Nature Valley Pro Chase/Grand Prix race report
by Sarah Rice
I set my sights on Nature Valley as my season goal at the end of last season. It started on my 40th birthday. I wanted simply to complete it without getting cut, but nothing about my training or my racing performance indicated that I would qualify, much less do well. I said I wasn’t ready, and my coach agreed. But then I lucked out. I got the Nature Valley Pro Chase spot in the Quad Cities crit for a mediocre 13th place finish. There was only one other racer signed up for the Pro Chase and I beat her, so I was in. I remember feeling like I didn’t deserve it, but my little head-voice screamed: “You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you TAKE! Take the spot.” The Pro Chase team is special. Nature Valley doesn’t sponsor the best team, they sponsor amateurs who are likely to go pro. This is a really forward-thinking move for a sponsor, as sponsors usually like to see their teams out front. We went to training camp for 4 days before the race, all expenses paid. We rode with our teammates, met team manager Jenn Reither (captain of Vanderkitten), and learned everyone’s strengths on the bike. We learned how to take a “sticky bottle” from a car and how to talk to media and we discussed everything from saddle sores to sponsorship. Yes, I was encouraged to contact Frito-Lay and I probably will.
That was the end of the easy part. Nature Valley starts with a time trial where you have to hit 22 miles per hour… or you go home. That is followed by an NRC-level crit the same day, and you have to finish at least half of it without getting pulled… or you go home. Then there is a 93-mile road race, then another crit, an 84-mile hilly road race, and lastly a “crit” that starts 25 meters before a 22% grade hill. This is where amateurs go pro, where American pros get picked up to race in Europe, and where former Olympians go to see if they’ve still got it. Olympians.
Stage 1: St. Paul TT. I’d been TTing like a 40-year old professor, and it was not apparent from my Cal Park practice times that I would make the cut. The Nature Valley TT had a hairpin turn and it was hilly and rainy. I shook, thinking I’d have to ride my guts out. A TIBCO rider fell off the ramp and crashed 2 riders before me. Jenn told me to stay calm and went to help her. I took a few deep breaths, rode gingerly on the ramp, and then simply pushed as hard and fast as I could. 23.5 MPH, 49th place! Better than I or anyone else could have guessed. Kelli Richter, once frenemy now teammate was 3rd out of all cat2 racers, a stellar performance. Emily Georgeson was super-pro, she had a flat in the TT, flagged a moto to get it changed, and still made the time cut. We all made it.
Stage 2: St Paul crit. I was also scared of getting cut in the St. Paul crit, but I had the responsibility of protecting Kelli, my GC contender teammate. This was a job that I loved. It also really fired me up when the announcer gave me a 40th birthday shout-out on the start line! This is a pretty badass way to turn 40- at the start line of an NRC pro crit race! I loved it. I burned my matches up and didn’t worry about the cut- I just raced my bike, protecting my GC rider. There were 2 early crashes and I held up for Kelli to make sure she got around, then chased her back to the pack. I positioned to give her extra room in the turns. We made it through more than half the race, and I was having fun but felt like my legs were flat. I told Kelli I was popped and began to drop back. WOW it was hard to push my bike?! The front wheel crunched across the bad pavement in a weird way… what was going on? By the time I realized that I had a slow flat, free laps were over. I was pulled with 6 to go, and the 3:00 time penalty I received for being pulled ensured that I’d be mediocre in the GC all week. Darn, stupid mistake. I should have noticed it and gone to the pit. But at least Kelli and Anna were both still in there, and Emily had a stellar 13th place performance!
Stage 3: Cannon Falls Road Race. I was pleased to find that the pace in the 93-mile road race was sustainable. Our plan was to hide in the pack for most of it, then get Kelli on Anna’s wheel before the gravel section. Anna is a fast, confident gravel rider. The key was to eat and drink enough early on, and we took feeds from the car and Eric helped by handing up bottles in the feed zones. I had told the gals that my hubby was my secret weapon and they got to see him in action, giving me a very quick hand-up during a feed zone attack! About 40 miles in, there were 3 women off the front. The comm vehicle pulled us aside and told us that the motos had taken the leaders on a wrong turn, so they were going to stop us for a couple minutes, get the 3 leaders back on track 45 seconds in front, and then re-start us. What do you do when you’re stopped for 2 minutes during a 93-mile race? You pee. 70 women laid down their bikes and peed on the side of the road, in front of motos and cars full of cameras and judges and coaches and managers and god and everybody. We didn’t go into the grass—we had only 2 minutes and it was tick season. I broke my zipper putting my jersey back on and briefly panicked. A few gals gave me a safety pin off their numbers, I pinned my shirt together with 3 pins, and rode the whole rest of the race like that. The pace picked up before the gravel, and I was squeezing the field along with Kerrin and Emily, trying to make a lane for Kelli to get to Anna’s wheel. It was frustrating, we just couldn’t get her up there. The pace continued to pick up. I saw the gravel coming, looked back for Kelli, and couldn’t see where she was. I’d just have to get the best wheel I could. I found Kim Wells, the Aussie national champ. She was big and confident, and I predicted correctly that she’d be a great gravel rider. We tore through that section at a speed I never knew I could sustain. The finishing circuit was ridiculously fast, and I was outgunned. I burned everything I had trying to move up to block, because Anna was drilling it off the front! I never made it up there, and slipped back to finish at the back of the main pack in 43rd place. It was a thrill to be there just to see Anna’s gutsy move, even if I couldn’t protect her or counter it. After the race, my neighbor growing up, Dick Cooley, was near our tent. He made me a sculpture of a cyclist for my birthday. It was completely random and great to see him, and at the end of that crazy 93-mile road race I wondered if this was some sort of Dada-ist dream I was having? But no- he was in town for an art show, got stuck in race traffic, called Eric to see if this was my race, found out it was, and met me at the end. That was cool.
