A (No) Crash Course from Cane to Crit Racing

I rolled up to the starting line and squeezed into a row next to sponsored riders and women who looked infinitely more experienced. The race official rambled off the rules, his voice drowned out by my mind ran through every potential nightmare scenario: getting pushed out into a curb and crashing, bumping another rider hard enough to crash, my hip tearing again, my knee pain acting up, getting lapped by the field…

Just five months earlier, I was still using a cane to walk around after having hip surgery. But I’d watched my teammates race Brooklyn’s Red Hook Crit in April from the sidelines and set my sights on recovering and coming back strong enough to race my first fixed crit. Fixed crits are few and far between, but after I was cleared to race in June, I found a two-day crit series in Chicago just seven weeks away. I headed out to the race solo, relying on the kindness of the cycling community to secure a place to stay and ride to the race course.

Thirty minutes doesn’t sound like much but typically I raced on a velodrome, where  all-out, maximum efforts lasted just a two minutes and were propelled by the gentle, circular curve of the track. Riding with my heart rate in the red zone for 15 times as long – while navigating sharp turns and using my legs as brakes – seemed like an exhilarating, terrifying, and downright stupid adventure all at the same time.

The first race felt brutal. The pack dropped me on the first lap. Pushing at my effort threshold alone in the heat made my head swim. Everything in my body wanted me to quit: my left hip, still weaker from surgery, ached and my lower back muscles screamed for relief as I cursed the small incline before the on each lap. I avoided being caught by the field at the end, but I wondered – should I even race the second day? My body clearly wasn’t ready, or maybe I wasn’t made for this type of racing at all.

I woke up expecting my legs to be completely worn out, anticipating the need to forfeit my entry fee and watch from the sidelines. Surprisingly, my knee and legs felt fresh as I slowly pedaled to get breakfast and coffee. I vowed I’d be better prepared for the day: bringing a greater assortment of energy blocks, plus a trick I’d learned from watching the women’s Pro road race: stuffing the radio pocket at the neck of my skinsuit with sock full of ice to cool down in the 90+ degree heat.

The second day’s loop would be much simpler, lacking the uphills and narrow turns – but inevitably leading to a faster pace. I started my strategic consumption of energy blocks and rolled out to find a place to warm ups. The repetition of spinning around another small parking lot at increasing speeds built my comfort and confidence as the road racers sped by along the course.

The announcer called the course open for a lap before our race. I rode around the course, scoping out cracks, potholes, and bumps than could potentially cause problems. Coming around to the start line, I selected a position towards the center of the pack rather than the outside like yesterday. Racers around me chatted casually, but yesterday’s potential catastrophic scenarios – adding the possibility of passing out due to the heat – spun round my head.

Three, two, one, go. We took off and clipped in and while my first instinct was to settle further back – where I “belonged” as a second-time crit racer – I settled into sixth. As the back of the pack started to drop back, I surged ahead. Once we lost the leaders, it would all be over. I’d overheard the lead pack from yesterday discuss their strategy to rotate positions in 30-second pulls and settled into a relatively comfortable fifth.

We whipped around the course. I experimented with taking bolder lines, following the leaders around each turn and focusing in on the wheel in front of me. I could feel how hard I was working and was surprised to be keeping up with their pace. These were yesterday’s podium champions and Red Hook racers – how was I keeping up with them?

Three laps to go. The pace picked up, with the leaders making moves as we sped around for two more laps. Would this be the moment I slipped back into last place? I’d held my mid-pack position for 25 minutes, which buoyed my confidence.

As the bell rang for the last lap, I dug in and held fifth place. Coming around to the final straightaway, the leaders took off. I expected to be promptly and swiftly dropped behind, but with the fourth-place rider just within reach, I saw the chance to advance my position. I dug in to pull up alongside the fourth-place rider. As I started to pass her, I could feel her sense of surprise as she jumped to match my final sprint. We battled it out for the finish, and I could hear the cheers of new friends around me as we crossed the line.

I missed fourth place by just a half a wheel, but it didn’t feel like a loss. When I signed up, I felt it was just for the experience, with no chance of performing well. I thought I’d finish in the bottom of each race, to be dropped and barely hold on. Instead, I found a place inside myself to dig deeper each time my mind created doubts and fears and stay focused in the moment. I surpassed my expectations and ended up in the money for my biggest race yet.

Have you registered for Mission Crit yet?! Machines For Freedom is covering a portion of your registration fee!

REGISTER HERE

WORDS BY Kelly Neuner