I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I expected the last few minutes waiting for the start. Once the gun went off I immediately focused on my plan: Stay near the front. This was both to stay out of trouble and so I could watch the business end of the race.
I didn’t have too much trouble finding the front, but it was quite hard staying there. One of the things that surprised me most was the ferocity of the attacks. In the races I’ve become accustomed to, responding to an attack is a choice. In other words, I have found myself deciding which attacks I should follow. In this race, if I was in the top five positions when the pace slowed, someone would fly past with at least a 5 mph advantage. It would be impossible for anyone to react quickly enough to catch their wheel.
I asked some riders I respect, and that have experience in national level races for advice prior to the race. One said that instead of simply following wheels for the inevitable field sprint, I may want to try my hand at attacking if I felt able to. Since the final sprint can be so hectic, it can sometimes be dumb luck which produces a result. He recommended I might want to get some racing done before the finale, just in case I wasn’t able to get my racing done at the end.
I took that to heart and was thinking about going for a prime. They were offering $50 or $100 cash about every third lap. Again, in local races I have gotten primes by positioning myself well and playing the waiting game. If I get lucky and can use good timing and half halfheartedly sprint for the money. Nothing in this race was done halfheartedly. One time I found myself in good position, but with a half dozen riders sprinting their guts out across the line.
I also tried my hand once attacking, but only made it about half a lap until I was completely gassed. The pace was relentless. We frequently turned laps averaging 33 mph! The corners were always right at the limit. In races I usually find my limit once or twice per race, but this day I was feeling my tires squirm dangerously every couple laps. I even was almost crashed out by the race’s eventual winner, Jonny Cantwell, when he was pedaling out of a corner and his rear wheel washed out a few inches.
I still wasn’t sure I was going to be able to finish the race until the halfway point. I had been at my limit a few times, but when I saw 40 laps remaining I knew I could make it. Also by that time, darkness was beginning to fall. At first it wasn’t too bad, with the light just beginning to play tricks on me. Another teammate had warned me about the shadows from the streetlights. In a race you become acutely aware of the subtle indications of the position of riders behind. Once it was dark enough for the streetlights to cast shadows, it caused the shadows to come rushing up from behind as the light passed overhead. This causes the feeling of being overtaken even though you are not.
At about 30 laps remaining the race was pure chaos. The pace was still extreme and it was very dark. The street lights and portable lights were plenty bright, but the dense pack of riders would cast their shadows onto the pavement leaving the actual street nearly invisible. I was navigating the course by feel. Usually I take care to avoid bumps and sewer grates, but by this time I couldn’t see to avoid them. The 90 minute race was starting to take its toll on my arms and hands from the unavoidable bumps in the road.
Around this time Tom Zirbel, AKA Zirbeast, took off the front. He is a world class time trialist and somehow was riding just off the front alone as we flew around the pitch black course. I couldn’t even see him, but the three PA speakers set about 50 meters apart kept me in the know as we passed the finishing straight.
He was caught with about 12 laps remaining and I gritted my teeth knowing that just over 12 minutes remained to race. I wasn’t sure if I could keep up but I was determined to try. Holding my position was harder than ever. The pace was astronomical and everyone was aggressively protecting their spot.
If you have watched pro races on TV, the scene is familiar: The pointy end of the peloton, usually lead by a strong sprinters team is at the front. Just behind is a bulge of riders jockeying for position, bumping shoulders fighting for the perfect sheltered position just behind the lead team. Behind the bulge is a line of riders fighting for survival. This is about where I was positioned. Although I managed to barge my way into the beehive of activity behind the lead sprinters team of Fly V, I quickly found myself towards the back of the group in contention. I just didn’t quite have the power to hold my spot near the front.
At three laps to go it was pure chaos on the road. It was darker than ever. The crowd was now whipped into a frenzy and had a stadium like roar every time we passed. Many riders, including myself, were riding well beyond their limit. I tried to keep on the inside of the peloton without ‘chopping’ the corners by diving too far inside. It worked pretty well and I believe I made my own luck in this regard by avoiding the crashes in the finale. Generally the crashes occur in the corners and riders are swept to the outside of the corner. By riding on the inside I was able to avoid them for the most part.
Just after seeing two laps to go, some riders in front of my got tangled in the first corner. The rider immediately in front had to widen the radius of his turn and drifted to the outside causing a lot of braking and a few riders to go down. A gap opened to the lead group and I was on the front of the survivors left to chase. I burnt my last match trying to get up to them and just barely made contact. I was far enough back to be left out of the second to last corner crash and only saw the wreckage as we turned to the finish line. I got out of the pedals to defend my placing and crossed the line.
Immediately the adrenaline of the finale started to wear off and I realized I had raced the hardest 90 minute race of my life. I felt just as tired as when I sprinted uphill for the win of an 86 mile road race after spending half the race in the break. I was completely destroyed. Tom Zirbel lives in Boulder and had been on my flight out to the race and I had introduced myself in the terminal. He remembered me and after crossing the line just behind, came up alongside and gave me a high five. His reputation as a great guy is well deserved.
I cruised the course, trying to take in the scene and recover. The streets were flooded with spectators as if a football game was letting out. I went back to my hotel room to get some water and was so wasted I found myself trying for a few minutes to get into a room on the wrong floor.
It was midnight before I was recovered, showered, and packed. I only had just over five hours before I had to get up to head for the airport so I tried to go to sleep. The sensations from the race turned out to be hard to let go of and I found myself unable to sleep for a few more hours, especially after finding out I had finished in the prize money in 22nd place.
The trip was a brief glimpse into the stark contrasts of the pro lifestyle. Thousands of screaming fans, loud music, fanfare, and camera flashes contrasting with lonely travel, marginal hotels, and the ever present danger of crashes. I can’t say I like every aspect of it, but the energy and excitement is infectious once it gets into your blood.
I haven’t embedded any photos in this post since I couldn’t find the time to ask for permission to use them. I do appear in a few nice galleries from photographers in Boise: Kevin Rank, Dylan at Sara K Byrne Photography, and this YouTube video. If you don’t have time to watch the four minute clip, the last 20 seconds feature the start of the final lap and give a great impression of the excitment, speed, darkness, and huge crowds.
Update: Thanks to both photographers for getting in touch with me and giving permission to post some great photos.