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The Adventures of a Small Fish in a Big Pond: Making the Break

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Last time I wrote, it was a remorseful story. I entered the first race weekend of the collegiate season with high hopes but found the legs lacking. Surprising, given how good they had been the prior two weeks. The dead legs continued for two more weeks – I had less snap, I couldn’t hold the same power in workouts even though I was relatively rested… I wondered what was going on. Stress, perhaps, from school? Sleep? Had I trained properly?

Fast-forward three weeks to the races at Lindenwood University in St Charles, Missouri. St. Charles is a quaint town located on the banks of the Missouri River and on the outskirts of St. Louis. That river must have special powers, because everything changed that weekend. And while the legs were good, there were many other reasons the weekend was memorable, from hail to animal themed calendars and stories of past collegiate racing greats.

The fun started on Saturday morning in the small town of Defiance, if you can even call it a town. The only sign of civilization was the unoccupied houses next to the parking lot. Perhaps calling them simply "unoccupied" is not fair, for we were at the historic Daniel Boone home, but we were in the middle of nowhere. My teammates prepared for their team time trial while I suited up for a quick spin to loosen up the legs and preview the first climb on the road race course. Steam was rising from the fields and sunshine pierced through, quickly warming the air towards the 80 degree mark we were all apprehensive of. After all, we’re in the Midwest conference where our bodies are used to 40-50 degrees in spring, not this sauna. Despite some tossing and turning the night before, the legs felt sprightly. We were at the end of our spring break and perhaps I had shed some stress and slept more. I certainly wasn’t expecting these sensations after riding so much in the days prior, hitting more hours in five days than I usually hit in 10.

As the road race start neared, I sat on the ground underneath our canopy and bantered with many of the other veteran A racers. Scott and Joey told stories of the legendary Greg Christian – informally known as Zeus for both the size of his legs and his incomprehensible power – to keep us entertained. We heard about how Greg dances to the melody instead of the beat and when he famously said "Well, can you f@#$ing draft???" on a team training ride when everyone else was pleading him to slow down. We laughed a lot and occasionally quipped about the clouds massing on the horizon. The forecast called for a 60% chance of scattered thunderstorms and we were not so secretly hoping one would come in quickly to cool things off. With hindsight, I think we wished too hard…

The road race started with an ominous statement by our head official that the race might be shortened due to storms if the weather deteriorated too much. Doesn’t sound so bad when you have an 85 mile road race with 8 serious climbs – steep ones! – to contend with. But off we happily pedaled anyway. The first three miles to the base of the biggest climb on the route were like a washing machine on spin cycle. Nobody wanted to go hard before the climb – a kilometer with most of the climb over 10% - but everyone wanted to be at the front. I slid up the side of the road, inches from careening into the ditch. Elbows splayed wide so nobody else tried to pull the same trick on me. Others did the same, though without the early-season jitteryness present a few weeks ago at Lindsey Wilson. No stupid crashes this time.

We hit the climb and things exploded. Alex drilled it on the front to whittle down the group and see how the Marian boys were feeling. My 25t cassette, which felt way too small on my preview of the climb, was spinning quickly enough to seem sufficient. My legs, though, were burning. Fiercely. My breath became ragged and I was self-conscious about it. Surely these guys will know I’m not nearly as strong as them if I reach the top with them. We rounded a turn and there were 150 meters to go. I was going to explode, I just knew it. But somehow, amazingly, I didn’t. When we summated, perhaps 20 of us remained of the 50 man field. I had made the split, for the first time ever. Admittedly, the best guys didn’t go as hard as possible, just hard enough to drop a lot of people. But, I was there and didn’t get dropped on the plateau that followed. Something had changed.

We approached the 80kph descent and rain drops began to fall. Lightning that we first saw at the top of the climb was rapidly moving closer. Flying down the descent, some of us were exceedingly cautious and let gaps open up. I spun my largest gear madly at the bottom to regain contact just as the storm truly let loose its pent up fury. Sheets of rain crashed against us, wind threatened to blow us off the road. And the rain – it stung our skin. Puzzled, I looked downwards. Hmm. The precipitation was actually bouncing off my arm and the pavement. Hail. Oh man…

Our speed dropped as the intensity of the maelstrom increased. As the initial onslaught let up, our follow official drove up next to our lead group and informed us that we would only race one lap instead of four. Race? In these conditions with more fast descents to come and the storm not letting up entirely? In quick fashion, we neutralized the race and the official confirmed our decision. The only problem was the remaining 10 miles to the finish that we would have to ride. Fortunately, the rain let up some until we got back, though we had to drive back in an equally torrential downpour with more hail. Calling the race was the proper call, though it was kind of a bummer – the first time I made the split the race was cancelled. Oh well, onwards to the hotel and a dry set of clothes and beers with Andrew. It was Saint Patty’s day after all and we are Notre Dame… But not too many, because grad students never get entirely free from their advisor’s grasp and the workload that follows.

The rain dissipated by the morning and we awoke to glorious sunshine. The criterium was in downtown St. Charles on a fantastic course. 500 meters of brick formed the start/finish stretch and the backstretch ran a mere 30 feet from the river. My teammates had racing to do, but I had socializing to do. Lets wander over to the coffee shop on corner one that was so kind as to open early. Espresso, check. Lets find a table on the sidewalk to chat with Scott and the guys again.

