Zack Ulissi’s amazing start to the season

The weekend started as expected for an ECCC opening weekend – wet and cold Saturday, with a much-too-early “prologue” short time trial. While we were warming up, Sebo and I discussed what power we were targeting; I mentioned a (much too aggressive) goal of my personal best + 25W, and in the process got Sebo to go much harder than he had planned (he was well over 400W on the actual run, and I just managed my previous best; he’s a beast). We all expected to see results before the road race, but the officials didn’t get the sheets printed in time (probably because they had to enter about 350 people for the first race of the season). In hindsight, it might have been good that we didn’t get the time trial results before the race. Sebo, Matt, and I had come 2nd, 8th, and 1st respectively, so we had the two fastest men and we were the only team to have three riders in the top 10 of B’s. If the other teams had known this, they might have been more careful during the road race.

The hours before the road race were somewhat stressful, since we had some trouble coming up with a clear strategy. The course was four laps of a 13-mile non-technical hilly loop, starting with a modest 500ft climb, then about 4 miles of rolling hills, then a sharp descent and about 5 miles of flat road back to the finish. Laura (women’s A) was joining us, and had by far the most experience in tactics, reading fields, and making things happen. We thought it probable that I would be one the fastest climbers / time trialers in the race (and one of the weakest sprinters), but the substantial amount of flat roads suggested that breaks that formed on the first hill would likely be caught later on in the loop, and we were uncertain if a breakaway could actually succeed. I was nervous because I knew that the only hope I had of a strong finish was to breakaway, but I had never broken away in a race so didn’t really know what to do. Sebo was both strong at sustained efforts and had a great sprint. After input from all the A riders, we decided that Sebo, Matt, and Laura would attack the field early in the race to tire other riders out, I would try and go for a breakaway on the second or third lap, and if that failed we would rest for the fourth lap and do our best to give Sebo the lead-out train he deserved.

The race started with the sun finally coming out and the course starting to dry up, turning out to be a beautiful day. The first lap was taken at a crawl, and on the first climb Laura led with a Harvard rider and chatted about their studies (to the amusement of the rest of the pack). Laura and I maintained top-5 positions through most of the first lap, and Sebo and Matt worked their way up from where they started at the back of the pack. At the end of the first loop, a rider in the middle of the pack hit a hole in the road and crashed, taking out a good portion of the field; Sebo and Matt just avoided crashing out, but had to chase to get back onto the main group.

The second lap began with the hill still at a crawl, and a Pittsburgh rider attacked and managed to break away solo. I figured that the move was too early to be successful, and that most of the riders were still quite fresh, so didn’t bother trying to follow. At the top of the hill Sebo and Matt made their way to the front, and Laura made sure that I was still in good shape. She led the first attack on the field, and in doing so turned the group ride into a proper race. For the rest of the lap, the four of us stayed near the front as various riders from other teams made small attacks and took turns pulling; I’m still not sure why other riders were doing work at the front, but it helped to tire the field. The Pitt rider continued to dangle off the front just in sight, and most people thought the move was going to fail.

At the start of the third climb I was starting to get worried, since I knew my window for making a move was about to close. Luckily, the pace up the hill stayed high, and it was clear some people were starting to suffer. A Rutgers rider attacked halfway through the climb and the pace surged, a bit more than Laura could handle. As she dropped back from the front, she screamed “Zack!” and I made my move with a moderate seated sprint, followed by a few minutes of hard work up the hill. I bridged to the Rutgers rider, realized he was hurting more than he should, and bridged again to the Pitt rider at the top of the hill. I was a bit worried he’d already be exhausted from a solo lap, but he said he was feeling OK and willing to do work to make the break work. We took turns pulling for the rest of the third lap, but by the end of the lap it was clear he was suffering.  He had dropped his bottle and had run out of sugar/water, so I gave him my last bottle of sports drink to try and get him through the end of the race , since we still had 15 miles left with the field chasing and no idea of how far back the pack was.

On the final climb, it was clear that the Pitt rider was too tired to match my threshold pace, so I kept the pace steady and spent the next 30 minutes riding alone; at every turn I looked over my shoulder expecting to see a surging peloton. I crossed the finish line alone, thoroughly exhausted, and slightly in shock (my first breakaway ever and my first win ever), with an unexpected 2:20 minutes on the main field.

Sebo and Matt stayed with the field while I was away, and covered every attack by other teams to try and catch the breakaway. Their blocking worked perfectly, and I’m told that at one point someone (UMD?) asked Sebo pointedly “are you going to do any work?”, to which his answer was “no”, of course. Matt led out Sebo for the final finish, and Sebo ended up with fourth place and Matt with 10th. Our strategy ended up working, and this was a perfect example of how much you can do with a strong team. Without Sebo and Matt controlling the group pace, there’s no way the breakaway would have ended up working.

The last event of the weekend was a hilly crit, with one non-technical turn, a small 80-ft hill followed by a sweeping descent and short flat bit (not much of a real crit, but it certainly suited me). Once again, we were pretty nervous about our chances of winning the race; I had never gotten a top-5 in a crit, can’t really sprint, and I assumed that anything I did would be immediately covered by the other riders after winning both events on the previous day. Our plan was basically the same as for the road race; Sebo would go for the first prime and keep the pace high, I would attack on the hill after the second prime, and if things failed we would give Sebo a lead-out for the win.

The plan worked perfectly; Sebo got his prime and when I made my move on the second one, two others tried to cover (a strong Dartmouth climber, and the same Pitt rider from the previous day). Only the Dartmouth rider managed to hold my wheel, and the two of us worked together for a couple of laps; he did some great work on the downhill/flat sections and we built up a lead of about 40 seconds. After a few laps he started to fade on the hill, and I took off solo for the next four laps, afraid that time lost on the hill would doom the effort. I finished on my own again, followed by the Dartmouth rider. Sebo blocked for most of the crit until he was sure that I was going to be OK on my own, and then broke off with a UMD rider, whom he beat in a sprint finish, taking third overall, with Matt in the points in the pack finish. As on Saturday, this was an amazing team effort, with a better outcome than any of us expected.

Combined with the huge success in the Men’s/Women’s A fields, Men’s C field, and the great work in the other fields, this weekend turned out far more exciting than I expected.