Monday, April 06, 2009

Bethel Spring Series 2009 - Circuit de Francis J Clarke

"Sit up! Sit up! Sit up!"

This is how my 2009 Series ended.


I've never been in such a situation as I found myself in at that moment, and I surprised myself with how I reacted.

It all started a couple weeks ago when the Jonathan Adler team basically kicked everyone's butts in the Cat 3-4 race. The team guys and I talked after the race, both at the venue and at Sycamore's down the street. They admitted to me that they can't sprint but they can time trial. I admitted to them that I can't ride fast for any period of time, but obviously I can sprint.

Duly noted, we lined up the following week, in wet, cold conditions. They drilled it from the gun, time trialed like crazy, and I got shelled like a proverbial peanut.

Again, both sides took notes.

Therefore, on Sunday, the two teams' strategies were clear. Adler's boys would be going hard to shell the Peanut, the Peanut would be hanging on for dear life. Other teams would have their say too - like maybe the team of the actual leader of the Series, Bethel Cycle. In all this "divvying up" of the Series, we were taking for granted that Stephen Gray would actually show some weakness.

With a team not quite as strong as, say, Adler, I was getting a bit worried. I'd been in touch with basically one guy, Mike, but he was away for a few weeks on vacation during the Series. This would be his second week back.

I had another helpful teammate, Andreas, a former arch rival (but one that was so strong he probably never considered me a threat). After toning down his training he's at a more real world level, and he looked after me for a few of the races so far. He essentially tailguns the field and makes sure I don't get shelled. On Sunday he offered his leadout services too.

I also got the help of SOC. With his team focusing on Plainville, he was free to experiment at Bethel. He practiced different strategies, tried different things, and he was learning how the 3s and 4s race at Bethel. His role Sunday?


Finally, the Teutonic Ringer, aka Guido. Although it's a stereotypical Italian name, Guido is actually German (pronouced "Gee do", not "Gwee do"). He is a rider in the Adler mold, an extremely strong time trialer with an insane aerobic engine. Unattached, he had no affiliations, no obligations, and since he's a friendly guy, he signed up onto the SDC Domestique squad.

I had a couple other teammates, but I honestly didn't expect very much from them. Yeah, John got an overall in the 4s, but he rode hard and had to be pretty tired. Ditto some of the other guys.

The hours coming up to the race were full of good karma kind of things. I brought spares of everything (causing me immense logistical headaches as I tried to jam two bikes, a podium, all the pre-reg bins, and some other stuff in my tiny 93 Civic on Saturday evening). I had two complete bikes, a third front wheel, three helmets (cold, cool, and warm weather), and all sorts of various gloves, head gear, and every piece of team kit I owned.

In the 4s a guy came up to the tent in a panic - he'd forgotten his helmet at home. I understand - I've done that too - so I gave him what I thought would be the best helmet for the current conditions - my primary "cool" weather helmet. I don't know how he did (I never got his name), but he came back in one piece.

Chalk up one for Karma.

Then one of the CRCA/Radical Media women came up to me. Apparently a teammate had a problem with her bike - her fork was broken. Would I have a bike that she could borrow, or was there someone around that might have one? A 54?

I thought about it for about 30 seconds. I mean, yeah, I had my back up bike, my former primary Giant TCR. It had mainly Record and Chorus gear on it, rolled on the Reynolds DV46 clinchers, and was set up nicely, perfect for me for an easy trainer ride. I told her that her teammate could use that bike if she liked.

A short pow wow later, she came back with her teammate. Not only was she a teammate, she was the current overall leader (!).

She took the bike, slammed the seat back (her thighs are longer than mine, or so I'm guessing), raised it up a bunch (she's taller than me too), and swapped out my pedals.

In the meantime, I overheard a slightly desperate cell phone conversation in the registration tent. Apparently the third overall racer, one who takes the train from NYC, flatted on the way to the station. She needed a front wheel.

Some time later, she appeared at the tent.

"Aki, I have a question."
"You need a front wheel?"
"Yes! How did you know?"

Well, I didn't, but I was just guessing. It still impressed her.

I didn't want to mention that I wasn't racing the wheel because I felt it wasn't quite right, but I told her I needed to touch a few spokes before she raced it. I grabbed a spoke wrench, touched a few spokes, and the wheel seemed good. I bade her good luck and she went and warmed up.

