Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Rookie's Nationals Race Report

By Kat Hunter

At races, sometimes I look around at the women in the pro peloton and wonder how they stay in love with the sport day after day, year after year, crash after crash. No money, very little fame, and so much work… This season, my first racing at this level, has been a struggle, and I have a much lighter race schedule than most.

Like the majority of women pros, I’ve got a few other hats to go along with the helmet. I find myself resenting the toll that the training and the racing takes: the time away from my son, the strain on my marriage and writing career, the injury and fatigue, the expense, the intense pressure, and of course the many disappointments and failures that outweigh any successes ten-fold.

But even in the darkest hours, it has its moments. The national time trial and road race championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on May 23 and May 25 were not good results for me, but along with my disappointment, I left feeling a sense of honor. I’d raced two national championship events with the best female cyclists in the country, and I was part of a really good team, Visit Dallas p/b Noise4Good. In the time trial, my teammate Amber Neben—former world time trial champion—was on the podium in third. In the road race, my teammates Beth Ann Orton and Anna Grace Christiansen were in the early “TV” breaks, Anna Sanders made the selection the first time up Lookout Mountain to finish 15th, and Amber was the driving member of the winning move, placing fourth overall.

Racing as a rookie in the pro peloton, I find myself on the rivet more than I would have imagined possible. I can’t describe the pain well enough to do it justice. See me in person, maybe, and we can experiment with boiling water and a table saw? There’s an end to every tunnel, though, and while I probably won’t come away with medals and tales of personal glory, I’ll have the memories of, however briefly, being in the midst of it all.

TT, Saturday May 23:

I used to think of myself as a time trialist, the longer the course the better, but on the national scene, very short, prologue-style TTs are my wheelhouse. I don’t have the aerobic engine that the true time trialists do, and if it’s too steep or too long of a hill climb, the “little people,” as I call them in my head, have the advantage given my height. My recipe for success—which for me is a top 10 finish on a TT versus a top 25—is short, a little hilly, and not technical.

So if you were to say that my recipe for a perfect TT was the makings of a chocolate pie, the Nats TT course would have been eggs and grits with a side of bacon: 19 miles long, mostly flat, with lots of turns. I had limited expectations. But knowing that I wasn’t going to podium didn’t change the fact that I wanted a respectable time.

On the start list, I was just ahead of the heavy hitters, starting 29th out of 40 riders. I would follow Amber Miller (Pepper Palace) and be chased by my teammate Beth Ann Orton. USAC determines starting order first by placement in the previous year’s national championship event, and then by USAC points for the year. On a side note, this meant that Kristen Armstrong (Twenty16), who’d been in retirement in 2014 and hasn’t competed in other big races this season, started third in a separate wave about an hour and a half before the other top competition, which inspired grumbling from all corners. Setting a course record, Armstrong took the overall win by 13 seconds and the one qualifying spot for the world championships. (VeloNews does some partial reporting on this here, and Cyclingnews does a better job here.)

This is the third year Chattanooga has hosted the national championships, so most riders and teams were familiar with the courses. I’d gotten to pre-ride three times the day before and once the morning of, so I was too. The course was two times around a 9.5-mile loop with a total of eight turns per lap (including turnarounds): starting at the Volkswagen plant, going through an industrial sector, continuing on to a lonely, wooded road, and then turning around to go back through it all again to pass the start/finish on the other side, go up a hill, go down the hill, take a nasty left, and then a short straight to the line, at which point you either started your second loop or were done… If you’re a little confused, just wait till I describe the road course.

I didn’t feel half as good the morning of the TT as I had during my warm-up the day before. I knew, however, that the way I feel before the start often has no bearing on how I’ll perform in a TT, and I told myself this as they sent me down the ramp and out onto the course. But I couldn’t settle into a rhythm physically or mentally. I knew I was taking the corners badly, and I knew the riders who started one minute ahead and one minute behind were putting time on me because I could see where they were in relation to me at the turnarounds. The course felt so long.

Kat in the TT. 
Photo by Ali Whittier,
on instagram and
Just as I hit the next-to-last stretch of road on the last lap—a gradual climb where I knew I needed to start wringing out what I had left in my legs—I noticed a rider to my left moving so slowly I thought maybe she wasn’t in the race. I’d never been passed so…microscopically. I knew she had started a couple of minutes back and would be far higher than me on the standings, so eventually I eased off a bit. But when she was ahead, she slowed even more. I’d gone from about 265 watts to 245, and I could feel my heart rate coming down. Here, at the end of the race! I also worried I’d get penalized for drafting. I didn’t want to interfere with her race, but mine wasn’t over just because she was ahead of me on the clock. I decided to pass before the next wide turn through the rotary, but as I started to go around to the left, she sped up again and said in a clear and catty voice, “You can’t get in my way!” If I’d been physically able to speak, I would have said, “Well, GO then!!!” I followed her through the next two turns, which she also took slowly, and she left me on the big climb.

