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Our First UCI Stage Race

Fitness, Grit, Luck, and a Whole lot of Support

Hannah Shell, USA & Pappa John Racing UCI Team

What does it take to get through a UCI stage race? We spend a lot of time documenting the grit, team tactics, fitness, and pure suffering it takes from the riders. But results lists and social media posts don’t fully capture the effort, skill, and background logistics it takes from support staff to get the team to the line. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes to help riders make it through each stage.

I’m going to try to do justice to the insane amount of effort the team management put in to support us every day at our first stage race earlier this month. Using Pioneer power data I’ll highlight what it took for the racers to get through each stage too. I hope it gives a real picture of the whole task it takes to support a team, because if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes ten villages to raise a bike racing team.


In April we raced our first stage race in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Every race I’m still learning more about myself as a rider, making new mistakes, and coming away with new lessons learned. Joe Martin was certainly no exception, but unlike previous races this time the learning was happening on a team level.  Being a mostly new team we’re still figuring out how to communicate, work together, and use each other’s strengths to come up with the best result.

I came away from Joe with a lot of new information to chew through. We had an amazing group of people helping us every day, and I think we tend to overlook the people working behind the scenes to get the pros to the line. We couldn’t race without them, and we wouldn’t be on the level we are without them staying up all night to clean drivetrains after an extended directors meeting. I’m not there with them every step of the way so I don’t fully understand their efforts, but I hope this blog serves as some recognition. The riders get all the glory, but that wouldn’t be possible without the staff.


Getting the team to the line

Have you ever driven a van across the country? I have, but when I did I was fortunate to be with six other people that could easily rotate driving. Our director, Andrew, and soigneur, Jerry, drove our team van from South Carolina to Fayetteville, and then back after the race. It’s a 900 mile drive. Their work didn’t stop there.  In fact, it didn’t start there either. I only know a sliver of the logistics that go into setting up a pro team to race, like how Andrew spent hours gluing tubulars, prepping cassettes so each girl had enough gear on the climbs, gathering spare parts, and drawing on his past experience to plan out schedules and transport before the race to make sure everything at Joe went smoothly. Jerry, the soigner, wasn’t just there to give us massages at the end of the day either, he was at Andrew’s side every step of the way once they got to Fayetteville helping wherever he could.

 I suppose the process to get the team to the race actually starts with sponsors (thank you!), and continues with our team owner/manager, Tish, spending time gathering documents and paperwork on every rider to get us registered.  I actually get a headache when I think about how many details must go into this process. Tish makes sure we have housing, food (accommodating everyone’s diets), clothes, laughs, and even a little chocolate cake to get through the weekend. At Joe Martin, our sponsor Capital Wealth Advisers was gracious enough to help us out with a follow car, and Kim Petit stepped up to pick it up and drive it to Fayetteville for the race.  Seriously, the village metaphor is real.

The night before the first stage Andrew and Jerry stayed up until 2am making sure each rider’s bike was in order. They were still the first out of bed in the morning.

The team’s daily routine started with Breakfast, and then a spin out and short chat with Andrew to make sure he knew of any issues on the bike. Andrew was working on bikes around the clock to make sure everyone’s equipment was running smoothly. On top of that, he was briefing the team on strategy, giving advice on nutrition, sleep, and recovery, and even cooking us dinner after the stages.

Tish, Jerry, and Adam (retired pro, skilled photographer, ridiculously attractive, favorite human being) took on the tedious task of bottles, feeding, and helping us recover.  Tish stocked the house with fresh, nutritious food every day. Jerry worked on us through dinner most nights making sure to address what each racer needed to get to the next stage as fresh as possible. Adam helped run through the bikes once we got to the course and assisted with loading and unloading equipment. He drove in the car with Andrew during the road stages and helped with whatever mechanical or feeding assistance we required. These three managed to get everyone the right combination of race nutrition (thanks xrcel and Rize Performance) and recovery, which is quite a task for a six rider team.

After the races Andrew had a recovery routine laid out including ice baths, massages, Epsom salt soaks, and early bed times. I think it all helped. Tish made sure to document everything through the week so that sponsors were able to see the activities they’re supporting. Really, without her focus on making sure sponsors are satisfied with the team we wouldn’t be able to do any of this, and Tish is really good at helping us remember how important sponsors are.
 
