Kicked by a Horse

I did my best
But I guess my best wasn’t good enough
Cause here we are
Back where we were before
(“Just Once” written by Quincy Jones)

This race report is one week late, but that’s how long it took for me to digest what happened. And, really, this race is a microcosm of my own journey as a (wannabe) athlete, so the distance helps with looking at the big picture. (The choice of epigraph will become apparent soon enough).

After a long winter and spring full of ski touring to keep up the base, my spring did not have as much cycling as it could’ve had. But, the legs came back quick, along with PBs, results at early season races that I wasn’t really targeting, along with my long-awaited Cat 4 upgrade. That brings us to the Kicking Horse Cup, a three-stage race in Golden, BC that is as brutal as it is beautiful. Stage 1 is a 6km individual time-trial. Stage 2 is a mass start hill climb from Golden to the Kicking Horse Ski Resort that gains 500m over 14km. Stage 3 is a time-handicapped (by age) road race that is 84km and gains over 1100m. Supposedly, at 5’2″ and 122lbs, I should be a decent climber, so I made this my “A” race, hoped for a top-five finish in the hill climb, and then would take whatever I could get in the other two stages. I had done okay at previous hill climbs, having finished 8th at Tour de Bowness (COP) and in the top third at Rundle Mountain (Silvertip Drive), so it made sense to target this event.

The course for the hill climb.

The course for the hill climb. Click here for the Strava link.

I did everything a good athlete is supposed to do going into a priority race–I tapered my training volume, I studied the course, I looked at others’ race files from previous years, and I even rented an ultralight pair of climbing wheels.

When Saturday morning came around, I managed to get breakfast down before my usual race-day jitters shut down my stomach. First up was the TT, and while TTs are one of my biggest weaknesses, I was determined to to well by my standards, so I put in a good twenty minute warm-up. As expected, I finished in the bottom third of the result sheet (yay for not last!). On the flip side, I set a personal best for 10-minute power (and in the TT bars as well), so I was happy with that…hence the epigraph above.

With several hours until the hill climb in the afternoon, there was plenty of time for a hearty lunch, cleaning the bike, and a short nap.

Coming back from the TT.

Coming back from the TT.

Buoyed by my strong-for-me TT, I was actually pretty relaxed going into the hill climb. I did a solid warm-up of 35 minutes, which is longer than I was expecting the stage to last. (There’s that theme again of taking no chances.) At the start line, I had a gel and surveyed the my field–lots of beanpoles, including a handful of juniors who I’m pretty sure weigh less than I do. “Relax,” I reassured myself, “Just hang on for the inevitable explosion on the first climb, and the pace will probably relent after the first hairpin when it levels out.”

 

Positive self-talk is usually a good thing, especially for someone as anxiety-ridden as me.

But there’s a difference between reassurance and delusion, and I would soon find out in which one I was engaging.

We rolled off to a motor-paced neutral start until the actual start of the climb. We weren’t supposed to jockey for position, but I made sure I was near the front. As soon as we crossed the bridge and we’re given the all-clear, the race was on!

I don’t know if “explosion” is the right word for what happened at the start. While it was hard from the get-go, it wasn’t any harder than I was expecting. A better analogy is the old charlatan’s tale about boiling frogs. The skinny guys at the front set a fast tempo at the front, but I was determined to hold on. How fast is fast? I was putting out the same power numbers I did during the Tour de Bowness hill climb last year on a hill five times the size of COP. It hurt, but guys were getting spit out the back of the pack, and I so thought, “Just hold on a little longer. You just have to make the selection.”

After three minutes, it did relent. We “settled in” to a pace that was about the same as what I did on the Silvertip Hill climb at Rundle Mountain last year, which is about one third the size of Kicking Horse.

