Sometimes I debate with my friends about what we are all doing. Not in the existential sense, more of the … “How did we end up bouncing around the world on two 25mm-wide tires, beating the snot out of each other for a living” sense. Racing in the WorldTour is a far cry from what we all fell in love with as 18-year-olds. We were a rag-tag bunch of adrenaline junkies, driving 15-passenger vans around the U.S., classic rock blasting from the stereo, and a tattered copy of VeloNews that had been passed around until every image was seared into our brains. Unlike the X-Games thrill-seekers of today, we got our rush from clocking 70mph through blind corners wearing nothing but lycra and a grimace of pain from five-plus hours of punishing our legs.
I don’t want to glamorize what was essentially an extended weekend with our bros, funded by our parents and fueled by our dreams of one day turning “pro.” We were surviving on instant oatmeal and more concerned about breaking bike parts than bones. It wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle. However, if we did make it to the upper echelons of the sport, the sacrifices would feel petty compared to the rewards of a full-time gig. That is exactly what a handful of us managed to do (by the skin of our teeth). But now that I am approaching 30, I find myself occasionally looking back over my shoulder and pining for those times.
Every year, nationals is a return to that youthful enthusiasm and nostalgic era, where every race felt like the most important of our life. Racing in the Southeast (were nationals has been every year since I turned pro) is a truly unique experience. At no other race during the year will the temperature and humidity compete until one has reached triple digits. But with an all-American peloton and a national championship jersey up for grabs, the event is always reminiscent of those early years.
Since I was the only rider at nationals representing Trek – Segafredo, I was free to make up my schedule as I went along. The caveat however, was that I needed to prepare and organize everything myself. The day before the race offered exactly the nostalgia I had been hoping for. Catching up with old teammates and friends in the hotel lobby, instant oatmeal for breakfast, and checking in at race registration. Only I didn’t do that last thing, because I forgot. I haven’t had to go to race registration on my own behalf since 2008. After calling in a few favors I managed to get my race numbers and sign my life away the next morning before the race started (thanks Tom!). By mid-afternoon, it was time to check over my bike and prepare everything for the race the following day. I quickly realized that I had the wrong brake pads for my carbon race wheels, and I had forgotten chain lube. Time to call in some more favors (thanks Seth!). What else was I forgetting … oh yeah, race food (thanks Allen and Alexey!) and extra water bottles (thanks Alex!). By the evening, I was questioning my ability to actually pull off an unsupported race, and my appetite for nostalgia had worn off. All the things we take for granted as WorldTour racers became very obvious.
Early the morning of the race, I was nervous — not just about all the small things I might forget but about the race itself. My legs felt good, but nationals is a tactical crapshoot, especially when you are a team of one. I met Alex Howes and Ben King for breakfast, a mountain of flapjacks drowned in maple syrup at a local diner. Some nostalgia is a good thing, I determined after my belly was full. Back at my hotel room I took longer than usual to pin my race number, shaking from the extra-strong American coffee and pre-race nerves. It was going to be a hot day and the humidity outside was already stifling. Having actually foreseen the necessity of hydration during a long hot race, Alexey had prepared accordingly and was generous enough to share his family and friends’ services as feeders on the course (thanks Vermeulen Clan!).
At high noon, we all shuffled out of our downtown hotel, cleats clacking across the marble lobby floors. Lining up at the start, I could feel my nerves building. With the crack of a gun and that first pedal stroke, nerves gave way to adrenaline and the flood gates opened. Attack after attack strung the field out as we navigated our first lap of the 12-lap race. I had promised myself to ride an aggressive race. Without teammates I had no defensive play and missing the day’s move would mean the end of my race. I followed as much as I could that first lap. The course was unforgiving and the front of the bunch was constantly reshuffling. Counterattacks were going before attacking groups were even clear of the bunch. It was chaos, and it didn’t subside after that first lap. In a race like nationals there is no “script.” Some teams have 12 or more riders, other teams, like mine, have only one, so standard race tactics are thrown out the window. It can be incredibly frustrating, especially when you have a target on your back.
In the end, the field only saw a single lap of “scripted” racing. The remaining laps were an attack-filled sufferfest. With one lap remaining, I felt confident and began planning my final kick up to the line, but it wasn’t to be. Just as everything seemed to be going to plan, with 10km remaining, the relentless attacking resulted in a small group of riders inching up the road. Behind, we were locked in a stalemate. No rider willing to sacrifice themselves bridging across. Only a short hesitation was enough to seal our fate, and we watched as the U.S. title disappeared over the crest of the hill.
I will have to wait another year to be washed over by those nostalgic memories, another year to take a shot at the title.