Our supporters do all of this so that we have a chance to race our best race. We had some successes and a lot of learning moments. Here’s what happened in each stage from my perspective.


Stage 1

The first stage was a new course this year, and it was brutal. Sixty-two miles with a six mile neutral section, nine technical switchbacks down to Devil’s Den and a 3 mile climb out, plus a steep steep steep 1 mile finish climb. The wind was howling that day, yet somehow it was still unbearably hot. I think this race was the hardest I’ve experienced since Stage 2 of Redlands last year. The race started out pretty tame, with most riders just trying to stay out of the gusty crosswind.

At mile 20, there was an intermediate sprint. Kim led Madison and me up to the front where Kim and I rotated, keeping Madison out of the wind and in position for the sprint. As it approached, she jumped around our wheels and won the first sprint of the race.  We were stoked.

Everything calmed down again until we started to descend into Devil’s Den. I could feel the anxiety in the Peloton as we all raced to be in good position for the descent.  The women’s field was huge that day, and descending Devil’s Den in bad position meant you’d have a big gap to make up on the climb. So unless you’re able to climb like Katie Hall, your race is pretty much over. The race intensified as we closed in on the first switchback. Leading up to the technical section felt like we were racing into the first corner in a crit. It took a couple switchbacks to string out the pack. I got down the descent in pretty decent position taking 3:20 seconds to descend 2.5 miles. Kendall Ryan had about a twenty second gap down the descent as she absolutely ripped it through the technical section.

The climb (power data above) started out steady, but approaching the steep section the climbers picked it up and I was dropped from the front group.  Flora and I gathered with some riders from IS Corps and Meteor to finish out the race. Debbie, our mountain climber, made the break of the day and finished 15th. The whole team finished within time cut.


Stage 2

Stage 2 climbed up mount Gaylor and finished with a sprint up the crit course climb. It was 62 miles with a short neutral. I think the whole field was feeling the day before, and everyone took it pretty easy up to the base of Mount Gaylor. We hit it hard on the bottom, pushing over 300 watts for several extended periods (photo below). We actually averaged close to the same power as the climb on stage 1 but for a longer time, which tells me the combination of heat and nerves really affected my performance in the first stage.  Once we got about three miles up the pace eased and it was just a few shorter bursts to make it all the way to the top. Attacks flew once we passed the feed zone, but the combination of riding downhill in a tailwind and a mostly fresh field meant nothing was sticking.


 

 The real drama on stage 2 was a car in the middle of the course 1 mile before the finish.  The pack was leading out the sprint around 50 km/hr when suddenly the peloton squeezes together because of a car parked in the middle turn lane. I was fortunate to slide by it unscathed, but Debbie, our GC rider at the time, went down. We’re all grateful for her handling skills, because a less experienced rider could have crashed much more severely. We came away from stage 2 just happy to be safe and able to start the next day.  


Stage 3

The time trial. It was really cold. I didn’t have the ride I wanted, but time trials are something I’m really trying to figure out this year. I think I should have pushed harder, based on my practice efforts my watts should have been around 286 instead of 266. I also didn’t practice the time trial after two hard road stages so it’s challenging to assess my effort.


 

I’m lucky they extended the time cut from 20 to 40 percent. Katie Hall absolutely crushed the winning time and our whole team would have been cut without the extension.  


Stage 4

The Joe Martin crit is I think one of the hardest I have ever raced. The hill is hard and unforgiving. A technical section on the top means that if you aren’t in good position you have to move up on the downhill, and essentially get no recovery.

 Our shot at GC was gone by stage 4 so we had a go ahead from Andrew to race aggressively. I wish I could have. I stayed in good position for the first 8 laps then hit a wall. I could feel my legs about to blow and not surprisingly I was dropped with 6 to go. I got in a chase group and finished the race within time cut, but I left that race feeling really down about my performance.  

After a few weeks to process I’m not so upset about what happened at Joe Martin. I’m really fresh in terms of racing this season, and I think I have focused my fitness more on the power I’ll need to be a good teammate in crits.  

What was the most amazing about Joe Martin was seeing how much support we have from team management, sponsors, and fans. I heard my St. Louis crew cheering me on every lap in the crit, even when my legs were done. Andrew, Adam, Tish, and Jerry gave us everything they could, and for that I’m really grateful. I’m excited to be a part of this community, and I’m confident that as we grow as a team results will come.