After waking up early for each stage, I found myself excited to sleep in a little bit.
Stage 4 of the Tour of the Gila is the downtown Silver City Criterium. A crit is a lap race, around a small closed circuit. The Stage 4 crit is 40 laps and is approximately one hour and 30 minutes of high-speed racing.
The course is a rectangle, running through the historic downtown of Silver City and up two punchy climbs before a high-speed corner back to the finishing straight. The men’s UCI race is the final race of the day, and we all appreciated the 4:15 p.m. start time.
With the whole day to rest, the team got off to a slow start this morning. At 10:30 a.m. we headed out for an hour team ride to Pino Altos. This ride would serve as an opener to keep our legs feeling awake because of the large gap between yesterday’s time trial and today’s crit.
For me, this ride was a welcome distraction. Since I began bike racing, crits have been my kryptonite. The high speeds and aggressive cornering has always intimidated me, and I often find myself near the back, which is the worst place to be in a crit. Throughout the day, my nerves wracked little by little.
I found myself constantly drilling my teammates for any and every bit of advice and information about the crit, hoping that something was ease my mind. The response was always generally the same: “It’s a climbers crit, the hill slows things down and it’s not technical; it will be easy for you.” This did help to calm me a bit, but I still had so many unknowns with such a large and fast field.
By 2 p.m. my nerves had hit critical. I had neared the point of having panic attack. I lay on the bed feeling cold and shaking. This is all in your head, I told myself. I reminded myself that if I thought I would do badly, I probably would, but my mind had already escaped me and any trick I could think of would do me little good.
Finally it was time. We rolled down together as a team to the course. The beautiful downtown, lined with historic buildings, was abuzz with excitement. Racers rolled around to the sign in, and crowds lined the orange barriers around the course. Rolling around I heard good luck wishes from dozens of friends who were out to spectate, but I was already lost deep in my own head.
When the women’s UCI race ended, I rolled around the course to the start line. In an act of self-sabotage, I started myself at the back of the large group. I tried my best to look calm and collected with a poker face. Behind me I caught a glimpse of Tom Zirbel (Rally Cycling). I had met yesterday’s TT winner a couple of days ago, and we had a nice chat. He smiled at me and gave me a generous head nod. That helped to relieve some of the tension. Relax and have fun, you know how to do this, I told myself.
Seconds later the bell rang, and the race began. The pace was somewhat relaxed, and I worked to get myself comfortable. Still near the back, I slotted in and took a couple deep easy breaths. I immediately started my inner dialogue.
Focus on what you can control. Breathe, relax, move up the outside, lean the bike over. Through the first couple of laps, I dangled near the back. The effort was not incredibly hard, but I knew I was working way harder than the riders 20-30 riders up front, and as I got a feel for the flow of the course, I began to move up. Get some space before the climb, I told myself, and I would move up.
As the group punched hard up the short climb, I would fall back a few riders and crest near the back. I then began the strategic effort to regain some positioning in the bunch before hitting the climb again. Finally I became comfortable, and with my own coach inside my head I began to move through the group lap after lap, but I still was too far back.
Quickly, I got too comfortable. I let my concentration lax, and on one lap I found myself fifth from last wheel on the climb. Unfortunately, for me the group punched it particularly hard and a gap opened up. Not blown up yet, I moved slowly to tempo, and the gap closed. I knew I had two or three Team Jamis riders on my rear wheel, and I waited for them to make the effort to close. Down the descent and into the start/finish, the gap still remained.
I dug as deep as I could and finally reattached to the group, but the effort had taken the strength out of my legs. Immediately the Team Jamis riders moved around me, and I found myself last wheel into the climb. Still recovering from the effort, a sharp punch up the climb put me off the back.
‘I knew I was done’
I had no space to fall back, and I helplessly watched the group open up a gap that I could not close. Immediately, emotions washed over me. I knew I was done, but I would not go down without riding every pedal stroke I could.
Alone, watching the other 140 riders pedal away, I rode as hard as I could. I ticked off lap after lap alone. As the group faded from sight, I have never felt more embarrassed. I was alone off the back with hundreds of people watching. I saw Tucson cycling legend Gord Fraser on the sideline and just looked at him with defeat and humiliation.
Finally, the officials pulled me off the course. I rolled through the crowd on the side lines. My large sunglasses hid the tears that rolled out of the corner of my eyes.
As weird as it may sound, I know the crit was not hard. If I had the confidence to position myself mid pack, I would have had room to slide back a bit on the climbs and recover between. But by not putting myself up there at the start, I had put myself off the back.
Swirl of emotions
I rolled around the course and watched the race a bit longer, smiling as fans took my photo and even asked for an autograph, but behind my smile hid a swirl of emotions, and the levy holding them in was beginning to give. After a while I could not take it anymore, and I decided to ride back to the house early. Once alone on the road, the levy broke. Tears streaming down my face, I rode home by myself. A mixture of shame, frustration, humiliation and anger washed over my one by one.
I had came to Gila prepared to be time cut on day 1, but I felt as though my race was certainly over now. I had likely finished outside of the time cut and would be unable to start the next day. Yet, I had written my own destiny with my lack of confidence and nerves. My biggest enemy was my own head, and my hardest critic is myself.
As I sat back at the house, eating my dinner in silence, I was certain my Gila was over. But by some amazing luck, I was granted a second chance. When the results for the day was posted, the officials gave me a finishing time, the last rider to not be cut. I will start Stage 5 tomorrow, but I will not forget the lessons that I learned today.
The feeling of going off the back alone, in front of friends and spectators was one of the most vulnerable experiences I have felt. And I left feeling hollow inside. But in this experience I have gained the knowledge that my biggest enemy is not the other riders, but myself, my fears and my doubts. Through bike racing, I have been lucky to experience lessons that I take with me to every part of my life.
Most importantly, I have learned that fears can be conquered, and with will power you can accomplish things that you did not believe were possible.
But it all begins with believing.