Every April, cyclists from around the country descend upon Northwest Arkansas for the Joe Martin Stage Race. The elite amateur cat 1/2 racers faced two challenging road race courses on Thursday and Friday before the Devil’s Den time trial on Saturday and finally concluding with the downtown Fayetteville criterium on Sunday. Joining me were my City Title Cycling teammates Eric, Reid, Kevin, Ben G, and Ben C. For me, this is the first major objective of the season, and after finishing 7th overall last year, my goals coming in were to get a stage win and finish on the general classification podium.
With a new format to the race this year, we opened up with a brand new road race course for stage 1. The course was basically a clockwise version of the infamous Winslow Death March loop but with a loop of Hell’s Kitchen thrown in on the way back into town and finishing on top of Mount Sequoyah. It was one of the hottest races of the year so far with temperatures in the upper 70s thanks in part to 20 mph winds out of the south. The race was pretty uneventful early, being somewhat neutralized by the strong headwind, but it began to heat up as we climbed out of Winslow and began to ride towards Devil’s Den. I had hoped to be in the front 10-20 riders as we headed into the Devil’s Den switchbacks descent in order to stay out of trouble and be in good position for the climb, but I found myself sitting much farther back in the pack as we hit the start of the climb. I was able to squeeze past some riders on the right side off the road and make my way towards the front. When I got to the front, I didn’t feel the race was as hard as it needed to be to get rid of some of the stronger finishers, so I kept riding hard off the front. Over the top of the climb we had a breakaway group of 10 riders, which eventually grew to 30 riders as we made our way towards Hogeye. Eric was able to make it into this group with me. As we turned left in Hogeye to to start the Hell’s Kitchen loop, the group had slowed considerably as nobody was really interested in working hard. Eric took this opportunity to roll off the front and one other rider went with him. A few miles later, Bryan Mutell (4D Racing) attacked. Once again, the group didn’t really seem to care, so I quickly bridged to him and we caught the other two to make a four-man breakaway as we battled the headwind heading south to the Hell’s Kitchen climb. The climb split our group, and Bryan and I had about a minute lead over a group of 10 chasers behind us. With a tailwind all the way to the finish I liked our chances. We were both 100% committed to working hard together to get to the finish ahead of the chasers, and thanks to disorganization in the chase our gap actually grew by the time we reached the finishing climb of Mount Sequoyah. At this point my legs were feeling pretty terrible and I was running all sorts of scenarios through my head trying to figure out the best way to win the race. I had never imagined being in a one-on-one battle for the win. Being the better climber of the two, I tried to test Bryan’s legs on the steepest part of Spring Street, but quickly found out how bad my legs really were. As we crested Spring Street and the road flattened out Bryan opened up a little gap. I was able to get a little closer on the next uphill kick, but at that point my legs completely shut down. I knew the race was lost and the objective now was just to minimize any time lost. With time bonuses factored in, I ended up sitting in second at 48 seconds behind Bryan and 55 seconds ahead of last year’s winner Peter Olejniczak (Borah Factor Racing). If you had told me before the race that I would’ve had a podium spot essentially locked up after stage 1 I certainly would’ve taken it, but it was disappointing to lose that much time, especially on a finish that I thought would suit me pretty well.
Friday brough stage 2 – the 110 mile road race featuring the climb over Mount Gaylor and the finish in downtown Fayetteville. It was once again warm with strong winds out of the south, and severe weather threatened throughout the day. For the first 10 miles of the race we were battling crosswinds and there was nervousness in the bunch as riders were trying to established the breakaway. Once the breakaway got away and we turned south into the headwind, the race became much more relaxed for the next few hours, with the breakaway getting up to a 4 minute advantage over the peleton. As we passed through Rudy and started climbing, several of the top GC riders made their way to the front as a light rain started to fall. The Above & Beyond Cancer team had two riders sitting top 10 after stage 1, and they contributed much of the work at the front of the peleton. I wasn’t too worried about the breakaway because I knew they had been working hard into the headwind and not many of them would be able to survive Gaylor after that kind of effort. We hit the base of Gaylor about 2 minutes behind the breakaway. Owen Shott (Velobrew), who was sitting top 10 after the first day, did not hesitate to attack. For the first five minutes the group marked his every move, but eventually he got away and the pace gradually slowed in the main field. At this point Eric, Kevin, and Reid came to the front to set the pace at the front of the peleton with me on their wheel, reminiscent of a certain world tour team that also wears all black. A few attacks went, but we were able to cover them well. With 1k to go to the top of the climb, we had the two groups of leaders in sight – three remaining riders from the early break and then three riders who had attacked the peloton earlier on the climb. My legs were feeling good and I saw a chance to put Bryan under a pressure, so I put in a big attack a half mile from the top of the climb and only Peter and one other rider were able to follow. We joined up with the six leaders at the top of the hill, but after a few minutes Bryan was able to pull us back in with about 10 riders sitting on his wheel. There wasn’t much desire to work in our group of 20, and the remainder of the peloton caught us near West Fork setting up a fast finish. The team put me in a good position for the finale. Peter won the stage, and I was able to hold on for a top 10 finish on the day and avoid losing any time on the stage that had caused me to slip out of podium contention a year ago.
Coming into the time trial for stage 3, my main objective was to get the stage win after missing out this first day. My legs were feeling good during the warmup, and I was pretty confident I could pull it off, since I knew the climb better than probably any other rider in the race. My power meter died 15 seconds into the time trial, but I tried my best to remain calm. I had 2 intermediate locations where I knew what time I should hit; I would have to rely one those to judge my effort. I was a little slow through the first third of the race, but was able to do a good split for the middle third before picking up the pace for the final push to the line. I ended up winning the stage by 10 seconds and narrowed Bryan’s GC lead to 25 seconds, which was likely insurmountable in the crit.
The crit on Sunday was hard, but pretty uneventful. The fans that braved the cold weather saw the effects that three hard days of racing can have on the legs. Things got exciting when the GC leader rode off the front with 4 laps to go. It was up to the riders who wanted the stage win to hunt him down, and they just caught him at the end. Cesar Serna (OBP) took the stage win. I finished 13th in the crit and held onto second place in the GC.
Overall, I was pretty happy with how the weekend played out. The team kept me in a good position and I was able to get one of my best results so far. At the same time, it’s hard not to look back at the first stage and think about what I could’ve done differently to win that race or at least come out of it with a manageable time gap. Sometimes, though, no matter what you do there are riders who just can’t be beaten, and on this weekend Bryan Mutell was definitely the strongest rider and he proved it. Of course in a race like this it is a team effort, not only from the guys in the race, but also the folks in the feed zone passing out bottles or on the side of the road in the most remote part of the course cheering us on. The support from the local cycling community throughout the race was just outstanding. I also want to thank our sponsors at City Title & Closing, Smithfield, Shoulder Center of Arkansas, CLIF Bar, Custom Electronics, and The Bike Route. Also a big thank you to the race director, officials and volunteers who make this race the top-notch event that it is.