Black Hills Circuit Race: In Which I Rediscover Heart Palpitations

In 2010, the race season started with the Richmond International Raceway Criterium. It was flat. And had no turns.

In 2011, it started in North Carolina with the Wolf Pack Road Race. Not quite flat, but only a few turns per lap and only about four laps.

This year, my first race was on the roads of Black Hills Regional Park. Each 1.5 mile lap nearly doubled the amount of turning that Wolf Pack did over 10 miles – repeat 14 times – and the elevation change was enough to sear the legs every lap. Between the snap out of each bend and the climbing and the up-front riding to stay out of the way of the inevitable crashes, Team Bike Doctor’s event had ‘litmus test’ written all over it. And then there were the nerves.

Oh, right. The nerves. Hello, friends.

60 minutes [or maybe less] stood between me and some sort of validation or the kind of defeat that keeps you awake at night wondering why your attachments are so small. Nothing’s more fun than watching your own race from the sidelines.

Standing in the staging parking lot, I quickly remembered that my pre-race resting heart rate was over 100bpm. It’s the little things that make competing so endearing. Like having to pee less than 5 minutes before the start no matter how many times you’ve already gone or how little you’ve had to drink. Racing’s idiosyncrasies quickly floated back into my head like it hadn’t been 6 months. Until the race started, anyway.

Whoever said “it’s just like riding a bike” has clearly never been on the bike while  jammed onto 6 feet of pavement with a 75 alpha males all trying to occupy that same piece of real estate.  ‘It’ does not come back quickly. It is nerve wracking and fast moving and a blur of “what the crap are you doing? Hold your damn line!” So much for a seamless return to the peloton.

So, race recap. First half: uneventual. Attacks, counters, attacks. Every surge saw an HPC kid racer try to go up the road. Not kidding. Every one. Second half: uneventful. At least, that’s what I thought. It wasn’t. People shouted time gaps from the sidelines. 10 seconds. 15 seconds. 20 seconds. After a couple laps of this, I bit and asked around to figure out how many had escaped.

4. Brain off. Ugh.

And right then I packed it in. There were less than 4 laps remaining and the break wasn’t coming back despite my teammate’s best efforts. Helping him reel it in would leave nothing in our quiver for the resulting sprint. It felt a little hopeless.

When the field resigned to duke it out for 5th, my teammate – Pierce – rotated back around to ensure our plan was still queued up. I told him I was done. Sprinting for a slim shot at the last couple upgrade-point positions didn’t seem worth the risk. He shook his head ‘no’ and said we were going for it. [About Pierce: he’s 165 pounds of 6′ 3″ freight train. Working to try to bring back the break at this race, he set a personal record for 20 minute power of 399 watts. You’ll never get him to admit a race was hard, and he never shuts down a big effort. Easily one of my best friends, I sometimes hate the guy on a bike.] I’m pretty sure that they could hear me groan all the way back in Virginia.

As the bell sounded for the final lap, Pierce began threading us through the field. Half a lap to go, pre-flight checks began and the pace really ramped up. As soon as we reached the marker for open road – about 300 meters from the line – Pierce gave it full gas and I held on for dear life.

I never made it around. We swept the field sprint to lock in 5th and 6th places. All things considered, not a bad result. For somebody who fancies himself a sprinter, keeping the field at bay up that damn the hill was a minor victory in itself. A week later, I’m still kicking myself for missing the break. But that’s racing. It won’t happen again.

The day finished with Chipotle, where every dedicated athlete fuels up on essential amino acids and vital nutrients. Or something like that. It was not a day to christen a wild new victory salute. But it was also not the one that had me laying in bed wondering who swapped out the things in my shorts for peas. I’ll always hope for more, but this wasn’t a bad foot to put forward on the first day of the new race season. And considering that in 2011 the 3/4 field seemed totally out of reach, it’s improvement I won’t complain about.