“What is a stage race?” you ask. A stage race is where you do several races over a number of days. You have to finish each race to move on to the next one. At the end of all the races, the person with the least cumulative time is the winner. Though, there is still some glory to be had from winning one of the stages.
The Madera Stage Race is 3 races over 2 days. The first day, we were scheduled for a criterium in the morning, which is a 40 minute race where you circle the same 1 mile block over and over in a big pack. The second race was a time trial, which is a race against the clock. Each racer leaves by herself 30 seconds apart. The person with the least time for the course is the winner. The last race on Sunday is a 51 mile road race. It was 3 loops of a 17 mile course all done as a pack.
My desire to race in general really stemmed from my desire to try a stage race after watching the Grand Tours on TV. I really wanted to do the Kern women’s stage race, but a wedding was preventing me. I saw the Madera Stage Race on the schedule, heard it was a flatlanders race and decided I should give it a try if I was healthy. Being someone who is only hanging with the pack about half the time in races, I knew it would be a challenge just to finish the race. But, I am a good time-trialist, so thought maybe I could do well in this race.
I suckered Jeanine into doing this race with me. We booked a hotel room a few weeks ago and made our plans. I spent the week studying the course descriptions and making maps for us to get around the area. I made up a detailed schedule for each day and sent it to Jeanine. I also studied who was signed up for our race. I recognized a lot of the names as experienced racers that I could trust to ride safe. That was a good thing. As the week drew to a close, they were predicting record heat for this part of California. It was expected to be 95 degrees in Madera. I went shopping to stock up on liquid refreshment, realizing hydration would be our biggest challenge in the race. I started drinking electrolytes in addition to plain water several days before the race.
On Friday, Jeanine drove down from San Francisco and picked me up in the morning. We headed through Gilroy and over Pacheco Pass out to the central valley. We lunched in Los Banos and continued out to highway 99. In the heat of the afternoon, we rode around the time trial course, which was just to the east of Chowchilla. It was 92 degrees in the area at the time. It was incredibly windy and hot, which we knew would both be factors during the real race on Saturday. We then continued east to the road race course, which was in the very beginnings of the foothills of the Sierras. We found the parking area and then drove around the course. There was a long, flat, section on good pavement. Then the course turned on to a slightly uphill section with marginal pavement. The next turn led to a 3 mile section with some of the worst pavement I’ve ever seen. Then, there were about 3 more miles with alternating good and terrible pavement. Just off the end of the horrible pavement, there’s a turn into a good little uphill digger. Then, there was a series of 5 rollers. It looked like at least a couple could be done on momentum. We finished the loop and headed southwest to Madera to check in to the hotel. The evening ended with some spaghetti and meatballs for dinner and a drive by the criterium course for the morning. We spent the evening lounging around the hotel drinking electrolytes and enjoying the air conditioning. We polished off half a bag of Raisinettes. Mmmmm.
Saturday we woke up at 6:00 and had bagels, oatmeal and bananas for breakfast. We did bathroom intervals as the pre-race nerves set in. We got to the crit course at 7:45. It was already 85 degrees. We set up in the shade to warm up. We saw Angela from Velo Bella, and Michael Hernandez and Sabine Dukes, the Queen Velo Bella – other cyclists I knew from their blogs. I introduced myself. Michael was playing chief mechanic and soignier for all the Velo Bellas. It’s always nice to see the men-folk helping their racer girls. We parked in a median strip in the road. I had taken my wheel out of the car and got my bike off the roof. When I put my bike in the trainer, I saw a goat head sticking out of the front wheel. I pulled it out and heard a ‘pssst’ sound. Dangit! I quickly changed my tube. I can’t believe it got that far in, just from the weight of the wheel sitting on the grass.
We were racing the criterium in a combined field – Cat 4 women (that’s us beginners) and Women 35+ with open category. There were mostly Cat 3 women in the other group, which meant it would be a little more challenging than a typical Cat 4 race. It was 90 degrees when we started. The race started fast, but not too fast. I was in the center near the front – right where I wanted to be. Jeanine was behind me somewhere. After a few laps, she also moved up to the front near the middle. I think she was tentative after her crash last week. But, she got in the groove. The pace surged to 27 mph for the first prime (intermediate sprint for bonus time). I almost popped, but stayed on and moved back up in the middle of the pack. Phew. In the last corner before the second prime someone to the inside of me almost slid out. I had to make an adjustment, and sat up just enough to be dangling off the back again. This time, I just couldn’t bridge back up. It was about 30 minutes into the race. Since it was a timed race, I just kept going as fast as I could. It seemed like the pack slowed down, because they stayed in sight for a long time. I don’t think I got more than 1⁄2 lap behind. Michael kept cheering for me as I circled by myself. There were some other people I didn’t know cheering me on, so that was cool, too. Jeanine stayed in the pack for a strong finish – she thought a top 10 placing. After the race, she told me the Velo Bellas had all moved to the front and slowed down the pack after the second prime. What good teamwork! Some of them had been struggling in the back before that. They ensured their whole team would be there for the end of the race. I finished about 1 minute back, I thought.
