Bike racing is like putting together a puzzle….or maybe, it’s like putting together a puzzle with a heart rate over 180, and a timer clicking down. Sometimes you push pieces together that don’t fit and you find a confused picture. Yet, other times you put together a couple of pieces, feel the progress, and then are left anxiously wondering what this puzzle might have looked like at the end. Then on the most perfect days, you push that final piece into place and you stand back looking at your creation, smiling.
This weekend I feel like I pushed into place the final piece of the puzzle I’ve been working on this season. Don’t get me wrong, I’m nowhere near my pinnacle. This was a 500 piece puzzle and I’m working toward the 1000. Regardless, I find it totally necessary to celebrate the steps along the way.
Fat Tire Crit:
As I was warming up for the Fat tire crit on Friday night, I felt a bit of frustration. So much of racing is how we perceive ourselves or even how we perceive that others perceive us. While I’ve always known that I’m capable of riding at the front, I’ve often wondered whether my competition truly saw me as a factor in the race. Instead of letting these thoughts plague my performance, however, I decided that I didn’t want to wonder anymore. I decided to make myself an undeniable factor.
With 2 other teammates in the race, the most important thing was to make sure that our team saw the top step on the podium. That means that some of us would need to chase down attacks and set the pace, while one person prepared their legs to win the sprint. Our roles were easily established.
When the race started, one competitor went off of the front and left the group in a chase. I stayed at the front of the group, controlling the pace, chasing down attacks, and helping to reel in the girl off of the front of the group. Catharine and I spent much of the race on the front, taking turns pulling the group up to the break away. At first I felt nervous to be sitting at the front of a group with World Champions and Olympians, but every attack that I covered and every pace that I matched quickly proved that I was sitting right where I belonged.
With 3 laps to go, I took the wrong line through one of the corners and was pinched off on the inside. I was forced to hit the brakes hard and inch around the inside as everyone carried momentum going wide through the turn. I found myself going from the front to behind 15th in just a moment. It felt like it was over. I was struggling on the back and I had spent so much of the race in the front that my legs were tired.
Then the tone changed, I had spent so much of the race on the front that I refused to finish the race in this manner. I put in a big dig coming all the way up the side and up toward the front of the group with 2 to go. I didn’t have the courage to take over the front. My lungs were burning, my legs were screaming but as we came around the final corner and I stood to sprint I realized I should have gone. There was no way around the line of racers all the way from curb to curb across the road but I sprinted right behind in the field sprint. I finished 7th and I don’t think anyone would question whether or not I was a “factor” in that race. Haley (my teammate) won the race! The pieces were coming together.
On Sunday, in the backcountry race, I lined up grasping to the confidence that I had gained 2 days before. As we began the steep climb up the start, where I had been dropped the year before, I felt uncomfortable but in control. I prayed and I thought of all of the other people praying for me and by the time my prayer was over I had reached the singletrack.
I wondered if we had gone slower than years before and why the whole group was still together. Then, as we went around the first switchback, I realized that the whole group was not together. I had made the selection and was riding in the front group.
Not long after entering the singletrack, the top group of 6 broke away and I was riding with 2 other women, one in front and one behind. “On her wheel, on her wheel…” I didn’t have much capacity of thought beyond that. We could see the leaders not far ahead and we were flying up the singletrack. I was so excited to be riding with the women surrounding me and I wasn’t going to let it slip away. The top of the climb was mile 8.6. At mile 7, my tongue my numb and my legs were cramping, but my mind was rock solid. I was there. At mile 8.3, almost at the top, I faltered. A small gap opened; I was suffering. As we entered the descent, I was a few seconds behind a rider who normally demolishes me on the descent, but not today. Today the puzzle pieces were coming together. I closed the few seconds back to the rider ahead and sat in control descending in a zone of comfort I have never before experienced.
As we entered the next climb, another 8 miles up a fire road, I was so happy to still be sitting in this group. Drafting was a factor on this fire road and was a huge motivator for me to stay with these strong ladies. As we started to climb, the pace was hot. I felt a panic. Had I come so far only to be dropped on this climb? No way! I committed to one mile at a time. Then before I knew it, the pace was natural. I had adapted, I had found my zone, and as the climb went further and further, I found more and more confidence to once again take my turn at the front.
As we reached the top of that climb we were 2 hours into the race. A spectator yelled that we were only 1 minute behind the leaders! My heart fluttered. It felt like anything was possible. I had never been in this position before.
Up next the gradient increased. The climb got steeper and steeper and I started to crumble. My legs were cramping and the two girls around me attacked. I couldn’t go with them. They were up the road before I knew it. I pulled inward for a moment and then decided that I hadn’t come this whole way to finish alone. I started to push to fight back. I knew God was with me and it was time to show Him my trust.
Meanwhile, 10th place was hot on my heals and caught me by the singletrack section. She set a blistering pace. I wanted to slow down, I wanted a mental break from pushing forward and overcoming my own thoughts. Then I found it, the faster we go, the closer we get. When we exited the singletrack in 9th and 10th pace, 9th was pulling ahead but I could see 8th just up the road.
I started to descend at the edge of my limits. I was stumbling, foot out, sliding, gripping the bars and by the end of the descent I had caught 9th pace. A long flat section lay ahead of us and I pulled for awhile, then I turned and said, “If we work together we can catch 8th.” She agreed and the chase was on. We worked together pushing ahead until I took a pull, looked back, and found that I had ridden her off of my wheel. The end was drawing near and it was up to me now.
I finished an excellent race with my best effort. I gave everything I had all the way up to the line. I finished 9th in 3 hours and 50 minutes. I was closer to the leaders than I have ever been. The pieces clicked into place. I’m pleased with 9th in this stellar group of women but I’m even more motivated by knowing that in this long of a race I was only 2 minutes behind 6th. The puzzle pieces fit together today, but I’m not done. Now I start a huge training block in preparation for the USA Cycling National Championship at the end of this month. I can’t wait to see what that puzzle looks like!!
All Photos by Bill Schieken (CX Hairs)