Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Another one under the belt: Report from my third road race.

This weekend, I raced in the championships for the n orthwest collegiate cycling conference in and around Palouse, Washington. What a weekend! The usual arrival difficulties made starting the race Saturday morning a difficult experience; we'd gotten into the hotel rooms at past midnight, after seven hours of cramped riding in the back seat of a van from Portland, Oregon. Four and a half hours sleep were all that was afforded us before a quick breakfast, then an hour or so drive to the course; we were to roll out just before nine in the morning. The line to register was massive, of course, and after signing in and setting up, I shook off fatigue and got in a quick and entirely insufficient warm-up before heading to the course.

I'd been determined to achieve better results this weekend after a painful 9th place finish two weeks ago, when I had to chase the pack solo for the last half of the race after a mechanical difficulty. I knew I was among the stronger riders in the men's 'C' field, but this weekend, they combined the 'B' and the 'C' groups, and it was the championship race: people would be riding hard.

The course was a rolling 24-mile circuit through countryside that was both beautiful but intimidating; not much could grow in these windswept hills, and the landscape was rocky and very dusty. A clear day greeted the rollout, and temperatures were expected to reach the mid-seventies. Perfect. I clicked the distance-to-go into my cyclocomputer, checked everything else once more, and followed the field across the wooden planks and five train track crossings that marked the end of the neutral start. We'd race for two of the 24-mile laps, and then turn off for about a mile through downtown, followed by another half a mile of finishing climb.

I didn't expect the wind. Brutal, sustained crosswinds slashed across much of the course, making mild grades painful and occasionally scattering dust in our faces. Powerful gusts blew the field around, which I found unnerving. I'm a novice rider, having only ridden a bike since October of last year -- I've only had a multi-geared, freewheeling bike for about two months, and that inexperience shows in treacherous handling situations. I bobbed in and out of the saddle in the first sections, trying to warm my legs up for the attacks I knew would come in the first section as the region's two big teams tried to break apart the field. It wasn't enough. The break came after less than ten miles, up a small incline with the wind at our backs and bit to the side, and the peloton moved fast. I was about three-quarters of the way back at that point, having survived a dicey shoulder-rub in a gust of wind. Nobody went down, thankfully.

I watched the front group pull away as they crested the hill and tried to pursue, but the legs and lungs just hadn't fully warmed up yet, and I couldn't stay with them as the descent came. That was the fastest I've ever ridden a bicycle; my computer indicated 53 miles per hour, and my smallest cog only had 13 teeth. I tucked in and tried to stay as close as I could, forcing myself to keep my hands off the brakes as a couple of times, my rear wheel bobbed frighteningly in gusts of wind. A slightly downhill, windy section with the wind still helping out kept speeds in excess of 35 miles an hour for at least 4 miles, and the aerodynamics of the pack quickly pulled them away from me. I felt terrible; my stomach cramped and twisted, I coughed up a bit of awful acidic taste, and considered pulling out. No way. I haven't come this many miles, paid my entry fee, gotten so little sleep, for that. I forced myself not to chase above threshold, and just kept up my tempo.

Gradually, it got better. The winds shifted to headwinds, the hills got a bit steeper, and after a full lap, I was finally completely warmed up. In ones and twos, riders appeared in the distance and fell behind me as the 'C' riders who'd tried to stick with the 'B' break got shelled off the back. As I heard it told at the end, the front group of about half the 'B' field - 15 riders or so - were the only even vaguely cohesive group. The rest of the field stayed split tiny fragments. I came upon a teammate who was in just such a position, and the ability to trade off pulls to fight the wind was extremely welcome. We passed a few more riders, mostly 'C's, but some 'B's. As we did so, eventually we came upon Jon, third teammate, who was also trying to avenge a nasty series of flat tires in previous races. He'd been paying a little more attention to the breakaway, and told us there really weren't very many 'C's left on the road ahead. Onward we went.

I'd gotten my legs back now, and pulled my teammates up the steeper sections of the climbs; my strongest area, for sure. Unfortunately, they weren't able to hold my wheel in the vicious wind, and so I let off to allow them to catch up. Peter was in the running for the 'C' conference championship -- I'd only been to a couple of the races, so of course I was not -- and I knew I'd appreciate the drafting help in the down hills and flats. My 32-spoke wheels and round-tubed steel frame and fork hardly scream 'aero' anyhow. We stuck it out in that pack until the end of the race, and I was fairly satisfied when I checked with the scorers: we'd finished 4-5-6. Fourth place - not bad, especially considering the field was larger and the racing harder than the previous races I'd entered. My best finish so far! I felt a bit of pride, too, as the conference manager told me our time was 'really good, considering the conditions, and you still look fresh!'

"If only's" aren't worth very much, but I'd like to think, with sufficient sleep and a longer warmup, I'd have been able to hang with the frontrunners for longer. Definitely a learning experience! I'm looking forward to future races, especially stages that are a bit longer, with more climbing. Those should suit me more. If I wasn't before, I'm a total addict now. Allez!

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