Veni Vidi Vici ...
It seemed nice that junior road nationals were going to be in sunny Lake Tahoe, California. The problem for us is that the Tahoe region is at 5,000 feet or higher and that requires planning. If you just show and go, you are likely to be disappointed. Altitude, for most of us, is not a problem. For guys who are stressing their bodies and lungs to their limits as we would at this nationals, you need every bit of air available. Since there is little available at 5,000, racers need bigger buckets to carry what is there. That bucket looks like red blood cells and that comes from acclimating at altitude for several weeks beforehand.
It sounds easy to just get someplace at high elevation, but we have eight riders and three staff that need to stay together and that's a lot of time and resources. Thanks to family friends of the Hecht's, we were given a house to use in Fairplay, Colorado for the time leading up to nationals so one obstacle was mitigated. We arrived in Truckee, a week before the first race so we had time to ride all the courses in advance, figure out the winds and develop a strategy.
Event 1: Road Race
The first event on the schedule was the road race. We are the defending national champions and have the returning national champion in Jonny Brown along with one of the strongest teams I've ever had so I was optimistic. That said, I'm never sure we can win. The Lux team out of southern California had nine riders and had beaten us earlier at Sea Otter, as did the Specialized team. At Sea Otter, they had a three to one advantage on us. In Truckee, it was going to be a fair fight, our six against Lux and Specialized teams of nine each.
With the heat and the hills, we figured there was a good chance that an early move could stay away. We needed good numbers in the break for it to be good for us. Everyone else figured they knew what we would do. Every director kept telling me what they thought we would do, which I found funny. We were going to do our race and let the chips fall where they may.
In out pre-race discussion we talked about what would be good combinations for us. The one point I wanted to drive home to them was that it was okay for us to have more than one or two guys in the move. Everyone on the team was on very good form so there was no bad combination for us. We just needed numbers to give us options.
Dave Brown and I were in the feed zone before the start (about forty kilometers out) so Gabriella took the team to the staging. All there was to do for the two of us was wait until they got to us. It was an out and back course so we would see them twice but miss the finish since it was impossible to feed them and beat them back. The police motorcycles started to come by, one by one, so we knew they were close. We hear parents farther down the hill yelling out excitedly, if their kid was in the break along with the news, "There are three Hot Tubes guys at the front."
It turned out the group was seven guys and we had three in it: Michael, Gage and Jonny. The instructions to Gage, the newest and most inexperienced of us, in the pre-race talk was “stay near Jonny.” Gage is so strong, if he did the wrong thing, worked in the wrong move, he could kill our chances but if we could harness his strength, we could be very hard to beat. Step one, just right. The gap was just over two minutes to the field with the two strongest Americans: Adrian Costa, second at the world championships and second ranked junior in the world and Brandon McNulty of LUX, ranked number one in the world.
The break had two of McNulty's LUX teammates, including Daniel Willet who got sixth at Paris Roubaix this year and a rider from the Hincapie team. There were three Hincapie guys in the move initially, but two weren't willing to work so Jonny took them off the back and then jumped back alone. This was a good move for us but Willett had me a little worried. The LUX team director, Roy Knickmann told me this is exactly what he thought we would do and he had his guys where he wanted them.
There is no time for me to tell the guys anything but time gaps in the few seconds I see them and what could I say that they didn't already know? They know Costa, McNulty and Willet better than I do and I needed to trust their judgment. Dave and I shot out bottles as fast as we could, as they passed for the second and last time through on their way back to the finish. Michael popped out the back, which didn't surprise me a lot. I knew he would have known the situation and how good it was for us and done the lion's share of the driving in the flat, windy midsection of the course. The field came through five minutes later so barring catastrophe, the winner would come from the front group.
Our only source of news was sporadic Twitter updates from Billy Innes, the national junior team director. With spotty reception in the hills around Tahoe, Dave was on the edge of his seat. The first news was an attack by the Hincapie rider. Jonny Brown bridged up solo dropping the Hincapie rider. Gage attacks out of the break solo. Gage and Johnny quickly developed 1:30 gap and then a 3:30 gap with 10km to go. Jonny won with Gage taking second.
There was no big "YooHoo!" from us. Dave shook my hand, emotional that his son Jonny had won his second road race national championship and with sincere gratitude that the team, made Jonny champion again. For another year our guys were able to out-smart and out-muscle the entire field and made me look much smarter than I actually am.
Johny Brown and his Dad, Dave, after the Men's Road Race:
Liam's and Emma's road races started at the outer limit of the older guys course and raced into the finish.
