This was my first season of “serious” racing, meaning that I trained to race, and raced whenever I could. Prior to this season I had three times. The first time I got spit out the back pretty quickly. The second race was a 32 mile road race, and about halfway through I ended up (upright) in a ditch. Last season I raced my first Snake Alley, which is a beast of a crit, and got 16/32. This result gave me the confidence that I had the power to at least stay with the pack, and really motivated me to give racing a try.
Our first race this season, Kent Park RR, is at the end of March each year. It’s absolutely brutal, especially for that time of year. The course is a 6 mile loop with constant rolling hills, including quite a few steep ones that really lay down the hurt, even at an easy pace. My off-season training had consisted of doing some 2x20s on the trainer, and then getting in some outdoor rides in the weeks between the snow melting and Kent Park starting. As you might guess, I got absolutely destroyed there. It was supposed to be 4 laps, but on the third lap I pulled out. Strangely enough (or perhaps not so strangely if you’re like me) this failure really motivated me. I don’t pretend that this is some skill that I’ve earned, it’s just how I am.
In about two weeks was the next race, a 13 mile “road race.” This was just separated into “A” and “B” groups (self-selecting), so my main hope was just to hang. I ended up making some mistakes and finishing 10/13 in the “B” race, but again, it was highly motivating.
My results slowly climbed up from there. Next was 13th out of 30-some-odd starters (Snake Alley again), then 4/13 at my first cornering-focused crit. I raced again a week later and got my first podium, 3/11 at another crit. I did a training crit with several sub-races and easily got first in every race in the “B” category. Finally I raced my final race of the season, the State RR Championships, and got 4th.
Obviously I was very proud, and this continual progression helped confirm to me that my improved results weren’t just a fluke, or the result of the “stronger guys” not showing up. My continued success motivated me to train hard, and helped get me out the door to do intervals on those days when I really didn’t feel to psyched to ride hard. I really believe that each race result and the ensuing motivation really helped me to continue performing at a high level.
However I also noticed a big change in my mindset while racing. Since I always wanted to prove to myself that I still “had it,” I would race more conservatively, which often meant sitting in for a sprint finish. Now there’s nothing wrong with sprinting, especially since I enjoy it and feel like I’m not too bad at it. But the fact is I’m 135-140 lbs or so, and while I’m quite muscular naturally, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to restrict myself to working as a sprinter. In fact I really love climbing (or the “climbing” that we have in Iowa at least) and can regularly drop people on the climbs. However my desire to avoid work in order to “not get dropped” or “be fresh for the sprint” meant that I didn’t develop as much this season as I probably could have.
I have an excellent example of this from my last race. In the State RR I didn’t notice the initial split happening, and so had to bridge up to it with one or two other guys. I worked very hard and was eventually able to get contact with the leading group. We then spent the next 20 miles or so in a quick echelon in order to hold our advantage. In the last 5 miles or so we hit a couple relatively small hills that we took at a fairly quick pace. A guy in the group that I knew to be strong seemed to be breathing hard going up those hills. Not dropping back or panting like a dog in summer, but noticeably having to work. About two miles from the finish we hit our last (fairly small) hill. The group took it very slowly, and even though I felt pretty strong, I just took it slowly with them in order to “save it for the sprint.” If you read that race report you’ll see that the strong guy won easily in the sprint, and I came in 4th.
The point of telling that little story is this: after the race I heard the winner telling his friends that he was super spent on those hills, and if the pace had stayed high he might have fallen off. When I heard this I rationalized my inaction by saying that it wasn’t clear that he was that tired, and so how could I know that I should have pushed it. But the fact is, during the race I did know that he was tired! Now maybe I didn’t know he was near being dropped, and maybe in fact he was overstating things and wasn’t about to be dropped. However either way putting in an attack on that hill could have taught me a lot. I could have experienced trying to solo in, or learning to ease off just enough to let others work with me but not get dropped, or learn that I didn’t have enough in the tanks to hold the attack. But no matter what the outcome might have been, good or bad, I still didn’t gain the experience that I could have. This made me a little sad after I realized it, but just like my earlier failures, this one motivated me. However it motivated me differently; not to go push out more intervals or put in more hours. It motivated me to be more adventurous next season.
I’m reminded of the cliche saying “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” In this case I really do feel like that’s true. So even though it may mean some poor race results, I really want to try more things next season. I’ll be in a higher category, so I need to really put in the work this off-season to be strong enough to be able to do more than just hang on. But for me at least, racing is about pushing myself and seeing what I’ve got. I’m not satisfied to getting consistent top 25% finishes if it means narrowing my skill set. I hope that next season my results are not improving monotonically, but instead jumping all over the place (but hopefully with a positive trend!). I know this will not be easy though, because success is contagious.