The Littlest Caribou Rides Again: A (non)Race Report
Pre-race jitters: virtually none.
Nutrition: on the money.
I’m feeling good. Really good.
Even as I am taking my bike off the trainer and complaining to Greg about how much goddam production "this stupid sport requires" I am still feeling good. I roll around with Kristin a few times.
We line up.
The race starts.
And this is when everything goes wrong.
It’s a neutral rollout, but I’m in trouble right off the bat. Legs screaming, heartrate sky-rocketing. I do not have my computer set to tell me our speed and things are too chaotic to worry about changing the view mode right at this second.
Without empirical data about the actual speed, I assume we’re going fast because I’m in distress and quite frankly, I shouldn’t be.
Ok. I can do this for a few miles until things settle down. I am trying to stay towards the front but I lose positions one after another. Women are coming around me like I am riding a pink barbie three-speed with pom poms on the handlebars.
Backward, backward, backward.
It is not an unfamiliar sensation by any means. Having suffered the Timber ride just a week prior, I can very specifically recall the feeling of losing ground.
Except it isn’t 54 miles into a 70 mile ride. It’s 2 miles into a 34 mile ride.
Something isn’t right.
Around a turn the group pulls away and I put everything I have into the pedals to link back up to the tail end of the peloton. I look down. 175 beats per minute. This can’t last. I am completely screwed.
So picture me now, legs spinning frantically and a sense of panic washing over me like nausea. If I lose the peloton at 2.5 miles, my race is over. My day is done.
I know that I cannot time-trial on the back of the group for 32 more miles. The numbers are not adding up. Nothing makes sense. My left calf suddenly seizes into a small, hard knot about the size of a golf ball.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
And then, all at once, I’m completely dropped. No more sounds of gears dropping clumsily, no more whir of the wheels around me.
The support car rolls up and a kind man in the passenger’s seat says, “There will be court marshals at the corners to direct you, ok?”
“Are you Heidi?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Ok. Well, good job!”
Owning my name in that moment is gut-wrenching. Yes, I’m Heidi. This is me off the back, being left behind by the support vehicle. This is me in the silence of a cold Sunday afternoon. This is me. Suffering and dropped in the second mile.
The second mile.
Being separated from the group has to be one of the most disappointing moments one can face. It is the simultaneous realization of failure and abandonment. A jagged pill to swallow when the weather looms ominous to the right, and there is no one around you to share the pain.
As the reality of my situation sets in, the battle begins to transform inside of me. If I’m no longer in the race, then why am I still pedaling? If I cannot even stay with the group in a novice women’s race, then why do I continue to train? Why try? What’s the point?
I hate it all. I hate the stupid gear and the long hours I have wasted on the stupid bike.
My mind scrambles to gather information while my heart continues to berate me for trying to do more than what was necessary.
“We are a runner”, my heart says to me, “Why aren’t we running? Why are we on this godforsaken bike? Did you really think you could do this? You really are delusional.”
I follow the peloton with my eyes as they continue to pull further and further away from me. The farmland stretches out exponentially. The smaller they get, the larger my sense of desperation.
I am the weakest caribou and the herd has left me to die.
I scan the tall grass, half expecting a wolf to come darting out to taunt me before his friends arrive so that they can collectively tear me to pieces .
Such mercy does not exist.
Instead, I must now contemplate how and if to finish the race. And what it means to quit. I am still pulling 170bpm but only managing to go 15 miles per hour. My mind chimes in again: those numbers do not add up.
Since I am already hopelessly dropped, I jump off the bike and check the rear tire for a flat. Then I open up the front brakes.
I get back on. Same result.
It is hard to keep it together. My left leg is still horrifically cramped and I am getting nowhere very, very slowly. I finally become sickened by my own unrelenting self-pity.
My gut kicks in.
We are going to finish one lap. Come hell or highwater, one lap. No sagging out. No support. Turn the pedals over and start working.
Pedal pedal pedal.
After a few miles I see what I know to be the headlights of the lead car for the Cat 4 mens group.
Here they come in the opposite direction and my heart sinks again because I know that Sal will see me like this and he won’t know what to think.
I am good at and appreciated for a million other things, but deep in my heart of hearts I want Sal to be proud of me for racing a bike. I want to do justice to his one-and-only lifelong passion. The boy lives for this shit, and I want to make him proud.
There is a Portland Velo rider off the front and he calls to me as he passes. Cheering.
Sal is toward the front of the main pack and I see the recognition in his face as they go by. He sees me and is concerned. I keep pedaling. His group speeds away in the opposite direction and then I’m alone again, my wounds freshly opened.
It’s raining lightly but consistently – my gloves are soaked through and I can feel my fingers, wrinkled underneath. The golf ball in my left calf is growing.
I check again for wolves.
Pedal pedal pedal.
There are a million things to think about during these miles. A million ways to frame this. At one point I convince myself to give up the bike – at least the road racing. At another point I think, “I must have cancer.” How else can I explain that I am still riding at 165 bpm and going 13.5-14mph? I imagine that this is the first major indicator of my failing health.
Then I think about Sal. I hope that he is having a good race. I hope that he can redeem the household.
By the time I get to the finish line, I am ready to be out of my head, out of my body, and off my bike. I see Ty and a few others and pull off to the side. An official approaches me, “Are you done?”
“Yes, I’m done.”
It’s possible that no three words ever felt so simultaneously satisfying and horrible.
I step off the bike and give it to Ty.
“I don’t know. The start was so hard – I got the worst cramp in my left leg. After that, they just wouldn’t go. I got dropped 2 miles in.”
He picks up the back of my bike and spins the rear tire.
Only it doesn’t spin.
It stops. It doesn’t even make a quarter turn.
“Heidi!” he is in disbelief. That makes two of us.
What is there to say? I checked for the rear flat. I checked the front brakes. Why didn’t I check the rear brakes? Who knows. Chalk it up to pure rookie stupidity. That’s all I got.
Relief, frustration, exasperation.
“I need a beer.”
After several minutes worth of carefully chosen expletives and two beers, I am ready to accept the fact that I just rode 17 miles with my brakes on and failed to notice it.
“Sal is having a good race.” Ty says in an attempt to distract me, “He was off the front last time we saw him.”
This is great news. We see his field come through one more time. He is still off the front, about 250 meters ahead of the group. He is in the drops and flying with a wheel-sucker attached to the back.
He looks strong. I have never seen Sal in a break before. I have never seen that particular look on his face.
I forget about my (non)race and wait for the finish. The sky turns black and unleashes a wall of hail. We sit inside the truck and keep waiting and I recall riding in the hail yesterday with Sal and Javad. We laughed and yelled and waved to people who were hiding under store awnings.
That was fun. This is not.
They come through in a blaze and Sal is no longer off the front but we put a man in the top ten and Sal finishes in the top 15, just behind him.
He’d been on the break for fifteen miles. Fifteen miles.
Almost as long as I rode with my brakes on.
Only good beer and better food can heal my battered ego and I intend to employ both remedies.