Wednesday, November 30, 2011

'89 Vuelta a Guatemala - The early stages

The Ukrainians want my jersey...they'd have it soon enough

In October of 1989 I got to go to my second of three trips to the Vuelta a Guatemala. I'd had a reasonably good year, but there were a few disappointments as well. I had a month long Fed trip with the Giro Della Regioni and a few single day races, along with the Peace Race. At the Peace Race, however, I shattered my collar bone trying to position for a sprint finish in East Berlin. One of the Fed coaching staff at the time, Jiri Mainus, was an advocate for me, and made sure I got the nod for some late season racing to hopefully get me back in sterling form for the next year, starting with the Vuelta a Guatemala.

I had good form coming into this, having done some good racing late into the fall and a lot of good training on the climbs around Albuquerque. I was looking to make an early splash in Guatemala, and hoped to hang on as best I could for the final GC. Guatemala is a very mountainous country with often poorly surfaced roads. While I could sometimes climb with best, it certainly wasn't my forte. In a mountainous stage race like Guatemala, 14 stages with one rest day, I had to grab at any chance I had for a result. We had a good team. Joining me there was Chris Petty, Clark Sheehan, and young Chann McRae.

A circuit race in Guatemala City served as stage one, where I sprinted to 2nd place behind Max Leiva. Because of that 2nd place, I got the Regularidad jersey, the combination of intermediate sprints, mountain points, and stage finishes. I wasn't really the leader of the classification, but since Max Leiva won, he was in the leaders Quetzal jersey, so I got Regularidad by default. The picture above was taken at the start of stage two, from Guatemala City to Zacapa, 150 km and mostly downhill. I won an intermediate sprint, but messed up the finale, and the Ukrainians won, and took my Regularidad jersey away.

The following stage was135km from Zacapa down to the border with El Salvador at Esquipulas, and turning back to finish on a tough, short climb to Chiquimula. I didn't fancy my chances here, as there was some hefty climbing. Indeed, I was dropped on the climb approaching the border, but caught back on the short descent to Esquipulas. On the climb back out of Esquipulas, however, I noticed the top GC threats looking at each other, and bridged to a small group that was dangling off the front. Costa Rican Luis Morera and Ukrainian Sergie Zmievoskoi followed, and we got a gap we maintained to the finish. I cracked on the climb up to Chiquimula, and Morera won and took the overall lead.

Largely the reverse of stage two, stage four went from Teculutan back to Guatemala City. While a bit shorter at 123km, it was of course mostly uphill. The finish was about 10km of flat roads into the capitol, but prior to that was a long dragging climb that destroyed me the year before. Again I didn't fancy my chances, but fortune smiled on me.

I got into a rather large escape group going for the first Meta Volante sprint before the climbing started. When we hit the first climb, after dropping most the group, the pace was steady, and I was able to hang on. The group consisted of Guatemalans Oscar Chacon and Oscar Aquino, Swiss Adrian Beattig, and Costa Rican Luis Hildalgo. Hildalgo was curiously willing to work, given that his teammate was in the overall lead, but there were no Colombians, top Guatemalans, or Ukrainians in the group. He perhaps wanted to make them chase so Morera could pounce in the end, or at least have a relatively easy day of it. Things stayed pretty calm until three riders bridged about 5km from the top of the final climb to Guatemala City. It was one of the Colombians, Jahir Bernal, and fancied Guatemalans Marvin Escalante and Federico Lechuga. They went to work immediately upon bridging, and in short order dropped Aquino, with Beattig and I following a kilometer later. The Swiss and I kept our cool, and when the road flattened back out, we commenced chasing. It was a hard chase back, but we caught on 3km from the finish. We sat at the back, and Escalante and Bernal, driving the pace, didn't notice our return. When they finally saw us, the cat and mouse games started. There were a few moves, but nothing got away and it came down to a sprint. With only Beattig to worry about, I sat at the back and started sprinting as the road came fairly steeply downhill into a curving slightly uphill finish. I got a clear win in front of Escalante and Bernal.

  If you're up on your Espanol, however, you can see from the text on the cover shot of Prensa Libre's sports page, that Marvin Escalante was awarded the stage. This was because I "levantar los brazos en un sprint cerrado antes de llegar a la meta." That is, I raised my arms in a sprint before the finish line, and was thus relegated to last in the group. While that was disappointing, and I asked why Max Leiva wasn't penalized for the same thing on stage one (they explained he raised his arms after the finish line) I was nevertheless now the overall leader.

