At Last, Not Last

Twelve miles of sinuous roadway and a finish line - the infamous Orange Road Course.  It is notoriously known as one of the most demanding courses in the Spring Race Series.  Adorned with many hilly stretches, it is dreaded by young and old cyclist alike.  The first two classes of cyclist are off and racing.  Their fate, however eventful, is already unfolding.  Here I stand, contemplating what fate holds in store for me.  My race consists of four laps, a total of fifty miles, over this tortuous course.  Will I survive this test?  If so, will I be in a place or condition to affect the final standings?  Never before in an athletic endeavor have I met with any success.  Can I put an end to this dismal record here and now?

Everyone is nervous, making small-talk and commenting on the cold, the wind, or something - anything to ease the tension.  Here I stand, alongside the road with the others in my race, anxiously awaiting the command to move to the start-line.  We wish to bring and end to the anticipation and begin the execution.  Three minutes, the required time interval, has passed since the start of the previous class of racers when the starter orders us to the start-line.  Now is the time.

Straddling my machine, I quickly step towards the front of the group as we rush to the start-line.  Oddly, we resemble a flock of ducks awkwardly waddling about on our cleated racing shoes.  Before I can collect my thoughts, the race begins with the starter's pistol and we roll out en masse.  Trying to maintain my position near the front, I grope to get my left foot into the toe-clip.  With my feet finally secured to the pedals, I begin racing in earnest and quickly shift into a proper racing gear.  Just as landbound ducks gracefully take to the air, the peloton’s (a pack of cyclist) collective motion becomes fluid as we enter our realm of speed.

Awareness of others is now critical as we furiously negotiate our initial circuit of the course; a momentary lapse in concentration can instigate a bone-crushing mass collision.  Everyone is jockeying about, trying to secure a position in the fast-moving peloton. After drifting about the fifty-strong peloton, I settle comfortably arrears.  Often, staying to the rear is a poor racing tactic.  If someone attacks the group (sprints away) I am in a poor position to react.  In today’s race, the wind and hills discourage any serious attacks.

Onward we race.  My legs, like the torched pistons of a straining engine, burn with intense pain as I match pedal strokes with the peloton’s pace.  As we race across the countryside, from above the peloton resembles a child’s slinky toy, stretching and shrinking as it moves along the roadway.  Strangely, it is calm here at the back of the group.  Here I ride, while not effortlessly, without the added exertion of overcoming the merciless headwind.  This can mean something.  After all, the leaders at the finish are the only ones that matter.  Here, I save precious energy which can be used to my advantage, as if a secret weapon, at the finish.

Taking advantage of the preceding windbreak, I start to formulate my strategy for the finish.  Should I attempt a solo breakaway?  Should I move to the front now in preparation for the finish sprint?  Am I actually strong enough to initiate any of these to any avail?  Over and over I go over these options in my mind. Before I can effectively answer even one, the finish is imminent.  Two miles are left and the big question remains:  who are the three racers strong enough and smart enough to finish in the places that count?  Actually, I am surprised to be with the pack.  I feared that I would get left behind long before the finish.  Yet here I am, ready to strike with a “secret weapon” I know not how to use.  In desperation, I try to move up toward the front, but my progress is blocked by the others like an unyielding barrier of bicycles.  What can I do?  This is serious - I am trapped.

As we approach the final right turn, a couple riders attack.  Seeing this, I fear the worst:  this breakaway will determine the final standings.  I rapidly round the corner in pursuit, leaning my steed perilously close to the unforgiving tarmac.  As I stand to accelerate, ahead I see that the breakaway is shattered.  The riders in the breakaway are not strong enough!  Realizing the opportunity, the peloton collectively lunges ahead with the viciousness of rabid dogs to swallow the riders in the breakaway.

The road now curves to the left as we approach the finish line.  I am confused and don’t know exactly where the line is; I only know it is very near.  I must do something.  I must act now!  I try to shift to the outside of the curve and move to the front.  Again, my passage is thwarted as if I encountered a stone wall.  I desperately slide to the inside, expecting the same response from the peloton.  Surprisingly, I find a small gap with enough room for one rider:  me.  Instantly, I jump for the gap and accelerate.  I expect everyone to respond to my move, but only a few do.  Incredibly, almost everyone is losing ground to my attack!

I now turn my attention to the three cyclist near me and the rapidly approaching finish line.  Two racers are out of  touch, vying for first place.  Pedaling furiously, I notice another racer out of the corner of my eye driving for the finish line.  As the finish looms but one-hundred meters ahead, I put my head down and charge like a raging bull pedaling ever faster!  I have no time to think.  I just pedal faster!  Faster!  FASTER!

With a scant twenty-meters remaining, still driving for the line and ignoring the pain in my legs, I surge past my challenger.  As I sail across the finish line in third-place, I thrust my fists skyward in triumph.  No longer pedaling, I am overcome with elation and relief.  There is no audience.  The only cheers are mine.  I didn’t even win.  Nevertheless, the taste of  “victory” has never been sweeter.

©1987 Walter Manning