The boiling August sun reflects off the hot parking lot asphalt, making me sweat through my already salt-encrusted jersey. Dozens of bike racers surround me, all warming up on stationary rollers, loosening their legs and revving their biological engines. Our legs are in motion, but so are our minds — we're all dreaming of crossing the finish line and becoming the 2014 Mass Ave Criterium champion.
After a quick warm-up, it's time to roll to the start line. I size up the other racers' bikes and legs through my iridescent Oakley sunglasses as the officials check our numbers. This course is extra challenging with its tight corners and long finishing straightaway, but it suits me. I breathe away the nerves and uncertainty that creeps into my brain and focus on what I'm about to do. Inside, I'm calm and amped at the same time. I'm alert and relaxed. I'm in my zone. I'm ready.
And we're off. So what's it like being in the middle of a bike race? Racers pedal at speeds upwards of 25 miles an hour around a small, Downtown loop on Massachusetts Avenue. Vying for position in the large field, riders bump elbows and tap wheels, taking the corners hot and the straightaways hotter. It takes a whole lot of bike handling and confidence to follow a wheel inches in front of your own, and some quick maneuvering if that rider crashes.
On top of all that, a rider's awareness must extend to the state of the race itself – when are people tired? How am I feeling? Who has a good sprint? Who can take a long, hard ride alone? Where is the wind coming from? How many laps are left? Why does that guy have a hole in his pants?
Chunkchunkchunk! I hear someone's bike shift into a faster gear, and instinctually do the same as I see rider Chloe Dygert come shooting up the left side of the field. Oh crap, I think, we can't let her go. Chloe gets a good distance away from the field, and I'm getting nervous. If we don't catch her, she is definitely strong enough to win this thing alone. I know this and so does everyone else. Natural powerhouse that she is, her blue-and-white Team Twenty16 jersey is usually seen way up in front of the field. Off the bike, she's a friend, but there's no way I'm letting her get away. The rest of the field look around at each other, uncertain of whether to counter such an early move, and then decidedly fall into a single paceline, trying to match her speed and tuck in behind our opponents, using them to break the wind in order to expend a little less effort. I hop on a wheel and join the chase.
The chase is led by Sierra Siebenlist, a fellow Hoosier with some serious spark — and a flame that might just burn long enough to spoil Dygert's attack. I see her red and black Scarlett Fire Racing Team jersey up ahead as we charge down the straightaway and feel confident this run won't last long. Sure enough, as soon as we make connection with Dygert, Siebenlist's teammate Beth Engwis attacks, sprinting away from the field and putting the pressure on us to chase her down. I ignore the burning in my legs and lungs and pick up the speed.
Passing under the finishing banner, the announcer rings the bell and announces a prime lap. Fifty bucks to the winner of the next lap! This is me, I think. Beth is up ahead, most likely stoked about her good timing, throwing everything she's got into this lap. Slowly moving to the front of the pack, I set myself up to be the third rider through the last corner. When the line is in sight, I let it rip. I shift my bike into a faster gear and throw all my power into sprinting towards it. But Beth pours on the steam and hangs onto it by inches, scoring herself 50 dollars.
Holy smokes, that hurt. I slow down and drop back into the pack of riders. Somebody up front decides to take advantage of the fact some of us just sprinted ourselves silly and hits the gas after we cross the line. Not willing to give it up that easily, I match their speed and it makes me dizzy with effort. We come tearing through the first corner at a pace that feels a little hotter than any of the previous laps. I hear the squeal of last-minute braking in front of me and cut the corner a little sharp, immediately regretting it.
Ohnoohnoohno, I cringe, trying to shift my weight to compensate for the amount my bike is leaning into the turn. But it's too late – my rear wheel slides out, and I hit the ground hip-first, sliding across the pavement. The pavement burns a hole through my spandex and scrapes my backside raw. Nice. I come to a stop against the sponsor-covered fencing, and lay there stunned. The field passes and is turning the corner up ahead.
For a split second I lay there unsure what to do, and once it hits me I can rejoin the race, I burst into action. I jump up, ignoring the stinging pain and the embarrassing hole in my kit (what we call those spandex duds we wear), and run through the course to the wheel pit. Relief fills my stomach when I see our Marian University team mechanic Michael Kubancsek standing under the tent. He asks me if I'm OK, and I nod. Calmly but at lightning speed, he gives my bike a once-over, then brushes the dirt off my shoulder. He holds the bike by the saddle, and I get on.
"Breathe," he reminds me. I take a cleansing breath, letting all the stress and surprise from crashing escape. The field comes by and he gives me a giant shove. I'm back in.
That was cutting it pretty close, because now the lap counter reads "8" — only eight more laps to go in the race. Had I crashed one lap later, I wouldn't have been able to rejoin the race. I do my best to calm my jitters and refocus before the final massive rush to the finish line. Teams begin to set up their leadouts; they find each other and get organized. The rider who can take a longer, stronger pull gets in front of the rider with a hot, snappy sprint and pulls them to where they need to be in the field to finish — right up front.
Rounding the last corner, the racers are intentionally positioned for the final sprint. Bikes rocking, elbows knocking, pain faces bared in all their glory — we're all pushing every last bit of power we have left into our pedals as we drag race towards the finish line. Sierra lights it up again, putting some space between herself and the rest of the field, shoving her wheel across the finish line and winning by a good margin. She throws her hands in the air in a celebratory salute as the announcer shouts her name and the cheering, drunken fans clap and whistle. While she exalts in victory, the rest of us slow to a cruise, defeated, completely drained of all our energy.
Soon after, Sierra and the others take their places on the podium. Sweat drips into my eyes as I watch them smile for the camera. I'm disappointed, but not discouraged. I gave it all I had, but it was someone else's day. Next time, I tell myself.
Who stands on the top step this year? Results will be posted shortly after the finish, but all they'll list are names and numbers. They don't tell the whole story. The fans lining the streets will be a part of the action and energy as they witness the sweat, the sacrifice, the speed, and the glory.
About Riley Missell:
Riley Missel is a 21-year-old student-cyclist at Marian University. She started racing when she joined the collegiate team, and it's been her ticket to adventure, travel, new friends, and cheesy life metaphors ever since. She'll be racing in the 2015 Mass Ave Crit in Women's 1/2/3.