I look down at the sticker recently added to my stem. It’s from Solo, the “race-bred cyclewear” company. It reads: You are not alone. Right now, though, I feel very much alone.
Up ahead the remainder of the pack, already reduced by two-thirds early in the race, is now leaving me behind. One moment I’m climbing the rolling hills with the leaders, the next moment my legs are simply not answering when my brain tells them, “go”. Just five minutes before, I was feeling strong, even confident; but now, nothing. I slip inexorably backwards, the last wheel that I could have followed is now receding away from me. I am alone.
I run through the excuses in my head, a kind of balm to soothe the road rash of ignominy of being dropped. Maybe it was only managing two rides in the previous two weeks before this race; maybe it was the extra few pounds hanging over from the off season; maybe it was a lingering cold; maybe it was getting up a 5.30 am to soothe a crying 3-month-old daughter? But one can never know what the answer is; no excuse is ever a satisfactory explanation. You can either hold the pace or you can’t.
Road racing has been described as chess on wheels, given the multitude of tactical choices that supposedly need to be made in any race situation. But it can be pared down to three basic principles: one, stay out of the wind and follow wheels most of the time; two, get out in the wind and work some of the time; three, sprint like crazy when you need to. But even sticking to these three principles can be difficult – especially if the pace suddenly lifts, unexpectedly, imperceptibly, and you can’t match it.
And then you ride alone.
But there is no point dwelling on disappointment. We amateurs are out here for fun; for most of us – except those on the ladder of ascension to higher Cats – we get to play at bike racers and to enjoy ourselves. We thrill at the chance to test our legs, to swoop through the corners and to (at least try to) sprint up the hills; we ignore some other riders yelling “braking” – as if shouting out what you’re doing in any way gives useful information beyond what your own eyes can see ahead of you – and we ignore the jittery riding of others, and sometimes ourselves.
For we are not the Heinrich Haussler’s of this world, missing the final attack on the Poggio on Saturday’s Milan-San Remo, or Filippo Pozzato on the same day, apparently unable to sprint from a prime position to win the race in front of an Italian crowd. We don’t have to face a critical media, directors, and managers and the burden of our own professional expectations. We are the weekend riders, leaving our day jobs behind, flying past the handfuls of spectators out to watch for their family members and friends in the bunch, doing something we enjoy.
So I ride alone, thinking of the irony of the sticker on my stem, thinking of how I should mention it here for you, dear reader, and at least pay some form of homage not only to a very apt message but also to the superb service that the company provided to me over a mix up in my order (which, by the way, contained some equally superb and highly-recommended products).
Another group catches me up and we ride together for the remainder of the race. I rest up at the back, and then go to the front to take some big pulls – why waste an opportunity for some good training. Now, if I could just get some more sleep, lose the cold and a few pounds, and get a bit more time on the bike.
Then maybe next time I won’t have to ride alone. And if I do, maybe it will be off the front, instead of off the back.
Coming soon: posts on bike style as well as the epistemology of performance…