The Good, The Bad, and The Smelly

Dayna, don't read this. I can actually hear you all the way from Japan, thinking “not more about racing!” But that's what this is. It’s what I do. One day when we have kids I will write all about how cute they are. Till then, it’s cycling. And this is not a cute little blog entry with color pictures to follow along with. I just wrote a novel. I thought I should come back to the top and warn you. This is not the Reader's Digest condensed version.

I’m just sitting here on my couch, relaxing and doing nothing, and it’s difficult to not feel guilty about it even though I need to. I raced seven times within eight days, and while I didn’t exactly expect to feel like a spring daisy afterwards, I didn’t expect to constantly feel like I’d just been kicked in the stomach either. Deep breaths, laughter, and sneezing all feel like a punch to the diaphragm. A quick trip to the doc confirmed that all that stress on my body basically caused it to eat through the lining of and leading into my stomach, hence the pain. Wasn’t it nice of my body to wait to get this symptom until after the last race? It’s like it knew exactly how long it had to hang in there. Stage racing is not easy. Besides the intense stomach pain and headaches, I think I’ve also created a new gold standard for saddle sores. Fun stuff. And yet I’m already wiggling my toes with excitement thinking about the Tour of Fitchburg coming up in just two short weeks. That race is four stages, so after just finishing six stages of the Nature Valley Grand Prix, I’m hoping that I’ll be better prepared for that one.

Sometimes there are weeks in your life that count for more like an entire year. Last week was like that. It started with the Liberty Classic race in Philly (the one Rob so kindly wrote about) which opened up a whole new world to me of what racing could be like. This was cycling on a magnificent scale. I’ve heard about this race, read about it, seen a movie about it – and yet to be a part of it and take it all in was still bigger than I imagined. The only thing I’ve seen comparable to it was when Rob and I watched the final stage of the Tour de France in Paris a few years back. No, it wasn’t that big - but the huge crowds lining the streets, the deafening cheering while climbing up “the wall”, the big screens, the long line of follow cars, the helicopters, the announcers, the downtown city streets and fountain circle all for us, the festival, the world class athletes I was racing right alongside – well, this all allowed me to at least imagine it was the TdF. Then I rode past the finish line dehydrated in the sweltering heat and first thing – mechanic Jono runs up with an ice cold drink, my teammates sit me down in the tent and wrap me in an ice cold wet towel, pour water over my body, hand me food – well, I can’t begin to tell them how heavenly that was! We might not be big enough fish in that sea to work out any team tactics together, yet I’ve never felt such a strong need for my team. I spent half the drive home thinking about Mama Michelle and what an angel she is. Next to my actual flesh and blood mom, Mama is one of the most selfless, thoughtful people I know. I wish that I didn’t have to sometimes miss church for these races, so it’s nice to have someone like Mama around whose very example speaks a lesson on good living.

Just two days after Liberty Classic I flew off to Minneapolis for the Nature Valley Grand Prix, along with teammates Susan, Kate, Jen and Leslie. Six stages in five days. Stage one was enough crazy for the entire Grand Prix. It was amidst a raging storm, the kind that is heavy enough to turn the street gutters into streams in five minutes flat. Combine that with a filled-to-capacity women’s field of 150 racers, and I felt like I was lining up for a game of Russian roulette. Tight, high speed cornering 3 inches off the wheel in front of you is the name of the game in criterium racing – already a combination almost guaranteed to cause a wreck or two under GOOD conditions. These were disastrous. Slippery manhole covers on every turn, an off camber corner, a fast downhill corner, and poor performing wet break pads – this race was as much about going forward as it was about dodging bodies sliding out around you. Amazingly, none of HPC was among the numerous wrecks. I guess we are good at dodging bullets. The thing about this race was that I wouldn’t normally go to the start line under such conditions. The benefit to risk ratio just doesn’t quite stack up high enough for me. But the rule of stage racing is that you have to finish each stage (within a certain time cut) in order to make it to the next one. So there was no way that anyone was going to back out on the first stage, no matter how stupid. I don’t think an official would normally allow a race to start that way either, but I guess there was just too much $$$ and sponsors tied up in the event. By the time the men’s race was half way through and there was a HUGE pile up (including a downed lead motorcycle), I guess they figured they’d finally had enough, called the race, and donated all the prize money to the children’s hospital.

