BACKSTORY: I managed to qualify for Collegiate Road Nationals this year. This is a bit misleading, because just because I was eligible and qualified did not mean I was prepared. A nasty bout with the H1N1 this fall derailed all my training plans for the winter, and school and snowboarding interfered with my spring riding (as did the crap weather here in the Willamette Valley). So I qualified for Nationals as an A rider because I showed up to enough races (I finished 3 crits and 1 road race, DNFed one road race, and did a couple of TTTs). There simply aren't enough women racing at the A level in our conference to fill up the slots for nationals, so as long as you show up enough times, you're qualified.
Which doesn't make you prepared.
So, not being sure if this opportunity would ever replicate itself, and motivated by the fact that the ASUO senate was paying for our travel and lodging expenses, I decided to join six of my teammates on the trek to Madison to represent UO at Collegiate Road Nationals.
MORE BACKSTORY: The Sunday before we left for Madison, I crashed my bike doing something incredibly stupid, and my body (and less so, my bike) paid the price - a gnarly wound on my knee, bruises on my hips and groin, and a big old bruise on my chin. The knee injury was bad enough that I was limping around and unable to ride for the days prior to leaving. But tickets and race entry fees had been paid, travel was booked, and the ball was rolling. I wasn't going to sit out on my first Nationals ever just because I was slightly injured - eff that!
ON TO THE TRIP: We drove up from Eugene to Portland on Wednesday, flew from PDX to MKE via DEN, and rented vans in Milwaukee, then drove to Madison. Neat town, good weather (when we weren't racing), fun trip overall. But we weren't there on vacation, we were there to race bikes.
THURSDAY, MAY 6: Unpack bikes, put bikes back together, make sure everything is in order for a race the next day. The rest of the team goes on a nice spin together while I am trying to find an 8mm allen wrench for my pedals. I'm still unsure that I can even ride a bike, given the state of my knee (it's stiff and painful to bend; i'm worried about damage to tendons and bones; I haven't had it checked out by a medical professional and am just doing all I can to keep the wound clean and try to regain range of motion). I find an 8mm Allen wrench to replace my pedals (TSA took the one I had in my carry-on); I go outside and ride a few laps around the Capital. Knee is definitely stiff and hurts, but it seems to have enough range of motion to ride a bike, so I am determined to start the road race. I'm not sure I'll finish, but I'll at least start.
Big dinner the night before, lots of carbs (pizza, ice cream), and off to bed early, especially as the men have an 8AM start. Rachelle and I plan to sleep in and leave around 11 for our 1:30 start.
FRIDAY, MAY 7: THE ROAD RACE
Rachelle and I got up around 8:30 or 9 and had a delicious breakfast at the Marigold Kitchen - I wholeheartedly recommend it if you're ever in Madison. We loaded up our bikes and gear, plugged the race location into the GPS, and headed out to Blue Mound State Park. As we drove, the weather got worse - 43 degrees, intermittent rain, and a bit windy. Well, can't back out now!
We arrived at the State Park about an hour and a half before our race start. The men were still finishing - and part of the course was also the drive to the parking lot - so we were held up while racers finished, and then drove up the hill to the staging area at the same pace as the guys finishing. As we were paying for our parking fees at the park entrance, our teammate DK passed us, so we cheered - and he shot back with a summary of how many of the racers felt about the course and the conditions - "Fuck this."
All right! We were feeling pretty motivated at this point - 43 and rainy, windy, foggy, can't see a thing... this has to favor the Oregon riders, right? Well, maybe the Oregon riders who have trained and are prepared for the race. Not the Oregon riders who ignored training all winter, who show up with injuries and old bicycles that weigh a ton. But whatever - we're here. I start getting dressed and realize that it's a lot colder than I'd anticipated, and that - oh crap - I forgot my wool base layer. Not okay. That means I don't have a base layer - I have a jersey, a rain jacket that isn't race legal because it's opaque, and the clothes that I'm wearing. I ended up putting my cotton hoodie on underneath my jersey, and Galen gave me his see-through rain jacket, which I put on over the top. I wasn't planning on doing more than a lap or two, and so whenever the hoodie got too wet, I'd stop and take it off.
Except I never did. But more on that later.
Staging and call-ups were confusing, and there were a ton of other girls there looking much, much more Pro than I - Embrocated legs, matching helmets and bikes, defined calf muscles. Crap. Well, I never said I was prepared to race against these girls, so I don't give it much more thought than that. Call-ups are confusing, we get to the starting area, and then we are off on the neutral roll out.
