Race Review: 2015 Joe Martin Stage Race
Set in the hills of northwest Arkansas, the Joe Martin Stage Race is a favorite on the calendars of both pros and amateurs. The Matrix squad ventured up to Fayetteville 4-strong to partake in the 2015 edition. Last year was my first year competing at the race and I was determined to have a better showing than last year.
Thursday Devil's Den Time Trial:
We arrived to Devil's Den State Park ready to get the racing under way. We had a relaxed morning which included lots of sleep and a light spin to get the legs moving. To be quite honest, I wasn't super stoked about the time trial as I had convinced myself that it wasn't suited to my style or current state of fitness. So as I sat in the start house, the fourth rider to take on the course, I had to try and find some semblance of focus for the uphill effort.
My first victory was that I showed up on time (last year I showed up as they were counting me down). So as I headed off the start line I felt I was already ahead of the game. Ramping into the effort I saw my 30 second man looking back to check his gap. The sight of a floundering rider less than 1 mile into the 2.6 mile TT was motivation to keep working hard to catch the man in front. Though I never quite caught the rider in front of me, I was able to make up 25 seconds or so and I was definitely breathing heavy. Cooled down and changed, it was time to play team soigneur as my teammates headed out to kill it. When all was said and done, I was 36th overall @ 49 seconds back and my teammate Max was solidly in 8th place just 22 seconds off the lead.
Friday Road Race:
After a good ride on Thursday, our attention turned to the 110 mile stage on Friday afternoon. The whole week the forecast called for thunderstorms and or rain. We kept our fingers crossed that we would somehow miss out on all the wet weather and as we sat in the Walmart parking lot, we thought our wishes had come true. It wasn't sunny, but at least it was dry!
Our plan for the day was simple: save energy for the first 75 miles, make the split on the climb up Mt. Gaylor and go for it in the finish. Rolling out on the wide highway, the nervous energy took hold of the group with a small crash taking down or holding up several riders. Chris and I were able to avoid the carnage, but John and Max weren't so lucky. Chris dropped back to help John, Max and a few other riders pace up to the group and our team was quickly back in the race. Some others weren't as lucky.
As the race rolled on, the peloton seemed to have the same plan of keeping everything together and it took nearly 2 hours before the group let anyone go up the road. The group of 3 or 4 would eventually splinter on Mount Gaylor and as we crested the climb with 30 miles to go, there were 40-50 riders (or more) left in bunch. Bombing down the wet roads we did a good job keeping out of the wind as the group kept the pace high coming into town.
With 10 miles to go, I looked up from my drafting position to see a break of 5 going up the road. The move had 2 Hincapie Devo and 2 Arapahoe Resource riders. In that moment, I had half a mind to make a move to bridge the gap but not willing to roll those dice, and being too far back, I sat back hoping other big teams would do the chasing. But, much to my dismay, they did not chase at all and seemed content to let a dangerous group go up the road. The leaders gained time on us and as we got closer to the finish line, the proverbial "washing machine" got spinning faster and faster (side note: the 'washing machine' denotes the tumbling motion the peloton makes as teams and riders surge back and forth amongst each other, jockeying for position). There were more than a few close calls and it wasn't until the penultimate turn that the dominos crumbled. I had enough space to hop onto the sidewalk and get around the carnage, but at that point all my momentum was gone. Max, John, and I gave it everything we had to make up spots, eventually finishing 13th and 21st on the stage. The result was enough to move me up on the GC, while Max slipped a few seconds on the leaders. Chris had the great misfortune of flatting and being without support for several minutes. After waiting a long time for a wheel, he had to endure a 55 mile solo ride up and over Mt. Gaylor. Props to CPow for finishing the stage in some miserable conditions.
Saturday Road Race:
After the efforts and rain on Friday, we were all thankful to see clear blue skies and sunshine on Saturday. In my opinion, Saturday's stage is much harder than Friday's century ride. With steeper pitches and harder climbs, to be good requires some strong legs. Knowing that we had time to make up, we were going to be wary of breaks while trying to be as conservative as possible. Which sounds somewhat oxymoronic now that I say that.
