Tulsa Tough is one of the premier criterium series in the US. Read about Sam Bassetti’s return to high level racing, and his overall victory below
2018 was the best year of my racing career. I had finally stepped up to the level I had always believed I could reach. I was ranked 2nd in the Pro Road Tour standings and won multiple races I had previously only dreamt of winning.
2019 was to be my year, I wanted to be the best rider in America. I set out on my winter training with a renewed sense of purpose and determination. Progress was as good as ever, but by the middle of December, a poor combination of strength training, bike fit, and high volume riding left me with enough knee pain that I could not ride.
For 11 weeks I barely touched a bike. I had an excellent support system helping me get healthy, but I still grappled with being so inactive. I hadn’t been off the bike for more than one or two weeks for about ten years. While plenty of riders have come back from much worse, it was a difficult time for me.
I watched from the sidelines as my Elevate KHS teammates tore up the racing scene domestically and internationally. At first I thought that watching the races would only make me more bitter about not being able to race, but it had the opposite effect. It was inspiring to watch them race, and it made me even hungrier to come back.
My first full week of training was the first week of March, I rode for 7 hours, 200 watts felt like 350. I’ll save the specifics of my return to training for another time, but for the first 7 weeks I cautiously walked the line between re injury and effective training.
As a coach, I had to construct a plan for myself with little margin for error. There wasn’t time to ride around in zone two for eight weeks. I had to get fit quickly, but with one eye on each knee. I had under three months to go from zero, to racing at Winston Salem, a race that I had won last year. After a few months of determined training, topped off with some local racing in Norcal, I hopped on the plane to North Carolina.
I returned to racing with the team at Winston-Salem and Air force Cycling classic. My team was excellent at both events, winning almost every race, and I picked up some promising field sprint wins and podiums, including 2nd in the Air Force omnium. Next we traveled to Tulsa Oklahoma.
Tulsa Tough is one of the most iconic Criterium series in the United States. The race is made up of three days of crits in omnium format (points are awarded for your finishing place, as opposed to a time based format). The entire community of Tulsa shows up to support the race. Spectators line the courses every night. Tulsa is known for its rowdy crowds and every night is wild and unique.
The first night is a blazing fast course held at night in the Blue Dome district. Spectators fill the course, and with five laps to go, fireworks erupt from the nearby baseball stadium, injecting even more adrenaline into the already hyped up riders.
Day two features a course in the nearby Brady Arts district. A small hill takes the field past the diviest dive bar in Tulsa, the Sound Pony. It’s patrons spill onto the course, screaming and offering beer handups all race. A quick descent into the final turn leads to the fastest sprint of all three races.
Day three is the River Parks Criterium, better known simply as “Cry Baby Hill”. 60% party 40% bike race. The course takes an uphill corner onto the short but punishing cry baby hill, and the riders enter another world. Beer, water, and who knows what else flies at the riders as they labor up the climb. The sound of Vuvuzelas, whistles, screaming voices, sirens, and the smell of smoke fill the air.
Costumed arms reach over the barriers, offering beer, money, and high fives. Half naked bodies bake in the hot Tulsa sun as the riders slowly tire and begin to crack, while empty beer cans roll across the road like tumbleweeds. After 40 seconds of chaos, the course takes in one more small roller, then a few moments of silent descending into “crash corner” and back to the packed start finish.
**Get a feel for “Cry Baby Hill” by checking out the short video below – Nate
We entered the first day at Tulsa Tough with last year’s day one winner (me), last year’s overall winner, Alfredo Rodriguez, and third overall last year, Ulises Castillo. With three teammates, George Simpson, Jordan Cheyne, Kyle Swanson to help control the race and help set up for the sprint, we felt good about our chances. The race was fast, technical, and fairly straight forward, ending in a field sprint.
In the end, I went early, came out of the last corner with Alfredo on my wheel, but we lost the sprint to Justin Williams (Legion of LA). I finished second with Alfredo third. While being on the podium is always great, we didn’t come to Tulsa for 2nd place. We reset for day two.
