Victoria Wheelers Tour de Bloom Stage Race Recap as told from the eyes (and by the pen) of Geoff Homer.
The plan to do a stage race right in 2016 was hatched all the way back in January. Not soon after January’s initial discussions, the Wheelers race team settled on Wenatchee, WA’s Tour De Bloom and its non-traditional uphill TT.
Part of doing it right meant getting to the race in plenty of time. On Thursday, the day before stage one, the five of us – Trevor, Eugene, Andrew, Ian and I – rolled out of Victoria, destination Leavenworth, WA. A standard ferry boat ride, a simple border crossing and three odd hours of serious gossiping saw us arrive in our Air B’n’B accommodation for the weekend. Leavenworth is a pretty unique place (wiki), modeled after a Bavarian Village, surrounded by mountains on all sides, and bordered by the Wenatchee River. The people are fantastic, and as evidenced by the crowds at Friday’s road race, keen on cycling.
Friday, day two of the trip, but day one of the race, meant the beginning of the Tour’s first stage, the Sleeping Lady Leavenworth Road Race. The stage profile was demanding, and the quality of the teams and riders at the start line hinted at the suffering that was to come. The race consisted of a neutral rollout, a 20 kilometer climb on a closed lane of highway, and two bumpy loops in and around the sleepy hollow of Plain, WA. The neutral rollout out of Leavenworth quickly became a drag race to the top of the 20 kilometer climb. Trek Red Truck, with stud riders Michael Van Den Ham, Craig Richey, Kyle Buckosky, and Dylan Davies, animated proceedings from kilometer one. The four Wheelers contesting the cat 1,2 race (Ian would go on to a killer result the cat 3 race sans teammates) satisfied ourselves with a mid-pack for the first half of the climb, the combination of 90 racers and one lane of highway making moving up very difficult.
As the climb pitched slightly upwards it was time to initiate our stage one plan. Andrew and I weaved our way up in the pack to position ourselves to get into the breakaway that would inevitably form. A Wheeler in the break removes any obligation for the remaining Wheelers to chase, saving a lot of effort, and shows the competition that we are here to contest the race. Just before we reached the top of the climb, I found myself in the penultimate move of the day, which was brought back by some determined chasers and quickly countered. Andrew, being the stud that he is, latched on the counter and rode his way into what would be the winning move of the day. The composition of the move suited all the major teams, with Trek Red Truck, Russ Hays, Langlois Brown and Giant all represented by at least a single rider up the road. (ed. Andrew would later recollect that another rider threatened to crash him out if didn’t start contributing to the pace-making in the break).
Sometime in the last 30 kilometers of the race, Russ Hays decided they weren’t happy with the composition of the break, with their rider up the road, Oliver Evans, outnumber 3:1 by the strongest team in the race, Trek Red Truck. It was at that point that the pace of the race went up a notch as we looped back into town, now descending what was the initial climb of the day. The winners would finish the 106 km course in under 2:20.
At the finish, Langlois Brown’s Nigel Kinney took the win from the breakaway, to find himself in the leader’s jersey overnight. Our man Andrew would end up 9th on the day, with Eugene muscling his way to third in the bunch sprint that would cross the line 1:49 down from the break.
Day three of the trip, and day two of the race was a double day: Hillclimb in the morning, twilight crit in the evening. With Andrew’s stellar performance in the road race the day before, the role of the cat 1, 2 Wheelers for the remainder of the weekend was to serve and protect. Maintaining and even improving, Andrew’s GC placing would be the focus of our race strategy. Unfortunately for us the day’s first stage, the Mission Ridge Hill Climb, was the most ‘every rider for themselves’ of all the Bloom stages. Roughly seven kilometers at an average grade of 8.5 % didn’t provide much opportunity for drafting or teamwork, but we approached the day with a mixture of nervousness and excitement nonetheless. The race director took the edge off at the start line, jokingly informing us that, in spite of the dominance of B.C. teams during stage one, Bloom is not in fact the B.C. provincial championships.
By the time we were a quarter of the way up the climb, the race was already decided. Five minutes in, a surge by Michael Van Den Ham decimated the majority of riders that lined up for the mass start, with only eight of us able to follow the Trek Red Trucker’s move. The nine of us, Andrew and myself included, settled into a rhythm as our collective heart rates climbed. Half way up, Oliver Evans, Russ Hays’ overall hope attacked on a particularly steep section and quickly gained ten seconds. As Oliver rode away, Trek Red Truck got off the front of the group to force the overnight leader, Nigel Kinney, to try and bring Oliver back in the hopes of maintaining his overall lead. After letting Nigel burn his matches trying to keep Oliver in sight, the Trek Red Truck riders began to attack and bridge across to Oliver. The first volley of attacks, around thirteen minutes into the twenty minute climb, managed to dislodge both Andrew and I from the leading group, but was not successful in bringing Oliver back, as he would go on to win the stage solo, and claim the overall lead. I did my best to Sherpa Andrew to the finish, trying to minimize his time losses for the overall. We would crossed the line in eighth and ninth position, 1:20 behind Oliver. Andrew’s performance was enough to move him up to sixth overall as a number of the riders ahead of Andrew after stage one were exposed by the brutal hill climb, and would finish well back. Ian rode out of his skin for a sixth place in the cat 3 hill climb, and moved into sixth overall.
