Saturday was my first bike race of the year. Hillsboro-Roubaix was my first bike race last year as well, and thanks to a knee injury following my two spring marathons it also happened to be my only bike race last year. Last year’s cat 4 race was 44 miles with a field size of 100 riders. This year’s cat 4 race was 58 miles with a field size of 125. I’ll start by saying this is too many people and too long a distance for a cat 4 road race.
Our Wild Card Cycling team had a really strong group of six riders in the cat 4 race. I’m a pretty decent rider (I finished 19th in this race last year) and our other five guys are way better than me. We liked our chances. We headed out onto the course for what I thought was going to be a short warmup ride. We ended up going 10 miles, which is much farther than I should have gone given that I was already nervous about the race distance.
We all started the race in good position–perhaps too good. After the first uphill Luke rode off the front of the group without really trying (the speed was low). I suddenly found myself at the front of the 125 rider group not knowing whether to catch up to Luke (who certainly wasn’t planning to be alone at this point in the race) or slow down and let his gap grow. I slowed down. Nobody came around me. Luke’s lead continued to grow. I slowed down more. Nobody came around me. Finally, after several minutes, a small group surged past on my left super fast. I caught onto the tail end of this group which caught up with Luke just before a turn into a tailwind. We looked around and this group of around 15 riders contained all six Wild Cards. Game on. We pushed the speed even higher and opened up a sizable lead. This was only a couple miles into the race and it was just too early for that kind of move. After a couple miles of chasing the rest of the main field eventually caught up and we were one group.
This is where my race would begin to go wrong. It happened so gradually that I didn’t really notice. I moved from 15th to 20th to 30th to 50th to 80th. The pack was so big and the road was so narrow I couldn’t maintain my position and before I knew it I was at the back of the field. This is not where I wanted to be. In addition to the inherent danger of being directly behind scores of cyclists moving at high speed in tight formation, the back of the pack does a lot of yo-yoing. There’s an accordion effect. There were times when I felt like we were coming to a complete stop, then there were times when I was going flat out to hang on to the group. I knew I need to be eating frequently for such a long race, but there was no time to do it. At one free moment I tried to snarf down a Clif Bar. I got half of it in my mouth before I had to accelerate hard. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow it. The half bar remained in my mouth for several miles before I could finally choke it down.
Making matters worse was my looming dehydration. My bike holds two water bottles. This is enough to get me through 30 miles. The race was twice that distance, this was one of the hottest days of the year so far, and I sweat more than any human being on the planet. I knew I had to conserve what I had, but it was costing me.
The race made its way through the countryside without much excitement. I knew my race would be over if I wasn’t closer to the front by the end of the first lap. The big hill and brick roads in town would definitely split the field. Seizing my only opportunity I found an opening on a straight flat road with a tailwind and flew past about 30-40 riders in one go. Entering town around 40th place or so really only prolonged my agony.
Sure enough the group split going up the big hill in town, and, like every other time I’ve ridden up this hill, I got stuck behind people going very slowly and basically had to stop on multiple occasions. By the time I turned the corner to go back down the hill the leaders were almost at the next corner, almost out of sight. This was bad. I flew down the hill onto the brick road, struggling to keep my bike upright. The group was completely shattered. There was a big group ahead, a big group behind, and I was in no-man’s-land with a couple dozen other stragglers. We remained separate heading back out of town, nobody was able to get organized. The leaders rode away and we could do nothing about it.
At this point my fate was sealed. I could neither get a good result nor offer any support to my stronger teammates. I don’t like seeing DNF next to my name in race results so I was determined to finish the race. It was a real struggle though. I baked in the sun the whole second lap. I was out of water, thirsty, tired, miserable. In retrospect, I would have been better off stopping. Eventually I came upon my teammate Alexei, who was changing a flat tire. I stopped to talk to him and we rode together for a few miles until cramps in my legs (a sure symptom of dehydration) slowed me down even further. I had more cramps on the first hill coming back into town. I actually had to stop and stretch for a minute because I was unable to rotate my pedals all the way around without cramping up. I made if halfway up the last hill when I pulled off to the side of the road long enough to watch the cat 1-2 riders blow past me up the hill on their final lap. Once at the top I basically coasted on to the finish line.
The other guys on the team had done alright, but not as well as they had hoped. We had a couple of guys with pretty good chance of winning who ended up 6th and 11th. They raced well, but it just wasn’t our day.
I crossed the line completely alone in 70th place (which is actually far higher than I thought). I immediately chugged as much water and gatorade as I could find. I felt absolutely terrible–muscles twitching, head aching, disoriented, hungry, and a bit nauseous all at once. The race didn’t go at all how I planned. But that was just my Saturday…