Monday, June 29, 2009

Seventh at Fredericksburg

[This post is all about racing, so feel free to catch the Sidewalk tomorrow when I'll return to stories on travel, self discovery and poop]

Yesterday I raced in the JDRF Fredericksburg Road Race. The course was wonderful. Narrow with rolling hills and a handful of extended climbs. It was real challenging, the kind of course that encourages breakaways and dramatic tactical moves. Sort of. The thing is, dramatic moves, in order to work, must be accompanied by dramatic fitness and power and guts. At my novice level, that's not always present and I must include myself in that accusation.

I raced at high noon yesterday, 12:20 with temperatures reaching 106 degrees. It was so hot my feet were burning in my shoes. I came home sunburnt. The ice in my bottles melted on the starting line waiting for the gun. The course was 43 miles of back roads with no center stripe through beautiful hill country. In amateur road racing, and much of pro too, the race promoters can't get the roads shut down just for us, which means cars are coming the opposite direction and trying to pass from behind. To make the course as safe as possible for us, each race will have lead and follow vehicles and no riders are allowed to cross the center line (the double yellow). This makes perfect sense, but that restriction can affect the outcome of a race. If you're stuck at the back of a hundred-man pack and someone makes a move at the front, there's no way you can react and you'd have to watch them get away over the backs of eighty or so sweating Easter eggs. At Fredericksburg, though, because the roads were so lightly traveled and there actually wasn't any painted center stripe, the promoters instituted what they called a "rolling enclosure," which meant that as long as you were between the lead and follow cars, you could use the entire road. To a road racer this is like heaven; it feel like you're a pro, like your race is the most important thing going on.

So, there was heat, the rolling enclosure, all the hills (2400 feet total climbing), frequent and narrow turns and some stiff competition. My teammates who had raced earlier told me of two particularly difficult elements, one was a steep and extended climb, the other was "the corkscrew" a steep downhill section followed by a creek crossing, cattle guard and tight narrow uphill turn. You felt safe going through it if you were all alone, but not so much in a group of fifty nervous and desperate amateur riders. Again, I count myself among them.

Our race was two laps and it seemed everyone was calmly sitting in on the first, in order to get a feel for the course, and would push some moves on the second. A good plan except for the heat. By the time the second lap came around, no one felt too much like making any real moves, risking using any energy unnecessarily. On the first lap, two guys had sprinted off the front early, just after the first long climb. They stayed out front for about five miles, but always within sight. One was on the Texas Tech collegiate team and the other was unattached. A teammate of the Texas Tech rider was controlling the pace of the peloton--whenever we'd start closing in, he'd move onto the front and slow things down. It wasn't too subtle, but in the heat no one complained too much and so the two-man breakaway held for quite a while. In my heat-addled mind I started to think that their breakaway might hold and so I sprinted off to catch them. It was a bad move, though, and the pack reeled me right back in and shortly after the breakaway riders too. We were all back together then, in one big pack spinning through the empty hills.

When we came into the feed station on the second lap two NRC (New Revolution Cycles) teammates crashed when one of them fumbled the water hand up. Feed stations are great, especially in the heat when bottles don't stay cool on the bike. But, it takes skill both to hand water to a cyclist and to receive it. So we lost two riders in the feed zone and two more shortly after to flat tires and a handful more to the heat and the pace. Most of the pack was still there, though, and we were all together. After the feed zone we started climbing again. We started the one major climb for the second time and a second Texas Tech rider moved off the front of the pack, but not very fast. He was barely breaking away, as if he was bored and wanted to spin out his legs. He was followed shortly by an NRC rider, one of seven, and then me. The hill was tough enough that it strung the pack out into a single line and the heat slowed them from bunching back up too quickly. Our three man breakaway formed very calmly in the aftermath of that hill. We didn't stand up to sprint, we just sort of moved away.

