Killington Stage Race
Words by Jaime Soper, Photography by Johnny Hsu
Killington Stage Race is one of those bike events that you hear about long before you even decide to race. It might have a certain stickiness because the word “kill” is in the name, or maybe we just all remember it as a place for annual ski vacations. About a month ago, when we all had Battenkill (another “kill” race?) on the brain, I decided to send a one line email to my Rockstar Games Racing team, “Killington Stage Race: who is thinking about it” The usual jokes about fitness levels and tan lines trickled in but by the middle of May we had FOMO-ed a group of 8 into an airbnb rental. To combat pre-race nerves, I began my usual team email spam weeks in advance, you know, just the important updates: PRE REG CLOSES TONIGHT. THERE IS A HOT TUB AT OUR HOUSE. NO SHOWER AFTER THE ITT.*
About a week before we head out, Natalie and I’s 24/7 communication shifts from snack talk to race prep and we respectively abused our Amazon Prime accounts. I begrudgingly order Tegaderm at her suggestion (“It’s hard to find in small towns! And expensive!”) and manage to buy three bags worth of snacks from whole foods, but no “whole food.” I am so distracted by purchasing snacks that I almost miss pre-registration.
The race is comprised of three stages. Stage 1: A 30 mile circuit race, Stage 2: A 60 mile road race that ends going up a ski hill and Stage 3: An 11 mile time trial. It’s not my first stage race but it’s the first I’ve gone into with the plan to do more than finish. I hope to safely finish Stage 1 with the same time as the field. I want to podium in the road race and win the GC. Kyle Murphy has been coaching me all season and had lots of reasonable advice for this plan. The majority of which I fail to follow.
Stage 1, we wake up and it’s cold! 33 degrees winter cold. Everyone is confused about what to wear, but eventually we all settle on some version of knee warmers, booties, arm warmers and our warmest base layers. I start the race too warm and decide to race gloveless. After seeing a lot of photos where I’ve unzipped my jersey and inch too far, I decide to try and avoid that look for the day. From Rockstar Racing, we have Me, Lucia, and Ceren. Lucia starts the race up at the front, keeping me largely out of the wind. I feel refreshed at the first QOM and decide to go for it. On my wheel is Senta, an unattached beast from Boston. I had raced with her at Army Spring, but am frankly terrified when I see her easily dance up to the QOM while I snag 2nd. As it turns out, it is an omen for what is to come. After the descent I hear a crash behind me. All of the girls start freaking out and calling out who they think crashed. We saw a guy crashed out and laying on the road on our way out to the QOM and, even though Lucia tells me not to look, I do. I don’t look back in our race and then spend the next 5 miles freaking out that I haven’t seen Ceren, Lucia, or Natalie in a long time. I debate dropping out of the race and start a cycle of negative thinking. “Oh, this is not worth it. I don’t want my friends to be hurt, etc. etc.” — it is a long and uncomfortable time until Natalie pops up at the front of the pack and says, “Hi! I crashed and chased back on!” I can’t even process how this is possible, but sometimes Natalie does impossible things like this and we all have to accept her superhuman strength.
I am notoriously bored in races which is why I am most often found attacking or recklessly trying to breakaway, but the strategy for today is to chill, so I do that, kind of. I put in an effort on the second QOM to find Senta’s wheel, but I’m boxed in during the final meters and decide that I’m not going for QOM this weekend. Luckily, Natalie is hanging out up front so we start talking about all you can eat pancakes and asking around the peloton to see if anyone wants to join. Quiet group that day. For the finishing sprint, I watch Natalie move up and sprint her legs off for 3rd. I get within the 500 meter marker for GC time and sit up. I feel fresh but it’s still hard to stomach that not finishing hard is somehow part of a strategy. Kyle later reminds me that I could have made an effort to go with Natalie. Oh well, the patience game begins.
The best part of bike racing is finding out about neuroses you didn’t even know you have. On Friday night, Natalie and I have the same thing for dinner (spaghetti and meatballs obvi), I even force her to share my spinach salad. After this moment, we have to eat the same thing for every meal. It’s a joke, but it’s also very real. Egg Sandwich with avocado after the race, burger with no beer for dinner — “Oh wait, yes we will both add a cup of soup please…” — oatmeal with same mix-ins for breakfast…we just can’t stop. Eventually, we manage to order two different pasta dishes and, when hers arrives, I scowl at it for so long that Natalie offers to split our plates. I also activate my second stage neuroses of being afraid I won’t have enough to eat and she offers me the rest of her noodles. This moment sums up our incredible friendship.
I’m really nervous going into the next stage. Race nerves are really starting to kick in which primarily manifest as forgetfulness around really basic tasks like taping on my cue sheet (thanks Paul!) or even adding air to my tires (thanks Tim and Johnny)! It takes a village for us to all be race ready and I’m lucky that Johnny and Lucia have gone into full-on race dad and mom mode. Lucia even brought her recovery #spacelegs and we start a wait list, eager for any and all marginal gains.
