Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Remembering my first race....

Taking photos of the first race of the Spring Racing Series this past Sunday had me reminiscing about my first race... à la The Rider by Tim Krabbé (but not written as well).

What are you doing? It's 5:30 on a Saturday morning!

I stepped out of my apartment, greeted by the chilly breeze that insists that winter won't go away quietly. It's early March and I'm headed to Central Park for my first ever road race. It's a short 10 minute ride before I entered the park and started a short warm-up lap, coaxing my legs to wake up.

Really? You're going to try a race?

Prior to this, the only racing experience I had was when I was 10 years old and my friends and I would race our BMX bikes around the parking lot of the housing complex that we all lived in. Those were carefree days… and days long in the past. But after picking up cycling again (after a 10 year hiatus), the temptation to try my hand at a road race began to tickle the back of my brain.

I wasn't sure if I could do it. I had seen some of the cycling teams train in Central Park and they always appeared somewhat intimidating with their matching kits and their serious demeanors as they cranked out lap after lap of pacelining perfection. I had my doubts. What if I got dropped right at the start? What if I crashed? What if my legs just fell off halfway around the first lap? I just didn't know.

Playing the role of the compulsive worrywort, I hit the interwebs to see if I could find an answer. I looked for hints about how fast I'd have to be to keep up with the peleton. I looked for average speeds or lap times. I started over-analyzing the whole scenario until I realized that there was a recurring response that experienced racers gave to people contemplating their first race.

Stop thinking about it and just go race.

So there I was. I had just signed in at the registration tent and received my first ever racing number. (Which I foolishly threw away… I should have kept it as a memento.) As dozens of cyclists milled around the starting area, I had a chance to look around and size up the other riders. What I saw started to make me nervous again. Everybody looked so fit. And they all looked like they knew what they were doing, casually draped over their bikes as if this whole scene were just a Sunday morning recovery ride. There are fancy Cervelos and Pinarellos shining in the early morning light, shod with menacing deep-dish carbon wheels. My shabby little aluminum clinchers ask to go home... shamed by the carbon fiber menagerie.

I glanced down at my Garmin. My heart rate was 110bpm and all I was doing was standing at the starting line. A tiny bit excited, perhaps?

The starting whistle goes off and dozens of shoes click into pedals as we start rolling off the line. Within a blink of an eye, we are speeding by the back of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at a surprising 42kph. I had never gone this fast on this stretch of the park while training and it was exhilarating. Well, exhilarating until I got bumped by a couple of other riders. Then it became nerve-wracking. I calmed myself down and tried to establish my space, remembering the axiom in racing that "if you're not going forward, you're going backwards".

Shift, pedal, breathe. Stay calm. Why is my heart rate still 160bpm??

We race up the east side of Central Park and making a sweeping downhill turn into Harlem Meer, circling the ice rink that is used by junior hockey teams throughout the winter. We are 300m away from the beginning of Harlem Hill, a short 400m-long climb at 4.5% that usually splits the field. I've been advised that I needed to be near the front of the peloton for the climb because there is a quick descent on the other side that typically splinters the group. I fight my way to the front third and I think I'm okay as we race down the west side of the park. I glance at my computer again.

180bpm!?! I'm going to have a heart attack during this race. Now I know... this is how it ends.... 

I make it through the first of three laps as the peloton scrambles up Cat Hill. I'm proud of the fact that I've been able to hold my position within the group as we finish the hilly circuit averaging over 40kph. I'm scared to glance at my computer as we start the second lap. I'm fairly sure that I'm in supraventricular tachycardia.

Breathe, dammit! I want a refund on my heart and lungs. They feel defective.

We do it again. Around the Meer and up the Hill. I manage to hang on but am now starting to drift back in the peloton. I've gotten bumped a few times and it's made me nervous enough that I give space to the other racers. They are ruthless and opportunistic and as soon as a tiny space opens, they slide in… daring me to rub my cheap clinchers against their expensive 404's. I notice that I'm starting to slide backwards and I begin to fight again, afraid of getting dropped.


Suddenly there is a tangle of carbon fiber, metal, and bodies in front of me. I don't know what happened and I barely stop my bike in time before I run over the pile and join them on the tarmac. There's shouting and hand gestures as the racers on the ground wave us off. I want to stop… that's my first instinct. But everybody else goes around them and I follow. The peloton has been shattered. The riders that were ahead of the crash have sped off, knowing that the rest of us won't be able to catch them. The rest of us scramble and 9 of us manage form a grupetto to try to chase down the main field. We all put in long hard pulls at the front but we're not able to catch up.

"Shut up legs!"
"You shut up."
I'll have to have a word with Jens Voigt about this. Apparently it doesn't work for me.

Our grupetto starts our final climb up Cat Hill towards the finish line. Everybody breaks apart and sprints for the finish line. Well, they sprint. I limp home. But I make it home.

My first race. I didn't win. I didn't even finish with the group. But I finished. And in the process, I experienced excitement, fear, frustration, hope, and exhilaration… all within a span of 40 minutes. Something I will never forget.

So if you're thinking about it, just go and race.

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