Loving the RACE: Aaron’s First Road Race
Join me in reading the story of participating in a first ever road race, by our Loving the Bike teammate Aaron Madrid. We’ve posted the story of Aaron’s experience in his first ever Century Ride, but now it’s time to share his beautiful insight into what it’s like to race for the first time on a bike.
Loving the RACE
by Aaron Madrid
Two weeks before my first road race I was confident. I felt like I had trained hard and knew what it would take to not only finish, but finish well. In truth, a big reason I wanted to race was to test just that theory.
You don’t really know how good you are at something until you compete. The week before the race my confidence began to grow shaky. I made the mistake of questioning my preparedness and going on YouTube to look for some race training videos. YouTube has very few race training videos, however there are lots of race crash videos. My confidence was shattered in a matter of minutes and as I sat at my desk watching videos, I noticed my heart was racing. I was terrified. The days crawled by, but as they did I managed to calm my nerves to at least a manageable level.
The race took place a couple of hours from my home town so my wife and daughter came with me on Saturday to spend the night. I wanted to be able to get a good night’s rest for the race early Sunday morning. Everything was going great until that evening after we checked into the hotel when the storms rolled in.
Raining cats and dogs probably wouldn’t be enough of an accurate description for how hard it was raining, but the real cherry on top came when the tornado sirens went off. Riding in the rain is something I have never gotten comfortable with.
To my horror, it was still pouring when I woke up the next day. I had already pre-set out my kit, cleaned and tuned my bike, and was ready to go in the morning. I got registered, picked up my day license, and unloaded the soaking wet bike from the back of my car. The rain was still coming down in sheets. I warmed up on the road using advice from some awesome twitter friends and headed back to my family to wait.
The USA Cycling official began to stage the racers with about 45 minutes to go. I was riding in a field of 50, the largest of all the fields. The Zipp wheels and bikes that cost more than my car always blow my mind at these events, and weren’t helping my now fast beating heart to calm down.
Those distractions quickly faded into the background when a guy about my age pulled up next to me in the line wearing a helmet from the 1970’s, sitting atop an equally old Spalding Blade. He asked if this was the area for the category 5 race and I said yes. We began casually conversing about bikes and races. This was his first race as well. He said he had purchased his bike at an auction for $2 and had a problem with one of the crank arms falling off when he got up to speed. He wasn’t even a little nervous. His blind optimism made me realize just how silly I was being for acting nervous.
All at once I was calm again, the rain stopped, and then I heard my daughter yelling “daddy” from the side of the road. Granted she was yelling daddy all 200 guys dressed in a kit, wearing a helmet, and standing over their bikes, but at that moment I felt pretty sure she was actually cheering for me. My wife brought her over to give me a kiss for good luck and we snapped a picture of her sitting on my handlebars just before the official called us up to the line. That was all the motivation and confidence I needed.
A few minutes later the whistle blew and we all clipped in and took off. My mind was instantly completely clear and all I was doing was pedaling. The first sharp 90 degree turn came about 1000 feet out of the gate. I was riding towards the front of the pack just like I had planned. My goal was to stay in the top 20 to avoid any crashes that might happen in the back of the pack.
We rounded the first turn without a hitch and all of us rose out of the saddle together to accelerate out of the turn. I have only been riding Sally, my Specialized Allez Comp Apex, for about a month. The compact gearing had taken a little to get used to, especially the big ring. I was shocked to notice that as we accelerated out of the first turn I was already in my top gear, mashing comfortably at 32mph. I hadn’t expected the group to push that fast that early on. After a couple more sharp turns and about 5 miles, my strength was fading already. I got nervous because at that distance, I still hadn’t even made my route to work.
Looking back, what I wasn’t prepared for was the sprint out of each turn. I was fine on the straights, cruising towards the front with the pack, but after several turns, my power was weakening.
At mile 7 we rounded a sharp turn onto a narrow road and I heard the shouts of “crash” from in front of me. Suddenly the line right in front of me parted and I saw the carnage of 4 riders on the ground right in my path. Without thinking I braked and successfully maneuvered past the wreckage. Unfortunately, the damage had been done, and while I stayed upright, I looked up to realize I was off the back already by about 25 feet.
