Monday, March 28, 2011

True Sprinter

'I read your blog post last week. When did you do that 100-mile ride? That's awesome!'

'Thanks man, I did it last year.'

'Oh. You're still writing about last year?'

A grin spans my face from cheek to cheek. I am because I'm still thinking about last year, I didn't reply.

Instead my answer comes out something like, 'people don't want to hear about me riding off the back at the Dam Race, so yeah.'

Ty's question is an honest one, and as I start my pre-race prep I roll it around in the back of my head with the consideration of an idle thumb. Like picking at a scab my attentions aren't making it any better, just keeping it fresh.

Why are you still writing about last year?

That's the question he meant to ask. At the time I didn't have an honest answer for him, so what he got in return was deadpan.

Flick. Flick. Flick.

I'm sitting with Britton at the start-line, shooting idle shit, feeling slightly cool in a position of prominence on the line. All four of us 1/2 racers are being consolidated with the three's field and we're sitting at the head of the waiting pack. We laugh light-heartedly as we share a casual joke, the three's behind us are crouched in tense anticipation.

That has something to do with why I'm writing about last year.

Flick. Flick. Flick.

The pack takes off, Britton goes on a flyer from the gun.

God he's got some good fitness this year.

He's holding the gap steady as Andy and Mario take point to pull him back.

Flick.

I'm working to ride wheels, just to keep up. "Me a year ago" would put "me now" to shame. It's funny, I didn't know how fast I was then, always measuring myself up to guys like Tilford and Jensen. By comparison they're superhumans, the fact that I was able to keep up at all was a miracle. I didn't even know it.

Flick.

"Me a year ago" wanted to go pro and nothing else. He started his training regimen in November, put in 4-hour days everyday, and lived like a monk. I'm not the person I was the year before. Things change, people change, I flew close to the sun.

Flick.

I've been riding pack for four laps out of seven now. Andy and Mario have been at the front trying to keep Britton under control. They're doing so just. Britton is amazing, the guy keeps going: taking pulls, making attacks, riding at the front. He fills me with pride, and I want to do his efforts justice.

Can something be the same once it's changed?

No. I know it can't. Still, I want to be doing what Britton is doing now. The freedom of the attack, the exhilaration of inflicting pain; concepts I know well. I've neglected my constant companion, however, and for the moment they are feats I can't perform.

Flick.

Two years ago I rode at the front of a race for two consecutive laps, having just come off a rest period the week before. My mind was at another level that my body was not. On the third lap I got dropped from the pack, my tattered illusions fluttering from my back.

Coming to the final climb I'm resolved to make good on my self-promise to honor the work Britton has been doing all day. At the base I attack, it's violent. I know I dropped everyone, I just know it. Slowly a shadow rides itself to my back wheel. Who is that? Mario? Unbelievable, no one should have been able to follow that attack. To boot, he has Andy in tow. My head is somewhere my body isn't. I'm not who I was the year before.

I drop myself.

Flick.

'You know Cavendish is having a hard time even finishing a race?'

My shirt's off and Spencer and I are musing over the day's race next to his friend's car.

I let out a laugh, 'at least I have something in common with someone.'

'Ha, yeah. You're in good company.'

I'm still thumbing that thought in the back of my head. I can't be who I was the year before, but it's a part of who I am. There's a lesson there for the unknown that lies ahead.

I stop flicking it and pull off the scab. With a thoughtful gaze I look down at those remnants.

'Let's get out of here,' I say dusting off my hands.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Constant Companion

How long has it been? I forget. Time is a concept that has ceased to exist.

I lost myself to the rhythmic flow of the peloton gliding through corners at 28mph, reshuffling riders from the front to the back, the hum of wheels, the clicking of shifters.

Like waking from a fever dream reality seeps back in, leaving a faint impression of the experiences that have come to pass, but without depth, terribly incomplete. It's a shock to find oneself suddenly riding amongst one-hundred other riders, to be part of a machine that carries hundreds of tons of force, to feel the burden of processing uncountable variables in fractions of seconds.

There's a reason why my brain fell into muscle memory.

. . .

