[I’d like to interrupt your regularly-schedule blogging hiatus for a not-really-that-important update. Sorry.]
Well, y’all, I raced my bike this weekend, and the world did not end.
SPOILER: In fact, it turns out cycling is a whole hell of a lot of fun.
I’ve been dickering and dithering about road racing for quite awhile now. I actually wanted to try it back in college, but after a few group rides my freshman year contributed to my huge fear of pack riding, I put the bike in the corner and forgot about it. The urge cropped back up when I ended up as a race director for several events in Atlanta — and oh god was that a crash course (no pun intended) in all things cycling — but again, the fear of getting within 10 feet of another person while clipped into my pedals pretty much put an end to that.
Enter real life. I date a boy who teaches me a lot about my bike and how to ride it, and I become friends with a few more who do the same thing. I discover that I’m a half decent cyclist, and though I have a background in running and swimming, I really prefer the bike leg of triathlon. But still — what is essentially an individual time trial does very little to prepare you for riding in close quarters with a squirrely pack of people. I get a few group rides with roadies — not triathletes — under my belt and think that maybe someday I could do this.
Then an injury puts an early end to my big running plans, and I’m kicked right back to the beginning with a single race on the calendar all the way in October and no exciting race-day rush to look forward to in the near future.
I really credit my friend Ray with pushing me to finally put on my big-girl panties and register for this madness. Ray and I met as interns in Atlanta almost 4 years ago — where he dragged my sorry slow butt kicking and screaming the whole way through my first-ever 20-mile ride — and we both ended up in D.C. for our first jobs. He’s since pulled me up and down the Arlington hills on many occasions and was the driving force behind my decision to join NCVC back in October. He’s been encouraging me to race for about as long as I’ve known him. Peer pressure or something.
[He also recently moved to NYC to get married. Rude.]
Anyway, when I decided nearly a month ago to maybe/possibly/probably/actually register for Jeff Cup, a 30-mile road race in Charlottesville, I needed Ray’s help to determine whether it was the stupidest or stupidest move ever (or maybe the stupidest?). In his response, he gave me the best advice anyone has ever offered:
“You have been riding so long I’m confident you’ll be ok. Just relax and ride your bike.”
And you know what? He was right. More on that later.
So — once I committed to this mess of an idea, it was only a matter of time before the registration tab on my browser sucked me in. I was both excited and terrified, which is one of the more fun and exhilarating combinations of emotions I’ve experienced. I wasn’t worried so much about my speed or strength on the bike, though it did occur to me that in my marathon training attempt I lost a huge chunk of that base period during which everyone else was diligently logging bike miles. Anyway, I was more afraid of doing something stupid, of missing out on some sort of race etiquette, of totally blowing the ability to react, and of massively misreading the strategy I understand in theory after years of following the sport but have a harder time figuring out how to put into practice in the heat of a race. But hello, excitement about this adventure!
Let’s pause here and be honest, I have no idea how to write a cycling race report. This is more for my edification than anything else — I want to look back when I have more experience and be able to laugh and say “what a moron.” So here goes.
Week leading up to race: Emails go back and forth among the women’s team about carpooling to Charlottesville, as we have six riders signed up for the Women’s 4 field. I am well aware that many of these girls have been racing for several seasons and are stronger than I am. Someone throws out a course preview and notes that since it’s my first race, I shouldn’t worry if I get dropped — the field is fast and tends to sprint off the line, it happens to everyone, etc. File under: scared shitless. I know that reacting to the wheels in front of me is not my strong suit, so it’s easy for me to be gapped. And yet, I’m still doing this. I WILL DO THIS.
Day before race: I have a huge urge to go out and climb lots of my favorite hills and take advantage of the nice weather, but I resist and do an hour easy with a few hard efforts and hills scattered in. I spend the rest of the day making S’mores bars (turns out these come in handy post-race) and lying on my couch. I also make a checklist of everything I could possibly need (in the end I get it all and more), check that my bike is in good working order (it is), read up on race rules and strategy (theory! easy!), and watch last year’s Tour of Flanders (the 2012 edition happens while I’m racing) on YouTube.
Race day: I gather all of my gear and meet up with Sheila, a teammate who has agreed to drive me down to Charlottesville and keep me sane in the process. She reassures me that it’s all going to be fine, and we talk about how to hang on to the group, positioning, and general “calm the fuck down” strategy. We arrive at the site two hours early with plenty of time to warm up and let the nerves take over. I kind of wish the drive would last forever.
I check in and buy a one-day license, get my number, and put on my kit. Sheila shows me how to pin my number on either side of my jersey so it’s visible to the finish camera from the side and above. This is more complex than it looks. It’s chilly and overcast, so we start out with warmers and gloves. Some people have their trainers set up in the parking lot, but there’s plenty of open road for our warmup. We ride for about 30 minutes, including a couple of climbs and descents. I call Ray for a pep talk, and he tells me the following: 1) You’ll be fine 2) Ride near the back on the first lap until you know the course and decide where in the pack you feel comfortable 3) If you’re tired on the hills, start climbing at the front so you don’t end up way behind 4) Don’t tense up at the start and grip your bike like you’re riding downhill at 100mph and 5) Good luck. I’m nervous as all hell — which is saying something, since I haven’t been truly nervous before a race since my very first high school cross country meet.
We’re staged at a middle school with the Cat 5 men and the juniors and then have a neutral rollout to the start/finish line. That basically means that the fields ride one by one with their respective police and motor referee escorts for 2-ish miles until we get to the actual course. This is not part of the race, though people are already kinda jockeying for position. After we stop and give the men and juniors a head start, we’re sent on our way.