So the second stage counted as the first official stage. For the first 55 miles of this race, it felt like one of my best races yet. I was going with attacks, went in a short break away nearing the end that even though it didn’t stick, still put me right up at the front of the peloton coming into the finishing circuits – perfect positioning that is very hard fought for in such a large, aggressive field. Well, the last road coming into town is a dirt road, and when we made our right turn onto it I was on the left side of the group and the wave of women entering the turn pushed me too far to the outside of the road, off a little downward slope and into sand. I was in a frenzy as my bike rolled to a stop, my pedaling efforts just kicked up sand, and the entire peloton flew past me. I quickly got off the saddle, lifted it back up onto the hard packed road, and finished the race with a few other stragglers. It happened right at a climax and the race sprinted away without me. Since that race was pretty much over for us, we just rolled through the rest of the race at an easy pace to conserve our energy for the next race and just cross the finish within the time cut. What was so heartbreaking was that it wasn’t like my little mistake just cost me my chance at a single race that I felt my best in – it basically ruined my chance to do my best for the entire GC (the general classification, the total 6 stages combined). One stupid little mistake. After I crossed the finish line I found a lonely alley to go cry in. It’s such a big investment, on so many levels, to do this sport. And I love it. But anything that requires a huge investment also carries a lot of risk and potential disappointment. But I guess that life is all about moving past the disappointments that inevitably pop up. There is always something good around the corner. There is no such thing as wasted effort. This is me in retrospect. That night I cried. It felt really good. Racing a lot at this level is stressful, at least for me because I’m kinda racing above my head. I wonder if it is still as stressful for the seasoned pros. I should ask.

The next morning was on to the time trial. Did I mention the numerous Olympic athletes at this race? Including Kristen Armstrong, multiple world champion and expected to win gold this year in Bejing in the TT. She has an insane motor. She’s a V6 amidst 5 cylinders. Her TT time beat most of the pro men. Well, the race bible says you have to be within a certain percentage of first place in order to make the time cut to continue on to the next stage. With Kristen Armstrong there, this presented a bigger problem for a lot of us than it normally would. The hard part with pacing myself was that I knew TTing isn’t my thing, so I just wanted to go fast enough to make the time cut, but no faster than necessary so that I could save my legs to do well in a race I was more suited to, namely the 92 mile Mankato road race the next day. Especially since I was out of contest for the GC, I just wanted to focus on doing well in particular stages. Well, Kristen Armstrong of course blew everyone out of the water, and her amazing time put me exactly five SECONDS outside of the time cut! I couldn’t believe it. All I had to do was ride five seconds faster. I was so mad at myself. And annoyed that I hadn’t bothered with bringing my aerobars, which easily would have shaved off those five seconds. Not to mention that the women who are winning these events aren't just faster, they also have the added benefit of the absolute best and most aero TT equipment as well, which makes a big difference. Well, I guess the officials decided that Kristen’s time was an extenuating circumstance that would have put too many women out of the race, and increased the time cut by five percent. Thankfully, this allowed many of us to continue on to the next stage by the skin of our teeth. Another bullet dodged. You can see why I’m practically dealing with an ulcer now.

The criterium that evening was in downtown Minneapolis. I think that this is the most clean, friendly, well kept cities I’ve ever been to. And wow, they put on a show for us! By this time, I was happy just to still be in the race (it was cut down from 150 to 89 women by this stage) and realized that I needed to take the pressure off myself and just enjoy the race. I went to staging half an hour early just to ensure a good starting position, which can be the difference between life and death when the race starts out fast. Side note: stage racing wreaks havoc on the digestive system. You burn so many calories and have to constantly be eating, but all the racing messes with your stomach. But you shove food down anyway. It’s totally nauseating. You look at your sports drinks, energy gels, power bars, recovery drinks, pb&j, and even normal food and just want to vomit. There is this section in Bicycling magazine during the Tour de France where they write how much of a certain food you’d get to eat to replace the calories you would burn to race that stage. Like 5 billion jelly beans. Or 150 hamburgers. Or 200 Snickers bars. 30 cakes. But they write it like “goody-goody-gumdrops!” UGGHH!!! Anyway, I was having especially bad gastrointestinal distress that day and was wondering – is that normal? Well, let’s just say that waiting on the start line for half an hour, closely squeezed among the other racers answered my question with a firm, smelly YES. No questions needed.

