photos by Evan Grucela, See more at www.rongrucela.com
I looked straight at it, the yellow BBC sign with the arrow pointing right. I looked straight at the road sign, Taylor Road, and then I looked over at the marshal who appeared to be holding back traffic to my left with both arms outstretched. Did this mean, “Go straight or go right?” I headed into town straight ahead, a race pretty much over at this point. I’d gone the wrong way!
This year has been purposely different for me on the bike. A friend was dying, and I just hadn’t felt the need to have a winter like last year where I slaved over the trainer day after day only to burn out after Father’s Day.
I still remember the Father’s Day breakaway with John and Rebecca. We hammered the downhill of the Wyoming course, and I channeled my inner Svein Tuft and led the group pushing faster and faster until we rode everyone else off our wheels. I remember my two companions shouting compliments to me as I floated to the back of the group, and we hurtled down the road at close to 25 mph. I remember John crushed me on the straight uphill finish after we both had gotten away from Rebecca, a super strong lady who had worked hard (and smart) to help keep us away. As I watched John pedal away from me, I knew it really didn’t matter much. I had already given my self the best Father’s Day gift I could have received, I had just ridden the race of my life.
The rest of the year was just never the same. I had peaked. Game Over. All the guys who we had dropped in Wyoming were now crushing me albeit sometimes on flatter courses. Where did all the power go? How was I getting dropped by the same guys that I had crushed just the week before? Race after race ended with pretty mediocre finishes. Races quickly turned into time trials as I often got dropped only to ride solo to the finish. I barely held on to win the BBC Cat 5 season, but it was by that point largely due to the number of races I had finished. I won, but barely. I look at that trophy and think.. you lucky SOB!
The first time I got a glimpse of that trophy is actually a big part of this story. I missed the big BBC banquet because we were with my son at a hockey tournament. My friend and teammate Dan was sending me pictures of stuff I was actually winning, as he accepted them on my behalf. I was very happy and lucky to have had enough points to win some new caps and the trophy, and in retrospect, those hockey trips would actually help me immensely going into this year. Being constantly on the run took away a lot of time on the bike, and as winter passed slowly by, I was way behind in my training for this year. I also lost my training partner to sickness. Quickly my training had taken an awful turn. The first wrong turn.
Fast forward to June and a big local race, the BBC Hamburg Road Race. This is always a major race to look forward to, and I hoped I was in enough shape coming off a winter and spring where I was 1,000 miles behind last years pace. Before Sunday, I had only done one race, BBC Freedom Run, and actually felt pretty good coming in mid-pack in the B race. I have spent a lot of time this spring simply riding group rides and getting in some hard training only when it was possible. I figure I am probably 30-60 days behind where I was last year. Lousy weather, a still sick training partner, and just busy life, in general, had taken a lot of the frantic competitive edge out of this year’s mindset.
Hamburg rolled in with a large number of teammates in my race, the Cat 5 Men’s 35+. It would be 30 miles of pain, with about 900 feet of climbing in the first half of the course and then frantic downhill and rolling terrain. At 5’9” and 174 lbs, I always feel I am a little too big for the hills and a little too small for the flats. So, my strategy going in was two-fold: 1. Do not blow up on the inclines and really push the heck out of the flats and descent while others might be recovering. 2. Do not limit yourself by looking at that damn Wahoo computer on your handlebars. Just race.
The first leg of the race went about as I had planned. I sat on near the mid to front of the pack, and I lasted quite a while before the pack blew up after the second big surge. I was shot out the back as usual, but I noticed there were not so many people behind me. Most of the pack had dropped off much earlier. Good sign.
I tried hard to get back on, and I caught up with three or four stragglers. We worked together hard on the first descent and the final hill before the long rolling backstretch. One rider went off the front of our quartet, never to be seen again. However, remembering my strategy, I gave it my all on this stretch and hoped to push my limits. This strategy worked like a charm, as the other two riders fell off the back on the climb, and I speed ahead...alone. However, this familiar TT that seemed so positive at first would end up costing me a few places in the long run. I hurtled down the backstretch with great hopes of a top ten. And then I screwed up...big.
I looked straight at it, the yellow BBC sign with the arrow pointing right. I looked straight at the road sign, Taylor Road, and then I looked over at the marshal who appeared to be holding back traffic to my left with both arms outstretched. Did this mean, “Go straight or go right?” I headed into town straight ahead, my race pretty much over at this point. I’d gone the wrong way! I had gotten myself into a position of being all alone...with no one to follow the right way!
I saw town ahead and knew I had just blown everything. I turned around and headed back carefully to the missed turn. I screamed at the top of my lungs “What the f@#k!” as I passed the intersection. When I looked later on Strava, this little loop had cost me about 1:30. When I got back onto the course, I found the two or three guys I had dropped were now up ahead, and a larger group jumped on my wheel up the hill towards the line.
I could tell that even despite my extra effort, this new group was not going to cause me much trouble on the climbs. I sat in the group and just tried to mentally refocus. I watched my head unit a little and saw 250-300 watts heading uphill, and I knew this was a good sign. I wasn't feeling awful, so I could sit in a little and watch the other riders suffer as I just slowly moved through them. I worked each hill at my own pace, and I watched them hurting a little. I decided to regroup and push it over the last hill and again across the back.
On the last big hill, I decided to eat a few Shot-Blocks and wait for my time to attack. I think the idea of watching someone eating while suffering freaked out the rider next to me a little, as he looked at me with a strange grimace. When the crest of the hill was in sight, I took one deep breath and moved up and through the pack. As I crested the hill, only one other rider was there to come with me.
At this point, the other rider and I gave it our all. We got separation and eventually even caught another rider ahead of us, one of the guys I had fought so hard to drop earlier. We worked well together, as we headed towards a final turn and the final uphill section that was now the finish line.
I made the turn...the right one this time. The group of three worked well together, and as I sat on the front there was less than half a mile left. I could see a group forming behind us, and I called over to Sean, the rider we had just caught. “They’re coming, we gotta go.”
I pushed harder instead of falling to the back as I should have. Sure enough, with 200m to go, Sean and Jim went right around me. I could not match them. I crossed the line and looked back to see that my push had dragged the trio up the hill and the trailing group had fallen way back. I had probably wasted the effort. I had certainly cost myself any chance at outsprinting Sean and Jim.
I congratulated Sean and Jim on having worked so well together, and I rode a short cool down. A smile came back to me, as I realized the feeling I had just regained. The feeling of being in a race. The feeling of being strong. Maybe not the strongest, but certainly not the weakest. I felt the strength in my legs and a real sense of happiness. As I rode back smiling at my teammates who were cheering at the line, I realized that maybe I wasn’t making podiums but memories. And even though one bad turn led to another, maybe this year wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Maybe two wrongs can make a right.