Death or Glory: Racing the Giro del Cielo

My first road race was all about planning. This weekend’s stage race, the Giro del Cielo in Sussex County, NJ, was just the opposite. People had been recommending the Giro to me for months, but I was hesitant to commit and a nagging injury had seriously cut into my training time. So when the Wednesday before the race rolled around, my husband and I agreed that if we had good legs and could hang with our A-group ride that we’d give the Giro the green light. Needless to say, the group couldn’t shake us, so we hit up Bike Reg later that night.

The race consisted of an uphill time trial followed by a crit. Then Sunday was a circuit race. To me this felt more like the Giro de New Scary Things. When I started racing, I swore I would never race a notoriously crash-filled crit, so what the hell was I doing signing up for one?

The fear of that race sat in my gut as we kicked off the weekend at the TT. There was little planning for this effort. Rob gave me some power numbers to stay within, but of course I started off way too hot. If I had pre-ridden the course I would have realized that I needed to save some for the final climb which was a long, steep, but steady Cat 3 climb that ended at the lookout point of Stokes State Forest. We were released in 30 second increments and I was able to dig even deeper as I started passing the people in front of me. The top did offer a breathtaking view (though I think the V02 and zone 5 efforts had already taken my breath away). It was a really cool course (minus the copperhead that decided to join us on the park’s narrow road) and the shady forrest was our only savior from the 90 degree day. I placed 18th in the TT, mid-pack. Not bad for a first effort on an unknown course.

critAfter packing up and heading to the Sussex County Fairgrounds, it was finally time for the crit. We had hoped to make it to one of the race promotor’s weekly training crits, but every time we cleared our schedule on a Tuesday night, it rained incessantly or a thunderstorm rolled through. So, once again, we were hitting the course sight unseen. My friends have been crashing out of crits all season long and that haunted me as I warmed up on the course. When it was finally time to go, I was so nervous that I rode timidly toward the back and made a few crucial mistakes early on. The first was that I wasn’t aggressive enough to put myself in front of the riders who were having trouble following the group’s surges. So when the front of the group exited and attacked out of a corner in the prime lap, I knew I was done for. Mentally, I expected the move to come and I wasn’t surprised when I saw the first two women stand and punch it. It was textbook, but I was screwed because of my position.

My second mistake was not going full throttle to chase the break. Instead I panicked as the dropped riders stood to accelerate and I sat on the wheel of a few racers who were trying to gain position. The field was split pretty evenly, but we never saw the first group again. I sat in, took my pulls and kicked myself because I knew I was stronger. The only weakness was in my brain. Each lap ended with a short, steep climb into a screaming headwind. Even though I had out-climbed the group on nearly every lap, I somehow found myself boxed in on the last one. I refused to be the leadout, so I grabbed a wheel as it passed and we all sprinted to the line. I ended up 21st in a field of 37 or so and there were no crashes. The disappointment was arriving home with only slightly cooked legs and reviewing my pathetically low power numbers from the crit. That evening, I was reminded of some advice my team had offered me for this weekend: Bike racing is either death or glory. Don’t think, just go for it. Or, as I heard my team manager jokingly say to his pros, “either you kill it out there, or I kill you after.”

Going into Sunday, I was sitting in 21st place in the GC. Once again, we woke up dreadfully early and headed north for the circuit. The course was a 5.5 mile loop with five laps. Somehow the morning got away and I had hardly snuck in a warmup when my 8am race started to line up. There was disorganization from the start as we were shuffled around the road and into a gravel parking lot. Then there was a points prime thrown in for the first lap. As we rolled out, I started to wonder if this was the same safe and predictable  group I had ridden with the day before. We would surge and then completely slow down, hitting the brakes even. I kept taking deep breathes, recalling the confidence I had in my own handling skills and the fact that I already had a road race under my belt. There were a couple of sharp right-hand turns that we slowed to a crawl to make and then promptly sprinted like hell out of. The first lap ended with a surge to the line. The five riders in front of me couldn’t handle it and, once again, I was split from the field right before a climb.

Death or glory… Death or glory…

Giro del CieloI stood up in the big ring, passed the splintered carnage of my group and hit the gas hard up the climb. I rolled over the hill, slid into the drops and like an angel, another girl appeared. “Grab on!” she yelled. I obeyed, lulled into her slipstream, which afforded me a few deep breaths. We took short pulls and chased with everything we had. Bridging up to the follow car, we finally had the pack in our sites. I snuck a quick look back. We were the only ones who chose glory and we were quickly rewarded with enough draft to recover. Suddenly I only had one goal: to stay with the main field until the end. I had gotten dropped early at Battenkill and at the crit. I had the legs to hang, but I needed to be smart.

When we entered the final lap, people started gunning for position. I gave myself the assignment of trying to move up and around the group. People were getting twitchy and tired by the end. We stormed out of the final right hand turn and up the last hill. Then I looked out of the corner of my eye as three riders hit the deck. Oh, shit, a crash. My first thought was to be sure they were okay and they were starting to stand up. But my racer brain was dialed in, pushing all fear aside to reach my goal. Someone attacked and I immediately stood to follow. I buried myself to latch on to the group and literally ran out of gears as we flew down the hill and toward the finish line. It was exhilarating to finally watch the end of the race play out and to be a part of it. I hung with the pack and finished 12th in the race and 18th on the GC.

I was psyched with my finish, and I was even more humbled to receive feedback from other teams and people who have been racing for years, that my riding was steady and strong and that I rode like I had more than two races under my belt. I had arrived on Saturday nervous and with no teammates, but by Sunday I had earned my place in the group. I wasn’t a timid noobie. I was a bike racer.

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