First time racing for Texas A&M

Race Report by Mark McGraw

In early June 2010 I did a road race with my brother out in the Texas Hill Country at Doss, TX near Fredericksburg.  I had just joined the A&M cycling team (I’m an older than average grad student) and had just gotten the kit and my brand new USAC license.  My bro is a pretty experienced rider and we agreed to meet out there to do the road race.

Let me specify that this was not a “ride.”  I’m new to cycling but I know the difference.  I’ve done the charity rides and they’re great, but his was a race. For the serious dudes. The course featured two loops of a 22 mile course on farm roads with some cattle guards and water crossings. By some cattle guards I mean about 40. By water crossings I mean 1. There was also a twisty, steep downhill portion and many small hills. Oh, and one big nasty hill was about 6 miles into the course.

I had two goals that Norman Vincent Peale would be disappointed to see were stated negatively:

1. Don’t DNF. DNF is “Did Not Finish.”

2. Don’t DFL. DFL is “Dead Freakin’ Last (I believe).

Everything beyond that, for my first road race, would be gravy.

Race morning found us out at the start line warmed up and ready to go with our group of about 80 guys: Cat 4/5 over 35 years old. It was very warm and humid at 8 a.m., but the pastoral countryside is really beautiful this time of year. This is the Texas Hill Country people fall in love with and write songs about.

The gun went off for our group at 8:10 and we rode out in a dense pack. I’ve ridden plenty in a pace line, but was a little unnerved by having three or four guys on each side of me. A mile into the ride someone’s tire exploded with a loud bang and we maneuvered around him as he slowed down. Soon after that a guy to my left veered off the road and into the ditch. He was shrieking an expletive as the tall grass slowed him from 25 to 20 to 10 miles an hour. I didn’t see how he stopped. I felt like the guy in Jurassic Park who sees someone next to him get snatched up screaming in the jaws of a T-Rex. I just pedaled faster.

I wanted to stay with the peloton for as long as possible for obvious reasons.  At the first big hill, though, we all started to separate because the fastest guys wanted to shake off all the wheel-suckers. So 8 miles into the race I found myself separated from all groups and I fought like crazy to get caught up to a group of 6 guys. We worked together and took turns in the wind until about the 13 mile point, when, after a hard pull at the front up a hill, I couldn’t keep up with them. I tried, too, because I knew they were my ticket to a better finish.

I was absolutely cooked. They rode off from me. I watched, forlorn, as they pulled away like a train carrying a dear relative. I was now by myself. Normally, the thing to do would be to catch on with another group behind you and work together, but after so much chaos I didn’t know if there WAS another group. I never really seriously thought of quitting. That’d be a DNF and I was wearing A&M gear.  Not happening.

Completely obliterated and pouring sweat, I started on the second lap of the course, the final 22 miles. I started to re-climb the hills of the first lap and here’s where I learned a valuable lesson the hard way: if the course description contains the word, “hilly,” if the race is held in a place that is called “The Hill Country,” make very sure your bike can shift into its lowest two gears. I foolishly did not and my bike, alas, could not. It wasn’t a factor on the first lap when I was fresh and with other riders but now, with my quads devastated, when I desperately needed to shift into my easiest gear (my 25 tooth) to creep up a hill, the chain would dance back and forth between my two lowest gears (25 and 23) and my freewheel would rattle like Uncle Jed Clampett’s truck transmission. I weaved up the hardest hills in my 19 tooth gear, which I highly recommend as therapy for optimism. Early into my climb I saw two guys riding back down the hill toward me. They weren’t lost. They were quitting.

I saw no other riders for the remainder of the race. The natural, magnificent beauty of the Texas Hill Country had become a post-apocalyptic landscape swept clean of human life and viewed through a film of mucus and blood.

I eventually rolled into the finish and saw my brother, who had finished probably 20 minutes ahead of me. I doubt if it speaks well of me, but I could scarcely contain my surprise and delight when I saw that a few (a very few) guys from our group were coming in behind me, looking like the race had meticulously and thoroughly kicked every square millimeter of their behinds as it did mine. Not DFL.

It was a humbling and instructive experience that put a hurtin’ on me like few things I’ve ever done. So why am I looking forward to more racing?  Hmmmm.  I don’t know yet.  Ask me this spring.