If you’ve ever done something stupid, you know the feeling of being in the middle of something with a voice in the back of your head telling you, “Hey man, I don’t think this is a good idea. No, wait–this is totally a bad idea.” It usually comes as events are unfolding in slow-motion and your brain is actually in a state of hyper-consciousness. You know what’s happening. You know you should stop. But there’s another voice–the same voice that tells people things like you can totally write that term paper in an evening, or that pulling out works all the time–saying “YES WE CAN” louder than an over-zealous Obama campaign volunteer.

The thing with climbing at that pace is I know I can do it, but doing so usually results in a fit of coughing, hyper-ventilating, and the occasionally vomiting at the end of the effort. But again, seeing how many guys had been dropped had me buzzing with more irrational exuberance than a hedge fund manager in the 1990s.

Like the dot-com bubble, I blew up spectacularly as well. After seven minutes of climbing at an intensity I had only heretofore sustained for five, (not to mention spending much of that near my maximum heart rate), my legs went on work-to-rule and refused to push any harder than threshold. Unlike the dot-com bubble, the only casualty of my indiscretion was my pride.

I quickly went from the denial phase of grieving to bargaining. “You can save this,” I reasoned. “Just hold threshold until the top, and you can hold off everyone else who got dropped.

However, I had gone too far into the red and it was now time to pay the bill. That meant I couldn’t ride any harder than a cruising pace while my heart rate settled down and I legs could flush the lactate that had flooded them. As I recovered, I was slowly passed by several riders, most of them older than me, who had let the better part of humanity (wisdom, as Plato says) rule. None of them said anything–they were all either too polite or too busy suffering, but in my mind, they smiled ruefully at my misfortune.

Bargaining quickly turned to despair. “Woe is me!” I cried to the heavens. “Why must the wicked triumph and the just be made to suffer?” It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I had–or so I thought–put so much prep into this race, and it was all unraveling on this godforsaken hill, flooded in a sea of lactic acid. By this time, fatigue added to the hurt, and it was getting difficult to spin the pedals. I alternated between standing-n-mashing and glass cranking. My heart rate had “recovered” to below 165bpm, but it didn’t matter because my legs were too tired to pedal at an intensity that would bring my heart rate back up.

Then, rational me kicked in.

“Holy shit, Santos, keep it together. You’re John, not Job. Actually, no, you’re Sisyphus, and none of this makes sense. You drove three hours and paid $100 so you could suffer up a hill that most people think is kind of a long drive only to ride down said hill afterwards. No sane person would do this, so just get it done.”

The inner soliloquy turned off, I did a quick situation check. I was on a false flat about halfway on the course. There was a switchback in the road up ahead and a string of riders behind me closing in. I powered up the switchback and settled into a more sustainable tempo when the grade slacked out. That worked for a while until the road kicked up again, and it became more of a mental battle than anything else. I knew I could squeeze 200W out of my legs for the next 10 minutes, I just had to find the motivation to do so.

Motivation found me before I found it. It came in the form of Patrick from RMCC. Built more like a rouleur than a grimpeur, he had slowly reeled me in over the descents and the false flats. Seeing the the shattered look in my eyes, he told me to hop on his wheel. I’m hazy on the exact words of our conversation, but it was something like this.

Patrick: “Come with me, if you want to live.”

Me: “I can’t. It’s over. There’s nothing left.”

Patrick: “Shut up and Rule #5. You’re coming with me.”

Me: “Oh my god, I am going to die.”

At that point, I realized why pro cyclists have climbing domestiques. Having a wheel in front of me gave me something to focus on. All I had to do was match Patrick’s gearing and cadence.

I wanted to say thanks. I wanted to promise that I wouldn’t betray his generosity and pip him at the finish. But all that required more wherewithal than I had at that moment.

When we entered the village and the road kicked up for the last time, I wavered and said I couldn’t hang on. As with before, Patrick wouldn’t let me give up and yelled at me from in front, “COME ON!” I finished right behind him, 33 minutes and 50 seconds after we started this Sisyphean adventure, and almost six minutes after the leaders.

