Mid-life crisis on a bike
[Note: This was written in "real time" in two sections, the first part three days before the race, and the second part a few hours afterward.]
How crazy can a 41-year-old bike shop owner get?
Part 1: Insane idea
Part 2: Race day!
Thursday, August 21, 1997. Nearly twenty years ago, August of 1978, your faithful webmaster took off a racing number for the very last time at the end of the Mount Hamilton Road Race. There wasn't anything all that special about it; Mount Hamilton was traditionally the final event of the season for me, since I was, after all, a die-hard road racer and the rest of the season was comprised of criteriums. Perhaps fun to watch, but I sure never enjoyed racing criteriums, even though, for awhile, I got pretty good at knowing where to be, and when. But that final Mount Hamilton race didn't exactly leave me wanting more, as I actually crashed going up the hill when my breathing rhythm got so terribly out of sync with my pedaling that I got literally sick (ok, if you want to be gross, I was dry-heaving). I did, however, finish the race, much to the amazement of my then-fiance (now wife/Borg Queen).
I really did enjoy racing, but it was impractical to continue at the level I was used to (Cat 1 & 2) because I had other responsibilities (school, job, etc) and there just wasn't time to adequately train for 120-mile races. As a junior, where races were typically 50 miles, you could train for maybe 1-2 hours/day and do very, very well. But to compete in Cat 1 senior races, where you're going to be on the bike for perhaps five hours at a time, requires a whole lot of miles as well as weight work (which I hated) for upper-body strength. And, while I absolutely loved to ride, racing was just part of that and I didn't really miss it all that much.
Now, twenty years later, nothing's really changed, other than that I own (along with my brother Steve) a pair of very successful bike stores, have two kids and a wife, and no time to do much of anything but work. I still ride every Tuesday & Thursday morning up King's Mountain Road, just like the old days. And I still love every second I'm on the saddle. There's just nothing like it, whether I'm alone or riding with others.
So, let's cut to the chase.
Sunday, August 24th, I expect to be very alone. Because, for the first time in 20 years, I'm entering a real, live, USCF-sanctioned road race. Well, twenty years ago I probably wouldn't have thought much of what I'm going to be riding...a Cat-5 35-mile road race over Corral Hollow and Patterson Pass, two of my favorites from the way-back days. Only I'm not even thinking about trying to keep up with anybody, but instead have already calculated how much behind I'll probably be, and being ever-so-thankful for the fact that it's a single 35-mile loop so I can't get lapped no matter what!
Of course, it's still possible (though not likely) that I'll talk myself out of this...I certainly don't have the speed to keep up with a fast pack, nor the miles needed to enable a quick recovery after each of the two major climbs. And the category could always hit its 50-rider limit as well, with me left wondering what it might have been like to be part of the peloton once more.
What will it be like? Will I have an advantage from having been there before, or will that simply make it all the more frustrating? In the worst case, I figure finishing about half an hour behind the leaders. Some have said that, in the worst case, I'd drop out. These people didn't know me when I raced...dropping out was not something I even considered. Another difference from before is that I now have as nice a bike as its possible to own (a TREK 5500), with a ride that won't pound me into the ground like my old racing bike (a Cinelli) used to.
And no, I won't be racing any kind of "masters" class. That would be suicide. Some of them are people I used to consistently clobber on the hills and have continued racing, sometimes managing to retire early, and now have nothing better to do with their time than train for races. These people, nice as they are, would love to ride me into the ground (and, perhaps, deservedly so!). So, instead, I will ride Cat 5, with people who have virtually no prior racing experience at all, but probably full of the enthusiasm and energy that comes from being young, stupid, and having no future. I still remember what that was like. I miss it. Perhaps I can vicariously relive the experience. If only I can keep them in my sight as we approach that first hill!
Sunday, August 24th...race day!
First, I should mention that Saturday night I was just a little bit keyed-up. I mean, hey, 20 years since my last race...what's it going to be like? So, do I get to sleep at a reasonable hour, like I should? No way! I finally got to bed around 12:40 or thereabouts.
