The Alabama Masters 35+ CAT4/5 State Road Race Championship would be the culmination of my first year as a bike racer. I was hoping that I could roll together my training and the lessons I’ve learned throughout the year and end the season on a high note. Despite the repeated reports that the climb was really tough I liked the look of the course, which was 2 loops with an ascent of the climb on each pass. Wednesday before the race Brian Sumners and I made a recon trip and after riding the climb twice I didn’t think it was too bad. Even though the climb topped out 13 miles from the finish I wondered if it might be the deciding factor in the race. I even asked Brian how much time he thought someone would need at the top to be able to hold the lead to the finish. He said with a minute gap it might be possible to hold it.
Being an engineer and very type A I figured applying a little math to the situation might be advantageous. So I set up a spreadsheet to calculate how fast a chase group would have to go to catch a breakaway over a given distance. I even broke it down for different sections of the course since I knew speeds would vary on the rollers after the climb, the long descent off the plateau and the closing miles into the finish. I figured a minute lead was possible to hold, not easy, but possible. A minute and a half was better and two minutes would be even nicer, although likely really hard to establish.
One thing I have learned this season is that the best laid race plans can go out the window very quickly. You have to not only be willing to abandon pre-race plans but also be able to develop new plans on the fly. That being said, going into the race with a plan still seemed like a good idea and my plan was to ride the first lap in the pack, conserving energy for the second lap and then on the second time up the climb push the effort to see if I might be able to get off the front, or at the very least, whittle the field down some. The first lap went pretty much to plan. I took some pulls on the front to help keep the pace honest and concentrated on staying relaxed, taking in fluids, and not expending too much mental energy thinking about the second lap.
As we headed into lap 2 I was positioned well towards the front and before long we were at the foot of the climb. Time to execute the hard part of the plan and see what kind of time I might put into the field. I eased off the front and got into a good rhythm on the lower slope of the climb and was feeling strong. Part way up a glance back told me I had about 30 meters on the group. I kept up my effort and as I neared the top of the steepest section another glance back showed one rider who had jumped across to me. The bend in the rode obscured the rest of the pack, but the gap was larger. As the climb proper ended the road continued up a slight grade for a bit. I looked back at the rider with me and he indicated he had nothing to come around and help pull. I certainly wasn’t going to pull someone else around the rest of the lap, so I put in another little effort to get a gap.
The climb was now behind me and there was only one rider that I could see and I knew I was committed. The previous day I had been talking about my pre-race plan with Parker Agricola at Bicycle Cove and his words were now coming back to me, “If you go you have to commit and just keep pushing.” Time to see what I had in the tank for the day. Soon the race commissar rode up alongside and told me I had 15 seconds on the next rider. I figured that was the rider who made the climb with me so I kept the power on. A little while later and he reported I now had 30 seconds on the next chaser. I figured that was still the lone rider and I asked how far back the next group was and found that the next two riders were 35 seconds behind him. I had the minute that Brian, and my spreadsheet calculations, said was possible to hold.
I had 10 or 11 miles to go which included a section with some rollers, a section of gradual descent and a short, steep descent just before the final 5 mile run into the finish. As I pushed on a lot of thoughts went through the back of my mind, all helping to fuel me to keep the effort up. I knew a group working together could easily pull back a minute, but I also wondered if the group was splintered at the top of the climb and that it might take some time for them to organize. And there was no guarantee that a group would work well together. Ultimately, those were things I couldn’t control. All I could do was keep my head down and concentrate on keeping my effort high. Fortunately, I was feeling pretty good. I got past the rollers and was now on the steady, barely perceptible downhill off the plateau. The race commissar pulled up to tell me I now had 2 minutes on the chasers. Given the numbers from my spreadsheet calculation I knew that being caught was becoming a small possibility but with 7 miles or so to go I was not about to let up. I still had a 5 mile run into the finish and I knew I might encounter some headwind. And no one ever knows how the wheels might figuratively fall off.
I kept up the effort, soon negotiated the steep descent and the 90 degree turn at the bottom and was on the home stretch. At this point my mind wandered less to thoughts of how quick the chasers would have to ride to catch me as they were to pushing myself to keep up the cadence, stay as aerodynamic as possible and not forgetting to drink. The last report I got from the race commissar was that I had 2 minutes and 45 seconds over the chasers. With only a few miles to go I knew I had it. But to me the real race is always against myself. Seeing how far I can push myself. There’s always the challenge to push the envelope a little further. I kept pushing forward, not racing the competition, but taking the gifts the Lord has given me and using them 100%.
Soon I came to the 1km to go sign and knew it would be over soon. I kept on with my effort and the finish line was soon in sight. As I crossed the line the pre-race plan was complete and the effort over. And while fatigued and glad to be done I was somewhat sorry for it to be over. Don’t get me wrong, as the saying goes, “Victory is sweet.” But to me, whether in my past as a runner, or in this newfound challenge of cycling, the race for me has always been against myself.
I’m thankful for a lot of things this season… For my team, The Alabama Wheelmen club which has been a great group to be affiliated with and our title sponsor Johnson & Hayes Physical Therapists, along with C&C Fabrication, Pharmacy First, Bicycle Cove, Bicycle Works, Madison Cycles, and Trailhead which were great to have on board. A big thanks to Chris Leven and Parker Agricola who always got my bike perfectly tuned and fixed up… Especially after crashing out big time during my second crit. A huge thanks to my Tuesday/Thursday sufferfest training partners who pushed me to work hard and not slack, and who are just a great bunch of guys. And a big thanks to Brian Sumners for all the encouragement and tactics. I’ve learned a lot from you. And to my family, Clare, Ben and Maggie, for always supporting me. Clare, I’m especially thankful for the Cervélo you bought me to help get me into this crazy, fun sport, and your unending love and support. I’ve had a blast this year.
“The ultimate victory in competition is derived from the inner satisfaction of knowing that you have done your best and that you have gotten the most out of what you had to give.” – Howard Cosell