The Storm After the Calm: San Luis Rey Road Race and Dana Point Grand Prix
by Lucas Binder, SKLZ pb Pista Palace

5/5/11 - After a few weeks of relatively quiet racing the NRC circuit finally returned to Southern California with the Dana Point Grand Prix. With the Redlands Bicycle Classic in the legs it was time for SoCal's best crit racers (well, at least those who didn't go to Gila or SpeedWeek) to come out and use the fitness they had gained from the hard stage race a month earlier. But, before the Big One that is Dana Point, a few racers decided that an NRC criterium wasn't enough punishment on their bodies in one weekend and came out on Saturday for 103 hot and hilly miles of the San Luis Rey Road Race. I, unfortunately, was one of those people.

San Luis Rey Road Race
With a bolstered prize purse of $2,000 the San Luis Road Race is one of the most lucrative road races in Southern California. However with the prize purse also came a high reg fee, which, paired with the fact that it was the day before Dana Point, seemed to discourage a lot of riders from doing the race. About 35 riders came to the start line with the RoadBike4U and Swamis elite teams being the best represented with about 7 guys each. SoCalCycling.com also showed up, followed by La Grange, Franco/MRI and my team, SKLZ pb Pista Palace, with 3 riders.

With 103 miles on the plate and a long downhill start the race seems as if it should start off somewhat civilized. But the RoadBike4U team had a different strategy in mind and from the gun two of their guys attacked full gas, with Shawn VanGassen of SoCalCycling.com being the only rider strong (or crazy) enough to follow.

The trio quickly built up a lead of 1 minute before Swamis and SKLZ/Pista Palace organized a chase. With about 6 or so riders between the two of us willing to work we were able to comfortably keep the gap around 1 minute, not wanting to push the pace too much to ensure that those attackers up the road would fry in the sun a little and pay for daring to attack so early in the race. One of the RoadBike4U riders in the field saw this and started moving up in our paceline and then sitting up when it was his time to pull through. But he was only able to do this a couple of times before getting caught in a sandwich of angry Swamis and SKLZ/Pista Palace riders telling him to not get in the way.

As we neared the end of the first lap one of the RoadBike4U riders up the road cracked and came back to the field, obviously not intending to finish the race at all and only starting in order to attack from the gun and make the other teams work. It worked. But with 90 miles still to go and the remaining two riders up the road already splitting from each other on the climb most of us decided it was already safe to stop chasing. We caught the second RoadBike4U rider near the top of the climb as VanGassen (SoCalCycling.com) was the sole rider left and began his descent with less than 45 seconds on the field.

With only a few Swamis riders still deciding to chase, VanGassen stayed off the front until well into the second lap. He was caught as we went up the climb for the second time and it was all back together going into the third lap.

The third lap was a steady course of attacks and counter-attacks by Swamis, RoadBike4U, SoCalCycling.com, and SKLZ/Pista Palace. Nothing stuck until nearly a lap later when a group of about 7 with most of the major teams represented finally got established off the front and built up a real gap. However, Swamis was not represented and many other riders not satisfied with missing the break the attacks continued from the field. With only 1 SKLZ/Pista Palace rider up the road I was pretty unsatisfied with letting the break get too far too and made sure to go with any bridge attempts.

Halfway into the 4th lap one finally formed with a Swamis rider and Aaron Schneider (Full Circle) working hard to bridge up with about 4 other riders, including myself in tow. As we approached the climb I could see the break just up the road, but the field had also been chasing us and were close behind. Not wanting it to all come back together I jumped hard to try to bridge up to the lead group, with one other rider coming with me. We traded pulls until the base of the climb where he started doing all the work and I just tried to hang on. Near the top of the climb we were tantalizingly close to the back of the lead group, but they began to accelerate as they saw us coming. My breakmate jumped across and I followed with some delay, hurting bad but knowing it was now or never to make the lead group.

As the climb leveled out and we approached the start-finish line the official told us 2 laps to go, but looking at my odometer I knew he couldn't be right. Our break traded pulls fairly even for the whole fifth lap and kept it together up the climb. Sure enough as we came to the line again the official told us 2 to go again. What is it with cycling officials and messing up lap cards this weekend?

With the nearest chasers being 2 riders over a minute back, and the group being over 3 minutes back, we stopped working so hard on the penultimate lap. My teammate, James Gunn, who had been in the break longer than I and was a big reason the break had stuck pulled out on the 5th lap, leaving it to me to finish for SKLZ/Pista Palace. Left in break was David Robertson (SoCalCycling.com), 2 Franco/MRI riders, Eric Sammuli (RoadBike4U), an Caesarean CC rider, and myself (SKLZ/Pista Palace).

Although there was no fear of being caught we still traded pulls somewhat evenly just because we all wanted to make it to the feed zone sooner than later. Going into the final climb there was one or two accelerations by the two most aggressive riders in the break: David (SoCalCycling.com) and the Caesarean CC rider. But as we started the final lap it was all back together.

Half way into the last lap is when the attacks really started. It was all I could do to follow wheels, hoping that I would have the best sprint if we all came to the line together. It stayed together for most of the last lap until David Robertson (SoCalCycling.com) and a Franco/MRI rider finally broke the cord at the base of the climb and went up and over together, with David (SoCalCycling.com) taking a very deserving win.

