Suffering Solo

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On Saturday, January 21, I will enter my first ever USA Cycling sanctioned road race – a time trial –  a baby step in the process of other road races in the future, but I am both nervous and anxious to try this.

A few days ago, I installed a set of clip-on time trial bars and went for a shakedown ride around the neighborhood, an allen wrench set in my pocket to make any adjustments.  The biggest adjustment came in just the first few pedal strokes when I dropped onto the arm pads.  With arms that narrow, my pretty stable bike was now a twitchy beast, weaving all over the road.  I must have looked like a drunk on a stolen bike. 

After several stops and adjustments, I rode about and found that there’s no way that I could stay in that position for a full TT.  The clip on bars seemed too long and too high – an odd combination and nothing I could to with allen keys was going to make that mo betta. 

After a little online research I tried again and followed the advice I found that agreed best with my intuition.  I had thought that I would have to move the saddle forward on its rails, tip the nose down a bit, flip my stem over and maybe remove the headset spacers.  I did all this and found relative comfort in the aero position.  My elbows were under my shoulders and I did not have to use as much muscle to hold myself up. 

To see the difference, I rolled the bike into the bathroom and kitted up so I could see if my back was reasonably flat and if I looked the part of a time trialist.  “Mirror-mirror on my bathroom wall, whose back’s flatter after all?”  Much to my happiness, my back was almost parallel to the top tube, my back as flat as a (slightly wavy) board.  The mirror shot back an image that showed that my long anatomy fit the profile of an honest to goodness time trial titan.  

This makes me wonder – did I waste too many years racing mountain bikes when I could have been at least a pretty aero time trialist with pretty good finishes.  Granted, a good looking position is just one very small part of excelling in the race against time, but I was a 400 meter runner in school and never lost a race – ever.  I would argue that the 400 is one of the hardest events in track and field.  To this day, I still hold the school record.  And it is hard – a sprint, really – that lasts just long enough to really hurt in those last hundred meters.  I knew then how to suffer for the cause –  indeed, I rather liked it. If in those halcyon high school days, long before mountain biking existed, there had been a So Cal High School Cycling League, would that ability have transferred to time trialing?  Would high school mountain bike racing been a gateway drug to crushing all-comers at my local TTs?

Arguably, mountain bike racing is something like a time trial.  The gun goes off and you simply go as hard as you can, as long as you can. Not much sitting in, grabbing wheels, strategy… or thinking.  You go, you suffer, you finish, you puke. You may be part of a team, but running track, racing off road and time trialing are all of a piece – it’s you versus them – a solo mission – a supremely individual, personal challenge to do your best.

I have always had immense respect for those Cancellaras and Martins who have the discipline and the capacity to suffer in that “race of truth.”  While those events don’t hold most spectators’ interest quite like a road race in the mountains or the sprint finishes of those Pro Tour missiles, the time trial has always captured my imagination and made me wonder… could I have caught a few of my minute men and stepped onto a TT podium or two?

However belatedly – we’ll find out in a few days.

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