Suffice it to say that my equipment did really, really well. Maggie, on the bike, won the race and won the overall. Her team, aided with her high point tally, won the team trophy. Ann Marie, on my "touched" front wheel, got third in the race and second overall.

I felt very proud of how the two women did on equipment I lent them, but a friendly rival David dampened my elation just a bit when I told him the story.

"Yo, my bike won the women's race. She borrowed my bike and she won it! Isn't that incredible?"

David, who was napping on the ground, looked over at me from under his hand.

"Well, now you know your equipment works fine."

Implying that if I'm not winning a race it's not the bike.


But I knew that, so it was okay. And I was lucky that all my spare equipment got a test race in - my brand new front tire was flat. I had to use one of my two spares - the "good" clincher (I raced it the prior week) or the "touched" tubular.

I chose the tubular. Ann Marie was so happy with it that she proclaimed that it felt the same as her 404s. I figured if it was good enough for her, it'd be good enough for me.

Properly equipped, I did a non-warm up (i.e. I rode about 100 yards on the bike), a tactic that seems to work better than warming up. As a bonus, as Herman (one of the guys helpering out) pointed out, I do better when the missus is around, and she got free of her tax stuff long enough to pay a visit to the race.

With all this good karma, I figured that I had a fighting chance at the overall.

We started out, and immediately (like within 200 meters) I knew I was on a good day. I didn't feel any of that horrible lingering fatigue like I did pretty much every prior race, the bike zinged under me, and I wasn't feeling too cold or hot.

It's a good thing I felt that way because Adler just totally drilled it from the gun, launching attack after attack after attack. Stephen, in the leader's jersey, knew my weaknesses too, and he alternately attacked or bridged, sending the whole field into a tizzy.

Mike and Guido were chasing like mad, and after about five laps of totally strung out action, Guido came back a bit. Mike was sitting there, having just done a monster pull too, and Guido yelled at him to get to the front. Mike could barely reply, but it was obvious that he was suffering, and he made that clear to Guido as well.

Guido drifted back further, maybe another 10 spots, to me.

"Get your team to the front! Just Mike and me, it's impossible!"

"I don't have anyone else that can ride!"

I felt helpless. Guido looked at me, punched the pedals, and went back to the front. I felt bad that I couldn't offer more help.

I did see SOC up there, pounding away at the front, stringing out the field, trying to reconnect to whatever Alder + Stephen break off the front at that moment. Again, countless attacks peppered the front, and there were guys desperately chasing at the front. As I faded a bit I started to lose sight of the front. I kept looking up, expecting to see a group detach, but somehow the field stayed together.

Then a long time friendly rival Bryan, one that I'ved watch race since he wasn't even of driving age, came up to me.

"You have a teammate that looks like a linebacker?"
"Yeah, he's John."
"Well, let me tell you, he's doing good by you. He's taking some monster pulls."

John?! Coming from Bryan, this was about as good a compliment as it gets. I looked up and peered at the front of the angry field. Sure enough, there he was, actually splitting the field with an immensely powerful pull. An Adler guy closed it. I had to smile a bit, inside of course.

I couldn't smile outside because, frankly, I was suffering. My legs were starting to cramp. If I can make it to the end of a race with any reserves in my legs, the only thing that can ruin my race is cramps. And my legs were getting worse and worse. I tried to stretch them, altered my rhythm going up the hill, and tried using bigger or lower gears, but to no avail. My calves threatened to seize at any second. I hoped that, maybe, if I got into the action more, I'd forget about my crampy calves.

I missed a few lap cards, but I was convinced we were pretty far into the race, maybe 15 laps, maybe 18. As we crested the hill I glanced over.

17 to go.

Only 13 down.

And I was already thinking of preserving for the finish.

Andreas, riding protectively just behind me, read my body language properly, and drifted over to me, murmuring words of encouragement, giving me a nudge when he thought I needed it. Mentally I could feel all the support pouring towards me. Every time I looked up I saw someone up there, working for me, working for me because they wanted to work for me. It's hard to believe how hard these guys were going, with no thought of themselves, of their race. All of them, John or Mike or Guido or SOC, even other guys that were friendly to me during the Series. They were killing themselves at the front, thinking only of shutting things down, of preserving the field's integrity so that yours truly could kick its butt in the sprint.

With all this in mind I seemed to have forgotten about the cramps, and suddenly it was 11 to go. A few laps later I heard Bryan behind me.

"It looks like it's turning out perfect for you. All your main rivals have burned more than a few matches."

