Monday, April 18, 2011

The Triumph of Failure

That's the title of the biography of Padraic Pearse, one the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Irish Republicans seized tactical and symbolic targets throughout Dublin in an attempt to begin an uprising against British occupation of Ireland. They knew their effort was doomed from the start; James Connoly, the head of the Irish Citizen Army, said "I know we're going out to get slaughtered." Signing the declaration of the Irish Republic was tantamount to signing a death sentence, but they strode out into history anyway.  Most of the leaders were executed by firing squad, but the British sued for peace and ended the Anglo-Irish War five years later.

It's Easter week. Friends are going to Lenten fish fries at Holy Name, daffodils are popping up all over the city, and I'm trying to race my bike.

Last week at the Twin Bing road race, I pinned on my number fully expecting to get shredded by the pack on the very first hill less than a mile past the start line. I couldn't anticipate anything past that moment. But I survived the hill, decided to sit in and endure, and still got popped off the back 15 miles later. By racing only not to fail, I guaranteed my failure.

And that's my internal debate right now: should I strive for efforts beyond my ability and probably fail, or should I attempt only what I know I can do and just sort of slide by?

I'm in much, much better shape now than I was last year at this time: I'm 12 pounds lighter, I can rotate with the fast guys as well I could at the end of last season, I have a few hundred base miles in my legs, my back only hurts after 2 hours or several really hard efforts in the saddle, yada yada yada. But I'm still a middling Cat 3 with too much weight and not enough power, and I'm lining up against good Cat 1/2 guys in small fields that offer few places to hide. Recipes for failure.

But I'm too stupid to willingly accept that. This weekend, I tried to actually race at Le Tour de Husker, a three-event stage race run by the UNL Cycling Team in and around Lincoln, Nebraska. And planning for more than mere survival made the racing much more futile--and much more satisfying. (Bryan's got a good post on his blog about racing to train and survive. I don't fault him at all for taking that mentality. But I tried that approach last week and sort of hated myself for it. And finishing a road race alone after getting dropped demands enough self-flagellation without adding to it by racing scared. Again, I'm not criticizing anybody for racing not to get dropped. But it doesn't work for me.)

The road race start list showed me the writing on the wall: in a field of less than 20 Cat 1/2/3 racers, Bryan, Brady and I were stacked up against 7 Team Kaos riders, all of whom are really, really strong. The 60-mile course circumnavigates Branched Oak Reservoir five times and features strong crosswinds and several rollers. Bryan told me at the start that since my size makes me the best cross-wind rider of our three Midwest Cycling Community guys, I needed to try to get into the break when it went up the road.

One of the Kaos guys rolled off the front on the very first hill, but I was boxed in behind three of his teammates. As riders started to jump across, I panicked because I could see the split happening in front of me. When I got enough space to surge across a false flat to reach the front group, two Kaos guys latched onto my wheel. I got about three-quarters of the way across and predictably blew up like Krakatoa. And just as predictably, my two tailers jumped me and made it across. Now the move featured eight guys, and Brady, Bryan and I all missed it. Bryan made a heroic effort to bridge, but he popped, too.

After latching back onto the chase of 10 or so, I managed to stay with them up some other rollers, but my heart rate was through the roof and lactic acid was searing my quads. It was sheer agony, and I mentally quit for a few moments. But rather than letting those moments stretch out and get me dropped, I stood up, gave it everything I had, and regained contact in time to turn into a tailwind descent.

The race was barely 20 minutes old, and I'd already burned three big matches. Dumb.

Two guys in yellow University of Iowa kits started to rotate and chase, so I got in line and traded pulls for a few minutes. Soon another rider joined us, but with every effort he made, he got gapped just a little bit more. I actually told myself out loud to "get off this guy's wheel," but I didn't listen soon enough. After another minute or two, he got gapped so badly that all the 10 or so riders who'd been sitting in surged around us. I stood up on a hill and pinned it trying to latch back on, but that effort was all I had left. I connected with the tail end of the group for a few seconds but blew again and watched the rest of the field scamper up and over the hill. I tried to chase for a few minutes, but I couldn't sustain the anaerobic effort. I was alone.

For three more hours, I rode alone. I had gotten dropped at mile 9 or 10, so I had to ride the remaining 50 miles with just my thoughts. Awful stuff. I asked myself if I should have just sat in the group, hidden from the wind, and merely followed wheels? Probably. Would that have only delayed the inevitable? Probably. So I took solace in the fact that I tried to RACE. I tried to cover a move (and failed), I tried to help rotate in the chase (and failed), I tried to latch back on and recover (and failed).

I've been dropped in plenty of hilly road races. But I still pin on my number and toe the start line because I want to support local cycling. I want to try to help my teammates. But most importantly, I'm addicted to failure. Riding alone after getting dropped teaches all sorts of horrible lessons; the inward eye is harsh and grating when the body is mired in deep dregs of losing. But I wouldn't ever ride that long and hard alone without a race number on my jersey, and the stored-up granary of suffering and resolve that helps me win races is accumulated during those solitary failures.