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Shenanigans. Alex attempts to create tri-focal sunglasses. A tint for every occasion.

There was much laughing, especially after Scott wandered back from his car in his "costume." Cut-off jeans, wife beater bearing the word "hottie," and a cowboy hat. Anything to poke fun at our Missouri hosts and incite a laugh.

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Scott's costume

Discussion shifted to our lack of a leaders’ jersey for our conference. Surely we should applaud the efforts of Alex, who was unbeaten in the road races this year and leading the conference standings. Our makeshift leaders jersey, consisting of a pink lei we scrounged from Scott’s trunk, just was not going to cut it for the following race weekends and next year.

Scott suggested a "Men of the MWCCC" calendar. Animal themed, he said. Nude too, because that’s how these things get sales, right? So who is in on this project? Tim decided to be a crocodile. So fitting for an Australian. Could we do part of the shoot today, with Tim emerging out of the river plastered with mud? Does anyone have a good camera? Alas, this was not to be. But the idea, it is still percolating. Knowing Scott, I doubt this is merely a foolish idea bandied around for laughs…

As the Bs raced, we split off. I was shouting encouragement to my teammate Andrew, who courageously jumped off the front of the field with 20 minutes remaining to race fully intending to solo away for the remainder of the race. And solo away he did, especially with John blocking the chase behind before jumping away with a lap to go to lock down second place. Nothing, and I mean nothing, gets your adrenaline pumping like watching some of your best friends absolutely obliterate a race. So, as I began warming up on the trainer for my A-grade race, I was beyond pumped up. All those shots of espresso probably helped too, I’m thinking.

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Winning! Andrew solos in for his first ever win - with nobody else in the picture!

I had modest goals on the start line – merely finish the race without getting dropped. That sounded like a tall order for someone who has never lasted more than 25 minutes in an hour-long race at this level. But as time counted down – 10 minutes in, 20 minutes, 30 minutes… - I still felt good. I was moving up, I wasn’t on my limit. And then, with just over 20 minutes to go in the race, the first serious break of the day formed in front of me. Alder Martz from Marian was in there, along with David Novak of Lindsey Wilson and Matt Brandt of Lindenwood. Three of the biggest motors in the conference representing the three strongest schools. They had company too – a lone Chicago rider and teammates of Matt and David. Their gap stayed constant at about 10 seconds. Tim and Sam (Lindenwood and Marian respectively) jumped off the front to bridge, right in front of me. My racing instincts had finally honed over the summer and I knew this was the time to go. This was the crux of the race.

Without considering the folly of trying to be in the breakaway of a race I was unsure if I could even finish, I jumped onto their wheels. Josh (Marian) followed too. As we got separation and the first two pulled off, they realized that I was the lone rider in the chase group without a teammate up the road. Oh no. They expected me to close the gap.

Head down. Back flat, as aero as possible, and churning over an impossibly large gear. I was on the verge of blowing up when we were two seconds behind the break. My effort was flagging and Tim noticed. "Close the gap Douglas!" he shouted. I’m sure he wasn’t angry, but a deep Aussie accent trying to overcome the noise of wind rushing past your ears at 50kph comes off as quite fierce. Half out of determination and half out of fear I pedaled harder. I think I learned new level of suffering then, but it worked and we made contact with the break.

What was I doing here? Did these guys realize I was in way, way over my head?

A few laps later our gap was up to 20 seconds and nobody was chasing hard in the pack. "15 minutes to go, this is just a time trial to stay in contact" is what I told myself. I was in the break, I was certain. DNF to top 10 finish overnight, I thought. You. Just. Have. To. Hold. On.

Then cooperation died. Marian wanted another guy in the break. Luzadder and Weisler, their two chances at winning the conference overall, were still in the pack. The biggest schools had 2-3 riders apiece in the break, but Marian had the wrong riders. My thoughts shifted from "How do I not get dropped?" to "How do we stay away?" Racing instinct shoved second thoughts and doubt out of my mind. With our gap deteriorating I hit the front hard for half a lap in a desperate attempt to pick up our pace again and reinstill cooperation. It likely wasn’t any faster than we’d been going earlier, but for me it was going a-bloc. As I swung off, the cat and mouse games began anew. Two or three surges later I was out the back after completely blowing a gasket. In over my head? Confirmed. Somehow, miraculously, I reintegrated into what was left of the pack as they rocketed by with renewed vigor. The break was caught several laps later as we hit eight short laps to go.

In the final laps, my legs returned. I fought for position for the sprint and was only a few riders behind the Marian leadout train as we hit two laps to go. Then, as their leadout went from merely fast to warp speed, I had to hit my brakes to avoid getting caught in vanishing gap. Riders flew by on either side of me. There went my hopes of a top ten finish. 18th was where I rolled across the line after a final lap of insanity, nearly at the rear end of the peleton. Wait, there were only 25 of us left on the last lap out of 47 starters…? Not only had I survived, I had almost thrived!

At the end of the day, I’m not sure what I will remember most – the first time my legs truly came good in an A-grade race in the two years I’ve been racing at this level or the thought of Scott posing as a hippopotamus in our calendar. Either way, I’m not forgetting this weekend soon. MWCCC, I can’t wait to play with you guys again this weekend.

All pictures from my not-so-good camera phone.