I was Luke Skywalker deftly flying my X-wing fighter through the labyrinth of the Death Star as TIE fighters attacked and fell. I pitched and rolled. I would save Aldaraan. Okay, enough Star Wars geek coo-coo talk. After I crossed the finish line, I rolled up alongside a good friend and said, “I’ve been racing road bikes for what now, 7 years, and this is the first time I could see my way through the chaos that is a bunch sprint finish. Heavenly harps and Disney birdies circled my head. It wasn’t chaotic. It was clear and calculated. I was calm and cool. It wasn’t any scarier than parallel parking on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Granted my placing wasn’t anything special, but now I know I can do this.
Normally a sprint for me is like a demonstration of what it feels like to have Autism, an overload of sensory information. Colors flash by you in both directions. Your smell cork brake pads burning, hear a cowbell, a guy cuts in front of you, you lean to avoid contact, a little girl shouts from the sidelines, you see the 200 meter sign, a hole opens, and shuts down just as quick. Somehow I was Matt Damon in Goodwill Hunting, able to see the answer to the problem in my head and show the math to prove it. It all made perfect sense. Yesterday the chaos was nothing more than driving toward the finish and making rational split second decisions till I arrived at the front. If X, then Y. If Z then A. The speed, closeness of the riders and distractions were secondary. I felt as if I were running through the concessions crowd during the 7th inning stretch without hitting anyone and bagging the 12th urinal in the men’s room.
It was more than following “a good wheel.” The sprint actually started 5-6 miles away on the back stretch. Halfway through the lap, a slight uphill rise into a right turn onto a skinny twisty road proved to be a choke point that stretched out the pack every lap. Even warming up, I knew I had to be near the front going into that corner or you’d end up at the mercy of others letting gaps go. The first half of the last lap all I thought about was being in a good spot through that corner. I did have my eye on two wheels, a Team Type 1 development rider and a stalwart veteran from Zephyr Wheel/Cyclesport. I had a third eye on a big dude from a Pittsburg team. All three were in the mix at the front. The “good wheels” were more of a sign that I was in the right place than a golden ticket to the podium.
From there it was a matter of defending position and staying with one of those wheels. Guys would come around on both sides, and like a jewelry store smash-and-grab heist you had to take it when you saw it to stay near the front. On The final right hand turn onto the finishing road, swinging a bit too wide I lost some ground and my “good wheels” by letting a few go by underneath. I remember clearly thinking that this was the moment where I could ease up and ride it in for a mid-pack finish, or drive forward and make the most of it. I got up on the pedals over the next riser hill and stuck my bike into the first hole I saw. Now committed, I drove forward making my way to the stack of $29.95 DVR’s at Best Buy on Black Friday. I woke up at 3am, camped out on a lawn chair in 25 degree weather and by God I’m getting that deal.
On earlier laps, with the wind pushing from the Northwest, I remember the right side of road over the overpass would open up as riders drafted more toward the centerline. I poked my way to the right and rode it up past a couple before the lane shut down. Down the hill and back up the next rise, a rider shot left to right across my bow almost touching my wheel. I had to pinch off some brake and pitch to my right an inch to avoid it. I drove on. Boxed in on the right and somewhere in twentieth-land, I stayed on the gas patiently waiting for something to open up. The 200 meter sign was in sight. The sprint opened to both sides of the road. Riders fanned left, leaving Swiss cheese holes in front of me. I shot forward and dug deep sliding past spent riders and ping-ponged my way forward. I could see the finish line tent, open real estate and a smattering of riders. 2-3 more ran out of steam before the line. Left. Right. I surged past. Crossed. I counted the guys in front of me. 3-3-3-1. I counted again. 4-3-3-1. 11th or 12th. Oh, and there’s my “good wheel.” Not too shabby I thought. It wasn’t so much where I finished, but how I got there that I was happy about. I figured this thing out. I haven’t been so excited about something so mediocre since the day I front parked my car to get elusive street parking on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.