How long had I been perceiving the drone of my wheels, the hissing wind, the cadence of my pedal stroke and instantly filing those sensations away? As my awareness returns the immensity of my task does as well. 110 miles. It's the longest ride I've ever done, and at a 21mph average pace it's taking its toll.

Hours before I left the rolling hills of Lawrence for my hometown. Desolate country roads have so far shared their views of farmer's fields and abandoned oil rigs with the open invitation of shining sun and a clear-blue sky. Each hill encountered has been pounded down by sure-footed pedal strokes, hands held in a close aero grip, shoulders moving to sway just a fraction.

The sensation of transferring power into a pedal, powering a stroke, pulling a chain, spinning a cog, rotating a wheel, propelling a bike, is intoxicating. It lulled me into a trance, and for that period of time there was no distinction between machine and man.

. . .

Pain is my constant companion. Like a good friend she is true, giving back what was given to her in earnest. Turn your back on her and avoid her, she will spurn you with a woman's contempt. For months now I have been cultivating our friendship, meeting with her almost every single day, all in anticipation for this moment.

Like anyone, however, her company can wear itself thin. As it is doing now.

Coming back to my senses the immensity of her burden begins to be felt for its full weight. I've kept her company for far too long. Sitting mid-pack I look over the heads and shoulders of my competitors, over the glow of street lamps, and the din of the crowd's voices at a high-rise office building on the Tulsa skyline.

What am I doing?

It's a simple question, though it has become more pressing as of late. Looking up at that building, racing down the finishing straight, heading for another lap, I can't help but wonder.

This is insane. What mentally stable person does this? I should be up in a building like that, working, holding an internship. My god, I'm a 23-year-old-literature-undergraduate-racing-a-bike. What am I doing?

. . .

I'm rounding the 90th mile of my ride, my average speed still holding steady, legs thundering, riding with my constant companion. She likes it best when she's allowed to express herself, that's how you cultivate her friendship.

She's starting to make herself heard.

I'm quitting the rolling hills and the long climbs, I'll finish criterium style on a 1/2 mile course with two right-turns and a blip of a hill at the end. 40 laps to go.

. . .

The pace is becoming frantic. People are taking risks, some of which are carrying dire consequences. Amongst the sweat-stained jerseys of the peloton are those that carry the marks of calamity, the grass-stained, blood-stained, ripped, and torn.

I ditched my bottles a few laps ago. They were empty and I couldn't rationalize the extra burden of their weight. In a situation so extreme no variable can go overlooked, not a couple of extra grams, not a momentary hesitation, or a nervous squeeze of a brake lever. A crash goes on the inside corner of turn seven. It cleaves the field in half, sparing only those in front of it, claiming those behind.

I jerk hard right to avoid the press of bodies and squeeze both brake levers to their maximum. As I make contact with the roadside curb I allow my grip to relax on my handle bars. The momentum of my front wheel is instantly arrested, the rear continues its journey impetuously, somersaulting impatiently over its twin. I ride its bucking stride as it carries me over my handlebars, tucking my shoulder into a roll.

I will be one of the blood-stained.

. . .

20 laps to go.

I still carry the scars of all my crashes before. They sink weirdly into the divots surrounding my knees, an odd purple-red color. Some fade, some refuse to go away, those opened time and time again. Such concern isn't now a concern of mine. She makes sure her voice is the only voice I hear and that her thoughts are mine. I can thank her for that, for all of her attention there's no time to fear a tire loosing purchase or a pedal clipping.

It's part of keeping her happy and fostering our friendship.

. . .

I could have sworn the official skipped me in the pit for check in. In the rush to rejoin the race he missed me, just walked right on by. I'm surrounded by riders, but I'm not really here. I'll finish 26th out of one-hundred and ten, but I won't finish.

Such concerns aren't mine. For now there is the next man, and the next man, and the next.

. . .

One-hundred and nine-and-a-half miles, the final turn, I'm surrounded by riders. They're all reflections of me, my ambitions, my fears, my strengths, my weaknesses. They're phantoms of who I might face, but my only real opponent, myself.

Gritting my teeth against the pain, I ignore the screaming voice in my head, standing into a sprint.

