West Branch Road Race, West Branch, Michigan June 15th
You know those volunteers who drive the wheel truck at small road races? They ride behind the main pack all day waiting for someone to get a flat tire so that they can dig through the tangle of wheels in the bed of their truck to hopefully find the right one. Well, I was that driver for this race because I’m trying to see the sport from as many angles as possible. And that means doing some of the thankless jobs that we leave to unknown volunteers who never get thanked but without them we’d have no races.
The course is, in a word, national caliber. OK, that’s two words. Here are a couple more: Hard. Brutal. And somewhat scenic. Hills and wind that would grind the pack down to a nub. We’re doing 4 laps of this meat-grinder 22-mile loop.
The Pro-1-2- field was small. Only 18 riders signed up for this race, so the odds of me seeing any wheel-changing action was pretty small. As it turns out, I didn’t change one wheel all day. Instead, I sat alone in the truck playing Maynard Ferguson really loudly. But I saw awesome racing.
I’ll try to keep this from rambling, but there’s a lot of nuance in what I saw:
We lost a handful of riders on the first lap, so the field was down to about 14. On the second lap, five more riders fell off the pace on one hard climb (Campbell Road). When they lost enough ground, I passed them and continued to stay with the leaders. The rule in driving follow vehicles like this is “Follow the money”, so because today’s prize list pays to 10 places, I needed to stay with the riders who are in contention for prizes. I watched in my rearview mirror as the small group fell further and further behind. I could feel their pain. With fewer numbers they would be fighting a losing battle in this wind on these hills.
Meanwhile, the racing continue at the front of the field. Two riders broke away. Two more riders were chasing. The field was struggling in the wind, but they were still fighting. So you have a picture of this, we have a lead group of two, a chase group of two, and the main field is now five riders. 9/10s of the prize money are in front of me. Far behind me, the chasers were fighting for 10th place.
Looking in my rearview mirror, I could occasionally catch a glimpse of the small group behind. Amazingly, they were hanging on at the same distance to the rear: roughly a minute. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. For the entire 3rd lap, they were still within sight.
Nuance: Every now and then, out of curiosity, some of the riders in the main field took a look over their shoulder to see if anyone was catching back up. This is an interesting sign of respect. They aren’t counting out those who got dropped. Mainly because one is Adam McClounie, a very strong Canadian rider, and Ben Whitehead, a very strong Grand Rapids rider. It was strange to see them get dropped.
But whenever a rider looked over their shoulder, they did it at a time when trees or terrain hid the chasers from sight. Because of the hilly terrain, there were places where you could look behind and see 3 miles of empty roadway. But not ALL of the roadway. It was a game of peek-a-boo taking place for the entire 3rd lap. Eventually, the riders in the main field forgot about it and stopped looking over their shoulder. Bad idea.
The chasers were gaining.
With less than a lap to go, the main field was slowing down. Almost imperceivably, but it was obvious that they were pooped. And the chasers kept coming. They had been languishing at more than a minute behind as mere specks in the distance, but they had never quit. When we made the turn onto Campbell Road for the last time, the gap was down to 30 seconds. Campbell Road was into a fierce headwind. Campbell Road is hilly. We were going 12mph.
With about 8 miles to go, the chase group of four had been whittled down to just two riders: Adam and Ben. They had been chasing for almost 50 miles. For what? 9th place? Yep. 9th freakin’ place. Don’t you love that?
Oh man, I thought, are these guys going to be totally shocked when they get caught. They haven’t looked over their shoulder in more than an hour.
I pulled off to the side of the road to let Adam and Ben pass me. Adam smiled as they rolled by.
The reaction was priceless among the main field. It was Double-take City, and these guys were running for Mayor.
Now we have seven riders in contention for six remaining ‘paying’ places. I could see that every one of the riders in this group was fighting off cramps. When they rotated to the back of the group, I watched as they each shook, rubbed, stretched, and coaxed their legs out of sight from the others. On the final brutal climb, they sorted everything out. The fresher guys went to the fore. The dead guys struggled.
The two riders who chased for more than half the race finished in 9th and 10th place. I don’t know how much money they won for that gargantuan effort. But that’s clearly not the point. They could have easily ridden out the last half of that race at an easy pace, but they raced the whole damn race. If I were them, I would frame the check and hang it somewhere in their house. The reminder is more important than the gas they could buy with it.
I’m sorry you didn’t get to see that epic battle taking place in the back of the Pro-1-2 field.
Maybe you should volunteer to drive the wheel truck sometime.
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