Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mt. Hamilton Classic

That word, "classic", gets tossed around too freely with respect to bike races. If a race hasn't been around for at least 30 years, then it's not a classic. Redlands and Sea Otter? Good races to be sure ...but sorry, not classic. Island View Classic crit!?! Puh-leaze!

But age alone is not enough, just as history is not simply the passing of time. No, to be a true classic, a race has to have stories. Or legends, if you want to be dramatic about it. Among old-timers and cycling aficionados, the mere mention of the race's name should bring forth a flood of memories and images. I suppose that's a blog post for another day, but in my opinion, you can list the true classic California events using one hand...

  1. Nevada City Crit

  2. Berkeley Hills RR

  3. Manhattan Beach Grand Prix

  4. Cat's Hill Crit

  5. Mt. Hamilton RR

That last one, the Mt. Hamilton Road Race, was held this past weekend. The course alone is almost enough to qualify this race as a classic. It starts just east of San Jose, where you immediately begin an 18-mile climb up to the Lick Observatory (pictured here) at over 4,000 ft. elevation. It's not steep, as a bit of math will show, but it takes a toll. Following the climb, you plunge down a twisty and technical descent that inevitably proves too much for some racers. Most years, a rider gets flown out in a medivac helicopter. The annual pre-race speech from the officials includes a warning that any riders who pass under the rotating blades of the medical helicopter will get DQ'ed. Oh, otherwise I'd do it. So after surviving the climb and the descent, you can look forward to a 40-mile rolling head-wind slog to the finish in Livermore. This scenery along this stretch is spectacular if you ever look beyond the wheel in front of you.

Not sure why this profile shows only 55 miles; it's at least 60 and feels like twice that!

Historically, the Pro/1/2 men's and women's races had a KOM prize for the first to crest the mountain, and one of the legends of Mt. Hamilton is that winning the KOM will doom your chances of winning the race. The effort expended to reach the top first will haunt you a couple hours later and most years the legend holds true. Interestingly, last year's KOM winner (Scott Nydam) would go on to win the slightly-less-prestigious KOM jersey in the 2008 Amgen Tour of California!

Anyway, this year thanks to the generosity of KOM sponsor Vertical Empowerment, all the categories and classes had a KOM competition, which was one of several reasons I chose to ride my age group (45+) instead of the p/1/2 as I'd done in the prior two editions. Despite the legend, I really wanted to win that KOM.

I was surprised to see we only had a small field of about 30, but the group included a number known motors from VOS Racing as well as Alto Velo. Plus the always dangerous CX-star Henry Kramer, and former Pro Mark Caldwell, who's won just about every race in NorCal in one decade or another. Also nice to see SB's Karl Weber in the field.

One last smile for my sweetie before embarking on three hours of suffering! Question is, was she taking a picture of me, or Henri to my right?!

Sometimes, some races, you just have an abundance of confidence and it fuels you as much as the glycogen in your muscles. This was one of those days for me. My climbing has been good and I was completely rested, plus I knew the course like the back of my wrinkled, sun-damaged hand, so I figured I'd race from the front. After gradually escalating the pace with a couple surges, and finding that nobody really wanted to play, I attacked hard about three miles in and was followed by only two guys, AV's Kevin Susco and last-year's winner Rick Martyn of VOS. Rick chose to sit on but promised to pull through on the other side, which was ok because he had strong teammates back in the field who would surely help control any chase. So Kevin and I shared the work on the first two sections and we gained a couple minutes on the field, who we'd occasionally see a few switch-backs below.