It was impossible not to feel disappointed. I had entered the race intending to fight for a podium spot, or at least finish “in the points.” Instead, I finished in the bottom third of the results sheet, which would not be embarrassing were it not for my diminutive size and the advantage the confers when going uphill.

Dissecting what went wrong, I should have heeded my power numbers and the sensations in my legs telling me that I was going at an unsustainable pace. However, that would have been worth maybe one or two minutes, and I needed to make up four in order to crack the top eight. A lighter bike and a couple kilos less around the midsection would help too, but probably a minute at most. Really, if anything “went wrong” it’s that I simply wasn’t at the level needed to be competitive in this hard of a race. Looking at my power file from the race, I spent 72% of those 33 minutes at threshold or above, and almost half (45%) above threshold. Pacing error notwithstanding, there isn’t much more I could have squeezed out of my legs that day.

My power distribution for the race.

My power distribution for the race.

In fact, I was so fried, that I lasted 5km into the next day’s road race before I got dropped and soloed the rest of the first lap. I pulled myself out of the race, unable to push more than my threshold power or even get close to my threshold heart rate. Another disappointment, but affirmation of just how hard I rode the hill climb.

At the end of the day, all I can do is all I can do, and I did all I could do. The only thing left is to train more so that, next time, I can do more, and (hopefully) that’ll be enough.

 

Power demands: Why not all riding is the same

One of the lessons I’m learning in my nascent racing career is just how vastly different the power demands are between different cycling scenarios. Having not been a life-long competitive athlete (the most I ever did was lunch-time football and beer-league soccer), my sporting background is all from steady-state endurance activities like leisurely cycling, hiking, or cross-country skiing.

But, having been tuned into cycling by Lance’s reign in the 1990s/2000s, I’ve always had the desire to race, even if I had no idea what the demands of racing would be.

With a power meter, I can now quantitatively see what I’ve learned through feel and experience over the past few years–namely, that there is a big difference between going at a steady, uncomfortable intensity for a long time, and going so hard you want to throw up for a couple hours. I’ll post some of my power files as an example.

*A quick note for those unfamiliar with power in cycling: power measures the force you apply to bike over a distance, and it’s how you measure your level of exertion while cycling. Exerting more power becomes more difficult to sustain for a longer period of time, (i.e relationship between power and the time one can exert that power is inverse). A key power benchmark is one’s “threshold”, which is the amount of power one can sustain for about an hour. Exertion above this level can only be maintained for a much shorter duration, while exertion below this level can be maintained for much longer than an hour.

Zone 1: “Active Recovery” (This is very easy spinning, and used when you’re recovering from intervals, or on a recovery ride)
Zone 2: “Endurance” (An “all day” pace)Zone 3: “Tempo” (The pace of a fast group ride, where you have to exert effort, but you’re not going cross-eyed yet; you can talk, but it takes a lot of effort)
Zone 4: “Threshold” (What you could hold for an hour, if you really tried; in practice, even 20 minutes at this intensity hurts)
Zone 5: “VO2Max” (An intensity you can only hold for about 10 minutes; your breathing is very ragged at this point)
Zone 6: “Anaerobic capacity” (Very hard effort that you can maintain for less than five minutes; you can barely breathe, and if you’re talking, it’s usually cursing)
Zone 7: “Neuromuscular power” (Very short, high-intensity efforts like standing starts, attacking, and sprinting)

Power file 1: A brisk group ride

cochranegrp power

This file is from a lively three-hour group ride with some fast friends, and included two hills that we attacked hard (COP and Cochrane). Spent some time at higher intensity levels (Zones 4 and above), but not that much. Came back from this feeling tired, but good.

