Race Report: San Dimas Stage Race

If there was ever a better time to sit inside your warm home on a comfy couch, sipping hot cocoa and snuggling up with a loved one, pet, or your iPad and marvel through your picture window at the bending tops of palm trees and sheets of rain- this was most certainly the weekend to do it. Or as an alternative, you could have ventured outside, stripped down to bare nothing except Lycra shorts and a pair of socks and gloves destined to become sponges, and had your teeth kicked in by Mother Nature for three days of bike racing in the cold, driving wind and rain! Yes dear friends, the 2012 San Dimas Stage Race (SDSR) had arrived and along with some feisty weather to remember it by.

The San Dimas Stage Race (SDSR) is located in San Dimas, CA. just a short drive East from Los Angeles and Northeast of San Diego. Over the years, this bike race has become a must-do event for many Pro’s who are in the area tuning up for the following weekend of the prestigious NRC level race, The Redlands Bicycle Classic. Nestled among the foothills and canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains, San Dimas can occasionally experience snow levels often touching down to near 2500 feet in the local foothills and upper reaches of the mountains above town. Often, freezing rain and high winds can blow hard this time of year making this stage race a difficult yet rewarding race to compete in. “X” marks the spot for San Dmas on many cyclists’ race calendar.

So, while you were sipping your green beer in your local pub or kissing the Blarney Stone on St. Patty’s Day Saturday, over 900 cyclists entered into the race weekend to endure the elements of cold wet weather and winds strong enough to knock Chris DeMarchi off of a lead out train (not a true story). I digress let’s talk “shop”.

Stage 1: Chaffey Auto Body Time Trial (Glendora Mountain Road)

The SDSR Time Trial is rich in tradition and a wonderful way to kick off the three day stage race event. This is to say if you are Andy Schleck, an elevator, or a birthday party balloon. Going straight uphill for 3.8 miles up a twisty Glendora Mountain Rd and gaining close to 1400 ft of vertical elevation is challenging on the mind as well as the legs. Cyclists will attest that the time trial is the “race of truth” where it’s man and woman against the clock. The rider that can connect the dots from point A to B the fastest will be crowned as such and start their stage race off in a position to defend for the overall race win. Going uphill in a Time Trial makes it all the more challenging because it requires a dose of discipline with a measure of masochism. The concoction of the emotional and physical elements that make up a time trial is something many cyclists might not ever be able to unite. It is truly a discipline, one that requires skill and practice and I for one and am not in this camp; not yet.

Team Monster Media p/b MRI entered the SDSR race armed and ready for the challenge in the highly competitive Masters 35+ age category. Our team plan was simple: win the overall event, simple right? Winning this race was to be an important target for the team and our sponsors. In conjunction with the team, we have key sponsors also backing this years edition to the race who include SC Velo, InCycle and MRI. Preparation and planning for this targeted race dated way back to our team training camp in Las Vegas in February.

With cool conditions and light winds, the characteristic “calm before the storm” settled over the riders and their team’s tents during pre-race warm-up. We looked to our team’s premiere climber Chris McDonald to ignite rockets and launch on Friday’s TT. “Mac-D” did not disappoint and took flight up the twisty GMR climb with a winning time of just under 15 minutes placing him into the Yellow leader’s jersey as we had hoped for. Teammates Gary Douville (seen above) and Chris DeMarchi also cracked the top ten with fast times in the mid 15 min range to help boost the overall standings in the General Classification (“GC”) for the boys in green and black.

After getting some rest during the afternoon, a few of us from the team met for an early evening dinner for Italian. Apparently this is the spot that has fueled our GC rider Chris McDonald year after year when he races San Dimas. There was plenty of fresh baked breads, salads, Minestrone soup and authentic pasta dishes coming out of the kitchen and on to our table. So, the secret spot will be safe with us, sorry. Great wine list too!

After some great food and and talk over dinner, it was time for teammate Karl Bordine and I to head back to our hotel room for some rest and recovery in preparation for the Stage 2 road race ahead. Back at the hotel, we flopped down onto the beds and tuned into the Weather Channel to follow the “storm” coverage. This system was poised to slam the central and southern California coast. Predictions for the storm were to have it arrive late in the evening and carry on throughout the next two days with high winds, heavy rain, hail, and snow in the mid to higher elevations.

Ahhhh, Perfect sleeping – in weather!

