I did some smart things, made a couple of big mistakes, and made, for about an hour and forty seven minutes, the hardest physical effort of my life. About an hour and a half into it, on a long gentle climb on a clean, clear road with the wind at my back, I had a moment of transcendental euphoria. And, as I suspected, I was the only one in my race without those cool wraparound sunglasses.
The First Mistake
We were the last to go, a small group of inexperienced riders, and the group fell apart right off of the line. My mistake was to expect a cruise up the first hill, but five of the youngsters jumped right from the start, leaving me hanging in no-man’s land between the fast people and the slow people. I wanted to be fast.
The course climbed a long, gentle hill for its first five miles, and the sudden break left me all alone up the first half of the hill, trying to get back on to the rabbits in front.
I’m a heart rate junkie, and my plan had been to avoid going anaerobic early, knowing I’d pay the price later for every minute above my threshold early in the race. But looking down at the monitor on my handlebar, I knew I was screwed. I’ve had this problem a couple of times recently with my heart monitor where it just goes haywire when I’m riding hard, reading in the 200s (my maximum heart rate is really about 190, and I rarely get into the 170s).
It’s funny how dependent I’ve become on the heart rate number to judge my level of effort, but for better or worse the malfunction left me to go by feel. I watched up the road, and saw one of the rabbits also by himself and in reach.
The First Smart Thing
I had the feeling Rabbit 1 was suffering and that’s why I was able to catch him, though I realize in retrospect he knew I was back there and knew we’d be better off working together. When I passed him I told him to get on back, thinking I was doing him a favor, but the favor in fact got returned in spades.
Neither of us were particularly experienced, but he showed me the hand signal and we got a good paceline rhythm going over the top of the hill across the mesa and into a long and gorgeous descent down into the Rio Puerco.
This is Rt. 6 west out of Los Lunas, New Mexico, along the route of the old pre-1937 Route 66. It’s sort of a road to nowhere, sometimes used by big rigs making a shortcut but otherwise only used by tourists savoring the view and local ranchers. On the back of our little paceline I did nothing but stare at my partner’s wheel (we exchanged names – Stefan), but on the front I could look up occasionally and gulp in the scenery.
We made great time, and started picking off stragglers from the “D” group, the race that had started five minutes ahead of us. But it wasn’t until the bottom, where the road crossed the Rio Puerco, that we finally picked up someone from our own race, another of the rabbits.
“Do you want to do the honors?” Stefan asked as we got near him and he waved me to the front.
The guy looked, and tacked on to the back, so we now had a three-person line and a good rhythm and we were flying. I’m not a particularly fast bicyclist, but with three people working together into the wind on rolling terrain we were easily holding in the low 20’s, which is damn fast for me, and I felt for the first time in my life like I was in a bike race.
Mistakes Two and Three
Right before the turnaround, at mile 19, there was a little hill. I’d driven the course, so I knew to expect it, a steep quarter mile or so, not really much of a problem. My mistake was to let myself end up on the back of the paceline at the bottom. On previous little kicks, I’d seen Stefan get out of the saddle and pull away from me, so I knew I wasn’t as good of a climber as he was. The same thing happened here, and in that quarter mile I dropped maybe 15 seconds behind the other two guys. Not far, but a disastrous distance ultimately.
Then at the top of the hill, I made my second mistake. I’d brought some of my food bars, broken up into little pieces, and I grabbed and stuffed it into my mouth. This had been my plan – a little food at the midpoint to avoid a bonk later. The problem was that I couldn’t choke it down. My mouth was a dry film, and I ended up unable to chew or swallow, choking the food down with water, and I had to slow down to get myself together. So by the time we made the turn, I was probably thirty seconds down on my former partners. As he passed me going the opposite way, Stefan motioned me to get back on.
The Second Smart Thing
I tried to hammer to back. I tried like hell. I closed part of the gap. But they were two working well together, and I was just little old me, working at the edge of my abilities. I also knew that when we got back across the river, the road kicked back up again, and even if I caught them they were likely to drop me again on the climb.
So when we crossed the river, I finally gave up on the idea of catching them and settled into my own rhythm. Everything changed. I passed a couple of more riders from the “D” race (hoping each time they’d latch on behind me so we could work together, but they didn’t), I had this incredible rhythm. My heart rate monitor was still giving squirrelly readings, but as near as I can tell it settled down here right at the top of my anaerobic zone. The pavement was smooth – odd how that mattered so very much, how very pleasant it felt. My legs didn’t stop screaming – man they were screaming by this point! But this sense of impossible euphoria swept over me, like I could climb that hill forever, like I wanted to climb that hill forever.
And then it was over – the finish line in sight, the 1 km mark taped to the road, Bill (the race promoter and finish line judge and my neighbor who gave me my first real road bike – thanks, Bill) saying to me as I crossed the line, “Keep going, John, they’re right behind you,” and a wave from the”B” race sprinting to the line over my shoulder (they’d done a full 50, not the 33 the “D’s” and “E’s” do).
I rode up and down the finish area a few times, chatting briefly with a couple of people I know, then rolled the five miles back down the hill to my car. On the way, a couple of riders from the New Mexico Velosport team passed me, and for a minute, just for fun, I tried to get on their back wheels.