Polluting the Pond, Tour of Fairbanks Part I

I just had a lower back spasm that nearly dropped me to the floor.

OK, I'm back.

The last few days I was in Fairbanks participating in the Tour of Fairbanks. My choice of the word "participating" was intentional. The experience was different from previous editions, and I'm not sure I enjoyed myself.

Before I go further, let me say that I'm hesitant to pee in our tiny road racing pond here in Alaska. We only have so many opportunities, and they rely on a handful of very dedicated and enthusiastic people (you know, idiots) to organize these events. The amount of energy it takes to marshal a bunch of type-A roadies through a single race, let alone a stage race, is staggering. Having been one of those idiots (in multiple leagues for multiple sports) that the entire organization relies on, I can say it can be extremely stressful and exhausting. It can also be an extremely rewarding experience. The last thing I want to do is make it more difficult to keep these events running, because on the whole it's a really cool community. My intent is to only provide my perspective, even if it may differ from that which may ultimately allow events to continue. I've raced the Tour of Fairbanks twice before (2012, 2013), so my resume is not exactly robust. This is not the voice of vast experience.

The first time it was in the Sport division, where the entire GC field was 4 guys from Anchorage. We were lumped in with the slightly larger Masters field for mass-start events, which proved to be a good pairing of ability levels. I almost blacked out in a pace line, got beat up by more experienced and stronger racers, and ended up in 2nd place in my class. I was hooked. The sheer scale of the stages was like nothing we had in Anchorage. The Open/Expert field was large and extremely competitive, and I knew I was nowhere near their level. Even the slowest guys in the Open/Expert pack were in another time zone, so I knew where I fit in the food chain.

The next year I moved into the Masters field. None of my fellow Anchorage Sport riders from the previous year had entered, and there was only one rider in that field. I could have guaranteed myself a podium position, but I thought I could be in the mix with the Masters and just wanted a good race. I did better than I ever expected and won the class. Most of the stages had changed venues, but that same grand scale was on display. By this time I was preaching to anyone that would listen about the virtues of the race. The Open field was slightly smaller, but it was still competitive and beyond my level.

I was forced to skip 2014 for family obligations, which caused my whole season to lack any sort of focus. I wanted to be there, and without that blocked out on the calendar I couldn't muster much enthusiasm. Perhaps affected by the absence of my sparkling personality, attendance was half of what it was the two previous years. The course remained the same, and I was determined to make a triumphant return and get beat down in fine fashion.

This year just wasn't what I signed up for. I plunked down my cash before the race bible was even published, so my expectations may have been off. The Masters field started filling out nicely, and the entry of Markus ensured things were going to get interesting. The stages sounded engaging enough on paper, and I'd has some experience racing on a few of the roads. I was six hours into the drive to Fairbanks when I got notified that more than half of the already-small Open/Expert field had defected to Masters and Sport to avoid getting stomped on by what can only be described as a lab experiment made entirely of lean muscle and lung stem cells, Tyson Flaharty. Tyson had won the previous two editions and had been constantly in the mix with the best Anchorage road racers. The exodus from Open/Expert left 5 names on the roster, and one of them was in memoriam. Not exactly sure of what I was facing, I re-adjusted my goals a bit and looked forward to mixing it up on the Fairbanks roads again.

Thanks to flat legs and over-reliance on an unreliable power meter, I blew up during the 1st stage and lost some time that I couldn't afford to lose against the stacked field. My goals shifted yet again.

The 2nd stage was a criterium on a solid course. Due to the small fields in everything except for Masters, all men raced together for all mass-start events, completely foiling the efforts of those trying to avoid a Tyson beating. With the Open/Expert racers driving the train, I knew it was a good idea to be onboard when it left the station. Sure enough, the gaps formed quickly and started to grow significantly. Tyson went off the front and a group of 5 of us chased. Well, the others chased and I held on by my fingernails. I took advantage when Tom Peichel took a bad line and went off course, picking up some bonus seconds in the intermediate sprint. We never got lapped, although a wreck by the two Open racers in the group and resulting neutralization on the 2nd to last lap slowed us down a bit. Thanks to Tyson's monster breakaway, we were the last group that finished on the lead lap. Relatively speaking, we had crushed it.

When the results came out, I found that I had gone down several places on the result sheet. Half the racers that were down a lap were given their finishing time plus a fixed penalty of 30 seconds. That meant they were effectively rewarded for doing less. I guess they were smarter than I was. The time penalty calculation was designed to avoid discouraging riders, but it was far too low to account for a lap time of around 1:45. When I realized what had happened, I started to argue the point. The response was that it was in the race bible like that and the times would stand. Eventually a compromise was reached, which ultimately only affected two racers negatively. Guess who one of them was. With no idea where I stood on GC from day to day, motivation was bleeding from my eyes. I knew the podium was off the table, but once again I found myself fighting for the always-prestigious 4th place.

The stage 3 time trial went better, as I quickly realized my power meter was failing and decided to ignore it. I picked up a big chunk of time and solidified my position. My legs were starting to come around and I felt like I could maybe hang with the skinny kids once the road tilted up. The final two stages were road races with uphill finishes, so I knew pig-headed determination was all that was going to carry my fat rolls up the hill.

In retrospect, given the number of hits my morale had taken over the first couple days, the fact I was still trying shows just how much I really like racing. I was determined to fight for every last scrap of pavement I could, even when things weren't going my way for various reasons. I just wanted to race. Trophies are nice, but they aren't why I race. Some of the best experiences I've had racing are those where I just missed the podium, but was able to affect the way the race progressed. It's a weird combination of personal fitness, field combination, and venue. So far, despite the fact I stopped checking the shifting sands on the results sheet, I was still in the game.

That would change.

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