By Christopher Cudworth
Just ask Chris Froome, the 2013 Tour de France champion who crashed three times in two days and wound up looking like a wind-whipped scarecrow along the side of the road. He hadn’t even reached the cobble sections of Stage 5. Talk was rampant about his team’s choice to leave ex-champion Bradley Wiggins back home. It just goes to prove that while it always pays to look ahead on the bike, it’s also the stuff behind that can come back to haunt you.
Those of us who ride appreciate the challenges of staying upright in competitive situations. That first crash sent Froome to the deck without ceremony. It is unlikely it was his fault. Just a touch of a wheel and down you go.
It can happen anytime. I’ve witnessed 8 or 10 riders piling into each other on a group ride when someone up front hits the brakes. Crunch. Clickety click. The sounds of spokes tangling. People cussing. A few hit the pavement. Then everyone gets back up, checks the equipment and rolls on.
Sure, in competitive running races people sometimes fall. But not nearly so often cyclists go down. Usually not so violently either. I ran steeplechase in college and saw a couple “wrecks” over time, but not as many as you’d think.
None of this went through my mind before racing my bike last night. We cyclists are a little bit crazy that way. While it might take a month or 6 months or a year from a marathoner to forget how much the last race hurt and want to run 26.2 miles again, a cyclist can crash and get road rash and have a sore ass for weeks and still get back on their bike because they miss riding.
I was leading a running road race one time when the lead cop car hit the brakes at an intersection. At 5:00 pace I was floating along too fast to stop and wound up bent over the back of the vehicle. “What the fuck?” I yelled. The cop just shrugged and drove on. I swallowed the adrenaline and ran on.
Our racing experience tells us things like that can happen. But standing on the line with other CAT 5 cyclists I was so relaxed it was like riding to the grocery story. A newbie rider in similarly modest kit attire, not team stuff, rolled up next to me. “What do we do in these races?” he asked.
This was my first race back in two years. I knew the answer. “Draft,” I told him. “Don’t break the wind for yourself at all costs. It all comes down to the last two laps anyway.”
Then the whistle blew and we rolled off for 8 laps on the Pelladrome, the rounded-corner rectangular industrial road where the Athletes By Design club hosts weekly practice crits.
During warmups I noticed a large patch of glimmering glass bits on the back straightway. I made a mental note not to swing out too wide there. Not just because of the glass, but because the wind would eat you up anyway.
For 6 laps I held my own. Then we caught the warmup group of the CAT 1-3 riders and the CAT 5 race got split. Some took the inside (smart) route while 5 of us rode around the outside. By the time we caught back on we’d used valuable energy.
On several laps the wind was circulating so strangely through the group that the bike was whipping back and forth. Not out of control, but out of reaction to turbulence. We hit a top speed of 29 and averaged 23 for the race. Not terribly fast. But not bad for a windy night on the Pelladrome.
Then came lap seven and the hard break on the front stretch. Switching into even higher cadence I tried to jump from the second group to the 4 riders pulling away. I got within 10 meters before they hit the backstretch and the wind seemed to suck the juice out of my quads. I held that space for a bit and then lost them into the hard wind corner. Two other riders came by me with the wind. I kept my head and waited for sanity to return to my thighs. Then I notched it up to 22 again and caught the two stinkers that had passed me up, finishing about 40 yards back of the front sprint. 5th place in the first race of the season. I’ll take it.
My starting line friend came rolling up in warmdowns. “Nice job. I thought I left you behind.”
Nope. There is still some fight in me. Still some crazy need to test the legs against other riders. Then I realized. I had hardly looked up during the entire race. Just kept my eyes on the wheels and riders in front and beside me, and rode with that inner dialogue that comes with racing. We live in a tiny world in those moments. By necessity. By choice. By excitement at being involved in this little competitive environment we create.
Then came a 40 minute cooldown watching the CAT 1 and 2 group whale away on each other. The whir of their tires pulled me in. I rode faster and faster as the cooldown proceeded. The inner mind works in strange ways when riding bikes. What’s cool is hot, and what’s hot is cool.
And then alongside me the noise of a tire going flat burst forth like a piston in a machine. A rather heavy rider in an all-black kit had ridden over the glass zone without looking down. His expression was priceless. That awful feeling of a flat under your wheel. At least his race was over.
That’s bike racing for you. Just ask Chris Froome.