. . .

Overhead the outline of that office building looms, I'm out of the saddle, teeth gritted, a silent scream in my throat. Amongst dozens of competitors I'm alone. I cross the finish line.

. . .

A gasp of exasperation marks the end of my ride. For all of it I'm alone. There is no crowd, no competitors, no sky-line, just me, the road, and my constant companion.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Fox and the Hound

A racer is either a fox or a hound; he is either chased or else chases. In each and every bicycle race there is only one fox and there are many hounds. Without exception, the fox always wins.

May 17th wasn't anything like the year before. As I toed the line, the gloomy grey sky looming overhead, threatening to drizzle, was in stark contrast to the crystal clear blue skies of the previous year. Exactly one year ago I ended my category 4 career here as the fox. With a mixture of admiration and envy I watched as my betters in the sport, Stolte and Tilford, claimed the top prizes in the 1/2's. At that moment, watching them, I had it in my mind that in 12 months I would stand amongst them and I would be in their shoes.

But May 17th wasn't anything like the year before. As a light mist trickled down from low hung clouds I sat two rows back at the start-line trying to hide a shiver and the anxiety welling up in my gut. Jensen and Tilford were both out today, which I knew I could expect, and so were a slew of Mercy riders. However, there were two variables I hadn't counted on: first, a rider unknown to me, and decked out in Bahati kit had joined the race, and second, only 16 racers registered for the 1/2/3's.

Unlike its previous edition, where the top three categories were consolidated into an impromptu, and tragically so, combined race, the organizers this year had allocated a contest exclusively for the 3's and then another open to those 3 and up. I had expected more of the lower category racers to be daring and grasp the opportunity to ride next to a living legend. In that I was wrong, they knew what would be in store if they raced up. Last year should have been all the proof I needed to dispel such a notion.

. . .

On that May day in 2009 myself and two Specs riders rounded the final turn leading to the finish when we caught the latter half of the combined field. Weary faces had greeted us, they were the battered remnants of the surviving 3's.

From the gun, Tilford and his cronies had picked the field apart with relentless attacks, which sent many off the back and allowed only the strongest to follow. The short of it was that the combined race failed tragically.

. . .

Crouched at the start-line, surrounded only by the hardened gazes and stoicism of seasoned pros, I took stock of my competition: an ex-continental man, a current continental pro, a five-time world champ, a European cyclocrosser, and some of the best local talent the region could muster. It was immediately apparent that in a field of this small size and exceptional talent there was going to be nowhere to hide. Today a racer would live and die on the alter of his own skill.

Catching sight of my old pal Kent Woermann I cracked a wry smile. He had been the only cat 3 with the cajones to race up. I could have kissed him for it.

Kent had been my first competition a year ago, when I launched the first attack of my career and shattered the field. He was the only one strong enough to give chase. The guy had, and still does, a big heart and a level head. Sitting at the starting-line he didn't look a bit out of place in a crowd of big-shots. I was hoping I looked the same.

I snapped to as Whittaker droned out the preliminaries. With each word the count-down ticked off and the tension mounted. It was all I could do to keep my hands from twitching while my heart pounded out a furious beat. A deep breath. Exhale.

'Racers, get set. Go!'

The surge from the line was incredible. Feet clicked into pedals with loud snaps and chains yanked taught fighting to keep up with the rapid demands of their riders. Immediately a single-file paceline emerged and set a brisk tempo. The peloton responded in kind, welling up behind and engulfing the leaders, switching the front from one rider wide to two. The pecking order panned out, sending the strong to the front and the green to the back.

I looked around and caught a glimpse of Britton at the the front and was instantly reminded of the surety of his presence. We had raced a great deal together in the last half of the previous season. Britton had the astonishing ability to appear out of nowhere, lend his assistance, and then fade back into the fold without so much as a word. At the 2009 edition of Tour of KC, Britton simply appeared next to me in the peloton.

. . .

'How's it going?' He asked.

'I'm getting a little spent, but ok,' I offered back.

'Good. Everyone's getting tired, just hang in there.' And with that he was gone. I didn't see him before that in the race and I didn't see him until after. He had appeared exactly at that moment I was ready to give in to exhaustion to lend his encouragement. His camaraderie gave me back the little edge I needed and I went on to take 2nd in that race.

