"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


At The Line

It was one more for the road in Oak Brook on Saturday. Summer, as it is to bike racing, at least, is nearly over.

It seems like it was just weeks ago that I came back from California, full of piss and vinegar and braggadocio…and naïveté. That we finally had a warm enough day to shed the winter shell, leave the booties at home, and sprint into Glencoe without being wary of ice patches.

Getting dropped from the sprint in Hillsboro was of no consequence – it was still only March. Cracking at the top of the hill in Whitnall Park on the last lap didn’t matter. I was still recovering from Ashville. A 5th overall in West Lafayette and a top ten the next week at Snake Alley tantalized and lured me on. Crashing myself out of Bensonville in Superweek actually encouraged me – I’d finally learned how to end a race on my own terms. Surely, the next six weeks had glory and points in store.

And then, as Phil Liggett likes to say, “I lost my bottle.”

Until yesterday, those next 6 weeks passed by ignominiously, as I watched each race weekend approach as would a deer lost in the blinding glare of headlights. Talking myself up to the line, only to talk myself down when it came to time to bumping elbows and sticking on wheels in a crowd at 30mph, all for a $50 check.

And while I looked back through all that, California seemed like eons ago.

So I sat out Downers. It would’ve done me no good, with where my head was at, right then. And instead of preparing for the race I rebuilt my psyche. A Monday night path ride with a teammate I’d rode all last fall with, while I was laid off. It was pure magic, an elixir. The training plan out the window for just one day, and south we rode, huge efforts alternated with jokes, pushing one another to physical exhaustion and laughter at the same time. That morning I woke up not wanting to look at my bike. That night I fell asleep in love with it.

That Saturday’s team ride was the first day I’d gone long since before Proctor. Not many were there, but some of the fast boys did show up. Throwing down with 3s and 2s on sprint points seemingly every 10 miles, just for the fun of it, made me see that I did belong. And while I still have a lot to learn, I certainly don’t need to put the kind of pressure on myself as I were doing this for a living.

And that was what I brought to the line on Saturday morning at the Tour of Oak Brook, the Road Race Championship of Illinois.

The hour plus wait for registration negated what remaining pressure I’d brought on myself that morning – all I worried about as I heard them calling us to stage was pinning my numbers on straight. Even then, our group was still starting over an hour late.

What ever else I had to worry about was killed off by seeing Katy drive by in the Zipcar with my parents. It didn’t even dawn on me that they were nearly 45 minutes late themselves until I yelled, “Hello!” from the 50 meters line – behind the Elite 4s – and was answered with a middle finger left behind by squealing tires like an empty bag of fast food. I just stared, jaw hanging open, at the car turning into the grass field. Somebody uttered, “Oh no, she didn’t…” while Newt handed me a shot block as if it were a piece of consoling candy. Bob gently rubbed my shoulder and said, “focus, man…just focus.”

They weren’t my directions. I was the victim, here. Rolling.

8 laps on a 3.2 mile course, and we started at quite an easy pace for a road race that was essentially a long crit. It was a triangle with two 90 degree turns and then of course a sharp, obtuse angle at turn three right before a home stretch just under a mile…with a monster tail wind. I started to the middle of the back through turn 3 and then, and on every lap it was a crazed scrambled to be the first again through turn one.

Newt was the XXX anchor at the front, never back more than five wheels at any time. A swarm would predictably come before and after each turn, and compounded by the fact that the last climb was right before turn three. Not much else to say, it was pretty much just eight laps of that. Greg and Kyle went off on hard flyers to try and get something, anything going, but nobody was chasing, and neither stayed off for long.

I just sat in, keyed off of Newt, and waited until the end – trying to stay up front, ahead of the cursing and yelling.

With one to go I held fast to the top five, but at the back on Spring Road, a few riders jumped the yellow line, inviting indignant shouts, and then a hard charging pack up the second climb pushed me out of the top twenty. I stayed calm, riding safe and smart, knowing I still had around a mile and a long ramp-up awaiting me.

We came out of turn three and I watched the front riders already jockeying around for position as the accordion effect brought us back together. My indecision nearly kept me behind them as I could see the wall forming before I realized there was huge gap remaining on the right hand side of the two lane home stretch. Nobody at the front wanted to leave a wheel, even three or four deep. Anybody who was in the thick it seemed to miss the opening to the right.

I then woke up with a start and began screaming at Nathan, in front and to the right, to move his ass…he wasn’t exactly going too slow, but with the entire pack now stretching the width of the road and about 300 meters to go, things were about to get awfully tight. It was all he needed to hear. Before I could grab his wheel for a leadout though, I had to loudly alert the rightward sliding Flatlandia rider to my presence, and then stood up to shift and give it my last…and realized I was out of gears.

I spun out to the line, hitting 40mph while never getting out of the saddle, and getting pipped at the last moment by a 40+ rider from Tower, the host team.

It took some sorting out, combining the camera, the time chips, and good old fashioned “detective work”, but about 20 minutes later, I was standing on the podium for the second time this year with a 3rd place finish in the Master’s 3- + Cat 4/5 (say that 3 times, fast) – 6th overall.

I felt happy and, yes, lucky. It was not a Hollywood ending to 2008 by any stretch of imagination. I had certainly not been in the best position in most races out of turn 3, but today it was actually as ideal as it could get. Being keyed up at the front, and reticent to go off with 20 twitchy riders right behind you would of course blind any racer to the particular situation. It was only the riders coming up from the back that could steadily ramp up their speed with conviction and determination who had the advantage yesterday. And sure enough, other than the overall winner who did attack from the last turn, at least 7 of the top ten did indeed come up from the back right.

Luck and patience – and just maybe a bit of tactics – finally came up in my favor.

It’s hard and sad to realize it’s all done, nearly finished. How could the season have gone by so fast? And how, as I relive it tonight in such vivid detail, could its beginnings seem so long ago?

Whichever. Sunday, as I sped into shade, chasing dust clouds on the single track, the sense of time was lost altogether. Perhaps the seasons will blend together more and more as I experience more, race more, into the illusion of greater length. Or maybe not. Maybe as I get older and the chances for victory get more fleeting, the seasons will seem shorter still.

But as long as I have her at my side, to joke and cheer, even through getting lost with shoddy directions and baking in the hot sun for me to wait on a $30 check, it will seem just right.

1 comment:

Chris said...

was really glad to see you on the podium in the early pictures. congrats man! great writeup too.