Hillsboro—a race I knew too much about for not having competed in it until a few days ago. Growing up in Springfield just about an hour away from the race, I remember my dad telling me about it while I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. I had no interest in cycling at that time. Him telling me about a race where you ride your bike as hard as possible for 60 miles, bunched up with 100 other cyclists, riding through the worst roads in Central Illinois sounded like a terrible way to spend a Saturday afternoon. However, after starting to compete in triathlons my senior year, I began to understand the aura of this “classic” of the Midwest.

I decided to quit competing in triathlons after a couple of years and focus all of my energy on cycling. I spent the entire winter of 2010-2011 on the trainer in preparation for my first season as a pure cyclist. I watched Fabian Cancellara (like I assume all of you did as well) complete the Tour of Flanders-Paris Roubaix sweep about 20 times. I can probably recite the entire 6 hours of commentary by Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett from both races if you want me to. The excitement of those races and the solo attacks from Cancellara sent chills down my spine every time I watched. I think the reason those races intrigued me so much more than the Tour, Giro, or Vuelta was because the classics looked so familiar to me. Granted I have never been on true cobblestone roads, but the flat countryside is where I’ve always trained and I enjoy it. We Midwesterners embrace those classics races in Europe because we can relate to them so much better than the grand tours. Don’t get me wrong, I love going out to Colorado for huge climbs like Mt. Evans and Vail Pass, but nothing really compares to racing on familiar terrain in front of friends and family.

So, fast-forward a year and a half to last Friday night. I’ve had Hillsboro on my calendar since the middle of November as a race I wanted to do well in. My training had been primarily focused on improving my endurance and being able to compete in these long road races. Going into the race, I was definitely confident with my ability to be able to stick with the lead group throughout the race. However, I did not know if I had the form to put in an effort worthy of a podium finish. With this mentality, I decided to let my teammates know this beforehand and to just let things play out. My thinking was to stick near the front quarter of the peloton, and put in work if the opportunity presented itself.

Waking up to a forecast of rain the entire day oddly made me happy. I’d raced in rain before at races like Snake Alley and Tour de Grove and it was scary. I did not feel confident cornering or descending. So, your guess is as good as mine as to why I was creepily smiling on the hour-long drive through a drizzle from Springfield to Hillsboro. Maybe it was the idea that this was “classics weather”. Not only was I going to be racing on the crummiest roads in Central Illinois, but also I got to do it while soaked to the bone the entire time! There’s really no way of rationalizing a jubilant attitude like this going into it…

I parked, got kitted up, small talked with teammates and other racers I knew, and then warmed up. Rolling to the line, I felt a sense of calm. So many times last year I would roll to the start line and feel very nervous. I did not have teammates usually, so I’d get to the start line and usually keep to myself. Hillsboro was different. I rolled up with six other XXXers whom I had trained with for a few months and talked to a handful of other races from around the area. It was a relatively relaxed environment, considering we were about to essentially ride into two and a half hours of cold, wet, hell.

The first lap went smoothly. Besides a near collision on a downhill at mile 15ish, I came out of the bricks about 20th wheel and was holding position well. I tossed a full water bottle not wanting to carry the weight on the next lap, shot a GU, and was feeling great. The whole team was there and I tried to stay near a teammate whenever I could.

As with any race, the fun started near the end. We hit a section going due south and two riders about three spots in front of me started to lock handlebars and shoulder one another. The rider on the right went down and I swerved to the left in order to keep from being taken out myself. I ended up running into the guy on my left and nearly crashing. I remember my front wheel zigzagging its way all over the wet pavement and somehow keeping the bike up.

Flats seemed to be occurring about every five miles or so. Around mile 45ish (never actually looked down at the computer so these are all very ballpark figures) I saw a XXX rider go off into the ditch, keep his bike up, and signal for neutral service. Andrew informed me that the rider was Will (our pre-race hopeful) and that he had flatted. Without Will in contact with the peloton anymore, tactics changed. I decided that if I were to make a high placing I would need to advance my position on the tailwind section heading North, hold until the bricks, then get up in the top five in order to lead out Adam or put in a sprint myself.