. . .

And there he was at the front, chasing breaks and looking out for his team; the sight of it filled me with a familiar confidence. I wouldn't let him down.

Though the race wasn't ten-minutes old, things were getting pretty hot. Attack after attack blistered off the front, prompting snap accelerations from the group; stretching out the pack to a single-file chase before momentum was arrested and racers piled back into a three wide formation.

Jensen was the next to go. Everyone knows he's a player, and I'm the first to jump.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.. catch. I make contact with his rear wheel and he looks back at me nonplussed. He's just getting started. The rest of the group comes charging after with the speed of an oncoming train. When they catch us it's a virtual standstill. That's how it goes: sprint, stop, sprint, stop. After the catch, no one's willing to go out on a limb and make the next jump.

Mills dribbles off the front. It's a ploy, I know it. The pack just lets him go, it's almost surreal. One lone rider gaining inches on the pack. He's within reach, but everyone is holding their breath, letting him go. It's like watching a car come at you from two blocks away, slowly and steadily, until it runs you down. Completely avoidable, and yet irresistible.

Tilford jumps. His is a real attack. With loping pedal strokes he leaps to the shoulder and sprints the distance to Mills, now up the road. Between the two of them there's a real chance now. Mercy is represented and, of late, so is Tradewind, which means neither team will chase.

I move to the front and take point and feign like I'm going to ride them back. If that's what my competitors thought, then the were wrong. I waited. And I waited. And waited.

30 seconds spanned the gap. The two riders up ahead were beginning to look like specks.

I've done this maneuverer many times before; riding to the front, taking point, settling in to a rhythm, and then attacking up the gutter.

With a sudden jerk I stood in my pedals, the chain slapped taught, and my rear wheel skipped a fraction of an inch. Lunging from my point position on the yellow line to the far edge of the shoulder, I lept into an all out sprint.

The seconds ticked down in my head as the figures of Tilford and Mills got bigger and bigger.

'Bridger!' I yelled in warning as I made my approach. Without even a glance back the two ahead upped the pace a fraction, ensuring I would make contact and they could benefit from my momentum. Making contact I settled onto Tilford's wheel as Mills set the pace at the front of our small group. Taking a quick glance back I saw the peloton in chase, led by a lone Nebraska rider. He wouldn't get much help, the three strongest teams already had representation in the break and they weren't about to pull their teammates back. Instead they would sit on his wheel see if he could close the gap, if not, then they'd let him flounder. And he did.

'We've got a gap!' I yelled. With that news our speed jumped from 26 to 30 miles-per-hour, and our escape began in earnest.

Steve would go on to describe the breakaway as almost Zen-like.

'I usually don't get that in a local race,' he said afterwards, 'usually when I jump everyone chases.'

I understood exactly what he meant. For the first lap and a half, we blazed down the road at 30mph. The effort of it was as surreal as it was satisfying. Before us the wind broke and the hills yielded. Power coursed through my legs that made tires sing on the pavement. The three of us were a dynamo force on the road that defied any element; it was us versus the forces of nature and the limits of our bodies, and both offered little resistance.

Still, there were wolves in our midst. Three things had been temporarily abated which I would have to pay for in kind: I was a headstrong rookie, Mills was cunning, and Tilford was head and shoulders above the rest of us.

Even at the age of 50, Steve Tilford did what none of us could. He already laid claim to five world championships, multiple national titles, and more victories than there are days on the calendar. He was a cycling demi-god who walked around in street clothes and lived next door in Topeka. He almost had me fooled. He almost had me fooled into thinking that I stood the slightest chance of outfoxing him.

Steve Tilford, among other things, is a man of honor. In our break he put forth his fair share of work, and never for a minute dogged a turn or pedaled soft. To do so was far beneath a rider of his stature.

Mills on the other hand was different. From the outset he played the game, and where Tilford almost had me fooled, he succeeded hand over fist in pulling the wool over my eyes. Many years my senior in the cycling ranks, Adam is a consummate gamesmen. Anything that he lacks in strength he will make up for in cunning. And that is precisely what he did.

