Road racing is life

No photos of Quabbin, but here's one of Gem and Coppi during old school allenamento.
A winter of rides like this helped me lose 17 lbs., and keep the appetite to race.
Hoi cafesupporters, I'm back in the saddle, and back at the keyboard.

My last two weeks were pretty tough. Losing your dad is never easy, at any age.  It naturally relegates cycling to it's proper place in life.. let's call it a 'serious life hobby.'

My last day with my Da was a family Easter Sunday.  We drank a little wine, and watched Boonen win Paris-Roubaix.  My dad was a tall guy named Tom too, and he enjoyed Tommeke's solo.  I tongue-in-cheek boasted my intention to pull off a similar exploit at Battenkill.   An easy baited hook for this quiet greatest generation WWII vet, to whom the slightest ali-esque braggadocio made his hair stand up on end.   He laughed and advised me just to just stay near the front and ride smart.   We chuckled, enjoying what was now a 30 year-old father son banter.   Good craic.  After dinner, a big hug and kiss goodbye.  Never thought it would be our last...

I'd been training all winter for another crack at America's spring classic, determined not to get dropped, to slay all.   I've thinned down from last year's 168 pounds to just over 150, a weight I haven't seen since 1983.   Pounds of salad, precious little beer.   T-minus two days before, all systems go.. but then came my sister's frantic phone call, a desperate rush up to Mass General Hospital...and the blur

So I missed Battenkill.  No big deal, heart wasn't in it anyway.   My friends and teammates Eric, Tom and Jay all flew the Flandria Cafe colors admirably, all finishing strong.   They told me that with the mild winter, the field was flying, everyone super fit.  I could barely bring myself to scan at the results...    

But the beauty of bicycle road racing is that there's always another one.    And this past Saturday's was the Quabbin Reservoir road race - another 63 hilly miles, with a tough climb to the finish.  Just what I needed to snap out of celtic melancholy.   Days when natural doubts about my recent re-commitment to this crazy sport crossed my mind.

In truth, those doubts only really lasted a few fleeting seconds.   Because 'bicycle road racing' - to steal that famous quote from Bill Shankly - is not a matter of life and death.  It's much more important than that.

So at dawn on Saturday, I loaded up the VW and made a solo, two hour drive to Quabbin.   Ample time to reminisce how many times dad would truck me all over New England as a teenager.  To defunct road racing venues like Harvard, Putney, Stowe, Greenfield...

"Not gettin' dropped today Da, NFW."  

I enjoyed one of those races I hadn't experienced in decades.   Felt great.  Spinning up every climb at or near the front, sotto controllo, increasingly surprised and ecstatic to be in there with the strong guys.  Almost felt like somebody was pushing me.   Maybe they were.

Was still worried about the ability to hold it into the finale, so no heroics.  Just stay near the front, in the action.   You know, a Nick Nuyens kind of ride.  A sniper only needs to fires one bullet.

Random thoughts, at 25 mph...
  • Why some 50+ year old guys take stupid risks for position in the middle of the bunch at meaningless times never ceases to baffle me.   Or get my Irish up.  Example du jour:  We're coming down the finish climb during the neutral start, and two total nimrods right in front of me do the handlebar bump-wobble.  Whoa...whoa.. WHOOOAAH!   Fortunately they keep it upright and 38mph disaster is avoided.   Guys:  Just chill, for chrissakes, will ya? 
  • The verdict is in.  Lowest possible gearing up the climbs is a way better way to go.   I spun up every climb at 90-100 RPM, seated, a-la-Charly Gaul baby.   Guys who were muscling were straining.   Nothing better for the morale than listening to the guy beside you hyperventilating like a one stroke while you're spinning up well under your threshold.  (As big Tex said, some days you're the hammer, some the nail...) 
  • Just made a poor position choice, and now I'm stuck behind a guy who's overgeared.  It's  making me nuts.  Now I'm stuck behind another guy in the Cafeterios team jersey who's bobbing his upper body like Abelardo Rondon. He's letting the gap open.   Vamos Colombia, flahute coming through, get the hell outta the way!
  • For this climb, I'm staying on Dmitri Buben's wheel.  Now, this is much better.  The guy is always geared perfectly, employing compatible high cadence seated climbing. A masterclass in smooth, like Indurain or Anquetil.  Not a false comparison, for as a multiple World Masters Time Trial champion, Dima's one classy rouleur. 
  • Speaking of class- the front of this New England 50+ field is a group has some really, really classy bike riders.   Tyler Munroe, Dave Kellogg, Dima Buben, Skip Foley,  Bill Thompson, Mosher (and the rest of the Keltic clan), Tom Officer, Todd Buckley, Kevin Hines, and more...    They alternate one attack after another.   It was real bike race.   Just being up in there again mixing it with those guys, lined out during the attacks is a total joy, it made a winter of suffering worth it.   
  • My teammates Jay and Tom are still in here too.  Both are climbing strong.  Maybe we can do something in the finale...  
  • I'm not thirsty.   They say nowadays you need to drink a lot...all the time.. 3 or 4 bottles in 100k, but I'm not thirsty at all.   OK, it's a little cold, 59 degrees F.   I force myself to take a few sips from time to time.   And to down 2 GU's over 3 hours.   But that's it.  I could have just carried one bottle.   The second was ballast I didn't need.  Should have chucked it on the final climb.   I think hydration mania is a little over done.   Raymond Poulidor was a camel, he never drank that much water.  
  • Back on Rt 9, final 10k, traffic is unexpectedly stopped ahead blocking the road at a church or something.  Everybody single files up and gets through, no worries.   No big deal.   That's road racing.   
  • Up the penultimate power climb on Rt 9, it's game on.   Crap, my power's fading, I'm yo-yoing off the back of the lead group.  Vision blurring, into the cave.   C'mon Da, help me hang on.
  • Made it back on.  And it all comes back together onto the final climb into the reservation.  A weird finish.  Nobody really attacks or sprints, more just long hard tempo with the field spread across the road that naturally separates the stronger guys as the grade steepens in the final 700 meters.   The front echelon is just 30 meters ahead, but it might as well be 3 miles.  At 200m I stand in a desperate attempt to sprint back.  Fast Eddy has left the building, it's not there this time.  The longest 200 meters in the world.  I manage to pass a few, but don't reach the vanguard.   Across the line.  Up front, white jerseyed Keltic guys celebrate another win.   
  • 22nd place, in the middle of the bunch.  Nothing to write home about, but hey, after last years multiple debacles I'll take it.   First hilly road race I've finished with the leaders in 3 years.  It's about time, was beginning to doubt I'd ever be able to stay in there again...
  • Conclusion:  Funny thing bike racing, it's all about how much you weigh.
Maybe it's the euphoria of being back in the action, but I drove back home thinking about how the Quabbin Road Race represents everything I've always loved about this sport.  The promoter Mike Norton organized a darn near perfect race:  A challenging course, designed to be as 'safe' as an open road race can ever be, plenty of parking, friendly fast no-hassle registration, and ample toilets. Clear, non-lecturing start line instructions. Flawless lead car/wheel-service support (heck, they even had even wheels on motorbikes!) and great marshaling. Fast results posting and prize distribution. All the ingredients of a great competition, without the commercial fluff or nonsense.  Like racing used to be when bikes were heavy and riders were light.   