Go time: No one sprints off the line, which is a pretty big relief. In fact, we roll out fairly casually. I stay near the back and to the right and try to stick on the wheel of whoever is in front of me. This is hard, since everyone is trying to figure out where they want to be and there’s a lot of moving around. We have the whole road, which (helpfully) keeps people from being too crammed together and doing a lot of bumping. I quickly realize that my nerves are completely gone, and I’m grinning like an idiot. I’m racing my bike, you guys! This is fun!
The course is a triangle, and the first sharp right comes at the bottom of one of the two more challenging hills. On the first lap, this doesn’t do much to split the field, and everyone comes back together on the fast descent on the other side. I notice that I don’t have to do much work to climb even if I don’t have the wheel in front of me, and I think to myself, you aren’t dropping me on any hills, bitches, my climbing legs went nowhere in the last few months! The rest of the course rolls, though there’s one more tough hill on the third leg of the triangle along with a twisty descent. If we had a really big field that stayed together, this probably would have been terrifying.
Anyway, we cross the finish line to start our second lap, and I can’t believe we’re already a third of the way through. I’m getting more comfortable being in semi-close quarters with other riders, I’m managing to stick to my teammate’s wheel, and my legs still feel fresh. One rider crashes next to me on the big climb, and the field splits, more because of the incline than the crash. We’re not moving particularly fast, and no one really wants to sit on the front and pull. [Note — this is how I’m reading what’s going on around me. I could be way wrong about all of this.] When we make the last turn and near the line for our last lap, someone takes off and sprints. I think most of the field that remains thinks she’s trying to break, but it turns out she thought we were doing 2 laps. Whoops. She’s reeled back in and spit out the back of the remaining pack.
The pace picks up when we start the third lap, and the hill is a little bit more decisive in splitting people apart. A break of 8 or so riders gets away — with two of my teammates — and the group I’m in (with two other teammates) lets them go. One piece of strategy I do know is that if you have riders in the break, you don’t do any work to reel them back in. If someone else wants to sit on front and drag you around, you let them, but you don’t pick up the pace and pull anyone else across the gap. So we hang in while other girls came around us, a few of them yelling and trying to push the group to chase. A motorcycle pulls up and says the gap is at 20 seconds and fluctuating, and as we near the last turn, it grows to 35 seconds. We aren’t going to catch them, so we just continue to ride. I notice the 200m-to-go sign and see my teammate take off out of the corner of my eye, so I start sprinting too. She takes first in the pack sprint, and I’m a few wheels behind. The group ends up with times about a minute behind the break, and stragglers come riding in for the next half hour. One of my teammates took second overall, and when we see the final results, I’m 12th out of 30 riders — and finished at the front in the sprint. For a first race, I’ll take it!
Post-race: We have to hang out past the finish line because the only way out is on the course, so we wait for a few more people to come in and slowly ride back to the school. The sun is out and the temperature is finally pleasant — we couldn’t have asked for better timing. I have such an adrenaline rush going and I’m practically bouncing out of my seat shouting PLEASE LET’S DO IT AGAIN! I’m not all that tired, and I feel like my legs could do more work if I asked them to. However, I am pretty happy to change into fresh clothes and eventually get in the car to go home.
Analysis: First, I really surprised myself with all of this. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, but it was exciting and fun and a huge confidence boost. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed myself in a race as much as this since my first tri two years ago (and we all know how well that turned out!). I think cycling is exhilarating in a different — maybe better? — way than triathlon or running because it’s not just about your own strength and the long Z2 slog and spending hours in your own mind. It’s also very much about reading people and reacting and working with a group to further your own individual (and often team) goals. You know those detailed race plans we write? No point here, it’ll all be shot to hell the moment you clip in and go. And that’s what’s great about it — the mental game is so much bigger than the demons in your head.
Second, I have better awareness than I thought. I was able to pay attention both to staying upright (priority #1) and to the general mood of the riders around me. Again, it wasn’t so much about strength and the time-trial skill of riding at a hard effort, but about knowing when to speed up and slow down and move left and right. Exhibit A:
On the flip side, while I recognize that roadies don’t have much respect for triathletes as cyclists (honestly, with good reason), the skill of riding solo is a pretty solid advantage — both mentally and physically. For triathletes who are used to riding under their own steam for 40K or 56 miles or whatever and pulling themselves up hills, getting gapped or dropped wouldn’t totally damage your game. You know how to ride hard without anyone else’s help. When you do get to sit in with the pack, it feels like you’re cheating because you’re not doing much work — hence the no-drafting rule! But this is the point in cycling: finish as high as you can by doing as little work as possible. In any case, being able to do both could serve you well.
Third, if I had written a goal post for this race, it would have read something like “Do not get last do not crash do not get dropped too too hard the end.” I think on all counts we can call this a success. Rookie mistake of the day that I should not have made, though: Leaving my Camelbak water bottle top locked, which required some extra balance and coordination to fix while riding. Oops.
Lastly, I have no doubt that I will get my ass dropped many times in my racing career. I will crash. Not all races will be this smooth. Some will make my legs burn until I don’t want to ride ever again. I will misread the field. It will be hard. I have a ton to learn about training, about form, about strategy. I’m not quite at square one, but I’m close. But I also know that I can do this. I can hang in there, I can handle the pack, someday soon I can go with the break. I relaxed and rode my bike, and it worked. And that’s the boost I needed to try again. It’s the motivation I’ve been craving to overcome the disappointment over my failed racing calendar and the push it takes to keep me training. It’s a new challenge, it’s a new group of people to befriend, it’s a new way of thinking about goals, and most importantly, at least for now, it’s MINE. And that, friends, gets me right out of my funk.
[As you were.]