When you’re behind in a stage race, it can be easy to slip into the “I just don’t care anymore” mentality. The thought of fighting back through minutes and minutes of lost time can seem to overwhelming to accomplish. Or, you can roll with the punches and keep trying, because every day is another chance to get things back on track.
After my disaster of a day on stage two, where I slipped from 3rd to 8th in the GC, I began the slow process of chipping some time back and trying to get some more podium finishes on the stages if I wasn’t going to be able to resurrect an overall finish. To that end, things were going pretty well. The heat had finally broken in western PA but the racing had only gotten more intense. On the fast and incredibly flowy singletrack of Raystown Lake on Stage 4 I was able to stick with the elite lead group as we motored our way through two laps of the pump-track like course, for 32 miles and 6,500 ft of climbing. Despite all that vertical, I managed a finish in third, just 19 seconds behind the sprint for first, in the blazing fast time of 2:28:39! Jeremiah Bishop said it right when he described the pace as “nuclear”.
Unfortunately, two days of relative success seemed to be all I could sting together as stage 5, held on the incredibly rugged (like so rocky you’re not even sure there’s a trail-rugged) trails of RB Winter State park were not forgiving to me. After a brutal uphill pavement start that we hit at full tilt, the first section of singltrack was a gauntlet of rock gardens that had me feeling like a ping-pong ball at the whims of gravity and inertia. Somewhere in the melee of the downhill, I dropped my chain to the outside of my rings and when I tried to shift in back onto the crankset, something that 9 times out of ten works like a charm, I somehow managed to twist the chain and bend several links. This, apparently, was going to be one of those days. So after breaking the chain with my multi-tool and installing a quick link to get underway, I was now literally at the back of the entire field of riders on some of the most technical trail we had ridden all week. I buried my head on my stem, and began the all-day pursuit match, constantly chirping out a stream of “on your left” “on your right” and “thanks” as I moved my way through the masses. Ultimately, I managed to move my way back up to a 6th place finish, which all things considered, wasn’t a bad showing. But the time lost had all but sunk my chances of ending up on the final podium at the end of the week. Sometimes you have the luck, and sometimes you just have to try and make some.
Stage 6 I finished in an ok 5th place, not terrible but definitely suffering from my two hour TT the day before. Turns out, that kind of thing takes a toll. In any case, I knew stage 7 was the last chance for gas so I put the chips all in. A relatively short stage at only 26 miles, I figured things were going to be fast from the get-go and I was right on the mark. Shortly after we tore our way off the start line and through the camp things were coming apart as Bishop and the South African phenom Matthys Beukes drilled the pace. After Wicks flatted and Tim Johnson popped, it was down to me and Aaron Snyder chasing after those two. We made contact on a long and rough double-track jeep descent, pock marked with giant puddles of undeterminable depth thanks to the nearly 2 inches of rain we got the night before. As we caught Matthys, Jeremiah was just having to stop to change a rear flat and I knew this might be the only opportunity I was going to get to try and pry open a gap before the courses long dirt road climb, so I attacked into the downhill leaning back and letting the stability of my sweet Carbon D680 do what I needed it to. I was spinning out my 42×11 whenever the trail was smooth enough to pedal, and sure enough I was able to drop everyone on the descent and start the climb with a clean line of sight. I’d love to be able to say that my exploit worked, but unfortunately I didn’t buy myself quite enough time as Matthys came ripping by me half-way through the climb at a pace that was sort of other-worldly. I did my best to keep him in sight on the climb, hoping I could reconnect on the singletrack that headed back into camp, but he was on fire and I was never able to bridge the gap back to him. I ultimately crossed the line just over a minute in arrears, holding on to a hard-earned second place in a pretty stacked field.
Like most stage races, this years TS Epic was a battle of the will as much as a battle of the body. No one likes to have to race from behind, or overcome undue adversity, but even though it’s a bit of a cliché, “that’s bike racing.” Sometimes you have to do the best with what you have to work with and for me, this past week that meant managing to get myself on the podium three times in seven day and despite any issues I had on the trail, never finishing outside the top ten. 6th on the GC was a bit of a disappointment to be sure as the “what-ifs” and the “could-haves” certainly make me wonder about where I would have stood if luck had swung my way. But all in all it was some really good racing, some solid results and not bad for my maiden voyage aboard the sweet new carbon hardtail. As far as test-runs go, you couldn’t make for a more brutal race week on a bike than the bone-jarring rocks and roots of PA….and this bike passed with flying colors. I’m going to enjoy a couple of rest days, but I almost can’t wait to get out there and ride it some more-
Thanks- see you on the trails.