Saturday's Pace Bend has always been a tough one. It has ended in breakaways and field sprints, there have been different finish line locations, but it has never been an outright easy day for anyone, ever. The course is exposed, it can be windy, and the fast pavement provides a very different torque input during the race than what most are used to in training, resulting in tired legs. The race has been a P/1 in the past, but for 2023 it was a P/1/2/3 which meant there would be a much wider spread of talent and ability. Also, a lot of guys (myself included) traveled in for this one.
There were a few strong Texas teams with many riders, and a lot of very strong ones and twos on their own. In our brief Austin Aviators team meeting on the start line, Travis Longfellow, Conor White, and I discussed what we wanted to do, and how to do it. That was... Win, and the easiest way possible. We figured it would likely be a small breakaway with the fast breakaway-type riders present on the start list, so we'd try to get Conor White up the road and let him do his thing. I assumed that because there were so many people, it would likely be a late move. I didn't expect anything to roll early, because small gaps can be chased back quickly on the multiple 40+ mph sections in a big peloton. We decided the best option for the first half of the race was to follow only, not to initiate a move. The real move would go once everyone was tired.
The race began with a brief neutral section until the first right-hand turn, and we got underway at full speed. Guys were attacking, bringing things back, forward and backward, all very quickly and in a disorganized way. Moves would fizzle out and new ones would immediately go up the road. I figured this would go on for maybe an hour until the actual breakaway went up the road. All three of us made a few attempts to follow promising moves, but I felt like it was just turning into a big negative racing situation, meaning attacking, chasing, and immediately sitting up. "If I can't go, you can't go," and so forth. As the peloton was rolling slowly after the hundredth failed breakaway attempt by the strongest guys in the race, I said to Conor, "I don't know man. I think this is going to be a field sprint." Thirty seconds later, the move of at least ten guys just rolls off the front without any of us in it. "No way that'll roll," I said to my guys.
The moto ref gave us splits every so often, and we heard it go out to an eventual 2:45. At that point, everybody was feeling that urge. It was that breaking point where you just can't take it anymore, someone has to do something! In my head, there was no bringing that back on this fast of a course with a clearly motivated group of riders. Conor asked me if we should chase. I figured we had two options: we could chase it back and be too blown for the finish, or we could be in the best position for the field sprint, having done zero work for the whole race. My mistake here was that I didn't think others would be motivated to chase with us. I was wrong. I told Travis to wait ten minutes, wait for someone else to take up the chase, and hit the front if nobody does.
Within sixty seconds, Travis is on the front. Why listen to this old man? Oh well. Conor, Travis, Ama, Tanner, and a handful of other strong dudes got to rotating on the front and the peloton picked up some serious speed. The peloton was pretty much single file from front to back. I was doing the math in my head of how many seconds they needed to shave off per lap. I waited a few laps for time splits, and if the gap hadn't come down at least 45 seconds, I was going to ride up and tell them to knock it off. We had another race Sunday, after all. We finally got the first time split, and it was at exactly 45 seconds down, now just two minutes up the road. Incredible. After several laps of chasing, the lap cards ticking away, and time gaps continually decreasing, we started to see lone riders get spit backwards out of the breakaway and come back to the peloton. Great news for us, huge motivation for those doing the chase.
As we're flying along, still single file, we see cars, motorcycles, lights in the distance...... and the remainder of the breakaway. I rode up to Conor and he says, "that's it, that's the breakaway, all of 'em." I replied with a motivational explicative not suitable for a race report. The boys had done their job to completion, and I had done absolutely zero work. This meant it was my job to do the field sprint, which I really don't like that much. I can sprint out of a group, but I've never been a full field sprinter of any sort. Unfortunately, this was the only option left for the day. The peloton was ready for a field sprint and I had to do it by myself for the boys.
