Like many seniors, I have a mental list of things to do this spring, and I don’t mean chores like “apply for degree” or “present thesis”. it’s a list of fun things I have to do now before I run out of time.
Unlike most seniors, one of the things on my list was “do a bike race.” With Dartmouth hosting an Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference event this weekend, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to cross that off my list.
I’m not a bike racer. I’m a ski racer. Biking is my just-for-fun, endurance-but-not-on-the-training-plan activity. Like my teammates who tried their hands in Saturday’s team time trial and criterium, I didn’t train for this; I had been been on six rides before the race, and I hadn’t done anything aerobically taxing since my last ski race of the season.
I was also worried about riding in a “peloton”, since my bike handling skills are less than impressive. What if I caused a giant wreck or something?
And yet I found myself on Route 5 at 9 o’clock Sunday morning, cruising along with 40 other women. We were all chatting and laughing – I talked with my teammates, with Jennie Bender, a standout UVM skier who was doing her first bike race and didn’t even have clipless pedals, and with a nice girl from Colby who was impressed we rollerskied on the bad roads.
The pack periodically rearranged itself, but this was the first thing I noticed that was very different from skiing: for the first third of the race, nobody was racing. At all.
That would change. We rode up into Norwich, through town, and out Union Village Road. The pack collectively sighed and hunkered down, thinking, here come the hills… And come they did. There is nothing like a good hill to break up a pack (apparently). As girls dropped back, I found myself just out of the top 10, chasing a breakaway led by next year’s ski team captain Ida Sargent and Bates skier Caitlin Curran.
We were pretty strung out as we passed Maple Hill Road, and we certainly weren’t appreciating the scenery. By the time we got to Goodrich 4 Corners, I had joined a chase pack of five – two Army girls and two other Dartmouth racers, including outgoing ski team captain Courtney Robinson – in hot pursuit of the six-person lead pack.
Going up that last steep, the one with the “8% grade” sign, I panicked for a second. I was killing myself, and this was only halfway through the race! How was I going to do this a second time around? Then, unusually, I put that out of my mind and kept chasing. If I blew up later, well, I’d deal with it then.
We set up a paceline on Route 132, riding towards the river, but we were exhausted from the hills. We were working hard but staying exactly the same distance behind the leaders.
And then, as we turned onto Route 5 again, they came back to us. I have seldom been so relieved in a race as when I hooked onto the back of the lead pack and finally stopped pedaling for a few seconds. No more chase.
Unfortunately, the reason we had caught the leaders was that they had slowed down, and before long, the main pack engulfed our group. Another thing I don’t understand about bike racing: why work so hard when you’re just going to let everyone catch you anyway? In skiing, if you get a break, you live and die trying to keep it.
In any case, I enjoyed the recovery pace for a few miles, because I knew as soon as we hit the hills again the chase would be back on. And sure enough, when we looped back through Norwich and were deposited at the bottom of the hill, Ida took off again.
The field strung out, but I found myself with more or less the same chase pack I had been with on the last lap. Going up the hills, and down them, we weren’t consciously pacelining; instead, we were all going as hard as we could, and if that put us in the front of the pack, great, but sometimes it put us on the back.
The sensation in your legs which comes as a result of riding up long hills as hard as you can is pretty unique. I don’t think I’ve felt quite the same burn in any other sport. I kept imagining that it would be easier to stand up, but after three or four pedals I found myself back in the saddle. My legs had accumulated too much junk.
To finish, we had to cross the covered bridge below the Union Village Dam and ride up Academy Road, no easy task. At the bottom of the hill, I did something I’m usually ashamed of: I switched into my granny gear.
Going by Burnham Road, I was still riding with the two Army girls, and the rest of our pack had disappeared behind us. I warned them that the pavement was terrible.
I think that was the last time I thought of them for the next few minutes. Going up that hill, this is what I thought: this is the end. I have to keep my momentum going. Switch gears.
Yeah, that’s all. My head was empty. I felt like I was riding fast, maybe because I was passing the stragglers from the men’s race which had started 10 minutes before us. It’s perhaps the most competitively absorbed I’ve ever been in my life, a lesson I hope I can take back to skiing!
500 meters from the finish the Army girls passed me, working together. I tried to follow them but couldn’t. My legs were blocks of lactic acid. Dave Lindahl and his children were on the side of the road, shouting, “Go Dartmouth! This is your hill! You know this!” And I thought, no, this is not my hill.
With nobody close behind me, I was happy to forgo a sprint finish. I rolled across and saw Caitlin and Ida, and Courtney rolled in a minute behind me. After a few minutes we did a short cool-down, trying to spin the lactic acid out of our legs. Ida had ended up second to the Colby girl, Jennie 4th, Caitlin 5th, and I was 8th. That put four skiers in the top 8. Not bad for a sport we don’t train for or, really, understand.
Then Courtney and I spent the afternoon at various intersections, acting as course marshals for the afternoon races. We mostly soaked up the sun and reveled in the spring weather.
I had so much fun that I considered racing the next weekend at MIT. But I decided not to. For one thing, I want to keep this memory of how fun bike racing is, and I don’t want to ruin it. But this is just part of a larger idea: biking is the only sport I do where I’m not focused on competing. I want to keep it as something I always think is fun.
This weekend, mission accomplished.