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The race: Wilkes-Barre Twilight Crit, Category 4/5
The result: 21st
The story:

I know this is going to be hard to believe for a lot of people, but yes, I did race my bike in eastern Pennsylvania yesterday afternoon. Fortunately, at the time of my race, Hurricane Irene hadn’t moved far enough north to affect Wilkes-Barre.

Still, it had rained off-and-on during the day, and storm clouds were looming when I pulled into town a few hours before the race set off. I used some time to drive around and see how things had changed since I lived there. I went over the Eagle Bridge to Kingston to see where my great grandmother lived and went to church, saw some other places. It hadn’t changed all that much.

What also hadn’t changed much was the road surface. I did this race last year, and some of the same obstacles remained — a manhole cover in the middle of a 90-degree turn, exactly where you’d want to go; a few metal grates and road depressions along the finishing straight.

But since I’d done it before, I knew what to expect. One thing I didn’t expect was a prime on the very first lap, which seemed like a recipe for disaster. Racers are already geared up, and setting a prime for the first lap seemed like a way to push that nervousness over the edge into Accident Canyon.

Fortunately, nobody crashed or took a corner too fast. So, uh, kudos 4/5 field. I spent the first few laps gaining confidence in my ability to take the corners, and by lap six I moved to the front to test my legs. I hadn’t raced in a month and didn’t know what to expect out of them.

But even if my legs weren’t sharp, I felt pretty good and moved back to take cover in the bunch. The group strung out whenever there was a prime lap, but always regrouped. No organized breaks got away. The laps ticked down and it became apparent the race would end in a bunch sprint finale.

Normally, I’d be content to sit in, then make my way toward the front for that finish. But I was fairly certain this would be my final race of the season, and I’ve always wanted to take a solo flier.

I made that bid for glory on the final lap, but being a rookie at such efforts, I made it in rookie fashion. I launched it from too far out and didn’t do it hard enough — for crying out loud, I could hear people saying, “On the left!” before I even passed them.

But I went with it, and another racer told me I had 15-20 bike lengths. By the time I hit the midway point of the headwind-riddled finishing stretch, I knew it wasn’t going to work.

Had I waited a few hundred meters longer or launched the attack with greater surprise, I would have finished higher. But I’m glad I did it; I wouldn’t have won a bunch sprint, anyway. Maybe next season I’ll make one stick.

Fundraiser update:
Smoketown Criterium – 24th (worth $5)
Tour of Mt. Nebo – 9th (worth $10)
Rodale Park Crit – 10th (worth $10)
Coatesville Road Race – ? Seriously, my name isn’t on the results. (worth $0)
Arsenal Crit – 13th (worth $10)
Liberty Crit – 32nd (worth $0)
Robeson Road Race – 10th (worth $10)
Wilkes-Barre Twilight Crit – 21st (worth $5)
___________________________________
End total: A clean $50

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The race: Robeson Township Pennsylvania State Cycling Championships – Category 4
The result: 10th
The story:

Every summer for longer than I can remember, my family has gone crabbing. It’s a fun tradition. We head to Beaver Dam in New Jersey early in the morning, fill a couple boats with people and traps, and catch ourselves some crabs that we cook and eat at a party.

For people who haven’t gone crabbing: it can get a little gross. Actually, it will get a little gross. It’s a guarantee.

Before you’re even in the boat, you’re breathing in the salty air and contending with bugs. And so you put on a layer of bug spray.

Then you get in the boats and have to set up the traps. And so you cut frozen bunker in half with an old knife at 7 in the morning and shove the pieces on wire attached to the traps.

Once you have the traps squared away and tied to the boat, you drop anchor, put the traps in and start pulling every so often. And so you splash yourself with funky water.

Soon, the sun comes up. And so you decide you’d rather not roast yourself red, and spread on some sunscreen.

Eventually, the crabs bite your bait clean and you have to refill the traps. So you buy some more bunker when the bait boat comes around, chop those in half. Only, you don’t use them all at once, so the spare pieces sit in a plastic bag on the bottom of the skiff, thawing in the summer sun.

And on and on, each activity adding some new film.

In order to have any fun at all, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to get dirty and just not worry about it. You’re going to be gross when you stroll into a Wendy’s on the way back home, and your hands will smell like fish. But it doesn’t matter. Once you accept the film, it’s enormously fun.

That’s not too different from bike racing. Last week at the Liberty Crit, I didn’t accept the film. I worried the whole time about crashing, for good reason, and never focused on the fun. The result wasn’t surprising — a frowny-faced 32nd.

But I had a feeling this Sunday’s race would allow me to focus on the fun. I targeted this one for a good result. I’d done it two years ago as a Cat 5 rider and knew the course suited my strengths.

The 12-mile loop didn’t have any extraordinarily long or hard climbs, but it was unrelenting. When one climb ends, it isn’t too long before another climb or a stretch of rough asphalt comes along. And when you do multiple laps — my race did four — the physical toll can build.

