Chasing a Break – 2018 USA Cycling Amateur Nationals Road Race Weekend
Contributed by Chris Wanley
July 27, 2018 – Hagerstown, MD
Four hours. Four hours may seem like a relatively short period of time to spend on a single task, especially considering how easy it is to lose hours on a Netflix binge. Very similarly the four hours I spent racing this previous Friday at Amateur Nationals went by far too fast. A certain level of calm and nerve starts to work its way through my mind. Heart beat starting to rise as some of the best riders in the US get a call up to the line. For the next four hours I’ll be contending with elements beyond my control, at speeds that leave little tolerance for error. In the moments before the race my mind reaches out to grasp at things it can control: Have I checked my brakes, am I in the right gearing for the start, where do I need to be for the beginning of the race, is my power meter calibrated, does my cat have enough food, and most importantly any little bit of luck I can get. Before long a little voice pops in my head, not one of self-doubt, but one that leaves me hopeful. As I look to my right, and then my left, I realize these guys are every bit as human as I am. I believe in myself, my training, my strength, I’m ready for the four-hour fight alongside them. The nerves calm, and in that moment, I feel at home in this environment.
“Riders on my count, 3, 2, 1…” Let me pause for a moment. As much as I wish I could just show up with this hyped up, grandiose confidence, to keep me in the right mindset to race against some of the FASTEST people in the USA, I didn’t just show up to find myself standing there waiting for the green light to race. I remember watching the tour and seeing some of my favorite riders racing their hearts out to chase their dream. Dan Martin races with his heart, and whether that is true or not, I look up to him because of that drive. Yet heart alone won’t let you slip away from the strength of the pursuing peloton behind. That single moment is all that we see from afar, but its everything that was done in preparation, the hard work to get there, that made that moment possible. In that moment the announcer was counting us down, I found my thoughts wandering. How did I get here, ready to race against some of the fastest riders in the country, at the Amateur National Championship Road Race?
I was never the most competitive person growing up, nor was I the most athletic, but a few years ago I discovered a new passion. Running. I jumped in the deep end. My mind, absolutely loved it. My body, did not. The two disagreed with my plan of jumping into a marathon, as I had had only been running for a few weeks. I wanted to run to new places, to places that were missed by the quickness of a car. Luckily for my joints, before any marathon attempt, I found two wheels. I felt very much like a kid again. A momentary break from reality and the ability to travel to new places under my own effort. I could go as fast or as slow as I wanted, but I seemed to enjoy going fast the most. A chance meeting with an old friend at a park put me in the direction of my first group ride. I remember being so afraid of getting dropped in Detroit, that I made a pact with myself to work however hard I needed to, so I wouldn’t get lost. No matter what, don’t get dropped. I only got dropped once that day. Looking back maybe an attack over the Belle Isle bridge wasn’t the best move.
Since that day everything has moved so fast. I learned about pacelines, racing, wind directions, tactics, and training in the cold months of the year. I’m still learning new things every day I clip into my bike. The cyclists I meet always provide great stories, and whether they know it or not, will even provide invaluable wisdom. This guy is quite thankful for that. It has been about 2 years of solid racing now, not including the time I was sidelined due to a car running me over. That’ll be a different tale for a different day, I promise. But I’ve lived the past 2 years trying my best to break through to a next level of fitness. For me it is a balancing act of breaking myself mentally and physically and having to piece myself back together again. All in the hope of becoming stronger, smarter, and wiser on a bike. My friends and family have been supportive of me and have picked me up when I have been at my lowest in this sport, and in life. And in my lowest moment of my riding era I decided that I was going to once again jump off the deep end. While I laid at home with my broken ankle up on the back of the couch, I reaffirmed my dream. I used it as my drive to try and become strong again. Like my first group ride, I would do everything within my power, to not get dropped. I decided I want to be racing against the best riders in the country, at the USA Cycling Amateur National Championship. In that moment, I put in for my Category 1 upgrade.
This year has been a roller coaster of emotion when it comes to my training and racing. Chasing after your dream is not easy. I have fallen, crashed out of contention, almost passed out on the trainer, had some breakthroughs in my fitness gains, and even shed some tears along the way. Yet, I continue to chase. I do these things because I learn so much about myself along the way. I find my character, and I find my drive, I find comfort in the uncomfortable. I have seen so many amazing things and been to so many new places. Made amazing friendships, and sometimes traveling halfway around the country to meet people that live in my backyard.
Four hours. 2018 Amateur National Championship. As the whistle released us from the starting line, I smiled. For the next four hours, I’m in my element and I wouldn’’t want to be anywhere else.
