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Tuesday, July 06, 2004

First Loser! 

It was a wonderful night at the races, Vancouver's ever-popular World Tuesday Night Championships.

As usual, and without much expectation, I started as a Cat 5/Novice with the other has-beens, never-wases, and novices. To my shame, I have never placed in this or any other categorized race (I won the citizen's race at the 2003 UBC Stadium Criterium, but it was a hollow victory against frat boys).

I didn't even feel very good today. I was overcooked and a little under-watered, a result of losing my water bottle somewhere at work, and then pushing fairly hard to get to the race. The ride started with my legs feeling like wood, so I took it easy, and played it smart. I also remembered the words of my mentor, Peter, who has told me in the past to be more patient with my attacks and more stingy with my work, and also suggested that I spend time watching the form of the other riders, to see what their strengths and weaknesses were. Good advice!

Thanks to my wooden legs, I took Peter's advice, and spent the first few laps sitting in the draft near the front of the race. I was helped by a truly lazy peloton, and some riders (one in particular) who were willing to take suicidally long early pulls at the front of the pack for no obvious benefit. Okay, that's great!

There weren't even any early breaks, and this year the novice WTNC races have seen the pack crack early and often. So I sat in, second, third wheel, letting everyone else take long pulls while I took very short pulls as rarely as possible.

Finally after a few laps of this (the race is 35 minutes, which amounts to maybe 10-12 laps for us), the breaks started. I let the first, rather weak looking rider go without worrying. He got caught quite quickly. A second pretty inoffensive rider took off shortly after. I then watched a rider in black take off, thought to myself, "hey, he's strong" and stupidly declined to follow him, partly because I was feeling patient (wood-legged) and partly because I didn't believe a solo break could survive for so long. But I like the look of the third guy to go off the front, on the hill. I grabbed the wheel, followed it up, and to my good fortune, nobody else came with us. I let him tow me all the way up to the next rider, since he was going there anyways.

And then there were three of us. The rider in black was still up ahead, but catchable. The pack was behind us, and seemed to be fading. Actually, they were really fading.

We kept up a credible chase, but we were either all tired or all too wary to do the necessary work. At one point I yelled to the others, "1-2-3 is way better than 2-3-nothing!" It didn't work, though we seemed to grudgingly pull hard enough to keep the pack away. I still don't know how; my computer says we managed a mediocre 36 km/h; the novice races routinely run at 39 km/h. The pack was very lazy. Lucky me.

So with the Man in Black nothing but a distant tease, we conspired to stab each other's backs in classic bike-racer fashion. It is how it always ends with breakaway groups: you work for a common goal, the common goal being to get far away enough from everyone else that you only have to out-ride the other riders in your break. For me, this was a winning strategy, because as of this year I can hammer up that hill on the course way better than I can outsprint the field. Thus followed a few uneventful laps, punctuated only by the time I lightly scraped one pedal in a corner, and another time when I tried to drink the last of my little bottle of President's Choice water, and nearly choked to death on it. Dumb, but I think I entertained my break-mates.

For my part, I studied the other riders, and decided they were feeling pain going up the hill, and I was not, and I was doing as little work as possible, and I didn't think they were being as careful. For something to do, I decided to work on loud, painful-sounding breathing at appropriate moments. I don't know if they noticed, but both riders seemed content to let me suck as much wheel as I wanted to. Okay, I can do that.

Then the lap board showed "02", and we started getting ready for the sprint. Some of us were more ready than the others, since when the next lap came around, I started sprinting. Because I was an idiot. So I come steaming up towards a puzzled looking race director, as he rang the bell for the penultimate lap. My air-deprived brain figured out the meaning of "01" and that ringing sound, and I pulled up. Dumb.

Maybe it helped. The other two caught me at the top of the climb (I backed off quite a bit, since I had no hope of making a break stick for the whole lap; they'd catch me on the descent). But I had lots of juice to stick on their wheels, so I did. and I stayed on, as we rode out the classic dilemma: nobody wanted to lead. But lead one person did (not me). I just waited. Finally, the other guy broke past the leader, and I took his wheel. We left the third guy (known only seconds earlier as the leader; this is why nobody wanted to lead) for dead.

The other rider made a game sprint, and I was scared. But as soon as I pulled out of his draft and clicked up a gear, a wonderful thing happened. Every time I stomped on the pedals, my bike moved up beside him a little more. This was really encouraging, so I kept on stomping pedals like there was no tomorrow. I stomped those pedals all the way to the line, and even threw in a bike throw just to finish it off. Sure, the man in black won in a walk, but second place, by half a wheel, belonged to me.

It was a victory (well, okay, not a victory per se, but you know) in which my little mistakes didn't overcome the big things I did right: I showed patience, I worked when I had to, and I sprinted just well enough. In short, I made them suffer.

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