So... where to begin?
I suppose the most significant development, literally, in the last two years has been the building at the four way intersection at Francis J Clarke Circle in Bethel.
It gave us two things, a good and a bad.
The good: Navone Studios. The first tenant, a cycling-centric one, a great supporter of the Series.
I have a new pre-race ritual now, and it takes place on Saturday.
It's called "getting registration ready".
Instead of scrambling desperately on Sunday morning, I take a leisurely hour or two to set up registration, laptops, printers, plug in the radios, unpack my gear, drop off my bike, everything. I set up my helmet cam to avoid the last minute scrambles of previous weeks. I even signed my release form (after checking my wallet for my USAC license - seriously - because everyone has to have a license, even me), took my numbers, and pinned them to my jersey.
Not that I had my license, but that I could do all this the night before the race.
So, that's the good. The not-as-good (I won't say it's bad because it really isn't - it's not malicious or anything, it's more an inconvenience for everyone involved): the volleyball folks. The problem isn't with the volleyball folks, nor the volleyball place's owner. It's just that the traffic with all the cars are getting unmanageable. A huge problem is the racers milling around in the parking lot, ignoring the cars. I suppose part of the problem is we need to get more vocal about keeping the lot clear.
Note to self: Need to yell a lot to keep parking lot clear of bikes.
And the cut-through driveway will become off-limits as of right now, so the volleyball customers will need to drive around the whole circuit.
I had made a number of calls during the week to try and appease the folks involved with the different properties. It's stressful and unpleasant but I had to do it to try and keep the race alive. We went into the day's racing on probation, if you will.
Any misbehavior and things would get ugly.
On a better note I had made a visit to the Shack earlier in the week to get some radios. If nothing else, I can honestly say that I decided to buy radios there and not at the company rumored to be buying them. Our radios, originals from about ten years ago, and less originals from about two years ago, were starting to fall apart. The Motorolas were more reliable so I went with them, and I made some clerk's day when I cleared them out of their nicest radios, even buying a pair of their second level radios.
All the regulars were rightly impressed with the new radios and they happily transmitted rider and car positions all day. We just have to remember to pause after pushing the "talk" button, but that's a "nut the holds the radio" problem, not a "radio" problem.
During the day I stressed about the visits from the various less-than-happy non-racing folks. I couldn't do anything about them so I just did whatever I needed to do.
I finally got to meet with one of the complainants, but not the one I expected. He was polite, friendly, and firm. We'd lose the cut-through we were using for the volleyball folks. Today was the last day. After today, no more.
My heart sank.
So, with all the above on my mind, I didn't do very much about the actual race. Every time I sat down my already-pinned-with-its-number jersey comforted me with its presence. I tried to eat a bit too, but most of a muffin, two servings of egg frittata, a pair of Fig Newtons, that doesn't count for 6 waking hours (and 12 hours since "last food").
I did take a welcome break from the whole race promotion scene to help out a good guy - Stephen Gray. I first met him at UCONN, and raced with him (or, more accurately, watched him race in the faster races) collegiately. He had a broken rear derailleur cable so I just blocked his derailleur down to a 14T, removed the offending cable (and its housing), and called it fixed. He'd run a 39x14 on easy sections, a 53x14 on the hard ones.
And would you believe it, he'd go on to power a two man break to the win. The gall.
Me, I wasn't feeling as peppy. I hadn't eaten much during the day, nor the day before, and the stress was overshadowing any appetite. I wasn't feeling very warm, even when I jogged over to the portapotties.
My warm up, counted at 16 and 13 seconds on prior weeks, was even less because I had to walk my bike most of the way to the line (I was trying to keep the driveway clear). Not ideal on such a bitter day.
I had seven teammates waiting for me at the start though, a huge comfort in the 80-odd rider field.
I went back to the curb to leave off a bottle, lined up on my own, and went off when the start whistle blew.
I made a bit of an effort to move up, monitored the front for a bit, and when things looked kind of status quo, decided to drift back.