Stage 2: San Dimas Hospital Road Race

A fitting name to this stage and an appropriate sponsor for one of the worse days of bike racing most of us were about to endure. Waking up on Saturday morning around 7 AM, I must say I was somewhat disappointed with the greeting of weather outside my hotel room door. It was cloudy, not all that cold really and just a slight, yet steady drizzle. Here I was ready for Monsoon-like conditions! I had dreams that night of crossing the finish line in a torrential downpour riding my bicycle atop of a great white squall.  Monster sea foam green waves crashing over top of the spectator barriers with a lighthouse shining it’s bright beacon of light, visible, yet miles off in the distance. In my dream I was wearing the full piece Gorton’s Fisherman rain slickers along with that huge floppy hat; all in the color of bright yellow of course. Crossing the line, my white soaked beard is stuck to the side of my neck with some fragments of almond butter from a soggy energy bar smeared within the wet beard hairs. I’m laughing maniacally as only an old Sea Capn’ adrift at sea would do. My arms are outstretched wide and reaching towards the sky in my victory salute, rolling past the judge’s scoring table I turn to race announcer Dave Towle and proclaim, “No survivors on board! Everyone else went down with the ship!” and continue the manic laughing all the way to the podium. A man can dream. Nevertheless, I’m awake now and Karl and I make our way downstairs for a full complimentary breakfast of hot pancakes, French toast, and cereal. Unfortunately, the coffee brewed on premises served better as chain degreaser than the cherished morning elixsir that most of you that know me know I have come to love. The brew was so acrid in fact that it sent me out wandering the cold and wet early morning streets of San Dimas in search of something much more tolerable. I even did a double take at the Denny’s restaurant a block away, but then quickly came to my senses. Searching for coffee now, it was at this point that I felt more like a travel and food blogger than a bike racer. Again, I digress.

We met at the team tent and vehicle around 9:30, our race set to start at 10:45. By this time the steady drizzle was beginning to look more like the real stuff; big fat wet cold rain droplets. Our Team Assistant Page DeVilbiss had already done a stellar job setting up a makeshift tent city for all of the guys. As riders began to assemble inside the tent, the scene was more reminiscant of an episode of MASH than a bike race. Our junior riders were just coming off of the course and looking like hammered shit. Wounded young soldiers returning from the battlefield to base camp. I noticed one of them had a slug stuck to his sock and he had mud and grit in his eyes, shivering cold, and soaked from head to toe he was mumbling something about his race but all I could understand were the words “sucks”, “crashes” and everything else was chilled incoherence. I’m thinking to myself, ‘the real stuff has not even come down yet’! Looking to the distance from the West to Northwest, the skies above us had turned from grey to black. Temperatures were dropping quickly now. The winds were picking up around 10-15 mph now and that drizzle was all grown up now to rain.

We huddled underneath our tent city, a triage center if you will, and discussed the team plan which was to protect our team leader on the road in the Yellow Jersey, Chris McDonald while also working to bring Chris DeMarchi and Gary Douville up higher in the GC standings. We can do this several ways by employing strategies such as winning the hot sprint points for time and the green jersey, vault the upper GC guys into a break away to put time on the field and other GC contenders, and win or place in the overall stage for time.

Our race was scheduled for 8 laps on this rolling 7 mile course with a flat run in to the finish. With only one category climb on the even numbered laps to decide the King of the Mountain (“KOM”) and hot sprints across the start finish lap on the odd numbered laps, there was a lot to do and think about as well as the most obvious which was staying upright on the bike and avoiding a crash. If you’ve raced your bike in the rain once or a hundred times, you can attest to that feeling you get during the pre-race: nervousness or anxiety, hell call it what it really is – fear.  For me at least, once I arrive at the start line and that whistle goes off, something kicks in (maybe adrenaline?) and everything goes back to normal levels for me. All of those emotions go away and now something else takes its place: miserable-ness. The rain had already started and it was coming down hard, so hard that before we even made it to the first turn, not even a mile up the road, I’m soaked from helmet to shoe – it’s time to go bike racing!

