Ahh, Joe Martin. I’m a creature of routine, as any human is, and my yearly training routine has always included my first peak for the Joe Martin Stage Race in Fayetteville, AR, at the end of April.
My first trip down here in 2009, I was a Cat 4, green as the forests of Devil’s Den, where the Stage 1 Time Trial is located. It was my first stage race ever, and it sounded fun. Why not? I ended up getting second in the time trial. Second? What? It was a shock. I figured I could do well, but to think only one dude went faster than me? Awesome! I never could crack that dude in the remaining two stages though, and I ended up second overall.
Next year, I came down as a Cat 3. I missed my TT start time by a minute (whoopsie daisy!), then got maybe 11th overall. More importantly, I helped my teammate Tom get a stage win in the crit. That was pretty cool. Will never forget that trip up the final climb to the finish.
2011, I was a newly-minted Cat 2, looking for upgrade points. Let me tell you, I must have obtained 40 upgrade points over the years courtesy of this race. Thanks, Joe! Well wouldn’t you know, I got 2nd place again in the time trial. It was a shock again. Bridesmaid, but I’m OK with that. I could easily muster a Top 5 here, I told myself. And I lost to a dude named William (Willie?) Gault. We all know #83 for the Bears was fast as hell. After much attacking, getting into an elite group on day three with 7 of the top 10 GC guys, I dropped from 2nd to 5th overall, but was pleased, having been woefully outnumbered by several teams.
Last year I had earned enough points to be a Cat 1, and perhaps just because I could, mixed with some because I really want to get my ass kicked, I talked Dave into doing the Pro/1 race. I got on the first page of the TT results, placing in the high 30s. My time was similar to the previous year, but there was a headwind, and most guys’ times were running roughly 10-15 seconds slower than 2011. I tried mixing it up in the sprint finish in Stage 3, but got shoved off the road and had to cyclocross back on only to narrowly avoid a big crash. Finished the stage. Then met my goal of finishing most of the crit the next day to get a final GC placing. Success.
This year I was back to doing the 1/2 race, and fitter than ever, I expected nothing short of yellow after the TT. I even guaranteed a lot of people that I would win. I went 17 seconds better than last year, put out wattage numbers that simultaneously make me laugh at their enormity and get excited for the Stars and Stripes jersey I’m going to wear when I beat Bobby Lea in the pursuit at Nats this year, and also thought for sure I got first. 8:33 any other year would be first by a landslide. I call shenanigans. Well, bridesmaid strikes again. Some tiny Colombian ringer beat me by four seconds. Four seconds, coincidentally, is the amount of time I would save, per Analytic Cycling’s website, if I shaved off 2 kilos of weight from my bike. I opted to use my heavy Powertap, because I wanted the numbers, and I’m glad I did. But I know I would have beaten him if I had a lighter bike and lighter wheels. At 155 lbs, I myself can’t shave off too much more from my body.
So, 8:33. Would have been 19th in the Pro race, but I had to settle for 2nd (again) in the 1/2 race. Booooooooooo.
I know what it feels like to get second in the TT at this race, and the best thing is that I’m only 4 seconds back, but I don’t have the big bullseye on my back of the yellow jersey. Surely I’d be able to snag it before the weekend was over.
So 30 miles into Day 2, it’s cold and rainy—unusual for Arkansas in April—and I’m sitting near the front of the group, maybe 15 guys back, and it’s spread out across the right lane, maybe four guys wide. When all of the sudden, SLIGHT TOUCH OF WHEELS THERE! over to my left. No worries, show’s over, nothing to see here, show’s over, we’re going to get through this, because it’s all happening way over on the left side of the road and I’m riding on the white line on the far right side of the road.
Nope. Boom, dominoes, boom. It spreads across the entire lane, exacerbated by the wet conditions and human beings who inevitably grab too much brake and then rubberneck when they see and/or hear a fellow cyclist hit the deck. I run into two guys who’ve splayed themselves right in front of my path, and I smash my front wheel into bolivion, flipping over the handlebars, doing my best Dominique Moceanu.
