I’ve had a rough season this year. Between being a bit of a headcase about descents, a rotten winter for training and a rough work travel schedule, I have not been getting the results I’ve hoped for. Early season goal races came and went with poor results and lots of frustration so I was heading to O’Fallon with the hopes of turning around the second half of my season. I’ve raced this event before and I LOVE the course. It makes me happy.
Race day dawns and it’s hot. Crazy hot. 100 degrees and we aren’t even racing yet. Start drinking. Pin numbers on. Keep drinking. My teammates and I head out for a very light warm-up and review of the last 2K of the course. Because I like the course so much, I was not nervous about it – which was refreshing. A first for the season and it had me in a good mental place. But it’s a long circuit – two 25 mile laps and there’s a question in all our minds – it’s so hot what to do about hydration? Carry bottles in jerseys in addition to on the bike? Can we find people to take care of us in the feed zone? Finally, yes. Frozen bottles on the bike, frozen bottle in jersey. And high hopes that one very kind man will be able to handle the feed for three of us. We’re going to need it.
As both the Women’s 1/2/3 and 3 fields were small so the organizers decided to combine us into one field (scored separately). That’s always a bit of a game changer. We get instructions in the shade, roll to the line and with the least amount of time ever waiting for the start BANG we’re off.
I mentioned it was hot? Nothing compared to the pace off the line. My chain falls off (WHAT? that never happens) I am chasing at 27+ miles per hour and I’m not 50 meters into the race yet. This is not going as planned. Now usually in a long road race, especially on such a hot day, the racing is not full gas off the line. It’s not a crit and usually we get a little bit of a roll out before racing is full on. Not today. I regain the field and settle in to the very high pace, thinking “this can’t last, it’s TOO hot”. Ten miles later, I’ve made the first little split and the pace is still high. The chip and seal pavement is coming apart in the heat. The road has gooey sections and you can hear “ping ping ping” as the chip portion of the road keeps breaking up and pinging off our wheels. But my head was in a good place. I was watching the right girls and feeling that it was all manageable at this point. Then we hit a little downhill section. Not scary. Just nice and swoopy. Fast. And for the first time this season I’m not on the brakes. I’m determined that I am NOT going to get dropped on the downhill as I had so many times this year. All going according to plans.
Until I feel the back end of my bike fishtailing. I hit an oozy section of pavement swooping through a curve and my back end is sliding out. ACK. The thing I fear the most. Images of Joseba Beloki and his career ending crash in my head. In reality it was likely not that dramatic. But I was fighting not to crash, not to over-correct. Heart rate and adrenaline through the roof. But I stayed up. “PHEW. Now, CRAP time to chase back on. Chase chase chase. Back on. NOOOO don’t attack now, PLEASE!!! Let me catch my breath first. No? You really want to hit it now, on this hill? Are you sure??” And off they went. Time to chase again. This is not how it was supposed to go. Chasing once again this season. But I am not quitting. I can still see them, they aren’t opening up a bigger gap. The hot wind is making it impossible for me to close it down but they aren’t getting further up the road. It’s going to be a long second lap in the heat alone, MUST KEEP CHASING.
The wheel truck whizzes past me. Up ahead I can see them pulled over, wheel change!! Opportunity is knocking. Her terrible luck is my good fortune. She’s back on her bike – chasing. I keep thinking. “Turn around. I’m coming, sit up and we can work together.” But she’s full on. I’m full on. Finally she relents just a little. Many miles of chase have passed. But I’m on her wheel. Introductions are made. Do we want to keep racing the second lap? HELL YES, we’re here we are racing.
And so we go, rotating. Speed stays high. We can still see the remains of our field but it’s blowing apart. We roll through the finish. Feed zone. YES one empty bottle jettisoned. New frozen bottle on board. One fresh bottle is not really enough but it will have to do. We see another girl up ahead. We catch her. Now we are three. The road has gone from gooey to almost wet. We can hear the oil from the road whooshing under our tires. Ping Ping Ping. Silently we are all rotating. Taking our turns, keeping our pace high. We are still chasing. Then suddenly, “my dad lives a mile from here. I’m going to his house and getting a ride back to the finish. Anybody who wants a ride can have one.” Oh. “No. We’re racing. Bye.” “good-luck.” And we are two again. Ahead another body. She was in our race too. Covered in salt. Bottles and food are offered. Are you okay? No. Advice is exchanged., “see the corner marshal ahead, they have shade and water. They will help you.” And we are two. Again. The wind and the heat is taking it’s toll. We keep telling each other that we are glad for the decision to keep going. But it’s getting harder. We are still working with each other. We pass guys on the road who have given up. We pass guys sitting in ditches on the side of the road, “yeah, I’m okay, just resting….” 2K to go. Bottom of the hill. The end is near and my calves WANT to cramp up. My race mate jumps out of the saddle and flies up the last little hill. I don’t react. Nothing left. I would have loved to race her for a fun finish, TO RACE. But my legs had no play left in them. Up the hill, roll through the line. Fling my bike to the ground. Collapse in my teammate Laura’s tent. She hands me an ice cold Coke. Sweet nectar of the gods. She came in second. Amazing. Great result especially on such a hot day. Turns out we did keep it close with our determined little chase…just not close enough. Bodies keep crossing the line and collapsing.
In the end, the average temperature for the day was 106. Low of 102 and, according to my Garmin, high of 116 on the road. I didn’t get the result I wanted and I wasn’t able to help my teammate Laura get a win…but I did gain valuable confidence on the descents. The second time through the swoopy downhill I didn’t even think out the first lap and my Beloki moment. I rode right through it. This is a positive takeaway. And for my doggedness I was rewarded by finishing in the money. That night back at the hotel in the blessed air conditioning I passed out at 8:30 pm. I slept through rowdy wedding revelers and my teammate Margie calling hotel security in the middle of the night. I did not stir until the alarm clock went off and it was time to get up and do it again.