The Chico Stage Race has haunted me for about as long as I’ve been racing bikes at an elite level. My first encounter with the early season Northern California race was in 2015, fresh off a winter training in Nice, France with my friend Ian Boswell (at the time riding for Team Sky). Ian went to college in Chico for a few years and spoke highly of both the event and of the roads of Chico, as well as a particular restaurant (Basque Norte) that has been a highlight of the trip for me each year I’ve attended.

The three day, four stage bike race opens with a fast-paced circuit race on the perfectly smooth Thunderhill Raceway outside of Willows, CA. Despite the impeccable surface, this race has been the bane of my performance each year. In 2015, still a Category 2 racing in the Pro/1/2 combined field and desperate for upgrade points, I was devastated to discover that I would have finished top-10 on general classification had I only finished pack time on the opening stage. But after my pedal came apart just five laps into the two mile circuit, chasing for time cut was as good as I could manage and my GC pursuit was over before it had even begun.

In 2016, a newly crowned Category 1 racer, I was hungry for redemption at the race. “Whatever happens, it can’t be worse than last year,” I thought aloud before the start. Pro tip: don’t ever say things like that. Lap one, my chain shifted off the inside of the cassette at speed, tearing apart my spokes like they were made of uncooked spaghetti. Mechanical support struggled to get the mess unstuck for about two minutes before sending me off with a borrowed wheel for my dejavu individual TT to make time cut. I declared I was cursed on this track and booked a trip with my girlfriend to Hawaii that next year instead of making a third attempt at the race.

But this year, with a new team and new equipment behind me, I decided that I needed to give Chico another shot. To my surprise, the race had shifted to Thunderhill West, an entirely separate race track upon which I was pleased to learn I do not have a curse. I decided that I needed to race the opening stage conservatively after really big winter of training. Not attempting to force anything myself, but covering key moves from the front as they came and went, I managed to refrain from any seriously draining efforts off the front.

After 70 of 90 minutes, I decided that even though I wasn’t attacking, the aggressive patrolling I had been doing near the front of the group would not be productive on the day. So I settled in to a much more comfortable position in the middle of the group to save energy for the remainder of the weekend’s races. Predictably, just as I came to that ultimatum another attack went off the front. It looked like a really good combination of teams, and I decided that my prior decision was a load of crap. So I worked my way back through the pack and attempted to bridge. Far too late to bridge, I hung in no-man’s land for about half of a lap before returning to the field once more, under the false pretense that at least my vain move had motivated the peloton to ride a bit closer to the breakaway and potentially spur on a late catch. That breakaway of 10 riders stuck us by about 20 seconds on the day. It wasn’t a terrible start, especially compared to prior years, but it was not a great way to start out a stage race.

That evening, I was able to share my modest success and lament my modest failures with my parents and girlfriend over a fantastic family style meal at Basque Norte. We toasted our impending move to Boulder, and their support through all the years of racing.

After our five course Basque style feast, I was feeling fresh and excited for the following day’s Paskenta Road Race. A bit of a legend in the West Coast racing scene, this 90 mile race features about a five kilometer gravel sector just before the finish line. With a background in cross-country mountain bike racing, gravel racing is one of my strongest disciplines and I was excited to put the hurt on with my lone teammate, Taylor Warren.

The two of us rode fairly reservedly for the first lap through the gravel. But come round two, we alternated at the front of the race, helping to turn the group of 90 into a group of about 20 as we came back onto the paved finish stretch as riders all around us popped carbon rims wide open, punctured, crashed and hissed in anger. At about 3k to go, Taylor hinted that he wanted a crack at the sprint and I was more than happy to put in a big dig on the front from 1k to the 200m sign in order to help him secure a hard-fought podium finish on the day. I rolled through near the back of that group, gassed from my lead out, but finishing lead time and preserving my GC position.

We celebrated over some burgers and beers that evening, after somehow securing an astonishing last-minute seating for our party of 10 at The Pour House brew pub on St. Patrick’s day. It was luck o’ the Irish for sure! Taylor won’t admit it, but he’s a Leprechaun and it was his special day. Big places and great food don’t often go together, but this place hit the spot. Plus they left the green dye behind when serving our beers.

We went to bed that night looking forward to the real test for the weekend, the River Road Individual Time Trial. I had felt a bit flat going into this race, but I knew my fitness was good and I took the line with confidence anyhow. Time and time again I’ve proven to myself that I usually know how to pull out a good time trial in spite of my preparations, or lack of preparations. I didn’t hit the time I was shooting for (really didn’t even come close). But my new Cuore speedsuit sure felt slippery out there, and I went fast enough for seventh on the day. This moved me into seventh on general classification, and that was good enough for me considering that my travel schedule the past few months has allowed me just a day or two on the TT rig. To time trial among the best, you should really ride your time trial bike. I’m excited to get settled in Boulder next week and finally begin riding my new team-issue Scott Plasma.

By the time we lined up for the final stage, the 90 minute Downtown Chico criterium, I counted my blessings at the weather we experienced for this race. Coming from Hawaii, Nicole and I were looking at the forecast in fear. Rain was called for on at least two of the three race days, and it wasn’t 75 degree Hawaii rain. Instead, we had made it to stage four without a drop.

I played around at the front of the race for a while, accidentally finding myself up the road with my friend Joey for a moment at one point. But nothing was to last on the day. In the end, the same giant sprinter who won the circuit race kicked it home and I rolled in mid-pack to retain my GC position.

In the end, I didn’t quite finish on the podium. There’s always a lesson to learn in this sport. No matter how many years you try your hand at a race, it’s unlikely you’ll ever win. Granted, the Chico Stage Race wasn’t a highlighted race for me, and I wasn’t expecting much without a team around me. So I’m happy with the result as I continue my preparations for Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas next month. I had a ton of fun getting to know my teammate Taylor and his family a bit better. My 68 year old dad finished 3rd on GC in his age group. My girlfriend finally figured out how to ride a TT bike and synced with her revamped team to pull out a top-15 result in an even more competitive Women’s P/1 field. My friend Linda provisioned us a stellar lunch of corned beef sandwiches and cupcakes by the lake while her son taught me how to throw a boomerang. My mom continued her 100% bottle handoff streak in the road race, pinned numbers for both myself and my dad for each stage, and put up with our whining all weekend when we got hungry. She deserves the gold medal for sure. I bought her a pitcher of beer instead — and helped her drink it alongside a two-time Tour de France veteran.

It was so freaking cool that all of my biggest supporters, Matt, Evan, Linda, Mom, Dad, Bob, and Nicole were able to get together for the start of the 2018 season to help out and cheer us on. Each of these people has contributed enough independently to my racing career over the years to have made this crazy dream possible for me. Without each of them, I really doubt I’d still be writing about bike racing today — at least not my own racing. And you know what? When bike racing is all said and done, which it will be someday for us all (except my dad), those are the relationships and memories that make it all worthwhile. Because lord knows that even the best of us don’t win at this game very often at all.

— 303 Project Rider, Dillon Caldwell (Photos: Ben Guernsey)