The Athens Twilight criterium was weekend before last. If you have raced a bike in the southeast, you were probably aware of it.
Twilight looms large on the racing calendar-for good reason. It's arguably the fastest and most dangerous crit of the year-and it's definitely the race that draws the most spectators. It takes place right in the middle of downtown Athens, Georgia, and thousands of students from the University come out to watch(mostly because of the crashes). It's one of the few races of the year where most guys(non-pro's, at least) are just shooting to finish.
Athens is big. There are usually 150 starters in the pro race, and there just isn't room enough for all of them on the course. The course is only a kilometer long, and if the whole race is stretched out end to end(which it usually is), the front of the filed is not far behind the back of the field. That situation doesn't last long, as guys fall off the back or crash out. Usually less than half of the starters finish.
Athens is long-it's 80 laps of that kilometer course, so it's almost double the length of any normal local race.
Athens is FAST-the average speed is usually close to 30 mph. For 50 miles.
I went to Athens to race for the first time in 2005 or 2006. I crashed hard in one of the amateur races(not nearly as long or fast and on a different course) early in the day and decided it wasn't for me. Even aside from the crash-which I'll admit scared me-the racing, even in the amateur fields, seemed above my level; it was an eye-opener. So, for the next few years, I just went down to watch and drink beer. It was always a great weekend, but it was a bit odd being at a bike race weekend and not racing.
Early in 2009, my teammate Dave started trying to convince me to go and race Twilight-the night race, which was technically a pro/category 1 race, but Dave had heard that they were letting some category two racers in. I had just upgraded to two late the previous summer, and I knew I had no business lining up for Twilight, but finally I relented, because I wanted to get Dave off my back and because I often make poor decisions.
I had a coach at the time, and when I told him that I was planning to race, he said, "Oh. Yikes. Well, it will be a good test(code for "This is probably a bad idea for you"). The first 5-10 laps are tear-smearing fast. If you can get through those, you might have a chance. Just remember, if you aren't moving up in the field, or if you aren't in the first 50 spots, you probably won't make it. Don't assume that if a gap opens in front of you that someone else will close it-at that speed, even two bike lengths become near impossible to close". After I heard that, I thought about faking an illness and making Dave go by himself. But(and this a great example of bike racer insanity) then I would think, "How bad can it really be? I've done tons of fast crits. Surely I can just survive. Right?" So I went.
The race started at 9 PM, so we had all day to sit around, watch our friends race in the early races, and just be nervous. Luckily, Dave and I handle nerves in different ways. I don't say much and Dave talks a lot. That helped. But not much-I remember sitting in the hotel room pinning on my number and having a hard time because my hands were shaking. I still have that race number.
We got to the course early to try to get a decent start spot-as you might expect, starting position in a race like Athens is absolutely crucial-if you start at the back, your race is almost certainly over before it's even begun. As a result, the first race is to get to the start line-it's the only race I've ever been to where elbows are being used before the race starts.
I got lucky and got a spot in the third row(there were probably 10 rows). Once that was settled, there were probably ten minutes where we just sat there while the announcer did the pre-race announcements, call-ups; etc. I tried to look at something that would calm my nerves...I looked at the guys around me and that didn't help. I could see that everyone was nervous, even scared. Not good. So I looked to my left into the crowd. Drunken frat boys, screaming. Also not helping. So I just looked straight ahead, down the course to turn one. It sounds ridiculous, but I had a moment of feeling a tiny bit of what it must be like to be a professional athlete-literally thousands of spectators, immense noise, everyone looking at us. I decided that, if nothing else, for a moment I'd just take it in in the hopes that I'd remember it. I still can.
The race started, and the first thing I did was miss my pedal clipping in. 50 guys went by in a flash. So much for a good start spot. I sprinted up to speed, my heart rate skyrocketing and my mouth somehow instantly dry. I narrowly avoided the first crash of the night-in turn two of the first lap. I might as well have gone down, because I was going backwards, quickly. Every few seconds, three guys would go by me in a rush to get towards the front. I was braking too much in the poorly lit turns and having to accelerate too hard coming out of them. Three laps in, I was desperate. I remembered the sensation from high school sports-I was rattled-making poor decisions, panicked.
15 laps in, and I was sure that I wasn't going to make it to 20. Every time someone else came by, I was sure there was going to be no one behind me. I was just waiting to hear the sound of the sweep motorcycle, which would mean that my race was about to be over.
I came around turn one and saw a huge pile-up. Bodies and bikes everywhere. I had nowhere to go and barely came to a stop behind it. I put a foot down.
I had a choice. There was no way I was going to catch back on from a full stop. My race would be over. So I just reached down and let the air out of my front tire. I'm not proud of it, but all I was trying to do was finish, and that wasn't happening after coming to a full stop behind a crash. I found a spot on the course where the spectators were only two deep, jumped the barricades, and hustled to the start/finish to take a free lap.
They gave me a neutral front wheel and-this was a true gift-put me back in about 50 spots in front of where I had come out. Somehow, that little respite calmed me down. I felt better. The new wheel squealed when I touched the brakes, and I used it as an alarm-I decided that I wasn't going to hear that noise for the rest of the race. I set a goal of 40 laps. If I made it that far, I'd be happy.
Somehow I found my rhythm, stopped touching my brakes, finally got the corners dialed, and made it to 40. Then 50. Somewhere around 53 laps in, I remembered that I had a bottle of water on my bike. I swear I heard my knuckles crack as I released my death grip on the bars to get my hand on that bottle.
I started thinking about finishing. I tried to only look at the lap counter every five laps. I'd start to feel good, and then the pace would pick up and I'd realize that I had been at my absolute limit, teetering on the precipice of blowing up. I started to hear friends on different parts of the course yelling at me and that helped.
Ten laps to go, and I thought I could make it. It seemed like an eon, but I thought that surely the hardest part was over.
Wrong. Six laps to go, and the leadouts for the sprinters started. It was like someone put 20 fresh guys in at the front. The speed went up in a way that I would have been certain wasn't possible.
Four laps to go, and I was hanging on by my fingernails. Gaps were opening all over the place(mostly in front of me). Three to go, and guys just stopped even trying to close them-I realized that we were close enough to the finish that we'd all be scored, but far enough back that we'd never get back on. So I just did what I could, which wasn't much.
I crossed the finish line at the same time as the winner. Inside of four laps, he had lapped me and all the other hangers-on at the back. I was astonished.
But I had finished. It was over, thank heaven. I rode another lap around the course. I reached out my hand and got what must have been 100 high-fives in a row from spectators. I stopped on the backside and took a beer from someone I didn't know. I opened it and finished the lap while I drank it. I've never been that physically depleted and that happy at the same time. I know it's a silly thing; I didn't win or even come close. All I did was finish, and even that was with a bit of help. It's not something that would ever matter to anyone but me. But it's still by far the best moment I've had on a bike.
If you get the chance to head down to Twilight, go. Whether you race or just spectate, it's a one of a kind event.