The big boys, Lance, Paul, and Drew, drifted forward, all of them monitoring moves and such. SOC, Mike, Steve, and Dennis all helped out, taking pulls. All of them "visited" me in the field, and I felt reassured when I'd look up and see three teammates riding along in front of me. This happened more than a few times during the race.
With about five laps to go, and no real moves reaching out very far, I started thinking that it could come down to a field sprint. Paul came up to me, Lance on his wheel, and asked what the plan was.
Well, ideally, with 2 to go, we go 25 mph into the wind, 35 mph with the wind, 40 mph on the backstretch, line things out, and someone pops me off the front at 100 meters to go.
The reality is that to pull of something like that in a Cat 3-4 race would take ten pretty fresh guys. I wasn't sure about wiggling through a field with a four man leadout train, so I gave the best, short answer I could give.
"Meet me at the front at the bell."
Then the pace hit the roof.
I had to make some moves up the hill to maintain position, using the natural tendency of the field to open holes to move up. In the last two laps the IRSMedic team, including the aforementioned Stephen Gray, really tightened the screws, stringing out the field, opening gaps. I started getting worried that a group with two of them would actually stay away, and started making some desperate moves to get up towards the front of the field.
I knew I was feeling desperate when I started making contingency plans. If I had to I'd jump across the gap. I even started picturing the move, a jump to bridge the gap, sit in just a touch, then jump again for the sprint.
On the last lap things seemed to coagulate and suddenly we had ourselves a field sprint. I followed wheels on the backstretch, but I was too far back. With the tailwind on the backstretch I knew I could move up if I had to, and, trust me, I had to.
I went up the left for a bit, a little mini-jump just before the sprint. Checked my five o'clock, got back in line, maybe five or six guys back. Got around the right curve, and as the hill started to go left, I realized I absolutely had to jump.
Like right NOW!
So I did.
As the IRSMedic leadout finally peaked, I was accelerating up to them, and as Bryan, their main man, started his sprint, I was already up to speed and closing fast, honing in on them like a guided missile.
He and his teammate went straight up the hill, meaning towards the left, and his other leadout went right. I decided to shoot the gap between the right guy and Bryan.
For a brief moment I thought I'd made the wrong decision when the right guy followed the road left also, the gap closing a bit, but I made myself narrow and blew through the gap.
My legs felt great, I wasn't conscious of breathing, and I just went, went went. The line came up quickly and although I could see both riders to the right and left, I did a little throw at the line.
For insurance purposes.
But I didn't need to. It was a clear win.
I did my cool down lap. Familiar faces asked me how I did, teammates, devastated by their race-time efforts and barely clinging onto the field, asked me how I did. They're questioning faces would break out in broad grins when I told them I won.
Lance, who'd pulled out at the bell, said it for them.
"When I saw you going up that hill I thought 'Man, I'm glad it's him and not me!' "
I had enough time to unpin my 3-4 number, lining up legitimately with my P123 number. I tried to drink a bit of Gatorade but I simply didn't feel like it. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so I didn't do anything.
One of the officials came up to me. A P123 racer was peeing across the street, next to the building where the owner was so understanding.
How the eff do you explain to a total idiot the absolutely stupid and careless and greedy and everything else that epitomizes "selfish idiots that don't deserve to pedal a bike" of their actions?
Through my stress haze I listened to the official, the haze thickening. Nodded gravely. And lined up for the race.
Note to self: I have to look up the name that belongs to that number. He's one selfish mo-fo that doesn't deserve to race at Bethel. As if I didn't have enough to worry about, he's peeing on the property of one of the guys who gave us a break for the day.
Anyway, after I received this totally unnecessary report, we started the P123s.
My legs felt reasonable, a bit crampy, a bit stiff, but okay. I did a couple gap-closing efforts, nothing major, and my legs responded whenever I asked them to do something.
I got a bit antsy for no particular reason, someone actually asking half-jokingly what I was doing. Now that I think of it, maybe it was stress. I dunno though. I ended up near the front and, on a lark, decided to attack.
