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Home Misc. Misc. Reading Tour of Willamette: A Pack Filler's Ride

Tour of Willamette: A Pack Filler's Ride

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A Pack Filler's Ride

The Tour of Willamette, a five day stage race in Eugene Oregon, is perhaps the gnarliest bike race in the U.S. With its steep narrow climbs and fast twisty descents, this predominantly local Northwest race is as close to European style racing as it gets. The race consistently draws its 120+ rider field from California, Canada, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The tour also traditionally attracts pro teams seeking a hill climbing pre DuPont tune-up, or so they say (if you ask me, the riders that get sent here to suffer in the rain did something to piss off their team director). In the past Coors Light has shown up.

Last year saw Saturn dominate. This year both Chevrolet/LA Sheriff and Montgomery/Bell sent representatives. Guiltless Gourmet sent Roberto "Mountain Goat" Gaggioli. For those that don't know the story of the Tour of Willamette, here it is. This race is not about $40,000 prize lists. There is no money to speak of ($1000 10 deep); it is simply about old-school bike racing. It is about that 5K section of beat up road that's 10 feet wide and everybody's fighting to be in the top 20 going into the first big climb. It is about blazin' down a switchbacking, wet, moss and pine needle covered descent that makes going up seem like the easy part. It is about riding shoulder to shoulder with a Tour de France stage winner. It is about slamming into a 15%-20% climb with 120 other riders, it's raining and 50 degrees and you're at the back lookin' up at the ensuing carnage, but you're thinking "damn this is cool". Welcome to the Tour of Willamette... 


Wednesday, April 12: Green Hill Prologue---3.3 K The weather: Raining and 50 degrees.

Great day to be a bike racer. Not much thinking during this stage; line 'em up and go. The first two kilometers are false flat and the last kilometer climbs 500'. For mortals it's about a seven and a half minute effort; genetic mutants: six minutes is par. Go too fast on the flat and you're gonna blow on the hill. Go too slow on the flat and well, you're gonna go slow. Guess I went too slow (7:48 and 81st place). Eddy Gregus (Montgomery/Bell) scorched the course in 6:22 to take the leaders jersey. Best lame-ass excuse overheard at dinner: "I would have been top 20 but I hit this huge headwind".

Thursday, April 13: Brush Creek RR --- 110K; 6700' climbing. The weather: Sunny and 75 degrees!! Yeah right, and then I woke up. It's raining and 50 degrees at race time.

This race is plain and simple, if you can climb you'll be doin' fine. My strategy going into this race is also simple, make the time cut. Easier said than done. The HUGE 10K climb starts just after the start so everyone is going balls out from the gun to get good position for the climb. Then we make a right turn going from a wide county road to a federal BLM road (Bureau of Land Management). This thing is no more than 10 feet wide and pine needles take up half of the road. 120 guys are all trying to get to the front. Need I say more? I catch a glimpse of a yellow road sign "NARROW WINDING ROAD NO WARNING SIGNS". They should have put another sign like that one before the descent. The real climb starts and it's steep baby!! 15%-20% pitches for 3K. Can you say "standing in your 39x23". I start the climb in the middle of the group and start to work my way back.  As I turned to the next page in the races' script it read "Willett: exit rear". 

Groups of riders dotted the climb for as far as I could see. I crested the climb in a dense fog (or was it a lactic haze). Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. This descent is indescribable and no words can do it justice, but I will try. Imagine a cheaply constructed road 10 feet wide used thirty years ago for logging. Moss has grown in ridges on either side of the two wheel ruts; pine needles, gravel, and bark make it even more treacherous. Take a look on the outside of one of these corners and it's 300' down. Now imagine losing five minutes on the climb and pressing on the descent to make up time. Imagine front flatting. It's a good thing it happened to me on a straight section so I could stop with all my flesh intact. I managed to hook up with the "Big Boys" group after the descent (everyone in the group was the anti-Moninger type, if you catch my drift) and finished under the time cut. We were a paultry thirty minutes down. Simeon Hempsall and Jeff Pierce (Chevrolet/LA Sheriff) rode away the last time up the climb (we did three laps of a 23 mile circuit) for the victory. Hempsall had a commanding lead on GC now, with Pierce in second.

