Ahh, the meadowlarks have returned to sing and it was time to ride in the peloton again. The Speedwagon Classic is becoming a well-honed and well attended spring classic event. However, the course conditions portended during the drive up were not favorable. Sheets of rain were coming down on the way to Missoula and the roads were wet everywhere. Many courses can handle the rain but since the Speedwagon is run on predominately gravel and clayey roads, too much moisture can mean dastardly rolling conditions. You never know what is going to happen on race day though so you best just show up. I knew this ride consisted of a mass start and no results would be reported to USA Cycling, but still, it was a race. Matt Seeley, one of the course connoisseurs and the promoter, in his pre-race meeting summed it up well to the race attendees, “bring enough equipment to repair your bike with you, neutral wheels in the wheel vehicle, and if you are the type of person who would think of suing the race promoter or organizers we would really appreciate it if you just didn’t race.” That type of casual atmosphere lasted for, um, almost 10 minutes of the race as guys were moving around in the peloton to chat-up other racers that they hadn’t seen in a year. Then race was on and it only took me until mile 35 before it dawned on me how the race got its name.
Around mile 5 (of 48 this year) it started to get more serious as we rolled right onto the highway off of Kerr Dam road and the lead group swung a large right falling into single file formation rolling at 30+ mph. Things were feeling good for me, I was glad I had been able to get some spring road miles in and I felt in familiar space riding with guys and gals experienced with these sorts of speeds and close quarters riding. Once we hit mile 10 one racer from the NRO team shot off the front and I just happened to be chatting with Frank “the tank” Gonzalez so I latched onto his wheel as he played the game and chased down the rider. As soon as we (he) caught the attacker, another one of the NRO riders lunged forward and attacked the group again. At this point I realized that I was playing poker at the wrong table and just waited for the salvo of racers to stream around me as I steadily ramped up the effort and stayed in contact with the lead group. Once we turned the corner around the Pablo Reservoir heading east we hit the first gravel/mud/clay section and the group fractured across the road, each rider looking for the fast line through the potholes and mud. I knew from previous races that hard corners (especially right handers) tend to be places where the leaders attack and sure enough the game was on again. At this point though, the extra punishment and wheel sucking energy from the mud and potholes meant that no one got through cleanly and it was a sheer power ballad just trying to hang on. This was my Waterloo, but once I realized that they guys ahead of me—Frank, Matt Seeley, John Weyhrich, Alex Gallego were all 1/2/3 Category racers I didn’t feel quite so bad, it was all the other guys that I didn’t know that stuck with them too that made it hurt.
As Phill Liggett says in the Tour de France when the peloton strings out—the elastic snapped. In amongst the confetti of jerseys littering the potholey dirt road was one of your red and yellow boys strung out in no man’s land between the big boys and the chasers reforming behind me. I knew that I was better off conserving my energy and dialing it back a notch to wait for the group behind to ferry up to me because there would be plenty more opportunities to pour the on coals before this race was in the books.
The course location and route were absolutely spectacular and they couldn’t have picked a better day to race. From the Sicz compound where the race starts, you look down on the Flathead River which is just a silver ribbon threading is way through the yellowed, barren hills of the Flathead Reservation below Kerr Dam. In the other direction, to the west, we could see the white-capped Mission Mountains that would be our compass during the entire race. Once the course got to about mile 22, the significant portions of the smooth macadam were forevermore supplanted with clay, alkali, gravel, potholes, mud, water, ruts, and sand. I know some folks think that road bikes aren’t made for these conditions, but I and 34 of my fellow racers will tell you otherwise. I pulled my Crux out of the truck because, at the recommendation of Wayne Sicz, it would have better braking power and better mud clearance. Good call Wayne, it worked beautifully, especially in the descents. Guys with road bikes made it through fine too but they had some minor mud clearance issues. There were very few mechanicals and only 4 of the 35 starters DNF.
I had a blast rolling hard and fast with Lindsy Campbell on the east side of the river chasing the leaders and we caught a local named Mitch as well as a young and promising racer from team Muleterro referred to as Bender. The four of us made it to Buffalo bridge on the Flathead River and then as we started climbing out of the river bottom, Mitch took the helm from Lindsy and dialed it up just enough to spit her inadvertently off the back. That’s the thing about racing though, all efforts are pushed into making the wheel in front of you roll faster, you can’t wait for your teammates, your buddies, or someone in the group that forms up somewhere on the course mid-race. You make the calculations you need to in order to get across the finishline in the best position (place) or time you can.
It was now down to three of us and there were two NRO jerseys ahead and nobody behind us mounting any significant chases. I now had to figure out how to get through this back section of the course, up dentist hill, and finish at the top of R.E.O. hill which climbs 800 feet in 4 miles. As I was doing the math I realized why this was the Speedwagon Classic—because it finishes at the top of R.E.O. hill! It was a brutal epiphany and the climb to finish pretty much sorted the race by power to weight ratio. When I got to the top I heard that Frank won, Matt Seeley took second and I believe John Weyhrich was third. Way to kill it guys! Lindsy Campbell won for the women and Wendy Brooke finished her first ever spring classic road race. Me, I was happy with my results—a top half finish 19 minutes behind the leader. Byron showed well also and was the elder statesman throwing down on the course. He reportedly got edged out by Eric Horn of Muleterro with a sneaky “grab the brake” move at the finish line. Times don’t mean as much in road racing as in other sports but the fact that Frank crossed that course in 2:24 and change with only 1×10 gearing is pretty damn burly. Way to go Frank and all the other men and women forged of iron for getting it done on the 5th running of the spectacular Speedwagon Classic.
Its training and racing time. Hope to see you out there soon…
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