When Cycling gets Personal
It got personal three years ago when I was lying down on the ground, the chainring having done a number on my leg and blood from a cut to my left eye blurred my vision. It got personal when I repeatedly yelled out,
“I don’t need this!”
as a fellow racer stopped to comfort me when I was angry and in pain. It also got personal when I was in the hospital, and I questioned whether or not I was going to continue cycling for that brief second, because at one point, I hated it so much for what it had done to me.
That was the memory that had lingered.
Cycling has always been personal. It’s given me life, adventure and health. It’s given me friends and a unique perspective that no other activity (aside from Yoga) can give you. It’s a part of who I am and what I’m about. There’s a spiritual side as well as a ferocity. It’s an expression of quiet and Zen as much as power, violent side to side and forward movements at speed, augmented by mechanical advantage, two wheels and a frame.
The clubs rides for the past year had been a dress rehearsal for this race – The Killington Stage Race. It was here where I had to confront the memory that caused me to be immobile for 45 days in the best riding days of the summer of 2012. And I had to do it alone without my teammates physically being there. It wasn’t easy.
Stage 1 – 37 miles total, 2 laps, total ascent 1,847ft
I was nervous that day because the weather conditions weren’t ideal. I don’t race well in the cold as it takes a long time for my muscles to warm up. And the wind didn’t do anyone any favors. It was at the freezing point when I woke up and it went to 40F just as the race started. I distinguished myself with DeFeet’s yellow fluorescent arm warmers and sported knee warmers just like everyone else. Full-fingered gloves were worn by everyone. Talking about the weather conditions only meant that this stage wasn’t my best. It was actually a near repeat of my last race in 2011. Just as the peloton hit the first KOM (King of the Mountains sprint line), the pace went higher and I was spat out the back. It caught me off guard and I could have caught up, if I only found my legs. Shifting to a higher gear was too late. I was done even before it started. A bit deflated, but the silver lining was that I wouldn’t be racing with everyone else increasing the chance of crashing. But that’s the price you pay for being out of contention. That’s the price you pay for being slow and fatigued from being “on” for the past month in my professional life.
But I was there.
I lost almost 10 minutes in the first stage. But I didn’t crash, so it was a personal victory. I survived and that was all I cared about.
Stage 2 – 61 miles, total ascent: 5,115ft
I was looking forward to this stage because it had more climbing. The last 11 miles were all about that. The first half was all about descending about 30 to 40 mph and surviving the dirt roads. They were nothing compared to the Tour of the Battenkill. Many of the riders slowed in those sections. Those having done the Battenkill plowed on. After the first KOM, a somewhat long climb, I was losing contact with the lead group, as did the race leader. Mike and I hung together and he dragged me across the flats and descents as much as I paced him up some of the hardest climbs of the day. We met up with a couple of other riders, obviously suffering from the day’s efforts. But somewhere along the way, I lost him. He either went ahead of me or fell back. I couldn’t remember.
The headwind picked up en route to Skyeship Base, the bottom of the climb. Four of us worked well together to motor on, taking turns at the front. I poured on some power to bridge a gap to some other riders only to be called back to tempo to save our energies. Then we hit East Mountain Road and it started.
Within a few hundred metres, I dropped my fellow riders and found myself riding alone. There it is again – am I a mountain goat or a rouleur in the grupetto? I’m in no-man’s land again. The only company I had was my breathing, so I plodded along and kept just below anaerobic (or mid threshold) up the 10%+ grades. I passed a few people who were breathing as heavy as I was. There’s actual fun in suffering and suffering together. I passed another KOM flag and I wondered who won it. I knew if I forced it more, I’d be in oxygen debt. There was some respite on a short downhill section but that only led up to the finish which was just as difficult as the access road. K1, they called it.
The only time I felt my lungs were going to burst was in the last 500 metres where I gave it my all. Cadence went up as did my breathing. When I crossed the finish line, I had achieved another personal victory. On top of that, I finished in the middle of the field, moving up several places on the General Classification. I was proud. I was relieved.
Stage 3 – 10.1 miles, Individual Time Trial, total ascent: 440ft
I had brought my aerodynamic equipment – helmet and clip-on bars, but I decided not to use them since I wasn’t in contention to begin with, and I wanted to test out how I’d do by Merckxing it. Well, it didn’t go so well even though I finished. I took a look at the starting roster, those before me and those after me. I predicted I’d get passed by one person but also that I’d catch up to another.
The great thing about this race was that they provided trainers to warm up before the time trial. I did so 25 minutes before my start time to calm the nerves. Then the girl staged me.
“You got me?” I asked.
“I sure do,” she replied, with her two hands grasping my saddle.
I went an instant 24mph off the line then slowed my pace, breathing already heavy. I kept just below anaerobic – a sustainable effort.
I did as predicted. On the uphill, I passed my 30 second man, only to get passed by him about a minute later once the road became more flat. He had the aero advantage. And I got passed by another racer behind me who was clearly stronger, aero gear and bike and all.
Before I knew it the race was done and I had crossed the finish line. I felt like I could have given more. It was as if I treated this as a longer time trial. I hadn’t done one since 2011 in the Maine Time Trial Series. So I didn’t leave it all on the road. I was out of practice.
And that was it. I successfully completed the Killington Stage Race.
Creating a new future
In retrospect, the racing was just the motions I had to go through. What was more important this time, were the friends I made during the race and the moments of being present. I made a good friend in Tristan, a guy from Brooklyn, NY who’s down to earth and works at a bike shop in the marketing department. He parked next to me on the first day with his blue VW R32 having noticed my car. We met each day before the start of the race, claiming our spots, only he didn’t continue on the third day because he crashed out on the second day. I’m sure he worried his girlfriend to no end. And I’m certain our paths will cross again.
I also made new friends in Juan and Mike. Fellow competitors who needed help and I was there to offer it to them.
The other moments I saw that were important was being present at any point I felt a bit of anxiety or uneasiness. Studying Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hanh helped immensely. I didn’t have that three years ago. And it was also making it to The Inn I stayed at each day. I promised myself I would do just that, at minimum, to fully enjoy the breakfasts Mary had prepared for me. The last meal was sublime – blueberry waffles with zucchini bread and chocolate chip muffins. I ate everything she served.
My greatest accomplishment out of all this was that I no longer have to talk about my demise three years ago. I’ve created new memories to draw upon, and with it, a new future. The negative has run through its course and it’s out of my system. Travis asked if I were immune to crashing. Only if I can help it.