race report: shuzenji, racing solo, and making mistakes

My riding this year has been a bit like a cycling cha-cha: two steps [pedalstrokes?] forward, one step back. Rinse and repeat. Things will be going perfectly, until I hit some hormonal or non-cycling life wall, and then I'll spend a week recovering. You could say it's almost like East German training where you're purposely overtrained, but mine has been without the supercompensation benefits.
Still, I had registered for a JCRC race this past weekend. Despite the fact that I didn't feel super strong or ready, it seemed like it'll be good practice. Never mind that I had quit my team a few weeks back and couldn't even hitch a ride to the race. I figured that I'll figure it out, because that's what I do.

Saturday afternoon, instead of some hardcore napping so I could wake up at 3am to get a ride down to Izu prefecture, I was experiencing the muscle-draining pain of traveling to a race solo. This meant hauling my disassembled bike, plus about 10kg of gear and clothes up and down flights of stairs and across two of the largest train stations in Tokyo. Three hours later, my sore shoulders crawled into a cab that drove me up to the Nihon Cycle Sports Center and where I'll crash for the night, the Cytel [as in, the Cycle Hotel. Get it?].

6,900 yen had purchased me a small room with a sink [communal bathrooms in the hallway and communal bath/showers on the third floor], plus two meals. Dinner in the dining room on the second floor was a truckload of food, with a Kazhak junior cycling team plus Singaporean Wai Mun and two Hong Kong track cyclists taking part in the UCI Continental Cycling Center training camp. Thankfully they weren't racing the next day, but the four middle-aged guys I shared a table with, were.

They came to breakfast the next morning full kitted-out [I was still in yoga pants]. I ate breakfast with a lump in my throat, told myself it was a good sign that salmon was on the menu, and got dressed.

Though the predicted rain had held off, wind was gusting around the course. Not a good sign for a non-climber in a climber's race. The women's [open] field was assigned a scant 10km [2 laps around a 5km circuit], with a total of 285m of climbing. Those sound like pussy numbers, but I never met anything over 3% that I didn't at least dislike.
Climbing to me has always been like the slightly creepy coworker who's always trying to hang out outside of work. "Look, I don't mind working with you because I have to," I always want to say when the grade starts to pitch up, "but that doesn't mean I'd actually choose to spend time with you." That's probably the point, and my tolerance has gotten better, but not quite race better. I was optimistic, though, because I did better than I expected at the same race last year.

Until, of course, I saw the field. Only two women [myself included] were racing unaffiliated [and coincidentally, on the only two steel bikes]. A pair of Zipp 404s and 303s would race for 1st place; that was almost painfully obvious before the gun even went off. My heart was rattling in nervousness and a touch of dread. In a field of ten, all save one other woman on carbon, all with Dura-Ace, I suddenly felt very alone. ["Did you at least have the best bike?" Josh would later ask, and price-wise, even with the used pair of Dura-Ace C24s I bought off Tobias a week before, it was a resounding "no."]
You know how last year I didn't make too many mistakes? Well, karma continues to be a bitch, because this year when the gun went off, I made every single mistake in the book. I fumbled [a lot] clipping in, managed to stay with the group and out of the wind on the first climb but got dropped like Wiggo on the descent. I was taking the S curves and hairpins so fast it felt like I was on a track, getting pressed into the corners, turning right, then left, then right again. They were in sight, but I couldn't bridge the gap, and on the second lap, I dropped my chain like a proper noob.

I came in a miraculous 8th [out of 10]. After changing and packing up my bike, I killed time waiting for my cab ride talking to a friend online, trying to laugh off my disappointment. "Top ten!" he said, adding, "I got a top ten at a pro race once, so we're like the same!" I laughed, and shook my head, because he's the strongest cyclist I know and he had won that race, too. We joked around and shot the shit for a little longer and between the typed out words there was a pulse of relief, the banishment of my silly fear that my friends would somehow like me less because I wasn't anywhere close to winning.
Dehydrated, exhausted, and sore, I spent the rest of my Sunday sleeping, watching TV, and mulling over lessons learned. Maybe next time, I've been telling myself, assuming I can afford it [the trip, including the race fee, cost me a touch over 30,000 yen]. For right now, though, I figure there's nothing wrong with little stumbling when you're learning the [cycling] cha-cha.

a racing start

“Oh but see, she’s dressed normally.”
It was a snippet of a conversation that I caught as I rode by two guys last Sunday morning, who were apparently discussing what cyclists wear. I guess I am dressed normally, I thought, as I shifted the overstuffed Baileyworks messenger bag on my shoulder layered over a t-shirt, a zip up hoodie, and jeans.
But then again, the next thought came somewhat slowly, it is 3:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
In twenty minutes, I would turn onto a still-dark street and meet a few teammates for the first time, before helping to load up a rented van with all of our respective bikes. 3:35 a.m. on Sunday morning [or is it still Saturday night?] will very rarely be an optimal time to be making introductions, but approximately three weeks ago, I had decided it would be a good idea to register for a race. It seemed like the thing to do when you join a race team.
I was, however, somewhat limited in my options for races. It was like being forced to choose a date from a drug rehab center: there were plenty of skinny heroin addicts [hill climbs], and a handful of meth heads [enduros], but given those options, I went with the guy that looked like he had just made a few bad decisions, had snorted a few too many lines of coke. Approachable and seemingly normal; a June crit organized by the Japanese Cycle Racing Club [JCRC] at the Shuzenji circuit in Izu.

