Tuesday, June 26, 2007


If you’re expecting a heroic story worthy of a breathless play-by-play by Phil Liggett, don’t bother reading further. Maybe talk to Joe, who finished the Fox River Grove crit with his pride intact. If on the other hand, you don’t mind taking a little perverse pleasure in the pain, suffering, and humiliation of a fellow rider, then by all means, read on.

Lesson #1: The occasional hill done once builds character and confidence. But repetitive slogs up the same hill make no more sense than Sisyphus pushing his rock.

I believe I have pretty well established my trepidation at the prospect of doing a crit. The thought of taking hairpin turns at high speeds in a large pack made me very nervous. So incredibly, when I saw the Google Earth post of the Fox River Grove course, I took comfort! “Look at that climb!” I pointed out to friends and family. “That’ll string out the field and make the turns safe and easy.” The subtext I was happy to get across was that as a self-professed “climber,” I’d be able to pull away from the pack, put the hurt on everyone, and if not win the thing, at least wave to the locals from the podium.

Expectantly, then, I drove Joe with me out to the hinterlands of the metro region. We arrived just shy of ten o’clock and with a noticeable dearth of other riders (the sensible sorts decided to mow the lawn or wash the car or engage in some other more civilized way of passing a Sunday), we were able to register quickly, suit up, and give the course a test ride.

The big hill comes quickly, no more than a few dozen pedal strokes from the starting line. My first time up, I felt strong, pushing a conservative gear in my middle chain ring (I bought my Lemond used a year ago and it came with a triple) and leaving poor Joe a healthy distance behind by the time I reached the crest. A rather sharp left awaited us there, over some bumps and stones, but since our speed was low, it wasn’t disconcerting. It was followed by a long descent that, as it turned out, continued pretty much uninterrupted for a mile, through a series of sweeping turns, back to the starting line.

Joe looked a little worried. I said something intended to encourage him, my own confidence brimming. We completed the first lap and started up the hill again. I rode in the same gear as before, but found I needed to stand up out of the saddle here and there to get the power I wanted. I believe I still managed to hit the peak comfortably before Joe, but I noticed that as the descent started, he was quickly by my side again. More troubling, I found myself coasting a bit before resuming my stroke, while my heart rate took its sweet time dropping out of the red zone. Hmmm.

Well, we were only warming up and my aerobic system probably hadn’t kicked in yet, so I felt no cause for alarm. That said, I made a mental note to find a gear in the race that would allow me to spin a bit easier.

Lesson #2: If you’re not sure whether or not you belong in Elite, you don’t.

This race was apparently under the jurisdiction of the United States Cycling Federation, in contrast to last week’s race in Carroll County, which had operated under the auspices of American Bicycle Racing. Whether this made a difference or not I don’t know, but this week I found I had two choices of categories, the 30+ and 40+ Masters Cat 4/5 or the Elite Cat 4/5.

I discussed this quandary with Joe, who pointed out that the former category was scheduled to do 20 minutes plus two laps whereas the latter was going to do 30 minutes plus two laps. Well, I hadn’t driven an hour to cheat myself out of 10 precious minutes of race time! Not to mention that as a young buck himself, Joe had no choice but to ride with the Elites. How could I have wussed out and ridden the girly-man race while watching Joe ride with the big boys?

I began to doubt my bravado when the Masters Cat 4/5 lined up and I recognized some of the guys from Carroll County. None of them seemed to display any sign of shame or embarrassment and I wouldn’t have had the cahones to call any one of them a girly-man. What did they know that I didn’t?

Lesson #3: 10 MPH for 0.2 miles + 25 MPH for 1.0 miles takes longer than 8 MPH for 0.2 miles + 30 MPH for 1.0 miles

Were I smart enough to have done the math in advance!

Each time I took the climb, I more or less attacked it with a decent amount of strength. Sure enough, I was able to gain ground on the riders ahead of me and in some cases, pass a few on the way up. But each time I crested the hill, I would be wasted and in need of a break, so I would coast or soft-pedal down the long descent.

This was a huge error and the opposite of what I should have done. Rather than attacking the climbs and recovering on the descents, I should have conserved as much energy as possible while going up and pushed it more going down! Whereas my size gave me an edge over larger riders on the ascent, on the descent, they had a distinct advantage and could more than make up time any I had gained.

Moreover, as fatigue began to set in after I had done a few laps, my legs were reduced to a quivering mass of jelly and my lungs screamed for air. This meant I needed even more recovery on the descents, exacerbating the effect.

