By David Ward
I had a dream the other night. I dreamt I was at a meeting of our racing club and we were planning out the coming race season. There was an air of anticipation and excitement as we discussed the upcoming races. I was anxious for the racing to begin.
Then I woke up and reality came flowing back. Yes, this is the time of year to be planning for and become excited about the racing season. But I am, as I have previously painfully pointed out, sixty-two years old with a body that is slowing me down and, when it comes to cycling these days, just plain slow.
But it was refreshing to feel that anticipation and excitement once again, even if only in a dream. Because I remember being excited about racing and eagerly looking forward to the next season, the next race, and even the midweek practice criteriums at the International Center out past the Salt Lake airport. (How many of you were around back then?)
Racing a bicycle is thrilling. I loved all types of racing. The time trials, the road races, and the criteriums. My one regret is that I never lived near a velodrome to have the opportunity to participate in track racing. But I loved those races I was able to do. Even time trials.
You see, time trials are painful. But they demand full concentration, perseverance, and energy output on and beyond the edge the entire race. They really are more a test of obstinacy, endurance and pushing oneself to the extreme than any other type of race. A time trial is called the race of truth for a good reason: It’s only you. No strategy, no drafting, no attacking. Just you.
Typically, there is nothing memorable about time trialing except the pain. I was not a great time trialist, but I was pretty good. When the big guns showed up, like Steve Johnson, Fran Wikstrom and George Veasy, I knew I was toast. (Actually, when they showed up at any race, I knew I was toast.) But amongst us lesser mortals, I could hold my own. One year at the Utah Summer Games, I won the time trial by a matter of seconds. We had a good contingent of racers in our category, and that TT victory set the stage for my sweep of the weekend’s subsequent road race and criterium, and the overall gold medal. It was a sweet time trial win.
Road racing was less challenging but more fun than time trials. You spend a fair amount of time just riding in a pack and chatting. What’s not to like about that? Eventually, though, someone shoots off the front with several others jumping in behind, making the first thrust in a calculating game of point and counterpoint. Should I attack? Should I follow that attack or is it doomed? Who is in the break? What is the team strategy? Is the strategy shot to hell at this point?
And then there were the climbs. I always had to make certain I was at the front of the peloton when we hit the foot of a climb. I was never a great climber, but with a little care and some good luck, I could often reach the top close enough to catch back on. But road races were won or lost on the climbs. Come too far off, and you typically were just on a training ride the rest of the race.
But road racing can bring some exciting surprises. One year, while riding the Little Mountain Road Race north of Logan, I was dropped on the last climb, but there were still about 10 miles to go. I rode with a friend, and we knew we were battling it out for fourth and fifth places. Given there were probably less than ten that started in our category, that was no big deal. But we would fight it out anyway. On a small roller, I attacked, opened a gap, and he couldn’t close it. I went into time trial mode to put more space between him and me.
With about five miles to go, I spotted two riders maybe a half mile ahead. They were good friends who were apparently going to sprint it out for second place. (The winner of our race had finished some minutes before.) I was feeling strong, had a good rhythm going and just felt good. Hoping they would not look back, I put my head down and motored on. When I was about thirty yards behind, one of them looked back, and then did a double-take. He said something to the other, and he looked back. Suddenly, they were off their saddles, trying to get up to speed before I could catch them.
Too late. I was on their wheels before they could really get rolling. We were near the finish, and it came down to a sprint. But catching them had been demoralizing to them. They had slacked off, just coasting into the finish, and it came back to bite. So when the sprint wound up, they just didn’t have it, and I easily outdistanced them for second place.
For me, it was as good as winning. It was a coup I had pulled off due to a number of factors, but those are the vagaries and excitement of road racing. I was stoked at what I had accomplished, and I still remember how exhilarating it was. I won many road races in my racing career, but that second place finish rates high in my personal palmarés.
But I loved criteriums. Fast pack riding, cornering at high speeds and fighting for position is one of the great thrills of bike racing. In crit racing, you have to be tenacious. My first rule of crit racing: Never sit at the back. You end up spending all your energy catching back on after coming out of a corner. Second rule: Avoid squirrelly riders. They are the ones who move suddenly to one side, taking out the front wheel of the rider just behind, and that is when you hear the scrape of metal on pavement, see bikes and riders flying and crunching, and hear the inevitable cursing that follows.
My strategy was to try to stay close to the front, watch and catch potentially dangerous breaks, and be ready for that opportune moment to make my move and dash to the finish line. More often than not, I would be frustrated after a crit because I hesitated when I should have launched, missing the critical moment. But occasionally, the right move would pay off, and I would feel exultant as I burst across the finish line at high speed and at least a tire’s width ahead of the next guy.
One particularly exciting criterium also took place at the Utah Summer Games. We were racing around a flat city block, keeping the pace high and flying through and around the corners. There were about four of us who knew the victory would come to one of us. Most anticipated we would come sprinting out of the final corner in a flat out drag race to the finish.
But I decided to make my move just prior to the second to last corner. The stretch between that turn and the final turn was relatively short, and I figured if I went into that penultimate turn first, I would also come out of the final turn first and have a leg up on the others.
So it was that, as we approached that turn, I attacked hard, moved to the front, leaned and shot around the turn in first place. I was immediately up off the saddle, cranking it as hard as I could till I dove into the final turn. Careful to not scrape my pedal on the pavement as I came charging out of the turn, I cruised across the finish line, thrilled with the success of my tactic and the resultant victory.
Geez! Just writing about this gets me excited. Of course, these days I just reminisce, remembering the excitement of those days and the camaraderie of my fellow racers. The only racing I do now is the LOTOJA, and that is only a race against myself and to see if I can finish. But if I were younger, I would do it again.
There are those my age who still race, and who are very good. For various reasons, I don’t have, or rather I don’t choose to spend, the time and effort necessary to train for racing. And to be honest, the motivation really is not there.
But when I did, I loved it. I enjoyed those I raced with. We thrashed each other on the road, and then spent a lot of time rehashing the race afterward. I enjoyed the club meetings we had. I enjoyed the success others had, though I did not like it being at my expense. I enjoyed the equipment and how well it performed. I enjoyed the prizes, and the rare times I actually won some cash. It was never enough to pay the cost of going to the race, but it was still cash. I enjoyed listening to my children cheering me on, yelling “Go, Dad” as we would fly past the spectators (mostly just our families, girlfriends, significant others, etc.)
But most of all, I enjoyed the racing. Win or lose, it was an adrenaline rush for me. Racing is demanding, exciting, thrilling and exhilarating. Searching for something new and exciting in your life? Come on out and join the race.