Monday, November 23, 2009

Disaster at the State Regional Championships: Crashes, Flats and the Hangover of Defeat

This past week has felt like a really bad hangover - the regret and pain of it slowly dissipating as the hours go by, occasionally brought back to mind by some reminder of everything that went wrong. I feel sick. Every time I see a state flag I'm reminded of was supposed to have been. This Bear Jersey was was going to be mine.

For some context, I've been having dreams about this race for the past two weeks. In some I've won, some I've lost, others thrown away by technicalities and mishaps. A state Jersey has been a dream of mine every since my first cat 5 race. This year I had a real shot at it. With four wins and numerous placings across categories, this was going to be my year. I had to win.

Minutes before the race, there was time for one last warm-up lap around the course. The grassy section was especially rough. My chain was slapping against the frame when my cranks suddenly froze up. Some guys stopped to help but the chain was getting sucked up in the derailleur pulleys. This wasn't going to get fixed out on the course. With just a few minutes to spare before the race I picked up the bike and ran it back toward the the start finish area toward the Montros Bike Shop's warm-up tent. The shop's owner, Johnathan had built my bike and while I don't race for his team, I was counting on a bit of goodwill to get me rolling again. And I got it. The cassette lock ring had come loose - a simple fix, but not the kind of problem you want minuted before the most important race of the year. Slightly rattled by the near disaster - I rolled over to the start line just in time to get a good position before the whistle.

Two laps into the race I was solidly in second place. The kid challenging me for the number 2 spot faded every time I got on the gas on the flat, fast sections. After a couple of turns, I dropped him. With 4 to go I drilled it on the fast paved section across the start finish. Carrying too much speed I over-cooked it off of the pavement onto the grass. My front tire washed out and I went over the bars hitting the ground hard and heard myself grunt as I made impact on the grass and gravel. Back on the bike, my front wheel wouldn't clear my breaks. Quickly I released the cantilever and got back under way - my closest competitor was still far behind.

Back down onto the pavement I had the chance to see the state of my front wheel. It was wobbling badly and rubbing against the break caliper. I knew I was going to have to get to the pit. 500 meters to go over undulating rough and lumpy grass, a gash opened in the side of my tubular. The front wheel was flat and I had a way to go before the pit. Tubular tires can safely roll for a while when flat, but controlling a flat front wheel over rough terrain proved difficult. I had to let off the gas to keep the bike under control. No one had passed me, yet.

In the pit it I scrambled to get to my spare wheel. I ripped the front wheel off and plowed my way through the dense collection of spare bikes and wheel sets. Two bikes toppled over before I found my wheels. Some neutral support guys standing around offered to hold my bike while I attached the spare wheel. Quick releases are very simple, especially when changing a front wheel. But not this time. I could barely see what I was doing and my hands felt like they belonged to someone else. What should have taken 30 seconds was taking far too long as I struggled to get the adjustment right - to tight, too loose, to tight again. "FUCK," I shouted, and some joker in the pit asked the official standing there if I ought to get docked for cursing. Finally the wheel was back on and I launched back on to the course.

I had lost a lot of time. There was no telling how many positions I had lost while I was struggling with my wheel. I began picking off a few slow guys, but I wasn't making up enough ground. I kept up the pressure all the way to the line and even managed a sprint with a guy who tagged onto my back wheel. But it was over and I knew it. That crash cost me the race.

When the results were posted - I was listed as 5th. It was a terrible result. I didn't even look to see who was first, nor did I bother to snap my customary picture of the sheet. I said good bye to my teammates and headed home.

A day later I got an email from a team mate Dave Bianco. This had been his first Cyclo-cross race, and the sting and regret of my loss was about to get worse. Here's what he wrote:

I share with hesitation, but here's the real heartbreaker. They had me down as first place, state champ. Well, that's not right. I told the officials and they said its already been posted and no one protested. So, anyway, that puts you on the podium in 3rd. The guy who won had a 1-day license which means the state jersey honorably goes to the guy in 2nd. Damn tubulars.

The truth was that Dave finished way back in the pack - not last but nearly so. I was at work when I got this email and couldn't concentrate all day.

A week has passed and I still can't look at a California State Flag without feeling a wave of regret. Looking back I realize that while I should have won this race, the loss was my own doing. I had put too much pressure on a single day. The district state championship was basically just another race and I should have treated it that way. Of all the races I've won this year there was never one where I pulled up to the line thinking that I HAD to win. But this time I did and the psychological stress was too much. I did however learn how not to approach a race. From prepping my equipment to my state of mind, I'm about ready for a little break from racing and a reset to hang up the cross bike and get back out on the road.

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