And I do eventually win races. I just have to remind myself that sucking in March and April leads to podiums in June and August. It always has before.

So I didn't quit. I finished more than 40 minutes down on the leaders, but only finishers would be allowed to race the TT & Crit on stages two and three. Besides, Brady held the latern rouge at Twin Bing, so I couldn't allow that dubious award pass to another team.

I ate my PB&J, sucked down some recovery drink, nibbled on fruit, and took a nap lying in the parking lot with my feet propped up in the trunk of my car.  These skins, BTW, are amazing. We sell 'em at Trek Store of Omaha and on Velogear.

After my three-hour idyll in the sun, I shimmied into my skinsuit and aero helmet for the TT, a single, 15-mile lap around the lake. I only spun around enough to accumulate a slight sweat before heading to the start line. I was the first 1/2/3 guy off; Bryan started 30 second behind me. I fully expected him to pass me on the first few hills.

I always go out way too hot and blow up in TT's, so this time I promised myself I'd stay below threshold no matter how easy it felt. But I was also strangely calm and focused. And I didn't feel awful once I started. The climbs on the first part of the course were hard, but I stayed in the aero bars, turtled my head out and up, and concentrated on pedaling circles at a decent cadence. I also forgot to turn on my computer's display, so I never had any idea what my heart rate was. I just tried to endure the climbs and rail the flats.

A Kaos rider flew past me at about mile 7, and Brady and I played chicken-egg for the last few miles, but I never saw anybody else. I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack. I felt really, really good and enjoyed the effort to end the day.

After an amazing meal at the Boiler Room on Saturday night with some out-of-town guests, I drove back down to Lincoln for the Stage 3 crit, which was contested on a strange course that circled the main building of Lincoln Southwest High School. A headwind-blown false flat negotiated through a chicane roundabout before turning downhill and curving gradually along the backside of the building. A sharp left opened back onto the false flat into the start-finish line. It was threatening rain at the start line, and I shivered a lot in a skin suit and arm warmers. But Kaos launched hard at the gun and helped me forget about the cold. I almost got popped right away, but the headwind was strong enough that I could sit in on the false flat, and my crit skills were good enough to keep me attached on the turns. I found that I could handle the surges and recover pretty well. Frankly, I was damn near overjoyed.

Two flyers in the first three or four laps both cam back, but then Kevin Limpach (who won the previous day's road race) launched a solo flyer that dangled for 2 laps. I tried to bridge to it twice but found myself dragging GC contenders both times, so Kaos wouldn't let go. I also would have popped hard had I reached Kevin, so I sat third or forth wheel and watched the team dynamics. Kaos seeemed to be protecting their podium spots and not letting Ian Robertson from Flatwater Cycling get up the road.

An Iowa rider named Kevin Temple bridged a few laps after, soon to be joined by Kevin of Monkey Wrench Cycles. Since my name's NOT Kevin, I didn't feel like I belonged in the break. I seriously thought about following the third bridge, but again, Ian was on my wheel. Chris Spence told me that I was free to go up the road, but since he had to shadow Ian, I got stuck.

Notice, however, that I'm narrating a race story. I actually raced my bike--I surged, I attacked (without any real effect, but I tried), I covered other surges--I even tried to help Bryan get a gap when he launched a solo flyer off the front. Damn, it was fun.

Ian rode like a lion, trying again and again to either get across or drag the group back to the break.  I tried to help 2 or 3 times, but while I could surge and recover at a Cat 1/2 pace, I started to blow whenever I sat out too long in the wind:
photo courtesy of Dan Farnam

And that was my Easter rising. Ian tried one last big effort on the false flat, and it looked for just a second like Kaos was hesitating. I launched with everything I had up the other side of the road and tried to get over to him. Too late, I heard Chris yell, "I got it!" I had hoped to pull through Ian and drag him a bit so he and I could rotate, but of course I popped. Hard. The lap counter said 3 to go when I blew, and I watched the group meander through the corner at the top of the hill with Kaos latched back onto Ian's wheel. I couldn't recover in time to reconnect, so I rolled the final two laps by myself. 55 minutes of good racing was punctuated by one desperate bit of hubris. Had I just sat in for two more laps, I would've contested the field sprint for fourth and maybe put the fear of God into some people. But I had to try to get across to the break just one more time. It was a futile failure--but at least I went down swinging.

I finished dead last on the day and in the GC. But I'm remembering what it feels like to suffer and still keep going. The pain is good, and it's talking sense to me again in a language I can almost dimly recall. I don't yet have the fitness to race the way I know how to race, but I'm motivated and confident enough not to race the way I hate myself for racing.

Triumph only rises from the attempt.


  1. that was a good weekend, in a pretty sick sort of way.

    I kind of want to do it again.

  2. That's why I don't go to shitty races anymore.