Wednesday, December 3, 2008

When the Implosion Doesn't Happen: A win



It’s been a long season. I have been racing almost every weekend since mid-March. In the week approaching this race, I was unmotivated, tired, grumpy, and generally ready for the season to end. At Verge races I normally register for the 2/3 race so that I can race with my friends, even though they all thrash me every time. I registered early and got a spot on the front row of the 2/3 race. A couple of weeks ago, I found out that some of my favorite family members were coming to Boston on the afternoon of the race and wanted to visit. Mentally, I cancelled the race off of my calendar. Over the course of the week, I figured out that I would be able to make it back to Cambridge in time for the visit if I raced the 3/4 master’s race. I emailed the promoter and secured the 4th starting spot in that race.

On the Friday before this race, I was sore and tired. I had been lapped in our weekly training race on Wednesday. Other than said race, I did no training, even opting to walk around the city all week instead of riding my shopper. The week’s events and sensations did not suggest a great ride.

I drove to the race accompanied by the venerable J. Craig Roth. He was registered for the same race and was also feeling a little under the weather. On the ride, we mostly discussed arrangements for next season. In short, we were going to the race, but weren’t really invested in this event.

When we arrived at the venue, we found crunchy grass, covered in frost. I immediately put on a helmet and my shoes and took an inspection lap. The corners were slippery with frost, areas in the shade were icy, and there was a bit of sloppy mud forming on the dirt track that was the start/finish. In a word, it was a Belgium. There were two run-ups, both frozen slick. One of the runups was short and seemed ridable. I got out of the saddle and dug in, only to slip out and tumble into a plastic post that was holding the course tape. A few scrapes and scuffs convinced me to run this section, no matter what everyone else did. The barriers were tricky; super fast with 10 meters after them before a small frozen rise. If you could keep your momentum on the remount, you could power up the rise, if you flubbed the remount or were slow, you had to run up the slippery rise. I am quick to remount, so I decided was able to ride it.

There was an indoor changing area, which I gratefully took advantage of. I applied a layer of Mad Alchemy medium embrocation, allowing it to soak in and then rubbed in a finishing layer to even out the covering. I opted for a fleecy lined skinsuit, long sleeve jersey, Rapha knee warmers, tall socks and a brand new CB cycling cap pulled low. I debated wearing a more wintery cap, but decided against it. Normally, I overdress, as I prefer to sweat than to freeze. I opted for the pink Specialized Arc shades, as they offer lots of facial coverage so that muck has a hard time getting past them and into your eyes.

My equipment was all “A” game material. Custom Igleheart Frame and Igleheart steel fork, Edge Composites 2-68 carbon Tubulars laced to DT240 hubs with SwissStop yellow pads to stop, Challenge Grifo tires, and a smattering of choice components from Campagnolo, Ritchey and Paul.

On my “hot” lap 15 minutes before my start, I started feeling good, like I had the course wired. I noted a few corners where it would be wise to dismount if there were bottlenecks and/or crashes. I have found that when there is a bottleneck, dismounting and powering through on foot with a stiff arm combined with a crowd flowing technique that I perfected as a waiter works better than impatiently trying to remain on the bike.

The promoters had decided to start the 55+ masters 2 minutes before my field. Both fields were staged and instructions were read. The gun went off and the 55+ field exploded into a shower of flying bicycles and flailing bodies. At least 5 riders were down, one of them not moving. It took 20 minutes for 3 ambulances and 2 police cars to get onto the course and sort it out. I opted not to look at the carnage so that I would remain calm for my start. Instead I pedaled slow circles around an adjacent field. Richard Sachs was also pedaling around. I took note of how muscular his legs are. I guess that I hadn’t really noticed before. At that moment, I was glad that I didn’t have to race against him.

Once the ambulances had cleared the wreckage both fields were hastily reassembled and sent off. As my stomach turned and the adrenaline did its work, Paul Curley took a spot next to me on the front row. I have never raced against this guy, but I knew that he has been at it for a long time on his disk wheel, winning races while I was still smoking cigarettes.