Power file 2: “Easy” road race

velocity power

This file is from the Velocity Road Race in Edmonton. The race lasted 1:49, which is shorter than the group ride, but you can see how much more time I spent at the higher intensity levels. This race was on a flat course, so the time at a higher intensity levels is from moving up in the pack without a draft, responding to surges, and accelerating out of turns. While I still spent a lot of time in Z1 (likely from coasting while in the pack), I spent less time in Z2 and 3, since I was either “sitting in” behind a wheel and taking it easy, or responding to changes in pace.

The other thing about this race is that I spent most of my energy in the first 20 minutes moving from the back of the pack into the front third, and in the final 10 minutes, where I fought for position and sprinted for the finish. For the rest of the race, I just sat in and enjoyed the ride.

In total, I spent 45% of the race at threshold power or above, and 36% of it at VO2Max power or above at Velocity.

Power file 3: “Hard” road race

RMSR power

This is from the Rundle Mountain Road Race in Canmore–a hilly and difficult race. I spent even more time at the highest intensity levels. Because of how hilly this course is, drafting has less of an effect, and if you want to stay at the front, you had to be able to climb with the strongest. Unlike Velocity, I wanted to be near the front for the entire race rather than taking my chances climbing slowly and not having anyone to work with to get back to the front. So, I tried to keep pace with the best climbers, and I constantly worked to stay in a good position. This meant I could respond when the decisive move came (even if my response backfired spectacularly).

Comparing the two courses to each other–they’re both around 65km and I averaged 37km/h for both. The difference is that Velocity only had 200m of total elevation gain, whereas Canmore had four times that amount.

Power file 4: A crit

Rundle crit power

Criteriums are a race format unique to North America, and are cycling’s version of Formula One. They’re held on closed city streets and use short courses (~1km in length) with a lot of turns. Races are short (varying from 30 mins to one hour, depending on the level of racing), and are very spectator-friendly.

Because of all of the turns, there is much deceleration and acceleration that happens in the race. You have to sprint out of each corner, lest you get dropped from the pack. Thus, it’s no surprise that you spend the most time in Zone 7 in a crit (or at least I do, because I’m trying to hang on to the back, where the accelerations are even worse than at the front).

Summary Table

Ride Type Time @ Z4+ Time @ Z5+ Time @ Z6+
Hard group ride 39% 28% 17%
Easy RR (Velocity) 45% 36% 29%
Hard RR (Rundle) 52% 41% 32%
Criterium 65% 57% 51%

What I learned

One of my goals this spring was raising my threshold, and I would do at least one threshold or sweet-spot (high tempo zone) workout a week to do just that. The issue with that is there aren’t that many racing situations in Alberta where riding my threshold would put me in a winning position. Being 5’2″ and 120lbs (at least on a good day), having a high threshold would help me ride away on a long (20min+) climb, but would still make me a deadweight in a breakaway because bigger guys are way more powerful, but not that much less aerodynamic than little guys. In Alberta’s flat courses, the guys I’ve seen win tend to be great sprinters supported by a strong team, or breakaway artists with huge engines.

(Yes, I know I could HTFU and train more to get my threshold up to 300W, but that’s a little difficult working two jobs, seven days a week.)

What I did in the lead-up to Rundle is less threshold training and more sessions doing VO2Max and anaerobic capacity work. Those power levels are the ones used for the make-or-break moves that decide races. Though I failed to get a good result at Rundle, I was foiled more by my stomach than my legs, and I was consistently in the right place at the right time, which provides some affirmation that my training has been paying off.

For my friends who are looking to race, your takeaway should be to incorporate intervals into your training, and to work on generating higher 1-5 minute peak power and being able to repeat that over and over and over and over and over until you can’t.

The remaining two road races this season (Bowness and JLap) are both flatish courses that, if you’re not in the breakaway, degenerate into “sit-n-kick sandbag festivals,” so I’ll likely play the same hand I played in Velocity. But, the Banff GranFondo will provide a chance to see if my improved ability to ride at higher intensity levels will mean I can stay with the main pack for the entire race.