Lesson #4: When repeatedly confronted with a ridiculously tough climb, you will try a Heinz 57 variety of techniques in hopes of minimizing the pain and suffering. None will work.

Each time I ride hard, I cross one or more thresholds of pain. There’s the Wednesday group ride when someone, usually Patrick or Jason, sets a blistering pace that leaves me sucking air and praying fervently to the cycling gods for the strength to stay on the wheel of the guy in front of me. That pain is entry-level. Then there’s the threshold I’ve experienced while hammering out a century with Thomas or Bryce or Mark when one of them decides after about 60 or 80 miles that it would be good clean fun to accelerate. We can call that pain moderate. Then there’s the threshold I experienced doing the 300K brevet, when, after 150 miles and a series of unfriendly hills, my eyes began to cross, my legs to cramp, and my can-do spirit started to drain out like Gatorade from a leaky water bottle. Finally, there’s what I began to experience yesterday after about lap five of our race. Ah, now we’re getting into the region known to birthing mothers and self-flagellating penitents – truly excruciating stuff. Legs cramping and burning, filled with more lactate than blood. Lungs turning themselves inside out as they try to fill themselves with air. Heart rate somewhere in the stratosphere, tongue on the top tube. I only needed a hair shirt under my jersey to be considered for cycling sainthood.

But the physical pain is only part of it. Then comes the insult added to the injury as the sound of whirring wheels approaches from behind and the lead group laps me. Lapped, good God! And in front of witnesses! I begin looking around to see if there are some bushes handy where I could feign a crash or a flat or some other face-saving way to quit. But then I see Joe’s jersey not too far ahead of me and I take heart. At least if I’m getting lapped, Joe’s getting lapped, too. Maybe, just maybe, if I can find some reserves somewhere, I’ll catch up to Joe on the next climb and commiserate with him all the way to end of this stupid race.

No such luck. Joe’s jersey remained like a distant mirage, appearing briefly, disappearing, reappearing as a tease, and then disappearing again for good. Well, at least I was ahead of the muscle-bound rider from North Branch, a pleasant guy whose acquaintance I’d made the week before in Carroll County. He wasn’t even sure he was going to doing this crit, precisely because of the damn hill. His physique was made for modeling spandex, not for pushing it toward the heavens.

I lost count of the laps by this time. I just wanted it to be over. If I remember correctly through the fog of the final 15 minutes, I was on the last lap (or maybe it was the next to last – I don’t know, since by that time I think the leaders had already finished and showered) when I looked up and saw Joe’s concerned face looking at me like I suppose one would look at a train wreck. Yes, Joe was now lapping me as well. And somewhere fore or aft of this humiliation, Atlas from North Branch also regained his position over me.

I crossed the finish line, coasted a bit, turned around, and started feebly pedaling in the general direction of the parking lot. I unclipped my helmet and ignored the judge’s reprimand for doing so. I got off my bike and began to walk it through the tall grass toward my car, where I saw Joe, already looking fresh and relaxed. I took my helmet off and felt around my head for the switch that would turn off the jackhammer in my skull. I fumbled around the car for a few minutes, trying to decide whether to lie across the seat and bake in the oven-like heat or whether to sit with my arm slumped over the car door. I finally chose neither and simply dropped like a stone into the grass. I politely declined Joe’s generous offer of a slice of pizza. No way I was going to be eating anytime soon. After a few minutes, I sat up, but as I felt I was about to puke out my spleen, I dropped back down again.

After what seemed like an hour, but what was probably not that long, I was able to rejoin the living. Joe was over watching the next race, so I decided I’d slip into my civvies – quickly, in hopes that no one would recognize me as one of the racers. The two of us then walked over to judges’ stand to see the official results. I came in 19th out of 29 or so, the judges graciously putting me one ahead of Joe, who had, of course, lapped me. So much for the veracity of the official results. In fact, I might have finished last, for all I know. I certainly don’t want to dwell on it.

On the ride back, Joe and I discussed plans for our next race.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

My First Bike Race

I began my day in Dixon, Illinois, boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, by shaving my legs.

Although in my second year of road riding and now a veteran of fast-paced group rides, endurance sufferfests, and road rash, I hadn’t undergone this roadie branding ritual until hours before I was scheduled to enter my first race, the Carroll County Cycling Event. In an odd way, it was gratifying to have this rite of passage to mark my final psychological transformation from soft middle-aged soccer dad to lean, mean weekend warrior.