By the start of the third and final section, Kevin had also stopped working so I decided to try it alone. We were about five miles and 2,000 feet elevation below the top, so I knew that time-wise, the effort would be comparable to climbing OSM and most of Painted Caves, something I've done, oh..., about 1,000 times give or take. Unfortunately, when you're already very near your limit, the cost-benefit ratio of going just a tad harder is not always favorable. So it was that I found myself maxed out and just barely pulling away from this menacing duo. And then it got worse when a few more riders joined them. Normally I love a climb with switchbacks and curves (Mt. Hamilton Rd. is said to have 365 curves!) but when you are being pursued, switchbacks give your chasers ample opportunities to check your status, and mine was that of a big fat carrot. My mission in life became clear: get the hell out of sight. My focus was limited to each single straight-away, burying myself to reach the turn before the chasers came into view below. And then do it again. This was more like intervals than a time trial, but if you are being chased by a man-eating tiger, who cares what your heart rate is doing! YOU JUST GO. Amazingly after a couple minutes of this survival-mode suffering, I was able to pull out of sight, so I started focusing on the big white domes above and settled back down into TT mode.

So yeah, I got the KOM. The solo descent was awkward for some reason. In years past, I followed wheels and got down much quicker. It's a mixed bag--following somebody helps you judge the severity of the turns, but it can also pull you out of your comfort envelope and you might take risks you can't handle. On this day, I was glad to not feel compelled to keep up with Henry or Caldwell, two of the best descenders on the planet.

Once down in the valley, I snagged a much-needed bottle from the neutral feed, and began a potentially lonely trek toward Livermore. All I had for company was the constant drone of the moto official's bike, which unfortunately, was probably about to stall at the speed I was going. At first I was rolling good at 25 mph but slowly my pace dropped in that insidious headwind. The bell was tolling.

With about 25 miles to go, I got caught by Kevin, Rick, Jon Ornstil (also of VOS), and James Allen (Bollo Racing). The official told us we had about two minutes over a chasing group that undoubtedly contained Henry and Mark C., neither of whom I was confident of beating in a sprint. I pulled as hard as I could, and the other guys did too. Mostly. Kevin tried to sit on, but after being taken off the back a couple times, he figured it'd be better to roll through than do intervals.

The miles ticked by until, quite naturally, we started attacking one another on the final gradual descent to the finish. It's a place where a big strong rider could easily dispose a waif like me if he got a gap, so I jumped on the moves as quickly as I could. It seemed as though all five of us were evenly matched and would likely be sprinting for the win. I strategized. Since Rick had won in 2007, I picked him as one guy to mark closely in the finale. Besides, he had the biggest calf muscles. With the headwind, I was also concerned about committing too early. When Jon jumped about 400 meters out, and Kevin slotted into his draft, I didn't panic but instead sat behind James who continued to pull like a locomotive. Sure enough, the gap shrank, and when Rick jumped, I was on him instantly and then slingshotted by all of them at the 200 meter sign. Sprint training payed off, and I held it to the line for my first win in over two years.


...and podium:


Other races:
Just as I predicted, the Specialized Masters Team controlled and won the 35+ race. Maybe they'll post a report on their blog. Nice to see Chris D'Alusio snag the 2nd spot in the 35+, especially since he could have been racing in the 45+!

[add/edit]...and here are blog-post, race-reports from a couple of the top finishers in the 35+... from Dan Bryant ... and from Chris Phipps.

35+ results and podium:

The Pro/1/2 race must have been interesting because Paul Mach, a relatively new rider from UC Davis, rode away from a strong field including Eric Wholberg, Steven Cozza, Adam Switters, and a full roadie squad of Cal-Giant Strawberries. He won the KOM and soloed to the finish!! How does that happen? Either the group behind was having some drama, or Paul Mach is one strong dude. Or both. Chris Hipp has a nice photo story of the race.


...and podium pic (from Hippstar's gallery):

I'm sure all the other events were worthy of a classic race, but this post has gotten too long already and I don't have anything to say about them anyway.

[add/edit] One more thing: I compared Garmin data between 2007 (p/1/2 race) and 2008 (45+ race), starting from the turn onto Mt. Hamilton Rd. Last year, I got popped from the lead group less than a km away from the KOM, and went over in ~1:07. This year my time to the KOM line was ~1:11. I think our piddling around in the first few miles might account for most of that difference. But the times don't tell the whole story. The surges last year on the final section were brutally hard, and my perception of that pain was much sharper. This year was mostly like a TT--not pleasant certainly--but much better than trying to hold on to surges by those pro-type riders. Also, last year I finished in the second group a couple minutes down on the winner (Jackson Stewart) and my finishing time was ~2:50. This year, my final time was ~3:05. (But at least I didn't get DQ'ed this year!)


