It had started to sprinkle on the starting line before the final call-up for the first race of the New England Crit series. On the drive out Route 2 west from Boston, the clouds had built and so had my angst. Thunderstorms forecast for early afternoon. Percentages building as we approached race time. It was only a matter of time.
At least the warm-up had been dry. Even if my legs had felt sore and blocked.
Five laps into the hour race, it was already raining. Fresh moisture on dry pavement. I tried to remember the last time it had rained. How long since the grease of the streets had been washed clean? It didn’t matter. The pace was fast enough, there would be risks in the corners. The bike felt solid and balanced. The tires gripped. I avoided paint stripes and manholes, best I could. The rain eased up a bit. The course was even starting to dry out.
Boys were putting their hammers down. I was playing smart, or so I thought, my legs feeling better with each lap. Holding between 10th and 15th position. Staying out of the wind. Following the accelerations but never going on the attack. Sticking to my plan of keeping my powder dry until the finale.
It didn’t last long.
On the third corner, we turned into a full on rainstorm. It was suddenly pouring, but only on half the course. I reconsidered. The whole of the race series was yet to come. A crash today would really throw a wrench in things. I didn’t really want to put myself through this. There was a moment of panic, perhaps of regret given the long drive out here. Then it didn’t matter. The fears and worries melted away and I was once again, a kid on a bike, master of his craft, no fear, nothing to lose, confident in the machine and the muscle memory.
By and by, the coverage and intensity of the rain increased so that between the deluge and kickup from the tires of the riders in front of me, my glasses were coated and I was reduced to taking the turns by instinct and memory. From time to time I managed to squeegee my lenses with a finger, more rarely getting a digit behind the lens to do a sufficient job. No matter. Within seconds, it was all a washout again.
The speed of the race also increased with the intensity of the rain so that the riders were stretched in a long, damp file and the elastic at the tenth or twelfth rider was stretching out so that I was in near constant acceleration.
Braking into the turns was a symbolic act. The wet rims yielded little resistance and any further reaction would likely result in a wipeout. So I used that extra speed to try to close the gaps. Imagined, briefly, what it would feel like to start to slip out. Would the front or the back go first. No time to wonder. There were gaps to close.
After 10 or 15 laps of this, I was starting to tire. For a while, it felt like we had split the field and gone clear. I quick glance behind revealed open road between us and the chasing pack. My revelry in the sudden good fortune quickly shifted to concern as I measured that I would not be able to sustain this pace for the balance of the 15 remaining laps.
Fortunately, the impetus disappeared from the leaders. The rain let up and the race re-grouped, just in time for the laggards to swarm the front with 10 laps to go, then get overzealous jockeying for position so that several of them went off course and into the hedges on the side of the road.
I was on fumes, but fighting for position, chiseling away at the top 10, but constantly on the defensive.
With 5 laps to go, heading into turn one, the rider on my right went a little wide, forcing me off line. The rider on my left went a little tight. The three of us collided and compressed, me the filling of this soggy sandwich. I tried to hold the line through the turn, any sudden move would upset our stack. But the guy on the left was leaning on my arm, forcing a counter steer that took me further out to the edge of the road.
Lefty started to protest. Either verbally or telepathically–I’m not quite sure which–I managed to convince him to straighten up so I could free my arm and return to my desired path. It was resolved without trauma, but in the interim, I had lost a good 10 places.
I drilled the next corner to regain some lost ground, squeezing between what may or may not have been part of the race course. It was too wet to tell. I managed to take by some places, but spent what little I had left in reserve so that when it came to the finish, I was “sprinting” for the unpaid places, ending in 22nd. One place better than last year.
But happy enough.
One done. Four more.