From the outset Mills played it cool, he belied his strength and feigned disinterest in the break. He teased us, saying that he wanted to turn back and ride easy in the group. When it was his turn to pull, our speed would drop a fraction. I took his acting as a show of weakness, and believed that he was holding on just.

I was wrong.

Nearing the final hill palpable tension descended on our breakaway. Mills missed a pull, and from that I knew the game had started in earnest. Our pace began to drop dangerously low as each man held his cards tight. To go to the front made one vulnerable to attack, but to flounder and wait jeopardized the whole breakaway. I was in the top three and I would be damned if we were caught 10-miles from the finish.

Going to the front I set a moderate 18mph pace, trying to keep up our advance, but not wanting to expend the slightest amount of excess energy. Tilford recognized the gesture and began to trade pulls, bringing the final twin slopes implacably closer. The attack would happen there, I knew it. We began to mount the first slope and nothing came.

Would it?

Halfway up and still nothing.

Tiflord moved to the front.

Would he?

With a lurch he put his full strength into the pedals, opening a gap between Mills. Adam reacted, but the acceleration was too much and I struggled to keep his wheel. We made contact before the base of the second climb. Tilford went again.

My already cramping legs were now screaming. It was all I could do to heave my weight into my pedals and close the gap on Mills. Ahead of him Tilford was making good on his escape, and for the moment, it looked like he would succeed.

Catching Adam's wheel I waited a few breaths and then launched a counter-attack of my own on the right side. Closing on Tilford I was astonished to feel Mills on my wheel.

How had he done it? A moment before he looked like he was broken. He was cunning indeed. Knowing full well that he didn't stand a chance against Tilford, Mills allowed me to catch him and then piggy backed me as I chased Steve.

'Jesus Steve, is that necessary?' I gasped after I made contact.

'I've gotta try,' he smiled back, fresh-faced.

And he did. With that, Tilford launched another attack. Almost as if in slow-mo, he stood on his pedals in his distinct loping sprint. His bike wobbled lazily back and forth for an eternity as I held my breath. I willed his bike not move.

The second time I caught him, there were no jokes or wry smiles, just gasps for air. Steve even seemed to be a little phased by his flurry of assaults. The air hung thick, each of us reshuffling their cards, looking for an edge.

Mills launched the next attack.

He had the strength left to attack? The extent of my underestimation looked me in the face damningly. I looked back at it with a mixture of shock and grief. My opportunity to dethrone a legend and ascend to ranks of cycling nobility was quickly falling away. After I had caught Tilford's last few attacks I felt that I stood at least a chance of holding him. Now that Mills had added his salvo, that dream was dashed. I couldn't cover the strength of two men.

As Mills attacked, I cracked. Tilford caught his wheel and they made good their escape, leaving me in their wake. Fighting against calf and quad cramps, I struggled simply to turn my pedals, let alone muster a rally.

'Get it together Matt,' I told myself, 'you can do it.'

Gritting my teeth I stood in a sprint and gave what little left I had. The 'whoosh whoosh' of my carbon wheels sounded loudly against the headwind, and both Tilford and Mills looked back to see me coming. Their gaze shifted from looking at me to each other. With silent agreement they put their heads down and sped away.

I was done. It was all I could do to hobble the rest of the way to the finish line and claim third-place. Even standing amongst my family and teammates, the debilitating muscle cramps had me wanting to collapse to the ground. Not 20 feet away stood those giants I envied still. Stiff legged, I held my head high and shook the hand of my idol for the first time.

Today he was the fox and I the hound.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Elastic Snaps

I can't do this anymore. Just hold the wheel in front of you. I can't do this anymore. For a split second my cadence relents, coming out of turn two. In the blink of an eye I'm sitting twenty positions further back. No, don't do it, just keep going. If you keep going the pain will stop. I wish I could, but I can't. I won't.

It's been seven months since I started structured training; the schedule of graded fitness, peaks, and valleys. Seven months of living like a monk, so they say. During that time I hadn't touched alcohol, hung out with friends, eaten what I wanted to eat; instead I rode my bike. Everyday.