Our start was uneventful, yet very stressful. The opening stretch was on a muddy, sloppy dirt track. After 100 meters +/-, the track curves to the right and lets onto another dirt straightaway, which had deep ruts frozen in it. It was nerve-racking, not being able to see the road conditions because of the riders in front of you.

I didn’t get the holeshot. My new strategy is to stay in the top 10 if possible and draft while the pace is high off of the start. I was about 15th after the first corner, knocking handlebars with the riders on either side of me as I fought to maintain position while riding blindly in the ruts. I stayed loose and kept the power high. I was swaying around on my tires, which were at a conservative 32/36 psi. There was a huge bottleneck because of a crash in the first hairpin. I dismounted before it and came through it running with a stiff arm out in front to push my way through with my bike firmly shouldered. There was plenty of jostling and cursing as riders disentangled. I was able to get through quickly by putting my left hand on the pole holding the course tape and whipping my bike through. There was a short dip and then a frozen runup. I ran all the way through as remounting in traffic only to dismount 20 meters later seemed risky and pointless. It was the correct decision; riders behind me were trying to remount and failing, falling.

After a quick remount there was a steep downhill leading into a sweeping, frozen-grass turn that ended with a high two step ledge, frozen and icy. Riders were biffing it into the railroad ties that made up the 2 steps all through course inspection. I was conservative when coming down the hill, holding down the brakes. The rider in front of me slipped on the first step. I was under control and able to sidestep his floundering. I stepped firmly, deliberately and carefully on both steps and did that every lap.

I rode well through the chicanes, sprinting out of every corner and regularly overtaking riders. As I came around the backside of the course into the start finish area, I was steadily gaining on the lead group of riders, about 7 of them. I am unable to ride in a group in cyclocross. I either pass someone and let them ride my wheel or I get dropped. In this case, I could see that the group was chock full of strong riders and sandbaggers. I caught the group on the final turn. The lead group took the right side of the road, lined up in a paceline.

Reason was out the window, caution thrown to the wind. Instead of sitting in with the group and allowing them to pull and resting for a minute on the long straightaway, I laid down a full track sprint, biggest gear and in the drops. I hugged the course tape on the on the left to make it difficult for any of the group to get on my wheel. I timed the sprint perfectly so that my speed would be maximized as I passed this group. To accentuate my audacity, I had my teeth gritted, glaring at riders who have beaten me in the past, making eye contact. I have never felt better than the moment that I watched that group fail to react to my attack. It is easy to say in retrospect, but I knew that I had a great chance of winning the race right there at the start of the second lap. I could hear Richard Fries telling the crowd that CB was on the attack. Hearing the shoutout gave me wings. Just hearing that allowed me to keep the hammer down until the runup.

Once I got through the step up I felt recovered. I was riding within myself. I didn’t have a huge gap but I couldn’t hear the riders behind me either. Paul Curley appeared to be leading the chase group every time that I was able to see them. I honestly thought that he was holding back. I kept waiting for him to close it down.

Cyclocross courses are designed so that the riders are never able to become comfortable. In contrast to how I often feel, I was flowing through the course, fast through the barriers, remounting and clipping back in quickly. Even Fries commented that I was flowing like I was in a skatepark. Did someone tell him about my long background in skateboarding.

My teammates normally heckle me with horrible taunts. No one other than Gorgeous Gary Allin was able to come up with anything to yell, “Even though you are winning, you are still a loseur!” That was the only taunt that I heard, otherwise, my world was a silent hell of lactic acid and burning lungs. I was never able to relax, as Curley appeared to be gaining on me every time that I looked back.

I was steadily reeling in riders from the 55+ field. I mostly ignored them, other than to make sure that I passed them safely and decisively. I was confused to come up behind a rider in a Richard Sachs kit. In my cluttered mind, I wondered why Matt Kraus was warming up on the course during my race. But I was sheepishly passing Richard Sachs. Somehow, I felt unworthy of passing such a personage. No words were exchanged.

