It must have been perhaps the second year of Bethel, maybe the third. The weather was atrocious with gusting wind, rain falling sideways in sheets, and everything cold - in the mid 30's - and soaking wet. We decided to combine the races from five to two - the "first" race and the "second" race. The first would be for everyone from the 4s, Juniors, Women, Masters. There were no 5s back then, just (non-licensed) Citizen racers, and I think we let the two or three do their own race before combining the other races.
The second race would have all the 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s. And of those, pretty much all of them were 3s and 4s. I don't recall a single Cat 2.
This was the era when I was actually somewhat fit so I approached races with more than minimal expectations. My warm ups were the same though - dress, get on the bike, and ride to the line. Typically my first lap would start off with a big effort, end up off the front with one or two other guys, hang on wheels on the back stretch, and then sink back into the field on the hill.
I'd recover in a lap or two and that would be my warm up.
On such a horrible day I needed a good shock to get the blood flowing. I knew it would be a race of attrition and I wanted to be in a position to respond to go within the first four or five laps.
So when the official sent the miserable, already soaked 20 or so racers on the way, I jumped away from the line. Two racers, both on the same team, joined me. We went around the second "turn" (really a long bend) in tight formation. I eased, expecting the rush of racers to come by.
Then one of the guys, Ron, looked back.
"Hey, they're letting us go. We should ride."
I looked back. The group was plodding along, obscured by rain and spray, rooster tails flying, but going perhaps 20 mph.
Ron and his teammate immediately put their heads down. I had no choice but to join them.
We struggled along for a bit. Not a good racer in steady efforts, I could contribute perhaps 1/4 the length pulls that these two guys did. Nonetheless I was struggling with what efforts I made. Within a few laps I started to skip pulls, hanging on for dear life.
The group stayed within 20 or 30 seconds, a gap easily closed with a big effort. Every lap the officials (or some soggy spectator) would yell a time gap. It didn't change too much - I guess everyone was letting us kill ourselves in the rain, waiting for us to come back.
After a number of laps the two other guys, Ron and his teammate, eased up and conferred a few lengths behind me. Such a conference between two teammates only meant one thing - Attack!
I steeled myself, ready for the quick one-two attack. Although we had a long way to go, such an attack would probably finish me and then they could get on with their two man team time trial without worrying about carrying me to the finish.
Their tactical conference finished, Ron rode up to me, past me, and did a half-hearted pull. I looked back at the other guy, ready for the imminent attack.
To my surprise he had sat up.
It wasn't a fake either - he took a pedal stroke here and there but basically waited for the group. Ron's pull seemed limp, even to me, and I took a pull. I asked him what happened to his teammate and he mumbled something back to me. I lost the details in the rain, spray, and wind, but I got the gist of the message - "slow leak".
Well, I thought, good thing the guy sat up. I'd hate to have the guy slide out in front of me on the hill or that first turn or something like that.
With the odds a bit more even, I started digging deeper in my reserves. Actually I didn't have a choice - it was just Ron and myself. Plus Ron seemed to be somewhat tired. And the other guy had been doing a ton of work - it was him I thought would win from the three of us.
We passed by the start/finish.
What? A minute gap? We got 30 seconds in a lap?
I thought for an instant that maybe the slow tire guy took down the whole group. But there were no bottles or other debris scattered on the road. I couldn't see much else, the grey skies, rain, spray, and sandy grit obscuring the view through my glasses.
The gaps were probably wrong for a while. Whatever. At the pace we were going we were now two good pulls from getting caught.
Lifted by the good news, we kept going. I plodded along with Ron, trading pulls. We were both riding at a reasonable effort - definitely not a winning break type effort, more like a hard training ride.
With my circulation improving, I was starting to feel better. I felt flashes of form on the hill (read that "I didn't let a gap go") and could pull reasonably hard on the flats, my soggy feet in my soggy booties reminding me how miserable it was out there. I'd do a little mini-sprint at the top of the hill each lap to close the gap, recover a bit, then pull what I could pull. Ron would come around me and hurt me on the hill the next lap and we'd repeat the cycle.
A good thing about getting wet is that once you're wet, you're wet, and it doesn't get worse. That sort of helped me persevere. The rising gap helped. When the few spectators started yelling how close we were to the group (instead of how far ahead we were), it injected some heat into our pace.
Suddenly, out of the grim grey stuff in front of us, the group materialized. I hadn't realized how close we were as I could barely see past Ron through my rain and spray covered glasses. Shortly afterwards we rolled by them, a demoralized looking bunch. I saw one of my teammates look over, too shell shocked to do anything except glance my way. No one tried to get our wheel. Someone said something like, "Good work guys." We just rode around them and away from them.
