Natchez Classic, 1998

(recovered from archived email)

As I Rode It

Riding over to the staging area for the first event of the Natchez Classic, I made a impulsive decision and turned left down the bluff in order to check out "the hill."  I coasted down the smooth asphalt toward the river until the road swept right and the rough surface of the older road "under the hill" nudged upward sucking away the last bit of momentum.  I shifted down - way down - and spun back up the bluff, making a mental note of the distance and slope, and quickly erasing any lingering thoughts I might have had about "big-ringing" the climb.  Back near the start-finish, I checked the start list to find that I had about an hour to wait before tackling the challenging 2-mile time trial that would set the stage for the rest of the weekend.  Although I had my trusty wheel cover installed on the back, I was feeling a little disadvantaged with my regular 32-hole front road wheel when Joey D'Antoni rolled up and offered me the use of his aero front wheel.  We would have plenty of time to swap wheels again before his ride.

Finally, my turn came up and I rolled up to the line, supported by one of the two bike-holder assistants.  A couple of deep breaths with 5 seconds to go, hit the computer start button at one to go, and off I went on my 5-minute adventure into lactate land.  With a slightly downhill start, my speed climbed quickly into the thirties as I rounded the 90-degree left turn at the bottom of Main Street and tried to settle into some sort of rhythm.  Three flat blocks dropped my speed back down into more familiar territory, and I made the right turn down the bluff quite a bit more slowly than I had hoped.  The road down the bluff begins with a moderate downhill left-hand sweeping turn that flattens out briefly at the entrance to a parking lot.  From there, it descends very quickly to the river, sweeping right in a decreasing-radius turn.  As I came around the bottom of the downhill at around 45 mph, I felt the wind lift my deep-section front wheel off the ground briefly, causing all sorts of alarm bells to go off in my head for a moment.  The block or two of flat road zipped by almost instantaneously, and I was suddenly climbing - first in a 44x13, and finally in a 44x17.  Gasping for breath, I dropped it down a cog or two as I came over the top and stood on the pedals to accelerate as the road leveled out.  Two quick blocks later I was able to shift back into the big ring, and make the right turn and a gradual uphill for 5 or six blocks that seemed to take forever, then two rights and a sprint down Main Street to the finish.  A very long two miles and a tie for 4th place, six seconds down on the leader.

ROAD RACE (Masters 1,2,3)
An easy road race didn't appear to be likely as we waited in the sun for our start.  In the Masters 1,2,3 pack were the Texas state criterium champion, a current national champion, and a number of other very experienced and strong riders from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Texas.  As usual, Missouri's Lonnie Kennedy was there as well.  Tom Bain (Richardson Bike Mart) had already warned me that Les Akins and Jeff Austin were looking pretty strong. 

An easy start out of town kept things together for a while, but there were repeated surges, especially on the hills, as we entered the road course loop for the first of two laps.  It looked to me like most riders were focused on the hot spot that awaited us about two-thirds of the way around the loop.  I know I was!  The hot spot on this course comes a few miles past a right turn, just after the top of a fairly long, gradual climb that starts with a fast downhill.  As we made the right turn, I started to move up near the front so that I would have a shot at the hot spot.  As the pace started to pick up, I heard a loud explosion and felt my front rim hit the ground.  Damn!  A red "GAME OVER" sign was flashing in my head as Mike Gaudet offered me his front wheel.  I declined his offer, experience telling me it would most likely result in two dropped riders rather than one.  Holding up my arm and trying to drift to the left, I looked back to find the following car way, way behind us.  I kept riding on the rim for a while as I waved at them, and finally heard them roaring up behind me.  As they came alongside, I yelled that I needed a front, hit the brakes, released the quick-release and tossed the wheel into the truck.  Jeanette (the MS/AL district rep.) jumped out of the truck, grabbed the first front she saw, said something like "this one OK?" and handed the wheel to me.  I stuck it in the fork, fiddled with the adjustment for a moment, and took off with the pack around 40-50 seconds ahead.  As I chased, I could see the pack bunch up when it was going slowly, then string out as riders pushed the pace, but luckily most riders were conserving, waiting for a hot spot sprint.  A couple of miles later, legs aching and lungs burning, I struggled the last hundred meters, catching the back of the pack, and its blessed draft, just as it started down the hill prior to the hot spot, which was now totally out of the question for me.  I was pretty happy to have made it back to the pack at all, and it took quite a few miles before my breathing returned to normal.

