Tour of the Dragons / Bennington Stage Race

While the west coast already has a number of stage races in the books for this season, New England welcomed its first stage race of the season with the Tour of the Dragons in Bennington, VT.  Of the three major Vermont stage races, this is the most condensed with a 10.7 mile hilly time trial and downtown criterium on day one, and a hilly road race with three KOM sprints and a bit of dirt on day two.  That’s three races in two days.  For those of you that have never attempted this, it’s hard not only on the body but on the mind. Oscar and Jay represented the studio in the men’s category 3 field, while Jerome raced the men’s category 4 and Joy the women’s category 4.

Stage one brought out the time trial bikes for the first time all season.  Many racers were scrambling in the eleventh hour, making tweaks and alterations to get their rigs race worthy.  Two hours before the race, Jay found that his new wheel/tire combo rubbed the curved seatpost of his TT frame.  Having a skilled mechanic for a teammate like Oscar (owner of rOti cycling) has its benefits though, and adding a few spacers to the horizontal dropout quickly resolved any potential problems.

The Dragons TT course may be the fastest and most technical in New England this season.  It starts with a gradual hill climb of about six minutes, then continues to twist and turn over the rolling VT terrain.  Two ninety degree turns are approached by 10% descents and a third turn is a solid 135°; your brakes need to work darn well.  The lack of flat sections makes it nearly impossible to find rhythm and the fastest descent of the day launches racers in excess of 50mph into a chicane.

Roadies in a time trial are a funny thing.  Few spend more than a minimal amount of time riding them in that awful aerodynamic position, so when it comes time to pedal hard they don’t (i.e. Jay).  Others don’t have a TT rig so they can exert one billion watts and still find themselves way off the pace (i.e. Oscar).  And that would pretty much sum up the TT for the studio team this weekend.  Both Oscar and Jay poured their heart and soul into the TT, only to find themselves crying tears of lactic acid by the finish.

Stage two was the downtown criterium, a four-corner one-kilometer course with fast, narrow corners.  It started only three hours after the TT finished; so soon that results were posted literally within minutes of the start of the race.  Our legs were still twitching from the TT effort when we took the line.

Stage race criteriums are often very fast in the development categories, and this was no exception.  Many racers peak for these big races in hopes of having a good weekend and scoring serious upgrade points.  Racers also tend to travel from all over the place to attend.  Bennington drew the most ambitious racers from Boston, New York, and even Philadelphia.  Many excel on the steep climbs and dread criteriums, so their strategy was simple: get to the front and dish out all the watts in the world.  The result?  An average speed of 27mph which was not much slower than the p12 race.

The studio team planned to go for the points competition in the crit since any GC hopes were out the window after the TT.  Points were available at two mid-way primes and the finish to the first three racers to cross the line.  Jay was able to steal second place points in the first sprint, but that would be all the success to be had.  A very impressive solo breakaway went away shortly after and ate up all of the remaining first place points, staying away to the finish.  His power and handling skills had to have been top notch.  Oscar and Jay limped in with legs still broken from the TT.  Both had regrets of not backing off on the TT effort to save their legs for the crit.

Stage three was the road race.  Perhaps it’s because this stage race is still relatively new, but the climbs are relatively unknown to most of us in the Boston area.  They don’t have the reputations of like Appalachian Gap, Middlebury Gap, or the Killington Access Road.  And perhaps they shouldn’t, they aren’t as long or as high as those climbs.  But, when you put five difficult climbs into one road race, that makes for a hard race.

The first 15 miles were mellow, other than a brief ramp up for the points sprint.  But as soon as we crossed the narrow bridge and hit the dirt, all heck broke loose.  This was the start of the first climb, 2.4 miles with an average 5.4% gradient.  Don’t let the 5.4% figure fool you, that includes a flat and even downhill section in the middle.  Most of the climbing is done around 10% and approaches 15% in places.  The race completely exploded, with the first group climbing at a ridiculous pace.  Great racers were left scrambling up the side of the dirt road.  Jay settled into the second group but a bad moment half way up left him chasing.  Oscar had fantastic legs and made a great effort, but unfortunate positioning behind a weak rider found him closing gaps and chasing from the start.

Jay and Oscar grouped with Chris from Green Line Velo in pursuit of the peloton.  They were in sight on the second climb, a long and straight paved climb that kicks to nearly 15% near the top.  Unfortunately a 500m gap on that kind of gradient is actually a gap of well over a minute, so being so close is nothing but a big tease.  It did provide significant motivation however, and the case continued.

Our group of three became seven, and then eight, as we picked up dropped riders from the main group.  Oscar seemed to get stronger as the race went on, eventually gapping the chase group and leaving Jay left for dead.  He rode strong to the finish, driving the pace much of the way, and sprinted for third in the chase and 28th overall.

Overall the weekend was obviously a disappointment in terms of performance.  Lessons were learned in racing on bad legs and how to manage your big efforts.  The results don’t show it, but we did make some fantastic efforts that could have amounted to much more if more carefully managed.  But that doesn’t matter.  We all went out there, rode the best we could, and had a heck of a good time doing it.  If I could do the race again tomorrow I would!