Before I begin, I just want to say thanks to Chris Wilcox and family as well as the Tulsa Wheelmen, for putting on an excellent event. Very well organized, awesome course, and great volunteer staff. I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better first race (though maybe an easier one). Second thanks goes out to my fellow riders who made me believe I could do this (at least until I was dropped… more on that later).
[Update: looks like I came in 17th out of 34. I’ll take it, and gladly.]
I am not a racer. No no, don’t try to convince me otherwise. I believe I can be fast, and climb pretty well, and my endurance has definitely increased. But a racer? No. I questioned whether I could be a racer until I was lined up at the start of the Cat 5 race yesterday morning. The Cat 1/2s (the super-racers) were coming by in the other direction, a large pack. They flew by us doing at least high-20s, and the column of air that whooshed by was worthy of a semi-truck.
This pretty much sums up my reaction:
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I arrived in Eucha (about 1.5h ENE of Tulsa) at about 10:30, well before my 12:15 roll-out time. Being that I had no clue what would need to be done when I arrived, I thought I’d play it safe. Check-in went smoothly, and I got plenty of “you’ll do fine” from my fellow Wheelmen. After that, I didn’t have much to do but wait. So I got the bike all set up, took out one of my spare water bottles, and started rolling the local roads, getting loose.
I didn’t come into this with any grand expectations. I’d been schooled by the Wheelmen before, suffering on the tail-end of some hard rides. I figured getting beat down by people I don’t know would be about the same. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not getting down on myself or what I can do. I’ve just learned to be a little realistic with my goals. I was hoping for a top third to mid-pack finish. If I couldn’t hold with the pack, it’d just turn into a hard, solo ride.
The weather was beautiful. Mid-70’s, sunny with only patchy clouds, and a south wind of about 12 mph. The majority of the downhills were towards the south, and the climbs to the north.
The Cat 5’s were called to the starting line. Alan and Mike of the Wheelmen both advised me to get up near the front, as the back of the Cat 5 pack tends to be pretty dangerous. I listened, and was perhaps 10-12th in the line up (at least I think I listened, since I never looked back to check how many people were lined up behind me). They took roll, and then gave us some course info (sharp turns, direction indicators, warnings), blew the whistle, and we were off.
This course is hard. Just check out the terrain profile if you don’t believe me. We started off at a good clip, rolling in a tight group in the low 20’s. I could feel a kind of nervous energy from the people around me. Then the ground dropped away. We hit this set of downhill rollers and the speed took off into the high-30’s, around sweeping turns on beautiful, smooth roads. It was like going over that first drop on the roller coaster and realizing you’re in for some serious shit. And just like on a roller coaster, a grin (or a grimace) grabbed my face and wouldn’t let go, and I was ready to dig in.
But the speed never ramped to where I thought it would. Perhaps it was a lack of familiarity with the course, or maybe just nervousness or conservation holding the leaders back. But whatever it was, I spent a lot of time trying to catch as much wind as possible so as to not overtake the lead group in this first three mile rolling descent. Maybe my non-ultra bike and heavy wheelset (and my admittedly non-race weight self) were just carrying me down the course faster.
In any case, we came to the first very sharp turn at the bottom of this downhill, and we all slammed the brakes. Necessary, but really sucks when you’ve gotta follow that up with a really big climb. I didn’t want to burn out early, so I kept myself in neutral and didn’t pass the leaders. Last thing I wanted was to be out in front early on. We climbed all the way out of the canyon and back up to the starting line. At this point, I was perhaps 7th or 8th in the line, about 7 miles in, and already starting to feel the toll this ride was going to take on me.
The course enters another series of sweeping downhills after crossing the starting line, and now the front pack was starting to let loose, climbing into the mid-40 mph range. We passed the dam, and the real work began. We had about a 1.5 mile climb, and at times I was rolling at 4-5 mph and feeling lucky to do so. The pack started to break up, with a group of maybe six riders up front, and a second group of another six to eight (which I was in) followed by the rest.
When we crested, the second group started to give chase, and here’s where I started to have trouble. We were moving along at a good clip (mid-20s), and people were starting to take turns at the front, chasing down the lead group. When I got up front, I didn’t want to be there long, but couldn’t find a way to drop back. Race tactics: let the competition burn themselves up in the front, and then sprint out around them. By the time the group I was with surged past me, I didn’t have enough to jump on. Right at about mile 15.8, my race was over, and my long hard solo ride began.
About a mile later, the second group caught the first, and I spent the next few miles (until about mile 21) trying to chase them down. The closest I came was about a quarter mile, but it was taking everything I had just to catch them, whereas they were working together and using a lot less energy to stay ahead. With the road turning and pointing up to the sky, I felt myself let go at that point.
The next climb was pretty brutal. And when you’re alone, having watched the lead group ride off without you, it makes you wonder what the hell you’re doing out there in the first place. The climb turned north, and the road was open and unshaded. With the wind coming from the south, I thought maybe there’d be a reprieve, the wind would help me climb. Nothing doing. Way too steep, and the only thing the south wind did was match my speed, making the air hot and still. By the time I crested that climb (a half mile later), I was hot, tired, and starting to feel tightness in the legs that I recognized as cramping precursors.
The fourth climb wasn’t as bad (relatively), slowly climbing from mile 25-27, and it was followed by a beautiful downhill back down to the dam (with a top speed of 43 mph). I was glad for the rest, because the fifth climb… sucked. I was blown, and I knew it. I focused on my training: complete the circle, even strokes, don’t over-breath, still the body. By the time I hit the steepest part of the climb though, I was rolling at maybe 3 mph on my granny gear.
I crested the last part of the climb away from the dam with about 1.5 miles to go. I told myself, “Don’t coast in. Whatever you do, don’t coast in. Finish the ride.” I put my head down, grabbed the drops, and spun up to the high-teens, and then the low 20s to cross the finish.
I didn’t sprint in (I doubt I could’ve even if I wanted to). And I didn’t roll in next to anybody. I didn’t see any of the riders from the group that got in before me. Some of the Wheelmen were around, and congratulated me on my finish. The congrats were most welcome, because it’s hard to feel good when you’ve blown yourself apart and didn’t roll in with anyone around you.
If I questioned whether I could be a racer before I started the race, I didn’t question it after. I like to ride hard. I like to push my limits, and I like others to push me, to make me work hard. And yes, even to beat me so that I can come back and work even harder. But the aggressiveness, the virtual combativeness I experienced in the early portions of this race… I don’t have that. Moreover, I don’t want that. And that’s okay.
I think I’ll try a few more races – something with less climbs, for sure. But like with this race and every ride I do, my goals will continue to be simple: improve, finish, and have fun.