Over 1,800 of us gathered in Crystal City Sunday morning to ride six 15 km laps around Northern Virginia. As I waiting patiently in the starts corral, I was pretty sure a few things were about to happen:
- It would be hot
- The course would be fast
- There would be at least one crash
Subsequent events would prove me to be right on all counts.
After a brief delay to ensure the police had the roads properly closed, the starting command was given and the Great Horde began to inch forward. I was hoping to improve on my 17.9 mph average pace through better fitness, weighing less (I am about seven pounds lighter than this time last year), and carrying less (my wife had volunteered to act as my support team, keeping my food/water available for me on each lap). Immediately, I knew my suspicions of a faster course to be accurate. Gone were the pothole-stricken side roads and hairpin turns from last year’s event. In their place was the wide-open Route 110 Highway to Arlington. It was easy to find a paceline moving at 22 mph and latch on.
A second prediction came true very quickly as well. At Mile 3.5, the peloton came to a dramatic halt as three cyclists wrecked. With much shouting of warnings to trailing riders, catastrophe was averted (for us, at least, if not the riders who crashed) and we were able to slowly get past the incident. Nobody appeared to be seriously injured, which is to say they were conscious and able to limp about with a fair amount of blood but no obvious bone fractures. In short order, we were zipping along again toward the USAF Memorial on the very road that was closed to my wife and I during the unfortunate Bike DC SNAFU a month ago. After climbing the hill to the Memorial, we flew back down and made our way into Crystal City for the completion of Lap 1.
Average pace: 19.9 mph. WOW!
Life was good. I was feeling fresh and there were plenty of pacelines to latch on to. I was positively elated when I completed Lap 2 with an average pace of 20.0 mph. Even faster! I stopped briefly at the There And Back Again Cycling Team Resupply Point (my wife), got a new water bottle and some Clif Shot Blocks, and was off.
I was reminded of why I liked this event so much last year – even though it is a relatively short (56 mile) ride, it is conducted at breakneck speed and with chaos all around you. It definitely has the feel of the chariot race scene in Ben Hur, although I did not see anyone with scythed wheels (something for me to consider for next year). Bikes were breaking all over the place, their riders hurriedly performing tire changes or swearing at their derailleurs, broken chains, or other mechanical issues. There were occasional crashes and rumors of crashes. In addition to the accident at Mile 3.5, I saw a man being loaded onto a stretcher in Crystal City near the end of Lap 3. He was bleeding profusely from his knee, leading me to believe he probably hit a patch of gravel on a turn and laid his bike down. While I find great enjoyment on touring rides, there’s something to be said for an annual foray into the madcap world of criterium-style racing.
I dropped about a minute off my pace after Lap 3, giving me a slight cause for concern. The field had spread out by this point, making finding a paceline increasingly difficult. The sun was also climbing into the sky and it was becoming quite hot. My Garmin (which was once again loyally providing me data) informed me the temperature was 85 degrees and steadily rising. I had brought more energy food and liquid than last year and hoped that would be the difference.
At this point, let me share with you my official Gripe Of The Ride. I’ve always got at least one thing to complain about, and here is this ride’s gripe: overjudicious use of the phrase, “On Your Left.”
Cyclists are expected to “ride right,” meaning they should stay as far to the right as possible (for readers in the UK, Australia, Japan, Fiji, and a few other places where automobiles are on the wrong side of the road, simply hold these instructions up to a mirror and they will make sense to you). When attempting to pass another rider, a cyclist should check his blind spot and ensure nobody is coming before beginning the overtake. Cyclists approaching from the rear should shout, “On your left” to let other riders know of their presence.
That’s the rule. It’s a good rule. You will note that nowhere in the rule is there a God-given right to scream at people who are in your way, just because you are going faster than them. More than once, I was in the act of overtaking a cyclist when an even faster cyclist would catch up with me, whereupon he would scream, “ON YOUR LEFT!!!!” and attempt to shoot lasers at me out of his eyeballs. I get it that he and his little group wanted to maintain their pace, but the road is sometimes crowded and things need a moment or two to sort themselves out. Terribly sorry. The pompous attitude was annoying and gave me thoughts as to how I might silence the perpetrators. These thoughts weren’t helping me to do well in the race, or even keeping me out of prison, so I discarded them and focused on riding as fast as I could.
While staying to the right. Except to pass. After checking my blind spot.
End of gripe.
After Lap 4, I pulled over for my final resupply of shot blocks and another water bottle. I noticed I had lost another 90 seconds over the previous lap. My average pace had dropped to 18.9 mph and I could feel the onset of significant fatigue setting in. The shot blocks were increasingly difficult to eat and the Gatorade was increasingly too sweet to drink. I think a better combination at this point would have been plain old water with the shot blocks. Live and learn. Others were feeling worse than I. I saw many riders walking their bike up the USAF Memorial hill and there was even one fellow laying on the ground, his buddy trying to massage some severe leg cramps. I decided to save what little energy reserve I had left for the final lap. I finished Lap 5 with a pace of 18.4 mph. It was now over 90 degrees.
With the possibility of failing to best last year’s pace looming before me, I put the hammer down. At this point, my “hammer” was quite small, something along the lines of what a jeweler might use in watch repair. Still, it was all I had left and I used it as well as I could. Then, a really bad thing happened – while climbing the stupid hill leading to the USAF Memorial for the final time, I cramped in my left hamstring. This has never happened to me beforewhile riding, so it was quite an experience.
Now, a normal person probably would have gotten off his bike and tended to his condition. But I was on that hill and there was NO WAY I was going to get off my bike on that climb and have people think I couldn’t make it to the top. The shame would have been unbearable. So, I massaged my own hamstring while continuing to climb as best I could. It was an interesting sensation – feeling my muscle spasm while demanding it continue to crank my pedals. I made it up the hill and enjoyed my final descent.
(By the way, thin guys, please think of us heavy guys on the descent and move your butts over so we can fly by you. It’s the only time we truly have an advantage over you and we’d like to enjoy it. Thanks ever so much.)
I was well and truly gassed for the last three miles. Any serious attempt to pedal hard brought on new spasms in the hamstring. I did what I could as I slowly watched my average pace shrink before my eyes. As I crossed the finish line, I grimaced at the result: 17.9 mph – the same as last year.
I hopped off my bike and joined the line of riders waiting to collect their medals. There, I was greeted by my bride and crew chief of the There And Back Again Cycling Team, who gave me lots of praise and more fluids to drink. Although I didn’t best my pace from last year, I didn’t do worse and that is something, at least. I believe I just need to tweak my food and hydration strategies and possibly not go out quite so hard in the beginning. Stay tuned – only 364 more days until I get to test those theories out at next year’s ride!