The major point of each lap leading up to this finale was the hill before the feed zone. Getting over that hurt a little more each lap, but almost every time after it, the peloton would ease way back over the top and everything would come back together on the subsequent downhill. I had sagged this climb each lap, but I had to make a choice on the final lap. I could sag this climb once more, save energy, and hope the peloton eased up enough for me to easily move up to where I already was, OR, I could put out about triple the power to stay exactly where I was in tenth wheel. I chose the latter, even if it would sacrifice sprinting power. Position over power!
We flew through the feed zone, down the hill, and took the last major right hand turn. We had a tailwind and we were absolutely flying. As we shot past the 1km to go sign and around the final bend, the front few became very wide as everybody picked their own lines. The road bent to the right, so I pinned it right and took the fastest line. I heard a crash behind me... the first two riders were way out in front already and finished first and second, but I had that fast line for third place. Meanwhile, Conor did all that work for the last hour and still managed to stay on my wheel for fourth place by inches. Incredible. The first two riders really had some pop and I am almost certain the winner was even in that breakaway of the day! What a beast. The talk of the group was "I can't believe that came back." The boys did that! Proud teammate alert. We weren't able to win, but a podium is always nice to send home to management. Time for some recovery and a new day of racing.
Sunday: As David Wenger and I pulled into the park on Sunday, I told him I was really happy about the wind. Flags were whipping and trees were moving. After yesterday, what ended up being a somewhat negative racing type of day, I was looking forward to a more traditional, difficult race with fewer opportunities for competitors to hide. This is the euro, single-file stuff I live for. We arrived around 11:30am and enjoyed a very relaxed hour before heading to the staging area. I realized I had my number on the wrong side from the day before, oops. I sat down to fix that while I talked with my teammates, Conor and Travis, who both had that massive day yesterday. Still, I know my boys are strong and it could really be anybody’s day between the three of us. After Conor’s recent GC win at Valley of the Sun, I figured it was most likely his day to go up the road, hopefully in a group with Ama, Tanner, and the young man who won Saturday as he’s been on a real rip lately.
The day's counter-clockwise race got underway and it was a pretty strong start with the uphill through the feed zone. A few guys went off the front within the first few miles. Similarly to yesterday, I was thinking, “600 watts for 70 miles… good luck!” These courses are incredibly conducive to “hero pulls,” where it just takes one solid jam from the peloton to erase any sort of breakaway gap. I noticed folks really struggle to realize that breakaways aren’t simply a handful of guys straight up out-riding the peloton. Instead, it’s the peloton’s choice and willingness to let something go. The first few efforts were pulled back in the first lap.
Travis and Conor were very active at the start, a little too far in the wind for my liking. I think being in the wind a bit was justifiable today, just to ensure we wouldn’t miss it again and be forced to chase, or give up and get 15th or something. I told Conor, “this is your day man… stay hidden and out of the wind.” After covering a few things going up the road, I told Travis, “I’m not so good today. I might open up later on but this hurts pretty good.” Ironically, I ended up in the winning breakaway very shortly after that. To my point above, this move was pretty easy to get into. I just followed an acceleration and someone behind sat up. I looked back, saw the gap, and faked that “let’s get organized” mentality to the ten other guys. The group got organized very quickly and we all started rotating.
All in the first sixty seconds of riding, I took note of the important things. Firstly, this group had all the teams. Elevate had two, United had two, and the other big ones had one. Nobody was going to chase this. Secondly, this group was big enough to efficiently get through the wind and provide everyone enough recovery, but not too big where people could easily sit on. I knew this would go the distance, so I buckled up for a long day in the wind. I won this race in 2019 from a very similarly sized breakaway, so I was happy with the situation and the numbers. I employed the same tactics back then and today. Whenever I am in breakaways, I show the others that I am the weakest rider in there. I am never taking more than a two second pull, it’s always tempo through and off. You want to fill the gap? Be my guest. You let me sit on without much fuss? Yeah boy, I’m sitting on. I pretend to eat, pretend to drink, sag climbs and catch back on in the downhill with minimal effort. While I knew I was at a disadvantage being alone, I recognized there was a pretty good chance of me being able to trick my way into winning.