The Monster Media Team had the tactical advantage of using the many numbers of our guys in the field to control the race, cover any early race attacks, and send guys up the road to establish a break during critical points in the race. All of which we did in fine fashion. We rode hard for the first two laps and thinned out the herd as best as possible. With over 70 riders starting the race the field quickly whittled down to 50 by my estimation on the third lap. More and more guys were coming off on the Cannon Ave climb towards the KOM. More of them then dropped on the downhill over the fast and technical descents. As the race continued and we kept climbing, the temperature kept dropping. By now it was well down into the low 40’s and there were periods when the rain was coming down in sheets. Like tiny pins across my face, the rain came sideways at times. A good friend of mine and I used to joke that it would rain “sideways” on the front range of Colorado, where we lived at the time. It was happening right here in San Dimas, CA! There were some harrowing moments as we raced across the damn that spans a portion of the Puddingstone Reservoir. I watched some of my lighter weighing competitors being blown in the direction of the winds. It was the first time since I became a cyclist that I was sort of happy to be a huskier dude. Although at one point my front wheel was lifted off the ground during a strong gust as we crossed over the damn. I steadied myself against the shoulder of another rider, not having any place to go except over the rock wall and into the water.

When you’re racing at this level coupled with these conditions, raw instinct is what you rely on to get you through a day like this. While experience helps, the instinct is what forces you to make good decisions and continue fighting rather than thinking about the reality of how cold, wet, and miserable you might feel and of giving up. The physical almost becomes metaphysical. In other words, these feelings I’m having today almost float outside the body and rest on the periphery. I know they are there, I feel them. Cold, wet, wind, speed, anxiety, pain.  However, I rely on the task to race the race and trust in the training and fitness to overcome the emotions. I choose to not acknowledge them. Acknowledging them leads to uncertainty and that spells defeat.

On to lap five as we reach the KOM climb again. This hill again and the run-in to it was mentally taxing all day long. Setting up in position to climb this hill is critical and it’s something that I did not execute very well during a few of the earlier laps of the race. As the day wore on and the field got smaller, I did much better and found myself 5-10th wheel into it with more ease. Let me explain. The set up to this climb is technical, as you race down a fast curvy stretch of road and sweep into a right hand corner followed by a quick left turn that funnels into a narrow, very tight section of road that begins the base of the climb up Cannon Ave towards the top, where the KOM monster lives. The position into this climb is critical as attacks typically go one by one on the hill or just over the top of the hill (crest) and this is where the field can and often does come unstitched at the seams. If you are in a good position closer to the front hitting the base, you still have the option to float back and keep yourself in contention on the hill then drive it hard on the crest and descend it with the leaders. If you are too far back, you risk using the power reserves that your body was saving for something else, like making the break away and/or winning the bike race. Reserves are best left for things such as these, but often are used just to chase back on and survive a tough day of racing. That’s where training, strength, and a solid base really helps all of cyclists. Lap after lap, out of the saddle driving my legs up the climb, hitting the stamped cobble stone section and rolling over the top with the leaders – it starts to hurt, bad. Recovery time here is minimal as you descend the backside, or as I’ll call it on this particular day the “Ass” of this hill. It is a fast, winding descent of road. Now, in years past this can be a great way to regain spots and positioning while taking chances at high speed. However today, this was not so easy. With literally torrents of muddy water flowing directly across the road, painted yellow lines, and downed tree branches on the course, this section was not for the meek. While descending, I’m doing what I can to keep my eyes open. Remember, the rain feels like pins and needles doing a tap dance on your face and into your eyes. Sometimes even the best of optics in these extreme conditions can fog or bead up with rain to the point of blindness. It’s all you can do to keep your tires on the ground while carrying speed into wet corners; not the ideal way to catch a group up the road. This is the point of the bike race where instinct kicks in. Ride hard and close, very close, to the front of the peloton. Make the race hard and with each successive lap you can almost hear others popping off the back –one by one. I was not ready to be “one” of them. To the front I go and stay.

Cresting the top of the climb I can see five riders up the road opening up a small gap. A few of my teammates and I notice that the yellow jersey along with two other teammates are now in that cluster, so it’s a fine time to sit up and see if they can roll off. It so happened that there was just enough of a gap that opened up that once they hit the flats with the wind and their speed as a group, it was too much for anyone else in the field to match, chase, and catch back on. The art of the move!

