I wake up to the sound of coffee brewing, roll over on the hard kitchen floor and groggily check my watch. For most college kids, this would be a result of something a bit different than another weekend of bike racing. For the 18 of us scattered around our hosts’ house, it’s about time to get up and at it. Five a.m. on a Sunday morning, fifteen minutes before my alarm is set to go off and a whopping ten hours before race time, I see the outline of Gavin sit-up next to me and figure I might as well get up and claim my coffee before it disappears. An hour later, the 18 of us are packed like sardines into the two vans that we rented for the weekend. Despite being relatively early in the season, everyone has the routine down by now. I drive as those who are awake make small talk on the way to the course.
On any given race weekend, anywhere from 15 to 25 of us make up the Virginia Tech Cycling team, all with different experience and ability levels. Each weekend is hosted by a different school in the ACC, this particular one being hosted by William and Mary.
Yesterday’s crit had brought some great results for all of our riders across all categories, particularly in the Men’s A race. After things settled down out of the gun, I got away and ended up lapping the field. Five laps after I got back onto the field, Mike did the exact same thing. Leading the overall, Mike took the win, and I coasted into second. My failed lead out cost Taylor the 3rd spot, but we were plenty stoked on first, second and fourth. Sure, with Spring Break the field was smaller than normal, but we had an incredible team, and we are growing more and more confident. As confident as we are though, today’s road race is a mere 80 kilometers, and being shorter, we all knew it would be that much harder.
We arrive at the race parking and it’s all hands on deck unloading all the bikes, setting up stands, and making sure those racing the 8 a.m. race are good to go. After pinning numbers onto teammates’ jerseys and watching them roll out on their neutral roll-out, we pile into the vans to drive the course backwards. We take notes on the relatively flat course, and heckle racing teammates. Seven hours to race time.
We get back to parking and have time to work on our bikes. After going through mine, I take a teammate’s bike that might as well been dunked in a barrel of gunk. I try my best to clean up the drivetrain, but 15 minutes before his 10 a.m. start and with only rags, my efforts result in more of my own frustration. Zach, of course, could care less. Five hours until race time.
Some of us take naps, others eat, pin numbers, and catch up with friends from across the conference. West Virginia in particular always seems to be around, but are fun to talk to. Even with spring break, I try to get a bit of study time in, mainly in hopes that it’ll put me asleep and I’ll get some decent rest before we race. That plan fails miserably and Gavin and I kill some time by hanging Patty’s bike 10 feet up in a tree.
The Men’s A squad for the weekend, consisting of Mike, Taylor, Sean, Oliver, Gavin and myself, check in with each other and see how we’re all feeling. We’re a diverse group with different strengths. Mike is a fantastic time trialist and has gotten in the break every race so far this season. Sean excels at climbing, but is still building up after an Achilles injury. Gavin is more of a mountain biker, and I’m more of a cyclocross racer, but we both enjoy the road season, especially criteriums. Oliver has a good pop, but has only been able to get in limited miles in this year. Taylor won the Conference last year, and is an incredibly strong all around rider. After yesterday’s results, we joke about impossible scenarios playing out today. The actual plan is for Sean to attack on the first of five laps. If he gets pulled back, Gavin is slated to jump off the front. We anticipate he’ll get pulled back at some point, at which point Mike or Taylor, our two strongest, would have the opportunity to launch an attack of their own. Of course, this is all tentative and we know any planning is going to be dependent on how the race plays out. I’m there to aid in launching our attacks, covering other teams’ attacks and taking the role of sprinter if everything finishes together. Taylor won here last year and I tell him it’s his for the taking this year. He downplays it, but I know it’s on his mind. The dream plan: three of us get up the road, and it’s a repeat of yesterday. We laugh that one off, but inside we hope that may just happen.
12 o’clock rolls around. Our Men’s B team rolls out for their race. 3 hours out and time to eat. Sean and Taylor have a PBJ-off. Sean claims he’s the best PBJ chef around, but Taylor gives him a run for his money. What few cookies are left come out, and Taylor is able to grab a few more cookie face photos of Sean to add to the album. Meanwhile, I scarf down brownies after my peanut butter and Nutella sandwich is finished. I’m still groggy and plan out my caffeine intake. Mike is asleep and Gavin is doing, well, Gavin things.
Becca, our president, my girlfriend, and our only Women’s A, is getting ready and 15 minutes before her start time, I frantically search for any water that might be laying around. Scavenging results in just two water bottles, but enough to get her through a race. She packs those into her cages, Swiss Rolls into her jersey pockets, and rolls to the start line. I take her jacket, give her a kiss, and watch her roll off.
2.5 hours out and nap time. I lay my sleeping bag out in the cargo van and try to force myself asleep. I get a few minutes of sleep, but enough is on my mind that it’s of little use. I pack up my sleeping bag and find my gear. Being a shorter race, I opt for my skinsuit. No need to take tubes, and the brownie in aluminum foil I bring for mid race I stuff into my leg band. 1.5 hours till race time.
We roll out with two missions; first to warm-up and most importantly, to find fluids, especially those containing caffeine. As a college student who races bikes, I have turned into a coffee addict. We find a 7-Eleven just off the course, and as I chug an iced coffee, Sean jokes to limit it otherwise I’ll be left chasing on after a bathroom break. Having had to stop in a few races, I take his joking into consideration though, and limit the coffee intake.
We finish our warm-up, killing it on the way back. There’s a feeling of excitement amongst us all. I jump into the finish straight to gauge my sprint. The finish is uphill and it takes a try or two to get it right. Finally, we line up.
