The age of 23. Young, unbridled, unattached, low responsibility, near-peak athleticism. Social events to attend to, food and alcohol to consume, attractive people to pursue.
I made it to 2003 on the tail end of my marathon injury, ready to get into whatever the next events were. I had tasted bike racing, and I liked it. I had tasted trail racing, and I loved it. I had tasted triathloning, and I enjoyed it, but I mostly enjoyed it as the collaboration of running and biking.
Since I couldn’t run, I now decided to spend more time at the pool and learn how to swim at least a tad more efficiently. With the help of the lifeguard, I learned to use my arms almost correctly and actually kick rather than looking like I was always on the verge of drowning. The near-drowning look was so not in vogue.
It went well, to a certain extent. Pool junkies will stay there for hours on end, practicing their strokes and perfecting their form and ripping off 30- or 35-second laps. Their flip-turns are nuanced and smooth and exude understanding of their body position as they approach the wall. I could stay in the pool for maybe an hour before the smell and mild feeling of failure finally pressed me out. I couldn’t flip-turn worth a damn, and my lap times went from about a minute to just under 50 seconds -- surely a vast improvement, maybe good for 8 minutes in a half ironman, and nothing to write home about. But apparently something to write to you about, just so you know where you fall on the spectrum.
Now that my alligator legs were gone, it was time to start running again. One day I just decided my creaky old knee should be fine, and I set out on the standard route. Sure enough, the knee had repaired itself. I was free! My spirits lifted immediately, and my swimming exposure fell to its more natural place in the background.
In the interests of limiting my injury exposure risk, I also took up snowshoeing. There was ample snow on the ground -- especially on the old mountain bike trails and running trails -- and with even my standard running route somewhat difficult (there’s a golf course and a footbridge; snow, slush, and ice just built up there), I needed some other activity to feel like I was actually doing something, rather than bulking up in all the wrong ways.
Unfortunately, all that time off and the tentative restart to running took a toll on my prior athleticism. The months of winter passed, and by the end I knew distinctly that I was a shell of my former self. Sometime in March '04, I decided to schedule another triathlon, this one a summer half ironman down near DC where my brother lived. It was the Lake Anna Triathlon, quite a distance south of DC, but at the time I didn't know the lay of the Virginia land and figured it was close enough. This would be the year of cycling, though, where I would turn to riding competitively and round out my fitness.
Near the end of March the weather turned occasionally warm, and I rode the TT course on my own. It was wet with snowmelt, but the decent weather made for a serviceable ride. It was also earlier in the season than most years, so I raced only the descending darkness of early Spring.
The cycling season was fast approaching, and I found myself in solid velocipedestrian shape. It wasn’t the amazing peak shape I had been the previous year, but it was enough to consider racing. I had also officially joined the local racing team. And I had also officially written down a training plan leading up to my early-September “goal race” triathlon. Anticipation of the summer was building, and I giddily jumped in with two wheels.
First up: The GVCC Classic in Rochester, NY, at the beginning of April. This was one of my favorite race reports, so I’ve reproduced parts of it here, with analysis:
Cold. Bloody cold. Fingers, toes, arms, legs, all cold, even after warm-up. It couldn't have been more than 45 F; I was tired from driving up with Evan [name redacted] that morning, but the Cookies [the local team was called "Chris' Cookies" after the company in New York City that was founded by a former Ithaca cyclist] skin suit felt good. The field was obviously fairly large -- maybe 50 to start -- but all I knew was that it was cold. Stuffed in between riders at the mass start, tailing the pace car, the strategy was to avoid the wind only to keep my body warm. Approaching the first hill, we were together, then expanded to fill the length of it.
I remember this start. I remember that numbness. I don’t know how, but I remember that feeling all these years later.
A lot of people were attacking, but nobody realistically. We rolled up the last short rise and through the finish line once: "6 laps to go" -- 6 miles each. A break at each corner, more heat, no pain yet. Now drafting was only about efficiency, not temperature control, but the unpredictable wind could leave you cringing from its bite at any moment. Around the course, I chased a breaker, thought we might work, but he was just faking -- he didn't have the strength to go it alone except on the hills. And Lap 2 was in the bag.