With a small hill in the course on day 2, there was a chance that aggressive racing could break the race open, and we could take the overall lead. The goal was to put myself or Alfredo in a break with one teammate, then drive it and hope that Justin’s team couldn’t ride us back, this had worked for us at the Armed Forces Cycling Classic the previous weekend.
Part way through the race, I made it into a large break with my teammate George. At one point we had a sizable gap, but in the end we couldn’t drive the move hard enough, there was not enough cooperation in the large group of riders and we were reabsorbed for a field sprint.
Alfredo, and the rest of the team went down in a crash with one lap to go, so Ulises and I would be left alone for the sprint. We wanted to jump about 200 meters before the last turn and go through the last corner 1-2. But we started a little too far back, and couldn’t get over the top of everyone in front of us. I went into the corner 5th wheel, had good speed and a good sprint, but couldn’t catch Justin who was 2nd into the corner. I was 2nd place again, with Ulises in 3rd.
Going into the final day of racing, I was placed 2nd in the omnium. Due to alfredo’s crash the night before, I was now by far our best chance at winning the omnium. In order to take the overall, I would need to win, with Justin finishing 4th or worse. Fortunately, the last day is much better suited to me than Justin. While Justin is faster in a high speed field sprint, my ability to perform hard, repeated efforts is better, and I generally do very well on courses like this one.
Cry baby is generally a very hard day, with much of the field eventually being dropped. Generally, a strong break wins, or a reduced field goes to the line. We started with a conservative plan to ride for a sprint, but wanted to look for opportunities to make the race hard and put pressure on Justin and his team.
I spent the first 35 ish minutes just riding in the field conservatively, relying on my team to chase down anything dangerous. Around the 35 minute mark, our director made the call to have Jordan ride the climb as hard as he could to see how Justin and the field would react. With Jordan’s move, the field began to splinter, and I easily made the split with George and Jordan. Having myself off the front with two teammates was basically a dream scenario. Jordan and George set to work driving the move immediately.
For the next 15 minutes I relied on George and Jordan to ride the front and make sure the break was established. We maintained a small gap, but were still close enough that riders were bridging up in ones and twos. Finally, with a group of three splintered off the front of the break and the field within spitting distance, our director made the call for George to ride the headwind start finish strait all out and have me bridge up to the group of three on the climb. This finally fully established the break.
**Special thanks to USACRITS.tv for providing awesome coverage of the whole Tulsa weekend. Check out the video clip below of Sam’s team working hard to establish the break. For full coverage of the race please check out this link – Nate
I spent the rest of the race trying to keep the break working smoothly, riding the front and staying on top of any small splits. Despite some lack of coordination here and there, the break had an insurmountable gap by the finale of the race. I continued to follow and drive splits until the last few laps. With three laps to go It was down to just 4 of us and one other rider, Tanner Ward, solo off the front.
We continued to work, catching Tanner with 2 to go. Up the climb I attacked all out, dropping all but one rider, Sean Mcelroy (Legion of LA). Unable to shake Mcelroy with my first attack, I decided to wait for the sprint. We rode the last lap slowly, and the two dropped riders caught back on. Going into the final descent, I took the front and stuck to the right side of the road. I wanted to go through the last corner first, with the inside line.
I went through the last corner on the inside, shoulder to shoulder with Mcelroy, then out kicked him for the win.
**Special thanks to USACRITS.tv for providing awesome coverage of the whole Tulsa weekend. Check out the video clip below to see all the action on the last lap. For full coverage of the race please check out this link – Nate
After missing out on most of my winter training and early season racing, I wondered if I could be as good as I was last year with condensed training. Winning Tulsa was a huge deal for me personally.
I’m very grateful for all the support from my Elevate KHS teammates, staff, management, and all the support I had at home to get me back to racing. In about two and a half weeks we will be racing in Tennessee at US pro national championships, and we aren’t traveling all the way out there for 2nd place.
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