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2023 Valley of the Sun Stage Race

2023 Valley of the Sun Stage Race

Hold on to your udders because we’re about to take you on a wild ride to the Valley of the Sun with the Holy Cow Racing team!

Nick Besse, California Team Captain, represented Holy Cow Racing at the VoS Stage Race in the men’s cat 2 field. Continue reading to hear Nick’s ups, downs, and the key takeaways from racing the Valley of the Sun Stage Race.

For years, Valley of the Sun had been a bucket list race for Nick. Unfortunately, timing and fitness never seemed to align until 2023. Determined to make racing a priority and start healing from the stress and latent anxiety of the past few years, Nick made the trip and checked off a major bucket list item.

Day -1: Wednesday

Since the drive was 12+ hours, my friend and I decided to leave early and split the drive down into two days. We left a bit early for work and “turned right and drove till we were bored.” I-5 really does take its toll on a man’s sanity after a few hours. Travis brought his dog, Joan, along for the ride and she was a good driving companion.

To avoid the LA traffic in the morning we went through Bakersfield and stayed in a small town called Mojave for the night. In case you weren’t aware, there are two Motel 6s in Mojave and we originally went to the wrong one, but did get to our room eventually. 

Day 0: Thursday

We decided to leave on the earlier side to try and get a ride in when we got to Phoenix. As with most best laid plans of cyclists, we were running late almost immediately. We dined at the greatest of all pre-race restaurants - Denny’s. Consistent, cheap, and surprisingly absorbent pancakes makes Denny’s a good option to carb-load and down some coffee. One thing we didn’t know when we got in was that Mojave, CA is home to an aircraft graveyard. Before heading out we drove out to the edge of the airport and let Joan wander around a bit while checking out all the aircraft. It’s now a bucket list to actually wander around the field and get up close and personal.

The rest of the drive was relatively uneventful and we stopped in Indio for lunch. Did you know that the Salton Sea is arguably one of the worst things ever caused by California agriculture and that the air quality is so poor in that portion of the valley the asthma rate is double the national average? Aside from environmental disasters, watching the landscape slowly turn from farms to desert with mountains in the background and again to the southwest desert was absolutely indescribable. Next time I’m down in the area for a while I will be taking my gravel bike. I met up with my friends, Bobby and Jessica, who I’d be staying with and we had Bucca di Beppo for dinner. I do not think I have been to a Bucca since high school and it really was the perfect place to load up on lasagna, fried mozzarella, and leftovers for the week ahead.

Day 1: Friday

Stage: 10 mile flat out-and-back time trial. 

Cooked Temperature: Medium Well

Stats: Official time: 24:17 - 24.9mph, Placing: 34/40 +3:16 on GC, Power: 313avg/315NP, HR: 183avg

Bobby and I were both racing cat 2 this weekend, so it worked out well timing-wise. I was the second person to start in the cat 2 field and, as not a time-trialist, I had my work cut out for me so as not to get passed by too many people. Unfortunately, I also do not have a TT bike which meant I was on my road bike with borrowed clip-ons and a TT helmet from Travis that was a bit too small. With all these factors, I had no illusions of winning or even doing well, my goals for the weekend were to push myself, test my fitness, and get back into a racing mindset. Fueled by PB&J sandwiches and bananas, we left to get to the course a bit early for “packet” pickup.

It’s a good thing that we got there early to do packet pickup. In a first in my almost decade of race experience, the organizers lost my number. After a lot of back-and-forth I got a new number and my original number did not show up for the entire weekend. During the warm up it became very clear that wind would be a major factor. That meant staying in the aero bars for as long as possible, which is something that I have struggled with in the past. Travis had gone before me and let me know that I should go hard on the way out and not plan to save much for the way back, since the tailwind was so strong. 

Since this was my first TT in years, I was paranoid of blowing myself up too early. My FTP was set to around 320W, so I set a goal to hold around that and used my heart rate to gauge my effort and dial accordingly. Dare I say I nailed the pacing for myself. The way out was indeed quite hard and windy. There were some surprise dips for (dry) river crossing and a sharp right corner that I thought was the turn around initially. My 30s and minute men passed me less than 10 minutes into the TT, one of which would get 2nd on the day, but I tried not to let that get to me - they both had TT bikes and disc wheels. By the time I turned around I had fully warmed into the effort and was ready to dump it in the tailwind, but at 31mph it was hard to keep my cadence high in the aero bars. On the way back the aero bars started to slip down, making it so I was effectively sliding off the front of my bike. Even though I did not place well or even in the realm of good, I am proud and happy with of my effort on the day. 