2016 Update:

Both Bowness and JLap were less flat than I thought. Bowness featured a short-but-steep 5-minute power climb, and JLap had a bunch of rollers. In both cases, they produced a selection, with JLap reducing the finishing field to about 20, and Bowness, down to less than 10.

I can definitely say that the work I did on VO2Max-level efforts, recovery from such efforts, and explosiveness helped me to top-10 placings in both races.

Redemption at Rundle, or not

This past Sunday was my “A” race for the season–the Rundle Mountain Road Festival. I did this race last year and got dropped on a descent, so this was a much-wanted do-over. As well, it features a hill climb time-trial and a very hilly road race course, so it was a race to which I am well-suited (or so I thought).

However, poor planning on my part meant I was riding a three day cycling tour (loaded with camping gear) the Monday-Wednesday before, which meant I would be going into the weekend high on fatigue and low on form.

Stage 1: Silvertip Drive Hill Climb

The fabled Mur de Silvertip is one of the most painful 2km. In that distance, you gain over 150m of elevation. The main portion of the climb is this (with the maximum grade shown):

silvertip

Dat grade! Hurts so good.

We would start in groups of four at two minute intervals. A quick look at the others in my group gave me some confidence–I was the smallest one there. When we got the go signal, I quickly distanced them on the false flat and wouldn’t see them again. Halfway up, I saw one of the guys from the group ahead of me and thought, “Yesssss, this is looking verrrry good,” and it gave me a quick jolt of energy to pass him and finish strong.

I would be rewarded with a 15th place finish out of 34th with a time of  0:06:42, 43 seconds behind the winner.

Clearly, I had vastly over-estimated how well I did. The more important statistic is that I was 15 seconds away from getting any points, and it’s highly unlikely that I would have been able to make up 15 seconds, even if I was on-form.

What a sobering realization. Oh well, that’s bike racing. I consoled myself with a plan to take it easy during the crit to get legs “primed” for the road race the next day.

Stage 2: Canmore Crit

Not much to say here, other than I kept it upright and would have finished with the same time as the pack, were it not for a crash in the bell lap, behind which I got stuck.

Meh, it’s not like I’m gonna win a pack sprint anyway. (Wait, there was that one time at Velocity where I got 6th.)

canmore crit

Cat 5s trying to keep it upright.

Stage 3: Three Sisters Parkway Road Race

I woke up to the intermittent splattering of rain on the roof of my car. I hit the snooze button twice and finally acquiesced to the urgency of the moment at 06:15 and drove across the street to get some McDonald’s pancakes. My stomach was already turning–likely a mixture of post-race regret, pre-race jitters, and lingering stress from the week prior. I struggled to eat my pancakes, but managed to finish, which would be a harbinger of my experience to come at the race.

I drove to the Nordic Centre in silence, unable to get into my usual warm-up playlist. Made some small talk in the parking lot, signed on, did a quick warm-up, shed-my layers in the parking lot, and then lined up and rolled off, hoping the fire would come to me as we got going.

It was mostly downhill for the first few kilometers, and when we hit the first short climb, it felt much better than last year, which gave a nice lift to my spirits. Seeing the dodgy handling of some guys on the climbs, and remember how I got dropped because of poor position last year, I made my way to the front dozen or so riders and resolved to stay there and out of trouble.

Rundle is the most challenging road race of the year because it is the only one with any significant elevation gain, and the difficult became more and more apparent as the race went on.

There was the usual failed attempt at forming a break, with one very strong rider continuing to attack off the front at the worst moments.

Then, there was the usual cavalcade of riders who think thrashing their bike from side-to-side is an efficient way to climb.

And what bike race would be complete without the guys who can’t hold a straight line to save their life, brake randomly, and don’t shoulder check or signal when they change lines?

