On Friday, after work, I drive down to a “kermesse” in Connecticut. The traffic thickens on the Mass Pike; I bypass the Sturbridge Tolls and still arrive at the race site early with lots of time to kill. I start my warm-up with plenty of time before the start. The late afternoon sun beats down on me. It will be cooler by the time the race starts at 7PM and nearly dark by the time we finish.
I’m smug in my warm-up, on a trainer stationed by the back of my car. A trainer! I swore I’d never ride one of these again. But here I am. I spend 45 minutes pedaling at low heart rate and medium cadence. Spinning and taking my time for my legs to wake up. Getting older. It takes a long time to get things moving. Plus, I haven’t been on the bike since Tuesday night. Plus, I did a rollerski interval workout the night before. Plus I was in the car for an hour and a half. After some time, I’m sweating hard and a thought passes: all I’m doing is dehydrating myself. Another 30 minutes on the trainer. I slowly begin to ratchet up the gears and increase the intensity, the last few minutes just below race-pace heart rate. As I step off the trainer and swap over to my race wheels, the announcer is calling us to the line.
On the start line, I’m nervous for some reason. The course is being described at “technical” and I didn’t have a chance to recon it. Amateur error. I’m expecting it to be fast from the gun and balls out but it starts slow and I have plenty of time to settle in and get good view. The course is technical. Wide open, winding boulevards around the football stadium; no real corners or lines to follow. The peloton spreads wide across and bunches up hard when we hit the hairpin. Then we’re onto a footpath, a fraction of the width, the pack strung out two or three wide, gaps opening up all over the place.
It goes on like this for the hour. Some breaks go up the road but all come back. Guys are getting tired but I’m feeling better and better. I keep finding myself at the front with clear road in front of me or a gap up to the break, and when I do, I quickly slink off to the side and into anonymity.
With 2 laps to go, a few teams mass at the front the pace acclerates. It’s nearly dark now, just the faint afterglow peeking from behind the trees. After the first turn, a few riders tangle up on the right, quickly followed by the horrific sounds of pedals going into wheels, carbon fiber snapping and bodies thudding against the tarmac. I stay clear of the carnage. On the final lap, the field is stretched long and peeling apart. I put in a big effort to put myself into contention and spend too much energy in the process. The sprint winds up and I have nothing left but I manage a top-15 finish.
On the cool-down lap, I unzip my jersey and let the cool night air dry the sweat from my chest. There is still one rider on the ground from the crash, immobile, being attended by a race official. Off in the distance, the sound of sirens. I wonder about the rider for the rest of the lap and all the way back to my car. I never find out the extent of his injuries.
I change up quickly, wipe down with a towel soaked in ice water from the cooler, leaving it to linger on my face. On the drive home, my legs are sore, but not overly tired. I worked hard, but was never in difficulty. Later, when I look at my heart rate data, I’ll find that I reach peak heart rate of 181. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that on the bike. The speed is coming back and coming back fast.