My head was in a fog. Feeling angry and frustrated and despondent, I rode to the right on the climb because I knew my teammate Beth Ann would be passing me soon as well. Instead, within seconds it was my other teammate Amber Neben blowing by like a train. She’d started FOUR minutes behind me. (She would finish 18 seconds back for third place behind Armstrong and Carmen Small.) Now everything that I usually felt at the end of a time trial—that final burst of adrenaline and excitement and generally wanting to die—was replaced by an overwhelming sense of defeat. Beth Ann was coming around too. I’d been swarmed, passed by all these better, faster riders like a centenarian on a mountain bike. And then, perhaps too late, I remembered this was the last chance to empty the tank, since the downhill and turn into the finish was fast. I repassed Beth Ann but she was close behind at the turnaround, which I of course took slowly, so I just ended up getting in her way. By that point I felt like my race had been one giant sinking ship. I wanted to cry after I crossed the line, but I didn’t.

The tears came later that night. One of the biggest adjustments for me this year has been the nature of travel and accommodations at national events. Racing in the past, I always had a car, and I usually had a separate place to stay. On a pro team, you end up sharing space and food and sometimes a bed with other team members. Housing can be a luxurious mansion with a host family feeding you every night, or a crowded motel with bed bugs and cigarette burns on the sheets. I’m a light sleeper (which wasn’t a factor at Nats because I had my own room at a very lovely host house), the only vegetarian on the team, and an introvert who needs independence and quiet time like oxygen and water. These national races make me feel like a fish who’s not only been taken out of its bowl, but put in a circus arena to perform on the trapeze.
After the TT, Beth Ann and I stopped by Wal-Mart, then went back to our host house with just enough time to eat a small lunch and take a rushed shower before we drove to the central host house for massages. In the world of pro cycling, massage between and before races is considered a necessity. I’m not accustomed to the practice at home, but I like it under normal circumstances. This day, however, I was feeling like I should have opted out in favor of a nap. Beth Ann said she was tired too, and why didn’t we just take the car and go grab something to eat in town when we were both done with the massages, and then go straight back to our house? This made me happy because it put what I would eat under my control, and it meant getting to bed early. I played around on my laptop for a while, but when I went in search of Beth Ann after a few hours had passed, she said the plans had changed and Amber had gone to the grocery store to buy steaks. The word “steaks” hit me like a wrecking ball. Now it clicked, why Amber had asked if I needed anything, and said she’d get me veggie patties. It would be eight at night before we even started cooking.

"Don't worry, you'll grow into it."
I started putting peanut butter on a dried-out bagel in the kitchen, and that’s when I lost it. I ducked out of the house and behind some bushes so no one would see and I wouldn’t have to explain why I was crying. Even I wasn’t sure. Was I crying about red meat, or because I was tired, or because I wished I could be with my husband and son? Was it because I’d disappointed myself in the TT, or because I’d disappointed others? Was it because I’d had a bad race, or was it because I’d had a bad season? This is one of the most unfortunate things about female biology, or mine at any rate—emotions and frustrations turn into tears that only serve to cause further distress and embarrassment. What’s nice, at least, is that most women cyclists will tell you they’ve had these moments and you’re not alone.

I asked Beth Ann to ferry me home in the car. In the end, I didn’t have the energy to make more food, so I ate a bowl of cereal and some snacks and went to bed.

Road race, Monday May 25:

The Nats road course was remarkably complex. Even after a pre-ride with the team on Sunday, looking at the map it didn’t completely make sense to me. So I went with the strategy that’s been my modus operandi all year: I’d just cross that bridge when I got there.

Three circuits in downtown Chattanooga, two big loops (which included most of the circuit again), and three more circuits downtown: that was the big picture. The circuit downtown would be crit-like, with lots of turns, and at one point overlapped itself. Across a bridge over the river was Kent Hill, a steep wall that we would crest each lap for a total of eight punches to the gut. Jack had somehow commissioned a chalked “Kat Go Fast” on the pavement there. My two-year-old son’s way of saying “Go fast,” one of his favorite phrases, is unique—I knew I’d hear it in his voice if I had the opportunity to see the chalk on the way up.

The two big loops would take us up Lookout Mountain, with something like 1,000 feet of climbing in about three miles. The descent after was long and twisty and very fast. At the bottom we would head straight back to downtown and Kent Hill, and then back up again to see Lookout Mountain one more time or, on the second big loop, would start the finishing circuits. All total, it would be about 70 miles. My plan for this challenging and complicated course was simple: stay with a group because otherwise I might end up in Georgia.

At the start of the race I was shuffled rather quickly to the back, though at times I worked hard to not be the absolute caboose. The worst part was going down the steep hill after Kent and into the left-hand turn at the bottom. The field would string out there, and the most I could do was tuck behind someone who still seemed to have forward momentum and hammer. After the descent, there was a gradual uphill and a right turn onto a windy bridge, so it was a fairly long stretch of hard riding.

