You Can’t Win if You Don’t Play

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A race jersey doesn’t look as noble when it didn’t complete the course

Years ago, I became fairly educated in esoteric topics like astrology, tarot, Jungian personality typing, and numerology. Nothing says “life of the party” quite like, “hey…can I read your cards?”

Great for meeting girls, too.

I was raised in a religious home, and as I grew older, I rejected religion in favor of spirituality. Part of the trip was learning — and agreeing with the fact — that we’re all part of One Big Groove Thing. We’re all interconnected. We all affect each other. And the sooner you can surf that groove, the more peaceful you’ll be.

After arriving at the Zanesfield, Ohio start location for my first ever mass-start race, I was especially anxious to receive my jersey number. I wanted to see how — to get all Shirley MacLaine on you — my energy and the energy of the race all synced up and reflected itself in the number I’d be wearing.

One thing you learn about The Groove Thing: stuff doesn’t just happen “to” you; you attract things, and you are a part of making things come into being. And — it’s not all about just you.

Suffice it to say: my reactions to the events of the morning would reflect the number rather well.

After presenting my license and signing the form that said I’d not sue the race organizers in the event of my untimely demise during the practice of hurtling along at bizarre speeds, I was handed the race number, “22.”

Numerologically, you add all the digits together of any number representing a person or place, and you get it’s base number. Simply, my numerological value was a “4.”

4 is, in a word, pedestrian. Hardworking, likes routine, matter-of-fact, wants to Get Things Done. But doesn’t necessarily do it with panache or flair. I was actually OK with that. 4 is very “salt of the earth.” Pragmatic. There is good reason behind the actions a 4 takes.

Cool.

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Prepared down to the last detail — except for a heaping dose of fortitude

I took my 2 numbers (one for each side of the back of your jersey so the race officials on either side of you can see) and walked quietly back to my car through the intensely gusting wind. The wind speeds were hitting as high as 40mph, and were going to be a huge factor in the race. In the quiet of the car, the sounds of carbon race wheels over gravel and racers and their significant others hyped up on glucose and carbs were muffled. I began the pinning ritual.

Some racers find it tedious. They just want to get to their warm up, or head out on the course and give it a look-see. But, true to the energy of a 4, I’d arrived in town the night before, and already driven the course, carefully comparing it to the course map already posted online. I was minding the elevation change, and looking at the corners for how clean they were. Check.

My safety pins and I had an hour before my category’s designated start time. I reasoned that I’d only need 30 minutes of warm-up on the trainer, so I could allow the pinning of the numbers to be more — meditative.

I felt as prepared as I could possibly be for my first real race. I was familiar with the course, and had a plan for this 3-laps-of-15-miles race: stay near the front, and always have shelter from the wind. Don’t be a hero taking lots of pulls, or at least long ones, and just maybe, on the last lap, I might find myself in a breakaway. I reasoned that, with the incredible wind, and with 2 climbs of enough significance that would ultimately mean six hard efforts, the better part of the first lap would be little more than a rolling group ride.

Not only was I very wrong about that, but just as with my very first race — last month’s time trial — I didn’t stick to the plan…

All 75 riders for the mixed Category 4/5 race were being addressed by a race official with a bullhorn. I was right up at the very front, where I knew I’d need to be, listening to instruction about not crossing the centerline, not passing farm machinery, and if a race official on a motorcycle in a striped shirt calls you out, it’s back of the line for you, you bad, bad rule-breaker.

I was pleased with how utterly un-nervous I was. All this training and planning was at least paying off in that regard. My bladder was behaving, and for this, I was very thankful, as I stood straddling my bike, relaxed.

Then, the whistle went off — and my first assumption was proven to be a naive one. I expected an easy rollout by a group of relatively new racers. This, after all, was the bottom of the category ladder, and there was a sharp pitch soon, and enough wind to sweep you up to meet Dorothy.

But no. The pack was off like a shot. Although this wasn’t a criterium race, you wouldn’t have known it by the immediate grunt of the group. I gave myself a couple of pedal revs with my clipped-in left leg, but try as I might, I couldn’t get my right foot into the pedal for several dozen meters.

Rider after rider passed me, and within seconds, I was literally the lantern rouge, and worse, on the inside approaching our first right hand turn — which began the first climb: a little over a mile in length with a certain little kick at 8%.

I allowed the peloton to pass me entirely, then made the corner, and moved over to the centerline, where I immediately began making my way up to the front. At the base of the climb, it was a yellow line to curb mass, but as the road steepened, the group began to huddle towards the right. I was delighted. Up and out of the saddle, I rode with plenty of room to myself near the middle of the road. In no time, I was at the head of the field in a line about 6 riders across.

That’s where my good, clear thinking unfortunately ends.

I moved my hands from the hoods to the tops, scooched my butt back on the saddle, and started tapping out a rhythm. My heart rate was very high — but so was the speed. Despite the pitch, we were climbing at over 18mph, and we weren’t 3 miles in to the first lap.

