It Takes A Team: Our Elite Cycling Team Recounts Their Efforts At A Joe Martin Stage Race & The Importance Of A "Team"
By Stephen Wagstaff
Joe Martin has been a race I have been wanting to do for a few years now. I never have been able to do it for one reason or another though. So getting to go this year was very exciting and having the trip so well supported by the team took a ton of pressure off. Still, knowing how hard the stages would be and having the responsibility of protecting Zach made for some stressful weeks of training prior. Coming into the race I grabbed a win in a local crit and my cat 1 upgrade got approved. That was a huge confidence builder, and I felt ready to take on anything.
Aside from the racing, I was also beyond excited to see Fayetteville, AR. Cycling is a great sport, but the places you get to visit through racing is what makes it great for me. The team had us setup in a great van and perfect house for the week. Having a full kitchen and good roads to take morning rides takes so much stress out of the travel.
Stage one was a simple uphill individual time trial. Although it wasn’t very important for me to do well it would set the GC (general classification) standings, if I could grab a good GC spot I could become a more valuable card to play while protecting Zach. So it was simple I rode as hard as I could for 10 minutes. I averaged 373w and got a time of 10:45, good enough for 34th and only 30sec down in GC. I would have liked to do better, but I was happy.
My role was always to do my work on stage 2. It was 110 miles, and there was no shortage of climbs. Historically an early break has gone and been caught on the final climb by another small group and the win was taken from that. So my job was simple roll with the early move and keep the pressure off our team so that when the last move goes Zach is ready. Simple. After a brisk 2 mile neutral section we were off. Literally. A Lupus NYC rider attacked, and I went. We got a quick gap and in a matter of 15 minutes we had over a minute off the field. We both figured others would come across on the first small climb at mile 14. We were told of a few that tried but no one ever got more than a minute on the field and that would still leave them at 2 minutes off of us. Not worth waiting. We both knew that our job was just to stay out as long as possible. Our gap of 3 minutes held for about 30 miles, but with the climb through the feed zone coming at mile 42 our gap was getting reeled in. It was down to 2:15 at the base of the climb. Half way up the climb my companion could no longer hang and went back. I carried on and my gap was a little over a minute over the top of the climb. I thought a few might come across, but slowly I was getting brought back. It came down to 20 seconds as we went through a series of rollers, and I was certain I was getting caught, but I opened it back out to 45 seconds. Finally at about 55 miles in I was told someone was coming across to me. I took the chance to eat, but he was coming fast and went he caught I latched on. I would pull if I felt like I could, but he wasn’t going to make it up the climb and I was spent so I saw no reason to really help. I was just there to keep others chasing and at about 65 miles we finally got caught. It was great to be back. I was almost out of water and couldn’t force anymore food down. I was in bad shape, but it was easy to just cruise in the peloton. Everyone was there and feeling good so my job was done. The final climb was at mile 82 and by that time I was starting to feel good again. I figured I could set a good pace but as we rolled into the climb my chain fell off to the inside and slipped under the “chain catcher” (that little thing is no longer on my bike). I was stuck waiting for the neutral truck to attempt to fix it. All they managed was to somehow get my chain in a knot and then tell me to wait for the sag car (this would mean I would miss the time cut and not race the next days). So I finally got it fixed and started chasing. I figure I lost about 5 minutes or so. I thought that maybe if I chased hard on the climb I could get back into the caravan. That was a dream. I never saw that caravan again, and after passing dropped riders left and right I just got into my pace and went to finish the stage. I just kept thinking I can’t lose more than 45 minutes. At the end of the day I had lost 25 minutes, but I was racing the next day. I made for a long day and those last 20 miles were the worst I had felt in a long time. I felt terrible for the rest of the night. Zach unfortunately went down in the last 2km but was given the same time as the field so he slipped to 5 in the GC but with 2 days to go that was no problem.
Stage 3 was another long day, but at 86 miles it almost seemed short compared to the previous stage. It was 24 mile loops with a good climb in the middle. After a short morning spin my legs felt bad, but I told the team I would do what I could. We figured that the move would likely roll on the second or third time up the climb and Zach was ready. So it was just about keeping him protected the first few laps, and then he would take over from there. I said I would do anything I could so after a 4 mile neutral section (2 more miles!) I was on the front ready to cover anything. It wasn’t until about 10 miles in before anyone starting attacking. I made sure to cover anything I thought was dangerous, and if I couldn’t match the acceleration I would pull the pack close enough that someone would try to go across, and then they would bring us all. The climb took me by surprise, and I was feeling the previous day, but I covered anything dangerous. One guy countered a move across the top and slipped away from me, but he was no threat. Everyone looked at each other to pull, but no one was going to care about a solo move that early. Eventually one other rider bridged across but still no real threat. I offered to work with other teams to keep the gap steady at a minute, but they wanted to wait. So I just slipped back a few wheels and relaxed. I was not feeling good and really couldn’t match most acceleration. I just rolled to the back and told the team I was spent. I would help in the end if I could. I spent the rest of the day just rolling along at the back, my legs were not coming around, and it was hard to watch the rest of the team cover moves and suffer, but I would rather have them suffer than not be able to perform when they expect me to. Ultimately it came down to a bunch sprint and everyone had stayed fairly fresh so everyone was bunched and moving around in the last 5 km was impossible. Zach held his own and lost no time.
On the bright side we got to eat in downtown Fayetteville. It was so busy and so many great places. It really had college town feel, a really lively city. I wish more of the local shops had been open, but the next day’s crit would be right there so I scouted out some places to visit. This was the first time I had traveled with most of the guys, and it really was great how everyone was willing to compromise. Sadly the ice cream food truck did get vetoed after a glance at the waiting line. I bet that was some good ice cream …
The last day had a simple plan, Zach would race and we would help when we could. It was a steep uphill section and then a series of tight turns to bring you back. We would start with about 100 riders, we all knew that not many would finish. My legs actually felt much better than the previous day, but the tight turns and fat downhill section did not inspire my confidence. I sat mid-pack for a while and slowly people dropped until I was the back. I really couldn’t do much. It was probably the most useless I’ve felt all week. I felt like I had the legs to pull or set a fast pace up the hill, but I had no reason to do so. Even if I moved near the front I got timid on the descent and lost my places. It was discouraging, but I know it’s a weakness of mine and one that I continue to work on. At the end of the day Zach lost one spot and slipped to 6th. It was disappointing to slip off the podium, and I regret that I couldn’t have help more during the crit. We got down for a while after the crit that we had missed the podium, but we can’t discredit the fact that for most of us it was the first time we had done this race (including Zach), and we still got 6th!
It was a great experience. One of the best I’ve had, and it only prepares me for bigger stage races even more! I know we could have done some things differently, but the racing was great and the time spent with the team was so much fun. If we didn’t have such amazing sponsors I wouldn’t have the opportunities to do these races, and now I only want to come back even stronger. Next year I would like to be ready to ride the UCI pro/1 race. Not just to be in the pack but to really ride aggressively. There are always levels above your own no matter where you are at within cycling, but it takes a ton of support to even get the opportunity to see them. I got to see the level about cat 1 and now I just want to make sure I’m ready to race the UCI race when I get the opportunity.