I arrived two hours early at the start in Chadwick, Illinois, but the Carroll County Cycling Club was already hard at work setting things up, displaying that genius for organization that characterizes small towns. Everyone seemed to know their role, from the men trucking stuff around in their extended-cab pick-ups to the ladies of a certain age setting up the registration tables.

It wasn’t long before other riders started streaming in, bikes perched impressively on rooftops, pick-up beds, or traditional rear-end carriers. It became quickly apparent that most were racing as teams and that I was one of the very few unaffiliated and unbranded.

I picked up my packet from the pre-registration line, paid five bucks for a one-day race license, attached my timing chip to my left fork and my race bib to my left side, and began warming up by doing out-and-backs from the start-finish line. Most riders were doing some version of the same thing, although some had actually brought their trainers along and were furiously spinning away, probably in part to get a controlled, rigorous warm-up and probably in part to intimidate newbies like me. (It worked, I might add.)

As race time approached, riders starting gathering at the start line. There were designated areas for each group, beginning with Cats 1, 2, and 3, along with 30+ and 40+ Masters (having looked on-line at the finishing times from last year’s race, I had wisely concluded that I belonged in Cat 4 and not in the Masters!), followed by a very large group of Cat 4s (said by veterans of previous years to have mushroomed in size), 50+ Masters, women of all categories, and then, incredibly, a group containing 60+ and 70+ men, and the inevitable eccentric in the fully-fared recumbent.

We removed our helmets for the national anthem, sung a cappella by a local man. A few people were recognized for their organizational contributions and then one of the race judges explained the procedure for starting. We would be going out in waves, according to our category. We were instructed on what to do should we overtake someone in the category in front of us, bringing a lot of amused comments among the Cat 4s as we fantasized chasing down Cat 1s after spotting them a 10-minute head start.

After the first wave went out, we Cat 4s made our way to the start. Finally, the gun sounded and off we went, in a Judson-sized peloton, following a police escort and speaking strictly for myself, feeling like we were in the Tour.

For those who’ve never done group riding, the thought of cruising at high speeds in close proximity to dozens of other riders seems dangerous to the point of craziness. But we who have become accustomed to riding in a pack know that in fact the peloton provides comfort and security, offering shelter from the cyclist’s true enemy: wind resistance. Thus, we assume our semi-fetal crouches and literally nestle ourselves in the peloton’s protective womb. And in my view, there’s nothing quite like the whir of a hundred wheels as the pack moves along at nearly thirty miles an hour. That said, there’s always the risk of a spectacular crash and thus the wisdom of keeping body hair to a minimum.

While we were still forming our large peloton and cruising along at what we all must of thought were respectably high speeds, an event occurred which reminded us that we were mere Cat 4s and still well beneath the abilities of real racers. To our left suddenly appeared a whizzing blur of impossibly lean and tough old men – the 50+ Masters were passing us as if we were on Schwinn comfort cruisers. As they rumbled past, I could only imagine them sniffing their disdain at the pack of muffins who had the audacity to think they were racers.

I guess we were supposed to be in a “neutral zone” for the first few miles, until we reached a bike path. Neutral zone or not, it was clear that the teams were already testing tactics and measuring each other. I made it a point to stay near the front, having learned that once you fall off the lead group, you can forget about ever catching up with it again. It wasn’t always easy, because as the speed increased, the line began to stretch out in single file and those in the line were more than content to let those riding abreast of them feel the full force of the wind. Thus, I had to more or less force myself into the line on a couple of occasions.

The first part of the course was moderately hilly. For reasons that are not completely clear to me (having a engineering background and a better than rudimentary knowledge of physics), I tend to coast past larger and heavier riders on descents. As a result, I suddenly found myself in the lead, a place I really didn’t want to be. I tried to pull over and yield to someone who might be feeling more studly than I, but the team behind me would have none of it and simply followed my line. Reluctantly, I resigned myself to a long pull, settling into the drops and trying to maintain a smooth, efficient cadence at a speed of around 21-22. Fortunately, relief was soon in coming as I saw our path in the distance blocked by a long freight train. As we all pulled up at the tracks, I discreetly dropped back a bit.

The French have taught us many good things, from the pleasures of fine wine, fois gras, and fishnet stockings to the thrills of competitive cycling. Another time-honored French tradition was on display while the train passed, as a number of guys ditched their steeds and hustled over to urinate in the weeds.

