Tuesday, February 26, 2008

2003 National Championship Race

I never thought much of myself as being a great athlete. I was the typical middle child, that was middle of the road at everything I did, and cycling seemed to be no different. But, when I turned 40, things changed for me. As a back of the pack expert mountain bike racer, I showed up to a National Race and qualified to go to Worlds. This outstanding opportunity was the catalyst that would remold me as a racer. Still finishing in the middle of the pack, I saw that I was not that far off the leaders, and with a little work, could possibly win some day. I put together a three-year plan, and hoped to take a leave of absence from work in 2003 to focus on training, and be in full form entering the 45+ age group. ….. That was the plan anyway.

In the fall of 2002 my dad became ill, which caused some major changes in my priorities. During this time, family had become my only focus, and every day for the next seven months would be a fight for my dad’s life. Although knowing that many people go through the struggle of loosing their loved ones, nothing I could do could make this time seem any easier. This was probably the most difficult and consuming thing I had ever been through.

He passed away in May, and I did finally find the strength to get back on the bike. I decided not to give up on my goal, but lower my expectations of reaching it, as I had not been riding much. With some luck perhaps I could catch back up, I thought. Unfortunately, little things seemed to go wrong on every ride, and each time, I lowered my expectations another degree. The clock was ticking away, the race season was nearly here, and I did not feel ready. I would have two chances to test myself at the national level before committing to the trip to Durango Colorado for the National Championship race.

The Test:
Ready or not, Art, Willy and I set off for Snowshoe, WV for the first of the National Races where I would have a chance to test myself in the new age group. On the drive down I noticed road barricades and swollen rivers along the way. The thought of a wet race haunted me. I was beginning to feel that bad luck was following me around, or perhaps I was the bad luck.

We arrived and took a lap on the course. It was a mess and so was my head. I certainly did not have the confidence going into the season that I was hoping for. On lap two, Art went down and broke his ankle. As we sat in the hospital, thoughts of doubt and anxiety filled my head. Willy and I were ready to go home if surgery was needed, but Art’s broken bone was not too bad, and he was put into a cast and released with a choice of percocet or tequila. He had his tequila that night, and I washed our bikes while chatting with Michael Broderick at the very busy bike wash. Things were looking ok.

Race day: 30 minutes before my start, the skies turned black, thunder rumbled and downpours engulfed the resort. I took cover under an overhang, and as I waited, I began to think of all the slippery roots and mud on course and the little confidence I had, began to slip away. Here I was at this crucial point in my racing, and all I wanted to do was cry. An hour later, when the thunder let up enough to start the race, I reluctantly took the start line.

The gun went off, and as I mounted, my saddle and shorts were so wet, that I snagged my shorts and had to dab to remount. I snagged a second time and had to completely maneuver to get on the saddle. All this nonsense put me behind the entire pack. I tried to move up, but they were on pavement and I was in deep sticky mud. I was able to mash through some and get an inside line to the turn that gave me a better placement into the descent. Now I had pre-ridden this descent and it rode fine then, but it looked nothing like that now after a downpour and 200 riders ripped it up. I steadied a bit because there was a sweeping turn on the bottom. Just then I noticed someone in pink coming around me on the inside and starting to push into me. This woman could not hold her line and pushed me right off the course through the tape, and now I was standing on a ski slope, downhill from the trail watching the last rider disappear.

Back onto the jeep trail, I sprinted up to last rider, and went to pass her by crossing the grassy middle spot to get to the other track. Just then I caught a glimpse of a smooth log running parallel to the track. “This is not good,” I thought. I try to hop it, so I don’t take her out. It works, but not enough room to straighten out and I crash into an embankment full of pine branches. A little frustrated, I take a deep breath and get back on my bike. I finally catch up to the group, and in one uphill section I pass all but the woman in pink. About a quarter mile down the trail, I finally catch up to her and she and a bunch of men are off walking around a muck hole. There is a line open but it’s running water with rocks peeking out, and I ride it. Voila, I’m by easily, and pass them all. “Be like water” is now my mantra.

The next section was off camber, rooty, un-rideable, almost un-walkable deep clay. Pink passes me back on foot. I finally pass her back later on the first of the big climbs, but it is not long before I bury my front wheel into a bottomless mud hole that nearly swallows me completely. I pick my black self up and find my bike underwater, but pink is already past and quickly disappears. I chase up a series of long climbs, but she is nowhere in sight. By the top, Art gives me a “C’mon hold your place” and I realize pink must be way ahead. I get a little discouraged, but forge ahead into the next lap regardless.

At several points, I thought I saw a speck of pink way ahead, but never seemed to be able to bridge up. I seemed to be riding much better on the second lap, but I did not see anyone at all. This “nowhere land” feeling is very discouraging and although I kept pedaling, I began to give up in my heart. If I was riding well, why couldn’t I catch anyone? I just kept turning the pedals. Finally, I exited the woods into the open, and there in front of me was a huge line of women rounding the lake to start the climb back up to the finish. I scanned the line and found the pink jersey. Recharged from my find, I passed half dozen women not in my class. I could see the look of defeat on each one of them as they prepared for the final set of climbs. This only made me ride harder. By the first pitch, I was on pinks’ wheel. This time I steadied and counted to ten, and then I passed her, and never let up until the finish.

Climbing on top of the podium, I felt really accomplished that day, but was still uncertain if the trip to Colorado was worth it, because now Art had a broken ankle. The following weekend, I won Mt Snow by more than 10 minutes and all my friends including Art, told me I must go.

National Championship Race:
The staging area was overcrowded and hectic, and we never got our legs marked. Legs are usually marked so that racers in a mass start know whom they are racing against. They called us to the line and then asked us to step aside for the older men. By the time I finally lined up for real, I was on woodchips and most the ladies were on pavement. Needless to say, I did not get a great start, and worked a little too hard to catch up on the first climb. The elevation at the base was about 8900’ and I could really feel it at that point. A few women actually passed me back, but I did not think they were in my age group.

I got a little surge of energy as I passed through the village with all the spectators cheering, and could see the riders getting pushed back towards me as they started up the ski slope. This was no ordinary ski slope. This was truly sick. It was as steep as one could ride, quarter mile long and then imagine doing it at 9000’. I took a glance up, and not a single rider was on their bike. Keep in mind that this is only the women over 40 and the back half of the men over 50 that I am looking at. I must say that I was pretty possessed that day. Gasping for air, I managed to stay on the bike all the way up plus up the next 3 miles to the top. The climbing out in these mountains is bigger than anything a New Jerseyite could imagine!

The rest of the race was good, but for the most part, it was uneventful. I felt really strong and I was riding like I wanted to win. I rode with a few of the older men for a while. One wore a world champion jersey. These guys were so supportive, and encouraged me a lot. The climb was actually easier the second time around, and I still had no idea who was in my class, or how I did. I know I finished ahead of a bunch of people that usually beat me, but I had to wait for results to be posted to find out that I had won.

Although it felt really good getting my Champion Jersey that day, I never had that excitement when I crossed the finish line. And somehow, the win seemed a little bittersweet because I could not share it with my dad. Looking back at it now, I see the road I had taken was filled with many experiences, both good and bad, and I am very thankful for having such supportive friends in this sport, to get me through these times. Mountain bikers are amazing people. I am not sure whether mountain biking attracts great people, or makes great people, but they certainly were a part of me winning that day.

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