road race morning started with a mandatory racers' meeting at 8 am and a fog delay. nobody had any idea what time the race would go off. it was up to the sun and whenever it burned off the fog. in the meantime, i went to one of the most ominous meetings i have ever attended: there were warnings about visibility. warnings about trees across the road and no one was really sure if they had been cleared yet. there were warnings about corner marshalls and the fact that maybe there weren't enough. there were warnings about neutral feed zones, neutral bridges. there were warnings and instructions about lead cars and follow cars - but the most ominous warnings were those associated with the tunnel. this race took us though the nada tunnel in the daniel boone national forest. it was 900 feet long, 12 feet wide and 13 feet high. we were told it was wet. we were told there were lights and that as opposed to the previous years where someone had gotten into the tunnel and turned all the lights to face the riders (such that they couldn't see any better than if the tunnel were unlit), the lights were facing the racers' backs and there was someone at the entrance to ensure no one was jacking around with the lights. there were more warnings and more heeds to caution than i can count, and with each one, my heartrate climbed up a notch until i swear, i almost had to put my head between my knees and just breathe. i was just waiting for a warning to watch out for the flying monkeys.
everyone walked out of that meeting slightly shell shocked and wondering what on earth lay ahead.
fast forward through warm ups and locating our babysitter, filling water bottles and getting last minute tips from teammates, to the start: we are on the line. right foot clipped in ready to go.i was most excited about this portion of the stage race. i knew it would be a huge challenge, yet i was confident about the hills and i was confident about my ability to stick with the pack for a longer time than any other race. this was a long race, there would be no early crazy attacks or jacked up pace. as we rolled off the line, it was all very civilized and lovely.
this was my biggest race to date and felt the most official: we had a pace car in front & two follow cars in back. we immediately fell into a conversational pace line and started rotating. about 7 miles in the kenyan asked if anyone had to pee and since several women did, she proposed a neutral pee stop. we waited till we hit a shady spot, waved the cop car in front to stop, the follow cars stopped & more than half the group dropped trough and peed on the side of the road. would have been really great if race photographer had captured that moment.
it stayed totally civilized for quite a while. everyone took turns pulling. i even came out of my usual routine of "hide & ride" to do my share of the work. we all wanted to work together. another racer and good friend advised me to take short pulls, as i was the only cat 4 rider & everyone would understand. i told her i wanted to contribute to the overall effort as well as be closer to the middle of the pack ready for the attack - she said it would happen in the hills; and as we were at the base of the first climb, and i saw her pull out of the line just a bit to tighten her shoe, i knew the attack was imminent. (new racers take note: if someone takes a moment to tighten shoe, they are about to attack. that, or it's just a big hill - in this case, the two coincided). and sure enough, i watched as the cat 1 riders took it up a big notch & gunned it up the hill. the few that went with them would eventually fall back to our group & i knew this would happen, so i just stayed put - never even tried to stay on the attack. i had no chance in hell of staying on and was much better off conserving energy rather than blowing myself up trying to stay with the cat 1 girls. this first climb was a mile long and strung the entire group out. it climaxed at the nada tunnel. i had no idea this was where we'd encounter the tunnel; i was the first girl in our group up the hill and was alone - i suddenly looked up to see a huge wall of rock, i could barely see the entrance.
i took my sunglasses off and in i went. i think i was the only racer who loved the tunnel, but the fact that i went through it alone may have had a lot to do with it. it was lit, albeit poorly - but i thought it was very cool. the downhill coming out of the tunnel was the type of downhill that makes me wonder if one can wear out their brake pads in one ride, and had the kind of turns that had me wishing i had valium instead of enduralytes in my jersey pocket. that said, i think i did a pretty swell job of a descent and our group, albeit a smaller one - all came back together.
it was a long race and no one wanted to be out there alone. our small group worked together really well - i pulled on the smaller hills and rollers, the others pulled on the flats and downhills. at the bottom of one of the hills, just as i came around to start my pull, i dropped my chain - as the group continued on, they said they'd wait for me. (as i said we were a very civilized group). i got my chain back on, and started up the hill - and caught the group again. it would be a few miles before we hit the major climb.
i am watching my mileage thingy knowing that we'll be at the ginormous hill soon. it was called sky bridge. there is only one woman in our group that has ever ridden this course and knows the hill. when i hear her start to shift down, so do i. i went into this hill supremely confident. just two weeks prior i had ridden up one of the hardest hills i had ever gone up. when i asked a teammate if the hill in the race was as bad as the local hill that i thought was pure hell, he said "no". i was thrilled. i figured if i could climb the local hill then i could handle whatever the red river gorge had to dish out at me. i was not worried.
