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Aug. 22, 2006

So, right. Bicycle racing.

Heading into last week's Elk Grove criterium, a race with an unprecedented $2,500 on the line, I hadn't raced in more than a month. More pressing, I hadn't known success in more than two months.

Success begets confidence. Confidence begets success. Treacly, but true, and in racing confidence may be more of a decisive factor than fitness or tactics.

When you have a good position and a rider steals it from you, there are two reactions. The non-confident rider says, "I guess this guy is faster than me. Maybe next time." And then he floats back to 40th place and stays there. The confident rider, on the other hand, says: "The hell you do. That's my spot, I worked to get it, and I deserve it." And he fights to get it back, more out of rage and entitlement than anything.

I know this because I've been both riders. Sometimes in the same race.

About that rage and entitlement. I'm learning the role these feelings play. I don't have a lot of either, but I'm learning how to fake it during a race. My guess is that great athletes have plenty of both all the time, which is what makes them great but also unpleasant to be around.

Back to success. The goal going into Elk Grove and the other end-of-season crits was to sit in, be patient and salvage some success and confidence to carry me through the off-season, like one last kiss to carry you through a loved one's absence.

Elk Grove criterium: 2.5-mile course with two treacherous 180-degree turns. I tried to sit in, I honestly did, but on a prime lap I found myself off the front and decided to go for it. The prime went three deep. Surely I could hold off all but two of the field, right? Sure enough, I did, winning my first prime ever, a bike fit worth $150.

I had decent position in the last lap, but let myself get swarmed and boxed in. I barely negotiated a crash in the last 400 meters, then could pass only enough people for 21st, one spot out of the money.

This Saturday was the historic Downers Grove criterium. Since it's the same course that the national championship is contested on the following day, it draws the summer's largest and strongest fields and even a few spectators. I watched several of the races last year, and I'd been studying race reports all week. I hadn't visualized a race this precisely since the great road races of May and June.

Category 4: Again I accidentally found myself off the front, despite the plan to sit in the entire time. I had a good breakaway companion, however, and even though we stayed off for only two laps, that was enough for us to exchange two $25 primes.

Alas, same thing on the last lap: Good position, but I allowed myself to get swarmed and boxed in. A massive crash had reduced the field to only 25 riders, and I could do no better than 19.

Masters 4/5: This time I was full of rage, entitlement and Accelerade. We'd gotten to the staging area late, Bob and I did, but we I weaseled a position at the front. (We had a choice: Create a new first row and get yelled at, or go to the last row and start the race in 110th place. We chose the former, knowing how important it was to have good position at the whistle.)

I hit the first corner in the front 10 and spent the entire race there. Any time someone came up the side I pounced and grabbed their wheel. Even after I contested two primes -- losing both of them carelessly -- I fought to retain my positon. Position was crucial. Eight turns meant eight chances to crash. By being at the front, I could pedal through the turns single-file and choose my own lines, rather than riding in the pack and praying someone wouldn't go wide and take me out. Just in case, I let my inside knees hang wide to discourage anyone from bombing past.

This time I succeeded in sitting in and never "found myself" off the front. Ellen was in Mexico, but I could hear her coaching: "Sit in, you silly fool!" The pros should be so lucky to have such dulcet advice piped through their race radios.

There were so many primes that they never announced three or two laps to go. Suddenly we were on the bell lap and I was in the front 10. When I sensed people moving up the side, I moved over to block them, preferring to eat the wind rather than risk losing spots.

With the exception of two Lot riders, it was a jumble of teams at the front. Lot has a reputation for, among other things, having good sprints, so I grabbed their draft. In the confusion of the last turn, however, I lost it, and they executed a perfect leadout for themselves. One of them won, but I held on for fourth.

This was not the best finish of the year, but given the strength of the field and difficulty of the race, it was among the most satisfying. Most satisfying of all may have been the urge to vomit. I felt like I'd just done a time trial, so hard and non-stop had I been working for 35 minutes. After most races I feel I could have gone a little harder. Here I knew I'd given everything I had. Exactly 100 percent of my being had gone into my pedals, and if fourth is as much as my being yields, so be it.

Photo taken by Michael Barran-Stanley: Aug. 19, 2006