« A time trial || HOME || A patch »

Oct. 3, 2005

The cycling season is long, much longer than the 18 weeks it takes to train for a marathon. It comprises endless training runs up and down the lakefront, hundreds of hill repeats in Highland Park and too much healthy living for anyone's own good. After seven months of this, I'm exhausted, especially with the healthy living, so at poker Saturday night I indulged with two brats and three beers, not exactly a bender but also not the best supper the night before a criterium. I figured, Hey, it was only a criterium, and I never do well in those anyhow.

(I'm mostly certain that the beers had nothing to do with falling off my bicycle on the sidewalk and taking a chunk out of my knee after I bumped into Sandy and had my weight too off-balance to clip out.)

Sunday's race was 10 laps at a suburban office park. The course was a .8-mile oval with a gentle rise between turns 3 and 4. Before the race I scribbled on my forearm the race numbers for the top five finishers in Saturday's time trial so that I could spot the likeliest threats. Naturally, officials assigned us new numbers, rendering my notes useless, and for the rest of the day I had people asking me what all those numbers on my arm were.

My nascent criterium strategy is cribbed from the Chicago Machine: Attack early, attack often. Often enough to make the race lively, early enough so that if it doesn't work I have time to recover before the final sprint. Better to race aggressively and come in last than be a weenie and come in first.

My first attack was with seven laps to go. I had a 50-meter gap when a young ABD rider bridged to me. I invited him to work with me on an expresss train to glory, but he declined. His face showed no emotion. I figured he was an errand boy dispatched by his orange elders (there were about 10 ABD riders in the race) not to form a break but merely to reel me in. It worked. I stood up after half a lap and rejoined the 30-strong pack.

I attacked again with four to go. I got the same gap, but not even a single taker. Again I coasted back.

I figured I'd burned my last match but managed to work back into the front 10. With half a lap to go I was in second, right on the wheel of someone who looked like a triathlete. I figured that was a good wheel to be behind: A triathlete would be liable to keep up a strong, even pace the rest of the way but might have a sprint even worse than mine, allowing me to overtake him at the line.

On the climb before Turn 4 I saw some riders accelerating up the right. Suddenly that looked like the place to be, so I ditched the triathlete and insinuated myself into their line.

I was in fourth position coming out of the final turn. This is the point of the race where everyone usually passes me, like the tide passing over a piece of driftwood. I focused on sticking to the wheels ahead of me and minimizing the damage.

Then a funny thing happened: Nobody passed. I started the sprint in fourth, I finished it in fourth, by far my best finish in any race. (The kid who had bridged to me earlier ended up winning; he's half my age.) I coasted down the course in disbelief. Fourth place? Really? I really belong here?

Sure, it was only a citizen's race, and I don't pretend I was the fourth-fastest or fourth-smartest rider out there; I just got lucky and sucked the right wheels at the end. But I've been waiting a long, long time for a hint of success. Sunday was the first seagull spotted after a transatlantic voyage: Land is near.