I headed to the Oklahoma race not quite knowing what to expect from myself. Although my hip and elbow were in reasonably good shape after my fall in the previous race, my left knee was still in rough shape. In fact, the doctor’s orders to me the previous day when she put me on antibiotics for the knee were to “limit motion”. I chose to interpret this as “don’t ride your bike until it’s time to race on Saturday,” but, needless to say, it did not inspire much self-confidence.
In fact, as I lined up with the field of about fifteen Women’s Bs by Lake Stanley Draper near Oklahoma City, I wanted nothing to do with racing. The antibiotics had put my stomach in a sour mood, and the rest of me was not far behind. We were promised a neutral rollout onto the course, led by our wheel car, which would pull over and let us by to signal the start of the race. At least, I thought, we’ll have a nice easy start. Instead the wheel car peeled out of the parking lot at 25+ mph with our field unwilling to sprint to follow. We started out more gingerly; having been warned of gravel and sand in the first turn of the course, none of us saw a need to attack from the gun.
The north edge of the lake, we discovered, was a series of short but steep rollers, and, although we lost a few ladies from our group there, about half of us stayed together and continued on down around the lake. At the south end, we rode a bridge across the dam, red water stretching out to either side of us as our little peloton was buffeted by crosswinds. It was an awesome feeling. Although the vista was not the same, it made me feel like I was in Holland, racing along a dyke and leaning low to escape the wind. I couldn’t keep myself from grinning. The wind came around behind us as we came around the western side of the lake and we flew along, taking turns at the front. One lap down and one to go.
This time as we traversed the hills at the north end of the lake, I suddenly heard one of my teammates announce, “Gap! We’ve got a gap! Go, go, go!” There were four of us–my teammates Kim and Kristen, Ashley from UT Austin, and me. I tried to accelerate and keep with the break, but the pace was too much and I slid off the back shortly after Kim did. For a little while I worked to bridge back on my own, but as soon as I looked back and saw the chase group about to catch me, I sat up. In the chase group, Kim and I stayed sheltered on the wheels of other riders and bided our time. With our teammate Kristen up the road in the breakaway, it was important that we not help these girls catch her. If they caught her without our help, then we would be rested and ready to make a move. If they didn’t catch her, then we’d be ready for the field sprint for third place. Fortunately, we were both thinking on that same page without having to say anything that might alert the rest of the group to our tactics.
All was well as we approached the southern end of the lake again, until I felt the muscles in my right calf starting to twitch. Oh no, I thought, don’t even think about cramping. I tried to bribe my body with some Gatorade. It’s just four more miles, I thought. Just hold on for four more miles. My right calf exploded in a spasm of pain. There was no holding on. I managed to cut to the left to let the others past and then I fell off the back, screaming, partially from pain but mostly from frustration. I couldn’t pedal at all with my right leg; just having it dragged in circles by my left leg was almost too much to bear. I wouldn’t let myself stop, though. It was probably only 30 seconds before my muscle stopped spasming so that I could pedal again, but there was no chance I could chase down five girls who were moving at 24+ mph with a tailwind. I finished solo for seventh place. (The chase group caught the breakaway at the line, but Kristen held out for first and Kim got fourth.)
I consumed all the electrolytes I could during the break between events and kept stretching my calf to encourage it not to cramp again. Around 3 o’clock I found myself back at the finish line, this time preparing for our team time trial of 9 miles. We were starting into a strong headwind, which would shift to a crosswind as we headed across the dam. On the far side, we would turn around and eventually have a strong tailwind behind us for the finish. On the line next to Kim, Kristen, and Cynthia, I eyed the gathering clouds, wondering if we would manage to beat the incoming rain. The race official counted us down to zero and I rolled out, clipping in and taking the lead into the wind.
The team time trial is an interesting event to crack. On the one hand, you don’t have to cross the finish line with all of your team, so you can go harder than you’re all capable of individually, but, on the other hand, you do have to finish with two (or, in the A category, three) riders, so you can’t go too fast. Kim, Kristen, and I happen to be very well-suited to one another, and we have never been more in sync than we were in the OU TTT. Knowing that the only team we needed to beat was Oklahoma (since Texas had been pulled up to the As), we rode only as hard as we thought we needed. When we saw the Oklahoma girls coming the other way shortly after the turnaround, Kristen’s concerns urged me to up the pace a little, but otherwise we tried to keep the effort steady. As we approached the uphill finish, Kristen announced she was going to lead us out and then Kim and I sprinted uphill across the line. The next morning we would eventually learn that we’d won first place by over two minutes. Happily exhausted, our van headed back to Edmond, where we were staying with my aunt and uncle, who spoiled us with fresh laundry, hot showers, soft beds, and a gourmet dinner, complete with Italian dessert.
The prospect of racing looked far bleaker the next morning when we awoke around five o’clock to sound of rain. After a good warm breakfast and lots more layers of clothing, we piled into the van and drove south down I-35 to the University of Oklahoma research park where the criterium was to take place. As we huddled in the van in the dark and rain, no one felt eager to get out and unload the bikes, let alone to race. Eventually, however, start time came.
The race officials gave us a couple of practice laps so that we would all know the course before we started, and, despite the continuing rain and flooded corners, I grew increasingly bold. I lined up already soaking wet but confident that I could handle the conditions as long as held my bike upright and pedaled through the corners to keep traction. When the whistle blew, I was the first one off through the first corner, but I held back a little on my pace. Soon Kristen and Sarah from Rice came up past me and I grabbed on their wheels, though not for long. When I slid off that front group, I once again chased briefly before I found myself near Ashley from UT. Although I fell back to follow her, I couldn’t actually draft without getting a facefull of street water, but I was willing to let her chase for awhile.
Looking over my shoulder, it became clear that the rest of the field was taking it easy and had no interest in fighting their way up to us. It was a race between the four in front, and I felt like I was lurking on the edge. When Ashley got frustrated and asked me to help, I hesitated, in part because I was in need of oxygen and in part because I wasn’t sure whether it would be better to help catch Kristen and have a numbers advantage at the front or whether I should hang back like I had in the road race. Ashley didn’t wait around for me to decide and instead accelerated and knocked me off her wheel. I spent the next few laps chasing her on my own. Just as I’d decided that she was flagging and I was closing in, Sarah, who had been up the road with my teammate Kristen, fell in a flooded corner. As I shot by her and into third position on Ashley’s wheel, I knew there was now no way I could help her chase my lone teammate.
Sarah quickly caught up to us, and she and Ashley began taking turns chasing Kristen while I lurked behind them. The lap cards started to count down to the finish, and, beneath my breath, I urged Kristen onward. We could see her ahead and she kept looking back to see us. The bell rang for the last lap, and we were flying through those wet corners. Ashley led, Sarah followed, and I hung just a bit back and to the side. I knew that I had to make sure I didn’t fall if one of them did, but I couldn’t let a gap form, either.
Ashley and Sarah screamed at a non-racer riding through the left hand turn that was the next-to-last turn on the course, and the four of us nearly went down when they failed to yield way. Then the last corner was upon us and we started to sprint for the line. I shot past Sarah, but could barely make ground on Ashley. With the wet road, I feared I’d lose traction if I threw my bike around too much. I crossed the line just behind her, in third place – my first podium finish in road racing! As my aunt and uncle rushed over to congratulate me, the rush of victory–I’d just helped Kristen sweep the podium–warmed me, even though I was completely soaked. (Photo credits: A. Stevens, Kim Aeschlimann, John Sharp)