Stooped over the chain, Troy wondered what he should do. The first warm-up lap around the course included a volleyball court serving as one of the obstacles; the sandpit. He rode it, and immediately heard the wheez and grind of sand in the drivetrain. "Should I clean it off before the race?" he muttered to himself. I plan to run that section, so it will stay relatively clean and probably shift better and preserve the chain he thought.There was time for more practice before the start, but since this was only his fourth cyclocross race, he had yet to formulate a regular strategy for this important pre-race time. The main concern had passed, pinning the number on his jersey. Arriving with time to spare, he pinned the number with calm, relaxed hands, not the trembling, nervous, and hurried hands, of the previous races. You're overanalyzing again, he chastised his over-active mental processes and continued changing from his "street" clothing to warm up gear, layers and layers of synthetic fabric. The weather was pleasant for a mid autumn day in New England. The air was crisp and dry with the smell of decaying leaves heavy in the air. Overlooking the course, winding its way between colored tape snapping and fluttering in the breeze, he could hear the race announcer heralding the start of the "C" men's race, the beginner class Troy was a part of. "Twenty minutes to the start. This is the time to get those last warm-up laps and gear changes made," the announcer's voice boomed over the PA system, spreading its energy over the a few competitors pedaling their way across the soccer field on their way to warm muscles. Troy followed the course with his eyes, noticing the conversion of erstwhile common park accoutrements into a place to race bicycles. The tennis courts the course bordered, then the sand, followed by a turn through a soccer field, then up into the woods and back out into a small park area complete with picnic tables, then following another dirt road back to the pavement of the start finish area. It was imaginative and complete. The pleasant weather indicated it would be a fast dry course, something Troy looked forward to after his previous two experiences with muddy, slushy, and technically challenging courses. Mountain biking's not my gig; this will be much easier for me. Carefully mounting his "free" bike (Troy had yet to master the elegant and efficient leap onto the saddle so many Cyclocross racers were so adept at) he pedaled onto the course for one more warm-up lap. Slowly entering the first paved section, he galloped through the gears in the grass and gravel leading to the first short steep run-up.
Unclip left foot, rest arch of foot on pedal jammed into crank, hands on bar tops, unclip right foot, swing right leg over saddle to left side of bike, step right leg between down tube and left leg, hit the ground running, grab bike by down tube, pull up onto right shoulder, wrap right arm around head tube, grasp left brake hood, climb hill, drop bike – gently, a few quick steps, remount bike (not leap…yet), clip in, start pedaling.Troy ran through the steps as he did them, knowing he still had many hours of training and practice to make it an unconscious effort, a secondary operation of the nervous system akin to breathing.
Riding easily along the grassy field leading up to the long run-up, Troy was not impressed. The organizer said it was 40 meters. That's more like 30 yards. It certainly didn't look easy, but he'd learned to expect the worst of the courses, that way, they could only be better than expected. It was hard. Walking up the hill with his 27 pound "Gimme" on his back as a warm up certainly did it. The organizers made it tougher by placing a barrier at the bottom of the hill, preventing the riders from carrying any momentum partway up the slope. Up an over, back on the bike, and some tight, slippery, leaf covered corners with a downhill to recover (if you can call it recovery). Off-camber, down, and side hill, what's the best line, stay on the hill to enter the flat farther along or beeline it down carrying more speed into the flat section. He wasn't sure about that one. The race will dictate my line. After all, I'm still learning. One set of barriers later and a fast downhill "S" turn, best to take this one wide and keep my momentum, then onto a flat gravel and dirt road before the entry back to the pavement. Ah, home at last. This is where I'll make some hay! Troy was a road rider. He did not dislike mountain biking, he was not familiar with it. He decided to stick with road for the foreseeable future. In fact, 'cross had piqued his interest in mountain bike racing, of the cross-country variety, but that will have to wait 'til 2004 .Stopped at the van to change clothing, Troy heard the announcer continuing his countdown to the start of the race. It felt unseasonably warm when the sun shone on him. He could feel the sweat from the warm up lap combined with the sweat from his nerves as he dithered with what to wear. He'd forgotten his arm warmers in the haste to get out the door the previous evening, discovering this as he frantically searched for them amid the mass of clothing brought to each race. I really need a better system to organize my stuff, to reduce the mental energy necessary looking through all these clothes. Inevitably, extra clothing gets in the way, but like his tool box, the day that it is left at home will be the day it is needed. He decided to head to the starting line, always a nagging doubt that the clothing selection was wrong, but otherwise ready to go. The start is important, sometimes meaning the difference between a win and a loss. Getting mired in the pack before the heavy stuff makes for more work later. Arriving at the start area, he was chagrined to see that most of the field was already there. Not to be rude, and unsure of his abilities, he went around to the back of the starting field. It is more efficient to start at the front and maybe filter back later. Oh well, I'll just work my up slowly and see what happens. Troy chatted amiably with his fellow racers, wondering when the start would come. This is the part he disliked the most, the moments before the start, those few minutes of thought, of cooling muscles and heated anticipation. How will I start? Will I clip in smoothly? What about that first corner on pavement with people I'll be trying to pass? Damn it! I need to get to the front. I wish the official would quit talking and let us get going.
