From: Sean Rhea
Subject: Jiminy Peak and Williams Crit Race Reports
Date: May 7, 2006 10:23:41 PM EDT
To: MIT Cycling Team

May is here. I've been riding an average of 10+ hours a week since early November, all in anticipation of this month. Six months ago, when I sat down to plan my season--my first real one since racing with Cal over three years ago--I planned to reach the peak of my fitness in May. Being new to the East Coast, I didn't really have a good reason to peak this month, but there were plenty of hilly races scheduled in it, and at the time that seemed like as good a reason as any.

I've scheduled my training entirely around this plan, reducing my hours and increasing my intensity as the months went by. In the last two weeks, I've virtually stopped drinking, stopped going out, and since my last big conference deadline, almost stopped working. All because May is here.

So far, it's paid off. I've placed second in two races even before my peak, giving me 10 of the 20 points I need to upgrade to Cat 3, my goal for the season. But I want a first. I've never won a bike race before, and I'll be sad if I upgrade without winning one this season.

The two races this weekend both have uphill finishes, perfect for my skinny-climber physique. I am psyched. I am hungry. I am a murderous bastard on two wheels who will tear the legs off anyone who dares challenge him. Paul Nerenberg says, "So all you have to do this weekend is not fuck up." Exactly.

The first race is Jiminy Peak, a 90 km road race in western Massachusetts that finishes at a ski resort. The second is the Williams Crit, on the Williams College campus only about 30 minutes from Jiminy Peak. Caitlin arranges for me to ride up with her and two BU guys, Colin and Piere, and arranges for me to stay with one of her Wheelworks teammates whose parents live in the area. I'll catch a ride to the crit with the Wheelworks kids, then the Naegles, Natalia, and Kipp from Tufts will meet me at Williams and take me home.

On the ride up Saturday morning, Colin and Piere introduce Caitlin and I to the term "King Dong": the guy whose self image is too big for his quads. King Dong thinks things like, "I'm going to lap this pack!" and then proceeds to sit ten yards off the front for an hour.

After a three hour drive, we arrive at Jiminy Peak, register, pin our numbers, get our food squared away, and warm up. I feel good. My legs are lively, I'm still feeling like I'm ready to rip the legs off some fools, and the weather, while a little rainy, is otherwise perfect for racing. I can feel my win already.

We line up and start without much fanfare. Nothing is going to happen early in a race this long. We'll do three laps, so people are mostly content to sit in and observe the course at first. It starts on a fast, straight downhill, takes a gentle right turn into a bunch of long, slow rollers, turning here and there, descends fast into a right turn onto the finishing climb, and then we're back to the initial decent.

I feel good the first time up the climb, easily sitting with the leaders. It's a three-stage hill, staring with a sharp grade before leveling off, then going up again, leveling off again, and finally pitching up one last time to the line. Observing the pack the first time through, I'm pretty sure how the finish will go: a bunch of King Dongs will attack the first pitch but fade before the end of the second. Only the patient climber will win this race. I plan to hit the hill near the front, avoiding any crashes that occur, then sag as the King Dongs pass me, keeping an even pace and punching it in the middle of the third pitch.

With my plans set, I relax into my usual spot somewhere around 5th through 15th, out of the wind. Many attacks go off and are pulled back, keeping the pace high through the rollers each lap and taking a toll on my legs. I'm still confident, though, knowing that everyone else is hurting, too.

As we come down the last decent for the third time, all is well. Though chaos erupts all around me--people are screaming at each other, the official car behind us won't stop honking for some unknown reason, a crash feels imminent--I am a picture of serenity, focusing only on my strategy.

I take the final right turn well, ending up in second place going into the first pitch. King Dong and his minions fire off the front, but I am unfazed. I keep my pace even, reeling them in one by one. By the top of the second pitch, I am in fifth place, right where I want to be. I can feel the surge coming, and when three guys come flying up the left side I jump the third one's wheel and the sprint is on.

