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Blood in the Water: Rediscovering Bike Racing

by Anthony Little |

SIBIU, ROMANIA

I'm relieving myself behind and electrical box plastered in warning signs in a language hardly anyone speaks while being berated in broken English by an irate local. I don't care - I'm nervous enough to leap from my own skin. I haven't raced in years: A veritable eternity for a bike rider. I am at least five kilograms over my high racing weight. I have crammed three months of training into four weeks. It is July. I am in Romania, at the UCI 2.1-rated Tour of Sibiu, a pro-only five-stage road bicycle race after a near-impromptu signing to a Continental professional racing team. I am sure what lies ahead will be one of the hardest things I have done in recent memory. It is the first road stage of the race, a 210km-long affair through the lumpy rural roads of Transylvania. I am internationally – professionally - bike racing off-the-couch. Roughly speaking.

 
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Who's that guy on the right, twice as big as the rest of his teammates? Oh, that's me. (Team Illuminate)

The bunch rolls out of the medieval town square parade-style, over the centuries-old cobblestones. We are rolling "neutral" to the official race start. As per usual in a neutral roll-out, especially on the first day of a stage race, the atmosphere is tense. Racing isn't officially underway, but the clash for positioning is already on. Italian squads are frenetically fighting for the bumper of the commissaires car as I try desperately to stay near my teammates. I'm scared shitless. I haven't ridden in a bunch this big in four years.

Nearing the edge of Sibiu, a giant red flag juts skyward above the car leading the group. A dead halt. The start line has arrived sooner than expected, and the tension in the bunch vanishes as the whole of the peloton scurries roadside to relieve themselves (pro tip: If there's ever an opportunity to pee, take it). We wait, legs growing cold. Five minutes passes in what feels like an eternity. A whistle from a rotund Romanian commissaire clears us for takeoff. The sound of 150 pairs of pedals being clipped into, and the sharp "WOOSHWOOSH" of carbon fiber accelerating over the din of shouts in a cacophony of languages, road captains attempting to bark useless orders in the chaos of a standing start. My legs heave forward, unfamiliar with this kind of physical stimuli. Neglected muscle memory doesn't stick around for years on end, it seems.

I hang on for the first 20km. Survival. The speed of a bike race - especially an international pro race - is relatively incomparable to anything one can accomplish on their own. Or on the local fast-guy ride. Acquiring the muscle-memory and fitness gem known as "RACESPEED", the ability to effortlessly float around at normally superhuman velocities, it takes one thing: Hard racing. It's why I'm at a distinct disadvantage choosing a mid-season 2.1 stage race as my first go at racing in several years. I'm lambasted by friends and acquaintances familiar with the speed phenomenon for being completely insane. But I am surviving. I am 30 wheels back, watching a teammate repeatedly jump, trying to escape the clutches of the Italian pro team's Giro squad. We're rocketing through villages, townsfolk gesticulating wildly towards the foreign phenomenon that rarely marks central Romania as its territory.

An Italian starts yelling at me in Italian. Effective. I look over at a German rider, hoping for a translation. The semblance of a reply is a cross-eyed shoulder shrug. We're still going 52kph. Somehow, I've drifted near the front of the pack. Androni-Giocatolli is there, making the race hard. One of the Germans jumps, going clear. Androni doesn't react, maintaining a quick pace. The bunch plows into one of the many little lumps of today's parcours. They always look so much more sedate on the course profile. It's escaped my memory that course profiles don't matter when racing. Everything is hard, no matter how big or small. Almost always. Racing and riding are different. Vastly.

