Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Grappling with victory, part 2

I hate night sweats.

During the last five or six years, I sometimes wake up in soaked sheets the night before a big event: my qualifying exams, the girls' first day at a new school, teaching a new poem or short story, reading a poem at my friend Ginny's wedding.

It's weird, though. I spent nine years in the theatre. I was the student speaker at my undergraduate commencement. I've given professional reports and presentations to clients, CEO's, potential customers. I've delivered academic papers at conferences. Before all of these events, I was usually excited but almost never nervous. And I always slept well. 

But the night before bike races? Man. My nervousness is exacerbated by the likelihood of physical injury. I've seen too many friends and rivals carted off to the hospital with broken collarbones and separated shoulders to sleep easy the night before a race. So not only do you have to worry about failing to race well, you also have to worry about getting hurt.

And that worry spawns another fear: the fear of racing scared. Being scared of racing scared is worse than being scared of being hurt. Fear of fear is the worst of all.

So when I rolled over in the breeze of the bedside fan at 5:00 AM last Sunday, I shivered from more than the pre-dawn chill.

At first, I thought I had fallen asleep in the backyard hammock; I was soaked to the skin and heard loud thunder and rainfall. The weird coalescence of sensory input was almost synaesthetic: the sound of rain created the feeling of being wet and vice-versa. Only after I sat up and rubbed my eyes did I realize that I wasn't soaked in rainwater. 

I immediately assumed that the Dave Babcook Memorial Road Race would be canceled. Because it was POURING down rain. Thunder, lightning--a typical Midwestern thunderstorm. I almost wished for a cancellation; I was tired, stiff, scared, and frustrated by my poor showing in the crit the day before.

But I brewed a pot of coffee and cooked some oatmeal. I actually ate the recommended three hours before the start for once, and I rolled out the door after throwing a cycling cap and rain cape in my race bag.

The skies to the west looked like they were clearing as I drove out of town toward the race course, and the rain subsided to a light misty drizzle. I arrived at the staging area on the campus of Mt. Michael High School about 90 minutes before the start, and guys were actually wearing jackets. In Omaha. In July. The temperature was probably no higher than 60 degrees, and the rain and wind seemed to have blown the humidity out of the valley.

As I stood around with some other racers and talked about the likelihood of the rain ending by race time, a rumor started circulating that part of the race course was flooded. Sections of the road race course had composed the TT course the day before, so I knew that that part of the course was mostly flat to slightly rolling, but the flooded section supposedly lay at the bottom of the road race course's only real descent. See the road marked 234th to the far left of the map? That section parallels the Elkhorn River, a waterway that's been pretty eager to jump its banks all spring. The officials debated between neutralizing the section of flat between the descent and the climb, but eventually they determined that sending five groups of racers along that section would prove too dangerous.  Voila! No climb. Rather than running seven laps of the figure-eight shaped course, we'd contest 14 laps by continuing straight down 226th instead of turning right onto the descent. A race with a selective climb suddenly turned into a flat and windy circuit race. There were small rollers, but nothing I couldn't draft up.

I toed the line with about 20 other master's riders and rolled out Mt. Michael Road for a neutral start to 216th St. I chatted with the Kansas City-based racer who had beaten me by a minute in the TT the day before, and we did some math. He was alone. I had one teammate. Team Kaos, on the other hand, had six guys in our field. And they did everything they could to exploit those numbers.

I have to admire their perseverance--they launched attack after attack, sometimes solo, sometimes in pairs. During the first six laps, I covered at least five moves. Three of them found me with two Kaos riders off the front, so I told the guys that I was going to sit on and not work in the breaks as long as they sent riders up the road in pairs. I said that I'd work in a break with a Kaos rider and someone from another team, but not if I was isolated with two of their guys.

Truth be told, I was nervous. When the Kaos guys launched, they really launched. I had to put in big efforts to either latch on or bridge, but as I sat in the first three or four spots on the road, I realized that the wind was my friend and the flat roads were my forte.

After a solo rider got off the front for the better part of a lap and then came back without a chase, we all sort of realized that the race would end in a sprint. The TT winner from the day before pulled back another two moves, and a skinny climber sponsored by Olympia Cycle valiantly pinned it every time we hit the small rollers, lap after lap, but nothing stuck. We let a 50+ guy get up the road after we passed the feed zone in lap 11 or so, but when I started to chase, my teammate admonished me to ignore him since he was racing a different category. I'd never raced with multiple categories before, so letting him go violated all my instincts, but away he went. My teammate--who happened to be in the 50+ race, too--bridged shortly after, and we never saw them again.

The remaining 15 or so masters guys (we evidently dropped a few, but I never saw the back of the field) completed our 14 laps and started the long run back toward Mt. Michael. The headwind discouraged any solo moves, but Kaos tried to send a guy anyway. He dangled for about half a mile, but we were all together as we made the turn back onto the finishing straight. Olympia tried to get away twice, but he got blown back both times.

The finish line waited a mile up the road, and a big stinger of a hill lay between us and the end. That incline had put me in the red when I climbed it toward the end of the previous day's TT, so I was pretty convinced I'd get dropped halfway up the damn thing.

The TT winner and the Olympia guy both put in big efforts before the base of the hill, so the field strung out and gave me plenty of room to maneuver. My heart rate soared up around 180--higher than I'd seen it all year--but my legs felt like elasticized iron. My vision was acute and piercing. Things around me slowed down. My perceptual acuity accelerated.

When a guy from South Dakota launched up the left side of the road about halfway up the hill, I jumped hard onto his wheel, but my momentum sent me shooting right past him, and I found myself in the wind, off the front, 20 meters from the summit of the hill. I shifted and punched it as hard as I could, and when I crested the hill and saw the line 300 meters below me, I shifted again and hit the afterburners. I glanced behind me to find where the sprint would pass me by...but no one had my wheel. I'd shed the pack with my own acceleration, and I had time to throw my hands in the air and whoop as I crossed the line for the win.

I don't know that I've enjoyed racing more with a bunch of strangers. My win at Dunnigan Hills with the Davis Bike Club offered a different sort of gratification, because seven teammates attacked relentlessly to help me save matches for the sprint. But these Omaha guys are class acts, too. I did a lot more solo work, but the since this flood-altered Nebraska road race course was almost entirely flat, it played right into my strengths. I simply had to follow wheels, cover doomed attacks,  and save as much energy as I could for the sprint.

I stood around and accepted congratulations from the other guys in my field. It was the first time this season that I didn't feel like quitting the sport after a race, and going from last in the previous day's crit to first in the road race was immensely gratifying. All the texts I got from my Rocknasium brothers back in Davis also gave me a huge thrill.

An added benefit was that Jerry Arnold also won his category, so the Elkhorn Valley Cycling Club and Team Type 1 took four state championships on the day.

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