I had to nod, watching Stephen chase down yet another Alder rider. Indeed, at this pace, I'd be okay at the finish, and I could do a good finishing sprint. I had to win the sprint to win the Series, but if fortune smiled my way, I had an outside chance at winning the Series even if I took a second place.

I started thinking of the sprint.

As the laps wound down, I started winding up. I could feel the adrenaline starting to surge, my legs were getting antsy, and I started moving up steadily on the hill each lap. I watched the laps count down, and at 3 to go I started pushing away any thoughts of winning the Series. Those thoughts are fatal, when I start daydreaming in the field.

The frenzied yelling at the start/finish put me back on track. I had to focus on the sprint.

At 2 to go it started getting hectic in the field, and the spectators were going nuts. This was it, al these races, it was coming down to this. I knew the importance of maintaining position while saving my legs, so I made some measured efforts here and there to maintain position and even improve it.

At the bell the tension was such that I could barely stand it. People were screaming, guys were yelling, and the field suddenly squeezed an extra few inches tighter between each racer.

Three guys were clear - an Adler, solo, about 15 seconds in front of the field, and two Target Training guys about 50 meters clear, maybe 4 or 5 seconds.

I needed the points, and even if the field didn't get the Adler guy, I desperately needed the Target Training guys brought back. I had no idea if anyone would chase - the guys helping me must have been cooked by then. We turned the corner, and like he had read my mind, Mike was at the front, flying, a string of racers on his wheel, hoping for the massive leadout. The front of the field stretched out, reaching out and touching the Target Training duo. Mike peeled off, totally spent.

Guido took over, driving the pace, guys behind probably wondering why he was working so hard to lead out the field. I sat perhaps 20 or 25 guys back, far enough that I had protection going into the 400 meter to go mark, where I felt the wind blew strongest that day.

Andreas came flying around me by Turn 2, yelling at me to get on his wheel. But I knew that if I'd gone then, into the wind, I'd have no sprint. I croaked out "Too early!" and watched him try to salvage some assistance for me from his effort. A few hundred meters later he peeled off, unable to deal with the ferocious wind on the back stretch. I smiled grimly, thankful that I'd had the patience to know that going out there would have been fatal. Andreas, after the race, sheepishly admited it had been too early too.

The field barreled along down the back straight, on the right curb, angling out left (the wind came from the right), and although I wasn't too close too the front, I somehow knew things would be okay.

I saw a few gaps, went through them, and found myself maybe 10 back with about 300 meters to go. I had perfect positioning in the field, in such a good position that it was, probably, realistically, the first position in the field actually protected from the wind. I felt so confident I actually puffed out a few breaths and re-situated my hands on the bars (harking back to my Pavlov sprint training), psyching myself up for the sprint.

Because of the wind I knew I had to jump late, and as the guys started to wind things up, I patiently waited for a gap to open. I saw Stephen, the leader, and he was sprinting like he'd just done a very, very hard race after doing a very, very hard Masters race. He looked vulnerable to someone that was, say, sitting in for the whole race. I was less sure about taking the guy who'd just jumped away from them because he had some scamper in his legs, but I thought it was doable.

I was pedaling between three guys and waited for them to open up a bit, to give me room to get by them. I briefly thought about asking one of them to move right just a bit (he was one of those "friends of the promoter"), but I figured he had had a hard Series and really wanted a good finish. I nixed that idea and waited maybe two more pedal strokes.

Then it was time. I jumped on the pedals, accelerated past the guys in front of me, and started closing in hard on a guy in dark blue. I felt almost spun out and debated shifting up (and jumping again) but I had no idea how my legs would react, so I kept sprinting in the smaller gear. I regretted it on each downstroke, but I was afraid to shift up.

As I pulled up to the rider in blue, I realized three things. One, the Adler guy was winning the race. Two, I wasn't going to beat the rider in blue. And three, the guy in blue was Bryan.

I knew that second place could probably win me the Series. If Slokar (from Adler) was up the road, I'd lose, but Mike and Guido knew this, and I trusted their efforts such that I knew it couldn't be Slokar up the road. Therefore I had a fighting chance to win the Series with a second.

But I wasn't going to get second, because Bryan was beating me to it.

So I did the only thing I could do (the other possible option - crashing out Bryan - didn't occur to me until just now, but that is not an option for me).

I yelled at Bryan.

"Sit up! Sit up! Sit up!"