Everyone in my group seemed to be content with sprinting for 3rd. I was the lead wheel as we slowly came to the 200m to go sign, and jumped as hard as I could. Looking at the long shadows from the setting sun behind us I thought I had the sprint for 3rd, but was pipped by Eric Sammuli (RoadBike4U) at the very end and had to settle for 4th.

I hadn't ridden over 100 miles since Redlands and collapsed on the grass in exhaustion, feeling on the verge that something terrible was about to happen. After I was able to recover and feel normal again (at least as normal as you can feel after racing 103 miles in the heat) I wasn't sure if I should be looking more forward to tomorrow's crit because of how the day went or looking less forward to it.

The Dana Point Grand Prix

“The Greatest Bike Race in the U.S.” is what my number read as I pinned it to my jersey. I thought that was a pretty big claim to make and decided I would just have to wait and see since this was my first time doing Dana Point.

I wasn't sure about the Greatness of the race but it was definitely the greatest day in the U.S. weather-wise, with a warm sun, refreshing breeze, and and view of the sky and ocean that both seemed to be a slightly different, better, shade of blue this day.

One hundred riders came out to vie for a piece of the $15,000 purse of the NRC criterium. The big teams represented were Fly V with Australian Criterium Champ Jonathon Cantwell, Jelly Belly with UCI stage winner Brad Huff, SKLZ/Pista Palace with past USPRO Crit and DPGP winner Rahsaan Bahati, Cal-Giant with current Elite Criterium Champ Steve Reaney, the new and green Wonderful Pistachios team, and of course all of the local teams like Monster Media, SoCalCycling.com, CashCall, Swamis, Full Circle, Now-MS, and La Grange.

We had 90 minutes of racing on the .8 mile course and my job for the first 30 minutes was to get in as much of the early moves as I could. On the gun a U.S. Military rider attacked without shaking the field and pulled us around for the first lap. And then the real attacks started. Monster Media, La Grange SoCalCycling.com, and Fly V instigated a lot of moves, but with SKLZ/Pista Palace always having at least one rider being able to cover it.

About 25 minutes into the race I found myself up the road with a few others from SoCalCycling.com, Monster Media, La Grange and Cash Call. The field seemed reluctant to chase at first and we opened one of the first sizable gaps of the race. SoCalCycling.com's Michael Smith Larsen was very eager to keep the move going smooth but I was reluctant to take any pulls so early in the race and knowing the fastest sprinter in the race was on my team. After only a few laps off the front we were reeled in by the field and I was back to covering moves.

Devan Dunn (Cash Call Mortgage), who had been attacking throughout the first part of the race and gobbling up primes in the process, finally put down a move that broke the elastic band to the field, taking some 15 other riders with him. Our only guy up there was Bahati so we were sure to be on the front to make sure that we went with any moves that bridged up. Sure enough, before the break got too far ahead, a final handful of riders and myself were able to bridge across. Once we were across I looked back to see our gap, which was somewhat smaller after our bridge attempt. Before I caught my breath I went to the front of the break and started working with the break. Working a lot in the break with me were Fly V, which had 3 guys (but not Cantwell), CashCall (3 guys), Monster Media (2 guys) and single riders from Wonderful Pistachios and Yahoo! Cycling. Also in the break was Brad Huff of Jelly Belly/Kenda and one Cal Giant rider.

Our gap hovered around 20 seconds for the first few laps before creeping up to 30 seconds with 30 minutes left to go. We rotated pretty smoothly, but it was obvious some people were willing to work more than others and this caused some gaps to open up from time to time. I worked as hard as I could so that Rahsaan could sit in, but some of the other riders in the break were still not happy with him and others being able to sit on so much and he began taking some pulls himself to make things smoother. Devan Dunn continued to go for the $100 primes that were thrown out by the promoters as well as taking pulls (despite someone on the course yelling at him frantically to stop doing work). It was hard not to go for the primes, but fortunately I was able to grab one myself as we went by at 32mph during a long pull through the fast tailwind finishing straight.

With 8 laps to go our gap was still at 30 seconds and rising, and everyone realized that the winner would come from this break. A couple laps later another $100 prime was announced and Devan Dunn once again went for it, but this time he kept going. I was pulling when he attacked and dug even deeper to close the gap he had opened. At this point too many of my brain cells were dying from lack of oxygen for me to clearly remember what happened, but I think I fell back a few riders and recovered slightly as Fly V did some chasing. With 4 to go Devan was still about 5 seconds up the road and I got to the front one last time to give it all I had to bring him back. I sprinted into the headwind section before exploding. The break rolled by me and I watched as the the tail end of the winning break rode by me, wanting to get back on but not able to.

I rolled the next lap at what have must been less than 20 mph and still didn't see the field behind me. In No-Man's-Land with 2 laps to go I thought I might have a chance of staying away from the field, but this didn't really help me go much faster. I passed a couple tired Fly V riders who had also sacrificed themselves to bring it all back together before a hard charging field flew by.

Up ahead Fly V had closed the gap to Devan Dunn, but before the job was finished Brad Huff of Jelly Belly had attacked, bridging up to a tired Devan, before attacking him in the final half lap and coming into the final corner first and holding off the sprinting break which was just a second or two behind. Rahsaan Bahati (SKLZ/Pista Palace) sprinted in for 2nd place followed by Ben Kersten (V Australia).

It was nice to help get our team on the NRC podium at such a great race with an awesome course and huge crowd of spectators, but after getting 3rd at the last NRC Crit (Sunny King) and 2nd at this Dana Point, still unsatisfying. Hopefully, the NRC podium will be on the top step.

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