Dean’s 2016 Elite Track Nationals Report
4km Individual Pursuit – Silver Medal!
The 4km individual pursuit at Elite nationals has been my key race all season. I’ve been training and testing equipment for months in hopes of reaching the fitness and position to go as fast as I’m capable of going against the very best in what’s become my strongest event. I’d have the chance to compete against pro cyclists – some heading to Rio just two weeks later and others in the pipeline for 2020. Qualifying heats were held in the morning, and the top 4 times would advance to the medal rounds that evening. While making a medal round was my goal, I simply wanted to know I went as fast as I could against the best track racers in the country and see where I finished. In hindsight, with 10 guys going 4:48 or faster over 4km at a sea level concrete track this was the deepest field I’ve seen at Elite nationals. Track racing is growing.
The nationals were held in the 333-meter outdoor concrete velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania – a venue that’s seen everything from Olympic trials to World Cups so it’s deep in history. It was a short 6-hour drive away which made travel easy. I arrived at the track for the morning 4km qualifying heats with Karl Baumgart who was also racing this event as well as the kilo and team pursuit with me in a couple days. The heat index was 109degrees. We had gallons of water with us to keep us hydrated as we warmed up. The infield of the track was black pavement, the track was concrete. I swear it must have been 120 degrees on the pavement. I was wearing a full sleeve skinsuit and aero helmet too. OK, you get it, it was crazy hot and I was sweating buckets warming up. There were a number of schedule changes that led to us warming up way too early, and I’d end up finishing my first warmup a full 2 hours before my actual heat went off. I spent the last hours before my start lightly spinning on rollers, rolling my bike around the tiny paved area inside the velodrome, and continuously drinking water. Needless to say I was ready to get on with this thing.
There were 35 individual pursuit entries which included Omnium racers. The Omnium is made up of 5-events which include the 4km pursuit, so we all race the pursuit at the same time and all count toward pursuit medal rounds that evening. I was in the 14th heat out of 18 total, so I was able to see many of the times before me for a change. I spent weeks scouting the competition and the favorites were clear. Pro cyclist Bobby Lea is a 20-something elite national champion, 3-time Olympian on his way to Rio, and basically always wins this event. Pro cyclist Mac Cassin recently broke the all-time collegiate 4km record and won a pile of other national titles as well on the road and track this past year. There were half a dozen other guys that win big races, race on pro teams, and have put down fast 4km pursuit times. Once the heats were going I could watch the fast riders pace themselves, hear their lap splits, and see their final times. Predicting track times are tough as they vary so much between velodromes because of different surfaces, banking, shape, altitude, and of course weather that day. I’ve never raced a 4km pursuit (all my Masters pursuits have been 3km), but all my forecasting indicated I’d be in the 4:42-4:44 range given today’s conditions if I paced it well on my best form. Bobby Lea set his normal scorching time of 4:37 which likely wouldn’t be challenged. Mac Cassin went 4:42.2 a couple heats before me and was currently in 2nd place. There were several riders finishing in the 4:45 range by the time I went. Timo Budarz – who would also race the Team Pursuit with me 2 days later – would call my lap splits for me. I targeted my conservative 30.5 second first lap, and then the plan was to stick 22.8second laps until the finish or die trying in hopes of taking the #2 spot for the gold medal final.
My heat was finally called and I reported to the starting gate on the backstretch. I tried to relax on the countdown which starts at 15 seconds to go, then starts beeping at 5 seconds to go. Chris Hoy had a saying for this countdown moment: “It feels like an execution. You’ve spent all year training for this event, and in the last few minutes it’s the last place in the world you want to be”. All that’s left to do is relax, wait for the beeps, and I’ll even try to smile since why not. The beeping starts with five seconds to go: 5 (inhale), 4(exhale), 3(inhale), 2(exhale), 1(inhale, stand up and shift your weight back), Bang! I surge forward, wind up the 55×14 gear at 95%, relax and keep it spinning through the banked turns, and sit and settle into the aerobars on the backstretch. Here we go.