Greg Knowles said...

Congrats on the victory! That was an exciting write up and I enjoyed the process you go through when making decisions. The biggest calf muscles sounds like something to look for. ;o) Great Job!

Tall & Manley said...

Great write-up! Nice to hear the perspective of the winner. We (I'm part of SJBC that ran the event) had a great time hosting the event!

dr-nitro said...

Yeah, that menacing guy, Mr. Todd Manley (a.k.a tall & manely), that looks like he is out of the movie Deliverance is on my squad (really does not look that menacing other than his 6'10" frame).

But anyway, good job on winning that Cali classic.

Now, when I get down to one job, maybe I can start blogging it up again. That, or maybe I can just hire you as a ghost writer.

Tall & Manley said...

Deliverance...I like that. That's what I'll be doing for guys like Nitro and other M35+ 1/2/3's once I get my upgrade...delivering them to the front while they sit in my vortex on my rear wheel sipping a tasty beverage.

Kimberly (aka. DrKim) said...

Congrats!!! Sounds like quite a race.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Mark! Awesome report and result.


Anonymous said...

Good work Marco!! You're a marked man now! Once you win with a good sprint, others will be fighting for your wheel. The only problem is that the draft behind you is virtually non existent. If I buy you cheese burgers everyday, will you eat them??

It's also good to see that you're keeping up with your blogging responsibilities despite the heavy work load off the bike.

James Morgan

phipps said...


Awesome race and great report!. I didn't know that climbers were capable of winning sprints. You've given me hope!


Anonymous said...

Nice job Mark. Congrats all around.

Do you think there's any correlation between this win and training fewer hours because of the new job? Are you more focused or getting more rest... or both? Or was it not a factor?


Linnea said...

Well done! Congrats.

Paul's awesome -- plus, three out of five guys on the P1/2 podium are from UC Davis! Nice. Go Aggies!

Kurt Bickel said...

Great postcard for those of us who couldn't make it.

Anonymous said...

Nicely raced and nicely reported. Congrats on the V.


Vertically Empowered said...

Marco...great job on winning KOM and the final sprint. It was a pleasure handing over the cash!
What are you going to do next year as I am sure you will be a marked man, skinny legs and all?

Marco Fanelli said...

Thanks all for the kind comments, I really appreciate them. You never know how a race report will be received since it can be a fine line between factual reporting and self-centered blah, blah, blah. Of course, what is a blog if not collection of mostly self-centered rambling!

A couple things:

cl- I'm definitely more rested physically. I've never been good at timing peaks and hitting the optimal balance between rest and stress, mostly because life interferes I suppose. I killed myself on the weekends in early May, and maybe now I've gotten some dividends from those efforts. It does usually seem to take a few weeks to realize the gains from hard training stresses.

Alan- Thanks again for your sponsorship. I know all the groups appreciated it. As for being a marked man... ha-ha, that's never something I need to worry about fortunately.

James M.- You are an incredibly fast sprinter and if you tell me that eating a lot of cheeseburgers is the key, then I will eat a lot of cheesburgers!

bjorn said...

Hey Mark,

congratulations on the double victory. Really enjoyed reading the report (not knowing the outcome made it even more dramatic!)

So Cozza has finally gotten rid of his moustache, but apparently the additional weight loss has not helped...

Noticed that the masters category only go to 99 years of age. How discriminating!

Good luck with the rest of the season and keep the great blog up.


Marco Fanelli said...

Hi Bjorn-

Glad to hear from you, and good to see you're back writing for cyclingnews after your African adventures. Hope you're getting out on the bike also. I'm sure you are!


bjorn said...


I don't get out nearly as much as I'd like to. Partially lack of time (turning in the thesis last week should clear that up a bit) and I really miss the mountains in SB. I get jealous everytime you mention OSM. There is less of a sense of achievement when you crest a freeway overpass. The vistas aren't that great, either....