We carried on, talking, joking, etc, lap after lap. There were guys taking MEGA pulls, very clearly doing more work than the rest of us. Terrific. The moto ref was giving us great splits, and we heard it just keep going out. Halfway through the race, he says “group of 5 at 1:45, peloton at 3.” I was really hoping Conor was just blasting his way across with the rest of the hitters. I sat on the back and skipped almost every turn for the next lap, until the ref told us the peloton was back together. Boo. My responsibility to win: confirmed. Time to focus.
I had a pretty consistent nutrition plan for the day, one bottle an hour, one SiS every 45 minutes or so, a bite of bar when I felt like it. Guys were taking bottles every single lap. I couldn’t understand where they were storing all that liquid. There I was, two bottles on my bike and one on my back. No nonsense in the feed zone. Even with everyone’s wildly different nutritional tactics, the breakaway got real quiet at the two hour mark. No more jokes, no more comments, literally not a word was spoken. Guys started standing up to stretch, they were wiggling their legs, all signs that they were starting to cramp. Immediately I crossed them off my list. They weren’t going to win. When I cramp, nobody is going to know about it. I keep pedaling until it goes away, or I go to the back. This is a massive tactic. I’m giving away all my secrets here!
With the group *in my head* now being whittled down to about four other guys, it was time to transition into high alert mode for the last two laps. Truth be told, I was cramping my brains out. I had probably 4 gels in the last hour to combat that. I just pedaled it out and told myself to stop being weak. It works. Cramping is all in your head and in traditional euro fashion, “it is just physical pain.” For these last laps, the main surges happened on the big 90-degree left turn into that little climb there. Every time someone would surge and get some space up the road, we would chase it in pairs or thereabouts, very slowly regaining that organization to rotate evenly. Just as in 2019, there were no splits until the last lap.
We flew through the finish for the penultimate time while announcer Dave gives us the “one-to-go” chant we all love. The group took the left turn into the feed zone, and Mike Jones said to me, “I think Pablo is going to attack us soon.” Right after the feed zone, Mike made a little acceleration and nobody followed. I figured the Elevate guys would take up the chase having two guys, so they would be able to sacrifice one rider to prep the other for a win. Sadly, that didn’t happen. I’m not sure if they were both absolutely smoked or had just never been told how to work this scenario, but they absolutely botched that one. Mike goes up, still in sight for the most part, and the group becomes completely unorganized. We’re coasting, messing around, the whole cat and mouse situation. This goes on for a few minutes, even with a few guys begging for rotation and cooperation for the opportunity to win.
As we took that final left turn before the run-in, the lone 787 rider took advantage of this low speed with a really well-timed move by himself and rode away. More disorganization going through the rolling hills towards the 1km to go sign. I knew we weren’t racing for the win anymore, but I was damn sure going to win that sprint. The shortest line possible was on the left side of the road, so that’s where I was going to be. One of the Elevate riders surged, I followed but let some riders fill in as we still had maybe 400 meters to go. I put myself as the fourth rider in line. As soon as I saw the 200m sign, someone jumped… but they left the whole left side open. Mine! I jumped, had good gear, and was able to get the final podium place.
Winning would have been nice of course, but with those circumstances sometimes you have to take what you can get. Mike is a zwift-type monster and timed it really well. I knew throughout the race I wouldn’t have the legs to go it alone at any point, so I was in follow mode. Oh well. Overall, this was a fun, old-fashioned bike race. There was absolutely no bumper-bikes, which is something we have to deal with as the exclusive tactic in national-level races as of late. No danger, no smashed humans or equipment… just a handful of guys pedaling it out. This was fitness, nutrition, tactics, and mental fortitude. That’s the way it should be. I’m glad I traveled for this, and I’ll be back again. Thanks for reading!