Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

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

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

This weekend I competed in my first racing events at the WWU omnium in Olympia, Washington. Saturday had a Team Time Trial of 13 miles, followed by a road race of three laps on the same loop. Though full of complications and confusion, it was a good first experience and it's definitely gotten me addicted to cycle racing.

Pre-race: Disarray and sleeplessness

I travelled from Portland, Oregon, to Olympia, with the cycling club from Portland State University. We're not really even a 'team,' per se; we have no budget, no coach, no kit, just a bunch of men and women who like to ride bicycles. We met up at the university campus at about five thirty PM, finally rolling out at about seven. The trek to Olympia is one hundred forty miles, taking about three hours in the rush-hour traffic out of town. Add in a few stops, motel check-ins, and it was well past ten when we finally got set up in our hotel. This seemed about right to me, as the race was set to get underway at nine the next morning, but several of the men decided to go out for food before bed. I'd thought they were heading to a grocery store to buy supplies for the next day, and so I went with them, but it turned out they intended to go to a restaurant. We ate at a terrible little diner that was still open, finally getting back to the room at past midnight. That didn't bode well for getting enough sleep! Alarms were set for quarter past six in the morning.

Less than six hours later, we were up and eating breakfast; raisin bran, orange juice, bagels, and bananas. My stomach felt tense from the adrenaline, my back and neck a bit sore from sleeping on a cot, and still entirely too tired, but nonetheless I had a lot of fire to race. Putting some loud rock music on my ipod, I tuned out the rest of the group and tried to focus my wandering mind on the task at hand.

Fortunately, there were no major snags en route to the race; we all got registered, numbers pinned, and began to warm up on trainers by 8:00 am. Unfortunately, the organizers delayed the start until 9:45, so we had a little more time to kill than we expected. I rode around the area despite warnings not to 'pre-ride the course;' it seemed like a lot of other people were doing it and it was better than standing around. When I got back, our team captain -- Cage, by far the fastest rider on our team, especially in a sprint -- explained to me the situation. The Team Time Trial for the B's could ride four riders and would take the time of the third wheel, whereas the C team would run 3 riders and take the second wheel's time. It turned out we had seven men, which meant either running two two-man C teams and a three-man B team, or else one full-strength team would be run in each. Obviously, the latter decision was smarter, and that's what they chose, but it meant that one of the C men would need to ride in the B TTT. I learned that two of the other B guys had volunteered me to be that rider; I was both flattered and nervous. The B team, then, would be Cage, Morgan, Ryan, and myself.

Team Time Trial : Rock in an aero place

At the line, I felt really, really nervous -- I did NOT want to let these guys down! All the same, I was the only guy on the team without clip-ons and with box-section, 32-spoke rims. This would particularly hurt me in taking pulls, so they said I ought to just keep the speed up when my turn came round and to get out of the wind fairly quickly. We went out on the thirteen mile, rolling loop, and in the first three miles my stomach was giving me fits. I was really nervous! It quickly became obvious that the pace was getting too much for Ryan, though; this just wasn't his day. He started to get gapped, and I was directly on his wheel. He turns back to me, pointing down the road now at the other two guys. "If you can get up there, just go. Sorry." I felt bad for him; clearly he was frustrated, but what else could I do? I put my hands in the drops and sprinted up onto Morgan's wheel, quickly shouting up what had happened. There was no choice but to leave Ryan and move on. By mile 8 I figured we were doing all right, and was pretty satisfied with myself for sticking with these guys; my stomach was settling down and my legs coming on a little stronger. Cage turns back as he drops off the lead.

"How ya feeling? Can you hang on?" He asked. Guy wasn't even breathing that hard.
"Yeah, I'm good, though pulling as fast as that would cook me," I told him.
"Okay. Just hang on then -- don't pull at all. Morgan and I will trade off, and I'm going to go all out." I gulped in a few deep breaths and nodded. The next four miles went by REALLY quickly; it was a slight downhill and cage pulled in excess of thirty miles an hour the whole time. Then we got to the only tricky section -- A climb about half a mile long, maybe four percent, followed by a 90 degree right turn that climbed up a little more sharply for about a hundred yards into the finishing straight.
Cage took the point from Morgan and went all out up the hill, but halfway up it, Morgan, at the back of the group, shouted "shit, shit, cramp! Damn it!" He sounded really pissed; I fell back a little bit to see what had happened, but the momentum was all gone, and we were halfway up the hill. "Slow up, damn it, my knee's cramped..." he explains, and we do, until he tells us to pick up the pace again. He sticks on my wheel, and we pull him back up to the right hander, where he puts it together, and we give all we've got up that last corner, which hurts, up until the line. I've still got quite a bit in my legs, since I haven't been pulling, so I give a bit of a sprint through the finish line, trying to make this thing look a bit respectable.
I expected us to come in dead last after all of that nightmare, but somehow thanks to Cage's pulling, we ended up with sixth out of eleven; right in the middle. We cooled down a few minutes, waited for Ryan to pull through the line and gave him some conciliatory congratulations, then I lay down on the grass to take a quick nap before the road race, which would start in about an hour.

