By Sam Meullenet & Joseph Pardue
First off, a special thanks to Steve Auchterlonie with Cycling Performance Lab for following us all the way to Louisville, KY; donating an incredible amount of time, knowledge and equipment to the Breakaway Cycling Team; and putting up with me hitting 95 mph in his Prius!
The morning after we arrived to Louisville, we got our TT bikes ready and then departed for the course to go for a “recon ride” as the pros like to call it. We were kinda shocked by how many people were out there riding the course, and even more surprised by how fast some of them were riding just hours before a big race. I’m not going to lie, it was pretty intimidating. The course started with a punchy climb that was a mile long. It then flattened out to some rolling hills, similar to what riding down Highway 71 would be like south of Fayetteville. At the turn around there is another punchy climb but it is maybe only a third of the length of the first, and then on the way back in there is a mile long dead straight super fast descent, so my strategy was going to be to use everything I had going up too the top of the climb.
The morning of race day, I began warming up about 45 minutes before my start time, and I was feeling pretty good. 15 minutes until my start time and I had a frantic pre-race restroom stop (gotta love when you’re super hydrated). Then, I immediately went to the start line for junior roll-out and bike check (they must check to make sure your position on the bike is UCI legal). The wind started to pick up as we waited. Apparently there had been a barrier that blew down and hit a rider so they had to delay all start times by 20 minutes. Great! Now I’m thinking I’ll have stale legs for the start. 20 minutes pass, and finally I was up next, my name was called and I walked up the start ramp. Right about now is when I start feeling really nervous. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… and I’m off, within 15-30 seconds my heart rate is already jumping up near my max, and I’m still feeling fine, pacing was interesting with that starting hill, but I managed not to blow myself up. Before I knew it I was at the turn around, legs starting to hurt really bad, but I have to keep going. Coming in I see the mental marker that I set for myself to tell me 1 mile to the top of the downhill, I crushed it, my calves started cramping, I pushed through it and made it to the downhill, by now I’m going 40+mph and with junior gears it’s not easy to put power out, so I got as aero as I possibly could, and spun out as fast as I could, probably pushing 150 rpm for my cadence. After it flattened out, it felt like it was another 2 miles to the finish, but really it was maybe 500 meters, I was hurting bad, I crossed the finish line feeling pretty happy with my effort, both my calves felt like they had huge knots in them. This extremely painful effort, placed me 53rd out of 75, with a time of 32:02 and Jo placing 50th, with a time of 31:52.
The next day was the road race, a 5 mile course with plenty of punchy climbs. This course led Sam and me to believe that the race would bode quite well for a couple of skinny kids from the land of rolling hills. We made it to the race site early to carry out the popular, pre-race ritual of using the restroom four or five times within 30 minutes of our start time. After watching one of the junior women’s races for about 20 minutes, my first involuntary nature break came as Lux Cycling made their way to the staging area. The squad was extremely calm and just seemed to be having a good time. A few more big teams rolled in, but it wasn’t until the Holowesco Citadel junior squad showed up that I realized what we were in for. Knowing that I was about to race against the same pink gloves and lime-green Giro helmets that dominated the most recent Joe Martin Stage Race was incredibly intimidating, but I had a great position in the front of the staging area, and I felt super fresh and relaxed… until call ups. The whole field was called up in order of race prediction, meaning I would certainly lose my great starting position as I made my way to the start line 77th out of 124 racers. I watched the first 20 racers get called up and grew a bit uneasy.
Eventually, we were all called up, the whistle blew and we were off. Unfortunately, the race ended for Breakaway Cycling about five minutes after the start. There was a big crash on the right side of the road where a rider had gotten pinched on the inside of a bend. At first I thought the crash would be good for me. It was so far away that I thought moving around the downed riders would be an easy way to gain positions. However, the crash’s effects rippled through the whole field, and once the rider directly in front of me went down, there was nothing I could do. Once I got up and found my bike, I stomped on the pedals and knew that if I couldn’t reconnect with the group soon my race would be over. Sam and I formed a small grupetto with a couple other racers who were willing to get back up after the crash, but after every lap, we were told that the gap between us and the peloton was growing. Apparently the big name teams had heard that there was a crash in the bunch and began smashing it on the front to ensure that none of the stragglers could reconnect. The second lap of the men’s 17-18 junior race was the fastest lap of the day, faster than any lap in both the U23 and Elite men’s races. It took the peloton about 11 minutes. They then did the third lap in just over 10 minutes, sealing the fate of everyone caught up in the crash. The time I spent chasing was extremely upsetting, not because of my road rash or my broken STI lever, but because I knew that there was no way I could reconnect with the peloton and that the 110% I was giving wasn’t making a difference.
The criterium on day three started off with the same comical waddle of 130 guys in lycra going through a mass junior roll-out. But the race started more quickly as only the first 10 predicted finishers were called up. My legs were relatively fresh, minus some soreness on my right side. Luckily, none of my skin had time to scab, leaving nothing to rip as I turned over the pedals. My mind proved to be the problem, however. After going down on my right side just hours before, I wasn’t confident enough to hang with the pack through the right hand corners, and my race ended after three or four laps. It was a solemn drive back to the hotel.
Despite the misfortunes, Nationals was a great adventure and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Getting to experience that level of racing was incredibly informative and motivating, a true baptism by fire. At the end of the day, Nationals really was exactly what road racing is all about — learning and improving from hard losses.
I’d like to take a moment to thank Breakaway Cycling’s supporters at Custom Electronics, Ozark Cycling Adventures and The Bike Route and the Walton Family Foundation for making this experience possible.