As the laps dwindled down, our squad did a great job of riding the front and controlling the race as best that we could and to not let anyone from the field get too big of a leash from the newly formed groupetto. We rode a moderate to hard tempo on most of the tougher portions of the course including the long rollers inside Bonelli Park, Cannon Ave., and along the long flat run in to the finish along Puddingstone Drive. In other sections on the course, we let most everyone do what they needed to do to keep the field rolling – sometimes faster and lined out but most of all keeping the race safe. We were content on the move staying away and ready to end this day! The leaders had built up a two minute gap to secure the winning break away. Coming in for the finish on the last lap, we see team mates Chris DeMarchi crossed the line in 2nd, James Gunn 4th, and “Mac-D” in’ Yellow safely in at 6th. This stage proved to be another great race for Team Monster Media powered by MRI Performance! With two of our riders solidly now in the top 3 overall. Chris DeMarchi had moved up into third place and taking with him the Green Sprinter’s jersey into the final stage 3 Criterium on Sunday.

Rolling back to the team tents, there were only about 25 guys left in our group that finished the race with a few others that fell off due to crashes. We started the day with over 75 and by the end of the day we were left with 30. I felt extremely satisfied with our results as a team. I was really happy to finish the race and ride in support and contribute in any way that I could on arguably one of the toughest days weather-wise I’ve had racing a bicycle. Riding back in, I could see the look of content on the other riders faces. Fist pumps and back-slaps were happening all around me not only with my fellow team mates but non-team mates alike. Back at camp there was not much fan fare and everyone made it out there pretty quickly to get home or back to the hotel and get dry, warm and cleaned up. Time now to get some good food and rest this evening for the final stage ahead on Sunday.

Stage 3: INCYCLE/Cannondale San Dimas Classic Criterium

The final stage of the SDSR featured a Criterium which was set along the palm tree lined streets of down townSan Dimas. A straightforward and classic “L-shaped” crit with six corners of speed. Within the corners there’s a long straightaway false flat with a headwind and a short straight shot for the sprint to the finish. Speaking of short – our race was very short in time with only 40 minutes, so this might look like another Time Trial! Our plan was to keep the yellow locked up and safe, help Chris DeMarchi win the halfway hot sprint bonus for time/points and the green jersey and to win the stage outright.

From the gun, we stomped on the gas pedal and never let up. Many of our guys were committed today to making this race hard and fast and ensuring either a break with some of our non-GC guys in it or lining it up for a field sprint. The race seemed longer than 40 minutes only because of the intensity and that was fine for us all. At the halfway point it was time for the hot sprint. Five or so of my teammates took over on the front from the first corner and led the whole course to the last corner dropping Chris off for a sprint to the line. Chris took it by what looked like a bike length and picked up valuable time and points. Now, we had just 20 minutes remaining to continue and drive the pace to make sure that either a late break that we liked went up the road or let it come down to a field sprint. Attacks came here and there but nothing was sticking today. Although we did not have any rain, there was a lot of wind and the pace made this a deterrent for anything to go away. Before I knew it, the lap cards were reading 2 laps to go and it was time to get to the front and help set up the lead out train. Out of the second corner and starting the charge up the false flat and into the head wind section, I moved up to the front from about five riders back and emptied what was left in my legs through the next two corner and down the long descent to the finishing corner. About 100 m from the corner I blew up, just in time for teammate Jaime Paolinetti to call me off to my outside. I sat up on the inside of the corner so he could take over. And so it went, teammates taking their hard pulls and coming off, keeping the pace as hot as ever. Finally, Randall Coxworth finished the final assault into the last corner to give Sprinter Kayle Leo Grande a perfect lead-out to the line.

Another win for Kayle this season and the team finished strong with Chris McDonald winning the San Dimas Stage Race overall in the Yellow jersey, Chris DeMarchi taking 3rd place overall, James Gunn 5th place, and Gary Douville inside the top ten in 8th place. The Sprinter’s jersey stayed with the team with Kayle going into the Green at the end of the day.

We raced as a team and won as a team and it’s an honor to be a part of such a talented group of and bike racers and good people. With each race I learn something new. This time for me it was this: during a time trial, NEVER back peddle, even just an inch no matter what gear you’re stuck in, once you’re clipped in inside the starting house!

Thanks again go out to our sponsors who’ve committed to supporting us this season: MRI Performance, Monster Media Inc., Litigation Services, Zoot, Masi bicycles, Shimano, Spy Optics,Mammoth Mountain, JL Velo, Surfer’s Healing Foundation, Empower Coaching Systems, Incycle, and SC Velo.

By John Abate

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