On Wednesday night I did the Pro/1/2 Witches Cup race around in Salem. It was a mid-week, evening race — a nocturne of sorts — that required me to escape work a little early, pack the car and drive up 128 through stop-and-go traffic to the town where the hung witches hundreds of years ago. The course was flat, not very technical except for one acute angle turn and couple of rough spots, about 1km long. Fast. This year had the special bonus of my wife coming to watch, just like the old days.
After all these years, I still have a basic ritual when I get to a bike race:
- Pick up my bib number, pin it to my jersey with the classic 7-pin method.
- Pump up my race wheels to 120 psi.
- Mix up my drinks: Cyto in one bottle; the other, Mountain Dew cut with water.
- Kit up: easy for this race because it was so warm and I didn’t have to manage extra clothing.
- Balm up: with the humidity and intensity, this was essential. Plus, I’ve been having problems down there.
- Warm up: 20 to 25 minutes easy spinning with guys I starting racing with when I was 13.
At the last minute, I switched over to the race wheels and headed to the start line.
I haven’t done a lot of bike racing this year. Seriously, not one since Sterling back in May. And though I’ve been doing more and more intensity on the bike, jumping into a pro criterium with this level of preparation does little to inspire confidence. On the start line, I felt a little nervous but reminded myself that I’ve done plenty of hard training this season with good heart rate values, just not all specific to the bike. I would be all right.
The race started and it strung out pretty quickly. It was an hour timed event and I made it a point not to look at lap cards until I settled in with 42 laps to go. I did this race last year and had a much tougher time of it. I was braking too hard into the corners and at half-way I wasn’t sure I would make it to the end. This year was completely different. I settled into a rhythm early, felt solid and confident in the corners, barely touching my brakes. As I’ve gotten older and weaker I’ve grown smarter in how to ride a bike race. It’s become instinctive. I could see the splits and surges before they happened and comfortably floated through them. Each time I did so, I huge smile crossed my face. I was having fun. Once or twice I was caught behind riders letting gaps open up and that told me it was time to move to the front. There were primes every two or three laps and sometimes the peloton was strung out in a long thin file, and sometimes it bunched up dangerously as attacks were neutralized, riders waited breathlessly for the next move and stragglers regained the group.
At half-way I started hitting the bottle of Mountain Dew. The mixture was still slightly carbonated and had pressurized with all the bumping around. When I popped the top it sprayed into my mouth like a fuel injector. The Mountaind Dew tasted like hand sanitizer and it left my bottle, bars and brakehoods all sticky. But the sugar/caffeine gave me that little extra juice that I needed. Or at least the illusion of it.
With 10 laps to go, the pace intensified as riders set up for the sprint. There was a group of 4 riders off the front and it started to look more and more like a they were gone. The pretenders had fallen off the pace. The contenders were massing at the front. I was somewhere in between, trying to work my way into the top ten while still saving something for the gallop…and not get crashed in the process. The corners got tighter. Riders were taking risks. My tires were starting to slip out beneath me.
Coming through the start/finish with 5 laps to go, I heard Dick Ring on the P.A., “Lord love a duck!” as Adam Myerson went to the front and took a giant pull for a lap and half to reel in the break and setup his teammate for the sprint. Then he sat up and drifted to the back.
With 2 laps to go, I started to loose my nerve. I had nothing left for the sprint and there was no point in any further risk taking. It would have been acceptable to sit up at that point and call it a day, but I pushed it to stay in the front group. With one lap to go, I was cramping up in muscles I hadn’t exerted this intensely in a while. Coming out of the last corner, I got out of the saddle, stood on the pedals and “sprinted”. My sprint lacked punch or anything resembling an increase in speed. I pedaled through molasses, fearing the embarassment of being passed before the line for a non-paying place, ultimately finishing in 35th. Adam’s teammate, Luke Keough, won the race.
I rode a few cool-down laps after the finish, enjoying the warm summer night, the post-race calm and the euphoric sense of accomplishment. I had been nowhere near the front, not in contention for the sprint, but I had a blast. I started to think that with a little bit more on-the-bike training, I could do something again in this sport.