"It never gets any easier. You just go faster." ---Greg Lemond
"Don't buy upgrades. Ride up grades." --- Eddy Merckx
"You drive like shit." ---The Car Whisperer


Lesson Accomplished

Photos by Luke Seemann.

I finally did it. And it felt so much better than just thinking about it.

"It" would be racing a bicycle for the first time.

I won't say I wasn't nervous, but, instead I was more just anxious to see how I'd take to finally immersing myself in the next level. One of my favorite cycling quotes is from Ned Overend:

"There's a feeling that you can get only from racing and finishing - the feeling of pushing yourself beyond what you're capable in training."

This dynamic, of course goes, far beyond cycling. In order to better yourself within any paradigm, you must take on challenges by which you are nowhere near guaranteed success.

When I first started riding about 4 years back on the black Nishiki Oly 12 I bought from Play It Again Sports for $50, I thought I was fast cruising for 10 or 15 miles along the lakefront in my baggy shorts. And I was fast. Relatively. And I was happy, going on about two 20 mile rides a week, and commuting to work when the weather was nice. I got slightly faster, a lot fitter, and developed confidence and the first, almost pre-pubescent buddings of my suplesse.

As my desire grew to go faster still, along came a better bike, and an exploration into club rides. I'll never forget that first training ride. I took off with the Chicago Cycling Club roadies from the Dunkin Donuts that chilly Monday evening last May and achieved speeds I didn't think possible. And this was the slower, introductory training ride. I was so excited as I got to the front of the paceline cruising west into the sunset on Church Street through Niles that blew right off the front of it at 24 miles an hour. 2 weeks later I rode with the CCC on the regular Wednesday night ride and found myself, exhilarated and drenched with sweat, hanging tight onto the wheel in front of me at 27 miles an hour. I was completely hooked. A bike junkie to the core.

The next logical step was joining the racing team and yet another bike.

My first month with xXx fittingly came to an end Saturday at Whitnall Park. I arrived exactly 2 hours early, following to the letter the "Surviving Your First Race" white paper I found in the Google Forums. After registering I watched the race currently running, the 30+ Masters, spotting several team members in the pack as it came around the first tight corner and up the hill. Afterwards I rode up to meet them, and then put on the borrowed xXx kit for the first time and started my warm up.

The feeling was similar to what I felt as I rode to my first club ride with the CCC except magnified about 100 times. Like I said, it wasn't really nerves. It was anticipation. But the ritual of the warm up helped me to focus and not think about it too much. Which felt great because that was seemly all I had done since joining the team. I came back to the car and met back up with Joe, Jeff, Kevin, Brian, Jaques, and Jason...and Josh (too many J's! How's a new guy supposed to learn these names?! Although I'm at least the 3rd Brian, so...) and we did a few easy laps on the park roads together. The anticipation grew more still. Not only was I wearing a team kit, I was now riding with the group at an honest to God race. The plan was actually coming together. We turned left on the last warm up lap and headed to the start.

Standing at the line, waiting, I glanced at my computer. I was warm and relatively calm, the HR meter read 120. Then the race marshal went through the rules and format, and finished with "have a great race!" Suddenly I felt a flush in my face that flowed down though my shoulders into my chest. My breath quickened and I shifted my left foot in the pedal as I gripped my bars a little tighter. My HR had just jumped to 145. Ah! There were the nerves! And then we were rolling.

All at once I was aware of the giant "whoosh!" of all those expensive free-hubs and dérailleurs and cranks. I was in the middle of the pack, fluid and comfortable. All my worries about handling myself within it were gone as my focus narrowed and I began carving my line down the first easy turn. I hit the tight corner before the hill, down shifted cleanly and began my first climb.

At the top of the first hill was where the wind first hit, and it was almost comical to me to see the pack narrow and tighten into a long, flock-like V, each quickly looking for shelter in the draft, as we began climbing another short hill. Then almost immediately was a quick drop, curving to the right, and a final steep climb past the yellow distance markers to the line. Lap 1.

Everyone told me to just try and hang in there the first 5 laps. That it would be furiously fast as everyone jockeyed for position and the weaker riders were weeded out fast. Just hang in there and the speed will come down until the strategy kicks in with the final laps. But in actuality, I felt really strong the first 5 or 6 laps. I was having the time of my life and thoroughly enjoying myself. It was far beyond the exhilaration I felt of my first training rides. The speed felt manageable, I carved a smooth line, climbed strong on the hills, recovering in the draft on the crest, and hanging right in the middle of the pack. I would fall behind a bit on the climbs, but would, with increasing confidence, scramble back into the thick of the riders.

Or so I thought. By about the 7th or 8th lap, I was falling behind too much on the first climb. I began to sense there were no riders behind me and I realized I was clinging on to the end of the pack. According to my computer, it was the 9th lap that first got gapped at the top of the first hill. I stood up on the pedals and spun furiously to get back in the draft. That was my fatal mistake. That draft felt like a warm blanket once I was back in, but it would be the last time I felt it that day. Ironically, this was my best lap, according to the computer.

We roared down the hill after hearing the marshall yell 2 laps to go. I was increasingly having to concentrate on focusing in order to cut my line, as oxygen-deprivation was setting slightly and my mind was starting to wander a bit. The first hill came back around again, and as we climbed, I fell back immediately, and desperately tried to hang on. But the pack began to slip away like rope through my fingers, and with it the soothing relief it's draft offered my burning legs.


Mentally, I just closed down like a lead curtain. I could not muster up the strength to get up on the pedals to catch them. I slumped, cursed loudly, soft-pedaled for a bit, and willed myself together to finish it out. Physically, my heart was a trapped June bug in my chest and I could taste chunks of lung in my mouth.

It was a small victory to be able to see the pack up ahead on the next turn, but there was no hope. In my oxygen-depleted state, I rolled in across the line, and was genuinely surprised to hear from Luke I didn't finish dead last. Really, this the one fear that came close to paralyzing me before my first race. I didn't want to embarrass the team, and I was terrified of coming in last. But as I cooled down, I allowed myself the small consolation prize that, of those who did get dropped, I held on the longest.

And as should be in a first race, a valuable lesson was learned. Do not get gapped. While it may seem like the reason I got dropped was of a lack of endurance, in reality it was almost completely the result of a tactical mistake. Had I been more aggressive in staying at the front of the pack, even while falling back on the climbs, I would have stayed with in the draft at the top. The recovery would have been quicker, and I could then work to regain my forward position on the fast downhills.

In the end, athough disappointed on getting dropped, I was extremely happy with having completed the race safely and grateful for having learned a lesson that will stick with me in every race forward from that day. Knowing that I had pushed myself past yet another theshold that would have been unattainable only a year previous, and the feeling of riding alongside teammates who all shared the same goal and passed along encouragement - regardless of my lack of experience in tactics - has me jumping at the chance to race again.


The day wound down perfectly. My cousin, Rick, from Milwaukee is as big of a cycling junkie as I am, yet our styles could not be more disparate. The day as whole was the perfect realization of this difference, as I jumped on his ancient Trek 820, all 60 pounds of it, and we pedaled off for a relaxing ride on the rail-to-trail down to Waterloo and back. We chatted and caught up, and we traded our impressions of the race.

We ended the day with dinner at P.F. Changs and caught a showing of Hot Fuzz at the Mayfair mall, just up the road from Whitnall Park.

Today, I rode from Milwaukee to the Kenosha Metra station, down Highway 32 into a strong headwind. It was difficult to make good time and still keep it a recovery ride, especially with a 20 pound backpack on, but I found a quiet focus, worked on my spin, and enjoyed the new pavement that had just been laid down.

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