This course isn’t that long, and I would do the race a couple other times over the years. These kinds of faux attacks are common in the cycling community, and as a newbie, I chased a lot of them. Such a rookie mistake. Since that's what the next couple paragraphs were about, I'll skip to the end:
Around to Lap 6, the pack was still cohesive, a single unit working against itself. Our pace was slow but consistent as we came up to the first small hill. I was near the back, but it was a clear shot to the front, and I couldn't let things go any longer. Another rider had been busting out on that hill all morning, and I wanted to be on his wheel, let him propel me over the back side for a burst. It was a sprint to get to him, but he broke right on time, and three of us were at the front. Around the next corner, finding little help with the others, the pack came up like a tidal wave, a dozen riders passing me in a swarm.
Late in the race is usually where it starts. So really this is more like the start of the race part of a bike race.
A rider from CNYC mentioned he wished the pack would break, and I smiled at him. "Why not now?" I said, and the sprint was on. All I could hear rounding the corner was my own heartbeat and the whirring of my wheels over the pavement. Halfway up, I hazarded a glance, saw the pack stringing out as my lungs wheezed their objection. Over the hill, pounding down like the approach to White Church [a local road renowned to community racers], up the second rise alone with nothing but wind and the Theme from Rocky ringing distantly (thanks to a spectator) in my ears. Through the rollers, the final major hill looked daunting, but there was no one on my wheel, no one within 100 meters. At the top, I looked again and saw the fracture in the main group: at least two packs had formed, maybe 15 to 20 riders in each, still riding without any clear direction. The front was mine as long as I could bear it.
Again, a rookie mistake: I was taking the lead. I consistently cracked riders in these early races, but rarely did I dust enough of the field to make an actual push at the win. On the other hand, I was used to having a really high heartrate and working myself into the depths of exhaustion for 20 minutes at a time, which meant I could break away, wreck many of the riders, sit at the front for a time, and rejoin the lead group with essentially no consequence. Which is what I did in this case.
Into the final lap, the speed had gone up and the spectators became a little more apparent. Up to the first hill, I stayed low and passed the front, then watched another rider hammer by on the down side. My approximation of the Twinkieboy Tuck [a tuck that's aggressively deep into the bike frame, named for a local racer who used it to significant benefit] kept me close, but he stayed in front around the bend, up to the big hill. Then he started to bonk, and I broke by, slowed down more than I hoped, and got taken by another two riders. We topped the rise like a rubber band, our positions inverting into the valley and inverting again as we ripped apart the next hill. We didn't worry about the pack again. Four of us, off the front, hammering through the final 3 miles.
It was a strange jockey for position, as one of our members was barely able to hang on. He was stuck to the back, it seemed, by sheer force of will; the other two -- the Masters leader and a Placid Planeteer -- set up a slight line, and we rotated through to pull away. Around the last corner, I was second from the outside of the lane, waiting for someone to make a break. The Masters rider shrugged, then went, cranking hard from the base of the hill. I tucked in behind, let him pull me 2/3 of the way, and blasted by. Now into the 200-meter flat stretch before the line, I knew that was the wrong thing to do. My legs were exhausted, and I looked to my right to see the Placid Planet blue. "I'm taking second," I said (possibly aloud), and the blue became a streak that didn't resolve itself into a cyclist until he crossed the line in front of me. Oh, and I took second.
So that was my first major bike race: finishing 2nd in a low-category, local race with probably 50-ish riders. I loved it! There was, of course, the danger of crashing, which is always present in these races, but I felt confident that such crashes were just a cost of doing business. So I let that roll off me.
A week later, we held our local race (Jersey Hill), and I finished 3rd. A week after that, it was Binghamton (poor showing, I’m sure -- the course is a criterium-style course that I never did well at, except when they added a hill climb a few years later; that was totally my bag).
Nobody bought that I should be a Cat 5 rider at that point, so I moved up to Cat 4 for another local race, Hollenbeck’s, the following week. It was an open secret that I wrote about in my race report. Looking back on those reports, I’m impressed at the number of repeat performers there were, people I knew only by their jerseys. These are people I called “Spokepost” or “Placid Planet” or “Multi-Laser”, only some of whose names I would fill in but for the time being were just other riders who showed up at races, put in their time, and disappeared into the wilderness (as far as I was concerned). Doubtless they felt the same about my Cervelo-riding ass. I sometimes imagine their race reports calling me "Cervelo Boy" or "Cookies Monster" or something.
I could find out, but that might spoil a little of my childhood.
Mash out. Spin on.