We were really hot at the end of the race and started drinking ice-cold recovery drink. We went to get a sandwich, so we’d have some solid food before the second race. We each only had half a sandwich, because we were too hot to stomach any more. We had 3 hours until the next race started. We went back to the hotel and took cold showers and laid in the air conditioning for about 30 minutes. I took my skinsuit into the shower and soaked it. I then put it in a plastic bag on the top of the ice in the ice chest.
We arrived at the TT course 1.5 hours before the start. It was in the middle of an orchard. So, we dragged our bikes and trainers under one of the apricot trees in the orchard. We sat in the car until we wanted to start warming up. I waited until the last minute to put on my skinsuit. The ice cold chamois felt sooooo good next to my tushy. We rolled up to the start line just in time. The first racer to start didn’t show up. Angela was #2, then Jeanine, then an unattached, then me. I started at 21 mph and thought I felt OK and could build from there. About 3 minutes into the race, the Metromint rider who started behind me flew by at about 26 mph. It was like I was standing still. Just before the first turn at 6 miles, the next rider passed me, though not as quickly. Not good. We had started with a tail wind. The next turn took us into a cross wind. I slid down to 19 mph, even though my power felt steady. I kept trying to build, but couldn’t find anything inside myself. I was right on the edge and was going in slow motion. My skinsuit was completely dry by the first turn. I kept drinking from my bottle. By turn 3 my bottle was almost empty. My nose started to run uncontrollably and snot was falling on my legs. As I headed into the head wind, I struggled to maintain 18. Ugh! It just was a bad ride for me. When I came around the last turn, I took it back up to 21 to the finish. Right before the line, I felt prickly heat and chills break out on my arms and legs. I thought I was going to throw up. I staggered back to the shade and trainer and kept spinning. I held on to the tree branches above me as I did the cool down – trying to ease my breathing. I spent the next hour coughing and feeling miserable. It was 98 degrees when we left the course.
We went back to the hotel for more cold showers and lots and lots of cold fluids. We hit Dairy Queen on the way. I had chocolate malt. Jeanine had a Blizzard. That helped bring down the core temp. We also got Neosporin to treat Jeanine’s baaaaad chafing issue from the TT. We went out to dinner with Ken from Pen Velo, and acquaintance of Jeanine’s, and one of his teammates, Clark. We shared tales of heroism over dinner. My body felt all mixed up – bloated and gassy from all the nutritional products and heat. I didn’t feel hungry, but ate everything on my plate knowing I needed it. We stopped by race headquarters to check results, but they weren’t up yet. Ken and Clark said they would call us with results. They called at 9:30 and only crit results were posted – not TT results. They had placed Jeanine in 12th, which she felt was not correct.
By the middle of the night, I was hungry after everything had settled down. Why was I awake in the middle of the night? Madera is right on the Union Pacific line. So, every hour or so, a freight train passes through and blares the horn. This made good sleep a challenge.
They had changed our start time on Sunday to 11:00 instead of 11:30. We got up at 6:00. We wanted to see the results. We had a big breakfast at Perko’s next to race headquarters – pancakes and eggs. Mmmm. The race results had already been taken down by 6:30 when we arrived. So, we had to get to the next race more than an hour ahead in case we needed to contest results.
Jeanine wanted to contest her 12th in the crit. She knew she had to be higher. There was an unidentified rider in 4th. The Bellas thought it was one of theirs. Jeanine told the officials she thought she was 6th based on how she finished in relation to the 5th place rider. The officials asked to see Jeanine's jersey and helmet to be compared with the photos. They said to come back at the end of the race for a decision. They had only put me like 15 seconds down for the crit – not the full minute I thought I was down. But, I was correctly in 15th place for Cat 4. I was last in the TT. 33 minutes. Ugh. I knew it was bad. Times were pretty tight – from 29:20-33:00 – much closer than in years past. I was 4 minutes down from the race leader. Angela was in 3rd! Jeanine was in 10th! Hooray!
It was already 95 degrees when we were warming up – way over the 92 predicted for the high for the day. It was only supposed to be 85 at our start time. We knew it was going to be a long, hot race. We started trying to convince everyone that it would be better if our small field stayed together for the first two laps with the wind and heat. Then, people could do whatever they wanted on the last lap. Everyone seemed to agree with this. At the line, there were only 13 of us out of 15 who finished the last stage. As we were getting ready to roll out, Karis the CVC racer drove up. She had gotten lost. Bummer.