Some newby Cat 5 joker posted on one of the forums yesterday that this was a 'poorly run race.'   Well he's wrong, and he has no basis for that.  Nor sufficient perspective.   From my decades of races like this, I can attest that it was darn near perfect.

Like many, I'm attracted to race bikes by the opportunity to participate in big road races, not industrial parking lot criteriums. Road races are the essence of cycling.   And I'm old enough to longingly miss many similar road races, on hilly New England rural road courses, that have died over the years.  Races in places like Harvard, MA, the Tour of the Valleys in Putney VT, the Maine International, Greenfield Mass., Stowe Vt., the Mt. Washington Grand Prix.... too many to name.  Races that were not big commercial extravaganzas, but great competitions, important to those who participated in them.   

Races like these are a dying breed it seems.  This year Lake Sunapee and Housatonic aren't happening.  
It's obvious that putting on a bicycle road race these days in our increasingly litigious American society is difficult, and often thankless. And in the drive-by digital world we live in, it's ever so easy to amplify one's voice beyond reason, and case stones in the process.   

The beauty of bicycle racing is that there's always another one...  but time has shown that it's something we shouldn't assume.    So memo to all you Cat 5 critics:  Be thankful somebody's giving you a venue to race at all.  You're lucky there's still guys like Mike Norton out there.   You should be grateful and thank him, not criticize.   

So Mike - thank you from a grateful old dog for putting on an event that keeps amateur road racing alive and well!  Like I remember it, and like it hopefully will forever be.  

Comments

  1. This was great read. My father - not a cyclist - was there for me when I started more than 40 years ago - and I've continued to reap the rewards from his help.

    The days when everything comes together - race or ride - are the essence of cycling - thank you for recording your experience.

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  2. Great article. Condolences regarding your father's passing. Congrats on losing the weight, and regaining your form!

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  4. Sorry to hear about your father.

    Random thoughts on the main text.

    1. We are terrible at estimating temperature and thirst. If you are a sprinter then you are using fluids quicker than a stamina athlete. Drink whether you like it or not. Also remember that foods or pastes need fluid to digest. Also remember most people are dehydrated nearly all the time anyway! Eating and drinking incorrectly has cost many gold medals.

    2. Good points on hill climbing. Like drinking, start everything earlier. Don't wait to be forced on to the lowest gear. Don't wait to breath hard. I am NOT a hill climber (too heavy) and I use Bartali technique, set punches, pause, set punches, pause. Right leg down so I can punch with my stronger left. I use eight and twelve cycles. Takes longer to fall off than you might think. Leaning over restricts your lung capacity. So the more upright you can be the more air will get in your lungs. You are right not to get out of your seat, don't do it unless you have to. Costs more energy. Some pro's use a disguised rise. They raise themselves an inch out of the saddle for a few punches and then sit down again. Handy for keeping the bike upright.

    Enjoy your biking - I will!

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  5. Thanks Pedro, good points all. That Gino Bartali technique is interesting, I tried it once but blew up big time pretty fast!! Thanks for reading...
    E.

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    Replies
    1. Carlos Monzon (the boxer), Gino Bartali and Jacques Anquetil. The three guys that science can't explain. GB could ride up cobbled hills on standard bikes holding a bottle of wine in one hand. Tow people up hills hidden in trailers. Complex man in so many ways.

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  6. Eddy,
    My legs are hurting just from reading. Good ride.
    Quabbin is hard, I did it once.
    You shoulda been a writer. Keep it on.

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