I’ve had my eye on the Rockwell Relay for a few years now; partly because Dave has done it a few times and partly because I’ve been a reader of FatCyclist.com for quite a while and Elden’s race reports make the ride sound like a blast. I like that the course requires you to put a balanced team together that can cover all manner of terrain and conditions.
I got the call up back in April to be part of the Zone 5 Racing two pronged strategy. We were running two competitive coed teams and running a men’s team right along side to add some more drafting because with a race this long average speed would rule the day…or so we thought.
This is all new to me
This is the first non-sanctioned race I’ve ever done. I’ve not done a fondo or gravel grinder or any such things so I wasn’t really sure how to approach training or racing this sort of thing. I’m used to road races less than 80 miles that are highly tactical, terrifying and all out with a sprint finish or hard fought selection. The idea of “racing” at a consistent tempo for hours is uncharted territory.
Racing aside, I found the culture at the event to be something new as well. Maybe it is Utah or maybe it’s the type of event but I have a feeling it is a bit of both. I always enjoy the cultural experience of bike racing and Rockwell Relay provided a new experience in that sense:
- NO BEER! A key feature present at all bike events I’ve been to is always beer. Packet pickup and post race are key opportunities to share some brew and tell tales of races past and the one just finished. Not an ale or lager in sight anywhere at packet pickup or the finishing hangout.
- Really nice bikes. Sure there are plenty of 10k+ bikes at the local road race but there are way more “working man’s bikes”. At Rockwell, rarely did I see anything that would go for less than 3k and the number of dream spec bikes was substantial. I also didn’t see anything that resembled a classic bike like often seen at bike races; this is likely due to the lack of hipsters at Rockwell which could, in turn, be due to the lack of beer.
Normally in the days (sometime weeks and months) leading up to a race I want to do well in I’ll get moments of jitters as I visualize key moments on the course. Leading up to Rockwell I never had jitters, which was nice. I just left it to the fact that I did the training that I did and I was in the shape that I was in and that was that. Just ride. I wasn’t going to have to fight for position in the peloton at key points or drop a savage attack to blow up the race. Just ride my race.
One wrench was thrown into my race; I had just had mononucleosis. In fact, the diagnoses was confirmed on the morning of the race start with a call from my doctor stating that I had inactive antibodies. My body wasn’t right in the weeks leading up to the race and I had been to the doctor a few times and quite frankly the diagnosis was a relief from the other possibilities we could have been looking at. In terms of my performance, for this race it wasn’t really an issue as It didn’t effect my power at sub-threshold efforts. So riding at tempo really was no problem and since I didn’t have to cover attacks or sprint like in a regular road race I was fine. The only effect it had is that in the 6 weeks leading up to Rockwell my workouts weren’t making me stronger.
With the mass start and no TT bike format, leg one was really the only stage where you had to race your bike in the sense that you had to keep yourself in position and mark various riders who you were competing against. In our case this was the coed division. Mary and Marci (who went 1 and 3 at LOTOJA last year) were our riders with Billy supporting from the men’s team.
Dave and I were on leg 3 so after the race rolled out we grabbed breakfast at a diner in Moab. Just as we were finishing up, the group chat we had setup on our phones for the race started to blow up. Mary flatted! Then Marci flatted. Billy was still with the main group. Why? We rolled out and picked our way through the field first seeing Mary, by this time having taken 2 new wheels and who had Troy out on the road riding with her to give her some draft help in the now stiff headwind (any other team member is allowed to ride with their chipped rider at any time). Then a minute up the road was Marci. We told her to sit up and wait for Mary.
We zipped up to the main group and pulled Billy back to support the effort to get Marci and Mary back in the group. After all, we were here to race the coed race. I could see the heartbreak in Billy’s eyes as he came to grips with the fact that the right thing to do for our coed chances was for him to pull over and wait. I kitted up to join the fray to get the girls back within striking distance. We weren’t super panicked as the team gave up 15 minutes to Team Fatty in this leg last year.
Billy pulled off of the front group and we started the watch to get a time gap to our girls. With the headwind and a much smaller field than years past, not being in the front group was a huge blow but this is a long race and we have strong riders.
The clock ticked and ticked. By the time they came over the rise and Billy and I jumped on to pull the girls it had reached 17 minutes. Mary had completely imploded. In the panic and fury to get back on she had gone way too deep. In a race like this you have to avoid going into the red and keep it in control because unlike a traditional road race, there is no pack to hide in that is reluctant to chase or push and where you can recover. We had to keep ticking away the miles.
