Years ago, when I was about to perform for the first time on the Grand Ole Opry, an older musician sauntered over to me and said: “You’re making diamonds, aren’t ‘ya?”
“Yeah. You’re so nervous, if I put a piece of charcoal between your butt cheeks, you’d squeeze so hard you’d make diamonds.”
I laughed; he was right: I not only was making diamonds, I was compressing what would truly be the Hope Diamond.
On June 7th, as I got ready to ride my first race, a criterium at that, I chuckled as I remembered that night. Instead of a bass, I was on a bike, but I was still making diamonds.
Music City Crits hosts these races throughout the summer at the Nashville Speedway. The night of my race, they routed the course in such a way that there were several challenging turns, one of which was a 180° turn.
The plan was to arrive with my team, Rogue Racing, signup and then warmup. Unfortunately I missed early signup on-line so I had to do it there which cut into my warmup time. As I stood in line and watched my teammates spin around the track, I worked on that diamond.
“You’re not 58!”
When it was my turn to register, the lady looked over my form, eyed me, then studied the form once more. Her brow furrowed.
“You’re not 58!”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. In fact, if there’s a Cat 6 race, I’d like to ride it instead.”
She chuckled then said under her breath, “Give ’em hell!”
I took her encouragement as a good omen and set off for my bike.
As it turned out, I had plenty of time to get warmed up. I was also glad my teammates were seasoned; they paved the way for this rookie. We rode outside the speedway where we looped the streets around the track. My legs felt good, cardio felt good, and my nerves were in check. I was ready. We even had time to ride the course a few times, which further settled my nerves.
As a team, we met to talk strategy. Since I was the newbie, and the slowest, my plan was simple: don’t wreck; gain experience. For the others, they set out a game plan that included attacks, but in bike racing, plans can change at the first turn.
I was in the Cat 4/5 race which is 20 minutes long and drew 44 cyclists. We lined up and a race official called roll. Next, he explained that because there were so many racing, they would pull riders that were too slow.
I gulped. I knew I wasn’t a podium threat, but his warning made me even more determined to ride well. Like a mantra, I recited the goals I’d set for myself earlier that day:
- Don’t wreck.
- Don’t get pulled.
- Don’t come in last.
A wave of fear washed over me as I realized that I could get dropped and pulled from the race. I shook off the jitters, refocused, prayed, and got ready to go.
The Real Deal
I’d trained hard to get to this point. I’d even listened to podcasts about crit racing. And I most definitely took advice from my peers that have raced for years. But as I would find out, crit racing is like having your first child: nothing prepares you except the real deal.
I lined up behind my teammates. I wanted to stay with them for as long as possible, primarily because I trust their riding skills and would feel safer. The last thing I wanted was to be in the back, not because of the ranking of being last, but because of the yo-yo effect from the group’s ebb and flow.
The race official gave us the “go!” but I couldn’t get clipped in. It didn’t take me long to get going, but the damage had been done; I was at the back sprinting to catch the field.
The pace was fast and I was already gasping going into the first turn. Thankfully, the pace settled, and when a line of riders started to make their way to the front, I jumped on their wheel. We made our way through the mass of people, some of which were as squirrely as anything, and I repeated Goal #1… “DO NOT WRECK! DO NOT WRECK!”
We hit the turns and I felt confident with my bike handling to track with the line in front of me. We lined up for the 180° turn, which I took well but I somehow lost my position so I worked harder to stay in contact with the main group.
I made my way around Lap 2 with the same drama as Lap 1, but when we took the 180° turn, I picked a poor line and got dropped. It happened so quickly! I dug in, fought to catch up, but knew I’d never reach them. I continued to fight, watching rider after rider pass me until I was last.
“Pull Me…No! Wait!”
I was only minutes into the crit but my race was over. What hurt most was realizing that 2 of my goals would not be realized. Dejected, I hoped the race official pulled me, which he didn’t, so I kept on pushing, kept digging in, even sprinting when the wind was on my back.
I forget which lap it was, but when rounding the 180° turn, I checked the tarmac I’d just ridden, and for the first time realized there were cyclists behind me.
“HOLY CRAP! I’m not last! MY RACE ISN”T OVER!”
Adrenaline kicked in; I was back on task to fulfill my mission.
Aside for the first two laps, I rode the remaining laps without drafting like a time trial. I only mention this because I remember concluding that if I wanted to have success tonight, it was all up to me. My heart rate had settled down and although I was still pushing it, I felt strong and confident.
I glanced back to check on the cyclists and that’s when I saw a fast group closing the gap. I knew this was probably the top Cat 4 racers, and sure enough, they zipped past, one nearly hitting my front wheel. I suppose I was out of position, since he yelled at me, but I chalk that up to a rookie mistake.
Prior to the bell lap, the remaining group closed in on me and the other stragglers. Not wanting to repeat my mistake earlier with the Cat 4 dude, I took the least desirable position around the turn to allow them an unhindered angle of attack.
When I rounded the bend, I heard the bell, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I gave it all I had, knowing I was past the point of being pulled, yet still had to fight to avoid being passed by those behind me.
Nearing the finish, no one was close, but I got out of the saddle and sprinted if nothing more than to show I was giving it my all.
In the end, I came in 29th place out of 44 riders and for the record, I was the 2nd oldest racer. To say I was (am) thrilled with this result is an understatement. I have so much to learn in this sport but am glad I have a good “first taste” to use as motivation for upcoming races.
And if you’re wondering how I did that night on the Opry, well, let’s just say I nailed it. 🙂