The oxygen seemed scarce as my heart pounded harder and harder. Searing pain was rotting my quads from the inside out, as I rocked side to side, churning the pedals; begging them to turn easier. The grimace on my face hid nothing. Eyes squinting. Teeth clenched. My gaze, no matter how intense, never seemed to bring the wheel any closer. The wind mocked me as it added to my struggle, screaming "where is your strength now?" I was about to get dropped. 90 minutes earlier-----
It was a perfect setting for a bike race: blue sky, mountains, sun, warm but not hot temps. Today would be my first road race in over 6 months. Excitement was pumping through my veins. This would be a good race for me I thought. I've been doing long rides with lots of climbing, my legs are ready. I was at the start line of the first ever Mountain Massacree Road Race, a mountain race in western Maryland.
We were to do 3 laps of a loop and one finishing spur to make a total of 57 miles and 7,700 feet of climbing. The numbers didn't scare me. Even having driven the course ahead of time, seeing the climbs didn't scare me. I love riding up hill, the longer the better. I'm a climber naturally with a thin build, long femurs and unusual love for pain. As the road turns up and the effort level increases, the longer I push the more my strength shines through. This race would be perfect for me. How many guys in my category are doing long hard rides? It can't be many.
For six months I have focused my training on getting stronger at one thing: going long. The Cohutta 100 mountain bike race was my focus, but I've done several other races that last beyond the typical 2 hour mark. Its become something of a habit, seeking out longer races that bring mental stamina into the equation. So far, I've been very pleased with the results. I can now ride for 4, 6 or even 8 hours and get my power up in the final hours of such rides. This race would be cake.
A short neutral rollout began our 3/4 race. Being one of the only 4's in the group, I elected to hang at the back and sit in. The pace car pulled away and immediately the pace jumped 40%. Now, this would normally be an unnoticed event, but seeing as we had over seven thousand feet to climb, I was a bit surprised. 3.4w/kg for 4.5 miles got us to the base of the first climb, and we were now quite warmed up.
Then, it exploded. We hit the 9% grade and did 5.6w/kg for the first two minutes as the unprepared were ejected from the pack. The remaining 6 minutes of the climb were done at 4.6w/kg (1342 VAM) to get us up to the first rolling section of the whole course to this point. Staying with the pack had been a chore but not one I was unable to do. I was satisfied and "knew" such efforts tired us all out and would not be repeated again.
We paraded down a very windy descent with cross winds stretching out the entire field until close to 8 seconds separated the front from the back. We approached climb #2 of the loop and someone at the front accelerated inciting a bunch sprint to catch a wheel (4.2w/kg for the 3 minute lead into the climb). Climb #2 was affectionately named Pig's Ear Road, and it was every bit as ugly. A 4.8w/kg effort for the next 4:20 was the order to fill and we all grunted our way up the 8.5% pitch before cresting the top a bit strung out (1348 VAM).
Once over Pigs Ear, the descent began more or less. But unlike most races, it was anything but relaxing. The field stretched single file back out to 7 or 8 seconds as cross winds on top of the mountain ripped at our bodies. There is nothing like trying to race your bike while gusts are blowing you across an entire lane of the road. When the road turns down, I mean really down, fear becomes the competition. Who can deny their innate sense survive? Who can let themselves go, and plummet down the mountain fastest? We dropped 1,100' in about 6 minutes. And I must tell you, there is little else in the world like hitting 48 mph on two small patches of rubber that are your tires, in a pack of racers.
Down the mountain we flew only to meet another climb immediately at the bottom. Nothing like a good 5.4w/kg for 3 minutes to wake your legs up from a 50 degree descent! We plowed up the road back towards the starting line; you'd have thought hell was chasing us. First lap done: 18 miles, 19.2 mph, 2,300 ft of climbing.
Back to the first climb, the irony of its name sank in: Sam's Friend Road. This road was no ones friend today. 20 seconds slower the second lap didn't bring the relief I'd hoped for as I pushed my 4.7w/kg to maintain contact (1286 VAM). The lactic acid was settling in, and my legs were in full on protest. My months of long distance training had neglected a few key pieces as I was quickly noticing.
I was barely hanging on to the back of the dwindling group now down to 16 riders from the original 28. We approached the climb up Pigs Ear and I knew it was going to be brutal. Another 6 minutes at 4.5w/kg was all I could do (1256 VAM). I crested the top and began reeling in the yo-yo'ing rider who would be my salvation, my bridge back up to the main group. Suddenly, we hit the cross winds.
Getting dropped in cycling is joy, humility, shame, frustration and relief wrapped into one moment. The thoughts are there and have been for a while, "can I maintain this pace?", "this hurts too much", "I wish this was over". Then suddenly, like magic, its over. You're off the back. And there is no hope to regain contact. You have been liberated from your cage of pain. Then, the thoughts flood in, "you're not good enough", "who were you kidding to think you could race these guys?", "everyone will know that you couldn't make it."
I didn't know what happened. I couldn't comprehend why I was having such difficulty. My training had gone great, I was happy where I was and my fitness seemed to be at an all time high. What was happening?
Dropped and completely out of contention, I took the next lap easy. I enjoyed the views for the first time, marveled at the excellent weather we had and simply enjoyed riding. About the same place I had been dropped on lap 2, I was caught by two riders on lap 3. They were riding much more quickly than my soft-pedal-because-I'm-out-of-the-race-now pace, and thus I elected to join them and discontinue my lazy speed. We put forward a sincere act so as to not look completely pathetic to the race volunteers and made our way to the final climb.
I was excited about the final climb as it looked to be something to remember: a 2 mile, 8%, dirt road. 4w/kg got me to the peak in 14:10 (1192 VAM), and just a few seconds behind one of co-dropped-riders. Desperate to stay ahead, this guy buried himself for the next 2 miles, fighting rollers and wind to bring home 16th place. I kept him honest pushing 3.5w/kg, while making sure our third dropped member was no where in sight behind. I crossed the line for 17th and immediately began to feel the weight of shame at having been unable to hang with the contenders. Since the race ended on a mountain, we had a 10 mile ride back to the car (mostly downhill thankfully), but I made sure I pulled the true heros of the day back to town to kill my legs once and for all.
All in all, it was a majestic race, brutally hard and awesome. I learned a lot about the true state of my training, and what I needed to toe the line with such mountain goats. In a long distance mountain bike race, getting up to 4w/kg again and again for 6 hours is what I trained for. But when it comes to road racing, there is simply no replacement for high power intervals regardless of how long your race is. Repeatability at high watts is priceless and will always rein supreme.
Next time, I will be prepared.