Sadly Bela Karolyi was not there to pick up the pieces, so I had to pick myself up, see if my body or bike was broken. My front wheel was like a taco, but sadly not nearly as edible, so back to the wheel truck for me. I was swearing like a sailor, mostly at the incompetence of cyclists to just not make huge drastic evasive maneuvers when crashes happen, thus causing more carnage. Maybe 20 guys were either down, or almost down. The rest of the peloton behind simply came around us and continued on. Two minutes and forty-five seconds later, I had a new wheel, but by then the damage was done. I also heard someone saying that people were attacking right after the crash, which I hope isn’t true. But it’d explain how our little group of eight castaways never even saw them again, despite our best 35-minute threshold effort. With no caravan to draft behind, we were shit-outta-luck. Sometimes she’s a cruel lady.
I finished 28 minutes down. Exactly 28 minutes.
Next day was more of the same, weather-wise. Cold, rainy, foggy, rainy, cold, stupid. Going from 2nd to 102nd in one day was a bit much on my fragile psyche (it’s not fragile, that’s a joke, and I don’t think I was actually 102nd, but it makes that sentence sound better), and physically I just put too much threshold work in trying to catch on the day before to have any real chance. My body was bruised, though surprisingly OK considering the speed and endo nature of the crash, but my whole right leg was super sore. Couldn’t tell where the bike riding soreness ended and the crash soreness began; it all just melded into this continuum of ouch. I pulled out. First time in my five years that happened. But, with Gila coming up the next week, and knowing I was in no condition to win the crit stage, there was no sense in even trying. Sometimes you need to know your limits, and limit your losses. I’m no good at poker, but I know enough about the sunk cost fallacy to be able to justify pulling out of the race and mentally, physically, and travelly moving on to Gila a day early.
Perhaps my favorite thing about bike racing are the moments when I’m reminded how trivial bike racing really is, and simultaneously how close I hold it to my heart. These are frequent. Just to be able to ride bikes, and now to be able to compete at such a high level, making the journey from Cat 4 to Cat 1 and now beyond—it’s certainly more than anything I ever dreamed up when I won the 2008 Cat 4 Glencoe Grand Prix and decided to dedicate myself to this bike racing thing. This weekend my parents came down from Chicago to the race with the knowledge and plan to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice, given that my aunt had been taken off chemo and was prepared to end her journey, albeit a bit early. Upon arriving in Devil’s Den, at my parents’ campsite, I was given the sad but expected information that my Aunt Gunhild had passed away. The next morning I warmed up on the TT course, went up the hill a few times and thought about her a lot. It’s not like I really needed to recon the course or something, I’d gone up this thing maybe 20 times and raced up it four times. So instead my mind wandered, often ending up back at Gunhild (that name’s as German as Liam is Irish). And then—CAUTION: bike race as metaphor for life forthcoming—I got 2nd place in the TT and thought that no matter how much planning and preparation you do in life, there’s always a chance that you just won’t “win,” even when your time of 8:33 says you probably should. Then when life seems to be going well, you get the unexpected: a cancer diagnosis, a race-ending crash, etc. You just never know what’s around that next bend in the road, so you really have to enjoy the piece of asphalt you’re currently occupying. Metaphor over, sorry about that.
So that was my Joe Martin experience. All over the place. Many, many thanks, as always, to our most gracious hosts Pam and Kevin, the coolest and nicest people in all of Fayetteville.
I certainly don’t believe in the “everything happens for a reason” line, but I most definitely believe you should make the most out of every situation, and I’ve certainly made the most out of Hurricane Gustav stopping me in my tracks in Fayetteville, AR, back in 2007 when I tried to ride a touring bike down to my friends’ wedding in Texas. Having my parents there, and having friends like Kevin and Pam make it nice when, say, you crash out, because it makes the trip about more than just the race. And life… well, life is about more than just bike racing.