Yesterday, I became a road bike racer, if only a novice. That is an odd statement for me to make because I have been licensed with USA Cycling and American Bike Racing since 2010. It is equally odd considering I’ve participated in thirty road events in 2010 and 2011. My first year, I completed eleven starts and got my upgrade. If anything, my expectations for that year were spot on. I knew I wasn’t physically ready to compete and knew nothing about how to race. I was dropped in every race I entered. I also had zero DNF’s. The mind was willing but I simply wasn’t physically capable of doing the things I wanted to do.
Last year, I did a lot more training in the off-season and was more prepared physically. I still had no idea about how to think about a race. Not planning strategy, but reading the race as it is going on around you and knowing how to react. An early season crash and resulting separated shoulder set me back physically and mentally. While I was only off the bike for ten days, the bum shoulder didn’t help with my training, as I had to wait while the rest of the shoulder grew stronger to compensate for the ligaments I’d torn. I got back on the bike quickly, but wasn’t able to train at the level I needed to for another month. Mentally I had no confidence. I knew I had a weakened shoulder and was overly protective of it. I was extremely nervous being around other riders, most of whom I didn’t know. To be perfectly frank, I was scared as hell riding in close quarters and I constantly worried about getting caught up in a crash again and setting me back even further.
For me, the turning point came during cyclocross season last year. I had no wins, no podiums and only one top ten – and that came in a smaller field. The difference was that I placed in the top half of the fields every race and most of the time in the top 25%. I was actually racing. Because a cyclocross course demands your attention so much more that a criterium or road race, I didn’t have time to worry about getting caught up in a crash. I was able to focus just on riding for once. Seeing the rider in front of me and reeling them in or refusing to be passed when I’d been caught. I wasn’t just along for the ride any more, I was part of it. I raced cross through New Year’s Resolution, and when finally done, I felt some sadness. I’d had a blast during the cross season. I’d made a ton of improvement from my first cross season to the second. I couldn’t shake some worry creeping in that this road season would find me again making little progress and in way over my head. Faced with the choice of continuing to let things just happen to me or taking some control, I stepped up by committing to a structured training plan focusing on my own perceived physical limiters. I put in 13 weeks of hard training: Computrainer classes at the PSIMET Pstudio, intervals in the basement, recovery rides in the basement, an occasional outdoor ride, more intervals in the basement.
Then, March 31 arrived. Burnham’s Super Spring Criterium. Last year during the first race of the day at Blackhawk Farms Raceway, I was dropped on the third lap and placed 46th. In the second race, I was dropped on the second lap and placed 54th. This year? I placed 42nd in the 4/5 field and 40th in the Cat 4 race, and was happy with my performance. Why? Last year, I was dead last in both fields. Early in both races I was at my redline and just didn’t have anything more to give. Yesterday, both races came down pretty much to field sprints and I finished in the pack. Physically, I felt great during the race I never felt like I was going to implode and didn’t really have labored breathing at any point. To be sure, my positioning was bad during both races but I’m excited that it was bad. Up until yesterday, I wasn’t in the pack for my positioning to be bad. Physically I’m finally ready, now I can turn my attention to learning how to race. It is like a whole new world has finally been opened to me and I’m totally stoked about it.
I’ve commented on how I felt and where I ended up in the races already. I’ll also share a few things that I learned. I need to work on my pack handling skills. I’m very comfortable on group rides because I’ve ridden with everyone for several years. I’m able to read and anticipate what is going to happen because I’m familiar with both the people and the area we ride in on Tuesday nights. I now have to figure out how to read people I don’t know and start figuring out how to anticipate how the pack is going to react. I found myself thinking every time I touched the brakes yesterday that I’d just wasted some energy. It happened a lot and was unnecessary. A big part of that was because I was finding myself at the back of the pack at some point during nearly every lap and made victim of the accordion effect. As I got more comfortable in both races, I started thinking about where on the course I wanted to move up and made it happen. Inevitably, when I would work my way up, I would soon after start drifting back. I have to learn how to keep position after I earn it. I found myself towards the front of the field on the back half of the course many laps only to drift towards the back by the finishing straight. No prizes for leading with 1/2 lap to go, so I need to be doing something different. (Consider that an open invitation for making suggestions.)
The second thing that I learned came as a bonus. After the race, someone on a different team that I know and respect both as a person and a rider came up and talked to me. He mentioned that going into turns I was braking late. It was causing me to continue scrubbing speed in the early and middle parts of the turn and then expend a lot of unnecessary energy coming out of the turn to stay on with the pack. He suggested a better approach would be to brake early and then by the middle of the turn I could be giving a pedal or two and carry a lot more speed through and out of the corner. Overall, I need to become more efficient. I also have to figure out how to position myself better during the race and at the end. Those two things are undoubtedly related. The final thing that I took away from yesterday was this. The only way for the rider I know and respect to be able to have told me that my braking and cornering need work is for him to have been behind me during the race. He’s won races and enjoyed a good deal of success. I now know I’m capable of putting him behind me during a race. Now I have to learn how to do it at the finish line. Now, finally, I get to learn how to race.