I was excited to get back to Sterling this year for a fun circuit race. The course is an 8 mile lap with an uphill finish on Meetinghouse Road. The finish line is in the first half of the climb, it flattens a bit and then the grade increases again. The rest of the lap consists of some rolling hills and the always windy highway section that precedes the climb back into town. It was great to see such a large field in the women’s 4 race–we had over 40 starters and a number of NEBC faces in the pack. Even though our first trip up Meetinghouse Road was neutral, I knew it would be important to be near the front for that in case anyone started to attack right away. Our field rode the first lap together and 2 riders attacked our second time up the climb. A group of us chased, but could not catch them right away, so we regrouped. The group consisted of about 20 riders and we managed to get some paceline work going, although it can be hard in a group that large when people don’t know each other. On the back half of the lap, we caught the Ride Studio Cafe rider who had broken away with the leader. No one attacked the third time up the hill in our group, so I knew we would probably all stay together until the finish. If you don’t attack on that hill, I think it can be a tough race to make a break in because that highway section is so windy and must be a real challenge if you are alone. People jockeyed for position as we neared the center of Sterling and I was near the front as the pace started to increase. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have much left in my legs for the sprint and ended up being passed by a couple of riders and crossing the finish in 12th. Gotta work on those uphill sprints!
I had a major problem at work Friday night, plus knee pain that had gotten worse at Tour of the Dragons. I therefore did no openers on Friday and barely slept because I was crying most of the night. Then on the way to Sterling my phone (that I was using as GPS) froze and I blew well past my exit before I realized it. I pulled off at a random exit, pulled into a neighborhood, rebooted my phone to get the street address of the school and plugged it into my actual GPS. It said that I would arrive at 7:50 (for an 8:40 start). Not ideal, but still worth making the drive to Sterling rather than turning around and going back to bed.
I parked, picked up my number and a white ribbon in honor of Tom Noble and did an easy 15 minutes on the trainer before heading over to the start line. Catching up with some of the women I hadn’t seen in awhile helped keep my mind off that I was exhausted and not warmed up. I lined up near the front, but that all went haywire when we rolled from the parking lot to the road, so I actually started somewhere in the middle. I tried to move up when I could because I am not a strong climber and I hoped to survive at least the first lap with everyone else.
Last year Sterling was my first ever bike race. I had never ridden in a paceline before the NEBC clinic a couple of weeks earlier and I was pretty nervous and feeling out of place. I ended up getting dropped before the end of the neutral roll out when the women jumped at the base of the hill, then ended up DNF. This year, I was determined to finish and hang on as long as possible. I so badly wanted a rematch with this race that I was skipping my triathlon team’s training weekend in Waterville Valley to do the race. I was also feeling frustrated with road racing and my abilities (getting dropped/pulled/lapped in every race starts to wear on you), so this was my test race: if it was fun and I felt like I was improving, I’d continue, if not, I would stop road racing and just train for cyclocross season. I was trying not to put too much pressure on, but I felt like there was a lot riding on this race.
They specifically told us that they were going to keep us neutral through the finish line, so I was happy with that, but expected an attack at the top of the hill. There may have been one, I’m not sure when the winner got off the front, but no one ever saw her again and she won by almost 5 minutes. I pushed hard up the hill to get to the front on the descent. A couple of the girls were a bit squirrely, and I preferred to be in front of them on the way down. I stayed with the group through the first lap, getting towards the front on the descents and then falling back a little on the false flat before the hill. I tried so hard to stay on to start lap 2, but I couldn’t. JAM Fund junior Victoria Gates was also falling off, so I hung on her wheel and got up the hill. (Ironically, I had told Julianne the day before to tell Victoria I was planning on trying to hold her wheel.) At the top we caught up with Emily Phillips and I pulled through for the descent. Up ahead I saw Bonk’s Melissa Lefleur and LadiesFirst’s Anna Milton. We passed them on the left but they were able to jump on, and we had our group of 5.
We quickly got organized and each took very short pulls in an attempt to catch back on. Unfortunately, we never did see the main group again. As we approached the hill to start lap 3, it was apparent that Anna was the strongest of us left and Victoria was hurting a little on the climbs. But Melissa rallied us to regroup at the top, since we’d be much better off as 5 than as 4 or alone. I got to take a quick drink of water at the top, and then we were off again. They had told us that we were the 2nd chase group and not that far behind when we had passed the finish, so we all pushed hard to try to gain some ground.
As we got tired we got a little disorganized, especially as the headwind picked up, and it got harder for the rider pulling through to get ahead of the rider dropping back. But we all talked to each other, and got refocused. All 5 of us race cyclocross and were familiar with each other. I think that made the communication, trust and willingness to work together that much better, and we also had a lot of fun. I have never worked in a group like that, where everyone pulled their weight and we were cheering as hard for each other as we did for ourselves. As we approached the final climb to the finish, Victoria dropped back and Anna looked really strong still. We yelled for her to go and we split up, with Anna, Melissa, Emily, myself and then Victoria all crossing the line solo.
We ended up ~8 minutes off the leader, and 4 minutes behind the main group, and I finished 24th out of ~40 starters. This was by far the most fun I’ve had in a road race. I did have to fight some demons however, as I kept waiting to be dropped. In ‘cross, I am NOWHERE near those ladies and I kept wondering how I was still hanging on. But definitely doing Battenkill and Tour of the Dragons during the last few weeks helped with my fitness, and put the Sterling hill in perspective. Plus I’d gotten a lot of tips from more experienced teammates, especially Katherine Snell, that really helped. This was the first race that I actually finished with people and didn’t have to time trial at all. Obviously, I wish I could have made up those 2 minutes per lap to stay with the main pack, if for no other reason than to help out Elizabeth, but I far exceeded what I thought I’d do in this race, so I’m very happy.
It was a beautiful day to be on the bike, great to see so many NEBC jerseys out there, and a wonderful course!