In this off season, I had a better mindset that if I wasn’t hurting, I wasn’t training right. My mental state reminded me of the old adage "No pain, no gain." This helped me focus and become a stronger rider. This mindset helped me push my limits, allowing me to dig deeper at the end of a race.
Training when the weather isn't ideal is hard. Its mentally tough to sit on a trainer for two or more hours and give 100 percent. To avoid that mental and physical stagnation I diversified my training by indulging in as many cycling disciplines as I could. This included cyclocross, mountain biking, a gravel race, and even a fat biking adventure. This diversification of riding helped me keep my head on straight and focus on the goals I have for the 2018 season without the burnout that happens all too often with winter training.
Prior to "Valley of the Sun" I entered a gravel race to see where my fitness was before heading to Arizona. The race was only 50 miles but being on gravel it was about as hard as an 80-mile hilly road race. I didn’t know what to expect so I went out hard and figured I had nothing to lose and the race would end up being a great training day. That it was. After a few minutes of throttling it on some back-country gravel roads I found myself in a break with one other rider and we eventually spent the rest of the race together trading pulls and sprinting it out on the final climb. This race eased my nerves a bit coming into VoS giving me a bit of confidence that my offseason training paid off and my fitness was there.
Two weeks later, the journey to "Valley of the Sun" began. Driving 1,500 miles in a car from St. Louis to Phoenix with five bikes, multiple wheelsets, and all the essentials three college dudes could ever need is no easy task. The drive down was broken up into two parts, with the first segment ending in Amarillo, Texas. We got about seven hours of sleep and started the next block bright and early giving us time to stop at a coffee shop, grab food, and ride our bikes in a small town just past Albuquerque, New Mexico. Eventually we made it to our wonderful hosts in beautiful Phoenix, Arizona where we joined the rest of the Project Echelon squad.
The Thursday before VoS was a day of spinning the legs, working on bikes, lots of bike talk, and some next level Italian. With bikes prepped and a full stomach we got some needed rest and prepared for the opening time trial.
I was nervous for the TT as I've never been a super great time-trialist, so I took everything as serious as possible with a long warm-up and proper pre-race nutrition from CLIF to get any advantages I could. I did my best and rolled in with a time that was good enough for 49th. Not being one of the GC contenders for this race I knew I was fine not logging the fastest time, but it is something I am working to perfect and eventually be competitive in. Aside from my result the team rolled in with some of the fastest times in the category. Cory Lockwood had a great ride slotting himself into second in the General Classifications competition. Other team members posted solid times as well with our next best rider being Evan Hartig in 11th, Eric Hill in 12th, Time Savre in 13th, and Ricky Arnopol in 15th and Wesley Phipson in 72nd. That’s five riders in the top 15. Better than any other team attending the race which was fantastic. Being the most dominant team in the time trial we had some work to do in the road race the next day.
Our goal rolling into Saturday, the road race, was to move Cory into first in the GC. That is no small feat with so many strong teams looking to do the same with their riders. The road race was 94 miles doing a 16-mile loop almost 6 times. With one decently challenging climb and the rest mostly flat it was the perfect early season road race for our squad. We went in with a plan to cover any breaks that rolled in the first few laps and shut down things we weren't happy with to save Cory's legs for the later parts of the race. Sometimes things don’t go to plan though, and, in this case, the winning move rolled in the first mile of the race. Eric Hill was in the original move sitting on until I made it across shortly after. Two Project Echelon riders versus 25+ others became the story of the break. Covering moves from countless riders all day and keeping Eric as fresh as possible became my job as he was now sitting the highest in GC for our team when the break gained over six minutes on the field at one point. Coming into the final lap we had 2 minutes on the field with two riders up the road. This was not ideal for us because the gap they had would take Cory out of second and drop Eric and others in the GC. Eric and I did what we could to bring the gap down, but then we would open the gap to Cory and potentially take him out of the GC which is something we did not want to do. Coming into the final climb I did what I could to keep Eric where he needed to be and eventually got shelled midway up. Eric rode strong to finish off the climb and snagged a solid 11th, three minutes back from the leaders on the day. After a long battle with countless attacks, Cory's rapid attacks finally paid off allowing him to escape the field dragging only one rider along and nearly bridging to the break on the final climb where he placed 17th only three minutes nine seconds down on the leaders of the day ahead of myself in 19th.
Tim Savre was able to sprint to 29th place. Arnopol rolled in, grabbing 41st after putting in lots of efforts, working for and defending Lockwood with Hartig who came in 68th.
Saturday night consisted of race talk. What we did right, what we did wrong, and everything in-between all while watching the most exciting Olympic Curling ever. A few riders took advantage of the hosts ice cold pool and soaked the legs in that while others got a few flips in on the trampoline. Probably wasn’t the best choice but it's not every day a trampoline is available to get rad, post-race.
Sunday, was the crit, an hour-long rage fest on the streets of the Arizona state capital. The 7 corner crit was flat and fast. Our goal was to get Lockwood up the road to gain back the time on the new leader after Saturday's road race. Cory gave it his best but unfortunately nothing stuck and we went through with plan B, leading Tim Savre out for the sprint. Arnopol made it to the front with one to go giving a monster pull to line things up with Hartig in tow and Savre right on his wheel. With a crash on the last lap and some mixing up we didn’t quite get Savre where he needed to be into the last corner, but he was still able to come away with a respectable fourth.
Although we did not win the GC we still raced well and got the team out there and recognized. We need to work on riding as a unit and communicating more. In the crit we struggled to stick together and have everybody at the front where we should be. Being in the front is key to performing your job on a team. It is hard to cover a move while surfing the back. It is also harder to communicate when we are spread apart throughout the field. In the road race, Eric and I were able to communicate and make decisions in the break, but we had no clue what was going on in the field behind us. It is hard deciding what is the right call when we don’t have all information present. Race radios would have been very beneficial in Saturday's road race. Luckily, we didn’t fair too bad even though some of the calls we made were not ideal for our goals after looking back on it and realizing what could have gone wrong.
All in all, we had a solid weekend of racing with lots of top notch results. We learned from each other, learned what we need to work on to become a unit and race smarter and more efficiently. Valley of the Sun was just the start to a killer season that will be riddled with even better results and unity.
Now, we get back to work for some big goals ahead, with the team racing some smaller races at Tour of St. Louis, Tucson Bicycle Classic, and San Dimas Stage Race before heading to our first big test and opportunity to show our strength at Joe Martin Stage Race.