I’ve been meticulously constructing my season around the next 8 days: New England Crit Week. Five pro-1/2 races from this Sunday to next Sunday. I’ve been following a structured training program, measuring and assessing, week to week, refining, looking for signs in the numbers and analysis that will prove out progress.
I’ve been chasing fitness all season, with little to show for it, despite the time and distance. I will submit that there is little measurable progress. Sure, I’ve lost about 5-6 pounds that I didn’t really need to lose. My power numbers are stable, if not declining a bit. My mediocre results reveal little of the efforts I’ve made during the races. The numbers lie. The results are misleading. The changes are subtle, as much a shift in perspective as improvement of a few watts here and heartbeats there.
The first tourney of the season was to have been Marblehead. Thirty-six miles of a seashore loop at a race I won once many years ago. It was to have been my triumphant return. Instead it was cancelled due to inclement weather forecasts — a strange thing to cancel a bike race because of bad weather — so I raced Palmer Koerse the day before. In a lapse of good judgment, I enrolled in the Pro race rather than my Masters age group because I didn’t want to wake up that early, I wanted the extra distance, and I incorrectly assumed that the other riders would be in my same boat of having done precious little intensity at this point in mid-April.
I was wrong.
I struggled from the second lap, over-geared and underpowered, tailing off on the climbs, only to chase back to a dwindling group on the twisting, windy flats where the stronger riders attacked and made the whole affair all the more difficult. I wasn’t the first rider dropped, nor the last. In the end, I rode the latter half of the race on my own for the mileage and to prove that I could finish without abandoning.
A week later, I was at Monson, in the masters race, confident in my endurance but still lacking high-end. Plus, I had to piss from the start and finally, during a lull, managed to dispense the excess hydration ex-bicycle, in plain view of the commissaires. Thereafter, I felt like I could race. I spotted all the moves but could do nothing to join them. I was behind the split the first time up the finish climb, but rallied to rejoin, then rolled along the balance of the distance. The race had gone up the road and the chase behind was disorganized and ineffective, but still plenty fast for me. I was blown by the finish climb and maxed out at a walking pace, managing to retrieve a 14th place, the same result as last year, despite more mileage and supposedly better prep.
They keep telling me that at this age, it’s about minimizing the loss of fitness and capacity, so be happy you’re not doing worse.
I keep telling them to fuck off.
After an interlude of the Ronde de Rossy — 50-something miles and 4 hours of rainy trail, path and occasional road, I was super excited for Myles Standish Pro-1/2. I was especially thrilled to be racing it in warm, sunny weather after last year’s torrential rain. And race it I did. I infiltrated breaks. I bridged across with the aid of stronger, younger riders, letting them tow me along because I knew I would not have been able to pull through anyway. I attacked and recovered and attacked again. I finally felt like I had some fitness to tap into. When a break looked like it was going to stick, I rotated through with Myerson and the JAM Fund riders until we brought it all back together. I avoided the crashes, random obstacles and an errant motorcycle official. In the sprint, I lacked the balls to go all-in and hung on for a pack finish, but was marked DNF for some reason.
I was amped for Ken Harrod. I believed I had finally reached a threshold of race fitness, but the cold rain scuttled things. I was riding fine from the start. Comfortable on the long climb up Oak Hill that I know so well from rollerskiing. But then the rain started to fall, amplified by the kickup from the wheels of the riders in front of me. Despite embrocation on the legs and knee warmers, I soon could feel nothing below my waste. The base layers and rain vest did nothing to preserve any body heat. I was getting tailed off on the smallest of rises and had to focus to get my legs to turn because they were no longer connected to my nervous system. My hands froze into claws that could barely shift gears or actuate the brakes. With 2 to go, I was alone and hypothermic and had to call time. Back in my car, after I had stripped away the wet race kit for warm, dry clothes, I sat with the engine idling, the heater on full blast, the seat heaters cranked all the way up, shivering for at least another 15 minutes, unable to drive away.
That experience took a lot more out of me than I realized and I should have given a bit more time to recovery but instead I rolled into the CCNS kermesse, a Friday-evening nocturne with a 9pm start time for the elite men that was perilously close to my bedtime. I was 2 laps in, in the dark, with a flurry of wheels and pedals around me, when I realized it was my first criterium of the season. So I panicked for the next few laps, until my muscles warmed up and I found the good lines through the hairpin, and knew when and where to drop the hammer. It was flat and it was fast and there was a thrill in exiting the long left-hand sweeper onto the finish stretch and carrying all that speed. I sprinted to 14th, and by sprint, I mean pedaling as fast and as hard as I could not to lose the wheel in front of me. There was no acceleration. There was no out-of-the-saddle bike twisting. Doubtful that my legs would have been able to suspend my body at that point.
A few weeks interlude, then I was back racing at Purgatory/Mass State Road Championships, wisely choosing the masters race, despite the early morning start, after last year’s hot death march in the pro race. Graciously, the race organizers had pushed the start time back to early afternoon. I raced it, hard. Purgatory is renowned for its steep climb just before the finish and I was nervous about that. I even put on the 28. But once on the climb, I felt in control. I was able to crest with the leaders and follow the moves on the flats through the finish. I want to say I spent the majority of the 92 km in the front 10 riders of the race. I was able to attack and bridge, but it always came back together. I watched the winning move roll away, thinking I should be in there, thinking somebody else would chase it down, thinking I would probably just get shelled from it the next time up the climb. I screwed up the fifth and final time up the climb. Poor position and an oncoming car forced me back and the accelerations had already started by the time I could adjust. When I tried to dig deeper, to hopefully find some reserve, there was nothing there, so I limped over the top and into the finish. I was twenty-something-th, all told, but due to age groups and out-of-towners, it was good enough to get on the podium for the Mass state championships, men’s 45-50, but not good enough to counter the doubts and questions as to how so many old guys could crush that final hill so easily. I don’t mind getting schooled by twenty-somethings in a pro-1/2 event, but honestly I expect better in an age-ranked race.
I’ve been chasing fitness since March. I’ve been developing a conspiracy theory of some physiological limitation, cardiac problem or lack of training that could explain what seems to be a very poor response to the training. I’ve openly wondered how many of those masters are on T.
Nonetheless, I’ve tried to architect a “peak” for Crit Week. I’ve backed off the volume, dialed down the intensity. I haven’t felt any better. If anything, I’ve felt like I’ve gone into full-on recovery. I’m tired and crabby. My legs hurt all the time. I’ll know later today if any of it worked.
Time is not on my side for that. When I was an elite, national-caliber racer in my 20’s, it still took me thousands and thousands of kilometers before I could see an improvement. It took me more training than my competition to get to equivalent fitness . At my current age, I can only expect needing even more training to offset the age-related fitness loss, and more recovery to accommodate it. And there is really no room for that.
Still, I have the belief that I will at some point regain if not the form then at least the attitude I had in my younger days.
So I’ve reviewed the numbers, I’ve charted progress and results, I’ve reduced and extrapolated. The numbers lie. The metrics are bullshit. All that really matters is the will to get on the bike, to get out there and keep doing it, and to find some enjoyment and satisfaction in it.
I’ve suffered more and more willingly than in the recent past. In that there is pleasure. I’ve overcome some of the doubts while building up many more. The clock won’t turn backward.
So the strategy is clear for the Week. Instead of racing as hard as I can, I’m going to try to save as much energy as possible, spend it at the last possible minute.
And hope to do something spectacular.