The nerves subsided as I approached the start line. For three weeks leading up to my first ever race I battled nerves and fear and now, all of a sudden, they were gone. Wow! I arrived there about six minutes prior to the start of the race; that put me way in the back of sixty-ish riders so my focus became “how do I get to the front of this pack safely and without wasting too much energy?”
Lesson 1: Arrive at the start line early to avoid this mess.
The whistle blew and my tunnel vision set in. Heading down the ¼ mile straight into the 180 degree turn, I found myself pushing and slicing through racers so that by the time I exited, I was sitting in on the sharp edge of the race, only about twelve to fifteen riders from the front. I remember thinking to myself, “well that was easy and well worth the effort; now all I have to do is sit in comfortably for the next twenty or so minutes.”
Lesson 2: Racing is NOT easy and probably NEVER will be comfortable.
Laps one, two, three and four were all the same: I sat within the first ten to fifteen racers, I was comfortable, I was taking in the actions and patterns of the racers around me. Who looks strong? Who looks erratic and therefore worth avoiding? Who is going to jump first? Surely someone will make a move; who will it be? I was oddly relaxed and thinking that the pace must not be too high as I was hanging in without an issue. It was then that I realized my reality: I looked down toward my Garmin to get a better appreciation of time, speed, heart rate, cadence and power. I couldn’t read a thing, it was all blurry, it was all small, it was all one big jumbled mess. “Damn, I am gutted”.
Lesson 3: Create a “Crit” screen on my Garmin where it only shows the most important metrics.
Reduce the number of data fields so that they are all easily visible when at max effort. I’m thinking Heart Rate Zone, Power Zone and Time” although that may even be too much. More to come.
Coming to the quick realization that my first four or four and a half laps were 100% adrenaline powered, I needed to reassess my position and my sensations. If I didn’t, then I likely wouldn’t make it across the line on the lead lap. I decided to take the next 180 degree turn wide and ride at my own pace up the hill. I quickly realized that was a huge mistake. Once I lost my line and position in the peloton, it wasn’t easy to get back in. In fact, it was impossible with my lack of skill, experience and confidence. Racers aren’t nearly as courteous as Sunday riders because they want to hold their position. “What the hell was I thinking? I can’t get back in now and I’m going to lose the lead group”.
Lesson 4: Don’t give up your line in the peloton. I wanted to slow my pace, but I should have just eased up and let racers swarm around me; thus keeping my desired race line.
So, yeah, the lead group boxed me out so I was unable to rejoin. Just like that, I was sitting between the lead group and the first chase group. I decided to sit up for four or five seconds, catch my breath and work into the chase. That worked, but it sucked realizing that I would have no chance at finishing with the leaders. But okay, “it’s a learning experience” so I’ll take it as that. Laps five and six, maybe seven, go by without issue, but I was starting to feel the burn in my legs. I’m thinking, “wow, how the hell am I going to hold on for another twelve minutes?” It was at that moment that I was making the left hander by the church and I see a rider down in the middle of the course. It was fast, but I had plenty of time to react and swung wide while everyone else in my group stayed in tight and then surged into the next left turn. As soon as that surge happened, I got up at the saddle to push to keep pace, but my legs laughed at me and, just like that, the chase left me and didn’t even say goodbye. When I finally made it to the sharp kicker about three or four seconds after the chase group, I really felt the pain. It became apparent at that point that I was in survival mode. My goals had shifted again: from finishing with the lead group, to finishing with the chase group, to now just finishing on the lead lap.
Lesson 5: Time moves extremely slow and race priorities/goals shift really fast.
With ten minutes to go, I couldn’t find my legs or my wind and I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to cross the line. The only thing I saw were morale crushing racers coming around me at a furious pace. It seemed as though they were on their first lap and I was going backwards. Rider after rider until one, an RCC member, pulled up alongside of me and said “we got this, dig deep.” We were both gassed, and we didn’t work together, but his physical presence nearby kept me motivated, and I’m sure it was the same for him. We jockeyed position for a lap or two. For me it became a two man race: GFNY Racing Team vs. RCC. My new goal, “just cross the line ahead of RCC”.
Bell Lap: The two of us came out of the 180 degree turn and saw another racer (Kissena) at his limit; he was about one hundred yards ahead of us. My “motivation” looks over at me and says, “let’s catch him” and I somehow oblige and dig in. It worked: ¾ of the way up the hill toward Grant’s Tomb, I locked onto his wheel and, ever so slowly, moved around him. The finish line came into sight, but just as it did, RCC flies by me in an all-out sprint and all I could say to myself was, “at least I finished”.
I finished in 25th place overall, almost ninety seconds behind the leader. Humbled, excited, motivated and ready to take what I learned in this race and apply it to my next.
— Michael Willett, GFNY Racing Team, Cat 5