We did the uphill, ‘neutral’ promenade at 19 mph, driven by the Dolce Vita rider, who was in 2nd overall. I guess some people have a different idea of taking it easy than others. No one was dropped, though. Velo Bella and Protech had the biggest teams with 3 each. We decided to organize a pace line to keep things easy and fast. Unfortunately, there were two people who didn’t know how to do it. I rolled next to one and explained the concept while Sarah H. from Protech explained it to the other. Two riders fell off in the first 3 miles with a flat. Then, Yvonne from Protech fell off a few miles later with a flat. By the time we taught everyone to paceline, we were turning on to the rough section, and it became a moot point. Danielle from Reno Wheelmen had her seat break as she hit one of the big bumps. It fell off the seatpost. She had to pull out completely.
We had done the rough stuff at about 19 mph, and it really sapped the watts to keep the pedals moving. Somehow my rear deraileur cable got loose in that section, and my gears started jumping around. That added to the workload for me and was frustrating. I tried to tighten it 1⁄4 turn while riding, but it didn’t help much. When we hit the first digger, I realized how much the rough stuff had taken out of me. As we hit the top of the second roller, I was still in the pack. I was thrilled. I made it to the top of the 3rd roller on momentum. I looked back and saw Jeanine back a ways. I was getting to the top of my ability to stay with the ‘pack’. I knew we would get top 10 just by finishing, so I slid back to work with Jeanine. It looked like Norma from Protech was also starting to fall off. The remaining 6 or so plugged on. I took a bottle in the feed and poured it over my body. I tossed a bottle at the check out tent as we went by. Jeanine and I came into the second lap. There were Michael and Sabine cheering us on at the summit of the roads. They were saying “Go Chatterbox!” and “oh the suffering!” as we stood to summit the last digger. I moved bottle 3 from my rear pocket to the cages. I had a GU packet. At the end of the series of hills, Jeanine and I started to paceline. She had been feeling overheated, but felt better once we were back in the wind with water poured on our bodies. We moved very quickly through the first section – much faster than the first lap. We caught Norma and the 3 of us worked together. My feet were really swollen and starting to hurt badly as they pressed against the bottom of my shoes. The rough section was killing my feet and crotch. In the hills we all worked at our own pace. Norma was in the front, then me, then Jeanine. I tossed another empty at the checkout tent, took another GU. That one made me want to hurl. Ugh. I took a bottle at feed and drank half and poured half on myself and tossed it. I was down to my last bottle. We regrouped at the end of the hills and worked together again. Our second lap had been a bit faster than the first. I was starting to feel the effects of the heat and wondering if I should pull out. I had some chills. But, I felt better when we got into the windy section. We saw two of the Bellas (pretty sure they were from our race) and the Metromint rider riding the other direction back toward the start. I was really motivated just to finish, since I knew I would not be last if I did. Then, we saw Jessica from Touchstone finishing fixing a flat on the side of the road a few miles above the turn into the rough section. That motivated me even more.
My feet hurt really badly and the rough section was torture the 3rd time through. I told Jeanine I was starting to feel nauseous. I would stand and pedal and then coast as much as I could just to keep going over the rough pavement. Toward the end of that section, we told Norma to go ahead. Jeanine and I stayed together through the first digger hill. Then, I started falling behind her. It was a challenge just to get to the line. Right as I was crawling up the final 50 meters, the Touchstone girl nipped me at the line. Bummer. But, I did finish! We went to the check out, and retrieved our water bottles. Jeanine stopped to take her socks off. Her feet were hurting even more than mine. As we came through the last mile to the junction in the roads, Michael said “Yay, you finished!. I thanked them for cheering for us again. We still had the 2.5 miles promenade back to the car. I made it about half way and thought I was going to black out. I got off my bike and sat down. Sarah H. and Norma from Protech came and poured water down my neck. I got back on my bike and pedaled slowly toward the car. Sarah kept her hand on my back to push me and make sure I didn’t tip over. Sarah said she and Angela fell off the ‘pack’ and worked together the rest of the race. I wasn’t sure how I got so overheated, because I did have to pee when I got back. I was relatively hydrated. The heat was deceptive with all the wind. I had no perception of how hot it was until I started showing signs of heat exhaustion.
They put me in the car and packed me with ice. Ken was there and helped Jeanine load bikes and trainers. I sat in the ice while Jeanine checked on the official decision about the crit placing. I felt much better by the time she got back 30 minutes later. It turned out 4th place went to Tracy from Velo Bella. Good for her - bad for Jeanine. Sarah H. came and checked on me a couple times. Just as we were about to leave, Yvonne was coming in from the finish. She and the other girl who flatted early worked together to finish. She was bummed, because she had been in 4th going into the road race. But, she had finished, and that is what matters. If anyone would have told me I would have started in 15th place on Sunday and moved up in the road race, I would have said they were crazy. I thought it would be just the opposite for me. It was an exercise in survival on Sunday, and very few survived. It was 102 degrees as we pulled out on the highway. I was happy to be one of the survivors.
A huge thanks goes out to the Protech ladies and Ken for helping me when I was down. And to the Velo Bellas for their great team spirit and encouragement throughout the race, and to the mystery guy that gave me an extra ice pack when I was lying in the car. And most of all, thank you Jeanine for sharing the first stage race experience with me!