I spent a good portion of the first lap near or at the front, wanting to stay out of trouble. I figured I’d try to make it hard for everybody else, really pushing the pace on every climb. But I knew I’d blow up if I kept going that way and eased off toward the end of the lap.

The second and third laps were basically an exercise in people-watching. I hung out at the back and saw who was strong, who was doing a lot of work, who was fading. Occasionally a rider popped out the back, unable to follow accelerations up the small climbs.

I didn’t feel great during a portion of the second lap, but once I got an energy gel and some water in me, my condition quickly improved. Sure, I ripped it open precisely as the group surged through a rough section and up a hill, so I had to do a delicate balancing act for a moment, but that’s beside the point, which is: I didn’t have trouble staying in touch with the group and saved a lot of energy. By the time the fourth lap began, I was feeling good about my prospects.

There were only 30-something riders in the main group with those 12 miles left, and I slowly moved up, picking up a couple positions on every climb. I went to my small chainring only a few times, so I must have had good form.

With a few kilometers to go, I hovered between 15th and 20th, firmly holding my position.

In hindsight, I should have put myself in position to attack on one of the three or four short pitches in the final kilometer, because the group crawled over them. But as it was, I sat boxed in and waited for the sprint.

The final 400-500 meters consisted of a fast descent leading into a drag up to the finish line, perfect for somebody like me, who can’t do a flat-land sprint well but can shoot up rises. I spread out to the left side of the road and followed accelerations, then kicked it into an appropriate gear and started passing people. To my left, a rider touched the wheel in front of him and nearly went down, forcing me into an evasive maneuver. But I didn’t brake and still carried enough speed to pick off a few more people for 10th.

The race wasn’t easy — my legs felt like jelly during one part of the fourth lap — but once I resigned myself to the film of a hard effort, I could hunker down and enjoy it.

Fundraiser update
Smoketown Criterium – 24th (worth $5)
Tour of Mt. Nebo – 9th (worth $10)
Rodale Park Crit – 10th (worth $10)
Coatesville Road Race – ? Seriously, my name isn’t on the results. (worth $0)
Arsenal Crit – 13th (worth $10)
Liberty Crit – 32nd (worth $0)
Robeson Road Race – 10th (worth $10)

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The race: Liberty Criterium (Category 4)
The result: 32nd
The story:

Have you ever seen sunglasses with interchangeable lenses? A set of frames with multiple lenses for different conditions?

The Tour de France is a little like a set of those, in that you can swap out lenses and see the race however you want to see it. You can see it simply as a bike race, or you can swap lenses and see it as a poetic expression of struggle and success and triumph and failure. You can put in the cynic’s lenses and see it as a doping scandal waiting to happen or a three-week orgy of publicity.

But however you choose to view it, at no point does the set of frames reduce the sheer magnitude of the Tour de France. Things like this and this don’t happen just anywhere.

Everything at the Tour happens on a grand scale. Everything is panoramic and in high definition. Everything. Even the sublime.

The Tour ended today with Cadel Evans on top of the podium and in the yellow jersey. He clinched the victory Saturday with a fantastic performance in the individual time trial, erasing a deficit to both Schleck brothers.

But on the same day he won, others had to lose. Among them was Thomas Voeckler, the French rider who was already a folk hero after his performance in the 2004 Tour, when he unexpectedly wore the yellow jersey for 10 days.

Voeckler got back into the yellow jersey this year and, once again, defended it day after day. He was never expected to keep it as long as he did, but there he was still wearing the darn thing after Stage 18. He went from a cheeky underdog to a potential podium contender against all odds.

But Voeckler lost it Friday after a hard day in the mountains, falling to fourth overall. On Saturday he couldn’t ride a time trial fast enough to get on the podium and finished just off it. Now, don’t get me wrong, fourth place at the Tour de France is a great result. Only in the context of this year’s Tour, that finish was tinged with disappointment. After Saturday’s stage, I saw a series of tweets from David Millar, another Tour rider.

– If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

– In team car being driven to hotel. Chatting to [teammate Christian Vande Velde] & spot cyclist on autoroute ahead, dressed in full Europcar kit. Looks oddly familiar.

– Chat stops, tell car to slow. As we pass have time to look into eyes of a tired and broken Voeckler. Tragic doesn’t come close to describe.

Heading into Saturday’s time trial, Voeckler didn’t have much of a chance of riding his way onto the podium. He needed to make up a lot of time on the Schlecks and had used up a ton of energy riding in the yellow jersey.

There was still a chance, though, and when it didn’t happen, I have to imagine everything came crashing down on Thomas Voeckler — the thrill of wearing the yellow jersey and the pressure of defending it; the media and fan attention, day after day; the emotional tug of war, with the faint possibility he might actually win the damn race on one side, and probability on the other; the devastation he put his body through in pursuit of a dream.