The awards presentations were before the stage starts, and funny enough, before stage five, in addition to  announcing me as overall leader, they also called me winner of the stage. In the picture below, taken by the late, great Bill Woodul, there I am, with a lot of unkempt hair, the Sueter Quetzal, and the medal for the stage win.

The stage for my day in the overall lead started in Guatemala City, descended to the southwest and ran along flat roads before taking a long gradual descent at Palin, turning around at Escuintla, climbing the same road back up to Palin, and then along Lago de Amatitlan before turning up a nasty, steep, but mercifully short climb to the finish back in Guatemala City. 132km of racing in which I was fairly confident of being able to retain my lead.

The race went out fast that day, fast enough to keep anyone from attacking, which was nice since we then didn't need to make pace. Just before the long descent, I hit a deep, narrow, jagged pothole. The result was not only two punctures, but two two destroyed wheels. Chris, Clark, and Chann all stopped, for which I am to this day grateful. We chased back at great speed and effort, but only caught back a few km from the turnaround.

Much to my dismay, I punctured again just as we started climbing. My teammates all stopped again, and we were now chasing back in the worst of circumstances, on a climb where drafting is diminished. Because it wasn't terribly steep, drafting was of some help, but it wasn't long before we lost Chann and Clark, who was suffering from stomach ailments. Chris and I chased through a bulk of the field but had a long chase ahead of us to catch the lead group which was moving fast up the climb. We ended up near the top with what one would call the main field in sight with one tiny Guatemalan helping us, Hector Del Cid. Below is a picture of the three of us chasing up the climb

Del Cid stopped helping once the road leveled out, not because, I think, he wasn't willing to help, but because he probably couldn't. It took Chris and me a good half hour of chasing on the flat roads along the lake to catch back to the group. The Costa Ricans had been chasing hard because a four rider group had gone up the road, containing three of the Colombian team, and Edin Roberto Nova, the best of the Guatemalans. Luis Morera dropped back to ask Chris and me to help chase. I looked at Chris, and he didn't seem too enthusiastic. While I'm certain Chris would have pulled until he dropped had I asked, I thought better of it. The lead four were close to 5 minutes up already, and we were exhausted. It seemed to me better to throw in the towel and race for other things later. There were after all, 11 days of racing left. "Lo siento" I said to the Costa Ricans, "Somos muy consado" (I didn't know if that was grammatically correct or not), and I added in English, "We got nothing".

The Costa Ricans continued chasing, but weren't able to put a dent in the break's lead. The final gap wasn't greater only because, I think, the Colombians decided they could relax a bit. We hit the final climb up to the finish and we dragged ourselves over the line. I got mobbed by spectators, the TV crews, and newspaper reporters. It was hard to breathe, and I forced my way to the side of a building where I could sit down and at least be surrounded only on 3 sides. Bill Woodul pushed his way through the crowd and took my bike. I explained my difficulties of the day to an interpreter, who relayed it to the press, and the Prense Libre photographer got this shot of me drowning my sorrows with some water.

What you tell the reporters sometimes doesn't make the papers however. The next day Prense Libre reported several punctures on the day, but somehow missed all three of mine. "MacClung (sic) se rezago en el trayecto de Escuintla a Palin, pero en los planes, mostro su fuerza y se recupero" they reported. As they saw it, I was simply left behind on the climb, and recovered once the road flatted out. No matter, I was in any case quite simply cracked. Chasing for half the stage, along with all my efforts of the earlier stages had left me with little to run on for a few days. I needed a few days of just sitting in the wheels to recover. My days of glory in this edition of the Vuelta a Guatemala were done. Though I was only about 2 minutes off the lead in fourth place after this stage, I knew I would fall further back as the race went on. As a team, we had now to play another card, but without Clark, who couldn't continue due to illness.

More on that to come.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

One-Day Road Races

Pictured above is the second of three critical moments of the 1992 Hottern' Hell 100 road race (picture from an old Velo News). At the third of four hot spot sprints, worth $100 to the winner and lesser amounts to second and third places, Roy Knickman kept going after the sprint, and I scrambled for his wheel. Roy actually told me he was going to do that, because, I think, he considered me the best choice to keep us ahead of the bunch while whittling down the numbers in the break. We had a group of five from about mile ten going for the first hot spot. Also in the group was my old friend Waz (Jim) Warsa from Albuquerque riding for the small local New Mexico Velo Sport Club (BR Gordon Construction/Harvard Bike House) and Ron Schmeer from Seattle (TCBY). The other guy was a local Texan whose name I'm sorry, I can't remember. Perhaps it was John Mayo. In any case, from the picture you can see, that even though I knew, I still had to strain to keep Roy's wheel, such was the ferocity of his acceleration. Further to the point that I should have been ready, Roy announced to the Coors Light crew in the feed zone, "Tell them I can win".