For seven months my life has been an example of discipline, sacrifice, endurance, and willpower. In all of those things, as of now, I am almost completely bankrupt. Mental and emotional bankruptcy is the I won't that has defeated me no matter how much I wish for the contrary.

Endurance training and competition is likened to an elastic band, the newer you are to the concept the less your capacity to stretch. Before you snap.

Over the course of the season you stretch in anticipation of a peak, hopefully to your maximal limit, but not beyond. If you pull the band too tight all your training is for naught and you have to let it take slack. Sometimes the band snaps. In that event you'll be putting up your road shoes until next year.

Jesus Christ. You came all the way down here, don't give up you fool. I didn't want to, but I had to come, I needed to know, just to be sure. Ten more positions down. Little gaps open up. Competitors swarm around and speed ahead like salmon up a stream. I'm sinking. This isn't me. Someone else is racing in my place. God what an embarrassment. I'm tired of the pain, the sacrifice, constantly being on edge, stewing over training, the next race, my weight. One more place.. another. I can't because I won't. I don't want this anymore.

Snap.

"It's too hot for you guys to be doing this," comments a passerby. I'm sitting in the shade of a building, propped up against it's cool brick facade. I mumble something of a reply. It's almost automatic, done out of some sense of courtesy. His overweight form begins to waddle off down the street. I feel sick. Watching him meander down the street I imagine he just welcomed me to the ranks of the disgusting mediocre.









Author's note:
I haven't given up cycling, this post is merely my literary rendition of "burn-out" and the effects it has. Burn-out is quite powerful, and though it is in most cases transient, it can still lead to immediate feelings of long-term conviction. Honestly enough, I doubted that I would ever want to ride my bike again after the Springfield Crit; though I have realized I simply need time off.

My experience with burn-out is worth sharing because many cyclists feel its effects and, like me, might be knocked back on their heels by them. What I have found through my own experiences is that when faced with chronic feelings of discontent (i.e. not even wanting to touch your bike) an individual has to size up their situation and change their course of action. In my case I realized that ending my road season now would be best for having a healthy and successful season next year.

As for now I'm swimming with my girlfriend and running with my best bud, heck I might even do a triathalon.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sick Happens

I had been feeling increased muscle fatigue during training since Monday, but it wasn't until late Thursday that more serious symptoms began to set in. Friday morning I drove over to Olathe from Lawrence feeling pretty awful, but determined to push through whatever it was and race that night. While doing race prep at my family's house I collapsed and spent the rest of the day in bed. For three days I didn't leave bed except to shit and piss. Those three days in bed were a paincation with all the accoutrements: muscle aches, joint aches, headaches, nausea, fever, and fatigue.. it was the total package. Oh baby, did I get my money's worth.

Being sick is pretty unremarkable, being sick in June with the flu is more of a head turner; I'll admit. My best guess is that I contracted the swine flu. I really don't care about falling ill; yeah, it's inconvenient, it's painful, it's whatever. Bottom line, it sucks. What bothers me is that it's a waste of time. After last weekend I can't help but feel like I missed the party, and with this weekend rapidly approaching, I'm sure, at best, I'll be attending the affair a tad under dressed. That's life though mate. You put three stars on your calendar for two weekends in a row, manage a pretty spotless rest period, do two-a-days to get back in shape; eventually, just to see most of it sweated off in bed.

You've just gotta take the ego blow and get ready to rumble the next chance you get. That's precisely what I intend to do.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Urgency's the Word

It's been one and a half years since I toed the line at the 2009 edition of the Spring Fling, my first bike race. Funny enough, I was more afraid of not winning the race, than actually losing it. I was so nervous then, and eager, that I went almost from the gun. It must have been some sight to see; a chunky kid, wearing outlandish girl-shades, riding an orange bike that no-one rides, lapping most of the field. They called the finish blessedly early, I collapsed off the bike begging for water. Two days later I laid up in bed, with a raging fever, on account of pushing myself to exhaustion in back-to-back days of racing in the spring cold.

Though that early March race was my first, I wouldn't consider it as the start to my racing career. For me, my start, was when I made the decision that this was for me, and I went all in.

