The first year I went to Elite Track Nationals, it was purely for the experience, and never once did I consider results an important component to the trip. I entered the omnium (six events over two days, decathlon-style), as well as all the individual endurance events, and pretty well got destroyed in them all. This was 2010. I didn't even qualify for either the points or scratch race final. I was happy just to get some national-level races under my belt and see how far I still needed to go in both fitness and tactics.
2011 was a small improvement; I qualified for both the scratch and points race finals, where I took 11th in both. I also did the individual pursuit, and got 11th. Consistency, I guess. But saying definitively that I was the 11th-best endurance track racer in the country left a sour taste in my mouth, because I thought surely I was in the top 10.
They say the third time's a charm, so I ate a bunch of Mallow Oats (generic knockoff of Lucky Charms) in the weeks leading up to this year's race, just to be safe.
I came in with what could easily be considered lofty goals: Win a national championship by beating everyone in the points race, and get 2nd to Bobby Lea in the pursuit. A silver in that event, I said to several people, would be my equivalent of the gold medal, since Bobby is currently putting down times right around 4:30. No one but Taylor Phinney has gone faster in the last six years.
So there I was, Thursday morning, warming up for my first event, the pursuit qualifier. The top 4 move on to the finals, where 3rd place races 4th for the bronze medal and 1st goes against 2nd for the gold/silver. I wanted to qualify for the finals in the individual pursuit, but secretly wouldn't have been happy with 4th or 3rd. I wanted to know what it felt like to lose to an Olympian. I'd somehow convinced myself over the preceding couple months that this was a legitimate goal.
The pursuit is a straightforward event. Sixteen laps of the 250-meter track from a standing start, with one guy starting from each straightaway. Hence the name: you're chasing that other guy. Nothing to it but getting out of the gate, riding really fast and pacing oneself. The pacing ultimately comes down to sticking to a set schedule, and the schedule can be estimated by previous times over 4km, as well as known five-minute power. The previous month I had put down my personal best at Omnium Nationals in Rock Hill, SC, with a 4:46. I can easily shave a few seconds off that, I told myself.
That time in Rock Hill was good enough to make them seed me 4th in the qualifiers, which means nothing, really, except that I raced in the penultimate heat, and was able to see the times of everyone who went before me. The idea is that the people in charge roughly estimate who has the best chance of putting down the fastest times, based on previous national-level events, so that the times get progressively faster until the last guy, who's the previous year's national champ. The two guys to go after me were Bobby Lea, who would undoubtedly go faster than I, and Dan Holt, whom I beat by an insurmountable margin of 13 seconds at Rock Hill.
All I had to do was beat everyone who went before me, as well as Zack Noonan, the guy starting on the opposite straightaway in my heat. Noonan was one of the ten dudes who beat me last year.
When it's your turn to go, they place your bike into the starting gate, and once you climb onto it, the countdown begins. Fifty seconds to get inside your own head just a little bit more than you already have for the past few weeks or months or years. Not that many people showed up to spectate at 8am on a Thursday, but the whole place gets fairly quiet, and you're able to hear your own thoughts. Jobs are forgotten, girls no longer matter, and you can almost taste the pain you're about to inflict upon yourself. A metallic taste, like swallowing a pill.
The pursuit is straightforward, but that doesn't make it any less difficult to master. Every velodrome is different, so a 4:46 at one place may correspond to a 4:43 at another, because of wind conditions, humidity, whether the surface is wood vs. concrete, etc. The only constant from one effort to the next is how much power you're applying to the pedals.
Chris Hoy talked about how at the 2008 Olympics, he sat and watched all the guys go before him in the Kilo, and he saw guys set lightning-fast time after lightning-fast time. It didn't phase him. Not even when, if I recall correctly, Theo Bos put down a new Kilo world record. Hoy just kept going through his warm-up routine, thinking, Well OK, now I just have to go faster than that. Textbook confidence.
Fast, German, recently naturalized U.S citizen and all-around nice guy Stefan Rothe was in the heat previous to mine, so as I sat in the chair trackside waiting my turn to ride, I watched him put down a blistering 4:43. The new fastest time. Dave saw me watching the scoreboard and tried to divert my attention, tried to keep me focused on my ride, because he knew what time I was aiming for. But he didn't realize I needed to look at the scoreboard, needed to see Stefan's fast time, because this piece of information changed everything: I still knew I'd set the second-fastest time and get to race Bobby Lea in the finals, but in setting my own schedule at 4:43, I'd sold myself short. With my form, I now knew I could possibly go sub-4:40. Only question is: would Noonan do the same?
Once the race started, I knew I was flying. I was going one- to three-tenths of a second faster than my schedule every lap, and at one point even held back a bit for fear of blowing up and losing time at the end. Quick mental calculations done while on the absolute verge of complete body shutdown doesn't always yield calculator-accurate results, but I knew I was going as fast as I needed to in order to set the new fastest time. Every lap was so much faster than I'd anticipated. Dave was yelling splits for me, and I could sense his giddiness at how fast I was going. That was a really cool feeling, in a race that's normally as eerily solo as can be, to hear my teammate, the guy who's been perhaps the most instrumental in my budding cycling career, feeling the speed and feeding on the power. I quickly got Noonan in my sights. He was never in fear of being caught, but I knew I didn't have to worry about him beating me. The laps counted down, and I ended up saving way too much for the final couple laps. Whoops. I stopped the clock, now four kilometers after takeoff, and and saw the scoreboard read 4:40 and change. I had beaten Stefan and set the new fastest time.
Bobby would beat my time in the next heat, I knew, but I had gotten second place. I'd race an Olympian later that night in the gold medal final, lose to him, and win myself a silver medal.
But because just losing to an Olympian isn't quite cool enough on its own, I decided, with the help of Randy, to try to put a good scare into Lea. In the gold medal final, I went out on his schedule, set on both making him nervous when he realized after 1.5km that he was level with me, and also making sure to force him to race all 4km to earn his gold medal. I promised myself I would not get lapped.
Tom was calling splits, and also giving me a hand signal each lap to tell me whether I was up, down, or level with the olympian. For the first three laps, we were level. After the fourth lap, I was ahead. Ha! For a split-second, I told myself it was possible to beat him, to win gold. Then the split-second ended, and my legs laughed maniacally at my silly wishful thinking. We were level for a couple laps after that, but then my lap times plummeted, and the second half of the race hurt. In the final kilometer, with the race already well-decided (and not in my favor), I could sense Bobby was on the same straightaway, mere feet behind me. I was determined not to get lapped. I think I felt his breath on me during the final lap, when I just barely squeaked away from him as he crossed his finish line. A half-lap later and I crossed my finish, somehow putting down a 4:39 despite the fact that I felt like I'd never ridden a bike slower for the final 2km. New PR, and mission accomplished.
A silver medal in the first event of the weekend, only losing to a now-13-time elite national champion.
In other words: complete success.