I make an effort to hold back on the first 2 laps so I don’t overcook it. I was so happy to be rolling and pedaling with all the waiting behind me. My first lap was 30.0 which I wouldn’t react to, but faster than I expected and kept me on plan. 22.9 2nd lap from Timo, and then I heard a couple splits just over 23 seconds. This was fine, there’s a lot of time and I’d just keep doing what I’m doing and focus on clean lines in the banked turns. I caught my opponent on lap 4 at the worst time – I had to ride high above him on the banking to pass safely. 23.4 seconds for that lap. I hit a bumper too which didn’t help. Relax and refocus. As I approached the halfway point the usual burning was in my legs and I focused on keeping my legs spinning, chin down, shoulders tight, thumbs forward over extensions to maintain the most aero position I could. I rolled a 22.7 lap to open the 2nd half which was great as I was still close to plan. I got excited and pushed a little harder, 22.4 Timo yelled. I was going too hard and burning up but there were only 4 laps left. I passed my opponent again but this time on the straight so it didn’t cost me as much. I heard 22.8 seconds, 3 laps or 1km to go. I’d found a new 1-count breathing at this point as my legs were screaming and I was literally taking a breath every pedal stroke at 108rpm. I knew I had to be close to 2nd place and every fraction of a second was going to count. I was motivated by fear of never looking back and thinking I could have taken a single pedal stroke harder those last 2 laps. I think I was yelling, or at least trying to yell. Timo confirmed he heard me yelling with 2 laps to go so it must have worked. 22.8 seconds on lap 11 and the final lap bell sounded. I barely remember that last lap, yet it was a dark place. I kept pushing every pedal stroke as hard as I could while trying to keep the bike steering straight through the turns. I finished. Nothing else in the world mattered at that moment except that I was done. I rolled through a few laps slowing down and pulled into the infield and heard my time of 4:42.0. I couldn’t make out the tenths unit over the loudspeaker but could tell by the guys faces it was in my favor. I moved into 2nd place by just 0.2 seconds over Mac Cassin. I didn’t hold my happiness back and was literally ready to start celebrating even though I still had the gold medal final to race. Thunderstorms that afternoon pushed the final into the following morning, but I wasn’t worried about it. Bobby Lea would win easily, and I’d go as fast as I could and try to enjoy the moment knowing the silver medal was already wrapped up. Aside from a couple mishaps and bad passes I felt like I went as fast as I could and finished as high as I could on my key race of the season. It’s a great feeling and exactly what I’d hoped for from this key race.
The gold medal final went smoothly. The conditions appeared slightly slower so I targeted 23.0 second laps. My 41-year old legs didn’t feel like a million bucks either so I planned my lap schedule accordingly! I relaxed and hit the first few lap targets and started to hear them slip the 2nd kilometer as Lea went out of the gates hard trying to catch me. If he catches me he ends the race early which he’s done frequently in past national championship finals. I was able to keep my splits in the low 23s and even touch a couple 22.9s in the 3rd km when he was getting close. I heard Lea’s bell lap ring when I was in his straightaway so knowing he had to be close pushed extra hard that lap to remain a few seconds ahead of him when he finished, then rolled the final half lap to my finish. I knew I had the team pursuit the following day and just didn’t have the legs to bury myself for no reason those last few laps. I still rolled a 4:45 on about 15 fewer watts than the previous day so it wasn’t a bad effort. I guess you could say I enjoyed the moment. The award ceremony was fun and I was soon filling the family and friend’s media waves with the podium photos. Next up is the Team Pursuit the following day.
4km Team Pursuit
The following day I lined up for the Team Pursuit with Karl Baumgart, Timo Budarz, and Mike Zagorski. Karl had taken a silver medal in the kilo that morning which motivated us, and Timo and Mike had been training hard and travelled specifically for this event.
