A Noob Goes To The Races

The Bike Noob has never contemplated racing, but guest poster Jeff Hemmel has — and he did more than contemplate. Jeff tells about his first race, during his vacation this summer in upstate New York.

So there I was, sandwiched between a breakaway pack of 12 riders, pedaling nearly as fast as I thought humanly possible, looking at the last 90-degree corner of what had been 30 of the fastest, most hardcore miles I had ever ridden. All around me faces were dead serious, jerseys were filled with sponsor logos…legs were shaved. And then there was me, a noob, riding my very first race, jersey a plain and unassuming blue…and no real game plan what to do next.

What the hell was I thinking?

To get to that answer you need to backtrack to late July, 2010. That was when I first came up with the idea of actually trying to contest a race while vacationing in Upstate NY. Long story short I chickened out, but vowed to try again in 2011. After all, this race was perfect…it started in a picturesque riverside town, it had some of the hills that I love (and hopefully most riders would hate), and was a fundraiser for a good cause.

Most important, no one knew me. If I choked, I could fade into the background, my pride shielded by my outsider’s anonymity.

I can’t really say why I did it. Most likely it’s because, like it or not, I’m somewhat of a competitive person. While two years ago I was simply content to hang with the Sunday morning group ride, lately I had been trying to actually contest the end-of-ride sprint. I have no aspirations of signing up for every race that comes along, but I wanted to test myself, if only this once.

Which is why, this July upon arriving in New York, I not only began to rack up my usual mileage in the hills, but frequently found myself visiting the race website…mapping out the route…even watching it fly by on Google Earth. And yes, a few days before the event, traveling about 90 minutes north to plop my bike on those roads and actually riding the course. That I made about 10 wrong turns and ended up turning a 30-miler into a nearly 50-mile reconnaissance isn’t the point. The point is I took it seriously and prepared. If you looked closely at my bike at the start, you would have even seen a little piece of masking tape on the stem, labeled with various mileage points and whether the race was turning left or right.

As I said, competitive…and yes, maybe just a little bit anal.

My race day plan was simple — to spot the guys who looked like they were the most serious, and not let them get out of my sight. I figured I’d either burn out and limp to the finish at the back of the pack, or maybe, just maybe, surprise everyone (including myself) and hang on to the finish.

Well, this looks daunting.

At the start, the latter option didn’t look too promising. A well-organized team jumped away from the 100-plus rider field only a mile into the race, and I fought to stay with them, watching my speedo settle in about 26 mph. Their intent seemed to be to drop as many people as possible right off the bat, and I was almost certain I would be next. Somehow I stayed close, even joining their paceline so I could say I did my share of the work and at least earn their respect before my flameout. Miraculously, however, that moment never came. As I survived mile after mile my confidence grew and I knew I could hang with them till the finish, especially as their speed settled down slightly. As to any pipe dreams of actually dropping the pack on a climb and soloing to victory a la Andy Schleck, however, I knew I didn’t have a chance. This group was strong, and even if I found myself with an advantage on a climb, I knew they’d reel me in with ease once things flattened out.

I'm in there somewhere.

So, I I fought my impetuous instincts, rode smart, and just tried to fit in…a guy with hairy legs in a generic jersey in the midst of a bunch of logoed-up team members looking clean and mean. With about three miles to go, a three-man breakaway leapt ahead, but somehow we reeled them in about a mile from the finish. Still together at mile 29, all that remained was a bunch sprint — a scenario I had really hoped to avoid given my utter lack of racing skills. Heading into that 90-degree lefthand turn about 100 yards from the finish, I took the inside line, only to be cut off by the rest who kept up their speed and swept through the corner. I hit my brakes, lost momentum, and watched as that team led their leader out to the finish. It was actually pretty impressive.

And I still managed to finish first in my age group.

The best news for me? I did okay. I triumphed over the nerves of 2010, finished upright (the primary goal of any first-time racer a friend reminded me before the race), and was greeted at the finish line by my daughters and wife…three people in town who did recognize me.

Finish line greeting.

That’s a victory in any noob’s book.

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