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The Adventures of a Small Fish in a Very Big Pond

There are Matt Busches in this world. They pick up a bike and boom, they are a pro within three years. I know one, in fact - he is racing at the elite level little over a year after he picked up riding - and they’re not as rare as you think.

I am not one of these people. Over the years I have scratched and clawed my way up the fitness ladder, slowly, slowly getting faster. Forget Team Sky - I am the definition of marginal gains. Very marginal gains. I love cycling just the same, but success is slow in coming in the racing arena despite training just as hard as my more successful friends.

So, on Saturday morning when I showed up at the church parking lot outside the quaint town of Columbia, Kentucky, for the first weekend on the Midwest Collegiate Cycling Conference race calendar, I had muted expectations. Or, I should have…

I was perhaps too bullish about my prospects this spring. The watt-o-meter said I was already stronger than last summer – and I was winning races then too, solo even! I was the breakaway artiste, the Jens Voigt of the Indiana / Michigan Cat 3 racing scene! I had a reputation for once! If I was stronger than ever before and had finally learned how to race well, surely I could get an occasional top ten in some of the harder road races, right? After all, I seemed to climb decently last year and had even gotten 13th in the road race at Lindsey Wilson last year. Plus, I had earned my Cat 2 upgrade the hard way.

My ambition was no doubt augmented by all the speculation surrounding the exodus of talent from Marian University, two-time defending national champions and soul crushers in the MWCCC, over the last year. Everyone else got faster, we all said. Marian will still be strong, but they won’t be able to oppressively smother the field this year. Gone are the 7-8 rider breaks with 5 Marian riders in them. All of a sudden, everybody seemed to have a chance at a result.

The first sign things weren’t going according to plan came in the TTT Saturday morning. A week ago I was crushing watts in our squad’s TTT practice session. Joe said I was hurting him when I would take my pulls, which is seriously high praise from the strongest rider on our Notre Dame team. Today? I was getting dropped. Halfway through. And I was the third rider in our squad (one teammate was already dropped), or the one our time would be taken from. Apparently I forgot to pack my legs? Nothing was going right, I couldn’t pull hard, I had no recovery… the legs were just blocked. Maybe – hopefully – the legs were just at the hotel and I could grab them before the road race…

Worries about the status of the legs disappeared as we pulled into the overflowing parking lot of another country church for the road race. No room left to park, the front end of my car teetered precariously over the lip of the ditch. Apparently we were close to setting a conference record for participation, even though it was still February and a race on the fringes of the conference! We rushed to pin numbers, stuff our pockets with enough clif bars and snickers to last us through our races, and organized bottle handups for the racers in the upper categories. The race began as you would expect for a 120km jaunt across windy plateaus and countless steep climbs at the beginning of the season; old friends chatted and everyone seemed happy to roll along in peace, even if we were twitchy and full of nervous energy. Would our homework over the winter be enough? If it was so warm over the winter, would everyone be in shape already? Now that's a scary prospect.

On the first climb, a scant five miles into the race, the expected attack came. We pounded up a berg reminiscent of a Flemish climb, only without the cobbles. Some riders came off the back, but the pack was mostly intact. Some thrusts and parries happened in the winding, crosswind-ridden roads that followed. Then the second climb, a big ringer. Isaiah from Marian wound it up and was quickly joined by Joey from Purdue. The group grew and hovered 20 seconds ahead of the peleton for the next 5-6 miles across a plateau. Gutter riding at 45-50kph was the name of the game as people desperately tried to bridge. Sensing a lull, I gassed it to get across to what surely must be the break of the day because of the riders in it. A Lindenwood rider marked me, but in the following dip in the pace my teammate Joe jumped out of the pack and was the last rider to motor up to the break.

Teammate in break of the day. Job done, right? All I had to do is hang on when the pack splits on the final, hardest climb, as riders try to bridge. No problem, right? I'm a climber. Apparently that is easier said than done... Weston and Alex Wiesler nuked it on the final climb of the lap. Skip from UW-Madison joined them. I was doing everything right, climbing third wheel, and simply couldn’t respond. I cursed my legs, or lack thereof, and my forgetfulness in leaving my 27t cassette in Mississippi over the summer. A third chase group formed with Scott, Tim Tam, and a few others. Tim Tam yelled at me for not pulling off into the wind. He was right – I was being a fool, but I was too cross-eyed to really be paying attention. All I knew is the wind was hard and in my face and I desperately wanted to not be out of contention a mere 40km into the race. Tim Tam and I laughed about it later after our chase group had exploded itself and we were left to spin around the course, far from contention. The laughing group formed, we chatted, and then we pulled off after 2 of 3 laps. Sure, we could use some more training (obviously!), but who wanted to kill their legs for the next day’s crit?

Saving our legs must have worked because Tim Tam was firing himself off the front in the crit time and time again chasing the Marian guys. If there is one thing Marian excels at, it’s criterium racing. And while they may be lacking in the diesel TT power they had last year, they have far too many punchy riders to count. Countless times I was pedaling as hard as I could just to hold a wheel, especially in the 450m section with a howling crosswind, and could see blue jersey after blue jersey attacking off the front. How do they do that!? Nailing it at 45kph in a crosswind and you decide to go faster? That is either impressive or extremely demoralizing depending on just how close you are to exploding in grand fashion…

While the front of the pack was an aggressive melee for the first 20 minutes until a break was established, I suffered in the gutter at the back and tried desperately to move up. Unfortunately, I suffer from a case of small motor syndrome, which prevents me from merely powering up the side of the pack like so many others. And then, the inevitable happened. A gap opened 6 riders in front of me on the crosswind section. And though I immediately jumped to the front of the group, put my head down, and asked the engine room to give my legs as much power as possible, the gap didn’t shrink. I was in no man’s land, chasing furiously a mere four seconds behind the front group. Off to my left I could see the decisive breakaway forming on the backside of the course and prayed the pace would let up in the pack. It did. But, sadly, it was too late – after four laps of furious chasing, my engine was blowing gaskets. I reluctantly slotted into the next group of dropped riders behind me and while we rode valiantly, we were pulled 30 minutes into the 60 minute race.

So, here I am at the end of the weekend looking back. Saturday I was questioning why I was racing bikes right now because of how far I still have to go. But then the little victories started to creep into my mind. Joe made the lead group and then followed the winning move out of the breakaway, finishing a career best 5th place. I doubt I can take too much credit for him making the break, but I know I helped a bit. And then there was just the thrill of it all – nothing, and I mean nothing, can get your adrenaline running like being pegged at 50kph for laps on end in a crit. I’m sure I’ll make some more marginal gains over the season and maybe – maybe! – I’ll even finish a crit in the main pack. But if I don’t? I’ll still be out there, holding on til I crack. Hopefully that’s a little longer each weekend, but I am perfectly content being a small fish in a very big pond.

*** Story written for Collegiate Cycling News and cross-posted with permission ***