Most of you are aware that I spent most of the last year on the sidelines after I crashed out of an early season race. That day started like every other race I'd ever ridden. I arrived early, checked in at registration, got help from my teammates with pinning on a number (37 it turned out), took an Instagram photo of it to share and then went about warming up. Fast forward to a few weeks post surgery and my season was as shattered as my collarbone.
While waiting for my fractures to heal and my strength to return, I wondered how I would go about getting back in the pack. I spent the rest of the year training solo to regain the fitness and form I had lost during recovery. I jumped into numerous group rides in hopes of shaking my daemons. In reality, I was hoping to be pinning on a number again soon.
I admittedly had a very hard time with those first group rides after getting back on the bike. I got dropped on group rides with my teammates that I used to dominate. My fitness was fine, I just wasn't holding the wheels I needed to be. I wasn't comfortable getting in tight with a peloton, even if it was made of my own teammates.
I had lost my mojo. And I wasn't sure how to get it back.
I had always found it easy to move through a pack of riders. Find an empty spot and claim it. Use your elbows to assert your claim to your little space in the group. Don't be afraid to put your hand on someone else's hip and let them know you're there. These are the things I not only taught fledgling racers, but the things I did every weekend after pinning on a number.
Now I was afraid to do them all.
As the winter wore on, I sat on my trainer and wondered how I was going to get back to racing a bike, an activity which I loved dearly but was now terrified of.
Then I hatched a plan…
Take it to the Track
After talking to the guys at my local shop, I was led to the idea that track racing may be my ticket back into competition. I queried the shop guys and some friends who raced on the track and ultimately decided to jump in. I put in an order for a Ridley Arena track bike and a team issue skinsuit from Vie13. A few discussions later and I was ready to hit the track.
Many people have asked me “why do you want to race on the track on a bike that has no brakes and goes really fast?” I simply respond that it's safer.
Most look at me incredulously and ask how it could possibly be safer?
It's a simple proposition, really. A bike with no brakes takes a lot of forethought to stop or slow down. Combine the lack of brakes with a fixed read wheel and your only method of slowing down is controlling the speed with your legs. That requires thinking ahead and planning to slow down, which compared to grabbing a handful of brake, it's much more predictable. And yes, it leads to fewer crashes.
It also doesn't hurt that the track isn't the same rough surface as asphalt. It's more like 400 grit sandpaper which means you tend to slide on it rather than get chewed up by it. That makes me feel better knowing that I might not lose all my skin, just some of it.
So after a few practice sessions on the track, plenty of specific trainer work and hours upon hours in the gym, I was ready to race for the first time. I would finally be pinning on a number again!
Pinning on a Number for the First Time
On race day morning there was no question that nerves were not in short supply. I had the same nervous energy that I had the very first time I started pinning on a number, but this time, there was a more sinister undertone to it all. Would I make it through the day? Would I be able to hang with the other guys? Would my fitness be sufficient? Would I even stay upright?
I slithered into the bottom of my skinsuit and threw on a t-shirt for the 45-minute drive to the track. The entire way, the same things kept going through my mind: “stay upright, stay safe.” Lovecraft said “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”, and today that was true in spades. With some trepidation, I signed off on the liability release and took my number for the day, 508. Well, it wasn't the infamous “37” that I wore last time…
Finally, it was time. I started pinning on my number for the first time since I hit the deck 13 months ago. As is standard practice for most races at this track, the rider's meeting takes place before the “commencement of hostilities.” The commissaires outlined the day's racing, made a few comments about safety and such, and we were off. I warmed up with the rest of the racers, flying around the banked corners with aplomb, starting to get a little more comfortable in my skin(suit).
Rolling off the apron and back into the pits, I made my way to staging for the first race of the day. As I sat on the bench, I absentmindedly ran my fingers over the scar on my right shoulder, my only souvenir from the last race I entered. Under the skin still lies the plate that helped everything heal straight and true. Hopefully, I wouldn't take home another one today.
The whistle from the chief commissaire jolted me out of my daze. I made my way to the rail for a tempo points race for the first race of the day. We rolled off the wall and accelerated slowly towards a stiff pace, jockeying for position. At first, I was gunshy of the other racers. I would timidly approach their wheel and then back off. I gave a wide berth when someone wanted to move up-track. As we completed each 333-meter lap, my confidence grew.
After finishing 3rd in the tempo points, I was a little more confident. The points race up next gave me a chance to be aggressive in some capacity. Sprinting for points brought me back to a year ago when I was excited to field sprint, but I felt strangely safer. I didn't have the panic in the back of my mind that I might end up on the ground.
The scratch race confirmed that I had managed to kick my fears. An aggressive move out of turn 2 on the last lap pushed me onto the podium again. I was reminded how nice it felt to be competitive, and without a cloak of fear following me, I was ready to continue learning how to race on the concrete bowl.
However, there still is a risk. In a junior's race later in the day there was a crash in turn 2. No broken bones occurred but road rash was nonetheless prevalent. It's a simple reminder that there's a risk for the reward I seek every time I go about pinning on a number. There's a healthy dose of respect for the pavement now. I know how hard it bites, and I don't want it to bite again.
I didn't take an Instagram photo of my number that day. Maybe it was bad luck to crash in the first place. A superstitious part of me wants to eliminate any ritual I had on that day. Another small part of me says that superstition is stupid and I should get back to my routine. Regardless of the superstition, the fact remains that pinning on a number again doesn't have to be a fearful experience. It can be a rebirth of the racing and riding spirit that changes your outlook on cycling.