Things were kept together until the second lap of the 23 mile circuit when a small break of two riders went up the road, followed by a chase of three. Sensing an opportunity to roll the dice, I jumped across the gap to the group of three chasers. We were working together and reeling in the two leaders before the climb. However, as we were gaining on the leaders a larger group was also catching us. Soon our group of four swelled to 10 and the cohesion started to disintegrate. None of the teams were willing to play the numbers game so I sat up and let the break of 5 roll up the road.
Over the next lap and a half the group rode together. Picking up the pace the art time up the climbs, the group started to thin a bit and the break's advantage started to tumble. Eventually we caught a few riders out of the break, leaving three riders out front. With the leaders in sight, there were enough accelerations and attacks to chip away at the leaders. Again, nervousness consumed the bunch and a big wreck at the 5k mark help up a large group. By some stroke of good fortune, I had just moved to the right with Max on my wheel, while Chris did his best cyclocrossing in the grass on the other side of the group. All together, we hit it to catch the front group and set up for the finish.
Nearing the 2k mark, the break's advantage was less than 10 seconds. Two riders tried to attack and were sitting in no man's land. Carrying some speed, I decided to go for it with just 1.2 miles remaining. Leapfrogging the two riders ahead, I was halfway across the gap when I felt my legs starting to cramp. "Oh shit!" This was not going to be good, with just one swig of water left in my only remaining bottle. I sunk back to the group and tried to set up for the sprint but was again, too far back and boxed in to have a good shot at it. On the bright side, Chris activated beast mode, towing Max up the inside of the group and both of them sprinting to 15th and 13th respectively. A few more seconds gained and all of our skins in tact, we set out to find food and get ready for the last stage of racing!
The last day and the final act of the Joe Martin play. The Arkansas weather gods rewarded our efforts with near perfect conditions for racing. I guess you could say it was a small token of appreciation for the hard work we put into racing across the Arkansas countryside for three days. Or maybe we were just lucky.
Lining up for the final 50 minutes of racing, we knew that the last efforts would be the hardest. Sunday's criterium takes place right in the center of downtown Fayetteville, heading downhill on Dickinson Street (or is it Dickson St.??) before turning back uphill to the town square on the hilltop. A true race of attrition.
Again we were focused on staying out of trouble and burning our matches where they would count the most. The whistle blew and we were under way. Just three laps in I heard the heart-wrenching burst of air come from my rear tire. Apparently Stan's was going everywhere but I was more focused on getting to the neutral support tent. The Stan's had sealed the puncture but fortunately, the tire was flat enough to warrant a free lap. Thank you! I hopped back in the race with a new rear wheel and rejoined the bunch. The race remained tame for a few more laps but each time up the finishing climb the pace got a bit harder.
With 7 laps to go the group was dramatically reduced and gaps were popping up left, right and center. Max made a move off the front, bridging to the leaders 10 seconds ahead. It was a perfectly timed move and I was watching in hope that the group would stay away. But it was not to be and the pace quickened enough to bring the leaders back. With 2 laps to go, I was giving it everything to make it to the front group. Taking position in the top 10 wheels on the downhill, I was ready to give it everything for the last 200m. The pace was high and as the sprint opened up, I was diving around popped riders to find the line, eventually crossing in 8th place. I will certainly take that as a win!
Max crossed the line just after me and solidified his place in the top 10 on GC. With the last race of the weekend I was also able to move up to 15th overall. Not bad for moving up 21 spots in 3 days =]
It was truly an awesome weekend of racing and our success, however great or small, would not have been possible without a total team effort. John and Chris were awesome helping Max and I stay out of trouble and be in the right spot when we needed to be, and that kind of selflessness and total team effort is more exciting to me than being in the money.
We've had a taste of success and we can return back to Dallas knowing that we have the ability to perform. It's only 360 days until the next JMSR and in the meantime we'll get ready for Critmas.