Saturday, September 19th marked the third consecutive year that I entered the Pleasant Valley Bike-A-Thon for charity. There are actually two bike trips every year, a 25 mile one that is a race, and a 10 mile trip that is for parents and children to enjoy. Of course I enter the 25 mile race.
As most people probably know by now, I am extremely competitive and have been that way for a while now. It is no surprise then that my goal is to win this race. In my two previous attempts, I had done very well but fallen short of the victory. In 2007 I finished 5th out of 20 and last year I finished 4th out of 30. I had made an improvement in gaining 1 more spot with an additional 10 racers as competition, but this year I wanted to beat them all.
Unlike the previous two years, this time I was physically at the top of my game. The 2007 race was entered on a whim as I had seen the sign on the way to school one morning and just decided to join without having actually biked in probably 3 or 4 months. The 2008 race was a little different, as I knew about it in advance, but still had very little training put in beforehand. I am not saying this to make it sound like I do not need training in order to finish in the top 5 of a very competitive race, I am strictly stating the fact that, in my opinion, I was not physically ready for that style of race.
This year turned out to be different, as a large portion of my free time this summer was spent biking. I had many of the longest trips that I have ever taken, including the longest one way trip that I have ever taken, a 4 and a half hour trek to Clayton’s new house that encompassed roughly 60 miles. I probably averaged 28-33 miles per trip and usually biked 3-4 days a week. I went into this race feeling as I still do now, that I was and am in the best physical condition of my life.
I had done all of my training this summer on my mountain bike which, while nice sometimes, is not a bike I would ever use in competition. The bike is an 18 speed but I only have access to the first 12 gears. This is because the third multiplier does not work, so I cannot reach the highest gears. In retrospect, I only lose gears 15 and 18, but it is still a loss. Also, the tires are not how I would like them to be and I believe that the back one might be a little bent as I can feel it when I am riding. I decided then that I would use a road bike for this race and banked on the fact that given my condition and how I can take such trips on the mountain bike, the race on a road bike should be easier on me physically and save my legs from having to do so much work, like they do on the mountain bike.
I biked to a friend’s house on my mountain bike on the Friday before the race and exchanged my bike for their road bike, which I took on a somewhat long ride to get used to. I wanted to get a feel for the gears more so than anything else so that I could shift them quickly in the race while not using much focus or ability to do so. As it turned out, the bike had immediate dividends as it took me 23 minutes to do a trip that took about a half hour on the mountain bike. I felt comfortable about the upcoming race.
The night before the race I went onto my computer, opened up iTunes, and made a special playlist for the next day which I titled “Bike.” This was going to be the list of songs, in a specific order, that I listened to during the race. Adding a side note here, yes, every time I bike I do in fact listen to my iPod. If you ever see me biking, do not assume that I am not paying attention. The opposite is actually true. I keep the music high enough to hear but low enough so that I know what is going on around me. For instance, I can hear the -whoosh- sound of a car coming up behind me. I also hear when random immature people like to yell at me as I am biking, assuredly thinking that for some reason I care what they have to say. Moving on, my playlist contained 20 songs, equaling about an hour and 35 minutes worth of music. I assumed that I would finish the race in that time, or shortly after. Oh how wrong I was.
I woke up on Saturday morning at 6:15 after going to bed at roughly 1:30, a great way to start off my morning, eh? I went into the bathroom, used it, washed my face, then proceeded to the kitchen where I had a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and a cup of orange juice. I went back into the bedroom and got into my biking gear: black shorts and a long sleeve black Under Armour for cold weather. After going outside I realized it was a cold morning, not necessarily a bad thing though. I left shortly after for the race.
Arriving shortly after 8:30, I signed up then sat around until 8:45 before I stretched and did a few warm-up laps around the parking lot. The announcer that they have there every year started his pre-race talk and the racers lined up at the starting line. I was lined up in second place and after he finished talking, we were off.
And so it begins.
We exited the parking lot where the finish line was and took a left heading up a slow rising hill and onto a straightaway. I immediately overtook the leader and began to pull away, without using any extra effort. I do no look back during this race very often, but in the beginning I like to, just to see the gap. The gap kept widening between me and them until they were out of sight. I knew, or rather I hoped, that eventually one or two of them would catch up and give me a run for my money, just to make it interesting. After a few miles, there is a right turn that leads up a very steep hill. Somehow I managed to miss this turn and kept going towards Poughkeepsie, ending up about 2 miles in the wrong direction. Upon realizing it, I turned back around and found the steep hill and took it. Once I got to the top I realized what I had already assumed, that not only was I dead last, but I was a good distance behind the last place riders.
This race has what I call a “reverse pace car.” A pace car is something that you see in NASCAR that leads the first few laps then drives off and lets the race start. Well in this race, there is a car that follows the last place riders in case them or any rider ahead of them breaks down or has bicycle trouble. The people just stop and sooner or later the car will get to them and either assist them or pick them up along with their bike if it is not fixable. As it turns out, I was far behind that car, meaning that the new leader(s) was much further ahead.
I knew that I was not going to go home and say that I lost this race because I missed one turn early on, my day just could not end like that. I knew that I had already went 3-4 miles more than the other cyclists and that in order to win this race, I would have to do 28-29 miles faster than they could do 25. It was a challenge, not only one that I was up for, but one that I welcomed.
In a few minutes time, I caught up to the car that follows the end riders and passed it, along with three riders that it was following. I went from 28th to 25th with that move, at least I was making progress. I began catching up to other riders that were biking in groups, slowly making my way up towards the front. Including passing one single rider in the process I went from 25th to 23rd to 21st to 20th to 18th to 16th to 14th to 12th to 10th in about twenty-five minutes time. I had entered the top 10 but knew there was much more work to be done.