I had been tooling around on bikes with Brad for, probably, two months prior. He'll never let me forget that I refused to ride during the day, on account of how hot it was. Instead, we would patrol the local bike paths during the evening. On those rides I rode a Trek mountain bike. Still, my passion was fuelled by Tour de France stages and Brad's regailings of races past, and so my love never waivered from the road. As such, the Trek had every tweak-able component tweaked, flipped, or switched for roadie sensibilities.. or so I thought! The first order of business to get her road ready, was to flip her 30 degree stem upside down, then replace the flat bars with bull-horn handlebars; and finally, jack the seatpost as far up as it would go. Despite the fact that I hybridized almost everything I could to ride on the pavement, it would be awhile longer before I agreed to wear a helmet (owing to that they made my head hot); and even longer still, until I wore a proper kit. In the time being, Brad was kind enough to gift me an old pair of bike shorts and gloves. Unfortunately for me, or rather those riding with me, the bike shorts were so stretched by my large frame and threadbare from use, that I had to wear boxer briefs under them to be considered truly street legal. Somehow, back then, all this didn't seem so absurd.

That was it, that's how it all started. I was a 21-year-old, 235 lb. ex-rugby palyer, wearing the most outlandish road outfit possible, and riding a mountain bike gender changed to the road. All of this considered, I looked Brad straight in the eye and told him that I intended to cat-up to 2 in my first season, and that I also intended to go pro. In hind-sight, I realize that I had no right to say such a thing. If I knew then how hard it was going to be, how many life choices I would have to make to get even here, how many things I would inadverdently give up; I may not have been so bold. I think ignorance played to my advantage though; not knowing. My answer to everything was to just put my head down and charge ahead, to always give it everything I had. As a cat 5 I was riding 60-70 miles, and hard too. The whole while being completely clueless as to what I should or could do. Not getting the time of day from serious roadies didn't bother me; honestly, I didn't want their approval, I intended to earn it when the time came. The one thing I was certain of then, was that I wasn't there yet. My master plan has always been to earn respect with my legs, to achieve, to win. This logic is two-fold, though; a blessing and a curse. Such a mentality has motivated me onward and upward, much as it still does today; however, I'm never completely satisfied. The taste of victory doesn't last long and the grass is always greener around the next podium. To put it plainly, urgency has always been the word. To succeed. To win. To cat-up.

Though that may be, you still have to stop and smell the roses, and appreciate the small things. There's a lot more to be gained from racing, than victory on the finish line. Racing, training, and riding can change you, it can make you a better person.

Finally, one day, you look in the mirror, and you're proud to see who's looking back.




Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Agony or the Ecstasy

Thursday:
2pm: Phil and I arrive at Devil's Den State Park. 2:15pm: Philip gets the trainer tire on my spare wheel and readies my bike for the coming TT... 2:48pm: I roll around on the bike and test my legs on the park's switch-backs, they feel pretty good... 3:35pm: Philip checks my start time, it's 4:47:00pm... 4pm: 47-minutes until I depart; I put on my skinsuit and begin warming up in earnest... 4:45:36: that's what the digital clock reads outside the starting house, I've heard my name announced for call-up's. I roll into the starting house and am greeted to the sight of a few racers milling around confused. It has to be close to my departure time, I shout to the officials that my start is 4:47:00 and that my name is Matt Pfannenstiel (it still is on my license). They thumb through the list and say, "you missed your start time, roll when you're ready." It can't be, the clock outside the house said no later than 4:46:00 by the time I entered, and I enquired about my departure as soon as I entered starting house. "Go now," they say, and I sprint.

"No... no... NO. NO!!!" A broken record of that one word soundtrack plays in my head. I'm racing at 33mph to the base of the climb and mount its base climbing at 26. Within a minute I catch the racer in front of me; we're climbing at 17mph. Half-way up the climb we're holding 17, then I pop. 13 is a good as it gets during the real steep part. A climber from Dogfish racing catches me and passes. At this point I don't know how to pace myself, I don't know how many seconds I lost in my missed start, I never had a chance to set my computer. There's running and then there's running blind. Right now, I'm as blind as a bat. "Just finish," I tell myself, "just get it done."

