In anticipation of the impending bike racing season, I figured I would share my story about my first ever bike race.
There is nothing pleasant about this moment. That infernal beeping noise wrenches me from my peaceful slumber. I can hear my three buddies unleashing various muffled curses as we struggle to gain full consciousness.
“I do not think it is natural for anybody to be up this early,” I say, half jokingly, half seriously. This draws a few snickers from the guys, who are still mostly preoccupied with their own internal battles, wrestling with the question of “why the hell do I have to get up at this ungodly hour?” It is still pitch black outside.
With a Herculean effort, I finally muster the strength to get spring into action. This is a big day, after all. It is my initiation day; my first bike race. I will be thrown right into it, with no clue what I am doing; baptized by fire.
As we exit the hotel, it becomes clear that “baptism by fire” is perhaps not the best expression to describe this situation. Scandinavian mythology describes hell as an oppressively cold place (as opposed to the more familiar ‘hot as hell’ sentiments we are used to hearing). Wheeling my bike to the car, I attempt to come to terms with what I am seeing. There is snow everywhere: on the ground, yes, but on the roads as well, and still falling from the sky. It is freezing cold, and an angry wind bites at my face. In short, Pittsburg, PA has been transformed into a scene from Norwegian hell.
The questions that had been circulating in my head begin to get louder, but one screams over all the others: “how the hell am I supposed to race my bike in the snow?” “Are we even going to have this race today?” Previously I had been apprehensive about the prospect of the competition, and learning an unfamiliar discipline on the fly. Now, I find myself even more terrified of the possibility of a crash on these treacherous roads. My teammates reassure me that “they will not have us race if it is unsafe,” quelling my anxieties (sort of).
Upon our arrival at the race site, we hear that the races have been delayed for a few hours, in hopes that the snow will melt. There might be no snow, but the roads still will be slick. This minor delay just gives me some more time to chew on my nervousness.
How did I get here? I had been a competitive runner for over five years, and had even run at the collegiate level for several seasons. I had experienced small degrees of success and improvement, but these were often few and far between, punctuated by frustrating injuries that inhibited the consistent training indispensible for true development. I had decided to dabble in bike racing as an outlet for my energies and my love for endurance sports. I had often turned to the bike for cross-training when rehabilitating running injuries, but I had never raced on the bike. Yet, here I am now, watching the snow melt, waiting to represent the University of Rochester Cycling Team in the men’s D race (for beginners).
I get a hold of myself as I begin warming up for my race. I pack on layer after layer of clothing, and I struggle mightily to pin my race numbers on my jacket (which will cause significant overheating later, not to mention the fact that it is probably the least aerodynamic garment ever designed). I grab my beautiful white bike (which will soon be covered in road spray and grime), and head toward the start line. I get some last-minute advice from my teammates: “Stay near the front, but not at the front.”
As the race starts, all of the advice goes out of the window. I immediately drop to the back of the pack (like an idiot). In a running race (what I was used to), it is best to start out at a controlled pace, and work your way up as the race goes along. I immediately learn cycling lesson number one: you have to go hard at the beginning, or you will be left behind.
As I struggle at the back of the pack, the course takes a right turn, and immediately shoots up a fantastically steep hill. Those in front take off, and, sure enough, I am left behind. I probably should have listened. Now I must enter damage-control mode. First step: get to the top of this hill. This is not exactly an easy task, due to the fact that I have no understanding of the gearing on my bike, and I am stuck in a gigantic gear. I grind my way upwards at a comically low cadence, barely staying upright on my bike, resembling some sort of Loony Toons character. Perhaps lesson one of cycling should be “understand how your bike works.” This sounds like a necessary pre-requisite to racing.
I ride the rest of the race alone. I am absolutely sure that I am in dead last (actually, I finished about mid-pack). It is a truly miserable experience. A cold rain begins to fall from dark clouds, soaking me as I attempt to haul my body over the climbs while badly overheating due to the exorbitant number of layers I have on. After what feels like all day (even though in reality it only lasted slightly over one hour), I cross the finish line feeling wet, tired, and shell-shocked.
I spend the next several hours waiting for my teammates to race in their respective races. I huddle in the car for warmth, my exercise-induced body heat having worn off. It may be the coldest I have ever been. Three layers of shirts, a sweatshirt, a winter coat, and a warm hat do nothing to quell the chattering of my teeth. This is not the sort of glamorous introduction to the sport of bike racing that I might have hoped for.
However, as I sit here, I am not thinking negatively. Perhaps it is due to my running background. I am used to taking on challenges, and pushing my body to extremes. Accomplishing goals and making improvements makes it all worth it in the end. As I reflect on the mistakes I made during the race, it builds up a great sensation inside of me. It is not one of embarrassment or anger, and I do not dwell on the failure. Rather, one question begins to permeate my consciousness: when is the next race? I am going to be a lot better next time out. I think this is the start of something great.