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May 2, 2005

I'm completely hopeless at this. I brake too often, and at the wrong moments. My back wheel keeps trying to skid out from under me, I wring my way clumsily through the curves. I started this sport too late. My muscles were able to fit themslves to my bike, they actually liked it: muscles are tractable and learn tricks fast. But racing downhill is a matter of nerves, and from the very start my nerves have thought: to hell with you and your bicycle racing.

Tim Krabbe, "The Rider"

Saturday I rented a car and drove to my first road race, a course of three 13.5-mile loops through the hills of southern Wisconsin.

I'd been excited about it for weeks, but my race almost ended before it started.

Knowing that there would be hills, I had earlier in the week looked up "descending" in the index of my cycling book, much like how on the night before his first operation a doctor might look up "surgery, open-heart" in his medical textbook.

One of the things my book advised was to test how fast your bike can go before it starts to shimmy. I never got around to doing this. Suddenly I was on a warm-up ride with my teammates Saturday morning and without even meaning to I was going extremely fast down a steep hill.

30 mph. 35 mph. 38 mph.

And then I had my answer: At exactly 39.6 mph my bike, the Colonel, begins to shimmy like a jug-band handsaw. Duly noted.

Bob was riding behind me and told me later that he was certain I was going down. I was certain, too, and was calculating the best way I could land and protect my bike. Fortunately I was able to tap the brakes gently enough to regain control. I was shaken, but wiser and safer for it.

There were nine of us from my racing team competing. We were all Category 5 riders and the race would be a mix of 4's and 5's, but we figured that we could parlay our numbers into success by taking control of the pace from the start.

Our plan derailed immediately. An initial descent and tailwind conspired to quickly bring the pace to 28 mph, much faster than we had anticipated. A small crash in the first mile created gaps in our line. Then came a steep climb and we were irrevocably strung out.

I had succumbed to tunnel vision on the way up, observing nothing but my breathing and my pedaling. I had no idea what was going on with my other teammates. At the top I saw only one friendly, Dave, but I didn't know if anyone was ahead or how far back people were behind. Should we chase? Should we wait? We hesitated, then joined with some other riders. We wouldn't see another teammate for the rest of the race.

For the next 15 miles Dave and I rode in packs of between three and seven. Between the hills and the bends in the road, it was impossible to tell how far we were from the leaders, or how far we were ahead of the nearest riders behind.

On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets. Every thought that arises is immediately and utterly true, every unexpected event is something you'd known all along but had only forgotten for a moment. A pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone, is enough to fill your thoughts.

During a race, what goes round in the rider's mind is a monolithic ball bearing, so smooth, so uniform, that you can't even see it spin. Its almost perfect lack of surface structure ensures that it strikes nothing that might end up in the white circulation of thought.

Krabbe, "The Rider"

Strategy was an afterthought for me, insofar as one can have an afterthought when there is no thought to begin with. My mind was a vacuum, a slave to the road. Pedal, the road said, and I pedaled. Pedal harder, the road said, and I pedaled harder. Obeying the road is all my mind was capable of. Plan a breakaway? Plan a sprint? It would be like a man on the gallows planning a vacation.

At the halfway point Dave and I were in a group of seven when someone took charge and organized a rotating paceline. These guys were out of my league and I got dropped faster than I could say "Wait, how again does a rotating paceline work?"

I rode the next 14 miles with someone from Stone Creek who was also doing his first road race. After a few steep descents and corners I got dropped from him, too, and found myself about 100 meters from his wheel and 100 meters ahead of two unfamiliar riders behind me.

This was a decisive moment: Do I push hard to catch up to the solo rider, or do I relax and create a three-man paceline with the others? The worst thing I could do was to do nothing, to waste energy in limbo. If I were one to find meaning and weight in everyday things, I would suggest that this offered an analogy for many of life's decisions: Struggle and claw for advancement, or relax into comfort and safety? I'm not one for such metaphor, however, and then I got lucky: Topography made the decision for me. We were once again at the steep hill that had earlier broken my team and I was able to climb it better than the Stone Creek rider. I caught up to him easily and never again saw the two riders behind us.

Around the 30-mile mark we caught up with Dave, who had been dropped from the same paceline that had dropped me and was riding alone. The three of us rode together, splitting pulls pretty evenly.

When I have 6 miles to go in a long ride or marathon, I like to project my commute on the balance. 6 miles? That's nothing. That's Foster to Grand. I can do that in my sleep. 5 miles to go? I'm at Montrose Avenue. Easy.

The last big hill came with 2 miles to go (Armitage Avenue). At the top I had created a 20-meter lead over the other two. This was another decisive moment. Anything shorter and I might have held back to work with Dave, but I decided to test what I was capable of. With a mile and a half to go (North Avenue! Hang on!) I had opened a lead of around 100 meters.

Once again my tentativeness on descents and corners did me in. No doubt the scare before the race contributed to my hesitancy. Like Tim Krabbe, I am fearful of descents and corners; I much prefer going up hills than down them. My nerves took away the ground my legs had fought so hard for, and my pursuers caught me a half-mile from the finish (Chicago Avenue).

I was vanquished and wiped out. I didn't even have the good sense to fall behind one of their wheels. Instead I let myself tow them to the finish. An official got excited about a possible sprint, but I had nothing left, and Dave didn't have much more. The Stone Creek guy crossed first, then Dave, then me.

Twenty minutes later I was standing at the officials trailer and reading the results. Of 45 riders, 31 had finished. I was the 22nd. This meant that I had already met the first benchmark of my racing career: finishing in the top half of the field. But then I overheard a rider complaining to an official that his name was not among the results. The official checked the film and sure enough, this rider had finished 8th. So now I was 23rd, and no longer in the top half.

In retrospect, that's exactly how I should have played that finish, even if it were a contest for 21st and not for 1st. I sprint like a school bus, so my only hope was to attack on the last hill and use my climbing abilities to create an insurmountabe lead. It almost worked. If only the last hill were a half-mile closer to the finish. Nonetheless, it pleases me to think how seamlessly theory translated into action. My body didn't need any input from my mind. It just did what it was supposed to do.

Later I was taking pictures of the Cat 1/2 race when two local girls drove up and asked what we were riding for. I think they thought it was a charity ride.

"It's a race!"

"How far?"

"41 miles."

"Ohmygod I'd die!"

My lungs were shot, and I nearly died myself hacking out a laugh.

Photo taken: April 30, 2005