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2012 Junior Road Nationals - Augusta, GA

Short Version:
If you only have time to read the short version, here it is.   NATs was an awesome experience.  The temperature and humidity were both far more bearable than last year.  Nobody on the team crashed, unlike last year, and the girls had tons of fun competing against the fastest girls in the nation.  Each of them represented the team well, demonstrating great sportsmanship.  In addition, despite having 3 of our 4 riders at the bottom of their age divisions, the team still brought home four medals, which is twice as many as last year when we had more riders at the top of their age divisions.  The team as a whole is certainly getting faster.  Two of our riders medaled for the first time and the team made the podium in each of the three disciplines (Road Race, Time Trial, and Crit), demonstrating great team balance.  While the trip was a lot of work and we made a few large mistakes that really hurt the team’s results (read long version), all in all, it was a great trip to Georgia.  God is good!

Long Version:
Warning!  Novel to follow (20 minute read).  NATs was fast approaching and we had a big problem.  With the exception of Moriah’s Holland bike, our equipment was old, heavy, falling apart, and getting dangerously small for 3 of our 4 riders (Hannah, Rachel, and Sarah).  In addition, our only rider at the top of her age division, Hannah, now had no TT bike, as she had outgrown her old one.  Unfortunately, we still had not raised enough money to even go to NATs, never mind purchase new equipment.

We put the word out to our sponsors and a few other prominent coaches and professionals in the cycling community and God did miracles!  Through the generous contributions of multiple people, God provided both the cash to go to NATs and 4 new (gently used) bikes that all fit perfectly, including a TT bike for Hannah that came from a UCI world tour professional.  Wow!

While the new equipment was an enormous blessing, it presented us with a difficult decision.  Should we let the girls use this new equipment at NATs?  The three road bikes ended up being ready to ride just 3 days before we were to start our 45 hour drive to GA and the TT bike ended up not being ready to ride until the day of the National TT Championship???  Yikes!  Without experience on these bikes, how would they affect the girl’s speed and safety?  How would the bikes handle?  How would they affect the girl’s confidence, especially in the sketchy Crit and in their final sprints?  After much consternation, we made the decision to let the girls ride the new bikes.  This was our first mistake of NATs.

The girls ended up getting a whopping two training rides and one race in on their new road bikes (in three straight days) right before we began our 45 hour drive to Augusta, GA on Saturday morning.  We had 6 bikes, 11 wheels, and four huge duffle bags all tied down, zip-tied, bungeed, and duct taped to the roof of our mini-van.  Then, our family of 7 was crammed inside along with trainers, bags, coolers, and even more gear for the long ride across the country.  Can you say, “Low Rider Mini-Van?”  Unfortunately, the new TT bike did not show up until Friday and it required serious tweaking to make it ride-able.  The work would continue all the way up until late Wednesday, the night before the National TT Championship race.  So, Hannah’s first real effort on this bike would be the National Championships, but at least she would have a TT bike to ride.

The first day’s drive went about as bad as it could have gone with stop and go traffic for much of the day.  After 15 grueling hours on Saturday, we finally made it to Albequerque at 2:00am, Sunday morning.  After serious problems repacking the roof the next morning (how did we do this again back in Alpine???), we finally got back on the road at 10:00am.  Unfortunately, we were now way behind schedule and we had no choice but to pull a 30 hour nonstop all-nighter in the minivan!  Dawn and I took turns driving all day Monday and all through the night, and then all through the next day, eventually bringing our completely drained team into Augusta, GA on Tuesday at 4:00pm.  We would now only have Wednesday to try and recover and acclimate to the high heat and humidity. 

We had successfully destroyed our four racers coming across the nation via no sleep, cramped legs, and “sibling car-stress syndrome” that can only be understood by those who have driven with 7 people in very tight quarters for 15 hours straight, slept for 5 hours, then drove for 30 more hours.  Our imprudent itinerary proved to be our second, and largest, mistake of Nationals.  Note to self:  “If you are going to cram 7 people into a minivan and drive across the country, give yourself two extra days of pad to do it, and then three full days to recover after you arrive!”  Hopefully, we will have the budget for that next year.

