If you're lining up on a start line chances are good that you're there to prove something to yourself, to push yourself to a different level, to exceed expectations and surprise yourself. The same goes for climbing mountains, appearing at a job interview, writing the first sentence of what will hopefully be a well-read novel, chopping a garlic clove to add to simmering olive oil or even asking someone on a date. Once your performance is imminent all you can do is confide in the work you have completed and hope your plan of attack unravels as you planned and imagined. Every start line I straddle my bike on is another chance to shine, another chance to try and reap the benefits of hard training, remaining diligent and focused, and magnifying every detail. So when things unravel in an adverse way it is a stab; one that will heal, but ultimately it is up to me how well and how quickly it will heal. The one-day championship races are all that, highlighted, italicized and underlined. I think everyone dreams of being a champion...at least I know I do. But being a champion and becoming a champion are two different dreams and require many stabs, pricks, cuts, burns and breaks. It also requires attention to detail and this year's Nationals in Bend was no aberration.
With a greater emphasis on the championship races, everyone tends to arrive 3 to 6 days in advance to check the course out, even though with the plethora of racers every day for a week the course changes into a different animal. Normally I'd be perfectly content arriving a day or two prior to my race, but with all the week-prior tweets and pictures I'd certainly be stressed that I wasn't laying first tracks on the freshies or testing the newly built flyover to see if it holds. The "important" races certainly bring out the idiosyncrasies and paranoia; but maybe that's simply what makes a bike racer? I wish there was some sort of measurement tool that could evaluate the percentage of nerves in a 5-mile radius of that venue.
The course in Bend changed from snow and ice to an underwater reef to a sponge-like semi-dried cement track. The weather was all over the place with snow, rain, snow-coated rain drops, freezing temps, and concluding with sun and 50's. Coming off a podium finish with my teammates the week prior in Portland I was feeling confident and excited for the Nationals. The attention to details is weighted in this week because of the importance of the one-shot race with no do-overs. You want to know the course well but you don't want to wear yourself out with recon laps, especially with the course being so heavy. You want to make sure your legs are open and not blocked, but you also want to be fresh. You want to feel prepared with every box checked, but you don't want to obsess. You want to feel nerves on the start line, but you don't want these nerves to make you feel numb.
Although abnormally nervous on the start line I was excited to race, confident about the course, happy to have my friends: a metric sh*t ton of support in the crowds. Plus I was feeling a load of relief and a positive outlook on my new Crank Brothers family. The start call-ups seemed to take forever as I turned around to see a sea of riders with more still joining the grid. Finally the 2-minute call and those seconds ticked away like days. Finally the whistle and I was off to a decent start. I narrowly avoided a pile-up after the first corner and was sitting-pretty with the top riders. Probably around 7th, knowing there were plenty of places to lose time, as well as wide sections to motor and pass, I stayed patient with my selections of effort. I was riding well and my legs felt strong, but my head wasn't quite dialed and focused. I reeled my focus back in on the the start/finish straight, prior to hanging the left turn and onto the second lap. After this left turn it was a mellow descent that was plagued with wheel-grabbing ruts and hiding, biting rocks. I am guessing this is when I front-flatted. I rounded the corner, eyes up and on the prey ahead when I felt rim hit rock and saw the yellow "Pit exit" flag shimmer out the corner of my right eye. My heart sank as quickly as my tire deflated. Front flats suck...for me it's like swimming without floaties.
From there I tried to stay upright as best I could, avoiding colliding with tape, barriers, rocks, trees and the passing riders from behind. There have been stronger comebacks than this. I kept pedaling and tried to keep as positive as I could. What seemed like an absolute eternity came and passed and I flew onto my new bike. Knowing how my leggies were prior to the flat I figured I'd have some fight left; it'd be painful but I felt confident. As I stood up to accelerate and crank up the hill just passed the 2nd pit my legs felt like a car sputtering on fumes. And then I think my heart sank even further into my soggy shoes. But there have been stronger comebacks, so I kept gritting my teeth, cranking the pedals over, perfecting lines, powering out of corners, keeping my eyes up and chanting positive words. I finished the race in tears of discouragement and defeat and had a very hard time accepting it for what it was: bad luck, a bad spot to flat. I prepared to the best of my ability and that is something, because preparation is part of becoming. I am lucky to not end my season on that race, and have already packed the preparation and fire into my carry-on to Europe.