The German is motoring up the climb, 100 meters in front of the bunch. The Italians ease off a hair, and the metaphorical smell of blood wafts through the air. I look over at my teammate, a fresh-faced Coloradan named Brad. Unsure of myself, I ask "Should I go?" Brad replies sheepishly, "I mean, if you want," as he trails off. I grab the tacky hoods of my shifters, and slide up the Androni lineup at the front of the bike race, grabbing every bit of draft before launching my carcass forward. Two swift clicks down the cassette, and I heave myself out of the saddle, my eyes fixed on the yellow and black kit of the German up the road. At second five, I look back - no one is following. I give the cranks a few more fully anaerobic swings and drop back to my saddle, finding a slightly less hellish pace that's quiet enough for my inner demons to start screaming. I feel the urge to look back, at second twenty, as I crest the top of the rise. There's another rider attempting to bridge. The pack isn't sitting up. The descent is fast and wide, and I take full advantage of weighing 80kg, latching onto the back of the German's wheel. We motor. I slip back behind him after taking my pull, and hear the familiar clatter of a drivetrain shifting under load behind me. The third rider has made the gap. I think he's Romanian. We aren't going slow.

I glance down at my computer. There are only three data fields that matter in a race: Time, distance, and speed. We're still going well over 50kph, and dragging out the advantage. The comm car slides behind us, and the motor ref begins to give us time gaps. The break is holding. I'm filled with a cocktail of dread, anxiety, and excitement. I have managed to get off the couch, get to Romania, and am now in the first breakaway of the bike race. "Can I actually do this? Am I going to get shelled in ten minutes? This is awesome. I feel fucking fast. Ohmygod, this is stupid! How did I end up here? I'm not a goddamned bike rider."

It's fine. Within 20km, my breakaway companions allay my fears, as the Romanian begins to completely disintegrate, and the German begins to lose motivation. Our advantage shrinks from 1:30 to 0:45, and we're quickly in sight of the peloton. For the riders and teams who haven't made the break, this is redemption. We're inhaled by the bunch at the bottom of the next steep climb, and I slide back to recover as the pace in the bunch rages again, counterattacks flying. I'm relieved, but ashamed. I should've gone harder. Distracted by my own thoughts, I almost don't hear the screaming in Italian. The snap of carbon. I narrowly avoid the front half of a bike bouncing down the road, and resume my duties near the back of the bunch, feeling the extra kilos and breakaway effort as I suffer over the steep rise. I begin to taste metal near the top, my eyes fixated on the wheel in front of mine as my heart beats out of my chest. Our Colombian, Edwin, atones for my failure, propelling himself off the front near the top with another rider. I smile, shove my heart back down my throat, and work on recovering for half a minute.

A chase doesn't materialize: Edwin is free from the bunch. The gap goes up. I pound a bottle, and slip up the peloton to my other four teammates. Simon, our Swiss IAM alum and road captain, proffers direction. We now get to play the part in the bike race that's one of my most favorite, and often most reviled: Covering moves. Raining on parades. The mechanics are fairly basic. We hover near the front of the bunch, making sure any efforts by other teams to send riders up the road into the break (known as a bridge) include one of us as well. One of us who won't do any work, getting a free ride to the front where we can help our teammate. Worst case, the move comes back. Best case, the move gets to the break, and we double-up on our advantage. We're frustrating a multitude of Italian teams as they're attempting to work within the limited time constraints of a realistic bridging effort. If the break gets enough of a time advantage - which, in all normal circumstances, it eventually will - bridging becomes a futile effort. This one-minute to two-minute advantage the break sits at is the golden hour, when getting across to them isn't going to cost too much energy. The bigger teams - the Pro Continental squads - aren't budging, but the squirrely Italian squads are trying their hand at getting away. Every single move is covered by one of us, and the results are often hilarious. One of the Romanians trying to escape bangs on his bars when he realizes the Illuminate rider on his wheel is doing absolutely nothing. I go with one of the riders on the Italian team with broken English scrawled across their kits and team cars. We get 50m up the road, and he flicks his elbow. I start laughing. He starts shouting. I shake my head, and point up the road. He realizes his folly, and sits up, but not before we careen over a semi-paved railroad crossing, both of my bottles ejecting themselves as if being launched from a mortar. The gap goes out to several minutes, and we're safe to relax.

Cycling's mysterious detente follows, briefly. This is as close to a halftime break, timeout, or commercial break that road racing gives. We reload on food and water from the team car, politely watching as the storm clouds from the west lazily wander in overhead. Our compatriot’s gap continues to go up, but there's still 130km of racing remaining. The sky opens with a fury, dousing us in mere seconds. While we're riding through grazing pasture. I try to avoid inhaling the cow shit surely being sprayed up into my mouth and all over my bottles. The wind picks up, and the torrential rain goes sideways. We rip through more villages, mostly brakeless. The occasional squealing rim reminds us of the pointlessness of grabbing the lever. It's a wonder more people don't hit the floor racing in the wet.

 

I'm soaked, but not cold. My shoes are squishy. The rain begins to fade, and I'm feeling lazy, riding mid-pack with teammates. The wind shifts, and I see a curve ahead, remembering from the map that the course abruptly cuts to the southeast somewhere around...here. “FUCK.” I feel the repercussions of my complacency coming to light as the CCC squad (Polish, Pro Continental, and dressed like traffic cones) rolls to the front of the race and drops the hammer. Crosswind racing. It's a beautiful thing, provided you're not on the wrong side of it - and this time, I am. The echelon of the wise lines out at the front, and the 120-some odd guttered dogs behind begin clawing at any semblance of a draft. The peloton begins to snap, chunking into three or four disparate parts as legs burn out from the effort. There's little tactical sense to breaking up the pack for the teams doing the damage, as there's still 100km of racing remaining, far too long to keep things separated. But, even still - it will cost those behind, including my squad, irreplaceable energy. We pillory ourselves for the better part of 15 minutes to get back on. It's more annoying than anything. 

Edwin is still out front by more than a few minutes. Our race radios are mostly useless (go ahead, ban them, we don’t care). We rely on word of mouth for news. We crest one of the final pointy hills of the day at 130km in, and I'm feeling quite fresh - spry, even. It's reassuring that several years of riding my bike too much, even when not racing, is effective when it comes to endurance. We descend the hill on a narrow, twisty road that barely qualifies as such - perhaps more bike path than anything. Coming around a switchback, my front wheel nearly washes out, and I undergo the usual flat tire triage while in motion, bouncing the suspect wheel off the ground. The rim bottoms out on the tire, crushing the mental foothold I'd taken a mere thirty seconds ago. Perturbed, I slide back through the bunch at the bottom of the hill with my hand in the air, waiting for my team car and a spare wheel. One car passes. Then another. Then another. I'm becoming slightly panicked. "Where the hell are they?" It strikes me that a teammate is in a break up the road, and that's likely where it is. Unlike the other teams, our shoestring-budget squad has but one vehicle, leaving us at the mercy of neutral support if the team car is needed elsewhere in the bike race. Neutral arrives. At the very back of the caravan, where else? I'm traded for a wheel with what might pass for a 19mm-wide tire. Encouraging. Common courtesy typically dictates that even though neutral support is "neutral", the car will pace you back to the caravan (otherwise, you're screwed). After pushing me off, the neutral car comes around me. I instinctively swing onto the bumper, and the car accelerates beyond my own abilities, leaving a five-meter gap between me and the car with hardly any draft. It is torturous. I begin gesturing with my hands, and the car slows. A water bottle sticks out the passenger window. I grab on (in cycling parlance, a "Sticky Bottle"). Typical sticky bottle practice would insinuate that I would simply be dragged to the caravan, where I could then pick my way through to the bunch. We are now a solid thirty seconds behind the caravan, and the gentleman with the bottle proceeds to slingshot me, Madison-style, into no man's land. I'm beyond confused. The car comes around again, and proceeds to attempt to motor pace as before, just slightly too far in front. This tragic comedy repeats itself three times. Eventually, out of sheer annoyance and frustration, I shoo the neutral car away like a petulant child.

 

I am now alone with 70km to go, off the back of the race. I begin to take stock of the situation. I must make time cut – I will not show my face at home if I don’t. I have no food. It doesn’t matter. I have no water to wash it down. My tiny front tire’s quality is less than encouraging, and it feels aired to 160psi. I assume that now might be a good time to start watching my power output to properly gauge my slow death over the coming hours, but my preproduction power meter has quit working in the wet. I do the math, knowing that time cut is 10% of the winner’s time. I need to hold 40kph for 70km to survive. Alone. I put my head down. And go.

