Matching the Wind: A View from the Men’s Category 1-2 Arizona State Road Race 2014
That’s what happens when you work for each other. –Eric Marcotte, after the 2013 AZ State Road Race
Part I: Race Preparation
September 2013 was the last time I felt the pulses of bike racing. I had been concentrating on work and family but I was missing racing so much I awakened to the idea that the right balance of racing could boost and sharpen my life focus, rather than detract from it. So I went to Show Low, Arizona for the Arizona State Championship Road Race on June 14, 2014 to race with the Landis-Trek team.
After committing to do the race a week and half before I didn’t have time to refine my fitness. I took care of all the little things with renewed attention, such as resting properly, eating right, stretching, riding with purpose. Bicycle racing is not an easy pleasure but adding intent to daily routines deepens enjoyment, and the little things add up to a difference in performance. Michael, Chris, Paul, and me made up our team this day. Our plan was to protect Michael and Paul since Michael had finished sixth at Tulsa Tough the week before in a classy professional field, and Paul’s abilities are legendary.
I had the usual bevy of prerace worries—all the driving this would entail, bike prep, time away from work—but I stuck to my plans. I had a good feeling about the race, but I’ve learned to be wary of those sensations, as confidence is tricky business. Humility seems to be the best mindset to work from so I deliberately tried not to get too excited. When I rolled up to Chris’s place to pick him up for the drive to Show Low, he threw in his Natural Grocer’s reusable bag containing his dinner, breakfast, and all the nutrition he’d need for the race. I brought my food in a Natural Grocer’s bag, too, and we saw we would mesh as travel companions. Sharing the adventure made for a fun trip.
At packet pick up at Show Low Ford happy volunteers welcomed us. Registration flowed easily. The t-shirt given to each registrant is now my new favorite. All the nice touches! After registration Chris and I greeted our teammates at the Super 8 and discussed race plans, unanimously deciding the best preparation was to go to sleep. One of the things I love about racing (and as I get older, feel guiltier about) is that it requires one to pamper oneself, making sure you’re properly fed, in bed at a decent hour, not wasting any energy on insignificant matters. The concentration created in preparation for seizing the moment on race day is like generating a protective force field. Every bike racer has the recollection that race day is going to hurt, though we forget just how much. Check your race journals for details. You must take good care of yourself. It is your duty to focus, relax, rest. And eat a big meal and drink.
Part II: The Race
On race day winds were steady around 30 miles per hour and gusts felt like a tall farmer with the open palms of his big hands was leaning with all his mass against our bikes and bodies. Men’s Category 1-2 race would travel 81 miles with the last 16 mile stretch from Taylor to Show Low charging straight into the wind. There were about 30 riders in the field. We rode through Show Low during a neutralized start. The right turn onto highway 260 signaled the beginning of racing. I went to the front. The strong cross wind was coming off the peloton’s left shoulder. Competitive sensations surged through my body. It had been so long! The adrenaline was lying to me telling me I could work harder, but I was on borrowed time quickly after the first couple of pulls. Michael said Mark, save some for later, clearly seeing my over enthusiasm could lead to a too quick demise. This suggestion was timed perfectly for me to get my wits about me and remember we had nearly 80 miles remaining, and everyone was saving. A little later Michael instructed me to start missing every other pull so I would conserve more energy. Michael passed the tips to check my efforts calmly and kindly even though I was racing like a rookie.
Paul’s legs were working well and he kept stretching out the front of the field. His efforts and some counter attacks from anxious riders on the rolling terrain led to a gap with a lead group consisting of about twelve riders. Three Landis-Trek riders were in it, Paul, Michael and me. The group worked well together growing the gap before Paul and Nate broke away before the first feed zone. After making the right turn towards Highway 277, the road from Overgaard to Taylor, we passed the feed zone but couldn’t hang onto bottles because winds were gusting at our backs and our speed was well over thirty miles per hour. Michael and I focused on covering everything in the chase group and letting the other riders whose teams were not represented in the break work on pulling it back.
Paul and Nate stayed away much longer than anyone expected, especially considering the chase was furious. I was starting to feel tired and thirsty. I couldn’t imagine what working in the break must have been like for those two riders! In the chase there were many more riders sharing the load. Lewis, Kyle and his teammate, Robert, and Adam all were taking hard pulls. Lewis in particular was racing inspired and his pulls were hard to follow. I was exhausted from the surging efforts and at the mercy of the wind. My legs felt bad. There is no way to simulate race efforts in training and now I was feeling it. All I could do was hang in. It helped knowing I was only a role player. Tapping into the mental connections of being part of a team effort helped me stay focused and endure the hard moments. Plus Paul’s sacrifice out in front was giving Michael, Chris, and me a relatively free ride.