Tuesday morning hit us like the La Brea Tar Pits.  We woke up with thick, black traveling hangovers and bio-clocks that did not know morning from night.  I took the girls out for a little spin on the bikes to try and shed some of the mud and restore some sort of mental and physical clarity.  It didn’t work, but it was good to be outside.  We then we went and registered.  After hours of wrenching, packing, and preparation for the next long hard day of racing, we finally got to bed at 10:00pm, way too late again.  Ooooops?  With uneasy thoughts about how the girls would perform the next morning, I went to bed knowing I had blown it.

The next morning it was up at the crack of dawn for the whole team, as Sarah’s 10-12 road race was the first race of this year’s Nationals, and it was an hour away.  Sarah’s race was dominated by 12 year old super-star, Meghan Doherty, who solo TT-ed off the front of this 40 minute road race to win by over 3 minutes.  11 year old Sarah would make the 4 person chase group and end up taking 5th out of the 18 riders, getting her first National’s podium and medal, and doing so at the bottom of her age division.  Alright Sarah!

A few hours later, the second race of our long day, Moriah’s 13-14 road race, began.  Like Sarah, Moriah was at the bottom of her age division this year and at 68 pounds, Moriah was literally half the size of most of the 14 year olds on the starting line.  A few of the girls even questioned if Moriah was old enough to be in the race.  Moriah’s racing silenced her skeptics.  She hung with the lead pack until the final sprint, when the race blew apart.  Skylar Schneider, the phenom who does not seem to lose at NATs, would easily win her 5th National Championship.  Moriah would hang on to make the top 10 out of the 23 starters and would be the second 13 year old to cross the finish line, which is encouraging for next year when all those big 14 year olds will be gone.

Unfortunately, Hannah and Rachel, who had to wake up at 5:30am because of their sister’s races, and then wait around in 90+ degrees and high humidity for 7 hours, would not race until 2:30pm.  Hannah and Rachel’s bio-clocks were still tweaked from the 45 hour minivan nightmare and they really needed to sleep in to prepare them for their difficult 34 mile road race.  Instead, we woke them up early and then made them sit in the heat for 7 hours before their race.  Oooops!  This was our third big mistake of Nationals.  Next year we will budget in a rent-a-car, let them sleep in and rest inside all day, and then have Dawn bring them to the race 6 hours later.  The combination of our three big mistakes pretty much predestined Hannah, our one rider with a chance at a National Championship, to defeat.

Still not comfortable with their new road bikes, Hannah and Rachel came to the starting line of the 15-16 National Championship Road Race totally exhausted and lacking swagger.  This was the race that Hannah had targeted to win!  However, after an hour and forty three minutes of racing, her drained body simply would not perform.  While she would make the final group of 6 that were all given the same time across the line, when she asked her body to go deep and throw down in the final sprint, her body simply replied, “Nope, too tweeked!  How bout a nap?”  Her final sprint output data was over 5% short of her max and recent finishes.  Ouch!  We learned a painful, but very valuable lesson this day in managing physiology leading up to a race.

Hannah would end up taking 5th in a race that she believes, and we believe, she could have won if she were fresh.  Claire VanEkdom, after a perfect lead out from her teammate Laurel, would take the win.  Excellent job Ladies!  Rachel, who was also at the bottom of her age division, finished 20th.

Well, . . . we thought we were exhausted when we left for that first day of racing.  However, when we got back to the place we were staying 12 hours later; we experienced a new definition of “wasted.”  On the bright side, we had won two 5th place medals at NATs.  However, we now had to find the energy to get all the bikes and gear ready for the TT the next day.  Once again, we did not get the kids to bed until after 10:00pm.  So much for getting caught up on sleep before the TT!

Thursday morning arrived once again via the painful screams of alarm, which were sounding more evil each morning.  After the 1 hour drive to the TT course (yes, we had housing location issues), Rachel’s TT was up first.  Unfortunately, Rachel, like many of the other Swans, again woke up in “mental molasses land” and she was unable to shake it off before the start of her TT.  As a result, she ended up TT-ing with a “joy-ride” average heart rate of 180 (miles below her LTHR!), which placed her 13th.  Rachel has the best TT form in the family and it would have been very interesting to see what Rachel could have done with a strong, “pain-cave” effort.  We are convinced that she will be on the podium next year in the TT when she is at the top of her age division and we do not repeat our three big mistakes.  We will not order the side of molasses next year.  Sorry Rachel.

