This year would be different. That’s what I told myself, anyways, when registering for elite nationals road race and criterium back in March.
Last year had been about learning to navigate an unfamiliar race course in incredibly brutal conditions. It was also about learning how to race against 220 of the best non-pro riders in the country, and learning how to fight through a teeming mass of cyclists all singularly focused on one crowning objective: becoming a national champion.
One crucial thing I had learned from the previous year’s effort (29th in road race and 33rd in crit): when the stakes are this high, athletes lose their minds. Racing becomes war. And I don’t mean that bs type of war that is never actually declared a war and neither side ever concedes that the fighting has any “profound sociopolitical impact.” No, this athletic war is that type where all parties involved know what’s at stake, tell each other the same, and then go about trying to beat the opposing forces into bloody submission.
Anyways, barely cracking the top 30 in 2011 left me hungry for more. My goal for this season was a top 10. Ok, honestly, I wanted to win the damn thing. I always have. I think having lofty goals like that keeps me motivated year after year. But, I also approach nationals realistically. I understand how hard it is, how great you have to be on one given day, perhaps without support in the form of either feeds or teammates, and how a tiny and unforeseen mishap on the smallest scale can spell disaster. In short, the celestial bodies in the night sky have to align for that one day, for one rider, and not the other 200.
That said, the stars had not been aligning for me so far this year. I caught a bad cold right after Mt Hood, with 4 weeks until nationals, a time when sharpening that razor blade of fitness becomes mission critical. The taper has to include some focused work and concerted rest, not just rest. I had to take time off the bike to recover from the head cold. Then I started riding again only to feel worse. My cold morphed into a full blown sinus infection, and I was put on thumb-sized antibiotics for 10 days. I would ride briefly for 25 minutes a day trying to convince myself it was somehow keeping me fit and helping my body mobilize itself. In reality, my nationals plan and an entire build up to that one day was in doubt. On several occasions, I visited the United Airlines website and hovered my mouse over the “cancel flight” button.
I raced a local NorCal crit in 100 degree heat 6 days before the nationals criterium. My only goal was to evaluate whether or not I had recovered enough to make the trip to Georgia. My legs felt great from all the rest, but I had throat boogers making labored breathing and coughing a constant. “Eff-it, I already paid the reg fee, I’m going.”
The gun went off and 160 riders including myself started into the 50 mile crit. Yes, an hour and 45 minutes in 98 degree heat with sauna-like humidity. I don’t need to get into lap by lap accounts of how awful it was, but I seriously contemplated either dropping out or crashing myself into a bush and laying there for a few laps and then taking a free lap. It was miserably hot and the pace was just unthinkably high. My check engine light came on 4-5 times in the first hour alone, the wheel I was focused on directly in front of me would slip past my gaze, and I would slide back another 20 places instantly.
At some point it occurred to me that the next wheel I lost would be the last. I was sitting dead last. I stayed there for about 20 minutes. Criterium purgatory. Then I flicked on in my head that classic Prefontaine movie from ’98, Without Limits: Donald Sutherland/Bill Bowerman was talking to Pre (me in the mental adaption of the film) in the alley of a bar, and he was repeating a line “your talent is not some disembodied act of will Rob, it’s literally in your bones.”
It wasn’t the perfect line for my struggles to stay in the race, but it did distract me enough from the immediate agony of the task at hand while also reminding me that my legs, my heart, my lungs, were all suited for this type of effort. I just needed someone else’s voice, not necessarily even Bowerman’s, to assure me of this.
I finished 33rd and couldn’t believe I had made it up into the front half. The last 20 minutes were hazy. Literally. It was smoggy as hell and the streets had this horrendous chimney-type soot that stung the eyes and covered everything on bike and rider.
Saturday I slept until noon, rode for an hour, took a nap, ate some dinner, and then went to bed. Perfect rest day.
Sunday’s Road Race
I finished 14th. I put myself in a position to podium, and I fell just short.
176 guys started, and every single one thought he had a shot at winning. The course was a 14.7-mile loop around the Fort Gordon military base. We did 7 laps for a total of 104 miles of racing, with 6,500 ft of climbing. No section of it was flat, just endless rollers and wide, smooth roads.
It’s really a great course, in a less than great climate. It was about 90 degrees when the gun went off at 1pm, and that temperature would climb another few points later in the afternoon. The humidity was just crushing though. It literally felt like we were in a sauna. Living and training in Houston for over a year had prepared me for that type of weather, but a lot of guys who showed up simply had no idea what they were about to go through! There were some clouds this year, which helped a lot, but for the most part it was just zip the jersey open, drink a neutral bottle or 2 every 30 minutes, pour some water on the head, and eat salty things. I had salt pills, crackers, and GU Chomps keeping the cramps at bay, but unfortunately, I started to feel stomach pains about 40 miles in…
At first they were subtle blips on my physiological radar. Then the alarm bells sounded, and I felt like vomiting or worse (think ironmen runners with stuff dripping down their legs) was inevitable. I lost my will to eat anything, and still had another 60 miles of racing…I went to the back of the field just in case I needed to relieve myself. I think it was some bad yogurt. Or bad Mexican food. Or a combination of those things plus the extreme heat and extreme race intensity.
Whatever it was, I actually explained to myself that a bathroom stop was feasible: “Those toilets are so close to the start finish, you could just scoot over to one the next time through, do your thing, and then chase back on.” Except the next time around we just hammered through the start finish at 35 mph and I found myself at the tail end of a mile long snake of riders. And so it went each lap after that. I kept forcing myself to think about other things, and I tried to shift my focus to trees, clouds, sock patterns, time gaps, etc. I stopped eating though, which in retrospect was probably idiotic.
After some brutal pace fluctuations and earnest chasing of some Cal Giant solo attackers, we came up on 1 lap to go. I stuck my head down and moved from maybe 110th wheel up to 5th wheel. It took about 3 minutes or so of all-out effort to make that move, but I got where I needed to be, and with only 5K to go. I went with a 3 man move that was quickly shut down. I went with a 6 man move that was quickly shut down. I realized the great escape would have to happen on the final climb up to the line. We caught all except 2 of the remnants of the early break before the final climb. Some Mike’s Bikes guys swarmed me and brought a bunch of guys around me with 2K to go, pinching me into 25th or so at the base of the climb.
When we hit it though, I went apeshit crazy. It was steep enough to kill most of the fat sprinters, but not long enough to favor the anorexic climbers. In other words, it was exactly the type of finish I prefer. It was virtually the same as the Mt Hood opening road race finish, except for one important difference: In Augusta, the finish line was another flat 250 meters from the top of the kicker. After a minute of max effort and head down beast mode, I hit the top of the kicker in 3rd. So with 2 guys up the road that put me in 5th place, and virtually on the podium. And with 100 meters to go I was still there, and with 50 meters to go….a mass of 8 guys surged around me, wiping me off those podium steps. I finished 14th. I put myself in a position to podium, and I fell about 2 bike lengths short. I probably went too hard, too early, but I have no regrets. I worked hard and pushed through several distinct forms of physical agony in the process. There’s always next year…
Let’s send a squad to Madison and put someone on that podium! Training for it starts….now.
(I went to the bathroom and threw up after the race ended. I did other unspeakable things in there as well. I’m amazed my body held it all in for those hellish last 60 miles.)