Long Story Short
It was stupid windy, which determined the dynamic and outcome of the race. I didn’t quite recognize this while we were racing, largely because I was too attached to my pre-race assessment that the climb would be the most selective element on the course. The main takeaway is that, in extreme weather, you must be quick to recognize how it will impact the race and adjust your plan accordingly. Also, when conditions are tough, many people will be racing just to finish. Aggression is likely to be rewarded, therefore, by a field unmotivated to chase effectively.
Short Story Long
There aren’t a lot of road racing opportunities in Southern California this time of year, so when I saw that the Lake Elizabeth RR was happening just two hours away in Lancaster it was an easy decision to sign up. With a 2:05pm starting time, I figured that it would probably be a really hot day on the bike. What I did not see coming was that the race would take place in some of the strongest and most unrelenting wind that I have ever experienced.
The course is a 14 mile loop—basically a 3 mile climb, 4 miles of descending and the rest pretty flat. On a normal day, a course like this would definitely favor small climber types, who could put the hurt on the field by pushing the pace on the climb. This was not a normal day, though. No, this was a day when the wind blew like it was trying to stop time.
Two good things I will say about the wind. It was quite consistent—although it did swirl wildly in the canyons—and it kept the temperature fairly low. Other than that, it pretty much sucked. This was the kind of wind that makes it hard to stand up straight, let alone ride a bicycle fast. I’m no meteorologist, but I’d guess that the sustained wind coming from the West was at least 20 miles per hour, probably closer to 30 by the time the race was over. Gusts to 40 or 50 were frequent, causing at least one solo crash in our race and many near misses. Not content just to assault the riders, the wind also saw fit to knock over the portapotties at registration. I’m telling you, it was ugly out there.
As the 30-man 3s field rolled out onto the course, there was a palpable sense that this was a pretty ridiculous thing to be doing. This is a hobby, after all, and wind that strong just makes bike riding unpleasant. It’s loud, you have to pay extra-close attention to everything, you keep tensing up trying to hold the bike steady… overall it’s exhausting and annoying. I know from personal experience that focusing on negatives can easily infect one’s mind and sap one’s will to compete. So, as we started, I consciously redoubled my commitment to the race and decided that, if nothing else, it would be a unique experience.
The course starts on the main climb and most of it was straight into the wind. This made for an unusual dynamic, where drafting was hugely beneficial and therefore the advantage that a strong climber would normally enjoy was muted or nonexistent. I had been anticipating a race of attrition, where each time up the climb we’d lose a few from the main field. Given that expectation, I figured the best thing to do was stay in the group, ride smart and see where things stood after 2 or 3 laps.
What I failed to recognize was that the wind changed the race dynamic entirely. Since the wind meant that you could basically sit in on the climb, it was not selective in the way that you would have expected. Instead, we all trudged up together, slowly and shakily, sand occasionally blasting in our faces. I was feeling good and, had I realized what was going on, I would have made an effort to get up the road. It’s hard mentally to want to leave the comfort of the group in conditions like that, but it was the smart thing to do. The few guys who ever got a significant gap on the field were never pulled back and those three were rewarded with the entire podium.
The rest of us slogged it out for 3 long hours. A lot of it felt like bike racing in slow motion. Someone would attack all out and gain a gap of maybe 10 feet, which the rest of us would close down over the course of 30 seconds. The Strava segment for the last two miles of the race tells the story perfectly. Racing in the 8am 4s race before the wind started, my friend Danny covered the distance at 18.8 mph with an average power of 233 watts. My best time on the segment was 12.6 mph (this is up a 2% grade) on 277 watts, meaning that Danny went 50% faster with 15% less effort. Like the rest of the day, it was all about the wind.
That final two mile push was both excruciating and comical. The wind was hard from the right, so we were echeloned from shoulder to centerline, creeping along with everyone trying to balance the need for shelter with the desire to maintain some kind of decent position. I spent most of that time in third wheel, cranking along in the small ring and staring at the finish area, which was tauntingly visible in the distance.
Finally, with about 150 meters to go, someone opened up the “sprint” and I did what I could to follow. I’d been just on the edge of cramping a few minutes earlier, but I was determined to give it everything I had. A few guys got past me and I was able to pass a few of them back. My speed peaked at 16.5 mph, which is about as fast as I could sprint on foot. I ended up fifth among what was left of the field and eighth overall. Not a great result, but a hard fought one from which I learned a lot.
P.S. Okay, one other good thing about the wind. It turned an otherwise unremarkable descent into an all-time ripper—4 miles in just over 5 minutes.