I put in 30 minutes. I would drag the group down the hills and then drift to the back to push Mary up the hills. It hurt. I was definitely going harder than I would be during my ride, but we had to try and limit the bleeding.
After 30 minutes I pulled off and got out of my kit while Dave kitted up to help for a while. We zipped ahead to get a time check. The main group had now broken up into two small groups of 8 or so. Elden, rider 1 from the main competition, had fallen back and was in no-mans land in between, this gave us some hope.
At the exchange from rider 1 to 2 we had given up 40 minutes to the first coed team and there were 3 coed teams in front of us. Mary was so angry with her performance. I tried to assure her that she wasn’t in bad shape but rather had just gone too deep and you can’t recover from an effort like that at tempo pace, even in the draft. Rhonda, Alena and Nick headed out. They rolled out 4 minutes behind Andrea, who was racing the women’s race, but when we got up the road they had passed her. We found out later she had a flat.
We got to the exchange with plenty of time to spare, kitted up, and pulled out our bikes. Again, there weren’t any pre-race butterflies like I’ll get rolling up to the start of the races I’m used to. Vibes were good as other teams were lining up for their exchanges as well. At this point I had no idea what the race situation was but it really didn’t matter, we just had to ride our ride. We knew that this leg was a great chance for us to make up some time as it was made for big diesel power like we brought with our 3 racer 3s; Big Dave Callahan, Donny and myself. We just had to get over this first climb.
Leg 3 starts with a ~5 mile climb from 6,000′ to 7,000′ and is the most altitude I’ve been at in years. We did the best we could to control the effort which was hard because at this stage in the race there were still plenty of riders to see up the road. Who can resist the urge to pick off carrots?
We passed a ton of riders and at this point it appeared our wave was starting to encounter riders from the non-competitive wave that rolled out two hours ahead of us. We tried to get a read on numbers to see if we were making any progress on the 3 coed teams that finished leg one ahead of us. As it turns out, our leg two team passed one of them and that left two in front of us.
We did what we came to do and we laid down a good leg, putting in what appeared to be the 5th best time for the race including the open (read: pro) category. Like I said, the leg was made for our trio. Dave could flat out put down big watts and Donny was a missile on the downhills with his 80mm deep wheels. I don’t know how he did it. I was running 55mm wheels and there were a few sketchy punches from the erratic winds in the canyons. I did the work on the rollers to balance things out. We put time into all the coed teams on this leg.
It finished with a couple pitches to get over which wouldn’t be so hard if a) we hadn’t been smashing it for the last 2 hours and b) it wasn’t so HOT!!! Here in Austin we sweat so much and so heavily that salt doesn’t build up as it just washes down with the sweat. In the dry desert air the sweat evaporated leaving a crust on your face and when you hit a slow climb and the sweat had a chance to run…ouch! Total sweat sting in the eyes. A few squirts from the water bottle and all was well.
During leg 4, which was also a leg we put time into the other coed team, our leg 3 riders got to zip ahead to the exchange and restock the cooler before we took on SAG duty for Leg 5, our rider 1s second effort of the day. Since I wasn’t around for leg 4 I don’t have a whole lot to report. Our leg 4 riders did pass all but the last of the coed teams, putting us in 2nd and 3rd for the moment.
This was my first chance to SAG a leg, encourage the riders and snap some photos. This leg went through some spectacular scenery but a fair chunk of it was in the dark. It was essentially one long gradual climb with a few steep pitches mixed in and a couple descents to rest the legs. A hard leg to be sure. Billy got to work right away with Mary and Marci hanging onto his wheel. He was in hero mode for the first 10 miles and then he started to falter. His stomach was in knots. Mary and Marci kept it steady as they could to keep Billy in contact. We gave up 8 minutes or so on this leg too.
At the transition there was a Mexican restaurant where I got some warm beans and rice which was just what I needed at 10:00 PM after a long day of snack food and a few pizza slices.
This stage had a mother of a climb. The toughest single climb of the race lasting 24 miles and topping out near 10,000 feet. We had strong riders on the road with Rhonda, Alena and Nick. This would be serious altitude for Rhonda but she still managed a QOM (not sure if it held). Not bad alpine work for a rider from the Texas Hill Country.
We did a pretty good job with projections and adjusting for actual times so we thought I had ample time to catch a nap. I was fairly well asleep when Dave came up to the truck and said we had a couple minutes before they rolled in.
