It was this past Sunday in Utica, IL. The ABR National Championship 4 Man Team Time Trial event. We waited at the line, joking casually. I wasn't nervous, but there had been a little voice in my head all week saying, "you know, you have never ridden this distance at full speed before." I chose to ignore it, because I had been faced with unexpected and daunting adversity many times this year and persevered, and I believed this would be no different. In one way I was right, and in the other I had no I idea what I was in for in about five minutes.
We'd agreed during our 5am team practices in the week before that Leonard and I would lead the team out from the line. Jonathan and Peter were so much stronger that in order to set a pace that all of us could ride at, the two of us would establish the opening tempo. I took a few deep breaths as the race marshal gave us two minutes, one minute, 30 seconds, 10, and then counted down from five.
We were rolling. All the talk, all the training, all the planning, it had finally come together in my last race of the season. And in about a mile, it was all falling apart.
We were trying to maintain our discussed baseline speed of 25mph but no sooner than we had passed our 2 minute men less than a couple miles into the race, I was already wheezing like Jackie Gleason on his ventilator. My breathing was terrible, my spin and economy were wasteful, I was cracking like a first-time club rider. I was missing the wheel after my pulls, couldn't accelerate, and was already going anaerobic. I was in full panic.
We continued east on the first stretch and I would just pull through and off, practically pushing whoever had just pulled before me backwards as I came off. Peter sheltered me from the wind as I rode to his right. Jon shouted for me to stay on his wheel. Leonard gave encouragement as I came of the front. And then we turned into the wind.
There was no way I was going to make it.
I was getting gapped each time I tried to get back on the line. Peter came by once and said, "Dont feel bad, man. It happens. You're doing your best." But our speed was slowing and I could sense everyone else's frustration with me as I thought, G*dd***it. All this training, all this excitement, and I'm going to go home the goat. Dropped before we even got moving.
Gapped again and a whooshing gust of wind past my ears. "Go!" I shouted. "Go on, leave me!"
But I kept pedaling, embarrassed, and hoping against the inevitable odds of biology I could pull my stuff together. And the team ahead refused to let me falter.
"No!" Jon shouted. "Get your a** on my wheel!"
I focused on belly breathing, gave it the gas, and willed myself back up to the group. I was on again, amazingly, and Jon began barking out orders. "Three man rotation guys. Brian, stay at the back and recover." And my teammates brought me back.
After about 3 or 4 rotations, my heart rate finally came down below 165 and when Peter asked me how I was doing, I was able to respond in a steady voice that I was doing good. I focused on my breathing - deep breaths of water from the pit of my belly and rising up to my chest. And then: "Phhew!" and inhaling again. But then Leonard came to the fore, and I heard him say he wasn't going to last. He pulled long, and there was a miscommunication between him and Jon that was a close call, but everyone stayed upright, and then he was gone.
"Leonard's off!" Jon said. And whatever had happened with Leonard must have been bad, because he had sat up and was coasting, his silhouette growing smaller behind us. And then it was galvanized like iron in my brain. "No more screwing off, no more mental lapses, Brian. These guys are depending on you. Ride smart. Let's go."
And 40 minutes later I found ourselves cruising at 27mph, working hard, but certainly not the panting mess I was before at a much slower speed. Once I missed a turn after pulling us to the corner, I was so focused on deep breathing. I nearly flipped over my handlebars trying to get the bike around as Jon screamed, "Left! Left!"
"Sorry, guys, I'm a moron." Peter just laughed and said, "your other left!"
We really had a groove on from then to the end. With the wind at our backs we were hitting 30+, and even with the cross winds we maintained a steady 26-27mph pace. It wasn't without cost however. The last five miles of race I wanted to quit with every pedal stroke. I thought I felt blisters forming on my feet. And any minute my calves were going to seize up in protest. But Jon drove us on, shouting out the miles we had left to go, and I felt my will growing stronger as he called the numbers off. At one mile to go, I smiled through the agony at how everything had turned out.
I saw the finish line and stopped focusing on my breathing and literally tried to rip my crank arms off with the last fumes I had in the tank. And it was over. A 7th place finish, averaging just under 25mph. Timeless. I could've been out for 90 minutes or 90 seconds. I ecstatic and let out a whoop. We'd looked over the edge of failure, regained my balance on it's precipice, and hawked a giant loogie into it's chasm before walking away. I'd made it to the end - a place I wouldn't have found myself going alone, or with teammates who put themselves first.
And I've made it to the end of my first season. I haven't accomplished much by many standards, but by mine own, I have reached heights of success I would never have imagined I'd ever attain in this sport. Having looked pain and failure in the eye - sometimes it got the better of me, other times it didn't - and coming out on the other side wanting to do it all over again is all I could have ever asked for.