km to climb and a 36 more miles to go.

I tried to blend in about 10 wheels back, and the pack was getting a little strung out already. The usual characters were at the front, putting the hurt on the pack and me. At this point I wished I'd been caught before the climb, instead of on it, but that's just the way it happened.

Had to fight the hardest I've pushed it in a good while, and thanks to some encouragement (read: yelling) from a strong team mate Ian I was able to maintain contact, though he could tell I was hurting and going backwards.

Looking back I wish I'd just rested altogether once I was caught, and caught back on during the downhill. But instead I fought so fucking hard and stayed in the big ring the whole time, just looking forward to the 1 km mark where it gets slightly easier, and then the downhill. Besides the finish this was easily the hardest part of the race for me.

The Rest of the Waitsburg Race (big loop)

This was a really cool course, and we had something like 36 miles of it left. After the descent, I got a chance to eat a gel and recover in the pack. Ah, the draft, I was glad to be back.

The race wasn't over, and before long someone else attacked and got off the front (a grey kit, either IJM or an eastern-WA team) and the race was getting more animated.

The Crash

Unlike the crowded crit the day before, where there were no crashes, this race did involve a bad one. We were on a descent doing at least 30-35 mph, and all of a sudden a few rows up I hear strange noises and see a bike upside down in the air amongst a mix of other bikes.

Then there was a Cycle-U guy tumbling across the left lane - and it seemed like before he even stopped rolling I looked over and saw his torn kit and him wincing in pain. Not good. In addition to him 3-4 guys went down in the middle of the right lane - I was right next to them as it seemed like two of them piled up on top of someone already on the ground. More nasty sounds, including yelling.

Had to swerve to avoid it all, and then chase back on. Then something kind of cool happened - who ever was at the front slowed down a good deal, I guess to actually let people chase back on, which I think some might have done. Sometimes at the end of road races when there's a crash, the opposite happens - people attack.

But the Cycle-U guy broke his collarbone & separated his shoulder in the fall. Damn. I hope he can get back out there before too long. It was such a nice day before that, and then to be staring up at the blue sky in pain must be a really lonely feeling. (photo of the crash scene)

The Rest of the Race

Actually I don't recall too much after that, except getting into the last 5km or so when the pace really picked up. Coming back into Waitsburg we had a nice huge lane to move around on, and Ian made a great move, with me on his wheel, to move up the side of the pack and gain 10-20 spots in one fell swoop, doing 30+ to get around people already going pretty hard. Cool.

We hit the left/right turn and then the straight away that led to the final climb. The pace was speedy but we hung onto our positions, getting ready for the big climb ahead.

Final 3 km Climb

Was in the top 20 or so starting out on the climb, feeling alright but pretty taxed after a hard day or two of racing. Nobody went too early, we all knew the climb pretty well by now, but the pace was hard enough that I couldn't stay under 182 bpm or so, when I really start to hurt.

Maintained contact with this lead group for a little while, though I could tell there was no way I could match this pace the way whole up, much less the acceleration closer to the finish. Looked back and saw that we'd opened up a good 10-20 second gap on the rest of the pack. Selections were being made every moment, the pool of possible winners was getting smaller and smaller.

But I was one of those about to pop, and at least with the pressure of the rest of the pack all but gone at this point, I let up a little and let them duke it out. I was pretty much done, put a fork in me. Ian had been trying to "coach" me up the hill but this time I did the yelling, and told him to
go for it.

Except there was still 1.5 km or so to go, and the climbing wasn't over. I looked back and saw a Starbucks guy closing the gap, along with 1-2 other riders. I wanted to protect my "spot" in the back end of the front group, so I had to step on the gas a little. The race was already way up the road, I finished a good 40 seconds off the leaders for 14th place. Another top 25 but no points. Still, a good day of racing.

20th in the GC standings overall, which I was surprised with given my sub-average TT. Had I done a decent TT a top 10 GC standing might have been possible.. still, I did the best I could.


Will post some stats later - I do remember that we averaged 26.1 mph in the crit! And something like 21-22 in the road race.

The fun average was off the charts.

Thanks to all the volunteers and organizers - it must take an army of flaggers, drivers, registration people, moto drivers, etc, to make an even like this happen. The Tour of Walla Walla isn't an NRC (National Race Calendar) event or anything, but for PNW racing I say it's pretty damn cool.

It was great racing with my team mates Todd, Ian, Kevin, Josh, Tyler, JC - as well as friendly competitors Jordan, Rob, Andrew, Dan, Nathan, Jed, Forrest, and anyone else I can't think of right now. Good racing out there!

Maybe by next year I can do the Cat 3 four-day stage race: 64-mile race with 5,000 ft of climbing, TT & 40 minute crit on Saturday, then 75-mile race with 5,000 ft of climbing. Not sure I can handle that but I've got plenty of time until I'm there..

Thanks to Kira for driving out there with me, and taking pictures! I couldn't have done any of it without you.

More Stories & Photos


Anonymous said...

Good work in the race and on the report. It was a good read.

Michael said...

Great report, Matt, inspiring to us noobs.

trantor said...


When you go for new wheels consider tubulars. If you get a flat with a tubular it doesn't end your TT. I flatted and while my speed dropped from 24mph down to 19mph it's still better then a DNF and you might find yourself in front of some other finishers.

matt m said...

@Tim: Thanks man! ToWW was a great time, definitely something to think about for next year if you can make it out.

@Michael - I'm still a newbie myself, but slowly inching towards something around 'intermediate' (e.g. Cat 3) by some point next year.. I hope.

@Trantor: Hmm, never thought about tubulars - I might go that route if I ever get to the 3's.. though I've heard too many stories of "I borrowed some and they rolled in a race," which kind of scares me. I guess if you know what you're doing it's not a problem though..

Bradman said...

Good report Matt. Good job on the solo effort you put in on the RR too.
Jed is doing ok. Dislocated shoulder and is waiting to hear from the doc on recovery timeline and if surgery is required. He will be back for sure.
Cycle U

Matt Brittain said...

My wife took some pictures that are up on the L'Ecole #41 Website: