Undeterred by the post holiday haze and mid-summer heat, the regulars treated July 5 like any other Thursday evening during Boise's summer. Both burdened and boosted by their season goals, competitive cyclists simulate races every week in pursuit of state titles, national titles, or maybe just bragging rights among their peers. The decades-old Thursday Night Time Trial series put on by a few dedicated local cycling enthusiasts stops for no one--and neither do the riders.
On Thursday evenings from June through August, participants start rolling to the corner of Cloverdale and Ten Mile Creek roads, southwest of the airport, well in advance of the 7 p.m. start time. Even with the mercury rising into triple digits, committed cyclists want time to get their quads warmed up before they test their legs and lungs against the most objective judge of all: the clock.
Perhaps the activity has been popularized by Boise's native Olympic gold medalist, Kristin Armstrong, who defended her 2008 title Aug. 1 at the Summer Olympic Games in London, garnering her second gold medal. Anyone wondering how he or she would stack up against the star is virtually guaranteed to find out by braving the desert heat to pedal fast on a Thursday night. Armstrong is almost always there.
In recent weeks, with a mixture of excitement and dread, I've cleared my schedule for one evening each week in order to hone my fitness, my aerodynamics and my ability to suffer on an all out 10-mile effort. The setting appears informal but don't be deceived. My high stakes attire--aero helmet, skinsuit, shoe covers--make it appear that cash prizes are on the line. From the deep-dish rim of my front wheel to the disc that rolls in the rear, I brought every weapon in my arsenal to shave seconds from my overall time.
As in a sanctioned race, volunteers act as "race officials," designing the start list, monitoring the clock, and holding each rider steady on his or her bike as the seconds count down. Although it sometimes appears random, the fastest riders are usually the last to roll out on course, giving them rabbits to chase along the way. My spot is somewhere in the middle, as the abilities of the two- to three-dozen mixed-gender time trialists vary greatly.
Motivating as it is to catch and pass the rabbits ahead on the road, it is proportionally demoralizing to get caught by a chaser who started after you. Thus, you can understand my dismay when Armstrong herself was slated to start only a minute behind me. I did what anyone facing that circumstance would do: I chugged another bottle of Gatorade and pretended it was no big deal.
But it was a big deal. Imagine being at your own physiological peak, pedaling as hard as you can with a hair dryer aimed directly at your face and gasping like an asthmatic hippopotamus but still barreling forward at a speed you think is "fast." Then, with no warning but the whomp, whomp, whomp of a disc wheel churning through the wind, a sleek figure rolls past you like you're motionless. She and her machine slice through the air like an angry machete. Seconds later, the shimmering mirage-like image in front of you shrinks away into nothing as the distance evolves into miles of separation.
Muscles searing with lactic acid, I wilted over my handlebars but continued to push myself all the way to the finish line. World champions and Olympic gold medalists are an entire order of magnitude above the level of most professional athletes, let alone recreationally competitive weekend warriors like myself. There was no point in being dejected or discouraged by what felt like an inferior performance. Instead, like everyone else out there searching for a new personal best time, I choose to be inspired by the phenom in our midst.