The second stage of the day, the Biosports Twilight Criterium, was the weekend highlight for all the Wheelers that contested Bloom. Beginning just before 9 pm, under some not quite bright enough street lights in downtown Wenatchee, the atmosphere was unlike anything we had ever experienced at a bike race. The rectangular circuit was punctuated by a steep incline, and a cobbled section that motivated us all to lower the pressure in our tires to gain the most possible grip. With Andrew 6th in GC, the focus remained protecting him and preventing any time loss. Eugene, Trevor and I soon found out that protecting Andrew or moving him up would be darn near impossible. After it was all over, we would collectively and individually conclude that the Twilight Criterium was the hardest hour any of us had ever spent on a bicycle. The pace was ridiculous – even with the steep pitch and cobbles the average speed for the one hour race was close to 50 km/h – and I found myself beginning to count down the minutes to the end inside the first three laps of the race. There was no moving up to the front of the pack, no effortless pack-surfing, only survival. Any time I got a line into a corner wrong I paid for it, sprinting to maintain position and then trying to recover while the pace remained super high. In our post-race de-brief, we all agreed that the key to finishing the race was to continue to pedal whenever the pace of the race slackened slightly. Four or five extra pedal strokes moved each of us further up in the pack, providing a buffer against being spit out the back of the race.
With about twenty minutes left to go there was the inevitable crash (note: I brought proof of my extended health coverage to the race knowing full while I might find myself with a broken scapula), which cascaded through the pack but luckily claimed no Wheelers. As the end of the race neared, Eugene, Andrew, Trevor and I focused on maintaining position, and staying safe. We would all finish with the pack, with Andrew maintaining his 6th overall position.
At the pointy end of the race, Langlois Brown and Nigel Kinney picked up valuable seconds on the bonus prime laps to retake the overall heading into the final stage, and Isaac Leblanc surfed the Trek Red Truck lead-out train and exploded past everyone to take Russ Hays’ second stage win on the day.
At the criterium the night before, Bloom veteran, longtime stud rider, and all-around great guy Jeff Werner warned us about the epic crosswinds that have always characterized Bloom’s Sunday Western Materials road race. Two 55 kilometer laps through exposed, rolling farmland provided the backdrop for what can only be described as carnage on two wheels. I’ve heard about echelons, but had never experienced them until that Sunday.
As we turned the first corner of the race, just kilometers in, I faced my first 50 km/h crosswind. It was only minutes before the race was blown to pieces. An initial group of 70 odd riders quickly became five groups of fifteen odd riders, with each group trying to organize themselves across to road in an attempt to ride efficiently through the crosswind. The seven strongest, most experienced riders quickly established a coherent echelon, and left the rest of us in their rear view. Luckily, Andrew and I managed to finesse our way into the second group on the road. In an effort to maintain his GC position by limiting the time gap to the leaders, Andrew did a huge amount of work from the second group, with assistance from a few other brave souls. The second and third crosswind sections on the lap would play out similarly to the first crosswind section: attack, group explosion, regroup.
Going into the second lap, Andrew and I knew to expect a group detonation as soon as we went around corner one for the second time. In preparation, we moved ourselves up in our group, ate and drank, and prepared to get after it yet again. For me, the preparations proved only mildly successful; for Andrew, much more so. Andrew found himself in the front group as Dylan Davies from Trek Red Truck combusted the group with an explosive attack. I found myself in a group of chasers that would only rejoin Andrew’s group after 20 kilometers of hard effort. Crosswind section two offered up fireworks yet again in group two on the road, while the leaders continued to co-operate and grow their gap. The final crosswind section saw Dylan finally attack and get a gap, joined eventually by six other riders. At Andrew’s insistence, a few of us drove the pace in the race’s final kilometers, trying to limit the time loss to Dylan’s group. We would be marginally successful in our efforts, losing only 43 second to Dylan at the finish.
After all was said and done, the time lost on the final stage would see Andrew slip to 8th overall, and myself drop from 11th to 13th overall. Despite going into Sunday with visions of two Wheelers top ten overall, the weekend was an unblemished success. Ian would go on to finish 5th overall in the cat 3 race, while Trevor and Eugene would put out amazing performances throughout the weekend, riding beyond themselves countless times.
As Jeff Werner put it on Sunday: “It’s been twenty years, it’s great to have the Wheelers back.” We couldn’t agree more, Jeff.