Stage 2, I am ready to go for it. I show up at the start line in my leather jacket and pedestrian shades…attitude is in full effect. Unfortunately, it’s hot out and I am actually just sweating out critical hydration that I’ll need to power up the defeating grades later in the day. Natalie and I do things like hold hands at the start line and talk about how great things are. Today is destined to go well. The race starts with a short incline and then miles and miles of descending. At breakfast that morning, Nat and I have realized that she can win the overall Sprinter’s Jersey — she just needs to win the intermediate sprint and then place higher than the otherwise tied sprint leader. We usually spend hours trying to calculate what time to meet before a race, but somehow manage to make race strategy decisions in seconds. When the time comes she moves up and wins the sprint. Watching your friend visualize and then accomplish a goal is so boss.
Next up is the first QOM. I’ve already decided that I’m not going for the QOMs that day, but I also can’t miss a winning break. There was a lot of discussion about gearing before this race, it’s decided that I should be fine on an 11-28, but I watch my teammate Paul put a 32 on and it’s all I can think about as I’m grinding my way up the climbs. Natalie and Ceren are in the chase group and I have a vision of them catching our break of eight. This motivates us to work together and build a 3 minute gap before the final climb. I don’t have a lot to say about the final climb because it’s always easier to dissect it in retrospect: Could i have gone harder? Could I have caught the girl in 3rd? What if my leg cramps got worse? Our team coach Dan Chabanov had emphasized that it’s “big ring rollers” after the QOM so, in my imagination, I figured I would make back lost time. I think big ring rollers means something a bit different to a Category 1 Pro and, in the end, I don’t make up the time and finish first off the podium (4th!) and 1:26 back in the GC.
Back to all of Kyle’s good advice. He had been urging me to use TT and aero gear all week. I have somehow managed to work out 3 halfway plans for aero gear and am saved by Lucia lending me her bike and helmet. She spends hours with Johnny and Tim trouble-shooting the shifting and I am so in awe that these are people I didn’t even know a year ago and here they are delaying dinner to help me get ready. Bike racing friends are really cool. I’m sure that practicing on a TT bike in jeans on a trainer in the kitchen wasn’t what Kyle had in mind, but I am lucky to have such a supportive team that this worked.
Stage 3, Ceren, Natalie and I apply fake tattoos all over our bodies. When I’m standing in line for the porta potty later in the day, I see a team Zipcar girl with fake dino tatts and squeal that we all have fake tatts today! She quickly points out that yes, we do, but hers are dinos and I have…sparrows? She later wishes me good job in the middle of the ITT, so I’ve since forgiven her for winning the badass game. How I perform in a big race can be mapped against a bell curve of how terrible I feel the night before. The night before the ITT I’m convinced I have madeleine-style appendicitis (something is not right!) and I’m jolted awake at 5am by nausea so fierce that I spend the next two hours looking up all 33 competitors on USA cycling, rating their TT skills and making educated guesses as to whether they have access to good equipment. Somewhere around 6:50am, I decide that I am going to pass five people. Natalie makes us family-style breakfast and I sneak an extra Nespresso from my teammate Gregg (What a pro! He brought a Nespresso machine!). My other (non-present) teammate Evan has advised me to “TURN IT UP AT SKYESHIP,” which is a point 6 miles into the course. Before the TT, we are all warming up on trainers at the start and I begin to freak out about how much I am sweating. Johnny kindly points out that if I would like, I can take off my spaceship aero helmet until I actually start racing. Still, I am convinced I’m going to fog up and be blinded by my own body heat.
I go out of the gate a bit too hot and struggle to find an even tempo. Mental games are very important in racing, but particularly notable for solo efforts. I start playing a game of “pac man” where I can see and pass a racer in front of me, but I am already looking two people ahead for the next person to catch. I end up passing five people just as I’ve decided to do. At the finish, Ceren tells me I am turning green and tries to get me to sit down. I am woozy from the effort, but really impressed by how supportive our competitors are. Every person I passed said “Good job, keep it up” DURING the race and are congratulating me at the end. Per usual, Johnny has just magically appeared to shuttle us back to the house and we’re about to leave when the results are posted. For this stage, I have a :58 minute gap on 2nd place Senta. Quick math comes into play and we are fairly certain that I’ve just barely snagged 2nd place in the GC.
The podium was set against beautiful Vermont and a quorum of NYC cycling scene kids are there goofing off and ‘gramming results. I text my mom the good news, with an important disclaimer “Don’t worry, the knee tattoos are fake!” We have a 5 hour car ride back to NYC during which Paul and I alternate between listening to Howard Stern and Road Race Nationals — coach Kyle lands an incredible 8th place that day and I am over the moon about HOW COOL BIKE RACING IS. I screenshot all of Kyle’s important advice and vow to start listening to it. Natalie has somehow rallied to a party back in Brooklyn while I lay on the floor and think about how I can possibly find time to clean my bike before the next weekend of racing and rationalize that I do need to buy a Nespresso machine…and so we’re off to the next weekend of races!
Jaime would like to thank her sponsors: