Race Report #7, Sunday, July15th, Superweek Stage 3 Masters, Bensenville, IL, 60K. Humility…
If I was flush with confidence after finishing my second Pro/Am Superweek race – even finding myself contending for the sprint - then the race in Bensenville quickly put my limited strengths back into perspective. If yesterday at Blue Island I felt that sense of flow, that ability to wade in amongst the stars, today I was reminded of how strong the currents can be, and how weak my unwitting limbs can be against the torrents of the wind and vagaries of the peleton.
Humility… cycling teaches this virtue often to its participants. Even as I write about this strange unusual sport, I’m struck with how often I wax and wane, quietly and internally between these extremes of humility and confidence. Most of all, I’m struck about just how much lying I do…to myself… during those long painful laps, a practice I executed to perfection in a future stage of the race on Downer Avenue in Milwaukee…
The first few laps…
If my last 5 laps in my second pro race at Blue Island the day before were filled with confidence, aggressively moving up through the pack, an over-riding compulsion to set up “for the win” despite everything, then Bensenville quickly became a lesson an obeisance to the gods of cycling. From the start of the race I was a pathetic husk of a racer. It started fast, and strung out into a single file chain of silver and black double loops ringing the oddly shaped neck of the 0.8 mile, six corner course. During the 40 mile, 48 lap race, the pace only relinquished twice.
I wanted to quit after two laps…
Sure, the first few laps of most races tend to put me into hurt as I fully warm up and accustom my muscles to the race environment. However, at Bensenville, each lap as we came around the tight bend into the long, slightly uphill finish stretch was a near full-out sprint for me every single time. Every finish stretch was the limit of my abilities and for 40 of the 48 laps. I was literally sprinting almost as hard as I would in a sprint finish on the last lap of a race. Legs straining to the max, lungs completely out of air, that burning, swelling sensation in your quads, the internal begging for it to just slow down – “just let me coast a little – just a little!”
But the peleton wouldn’t listen to my silent demands and the wind roared through my ears and cluttered my thoughts with its volume as we continued headlong pace into the dueling oblivions of pain and fear.
Within the first lap, the long sticky tendrils of those dark shadowy thoughts and doubts began to get a grip on my psyche… What the hell am I doing here? I’m clearly no pro rider if I’m suffering this bad during the beginning of a race. I can’t even keep up with guys 30 years old (and older). Am I poser? Do I deserve to be here? Every single person here is better than me. Can I possibly last another 45, 40, 30, 29, 28, 27, 20, 15 more laps? Should I quit now and recover for the next race? How is possible that they do this every day in the Tour – and with hills?
I remember very clearly coming out of the last corner of the first of 48 laps and watching the peleton string out – the double braid of the backstretch pulled taut by the speed and wind and tensioned straight as a guitar string - and I wondered between gasps for air and knees pulling full force into my chest as we accelerated to 34mph, “how it is that I’m sprinting full out into a headwind – yet at least covered by the draft of the wheels in front of me and yet, and YET, these guys up there so far away, they are breaking away, solo or in small groups and plunging through it, churning through this wind, diving under it or brute forcing it. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? I was less impressed with my own inabilities as I was with the power generated by those lead riders…
That’s when the lying starts. In retrospect, this lying might well be one of my greatest strengths apart from my ability to go 7 or 8 seconds pretty fast. Self deceit is a critical component of bicycle racing.
The first quarter of the race…
The lying starts like this… my mind starts to realize what I’ve signed up for – a 60 mile, 70, 90 or 100 lap death march on bumpy roads where everyone in the race is stronger than me, and my psyche starts to rebel and think things like, “there’s no way I can make it 97 more laps like this,” or “One more straightway like this and we’re done.” Even worse is the thought of, “oh yeah – even if I finish, I have to do it all again tomorrow…”
So I lie. I blatantly and conspicuously generate falsehoods in my brain to reduce the impossibility of the task at hand. I redirect my thoughts and say, “OK, after one more lap I’ll just pull off and quit – but I HAVE to stay attached for one lap – that’s my little goal..”
Then I stay attached, and I start to lie again… “OK, we’ve made 8 out of 100 laps. Let’s at least get in 1/10th of the race as training – and then you can quit .” And I make it the two more laps – but just barely.
When it gets really bad, I shorten the distance to when I’ll quit: “Just make it to the next corner, and then you can sit up and coast and bail out of the race.” And I believe it every time – it is truly my intention to quit within 30 seconds… but I rarely do.
When the lies come in flurries – where I’m barely hanging on straightaway to straightaway – that’s when “getting dropped” becomes a real likelihood.
