Sunday is redemption day. I told that to myself a little less than a year ago up in Muscatine, Iowa at the Melon City Crit. Last Sunday I was telling myself that very same thing all over again. The day before, in Saturday's road race, I finished somewhere mid-pack after a gruelling day of following attacks and bridging gaps. I cracked as the last move went and narrowly lost out on the winning break. Sunday's Capitol City Criterium was my chance at vindication and a chance to prove myself as a neo-semi-pro. I felt the same way in Muscatine a year ago. Back then, the day before Melon City, I had had a rear derailleur failure and DNF'd out of Snake Alley. At the Melon City Crit I went out with my head on fire, in hopes of solidifying my presence as a neo-3. The crit was gruelling, but I stayed at the front all the way to the final 100 meters; where I was caught up in a crash and watched victory slip away. Fate, it seems, has a sense of irony.
Sitting in the third row at the starting line I had already made up my mind; positioning into the first descent would be paramount. I had heard the day before that the first five laps are hell, and that the ultimate selection comes from the strong men during those laps. Before the start, I had recon'ed the course over and over; first taking the descent at speed and finding the best line through the 90 degree right hander at its base, and then testing my legs on the subsequent 100 foot climb. My recon was good.
At the gun I clipped in fluidly and proceeded to pick my way past those struggling to start. Immediately falling into a position in the top 10 I knew I was in good company, seeing Tilford, another teammate of his, and a handful of Texas Roadhouse pros. Our group took the descent with the utmost speed and put the hammer down on the following climb. We kept plugging away, when all of a sudden, no one had our wheels and we were off the front. Just like they said, the first 5 laps were hell and that's where the selection came from.
It was Tilford, his Tradewind teammate, 4 Roadhouse guys, a few other elite riders, and myself; rounding out the break. After realizing we were the move, my first thought was, "holy shit, Philip is going to freak when he sees who I'm off the front with!" In short order we opened a gap bordering on 40 seconds, and then the attacks started in earnest. Roadhouse, having so many in the break, began rotating attacks and playing possum. We reeled in a few of the attacks and I even took turns at the front, all the while bridging gaps and dealing out my own digs.
I felt strong. Ridculously strong, considering the company I was in. Getting dropped didn't look like a possibility; and when push came to shove, I could jump any gaps in the break. With about 15 laps to go out of 40, Tilford sat up. He let the wheel of his teammate in front of him go. We were coming into the last turn to the finish and there wasn't any time to pass before, so I resolved to cross the gap after we came out. Ducking out from behind the Roadhouse rider who had Tilford's wheel, I began my pass on the world champ's right. A split second after I began my move, Tilford pulled hard right, crossing my path. I yelled, "NOOOO!!" but the damage was done. His rear wheel crossed my front wheel and turned it sharply to the right. As my bike spasmed violently, my momentum carried me over my bars and onto the pavement.
It's hard to explain what I was thinking at that moment, but suffice to say it rankled of defeat. Laying in pain on the tarmac the event staff helped me to the curb. All the while I just kept saying Tilford's name over and over, asking him why. He had derailed me, more emotionally than anything else. I'm not blaming him, hell, I have the utmost respect for the man. He happened to be making a "I'm-not-pulling-your-ass-around-the-course" sharp turn off when I was coming around to pass him. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Between the event staff babying you in an attempt to make sure you're ok and the fact that all you can think is, "oh my god, that was my chance to breakout and it's gone," it's hard to get your head straight. I stood up and started pacing, blood dripping from my shoulder and running from the wounds on my leg. "What the hell am I doing?" I finally asked myself, "get back on the bike!" Dashing across the street I barked an order to the pit crew to put on my spare wheel. An official approached me saying, "why are you going back out there? It won't make a difference, you're laps down." I responded by telling him that I didn't give a shit and that I wasn't going to DNF another race. "Ok," he sighed. I threw a leg over my saddle and asked when I could go. "Now, I guess," he responded. My reply was a few hard pedal strokes. The crowd roared.
There was about a quarter of the race left to go. It was all passion, I put everything I had left into the pedals. I'm not sure how fast I was going because the pit crew put my skewer on the wrong side of the wheel; all I know is that the group I re-entered in front of never caught me. I could hear the pace car coming up behind me each lap, and each time I crushed the pedals and kept it at bay. Every time that I rounded the corner I went down on the crowd roared and cheered, "go number 19!!" I couldn't believe people actually cared what I was doing out there, that I had gotten back on the bike. It wasn't for show, it was for me.
The laps ticked down; 10, 9, 8, 7... 3, 2, 1, 0, they rang the bell for the last man on the course; me. I was the only one left. I put my head down and pushed on, tears mingled with the blood running down my leg. I crossed the finish line to the roar of the crowd, one hand raised in the air thanking them.
Special thanks to my mechanic Philip, it wouldn't have been the same without you buddy. We'll get the win soon.