So, mentally I was there. We were about to hit the downhill that goes into the tailwind section on the highway, when I blinked and my left contact fell out. Vision is certainly a key sense you want to have control of in a race like Hillsboro. It didn’t help that I knew the finishing circuit was all left turns. So, I made a mental note to blink very very carefully as not to lose the other contact and have to pull out of the race completely. I squinted and tried my best to simply hold my line and keep position.

We came into the stretch right before the last hill and I heard someone say, “This is where the fun begins!” About ten seconds later, with police trying to bottleneck everyone to the right side of the road, a rider on the left went down. I skirted around the carnage and ended up in about 20th position with two slower climbers in front of me and no way to get around them. There was a gap opening in front of them and it was getting larger. I decided to take a risky line and cut it narrowly close to the centerline cones and accelerated hard to make contact with the group before the descent.

The move worked and I was faced with my first tough left-hand turn, without clear vision in my left eye. I figured I would simply try and take the exact line as other racers and hope that they picked a good one. This idea worked, and I got onto the descent upright. I do not think that many of the racers grasped the fact that pedaling on a downhill section was an option. Before the very steep descent began, I noticed that everyone seemed to be coasting already. I decided this was a perfect opportunity to go ahead and move up six or seven spots.

After that little acceleration, it was time to hang my butt off the back of my seat and stay upright for the 40+ mph descent on a wet, bombed out, brick road. Everything went fine and I was able to follow another racer’s line taking the tight left onto the long brick section before the finishing straight. This was where I knew moving up in position was possible. With the centerline rule was no longer in effect, I darted up the left side of the road around the 15-20-rider group. To my surprise, someone else had the same mentality as me. Last years cat 4 winner, Jostein Alvestad, darted around me and continued to pull to the front of the pack. I passed Nick (putting in a superb effort off the front) who shouted words of encouragement while Alvestad pulled me all the way to the end of bricks.

Alvestad peeled off and I took the left-hander onto the finishing straight in first position. From warming up and a recon down to the course in December, I knew that this corner could be taken at speed. I got through the turn fine and started my sprint. So, with 500 meters to go, I had my first “duh” moment in the race. I was out of the saddle putting in a pretty hard effort and looked up to see the finish line almost a quarter-mile away. I had gone out way too early. I sat down, decided to lull a little to see if I could let someone else lead for the last 400 meters. Looking back, this was probably a mistake. Had I simply put in a full 500-meter effort, I might have been able to hold everyone off. Who knows? I ended up seeing a couple wheels on my right out of the corner of my eye starting to advance. By the time they had gotten in front, we had hit the 200m sign and I had to just dig deep. I put in a pretty ugly sprint and managed to roll through the line in second or third (couldn’t tell at the time).

I collapsed on my handlebars and was just glad I made it through Hillsboro unscathed. Adam was right behind me and put his arm around me saying I had done well and managed a podium spot. We rolled through the intersection before the climb and I pulled over to the side of the road. The ensuing round of high-fives and “nice jobs” was awesome. I had not had that feeling of team camaraderie before and it was great to be able to celebrate a podium finish with all the cat 3 guys.

Meanwhile, my mom and sister had come down to catch the last lap of the race. Both of them had not spotted me coming through town after the first lap or the second. My mom assumed the worst and my sister later told me that her recent Google Maps searches included “hospital”. Needless to say, my mom was a wreck. I rolled up to her and my sister with a beaming smile saying something along the lines of “I podiumed at Hillsboro!” My mom broke down mumbling the classic “I was worried about you” speech and I gave her and my sister a big hug, reassuring them I was okay. It was a pretty touching moment.

I don’t think I quit smiling the rest of the day. I ended up calling my dad, girlfriend, grandparents, and told them the same story. I walked away with a new pair of socks, $75 for a nice celebration dinner with my girlfriend that night, and a brick from Hillsboro. While it wasn’t a win, it felt pretty good. I cannot thank my teammates and family enough for supporting me. I’m looking forward to a successful season and hopefully an upgrade to cat 2 by the end. Until then, I’ll be out every weekend busting my butt to try and put an XXXer on the podium. Leland, you’re next.