April 17, 2005: Race day

4:45 AM came easier than I expected. There was some amount of tossing and turning last night, but I did get a couple hours of solid sleep and felt OK as I crawled out of bed. I figured all I had to do was get on my feet and adrenaline would take care of the rest. It's race day, baby!

The start
Cannonball on the course
The bottom of Hurl Hill

Romulus and Duke picked up JB and myself around 5:15 and together we watched dawn break while hurtling southward on majestic Highway 1. It felt good. Things felt right.

Like clockwork, we rolled into the parking lot at Laguna Seca about 7:00. Plenty of time to stretch the legs, go to the bathroom, get into the riding gear, and relax a little. It really helped to have JB there; she had more confidence in me than I did.

At about 7:30, Romulus and I headed over to the track so that we could make our way up to the starting line, which was on the actual Laguna Seca race track. They were sending each age category in Sport class off at five-minute intervals. When we got to the starting area, they were just sending off the 20-24 age group.

On the way over, I noticed some shifting difficulties with the middle range of cogs. I adjusted the rear derallier barrel adjuster and that helped a little, but it wasn't perfect. Oh well.

Finally, it was our turn. The Men's Sport 35-39 group turned out to be 135 riders. Romulus and I were in the very back of the pack to start the race, so we had our work cut out for us. My goal was to try to get by the obvious duffers before we hit the narrow gateway leading to the first section of singletrack. The gateway was a real clog, and I didn't want to get stuck in that or any slowpoke singletrack logjam.

Immediately, I could feel that I didn't have super legs. It's not that they felt weak, but they weren't popping. About the middle of the little rise leading to the gate, I saw that I could jump ahead of about 10 to 15 riders if I put in a little sprint. It hurt pretty bad, but it turned out to be a key move for me in the race.

At that point, I lost track of Romulus and entered the zone. I didn't have my best legs today, but I did have focus and vision. I saw the lines perfectly and I was determined to give it a strong effort. This first section of the course was the part I had most worried about, but I dialed in the singletrack and rolled to the base of Hurl Hill feeling more confident with each pedal stroke.

I did witness two epic crashes in this first stretch of fast, hard-packed singletrack. In one of the crashes, the rider directly in front of me got his front wheel in one rut and rear wheel in another, and the next thing either of us knew, he and his bike were literally cartwheeling down the trail in front of me, ping-ponging side-to-side and still moving at about 20 MPH. He finally ended up partially off the trail in a bush. I tapped the brakes and called out "OK?" to him as I zipped by, and he responded "OK". No, I don't know what I would have done if he had screamed, "no, help me!"

Rom had told me that I would pass 12 to 20 riders on the Hurl Hill stretch, but I immediately got stuck in a long train at the bottom. I began to fret about losing time and momentum. In my head, I heard Rom's words of wisdom, "Be patient and ride your ride." I relaxed, and like magic, I noticed a little strip of passing line coming up. I passed two riders in about 15 feet and started picking more riders off from there. By the time I got to the top of Hurl, I had probably passed about 12 to 14 riders, and I was ready to hurl. I was nauseous for the rest of the ride, but fortunately it did not affect me.

Romulus was not so lucky. He kept me in his sights until I crested Hurl Hill just a few yards ahead of him. But coming up the hill, Romulus was struck with a piercing migraine headache. He said it felt like his head was going to burst, Scanners style. Of course, he fought through it, and it had subsided by the time he topped out on the climb, but for a few minutes, he was hurting pretty badly.

Coming off Hurl, I tried to kick it into high gear on the downhill fire road where Bonzai and I hit 40 MPH in the 24-race here in 2003. But it wasn't there. The gear was there, but the power wasn't. I barely got it over 34 MPH in this section and was passed by four or five riders. However, I did slip into the next singletrack trailhead just ahead of a pack of slower riders. This maneuver probably saved me two to three minutes.

Again, Romulus was not as lucky. In both major singletrack sections on the back half of the course, Rom got stuck behind slow-moving trains. This is tight, wooded, rutted, often steep singletrack with few opportunities to pass. And we're racing, so it's not like guys want to just give up spots to people. I was third in a relatively quick train (although I probably could have gone a little faster) in the first major singletrack section after Hurl Hill and led a short train of three in the last major singletrack section before the Grind. These sections were exhilarating, and I felt really smooth.

As with 2003, it was the hills that slowed me down today. That's just not right. I'm a hill guy. Why can't I come up with the goods on hills in races? Am I choking? How can I be choking if I'm nailing the singletrack and downhill sections? Is it Laguna Seca in particular? I don't know. Whatever it is, it struck again today. I didn't have to walk anything -- except for the universal hike-a-bike around mile 12 -- but I wasn't "dancing on the pedals" like I know I can.

