And we are off. As expected, the initial pace was pretty mellow as expected. Nobody seemed to interested in pushing the pace or attacking this early, and frankly, it seemed like the peleton was a little sleepy. Considering the time, understandably so. We cruise along at about 20 -24 mph for a while, which in a big group on flat roads with no real wind, is pretty easy. Somewhere around 10 or so miles in, the Category 4 pack catches up. They were supposed to start about 5 minutes behind, but I later heard they left a little earlier. The official lets them pass, keeping our group intact until the other group is by. That seemed to wake the group up a little, the pace quickened a bit, and soon we overtook the 4s. Around the 20 mile mark, an attack went clear and 4 guys were off the front. With 80 miles, nobody was concerned, with good reason. Over the next 20 miles they built up about a 2 minute gap, quite manageable, so no reason to be concerned. At 50 miles the gap continued to hang around 2.5 minutes.
The temperatures had warmed and it was really quite comfortable. The wind was fairly light from the north, and with the luxury of a "rolling enclosure", we had the whole road to work with, allowing plenty of room to move around and find the sweet spot. Up until this point I was content to hang out in the middle to back half of the pack of 70 or 80 riders, no point in wasting any energy at this time.
I felt decent for the most part, but there was a nagging tightness around the top of my right hamstring, which had set in early and I attributed to a stiff muscle that needed time to warm up and stretch out. As the miles went on, this didn't happen, and I had some growing concern this could become a problem later in the race when fatigue began to settle in. I tried stretching it out, chaning positions, varying cadence...nothing seemed to help loosen it up. It seemed stable so I figured I would just have to keep an eye on this and see what developed.
With less than 50 miles left, we hit a little wind that put the race into the right gutter, riders strung out single and double file. People jockeyed for position and the pack bunched back up a little more. Things were good, conversation flowed and then something happened and I heard shouts, skidding and the cheap sound of expensive bikes hitting the road right behind me. I glanced back and saw a handful of guys had hit the deck, most likely due to a momentary lack of attention on one person's behalf. It happens like that, and the rest of us continued on.
I began to work my way up front to see what was happening and found that there was a small group of Velo Tec riders working to get a chase going. They worked pretty hard and I jumped in to take a few pulls as well, but it was obvious the majority was still content to sit in and wait. The breakaway gap continued to hang out around 2-3 minutes, and there was a little growing concern as a suddenly long race began to dwindle down, while the gap stayed up.
The efforts came, but it was only a handful of people working together, 2, 3, 4...maybe 5 guys would begin rotating and then it would die at as nobody else chose to pull through. One rider from the COX team out of OK City did his duty, staying at the front and trying to keep the speed from going/staying up. With the lack of overall sincerity in the pack's will the chase, his job was pretty easy. As we started getting down towards 40 miles and less I began to spend a lot of time near the front, pitching in when there appeared to be some serious efforts to pick up the pace, and backing off when it was apparent there was not a lot of help coming in. Despite the lack of a coordinated effort, the time gap had begun to slip back to under 2 minutes, a good sign the pack was accelerating or the breakaway was losing steam. Or, most likely, a little of both.
My hope was there would be a strong counter to the break I could jump into, which looked slightly possible as numerous attempts to get off the front began to start. I took a few jumps with a couple different riders but we never really got anywhere, as the pack was quick to counter any moves. The finish was a flat, multi cornered affair in the middle of downtown wichita falls--not a good type of finish for me--so I planned to try everything possible to avoid that. If it meant leaving it all out a few miles from the finish, then so be it.
As the miles quickly dropped, the break was looking like it would come back, time gaps struggling to stay at 90 seconds now.
Then the 4s showed back up, motivated by a larger breakaway they had been chasing for some time. The two groups swapped positions a couple times, and the race officials seemed to struggle a bit with determining how to manage the situation. At one point our field was neutralized and right as this happened an opportunistic rider jumped away and was left to go by the officials much to the dismay of many at the front. He would eventually come back, but it was a worrisome sign that things could be deteriorating. For several miles we essentially rode along as one big mass, us in the right lane, and the 4s inthe left lane. Eventually the 4s began to blend in with the front of our group. At this point a couple of us at the front agreed we needed to get out of this situation, so we upped the pace significantly and passed the 4s. In the confusion of it all, it appeared we had managed to split the peleton and were left with a group of maybe 15. We hit the gas and attempted to build the gap and chase down the break. This was about the best situation I could hope for, but the hope was soon dashed as the rest of our field pulled back up. They had realized the potential danger and quickly ramped it up before it slipped away.
Back together we rolled on. The breakaway had apparently come apart during this time and there was now only one guy away off the front, or at least thats what I believe was the case. Another rider had gotten away and was attempting to bridge up... I think. At times we could see the lead vehicle with the dangling carrot that was the remains of the day's break. With maybe 20 miles left, it wouldn't stick now. Too many miles, not enough support, and the pack would be juiced to start positioning for the finish. Or so it seemed. With the break so close, things may have been just a bit too lazy. Here came the pesky 4s again, actually trying to race hard! They pulled along side and the officials apparently fearing the whole mass would finish simultaneously, made the decision to neutralize our field and allow the 4s to move up the road and chase down there break, or whatever was left for them to chase...maybe just the finish.
At this point there we have about 15 miles to go, but we are neutralized. Rolling along at maybe 20 mph. We did this for several minutes to allow enough of a gap to build up so we wouldn't possibly combine with the 4s at the finish. This would indeed have been chaotic. Problem is, now our once manageable breakaway was free to build up the gap. Minutes went by. I chatted with one of the moto-refs, asking what the plan exactly was, at which point he filled me in on the details. So it goes. Game Set Match. Kudos to the guy from Cox who spent the whole day at the front and got that last little bit of luck which allowed him to stay away. He deserved the win as much as anyone in my opinion. Certainly worked hard or harder than anyone. Now we could only watch it all fade away...
Finally we were released to fight for the remaining podium scraps. As the last miles wore down and we entered town I stayed at the front, often eating way more wind than desired, but desparate to be in position for anything that might go and happen to stick. The charges came, one here, two there...but by now the pack, as it so often seems, wanted nothing but a mad sprint charge to the finish. And it would be. I spent my last remaining bullets trying to go with a few Quixotic lunges, but nothing stuck, and as we entered the last miles, a sudden surge left me with no other options but to sit up and sit in. Main goal now, stay out of trouble. The speed ramped up, we crested a ramp, dropped onto the downtown streets and final shots were fired. I cruised in as the real sprinters charged. Past a couple bodies that didn't fare so well and were cast aside to spend their last minutes surveying the damage to bike and body. No thanks. Sit up and soft pedal in, somewhere in the middle of the pack I presumed. Which was ok with me. cross the finish with all skin in tact. That is a small victory in itself, one I gladly accept. Roll up to a tent where volunteers are handing out water bottles. Nice COLD water. Down one in the shade along the street as I watch the others straggle in who had not been able to keep the pace the final few miles. Water gone I get a second and sip on that. Way better than warm brothy sport drink for sure. Chat with a few others I know from Fort Worth. Begin to the hear the stories flow. Hear of a bad crash that took one local girl down in a nasty spill. Silently wish her the best.
After enjoying a few minutes off the bike I roll down to the wheel truck and collect my spares. Glance at the computer and see we did the 100 miles in a little over 4 hours, averaging a little over 24 mph. Not too bad. Now time to go clean up. I roll off to find some others and see how they have done. I hear a shower is likely and relish the thought as I head out.
Not a bad day, and it isn't even noon.