Is it fun getting up at 5:28am for a bike race? Is it fun getting up at 5:28am for anything? Heck no, it's not even fun setting the alarm clock to such a ridiculous hour the night before! Now that part I remember about bike racing. But what I didn't have before was a wife whom, when asked at 5:29am if I could turn on the hall light so I could find something, responded "No, I'll kill you if you do!"
So, I try to get my act together, drive off to pick up Maria, one of our Redwood City store employees, who also races, and off we go. But first, of course, a stop at the Foster City McDonalds for our pre-race power breakfast (breakfast burritos for her, pancakes for me).
Upon our arrival at the race, I find that, alas, there will be no problem with getting a one-day race license...costs a whopping $3. I also discover that I have no options regarding which group I can ride with...the one-day license is good only for Men's Cat-5 or Women's Cat-4. The choice was easy; the women smelled much better. Just kidding. As it turned out, my prior assessment was correct- the Masters-class riders are very fast and efficient compared to Cat-5, so the fact that I was "locked into" Cat-5 was a good thing.
It didn't take too long to get registered and all, and I took a pretty decent warm-up ride...about six miles or so (which is probably five miles more than I used to do). Any concerns about starting-line nervousness were misplaced; whether this was due to things running about half an hour late (confirming that this is the same VeloPromo of 20+ years ago...) or the fact that I didn't have any expectations for this race is tough to say. Or perhaps it was just the wisdom and patience that comes as one gets older?
We had a small pack...about 18 riders total, I believe...two of them juniors, since that was the entire junior field for the day. That was kinda sad...when I last raced, a typical junior field was about 40 riders! This doesn't bode well for the future of bike racing...
The race begins with a gradual descent & tailwind, and the pack rolled out fairly easily. You shortly hit the flat section on the "bottom" of the course, and the pace quickly picked up. I was quite surprised at how easily I was able to ride in a pack again...moving freely between the front and back as I chose (later, one rider suggested that Cat-5 riders have so little clue as to how the game is played that, if you sounded authoritative enough, you could probably command another rider to go ride in a ditch and they would!).
I should also add that the CHP was in force at nearly every intersection to control traffic, and they did an absolutely wonderful job and truly seemed enthusiastic about being out there. It should be obvious to all that this is the type of behavior we really need to support!
But back to the race. About five miles into it, we're doing a fairly good clip (about 26 miles per hour or so) and come across the only unmarked, unmanned intersection...and about half the pack goes the wrong way, including me. Fortunately, I could see ahead and realize that there was some question about which way to go, and the best place to be in such a situation is right in the middle. This strategy works well since if you're going the right way, fine, you're still right up there, and if you're going the wrong way, you might realize it considerably sooner than those at the front and can get back to the main group much more quickly. Unfortunately, another rider from our Redwood City store, Jim Taylor, got a bit too far up the road before realizing his error, and he never got back to the main pack.
Now, in a "real" race, this is exactly the opportunity people are looking for to hammer at the front and lose some riders. But hey, this is Cat-5...wouldn't happen here, would it? You better believe it! A pack that doesn't understand how to set up a double pace line somehow does sense blood and takes off very quickly. Those behind just couldn't get back to the pack. A quick look around tells me that Jim's not with us anymore, but hey, I'm getting into this, and what's ahead is always more important in a race than what's behind. I'm noting riders' shifting patterns, how their heads move just before they try and launch an attack, all those things I learned from too many criteriums in the way-back days.
[Note- I quickly remember why I enjoyed (and enjoy again) road racing. It's the roads, the scenery, just being out there on a bike. It's not like a criterium, where you go around and around on the same circuit, seeing the same things, thinking mainly about how to avoid overlapping somebody's wheel and crashing. Road races give you a chance to enjoy the surroundings and even talk to people about them. Example: At one point, we were cruising through an area heavily populated by cattle, and it smelled that way. So I mention "Is that the stench of fear in the Peloton, or is it those cows over there?" Actually, this can be a pretty good tactic...if you can make people laugh, you mess up their rhythm. This is especially effective when climbing hills...you can literally knock them off their bikes with a good joke!]