Road Race: A lea(r)ning experience

The team time trial had proved a good warm-up for the road race for me; though I'd gone hard, I hadn't exactly been a bloc since I wasn't in the wind for most of it, and the jitters had mostly gone out of my stomach. Also, since the road race would be around the same course as the team time trial, I now knew what to expect of the course. The B and the C groups would race in a combined field for this 3-lap, 40-mile race, but they would be scored separately. Our team had their eyes on the game well enough to notice right when they called the riders to the line, so we were able to start out near the front of the pack. Since it was my first road race, my goal was simply to finish with the pack, without crashing. To do this, I planned mostly to hang on the wheel of either Cage or Morgan. I knew that the fairly flat course wouldn't be favorable to breakaways, but I had no idea what to expect beyond that. It was a bit intimidating, lining up with over 100 riders on the starting line. I have only been on two group rides that included more than half a dozen members -- and those only had about 10 riders! Turning round to look at the starting line and seeing all those bikes was a cool sight, but also an intimidating one, as for the first time they'd all be out to get to the finish line before I did.
One additional snafu: our team had forgotten to bring along its box of gear that included energy bars, drink mix, and Gu energy gels. I had brought along a couple of powerbars on my own, and I pre-unwrapped one and stuck it in my jersey pocket, but I was nervous about the safety and time required to eat solid food on such a short race, but I had absolutely no energy drinks or gels to handle the situation. Forty miles, raced in about an hour and three quarters, is right about the threshold where bonking starts to happen if I've eaten no calories, so it would be a tough decision.
Well, there was no more time to be worried about that, as the support car's flashing yellow lights pulled away in front of us, and the race organizer called "Roll out!" With a massive series of pedals clicking, the peloton was underway. I took a few deep breaths to steady myself and rolled away. As I was told would happen, the first lap of the race was relatively uneventful; certainly it was lower intensity than most of my training rides. The peloton just cruised along at about 22 miles an hour, dropping only a few of the C riders that, clearly, weren't much for racing at all. As we rounded the bend towards the start/finish straight, the group began to pick up speed -- I figured, in part, to impress the spectators cheering on the sidelines. After the start and finish straight, there's a section with a moderate descent pointing slightly leftwards, followed by a sweeping right hander. I'm amazed at how much the pack slows up for this section, and I feed through the pack and pick up several of the places I'd lost in the start straight. I think the slowness came partly from the fact that a rider had gone down in the team time trial earlier in the day -- I didn't see it, but I heard they got some pretty bad road rash and I know they left in the ambulance. Either way, the peloton continued at a fairly moderate pace up until the race's sharpest turn, a right-hander of about 110 degrees. I took the outside line of the corner, keeping my speed up relatively well, when I heard a curse and that scraping sound of metal and asphalt, followed by several cries of "Rider down!"
Thankfully, he was okay; someone had simply tried to take the corner a little too sharply and ended up in the gravel, but it accordioned the field back quite a way as riders both tried to avoid the same fate and rubberneck. As I flowed out of the corner, I saw the small group that were ahead of the group accelerating, one of them shouting "Break, break!" Since I hadn't been slowed that much, it was fairly easy to manage a quick sprint up to that group, which accelerated away from the peloton for a while. Being as inexperienced as I was, I had no idea if this break would hold for the duration of the race or no, but I was determined not to get dropped. In all, about fifteen riders were in the first group, included Cage, Morgan, Ryan, and myself. In front of them, another rider had tried a solo breakaway; he only lasted about two miles. For about a lap the break held, but midway through the last lap, on the crest of a moderate climb, I glanced back to see the entire peloton on our heels. So much for avoiding a ridiculously packed finish!
The last lap went by quicker than the first two, though overall it was still pretty slowly moving for the first half. The last climb to the start and finish straight would prove decisive. Though there were no major attacks, the leaders pushed up the tempo, and about two thirds of the pack fell several seconds behind the group. Thankfully, I held onto the lead group, trying to position myself for the end of the stage. One university's team looked very strong, with at least five riders near the front of the field. I held on to one of their wheels as we completed the climb, then turned onto the last road of the race. Here's where I made my mistake. In my haste, I'd thought the finish was just a bit sooner, and burned up my legs too much trying to sprint along with the guy whose wheel I was holding; it was only the third time I'd been out of the saddle all day. When we rounded the final bend I realized my error: the finish line wasn't for another 300 meters or so, and the men I'd been sprinting behind were leading out their own sprinters to win the race. Fifty meters later and I was spent, and riders blew past me in the race for the finish. Cage ended up taking second, edged by a nose by one of the riders from the team that had controlled the front so long. In the C category, I ended up placing fifth -- overall, not bad for a first outing, though I was quite mad at myself for miscalculating the finish. I'll pay more attention next time.

Up Next : Take two - the very next weekend, there will be another TTT - road race - criterium omnium, but the course will be much hillier, with just under 3000 feet of total climbing in a forty-mile road race. I think I'll fare much better in this one, as the B and C fields will be separated instead of mixed, and the climbs should like my 143-pound self and my totally non-aero bike a little better than the sprint-friendly course from this weekend. I be climbed hard today, and will again tomorrow, in preparation, and then I'll take Thursday and Friday really easily to rest up and recharge. Now if only I can get to bed at a decent hour Friday night...

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