The issue we faced was how fast the other teams were. There were 10 teams registered which is the most I’ve seen, and several of them looked stacked and crazy fast. Nearly all the top guys in the individual pursuit field were on team pursuit squads. We were the 7th heat out of 10, and one team had already put down a 4:30 qualifying time which was faster than the 4:33 we’d planned on targeting the night before. There was at least one team after us we knew would match that, so the only way to get in the final was to roll a 4:30. We were confident we could challenge that time, so instead of keeping our lap targets which would have placed us in the bronze medal final we adjusted our schedule to match the 4:30 gold final qualifying time. We knew we risked blowing up and coming apart, but going for it was a decision we all wanted.
I was the first rider and would pull the first 1.75 laps. This was a long opening pull and while I’m the slowest out of the gate we felt it would keep the group under control and the other 3 guys fresh and tight together once we started rotating and this would pay off in the second half. Since the track was 333-meters, at this speed we also planned to take half-lap pulls if any of us were at our limit since you could lose a lot of speed trying to go the full lap and lost speed is nearly impossible to recover in this event. I planned to take 1.5 lap pulls each time I was on the front, but Karl understood I’d cut back to just full laps late in the race if I didn’t have the longer pulls in me. We targeted a 29 second opening lap, then 21.8 seconds per lap the rest of the way. This schedule would put us near 35mph for the final 4 minutes and if we stuck to it we’d be in the gold final.
The countdown and gun went off. I launched from the starting gate, wound up around 100% through the first turn, and then kept accelerating once in the aerobars on the back stretch. I’d be at full speed as I came through turn 4 and then it was one lap until I pulled off. First lap was 29.0 seconds and everything felt smooth. I could feel the burn already and held speed for the next ¾ lap before my lead change. I swung off high on the banked turn, swung back down bike pointed at Mike now, and next thing I knew I was safely behind him recovering. Lap 2 split came in at 21.8 so we were right where we needed to be. Karl was second in the train and took over for the next lap. We went 21.7 for lap 3 right on pace. Timo was now on the front and turned a nice 21.5 second lap. Its tough not to get excited for fast laps, but reality is too many fast laps can be the end of you. We were right where we needed to be. Mike took over at this point and pulled just half lap and off, which was a smart move. The pace was fast and that’s all we needed. It’s better to keep the pace high and give up the 0.1 seconds which is the cost of each lead change. I was back on the front now for a 1.5 lap pull which was an opportunity to keep a solid pace going and give slightly more recovery to the guys behind me. I finished lap 5 in 22.1 seconds, then pulled off before lap 6 finished in 22.0 seconds. Karl was back on the front for a full lap, then lead changed for Timo. Lap 7 was 22.5 seconds so we were slowing down a little. Lap 8 was 22.7 seconds. Mike had another half lap pull and I was back on the front again. There’s not much time to think, but I knew I had to go at least 1.5 laps as steady as I could to re-establish our speed. Even though we were a couple seconds off the gold final pace we still had a fast time going and at this point just had to fight through it and finish. I rolled through lap 9 in 22.1 so we had picked up speed again, and then fought hard for that next half lap to finish my pull strong. I pulled up the banking, but when I looked down saw it was only Karl left as both Mike and Timo had fallen back that last lap. At this point since 3 riders are needed to finish all we could do is wait for Timo to catch back on and then ride the last 2 laps to the finish. We lost 9 seconds the last km, but at that point the race was over.
In hindsight we executed well, but the pace was just too fast for us. It was hard not to be down after the race – especially since we missed the 4th seed for the bronze final by just half a second. A bronze medal would have been nice, but even afterward none of us were ready to concede going for the final. We knew what was needed, we went for it, we executed well, but just couldn’t ride that time. I’m satisfied we did the best we could and that’s how it goes in these things.
Next up for me is the masters track nationals in 2 weeks in Indianapolis where I’ll race the 3k, kilo, and 4k team pursuit. Then it’ll be down time after that.
Thanks for reading!