I managed to avoid any incident until the second lap when one rider drops a chain (shifting rings mid-climb…really?) and stalls out a handful of other riders behind him. I touch the wheel in front of me, but manage to keep myself upright by unclipping my left foot, only to fail to clip back in multiple times as the pack rolls away. Thankfully, I managed to catch back on, but paid for the effort with more nausea and dry-heaving as we tackled the main climb of the route. I briefly entertained the notion of pulling out early to avoid an accident, but dispelled the thought quickly, preferring execution rather than surrender.

The third lap brought some needed recovery, and some excitement when I hit a pothole and was almost thrown off my bike.

Well, and that one time Andreas from Speed Theory decided to take a flier on a short kicker. That kinda hurt.

Just before the turn-around point, we saw that one rider managed to get away on the final climb and attack at the turn-around, which you would think would wake up the pack and get them motivated to chasing. Not this pack though–everyone seemed to want to keep their tinder dry for the expected attack-2km-away-at-the-final-climb tactic. “Would-be-Jens” took to the front, and we all thought he would put his power to good use, but, no, he tried to bridge up rather than helping with the chase. A minivan that found its way into our rolling enclosure and seemed confused by the concept of a bike race slowed us down further, helping the lone escapee gain time on our disorganized bunch.

About 5km to go, I saw Andreas moving up again, and braced myself. Sure enough, he went, and the pack was jolted back into action. By this time, though, it would be too late to pull back the break, and we all were just fighting for second place.

2km to go, we turn left onto Spray Lakes Road and it kicks uphill straight to the finish. I knew this was my moment, so I put it in the big ring and used the turn to move up to the front group of riders, so I could get a front seat to the inevitable. It came, as expected, from Spencer from Speed Theory, who stretched and quickly broke the elastic holding the pack together. Half a dozen of us jumped to latch on, and I looked behind me to see a gap forming.

And that’s when my stomach lurched again–this time, sending up a foul mixture of my hydration mix and stomach acid into my mouth. I thought, “Shut up, stomach,” and swallowed, but I had to concentrate and didn’t notice that the two wheels I was on were falling back from the select group that had formed. I took matters into my own hands and tried to shut down the gap, only to have my stomach lurch and my legs tell me, “Shut up, Santos,” and that’s when I knew I didn’t save enough bullets for the final shootout. Fighting to not make a mess all over myself, I pulled off the the side and watch the pack roll by just as I passed the 500m-to-go mark.

I quickly found myself in no-man’s-land, but with the fragments of the similarly shattered gruppetto gaining on me. I had just enough wherewithal to make it up the finishing kicker and join an RMCC rider just past the finish line who was doubled over in the recovery position, suffering the same fate as me.

Oh, to have come so far, have been in the right place at the right time, and to have initially made the final selection, only to get shut down in the final kilometer…it’s even more crushing than last year when I was dropped one third of the way in.

Post-mortem

In hindsight, I think there is little I could have done differently.

The Rundle Road Race, while hilly and difficult, is a surprisingly balanced course. There is a lot of climbing, but none of the climbs are long or severe enough to force a selection. While the climbers could pull away when the road did kick up, none of them wanted to pedal the descents, so the big sprinter types could climb at their own pace and then use their power to catch up on the descents.

Analysing my power files provide some affirmation that I was pretty much at my limit.

RMSR summaryRMSR power

I was at or above threshold for half of the race, and my normalized power for the full 1:45 of suffering was 200, or 3 watts below my threshold. I am even more surprised to see how much time I was anaerobic (Zone 6 and 7), which provides some affirmation of just how hard the race was (for me, anyway).

The big takeaway for me is that I have probably been working on increasing my threshold too much and I’d be better served by working on being able to consistently deal with all of the Z6 and Z7 bursts that happen in a race.

Oh, and I probably should remember not to do three days of cycle touring the week before a race.