we start the climb, and the confidence carried me far. but not quite far enough. i did the math (on the drive home - no way i had the brain power to do the math while riding that hill, nor did i know how long it was ) the average grade was 9.5% and i think about .8 mile (post-script: i have since found out that sections of sky bridge hill were 18-22+). it was good to not know this. i pride myself on my hill climbing and like to think i am good at it. but i hadn't met a hill like sky bridge. nor had i ever done a climb like this at mile 25 of a 52 mile race. there are 4 of us. the talking stops. the breathing starts. the pace slows. i pass one woman. i pass one more woman. and now i am on the wheel of one other woman and hanging on for dear life. not that you are getting any sort of benefit from any draft, i just wanted to be close to someone - there was a camaraderie in the misery. we stayed together for a while. she was awesome and when she heard my breathing change, she talked me through it, telling me to settle in. breathe. i tried to not look up. i didn't want to know how much further we had, i was too afraid it was nowhere near over. the only thing i could think about was forward motion, forward motion. and how much my legs hurt. i started to zig zag across the road to make it 'easier'. i was trying to maintain 6mph, but then it went to 5, and then 4mph, and i tried to keep it there. and i'm zigzagging. and i can't look at anything or think about anything but those damn numbers on the speed thingy. it hits 3mph and i before i can talk myself out of it, i clip out before i fall over. and its too late and too steep to get back on. so i walk. at the same time that i am disappointed in myself for being off my bike, i suddenly look up to my left and realize that the road takes a hairpin turn to the left and goes up even more. the disappointment at being off the bike turns to relief that i am not on it. i pass two other dudes who are also walking which makes me feel immensely better. i turn and see the photographer at the top of the hill and yell up, begging her to refrain from taking my picture. i thought for a moment about throwing my bike over my shoulder and making it look like i was in a cyclocross race instead of walking my snazzy bike up a mountain in a road race, but that required energy i didn't have. it took all my energy to yell at photographer to not save that moment for all time. but i've just saved it in writing and now i actually wish i had a picture of it. the photographer was telling me she climbed this hill 3 times (twice in a race) the first 2 times, she walked, and the third, she made it all the way up. thank you, i said. i am not the only one.
i got back on near the crest, thinking there would be a nice long downhill on which to recover a bit, but there was nothing but more rollers. these were hard and painful. i started passing guys that were way off the back of the category 4/5 men. i was totally alone by this point - i knew 2 girls were still behind me. i crested another hill and saw a vision in green at the feed zone - the mother of one of our younger racers was up there in our team jersey handing out water bottles & i was thrilled to have successfully gotten the bottle hand-off. - i totally read about how to do this in my racing 101 book.
miles 32-38 were some of the toughest and loneliest. i was out of the shade of the forest, in the sun, on a long flat stretch. my back hurt, my legs hurt. i still had a long way to go all alone. just when i am at my lowest, i get caught by one of the girls and we decide to work together the rest of the way in. we also think that by rotating, we can reel in the girl ahead of us. we never did reel the woman ahead in and never got caught by the woman behind us. it was just the two of us to the end. when she found out that i was doing all the stages and was in the GC (general classification - you must compete in every stage of the race to be placed in the final GC ) she said she would give me a lead out (she'd pull for me down the home stretch giving me a moment to recover from my own pull and the energy - hopefully, to outsprint her to the finish line). this would ensure that i got more points and had a shot at being in the money in the overall standings. (she had not done all 3 stages and did not need or care about the points). in the end, this actually did not matter as it was an ominum and you did not have to participate in all stages to be in the final results - are your eyes glazing over yet?. we traded pulls for the last few miles, and as we made the last turn to the finish, i got on her wheel ... she increased her speed - i stayed in her draft and when i thought i could hold the sprint long enough, i pulled out from behind her and gunned it for the finish. she basically coached me through the whole lead out and sprint to finish. it was so fun, i felt so strong and when she crossed - we gave each other a big hug. i was amazed at her generosity and she assured me she had an equally good time and said "how will you learn how to do those things if no one ever shows you, if you can't try it out for real".
i came in 7th overall in the omnium. i love racing my bike. i love meeting these amazing, supportive, more experienced women who are happy to give advice, help, support and lead outs in your biggest race to date. i was on cloud nine from the entire weekend. i raced 3 races in two days. i felt amazingly strong all weekend. i fueled, hydrated and recovered between stages perfectly. it all came together and was absoultley perfect. thank you jen.
are you still here? yeah - you're totally going to bloggy heaven.