“Getting Dropped” is my greatest fear in a bike race. If a gap grows between the relative calm and comfort offered by the “draft” – the swirl of forward moving wind created by the peleton ahead – then a rider like me faces two choices – to “bridge the gap” and sprint to reconnect to the riders and draft ahead, or to give up. Continuing to ride solo at 30mph is not an option for a rider like me, and the idea that a rider could be dropped and reconnect is as foreign to me as are the languages of Hungarian and Hindi.
“Bridging the gap” if it occurs, is the hardest thing I have to do in a race. It has its parallel in the breakaway efforts of those riders strong enough to be in the lead of the pack – as they bridge gaps to solo or small group efforts with the potential of a guaranteed podium or top 10 finish to serve as their reward.
The only reward for bridging a gap that occurs on the far side of the peleton (my side) is more suffering.
The artifice gets a little harder during the second quarter of the race. I start dividing the distance into thirds (but the math rarely works – let’s see, 70/3 = 23.333, so my new goal is to make it to 46.666 laps to go…) and if in a pinch I resolve back to the “one more lap” approach or the “just one more straightaway” focus.
During the Bensenville race, I used all of these fabrications and more, and not even once during the first half of the race did I even remotely consider the option of finishing the whole thing a possibility. Really though, I avoided that thought all together spending no less than 9 laps on the “one more lap” lie while doing full-out-sprints each straightaway.
Cycling is as much a mental as a physical sport. I use these tricks to remove the daunting prospect of the coming miles from my psyche so I can focus on the present. Still, there is a part of me that prefers the analytical detachment of “mind over body” and I’m always surprised and a bit irritated by the fact that the “halfway” mark in the race seems to somehow physically change me and the race almost inevitably becomes easier.
The first half of the race is almost always ridden in a defensive posture – gliding and being efficient, staying out of trouble, and then when the math reads that I’ve done half the race, it suddenly feels easier.
It really, honestly, feels easier. I can’t explain it. Wheels to draft off of are suddenly more available, the roads are smoother, and power is more available… I know intellectually it is B.S. – but I feel it, so it is true.
The final quarter
With 20 laps to go at Bensenville, I finally began to realize I was going to make it – that I would finish the race… however thoughts of doing more than that did not yet enter my mind.
Somewhere around 10 laps to go in the Bensenville race and I start to allow my brain to think forward – instead of dreading the 60, 50, or 40 miles to go, it takes a new, natural tack… “how should I set up for the sprint?”
My intuitive self is quite able in this regard. I am, when it comes to it, a pretty awful bike racer – limited aerobic abilities, too heavy, undertrained, too old, and unable to push the pedals hard for more than 7 or 8 seconds. However, my limitations don’t seem to daunt my subconscious, and as I begin to visualize the future on laps 10, 9, 8 and so on, I see myself moving up, using my limited abilities to jump up 5 or 50 places and then getting in perfect position for the finish.
At Bensenville, with about 6 to go, I suddenly remembered that a friend and co-worker Ed Perez and his kids were present and acknowledged them with a nod and then began to focus on climbing up the braid of riders, rider by rider, switching left and right to get to the head of the pack.
The pace had finally slowed a bit as a breakaway had gotten away and I was then able to move quickly up into the top 15 riders of the race with 3 laps to go. Even though I was exhausted, I still felt I had a decent shot at a strong finish.
Then it got ugly.
It is rare that I’m afraid in a race. Often I feel that the peleton is far too conservative in entering and exiting corners and get frustrated with the amount of braking going on. The Masters category tends to be very safe as the riders are both experienced, and old enough to not risk everything: that is, with the exception of the last two laps at Bensenville. The last two laps felt exactly like the one and only Category 3, 4, and 5 race I had done a few years ago – mindless and heedless charges up the inside with 7, 8 and 9 riders lining up abreast to enter corners capable of handling perhaps 4, maybe 5 riders at best.
With 2 laps to go the lump in the hose reached the kink and in the third turn, a spray of riders exploded all over the edges of the course, resulting in a big pileup and a dozen riders hopping the curbs, bouncing off of trees and spilling out over the lawns and gardens of the homes nearby. I hoped this would relieve the pressure, but it did not and for the next 3 corners there were crashes right up front in the peleton.
I ended up braking and staying out of the mayhem, but as we hit the line with one lap to go, my nerves were jangling – this type of behavior was very unusual.
Sure enough, heading down the long backstretch into the last 4 back-to-back tight corners, there was yet another headlong rush up the inside, and I heeded my nerves and backed off before the corner, dropping from about 6th spot to about 30th in the space of 200 feet, and then watching another pileup occur in front of me.
With riders re-entering the course from the sidewalks on both sides like ants marching to a picnic, I picked my way through the downed riders and then did my best to overtake the long single file train of riders ahead of me, crossing the line about 8th in the sprint, and ending up 14th overall due to the breakaways. Little did I know that these crashes on the last two laps were to become a pattern over the next stages of Superweek…