In a panic I kitted up and luckily my bike was ready to roll with lights for the 1:00 AM roll out. I went with long fingered gloves, knee and arm warmers, and a gilet. The temps were nice. Knowing we had a climb to start I rolled out with a half empty bottle of water and a couple of caffeine laden gels. Dave, in the hurry, didn’t bring anything to drink or eat. This didn’t completely bite him but did cause a bit of panic as we went close to an hour before we had SAG support. Troy did an absolutely stellar job of keeping us topped up on supplies on a leg that had a lot of climbing compared to our other two. This meant I could keep one bottle on board and keep the payload lite.
The altitude came into play here again as we neared 7,000 feet on a 18 mile shallow climb. Normally my sweet spot; I love shallow climbs. I don’t know if it was the bout of mono or the altitude but somewhere in there I had to ask myself some tough questions. Looking at the Strava file it was 22 miles without coasting and getting a break. Just mashing away on the pedals.
We got over the top just as I was hitting empty and the descent was glorious! Having not really ridden a real downhill, at night, on the road before this I was pretty nervous coming into it. So a went huge in the light department and came armed with a Lezyne Deca Drive XXL coming in at 1500 lumens. At full power that thing lit up the road for all three of us.
I did get a bit chilly on the descent because the reflective straps you have to wear in Utah at night made it impossible for me to zip up my vest on the go. But all things came to a perfect conclusion on leg 7 when after rolling into the exchange there were fresh hot breakfast burritos. The absolute perfect thing at 4:00 AM after smashing yourself on the bike.
This is where my mettle was really tested. You see, I need to get my sleep or I get ugly. Our leg 2 riders were scheduled to SAG the leg 4 riders but they were nowhere to be found. We had been assigned to go halfway to our next exchange to get some rest and to take a shower. That’s all I could think about as we plowed through our burritos. But nobody was around. We zipped up the road and caught up with the riders and checked in. It was the shortest ride of the race at less than 2 hours so they didn’t need food or water but we need to hang close for mechanical support. So we did.
At one point Dave and I both fell asleep on the side of the road and they passed us without us knowing. We went backwards to check on them thinking we had only nodded off for a minute. Nothing. So we turned around and went way up the road and caught up. All was well. With just a short downhill left for them we zipped ahead to make sure the leg 1 riders were ready and then high-tailed it for the hotel.
I slept. I showered. We cruised over to the next exchange where we were expecting a 9:30 AM hand-off.
Leg 9 and 10
I was asleep during legs 9 and 10. It sounds like everything went well.
Temps were ideal as we rolled out and Nick stayed on after finishing leg 10 to tow us into the cross-headwind for 20 minutes or so while we warmed up. After doing some good work he pulled off and got on the back. I figured he was done but he stuck around and kept pulling through to do some work.
At about mile 5 we turned at bit more south and the crosswind became more of a headwind as we marched our way up a long shallow breezy climb. Not far into the climb Don started to struggle with his stomach. You see, after 24 hours of racing and race supporting you’ve put a LOT of food through your stomach over the 110 miles ridden so far. Not to mention the extra work on leg one. I could feel it when I woke up as well. My stomach was really tired of processing food. I managed to get some simple carbs in to get through this leg but Don was in a bad place.
I just resolved to sitting behind him and giving him a push while Nick gave me a push. Dave sat on the front and tapped out a tempo that Don could hold. Every once in a while I would shout up to the “engine room”; “10 more watts Dave!” or “Bring it down 5 watts!.” It seemed to work.
Once we came over the top I could start to do some real work and get this diesel train rolling. That was great for mile 18-30. I was even thinking about how I would stay on the road with our leg 4 riders to help them out for a while. But at mile 30 we turned straight into a block headwind that was super punchy. It was straight up demoralizing. Those ten miles were the absolute worst of the entire race. We handed it over to the last leg and let them get after it.
At this point we were well into 2nd and 3rd place on the road with no chance of catching the first place team. Huge kudos to our 4th leg riders who took time on the competition on every one of their rides.
Was it a race? After leg 1 it sure didn’t feel like any race I’ve been in. Was it an adventure? Maybe a little too race focused without any stopping for instagrams. Was it a freak’n blast? YES! I would love to do this race again. Perhaps with a full Bat City squad. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t already thinking about what team I would put together.
All in all the Rockwell Relay was a fantastic race with a unique format that I hope the keep it moving forward. The roads were awesome. The people were great. I’ll be back…with my own beer.