Romulus nailed the hills and was running guys down like he was playing Grand Theft Bicycle. All those winter miles on the road bike pushing big gears really paid off for him today. It was the singletrack stackups that added extra minutes to his time. This turned out to be a common complaint that we heard from many other riders later in the day. Romulus was also quite disappointed with the caliber of the lower end of Sport class. He thinks there are probably 25 guys that should have never been in Sport.

By the time I got to the Grind, my legs felt really dead. I tried to go for a burst of speed at the bottom, to give me some momentum, but it wasn't there. I had my teeth clenched, mouth open, gasping, drooling, eyes squinted, pushing wooden stumps for legs, making such little progress.

About half way up, a guy passed me and said, "good pull so far, let's work it to the top." I was only semi-coherent at this point, and my earholes were full of sweat and sunscreen, so the above quote is only a paraphrase. As he pulled away, I made a play for his wheel, but missed. He pulled out about 40 feet, but I was able to hold him there. I put my head down, gazed dazedly at the ground beneath my handlebars, and pushed and pushed.

Cowbells, sweet nectar of life, you cowbells. At the top of each of the major hills, there had been a person with cowbells, kind of like a yardage marker. I heard those bells and looked up to see only two more switchbacks of slightly uphill Grind left before the summit. My mark was now only about 25 feet in front of me and I went for him.

Pushing hard, I caught him just below the crest and hit the little uphill dirt connector to the main racetrack ahead of him. This connector has a wickedly tight, off-camber, downhill turn just before the pavement, but I nailed that and was off and running on the pavement.

Holy jello legs Batman! Within 50 feet of hitting the pavement, four riders, including my mark, came whizzing past me and down the hill to the first turn. My race strategy included a massive, hammering kick on this last three-quarters of a mile of pavement. Now was the time. I jumped out of the saddle and started hammering, catching the back end of their train just before we hit the slightest of inclines.

Crack! The legs totally faltered, and the train peeled me off like a pair of vintage Sergio Valentes. By the time I got to the top of the very short incline, they were 25 yards ahead and pulling away. I did the best I could from there on, passing a couple of riders and not being passed, but the tires felt like they were melting into the asphalt. There was no speed and no pop. For better or for worse, there was nothing left.

JB greeted me with a "Go Chris" as I barrelled down on the finish line and that of course boosted my spirits for a last sprint to the finish. Afterwards, she had to hold my bike while I crawled around on my hands and knees for a few minutes trying not to puke. I guess I'm getting weak and sappy in my old age, but it gave me a huge feeling of pride to hear JB call out my name as I sprinted for the finish, and then to have her hug me after the race. I'm so glad she was there.

Powering to the finish
"Sweep the Leg!"
Duke makes it to the podium

Within a couple of minutes Romulus came thundering across. Even through my watery eyes, I could see that he was a little disappointed. This race was important to him because he wanted to avenge his mechanical here last year. He felt good because he had ridden hard and well, but the headache and the traffic jams kept his time from being as good as it could have been. My prediction: Romulus is gonna smoke some peoples next weekend in Angwin.

We finished in time for Romulus to see Duke start her race. Then we cruised back to the car, changed into civvies, and became one with the festival. The Sea Otter is everything that a cycling event should be. There is some kind of competitive event going on all the time. There are over a hundred different vendor booths. There is a palpable air of festivity. There are thousands of different bikes and bikers and jerseys. It is truly a festival of bikes.

While we waited for Duke, our results were posted. Out of 135 riders in Men's Sport 35-39, I finished 49th with a time of 1:35:15 and Romulus finished 83rd with a time of 1:43:25. The winning time for our group was 1:24:04.

Romulus is never going to let me forget this, because he counseled me to ride in Beginner class again this year, but if I had ridden in Beginner class, I would have finished 4th out of 139 racers in Men's 35-39. I'm still a little torn on this one, but I think I would feel like I was sandbagging it a bit if I did ride Beginner class. I may be a beginning cross-country racer, but I just don't think it would be right to ride Beginner. We'll have to take our lumps in Sport until we hit 40, then make some noise in the 40-44 group.

But screw the dudes, Duke hammered her race and finished on the podium in fourth place for Women's Beginner 30-34. She said she had a great ride, crushing the hills with her new tubeless tires (See April 15, 2005: A day at the races) and outdueling overzealous rivals. Romulus and I can only dream of such triumphs.

After some grub and Duke's awards presentation, we piled in Rom's car and headed for home. Traffic was light. We drifted in and out of conversation, reviewing, reliving, relating our experiences and emotions from the day.

What fun. For a bicyclist, I'm not sure how it can get any better than the Sea Otter. It was a gathering of the tribes, a county fair, a Dead show, a revival show -- all for cyclists. What a day.


Mileage: 19.36 Time: 1:35:31 Avg: 11.9 Max: 38.0 Weight: 168

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