And when that all evaporated, when he knew he wouldn’t be standing on that final podium in Paris, I have to imagine that Voeckler was finally spent. Whatever caused him to ride alone on a highway in the middle of France doesn’t reduce the feeling. He was broken.

He was not the first athlete to be broken by a performance and he will not be the last. And the fact that I’m a cyclist is likely distorting my view, but I find it extraordinarily sad that Voeckler needed to go ride around by himself for a while after finishing fourth.

But then, everything that happens at the Tour happens on a grand scale. Everything. Even the sublime, even the disappointment.

As a rider, I will never understand that level of disappointment or emotional investment. I don’t race for money or prestige, I don’t have a whole country cheering me on. But I can relate to the way competitive cycling can throw your emotions around.

One minute you’re heading into the last lap of a criterium in Malvern, plotting the move that will get you into a good position for a high placing. The next you’re riding up a hill, watching another rider’s blood trickle down after a crash that left riders strewn, bikes gnarled, and one competitor apparently unconscious.

I’m not sure what it was about today’s race that made it so sketchy. Maybe it was the fast, wide-open course that allowed fields to ride six people wide. Maybe people in my race were just so antsy to race that they left common sense behind.

Whatever it was, the whole 20-mile race was on edge. And on the last lap, I saw a bike 10 yards ahead go sideways and bodies fly. I nearly ran over the rider who was most seriously hurt, and when I saw the blood, I stopped giving two damns about a good result. I then rode to the start/finish line to make sure an ambulance was on its way before going back to the site of the accident.

I don’t want to detail the scene too grotesquely, but he lost a lot of blood. Luckily, he was lucid after regaining consciousness. Before paramedics stabilized him on a backboard and took him to a hospital, they asked him his age. He said he was 40.

That struck me. I know that many people his age or older participate in bike racing. They do so for fun and to scratch a competitive itch, just like I do. And I know this isn’t the most serious incident in the world, like I’m aware this is not the first time somebody crashed in a bike race. Accidents happen. Everybody who pins on a number on knows that risk.

But again and again, my mind kept saying, “This poor guy.” The least he deserved — any rider deserves — was a safe race. He didn’t get it.

That’s disappointing, even if there was nothing grand about my race at all.

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The race: Arsenal Crit – Cat 4
The result: 13th, and some beer

The story:
The race was held at the Navy Yard in Philly, which is a nice change from doing the PA Turnpike-to-202-to-30 progression of roads and spending hours in a car.

It was put on by QCW/Breakaway, a local club team, and it showed. My Cat 4 field was about 25-30 guys deep, and at least a third, maybe 40 percent, were from QCW. They were younger guys, including some juniors, and it’s great to see such a large group of riders getting into the sport.

We did 20 laps around a really fun course — about a mile long with eight corners and a wide, long, flat run to the finish. Positioning was super important. The constant changes in direction and some narrow corners strung out the field single-file for most of the race, making the back an especially terrible place to reside. You can waste a lot of energy sprinting out of corners just trying to hold somebody’s wheel.

There were a couple early moves in the race, but nothing serious. The QCW kids animated the race a lot, and one of them got up the road with somebody else with about 9 or 10 laps left. At this point the field had thinned, but I really wanted to be making the race, so I made a move along the finishing stretch and reeled in the front-runners over the span of two laps. I heard a “nice pull” from someone behind me when I made the catch. Thanks, guy.

Anyway, I was still drilling it at the front heading for a prime and figured I’d go for it. Prime is just a fancy word for intermediate sprint. They don’t decide the race, but they give riders extra chances to earn a prize. There were three in my race.

I didn’t think my effort would work. But lo, it did. Just after crossing the finish line, an explosive kid from QCW blew past me and motioned for me to get on his wheel. Why? I had somehow established a gap in front of the field and he saw a breakaway chance. Normally I’d think, “Awesome!” and be game, but I hadn’t recovered from the chase and sprint, then had to dig even deeper to bridge up to him.

He forged ahead alone for the final six laps and took a solo win — his teammates did a good job blocking and not contributing to a chase. It seems pretty basic that you shouldn’t help other riders catch one of your teammates, but I’ve seen it happen more than once. So, kudos.

As for the others, they didn’t seem like they wanted to organize a chase, so we were all racing for second. I stayed in the field and finished 13th.

Later, I picked up my prize for winning the prime: a six-pack sampler of Philly’s own Yards beer. Quite a tasty bonus.

Fundraiser update:
Smoketown Criterium – 24th (worth $5)
Tour of Mt. Nebo – 9th (worth $10)
Rodale Park Crit – 10th (worth $10)
Coatesville Road Race – ? Seriously, my name isn’t on the results. (worth $0)
Arsenal Crit – 13th (worth $10)

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