The race started out blazing fast, and it was a very, very good thing that I had claimed that good starting position, because I spent the first five laps going backwards and probably would have been spit right out of the back if I hadn’t started up front. Once I warmed up into the race though, I felt good again and just enjoyed it. I moved up a little when it made sense, but decided just to enjoy the crowds and the experience and not worry about a result for once. There was no GC to worry about anymore, I didn’t have my sprint legs with me that day, and it would be difficult to move back up to the front in such a blazing fast strung out race (although Jen proved that it was possible, with an excellent 20th place finish – even ahead of Armstrong!),, so I might as well just practice carving smooth corners, finding sweet spots in the draft, and relaxing during a race. I totally took the pressure off of myself and had a blast as a result. I was smiling at the crowd and just having a good time taking it all in. It changed my attitude for the rest of the race and I just started relaxing and enjoying it. I remembered that no one was ever going to care as much about my results (if at all) as I did. This served me well at the Mankato road race the next day, where I decided that I would focus on the journey to the finish more than the final result. So I entered my longest race (92 miles), of my longest stage race, just ready to play. I’ve tried going with attacks in these big races before, but never yet been in a break that held any ground for long enough to be noteworthy. So that was my goal, even if it wasn’t likely to stick. And it meant that I had to work hard to go with a lot of attacks to finally be in one that gained any significant ground. But eventually I did it. I just wanted to get more exposure and respect for our team. When I went up front to take a pull for the break, I looked back and saw that I had somehow rode a good distance off their wheels. I was so confused! I just wanted to help make this break happen, and wanted to prove something to the other girls, and yet they didn’t come with my pull. Had I gotten too excited and jumped them? Nope. What happened was that Kristen Armstrong had decided that it was a threat and bridged up to us, and suddenly the entire break was neutralized. There was nothing that little ole me could do to keep it alive! Bummer. Well, when I read about it in cyclingnews later, they wrote about the break and the power hitters in it, but didn’t bother to take the space to mention HPC by name. Lame. So I can tell that this earning respect thing is going to be quite a long journey. But every effort is worthwhile and I’m growing from trying.

I think I’ve written way too much already. But on to Stage 6, the Stillwater criterium, with a 22% gradient climb in it. Killer steep. So much pain, so much fun. Crowds lined all the way up the hill and it was SO cool to feel closed in by them and have their cheering carry us up that wall. Of course Armstrong soloed away from everyone because it was such a selective course that she could. My chase group got pulled 75% through the race because we were in danger of getting lapped by her. There were already the majority of the racers pulled at that point, so I didn’t feel too bad about getting put out of my misery early, even though I was finally getting into my rhythm and really wanted to finish. But I had already made the time cut by that point to get a prorated time for the final stage, so I was pretty relieved just to have survived the six stages of racing. With nothing more to worry about, I could just cheer on the sidelines and watch in admiration as Kristen danced solo the last couple times up that wall of a climb. We spent the next couple hours just enjoying the expos, the crowds, and watching the men’s pro race, and it felt so good that we finally could (rather than going home, stuffing our faces, doing laundry, washing water bottles, and resting up and working out logistics for the next race). I was so proud of our team at this race. We are a new team to this level of racing and it was the most and hardest racing any of us have ever done. We’re all stepping up. No insane results to make headlines (although Leslie and Jen both had a great stage in there!), but we are moving in the right direction.

The end.

LISA  – (10:47 PM)  

Take care of your stomach Lor. You only have one and you really do need it. Thanks for update I enjoy reading them. Ok I got more packing to do later

Sara  – (12:26 AM)  

What's next? The cover of Velonews?

Sara  – (2:42 PM)  

Note: above comment was actually from mike, but I'd ask the same thing!

Awesome breakdown of that race - what a cool thing to be in!! Take care of that stomach - it's crazy how competing at that level takes such a toll on your body (inside and out!).

Dana Broderick  – (3:20 PM)  

i read that all. it actually was interesting to get into the head of a biker...i can see where there are highs and lows, as in any competative sport. (like BYU slow pitch, the lows can just erk me! :) I really am so impressed with your steady improvement and diligence in this sport. I don't know if I have that work eithic or dicipline. (or for that manner, many people have) And I know what you mean about your stomach (on a smaller scale). When I run longer distances at my 5 min mile speed I really can't eat for a while. :) I couldn't imagine what racing does! Take care of yourself Lo!

Snow Crew  – (9:02 AM)  

Fine- I will just have to accept that I can not make you into the same boring person as I am, writing about the same boring two little boys. Maybe if I looked as good as you do in spandex I would be posting about racing all the time too!
Anyhow- did I tell you the best thing Garrett brought back from the states was the note you left for me in the book?
Can't you ride your bike over here? You'd save a ton. Plus with Rob's passion for "jogging" and geriatric phrases he probably could fly with a senior citizen discount.

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