For Liam, it was a hard day. I knew he was strong but these races are sometimes hard to predict. They can be negative, sit on races or hyper aggressive. This day it was the latter and that proved to be costly, but valuable lesson for Liam. The problem with altitude for non-altitude guys is that if you go into debt and get your heart rate up, it won't come down quickly regardless of what you do. Liam tried matching the accelerations of some of the light, skinny guys from altitude and he spiked his heart rate and that was it, his race was done. He came through the feed zone well off the players in the race, having pulled the plug long before getting to the top of the climb. My worry was what was this going to do to his head. Was he going to doubt himself, question if he was ready for nationals? Could he bounce back, rub some dirt on it and get back into the game? The time trial two days later would answer that question for this year's race.
Emma's race was straight forward and not what we had hoped for. There is one big team in junior women's racing, the Twenty-16 women's team based in the west. They have a large team with some real talent and they know how to race like a team. As our only girl and as a favorite, Emma was heavily marked. At the base of the climb three girls, including the top Twenty-16 rider, Chloe Dygert, got a gap and the race was over. With only Emma to chase, the break would stay away to the finish. Emma won the sprint for fourth place, easily gapping the remainder of the field. The race was exactly what the Twenty-16 team had hoped for and a good learning experience for Emma. Sometimes it's good for us to get beat so we can see our weaknesses, physical or tactical, which we rarely get to see when you win all the time.
Event 2: Time Trial
The time trial was held in the town of Loyalton, California, about forty miles from where we were staying. We rode it twice before the race. We had done half of our motor-pacing work on the course and knew it as well as you can. Liam was our first rider off and I knew he was going to be good. Liam won nationals last year in the 13/14 age group, but racing with the older guys was going to be different. When you think of 15/16 year old guys, maybe your local paper boy comes to mind or some skinny kid on a club ride in misfitting bibs and jersey but that's not the case with the 15/16 year olds. This is the first category where the riders look like athletes and some of these guys even look like men. For years, the top 15/16 guys have challenged the fastest times of the day for all age groups often averaging near 48kmh. This day would be no different.
Liam started near the end based on his ranking and last year's national championship. He looked focused and mildly irritable, which I took as a good sign. Once they start there is nothing for me to do but wait. I watched to see the times of the guys I know and there were no surprises. The fast guys were fast and the rest were somewhere in the middle, not contending for a top spot. None of the really fast guys set head turning times making me think a podium spot was within his reach. As Liam was getting closer, I could tell his time was going to be good. He crossed the line fourteen seconds off the fastest time for third place for the 15/16’s and the ninth fastest time of the day for the 20km course.
I thought about it briefly and decided that was a very good result. Most parents would be over the moon with this placing. I know I must sound like a hard ass, not happy with anything other than a win sort of guy, I'm not, really, I'm not. I want to see growth. I want to see their best effort and a smart race and I feel like we got that on this day. Is he capable of more, absolutely, but probably not on this day. Liam is capable of greatness, I can see it and I can feel it in my bones but with him, it's the long game. We need to take our time, not rush it and build him slowly. He will be great one day, mark my words.
Emma raced next and was the favorite since she was the defending national champion and fifth at the world championships last season. Her warm-up was good and everything was in place. The obvious competition was he winner of the road race. She is a very good time trial rider and clearly riding a high. Emma started last, as is customary for the defending national champion. All there was to do for us was wait. Chloe was the first back and set a new fastest time. I had a clock running on Emma so I knew when I needed to see her. That time came and still no Emma in sight. Shortly after she came into view and I knew it was lost. Emma finished second, about fourteen seconds down on the winner. As we sat in the grass, in the shade, after the race I asked her how she felt. She said she felt like it was hard and that she put out everything she had so what more could I ask for? In the days after nationals, on my long drive home, that's the time to digest our preparation strategy and decide what changes we need to make. Emma will be selected for the world championships, I'm sure. She is not an automatic but she is the top returning junior woman so we will train as if she was selected.
All that was left was the 17/18 guys. We had a chance. Not a great chance but we had chance with Gage and with Ethan. Both of these guys are wild cards but for two different reasons. Ethan can be great in the time trial, as he showed by winning the opening time trial in Limburg earlier this year but Ethan can also watch his Garmin too much and let that dictate his race. Gage is new, untested in big races and crazy strong. The top two time trial riders in the world are both American and both in our race and the top guy, Brandon Mcnulty, was beaten by Gage at last year's national championships.
