The following is an account from racer Katherine Nadler on the Cycling team’s experience at Nationals:
Collegiate Road Nationals, aka #CollNats, is the pinnacle of collegiate road racing and for many of us, the toughest race with the largest field sizes of any to date. Building off of the spectacular performances of the UCSD women’s team from the last two years we aimed to send at least a team of four women for a complete TTT team, in addition to strong male riders who qualified. The location of CollNats changes each two years, bringing us from the smoky mountains of North Carolina in 2015 and 2016 to the desert mesas of Grand Junction, Colorado for 2017; dry air, high altitude, and gusty winds were predicted to ensue. Nevertheless we loaded into two vehicles and drove the 12 hours loaded with bikes, helmets, food and water through the scenic views of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Coloardo.
Our nationals race weekend can be broken down like this: Day 1—TTT, Day 2 – Road Race, Day 3—Criterium, sandwiched between two 12 hour drives. As the only returning racer who participated in road nationals last year, I was excited to share my knowledge of the experience as it differed from our conference, student-organized collegiate races. Bigger crowds, larger fields, tougher competition, and professional organization awaited us. Many times during the weekend I reached back to memories of the previous year when I had been a nervous, scared, and inexperienced racer immersed in the excitement of a national-level race event. Whatever advice I could give paled in comparison to the actual experience. Several of us practiced racing at elevation just two weeks prior at UN Reno which helped prepare for the side effects, and for the most part our general preparation paid off; we remembered all equipment, ate plenty of breakfast, and familiarized ourselves with the race courses. However the altitude and nerves, mixed with a few instances of official-to-volunteer miscommunication kept us on our toes.
First up was the Team Time Trial which our women’s team has excelled in as a team over the past few years. Four riders carry out a 20-mile course in a tight paceline and the team’s time is calculated by the wheel of the third finishing rider. The event requires trust and communication between teammates in addition to the general anguish of a time trial. Equipped with carbon race wheels and aerodynamic helmets we braved the windy, rolling course and managed to finish 6th place overall despite two of four riders suffering from altitude-worsened asthma side effects. We were satisfied with our team’s effort and quickly began preparing for the next race. One down, two to go!
The road race was made up of a grueling 16.7 mile loop with the women racing for 50 miles and 4000 feet elevation gain, and the men for 67 miles and 5,400 feet elevation gain, all taking place at 6,200 feet above sea level. We set off in a 60 rider pack – by far the largest field for ¾ of the women – and Sydnee learned the worst way that even collegiate A riders may have poor bike handling skills. Taken on in a seven-person pile up, Sydnee acquired road rash across her face but thankfully no other debilitating injuries. The other women continued the race which can be described as a mild ascent, into a long and technical descent, into steep switch back turns, into an intensely gusty descent, into a brutal cross-wind false flat, into the last hill, and finally a long and windy finishing straightaway. At the switch backs of the first lap, the race fractured into a leading group and several chase packs. For the remainder Lilly laid down a ton of work in the largest of the chase groups and sprinted for 20th position, followed closely by me in 24th, and Lena in 44th. Upon finishing the girls began recovering with chocolate milk and hurried to the feed zone to help out teammate Justin who finished 72nd in the men’s field. The longest race was now behind us and the final preparations and strategies were organized. Two down, one to go!
The third and final race of the weekend was a flat, six-corner, L-shaped criterium. These types of races typically favor sprinters and time-trialists in contrast to climbers in road races. Our team has a particular advantage in that we specifically practice the technique of cornering and high speeds during a weekly team practice, aka #CritBangers. Going into this race I was designated the team leader and the other two as helpers or decoys. Early in the race two crashes caused the field to break into two groups but I stayed close to the front with my teammates also tucked in. Knowing I needed maintain a position among the top 10 to have any shot at the podium I maneuvered around and in between riders along strategic sections during the last five laps to keep from slipping too far back. With one lap to go I kept my eye on the wheel of the U of Arizona rider, a race favorite, and because the pace was kept high we were safely strung out as a line of about ten racers going into the final corner. Once out of the turn everyone in front of me rose out of the saddle and began sprinting the 100m to the finish line and in a split second I made the decision to cut from my inside line to the outside in an attempt to overtake the riders already beginning to fade. Finishing in 5th place close behind the top four was a huge accomplishment, although we did not stick around long enough for the podium celebration (to take place 3 hours later!) and took off on our 12-hour drive home. The weekend proved to be a surreal experience with top-notch race organization, exposure to professional-level competition, and another year of successful UCSD representation.