Natchez Classic, 1996
Results and Report
> Senior 1/2/3
After its notable absence in 1995, the Natchez Classic Stage Race returned for 1996 in a slightly abbreviated form. Pared down to three stages, and having jettisoned a couple of classes, organizers were hoping to make the event more manageable. As compensation for the more masochistic competitors, the organizers changed the time trial stage from a flat 4-miler to a 2.5 mile circuit that included a 45 mph descent to the river and a lung-busting 10 mph climb back up the bluff. In fact, the events went far more smoothly than ever before, despite a number of obvious cost-cutting measures. Probably the biggest surprise of the event, especially to the astonished promoters, was the remarkably small turnout (under 80 riders total), probably due in not small part to the race's conflict with the much larger and very popular 3-day race series in Athens, GA. Nonetheless, for an $8,000 race, the turnout was disturbing. On the upside, however, the level of competition was quite good, and it was a lot easier to finish "in the money." Field sizes were so small, in fact, that prizes went unclaimed in the Junior, Women, and Masters races.
The NOBC had a good-sized contingent at this year's event, including Laura Williams and Traci Rodosta in the Women's event, Gary Rodosta, Todd Courtney, and Mark Phillips in the Senior events, and Brian Magendie, Robert Massart and Randy Legeai in the Master's races. I'm still awaiting a copy of the final results, so I don't know everyone's exact placing. I'll post that information as soon as I have it.
AS I RODE IT
The Natchez Stage Race Road Races started just about a mile from the finish line near the Eola Hotel in order to avoid the complication of getting the various races through some busy intersections. The route would take us about 5 miles from town, where we would connect with a 35-mile circuit, complete the loop twice, and return to town via the same route, finishing on Main Street. As the small Masters group started out on the scenic, gently rolling course, I became painfully aware that my lungs had not yet recovered from the morning's trauma and my lower legs felt like blocks of wood.
The first lap was quite animated, with a number of attacks by Tom Bain and a solo effort by Robert Massart that succeeded in forcing some of the sprinters to chase him down. The pace was anything but steady, with a relatively slow pace punctuated by occasional hard attacks and chases as Tom Bain worked on wearing down the competition and Robert, Brian and Randy tried to keep the pace just fast enough to discourage more attacks. Nonetheless, most of the pack arrived at the slightly uphill hot spot together, with the three places going to Ricky, Tom and Randy, respectively. The weather was cool enough to be quite pleasant, and it was not until the second lap that the miles started to tell on some of the riders. Robert, feeling the effects of his first-lap solo and other efforts at the front, was starting to hurt. Rather than hide out at the back and wait for the next attack, which everyone expected to happen on the one big hill about half-way around the loop, he rode up to the front alongside Tom Bain and started a conversation! The pace slowed a bit and other riders started talking as we approached the climb. As a result, the group cruised up the tactically dangerous hill at a smooth even pace with most riders still in the group. Well, it was nice while it lasted, because toward the end of the last lap Bain attacked hard, taking with him both Ricky and the AWV rider, but leaving me, Brian and Robert behind. The lead trio quickly organized a paceline and started hammering away from the rest of the group. Brian made a valiant effort to close the widening gap, and when he started to fade, I came around, put my head down, and resigned myself to a do-or-die attempt to bridge. For the next mile or so I slowly, painfully closed the gap a few meters at a time. Every time a rider would come off the front, he would look back at me to see if I was still closing. When I finally got to within about 100 meters, I shifted up a gear and in another 50 strokes I started to feel the tail end of the group's draft. Luckily, none of them attacked as I latched onto the back, skipping a few pulls as I recovered from my effort. Once I got back into the paceline and started working again, I started to feel much better, despite the fact that we were still working pretty hard. As I came by Tom, he commented "nice bridge!" By now we were within 4 miles of the finish, and everyone was starting to think about the impending sprint. At one point, Ricky turned to me and asked "why are we working so hard?" Both Tom and Ricky offered me their wheels (gee, that's never happened before!), neither wanting the other on his wheel for the sprint. Meanwhile, the AWV rider had glued himself firmly to my wheel. Sensing that the sprint would probably be a repeat of the hot spot, the AVW rider took a chance and surprised everyone with a strong jump shortly after the kilometer mark, opening up a small gap at a crucial time. Had Tom and Ricky both hesitated too long, he might well have made it to the finish, but by 300 meters he was caught and shortly thereafter Ricky jumped strongly starting a long sprint down Main Street to the finish. Ricky made it across first, followed by Tom and me. I had managed to move up by 6 seconds on third place, but still needed three more to tie. One really interesting thing about this race was that nearly all of the riders knew and respected each other, and once the tactical necessities of the competition were behind them, it became more like a reunion of old friends. Robert, Brian and another rider followed us across the finish a little while later, and despite an agreement among them not to contest a sprint (there were no more bonus points up for grabs, so why sprint?) the other rider jumped anyway. Still, they came across essentially together, and I think all got the same time. In the women's race, Tracy and Laura finished together, a bit down on the lead group. Gary finished an excellent 3rd (I think) in the Cat. 4/5 Road Race. By the time we recovered wheels from the following car, the seniors were finishing their race, and I watched as local riders Dan Bennett and Kenney Bellau rode triumphantly into town about a minute and a half ahead of the rest of the pack as the sun sank slowly over Vidalia and our thoughts turned to pasta.
