Welcome to Road Racing Redux

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The Santa Catalina Road Race – January 29, 2017

My first honest to goodness road race.  Not a time trial, not a criterium – a road race.

It was windy and 41 degrees in Oracle, AZ at the start line.  Later, along the course I would see little patches of snow resting in the shadows of roadside cacti.  Many riders wore jackets or vests obscuring their numbers and no one was without tights, full-finger gloves and other defenses against the cold.  Unlike the young guns, we older gents don’t need to display our disdain for the cold by showing up at the starting line in short sleeves and blue skin. My new Garneau short sleeve base layer, Craft long sleeve base layer, tights and semi-thermal arm warmers kept me “warm” but, no matter, it was not long into this race before I wasn’t thinking about the temperature or my comfort.  My mind and body were full of the feelings of being in a pack, in a road race – for the very first time.

In a group that moved along pretty briskly right from the start, my senses were all working overtime taking in the sensations of riding – No! – racing in a fast group.  The road was typical Southern Arizona fare, rough and undulating as befits tarmac that slaves in the foothills of the Catalina range and suffers the long summers of oppressive Sonoran Desert heat.  In places, sand and gravel, remnants of recent rain and runoff, narrowed the pavement providing another attention-grabbing element. 

My already jam-packed attention was further filled with surging, coasting, weaving, shifting, bobbing and bouncing riders.  My focus was on high alert, trying to choose and keep a wheel, on high alert like nothing I have ever experienced in mountain bike racing – ever.  No matter the size of the field in a mountain bike race, sprinting to be at the front when the course converges on singletrack was ever as fraught as road racing is to newbie me.  After a frantic start of 50 mountain bike racers, things settle down and a rider’s focus becomes the battle with the terrain – the bumps and jumps, the berms and ruts, the rocks and roots.  When riders pass, they practically ask permission.  And when you pass a rider in a mountain bike race, it is often the case that said passed rider will cheer you on with a heartfelt, “go, bro!” All very laid back – almost like childhood playmates on a playground.

Road racing – as I was quickly learning – is for grownups.

While the differences between racing disciplines are legion, one struck me as utterly bizarre.  On the numerous short climbs and descents of this first lap, we would crest hills all together and then coast – yes, coast – and often tap our brakes on descents to avoid that dreaded overlap or touch of wheels.  My mind could not wrap around it.  Braking on downward slopes?  Practically a cardinal sin on a mountain bike.  Years ago, under the tutelage of Neil Stewart, I had learned that unless the guys on point pull on the descents the riders in the draft will freewheel and may have to tap the brakes a bit to keep from touching wheels – or worse.   But seared into my mountain-bike-racer’s brain is that anytime the route bends down, you stand up, start grabbing gear after gear, and start relishing that free horsepower, those free watts of gravity, and build momentum for the climb to come.

Not so in the paradigm of the peloton. 

After three or four of these curious incidences of resisting the forces of nature, I could no longer abide my brethren-on-the-brakes and charged to the front to find some momentum for the hill on the horizon.  As I crested the climb and gravity slowed our collective pace, one rider – only one – moved by me and promptly sat up, heeled his bike left and made the U-turn that eluded my addled attention.  Perhaps I was visually impaired due to oxygen debt. Perhaps more accurately, the simple, single pylon and the frigid few roadside folks, and the none-too-demonstrative gendarme, were of little directional help to Me-of-the-small-focus.  The greater world was nary a part of my attention to wheel and rut, to speed and surge, to climb and descent, and made me – and most of the others – almost miss the turnabout.

The drop in speed and the wake-up call of course correction, brought to my attention the burn of thirst and being a little behind on the emptying of my brimming bottles, I drifted to the back of the group for a cooling draft of Cytomax.  We were already halfway through the first 27 mile lap and I felt good, I was “in the bunch” in my first road race and I was gaining confidence that I could stay with these boys until the bitter end.

As we started back towards the undulations and the finish of our first lap, I accelerated, rejoined the fray, latched onto a wheel at the back of the pack, shifted into a lower gear for the first of numerous climbs and BANG! My pedal dropped beneath my left foot, and my eyes dropped to see the chain drain off the ‘ring, crash into the rear wheel and deposit itself to the tarmac. 

My disbelief was immediate. Disillusionment came quick on its hobnail heels.

I picked up my broken chain and held it aloft, just as the support truck full of spare wheels happened upon me, still astraddle my stationary bike.  The driver pulled over, and the passenger loaded my broken bike and chain in the bed of the truck.  And I – against all that I knew was good and right – forced my body and broken spirit into the tiny cab. 

As I was driven back to the start/finish, my driver and passenger’s running commentary noted that all of the climbs towards home had blown the once cohesive group – my group – completely apart.  Riders, once a piece of a greater whole, were now suffering alone.  Some were lucky and soldiered on in groups of twos and threes.  And I was descending, on every ascent, further into despair as I realized – I could have stayed with many of these lads, laboring towards lap two.  I could have been a finisher in a group, a pair or triplet.  At least I could have soloed to the finish.  I could have finished my first road race and been listed as part of the points for the Omnium.  This mini-revelation was small solace to a late-bloomer racer, besmudged, hand and spirit. I would get the label of someone listed as merely a footnote. 

Merely listed as James Hart –  DNF. 

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