|"I was scared. I was scared, tired and under-prepared" - Cold Play|
Laura at the start.
The Philadelphia Liberty Classic is the biggest one-day race on the US women's calendar. Having never done a big one-day race before, I didn't really know what to expect. The NRC crits last weekend gave me some indication of the huge number of watts these women can put out when they are fresh, at their peak of fitness, motivated, and not conserving anything for another race the next day. They also gave me some indication of the professionalism surrounding the organization of the event. Some, but I was floored by the spectacle that is Philly. It was really hard to remember that you had to race your bike when you encounter the crowds, the photographers, the confusing jumble of booths, stands and barriers around the start line. I had a hard time figuring out where to sign in, stage, I didn't even know which direction we would face at the start line. I had to try and process all this craziness and still get in a warm-up. I was running late, trying to figure out where to go to ride when I ran into friends from North Carolina. I stopped to say hello. I found my teammate Kele, and we rode up to Lemon Hill and back, dodging cyclotourists all along the way. I tried to focus, get my mind ready, saw a former teammate along the way but could only smile and say ‘hi!’ and then try to ride some more.
We rolled back to the start area, and the announcer said the sign-in was open. The women's sign in was a discreet table near the feed zone - no calls up onto the stage as a team in front of all the cameras for us. Still, I was stopped by a couple of photographers along the way, and tried to muster up a smile that looked natural to hide my ever-increasing fear and nervousness.
Soon, it was time for the women to stage, which was initiated near the feed zone about 200m from the actual start line. Girls aggressively squeezed into a line behind the referee's golf cart - then he announced who would be called up for special recognition at the start line and asked that they make their way to the front so that the call-ups would run smoothly. I guess they didn't do the same thing for the men, because Fast Freddy completely missed his call-up. When we were escorted to the real start line, there was more aggressive jockeying and the ref had to scold women for trying to ride ahead of his cart. We stopped 10 feet before the line to give room for the call-ups, and I wound up 5th row with some chick's shift lever rammed into my right butt-cheek, another woman's hip against mine, my front wheel touching the wheel of the woman in front and the wheel behind me up against my rear wheel. I felt like a sardine.
The start line area looked like the start area of a Tour de France stage. The loudspeakers boomed high-energy techno music as the announcer introduced the stars of the race. The crowd cheered for Petra, Laura, Lyne, Dede, Mari, Kim, Ina, and the photographers amassed in front of us. The lead motorcycles' engines rumbled, the announcer counted down the seconds and OFF WE GO! AND A RIDER CRASHES... ON THE START LINE! Excellent. It was behind me. Some poor girl's race was over before she even got across the line. I tried not to run into anyone, tried to calmly pedal in the midst of all this adrenaline. We rode around a dizzying series of traffic circles and then sped out the other side onto Kelly Drive.
The ride out was nervous to say the least. I wound up on the back after all the circles, but the pace was moderate and I was able to follow Mari Holden up to the front. Then I vowed to glue myself to her wheel only to lose her and get shuffled back again. Then I followed Tina Mayolo up, vowed again to hold her wheel only to lose it and get shuffled. I did the same with Laura Van Gilder, Kristy Scheffenacker, someone from Rona, to name a few. Unfortunately, I was at the back side of my pack-oscillations when we hit the three-to-one lane squeeze before the run-in to Manayunk and wound up waaaaaay too far back when we hit the wall. I tried to remain calm.
We hit the wall and it was like the Grinch and the Who's down in Whoville and all the NOISE NOISE NOISE NOISE NOISE. Bewildered, I tried to climb but my legs were too filled with terror. Lactic acid quickly filled my arms, my back, my legs, my chest, my lungs and my head began to throb as we crested the steepest part of the climb and the pack rode away from me to the KOM line. I heard someone yell "C'mon 84!" with a tone that said "You're not trying hard enough!" as I got dropped, dropped, dropped, dropped, dropped.
I chased through the caravan down the other side, all the way down Kelly Drive going 30 mph dodging cars. I came upon a small group of riders with Sue Palmer-Komar and Grace Taylor from Genesis Scuba, and saw Judith Arndt sitting at the back of the peloton ahead. I should have just hung out and got on Grace's group, but went past thinking I could catch the pack. They were RIGHT THERE. I didn't make it, and Grace came by - ZOOM. Then Sue and her two companions came by - ZOOOM. I was alone coming into Lemon Hill and had to give everything I had, absolutely everything, as much as I would give in a sprint at the end of a race, to catch back onto the pack on the descent off Lemon Hill.
I thought I was OK. Whew! I made it. I took a breath, we made the turn back onto Kelly Drive and WHAM! The pack took off before I could exhale, and I was back in the caravan again. I tried not to get creamed as I was passed by the Mavic car, the Shimano car, the Snow Valley car, the unlabeled piece of sh*t car spewing burned oil smoke, the 2-stroke moto, the fat guy on the cruiser bike, the 3-year old on the tricycle, and the snail crawling along the road only to wind up in no man's land when I emerged from the circles. I caught up to a Verizon rider, and pulled her all the way down Kelly Drive until we found two Century riders (the team, not the tourists) and one of them was strong enough to pull. We picked up a Diet Rite rider along the way who had obviously given up and was just riding back to the team camp. After Manayunk, we were caught by a group of three and as we came off Lemon Hill, we saw the peloton heading out the other way, probably 7 minutes ahead of us. Depressing. After we passed through the start line and wound around Logan Circle, we saw a group of about 25 behind us! Not depressing! We're not last! Unfortunately, the judges pulled us from the race when we came through the finish. Depressing.
In the end, 92 women of over 130 starters finished the race which is pretty amazing considering the average speed was nearly 25mph. I believe it's the fastest ever edition of this race. That really demonstrates the increasing depth in the women's fields in North America. The fact that a women's race commands as much attention, fan enthusiasm and media coverage as the men's race is really encouraging, too. My teammates Kele and Melissa even wound up in the money, which paid 50 deep! I had to fight off feelings of jealousy. I so wished I could have made it to the end of the race in the pack, but alas, it did not happen. Maybe next year. I was brave (or stupid) enough to line up with these chicas, at least. And now that I've sampled the biggest stage races, criteriums and road races in North America, I think I'll step back and evaluate what kind of rider I am, where my strengths lie, and what I need to improve upon. And I will try not to feel too much like I've just crashed the biggest cycling party in the US of A.
You can read more about Laura at her website.