This is into the headwind something like ten or fifteen miles to the finish. Roy had me on the ropes the whole way. I was trying to think of how I might beat him at the finish, and my only option was to sit on and hope for the best. I didn't dare try that, however, because I knew that he would employ the right tricks to attack in response. If he jumped, for instance by slowing down and then accelerating, I wasn't so sure I could cover it, even though there was a strong headwind. Roy then offered to let me take the final Hot Spot if I conceded the finish. While I thought about it, Roy reminded me of a deal that had been worked out in very similar circumstances in our team's favor the previous year. I ended up accepting the offer, simply because I knew there was no way I was going to beat him. Additionally, we had no information as to what was going on behind us, and if I got dropped, I didn't know if any of my teammates were in position to mop up the mess I was in. Moreover, Roy was having one of his days, and there was no beating Roy on one of his days. Just like the year before at the Proctor Classic in Peoria, resistance was futile.
Domestically, Roy always had 'his days' in one day road races. Coors Light was a very talent laden team with a lot of emphasis on stage racing. They had guys who could win every overall, and guys who could go for every stage. Not being the best sprinter, or the best climber, Roy got slotted into the worker slot. Stage racing calls for control , while a one day road race rewards those who push for the front, who go out and grab at the chances offered. It was only in the very few one day road races that Roy had a chance to get loose for a win.

It was about this time that I had been thinking that I had squandered my years of racing trying to force myself to be something I wasn't: a stage racer. But it wasn't as if I had a choice. In the United States, at the national level, there are stage races, criteriums, and a lamentable lack of one-day road races. While I had won criteriums, I didn't put much stock in them because, perhaps foolishly, I had ambitions of making it as a pro in Europe, and criteriums are worthless currency internationally. Road race stages in stage races are also not the same as a one day road race, because, as I mentioned above, stage race tactics call for control. Certain riders are contained or not contained based on their overall position. There isn't nearly the urgent battle for position and call for tactical sense in road stages of a stage race, as there are for a one-day road race.

Every local scene has plenty of circuit road races, but at the national level, they disappear. Back in the late 80's and early 90's, there was the Hotter 'n Hell in Wichita Falls, TX, the Proctor Classic in Peoria, IL, and a few other scattered smaller races. Everything else were criteriums and stage races. Since then there was a push for city center road races. Seattle had one, San Francisco had another, but the only one left is the original U.S. city center race in Philadelphia.

The reason this matters for U.S. racing is that U.S. bike racers don't get enough exposure to racing that every European bike racer gets from the start. It's pretty big shock the typical U.S. rider gets riding their first race in's like starting all over again. Local, Regional, and National levels of racing need to replicate as much as possible the International level, so that racers (who always start, of course, at the local level) can know what to expect. Otherwise, if they reach the international level, they end up playing catch up with limited time, and most of time never gain footing. The exceptionally talented may not have this problem, but most do.

While I think it's important for U.S. racing to have more one day road races, I know it's difficult to promote them. Trouble is, a top quality national level road race is expensive to put on, and the return on those expenses is hard to make up. To promoters, criteriums seem a much easier proposition since they're easier to organize, and it's easier to get sponsors as spectators are an easier draw than a road race that may only pass by once or once every half hour. Road races need television coverage to make them an attractive draw to sponsors, and that's a nail in the coffin to most promoters straight away. Stage races also are an easier sponsorship draw for U.S. promoters because at least a stage race keeps a large number of people in a centralized area for several days, and provides a considerable economic boost to smaller cities and towns.

The solution to this is simple, and prohibitive. As always, it comes down to money. If several promoters could come up with the money that could bring quality courses along with television coverage (even if just local or regional), perhaps the U.S. could have a set of one-day road races that I think would vastly improve the quality of U.S. bike racing. I wouldn't count on this happening anytime soon, unfortunately. The last great one-day road race in the U.S. was the Univest Grand Prix in Pennsylvania. Even that got turned into a stage race.