Bike Race

Years ago, we were in Burlington visiting family, and as we were leaving town I saw a big banner stretched across a highway overpass advertising the Memorial Day Weekend BIke Races in and around Burlington. I looked up the event online, and decided that someday I wanted to compete in the Wapello-Burlington road race. Yesterday was that day. Here’s how it went down:

We arrived in Wapello a couple hours early and checked in at registration, where they gave me an envelope with a whole bunch of numbers to pin on the jersey and one to put on the bike. Skinny guys like me had a hard time putting all the numbers on because there wasn’t that much jersey space! A nice guy named Josh who had parked next to us helped us get the numbers on just right.

I got the bike put together, made a couple of adjustments, and slowly warmed up. During the warmup laps I came across Josh again, and we went to the start together. After standing around in the sun (and then moving to the shade, and then back to the sun) for half an hour or so, the pro level racers came through town, and then our race started a few minutes later.

The start whistle blew and we rode a little ways as a “neutral” start, which is basically just everybody riding with no actual racing going on. Once we got outside of Wapello, the official on the motorcycle signaled that the race could begin, and immediately someone poured on the gas. I had started towards the back of the pack, but found myself right behind someone who jumped up to the front, so I just followed, and found myself in 3rd or 4th place very quickly.

At the front of the group, there were probably 6 or 7 guys who stretched out in a line, drafting off of each other, and took turns at the front. I took one “pull” (my turn at the front) for a minute or two until I started slowing down, and then backed off a bit and let a few people pass me and I got back in line. I was amazed at how long some of the guys could pull – one guy stayed at the front, holding pace, for probably 10 minutes!

Speaking of pace, I was astonished at how fast it was. I imagined the race would be a faster version of some of the group rides I take with friends around here, so I figured 22 or 23mph would be typical. Not so: As soon as the race really started, the bunch jumped up into the 28-30mph range and never really backed down. After the race I checked my speedometer to see what my top speed was, and at some point I hit 39.5mph. There weren’t any really long or steep descents, so I’m not sure where that was, but wow!

Anyway, back to the race. The road was only closed on one lane, and we were not allowed to cross the centerline. Doing so would result in instant disqualification. A couple of times there were large farm implements on the road that slowed us down, and we had to wait for the official (guy on a motorcycle) to clear us to cross the centerline to pass.

Another thing I wasn’t really prepared for was the physical tightness of the group. The largest group I’d ridden with was probably 8-10 people, and that was never a very aggressive ride. Thanks to some fast rides with the “Mercenaries,” I’d learned how to draft and how to safely follow just a few inches behind the rider in front of me, but I’d never ridden in a group this big (42 riders) and with guys so close on left and right that elbows and shoulders were frequently touching. That was rather nerve-wracking. One result was that I didn’t drink as much as I should have, because looking down to grab a water bottle meant taking eyes off the group around me for a second, which was scary. I only used up one of the two bottles of Gatorade I had intended to drink during the 33 mile race.

As we were coming into Burlington, we reached the area where we had two lanes of traffic instead of one, and things started getting really aggressive. One rider came up next to me and I think someone bumped him and he bumped me, then said “This is going to get really interesting.” This being my first race, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it sure seemed like the group in general was being pretty squirrelly to me.

About a mile and a half from the finish, things did get interesting. The road took a turn to the left (right around the intersection of Highway 99 (Bluff Rd) and Des Moines Avenue for you Burlington folk), and I think I underestimated the sharpness of the turn, or the rider on my right overestimated, or something. I’ll never know for sure. In any case, as we came around the corner, I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with the rider on my right, leaning on each other so neither of us would go down. He was a bigger guy than me, so his weight won, and he was pushing me ever so slightly to the left. Just as I was sure that I wasn’t going to crash as a result of this contact, I felt a terrible feeling: Somebody’s front wheel coming in contact with the left side of my rear wheel. Rule #1 in riding with a group is that you never overlap wheels – you either ride behind someone, or next to them. I don’t know how that wheel got there, but it shouldn’t have been there.

So I was being pushed from the right by the shoulder of the rider next to me, and had been pushed into (or otherwise come into contact with) the rider behind and to the left of me. As this point I was just holding on for dear life! Then I heard someone behind me, presumably the rider whose wheel was touching mine, say “No no no SH**SH**SH**!” and then the awful sound of carbon fiber meeting pavement in large quantities. My stomach tied itself in a knot as I thought about how fast we were going and the almost certainty that not all of those terrible crunching sounds were bicycle parts. The rider next to me (whose shoulder had been touching mine) and I exchanged glances and silently echoed the words of the riders who had gone down behind us.

I was pretty spooked by the crash, and how close I had been to being a part of it. As we rounded the last corner and came within sight of the finish line, the real sprint began, and I found myself with a little space around me. While I never expected that I would have an opportunity to win the race, my goals going into the day were two: 1. Don’t crash and 2. Don’t get dropped. Competitively, I wanted to finish somewhere in the vicinity of whoever won; I wanted to be in the lead group.

So as the final sprint began, I found myself in a little open space within the group. Still spooked by the crash, I decided that having only barely accomplished goal #1, I could just ride hard and safely accomplish goal #2, even if it meant being the last guy in the lead group. So that’s what I did. I rode just hard enough to still be considered part of that group, but no harder, and I was the last guy in the lead group to cross the finish line.

My heart goes out to the guys that crashed. As we were coasting out from the finish, I noticed that Josh, my friend from earlier in the day, who I hadn’t seen since the first mile or so of the race, wasn’t around. I worried that he had been caught up in the crash. As others came to the finish, I saw a lot of scraped elbows and knees. When I mentioned to Marcia that I was concerned that Josh may have been in the crash, she said “No, there he is,” and pointed at him down the road a bit. I went over and talked to him for a minute, and found out that he had just barely avoided the crash, putting flat spots on his tires stopping inches from the pileup. He said that there were some pretty bad injuries – one guy with a broken collarbone, the classic cycling injury. I’ve been there. Ouch!

I beat myself up for a while, going back over the crash in my mind, trying to figure out if it was somehow my fault. In the end though, I kept going back to why that wheel was there in the first place. As I said before, rule #1 in group cycling is to never overlap front and back wheels, not even a little bit. If that wheel hadn’t been there, chances are everyone would have finished the race. Could the crash still have been avoided? Probably. Perhaps if the rider to my right and I had both judged the turn the same and therefore had avoided the shoulder contact, the crash wouldn’t have happened. Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that my inexperience may have been a contributing factor, but the cardinal rule was broken, and not by me, and so the crash was not my fault.

So, leaving the crash behind, I’m satisfied with the race. I proved to myself that I was able to keep up with the race leaders, and finished in the lead group. I took a couple of turns leading the race in the middle, and enjoyed the attacks and responses and just general racing fun at the front. I finished in 15th place out of 42 riders. For my first race, I’ll take it!