After the race, we stopped at a Safeway to grab some chicken and pasta for dinner and some other groceries to get ready for the road race the next day. The rest of the afternoon consisted of stretching, rolling out, drinking lots of water, theragunning, and generally recovering from the drive and that morning’s effort. Consistent and solid recovery on stage race weekends is key to surviving and racing to your best potential.

Day 2: Saturday

Stage: 78 mile road race. 4.8 laps on a flat course with a 5-8 minute power climb.

Cooked Temperature: Well Done

Stats:  3hr 17 minutes, 24.1mph avg, Placing: 31/40 +13 minutes on GC, Power: 194avg/249NP, HR: 163avg/199 max

I still contend 11:30am is the best start time for a race. It’s early enough that you don’t waste the morning just waiting around and late enough you can actually sleep in a bit. More PB&Js and bananas to fuel our morning and we left to get there early. Due to parking limitations at the course, there was a very limited number of feed parking permits. Even though we arrived an hour and half before our race, we did not get a feed permit and had to park about a mile away from registration. Not having a feed meant that I would need to take an extra bottle in my jersey and all the food I needed. Fortunately, the Arizona Highway Patrol traffic control was excellent and we did not have a problem getting to the start. I knew the climb was going to be an issue for me; it was a fast tailwind climb, meaning that raw power would be more important than w/kg, I have never been good at the 5-10 minute efforts and I would have to do it 5 times to stay with the group. Additionally, this would be my longest ride by far since August 2022.

Lining up on the start, the group was anxious but friendly. I met some guys from all over California and Arizona, so at least when I got dropped I might have some company. The group started exceptionally tame and the cat 3s caught us fairly quickly on the initial downhill. At some point a break of 2 or 3 got up the road and the moto neutralized us up the first climb to avoid multiple fields overlapping. Through the feed zone the group started to heat up a bit and we were full gas into the first descent with people kicking up tiny pebbles the whole time, I really should have worn shin-guards. As we were getting ready to pass the cat 3 field, I could sense someone was going to do something unchill and attack. I moved my way up to the front half of the group and sure enough, the instant I got past the 3s someone attacked. Hard. It almost split the field, but the back half managed to stitch things back together. Coming into the first real climb I was quite nervous. The hard right off the cross-headwind section meant you were immediately sprinting in a tailwind coming into the climb. I tried my best to sag-climb with moderate success. The real climb started with 2 minutes at an average of 422W, the overall climb I averaged 366W for just under 5 minutes. 

I knew that effort was not sustainable, but if I got over the climb the rest of the lap was relatively easy for me. Leading into the second real climb, I tried my best to start near the front and sag climb. Easier said than done. The climb is divided into 3 sections: the lead in, the increasingly steep section, and the feedzone/finish area. After the steep section the climb “levels” off to about 3-4% and in my opinion, this is the most dangerous section. I actually got popped just over the top of this section and with a concentrated effort and the group easing just a tad, I managed to catch back on. However, the effort left me near cramping and deep into the red. I was also going to run out of water. I found Bobby in the pack and offered him my water, knowing that I would almost certainly be gone the next time over the climb. I was not ready to give up quite yet though and still fought my way to the front for the 4th climb. I managed to hang on to the group until about halfway up when they surged. Rather than bury myself so deep I’d be immobile or cramp, I pulled the plug and stayed within myself. To add insult to injury, a wasp stung me in the thigh minutes after getting dropped. This let me cruise the last lap with Logan comfortably in upper zone 2. I consider it a success I only had to ride one lap in the wind. Just finishing the race was an achievement for me and I shocked myself making it over the climb as many times as I did. My weakness was not in the power I could sustain, but lack of endurance for rides much over 2 hours. Fortunately that’s pretty straightforward and easy to train.

Afterward we stopped at a brewery where I had a big burger and Bobby and I both cramped. Second dinner was whatever was left in the fridge at the AirBnB. Despite drinking an obnoxious amount of water, stretching, and recovering to the best of my ability, I still felt a bit feverish going to bed. Fortunately, Bobby had the foresight to turn the AC on so we didn’t just stew in our discomfort all night. Felt weird using the AC in February, but gotta do what you gotta do.

