As the Tour of the Gila rages on down in New Mexico, 303 Project rider Dillon Caldwell reflects on last week’s Joe Martin Stage Race. Energy conservation and good fortune were not on our Joe Martin squad’s side last week, but so far the Gila team is taking those hard lessons to task at this week’s race and capitalizing on some much better luck to grind out some impressive results.

It turns out that Arkansas is called the “Natural State” for good reason after all. I was thoroughly impressed by how much I appreciated the community and natural beauty in “that town that invented Walmart”. The contrast in Bentonville between the modern coffee roaster Onyx, which made me feel like I was right back at home in the Pacific Northwest, and the old-school backwoods bait shop across the street really tickled me. It was analogous to the town in general, with fresh Walmart money reinvigorating and gentrifying old school American neighborhoods right and left across the town. And the cycling-friendly infrastructure, from miles of paved paths to built-out single track and mtb skills parks brought a smile to my face. Why did I even bring a road bike here? The Walton family that founded Walmart had a lot to do with this, as their sons are passionate riders themselves and they are presumably huge supporters of active lifestyles and the overall health of their hometown. Arkansas turns out to be a fantastic place to ride road bikes as well. But for more reasons than just the vibrancy of the local mountain bike scene, I’ve decided that I’m bringing my mountain bike the next time I visit.

After riding into a ditch chasing the split on stage one of the race, I remembered that although my new team issue IRC road tires did a phenomenal job of handling the impromptu cyclocross line through the 20% grass embankment without tipping me onto my head, they weren’t exactly built for the job. Nonetheless, upon scrambling back up the hillside and chasing back on through the caravan of team support vehicles, I was disappointed to find that I wasn’t the only rider from our team that had missed out on the big move. As such, our team was tasked with riding hard on the front of the peloton to control that move’s lead, as the lone UCI team that had missed the split. Between a block headwind and our first hot, humid race of the season, the effort really zapped our energy. By the end of the day, our team’s chase efforts had cost us in a big way. Two of our guys had already been forced to abandon after just the first stage, one of them ending up in the hospital for an IV drip and blood panels.

Stage two wasn’t much kinder to The 303 Project. Things started out well, but as the rain began to fall, things started to change. All within the scope of about ten minutes time, our rider who had made the early breakaway flatted out of that move, our sprinter flatted out of the peloton, and one of our core support riders crashed hard in the heavy downpour as we made our way back into town. In the end, it was up to just our rookie cyclocross convert Grant and I to contest the fast, wet finish. Instead of the heroic solo rider emergent in the finish that I may or may not have been dreaming of, I found myself testing those new IRC tires in the dirt beside the course once more after a hail mary of an attempt to move into good position way too late. After returning to the course through a chorus of whoops and hollers from spectators, I fought my way back through the carnage in that final kilometer to finish lead time on the stage. But I was barely within view of the winners on the day. Fortunately, our three riders who finished behind on stage two made it back within time cut and were able to line up with us for stage three. And fortunately, we made it through Mountainburg just a couple of hours before a fatal tornado wreaked havoc on the sleepy little mountain town.

We had just two chances left to make an impact here in good ol’ Arkansas. A good individual time trial could launch me into the top-10 on general classification, which wasn’t the initial interest here, but would serve as a good consolation prize after all our troubles in the road stages. I needed only 13 seconds to advance to a top ten spot and I really liked my chances on the ~10 minute net-gain time trial course of achieving just that. This kind of course profile was my bread and butter, and I had been eyeing this stage for months. Unfortunately, my legs didn’t match my confidence on the day. I knew this before I even saw results, as my Pioneer power meter recorded that I had only averaged a few watts higher than what I know I can put out for a 20 minute effort.

In stage racing, fatigue is cumulative. So as much as strength, teamwork, and tactics influence race outcomes, conservation really makes a tremendous difference. If you have to chase back on after a crash, if your team has to chase down a breakaway, or if you have to come from behind in a finish after a mistake to save time, all the little energy expenditures add up in a big way. By stage three of a four day stage race, the ones who are able to remain the freshest usually perform the best. Although, for stage winner and eventual second place finisher on GC, Brendan Rhim, I don’t know that this statement applies. I watched Brendan and his team ride the front all day on stage two to control the breakaway and eventually bring it back to preserve his teammate Ruben Campanioni’s leader’s jersey. It didn’t seem to phase him at all as he put down the best time on the Devil’s Den time trial. Somehow I moved up to 18th on GC after a mid-pack performance on stage three, but there was only one more shot at making a real difference in the race for our team.

Over dinner that evening, I agreed with our director that in the following day’s criterium (the final stage of JMSR) I would focus on a stage result rather than my mediocre GC placing. I would see where my legs left me after the short TT day allowed my form to rebound and I would give an honest shot at contesting the uphill finish in front of a packed downtown Fayetteville crowd. If the sensations weren’t good, I’d give my all to help my teammate Chris, who had secured a top-10 finish on this course before. Unfortunately, our only two teammates left in the race crashed out of the race early on and Chris and I were on our own for making that play. In the end, neither option was to be, as Hollowesko drove the pace hard to bring back a dangerous breakaway and both Chris and I fought to simply finish with the lead group on the day.

So there was no stage result. There was no top 10 general classification finish. Our lone success from the week was my top-20 GC spot. For me, this was a small individual victory, as it was the best finish I had achieved at a UCI 2.2 stage race to date. But for a professional program, this was not even close to what we expected of ourselves. And I couldn’t help but feel bad for not being able to contribute more for the program’s first race. But in the end, I guess it was just that: our first UCI race as a professional program. We made some critical errors at the start of the race that snowballed into some flatter than expected performances. We had some really rotten luck. And we suffered through some crazy twists in conditions. But such is bike racing. More importantly, we learned from our shortcomings, committing to take those lessons into the next one. We bonded with each other as well as any team might ever hope to do, both riders and staff. The season is young. As is this team. Pretty soon, it will click for us all and we’ll be able to show all our amazing fans and supporters why we’re in this game in the first place.

So as Hollowesko Citadel was basking in the sunshine on the podium with a whole host of victories on the weekend, we were manically packing the back of the trailer to head to the next event. Driving home through the night, the team arrived back in Boulder just in time to hand over the keys to the van to the other half of the team, who would be giving it another shot at New Mexico’s iconic Tour of The Gila stage race. As I write this, that team is lining up for stage two of that event already, shooting for a stage result on day two of the competition and looking to improve upon Isaiah Newkirk’s top-10 GC spot after a great finish on day one. Check out the team’s Instagram for updates throughout the weekend (@the303project).

 — 303 Project Rider, Dillon Caldwell (Photos: Dean Warren and Brooks Bixler)