Road Racing: Beauty and Pain

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I was thankful that the start time for the second stage of the Tucson Bicycle Classic would be 7am; racing for 42 miles in the current heat wave would not have been a good time.  In an effort to cut the expense of racing this year, I had booked a stay at a cheap hotel near the University of Arizona.  The place was convenient to the freeways and therefore, the various stages of the event, but it came at a cost; the traffic noise was pretty high and the internet was non-existent.  So in order to download the data from the day’s previous time trial stage, I decided to get up a little earlier, find a Starbucks, coffee up and down load.  The only Starbucks I could find on the way to the race site was in a Safeway that opened at 5:30am.  That would be cutting it close.

But I found the store, ordered a coffee and downloaded my Garmin’s data and sprinted back to my waiting Eurovan Camper.  This left me with a bit over an hour to get to the race site, sign in and warm up.  Except that I took a wrong turn and drove the opposite direction of the start line for about 15 minutes.  As I realized my mistake, panic set in and I cursed my decision to download data, instead of getting ready for what would be a hard day of racing.  Showing up stressed out and panicky is not a good way to start a race.  RTFTG!  (Read-The-F-ing-Tech-Guide)

I made it, but I was too late to get my back up wheels in the support vehicle, so I scrambled about for sign in, water, Cliff Shots, sunscreen, CytoMax, and other things and made it to the start line after a ten minute warm up.  The Cat 5s were called up not long after I rolled up and without fanfare, we were off. It was a little strange to look about and not see gray hair and beards, but I was hopeful that these younger guys were a little more my fitness level and speed, if for no other reason than they were Category 5 racers, lowest men on the road race totem pole.  I had switched categories for this stage race after a few experiences with the Masters Men class.  I had chosen to ride previous events with the Masters’ class because I was told that these guys had years of pack-riding experience and it would be a safer bet than being out there with a bunch of squirrely, young, Cat 5s, all testosterone and youthful, neophyte enthusiasm. 

My second wave of panic set in immediately after the start whistle.  The guy who won the previous day’s time trial was off like this 42 mile race was a mere sprint. Speaking of youthful, testosterone-fueled enthusiasm! In my previous panic to get the line on time, I had forgotten my heart rate monitor chest strap, so I don’t know how far past redline my ticker was ticking, but I grabbed this sprinting beast’s wheel and hung on, determined to stay with the bunch today. 

Four minutes later, after four minutes of furious hammering, I was getting tailed off the pack.  I did not expect that we would go full gas right from the whistle.  That’s what mountain bikers do, trying to get to get to the front to avoid the inevitable bottleneck when the course morphs from forty feet wide to singletrack trail.  But this time trial whiz, (with hairy-damn-legs!) was on a tear and we weren’t a pack at all, just a single file, express train of fives.  And I was making like a clapped out caboose, unhitched and drifting off the back. Again. 

And so I churned along alone again, going as hard as I could, not knowing how much to save for the second lap of this course before me.  While I was shocked by the speed of the first few miles, I “enjoyed” the ride.  The desert morning was lovely, the wildflowers were in bloom, and my heart and legs and lungs were on fire, signaling that all was right in this cyclist’s world. 

Somewhere along the course of that first lap, I was passed by a woman racer going full gas.  I looked back and the rest of her group was nowhere in sight.  This woman was flying in a solo breakaway that left me awestruck.  The early morning light was perfect and it illuminated her athletic form so that I felt nothing but sheer joy, admiration, wonder.  There is nothing quite so intoxicating and beautiful as a strong woman speeding by and all aglisten in Sonoran desert sunrise light.  Nothing.  Please forget all that “getting passed by a girl” stuff.  Seeing this kind of athletic prowess and domination, cast in what my filmographer friend calls “the beauty light” is cause for admiration and awe. 

And nothing quite so wrenching as to see another young lass just yards from the finish, lying inert and bloodied.  There was a spectator kneeling next to her, holding her upturned hand, but the shattered sunglasses, the blood on her jersey and the ground around her reminded me of the harsh reality of road racing.  This is not a beautiful sport, yes – but it’s not a sport for the timid.

I finished in tenth place.  Twenty-three minutes behind the winner, eleven minutes behind the 9th place, dead last again.  But I am wiser for those 42 miles of panic, purpose, pain.  I witnessed the sublime beauty of a so-strong woman athlete.  I realized the supreme courage it takes to race these machines of speed and danger.  And I was humbled with the revelation that I may just be nudging up to my athletic limits.  All good, these lessons, this crash course of instruction in the harsh and beautiful world of bicycle road racing – for in the words of Einstein, “the only source of knowledge is experience. 

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