A third-party account of my weekend, from the angle of my better, albeit limping, half:
Here is the only slightly abridged and perhaps slightly embellished story of my first attempt at competitive cycling. The date was April 12th, 2008, one day after my 45th birthday...
The town of Mount Joy, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has a great Brew Pub called Bube's, a very inviting though only passable coffee house called Higher Grounds, and on the outskirts of town, a VoTech for Tractor Trailer operators. Michelle and I sit in my rental car in the parking lot of the VoTech where many racers and their well-wishers have parked. There is no TP in the portajohn and very little blood in my face. I am turning green. My bike was out overnight in thunderstorms and the chain looks like cardboard. I need chain grease, badly.
Michelle points out a couple of women parked a ways over with a truck that seems filled with gear and I walk over to them to ask for lube. They are from Baltimore, 2 of a 4 woman team. The tall one has me grab and remove her bike from the truck so she can get the lube for me. Her bike weighs about 1/3 of what mine does, even when my tool bag is off.
I ride up to the reg tent and get my number (579) and Michelle and Sophia walk over toward the start. I am wearing my new shoes, my new smiley socks that Suz sent to the B&B where we stayed (courtesy of Mot, Lori and Suz) and my Steel City Endurance racing jersey. I am the only rider representing my team in this race, and though I am definitely among the cutest in the field, I am not at all confident I will represent them well. There are 40 other women here, and every single one of them looks like they know what they are doing. I have never ridden in a pack or a paceline, and my training has consisted mainly of rides with Jeffrey and Melissa that take us on large, hill-filled, meandering detours between coffeehouses. On the way in I passed these women warming up on their stationary trainers. If I had spun like that for the last half hour I'd be too tired already to race. Oy. Lee Ann, one of Pittsburgh's best female cyclists is here racing for her team and she greets me with a cheer. That's a little boost. We all mash ourselves up to the start.
We get started on time and I am doing what Jeffrey and Melissa have told me right from the start: Get on someone's back wheel and hang on tight. I do that, going completely anaerobic for .98 miles before I am dropped once and for all from the peloton. Only 22.02 miles left, and I'm on my own. I catch my breath and set my own pace when I hear someone coming up behind me -- it's that tall Baltimore woman with the bike made of air! We settle in together and agree to take 2 minute turns pulling each other in the draft.
This is Esther's first bicycle race too, only she is racing this year as a year off from Ironman triathlons, which she'd done for 9 years, even placing in her age group in Hawaii. She says she is sorry now that she swam that extra half hour this morning because she is a little fatigued, she should have only done an hour. We share a companionable ride for 2 of our 4 laps together, but I am working so hard just to keep in her draft that after pulling her up the course's only steep hill on lap 2 I just have to let her go and run my own race in the back. I am going to finish this race, dead last perhaps, but I will finish.
Michelle and Sophia are hanging out on the grass just beyond the start, so I get a big wave and a cheer every time I pass. Michelle tells me later that Sophia looked with interest and sniffed at the calves of all the male cyclists that came by until she realized they were not me. Was that about body shape or pheromones I wonder? Sophia isn't saying.
Esther and I were passed by the men from the heat after ours, and then later when I was alone on lap 3 and my right shoe was lifting and clicking off the pedal, I was passed by the straggler of that heat. We chatted for a moment.
Me: "Beautiful day, isn't it?"
Him: "Very. How's it going?"
Me: "This is my first race."
Him: "What do you think?"
Me: "It's very humbling."
Him: "This is my third. It's still humbling."
Right before the steep hill on lap 3 I can't take the clicking and lifting anymore and I get off my bike to tighten things up. Esther told me during lap 1 that tool bags are not allowed, but it was too late by then. Good thing I didn't know because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to adjust my clip. It didn't completely fix the problem, but my shoe is in tight enough for the rest of the race. I've now given up just under 3 minutes of race time and I'm really clear I will have to push myself to come in under 90 minutes for the ride, which I've said I will consider a respectable time. I get back on and go.
With 2km to go in lap 3 I am overtaken by the women's peloton again. Yes, I got lapped on a 5.7 mile circuit, and these women are beginning their final sprint. I hunker down and get in their draft and stay with them for about 60 yards before they drop me again about 100 yards before the finish. They are done; simply not expecting anyone to be continuing on; so as I come through to begin my last, solitary lap I have to shout to them to move over so I can pass. They seem surprised. To them it just doesn't compute. I remind myself that they would not have lapped me had I not stopped for maintenance. It helps.
I take the first turn of the last lap just as the rain begins. I am alone, the wind has kicked up seriously and I am pelted by big, hard drops of rain. But I am not despairing. I have come to find out what racing is like, and I have found out. I have come to see where I am in the scheme of women's cycling and I have seen. I have come to finish, respectably for me, and I believe I can, come rain or shine. I am determined to beat 90 minutes, and to not be passed by any racers from the later races anymore. I do all that. I finish last, but I finish.
Michelle, Sophia and I load ourselves into the car. On the way out we pass by Lee Ann and a few other women. They ask me how I liked my first race. I tell them I hated it. They look shocked and dismayed. It is the truth. I hated it.
Over the next few hours I talk out with Michelle what my reaction is about. Certainly I didn't like getting my ass kicked, but that isn't it. I get my ass kicked every single time I play Ultimate and I love Ultimate. I think about why the bike race was so different from the triathlon, which I felt so good about. The triathlon, with its communal feel and staggered starts provided a constant experience of being with others who, by virtue of our varied start times, did not occur as my direct competitors, only as sister travelers. That's not it either though, because if I train like all the other women in these races over time I would find others around my level to play with as I did briefly with Esther. Here's what I really hated: I hated the physical experience of going strictly back and forth between anaerobic and recovery, without any time spent casually spinning along and taking in the scenery. I love cycling. I like to challenge myself to get stronger and fitter and faster. But I like just plain riding most, and when I can't get a breath I can only focus on that, and it's not enough fun to want to spend my whole ride feeling that way. That's what I hated about racing.
Michelle asks if I will do any more races. "Probably." I say.
Thank you all for your support.