Sunday, July 21, 2013

Race Report: 2013 NCC Tour of the Hilltowns

I drove out from under threatening clouds portending the first rain in eight days, but they cleared by the time I got off the Mass Pike, and we had a sunny, warm day for racing.

Some background: This was a what-the-heck race, one I'd never done, never even rode the course. I only gave a cursory look to the route profile, noting the one big climb. I hadn't planned on doing much road racing this month, as riding time was reduced by my recent move, but I found myself riding well this week, after some time off. Worth noting. I was on the wait list, then got in when the club added another field—35 and over, thank you very much.

After a long, detailed and informative talk from the promoter, we were off for a six-mile neutral start, during which I had to dig deeper than expected a couple of times to keep position. The group was strong! I was consistently in third to tenth position in a field of thirty, and my pre-race jitters passed. I closed gaps, covered early attacks, and generally felt like a competent racer.

We did a long, twisty, scary descent on a rough road. How do you make chip-and-seal pavement worse? Frost heaves and bad patches, of course. I tried my best to follow the lines of the three NCC riders, whom I figured knew the road well. I also left some space in front of me.

We passed a few dropped riders from the field ahead, then swung around for the Hawley Road climb—the one that looked like a big gash in the middle of the course profile, and it got challenging pretty quickly. I foolishly said “nice riding with you guys.” Never, ever broadcast any weakness, perceived or real, I said to myself later. Even my own ears shouldn't hear that. I decided to go all in on the climb, give it everything I had, then concern myself with what's next after the summit, based on some pretty good advice from strong-man Bob of the Tuesday crew. Still, the pack climbed away from me. I wasn't spit right out, but rather digested slowly. I'm not sure which is worse. Speaking of digestion, I'd over-eaten in the first 20 miles, and I was paying on the climb. The road kept coming, each curve revealing another sinew of pavement reaching upward, littered with widely spaced riders. My digestive distress persisted, and I didn't desire any of the food or drinks I'd brought along. I might as well have fueled with Four Loko and Marlboros, I chuckled, based on the way I was riding and feeling.

The follow car crept up behind me like a reaper, then held off when I found some extra power. It didn't last, however.

Over the top, it got lonely. I began to wonder about these Massachusetts riders—does EPO occur naturally, like fluoride, in the water rolling down these Berkshire streams? These boys can climb! Hairy legs and absence of team kits do not indicate a lack of ability, and I briefly felt like a poseur. That didn't last as I had more practical concerns. I began working with another rider who had flatted. Knowing the power of my spoken words, I said to him—but more for me--”I'll give it what I have.” Soon we were cruising in the high 20s, both of us taking efficient pulls. We picked up another rider and got a strong rotation, just as the men's masters and women's 1/2/3 field passed. I shouted out some encouragement to the Keltic and Farm Team riders in the small leading group. What can I say? I'm a fan blessed with a great view.

I got snapped off the back after a bit, and again rode alone. I'd never completely recovered from the Hawley Road climb, but I still thought I'd made the right choice to go all in. My climbing and recovery aren't where I'd like them to be, but I coached myself to continue on, figuring I'd build endurance and persistence--plus get back to my car under my own power. I didn't quite hate riding or racing at that moment.

The race finishes with a climb of two miles back up Route 9 to Windsor. Some more small groups passed, and I passed a few solo riders. My speed was way down, and the headwind was picking up. It's times like these that test a rider's mind. I did my usual mental tricks or fuzzy math: “I can ride X miles pretty much anytime, anywhere.” I reeled in a couple riders on the climb, one of whom was a guy I worked with earlier. I passed him right at one kilometer to go. The mind gets a boost, which translates to the body in some strange alchemy that probably will never be measured. That was the longest kilometer of the day—much longer than they look on TV, by the way. I finished just a hair over three hours, which had been my target. In our field of 30, I ended up 18th out of 26 finishers. Not great, but no bike or major physical problems, no DFL. I used every gearing possible on my bike, from low to high.

Why do I do it? Why pay money and pin on a number, all the while knowing you're saying yes to pain? Well, it's not pain anymore. It's just how I feel on a bike. The power of words again. Of course, there's always the anticipation of the next race, in this case next Saturday's Hunter Mountain Classic, 78 miles with three major climbs. There's also the common explanation of the sense of accomplishment, which I agree with, but it goes deeper than that. It's soul medication, self-administered via the pharmacy of the body. I took Route 20 home, and enjoyed the sun over the Berkshires, looking richer than all of the over-saturated photos on Instagram. Every song my iPod shuffled sounded amazing, and I heard the music with an uncommon depth. I drew deep, steady breaths that seemed to reach my fingers and toes. I felt at peace.

Thanks to the Northampton Cycling Club, marshals, volunteers, police and EMS for an excellent day in the sun.

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