Stage 4: Minneapolis crit. Minneapolis would be the “easy” day. Big teams would protect their GC contenders and shut down strong moves to keep them fresh for Menomonie. Here we were told to be opportunistic if the opportunities came but first and foremost to make sure that Anna (now our GC leader) was comfortably in there. There were a lot of people cheering around all parts of the course, media coverage, etc. We zipped up our jerseys and paraded two-by-two to sign in, cameras everywhere. Gave pre-race interviews. Lined up for more photos. I heard someone yelling from inside an apartment “Sarah RICE! Sarah RICE!” What? It was Gant Luxton, the first grad student who I worked with at Northwestern. He saw me getting my picture taken and ran out and chatted with me during warm-up. Jenn told me to FOCUS (she’s right that I have an issue with this), but it was hard. I got excited and over-warmed up for the heat that day and for the miles I had in my legs. For the race I had my brother and sister-in-law Paul and Anaya near the start, Dick Cooley on turn 1, Gant on turn 2, and Lynn Keillor, the Directeur Sportif of Kristen Meshberg/Sarah Rice at Speed Week, on turn 3. Normally I don’t hear people cheering but I did in Minneapolis and it was great- Anaya’s “gosh!” followed by Cooley’s Wisconsin accent “Gooooh Syaraaahh”, Gant giggling “she’s doing WELL!”, and Lynnie’s “KINKYLINKER!” every lap. I concentrated on good corners and saving energy as my legs felt a little dead. In one corner I was going a little outside to inside while Mia Loquai of ISCORP was going a little inside to outside, and we locked up in the middle- full contact, handlebars, shoulders, hips all touching. While we took the corner like that I told her, “We’re OK, you’re a good rider, I’m a good rider, we’ll keep it up, see, GREAT!!” and we separated. WHEW. Close one. Later in the race, TIBCO had Shelley Olds off the front and the others were pinching the field in the final corner every lap to block. When I saw Carmen Small fail to break through their blockers, I thought this might not be the day to try to make something of it. Anna could win the amateur jersey if I helped in Menomonie, and she didn’t need help here. So every lap I positioned well mid-pack, lost a few wheels as the pace picked up before the last corner, and drove right back in there when TIBCO pinched. It was lame, but very easy. I was disappointed with my mid-pack 35th place finish, telling my coach and Jenn “but I didn’t race my bike!” as they insisted that I’d been smart. In retrospect, they were right. I rolled around with Mia a little after the race, apologizing for the lock-up. She said that was as much on her as me, and that my encouragement instead of the usual panicked cussing one gets helped her to keep it upright. The incident was a mistake, no doubt- we both took a bad corner. But with the right attitude you can make a friend while making a mistake. Good to know.
Stage 5: Menomonie Road Race. The Menomonie Road Race was 84 miles, windy for the first half and hilly for the second half. Jenn told me sternly, index finger out: “You’re the best draft. Keep Anna out of the wind. I don’t care- YOU don’t care- if you finish or not. Understand?” I nodded, happy to be good for something. Early on in the race I sat in and hid, and when Anna got pushed in the crosswind I got on her left side and shielded her. I communicated back to the others if she needed anything, and Emily and Kerrin and Caroline brought feeds and helped protect her too. Anna was energetic, which psyched all of us up. I’d tell her, “Save it. My nose in the wind, not yours, strong lady!”, while she thanked and encouraged me. Anna was really low-maintenance, a GREAT GC rider to work for! Being out in the wind was exhilarating. At one point I was left of Anna, then the TIBCO train was to my right protecting Shelley Olds, and Optum was echeloning to their right protecting Jade Wilcoxson and Bri Walle. Olympians and Olympic contenders. When the pace was chill I teased them that I wanted an autograph. Having worked a bit, I felt tired when we hit the hills and in this field I was a terrible climber. Many of these racers train in the mountains, so there was little question that I’d be very lucky just to hang on. I got gapped bad on the first big hill, along with teammates Kerrin Strevell, Kelli, Caroline Moakley, and a few other riders. Damn, I was supposed to protect Anna in the wind and now was gapped. Motos passed us. I had to get us back in there. For several miles I traded pulls with a couple strong riders in the wind, briefly drafting the motos where I could. Kerrin took strong pulls and a steady, fast lead on the downhills. Finally we managed to reattach to the pack. I sat in to regain energy. On the second big climb I managed not to get gapped off nearly as badly and reattached right away. Good. I was out of fluid and did not have energy to go back to the car. Emily gave me a bottle that probably saved my life. On the last few climbs I just hung on, feeling my legs, my heart and lungs, and my brain all giving out at once. There was satisfaction knowing that this was the absolute best I could do. Anna was just fine, in the lead pack. Just before the circuit they picked up the pace and I couldn’t hang on. I got split off with teammates Emily Georgeson and Caroline Moakley, a few other riders, and Mia Loquai. Mia was in the green amateur jersey and Anna was up in the front group, so we sat up and made Mia pull. Rest. But then Mia went down in the first corner of the finishing circuit. We picked up the pace again a little, just to make sure she was left alone. Anna would be in green! Emily and I finished the circuit by practicing a strong lead-out/finish- I led her out and she sprinted, and we did it perfectly. I ended up 44th.
