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July 12, 2005

A steady rain began just as we hit the starting line. Water, falling from above and spraying up from below, took its toll on visibility as the crowded field made its way down the narrow, winding road. Traction was but a pleasant memory.

We safely navigated the first few turns but on the rolling hills there was an unsettling amount of braking. Each time someone tapped their brakes up front it would cascade treacherously through the line.

It was in a flat around Mile 4 that disaster finally struck. I was about halfway back in the pack when someone close to the front went down. Like dominoes -- 6 foot, 150 pound, 25 mph dominoes -- the rest of us went down with them.

I now know the sensation of driving off a cliff. When the riders ahead of me took their turn, I had less than a second to ponder the inevitability of it all and hope for the best before I toppled over their bikes and went down myself. My helmet bounced off the pavement and I rolled into the ditch, where immediately two riders landed on top of me.

I crawled out. My water bottles had flown off my bike. I replaced them and started walking down the road. While the sound of bikes colliding and riders swearing still filled the air, I took a quick inventory.

Body: I had minor road rash on my shoulder and had done something unnatural to my ribs, but they only caused me to wither in pain when I took a deep breath, so I made a quick mental note: Don't breathe hard!

Bike: A co-worker who also went down had to help me adjust the front brakes. The handlebars were askew and the hoods were banged up, but it was mostly cosmetic. Everything else appeared functional.

Uniform: One side was covered in mud and later when I reached into a pocket for some gel I pulled out a wad of grass, but there was no new ventilation. Phew. I didn't want to have to buy a new kit.

And that was that: My first race crash.

When a good friend had her first crash this weekend, I reminded her that there are only two kinds of cyclists: Those who have crashed and those who are about to crash. It's been three years and 12,000 miles since my last one, so I suppose I was due for this.

Soon after I was upright I got in a rolling paceline with four other riders: two teammates, the co-worker and an unknown rider. We got a good rhythm going. The unknown chirped, "Keep riding like this and we'll bridge in an hour!" I think we all recognized him for a fantasist. I fell off the paceline soon thereafter -- I could go only so fast without breathing hard -- and the other three would eventually drop out altogether.

I am not very ambitious about starting things, but what I start I like to finish, so I stubbornly rode on. If Dave Zabriskie could ride four stages of the Tour after breaking his ribs, I could certainly ride 30 more miles after breaking mine.

Later I was watching the pros ride their race through the rain. Nearby, two sheriff's cadets controlling traffic huddled under golf umbrellas. "Great day for a bike race, huh?" I said.

"Is it really?"

"No. Actually it's a big pile of suck."

"Oh. I don't really follow this stuff, so I didn't know."

But what he probably also doesn't know is that it's the big piles of suck that make this sport so great.