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Behind The Scenes: Holowesko & TWENTY16 Kick Off Redlands Classic

It’s 8:45am on a Wednesday in the city of Highland, California, and the 2016 Redlands Bicycle Classic is about to begin. Well over 100 of the fastest female road racers from all across the Americas are lined up at the start, ready to roll out for a neutral procession of a few miles before charging up the first of 14 hill repeats during the Stage 1 circuit race. The weather report called for clear skies and a high of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but the mercury continues to rise even at this early hour. It’s going to be a very hot day. Amidst the awaiting peloton stands Alison Jackson of the TWENTY16 pro women’s team, appearing calm and collected with a slight smile on her face. Jackson won this particular stage last season and is clearly eager to give it a go at a repeat victory.

Nearby, Jackson’s TWENTY16 teammates Kaitie Antonneau and Kristin Armstrong are ready to roll out of the starting area, and both of them look focused and determined. Team leader Armstrong has her eyes set on an overall victory in five days’ time, and now isn’t the moment to let nerves get the better of you. The same can’t be said of TWENTY16’s competition, however. Scanning the group, it’s clear that most of the racers are nervous, anxiously awaiting their first big event of the season or, perhaps, the first major event of their young careers.

The clock ticks over to 9:00am, well past the scheduled 8:45am start time. The race officials announce that there was a slight delay in ensuring all proper road closures were in place. Everything seems to be in order now. The American national anthem plays. The race organizers make a speech, thanking the riders, the team directors and staff members, and the countless volunteers who work diligently to ensure the success of the event. And then, the convertible Ford Mustang carrying the race director pulls away, and the 120-strong peloton of women follows, ready to take on one of the toughest events in the world of cycling.

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A UNIQUE EVENT

The Redlands Bicycle Classic is one of the longest-running and most prestigious stage races in the United States, with 2016 showcasing its 32nd edition. Taking place primarily in and around the city of Redlands, California, located approximately 60 miles east of Los Angeles, the Redlands Bicycle Classic is one of the biggest races of the year for the nation’s top domestic professional and amateur squads. And for most, it signals the start of their racing season and gives them a chance to size up their competition heading into the later parts of the year. The five-day stage race offers up a little bit of everything for both the male and female riders and their fans, including two road races, a time trial and a criterium. But the opening stage consists of a tough circuit race with a brutal uphill finish that often sets the tone for how the rest of the event can play out.

“It’s sort of a crapshoot today,” says Thomas Craven, Chief Sports Director for the Holowesko-Citadel men’s pro team. “We haven’t really raced against any of these other teams yet this season. This stage hasn’t typically been a real factor in affecting the final GC (general classification) results. But if you screw up here on Stage 1, then it can ruin the whole race for you. As far as we’re concerned, we’re anticipating a group of three or four guys rolling off the front, which we’re not too worried about. We think it will come back. We don’t want it to go farther than a minute-and-a-half to two minutes up the road though. It’ll just be a big gallop at the finish. We’ve seen time and time again that a break that looks promising will get caught on the last lap. So for us, it’s all about being attentive for the first part of the day, and then ensuring that over the last three or four laps that we’re the strongest, freshest team.

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Holowesko-Citadel team director Thomas Craven goes over the day’s strategy with his racers.

“You’ve got to be in the right position on the last day in order to win the whole race. At that point, you can win from the front by going into the last stage with the lead, or you can play the aggressor and go after the win. But you have to be close enough on time to make that happen, and each stage plays into that final day. The GC should really be set up over the second and third stages, with an uphill finish on the Stage 2 road race, and then of course the time trial on Stage 3. We’ve got the best time trial bikes and the best time trial wheels, so we’re confident that our riders can put up the best times.”

THE MEN TAKE THE FIELD

It’s 10:59am and the women’s race has wrapped up, with TWENTY16’s Alison Jackson coming up just short of a repeat win. She took second place on the day while her team captain and TWENTY16 general classification hopeful Kristin Armstrong rounded out the podium in third place. Back at the starting area a few miles away from the finish line, the men’s race is about to kick off. The majority of the racers have pedaled up to the starting area, awaiting their send-off that’s scheduled for 11:00am. Holowesko-Citadel rider Robin Carpenter lingers back at the team car, however, enjoying a small bit of shade against the searing sun and collecting his thoughts while enjoying a moment of calm before the storm. Carpenter’s training preparations coming into the 2016 season took an unfortunate turn back in February when he crashed in a local criterium and suffered a concussion. It was enough to keep him off the bike for a few weeks, which for a pro racer prepping for the start of a new season, can seem like an eternity.

