Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton, MA.
Three of the windiest places in the United States.
I've been to the race in Canton three years now, and the winds are never less than hurricane force. Course tape ripping, fine particulate sand blasting, bone chilling windy. Match this with a course that is perhaps 40% paved, and the smart rider is rewarded for leveraging the value adds of group riding.
Wheel sucking works at Canton.
I love this course. It is fast and not to hilly, requires some thinking in addition to pure fitness to succeed, and is well run and attended.
The course loops counter clockwise around the property behind the Mass Hospital School, a turn of the century Polio treatment hospital that has an eclectic mix of architecture from throughout the 20th century. For some reason there are farm animals on their grounds as well as a rowing or sailing facility of some sort. The course starts on a paved uphill rise, goes into a wide open field for some bumpy but fast loops, then onto the rear paved walking path. A set of low barriers leads to more twisting behind the animal pens and into the perfect run up: not to long nor too short. A lap on the track and then a few final grassy turns before the last barriers and up to the start area. Map:
Canton, Putney and Sucker Brook are the three best non VERGE races around in my opinion, and based on the start sheet others must agree. As I staged I look to my left and whaddyaknow... Mark and Frank McCormack are here. There's Dan Coady, Johnny Bold and Kevin Hines. There's your top 5 ladies and gents, the remaining 65 of us are racing for 5th. They will be paying 10 deep though, but before you get excited let me introduce you to Mr. Curts Boivin and Mr. Bill Shattuck. So maybe 7th? Oh yeah, Mike Rowell is in the house, he's finished ahead of me 5 of the last 6 races we've shared, and not just barely. John Meerse was there, and Coleman O'Connor. The remainder of the top 20 VERGE master's guys were thankfully racing elites later in the day, but man the top end of this field was stacked!!!
At the whistle, Todd Rowell (same team, no relation to Mike) took the whole shot and the pace was actually not too bad... Only 30 mph heading off the tar and into the woods. I was 8th wheel, and settled in right behind Bold at the back of the train of the guys mentioned above except Mike Rowell, O'Connor and Meerse.
The first lap was fun and it was actually pretty easy to ride with this group with all of the wind and fast road sections. I was "tail gunning" aka "sucking wheel" and sitting pretty up the run up with the big cats. I actually allowed myself to think that I could keep this up for 39 more minutes: Rest in the windy flat sections, and ride all out to stay on through the turns.
We hit the end of lap one and the little rise approaching the line turned into the aforementioned Mt. Washington. The 7 leader's gapped me and left me in no man's land, riding harder/faster than I could maintain on my own and without the protection of any others. The only good thing was that in that one lap I had been sucked around pretty quickly and left well in front of the balance of the field. The pace hurt Boivin too, and he was off the back of that group after a lap and a half as well. I had no real hope of catching him, but the thought did cross my mind.
At the beginning of lap 2, John Meerse joined me, and I suggested that we work together. I'm beginning to think that speaking to my competition is not a good idea. He towed me around for the first half of lap 3 and I took the track. We were gaining on Boivin with each turn, and he was withing striking distance. Meerse said he was bridging up and left me at the start of lap 4 to join Curtis. I could see that Shattuck had come off that front group by this time as well, and the three soon hooked up and began to chase the top 5.
During lap 4 I could clearly see that Coleman O'Connor was gaining on me, as was Rowell behind him. It wasn't Mike Rowell though, it was the hole-shot winner from earlier in the race, Todd Rowell. O'Connor is like Pepe le Pew, the Looney Toons skunk that moved incredibly fast with an effortless stride. Coleman just chips, chips, chips away at you. It's like water torture. He caught me at the track and even though I knew he'd attack there was nothing I could do about it when he did. Bye bye Coleman.
Soon there after Todd was with me, and we worked together for two laps. We were fighting for 10th place, the last paying spot. There was no real risk of being caught or of catching Coleman, so the chess game started at the bell. "Suck that wheel" Colin screamed as we passed the officials tent. While I would love to, it's not so simple. You never know how the other guy is feeling, all you can do sometimes is play the cards you have. I felt pretty good, but figured my best chance against the smaller NEBC rider was a single massive attack close to the end of the race that would present him with too big a gap to close and not enough time to do it.
Wanting to keep Todd close for now, I led through the first fields, and our pace a bit quicker than the lap before. I sensed a gap in the final few turns before the paved back stretch, but didn't want to look too interested in the current state so I just stayed focused on the course and ramped up the pace a bit.
Half way through the back stretch I could no longer resist the urge and took a quick peak. I had a 10 bike length gap. Perhaps the effort that had brought Todd up to my wheel had finally caught up with him? I didn't want to attack so soon and burn out, but I felt that if I could hold the pace high a bit, he'd have to work harder than he wanted to close this small gap back down. That would allow me to launch my patented off the track attack from the past two years.
I'm not sure how or when but before we got to the two short barriers he was on my wheel. Cr@p! There would be more than enough time for him to rest now. I slowed through the turns behind the horse corral, figuring if he was going to rest, so was I. I let Todd pass on the run up and got right on his wheel on the track. He didn't resist my shameless attempt to make him work in the howling winds of that half of the course. Three 180s after the track and I made my move.
The speed came easily on the slight incline coming up from the track section, and Todd approached quickly and we were wheel to wheel in an instant. To my right, his red Stevens Spin Arts bike dropped back into the peripheral, but never disappeared. As my speed increased, the situation didn't change. In fact, it was clear half way to the next turn that Todd had matched my sprint, and he didn't just jump in my wake: he was matching me pedal stroke to pedal stroke 4 feet to my right and a half a bike length behind. The attack caught on camera:
This attack was supposed to break the will. It was supposed to show that there were a few punches left despite the 44 minutes of mutual suffering. It was supposed to cement 10th place and leave a talented and gutsy rider thinking that 11th was pretty good, all things considered.
All of those things did happen... to me.
We came into the barriers together and at the pavement the sprint began, but honestly it was over way back at that track. Todd easily bested me for 10th place.
The day was great though. Zank was in town and we spent time with the Ambachs as well as the rest of our extended cyclocross family.
My pit crew is the best.