The middle part of the race was fairly uneventful - a few attacks, a few chases - but mostly everyone stayed together.  On the second lap we quickly passed the Women's race, and soon caught up with the large Cat. 4,5 pack.
We passed them once, then they passed us, then we passed them, then they passed us, then stray cattle got onto the course - it was getting kinda messy and the officials weren't quite sure how to handle the situation as we made the final turn off of the loop and started the 6-mile stretch back into town.  One final surge and we passed the Cat. 4,5 pack for good only a few miles before the finish, streaming around them single-file in the left lane on a long, fast downhill.  Scary.  Now everyone was trying to get near the front in anticipation of the sprint which started about 400 meters out.
Akins and Austin jumped clear, followed by Tom Bain.  Jim Brock and I went for an opening, but by the time we got clear there was already a big gap.
I finished 4th, missing out completely on bonus points.  Tom Bain, who had taken third in the hot spot and finish, moved up a few places into second, and I ended up around 5th on GC.  On a scale from 1 to 10, I'd give the day's road stage about a 7 for difficulty.

The criterium, however, would be a different story.  A fairly fast start had the pack shedding riders all over the place for the first 15 minutes of this 45-minute plus 5 laps event, ending up as a group of about a dozen riders.  Repeated attacks kept the pace high, and I fought to stay near the front and respond to attacks because I just knew there would eventually be a break.  The course and pace were already starting to wear on me when Akins attacked hard, taking Austin with him.  The guys at the front, including me, hesitated, and they were clear.  With most riders in the group feeling that 1st and 2nd were pretty much already out of their reach anyway, there wasn't a very concerted chase, and the duo very quickly put time on the pack, eventually lapping us.  As Akins came through the pack and up to the front, he started attacking us and eventually went clear, leaving the rest of us to fight it out for third place.  Although I had a fairly nice postion going around the final turn, I couldn't power past Tom Bain and Jim Brock, and had to settle for another "close-but-no-cigar" 5th place finish.  I'd have to rate this stage as a "9" for difficulty.  The criterium moved Akins into first place on GC, while Tom Bain dropped down a notch to third behind Austin, and I landed in 5th overall.

Overall, it was a fun, challenging weekend - the kind of thing I've come to expect of the Natchez Classic, and I returned home feeling a little more like a bike racer than I had on Friday.


New Orleans rider George Pou wasn't quite sure what he had gotten himself into.  He had heard all the stories about the Natchez Classic stage race - the tough climb in the time trial, the long hilly road race, the grueling, technical time trial - but had never entered a stage race before, and had ridden only one or two criteriums.  He asked everyone who would listen for advice, and doubtless got different guidance from each.  The only common thread, of course, was to "play your strengths; defend your weaknesses."
George was ready to play.

The short but gut-wrenching time trial Saturday morning left George a scant five seconds behind Athens GA rider Daniel Moye, and two seconds behind teammate Ken Digerinomo (who was pretty sure his time was actually slower than posted, but was unable to convince the officials to check it out).
Mark Delaney was stuck in the middle of the finish list in 15th place, about 25 seconds down.

In the Saturday afternoon 55-mile road race, George said that he struggled a bit on the climbs, but he still managed to nab a few bonus points at the hot spot (and one of the top placings), moving himself up to 2nd on GC, but now 7 seconds down on the leader who had taken some bonus points of his own.

It is now late Sunday morning, and George is asking around for advice on how to ride the criterium.  Most give him the tried-and-true line of "bide your time, attack hard and make it stick," or "don't let anything get away, conserve your energy, and sprint like hell."  If the race finished with a pack sprint, a win in the criterium would move George up into a tie for first place on GC, but only if the current race leader missed out on the top three positions.  Given the road race placings, the tie would be broken
in George's favor.   What followed was, to say the least, remarkable.  As
one rider put it after the race "that was the definition of how NOT to ride a race - and win anyway!"

At the start, George had a little trouble getting clipped in, and rounded the first turn in the middle of the pack.  For the next lap or two, he moved through the pack up to the front, and by the third or fourth lap, he was launching attack after attack from the front position.  When the strung-out pack would reel him back in, George would remain at the front, towing the whole field like a mother duck, only to attack again, and again, and again.  Each time, the rest of the field would slowly, painfully regain contact.  For the duration of the race, George would spend practically every minute at the front.  Now, you know there were riders in the middle of this group who were just loving this.  Surely this guy could not sustain this relentless pace AND have anything left for a sprint.  With the top-placed riders forced into defending their positions and chasing down George's attacks, the less well-placed riders could afford to stay safely tucked into the middle of the field hoping for a pack sprint. 

Watching from the sidelines, we were expecting the worst.  As the bell sounded for the final lap, George was still towing the field, and as they came into sight around the final corner, his small frame was still at the front.  As soon as he cleared the turn, George jumped hard with two riders right on his wheel.  They tried to come around, but George would have none of it, simply outpowering everyone over the final 200 meters.  He crossed the line a bike-length ahead of the next rider, electrifying the crowd and snatching both the stage win and the overall title.

After the race, George said "it wasn't really that hard - I've raced harder at the Tuesday-Thursday races"  (yeah - we know!).

I think we've got a bike racer here.