Finally, it was time for my favorite event, the Natchez Criterium. This fun and challenging course includes 8 turns, three of which are on downhills, plus a gradual climb on the back side. I was starting this race a mere 3 seconds out of third place, and I felt fairly confident that if it came down to a sprint I could get one of the top three places. The third place bonus points would put me in a tie for 3rd place, which would be broken in my favor because of my better stage placings. Even more significant to the progress of the race, however, was the fact that Tom and Ricky were now separated by only one second on GC, ensuring a determined battle for first place. Ricky would likely be banking on his sprint, while Tom would probably try to wear him down to take the edge off of his jump.
Early in the race Tom Bain attacked a few times to test the waters, each time eliciting a quick response from Ricky and the other riders. On each lap, the group tended to string out as it snaked through the three fast downhill turns. The last of those turns therefore became a perfect spot to jump from the front, allowing the attacker to combine the effects of a ready- made gap from the turn with the uphill grade after it. Soon enough, Tom Bain jumped hard coming out of that turn, and Ricky responded quickly, but in a surprise move, Ricky immediately counter-attacked through the next turn. I was fourth in the line at that point, with the AWV rider in front of me, and when Ricky attacked I hesitated, expecting the AWV rider to respond, which he didn't. Immediately, a gap opened up and I came around the AWV rider as we rounded the next corner and started up a gradual incline.
Now the group was split up into two pairs: Tom and Ricky in front, chased by me and the AWV rider behind, with the rest of the group trying to get re-organized behind us. Ricky and Tom were hammering, and I when I started to fade, I tried to get the AWV rider to take a pull, but he would have none of it. His only goal was to defend his third place and he had no interest in chasing the lead duo. Well, I really hated to watch first and second place (in the crit.) ride off down the road, especially since I felt I had a good chance of beating one or both of them in a sprint, but it would have been pretty foolish to have killed myself towing this guy up to the break only to have him nail me in the sprint. As a result, we settled down into a fairly smooth pace with me doing much of the work. I still felt fairly confident that I could beat this guy in a sprint, but I would have preferred to have had it come down to a sprint for first, rather than a sprint for third. As luck would have it, we soon came upon Robert and some other riders who we lapped. With those riders now mixed in with us, Robert started to pick up the slack when the pace would slow down, helping to discourage the AWV rider from attacking and keeping a little pressure on him. A bit later we also came up to Brian, who had also been chasing, and he too contributed to keeping the pace up. In what must have looked like an officiating nightmare to the referees, a few laps before the finish our group was itself lapped by Tom and Ricky, so that we all got the bell on the same lap! Of course, we let Tom and Ricky stay in front! Out of the last turn Ricky jumped and Tom tried to come around on the right side. Just as he did, I jumped for the daylight between them and ended up crossing the line first, but, of course, a lap down on them. As I passed Ricky I clearly remember him looking over at me with an expression of relief (that it wasn't Tom). The officials grumbled something about lapped riders, but with so few riders in the group the results were finished quickly and I was pleased to have, barely, managed to move up into third place. The real drama, however, was that Ricky had made it to the line before Tom, moving him into first place on GC.
In the Women's race, Laura and Traci stayed with the leaders for most of the race, but were eventually gapped off. They 2-person time trialed the rest of the way to the finish. I'm not sure where our senior riders finished, but I think Gary placed fairly well in his race. In the fast and animated Senior 1/2/3 race, a long break by Shawn Casey was caught and a rider from California slipped away to win both the criterium and the stage race by a large margin.
See you at the Tour!