At the top I nearly collapse.


Friday:
Turns out I'm 2-minutes and 15-seconds down on 1st GC. A Tulsa rider, Joe S., Dewey Dicky make up the top three in the general classification. I'm riding pack today and saving it for the sprint, it's all stage prizes from here on out. I'm okay with that, Mercy is going to protect Joe's GC spot and will bring back most of the breaks. Moves go from the gun, but nothing sticks this early on. I sit and I wait. A strong break heads up the road, six or seven riders, and quickly opens up a 30 second gap. I jump.

Each second is gobbled up by my sprinting legs, I sit only to take a sharp left and resume attack coming out of the turn, closing the gap to the lead group. My attack was strong, no one held my wheel, I arrived at the break alone. It was strong enough to elicit panic from the peloton though, which is hot in pursuit. In a few minutes they absorb us and it's back to pack riding.. and the crashes start.

No one wants to ride in the wind. Each moment is filled with jockeying for position, position on a wheel that is following wheel, a wheel that snakes across the road, following wheels. We don't ride constant, straight, or smoothly. In the peloton you're either passing, being passed, tapping the breaks, or jamming the pedals. At this moment I'm in the zone, unaware of reality, just flowing. My subconscious takes over, smoothing out my motions, removing nerves from the equation.

It starts with a shout, then the squealing of brake pads on carbon rims, that awful sound of hollow carbon cracking, and finally the surreal sight of bodies splaying across the pavement. Utter carnage in the blink of an eye. I remember the shocked look on the face of a rider as he and his red bike careen across the road towards me. I escaped on the right side; one of the last to neither be caught up or caught in the crash.

I would crash in 40 miles more, hand to my mouth taking a feed. It happened the same way; a shout, a squeal, and a crack as I went down. Immediately getting back to my feet I put my chain back on the small ring and struggled to get my shaking foot clipped in. "There's a big descent coming up, if you haul ass you can catch," a motorcycle escort said to me. I managed 26mph on the descent. Something was wrong, I felt like I had a parachute on my back. I got off at the bottom and checked to see if my wheels were knocked against the stays, they weren't. I checked my brakes, they were good. 16 miles-per-hour on the flats and I was dieing. Riders previously shelled began to catch, I couldn't hold their wheels. I told them I felt something was wrong with my bike, they said just to press on. Four or five groups dropped me.

20.. 15.. 10.. 5.. 3.. 1 mile to the second feed zone. I prayed that Philip hadn't left me and proceeded to the finish. I had been riding 20 miles uphill, into a headwind, and I was blowing up. How can this be? I thought to myself. How could that crash utterly derail me? I was riding strong in the pack, the gap I bridged felt good, and now? Why?

Philip saw me cresting the hill to the final feed barely keeping my bike up. "I just want to finish," I told him. There was blood everywhere. My wounds looked like something from World War II. Gravel mingled with enormous blood clots and blood covered most of my left arm. I didn't want to look at them, they were too horrible. "Finish strong," was what Philip said when he saw me off from the feed zone.

Andrew Coe and Mesa's Alex were the next to catch up to me. Andrew had been at the front all day for Mercy and popped a while back. I told him something had to be wrong with my bike. "Your back left brake is rubbing," he said matter of factly. It was. I reached back and pulled it loose. Immediately my speed went from a pained 18mph to comfortable 24. Mother f***er. I went 20 miles, uphill, into a headwind, braking. That was the hardest 20 miles of my life, I'll never quit a race after that.

Twenty-six miles later I kissed the pavement past the finish line. Handing my bike off to Philip I headed over to the medical tent, put my jersey between my teeth, grabbed a towel, and scrubbed the gravel out of my wounds.

Today I found out that I didn't make the time cut. Philip asked me how I felt about it. "Disappointed," I responded, "I wasn't about to quit." That's what this weekend did, it took quit out of my vocabulary. At this level shit is going to happen, it's not a matter of if, but when. The important thing is how you handle it; whether you cower in the corner and give up or compose yourself and look for other chances. There's always next year; not to mention, next week.