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Holowesko-Citadel racers Robin Carpenter (right) and Oscar Clark get ready to start Stage 1.

“I’ve only been on the bike for about four weeks while recovering from the crash, so I don’t really know what to expect, but we’ll see how it goes,” says Carpenter. “I woke up this morning and had some Intelligentsia coffee. Breakfast was already laid out, courtesy of our team director Thomas Craven and soigneur Brian Doege, which included pancakes, bacon, oatmeal, quinoa and all sorts of other things like berries. We watched the finish of the Tour of the Basque Country in Europe. And then I made sure everything else was in order, checking to make sure my jersey numbers were pinned right, my bag was organized and got my kit ready for the day.

“Travis McCabe is our fastest rider on a finish like what today’s stage offers, so we’ll be trying to protect him as much as possible. But when it comes down to the end, we’ll have a couple guys try and get everybody to the front when it counts on the last lap, but being sure not to get anyone up there too early. Depending on how I feel, I might be one of those guys who’s just working to get the team up there to contest the sprint, or I might be feeling good and could be one of the guys contesting the sprint. It’s a bit touch-and-go right now, but it’ll be good to get a gauge on my fitness and my speed.”

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THE MECHANICS PREPARE

It’s 11:05am and the race officials send the racers who had collected at the starting line back to their team cars. The slight delay in the women’s race has pushed the day’s schedule back a bit. But as the rest of the Holowesko-Citadal riders roll back to the team car, they seem to relish having a few extra moments to mentally focus on the day’s work ahead. While the riders banter back and forth discussing the strategy for the day, Holowesko-Citadel’s chief mechanic, Casey Magner, paces around the team car, double- and triple-checking that it’s well-stocked with water bottles, tools and spare equipment. Magner, along with the rest of the team staff, have a long day ahead of them and are staring down an even longer week.

“This is my fifth season,” says Magner. “I come from the Southeast area of the United States, namely Ashville, North Carolina, Greenville, South Carolina, and Athens, Georgia—I tend to bounce around. The biggest responsibility for me here at Redlands is taking care of all the bikes and wheels. At this event, there are eight race bikes, six spare bikes, eight time trial bikes and 30 pairs of wheels that we need to keep in working order.

“For today’s Stage 1 circuit race, specifically, team follow cars are not allowed because the course is relatively short, a little over two miles. So we’re going to set up a kind of a pit stop area, about halfway up the finishing hill. That’s the slowest part of the course, so if the riders on our team have any kind of mechanical problem, that’ll be the easiest spot for them to stop and get some service. I’ll have five bikes and two pairs of wheels there. And then our team’s other mechanic, Doug Sumi, will have wheels and a bike on another part of the course, just in case. In some of the later stages where follow cars are allowed on course, we’ll be out there to give the riders mechanical service as it comes up. We’ll have six spare bikes mounted on the roof of the car, as well as four pairs of spare wheels. We’ll listen in on the race radio and hope that the race officials don’t call our name, meaning that one of our riders requires service. But if they do call us, then we’ll zoom up there, I’ll hop out and we’ll fix what needs attention. After the race, we’ll wash all of the bikes, run through all of the equipment and make sure everything is working well for the next day’s stage.”

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TWENTY16 team mechanic Ralf Medloff stands ready at the Stage 1 start line with spare wheels.

Like Holowesko-Citadel and the majority of the more prolific squads at Redlands, the TWENTY16 women’s pro team’s mechanics have similar duties. Ralf Medloff, head mechanic for TWENTY16 is taking part in his eighth edition of the Redlands Classic, but the first working for a women’s professional squad.

“I’ve worked with men’s pro teams in the past, and after all those years, I like to think that I have the experience to know what needs to be done in terms of a mechanic’s responsibilities,” Medloff says humbly. “As a mechanic, my responsibilities pretty much involve all of the technical stuff. I need to make sure that I have all the Felt bikes ready for the day’s race, and also to ensure that we have all the other equipment ready, like spare wheels and tools. And, for sure, if something breaks or requires some mechanical work, either due to a problem during the riders’ warm-up spin or even during the race, then the mechanics will need to make sure it’s repaired and ready to go. And if there’s some spare time for me, I’ll usually help out the soigneurs in prepping food and water bottles and whatever else they need. But the main job for me is to manage the equipment.

