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March 20, 2006

If only I'd come down with a puncture. How often ... have I longed for a flat tire? A puncture, permission from beyond to stop the dying ...

A lot of praying goes on in the peloton, especially to God and to Linda. Please let me get a puncture. But the speed of prayer has its limits, so the rider occasionally resorts to more drastic measures. He pounds his wheels through potholes, through gravel, searches for sharp rocks and, perchance, when he has a race to ride but no morale, he'll even mount a carefully selected tube that's ready to blow ...

At the start of Race 129 ... I was extremely tense. There were a multitude of signs that something terrible was about to happen, but not a single excuse not to start. Criteriums in Holland! Curve, sprint, brake, curve, sprint, brake, curve, sprint, brake, curve, every twenty seconds a curve, a hard-riding house of pain, two-and-a-half hours long, unimaginable if you've never been in it yourself ...

But when no heed is given to your longing for a puncture, there's nothing left but to suffer. Suffering is an art. Like the downhills, it's a non-athletic art in which the great champions nevertheless outstrip all amateurs.

Tim Krabbe, "The Rider"

I didn't get much of a chance to suffer in Sunday's criterium, the long-awaited first race of the year, but I was tense nonetheless.

My front wheel stood on the starting line next to Ansgar's, just as it did at last year's Winfield criterium, where a flat at the line had given the reprieve I longed for. "Quick quick and hush hush!" I wanted to whisper to a teammate on the sideline. "Whip out your shiv and slash my tires! Take care of my spares, too!"

The tension wasn't solely because I fear and loathe criterium racing. Mostly it was performance anxiety. I looked around, admiring rival bodies and the bikes they were clipped in to. I expected to not only keep up with these guys, but lay on some attacks? Get it up? Keep it up? Ha!

All winter I've been a chatty Cathy on my team's message board, giving wise counsel to rookies and discussing graduate-level tactics with the veterans. What I declined to mention was that I've never actually finished a Cat 4 race with the pack. I got dropped from all eight Cat 4 races I did last year, including in the first lap of the only 4/5 crit I braved. Now, I feared, I was about to be exposed as a hack and a fake.

Suddenly there was no more time to cringe. We were off.

The jitters receded quickly. Racing's rhythms came back to me. I saw my lines and took them, feeling comfortable navigating the pack. Sitting around 40th wheel at one point, Matt asked how I was feeling. "Pretty good," I said, "except I wish I were further up." Soon I found a hole on the left. Matt found a hole up the right. Seconds later we rendezvoused at the front.

My teammates put on some impressive attacks, including several by riders competing in their first races. An attack on Lap 2 by Ed, who as of two weeks ago was determined not to race at all this year, was particularly inspiring. My heart swelled with pride. Ever since I saw him outclimb me in California I'd been badgering him to give racing a go. He would get reeled in, as would all our attacks and breaks, but at least we kept the race interesting, and I imagine it will take dozens of more attacks before we get the knack for making them stick.

Hurting my chances in the breaks was my inability to discern real opportunities from mirages. Twice in this race I bridged to what looked like viable breaks -- the riders had nice legs, they seemed to beckon, and it looked like we would get along -- only to have them fizzle as soon as I made contact. Whether the unions were destined to fail without me or whether they failed because of me, I don't yet have the expertise to say.

This is something to work on: knowing when to be assertive and be off with another rider, and knowing when it's better to be safe and mousy in the pack. God grant me the patience to sit in when I cannot affect a race, the power to attack when I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I thought I'd have one more chance to get away but the officials started flipping the lap cards early. Before I knew it we had three to go, and now my job was to get to the front to help lead out Ansgar in the sprint. This was our plan: Attack, attack some more, and then get a three- to four-man train ahead of our strongest sprinter.

It wasn't to be, however. The pack slowed considerably and spread across the entire road, blocking any lanes I could have used to move forward. The 10 or so riders between me and Ansgar proved impassable. Happily, it didn't matter. Even without anyone's help, Ansgar was able to sprint his way to victory. When I came out of my own sprint -- for 17th -- the first things I saw were his arms raised high.

This was the first time I'd been on the road and witnessed a teammate win a race, and it felt great. I found one last attack in me and surged forward to pat him on the back.

The first thing I did when I got home was shave my so-called beard. I'd had it for the 160 long days that had passed since my last race, a whimsical way to mourn the passing of the 2005 cycling season. But it's now a whole new season, the mourning period is over, and I urgently need to be as aero as possible.

We return to the same course next week. Nominally these are "practice" criteriums, in that there are no cash prizes, but nobody at this level races for anything but love anyhow. Race, learn, race again. And, it is hoped, win again.

Photo taken: March 19, 2006