The neutral roll-out is chill. We talk between teams, everyone hoping for an easy race, but at the same time knowing it’ll get hard as soon as we turn onto the race course. Sure enough, as soon as we make the left onto the race course, everyone accelerates. Over the first few kilometers, attacks are attempted with little success. Eventually a group of five or six gets away with Sean in it. That’s short lived, however and gets reeled in. As soon as that group gets reeled in, almost on queue, Gavin jumps. I watch mid-pack as he gets out of sight with haste and all by himself. Gone, an App State and Duke rider bridge up to him. That lasts until the end of the first lap, and I see Gavin start to come back to the pack. Wanting to have at least one in the break at all times, Mike jumps and bridges up, and Taylor does the same shortly after. Lap two and our plan couldn’t be going better. I smile as I watch Taylor bridge up. We have our two strongest guys in the break. All Sean, Gavin, Oliver, and I have to do is cover any attacks in the field. Other than that, we have no reason to do any work on the front.
The next two laps, Sean and I rotate covering attacks. I float back to the back of the pack a few times to check on Gavin, who’s hurting after putting in an attack. I hand part of my brownie over and we choke it down between attacks. My hips start cramping, and coming into lap three, I take a banana feed from the one and only Coach Will. Having graduated last year, Will can no longer race collegiately, but still travels with the team to help out. I’m always appreciative of the help, but probably no more so than grabbing that banana at 45 kilometers an hour. High speed feeds aren’t easy.
With a lap and a half to go, I’m at the front, sitting second wheel as I have been much of the race, covering attacks. A particularly hard one comes from a Navy rider, and I jump to cover.
Five seconds later I hear a UVA rider yelling, “Gap!!!”. With two teammates up the road, I don’t know why, I have no clue why, but I hit it. I hit it as hard as I freakin’ can. Moments later it’s just me and an NC State rider off the front. We continue gaining ground on the field into the fifth lap until he yells to wait for a chasing VCU rider. Out of the field, the NC State rider and VCU rider trying to bridge are definitely the strongest. I may not have a lot of racing under my belt, but I’m not stupid. By myself, I will probably not bridge up. With one other, I may or may not bridge up to my teammates. With two others, we most definitely will. There’s no way in heck I’m going to bring two of the strongest guys in the field up to my teammates. They might be strong, but we still want to play the numbers.
So I attacked. It didn’t work. We roll into our last lap and Will yells we have a 48 second gap to the leading break. 3 kilometers later I attack again. “Break him” I tell myself. This time, I’m successful. Let’s rephrase that; I’m by myself. That’s not exactly successful. I’m out in no-man’s land with 12 k left.
Out alone, I quickly question what I’m doing by myself. There’s almost no chance to close a 48 second gap in 12 kilometers to bridge to Mike and Taylor. If I stay away, I get 5th or 6th. Not bad, but being as confident as I am in my sprint at the moment, I figure I could very likely do that by staying in the pack. I give up trying to figure out what to do and just go for it. “Might as well hit”. I tell myself that if I can get to the second to last corner, about three kilometers out, I can hold on to whatever place I’m in.
Driving the pedals up and over the one small hill on course, I look down and under my arm. No one in site. Perfect. Now that I’m confident I’m away, I try to control my breathing and get into a rhythm. I say a quick prayer, more to remind myself of the blessing of being able to race and why I race than asking to bridge the gap. Ten kilometers out.
I continue to push it, trying to find the balance of smoothness and pounding the pedals with everything in my legs. With seven kilometers to go, I come up on two riders dropped from the break group. As bad as I feel about it, I come up behind each of them and then hit it. As with the VCU and NC State riders, in the case that I do catch the lead group, I don’t want to bring anyone up with me. Tired from being in the break all day, it’s not too much of a problem to discourage them from jumping on my wheel.
Three kilometers from the finish, I take the last right turn, alone. Despite my whole right leg cramping, I relax a bit, knowing there’s only one more left hand turn, then about a 1.5 kilometer straight into the finish, and I’m alone. And then I see what I was certain I wasn’t going to see the rest of the race; flashing police lights indicating the front of the race, with Mike and Taylor. I can relax when I cross the line. I ramp it back up out of the corner, with one goal.
I finally come up from behind the lead group, which has dwindled to just Mike, Taylor and an App State rider, going into the final left hand turn. With so little runway left, there’s only one option. Before I realize what I’m doing, I attack. If I can create any kind of gap, the App State rider has to work to catch on to me, and Taylor and Mike can just sit on. So I kick it with everything I have left. It’s not much, but enough that the App rider has to jump to cover it. He quickly closes me down with 1 k left. With 300m left, and a 3 on 1, the App rider comes around me and jumps for the line. Without another hard pedal stroke left, I watch as Mike and Taylor follow in hot pursuit. I yell for Taylor, “C’mon TAYLOR!!” As they crest the hill, Taylor comes around the App rider. I look up and see one raised fist in the year, Taylor’s classic victory salute. I’m overcome all the sudden with the best feeling bike racing can bring. Not your own win, but watching as your teammate takes the win, knowing that giving it everything you had, helped them, even if it was just a little, get across the line with a fist in the air.
Later, I’d know that Mike got second by a bike throw. I ‘s’ my way up the hill, get a wheelie challenge from teammates standing on the side of the road, and as I loft the front coming across the line, my calf cramps, I unclip my feet from the pedals and roll over into the grass on the side of the road. As Becca and Will help me up, I look up just in time to see Taylor rolling at me on his bike. Arms open wide. He just about knocks me back down again. He has a big smile on his face, but no words yet. Mike rolls over with the same expression on his face, and we look up just in time to see Gavin steam rolling up the finishing straight, taking the field sprint.
Over the next few minutes of gathering together, catching our breathe, and rolling back to the vans, we try to figure out how it all went down. We went 1,2,4,8, almost the same scenario that we had joked about earlier. The dream had played out, and we were stoked out of our minds.