All that and I then go off and try to race. I race Banana Belt #1. I felt good right up until I just... didn't. Then I was dropped, then my legs just didn't work to chase, then I bonked trying to continue on the last lap and had to actually turn my bike around and limp back to the start. Bad, bad race. I don't even consider it a race. I pinned on a number, but then I just sat in and was quietly dropped. It's one thing to justify sitting in the entire race by winning the sprint, or even just competing in the sprint. It's quite another to just sit in and then be gone. The guys up front, the ones actually doing all the work, they didn't even know I was racing that day.
The next week, I get a couple training rides in. Then Friday night comes and I can hardly finish my work day. I had developed a cough about Wednesday but didn't think much of it. Figured I was still getting rid of all the junk in my sinuses from China, which incidentally, has a really bad air pollution problem. I can now see why the Beijing Olympic athletes arrived in the city wearing masks. Not a political statement, just realities of competing in athletics in polluted air. Then with Friday comes the fever. Go home an hour early, go to bed at 7:00, wake up at 11:00 when the wife comes home, get coined by my mother-in-law (best that this mechanical engineer can tell, it works to reduce fever by bring blood up to the surface of the skin to cool), and go back to bed and sleep till noon. No training for the next four days. Another big hit in a series of big hits. Have all these thoughts about how my season is just ruined and I should just race track this year and ignore my road Cat 2 upgrade goal. Didn't help that my first team ride the following Saturday just thrashed me. When was the last time a non-race, 42mile ride resulted in me being thrashed?
Fast forward to today. Piece of Cake. Hard mother fucker of a race, for those in the know. Yea, it's flat, all the hill climbers think it
I didn't warm up. I never really warm up past a few minutes on the road to make sure everything works. This was a mistake. The gravel started about 3 miles into the race, and when we hit it, all shit broke loose. No, nobody crashed. Okay, one person I know about (on team Ironclad) might have crashed in the gravel, but he was already dropped due to a flat. In the mad scramble at the gravel, nobody went down. But the guys on the front hit it hard. I found myself in the wrong (upwind) track, continually dodging guys who were gaping out and flatting out. The field was winnowed down to the strong and the well tire-shod. Six guys or more must have flatted out in the first section. Funny thing though, after that, through two more crossings, there were only about two more flats. It really was the guys with worn or fragile or incorrectly inflated tires who were the ones eliminated that first time through.
Unfortunately, this group included my only teammate.
My personal plan for this race was to be in the field at the finish, but invisible. I wanted to be the guy nobody knew was in the race. Wasn't going to break away, wasn't going to sprint. Just follow wheels and sit in. Kinda fit the way I was feeling about how my training was going.
After jumping past several gapped riders, dodging waterbottles, rattling my teeth and tolerating a numb ass, we get to the end of the gravel and I'm still in the lead group. Oh Lordy, does smooth pavement feel like glass after riding the gravel for 10 minutes. The 40 or so person field has been whittled down considerably. After I stop gasping for air, I settle down and commence with my invisibility plan. I get on the downwind side of the field, I sit at the back, and I just chug along for the rest of the lap. People broke away, but these weren't serious attempts. More like those same hill climbers just being bored with bumping along and taking a turn sitting 200m off the front of the pack. All of them checked swings. There's an art to riding in the wind centered around targeted efforts and hiding; woe the person on this particular race who doesn't respect that.
Second lap, I make sure I get up into the top 5 or 7 people going into the gravel. This helps considerably with the gasping for air problem I had previously. Much smoother pace when you don't have to sprint around people constantly. And then I commence with my plan, the only difference being that the heavens opened up and what started out being sunny weather turned real ugly, real fast. Rain, hail, you name it. At one point I was being pelted by hail from all sides: left, right, top, bottom.
Right after the hail, I find myself somehow at the front, following a rider who started one of those half hearted breakaway attempts. This time for the right reason though: it was actually a really good time to go. Nobody was taking leadership of the front and the weather was still gawd-awful. I found myself following the breakaway of about 5 people. But this was another checked swing; the guy who started it was Ironclad's sprinter, and he had better things to conserve his energy for. Then one of those five makes the start of a serious attempt and I follow that. And then he cuts off the effort and I find myself in front of the field, by myself. One other person is up the road; other than that, it's just me now. I think about continuing, I stop pedaling, I look back. The field is just dallying.
Change of plans.
I shift up, get into my rumbling gear, and take the swing. If you read "Dog in a Hat" by Joe Parkin, he talks about breakaway attempts. The amateurs tend to slap at the attempt. Short, sharp, sprint off the front of the field and look back: ultimately short lived. Kind of annoying to the field but totally ineffective. The pros, they swing for the fences. When they go, they put their head down and commit.
Now, I'm not a pro, but I like the idea that when you initiate a breakaway, you commit. The breakaway becomes the strategy. It becomes the end game. There's nothing after that. No thoughts of conserving energy for some sprint. No thoughts of what you are going to do once you rejoin the field. No looking back. You put your head down, you get your bike in a big gear, and you challenge the field to come and catch you.
So much for being invisible. On the other hand, it's the first time I've felt good on my bike since the beginning of February.
I cross the start-finish, go up a hill, cross a little white bridge and hit the gravel at full speed. It is so much easier to ride the gravel if you aren't trying to follow someone else's wheel. Behind me, as I'll find out later, the field is disintegrating.
The guy up ahead of me, the guy I was hoping to join forces with for the last 12 miles; he flats out just as I am about to complete the bridge up to him, right at the end of the gravel. Shit.
I'm in rhythm. Things hurt, but they hurt in kind of a dull, distant sort of way. My breathing is steady, if it starts to become ragged, I shift to a larger gear and let my muscles takes some of the heat and let my heartrate recover without losing speed. I do this for the next half a lap. I gain time when the cross winds pick up, I lose time when some of the strong riders pick up the pace. For the time being it's a stalemate.
And now I can tell I am getting tired. It's not the normal indicators. Not when I'm in rhythm. I know I'm tiring because my eyes have trouble focusing. My legs start periodically twinging on the edge of a cramp. I'm slow to shift gears. I haven't broken form to take a drink since the effort started and now I'm having trouble swallowing.
I have visions of grandeur. I'm actually thinking I can pull this off. I make the turn to the straight headwind section, then another turn that'll take me to the finish in a few short miles. My mind wanders to my impending victory salute.
Behind me, the field has effectively caught me and they're just letting me dangle. Bastards.
Finally, two miles from the finish, they make the catch. I see them coming up behind me and I stop pedaling. I'm done. I fully intend to just slow pedal it back to the finish. 15 guys stream past, and then the stream stops. The field's only 15 strong! A few agonizing pedal strokes and I'm back in the fold.
The sprint was the slowest sprint I've ever taken part of. Turns out everyone was thrashed. We were all on the verge of cramping and all of us were turning way too big of gears way too slowly. Like sprinting through hub deep mud. I throw my bike at the line. 8th or 10th or somewhere thereabouts (turns out it was 13th).