Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Two tales from the back

Last weekend, I raced two events run by the Elkhorn Valley Cycling Club: a 64-mile road race around Stanton, Nebraska, and a 60-minute, 8-corner criterium through downtown Norfolk.

I got popped off the back of my field in both races, so the weekend might have turned into an utter waste of time: time in the car, time away from my family, time that I could have spent on my dissertation, time NOT spent berating myself for remaining so damn slow.

But two moments in these races taught me some valuable lessons and reaffirmed some of the choices I've made in the last few months. Wordsworth called such events "Spots of time;" recovering addicts sometimes refer to them as "moments of clarity."
photo by Lois Brunnert

On the road race course, I sat in the middle of the group and shielded myself from the crosswinds for about 7 miles-- until the field of ~20 Elite 1/2/3 riders hit the first of several rolling hills. I survived the first little stinger, but the effort sent my heart rate soaring over my lactate threshold, and I couldn't recover in time to climb the sharper, steeper hill that followed. I watched in horror as the peleton, to a man, stood up on their pedals and squirted right up the hill. I had to stay on my saddle, limit my losses, and pray that I could re-connect on the flats.

But after that last hill, the course turned south into a headwind. And the rotating lead group was gone, just like that.

I expected that result when I first saw the course, but I thought all the aerobic work I've done lately would have delayed my getting dropped. I'm lighter, fitter, and much more flexible than I was a month ago--hell, my back didn't really start to hurt until almost two hours later. But I still lack any sort of high-end fitness. I just haven't been able to do any high-intensity intervals in training, so I can't recover quickly enough when the terrain or speed forces me to really dig deep to stay attached to the group.

Since I was faced with the prospect of riding alone, building my aerobic base became my new goal for the day. I planned to finish that first lap alone or with small groups of other dropped riders. But I also faced a decision: finish the race--two laps of 32 miles each and 1,100 feet of climbing in 90-degree heat with 80% humidity--or save my legs for the crit the next day?

I worked on my medium endurance for the rest of that first lap; I rode slightly harder than my normal endurance pace, but not so hard that I redlined again. I also mused a fair amount over the pastoral beauty of a Nebraska spring. The race course is very near my mother's hometown and the small college where my parents met. Cornfields, cow pastures, and riparian springs all surrounded me, and except for the occasional aroma of pig shit, the air felt fresh and clean. And in the aftermath of all the thundershowers we've had, everything was a brilliant and glittering green.

I finished the first lap with two bottles and plenty of food in reserve, so I decided to roll past the start/finish and complete the second lap. But after 20 more minutes, the wind shifted and the temperature spiked. I was now spinning into a cross-headwind that would blow against me for the entire second lap, and I was down to half a bottle of fluid to last me the next 75-90 minutes.

I asked a corner marshal if the feed zone would still be manned when I rolled through, and he kindly radioed ahead to ask them to wait for me. I was the last person on the course since the Elite 4 group had passed me and the Elite 5s only raced one lap.

After I drank the last dregs of my last bottle, I noticed that one of the rolling safety marshals was sitting in his truck about 50 yards behind me. He stayed there for almost an hour, waving traffic around me and radioing ahead for water. I've never seen that happen in my six years of racing.

About four miles from the feed zone, I caught another dropped rider who was obviously deep in the pain cave. I patted my ass I rolled by, giving him the universal sign to sit in my draft as long as he liked. He told me, "I'm about to die. You just do what you've gotta do." The effort it took yell those words into the wind nearly toppled him. Before I was even aware of what I was doing, I slowed a bit so he could roll up alongside me. I squeezed his shoulder and said:
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
Yeah, he looked at me like I was nuts, so I explained that acting like an English teacher is a hard habit to break.  But that bit of Tennyson reminded me why I race, even when I'm continually faced with irrefutable evidence of my own weakness and futility: 
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; [. . .]
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
The effort is everything, isn't it? Quitting is never an option. The final conceit in that stanza usually baffles my undergraduates, but during that hot day on the bike, lost in front of my own version of the "ringing plains of windy Troy," I remembered: sometimes just the simple act of moving provides a glimpse of the world from an entirely new perspective.  I am who I am becasue of all that I have seen and known, and I cannot keep growing and learning without continually looking around myself with new eyes. Movement makes that prospect so much easier, for the barrier between the known and the unknown remains forever fluid when the seeing eye maintains its flight.

