If speed is your goal on a bicycle, you must realize that being in a group of like-minded cyclists will result in a higher average speed over a longer distance. The simple aerodynamics of drafting is the reason. As one of the most energy efficient machines ever invented, once rolling resistance is overcome with high pressure tires and high-quality wheel bearings, it is basically you versus wind resistance. Of course, climbing a hill places gravity into the equation.
A lesson in how much faster a group can be over a single rider was illustrated to me in the mid 1990’s when I entered a bicycle race. Although I had raced before, competitive bicycle racing was not something that drew me to the sport. I was more of a cyclist who loved the freedom of exploring by bike. Consequently, at this time, I had no measure of how fast I was compared to other cyclists.
The organization where I worked with was eligible to send competitors to a national championship. This championship location would rotate every few years, and this particular year it was being held in the nation’s capital. Since I had never competed in these games before, I had no idea what to expect. I made our hotel reservations and set about establishing a training routine. Besides some longer rides to Toronto, this routine consisted mainly of repetitious circuits around roads in the industrial areas of Brampton. I would interject four minutes of high effort into each lap. I was worried about a lack of hill training in my repertoire but, as it turned out, it did not matter.
At the time I was riding the Shimano Ultegra equipped Miyata Ti6000. This bike was unique, in that the frame was not welded, but glued together using pressurized adhesive. The cast aluminium lugs were bonded to the tubing. It consisted of titanium tubes in the main triangle and 6000 series aluminium tubes for the rear triangle and the front forks. This combined to create a light but compliant frame. The package was rounded out by a set of Wolber TX Profil aero rims, and a gel infused saddle. By this time brake mounted shifters had been on the scene for a few years, however this bike still had down tube mounted indexed shifters.
The night before the race did not prove a restful one for me at the host hotel. A combination of nerves over the unknown competition I would be facing, and the partying antics of athletes from other sports, resulted in a fitful sleep.
The day of the competition dawned as a gray day, with a low cloud ceiling. My companion and I headed to the meeting spot, south of the Ottawa airport. The race was to be run as four laps around two rural concession blocks. The distance, according to organizers, measured 52 kilometres. The only other instructions were that a van would be used as a lead vehicle, and to be careful on the corners, because although they had been swept in preparation, there could still be loose gravel on them.
Fourteen riders assembled at the start line and an official’s arm was dropped to start the race. Almost on cue, a drizzle started, which changed to light rain, and then heavy rain. Eventually, it was raining so hard that I could see raindrops bouncing back up off the pavement. We were off, in the pouring rain.
I hung back going into the first ninety-degree corner. The wet conditions, combined with the fact that I was racing with cyclists of differing abilities and experience, was the reason for my trepidation. It turned out to be an unwise move, as, coming out of the turn, the first four riders pushed the pace and opened a gap immediately. I gave it all I had to get through the group and catch up to the breakaway, as I realized this was crucial.
As I caught up to the four lead riders and tried to shelter amongst them to take a short rest, something happened that still plays in my memory as a slow-motion video. As I sheltered in the draft and concentrated on catching my breath, the lead rider faded out a little to the right, in order to take a drink from his water bottle. As he pulled the water bottle from the cage on his down tube, the cage came with the bottle, snapping off from the frame mounts. The cage dislodged from the bottle and arced through the air, making a metallic ringing, as it hit the asphalt between us. The laws of physics dictated that the water bottle cage was going slightly slower than us as it danced along the pavement toward me. I immediately realized what the danger was, although I could do nothing to change the outcome. At the speed we were going, if the metal bottle cage snagged into the spokes of my front or back wheel, my race would have a painful end, not to mention the one or two riders I would end up taking down with me. Miraculously, I watched as the cage bounced across the road right under my bottom bracket, eventually landing on the gravel shoulder, to my left.
The breakaway succeeded, as our group of five was pulling away from the other riders. After about a kilometre, one of the riders fell off the extreme pace. That left four of us in the breakaway pack. We settled into a tight unit, working closely together, taking turns pulling at the front.