No one followed us and we continued to put distance between us and the peloton. I wasn't looking to make a move this early, with more than 20 miles to go, but it just happened so I went with it. I asked one of the riders if he could sustain our effort and he said "probably not." I should have sat up then, but I pushed on, pushed them both on. I knew our advantage was climbing and through the turns. The pack always slows down on tight turns and over cattle guards. On descents and straightaways we'd have to work much harder. So I urged my fellow escapees on. I shouted at them, encouraging them and coaching them when I knew we needed to take advantage of our small size. I'd tell them to dig in on the hills, to crest them and push through the top, to keep pedaling hard through the corners and race over the cattle guards. I knew we needed to exploit our one advantage if we wanted to make our break stick. I told them it could stick, that it would stick if we worked together. It was working, we were extending our lead. I looked back and a chase group of three had broken off the front of the pack. So there were two three-man groups and the peloton. We kept digging in. Kept rotating, striving up the hills, ducking and digging in on the descents, staying focused through the turns. The next time I looked back it was just the chase group. They weren't gaining on us, though, and I couldn't even see the peloton. This was good, but I knew my breakaway was feeling the work. My pulls were taking longer and longer and my fellow jailbirds were struggling to grab a wheel after each of their pulls. A couple times they tried to quit, but I coached them back in. They were done, though. It was obvious. When the NRC rider fell off the back, the Tech rider could think of nothing else. Even though he stuck it out a few more miles, he was pining for the draft of the big pack, to sit high in the seat and suck on his water. I didn't blame him.

The second time he told me to go I left him and became a solo breakaway. He was the only rider I could see behind me. For the next few miles I felt strong and I kept my cadence and focus up. But the effort was starting to take effect. I was feeling the sun. My feet were hot, my bottles were full of warm water, my apple cinnamon gu packet was hot and tangy with that spice so that it felt like I was sipping on salsa. The sun was directly overhead and so none of the shade from the trees reached the road. There was no relief from the heat and there was no relief from the wind and there was no relief from the pace I was setting. If the pack was just behind me I could sit up and let them catch me, but because I knew I had a good lead, I couldn't just waste it; I had to make a real go of it, I had to honestly try to make it stick. As I pushed forward still seeing no one behind me, I lost focus. I started thinking about what I would do when I crossed the line, how I'd describe this moment in my blog, how impressed Lauren would be and how much of the $200 purse went to first place. This went on until five miles to go when I saw multi-colored school of riders behind me, menacingly five abreast winding through the turns. I could tell they weren't nearly as tired as I was, that they were ready to sprint when the time came, that they were all excited that first place was on the table again and that my failed effort had become the moral of the story they'd tell to their teammates on the ride home.

When it was obvious I couldn't hold them off I sat up and settled into the pack, staying in the top ten just in case a move happened 5K out as my coach had advised me to do. One never did and so it would be a pack sprint to the finish. These are difficult for me because the patience required is deceptive. You have to wait until the last possible moment to strike--it's hard to believe how advantageous it is to sit in someone's draft until the last 100-150 meters of a 43 mile race. So I went too early. The riders in black and red argyle were properly executing a lead-out and at about 300 meters, their last rider was emerging. I had already stepped on the gas and was accelerating past the pack. For a good moment it was just him and me and I felt my momentum carry me forward. But I was running out of gas and he was just starting. He gripped his bars tight and came up behind me, shoving me over to make room for himself and his entourage. I stayed upright and sprinting, but saw the swarm of fresh riders, inevitable as nightfall, creeping past me as the thin line of tape across the road sped closer.

On the sprint I am so focused on my own form, the other riders and the finish that I don't notice how far I am into the redline. Yesterday was a little too far and as I crossed the line my arms stiffened and started to shake and I threw up on myself. It was all hot water. Relieved I didn't crash, I just kept riding forward trying to regain composure when my arms started to shake again, this time more violently. I threw up a second, final time. I'd never been more done. I rode on to the Doss, TX mercantile and rode around back until I found a spigot. I sat under it a bit until I was clean and safely cooled off. Racing cross country and track in high school and college, I've never been able to push myself as hard as I do in cycling. And I've never raced as hard as I did yesterday. I ended up in seventh place. I could have raced smarter, probably placing higher, but there's no way I could have raced harder and so yesterday's race brings me just as much closer to my goal as would have more upgrade points.

Riding back from the mercantile, barely spinning my legs, I saw Lauren standing in the shade on the corner of an old school house. Next to her was my good friend and teammate. I couldn't have been more relieved to see them both. They briefly listened to my wheezing minutes before ushering me into the shade for cold soda and snickers. The rest of my team was there despite having finished their races hours earlier and needing to drive back to Corpus Christi for work the next morning.

The most profound moment of the race for me was just after I'd been caught by the pack. I was settling in, trying to find a solid lee when another racer rode up and complimented me on my break and asked if I needed water or anything. I told him I did. As he passed me his bottle he apologized that it wasn't colder. What's most striking is that this brief interchange is not at all unusual. It couldn't be more common. There is profound respect for one another among riders, profound sportsmanship and gentlemanly behavior. I would have loved to win that race, to have placed higher than 7th, but knowing that the six men in front of me are men of character, makes defeat much easier, makes learning from defeat much easier.