USA National Championships: 192 km
Having rested and resumed training after the Giro, I looked forward to nationals. As the only American on Team Dimension Data, I invested in the trip soley for the joy of racing and opportunity to win the coveted stars and stripes jersey.
My wife, Jenna and I drove to Knoxville, Tennessee on Friday and shared an Air B&B with Chad Haga, my former roommate, and his wife, Kate. On Saturday I previewed the course with Tim Johnson. We would race fifteen laps. A very steep 1 km climb initiated the circuit and the rest of the course was relatively straight forward and open except for a 200 meter kicker 400 meters before the false flat downhill sprint.
I dissected the course and strategised. After overthinking it, I decided to be patient and conserve as much energy over the first two thirds of the race as possible. Going in the breakaway worked for me in 2010 before I was on a World Tour level team, but I’ve been in many breakaways at nationals since then. A World Tour jersey is a target for the domestic teams with lots of riders to race against you. Riders mark you out, and won’t work with you. I expected that the heat, humidity, distance, and steep climb would force a selection late in the race when we were covered in salt and cramps flirted with our hamstrings. That’s when I planned to attack, go deeper, and attack again.
My dad bought his director license and took the required courses to drive in the caravan as support for me and Chad. I got hugs from my uncle, mom, and Jenna before the race. It felt great, like going back in time to my first races.
Attacks flew over the first climb, I floated through the peloton. “Save energy, save energy.” A group of fifteen escaped, but we kept racing. On the second lap we crested the climb just behind the breakaway. I pulled until I could have spit to the group, and swung off, but nobody closed the last few meters. Five riders sprinted across, and the gap went out to over a minute. With over twenty riders away, and no organisation behind, I thought we were throwing the race away. I attacked and chased alone. On the next lap, I saw that World Tour team EF was sacrificing two riders to bring the group back. I decided to wait for them. Their leader Alex Howes blasted up the climb on the next lap. I was able to follow. The peloton already down to around sixty riders out of the 120 starters.
Reset. Back to being patient.
One by one, four riders broke away came together ahead of us. It was a good situation for me. Surely someone would take up the chase. A few futile counter attacks kept us rolling for another lap, but then we stopped in the road. The breakaway quickly gained over four minutes. Fatigue already haunted the faces around me. I dropped back to the “team car.” “Dad, we’re throwing the race away. I feel good but nothing is happening.” As we spoke, World Tour rider, Nielsen Powless, went on the attack. He gained a minute. I raced back to the group and straight through it. It was too early but I didn’t come to race for fifth and knew the breakaway was already a major threat. I bridged across to Nielsen. Over the next couple laps, we closed to within two minutes of the four leaders, but sort of stalled out there. We had to wait for reinforcements. Brent Bookwalter (BMC) attacked our pursuers over the climb. He ripped a group of six up to us. Three of the riders with Brent had teammates up front so refused to work. That left five of us to form a temporary alliance and chase. Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo), Larry Warbasse (defending champion, AquaBlue), Nielsen Powless (Lotto-Jumbo), The gap was three and a half minutes.
Nielsen dropped over the climb, and one of our passengers flatted. We worked together to no avail. On the last lap, Brent attacked on the climb. I held on by the skin of my teeth with one other rider. We had a gap but the rest of our group pulled us back. Johnny Brown attack his breakaway companions and soloed to victory. The other seven of us fought out the sprint for fifth. Larry attacked into the climb 400 meters to go. I followed. Kiel accelerated on the climb, I matched him and we were side by side in the final turn at the top. We sprinted. I could feel Brent on my left side and saw Kiel throw his bike at the finish line on my right side, but I edged him out by a tire width for fifth. I was exasperated, but it was nice to finish surrounded by people who love me win or lose. Johnny rode an intelligent race and will be a great champion. He races for, Axeon, the same team I rode for when I won in 2010.
Now I’m back in Europe. The Tour de (drum roll!)... Austria starts tomorrow, the same day as the Gran Depart of the Tour de France. It’s a less auspicious competition, but it will be my forth time racing the Tour of Austria and it has become one of my favourites. Nice clean roads, good food, beautiful mountains, low stress, and ample opportunity with the Tour going on at the same time make it a great way to kick off the second half of my season.
Thanks for reading! More to come from Austria.