Stage 6: Stillwater. After Menomonie I rolled out my legs for hours and drank lots of fluids (Recovery drink followed by chia and beet juice, these worked wonders). I felt OK, even though it was the day after the toughest race I’d ever done. Jenn commended us on Menomonie. Anna was in green. At Stillwater we wouldn’t be able to help her, so the goal would be to go for a decent finish. I was sitting at a respectable 38th overall. The start of Stillwater was about 25 meters from the base of a 22% grade hill. As I put my weight on my right side to get clipped in, the rider just in front of me on my left moved to her right a little. We overlapped wheels, my weight was awkward, and I went straight down on my butt. As I quickly got back on the bike to chase, I heard “3 Nature Valley down!” from the announcer and realized that teammates had gone down with me. I looked back, found one, pulled her through the false flat section and she took the next hill. We’d work together to survive. My bike was clicking on the uphills and I thought the derailleur hanger was bent, but it was shifting. On lap 3 just after the 22% grade I upshifted and the bike crunched. I thought I had dropped my chain and went to re-thread it, but my rear derailleur was in pieces. I shouldered the bike and ran down the hill to the pit. The official granted me a free lap and the pit guys asked my bike size and saddle to bottom bracket measurement. 51, 71. Jenn helped me stay calm, and they pushed me out on the pit bike. It was fine- a standard instead of a compact, bars were too wide, brakes were loose, but it was rideable and I felt comfortable being aggressive on it. I did only one lap before they pulled us. The group I got pulled with made 4 laps, the minimum for placement in the GC. I was officially listed as DNF and did not receive a GC placing for the entire series because of my free lap. I returned the pit bike and thanked the pit guys. They were silent. One of them pointed to Charlie’s cracked seat stay. They gave me a moment to cry and hold Charlie in the pit, and then zip-tied the broken derailleur to the broken seatstay. I limped out of the pit, crying and shouldering the bike. I wouldn’t have believed all this was real, but the searing pain of my tailbone bruise was FAR too real. I ran into the gal whose wheel I overlapped at the start and she gave me a hug and told me we’d be out there again soon. When I returned to the tent, I apologized to my teammates who I crashed out. They would not speak to me. It was certainly just temporary frustration on their part, but I had finally had more than I could take. I quickly packed up and left.
There were two very big things that I would have done differently if I could repeat Nature Valley. First, after any crash, even a start line crash, you go to the pit right away. I am very lucky that in Stillwater my derailleur broke on the uphill and not the downhill where it would have sucked the chain at 40 MPH. I should have gone at St. Paul too, and from a technical perspective not going to the pit those 2 times is what cost me a respectable GC finish. Both times I wasn’t sure if I’d be granted a free lap, so I didn’t go. That’s the wrong way to think about it. If you are unsure about the pit, DO go. The point is to keep you safe. Second big mistake: I missed being on the podium with my team for Anna’s green jersey. I didn’t realize that they would do one and after being hurt, losing my GC placement, breaking my bike, and angering my teammates, I doubt that I would have been emotionally strong enough to stay for it. Perhaps given the state I was in it was the right thing not to cast shadows on Anna’s limelight, but I should have focused more on the series and less on the day.
Getting over Stillwater has been a process. For 3 days I couldn’t sleep and had no appetite because of the pain. Fixing Charlie may cost more than a new frame, and it will take a while. I’m grateful to Manuel and my coach for genuine advice and help with that. Being knocked out of the GC bothered me at first, but there’s no finisher’s medal in cycling. Our goal was to get Anna in green and we did that. The placing doesn’t matter. What matters is that I carried myself well and was useful throughout the series, at least until Stillwater.
The point of the Nature Valley Pro Chase is to teach you how to be a pro. I learned that anyone can do it, because the difference between an amateur and a pro is simply that a pro acts like a pro. Strength and smarts don’t matter as much as resiliency, guts, and positive attitude towards yourself and towards others. In that respect, I’m proud to be a pro on a VERY pro team. Go Spidermonkey! Caw-caaaw!