It was far from pleasant. The effort was hard. The everyone’s wheels sent up large rooster tails of water, making close drafting impossible due to obscuring of the following rider’s vision. I settled on a technique of drafting about eight inches to the right of the rider ahead of me. This resulted in most of the spray hitting my right shoulder. It was uncomfortable, but at least I had some forward vision. It was raining so hard and so much spray was being kicked up that, at times I had to look for the red taillights of the lead vehicle to maintain a reference point. Within a short time, I was as wet as if I had jumped in a swimming pool, my handlebars were so wet that my hands were sliding around on them. Tired of spending so much energy getting back up to race pace, after slowing down for the ninety-degree corners, I thought I would try carrying more speed into the corner. This was a mistake, as I felt my back tire begin to slide out from underneath me. With a slight steering correction, I maintained my balance, but learned my lesson about how much water was on the road.
Just before we crossed the start/ finish line to begin the last circuit, one of our group of four made a move to breakaway. I glanced at the other two riders, who both seemed unwilling to respond. I had seen the rider who was breaking away, talking to one of the riders in our group before the race. This conjured up the idea in my mind that this was their strategy and perhaps they were in cahoots. I had no choice, I had to pursue the break away rider by myself. Again, I was forced to put in a hard effort, but I eventually I caught up with him. To my surprise, shortly after I got on his back wheel, he sat up in the saddle as a sign of defeat and exhaustion. He began to soft pedal and immediately fell off the pace.
We were still around twelve kilometres from the finish. I knew I would blow up trying to maintain that speed, riding on my own, so I slackened the pace a little, until the other two caught up. Now it was a tactical race with two other opponents. I learned after the race, that they were Dennis, a provincial class triathlete from Hamilton and Manny, a former category two bicycle racer from Waterloo.
We continued with an elevated race pace, frequently changing the lead to keep the pace high, riding extremely close together, as the conditions would allow. We were still working closely together as we came down to the last three kilometres. Since I had never considered myself a sprinter, I did not think my chances were good if all three of us came to the finish line together. My opportunity came while I was pulling at the front. From the drop handlebar position, I looked under my arm and saw Dennis looking at Manny, behind him. I hammered the pedals going down a slight dip in the road and brought my speed up. To my surprise, when I looked down at my bike computer, it was reading 52 kph. I had never ridden that fast on a flat road.
Unfortunately, my strategy did not work, Dennis had been alert, and made the effort to get back on my wheel, with Manny, struggling a bit to stay on Dennis’s wheel. I stayed at the front, thinking this was going to come down to the line, however, Dennis surprised both Manny and me by turning wide on the last right-hand turn, riding a line by the edge of the pavement on the left-hand side of the road. Dennis had the hammer down and I would have to ride across the road while accelerating, to get on his back wheel. As I was trying to accelerate, I realized the slight grade of the road combined with the fatigue in my legs, meant that I could not spin up the gear I was in. The logical move would have been to downshift, however, the fact that I was already bogging down a little and my bike had down tube mounted shifters, meant that that opportunity was irrelevant. I ended up picking up the pace enough to follow Dennis over the finish line by about three bike lengths. Manny had been unable to match the pace coming out of the last corner and pedaled in about 200 metres behind us.
I glided down the road, after the finish line, feeling the exhaustion of the effort. As I turned around and headed back to the small crowd at the finish line, I passed Manny coming the other way. Contrary to what I expected, because he wasn’t there to vie at the finish line, Manny was smiling and laughing, pointing to his bike computer. What he was looking at was the fruits of our effort together. We had ridden 57 kilometres, in the pouring rain, at an average speed of 43 kph. Pretty good for a bunch of amateur bicycle racers. This made me feel quite elated and see the humour in the fact that my legs were like rubber and could hardly hold me up once I got off the bike.
Later, as we got changed at a recreation centre washroom, before the medal presentation, we laughed at the conditions we had just raced in. My socks felt like they weighed a pound apiece, my jersey and shorts had to be wrung out in the sink, my bicycle was mostly devoid of any lubrication. The seat was starting to come apart, after being soaked in water.
I still maintain the pride about our performance during this race, although it was dampened when the organizing body published the results in a newsletter a month later. The statistics showed the three of us finishing a 52 kilometre race in two hours and nineteen minutes. They had added an hour and reported the original distance for the race.
The bottom line is Dennis, Manny and I knew we each had one of the best races of our lives, that day in the pouring rain.
by Steve Stoller
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