Fast people at the front. You can barely make out Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz talking to some riders
That was the thought that was on my mind as I joined the crowd at the starting point for the Crystal Ride. To complete eight laps in 3.5 hours, I needed to complete each lap in 26 minutes. If I could manage that, I would receive a shiny gold medal.
Piece of cake.
My view at the start. You can make out the blue starting sign in the distance. There were an equal number of people behind me.
The ride was supposed to start in two waves. The first wave would consist of anyone who earned a Gold Medal at last year’s ride. The second wave would be everybody else. That meant I would be starting in the back half of the field and the folks I most wanted to be with (guys who were most likely to move at the pace I wanted to be at) would be extremely difficult to catch up to. I hoped I could weave my way through the crowd and link up with a paceline from Wave 1. As it turned out, we all started at the same time.
Laps 1 & 2: Getting Acclimated
After some brief safety announcements and comments from the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, the PA Announcer counted down from ten, and we were off. Well, the front of the pack was off at least. I didn’t move for many seconds and it was over a minute before I reached the start line – one minute eaten up just to get to the start!
The field was very packed as we moved up Crystal Drive. The pace was slow and turns onto 12th Street and Army-Navy Drive were an adventure. After crossing under I-395, we came upon the first of several hairpin turns, which were also very exciting with the course clogged with riders. Fortunately, nobody was hurt (yet).
As we reached Boundary Channel Drive on the East side of the Pentagon, the field opened up a tick and I could pick up the pace. Turns were still tricky with so many cyclists, many of whom seemed uncomfortable with so many riders about them. On Washington Blvd, we had plenty of space and I briefly linked up with a paceline. After only a mile, however, we were at the Air Force Monument.
A word about the USAF Monument is in order here. It sits atop a rather significant hill – about 100 feet high. Climbing it once was no problem, although some of the weaker riders were struggling with it. I wondered how I would feel about it on my eighth attempt. The descent on the backside was luxurious – nobody was beating me and my extra “ballast” on the downhills! I flew by people who reeled me back in a half mile later when we climbed a smaller hill to get back on Washington Blvd.
The rest of the route was basically a backtrack of the route to the Monument. The entire circuit was 7.7 miles. I came up on the Start/Finish Line and noted my split: 26 minutes, 40 seconds.
This was going to be tougher than I had hoped.
My initial strategy was to build up a cushion of a few minutes each lap which I could use in the later laps to take pictures or go at a slightly slower pace. I was thus alarmed to be 40 seconds behind schedule after my very first lap. This was due to the bunched up start, but I was still hoping to make up the difference as the field opened up a bit. You will note that there are no more pictures in this post, which should give you some sense of how the next three hours went for me.
With the field spread out somewhat, I was finally able to pick up my pace on Lap 2. Finding a paceline was difficult as there were so many turns to negotiate and the pacelines tended to break up at each one. By the time a gaggle of strangers got themselves organized into another line, we would arrive at turn and the line would break apart. Each lap had fifteen turns that required braking. Still, I was very fresh and moving at a 20 mph pace. I finished the 2nd lap at 50 minutes, 40 seconds – I now had 1:20 in the bank.
Laps 3 & 4: Mayhem
I was eager to add to my slight cushion on time. I bounced over the potholes, asphalt cracks, etc… in Crystal City and hammered as best I could. Apparently, I was not the only person with this idea. At this point, most of the weaker riders were to the rear and the very good riders in organized teams were well to the front. That left us – pretty good riders with no teams, panicking to keep on pace. People were darting in and out of groups, slower riders didn’t know to keep to the right, people fought with each other to get into pacelines as they quickly emerged. The ride took on a different character at this point and I believe I now know something of what it must have been like to be in a Roman chariot race.
The first accident I saw happened right in front of me at the Air Force Monument. A guy simply cut in front of another rider’s line and his rear wheel hit the trailing rider’s front wheel. They both went down. Hard. I grabbed my breaks for all they were worth and felt my rear wheel come off the ground. Fortunately, I stayed upright and nobody plowed into me. The trailing rider had a nasty scrape on his left knee and elbow. I stayed long enough to make sure he was all right and left when a race official arrived.
