Why would you drive for 4 days? Perhaps your destination involves leaving cold weather for a tropical beach or maybe visiting family rarely seen. For a small cycling team, budget constraints often entails increasing windshield time for everyone.
Our trip to Fayetteville, Arkansas was long and sometimes boringly arduous but the Joe Martin Stage Race rarely disappoints with incredible racing that’s worth working the odometers of the Silber team’s vehicles. We were warmly greeted by our generous hosts Steve and Beth Booth and quickly settled in for a busy week.
The first 3 stages of the 40th Joe Martin Stage Race (or JMSR) can be summarized by one word — Rally. Their performance and execution could be described as flawless. 2 stage wins, and a GC stack-age that was envious but it was their tactical display that left this opposing director duly impressed. Rally continually outmaneuvered the other teams and held the upper hand in both 180km road race stages. They were in strong position going into the final day’s criterium. Done deal one could mistakenly think.
Fayetteville is a college town. It has a youthful and energetic vibe. Closing down Dickson Street among the cafes, shops and watering holes for a bike race can’t be easy but the town takes the race in Southern stride. It’s a Sunday and you can almost feel the hangover.
I touched on this summarizing last years edition of the JMSR, but let me repeat. The final stage criterium in Fayetteville is probably the most exciting race of the entire season. No joke. The course descends the aforementioned Dickson Street on the backstretch while climbing back to the finish and the adjacent downtown square. It’s a rather large 2km course but they pack in 8 technical turns and decent elevation gain. Its difficulty is well known and the riders are apprehensive and even a bit scared of its reputation. Did I mention also that rain was a certainty? The wet conditions would reveal how good our new Vittoria tires are.
We were banking on the three big teams punching themselves out before coming up in the second half of the race to take advantage of accumulated fatigue. Indeed, it was mostly UHC doing most of the softening up but Rally were holding firm with race leader DeVos even increasing his GC lead in snagging a time bonus. Stephen would cover a strong move but it would be the next break that would eventually dictate this year’s race. 4 riders would go clear including Silber’s young sprinter/rouleur Alec Cowan. UHC would have Jonny Clarke in the quartet, and with the Aussie sitting 31 seconds down Rally could finally feather the gap to a group of their liking.
The fascinating tactical game continued when 4 more riders bridged across including Cylance strongman Eric Marcotte and the impressive Holowesko rider Robin Carpenter. Sensing the danger, Rally rider Evan Huffman tagged along and the break soon had 8. Rally held the virtual leader with Huffman and as they did the prior two days, they once again put the responsibility on UHC to control. The problem is with Jonny in the break and paying for their early efforts, it soon became clear that the blue train was in trouble.
Up front, the cohesion was decent. Carpenter went immediately to business with some monster pulls but he was getting excellent help from the Cylance duo of Marcotte and the impressive Garibay. Arapahoe’s Morgan Schmitt took some turns as did the Aevolo and Harley Davidson rider. Alec was told to hold back to save legs for potential stage winning ambitions while Huffman rightly surfed the rear. Despite being a passenger for multiple laps, Huffman was unable to hold off Carpenter in the second intermediate sprint and it was clear that Rally made their first mistake of the race.
The matchup of Carpenter vs. Huffman would certainly fall the former. By the time everyone realized this, the gap was a problematic 25 seconds. Rally were able to summon their tired troops to the front but there was no denying Carpenter’s GC assault. He’d even attack the break and win the stage solo while Alec would try a last lap attack for second place and come close as Marcotte would surge by on the uphill run in.
On the long drive home I couldn’t help but think back to past editions and appreciate the racing that happened on the streets of Fayetteville, and maybe should write another entry of those fading memories. The newest additions were worthy. Robin Carpenter is one of the most impressive riders I’ve seen. He continually amazes me with his strength and panache. Why the World Tour teams haven’t signed this guy astounds me.
The JMSR has taken some flack recently over the lack of coverage and it was good to see improvements in that area with a busy social media director. Maybe someday soon they’ll take it up a level and somehow stream the racing so you at home can witness the dynamic action and drama that happens every year. With 4 days of driving total to make it happen for the Silber team, I assure you it’s worth the trip.