By the time Paul and Nate were caught just before Taylor the chase group had been obliterated and those remaining were somber. Salt whitened the cheeks and streaked the race kits of this tattered band or riders. All outward signs of bravado disappeared. After we made the right turn onto the home stretch from Taylor we were in our little rings into the wind. Are they going to call the race off on account of too strong a head wind? Poor Paul had missed his feed too and needed some water, but I didn’t have any water. The riders that did have fluids passed them around. This shared suffering, the compassion that develops between racers, is a beautiful thing. It is a strong and memorable bond.
For some reason Paul attacked again. We all watched stunned and unbelieving. Later he told me he had a nice iced coffee treat before the race that morning at the local McDonalds, and was just feeling it that day. No one thought Paul was going to be a threat alone out there in the wind for the last 15 miles. We just watched him ride away. We had other small attacks in the group but you could tell everyone was flat out tired, and each attack was slowly reabsorbed. Michael and I discussed how poorly our legs felt.
Then a strange thing happened after Paul had disappeared up the road. We came upon a Landis-Trek rider on the shoulder nursing leg cramps, and thought naturally Paul was done. So I figured no matter how badly I felt it was now my job to go and make the other riders chase into the wind, so Michael would be able to draft and attack with a final decisive blow closer to the finish. Timing in bicycle racing is an interesting thing. Attacking seems to work best not as a cerebral decision, but a sensual one, kind of tapping your foot to the rhythm of the group, waiting for a lull in the pace when riders are sitting on the back of the saddle. You can feel when it is a good time to go. Reacting to that open moment, your mind kicks in, making you go even though your body is saying no.
I was listening for a good time and found it. I was surprised to get a gap but then terrified I wouldn’t be able to make it to the finish 10 miles away. I found my legs were working better at a steadier rhythm out on my own. The sense of excitement of breaking free from the pack’s tenacity was accentuated by such a long wait. I’m finally doing something besides hanging on! I was hurting but determined to carry on until I couldn’t anymore.
The motorcycle referee pulled up next to me and said I was one minute behind another rider. That didn’t make sense, who could be ahead? No matter because I was going as hard as I could, pedaling evenly in smooth circles to avoid inciting muscle cramps. A little ways further and I could make out a Landis-Trek jersey in front of me. Closer still and Paul turned his head around. Then I knew the rider cramping on the side of the road earlier had to have been a Landis-Trek cyclist from another race category, because it couldn’t have been Paul. Paul was right there in front of me. When soloing off the front, Paul had been told by the motorcycle official that another rider was coming but the official didn’t tell him it was his teammate. When we made sight of each other we were astonished, and relieved too because we were nearing the finish. Just before the turn to the finish Paul relinquished his fervent pace and I rode up next to him. I saw a face of absolution, all the fire expelled, a free spirit pure joy. Paul insisted I go first but I only could demure. It was obvious the wind was rewarding his effort today, maybe because he did not insist on his own priority. Paul uttered heartfelt words that spoke for both of us and then he was riding alone again. No one could have done anything to stop him on this day. He waited for me past the finish line and we celebrated. That was all worth it.
The Landis-Trek team rode as one and made each individual stronger. On race day Paul didn’t rail against the ferocious winds but carried a respectful awe, fastening his effort and focusing his energy. He set out with the goal that no matter what Landis-Trek was going to win that day. He wouldn’t have known what he was capable of if he hadn’t the courage to charge out there again and again into the headwind, diving into the great unknown. Paul made the entire organization winners, our manager Brian, the E-Board, sponsors, and the White Mountain Road Club members whose support and volunteerism makes the Landis-Trek domestic elite and regional racing team possible. A special thanks to Eric P., whose Christmas parties and enthusiasm renew us each year, infusing the club with positive energy and rooting us firmly in the best of classic cycling road racing traditions in the United States and around the world. Seeing Paul exuberant and sharing his story with the racers around him, we witnessed the energy for this collective victory channeling through him. There is no way you can be that happy riding alone. I learned something about the essence of road bike racing on this day. Great efforts everyone.
Race Website: http://www.bikethebluff.com/
Landis-Trek bicycling programs: http://www.wmrc.org/
The Tall Fiddler by Tommy Emmanuel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nW9rmaGaaG4