Amber in the winning break.
Photo by Ali Whittier,

on instagram and
I’ve come to understand that in the hour or so before a race I often channel my nervous energy into an obsession about something that’s still under my control, like whether I should or shouldn’t eat something, or going to the bathroom as close as possible to the start so I won’t have to go during the race (since I’m also obsessive about missing a start time, that means I’ll line up at the porta potties to pee, then line up again immediately after if I see there’s still time to go again). Before the Nats road race my fixation was saddle height. One of the problems with flying a bike is that you have to take it completely apart and put it back together again when you land. Something had felt off on Sunday's pre-ride, and that morning before the race I decided I would measure my saddle and adjust it because I wasn’t sure the electrical tape I’d marked it with was right. But then after I did, I was worried the eleventh-hour change would be a mistake, so I moved it back… My saddle immediately felt fine as soon as we were on the road, of course, but within a mile or two I could tell something was off with the shifting. I hadn't noticed it warming up on the trainer, but when climbing—especially when we reached Lookout Mountain—my two easiest gears would skip, and were essentially unusable.

On the first three circuits, each time we approached the Kent Street hill I made an effort to shift as early and smoothly as possible. The hill was steep enough that you’d have to run your bike up if you didn’t have momentum coming into it, so one of my worst case scenarios was dropping my chain near the bottom and having to jog up past all the spectators. I’m not a cross racer.

The first time we got to Lookout Mountain, the group seemed mostly together, but within a few minutes riders were quickly shedding one by one. The climb is long and brutal, and as you take a right turn onto the last section to the top, it seems to be at its steepest.

What do you tell yourself, when everything hurts and your resolve begins to slip? What excuse do you embrace and hold tight to your wounded ego? Your shifting, your bike, your breakfast, your warmup, your coach... And then, about ten seconds later, when your resolve breathes again as you see your competition ride away from you? Your pride spurs you forward and you're moving again, but by then it's too late.  

I was close to the group at the top. I could see the selection of 20 or so riders reach the stop sign and take a right turn onto the descent. I really wasn’t that far off, I told myself. I could make it back. A photo in Cyclingnews shows me at that point with a painful grimace riding just behind Carmen Small (Twenty16)—said to have been feverish and throwing up the night before, which explains why she was in my neck of the woods.

But no…there would be no catching up to anything with my Texas-born-and-bred descending skills, and I knew as soon as a few pods of riders had rocketed past me that even if I’d made it to the top of the climb with the group, I wouldn’t have been able to stay with them after. Taylor Phinney crashed on one of the turns in the 2014 race and broke his leg. I figured attempting top speed was another good way for me to end up in Georgia, this time by impromptu flight.
A pre-race photo of Kent Hill - "Kat Go Fast" to the left
By the bottom I was with two other riders, one of whom I recognized as Julie Emmerman (Rally Sport Cycling Team). We could see a group of other stragglers up the road. Not knowing that Twenty16 riders were setting a hard tempo at the front of the peloton, I still had the hope that we could catch back on. This is where I left the rest of my legs, I think, taking big pulls and steadily digging a hole for myself that I wouldn’t be able to crawl out of. We caught the handful of other riders that had been ahead of us close to the bottom of that hateful Kent Street wall. Here I started to realize that I had cooked my goose, and even as I saw the “Kat Go Fast” chalk for the first time, I knew I was beyond encouragement. I was at the tail end of the little group and slow through the turn at the bottom of the next hill with enough of a gap to lose them, and from there until we reached the bottom of Lookout again—which was a really long and lonely way, I might add—I was completely on my own. We’d been warned that the officials would “ruthlessly” pull us from the race if we were outside of the caravan or in danger of getting lapped on the circuits. I’d kept the group at a steady distance for a while, really pushing again because I thought the officials might pull us at the start/finish...but no, my wooden legs were going to see every inch of that hateful mountain again.

At the start of Lookout, a group that had been behind caught me, and many of them passed me, and then more passed me. I trickled down the mountain and onto the flat with the last wheels I could hang on to, and when they finally pulled us at the start of the downtown circuit I gave a silent cheer and leaned over and let my lower back spasm for a bit. Usually I’d always rather see a race through to its end, but not this one.

I watched my teammate Amber’s performance on the final circuits from the TV screens at the finish line. They’d televised the entire race, and the broadcast was of very good quality. I learned that Amber had pushed the pace so hard the second time up Lookout that she'd blown the field completely apart—only five riders were left in the lead group going into the final circuits. It was Evelyn Stevens and Megan Guarnier, both on Boels Dolmans, Tayler Wiles (Velocio-SRAM), and Coryn Rivera (UnitedHealthcare). That left the remaining Twenty16's and a host of other incredibly talented riders chasing for no better than sixth place. Evelyn Stevens made a strong solo attack late in the race on Kent Street and got away until just a few kilometers to go. Amber worked hard to catch her, with all but Wiles just sitting on, and then after Stevens was caught, aggressively tried to initiate another move. When Amber, Rivera, Wiles, and Guarnier were coming to the line for a sprint finish, I knew that Amber would take fourth, but I also felt like it had ultimately been her race. She’d laid everything on the table, and the gamble hadn’t worked out perfectly, but she’d played to win. Guarnier and Rivera came to the line neck and neck, with Wiles following close behind for third; Guarnier would go home as national champion.

You can read Amber's full report here, a nice change of pace since it’s from the front of the race rather than the back.

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