“During today’s the stage, which is the first stage and a circuit race, there are no follow cars allowed on the course due to it being a short route with many laps. So I will be at the feed zone helping the soigneurs handing out bottles to the riders. And if any of the riders has a mechanical problem, then I’ll be there to help out and give them a spare Felt bike, or even a new race wheel in case of a flat tire. In some of the later stages where we have a follow car within the peloton, then I’ll be inside the car to help the riders out with bottle hand-ups, and give them a hand with any technical problem that may arise, from a derailleur adjustment to a slipping seatpost to changing a wheel in the event of a flat tire.”

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TWENTY16’s soigneurs hands out bottles to the team in the feed zone.

A NARROW MISS

The thermometer is registering at almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the men’s field has been racing hard for nearly 60 miles. One rider from the breakaway has dropped his companion and is off the front of the peloton with a 90-second lead going into the final lap. The field charges by the finish line as the bell rings signaling one lap remaining, but the fans in attendance know that the day is done in terms of the first place result. A few minutes later, that lone rider crosses line for the final time after a truly impressive display of form, earning himself and his team a well-fought victory.

Behind him, however, the action continues as the field begins splintering apart as the fittest among them begin sprinting full-gas up the steep finishing straight. A neon yellow helmet emerges from the bunch. It’s Holowesko-Citadel rider (and designated team captain for the day) Travis McCabe. He’s giving it everything he has but just narrowly misses out on second place, officially taking third on the day. It’s not the result he would have preferred, but McCabe is an experienced racer and knows how to learn from the day’s result.

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Holowesko-Citadel rider Jon Hornbeck crests the finishing hill on Stage 1 of the Redlands Classic.

“Well, we didn’t win today so things could always be better,” says McCabe. “But I think everyone underestimated [stage winner] Ruben [Companioni]. Once the break got out to three minutes, we knew it wasn’t good. So our team got on the front of the field with around 10 laps to go, and I think with this heat, it was a mistake. We burnt a few matches early on, so we didn’t have too many riders in contention at the end, so I felt like I was freelancing a bit. Six of us traveled here directly from a race in Alabama, and I think we were feeling the travel and the fatigue in our legs. But all in all, I’d say that third place isn’t bad. I personally made a few mistakes towards the end of the finish, but I’m looking forward to the next few days. I’ve been riding the Felt AR and just the way that bike handles is great. It’s very a responsive and solid bike.”

McCabe is telling his story of the day’s events with a book in his lap while sitting on the porch of a beautiful home in the city of Redlands. The majority of teams who travel to the city of the race opt to stay with “host families,” gracious members of the communities who offer up extra space in their personal dwellings to provide shelter for the weary racers in between stages. For professional cyclists who typically stay in hotels of often-questionable repute throughout the season, the chance to spend time in a well loved home with kind hosts is a welcome treat, and one of the many elements that makes the Redlands Classic so unique.

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Holowesko-Citadel’s Travis McCabe recovers after sprinting to 3rd place on the day.

THE UNSUNG HEROES OF REDLANDS

Holowesko-Citadel’s director Thomas Craven is unloading bags of groceries in a well-appointed kitchen. Peering out the window, one can see a small orchard of orange trees. A pitcher of freshly squeezed lemonade sits on the counter, lovingly prepared by one of the hosts. As Craven organizes the produce and prepares the team’s meal for the evening, it’s clear that he feels right at home.

“When you have a large team and staff and you book yourselves into a hotel and then go out every night to feed everyone, it adds up and can eliminate a good chuck of the team’s budget,” says Craven. “So we’ve been fortunate enough to find people like our host families here in Redlands offering up their homes to us. We keep in touch with them throughout the year and we always look forward to coming back. We feel like we’re coming home when we come to the Redlands Classic.”

“We love coming to Redlands because we stay at the same house every year, so we’ve become very good friends with the host families,” echoes Holowesko-Citadel’s head soigneur, Brian Doege. “There’s no other race like this.”

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TWENTY16 riders Alison Jackson (left) and Kristin Armstrong (right) celebrate taking second and third place, respectively on Stage 1 of the Redlands Classic.