In a moment of clarity, instead of standing to try to sprint back to the group and dumping my remaining energy, I looked behind me to see three other riders that had also been dropped. We still had 25 miles to race and I had read enough to know that some of the guys pushing hard now wouldn’t be able to hold up at the end. My endurance was where I felt I was strongest, so I pedaled easy and waited for the three behind me to catch up. We worked together and eventually caught back up to the field with just a couple of miles to go before the end of the first lap. It took a lot to get back in and I was fading fast by the time we mixed back in.
Two more sharp turns followed by quick accelerations and I was off the back again. This time I didn’t think I could chase back even with help from others. Unfortunately I wouldn’t even get the chance to find out because a quick glance back revealed nothing but empty roads and the follow car behind me. Suddenly the fear crept back in… I let off the pedals for just a second to breathe a heavy sigh of disappointment.
Seeing this, the follow car passed me, knowing as well as I did that I had been dropped. My heart sank. I watched the field slowly pull away until they rounded a corner and passed through some trees and out of sight. I was alone with nothing but a strong headwind and Sally. My legs were already aching, and I hadn’t even completed half the race. I didn’t know what I was doing; I didn’t know how I could finish. I thought about just giving up… But then I thought about what would happen if I gave up.
I had my phone and I would have to call my wife and my daughter, waiting at the finish to cheer me on, and tell them I couldn’t do it. I thought about having to live knowing that I had given up. I thought about all the people who had told me I could do this. I thought about all the hours I had spent on my bike, and why I was riding in the first place. Finally, as I began to push the fear and pain out of my mind, I thought about Jens Voigt, and I growled “SHUT UP LEGS” and began to mash.
I have probably watched way too many movies in my life, because sometimes I feel like I am not living my life, but am watching it . The rest of the race felt something like that. I mashed across the wet finish line, up the road, and back around the first corner. I immediately was greeted by a group of riders that were just getting up from a nasty crash. This time I didn’t brake, I just leaned a bit and slid around them. The first half of the route was with the wind and I knew if I was going to move up I had to take advantage of that. I lay down on the bars like Wiggo on his TT aero bars and kicked back into the big ring. I mashed up to 30mph just like I practiced on my lunch rides at work and powered on. I rounded the next turn and to my surprise could already see riders in the distance.
As this was a staged race I wasn’t sure they were Cat5 racers, but I didn’t care, it made me work harder. With 10 miles yet to race I had passed 13 Cat5 riders that had been dropped. A few had jumped onto my train and we were now working together to catch up. Not only was I not scared, I was now downright happy. We passed a few riders from other groups that had been dropped and as my train speed by I shouted encouragement for them to keep riding. I couldn’t help but want to cheer them on.
With 5 miles left to go I was mashing into the wind and the three riders behind me were struggling to stay with me. We rounded a corner and came upon another recent wreck. As I rode by, dodging bodies and a couple of bikes, I recognized one of the riders as a guy that had started next to me. I called out to see if he was ok and he waved and said yes, though the cut above his eye suggested otherwise. I mashed on. By now I could see the town where the finish line was and I began to speed up. I was dumping everything I had into the pedals. I was breathing heavy and my legs felt like they were going to explode.
The signs came up, 1Km to go, 500m, 200m I stood out of the saddle and, even though there was now no one around me, began to sprint. I emptied the tank as I crossed the line. I didn’t care about how fast I was going, but I wasn’t about to not give everything as I crossed that line for the first time.
I rode a short recovery before heading over to see my family who gave me a big hug. We waited for about an hour to see the final results and watched some other stragglers and categories come in. My goal had been to win a few weeks before, but I had decided I would be ok with the top 10 as the rain came down the night before. Now I was just proud to have finished. While I waited for the results a few of the people I had cheered on as I rode by came through. A couple of them came over and introduced themselves and said thanks. I felt good about finishing, but better about being able to help others at the same time.
In the end I finished 38th of 50 and maintained an average of just over 20mph. I had dumped everything I had into that race and felt good about it. I know what I need to work on for next season and am looking forward to my next race, a crit, coming up soon.
For those thinking about racing, I will tell you what I learned. Pick a race, sign up, and just do it. You’ll be happy to know that even that guy without clips or cages, on his old $2 Spalding bike, didn’t come in dead last. It’s an experience unlike any other you will have on a bike and worth trying for everyone.
Remember this, it’s not about winning the race, it’s just about finishing. I was competing with myself as much as anyone else, and even though quite a few people did beat me, I still won my battle in the end, and that is what means most to me. Also… stay off YouTube.