- Three races in three days–more back-to-back racing than I’ve done in years and only my second bike race of the season.
- Pro 1/2 category, the longest distances with the fastest riders–didn’t want the risk of crashing in the Masters races.
- $60-plus entry fees (per day!) and pretty much guaranteed not to make it back–but still cheaper than therapy.
But I had been training intensively on the bike and feeling progress so it seemed like the best way to test myself. And when presented with the options of doing something hard, or doing something harder, I’ll invariably choose the harder path.
I’ve always loved the preparation for a bicycle race, from when I was young. Wash and lube the bike. Pack the gear bag with everything you’ll need for race day, plus extra for every conceivable weather conditions. Fill the bottles. Load the car. Pin the numbers on the jersey in the hallowed 7-pin manner. Pump up the tires. Warm-up while listening to music. I did a textbook trainer warm-up all three days because I knew the racing would be fast. One final piss, then swap out the bottles, chug some Mountain Dew, and line up to race. Wait on the line while they call up the better riders. Have a clean start.
I’ve done this, with minor variations, for every race for 30-plus years now and, it’s safe to say, I’m still perfecting it.
Day 1: Leominster
The twilight criterium. The fading day settles, slightly nostalgic, a little weary as the crowds gather for the premier event. The sun blinds into the first corner. The old brick mill buildings cast long shadows on the technical backstretch. The heat ebbs.
I’ll admit, I was nervous upon the course preview and worried about getting gapped off along the 7-corner course. The first ten laps were carnage with multiple crashes, all of which I managed to avoid, which boosted my confidence. I may no longer have pure speed, but I know how to handle a bike and carry speed through the turns. I felt better as the race went on, worked my way into the top 10-15 riders in the final 15 minutes of the hour-long event, but lost my nerve in the final laps, gave up a lot of places and sprinted into the top-30. There were still two more days of racing, and they would only get longer and harder.
Day 2: Worcester
I had a good start which saved some energy, but two laps in, I could feel the previous day in my legs and was uncertain about 70 minutes more of this.. This race was much faster, on a flat course, with a windy backstretch that strung the pack into a long thin line. Every so often gaps would open up and I hung on patiently until it all came back together before the next turn.
Sometimes the pace picked up, inducing panic and fear of not finishing, then things would ebb and I could get some air back into my lungs and everything would be all right again. When you’re a relatively weaker rider, you rely on holding the wheel in front of you. But if that rider lets the gap open up, you’re not going to be strong enough to close it, and the day can end very quickly.
So I stayed at the front of the race, surfed the wave of faster riders that surged into each corner, knew where the wind was and how to stay out of it. I was racing, not just surviving, and looking for the split and the breakaway. I got excited, and I went a little too deep and suffered for it. On my way back through the field, a fellow rider saw me struggling and gave me a push. Just enough to keep me from becoming a danger. Just enough to put me back in the good graces of the race. And so I finished it, embedded deep in the pack, safe and sound. But I was tired.
Day 3: Fitchburg
I woke up on Sunday with a stomach ache. Maybe nerves or simply over-exertion. I knew it would all get sorted out, one way or another, in the afternoon’s 50-mile finale. Fitchburg was the first “pro” race I ever did, back in 1990. It was ungodly hot, I won a prime which is how I discovered I had pinned my number on upside down, causing Dick Ring to pronounce me a “good Polish boy” to the crowds. At half-way, it started to pour, bringing some relief from the heat, and Roberto Gaggioli slapped me in the face for getting to close to him on the hairpin. It was everything I had ever wanted from bike racing.
Dick Ring was still announcing on this hot afternoon, and there was no rain or relief in sight. Thankfully, the race started at reasonable pace and 50-miles over the next 2 hours seemed manageable. A break went clear. There were several unsuccessful attempts to bridge, then things settled down. I was riding for endurance and to stay out of trouble. I had one close call when the rider in front of me tangled with the barrier and then the rider next to him, then finally over the barrier. I ran up the rear wheel of the other rider as he struggled to stay up right. I wasn’t going down. Not today. Muscle memory took over. I extracted myself, stayed upright, and kept on racing.
I was good until the single-digit laps. A series of pack primes pushed my limits. My left hip flexor started to cramp. There was no reason to sprint. I was happy just to finish it, and to have three days of hard racing in my legs.
After the races, the rituals continue. Sit, vacant-eyed, mouth agape, on the bumper of the car. Wipe down with towels. Drink what’s left of the cold drinks. Strip off stinky cycling clothes. Revisit and review every move, pedal stroke and effort and wonder what you could have done differently. Load the bike onto the car. Drive.
The Monday after the race weekend is true bliss. The legs are sore and tired, but deservedly so. There are no workouts or efforts to do, just an easy spin. If it happens to be a warm, sunny day, ride to the coffee shop and sit in front and stare at your legs.
I’ve made peace with the sport.
I’ve tried to leave. Multiple times. But it keeps beckoning me. And I keep coming back. At some point, I believe, the spark will go out, but it won’t be this year, probably not next either.
Cycling is incredibly hard. It gets tougher every year to find the fitness, to rebuild my legs. But every year, I manage to do it, as proof to myself that I still can. Abandoning the sport would be giving up on life. It is my youth, my past, increasingly a representation of what I used to be as an athlete.
But cycling for me, in particular, as always been about the future. It’s the next race. The better result. The path forward, the road that has seen me through the best and worst times of my life.
Yes, I retired too soon.
Yes, I have unfinished business.
Yes, I have sacrificed everything, one time or another, for this sport.
The payback is that I still get to enjoy it, thirty years later.
I won’t say that it’s fun. Just reassuring to know that I was once good at something and that I can still do it, even if I’m not that good anymore.