The Fort Cavazos Challenge, a fully closed, full loop course, is set in the rolling hills and lake country of Central Texas between Killeen and Copperas Cove. Previously known as the Fort Hood Challenge, the Texas State Road Race Championship changed names when the base was officially renamed Fort Cavazos in May 2023, in honor of Gen. Richard Edward Cavazos, a native Texan and the US Army’s first Hispanic four-star general.
This is undoubtedly the longest, most challenging one-day event on the Texas Bike Racing Calendar, and it assembles the most talented, competitive bike racers in Texas, thanks to Andy Hollinger and his hardworking crew who continue to offer this exciting opportunity year after year.
Here is how race day went for me.
With a 7:10 AM race start, your boy is out of bed at 5:30 AM – “bright and early” isn't even feasible when it’s still pitch black outside. I roll out of bed and slam down my Kodiak protein pancakes (a personal pre-race favorite) with fresh peanut butter, honey and bananas. With heavy eyes and a belly full of pancakes, my weekend crew -- my parents and girlfriend-- load up and rush out the door. The scene is dark and still as we arrive on the base, until you see the flashing lights of the Military Police near ground zero at Elijah and Old Georgetown Road. It’s 6:00 AM, and I’m mentally preparing for what is sure to be a relentless battle against hills, wind, roaming cattle, scorching hot sun with no shade for miles, and the most unlikely of foes — my sleep deprivation. A start time this early is brutal.
As we drive onto the base, a familiar feeling washes over me that I remember from several past trips here. It is quiet. Peaceful. The first rays of sunlight are peaking out over the horizon, giving the sky a pinkish, purple hue. This serenity is familiar, and it allows my mind to calm itself before the battle of stamina that lies ahead.
Fast forward to 7:05 AM: Tires are pumped (85/90psi, as much as these new hookless rims can handle), bottles prepped (3 Maurten and 3 water), ice socks ready, and race nutrition is dialed (2 beta fuel gels, 3 electrolyte gels, 2 packs of shot blocks, and 1 bar). In total, I have about 500 carbs on me, so that I can aim for the 110-125 carb intake per hour; it’s a lot of food. Numbers are pinned. The final restroom pit stop is done. Hugs and well wishes from my crew. Fist bumps with the homies. It’s go-time!
My plan is simple: Don’t do too much work in the first two laps. The race almost always starts on the third lap, and if you have two strong riders in the pack or a Hugo Scala Jr., you can close just about any 10-minute gap to a strong breakaway. Sit in and be patient. Sit in and be patient. Sit in and BE PATIENT. So you can see where this is going — I was not very patient!
Making what I can only call rookie mistakes, I spent lap one covering ones and twos and trying to snap a still-fresh peloton on the steep climbs on the backside. By the end of lap one, I had to ego check myself hard, knowing that if I kept up this pace, I would not have much left for the finale. After all, per usual, about two-thirds of the 80 riders who began the day had withdrawn by lap three. Did I say this race is challenging?
In lap one, a large break went with a three-minute advantage, but it was reeled back by the end of the lap. By lap two, the danger break of the day rolled with six of Texas’s strongest and most experienced diesel engines: Stefan Rothe (Elbowz), Justin Stanley (United), Matt Crawford (United), Reggie Jonaitis (Elevate), Benjamin Steavenson (Bicycle Heaven), and a very strong Lauren Stephens (EF Education TIBCO SVB). This was a dangerous move, for sure, but once again, the theme is patience.
So, let's talk about tactics on this day. This course is a simple three-loop triangle. However, we were treated to heavy wind this year. The bottom half, or stretch one, was a crosswind. Then, a left turn rolled onto stretch two, which was a direct, ripping tailwind. Then you hit the tip, which was virtually a U-turn onto stretch three, and voila, you were riding into miles and miles of a strong, block headwind until the conclusion of the race. This course and the consistent wind direction of the day made for a simple race strategy.
If you are heavily marked, it’s best to attack at the hardest part of the course, which was the end of the crosswind section going into the tailwind on this day. If you have the guts and enough gas in the tank, you just might have the opportunity to single-handedly pull the field apart. If you have another rider helping, you should be able to establish a gap. If you have three riders, it’s game over for the rest of the race.
In this scenario, Hugo Scala Jr. was the one who pulled things apart, while I helped to establish the gap. We had a third rider, but he had teammates up the road so he enjoyed a free ride across. But this was the game-over moment. Near the start of the third and final lap, we learned that the gap to a still-strong break of six riders was somewhere between the 4 and 5-minute mark. 20 minutes later, after a concerted effort by the two of us at just shy of a 31mph average for this segment, we had reduced the gap to zero. As we reeled in the breakaway on a climb, continuing attacks immediately shook things up to produce a final selection of six that rode away bidding for the podium spots: Justin Stanley, Matt Crawford, and Pavle Kalaba (United), Hugo Scala,Jr. (Project Echelon), Benjamin Steavenson (Bicycle Heaven), and me (Austin Aviators).
I always show up to a race with the goal and mindset of winning. But, if you had asked me with 20 miles to go if I was going to win this race, I would have told you ’simply not possible!” As we hit the turnaround point and went up the first climb, I was toast -- cramps in both legs, running low on water, and overheating to the max. I was lucky it was a block headwind as this would calm my competitors down and give me time to figure out what was wrong with my body.
I knew the race was well within my physical capabilities, but for some reason, I was falling to pieces. So I tried everything. I slammed the remaining fuel I had, unzipped the aero jersey, and found an unexpected ally and friendly competitor in Matt Crawford. Matt gave me the last of a remaining water bottle he did not need so that we could have a fair fight to the finish --truly, a great guy with values I respect. The remainder of the race brought an extreme amount of pain and required a little “fake it till you make it,” but I managed to ride myself out of the cramps and back into good legs in the remaining 6 miles or so.
After relentless haymakers in the finale from Justin, Matt, and Hugo, I recovered and found myself in the final kilometer; totally flat, a wide-open road, and a ripping headwind. The sprint would be simple: pin it to one side of the road, wait till 150 meters, and light it up. Thankfully, if there is one thing in cycling that I’m good at, it’s just that. And, well, at 1550 watts the rest was history.
In the end, there are a few key takeaways from this race that will continue to propel me upward in my cycling career. Today, I was not the strongest racer; that award goes to Hugo Scala, Jr. Nor was I the smartest racer; that award goes to Pavle Kalaba. But in those last 20 miles, I made a plan and stuck to it. The plan was simple — no matter what, don’t give up! My mindset was that unless both legs were fully locked up and I was literally in the dirt because my legs were seizing, I would stay with this breakaway, and give myself a proper chance to win. After all, if you give yourself a chance, who knows what might happen? That was my plan. And because of that, I’m proud to be the 2023 Texas State RoadRace Champion.
I have attended and participated in races around the globe, and Fort Cavazos is one of the most unique race sites of anywhere in the world. Thanks again to Andy and Lauren Hollinger for guiding the many volunteers and officials to make this race happen each year. Thanks to Lee McDaniel who risks it from the back of a motorcycle to capture our memories. And thanks to Fort Cavazos for providing this amazing and iconic race backdrop. If you are setting a race calendar for next year, give it a look. I mean how often is it hat you get to do podium in front of a tank. It’s a special weekend!