Conventional wisdom says train hard, then taper your training before your race or event. Conventional wisdom says get a good night's sleep. In my world, friends speak louder than that wisdom, so when one says “I really want to ride Deerfield... will you ride with me?” and another friend says “Hey, there's this really cool race you'd like,” the answer of course is yes. And yes.
The morning after 55 miles at Deerfield—after wrong turns, route extensions and a trip to the emergency room for a friend's thankfully minor incident--I found myself in Big Indian, in New York's Catskill mountains. After several wrong turns and the distraction of runners, recreational cyclists, and weekenders, my friends and I pulled in and unloaded. The whole thing was remarkably low-key for a road race, with a group of riders so small that the race organizer decided to put us all together at the start—categories one through five, men, women and a solitary junior racer.
This race bills itself as a super-tough dirt-road race that's comfortable on a cyclocross bike—if you don't mind falling way behind riders on road bikes. I chose my road bike, but did not have time to change out my Michelins for tires with a bit more width and puncture resistance. Oh well, throw more wisdom to the wind.
We rolled out, and I felt more twitchy than I'd expected. Maybe it was the recent memory of my friend's crash the previous day. Maybe it was that I was in such proximity to pros—I was hoping my bike-handling would be adequate for our admittedly brief time together before they went up the road at their pace. We rolled out fairly slowly, no doubt because the Pro/1/2/3 guys (all three of them) had two laps to do, not just one like us.
The first climb broke up things. It was hard to tell who was in what field, but I consoled myself by knowing some of the cat fives were behind me. I had a rider in front of me in sight, and a big gap behind. We zig-zagged through a small town, and I had to squeeze between two cars, one on either side of the road, the one on my side not quite committed to either driving or pulling over. Then it was up a sharp dirt climb, where more riders came into view as everyone's pace slowed. I tried to keep a reasonable speed without blowing up. I did reel in a rider within a couple of miles—the junior, who probably hasn't yet worked out how to dole out his energy reserves--then another, which is always good for a little extra shot of motivation.
We had a group of three on another dirt section, and they seemed to know where to go—which was down a tiny, narrow road threaded between a couple of barns. One rider on a BMC flatted, within FEET of the wheel truck. He got back on quickly. We stretched out and bunched up off and on over the next few miles.
The website suggested mountain-bike shoes, should a rider need to run on part of Townsend Hollow Road. “Not me,” I thought. I thought incorrectly. Mr. BMC came around right as a rider ahead of me un-clipped. I was next. I walked about 50 feet, found a flat spot and got back on. My calves and lower back—parts of my body that I generally do not need to tell to shut up—were screaming as I crested the climb, the road filled with soft soil and fist-sized rocks.
The dirt descents were sketchy, more so than what we encounter on our Tuesdays in Rensselaer County. I rode within my ability, which I thought was pretty good, but a couple of guys just bombed right down them. Fearless. My friend Johny K. says the bike wants to stay upright. Me, too. Again, we'd spread out and re-group. One rider seemed a bit frayed: His bike and jersey looked beat up, and he wobbled a bit. Not the best wheel to follow.
We had more of this sort of up-and-down on the dirt fun for the next few miles, and it actually DID feel fun. My what-the-heck attitude at the start had morphed into spirited competitiveness, and my body felt way better than I'd expected, given the previous day's riding. We had a group of three or four: myself, the guy on the BMC, and the squirrely guy. We worked together, in a ragged way, until the last big dirt descent, where they took off. I was on the brakes, trying to balance the relative dangers of speed and an overheated rim from too much braking, which can lead to a blow-out. I passed a few other riders on the way down, and caught sight of my previous partners soon. The wobbly guy's bike sounded like it was about to fall apart, which was more incentive for me to get around him. We picked up our third again and worked together, until the base of the hill, where we came around the noisy bike. His graceless cornering explained it: he was riding on a flat front tire, at speeds pushing 30 mph downhill. We dropped him out of the corner and worked together for the last couple of miles, trading pulls.
I was wondering when the alliance would split. I wasn't wondering too hard, since I had no idea where we were, place-wise. It was just fun. I took what I decided was my last pull, and then came around him about 400 meters out, and sprinted. I don't think he responded, and I'm not sure if it was due to fatigue or disinterest, but for today at least, I gained a place in the finale. Again, fun.
I ended up sixth out of seventeen registrants, fifteen starters, and fourteen finishers. We were only separated by a few minutes. If I hadn't promised to drive my friends to the race in my car, I may have blown off the entire race. I'm glad I didn't. That was one of my best results this year. I'm clawing my way past the middle.
We hung around afterward, and chowed down on a huge container of fruit the organizer provided for us. I talked with some other racers, people on actual teams—not clubs—and heard some great stories. I even got a pair of socks. Hey, it's the little things. Everyone left with something, which is pretty cool. This race is definitely on my calendar for next year.