The neutral roll out is down a huge hill (that will end up being the finishing climb). We descend, we turn left, and then we climb a little kicker before the lead car stops us. Then, suddenly, the race is on, and I'm yoyoing off the back immediately. Find a wheel! But it's sketchy, we're descending, half the girls have deep-dish carbon rims (not good at stopping in wet conditions), and I don't know any of these riders and I'm not exactly a trusting drafter. I much prefer to know the girl whose wheel I'm on, or at least to be able to tell that she's a good rider. In these conditions it is super-hard to tell. So I yoyo off the back, I chase back on, I work with other girls off the back and basically do the yoyo for a good while. I can see the leaders though, so I'm not popped. Then the flat tires start happening. A pop, hiss, and there's a girl moving backwards through the pack. Then another raises her hand. And another. Three flat tires in the first half-lap. I hang with the pack, yoyoing off the back, for the first half-lap, until there's a substantial climb and then suddenly I'm off the back with a few other girls. But not last, no, definitely not last.
And then we lost the pack. There wasn't much organization among the girls that got shelled - some more determined to catch back on, others not working so hard. I work with a girl from Marian for awhile, then we get caught by a girl from Navy and one from Lees-McRae who had both had flat tires. And we're starting the big climb at this point. It becomes obvious that the two girls who had flats are more fit than those of us who are just shelled, so we once again got shelled. And then it was just me and the girl from Arizona climbing at our own pace - a pace which matches pretty well. I know that we're not even done with the first lap, and that I definitely can't burn all the matches if I want to have a hope of climbing back up to the staging area. At this point I'm in Quitsville - deep in the shame cave (not even the pain cave) hating myself and the weather and my bike and everything else. Fortunately Erin from Arizona is in a much better mood, saying she is glad to just be there, and is determined to finish the race.
Finish? I'm not sure I'm going to do that. But we match each other in climbing speeds pretty well and work together on the flats, and we've finished a lap - only 3 more to go! I see some people I know in the feed zone and decide that on the next lap, I'll stop and ditch my hoodie with one of them. I got hot and took off the rain jacket, so the hoodie is just absorbing water at this point, but it's not making me cold, I'm keeping myself pretty warm. So I keep it on through the feed zone the first time.
And then we start the second lap. Descents, turns, climbs... it really is a gorgeous course. Hecka hard climbs - including a short little one that's 14% - but I'm holding together. I eat some food, drink some water, get passed by a few more girls who were either stragglers or had mechanicals.
So we're off the back, riding our own ride, and honestly not working terribly hard. I know that I don't have a bunch more matches to burn, and I'm just glad that I have a cheerful, motivated ride partner - "I'm going to finish this race" turns into "I really want to finish this race, but if you quit I'm not going to be able to do it" and I'm suddenly motivated to finish. However long it takes.
My knee, surprisingly, was just a little stiff at the beginning and then ceased to hurt at all throughout the race. The biggest issue was after coasting a descent, getting it back into the groove of moving, but after a few pedal strokes it was fine. No pain, very little discomfort - I can't believe my luck.
We finish the second lap - getting passed by the D2 women on the brutal climb to the feed zone to the lap counter that says "2" and I can't find anyone I know, and I don't feel like stopping anyway, so I keep the hoodie on. I'm glad I have it on the descents, anyway... never mind the fact that it's probably absorbed 2 lbs of water at this point. Halfway done. Well, if I was going to quit, I would have done it on the first lap, and we're at the top of a descent right now anyway, so might as well do another lap.
It's on the third lap that the little 14% kicker really starts to hurt. We get caught and then passed by a D2 woman who was dropped on that hill, and we trade some good-natured obscenities about the hill and the course and the conditions. We get passed by a few big rigs on one section of road, which is a bit scary with the cross-winds, but not a huge deal. A few more climbs, a few more twisting descents and turns, and a lot of encouragement from corner marshals, and we're back on the stupid climb to the stupid feed zone to the stupid lap counter that is going to say "1" when we come by. Except there are suddenly motorcycles and cars passing us very slowly, and as we get to the top of the hill, the lap counter says "0" - I'm about to be lapped by the leaders of my own race. On a 15-mile circuit. That's just... well, that WOULD BE just pathetic, but fortunately it doesn't happen, as the guys at the lap board point at me and shout, "YOU have one lap to go!" And I joke back, "What, can't I go that way? To the finish?" And they reply, "Sure, on the next lap!" And my ride partner, Erin, has dropped the heck out of me (remember, I'm riding a 25 lb bike, and have at least 2lb of water in my hoodie at this point, so I'm a bit slower than she is on her 18lb bike with her APPROPRIATE CYCLING CLOTHING), but I came all this way, and it's just 15 more miles, so fuck if I'm going to quit now. So I turn back on to the descent, tuck in and spend the next few miles descending and trying to chase back on so I can ride with Erin.