 

The mind goes into dark places alone, off the front or off the back. Both are terrifying. Retrospectively, they’re almost always miniscule and unimportant, but for those minutes (or hours), one can become persona non grata with oneself. Emotion intensifies – all the wrong emotion. Anger at anything and anyone. Intense sadness. Bewilderment. It’s almost a torturous exercise of “Stages of Grief” in miniature. I began my effort enraged. I was angry at the neutral car. Angry with my team car for not being there when I needed it. Angry at myself for racing like an idiot in the crosswinds. Then, 15km later, a police car appeared, apparently sweeping the race. I wanted nothing more than for the police car to let me sit on its bumper for mere seconds. Instead, it sat behind me, so I got angry at it, too. I was angry at my thirst, at my body for needing water.

 

I slam the pedals. A consistent 90rpm. My speed is holding. By now, the road is open, and cars are passing me. I am dying of thirst. I start to meditate, losing myself into rhythmic breathing and the constant drumbeat of my legs. Anoesis, rudely interrupted by the din of a clattering two-stroke engine in the distance. Peering through my eyebrows, I spot a moped clattering along the road, some 100 meters in front. Salvation? Have I found a motorized teammate to drag me home? Amp speed to catch this most affordable of internal combustion modalities to discover its pilot is an older gentleman who speaks no English. And his carriage is redlined at 34kph. I bid him adieu, tuning an internal jukebox to “Gimme Shelter”, opening the philosophe floodgates. Why the fuck am I here? Why are any of us here? This is Division Three bicycle racing, the basement of the professional world. There is no (real) money. There is no fame. There isn’t fun. There is no enviable physique. Instead, we’re gifted a distorted caricature of the upper body of a famine victim mated to the legs of a power lifter. There is only months of pain, suffering, boredom, tolerating bizarre circumstances in foreign lands, race food that only consists of things boiled for six hours, and castigation in languages I don’t understand. It is utterly pointless. And in its pointlessness, there is beauty, especially at this, the lowest rung of the sport. It is beautiful rebellion against modern confines, and in its own absurdity, against the absurdity of most of the constructs of our contemporary lives. Existential commentary thanks to the inherent altruism of a sport riddled with few redeeming qualities. I pedal forward, content in this realization.

25km remains as I turn through a village into a headwind. The police car that hounded previously returns. Every muscle, deprived of hydration, begins to cramp. Fingers. Toes. Hamstrings. I make a drinking motion towards the cop car, mouthing “WATER”. He pulls alongside, handing me a tiny, half-consumed bottled water. I destroy it. It saves me. My speed wanes in the wind. I feel a twinge of panic rise. I look at the tops of my bars, where I’ve scrawled “NAMASTE MOTHERFUCKER”. I breathe in, breathe out, and let go: If I fail, there’s nothing to be done. The road turns, the wind abates, and I roar towards the finish.

It is here that I learn a critical fact about Romania: Its litany of porch dogs will not screw with a pack of 120 bike riders, but they will screw with one, my exhausted legs forcing several mini-sprints nearing the finish line. Cars are all over the road, failing to heed the police car escorting me. Two more turns. Two more turns. Three more K. I can see the finish line. I lift the speed, encouraged, caring about nothing. 500m left. More gas. 200m. What remains of the finish crowd appears bewildered by my arrival. I sit up, rolling across the line in a daze. Just past the line, I spot my team car, devoid of everyone save our videographer and Edwin – my anger fully dissipated. I don’t speak. I grab a Pepsi, and I collapse. I have never gone so deep. I have finished dead last, 20 minutes down. And I have made time cut by 10. Redemption.

And then Chris appears. “Give Edwin a hug – he won, solo’d the last 30km.” I look at my diminutive, always-grinning Colombian compatriot and bear hug him. He shows me the holes he’s worn in his forearms from his solo effort on his bar tops. Usually, the retrospection that my own effort was relatively miniscule comes days, weeks afterwards. This time, it took mere minutes. I shrink away from my own plight, reminded that I’m still just a visitor here. I am in awe. And I remember why I love this.

 

FIN

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