Monday, August 29, 2011

Evening Song

The storm has passed, and
now, above quiet, damp streets,
trees dance, intact limbs waving,
as the air animates them--
a fresh, rising wind, strong
but kind, a messenger from
somewhere else, speaking
through branches and leaves
like breath through a reed.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Race Report: Capital Region Road Race, August 20, 2011

Disclaimer and spoiler: This report will NOT end with me recounting my epic victory salute as I crossed the line ahead of everyone else in my field. Any suspense that you sense in the coming paragraphs will lead to a denouement of a different sort. I'm a dilettante on a bike, a competent racer with decent fitness and varying motivation, still looking to learn by pinning on a number and joining the pack.

I belong to the Capital Bicycle Racing Club, and this is our race. Well, Paul McDonnell, planner extraordinaire, puts it together, and many club members help out with the details: marking the course, sweeping the turns, marshaling, driving pace, and so on. It's a tough course: a twenty-mile loop with two short but steep climbs, with 1300 feet of elevation gain per loop, maxing out at 16 percent.

It's customary for cyclists to self-deprecate about most things, like how much they've been riding (not much), why they are here (it's just training for me) to how well they may do (fair to average). I adopted this posture with a friend, who sarcastically replied, “You're all winners!” She and I know that's not true. There's no running onto the field after the last point for a group hug or pile-on involving all the players. This is a linear sport: a clear beginning and end point, and a time for each rider. For some reason, other endurance sports—running and triathlon—seem to focus more on the act of completing the race. But remember that numbers don't tell the whole story. Racing makes me a better rider... maybe even a better person. Like many things, it tests limits—in our case, strength, endurance and pain tolerance. Even the most competitive rides with friends, up and down the Rensselaer plateau, don't take me to the limits like races do. There's always something surprising, something new.

I've been racing for about five years, and riding anywhere from two to three thousand miles per year—not counting mountain-bike and cyclocross rides. These numbers are not unusual, or even particularly impressive to the crowd gathered in the high-school parking lot last Saturday morning. I'm still a category five rider. Still, technically, a beginner. For this race, I decided to register for the combined cat four/cat five field, a group of more experienced riders. I allowed for the possibility of getting shelled out the back pretty quickly, or just maybe hanging onto the wheels in front of me for a bit. Like a friend says, a racer has to think, “Yeah, I can beat him,” even if it's not likely. The trick is to come back for more even when you've been proven wrong.

The parking lot was full of lean and hungry racers, and enough carbon fiber to build a squadron of stealth fighters. My bike looked a bit welfare among the exotic names, deep-dish rims and high-end components on many machines. No worries, though. Run what you brought.

The field assembled, 75 strong—bigger than the fifty in the cat five. We had a neutral roll-out of three miles, and I once again started too far back. On the plus side, it is a beautiful sight to see dozens of bikes filling the road ahead. I watched a rider from our club seamlessly, almost politely, thread his way up. We ambled along, with a sound like crickets as our chains stopped and our gear cassettes clicked. We were packed in tightly and ready to race, but everyone kept it under control.

The pace car pulled away and the speed increased. I found a good spot in the peloton, near a couple of other CBRC riders. We gingerly negotiated the sharp turns that I'd swept the night before, with that mix of anticipation and dread that always comes. I felt the familiar incline of Tracy Road, the first climb of the lap. The pack shook loose, as riders sat, stood, weaved and gasped at different rates. I pushed to a point just short of wanting to throw up, then notched it back a tiny bit. I kept my head in check, too—it's easy to mentally crack, then physically deflate when riders open gaps on a climb, but I've done this enough to know that I need to ride within myself at these times, do it at my pace, come what may.

A brief reprieve on a downhill, and the chase to close gaps was on. I tucked in behind another rider for a bit, then pulled around to pull. I got in front of him, but he must have sped up, as I felt a very subtle shift in my bike when my rear wheel rubbed his front wheel. I truly thought I was clear. This is a common cause of crashes, but he kept it upright. I hollered a quick apology, and—even more surprising than him not crashing—he said no, it's cool. Whew.

We scrubbed off about 30 mph, then took the hairpin past EMTs and marshals to the wall of Whitbeck Road, the steepest, nastiest quarter mile in Albany County, and we went through our contorted motions again to the top.

Regrouping on the back side of the course, our group increased in size and speed. I actually spun out my 50 x 11 gear as a big rider, unsatisfied with our 20-something pace, went to the front and pulled us at around 33 mph. I wasn't the only one happy about that, I'm sure. Go ahead, buddy. It'll be see ya later when the road tilts up again.

The second lap whittled our group down to seven. None of us knew where we were overall—riders ahead and behind, hopefully more of the latter. I kept a cool head up the climbs again, and we regrouped, all a bit more ragged. Good riders, all—this 4/5 field definitely felt less twitchy than others have.

As we got down to the last few clicks, I decided to sit in until things started happening. Sure enough, the last few little rises caused a few of us to drop off. I just maintained my pace, with a bit of a kick at the end, coming in third out of our group of seven.

The results? 48th out of 75. See results for everyone here. I covered 43 miles in two hours, nine minutes and forty-six seconds. But, like I said, the numbers don't tell the whole story. This was the most raciest race I've been in, as I stayed with others the whole way, rather than getting caught between groups in that weird never-land—a solitary rider, number rattling in the breeze along a quiet road. I hung with experienced, strong riders who knew how to work together. I pushed myself mentally and physically, and I'll bring more to the line next time.

Later, I helped clean up in the feed zone, while two women patiently waited for their significant others to finish. It looked to me like the beverage of choice along that particular stretch of country road was Miller Lite. Funny, I don't remember seeing anyone handing them up during the race...

There were large orange DOT signs along the course: “Bike Race. Be prepared to stop,” intended, of course, for motorists. But it applies to us, too. Our field was strong, and pretty cohesive. No one was slacking. I'm sure, though, that all of us know people who have stopped—stopped racing, stopped riding—for a variety of reasons, from injury, illness, simple burnout, frustration, or countless others. It could be any of us tomorrow. But here, on this day, we're part of it. We're in it. The moment, when it's possible that you might beat that rider, you might close that gap, you might be the strongest in the bunch, or maybe just set a personal record. Finishing upright and intact is always good, too.


A Letter to My Students

I don’t say it enough, but I care about you. Each of you. That’s why I’m here. It’s too much work to do it for the money, so there must be ...