Bikes were breaking all over the place. I saw at least twenty riders dealing with flat tires and broken chains. I think the rough city streets were taking their toll. Near the beginning of Lap 4, I saw my second accident. This one involved a woman who was attempting to pass a group and got too close to the curb. Her tire lodged in a storm grate and she flew over the top of her handlebars. She was holding her ankle in agony when I passed. A race official was already there, so I continued onward.
As I climbed the Monument’s hill for the fourth time, it was losing its charm on me. Several riders were walking their bikes. No f’ing way was that going to be me. As I reached the plateau and passed by a bandstand, there was a woman on the side of the road who saw my jersey and yelled, “Go Army! Hooah!” Each time I passed her, she shouted encouragement to me. I am in her debt.
As I returned to the Start/Finish Line, I knew I needed a time better than 1:45:00. I crossed at 1:41:45. I had built a three minute, fifteen second cushion. I was hoping to be about ten minutes ahead at this point. I now knew there would be no photography on the second half. There would only be hanging on for dear life.
Laps 5-8: Hanging On For Dear Life
I was beginning to tire and was worried I would “bonk” if I kept pushing myself. So I slowed a tick and looked for opportunities to latch onto pacelines. These were maddeningly few, due to the constant stopping and starting for turns. And that stupid Air Force Monument hill wasn’t getting any smaller. I still kept my bike out of its lowest gear, but that was quickly becoming my best option on this part of the course.
After Lap 6, the cushion I had built up over the first four laps was down to 90 seconds. It was here that the ride leaders lapped me. I was expecting this and was prepared to latch onto their group, but they flew by me at mach speed and there was no way I could keep up with that. In Lap 7, I resorted to my “Granny Gear” on the Monument hill. The riders who wanted to get a silver medal (four laps) were now off the course, giving me plenty of room. I occasionally found myself several hundred feet from the nearest rider. I was hoping I would have enough energy in the final lap to give it one last push. As it turned out, I would need that energy. I finished Lap 7 fifteen seconds behind the required pace.
Sadly, I didn’t have the energy.
I gave it my best. At various points I felt a stitch in my back, a cramp in my left thigh, and dealt with a couple of boughts of nausea. Both of my feet were very sore near the toes/balls of the feet. My handlebar tape was unraveling on one side. Life was hard. Still, I stood on my pedals on my final ascent of “the hill” and gave the downhills everything I had.
Everything I had wasn’t enough. I finished at 3:32:30, two minutes and thirty seconds too slow for gold.
Ethical Dilemmas At The Medal Pickup
I exited the course and got into a line of about 100 riders waiting to turn in their timing chip and pick up their medal. I was very disappointed. 150 seconds! If only I hadn’t burned a minute to get to the starting line. If only I hadn’t stopped for that crash. If only…
I realized, of course, this is how losers talk. And that’s what I was today, so I guess the line of thinking made sense.
I then pondered my average pace of 17.9 mph. This was actually better than what was required to complete the course. The problem was that my cycling line was slightly longer (1.3 miles longer, to be exact) due to starting a bit back in the field and rounding corners a little wide over time. I actually covered the advertised distance within the time limit. Therefore, didn’t I actually do what I set out to do?
No. That would be a rationalization, brought about by despair, exhaustion and slight dehydration. What I set out to do was complete the course in 3.5 hours. And I didn’t do that. Period.
I gave my chip to a volunteer who threw it into a bin without checking it. I expected her to put it into some sort of machine that would tell her my time. ”How will you know what my time is?” I asked.
“Did you complete eight laps?” she asked. When I nodded in the affirmative, she said, “Just stay in line and you’ll get a gold medal.”
Hmmm. When I approached the medal desk, I explained to the volunteer that I had completed eight laps, but not within the 3.5 hour time limit. “That’s ok,” she said. “You did the eight laps before the course closed and that is the standard. Congratulations!”
I sheepishly took the medal and made my way back to the parking garage, where I inhaled a Gatorade I had on ice in my truck. This was a very tough event for me, tougher than the century ride I completed last month. Still, I managed to set a new personal best pace for a long distance ride (note: I consider the old pace as still being the official record as pacelines were involved today). It was fun to be in a big event that had more of a “racelike” quality than traditional century rides. If I do this ride next year, I hope to shave the 2:30 off my time and remove any doubt as to the legitimacy of my accomplishment!