After missing the Witches Cup last year, I was happy to be back and even happier to see that the predicted rain had given way to sunny skies. Perfect conditions for a mid-week, twilight New England criterium.
I had slogged my way up 128 in stop-and-go traffic, with my 11-year old son to keep me company. He kept urging me to a top-1o finish and a payout, but my expectations were lower.
We found parking close to the race course. I kitted up and we went to find the boy some food, searching for an elusive slice of pizza, but settling for a muffin instead. Along the way, people kept stopping us to ask about the race, reminiscing of the early years and Eric Heiden’s tree-trunk thighs.
Then I rolled out for a warm-up along Collins Cove. A car full of local girls passed me, a dark-haired leaning out the back window, shouting, “Go, Romeo! Shake that beautiful boot-ay!”
Once back at the race course, I rode some laps, spotted my son with a slice of pizza. “They had it at the VIP tent this whole time!”
On the start line, Richard Fries called up one rider after another until the front row was packed, then the rest of us swarmed to find good positions. My son waved and gave me the thumbs up from the side of the road. The whistle sounded and I immediately lost 20 spots. But I had an hour to recover from that.
After a few laps in, I was feeling good for the most part. I was having problems with my left hand. My fingers kept locking out, making it hard to control the brakes, until I stopped trying to brake and just carried my speed through the corners. I was loving the way my Look 695 and Vittoria rubber were handling the turns. I kept finding more and more speed through until I started to get into trouble. I had a few close calls with riders cutting across my line and vice versa, riders squeezing through the inside and getting tangled, riders overlapping wheels and almost going down. At one point, my bike lost contact with the tarmac and skipped through the turn and I ended up with my front wheel in some guy’s derailleur, fortunately damaging neither of us.
That was enough for me to back off a bit. The main goal was still not to crash. Nonetheless, before the race I had discussed with my son what he should do if I crashed out and ended up in the ambulance and on the way to the hospital.
With my speed under control and my nerves recovered, I kept finding ways to slingshot my way up to the front of the race. I kept my eye out for Adam Myerson — a cycling buddy from when we were teen-agers — and tried to follow him while staying out of his way. I never had the balls he has to thread the way through a dodgy pack of riders and I definitely don’t have them now, so I had to work harder to get to the front.
But I did get to the front and feel the wind full on in my face, closing up gaps to lead riders, and dreaming of going off the front. With nearly every lap, I could hear my son yelling, “Go, Pop!” and every so often, I could see him jumping up and down in his matching Romeo jersey.
I was racing the race — not just surviving — and I felt better and better.
Until 10 laps to go.
That’s when my left hip flexor started to cramp up.
So I backed off a few laps, tried to hold position and let the muscle relax. Eventually, it did and with 7 to go, I was back at the front of the race, foolishly inserted into the rotation at the head of the field.
The last 5 laps were blistering. I was in the top-20, but a little too far back to figure in the sprint. I was counting on a last corner inside line gamble to make up some positions, knowing full well I would be out of gas to sprint the final 200 meters.
But there was a crash instead. I couldn’t see where it was or where it was spreading, so I backed off, gave up a bunch of spots and all of my speed. I still sprinted to the finish, but a sprint for 30-something place is purely one of principle.
Still, I was satisfied. On my cool-down laps, I thanked everybody I saw: spectators, course marshals, police officers. And they thanked me for coming to race. Sometimes the locals get frustrated with the commotion the race causes, but Salem was glad to have us.
After the race, my son was ecstatic. He had never seen me race a bike like that before and he couldn’t believe it.
I was excited, too, and it was well past midnight before I had calmed down enough to fall asleep.