All the other guys, Jack, Jonny, Ian and Mike are solid time trial riders but much better in races that don't rely solely on individual strength. As the guys started and finished there were a few surprises. Ian Keough turned in a very good time, his best ever time trial when it mattered most. Jack and Mike still had some tired legs from the road race but were solidly in there with a twelfth, nineteenth, twenty-third and twenty-eighth. Ethan was next in for us as the remaining riders on the course were fewer and fewer. As he crossed the line he set a new fastest time. I was happy. It was much faster than the previous best time but the fastest guys were still on the course. Brandon McNulty was next and he beat Ethan's time by a wide margin. Gage was next in and also beat Ethan's time finishing just a hand full of seconds off McNulty. We were sitting second and third overall with only one guy, Adrian Costa, last year's silver medalist at the world championships, still on the course. For a few moments it was a pressure cooker. Would McNulty hold on or would Costa take it. As he came into sight I looked at the clock and I couldn't tell. In the end Costa missed winning by just two seconds leaving us third and forth and I was happy with that. We rode well and we have a lot of room to get better. Gage will return as a junior next year and with the time we have, we will hone him and get him ready to win.
Event 3: Criterium
The last event was the criterium two days later. American crowds love these races. They are fast, tight and exciting and my least favorite event. With all that speed and tight turns there are always crashes and we have too much to lose. We have three guys as automatic selections for the world championships and a broken bone now would be a big setback. I keep these feelings mostly to myself as the guys love these races. They are also very good at them. These are the races that show the caliber of team you have and that would be the case on this day.
First off was Liam. His race was fast and he surfed the back and the sides of the field never sticking his nose on the front all day. This, this is where my job is. Not pumping tires or back slapping after a win but getting to the bottom of why a guy as strong as Liam is, never tried. Was it a lack of confidence or disinterest or fear or something else I've not yet figured out. This is where you see who are parents and who are Team Directors. Parents are the ones yelling to get to the front, red faced, necks bulging while the Directors watch. I get excited at these races and I yell some, but mostly I watch and try to figure out what's going on in their heads. The guys are little help with this since they usually don't know themselves why they do what they do.
Emma was next and her race was less dramatic. From the gun Emma went hard and blew the field to pieces. There was only one girl, Chloe, who could stay with her. They worked well together and quickly started lapping riders, so many, in fact that there were only six or seven riders left in the race by the last lap. Chloe had several teammates in the group behind but she is known as a fast finisher so her confidence was high. With two corners to go, Emma launched her bid for the win. Chloe was right on her and I'm sure she thought Christmas had come early. As they rounded the last corner they both sprinted with Emma increasing her gap and taking the win. Emma is a fast sprinter and has won several pro women's criterium races in the last year so my confidence in her was high in her sprinting and she never looked back telling me she knew she would win. That one felt good.
Last up were the older guys and they looked ready for battle. We have six very fast criterium riders and they were focused. We had several plans and would keep it loose. If it came down to a field sprint it was Ian's race to win and the guys would look after him. If it was a break, which was a good chance, we needed to use our experience as a team to make the right combinations. We also had a guest director for the day in Nate Brown, a Hot Tubes alum and current pro with Garmin Cannondale team. He's told me for years that when he's done being a pro, he wants my job.
It was fast right from the gun and we were all over the front covering everything. McNulty tried to go clear, but Ethan covered him. They stayed away for a while, but it was clear that nothing was getting away this early. Then,
Gage attacked. He was just setting up one of the others for a later move, not intending to stay away, but he gained time so he settled in and went fast. When his gap got to thirty seconds McNulty tried to get to him. For a while the gap stayed the same, Gage about twenty seconds in front of McNulty who was another fifteen second clear of the field.
As the laps ticked off McNulty got closer and closer until with six laps to go he made contact with Gage. I have a lot of confidence in Gage, but I don’t know yet what he's capable of. I don't know if he can sprint, but I know McNulty can. Mcnulty had sprinted to a third place in the opening road stage of the Peace Race this year, but I needed to trust my guys and keep my mouth shut. For this finish I stayed on the home stretch in the pit. I could see the last two turns and saw that Gage was leading McNulty and then he lit it up. Gage pulled away to win by a large gap to win our second national championship of the day. Ian and Michael led the rest of the team home.
Nationals will return to Tahoe next season and I have a year to figure out what we need to know to be better. The work starts now, including figuring out who will be replacing the six team members we lose at the end of this season.
Thanks for reading,