After doing the Matteson training races a couple weeks ago and getting my first taste of team tactics and being at the front of the pack, the seal apparently stayed broken for this weekend's trio of races. After making incremental gains in my placings during the first 3 races of my fledgling amateur racing career, late in the 2nd to last lap of the Spring Prairie Road Race I found myself in the front of the pack. The big question that has now reared it's head is: "now what?"
Josh Green and I drove to the race that morning in his sporty, little (little being the operative word) Beemer, and we arrived late due to a traffic accident just north of Chicago. With about a half hour until they called us to the line, we only had time to get our numbers, change, use the facilities and join the pack that was already staging. The neutral start was apparently all the warm-up Josh and I were going to get.
Even after all the discussion on the team web forum and seeing the race course and profile, I was still a bit mentally unprepared for the hill that greeted us before the bell rang. As with Snake Alley, I'm still glad I didn't really get a chance to think about it. The pack moved easy enough up th climb, the riders saving themselves, a few jockeying for better position a bit within the right hand lane.
The race became official at the line and I was probably towards the back half of the pack. The speed was easy, the turns roomy, and altogether early on completely different than the criteriums I had been experiencing. During this first lap I concentrated only the carving good turns, noting the rough spots in the road, and marking other rides which I would passing as I worked farther up on the next few laps. The road was very smooth, and I was glad I'd changed my tires the night before in favor of the slicks. I had some problems at Snake and Matteson with rear-wheel traction (even with the 5's dry weather), but I was really sticking the turns today.
The first time up the hill wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. I've been working on my spin with my sprinting drills, and I am beginning to find a climbing rhythm. The next hurdle is to find the proper ratio and shift to ensure that your suplesse continues uninterrupted up the climb. When I happened upon a good ratio - by accident - I made the most ground up than at any point in the race. Passing someone on the hill is the best way to make your gains stick. Other times, I would stupidly downshift in mid 100% torque, my spin jerking like a dance party as the needle is scraped off of the record, and there would go two places, powering by me.
Nothing motivates me more at this point than passing someone on a climb. I am still too nice of a guy to be a successful racer, but I am working on it. Seeing someone quickly pass me as I am in the wrenching agony of three-quarters of the way up is like getting hit with a baseball bat. And when I can do it to someone else, it is one of those rare moments where I can express myself with confidence, power through pain with immediate gratification, and I grab at.
The mental challenge of the climb increased with each lap, however. I really had to zero in on my spin and visualize my bodymachine propelling faster and faster up the hill.
I see-saw-ed my way - two steps forward, one step back, towards the front. Usually after the turns. As I said, the gains on the climbs usually stuck. One of my favorite little quirks about the intense focus of racing within such a competitive pack is that you can pass a teammate, and then, thinking they're still behind you, pass them again. It's all a mass of constant fluid motion, your mind operating at a very base level of reaction. The only thoughts are of your next moves. As I have increased - and am now realizing - my physical abilities, it's dawned on my that physicality is only a very small percentage of racing. Is the mental game that is the biggest challenge. The hard part is now working to see your moves farther and farther ahead, and remaining patient and confident that they are correct. I now see more chess games in my future.
Right now the "seeing ahead" part is pretty much anticipating where the gaps are going to open and give me a space of which to move up. It's mentally where I have been spending most of my racing as I am working to move up most of the time. The starting positions have been less than optimal and, like I said, I'm a bit too much of a milquetoast early on, letting the pack swallow me up.
But eventually I was there to stay going into the last lap. The wind in my hair was alpine, rushing around me at the top of a mountain. Seeing the open road in front of me instead six of seven wheels was like looking out over a valley, miles below. And hearing the almost clinical chatter of my plotting, scheming teammates gave me a shiver of excitment.
And I was completely lost.
The nice guy in me tried to get a place in the paceline, but not wanting to upset the fragile balance, I rode along the outside, sometimes in a draft, sometimes in the wind. Mark Watkins made a bit of idle chatter about the team ride last Saturday but when he heard my hyperventilating reply, he told to me converse my breath. I bated my time, waiting for something to just come to me. Maybe instinctively. Maybe not.
It came in the form of Kevin's Karkovsky's voice.
"You said you wanted to do something today, right?"
"Yeah," I responded breathlessly.
"Well, why don't you bridge up to the breakway?"
And there it was. I didn't think, didn't steel myself against any pain, I just exploded. A ridiculous flyer off the front was what happened. I didn't intend for it to be attack, I should have smoothly pulled to the front and accelerated the pack. But a physical outburst was dying to come out, and it was if I'd thrown an entire bucket of paint against the canvas, or I'd just held the guitar out and wildly strummed all the open strings at once. Dumb moves happen, I am learning, and once you've committed to it, stick with it anyways.
"Not so fast! Not so fast!" Jeff Watt yelled behind me, but I was already well on my way. I decelerated as the match began to burn out, and was soon in the draft of the 3 riders in the closest break. I looked behind me, and there was the pack, but my flyer had flipped a switch, and it was On Like Donkey Kong.
The pace accelerated greatly, and I stayed in the top 6 or 7 riders through the long fast descents, but at the third turn I was soon swallowed up by the front pack and firmly in the end game. Faster and faster we went. I had no computer on and I was now just an engine for my bike. There was no thinking in my head beyond hitting gaps and making up places. Just before the last turn and the hill, a long one opened up outside and I shot past at least 10 riders on another flyer. I shifted to the small ring, made the turn, and was on the hill for the last time.
I had found a good ratio and I passed two riders, keeping Jeff Holland, about four spaces ahead, in sight the whole time. Adam Clark (sing to the tune of the Beastie Boys' Shake your Rump: "My man Adam C's got legs like a billy goat! Ooooo-ah! Ooooooo-ah!") came shooting past me as though there wasn't a hill. The fatigue slammed me hard just before the top, but I kept spinning, only thinking don't let anyone pass. No pass you.
At the crest I made the rider in front of me my mark and got out of the saddle and sprinted as hard as I could. I luckily passed him before it was apparent I was going to run out of gas before the line so I sat back down and hammered hard, and then it was over. I was slumped over the handlebars, joyously gasping for air and suppressing my gag-reflex, with a 14th placing.
The race at the front is a completely different view. As the joke in Alaska goes, "unless you're the lead dog, the scenery never changes." That is the motivation I need to move from a pack rider, a sitter, to a leader on the front end, instictively making decisions that will effect the outcome of a race, and not be afftected by them through happenstance.
Physically I've got it to reach the front. Now, I just need the brains to stay there.