It's a good distance before I can see her off ahead, and once I see her it still takes me a good while to catch back up. But then she's within shouting distance and she's looking behind her, so I yell "Hey, here I am" and she slows down and we start riding together again. And it's the last lap, there's no one behind us except a broom wagon, driving very slowly just out of sight behind us. I think the weather was a bit better on this last lap - less rain and wind - but that 14% hill still kills, and by the time we get to the start of the huge climb, I'm taking the whole road, zig-zagging all across the road. Erin thinks she's bonking until she looks down and realizes she's in her big ring. I'm pretty sure I'm hallucinating - the colors are quite vivid and I see patterns in the gravel by the side of the road, and there's definitely orange and pink and green tendrils in the sky. But I'm still upright, and I'm still climbing, I'm still riding my bike. No point quitting now, can't quit now, have to get back up the hill to the van anyway, and walking is stupid, so just ride. And so I slowly make my way, losing contact with Erin, zig zagging up the hill as slowly as my legs will turn over, but somehow without losing momentum and falling over. My legs are screaming, my arms are aching, my brain is repeating the phrase "last hill, last hill, last hill" and I pass the now deserted feed zone and the lap counter which still says "0" and the marshals usher me on to the final climb. And I hear that this part sucks, but I haven't ridden it yet so I have no idea how much agony is yet in store in the final mile of this bike ride. (I've long accepted that it's not a race at this point. I'm just riding my ride.)
A short descent, a right turn onto the road into the park, and a gentle climb. Nothing that should really be too much of a problem, but after the 4 laps I've already done, I'm close to my limit. It's a gentle hill. Not a bad hill. But I'm still saying "last hill last hill last hill" to myself (interspersed by "ow ow legs ow ow legs" and some more phrases with more obscenities) and as I come upon a group of spectators in ponchos and umbrellas and possibly unconsciously let out a series of grunts and groans. The spectators turn around and start encouraging me - "come on, you can do it!" "I'm not sure I can!" "Oh, come on, if us little old ladies can walk up this hill, you can ride it." Back and forth, as it's not my lungs that are holding me back - it's trying to turn over my legs over and over and over again as I keep fighting gravity, praying that the Bicycle Gods will magically turn my 23 tooth cog into a 25, and then it levels out and there are more people cheering, and I'm in the finishing chute. No one behind me that I'm aware of - I am pretty certain I have locked up the DFL Finisher place here and as the announcer says, "Now THAT is the HEART OF A DUCK" I take both hands off the bars, extend my arms and hold my head up high in a victory salute because I JUST FINISHED THE FUCKING RACE IN DEAD LAST. HA. TAKE THAT, LEGS. I gasp for air, ride further and further and find the van, and collapse in a pile of sobs and gasps.
I have climbed halfway up Mount Rainier and I've ridden 90-100 miles in a day before. But that 60 miles that I just did feels like THE HARDEST THING I HAVE EVER DONE. But I finished. I'm not at all sure how I did it, or even why - but I did.
I get in the van quickly to stave off hypothermia, towel off, put on dry clothes, and we're outta there. That evening: results posted show that I got 2nd to DFL to the Navy girl, guess she had more mechanicals but managed to tough it out for a 5+ hour finishing time, more than 45 minutes behind me. But I'm 2nd to DFL, not DFL... that's like winning. Then we eat LOTS of food, a little beer, more ice cream. Galen bought me a six-pack of Bitter Woman IPA - funny, for the girl who just finished 2nd to DFL. Soak in the hot tub and get some sleep, because tomorrow is the crit!
SATURDAY, MAY 8: I kit up for the crit, and get on my bike to warm up, but my knee painfully refuses to bend far enough to pedal. Fine, knee, you win. I un-kit, put on a warm jacket, and watch both the D1 womens and mens races. Got some good pictures, caught finish-line salutes in blurry photographs for both races, cheered on teammates and had fun watching. Stupid knee!
Saturday night: The banquet involves some good food, John Burke talking a bit too much about why Trek makes awesome bicycles, and watching trike races. The Monona Terrace place where the banquet is is a pretty neat building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. We eat our food, watch some awards, and then leave early. Discover that you can't buy beer or wine after 9pm in Wisconsin (that's a dumb law.) Go to the bar and meet up with other NWCCC riders, have several beers, Jaeger bombs, and possibly whiskey. Good times.
SUNDAY, MAY 9: We don't do the TTT. Everyone else goes for a ride; I wander around Madison and spend way too much money in cute stores. Eat a delicious burger for lunch, walk around on my crap knee way too much. The sun came out, and the weather is in the 60's and gorgeous. I can't bear to be inside, so I spend all day wandering around Madison. Again - fun town. Spend Sunday evening in a coffee shop plugged into the Internet, getting some work done.
MONDAY, MAY 10: More coffee, more wandering around Madison, eating good food and looking at bike parts and clothes. Trying to not spend any more money. Eventually it's time to pack up and leave for Milwaukee; drive back to the airport, fill up the vans, check our bags, get on the plane. Change planes in Denver. Arrive in PDX way too late; drive back down to EUG. Finally home around 2:00 AM on Tuesday morning... whew, what a trip.
BOTTOM LINE: I WENT TO NATIONALS! I even finished the road race. My knee wouldn't let me start the crit, but I had fun anyway. Madison is a neat town and I fully intend to be back next year. Eligible and qualified, and perhaps even prepared next time.