Friday, April 14: Kill Hill II RR --- 170K 5000' of climbing. The weather: rain, hail, sun and 40-55 degrees.

The course today is more mellow than yesterday. Ride out 10 miles to a 40 mile circuit, do two laps and ride back to the finish. Someone forgot to tell the guys at the front that we were doing 100+ miles today as we were sprinting out of the parking lot. It was single file for the first couple of miles including a little climb. I thought I was going to get dropped PDQ but we started to descend and I managed to recover. As we descended to the circuit a lone rider had escaped and managed to build a significant lead of nearly four minutes. Little attacks were going off until Pierce and Hempsall decided enough was enough and rode at the front. The intimidation factor set in and the attacks quickly stopped.

Everything was together until Wolf Creek, a 3K-4K 800' climb. The field was spread-eagled all over the climb and I crested it about a minute behind the leaders in a pretty good chase group. Meanwhile up the road a breakaway had formed including Chad Gerlach (Montgomery/Bell) who was actually in front of the break, Pierce, and my teammates Greg Randolph and Mike Burdo (Olympic Sports/Tough) among others. Hempsall was absent from the move, but Pierce was in it if it stayed away to take over the GC. After flatting on the descent and getting a wheel change I rejoined another chase group that included the "Mountain Goat" Gaggioli. We chased for probably 20K and finally rejoined the main field just as an inspired chase by the Canadians who had missed the break began.

I counted my lucky stars that our GC man Randolph was in the break; I was in no mood to go to the front and slave away. The break stayed away over Wolf Creek for the second time, which is where I checked out for good. I rode in with a huge groupetto of about 35 guys until the final climb up Fox Hollow to the finish. The chasing Canadians had kept the break close enough to swallow all riders but Gerlach up before the finishing climb. Ron Schmeer (Thomas Kemper Soda) immediately countered with Gregus and Hempsall in tow. The tiring Gerlach was swept up with 6K to go and Gregus attacked his breakaway companions. Gregus managed to stay away for the win on the day. Needless to say, there were a lot of tired boys after this stage. Probably the worst bonk of the day goes to Doug Carlton of Pazzo Velo. On the last climb up Fox Hollow Road my group passed the bespectacled one. He was going 2 miles an hour, max. I asked him if he was alright. I didn't get an answer...

Saturday, April 15; 9:00 A.M.: Hamm Road RR ---- 110K 2300' of climbing. The weather: cold, cold, cold: 40-45 degrees and no rain in the forecast.

Today's goals: ride at front and be active; try to get in an early breakaway. The course suits me today and I am feeling particularly well recovered from yesterday's efforts. It sounds funny to say it, but I feel better today than I did on Wednesday.

That is what was going through my mind on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, that was also going through the minds of Chris Hamilton (Finlandia), Luca Segato (Tecate), and Roberto Gaggioli (Guiltless Gourmet), and they were on the front line. Faster than Robin could say "holy first kilometers Batman", those three were gone. 

No one in front was interested in chasing, and by the time I got my nose in the wind they were outta here. The course was fairly flat with some small 300-400' climbs. Jeff Pierce rode tempo and I had the pleasure of sitting on his wheel as we wound our way through the lush Creswell flatlands. Pierce would cruise along in his fifteen casually glancing at the surroundings. It was as if he were out for a Sunday spin. I turned my head and the field was single file for twenty or so guys with the rest spreading across the road. It's not everyday you get to draft off a stage winner of the Tour de France, and I was doing just that. I was in heaven. 

Some little attacks began to go off nearing the end of the first of two twenty mile circuits. I tried my hand in one of them joining locals Mike Rosenberg (Hutch's), Jim Savage (CT Racing) and Vaidila Kungys (Hutch's). Others bridged and soon there was nearly ten of us trying to get organized. The pros didn't want to be left out and a couple of Montgomery's along with Hempsall came up and through our group. I tried to stay with them but had spent too many fun tickets in the last 3K trying to maintain the gap. They continued on. It didn't matter, the field was in hot pursuit and soon everyone (except the three guys who took off from the gun) was back in the fold once again. 