Hannah was up next.  She was feeling a little better than Rachel, but unfortunately this was her very first ride on her new TT bike and she had problems finding the sweet spot in her positioning.  She too fell significantly short of her LTHR, which cost her 2nd place, as she only needed 23 seconds to get there.  Her time of 31:19 would be good for 5th place, once again.  That said, even if Hannah had ridden a couple of beats above her LTHR (very doable for 30 minutes in that heat), she could not have beaten Claire vanEkdom, who crushed the 2nd place finisher Zoe Reeves by 55 seconds with a blazing fast time of 30:01.  Hannah only needed to be 1.2% faster to get 2nd, but she needed to be 4.1% faster to get the win, which was probably not possible for her this year.  Hannah, who loves to win, was very disappointed with her result, knowing that she could have gone much harder.  However, given that it was Hannah’s first ride on this bike, the rest of us were very encouraged.

In addition, there was some even more encouraging data that came from her TT time.  Hannah’s time, which was on the exact same course as last year, was 5.7% faster than her time from the year before.  Out of the 14 riders that beat Hannah the year before on this same course, 12 of them returned this year, and like Hannah, did the exact same course again.  Across all 12 of these other riders, the average increase in speed was only 0.1%.  Some riders were a tad bit faster and some were a tab bit slower.  None of the other 12 riders increased their speed anywhere close to Hannah’s 5.7%.  The next most improved rider behind Hannah was Sara Youmans who got 2.4% faster.  This little data fact was the most encouraging part of Nationals for us, as Hannah was by far the most improved rider in the TT for her age group.  If she can continue to outwork her competition and increase her speed at even half of what she did this last year, she will have a good shot at a National Championship next year.

Sarah’s TT was next.  Sarah, who had the shortest road race the day before, somehow woke up feeling incredible and ready to kill it.  The winning time last year in Sarah’s division was 16:30, so she knew that she could ride above her LTHR if she had the legs and determination.  Sarah nailed her TT on the effort scale, riding 4 beats above her already extremely high LTHR.  However, when I saw her time of 18:29, which was only good for 6th, nothing made sense.  With that effort, her time should have been over a minute faster.  Then I went to load her bike and found that her front tire had a small brake rub.  Auuuggh!  I had checked her wheels and brakes right before sending her to cycle down to the starting line and there was no rub.  All we can figure is that when she set her bike down to use the restroom right before her start, the brake got bumped.  Sarah was devastated, as she really did put out an amazing effort and would have definitely made the podium for the second time had she not had this mechanical.  Mechanicals and crashes are part of racing.  Last year we had the crashes.  I will take the mechanicals any day over the crashes.

Moriah was the last rider to go on day two, and like Rachel, she was having a very bad day upstairs.  Part of being a 13 year old girl.  In a TT, you have to be rock solid emotionally and mentally, and both of these were not present in Moriah’s demeanor on the TT day.  She rode the same short course as Sarah, but like Rachel, did not put out the effort, riding way below her LTHR, leaving her with a 15th place in the TT.  In a TT, “you get what you pay for.”  Very rarely does Moriah not “show up” for a race.  Something was becoming increasingly clear to Dawn and I.

After getting our three medals (two for Hannah and one for Sarah) at the awards ceremony that night, which was very cool, we headed back to pack for the final day.  Once again, late to bed and early to rise as Sarah’s Crit the next day was again the first race of the day.  Boy, I cannot wait until we are out of the Women’s 10-12 division.  It is killing me!  One more year.

Sarah’s Crit was really fun to watch.  Meghan Doherty completed her clean sweep of all three NATs titles by once again solo TT-ing away from the elite chase group that contained Sarah.  Are you serious?  At 20.2 MPH, the average speed of Sarah’s chase group was extremely fast for a Women’s 10-12 race.  Sarah did a ton of work on the front trying to reel her in, as did the other girls, but Meghan was just way too strong and fast.  In fact, Meghan’s TT victory time from the day before was only 6 seconds slower than the winner of the Women's 13-14 TT!  Sarah would pick up her second 5th place medal (the team’s 4th) and log another outstanding HR effort on her Garmin.  Great job Sarah!

Moriah’s Crit was up an hour later and proved to be just as exciting.  Moriah finally woke up feeling like her old self again, driven and determined.  Knowing she could not outsprint the big 14 year olds at the end, we decided to have some fun and let Moriah attack on lap three to try and establish a break, hoping that it would only contain five riders and Moriah could get a medal.  Moriah’s attack was awesome!  She got a huge gap and fractured the whole field.  Shortly thereafter, Skylar, and a few other powerhouses bridged up to Moriah and the break was established.  Yahoo Baby!!  Unfortunately the break was 8 riders strong not 5, and 3 of them were not only not willing to work, but also determined to kill the break as they went to the front and sat up.  After one lap the 8 person break was killed and the 18 chasers who were all stung out and panicking off the back were allowed to catch up.  Ironically, Moriah would end up getting 8th anyway, just missing the 5th place podium spot by a couple of bike lengths in the final sprint.  Skylar would win her 6th National Championship.

Our last race of Nationals was the Women’s 15-16 Crit.  Unfortunately, we had done the same “get up early and go sit in the heat for hours” treatment to Hannah and Rachel, leaving them “checked out” by the time their 11:30am race arrived.  Unlike our first two races, this one was uneventful and relatively slow at 22.5MPH.  Many of Hannah’s W1-3 Crits averaged over 25MPH this year, so the slow pace was a bit frustrating for Hannah.  However, after 3 days of hard racing and not enough sleep, she was in no place to go attacking the race.  Groupo Compacto for 99.9% of a race, then an explosion right before the last corner, is not a good recipe for victory with a checked-out two person team.  But those were the circumstances we were given.  In the chaos of the explosion before the last corner, Rachel and Hannah got pushed back a few riders and then miscommunicated.  Hannah called off a rider that was drifting toward them and Rachel, who had just started her lead out, thought that Hannah was calling her off.  As a result, Rachel pulled off and sat up, leaving Hannah braking on her wheel confused, as everyone else was punching it.  By the time Hannah got around Rachel, 15 riders were already gone and had a good gap heading into the last corner.  Race over.  Hannah 11th.  Rachel 23rd.  Gotta love Crits!  Laurel Rathbun would take the win after holding down a very long sprint.  Great job Laurel!  Ironically, Rachel and Hannah had nailed multiple lead outs perfectly leading up to NATs and they would do so again exactly one week after this race on Hannah’s 16th birthday in a W3/4 crit, giving Hannah another win, her 17th on the year.  Unfortunately, their one lead out blunder sure enough had to happen at NATs.  There was that message again.  But the glass is half full.  It was a great learning experience and God gives grace to the humble.

Halleluiah!  It was finally over.  While I still had a ton of work and packing to do, the stress of 12 rider/races without enough sleep was over.  After getting Sarah’s medal, we went straight back to our little rental house.  I walked directly to the bed and literally collapsed, passing out cold, face down within minutes.  I did not wake until just before dark.  Hmmm, . . . there is that message again!!  We then made a nice family dinner, played with some cool fireworks and went to bed.  The very next morning we started our long drive back to California.  The drive home was long and hard, but we took an extra day to do it and this time stayed in fairly decent hotels, which was much better than sleeping in the van for an hour at a time.

Amber Neben, our World Champion and 2X Olympian Team Advisor, who won the TT National Championship while we were there, closely watched us butcher our “off the bike” time before and during NATs.  Afterward, she astutely sent me an email that included this:

“. . . . being able to deal with everything that comes OFF the bike at a big race takes being in those moments (i.e. experience) and either developing or honing the skill. I think some of it is learned and some is innate... some people enjoy the moment and stress and are more ready.  Some need to take steps to prepare themselves in a way that minimizes the emotion while still being ready.  It's important to manage your stress and energy expenditure over the course of the week...”

A large part of life is learning from your mistakes and growing.  While it was already very apparent to us, Amber gently confirmed the message; that we need to “take a few steps next year to prepare the team better and manage both the physical and mental stress OFF the bike.”  While I am sure there are many more mistakes that we will make with Strive Racing, our 2012 NATs adventure left us feeling far more experienced, prepared, and excited about nailing 2013 NATs in Madison, WI when we will have 3 of our 4 riders at the top of their age division.  Strive On!  Hammer On!


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