The unexpected whistle sent the field away with a symphony of metallic clicks, whirrs, and sizzles as cleats engaged pedals, gears shifted, and rubber hummed on pavement. The mind is a strange and wondrous thing, allowing supreme focus, and intense concentration. The whistle sent Troy's mind into race mode, as the adrenalin pumped into his bloodstream and his legs warmed and churned through the first turns of the course. The mass of fifty riders picked their way carefully through the first turns, unsure of their skills and ever fearful of an immediate crash. Running the sand. Just as fast and will save my chain. Back on the bike and headed into a flat section of relatively smooth field leading to that terror of a run up. He made it up quickly enough, finding himself gaining on the leaders with every pedal stroke, eager to get to where he was supposed to be. Take the quick, steep line on this downhill/sidehill to get the better line into the next corner. A few more barriers, then the nice gravel road leading back to the pavement, the smooth section on which he felt most at home.
Finishing the first lap, he found himself among the leaders, a group of six. I recognize some of these guys from the Tuesday night 'cross ride. These are the same fellows that only a few weeks earlier were giving him basic instructions on how to dismount. He thought these guys were so experienced and advanced, but he was here riding with them. Pretty cool. Soon, the pace started to thin the group. No one seemed to raise the pace of the pack, no one attacked, leaping out of the saddle in a classic cycling move to sprint ahead of the other riders, only the steady grind started driving riders off the back of the group.
Once more up the long run up and the effort was recognizably more difficult, the leaden feeling in his legs, that physiological phenomenon of lactic acid buildup, began to grow. He didn't notice the spectators standing on the hill, ringing bells and calling out encouragement. Sounds were muffled and incoherent, drowned by the pounding of blood in arteries, arteries not carrying enough oxygen to the brain. He felt as if he were plodding through wet sand, each step draining his energy.
The start of the "Bell Lap", the final lap in a Cyclocross race, and Troy found that he was alone with one man ahead of him. He shamelessly sucked the leader's wheel on the pavement, conserving as much energy as possible. I'll save as much energy as possible in this little stretch, before we get back onto the grass
Troy did not notice the people shouting encouragement from the pit, "You have twenty seconds!" What? He did not notice the line he took through the banked U-turn, he did not notice the sun peeking from behind the clouds and the breeze picking up. Passing through the sand, Troy found that the leader increased the pace, or am I getting tired? This is the time when decisions are made, when an already oxygen deprived brain tries to process inputs. If I try to stay with him, I might blow up. If I just maintain my pace, I can make up some time on the smoother sections toward the end. If I blow hard, I may lose all the spaces. I should be cautious. That is the voice of inexperience.
Entering the last downhill turns before the smoother roads, Troy felt ready to try and turn on what power he had left. He flew through the last dirt corner, entered the road, and immediately took chase up the small incline. He stood on the pedals all the way up, shifting as he went to push the hardest gear his legs would allow. He could see the gap narrowing…he was gaining, slowly reeling him in, seeing a win within his grasp. Then, he lessened the pushing, suddenly, the will to win was squelched by the will to end the pain, to settle for second place, to allow the weakened mind to listen to the sickened body and stop the effort. Even as he continued to chase, narrowing the gap with each pedal stroke, he was settling for second place. One last look over his shoulder, then a drop of the head, he coasted across the line two seconds behind the leader. Spinning easily in circles, his breathing returned to normal, his body started recovering from the effort. He watched other competitors trickle through the finish area.
Cruising back to the van to remove his sweat soaked clothing and drink a well earned water bottle, Troy deconstructed the event. I could have pushed harder; I could have maintained contact with him. He was learning his new limits, he was learning a new sport, and he was beginning to see that his body had talents that he never imagined, nor thought he would pursue. The limits of his mind were expanding from where they had been only an hour before, when he only entered these races to compete and finish; now he wanted to win. There was work to do for next week.
Wayne is a dedicated cyclist, car free, enthusiastic about both the environmental and competitive aspects of cycling.
In addition to working at Harris Cyclery, he also races road and cyclocross.
He is a coach for Team in Training .
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