My cycle mates up in the front were not cool and collected. They were huffing and puffing and shifting hands. Seated. Standing. Repeat. They were obviously going too hard. And I was going too hard.

That’s where I made the mistake that still haunts me as I type, this evening. I presumed on the peloton. I channeled the pragmatic spirit of a 4. Oozing reason, and having watched far too many professional races on the TV, I thought, “There’s no way these kids can keep this pace up.” Nevermind that I’d be proved right.

“The wind is at our back on this climb, but when we turn right in a few miles, it’s swirling crosswinds and gusts.”

I figured they’d fade, so, I made up my mind to pace myself. “After all, I’ll start passing them as they blow up.”

I decided to just slip back in the group. No reason to crash and burn so soon. But more than simply slide back into the back of the pack, I actually lost my grip on the group. They did not ease the pace over the first climb or it’s subsequent rollers. If anything, they accelerated. Over the course of several lonely minutes, I watched the peloton slip away in a mass, discarding a rider here and a rider there.

If you let certain gaps form, they may become too big to cross

If you let certain gaps form, they may become too big to cross

I was now a chaser.

With a few stragglers also floating about me, I realized I’d just made a very serious error.

The peloton advanced. Shortly, the right turn that I knew would slow them down appeared: a classic midwestern intersection, open to the wind with no natural barriers of any kind, just surrounded by sweeping farm fields and dust. Think Cary Grant in North by Northwest.

They were about 400 meters up at that point, and when they turned, I saw them slow to a near crawl. The wind was harsh.

“I still have the wind behind me. I can make some ground. But once I make that turn — I’m alone against the crosswind. Without fellow riders, I won’t catch them.”

The motorcycle that was hovering behind me as the last sole rider with a chance to bridge ceased shadowing me as we entered the intersection. The corner marshals with their neon orange flags watched me in silence. When I did make the right turn, it was like I’d just ridden into a lake of jello. The wind made every pedal stroke cumbersome and heavy. Carbon and top notch wheels, be damned.

I ultimately came up on one dropped rider, than the two of us came upon another — and here’s where my dismay of being amongst other true noobs hits hard: my attempts to coax them into working a paceline to catch the still-in sight peloton failed. “Nah, the wind’s against us. There’s no way.”

They had no heart for it.

I was willing. I had the heart. But I was alone. I had made my bed, and now I had to pedal in it.

I ultimately lost sight of the peloton, realizing that they were barreling down the one descent in the race together, and therefore reaching great speeds. Alone, I would hit nearly 47mph on that downhill. I can only imagine how fast they were flying.

As I neared the part of the course that swept past the parking lot, I had a decision to make: go on, just for pride, or call it a day.

I picked Door No. 2.

A Little Less Inexperienced
After hanging my bike on my car’s rack, and nabbing my water bottle, I sat with other spectators near the parking entrance, and waited to see what shape the Cat 4/5’s would be in when they came round after their 2nd lap. What I saw, made me realize I’d given in simply too early: a solo rider came through with the lead car. He was in incredible form, low, fast, and looking scarily fresh. After what seemed to be a full 2 minutes came a lone pair of chasers, not really riding fast enough to earn the description. And then, another 3 or perhaps 4 minutes later, came the shattered remains of the peloton: a paltry group of about 10 riders, followed by the debris of a mere handful of others, one at a time, as the clock ticked away.

They were but shrapnel.

What transpired is easy to formulate: the group stayed together until they returned to that first climb — the one where I made my miscalculation — and that’s when the attacks started. By then, the peloton of new racers, long since having started too hot — blew apart.

In my attempts to be “realistic,” I gave up my birthright as a bike racer, and with that, I’ve been besieged with doubts. “Could I have hung with the big group all the way back to that first climb?” Did I have the fitness? Certainly I could have found shelter in the group, regardless of wether or not they’d work to form real, solid pacelines. I sacrificed protection for a “saner pace,” and in the end, got neither.

What I got was a DNF. “Did Not Finish.”

A DNF means that my planning, my participation in that fast lap (I averaged nearly 19 miles an hour, and my heart rate averaged 1 beat over my lactate threshold) the arriving early, the recon of the course in the car, the weight training — none of it — counts on my cycling record. A Cat 5 rider only needs to complete 10 mass start races to move to Cat 4.

As I sit here, I have no races complete. I pulled over, and watched many other riders throw in the towel, when they could have at least finished what would have amounted to a mere 45 mile training ride. On my final lap, even if I couldn’t have stayed with the peloton up the sharp ascent, I could have started picking off many of those stragglers who were cooking themselves in the beginning.

But this is now just speculation.

Pragmatism Won’t Make You Competitive
Two game plans, and I made neither my Plan Of The Day: Plan One: stay near the head of the group and keep your shelter from the wind, or…ease off the pace, run your own race, and pick off those who exploded too early 

A week from today, is another race.

I won’t be as reserved. And barring a mishap, I’ll be able to notch a “1” on my water bottle.

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