My new friend and I pedaled through the final third of that last lap at no more than 13 miles an hour; the headwind was brutal, and the crosswind after we turned again nearly blew us sideways a few times.

But we finished.

*       *       *
On Bryan Redemske's recommendation, I wore a pair of Skins recovery tights in the car during the 90-minute drive home to Omaha. And for the rest of the day. And in bed that night. And in the car on the way back up to Norfolk the next morning.

Damn, man. Damn!

Honest-to-God, I felt like I hadn't raced the previous day, like I'd gotten a professional massage or received a blood transfusion. (Not that I'd know what THAT felt like. You gotta read Vino's blog 'bout that blood-doping sensation, I'm afraid.) 

As I get older, recovery becomes harder and harder. But I felt fresh and newly powerful, even after three hours of hard riding the day before.

The racing still sucked--I lasted five laps with a very fast and determined Elite 3 field of 16 guys and then got caught behind a split when a rider in front of me insisted on taking corners at a horribly shallow angle and got himself gapped. I still can't close gaps like that without blowing, which is exactly what happened.
I stayed with a pretty cooperative group of six guys and rotated through with no problems for the rest of the race--but then the posturing and pull-skipping started with three laps to go. This from guys who formed the third group on the road and were racing for tenth? C'mon.

I let my teammate Devin Bethune get a gap during a tailwind section and watched as the rest of the group took the last corner like idiots in order to sprint for 12th. Ryan Feagan seems like a stand-up guy and is pretty fun to ride with, so I was happy to see he and Devin keep their separation. I rolled in last, I think, but much happier and fresher than after my last crit. I'm improving, and I was actually able to race a bit. And, drumroll, please--I suffered no back pain. None.

As the field rolled around the course to cool down after the race, a guy pulled up alongside me and asked, "Having fun yet?'

I laughed and answered, "That's one word for it."

"I can think of another "F"-word to describe it," he said.

I thought about that for awhile--"F" stands for _______in bike racing:
  • Fun
  • "Fucked gibbering" (in the words of David Millar)
  • Failure
  • Futility
  • Fat
  • Flexibility
  • Flatulence
  • Future
I'll go with that last one. I keep pining on numbers and toeing start lines--even though I'm hurt, old, fat, and the like--because the future remains unwritten. One of these days, I may actually recapture some of the sheer exultant joy of sticking a break, decimating a sprint, or leading out a winning teammate. Until then, the effort's everything, isn't it? I've set some goals, and the truest measure of a man is how hard and diligently he strives to accomplish his goals, not how easily he folds in the face of setbacks.

*       *        *  
The highlight of the weekend, however, came next. IT was the essential spot of time I experienced during the day, and I wasn't even racing. 


That's my eldest daughter, Abbey, racing the kids' event during the criterium. She was the only kid there with a skinny-tire bike, but these were all older kids, too. She raced hard, had a blast, and won.

If my daughter learns anything about perseverance from watching my failures, then the racing's never futile. Is it?

Maybe "F" is for family....


  1. Tennyson and biking. That's good stuff, Eric. I'll try to remember that next time I have to dig deep.

    I commend you for your moral victory. It takes greater courage to not take a DNF than it does to bridge to the pack for the sprint finish. Good show, man.

    I saw Abbey's race. I quickly nudged my wife and said, "look at that kid go!". She was drilling it and kept the pace strong until soloing over the finish line with a proper head nod to the cheering crowd. What a pleasure it must have been for you to hear her squeal with delight, "I won the race Daddy!"

    I'd say that's a successful weekend of racing.

  2. Eric,
    I enjoy reading your literarily well-crafted blogs. Best wishes to you in the completion of your dissertation. Hope to meet you and ride with you at some point.
    Gary Nebeker