by Mark Hotchkin
My goal over the past weekend was to win the Cat 3 West Michigan Stage Race. The bottom step of the podium was close, but initially disappointing. With reflection, I am ultimately satisfied with my efforts over the three races.
A bit of history…2012 is my 11th year of bike racing, with 9 of those years as a Cat 3 racer. Outlining my 2012 racing goals this past offseason, doing the work necessary to get a legitimate Cat 2 upgrade topped my list. The motivation to meet the physical demands of racing at the top amateur level would not be possible without the support of my Leadout teammates and the drive to push myself harder while training and racing with them. My results in the stage race reinforced some of the work I’ve done this season.
The two-day 2012 WMSR consisted of a 7.2-mile time trial, a fairly technical 8-corner criterium, and a 30-mile road race loop consisting of small rolling hills and a lengthy flat run-in to the finish. The Cat 3 road race covered the loop twice.
The time trial was bright and early Saturday morning – a chilly start to an otherwise hot May day. It was my third time trial of 2012. I had been pleased with my performance in the first two, but nagged by feeling that I had held something back; for fear that I would push too hard and blow up. I decided that 7.2 miles was short enough that I could push harder and endure the pain for that brief period. Following a decent warm-up and a very generous wheel change, borrowing Dan Korienek’s Bontrager Aeolus 5 carbon wheels, I queued up for the start nervous, but with high expectations. The aero wheels were the confidence boost I needed. I felt great throughout, using the down rollers to build my speed up to around 32 mph, trying to hold 27 mph on the flat sections, and pushing as hard as I could up the rollers. I would not let myself ease up. Approaching the finish, my time was still in the 15:00’s, and that just made me go harder. I crossed the line in 15:48, which was 1 second behind Anthony Prentice of Priority Health in 2nd place, and only 7 seconds off of the leader, Jared Bonecutter (yes, Bonecutter) from Ohio. I was happy, but even more nervous at the possibility of as many as 60 bonus seconds on offer for the afternoon’s crit.
After some delicious home-cooked egg, black bean, and salsa breakfast tortillas (one of the benefits of a hometown stage race), it was time to head to that afternoon’s crit. It was one of the few races I would truly like to forget…after I write about it in excruciating detail.
My prerace routine was pretty stress free, since my guaranteed call-up meant I could – and did – roll up at the last minute and still start at the front. I sprinted off the line and led the group around the first few corners. The technical nature of the course meant that a fast single-file field would be safer than a slow bunched up group. I was also hoping that the 90-degree temps on the pavement would make some racers suffer at high speeds. On turn 5 of lap one, a fairly wide left turn, I totally misjudged it, still at the front of the pack. My error caused chaos behind me. I came out of my turn, unclipped a foot, and went up the curb into the grass. I was fine, but I heard the terrible sound of crashing behind me. I generally consider myself a safe racer, so I was really embarrassed by my mistake. I still feel really guilty about the guys who had crashed behind me. I kept going, physically fine, but it was strike one mentally.
A few laps later, I was mid-pack through one of the sharp turns on course when my rear wheel started to slide. Approaching the next corner, I took it much less aggressively, but still slid my wheel. Sure enough…my tire was dead flat…likely a slow leak from my awkward bailout on lap one. I was on the opposite side of the course from the wheel pit. Time to go for a jog. After running FOREVER with bike cleats on, pushing my bike, I got to the wheel pit. I found my spare rear wheel was also lacking any air pressure. This concerned me a lot, as my grasp of 3rd place appeared to be fading. Thankfully Mark Bush of Ventus Cycling was nearby, and offered me his teammate’s wheel. Aided in my wheel change by nearby veteran racer Dean Cohen, I was able to get back in the race on the next lap. However, the sensation of sliding through two turns plus the unexpected difficulty of the wheel change combined for mental strike two.
I sat at the back of the field for a handful of laps trying to get my head back in the race, getting my cornering confidence back, but missing a time bonus sprint in the process. Approaching the finish, I saw at least one more crash when Luke Oostindie of East Hills Velo was pushed off the outside of a sharp corner. Then there was a huge amount of contact among riders…bumping, swerving, yelling. Definitely strike three mentally. I stayed away from the chaos of sprint positioning and simply finished the race. I was very fortunate that none of those who gained time bonuses were close enough to me to take over my third place. Nothing gained, but nothing lost. The day was a great case study on mental strength in racing. Time trial: good confidence and great result. Crit: diminishing, eventually zero confidence and poor result. Interestingly, I asked Luke about his mentality after crashing in the race, since he came back to finish 2nd in the crit. He said that crashing only motivated him more for the sprint. Unfortunately not my style.
An epilogue to the crit: Returning to the car, I removed the borrowed rear wheel to return to its owner. Setting my bike down, the rear derailleur fell off of the bike frame. Luckily, two mechanics from our fantastic sponsor West Michigan Bike and Fitness, Kohl Van Bonn and Nick Afton, were out watching the races and helped me determine that I needed a new derailleur hanger. I experienced further generosity when teammate Geoff Kuyper told me that he had that spare part and personally drove it to my house that night after a long day of racing. Oh…and that worn shifter cable that I had put off replacing finally stopped shifting. So my evening of recovery was spent putting my derailleur back on and threading cable through internal routing until about 2 am.
After a solid 4 hours of sleep, I was up and ready to head out to the Sunday road race. Again, I had hopes of time bonuses that went to the top 3 finishers on the day. If I could finish 3rd or higher, and ahead of the two racers above me in the standings, I would win the stage race. This was a huge motivation. I love the race because it goes between Lowell and Ionia, where I grew up. In fact, part of the course consists of my original training loop when I first started road cycling in 1999. It’s hard to believe how many different places I’ve ridden my bike since then. I also love the finish because it’s flat and straight into downtown Lowell. A perfect place for a long wind-up and fast finish. Early in the race, Bryan got in a two-man break that had the rest of the field very worried. That kept the pace high to start things off. Nearing the end of lap one, BK and I traded attacks for a number of miles, but the field was not content to let either one of us roll away in any size group. At one point, BK countered his own attacks three times in a row. He told me, “next lap, same thing, only faster.”
Lap two saw a succession of potentially dangerous breakaways, but few lasted long. Coming into the last few miles, everyone was together until Blaine Benson of Michigan State made a strong solo move. The field hesitated before slowly clawing back to him just outside of town. Setting up for the sprint, I found Luke Oostindie’s wheel. A good sprinter with a potential leadout from his 5-person team, he was my best bet. Only, coming into town, he weaved through the middle of the field to the left side of the group. I didn’t know it at the time, but this shut off BK, who had intended to hit the front early and make things fast for the finish. No one’s leadout played out as expected. Local racer Brian Cermak of R4AC took advantage of the field’s perpetual hesitation, and jumped before the sprint to take the win. In the ensuing chaos, everyone was left to fend for themselves. I put everything into my effort, although the length of the sprint meant I didn’t even stand up. It was a grind-it-out push to the line. In the end, I was 6th, just meters behind that time bonus I needed to win the stage race. The heat of the moment got the best of me, and I yelled a few times…but managed not to swear. Even though things didn’t go according to plan at the finish, I was hugely grateful to BK for all the work he did chasing, attacking, and getting in breaks. It took lots of pressure off me. He even managed to finish the road race just ahead of me, in 5th, after all the work he did.
It was a great experience to get to stand on the podium and have huge support from so many different people both in and around the race. I’m hopeful for another strong result at Frankenmuth, where I’ll be honored to wear the red #1 as the Michigan Challenge series leader. Thanks for reading.