Now the bottom flat section is behind us and we're heading into the hills...and a nasty headwind. At this point we're beginning to really hammer, and I'm feeling it. 20 years away from any kind of fast pack (OK, yeah, it's Cat-5, but hey, I hadn't been riding with anyone in close proximity over 18 miles per hour in 20 years...to me, this WAS a fast pack!) and I'm beginning to work pretty hard, maintaining my position, but no longer freely moving about as I find that the pack's rhythm just isn't my own. Like I said, I'm feeling it, and this is just the steady uphill part, not the climb. But I'm still there, and pretty happy about that. By this point, I had figured I'd have been dropped long ago!
But as we hit the first major climb, I can no longer hang in there. A certain irony in this, since climbing is my strong point, but in my normal riding I "set up" my climbs with the approach, in order to optimize my climbing time. If I'm going to race in the future, it's clear that I need to change things and really hammer before the climb and then use whatever's left for the climb itself.
So, in the now-hot sun, in terrain barren of trees or any other type of cover, I get to watch the pack splinter and ride off in front of me. From this point on it was pretty much a solo effort. I caught up with one rider from our group (one of the juniors, Sergei, who is also a Redwood City Chain Reaction employee...if you're counting, we're up to four now- myself, Maria Sjoberg, Jim Taylor and Sergei Badeka), but didn't recover enough to catch up with whatever was left of the main group.
Towards the end of the race there's one killer descent that's an absolute blast...high-speed (45-50 miles per hour), good road surface...just plain fun! It was here that I caught up with Sergei, who had been riding very strongly when I'd been with him, and I was concerned that something had gone really wrong. I flew past at high speed, asking why he wasn't with the front group. He said that the downhills were killing him...I've ridden with him before, and nobody's taught him how to handle a bike on a descent. Strong as a lion, but missing one of the most important basics. I continued on for a short distance and then realized, hey, this kid needs help, and he's not going to get any better if all he gets to do is watch people fly past him. And it's not like I'm in the running for anything here...so I put on the brakes, wait a bit for him (a longer bit than you might think) and spend some time with him on the descent. His problem was really pretty simple...he was braking hard through the turns. Nobody had ever explained to him that you need to brake before the turn, and then either coast or pedal through it. If you brake through the turn, your bike tends to straighten out its line, which runs counter to what you're trying to do. Very disconcerting if you don't realize what's going on. Hopefully, a few words of advice and encouragement for an older, non-intimidating Cat-5 rider will help him on his way. He's already outrageously strong and tenacious, and with a little bit of help along the way, he's going to go far.
At the finish line, I was about 10 minutes behind the leaders. Sure, it would have been nice not to have gotten dropped on that first nasty climb, and I actually would have felt better about myself if I'd had to drag myself across the line with my last ounce of effort, instead of feeling pretty darned good. But I think some of that was just from the sensational descent prior to the finish...you just couldn't help but have a great time on that part.
And no, this won't be my last race. I had too good a time, and things just felt so good in the pack. I liked that feeling. I want more of it. It won't happen again this year...just a bunch of criteriums and such left for the season. But next year...there are a few road races that I just won't be able to resist. In the meantime, there's my Tuesday & Thursday morning rides up King's Mountain, and Sunday rides with the kids on my tandem, pulling the trail-a-bike behind. And maybe someday I'll be able to spend some time on a mountain bike again.
Because being on a bike is one of the most enjoyable things in my life.
August 25th addendum: I found out on the phone today I finished 9th in my race. A top-10 finish! And I swear to you that hearing I'd finished 9th, in a small field of Cat-5 riders, felt more exciting than just about any of my top-5 placings in Cat 1-2 fields so many years ago.
Above is a map of the actual race course. To the left is the city of Livermore, and off the right is Tracy. The race began and ended in Midway, near the top-center of the map.
If you want to read about what I did one year later as a crazy 42-year-old... Or two years later as a crazy 43-year-old...