Although I understood this before, lapping the group set in concrete the idea that today had become a two man race. Me and Ron. Everyone else was out of contention.
Ron was obviously stronger than me - he pulled like a madman at the beginning and was hurting me on the hill on every lap even now. I had to figure out a way to beat him - and that meant getting to the sprint with him. If there's one place I could beat him, it was the sprint. He even told me at some point that he can't sprint.
So I tried to pull less in the headwind. Tried to pull more on the hill. Any spot on the course where pulling didn't help the other, I'd try and pull.
I started thinking of comments to say. I remembered reading about guys like Lemond who made comments to a super Urs Zimmerman in the '86 Tour. Zimmerman had been attacking Lemond on the final climb in a stage in the Tour, dishing out some serious hurt on Lemond. Lemond in turn was responding to each move, trying to make it look like it was okay. Finally Lemond rode up to Zimmerman and said something innocuous like, "Good pace". Zimmerman had thought he was hurting Lemond, and to hear such a nonchalant comment deflated his motivation. He steadied his pace, rode to the top, and dragged a thankful Lemond into the yellow jersey.
Although this was no Tour de France, this was, at the moment, the most important race of my life. I figured Ron's comment on not being a sprinter was his first move. I thought of things to say back to him.
Maybe some comments on the weather.
"I'm so glad it's raining - it's so much better than when it's just plain cold."
"This water is pretty warm isn't it?"
"Damn. My foot just got wet now. I was hoping they'd stay dry for the whole race."
Or perhaps something about his bike.
"Is your chain getting stiffer without lube? I used to feel that until I got this waterproof stuff that really works even when it's wet out."
"Man my brakes don't work at all anymore."
"You only run a 12 tooth?"
"Your wheel is out of true."
"Your rear tire looks a little low."
Actually Ron's tire did look a little low. But then there are those who deflate tires for the wet so I dismissed it as something intentional.
Ultimately I was too tired, too stiff, and too wet to say anything. I did understand that Ron had done more work than me and that I was a better sprinter. So I figured to even things out I'd pull for most of the last lap, up to and including the leadout to the sprint.
Then we could fight it out like men.
So at the bell I took the front position. Ron must have thought I was up to something because he took it right back. I clawed my way around him and set about going a decent speed, sitting up a bit more so he'd have some draft. We got to the back stretch and, of course, I started to tire. This made me rethink my generous strategy. If I cramped up in the sprint it'd be awfully embarrassing. I kept pulling though - it's one of those inertial things. Hard to stop in the middle of something.
Ron handled my quandary for me. At the beginning of the backstretch he jumped.
Not to discredit him or anything but his attack showed he was tired. He seemed like he was sprinting in molasses, and though the rain was uncomfortable, it wasn't that thick. I also jumped, went a few pedal strokes, got on his wheel, and started thinking about when to go. He looked back and essentially sat up.
So I jumped again, went clear, looked back, and Ron was barely pedaling. I didn't know why but he was giving me the race.
I went up the hill, expecting to see him throw off his bluff and start charging at me. But he never did. He must have been more tired than I thought and I rolled across the line the winner. I was too tired to raise my hands and just rolled across.
For me it was an epic win. The first time I had been in a breakaway that lapped the field. The first time I'd won from a break. The first time I solo'ed in. And one of the very few times I was in a break that actually worked.
Afterwards I went to Ron, asked him what happened. I told him I was going to lead it out because I sprint better than him anyway. He blabbed about the slow leak. Yeah, yeah, his teammate's slow leak. What's that got to do with the sprint?
"I had the slow leak. I told my teammate that I had a slow leak. He told me, 'Well, Aki's fried and you have a flat... I'm sitting up'."
So the teammate sat up, the field rode up to him, and he told everyone "Aki's fried and Ron has a flat."
Everyone in the field thought that that was that. Nothing unusual about "Aki fried". And a flat? Totally expected in this weather. So they sat up too, expecting to see an exhausted Aki trailing back into the field and Ron at the start finish in a lap with a new wheel.
That's when we picked up 30 seconds in a lap.
"You know, I was trying to think of things to psych you out - I was even thinking of telling you your tire was low. But I figured we'd just ride it out so I didn't say anything."
So my epic win deflated, somewhat literally, just a bit. I beat a guy with about 50 psi in his tire for most of the race - and he pulled harder than I did. But it didn't take away from the 30 or so laps we rode off the front, literally from the start line of the race. I pushed through all those times where I just wanted to sit up, to drop off Ron's wheel, to drift back to the safety of the group. And eventually I made it.
I thought to myself that this could be a turning point, that somehow I'd be a breakaway racer. But this was not the case. Ultimately this was the race where everything fell into place for me to be in a break. A day like that you don't need to play games. You just ride.
Else, well, else you'll just psych yourself out.