I woke up Saturday morning, rolled out of bed, and groaned. My back was still stiff from picking up a table saw on Thursday night. I held off on taking medicine and let the heat of the shower loosen the muscles. I needed to feel good. I was determined to get my first win.
Driving toward downtown I passed several riders warming up in Cleveland Park. I was lucky enough to find the last spot on Augusta Street within the event barriers. That location would be my base of operations for the day as I prepared for my 9:30 AM start time and rest of the day.
Check in was easy since I had pre-registered online. Then it was time to warm up. Thankfully, I was there early enough to get out and ride the course with the Cat 5 under 34 riders — who would start their race at 9 AM. The course was basically the same as when I rode it last Monday. However, the good news was that the course was closed and we were allowed to ride to the left of the yellow line. That side of Rhett Street was in much better condition.
Another factor that I figured would enter into the race was the wind. As I was doing recon on the route, I found that the wind was at our backs as we rode up Rhett Street. That meant the wind would be in our faces as we headed down toward the Start/Finish line on Main Street. If you were going to have wind, it couldn’t be blowing in a better direction.
Thirty or so racers lined up for the start. I was able to get a spot on the front row and pulled up beside Thomas Gregory. I had finished right behind him in the State Championship Road Race. I knew he would be one of the ones I’d have to deal with before the day was done. It would be neat if we could roll across the line 1 and 2 — with me in front this time.
We started. The start of a bicycle race is always kind of weird. There isn’t a gun that goes off or any sort of distinct signal. Suddenly riders start rolling, cleats start clicking, and the announcer guy says something like, “…and here they go!”
It was nice being at the front. I didn’t need to worry about any sort of craziness going on around me. In that first lap or so, I settled into a top 10 place. The objective at this point in the race was to get a feel for the abilities of the riders around me and see how the group would be affected by the road and weather conditions.
The pace was almost like an Hour of Power pace at this point. I got the feeling everyone was doing what I was doing and waiting for someone to take the lead. Bobby Hough had been leading us around and I knew he would be able to do that for a while, but I wasn’t too concerned he would be there at the end. As long as he was up there, I didn’t worry too much.
Toward the middle of the race — about 4 to 6 laps in — Bobby dropped off and the group lost its structure. At that point I found myself on the front due to a slower pace on the Rhett Street climb. It wasn’t where I wanted to be, but no one seemed to want to go around me. When I glanced back, I could see Thomas’ kit to the right of my rear wheel. That wasn’t good.
Enough. I slowed considerably to cause someone — anyone — to come around me and take the point. That is when my Spinners teammates moved around me with some other riders. I fell in behind them. We continued that way for several more laps. Then a rider in a plain blue jersey started building a lead off the front.
The gap began to grow. However, I noticed him start to slow up Rhett Street. The climb was giving him trouble. I was recharging behind the great drafting help of my mates. Then we would go into turns three and four and he would come out with more speed on Main Street. With five laps to go my teammates began to slow a bit and I said, “We’re going to have to go get that guy if he continues to stay up there.”
I went around them and bridged over the gap to get on the wheel of the lone rider. It was so neat to look and see friends and fellow Greenville riders along the course yelling, “Hey! Good bridge!” “Way to go, Johnny P!” (that would be Web — he doesn’t know I hate to be called Johnny, but at that point it actually sounded pretty good). Even Steve Sperry put in a good word for me as I went by. The support was a great shot in the arm.
Once I bridged, I was a little winded. I sat on his wheel. I didn’t know how far the group was behind me. Not looking back, my assumption was that I had pulled them over the gap. If they caught us, I figured I was no worse for wear. There was still time to decide if I would try to finish with a sprint or breakaway.
He didn’t like me just sitting on his wheel. “Let me catch my breath,” I said “and I’ll come around.” I said that as we neared the Start/Finish line. By the time we entered turn two onto River Street, he was fading. There were three laps to go… should I try a flier? There was a gap and if I was going to put a hurtin’ down, it would need to be on Rhett Street.
I picked up that pace and came around to the Start/Finish. I heard someone yell, “You’ve got 20 seconds on them, Jonathan!” Whoa, that sounded nice. However, with my minimum racing experience, I didn’t know how that should affect my riding. I figured the safest thing to do was to assume that they could close down 20 seconds. I needed to keep going.
It was at that point I caught Bobby. I got in behind him and he helped me a bit by picking up his pace and giving me some draft into the wind on Main. The climb up Rhett Street seemed effortless and turning once again onto Main Street, I put my head down to cut through the wind and tried to use the downward grade to my advantage.
What a cool thing to hear your name called over the PA system. I don’t know exactly what he said, but it sounded complimentary. Again, I picked out the face of friends and my family as I went by. It was a really cool feeling!
Then I made my last turn onto Rhett Street. I had no idea how much of a gap I had. In my mind, I just knew Thomas was going to come leading a charge to hunt me down and ruin my dream day. I kept pushing up the grade. I didn’t know that Thomas had cracked his pedal and was out of the race.
“This is just like chasing John up the quarry road on Saturday morning,” I told myself. “Just keep pushing no matter how it hurts and you can rest in just a few hundred meters.” Then as I went into turn three I didn’t see anyone coming up behind me. I went into turn four and still no one entered the picture. “Where are they?” I thought. I took one last look back as I neared Augusta Street. Still no one.
At that point, I knew I had it. That is when I started thinking, “Oh, what am I going to do when I cross the line?” This was exciting for me, but on the other hand, it was only a Cat 5 race. It wouldn’t do to get way crazy with my finish celebration.
Turns out some friends took care of it for me. As I neared the finish, I saw hands sticking out from the barrier offering me a high-five. It completely took my mind off the finish line. My goal at that point was to slap their hands without knocking myself over. Then I brought my hands to my face to offer a sincere prayer of thanks and did a mini-pump with my fists near my chest as I finished the race.
That was it. Funny, but the feeling I had was more of relief than excitement. Don’t get me wrong, the feeling was great and the farther I get away from the moment, the better it gets. However, it was more a peaceful feeling than an exuberant one. Whew! The monkey was off my back… now I can retire.