My legs are burning like hell but I want to win so badly I don't care. Then the second guy jumps, I stand and mash the pedals...and they pull away from me like I'm sitting still. My brain screams "NO!" and I pedal as hard as I can--forcing each pedal down the front as I pull the back one up hard--but to no avail. In five seconds, I've gone from fifth with a shot at first to fifteenth with a shot at twentieth.

The race is over, and I have not won. I later learn that I haven't even made the top twenty. Twenty-second out of over 100 starters is not bad, but it is a far cry from what I hoped for, and I am crushed. More than crushed, I am simply stunned. Last week I took second in a huge bunch sprint, traditionally the weak spot in my cycling abilities, and today I've been trounced on my home turf, the hilltop finish.

I cool down, change, and meet up with the Wheelworks kids, who treat me to a wonderful barbecue before we all crash out for the evening. I've just met them, and they've raced well today, so I have no desire to dump my sorrows on them. Instead, I keep them to myself and fall asleep still wondering what on earth went wrong.

We wake up at six the next morning, eat, and drive to the course. It's basically a rectangle, but with one very curvy side. We start in the middle of a long, slightly uphill stretch with a slight headwind, turn left up a steep grade on which the finish sits halfway up, turn left again onto a curvy, single-lane descent, turn left onto a flat back stretch, and then left again onto the starting slight uphill. It's a lot like the UC Berkeley downtown crit, favoring riders with strong hill-climbing and cornering skills.

Normally, I would be totally stoked about the course, but after yesterday, I am simply scared. Has my peak already fizzled? Am I now only a sprinter? What I lack in confidence, however, I make up for in anger. I am pissed about yesterday, and I'm determined that if I'm going to lose again, it won't be without a fight.

After warming up, John Naegle and I take a lap of the course and decide that the winner will be the one who leads through the final corner. It's too uphill to get a meaningful draft, and there isn't enough pavement between the turn and the finish to come around someone anyway.

The race starts quickly, with someone attacking the climb every single lap. The pack fractures immediately, and continues to do so throughout the race. When they ring the bell for the first and only prime, I decide to use it as a test for the finish. I grab third wheel as we crest the hill and maintain my position as others shift theirs through the back stretch. With thirty yards to the final corner, I attack hard, railing the turn and coming out in a full sprint, standing for more power. It works beautifully; I pull a huge gap right away and everyone else gives up chasing me.

After I pass the line, I sit up, knowing there's too much race left to be out in the wind by myself. Shortly before the top, though, I am joined by two others attacking hard, and I jump on. We are pursued and, after a few laps, caught by a group of five, but the rest of the pack is lost for good.

With four laps to go, another attack goes off when I'm not in a position to respond, forcing me to pull it back in with the help of a few others. We don't catch them until almost two laps to go, and I am winded. I try to rest as best as I can, my mind now completely focused on the finish. I spend the entire second-to-last lap visualizing my attack to come: where I will jump, how hard I will rail the turn, how much it will hurt to hammer up the hill, and how I will continue on despite the pain.

With one lap to go I place myself at third wheel again. An attack goes off on the back stretch and I jump with it, again placing myself in third wheel. It happens again on the slight uphill, and again I find my place.

With thirty yards to go before the final corner, everything is set. I jump for all I'm worth, I rail the turn, and I dig like I've never dug before. I'm pulling through so hard I feel like I'll rip my cleats right out of the pedals. I'm also completely unconscious of how well it is working until right before the line I look up and there is no one in my peripheral vision. I kick hard one last time and throw my arms up into a "V", crossing the line more than a bike length ahead of my nearest competitor.

There is something potent in the combination of total oxygen deprivation and sheer joy. Or, as Jason Sears so eloquently put it, "It feels GOOD to win." And that feeling keeps hitting me in waves throughout the rest of the day.

Overall, it was a good race for our posse. John placed 11th, his best yet. Kristen got 3rd and Natalia 7th. Colin won the Cat 3/4 race. We had to leave before the Wheelworks kids went off, but with the size and strength of their team, I'm sure they cleaned up. We also scored some sweet sunglasses as schwag.


Practice empathy.

"V" is for Victory.