Continuing on, I found it harder to locate the other riders because they were the best riders in the marathon and they had pushed on at a competitive pace. In one fell swoop, I went from 10th to 6th as I passed a group of four riders around a left turn. At that point, I began to think that if I continued on like this, I had a shot at winning. I knew that there was alot of race left and more than enough time to make some more moves. That next move came a few minutes later when I passed two more riders, putting me in 4th.
I gained the third spot relatively easy due to one rider walking his bike up a challenging hill instead of trying to bike it. I was not so relenting, and took the hill and his spot.
After that pass, I noticed the trend and became aware of how I was catching up to the other riders. I had trained all summer by always taking the most challenging routes when I biked, not just going on straightaways. I loved going up 343 knowing it was the most challenging hill I have ever experienced on a bike, but always knowing that the 30 second ride down was worth the 9 minute trek up. I had built up a likeness for climbing those hills and that training came in handy for this race. Whereas other riders struggled on the hills, even submitting to them and walking their bikes, I easily ascended them. This leads to my favorite part of the race, ironically involving a hill.
I was sitting in third place and knew that no one behind me would catch me. I knew that if I finished third, it would be my best finish yet in my three years entering this race. I also knew something else, that I could win this race. In two years I had finished extremely well but to actually win this year, that would be something, especially in this fashion. In the weeks leading up to the race, alot of my friends kept telling me “You can win this.” I heard that statement alot, and they all seemed confident. I was also confident, in both my ability and my physical condition. I knew I could do 25 miles in my sleep, my average ride this summer was close to or greater than 30 miles. It was just one of those things where even if you think you’re good, you cannot agree with the people who tell you you can win until you actually see yourself win or do well.
Anyway, on to the favorite part. I was coming up a hill and it connected to another, very steep hill, one of the toughest I have ever been on, probably in the top 3. I looked ahead on the mini straightaway that joined the two hills and saw the second place rider, a man about early forties in age. I caught up to him relatively quickly and got right behind him probably 1/5 the way up the hill. He then stood up on his bike, using more leg power to climb the hill. I simply remained seated and powered up the hill, overtaking him about 1/3 the way up and that was that. It was a nice duel, especially up a hill like that. All told, I was now second with, I am guessing, somewhere around 8-9 miles left. Then it began, the phrases from the friends. Could I win now? I asked myself that. I had gone from first with an enormous lead, to dead last via a missed turn, to one pass away from the lead. Maybe I could win.
It is said that some things are too good to be true, and maybe in part that is the case. As I climbed a hill a little while later, I made a mistake that I never make, downshifting my gears from the highest to the lowest while going uphill. This caused the chain to slide off of the sprocket and become lodged between the sprocket and the frame. I was angry. I pulled over on the side of the road to examine the bike. The chain was jammed in there pretty good and I tried pulling it out but it did not budge. I pulled on it from a few different angles and still it did not become dislodged. Time was running out, I knew that the leader was still pulling away from me and this only added to the work I would have to do to find him and pass him in the few remaining miles.
As I stood there messing with the bike, five riders passed me, putting me back to 7th place. I got madder at that point. I hadn’t done all that catching up to lose it now. I slid the chain one way and using alot of strength, pulled it out. In the process I sliced my pointer finger knuckle open so my hand had blood on it on top of the grease from the chain, I didn’t care, I put the chain back on, shifted to the lowest gear, spun the pedal, and the chain was back on. I took off after those five riders.
I caught up to them fairly quickly and passed them all one by one without acknowledging any of them. I did not have time to waste, I had the leader to find. Second place was once again mine, but could I improve on it?
For the next 2 or 3 miles, I biked on with no one in sight. I could see far ahead of me some of the time, but still he did not come into view. I knew that even if I could not see him, I could still make up ground on him and judging by my past experiences in the previous miles, I perhaps had him on the hills. In surprising fashion, I went down a large hill bent over on my bike to gain top speed and the turn went around a right corner. As I went around the corner at top speed, I finally saw what I was looking for and needed only a moment to take the lead. Going around the turn, it led to another downhill and I was just a blur compared to the leader. I passed him without a fight. Perhaps he thought his lead was so vast that he did not need max effort for the remainder of the race. I like to think not, that I did all of that work to find him, he didn’t let me. After all, this is a race, not a casual stroll through the park.
There really isn’t much more to tell, I passed him and led the final 5-6 miles by a large margin and crossed the finish line 15 minutes before the next rider did. Time for a reflection.
First off all, yes, I won the race. I never doubted that I could, it was just a matter of whether I would. As good a cyclist as I like to think I am, I cannot predict or downplay how good the other riders are. I am in the best shape of my life but I know full well that there is someone out there who is not in their prime and still capable of beating me in a bike marathon. I sit back and say, even at this moment, two weeks later, what I have done has not yet sunk in.. It truly hasn’t. I went from leading by a large amount, to falling to dead last, to making my way back to 2nd, to falling back to 7th and truly thinking that my race was over, to fixing the chain and taking my spot back, to taking the lead and finishing the race in first place. I had won a race consisting of 27 other riders with the same goal as me. I had finished 28 or 29 miles 15 minutes FASTER than the next best rider had done 25 miles. I had experienced 2 out of the 3 blood, sweat, and tears combination. Then I celebrated my winning by biking home for most of the trip, being picked up in Dover close to home. After that day, I know two things right now.
1. I didn’t win this race, I dominated it.
2. Next year, I plan to repeat, without missing my turn.