You don't so much ride a time trial as you fire your bike from the starting line across the finish line. It's an explosion in every sense of the word, including the force, power and physical damage associated with a cannon. With that in mind, on Sept. 5, at 11:30 a.m., I lit my personal fuse, setting in motion the race of my life.
It was USA Cycling's 2012 Masters National Championships--the geriatric equivalent of the National Championship event that had occurred two months earlier in Augusta, Ga.
The term "geriatric" exaggerates the reality. At almost 36 years old, I competed in the youngest age group, as eligibility rules require participants to be a minimum of 35 years old by the end of the 2012 calendar year. But participants in the 70-and-older age group defied the ordinary rules dictated by Father Time. Instead of overhearing conversations about Geritol and Metamucil, I was eavesdropping to learn whether deep-dish carbon clinchers had less rolling resistance on rough pavement than tri-spoked tubulars. These athletes could easily have been mistaken for being 20 years younger than they were.
I'm not sure where I got the idea that I needed to revisit bicycle racing, an obsession that had finally released its grip on me three years ago. It might have had something to do with an injury that prevented me from pounding the trails on foot as much as I wanted. Perhaps it was a consequence of a certain local Olympic cyclist's charging quest for a second gold medal.
Either way, I had dedicated the summer to remembering how to pedal my bike faster than I ever thought I could. In June, the miles of training stretched endlessly ahead of me, but the weeks flew by and soon only hours stood between me and my goal race.
I had taken the week off from work to travel to Bend, Ore., the perfect venue for an event of this caliber. Impressed by the tens of thousands of dollars worth of aerodynamically engineered bicycles, power meters and Lycra-clad figures parading through Deschutes County, I had to remind myself that most of the competitors were probably also working stiffs like me. They couldn't be training full time. If they were, there was no way they could pay for such fancy equipment. Besides, when the rubber meets the road, the engine is what matters most. I had done all I could to ensure that my own diesel V-8 would churn out enough horsepower to overcome even the strongest head wind.
The fast, non-technical course demanded laser-like focus. At 30K, it was long enough that errant thoughts could hinder performance but not so long that one could let up on the gas for even a moment.
Routed south of Prineville, Ore., along the Crooked River, the magnificent scenery went largely unappreciated, as most of my sensory perception was focused inward. Heart pounding and lungs searing, lactic acid accumulated in my bloodstream faster than I could metabolically process it. In every moment, the question persisted: Could I maintain this pedal cadence and turn one gear harder? I was constantly asking myself to embrace a little bit more pain, dig a little bit deeper and hold on for a little bit longer.
The whole experience lasted less than 45 minutes, which simultaneously felt like an eternity and a split-second, illustrating the concept of relativity better than anything Albert Einstein ever did.
While I was suffering on the road, my legs and lungs maxed out and the finish line couldn't come soon enough. But after I crossed it, I realized it had ended too soon. My whole summer was summarized in a matter of minutes and I hadn't a clue as to what it all meant.
Hours later, sweat long since washed away and celebratory beverages flowing freely, I stood on the third step of the podium and claimed my bronze medal. At that moment, it came to me with startling clarity: It wouldn't have mattered whether I'd produced the fastest time of the day or finished at the bottom of the heap.
Sure, it was nice to be somewhere near the top, but my purpose was in the process--not the end result. The process was the pedal strokes, not just during the race, but on every day that led to it, and I can say with confidence that I enjoyed the ride--every ride.