When I picked up my teammate, Adam, on the Thursday afternoon preceding Chico Stage Race, we loaded his bikes and gear into my car and I asked him “You know how to drive stick, right?” He stammered a little bit and replied “I think I’m good once I get up to speed.” It was almost three in the afternoon. Eight hours of driving opened up ahead of me. “Where’s your closest coffee shop?” I asked. Happily, there are far worse drives in the world than the I-5 corridor through Southern Oregon and far NorCal. In-n-Out Burger recently opened an outpost in Medford, for example. I set the cruise control, aiming for a 10:30 arrival in Chico, California.
It’s been raining steadily for months in Portland, and when we stepped out of the cars that night at our host’s house, the scents of California drifted through the air: eucalyptus, maybe, coupled with a sharp, piney odor I’ve never been able to place. Cedar? Cypress? My aunt and uncle live in Orinda, just east of San Francisco, and I swear the whole state smells amazing. In an added benefit, we could look up and see the stars, a rare sight this past winter in Oregon.
The Chico Stage Race opens on a Friday, as most stage races do, this particular iteration with a circuit race at the Thunderhill Raceway, which is about an hour’s drive from Chico (the race should probably be called The Willow/Paskenta/Chico Stage Race, but that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue). Fed a diet of Portland International Raceway circuits back home, I wasn’t prepared for Thunderhill’s lumpy (but very fun) profile. There is a short but very steep puncher of a hill, and then a one-minute drag climb. The course also features two high speed 180-degree hairpins, coming after the descent from the second climb. The finishing straight is almost 500 meters long, which meant metering your final effort was important. As most initial stages go, this one was a little choppy and frenetic: lots of scared Category 2 riders, out for their first competition of the season, yelling at each other. Adam and I rolled around in the bunch, fairly comfortable. I took a flyer late, and brought two other riders with me. We managed to pry away about a fifteen second gap by the second climb on the lap, but got brought back with just over a lap to go. There was the inevitable crash at the finish, which neither of us got caught up in. We stayed to watch the women’s race, cheering for Portlanders Beth Ann Orton, Anna Grace Christensen, Clara Honsinger, and Brenna Wrye-Simpson (among others—there were other Oregonians, for sure, but I can’t list everyone, right?), and lying around in the sun. Adam answered a work emergency on his phone, and we piled back into the car to drive back to Chico, already fueling for our race on Saturday, which began early at 8 am.
The road race, also an hour distant from Chico, rolls out of the Buckhorn Recreation Area, a campsite nestled up against the east side of California’s Coastal Range. Future racers, I think the pro move would be to rent an RV and camp at Buckhorn, as it’s close to Thunderhill. You could then roll into Chico for your final night Saturday night. That’s for 2017, however. The road race (for the Category 2 men, P/1/2/3 women, 1/2/3 35+ men, and P/1 men) is 90 miles long, largely flat to rolling, with 4 miles of gravel each lap. It’s a fairly straightforward affair, with the only wrinkles being the aforementioned gravel (which is pretty easy gravel, as far as gravel goes) and the lead-in to the gravel, which is what riding in 1980’s Beirut must have been like: cratered, potholed, dangerous. On the first lap I’d been caught at the back, trying to pee, and had to ride that section at the back of the race, which was a mistake. I moved up during the gravel section, thanking the long hours I’ve put in on the cyclocross bike this winter in Portland’s Forest Park. By the time Adam and I exited the gravel on the first lap, we’d made it to the head of the race, which is where we stayed for the rest of the race.
Almost, the head of the race, I should say. A few attacks went, halfheartedly, and were brought back, but then one of those half-hearted attacks seemed to work. A rider from the Lux/Stradling squad kinda rolled off the front of the field. A few minutes later Justin Onusko, from Oregon, also rolled away, eventually joining the Lux rider (Bo Knickman). The field seemed unconcerned, letting the gap grow to 1:20 before whittling it down to :40 as we finished the first lap. At one point a rider from Dolce Vita/Freewheel had also ventured across, and about four miles from hitting the gravel a second time, another of their riders made a speculative bridge attempt. This is when Adam and I should have been more vigilant. The gap seemed small, the field seemed content to bring it back during the gravel or after the gravel. Unfortunately, with two riders from the same team in the breakaway, they redoubled their efforts, dropping Onusko and beginning to put time into the field. Adam and I had planned for me to go to the front halfway through the gravel and try to force a split, which I did, breaking a small group of riders off the back of the field. But, as we exited the gravel and climbed through the feed zone, the pack slowed. Up ahead, the three man break (two Dolce Vita riders and Knickman) swelled the lead, which would eventually reach over four minutes. Adam and I worked hard at the front of the field, but to no avail—we’d left it too late, and the all Cat 2 field was tired. Adam made a brave solo attempt one kilometer from the finish, but was swamped just at the line. I got caught behind a small gap and surrendered ten seconds on the stage, time that I would rue losing later. Still, both of us came through the stage unscathed and not too tired (another sign we should have worked harder, earlier).
Sunday brought the time trial in the morning and the crit in the afternoon. With the race mostly decided, the time trial would mostly reshuffle the top fifteen. Riding teammate Steven “With a V” Beardsley’s time trial bike, I managed tenth in the event, finishing in 21:51, :46 down from the winner and a scant :22 from second. I moved up to 14th ahead of the crit, but the ten seconds I lost to the field on stage two now separated me from 11th. The crit was great fun: fast, smooth pavement, non-technical. I stayed safe, aiming at holding on to my 14th place, which is where I finished, out of danger.
If you don’t learn something from every race, you’re not developing, and in this race (as with some of my other races this spring and last year), I was reminded that I need to be more aggressive, especially in Cat 2-only fields. Both Adam and I were strong enough to exert a little more will on this race, especially during the road race. The big upside, however, is that the first big race of the season is behind us, the cranks have been turned in anger, and we came away with a solid result. Maybe not the result we wanted, but we didn’t leave empty-handed.