He looked at me quizzically, unable to comprehend my absurd request in a bike race with about 5 meters to go. And instinctively threw his bike to the line.

I threw my bike too but he was too far ahead. I slammed the bars in frustration. Frustration in myself, in not sprinting better, in not shifting up, in not jumping 2 pedal strokes early, in not being able to follow up on all of the insane work that my friends and teammates had done for me, with nothing motivating them but the thought of trying to help me win the Series.

I hit the bars so hard my hand still hurts, but I feel it's somehow appropriate. My gesture wasn't appropriate, and every time someone shook my hand (enthusiastically), I had to fight not to wince. With podiums, good byes, and even a relative at my dad's visiting from Japan, there were a lot of handshakes that day. But that pain reminded me that one ought to live their life with dignity. And slamming your bars in frustration is not really dignified.

I also felt bad for putting Bryan in that position, because when I tallied the points, it was ever so close.

Stephen, dying a thousand deaths, earned 2 points to total 16.
The Adler guy earned 10 points for the win to total 15.
I earned 5 points to total 15.

Because I earned less points than the Adler guy, the Adler guy took second overall, I got third.

If I had managed to pass Bryan in the sprint, I'd have earned 16 points. And because I'd have earned 7 points to Stephen's 2, I'd have won the Series. And I told myself that morning that if I win the Series one more time, I won't try to win it anymore. I'll race it for other riders, to help others as others have helped me.

But with the situation at 5 meters to go, where I knew that I couldn't beat Bryan fairly, my final third place is proper and correct and totally appropriate. Because that's the place I earned, with all of my friends and teammates' hard work. No matter what I wanted to have happen, I simply didn't come up with the goods at the finish.

Although I failed in my task, I'd done the best I could, exceeding everyone's expectations (mine included). Stephen, after the race, simply couldn't believe that I had made it to the end of the race in the field. He believed I'd fallen victim to the high pace in the field. He had raced the sprint convinced that I was watching from the sidelines, and was astounded when I sprinted past him just before the line.

Basically, it comes down to this. I desperately want to win the Series, to win a Leader's Jersey. I want to earn it. I'll ask for other's help but I won't ask for gifts at the finishline/s. And when I win the Jersey, I'll stop trying to win it again.

See you there next year.


Rishabh Phukan said...


Awesome write up.

I saw Guido doing some crazy work up there and talked to him as I offered him the wheel I had again and again as he drifted back after taking those pulls. I saw you two talking before the race, and I quickly figured out what was going on.

I shouted at him to "Get in" as often as I could.

I found myself in the front of the pack a bit, and actually brought back a break or two since it looked like it had enough representation to stay away.

For me it was one of those days when all my efforts felt effortless and recovery came easy.

The last year has been pretty challenging for me for apparent reasons, but I can finally race and be a player in the events taking place. Not only in 4/5 races, but in 3/4 races as well. You have no idea how happy that makes me.

For most of what I've learned, I have you to thank. So thank you Aki for being a good teacher/mentor, for being an inspiration as far as sportsmanship is concerned, and for putting on a damn good event.

See you next year. I want to go all out for bethel next year, because I have no idea where I'll find myself after that.

In any event, it's time for me to start looking for a team this summer. I can't wait to spend a summer hangin' out and racing :)


G said...

Indeed, Aki, great write up.

It was a great experience for me to put my efforts in for some team purpose. The first 15 minutes were a blast but indeed very challenging. Mike rode very strong and I felt at my limit. When SOC and John took over the timing could not have been any better.

What amazed me was that the orange Adler crew consisted apparently of only 5 riders, when it felt like there must have been at least a dozen. I guess that's one way to send out a big compliment. They attacked one after another and when back stayed at the front. Oh, and by the same token I could swear I saw at least three clones of Stephen. He was everywhere.

As for the finish, I did not pull in the last lap. I wouldn't be surprised if John was up there as he had some very strong pulls earlier. With the bell lap it looked like the field was all together and you made your way up so I decided to roll out on the down hill. I turned around on time to make it back to the finish line when you crossed it. It was indeed a very close finish.

Thanks again for running the series so smoothly!


Anonymous said...

No pictures for the last race?

Aki said...

hey thanks for the comments. I've been trying to recover after the races, mainly time-wise. Seems like everything got left behind in the focus to put on the Series. A few pics from the last race, am waiting for podium shots etc. Those will go up when I have a moment. I also need to type up the results in USAC format so that everyone can get credit for their placings.