There we were, the four of us, joking about making it a group ride instead of a race. We asked Shawn if there were any cafes on the Air Force Academy base.
I had two thoughts: where the hell were all the Cat 3’s and I only have to beat three women.
The 3’s had notoriously shown up in small numbers over the past season. As a fresh Cat 3, struggling with internal motivation and realizing what other racers coined “the graveyard,” I was both discouraged that our category size was laughable but also motivated to win.
Truly the only goal I made as a new Cat 3 at the beginning of the season was to win one race. After mid-pack finishes after the other, I thought to myself, “I just have to beat three women.” The thing about courses and racing and racers is that people race to their strengths. Non-climbers didn’t sign up for this race. Hell, two of the women who raced against me admitted they weren’t climbers but they signed up to support the category. Like, how admirable is that?
After my sub-par performance in all the hill climbs over the season, I wouldn’t have called myself a hill climber either. Franky, the day before this race I came in DFL. While I held back in that race to perform better in this race, I still came in last, and I’m sure my holding back didn’t make that much of a difference.
So, there we were, lined up in front of Shawn, the Executive Director of BRAC. We had five 9-mile laps for a total of 45 miles. The four of us, Katie, Nicole, Ashley, and myself agreed we’d ride together as long as we could because truly that was more tactical than dropping each other at the get-go.
Ashley fell from the group first. While I wanted to make it a group no-drop ride, I remembered I came to the race to win, and I knew (at least I told myself) she realized it was nothing personal.
At one point, we caught up to the P-1-2 women who were really treating it like a group ride. We didn’t know if it was best to pass them or hold off in case someone attacked. Our group got bored enough soft pedaling that we ended up passing them.
One of Nicole’s teammates on ALPs shouted at her to not lead the pack. I laughed, knowing full well we were all taking turns at the front. I said something back to that effect. Also, I wanted to let her know she should worry about her own race.
A lap later, the Cat 4/5 women passed us. There were about nine of them in that group. I felt silly being passed by the Cat 4’s as a 3 in the sense that typically that doesn’t happen on these longer courses. But alas, there were only three of us taking turns at the front, which inevitably is harder than a group of nine women taking turns at the front.
I had to remind myself that I could not stay in the front the whole time, even if I was more comfortable there. I had to trust that Nicole and Katie would point out obstacles and people. And they did. We were working together, not against each other. There’s a time and place to be ruthless. Like 500 meters from the finish line or if someone is sucking wheel, refusing to take a pull. Sure, maybe that’s tactical, but it’s also kind of an asshole move. It certainly would have been with just the three of us.
With two laps to go, we lost Katie. It was kind of ironic to have been racing against her a year later on the same course. She was the friendly Cat 3 who I rode with in one of my first road races the season prior as a Cat 4. And then there we were: both Cat 3’s, Racing for the State Champ title. I tried to encourage her to keep pushing just as she had done for me the year before. When I looked back the distance between Nicole and I and Katie had doubled. Nicole asked if we should wait for her. I wanted to but I told Nicole, “I mean, this is a race.”
Again, I had to convince myself that Katie knew it wasn’t personal.
I noticed Nicole was taking shorter and shorter pulls. We were no longer chatting; only breathing. A couple of words between deep breaths and sips of water: “almost there,” we said on more than one occasion.
I saw the 1km sign. Hold back.
Then I saw Alison Powers, Nicole’s team coach. She usually bikes on the sidelines and yells out tips or motivation to her team. I kept the pace the same, waiting for Alison to yell to Nicole. I knew it was coming. I also knew Nicole would listen and do as Alison instructed. That’s how her team operates. I think it’s inspiring how dedicated the team is to Alison and vice versa. Alison knows her shit. And how, almost automatic the team operates. Everything is drilled and dialed in. When you race against ALP, you’re racing against a well-oiled machine.
Who knows what people get when they race against me. As the only Cat 3 on pedal, I don’t get that opportunity to train as a team with tactics. I’m learning as I go. And also, racing against the same people over and over again throughout the season, I picked up on some of their tactics.
I knew Alison was going to give Nicole the cue to sprint to the finish. I was exhausted. I always struggled with the sprint finish – which is where all the racing comes down to. The last 250 meters. I could only hope that Nicole had less gas in her tank than me.
I kept my eyes forward, Alison and Nicole in my peripheral, waiting. I could see the white line up ahead, the orange fencing approaching fast, and there it was:
I could hear Chris up ahead yelling at me: “GO! PETER SAGAN!”
Thoughts flying through my head, all telling me to push, as hard as I could; that I wanted this win. Nicole dropped from peripheral. My lungs were burning, as were my legs. I didn’t dare look back or get cocky and raise my arms in the air.
And just like that, I came in first place. I congratulated Nicole for her finish on a tough course. I also thanked Alison for the cue. We waited for Katie and Ashley and cheered for them as they crossed the line.
We were all friends after that hellish race with those struggles in common. We endured head wind, exhaustion, climbing 3,700 feet, and the same awestruck of the “graveyard.”
Typically, winners will earn upgrade points, but there needs to be a minimum of five racers. I was the State Champ but I didn’t get a single upgrade point. At least I had good company in the grave.