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Suffering and Sporadic Glory at the 2015 Tour of Walla Walla

Published by HPCCycling on 21 Apr 2015

words by Chris Bagg
photo by Jonathan McCoy

Two years ago, in my second race for the Hosmer Chiropractic-RPM Mortgage Cycling Team, I rode through the Tour of Walla Walla (ToWW from here on out, thank you very much) in haggard shape, unbelieving how hard the three-day, four stage race could be. I finished more than 30 minutes down on the Queen stage, day three’s 91-mile, 9-climb stunner. Our GC-man that year, Trevor Spahr, fared little better, falling out of contention after a tough final day. Stephen Bedford put in a mammoth attack that created the winning breakaway, but flatted with less than five miles to the finish. We left the ToWW feeling a bit like rookies: we’d sampled one of the region's biggest races, but gotten our butts kicked.

In 2014 we fared better. Trevor took 7th place in the time trial and then held on to the second finishing group on the final day to finish in 14th place on Overall GC. Instead of finishing dead last on team GC (as we did in 2013) we moved up to 6th place out of 9 teams. In 2015, with many years of collective Walla Walla experience on the squad, HCH-RPM looked to have its best year yet. We sent Josh Liberles, Trevor Spahr, Chris Bagg (myself), Stephen Bedford, Jonathan McCoy, and new signees Kent Ross and Adam Oliver to the race. The plan was to work for Oliver, our best climber and fittest racer, for GC. Bedford and Ross would aim for the crit, with Liberles, Bagg, Spahr, and McCoy all filling support roles.

In a shuffle from years past, the time trial began things off on Friday: a prologue-ish 11k out-and-back south of Waitsburg, a small town that hosts three of the tour’s four stages. Usually the time trial is held Saturday along with the criterium, making up a standard road race/time-trial/crit/road race format. This year we would line up for the TT and first road race on the first day, followed by the crit on Saturday and finale RR on Sunday.

Spahr scorched to a 7th place finish in the time trial, recording a 15:01 split. Oliver and Bagg took the next spots on the team, at 15:27 and 15:42, respectively. A chipper but realistic Spahr came back to the house after the TT, saying “Well, that was great—my race is over now!” We had, however, put three riders inside the top 30, which gave us cards to play in the ensuing races.

Stage Two is a short but difficult road race: three loops of a 20 mile circuit, where each circuit offers a longer, shallower (but tailwind) four-mile climb, and a shorter, steeper, headwind two-mile climb that is also the finishing climb. Our general strategy was to preserve energy give Adam a chance to win. As usual, the first lap was very fast, with groups attacking and being brought back regularly. None of us suffered any mishaps, and Adam went to the front of the race at the base of the final climb. He finished comfortably in the lead group in 13th place, which moved him up to 12th overall. Bagg came in 36 seconds later, helped across the line by Liberles, enough to move up to 25th overall. The team nudged up to 5th place on Team GC.

Crit-tastic

Saturday yawned before us on day two, with only the criterium to worry about for the whole day. As compensation, the organizers added 15 minutes to the race, lengthening it to 70 minutes. Again, the stage began quickly, as most crits do, the sketchiest stuff coming in the first few laps. Eventually the riding settled down, and we began to move riders forward. Going into the last few laps Bedford and Liberles were both positioned well near the front, when the usual final lap disaster struck: on the final corner of the penultimate lap, the whole front third of the field went down. Bedford was swept away completely, while Liberles scooted through unscathed. Adam sprawled to the ground lightly bruised, and the rest of the team managed to make it past the crash. Officials attempted to re-start the race as a “five laps to go” sprint. The field, spooked by the crash, booed the officials, who relented sportingly, saying they had enough information for a result. Those who succesfully avoided the late-race crash were rewarded with results, and Liberles mixed into the final sprint, claiming 7th on the day. A relieved but bruised field went home to get ready.

Some of the HCH squad, however, went to the ER. Bedford had hit his head pretty hard during the crash and displayed some short-term memory loss. He believed it was 2010 and couldn’t recognize his bike. Liberles and Bagg took him to the Providence Hospital in Walla Walla, where he ended up getting a CT scan. It came back clear, but he was urged to forego racing the following day. Bagg and Liberles, meanwhile, discovered that the best lunch bargain in Walla Walla can be had in the basement cafeteria of the Walla Walla hospital. We will definitely frequent that establishment again, preferably only for the food next time.

Walla's Queen Stage

Stage Four, Sunday’s queen stage, had also been altered: instead of its normal 91-mile, nine-climb killer, the stage had been shortened to 77 miles and eight climbs. The difficulty, however, with the climbs at Walla Walla, is that they are frequently tailwind, big-ring climbs. They are fast and very difficult. This year was no different, and all of the teams rode aggressively from the start. Jonathan McCoy was most active on the team, joining an early breakaway, while Spahr, Ross, and Liberles shepherded Bagg and Oliver around the main field.

As soon as McCoy’s break came back another attack rolled off the front and established a good gap. Hagens-Berman, the regional U-23 powerhouse, worked to bring the group back, and as the field began the third lap everything was together. Soon, though, another breakaway formed, including local OBRA riders such as Jeremy Russell (Therapeutic Associates) and Paul Bourcier (Smith and Nephew). The field seemed unmotivated to bring the group back, and eventually Oliver attacked on the final climb. His work split the remaining peloton into groups and he was able to escape, along with the yellow jersey, Jamey Yanik (Bob's Bicycles).

Oliver managed to stay away from a chasing group that included Bagg and Ross, doing their good-faith best to slow the chase, and picked up a few more seconds on GC to crack the top ten, finishing 10th overall for the whole race. Bagg moved up another couple of spots to 23rd, and the team almost made the Team GC podium, taking 4th overall.

Although we haven’t reached the level, yet, where we dictate the outcome of the TofWW as much as we'd like to, 2015 improved again on our previous year’s finish—2016 promises to be our best Walla Walla yet.

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