A few miles away, the TWENTY16 women’s team is relaxing at their own host family’s house. The athletes are strewn about the property, some taking a nap inside the main dwelling, others reading a book in the guesthouse, and others are preparing a snack. Cid Breyer, the property’s owner and host to TWENTY16, is relaxing, too. She’ll be prepping a big dinner for the team later that evening, but for now, she exchanges a few words here and there with the riders, but mostly gives them their space. Cid has been doing this kind of thing for quite some time, and knows how to run a truly exceptional host house for the visiting pro cyclists.

“This is my 22nd year hosting racers,” says Breyer. “It’s a lot of fun, and I love it because you develop these longtime friendships with the riders. I think it’s quite a bonding thing for the community, too. When it started hosting riders, it was a very small race. The mayor at the time who wanted to start the event had a bit of pressure against him. Some people thought that it might be too much for the community to handle. But it’s just kind of just grown and grown. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the community now to come together and support the racers.”

“This is my third year racing Redlands and every single host is like family,” says TWENTY16 rider Jess Cerra. “They all just let you take over their house, and they all want to cook you dinner and take care of you. And that’s super important, especially for women’s cycling because we’re in this sport for the passion and because we love it and not to make a ton of money. So having a host do something like cook dinner for you can make a big difference during a long race. The community is so supportive too and always welcoming. I love this race. It’s a hard race, it’s dynamic, and you have to be a dynamic rider to have success.”

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TWENTY16 rider Kaitie Antonneau on Stage 1.

MEASURING SUCCESS

“We want to win this race,” says Cerra. “That’s our number one priority and definitely achievable with [team captain] Kristin Armstrong. Keeping her safe, making sure she didn’t have to use too much energy today and making sure that she’ll be well prepared for the other stages, especially the time trial, that’s key for us. And looking at the dynamics of the race with the time bonuses today, our secondary goal was to get as many of our riders on the podiums as possible, especially Alison Jackson since she won the race last year. But we also have several other riders on the team, including Leah Thomas and Chloe Dygert, who are great time trialists, so we didn’t want them to expend too much energy either.”

“Our main goal is to win the overall and then to pick up stage wins,” says Alison Jackson, who took second place on Stage 1. “I think that this course still suited me as a rider, so the power climb finish was one that I thought I could do well on. We always like to take the win, but second is still pretty good. Redlands is the race that everyone wants to get to, and it’s a hard race. Both men and women can get scouted here. Even last year when I won the first stage, I was a nobody. I came onto the team as a wildcard. This race brings in big teams and brings in local teams, too. And ‘nobodies’ can do well, which I think is great for the sport because it gives more riders the opportunity to do well, even if they’re not currently on a big team.”

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The Holowesko-Citadel team sits on the front of the chasing field in the men’s race, working to bring back the breakaway.

A NEW STAGE ON THE HORIZON

Out front in the house’s garage, TWENTY16’s chief mechanic Ralf Medloff is busy cleaning team’s bikes, making adjustments to derailleurs and ensuring each and every one is shifting perfectly. With plenty of more bikes to attend to, his day is far from over. Back across town in front of the Holowesko-Citadel team house, mechanics Casey Magner and Doug Sumi are doing the same thing, washing and working on their team’s machines. Up on the porch, Holowesko-Citadel rider Travis McCabe continues to read his book while teammate Jon Hornbeck gazes off into the distance. A prolific blogger and social media enthusiast, Hornbeck is mentally preparing to type up a full report from the day’s racing. He suffered a mechanical problem on the stage when another racer plowed into his wheel, breaking a few spokes and sending the wheel out of true. Without any time to fetch a replacement from the mechanics, Hornbeck had to simply ride out the rest of the stage. He’s trying to hide his disappointment at finishing 34 seconds off the winner’s time, but Hornbeck is a positive person and is fast becoming a consummate professional. “Tomorrow’s another day,” Hornbeck says. “There’s always another bike race.”

With four more stages to go in the 2016 Redlands Bicycle Classic, and with a squad as strong as Holowesko-Citadel, Hornbeck will undoubtedly get a few more chances to stretch his race legs. For now, though, like the rest of the riders on his team and those on the Felt-powered TWENTY16 women’s team, as well as the few hundred other racers relaxing in host housing across the city of Redlands, Hornbeck waits, looking forward to the next stage.

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