The Race: Amateur Nationals – Road Race
The race itself was like any other race, but faster, and quite a bit punchier. Not to mention that a good number of teams had radios. New team goal: Race with radios. I started the race with a simple task; Race near the front. Whatever it takes just stay near the front. With some mentoring from Alexey I knew I needed to find my moment to strike all my matches at once. To be willing to be aggressive and not afraid to lose it all. To trust my gut, and race like I do most other days. Little did I know it was going to be tougher than that. Nor did I think the feed zone would be so deadly. Grabbing bottles from our team support was like trying to grab brick from a moving car. The peloton would take a left hand turn into the feed zone at speed, never slowing down because position into the Draper climb was far too important.
In four feeds I received one bottle, but I took one in the chest, tried to grab one like a wide receiver catching a ball, and I think I had better luck catching the other one if I had just punched it. Such a shit show. The best way I heard it described was by a Strava title that went something like, “A bar fight in the feed zone”. I can still smell the carbon brakes from the 45mph decent into a 90-degree right hand turn. The sound of our team president’s ENVE hitting a pothole that stealthily laid in the shadow of a tree down a dark road, and the sound of carbon cracking and breaking behind me to those who weren’t so lucky. Sometimes I miss it when riders called out obstructions in the road, or just went around them. I also saw cars having to drive into ditches, and riders having to shift right at the last second so as to not hit the car that is driving on the supposed closed course. Yet, through all of this I found myself able to stay near the front. I chased after wheels, I brought back a few moves, and I even attempted to bridge to moves up the road. By the end of the race it was clear that a break would not win the day, and field would be rushing to the line in a sprint. Which was good for me, because I would want nothing to do with a sprint and was good to know that I didn’t miss a break after being taken out in a crash. Remember that “Bar fight in the feed zone”? I got caught up in that. One of those “bricks” that missed a hand off landed on the ground. A guy to my right with one hand on the bars darted left to avoid it and hit me hard. Left me hitting the ground. I was able to get up and with SRAM’s help was able to start riding again. However, my contention was done. I gave it my all in the post-crash mindset of catching them again. In that moment of desperation up a Draper hill, watching all the convoy pass me, I realized I wasn’t trying to catch the field, but I was chasing a break. Like I said before it has been a long up and down year, and I’ve had some great fitness, but just haven’t been able to catch a break.
I had worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get here. Having put a lot of weight on a good result, I began to tear up knowing my day was done. In that moment with one lap to go, I was determined to accomplish the most basic of my goals, finish the race. Benny Cook kept me company during that last lap, and together we rode through the line. I technically took out Benny. Well I was the body that came to a stop in front of him. To say I felt bad about that would be an understatement. That last lap was by far the slowest lap of the race, but under the circumstances it was a great lap. I was able to process the good and the bad, focus on the fact that I had a support system in my life to have put me and my closest friends in a race in Maryland. Where would I be without BaseMedia support, I don’t know. I owe Wassmann, and Donnelly so much for all the love and support they have shown me, and the others. I’m sure it can be frustrating at times dealing with all of us hooligans, especially when we destroy the kitchen.
Fun Fact: nothing gets a grupetto wound up more than someone attacking over top of it to get a better finish. That group banded together so quickly to chase it down. Kudos to Benny for being the one to start the chase.
Four hours. A lot can happen in four hours, no matter how short that time might feel, and a whole lot more can go into it than what first meets the eye. My coach always reminds me that the process is the most important thing. If you cannot enjoy the process, you’ll have a hard time working through the tough times. One step up would be to always enjoy the present moment. Through all the crazy of that day I had so much to be thankful for. I was so thankful to be in Maryland with my closest friends and teammates. It is through their support that I was even able to be there in the first place, because I couldn’t do it alone. I probably would have given up long ago without their encouragement and support. To have shared in so many laughs along this journey, and even with the medic cleaning my wounds I had plenty to smile and even more to laugh about. I love bike racing for more than just the racing, but for the experience, for the people, and for learning that I can endure. I learn new things every time I get on a bike, and though the field has many more years of experience than I, I am quite stubborn and can endure quite a lot. All I need is a little bit of a break.
Thank you Wassmann, Donnelly, and all the others from Base Media that help support me in my dream of chasing down a pro field, and for believing in my ability on the days that I struggle to see them. To all my friends and family that put up with a hangry and otherwise unsocial person during the months leading up to this event. I know that can be quite hard on you and is a big sacrifice. I have great teammates, who are a blast to ride with, and who remind me I don’t currently get paid to do this, so be sure to keep it fun for the soul.