A small group of four got away soon thereafter but they weren't going anywhere. At the end of the lap they finally submitted to the ever increasing pace spurred by numerous attacks. 40K to go and the pros are massing at the front. I was still at the front trying to maintain the goals I had set for the day when to my surprise one of the Montgomery guys asks me "There aren't any danger men up the road". My response was simply "I'm thirty minutes down, nobody's dangerous to me". 

Then I started thinking, this guy is a pro, where has he been for the last two hours and why doesn't he know there's a break that's way up the road. Let alone why doesn't he know who is in the break. Oh well, I guess this shows that the pro's are just bike racers like you and I. They don't know everything and can't always be at the front. With all the pros at the front chit-chatting, the pace slowed and the road began to clog up. 


I figured they didn't want to go fast and I gave it a go. I got a little gap and kept going. A minute later I looked back to see Pierce on my wheel. I submitted to the green jerseyed one. He said to me "Ya know, you interrupted my conversation". 

I sarcastically replied "You could've kept conversing". He smiled. I smiled. I think I kind of annoyed him that day.  Oh well, I was just racing my bike. 

Two hills to go to the finish and the field had dwindled to about 70 guys and I was at the front. As I went over the top of the second to last hill I had come off the pace a bit and pressed hard on the descent. A furious five minute chase with a driven bunch of guys and we were back in business. One hill and 15K to go. 

It wasn't meant to be for me today as I got popped for good on the last climb half way up. I rolled in the last 12K with Craig Schommer (Montgomery/Bell) and Alec Duxberry (Pazzo Velo) about 2:30 down on the main field. Segato took the sprint for first on the day, surely surprising his only remaining breakaway companion Gaggioli. A small group broke away from the field in the closing kilometers with Savage taking third. Even though I didn't get a stage placing, I achieved my goals for the day and came home satisfied. My form was starting to come around.

Saturday, April 15: 4:00 PM: Camas Swale TT ---10 miles and flat. Weather: No rain is all that mattered.

What can I say to describe a TT? Go hard for a while. Lots of guys didn't really try this afternoon. How do I know? When I pass seven guys in a TT something's not right. Usually, seven guys pass me. Ask Clay Moseley how fast he went past me in the National TT last year....and he started eight minutes behind me!! My boy Greg Randolph (Olympic Sports/TOUGH) pulled off the victory going 10 miles in 20:23, closely followed by Roland Green of Canada in 20:27. The Kraiger put in a decent ride clocking a 22:12 (good for only 39th place). I've never gone that fast before. No pros at the top. Maybe they all got tired chasing down a scrawny white boy from Olympic Sports that morning. Yeah right!

Sunday, April 16: U of O Criterium--- 1 hour plus 5 laps. The weather: sunny and 65 degrees... No really, it was!

The tour was almost done as was my body. The first few laps were crazy since no one knew where the smooth pavement was (there were more holes, seams and cracks on the road than smooth parts). It settled down after a while and I took my customary crit position near the back. Dave McCook took a flyer and was soon joined by teammate Chad Gerlach and Hamilton (Finlandia) among others. They built nearly a one minute lead before the field sped up and brought them back to about 15 seconds at the finish. McCook took the win (Montgomery's third of the tour), while Hempsall maintained his GC lead with Pierce in second and Green in third. I couldn't crack the top twenty in the field sprint, but did manage to move up a bit near the end. My final GC: 60th. Right in the middle. A fitting end to a pack filler's tour.

Final GC:

1) Simeon Hempsall (Chevrolet/LA Sherrif) 12:33:15 2) Jeff Pierce (Chevrolet/LA Sherrif) 12:35:12 3) Roland Green (Exp Lav) 12:35:27 4) Eddy Gregus (Montgomery/Bell) 12:35:43 5) Anthony Bergsen (Unattached) 12:35:52 6) Ron Schmeer (Thomas Kemper Soda) 12:38:04 7) Carl Jacobson (???) 12:38:08 8) Greg Randolph (Olympic Sports/TOUGH) 12:38:10 9) Chad Gerlach (Montgomery/Bell) 10) Mike Rosenberg (Hutch's)