I swear that's what I heard our leaders at the Driveway Series clinic say before our practice race in early April.
Of course, what they really said was something along the lines of, “Don't panic, be careful, and just have fun.” (Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's what the announcers say in Pamplona before the Running of the Bulls.)
Our practice crit race started with a pack of 25–30 nervous (and mostly inexperienced) crit racers. Before we even got to the first corner, a few riders had gone down. Fortunately, I wasn't one of them, but it certainly drove home the reality of what this style of racing is all about. A few rules of thumb to follow:
No one was seriously injured after that first turn, and the practice race gradually began to pick up momentum. It lasted 20 minutes and I barely had the time or ability to process what was happening. Hell, I barely had time to breathe! It was 1,200 seconds of heart-pounding hyper-awareness and focus on my surroundings.
When the race leaders called for the last lap, I felt both relieved and charged with a rush of adrenaline to kick it in and finish strong like those crazies at the Tour de France. I crossed the makeshift finish line with my hands lifted above my head in mock-victory. (I was mid-pack.)
I was in a state of disbelief. I had just completed my first practice race experience as a crit racer. And I was pumped. I later bored my husband (who came to watch and potentially administer aid) with every little detail of surge, breakaway, and corner I took during my mock race. From the sounds of it, you would have thought I was Danica Patrick on two wheels.
Rewind a couple hours and I was leaving work, high on nervous anxiety, to head out to the Driveway in East Austin. Super Squadra, a local elite cycling team founded by several Cat 1 racers, was hosting the first of six racing clinics that evening. My coach, Chris Toriggino from Athlete Architecture, had sent me some info about the clinics and recommended I attend. It turned out to be exactly what I needed.
The first clinic was on basic pack skill riding. Now, I've ridden in groups before and have even used drafting to my advantage, but most of my training and racing is non-draft legal triathlon. In other words, you end up sitting in a penalty tent if you're too close to the person in front of you.
That night, we worked on two main skills before the practice race: riding shoulder-to-shoulder and navigating around sharp turns and cones. Both were nerve wracking and I felt like I was a 16-year-old practicing for my driver's education test. We paired up with a partner for the “side by side drill;” a narrow lane of cones you and your partner had to ride through shoulder to shoulder.
Next, they moved us to the cone drill; a series of cones that lined up close to one another. The goal was to weave in and out of them at a slow speed using mostly your body weight. “Look where you want to go,” the elite racers kept repeating. Each loop got a little better, but I still missed a few cones along the way. Suffice to say, if I had been behind the wheel of a car in that scenario, I would have been issued a breathalyzer test. While that drill didn't breed a ton of confidence leading into the practice race, it certainly gave me something to work on at home.
Fortunately, I felt good physically. My training plan for most of the month involved five to six days of cycling and a lot of hard intervals to help raise my power and pacing. Like the month before, most of my training was done indoors (for efficiency and focus) and I had also been cross-training with swimming and doing a weight regime.
There have admittedly been a few hiccups along the way in the form of impromptu races, missed workouts, and extra days off. Every plan looks good on paper until life happens, right? There were days where I just didn't want to be on my bike or moments when I was thinking, “When will this madness end?!” Nothing good can come from a bad attitude though, so those were the days when I would give myself an extra day of recovery or hop in the pool instead. Since I started my training in January, I’ve hit most of my key workouts, and am thrilled with the progress I’ve made.
There's no turning back now. My official race debut is set for the next Driveway Series Ladies Night on May 7. As I learned at that first clinic, I just have to stay focused, trust the plan, and control my surroundings. Oh yeah, and try to have some fun.