Photo: Tony Allen-Mills

Photo: Tony Allen-Mills
The Charge: First Race, First Climb

Monday, April 25, 2011

Black Hills Circuit Race: Now I Know

An overdue retrospective on the Black Hills Circuit Race, held March 19.  I tend to go on in these things.  For those who desire brevity, the summary of the summary would read: took epic pull lap one, blew up spactacularly.

Parameters: 12-mile, 8 lap affair (yeah, cat5s are fragile creatures), featuring a rolling profile with one reasonably sharp 200 meter-long climb each lap, with a finish near the top.  The climb was a bit underbilled in discussions leading up to the race, although its effect in the cat5 race was entirely predictable -- bloody carnage.

I was unprepared.  For warm up, I figured if I wheeled around the parking lot a few times that ought to about do it.  When later I saw my higher-cat teammates spinning trainers, sweat dripping from chins, I concluded that maybe my approach was inadequate.  On the bright side, it afforded me the opportunity to line up early, second row.

I had no plan.  Planning is hard when you have no idea where you fit -- it was the first race of the year for most, the first ever for me.  My strategy, such as it was, involved a vague idea about riding in the middle of the field and moving up with a couple laps left.  The hill seemed like no big whoop based on its elevation profile and my brief pre-race eyeballing, and I wasn't concerned.  But when it comes to endurance aerobic activity, a foolish confidence often is worse than none at all.

The whistle blew.  I clipped quickly and jumped to the proximity of the front.  So much for the plan.  Let us now take the time to describe that first lap in some detail, for we will have little to discuss thereafter.  The ascent began almost immediately after the start.  I spun up it effortlessly -- looking back at my power file, I see it was not, but at the time my understanding of reality must have been overwhelmed by the surge of dopamine and adrenaline that washed through my body.  The pack slowed momentarily to negotiate the turn atop the hill, then it was a brisk shot along the back end of the course, over a few small rises, around a turn or two, one bigger hump with another turn, until within a couple minutes we cleared the final roller and charged around the arc onto the straightaway that fronts the parking lot and start line.

Here the race went to hell.  I recall the episode vividly still.  I was riding in fourth slot at the single-file point of the spear.  A slight downward gradient fell out of the wide turn into the straight.  I felt strong.  The pace seemed rather complacent.  I had to warm the brakes to stay off the wheel before me.  But I didn't want to grind brake.  I wanted to charge.  So I pulled your basic roller derby slingshot move coming out of the arc, hit the gas, and leapt around.  Not a sprint, just a solid push into the wind at about 30-32mph or so.  Don't ask: I have no idea what I thought I was going to accomplish.  Drop the field?  I think not.  Nor was that my intention.  The problem is I really had nothing tactical going on in the move, period.  I just wanted to go faster, to taste the air in front for a while.  It was as if I had forgotten I was in a race and not just jousting in a group ride along MacArthur.  Anyway, inevitably, the others jumped into my slipstream.  And so it was that I pulled the field the length of the straightaway, past the start line, and halfway up that maddening little climb.  I was having a ball.  "This is what racing's all about," I chortled.  It was delirium speaking.  As the road turned upward again, I began to dial up the wattage.  Only, rather suddenly actually, I discovered that my legs had turned to clay.  I couldn't push the climb any harder, and that was less hard than my more patient peers.  They swamped me like a slowly rising tide, and I dropped back and back and ultimately out.  Aw, crap.

But my folly did not end.  At this point, I should have cashed every last ounce of mitochondrial fiber to hitch onto the back of the field and then eek a recovery out of the easier side of the course.  Instead, I let them go.  Bye, bye.  I wasn't really thinking at all, to tell the truth.  Somehow, somewhere in that short period when my thumb was pressing the turbo button, not only did my quads fill up with Tabasco sauce, but I lost my mind as well.  My psyche did a significant blue-shift; what had been an acute, Whippet-twitchy eagerness to charge off the front was smothered in a fog of laissez faire complacency.  The stupor began to pass once I crested the hill.  By then, the field had vanished and could not be regained.  I was left to time trial as hard as I could in a cone of silence for the remainder.  I caught and passed a small handful of later dropees, and was passed from behind by one other, but it was not what one might call a successful day at the races.

After my ignominious finish, I stood as a spectator and watched riders from other categories effortlessly streak along the course and smash up the hill, and I began to understand what I had gotten myself into.  Bike racing is really hard.  Now I know.

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