Now, when someone like me attacks early in a crit, especially a P123 crit, it's kind of like watching a Boonen attacking at kilometer one of a mountain stage in the Tour. It's kind of a joke, a funny, a "ha-ha".
And so when everyone realized who it was that just launched, they all sat up, took sips from their bottles, and watched me try and detonate myself.
I'll boast that after my initial attack I managed to hold a very respectable 400+ watts for the first stretch. I started dipping into the high 300s by Turn 2.
By the backstretch I was trying to stay above 310 watts. I thought of a Bike Forums post where someone incredulously asked if I couldn't hold 25 mph for a few minutes. I responded that I could for a minute, but more than that... I decided I'd keep my effort going so I'd have a number to give him next week.
But, honestly, I wasn't paying attention to speed, just wattage and my form. I tried to go fast but I was using wattage to pace myself. Or, more accurately, to surprise myself at what I could maintain.
When I looked back I had a huge gap. I mean it was HUGE, like 200 meters, maybe more. Apparently the field had stopped for lunch at Turn 2 because they were just rounding the bend onto the backstretch when I was at the other end.
If I were a good Cat 2, this could be a race-transforming move. Heck, I know guys that could take this gap and transform it into a huge win.
But I'm a horrible time trialer so I had more modest goals. And, frankly, the field knew it too.
I thought I could climb at about 400-500 watts and pull off a full lap solo, but when I hit the hill, holding about 450 watts, the field had woken up with a temper.
They just crush me on the hill, blew by me before I could finish my lap.
I realized that I have some more form than I thought because normally such a severe effort would leave me gasping for air for, oh, the next 20 minutes or so.
But, instead, after about 10 meters of lung-searing soft pedaling, I suddenly felt better. As the tail end of the field came past I punched the pedals a few times, got back on, and got on with the race.
With the cold, the slight mist, I decided today wasn't the day to push for an official P123 finish. I started stressing about the traffic thing, stressing about cleaning up, about things in general. I started losing race focus.
So no finish for me today. Instead I'd do some big efforts and then call it done. I felt like a kid in a candy store with some money to burn. I knew I wanted some candy, I just didn't know where to spend it.
That's when a big group of riders went up the road. I suppose it could have been a split, but whatever, suddenly about 15 riders were 50 meters off the front.
I figured we'd bring them back on the hill at the end of the lap, but the 10 or 20 meters gap on the hill would stretch back out to the 50 by the very fast backstretch.
A few guys, notably the Target Training boys, tried to close the gap for a couple laps. But, as Eddy B said during the Tour du Pont, "Someone working hard at the front". They were, too, because on some laps we were going close to 40 mph on the wind-assisted backstretch.
I decided that this was where I wanted to spend my candy money. So I got ready, my hands holding my precious quarters.
I spent two laps moving up through the field, trying to position myself for a good move. And as the couple guys in front of me peeled off the front, I put it in a big gear and started turning the pedals hard. I never got out of the saddle, I just started going faster.
I was out of gears right away, with only a 53x12T available, but I turned it over as quick as possible without going into sprint mode. An IRSMedic rider was on my wheel, and when I realized it was Bryan, I decided to empty my pockets.
I tried to avoid all the bumps and such and pulled hard until the wind hit me at the bottom of the hill. My legs done, I pulled off, and Bryan launched after the break, now only 10 meters ahead of us.
This time I didn't recover miraculously. I'd put it all down and that was it.
When I got to the line I turned left. I crawled into the parking lot, to registration, and sat on the floor a bit. I called the missus to let her know I won, got changed, and started working on packing up.
The driveway challenge weighed heavily on my mind. After we got all squared away, and the last of the people who help left, I turned back around and walked back into Navone Studios. Frank and I sat in a couple of those red director's chairs and talked for over an hour about the situation. He's a huge fan of the race, of the Series, of racing in general. But the challenges presented today make it hard to imagine the Series happening without some major wholesale changes.
It made for a long drive home. Yeah, I won a race. But this is the first time I ever felt the Series to be seriously, legitimately threatened.
It made the win a little dim in comparison.