Once we crossed the tracks, I started paying attention to the miles. I had plotted out the course and knew that the two hills reputed to be heartbreakers would be coming up at around the 27-mile point. We finally reached the bike path, which required a sharp turn over a rather precarious patch of gravel and where I made my first tactical error in allowing myself to drop too far off the front. The path was relatively narrow and those in the front took full advantage to rocket the pace to a lung-searing 30+ mph. Needless to say, the peloton started breaking up and I found myself in a group that was two or three removed from the lead. Now the race was really on. We wound our way along the path to the sound of twigs snapping under our wheels. We crossed two wooden bridges, producing a deafening rumble in the process. Suddenly, we started a series of snaking turns, eventually finding ourselves cutting through a supermarket parking lot. One more sharp left and oh, s**t, we’re on the first big hill.

For those of us in the vertically challenged set who spent our youth whiffing feebly at farm boys’ fastballs and having our drives to the hoop rejected by guys twice our size, cycling offers an unparalleled opportunity to serve up delicious plates of cold revenge. Hills hurt, but they hurt bigger guys more. Nothing offers more sadistic pleasure to a half-pint like me than to glide past some super-fit hulk of a man bent over his frame like a circus elephant on a drum, huffing, puffing, and muttering language harsh enough to wilt roadside flowers. (I reveal this little secret knowing that my fellow RAW riders tend to be sized much more like me than like some of the sun-blotting giants in yesterday’s race.)

Anyway, the big hill was tough because it was steep, but it was mercifully short. We had a quick respite on a ridge before turning into a second hill of similar character to the first. On both, I resisted the temptation to go all out and attack, preferring instead to find a gear in my small chain ring that allowed me to maintain a smooth, even cadence while out of the saddle. (I still harbor painful memories from my 300K brevet last month when I attacked a series of tough hills into a 20 mph head wind and suddenly found myself cramping up with 30 miles left to go.) Next year, I’ll be less concerned about conserving my own energy and more concerned with putting the hurt on as many fellow riders as I can. Did I mention that cycling is a sport for sadomasochists?

Unfortunately, the combination of the pack-splitting ride on the bike path and my own tentativeness on the hills effectively ended any hope I might have had for a high placement. But as we moved into the second half of the course, I was able to regroup with some other riders and catch some of those who had jumped ahead. Again, the hills proved to be great equalizers, especially those long ones of moderate grade where you can concentrate on Greg Lemond’s advice to stroke like you’re scraping peanut butter off the bottoms of your feet and thus add a bit of sprinter’s power to your climbs. My tactic was to attack on the hills, then coast down, slow down, and allow the others to catch up and pass while I caught someone’s wheel and rested. It seemed to pay off as the miles went by and guys started progressively dropping off.

At some point along the way, we were in for another surprise as we found a section of the road torn up and nothing but dirt and gravel for about 50 yards. Everyone was forced to dismount and walk his bike through the construction zone. I can only imagine what was going through the heads of the beer-gutted construction workers as they watched a bunch of sweaty men in tight shorts tiptoe gingerly through their work zone, carrying spindly little machines that in some cases cost as much as an honest pick-up truck.

The construction zone further split the field and it was no longer possible for me to judge whether I was in the lead pack or far off the pace. As we hit the 50-mile point, the course started to flatten a bit, although there were still enough low-grade hills to keep everyone honest. I found myself in a foursome with three guys from the North Branch cycling team. I pulled for a while and was gratified when I relinquished the lead that the third man of the team signaled for me to latch onto his wheel. For the last few miles, I was a de facto member of North Branch.

As we approached the final turn to the finish, I made my break, in another of the Machiavellian characteristics of this sport: Your friend and helpmate eventually becomes your mortal enemy. Unfortunately, I moved too soon and was out of gas for the final sprint and my “teammates” passed me at the finish. As we slowed and circled back, one of the guys - one of those strapping young twenty-somethings that have the world by the tail – came over to me, slapped my hand and gave me a fist bump. “Dude,” he said, looking and sounding like Owen Wilson, “Are you on a team?” I assured him I was not. “You should be, man. You’re a strong rider. Check out our web site and send us an email.”

Needless to say, that comment made my day. Oh, as for the official results? I did the 62-mile course in three hours and one minute, which I figured was pretty decent given the train delay, the hills, and the construction zone. I placed 55th overall out of field of 98 and 27th out of 48 Cat 4s. You can be sure that next year’s Carroll County Cycling Event will be a primary motivator for my training from here on.