The few snatches of sound that I heard were Richard Fries narrating my movements. It was surreal. I am so conditioned to riding midpack and listening to Fries to hear if any teammates or friends are in the mix at the front. I heard my palmares recounted to the crowd. The only thing that made it real was the overwhelming pain. I kept thinking, “Why the hell do I do this?!”

There was a dark moment. I missed a high speed remount after the barriers. I have been cutting my remounts closer and closer as my technique improves. I am to the point now that when remounting on smooth ground, I sort of slide my inner thigh onto the saddle with no impact. Only problem is that if I don’t lift the leg enough, I hit the end of the saddle. I clipped the saddle while running full speed. I didn’t go down. But I was forced to run up the little rise instead of riding it. The rise had been slick with ice throughout the race. So slick that you had to be careful when powering up it, if you applied to much power while out of the saddle you risked loosing grip and slipping. In this case, I didn’t have tow spikes and I slipped onto my hands and knees. I literally had to crawl up the icey rise with my bike on my back, sliding 1 inch back down for every 2 inches that I gained. It took about 10 seconds, but with Curley bearing down, it was an eternity. I recovered quickly and put in an effort to regain my gap.

With two to go, I became aware of another rider gaining on me, MRC. The MRC women are notorious sandbaggers, so MRC is a dirty word in our household. I was not going to be caught by an MRC rider. My woman would never forgive me. I put it in the big ring and vowed to keep the chain there for the rest of the race.

I came up behind a rider while in a panic over MRC. He wasn’t giving me any room to pass, very cagey. I yelled, “come on, I am in first” to which he replied, “well, I’m in second…” He was 55+. I got around him and he started bitching that I wasn’t going through the corners fast enough. I put in an effort to drop him.

MRC faded, but I still had Curley in the same spot. I was in so much pain that I actually considered pulling off the course quietly. I knew that I would never get away with it. The taunting would last for the rest of my life. Friends would make jokes and worse, yell, “Why don’t you just give up!!” during my future races.

Curley seemed to be gaining on me. I was looking back after every section. Inside my oxygen deprived brain, he was gaining back 10 seconds every minute. I started getting sloppy. Corners that I had previously been taking at full speed were difficult, I was washing out, dabbing my foot BMX style. On straights, I found myself drifting around. I was forgetting which way some of the turns went. I was no longer in the zone, but I was holding on.

With one to go, I the reality of the situation became apparent, I would win if I was careful. While I put in huge efforts on fast sections, I was conservative in the technical stuff, as it was obvious that I was blown. I no longer looked back. If Curley caught me, I was hoping to get on his wheel and sprint it out.

On the final section, I knew that I had it. I was euphoric. Most racers never experience the elation of winning a cyclocross race, let alone a well attended Verge race with an announcer and a crowd. Rounding the final corner, I looked back to make sure that I didn’t have to sprint. As I passed Richard Fries, I asked him if I had won. He nodded. I zipped up my jersey and put my hands up. I have never had the opportunity to raise up before. Mud splattered and destroyed, I had won my first cyclocross race. I may have yelled some nonsense.

The first person I saw after dismounting was Dick Ring. He was beaming. Dick attended the last high school that I taught at and now lives in the town that I grew up in. We have connections beyond our love for bicycle racing. It was incredible to see someone so happy for me.

It turns out that CB’s frame sponsor and designer/builder of my frame had arrived during my race to watch. I am so glad that Chris got to see me have the best ride of my life on his frame. This was like my birthday, only better, because I earned the friendly sentiments by dumping it all out in the mud. Well wishers abounded.

This is a great end to my season. I am officially done training. There are a couple of races left, but I am not putting in the full effort. I will be show up, kit up and go to the starting line, but I will just be riding my bicycle.
If you were there and cheering, thanks for the support. If you have any photos that you want to share, I will say nice things about you in print.

2 comments:

Mantis said...

Sick win dude! Way to finish out a great sesason! See you Saturday.

Oh and if you are really bored, you can always try working again!

RMM said...

Working is the peasant's way of earning a living.