It wasn't until two weeks ago, after calling every hotel, motel, and B&B in Wichita Falls, Texas, looking for a vacant room, that I realized the hugeness of this event. It’s so big the city urged every citizen with a spare room to host out-of-town racers and recreational riders. With mountain bike races, trail running, a USAC road race/crit weekend and consumer show, Hotter'N Hell is more than a 100-mile endurance ride: It's a celebration of a community’s passion for cycling.
My awesome boyfriend scored us an RV at the last minute, so I did not get to impose my odd bike racing rituals on some unsuspecting Witchatonian family. Nervous about going, I'd come to enjoy the number of worry-free weekends at home where I could focus on long, hard rides and lots of interval training. I knew my fitness was up to speed for two 45-minute crits and one 100K road race but my mind, well, it was not.
Why was my mind playing games with me? Women's racing is a rough sport. Categories range from 4 (beginner) to 1 (pro level), so most women's races have a separate cat 4 race. Categories 1-3 usually get combined into one field. Once you cat up from a 4 to a 3, you had better be ready to race against women who have been in the game for a long time. Thankfully, many organizers, such as Holland Racing, offer a separate 3/4 field for women to continue to develop racing skills and earn points as new 3s.
Generally, the majority of people are happy to hang on and finish with the group without getting dropped, and results are whatever they happen to be—doing well might be a matter of luck. A smaller percentage truly race to win or help their teammate win. They are the athletes who have an impact on the pace and story of the race. Last season, being a new 3 with only a few real races under my belt, I was happy to finish in the back of the W123s but, this season, after racking up all but one of the points needed to cat up from a 3 to a 2, and after training with my coach, I've found myself slowly morphing into an active racer seeking better results—it's a big jump.
These jumps don’t just happen as you race; you must be willing to initiate yourself into the game. Friday night we raced in a 45-minute W open crit. The pace was fast and adrenaline high as hundreds of fans lined the course. It was not too technical; however, there were some awkward turns, one of them being right before the finish line. Kim Jennings (Jubilee Subaru) went off the front from the word go. Her team of three other strong riders blocked and discouraged anyone from chasing. I made only a few moves, one of which was on a long straightaway on the back end of the course. I attacked, but not hard enough so Jubilee caught me and, because all non-Jubilees needed to work together to catch Kim, I pulled everyone around for half a lap until Christina Gokey-Smith attacked and I sat in once again. I went into the race as a participant, so my results were that of a participant, not good. Jennings took the win, with Ginny King (King Racing Group) winning the pack sprint for second and Christina Gokey-Smith (Rouse/Oogie Racing) taking third.
Saturday I was well rested and pumped! Longer road races with extreme conditions are where I shine. We took off at 7:55 a.m. and rode easy for the first couple of miles. My intention was to form or get into an early breakaway. I had my mind set on getting onto the podium today since I've been focused on this particular road race for months. Once out of the city onto bigger, exposed roads, the first few attacks launched away. Moving to the front, I readied my legs for more pain and attacked a few times with Mandy Heintz (Shama and currently 4th GC) in tow. Heintz, being one of the stronger women out there, was someone I wanted in a break, so we kept close. I threw out one big attack, which created a promising gap that Sheri Rothe (Jubilee) was working to bridge. She caught me, and we half-heartedly worked together because, at least in my mind, I wanted Heintz there to work too. No worries, keep trying. Just then, I got a flat!
I waved down the wheel truck and, after a clumsy wheel change, watched as the truck rode away without me. I hopped on the bike, hopped off to adjust the brakes, then rode like hell at 250-300 watts to catch on. The change was too slow and, while chasing on, I took a wrong turn and went off course. I knew I was lost when I was stopped at a red light contemplating whether or not I should stop in at Sonic for a drink! After turning around, I found the course again and rode as hard as possible in hopes that maybe I'd catch up. I was disappointed, but at least all of the pressure was off. I finished, from what I was told, 15 minutes or so after the group. Kathleen Hattaway (Jubilee) won in a brave, late solo break, with Gokey-Smith sprinting for second and King taking third.
Sunday I was relaxed, but still longing for a good result. With a not-so-great track record in W123 or open crits, I should’ve felt doubtful but, that day, I felt hopeful. I suppose suffering the disappointment of the day before was the wake up call I needed to listen and put into practice to the advice of my coach: "have fun" and "take risks." Crits are a scary business but, on Sunday, my desire to succeed outweighed my fear of crashing or, worse, getting dropped. The course was more technical than on Friday, with one gnarly dip in the road on the final turn. The first few laps were fast; I attacked from the back the moment the pace slowed. Just then, another flat! Luckily, I had a free lap to get to the wheel pit, change, and hop back in. The Sram mechanic gave me a jolting push, and I was back in business. I saw that Hattaway was 15 seconds or so ahead of the pack. I attacked once again when I saw the pace of the group slow but, this time, I committed and kept fighting 'til I bridged up to Hattaway. The gap from the pack to myself remained hearty enough to stick!
"Are you in the lead or lapped?" she asked, confused because I was riding off course to get to the wheel pit.
"Lead!" I replied, surprised to hear that word coming out of my mouth.
Hattaway is the best crit racer I know and has always been a role model of mine, so the excitement of being in a break with her made me ride harder and do more work than what was necessary to stay away. She did, in fact, have four teammates back there to block for us. Hattaway took the win, and I could barely sprint for the line, so I took second. King out-sprinted the pack for third.
All in all, it was a great weekend; I felt support from the city of Witchita Falls and the fans. GC results were interesting because Hattaway, having not raced Friday night, was not in contention. King won; Gokey-Smith took second; and Mandy Heintz, with an impressive use of tactics and endurance, was third. The best part is that I earned the last point I needed to cat up to 2! More importantly, I gained confidence and learned how NOT to handle a flat in a road race.
Oh, by the way, I have already booked a room in Wichita Falls for next year!
See you on the road!