It was probably a good thing that I had no idea what I was getting into. Reliable sources told me that the race was hilly, but since we would be racing clockwise [the “reverse” way], there would be three climbs of around 5% each, per 5km lap, instead of the 8-11% pitches if you did it the “right” way. No flat ground, just climbs and descents. But how bad could 15km be?
“Oh, yeah, and,” Eric added, when I met him for some intervals around the palace early one morning, “there’s a hairpin turn, too, plus kind of a corkscrew after that.”
I paled. I was quickly finding out exactly how unsavory my June date would be. But loathe to retract my intention to race, I registered anyway. We were already on the highway when I learned that the last climb to the finish line was more like 10% rather than my anticipated 5%. I almost jumped out of the speeding van. “I don’t want to waste any of your time,” I wanted to say, “really, just let me go home so I don’t embarrass any of you any more than is absolutely necessary.” Instead, I tried not to hyperventilate as I watched the sun come up on a Sunday morning from the back of a van packed with carbon wheels, race-ready frames, overstuffed backpacks and one lone steel bike.

Less than two hours later, we pulled up to the circuit. Located in Shizuoka prefecture, Shuzenji Cycle Sports Center is a multi-facility bike park with a top-class mountain bike course, a small dirt bike course, a 5 km circuit, and an indoor velodrome that serves as the training ground for a pro keirin school. Between the entrance to the park and the circuit, there’s even a mini rollercoaster and a carousel for the kids. Arriving before the gates opened, we all trekked to the bathroom to change into our kits, and for possibly the first time in my life, there was no snaking line outside the women’s room, although the men were all forced to line up outside.
Dressed and ready, we were sent to pick up our numbered helmet covers and sensor chips, and in reconning the course, I realized exactly how hard this was going to be. “Murderous,” was the first word that came to mind, followed by the phrase, “I am fucked,” as I realized that this was going to require a lot of shifting. In the front. Suddenly those seemingly unnecessary repeats of hills-that-are-probably-longer-than-any-climb-at-Shuzenji became almost useful, but useless because I clearly hadn’t done enough of them.

I marinated on this newly-gained knowledge of my first crit course as I watched and cheered on Mr. Yoshimura, Mr. Yamanoha, and Mr. Fujimaki race in their respective classes. Mr. Ishizuka showed up too, after riding the entire way from Tokyo to watch us race. Too soon it was 9:55 a.m., and I was lined up at the start line with seven other women. We started out as a group up the first climb, but I made the mistake of riding my brake through the descending turns, losing time. By the last 10% pitch, I was pulling up the rear and just about dropped when the girl a few feet in front of me dropped her chain. A courteous girl [“Oh, excuse me! Sorry!” she squeaked as I almost crashed into her] with thighs the size of my calves and Di2, I Contador-ed her and pulled myself up the climb as fast as my burning legs could turn over the pedals. Two more laps to go and I stuck my bike onto the next girl’s rear wheel.

By this point, the faster women were a good three minutes ahead, while the rest of the field had shattered. I passed two more women on the next climb and rode the rest of the race in the lonely, demotivating hell that is no man’s land. I was trying to climb faster than 8mph when Mr. Yoshida, racing in the top S class which started five minutes behind the women’s field, passed by in a small group of pink helmet covers.
“Kaiko. Keep going,” he said.
By the third lap, my lips were quivering from exertion but I stopped riding my brake on the descents. I managed to climb the last incline standing but still fumbled to the finish line in my little ring. “Fifth! You came in fifth!,” my new teammates told me. “Oh,” was the most I could manage, afraid that if I said anymore, I would start dry heaving. I sat in the grass for the next 20 minutes, feeling nauseous and regretting every swallow of iced tea as Mr. Yoshida went around and around and around. We shouted and clapped every time he passed us, until, twelve laps later, he vanquished our team by coming in third.

An hour and a half later, I collected a certificate for coming in within the top 6, and posed for a few awkward photos. We all snapped shots of Mr. Yoshida’s third place finish before packing our bikes back into the van for the trek home. A few hours [with a tongue lashing for general incompetence] later, we were back at the shop. Exhausted, sweaty, and running on fumes, even as we cradled still-fresh disappointment, we were already talking about next time.

I woke up yesterday with cranky muscles and sunburn. But between the rewriting, editing, and proofreading, I stared out of my office building window, counting the weeks remaining, and intervals necessary, for July.