Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated event of training camp was the hammer ride. In contrast to most of the training camp, which was focused on climbing and general fitness, this exercise was conducted on the desert flats, where the equalizing influence of the slipstream came into play. Drafting behind another rider allows you to do 30-40% less work. Under these circumstances, pure strength is not always enough to carry a victory. A rider must know when to attack and when to sit up, whose wheel to follow, and must have the reflexes and quick acceleration to react to changing circumstances. Cooperation is essential for victory, but riders have to be aware of the inevitable backstab at the finish line as well.
We spent the night before forming (sometimes conflicting) alliances and planning leadout trains. Everyone agreed that Zack Ulissi couldn’t be allowed to get away, but the C riders formed their own plan to let the B riders do most of the work covering him. When the ride began, though, all plans disintegrated as Zack attacked, fracturing the peloton and dropping a third of the riders before the race even began. Ben Woolston managed to jump on Zack’s wheel, and he was eventually forced to sit up. The strongest riders—Zack, Ben, and Kuat Yessenov—played cat and mouse while several attacks went off the front. Suddenly, with Ben and Kuat on the other side of the road, Zack accelerated and got away, cruising past the other would-be attackers with effortless grace. Ben and Kuat immediately hit the front and tried to organize a chase group, but when Kuat flicked his elbow I refused to come through, disrupting the pace line. Ben, frustrated with the unwilling peloton, launched his own attack and easily cleared the pack. As the finish line neared, Kuat and Scott Burdick attacked together, but I latched onto Kuat’s wheel and sprinted around them at the last moment. 1st: Zack, 2nd: Ben, 3rd: Koppstein.
After a few moments to catch our breath, we rolled back along the same flat stretch of desert to begin the second round of the fight. Kamal Ndousse launched a courageous attack from the get-go, but Nate Dixon hollered to let him go, figuring that time trialing wasn’t his forte. Zack attacked repeatedly in a desperate attempt to get free, but the peloton was watching closely this time and nullified his accelerations. As we caught Kamal, Nate launched an attack on the far left of the road, which only a few members of the peloton were able to follow. Zack led the chase, held Nate’s wheel for a few seconds, and counterattacked. I anticipated the move, and dug deep to hold his wheel. I glanced back: we were free, it was just me and him! Zack knew it too, and tried to drop me with his awesome power, holding over 600 watts in the last thirty seconds. I gritted my teeth as my world kaleidoscoped into his rear wheel, my breath ragged and my legs burning. As the line neared, Zack sat up, knowing that I could out-sprint him. “Go ahead, it’s yours.” I kicked just enough to clear him, then sat back in the saddle, gasping. As I looked back, I was flabbergasted to see a sprightly Ernesto Jimenez accelerating past me — he crossed the finish line, grinned widely, and threw his hands into the air. Lesson learned: It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. 1st: Ernesto, 2nd: Koppstein, 3rd: Zack.
In all, the hammer ride was one of the best introductions for new racers to the beautiful chaos that is bike racing. Even the experienced riders learned a few lessons about teamwork, game theory, and blocking (and how lazy sprinters can be). After the games, we slowly rolled back to Hacienda la Verbena to assuage our crit coughs and down lots of CHOCOLATE MILK!