Hanging on: my first crit race

Clipipty-clop, clippty-clop, whoosh! I almost slipped on the tile floor of the swimming pool lobby as I dashed out of the bathroom and back to my bike. Fighting off a cold and dehydrated, I had chugged a bottle of Gatorade half an hour before, and, of course, the need to pee didn’t arrive until right before my group was supposed to stage. I clipped in and rode the three blocks to the start line just as other riders in my group were finishing a warm-up lap. My Garmin watch told me my heart rate was at 160bpm. I guess I’m warmed up.

It was my first criterium race.

Criterium races (or ‘crits’) are like cycling’s version of Formula One: riders race around a circuit for a set time, and then a set number of laps after the time has elapsed. Being in the beginner ‘C’ group, we were to go for 20 minutes and then three additional laps. While this wasn’t a formal race (but, rather, a ‘midweek’ race that is more for training and practice), I was sick, thirsty, tired, and jittery.

Image

A photo from a Midweek Mayhem race I watched in 2013.

I made a mental checklist of everything the race organizers covered at the orientation session the day before.

“Keep your head up and your hands in the drops.”

“Don’t overlap wheels.”

“Pick your line and stick to it.”

The race manager gives us the go-ahead, and we were off to a neutral start for the first lap.

We took off at what seemed like a reasonable pace. (I had my watch, but I was smart enough to not look at it during the race.) After the first turn, I checked in with myself. “Priority one is to not crash out. Priority two is to hang on as long as you can before you get lapped.”

We quickly rounded turn two–the 80 degree one–and came a slightly downhill sloping section of the 1.2 km course. The pace seemed to quicken ever so slightly.

Two more turns and we passed the start line, and then one rider immediately attacks. The pack gets stretched out, but I see a handful of riders take off after the attacker. There are two riders in front of me who didn’t seem like they were going to give chase, so I passed them on the outside to try and hold on to the chase group.

I lost track of what happened after that. All I can remember are sensations and fragments of thoughts–my heart racing, my ragged breathing, my parched throat, the burning sensation in my legs.

I stayed more or less in the same area of the pack throughout the race. I traded places with one guy from Dead Goat and another guy from Speed Theory a few times.

When we passed the twenty minute mark, and the pace picked up for our first of three final laps.

Going into the second lap, I noticed myself feathering the brakes more often. Were we going slower? Are these guys tired, or holding back?

Bam! As soon as we rounded the first turn of the final lap, someone jumps again. I don’t see who, just a thinning pack in front of me. I jumped on the pedals and passed a couple of riders who weren’t as quick to respond. Things settled going into turn three.

I remembered that I should be near the front for the final sprint, so I moved up right before turn four, and as we rounded that final turn, I stared pedaling harder, only to see more than a handful of bodies pass me through to the finish line.

Still dizzy from the effort of the final lap, I laughed. “Still not much of a sprinter,” I say to myself.

But the sprint training can wait another day.

The pack settled back together for the warm-down lap, and there were smiles all around as we congratulated each other on a great first race. I was pleased that I managed to not be lapped–at least this time around.

Looking at the stats afterwards, I was surprised–not with how fast the pack was going, but that I had been able to keep up. In less than half an hour, we covered 16km, and averaged 37km/h. On the final lap, we were averaging 41km/h, which is still a far cry from the Strava record set on that course, which had an average speed of 51km/h, but, given that I hadn’t even participated in so much as a Gran Fondo, I’m happy with how I managed.

I stayed around to be a course marshal for the ‘B’ group, which was amazing, given that they were going noticeably faster than us. As I watched them zip around the course, I recalled how, last summer, I went to watch one of the midweek races and thought wistfully how amazing it would be to do that. Less than a year later, and less than a year after I started cycling again, I had done my first crit.

Maybe it seems overly sentimental to write about participating in an informal midweek race, but I learned a lesson that day that has nothing to do with cycling: even if I had come in dead last that day, I would have still been ahead of not starting the race. Racing sports only ever have one winner, but there is a reward for pinning the numbers on, lining up at the start line, and suffering beyond money or trophies or fitness or health–the value of starting something that’s difficult and finishing it.