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patrick harkins

A few months ago, our whole team(Shannon and me) went downtown to race the Battle of Nashville Criterium. Neither of us was very fit and we both had things to do that day, but we didn't want to miss a race so close to home, so we decided that we'd just ride down, do the Masters race, ride home and have the rest of the day to do other things.

Since we were unsure of our legs, our plan was pretty simple: do nothing for the first half of the race, and then just see how we felt and race accordingly.  Shannon and I have been racing together for long enough that we don't need to communicate too much before or during races. So, after our two minute pre-race 'meeting' we rolled over to the start.

The start was exactly what we didn't need-a cash prime on the first lap. The course was flat and fast, and that first lap was full gas from the first pedal stroke. You wouldn't think a group of Masters racers would be so willing to hurt themselves and each other for twenty bucks,'d be wrong. I sat in about tenth wheel, just waiting for the inevitable easing after the sprint for the prime, but somebody attacked afterwards and the pace picked up again.

Finally, after two fast laps, there was a lull. I was still sitting somewhere in the first ten wheels, and everybody just spread across the road, taking a breather. The group drifted to the left, away from the good line to set up for turn one...

Have you ever had one of those out of body experiences, where you feel like you're floating above yourself, looking down at what you're doing, saying to yourself, "You're making a terrible mistake, you dummy. Stop it." And simultaneously looking UP at your other self, saying "I know. But it's too late to stop now"?

Well, that was what the next few seconds felt like. I didn't stop pedaling. I didn't veer from the good line-I just kept my momentum and rolled through the turn. About ten seconds after I exited through the turn, I looked back. There was no one there.

An old racing buddy of mine told me once about his Law of the Gap. Basically it was this: in bike races gaps are often hard to come by, so if you find yourself on the right side of one, even if it's unintentional, you have to respect it. You have to go. So, even though it was EXACTLY what Shannon and I had talked about NOT doing, I put my head down and went. The next time I looked back, the gap was bigger. I kept going(obeying the Law and all).

Two turns later, I heard a tire skidding through the apex behind me. I was thrilled; now that I was getting reeled in, I could just go back and sit in the bunch, just like we planned(kind of).  Only I wasn't getting pulled back. When I turned around, I only saw one rider-Tim Hall.  Tim is an old friend and former teammate, and we know each other well. I was happy to see him, but his being there meant that any idea of half-assing the effort was out the window. He's not one to wait around for a bunch sprint. So we kept the throttle open, and a few laps later we had 25 seconds on the group.

At this point in a race, in a situation like this, three things can happen:  1. We stay away, and one of us wins. 2. A small group comes across to us, and one of us wins. 3. The group gets organized, we get pulled back,  we both feel dumb, and I have to explain myself to Shannon. Regardless, we were committed. At least I knew that Shannon was back in the group, getting a free ride.

It's an unusual luxury being up the road in a two-up break with an old friend. Usually, in any kind of break, you want to go just hard enough to help the break stay away, but not so hard that you're too tired to deal with the attacks in the last few laps. With a friend, you don't have to bother with any of that. I knew that if we made it to the end, Tim and I would just figure it out between ourselves, and I'd be just as happy to see him win as I would to win myself.

So for the next 30 minutes or so, we went as hard as we could: flat stick, hammer and tong, full gas, pedal to the mat, whatever bike racing phrase you want to use. I had rough patches and so did Tim, but the other would take up the slack and take a slightly longer turn. We were both right on the ragged edge of blowing up. The gap grew to the point where I was pretty sure we were gone. No way could we be caught. Even when the time splits started to get smaller, I was sure that one of us would win-we were too close to the finish. Inside of five laps to go, I was thinking about asking Tim how he wanted to handle the finish. I was thinking maybe we'd just rock-paper-scissors, or have a gentleman's sprint.

I happened to glance over my shoulder, and that idea went in the trash. The group was much closer, and they were flying. I could only see one guy, which meant that the bunch was in one long line behind him. I still thought we had it, but we needed to keep going as hard as we possibly could. It's weird, but there's comfort in that. No tactics, no wondering which wheel to be on or when to start the sprint. I thought, "All I have to do is go as hard as I possibly can until the end.".

Three turns from the finish, I could hear them behind us. I knew it was over. I heard gears shifting and wheels whistling-somebody was attacking. It was aggressive; there was still along way to the line. I could barely pedal, so I just swung over and looked to see who it was.

Shannon. He'd been smart and saved himself(ahem). His attack was violent enough to split the group in half. He'd finish fourth, saving the day for our little team. Thank goodness. 

Afterwards I told Wendi about the race, and she asked me how I felt about it. I didn't quite know what to say. There was definitely a time when all I would have cared about for myself was the result(or lack thereof, in this case). How I felt on Monday was directly tied to my proximity to the podium on Saturday or Sunday. But the sport is just too hard to keep that attitude. You get older(ok-you get old), training time disappears, motivation ebbs and flows. Other guys get faster. If all that is sustaining you is results, sooner or later that won't be enough. You have to find something else.

I told Wendi that I was satisfied with my effort. I gave absolutely everything that I had-there was nothing left. I was empty, but good empty.

Surprisingly satisfying.