Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ghosts of My Past - Estes Park Challenge: Part 2

...Continuation from yesterday's post

Actual photos of the race courtesy of my wife - The start

The Peloton, with John and I tucked nicely in the middle, rolls out from the start. As soon as we reach cruising speed, I start making my way closer to the front. Ideally I want to be among the first 10-15 guys. John is content to stay mid-pack so I bid him farewell.

I pick my way through the pack by waiting for small gaps to open and very subtly, but deliberately, moving my front wheel into those gaps with the rest of my bike gradually following. If there's one thing I've learned about riding in a pack, it's no sudden movements. Even when moving quickly, it's done with a gradual merging so as not to upset the flow of the peloton. I get to where I want to be nearly without incident. Nearly, because at one point, I
get forced onto the gravel shoulder, but work my way back onto the tarmac with an outstretched elbow (and some slight contact), encouraging the rider to my left to give me my strip of road back.

The first climb begins, some racers accelerate and some seem to move slightly quicker than standing still. the peloton no longer exists as one cohesive unit. The rider in front of me feels like he is going backwards, so I stand on the pedals and go around him. I do the same to the next couple of guys and all of a sudden, I'm up front. Just me and a rider in a blue Polo Sport jersey. He puts the hammer down and I grab his wheel, we manage a small gap, but as we summit and begin the descent, I look back to see the peloton already gaining.

I put my hands into the drops, and shift to the big chain ring as the Polo Sport rider and I increase our speed. Just behind me, I hear the familiar cacophony of multiple shifts being made, the peloton is back with us. The descent continues, pretty much straight down with a couple of sweeping bends, not too bad even for a nervous descender like me. We are going really fast now and a couple of racers begin to pass me. My nerves start to protest the speed. I look down at my computer... 54 miles per hour. What would happen if my front tire were to flat at this speed? I try not to think about it, but fear insists that the vivid imagery stay front and center in my brain. A sweeping right-hand bend sneaks up on me and I feel the overwhelming urge to grab the brakes, but I know all too well what happens with forceful braking mid-turn. I take comfort in the riders in front of me taking the corner faster than I am. If they can do it, so can I. I don't really believe it but that's what I keep telling myself so I can relax.
That, and there's this little trick I play on my brain...

The trick plays off nothing more than classical conditioning. The brain is conditioned so that when the brakes are applied, the bike slows. Therefore, the squeezing of the brake levers is associated with the decrease in speed. What I do when a descent makes me nervous is rather than grabbing the brake lever, I grab the shift lever that sits right behind the brake and squeeze that. For those of you with Campagnolo Ergo shifters this will make sense. The brakes don't engage and the bike doesn't slow, but my brain associates that squeezing with slowing down. It helps calm the nerves. Any other bad descenders out there with Campy shifters should give it a try, it works pretty well.

We arrive at the bottom and I'm still with the group. The peloton chills out on the long flat section leading up to the next climb. Gotta conserve... Then what in the hell am I doing up front again? I move back a few riders to get some draft. This is where I want to be.

Next climb, not much to this one, not steep, no turns, not that long. Everyone stays together as we top the hill and begin the next descent that leads to the start/finish. I know from my course reconnaissance that this descent SUCKS. It's steep and twisty with a couple of off-camber 90 degree turns and a couple of switchbacks. Just the type of thing you want to negotiate with 100 other cyclists at 40 mph.

gain speed and I'm already feathering the brakes in anticipation of that first turn. Riders pass me and I join in with a group of 5 or 6 guys going roughly my speed. We get to the first turn, it's an off-camber 90 degree asphalt monster waiting to shear the flesh off some poor racer's hindquarters. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a flash of red on my right side, this guy is going to try and pass on the outside! He's got way too much speed going into the turn and he just continues in a straight line. I see him shoot off the side of the road, bike and rider totally airborne, and, out of my periphery, I see the cloud of dust and debris that marks his eventual landing. I imagine he's badly injured, there was an old post and wire fence running along the road and he may have hit it. Best not to think about it now, my nerves can't handle it.

After witnessing the crash, the peloton negotiates the rest of the descent with more caution. Great, now I can keep up... We round the last 90 degree, right hand turn (again, off-camber - which will be fun on the final lap when everyone is jockeying for position for the inevitable sprint) and begin the slight uphill straight to the start/finish line. I cross the line in about 10th position, right where I want to be at this point in the race. 5 more laps to go.

Lap 1, descent just before Start/Finish

Laps 2 through 5 go by with out event. I chase down a few more breaks and eat a gel packet on lap 4 and the Polo Sport rider and I launch a flimsy attack on the first climb of lap 5. The peloton catches us with minimal effort and I fall back into place in the group. The group descends and climbs as one and I'm right where I want to be coming into that final, tricky descent. If I can hold position, make it around that final off-camber right-hander... My uphill sprint is pretty good... I could win.

To be continued...

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