By Mike Burris:
The North American Masters Championships, otherwise known as the Coupes de Ameriques, was held just over the border in Sutton, Quebec last weekend. Sutton is a quaint little town in the eastern townships of Quebec southeast of Montreal. The town actual organizes the event and is a tremendous host to hundreds of cyclists for a great weekend of racing.
As life would have it, I contracted a significant head cold two days before the start of the race. I very rarely get sick, so this was a major bummer. I ingested every possible vitamin and mineral by the truck load. All the ancient herbal remedies like garlic and oregano, I took them too. By Friday I was better, but still not close to 100%. At this point I would race and hope maybe I could sweat the germs out.
The race was contested over 3 days. Stage 1 began on Friday night with a significant hill climb up to Mount Sutton. It is a tough way to start a race if you are not feeling well, but a great way for the climbers to put time into the competition. The stage starts about 6 miles outside of town before making the turn up the mountain road. The advice I received from riders who had done the ride before was, "Be near the front when you make the turn or else…"
Our field (40-49) was large at about 100 riders. Staying near the front in a group that big is difficult if the organizers enforce the yellow line rule. They made mention to the rule but as the stage got underway it was clear that the yellow line rule doesn't really exist in Canada. The group spread all the way across the road as riders tried to move up. Honestly, I think this makes for much safer racing, but it did not help me because I am a rule follower. I stayed inside the line which is probably the result of a lot of U.S. racing.
Our group made the turn up the road and accelerated up the climb. I felt okay to start but about halfway up the climb my chest was pounding and my heart rate was much higher than normal at the same power output. I had no choice but to ease up and watch a group full of riders I normally ride even with, roll away from me. As a competitive cyclist, there is no worse feeling than getting dropped by riders you have historically "hung" with in the past. It happens. It is part of racing. You have bad days. For me, this was one of them.
That night I examined my power file and further confirmed the fact that I was not myself. My numbers were nowhere near where they have been on similar climbs over the last few weeks. I have to believe that my sickness contributed as did the fact that I had way to much caffeine prior to the start and decongestant. Oh well, live and learn. I finished 2 minutes behind the stage winner and about 1 minute behind a few guys I ride fairly even with. I currently sat in 49th place. Not the way I hoped to start.
After the first stage I headed back to the hotel to meet my bunk mates, Alberto Citarello and Bobby Bailey. They were racing in the 30-39 field. They had a much better race with Bobby finishing 5th and Alberto 18th. We refueled with a smorgasbord of protein powders Bobby brought with him and I pumped some more vitamins and minerals as well as some NyQuil and Nasonex.
Stage 2 began at 9:30 Saturday morning. It was a fast 10-mile time trial course with riders leaving the starting gate every 30 seconds. The time trial is my greatest strength in terms of the different cycling specialties like climbing and sprinting. I really needed a good time trial to get back on track and gain some time back. I still wasn't feeling great, but I did feel slightly better than I did Friday night.
I managed to hold 26.3 mph and my average power was about where it has been over the last few weeks. I suffered, but I was satisfied with the effort. I was able to move up 10 places in the GC. Bobby crushed the TT, by a minute and took the lead in the GC. Alberto flatted 5 minutes into the stage and had to take the time of the slowest rider. Afterward we joked about how cycling is nothing but peaks and valleys, both literally and metaphorically.
Stage 3 took place Saturday afternoon. The stage was an 11-mile circuit with basically an uphill section followed by probably one of the scariest descents I have ever done and then a flat, finishing straight. Our field more or less stayed together for the 3 laps with a pair of riders managing to escape just before the finish. Remarkably, about half way through stage 3 I felt normal again. It was like my legs just woke up, I had energy, and I could ride! In the 30-39 field Bobby won the field sprint, taking his second stage win and securing the leader's jersey for the final stage.
We had dinner in downtown Sutton with the Onion River boys before retiring back to the Hotel Horizon for the night. Before we went to bed we spent some time dissecting the road course for stage 4. It is hard to know just how hard a road course is without actually riding it. Everyone agreed that it would be a hard day, especially for Alberto and Bobby as they would have to defend the yellow jersey with two Americans against 2 or 3 deep Canadian teams.
The road course for stage 4 consisted of a punchy, rolling 2 mile climb at about mile 6 followed by a flat to rolling section of about 40 miles. The course then turned upwards with a beefy climb at about mile 50 before flattening out again with the run into the finish. Since I was the sole Burris Logistics – Fit Werx rider in the 40-49 field with no GC ambition, I could more-or-less sit in and conserve my energy until the final climb at mile 50. Jared Katz, Mark White, John McGill, and Phil Beard of Onion River were also in the 40-49 field. Though we are not on the same team, we are good friends so I spent most of the race riding with them.
Our race started fast, with the field pushing it hard through the first climb. Many break attempts failed over the first 10 miles. The wind was a factor. It would take a big break to have any chance of sticking it out until the end. At about mile 20, a group of about 8 riders got away. Jared Katz managed to make it into the break which was great to see. He is one of the toughest and nicest guys you will meet. That group stayed off the front for over an hour.
About 5 miles before the final climb the team of GC leader, David Gaszi, came to the front and started to pound it. The break was swallowed up as we hit the climb. At this point the field of 100 riders blew apart. I was at the back end of the field and had to scramble to get through the fragments of riders in order to maintain contact with the lead group. I was hurting, but I felt much, much stronger than I did on Friday. I, along with a few other riders including John McGill and Phil Beard, managed to bridge up to the lead group toward the end of the climb. I felt a tremendous amount of satisfaction to be with the lead group as we made the turn to head into the finish.
However…the race was not over. My legs felt good. I was no threat to the GC. So…I went off the front with 5 km to go. I had a nice gap before I was joined by Stephane Lebeau of Suarez. I did not know who he was at the time (Canadian World Champion), but he was hammering. I grabbed his wheel and tried to hold it. He gave me the chicken wing to pull through. I was already deep in the red, but I tried to pull through. He said to me, "Come on… pull…I'll let you win" in his textbook Canadian infused English. "Yeah right," I gasped. I hung on his wheel as long as I could, but he continued to crank it up and I just could not hang on. He managed to hold off the charging field by 2 seconds, but I was swallowed up as we approached the finish. With 20-20 hindsight, I should have just stayed on his wheel and not pulled through. I didn't owe him anything and he wanted to win, but I hate it when I see guys do that. Live and learn once again.
This was the closest I have ever come to winning a race packed with very, very good riders. It was a legitimate shot. For that I am truly grateful. I learned a tremendous amount about what it takes to win. You have to push beyond. Way beyond.
I connected with Bobby and Alberto after the race. They fell victim to the well executed team tactics of the Canadians. Two guys, with one in yellow against multiple teams with 5+ riders, is a tough fight. Bobby finished in 4th. To his credit, he was by far the strongest rider in the field.
We packed up our stuff and headed off to the banquet at Mount Sutton. After 4 stages I finished in 35th on GC, which considering the field and the head cold, wasn't too bad. I was very satisfied and I will return next year for sure. I learned a tremendous amount about stage racing. I also learned a great deal about perseverance and taking the bad with good. Friday I wanted to quit. After Sunday I can't wait for my next race.
Teammate Philip Beliveau raced the 50-59 category and finished 12th in GC out of 50 riders. I do not have the details on his race at this time but will publish his report separately.