Day 3: Sunday

Stage: 45 minute crit. 5.5 corner flat and windy.

Cooked Temperature: Medium Well

Stats:  40 minutes, 28.9mph avg, Placing: 27/40 +13 minutes on GC, Power: 263avg/287NP, HR: 180avg/194 max


The best part about late-day crits is you get to sleep in as long as you want. The advantages end there. Waiting around and trying to figure out how to fuel for a late afternoon race is tough. I mostly laid in bed, drank water, did some light stretching, and tried not to get too into my own head. By the time I got to the course, I was a bundle of nerves. Physically I felt pretty good, but I was ill prepared mentally for the first real crit of the season. I had seen this course a ton on YouTube and was really excited to finally try it. Corner 1 was deceptively off-camber and the inside line had a manhole cover of questionable traction. Between corners 2 and 3 the outside had plastic posts used to mark off a bike lane and between corners 4 and 5 there was a concrete median that could cause problems. Corner 5 and 6 were basically one long corner and it was very easy to move up on the inside, though the drainage in 6 did nearly buck me off my bike at least once. The key to a good crit in a stage race is a good warm up. Even though I didn’t have a trainer, I was able to warm up quite well on a side street and get some of the gunk out of my legs.

Lining up, I was quite anxious. We all assumed it’d be full gas from the start, since it was such a short race for cat 2. I used to be quite good at crits, but not so much anymore and my only goals were to not crash and finish with the group. Positioning is always important, though with a relatively small field size and a fast non-technical course I was not too worried about getting dropped. On the whistle I pulled a real mistake - I missed my clip and slammed myself onto the top tube. Fortunately, the group did not go full gas from the get-go. After a few choice words and some hard pedal strokes, I was back in the group. Only to have to immediately dodge a water bottle skittering across the road. Alright, one more strike and I’m pulling out of this race. Luckily, nothing else major happened until the last lap crash. 

The group as a whole was a bit squirrely. Coming out of covid there are a lot of people uncomfortable in the pack and for the first time I felt I was more confident in the corners than most of the field. It took me a while to figure out how not to keep slamming my brakes in every corner because the people in front of me would slow up far more than I was anticipating. I even made it to the front a few times, but with guys diving corners and the hard attacking, I did not have the mental or physical fortitude to stay there. I spent most of the race yo-yoing front and back, practicing getting toward the front without needing to expend a huge amount of energy or spike the power. By the end of the crit I was getting pretty good at it. 

I knew Bobby had been racing a lot more than me recently and had a better chance of doing well. At 2 to go I dropped back, found him, and told him to stay on my wheel. I started moving my way up the pack and wound up being 5th or 6th wheel coming through 1-to-go. I pretty quickly realized I did not have that killer-instinct needed to hold on for the last lap. I started losing wheels with the swarms around me and did not have the confidence needed to really fight for position. Coming into turn 2 I knew something bad was going to happen. People were swerving and generally getting desperate. Right then between corners 3 and 4, a guy overlapped wheels with his teammate and went down in front of me taking out the rider on my right. I’d achieved my weekend’s goals and started to drop to the back of the pack to roll in safely.

That night we met up with Bobby’s friends and had a few beers. In hindsight, I should have eaten before having a beer because it smacked both Bobby and I like a freight train. Burgers, beer, and ice cream have never tasted so good. Especially before a 12 hour drive home.

Weekend Recap

Though my results were far from stellar, I am very happy with my performance and the weekend got me excited to race again. Recovering from the past few years has been exceptionally difficult, from lockdown to family health emergencies, my fitness has varied greatly and consistency has been near impossible. I wish I had had more confidence in myself for these races, but the purpose was never to win. It’s easy to get caught up in a mentality that you shouldn’t race unless you are going for the win, but ultimately this has stopped me from racing and enjoying riding my bike more often than it led to me winning.

Valley of the Sun was the first step in Making Hay and building a great year making hay, larking, and finding the joy in getting stronger again. I took an FTP test soon after coming home and am near my all-time recorded high with a current threshold of 355 watts. Over the next few months I am focusing on building the biggest aerobic engine I can for Unbound 2023 and my next target event is the Chico stage race at the beginning of April. VoS showed me that doing well in these races is not only possible, but more attainable than I previously thought and I can't wait to race more.

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