Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Diary of a novice rider: Am I made for racing?

By Katy Pranian

(Novice rider Katy Pranian competed in her first-ever bicycle race May 11 at Portland International Raceway as part of the Masters' and Women's Monday night series. She sent Cycling Action this recollection of the experience).

I knew there were many reasons why I quit smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and using other drugs, but I never once thought that taking up bike racing at age 35 would have been one.

Last summer I switched from a mid '80s TREK 1000 that was too small for me -- and was equipped with downtube shifters and toe-clip pedals -- to a lightly used but very nice 2003 Litespeed Hyperion with full Ultegra and Miche 502 clipless pedals. Gone also were the Adidas running shoes, replaced by proper cycling shoes and cleats.

Since I made that switch and started riding with other avid cyclists and racers, I've been told things like, "Katy, you really are a fast rider ... you have nice downhill form ... you corner really well ... you really should start racing!"

So after a year of encouragement from my good friend Zan, a former Ironman finisher and now my constant riding companion, I finally joined Sorella Forte, Zan’s team, and entered my first race at PIR.

I had done several organized rides, like the Harvest Century and Monster Cookie and had been taught to draft and "chase down that wheel" and a handful of other really valuable tips from other women riders. The thought of racing started to seem less and less like a crazy idea and more like something entirely plausible, so I started talking about it with other Sorella riders on the Saturday morning RCB social rides. People kept telling me to go on out there and give it a shot, so I did. By the time Monday rolled around, however, I was questioning my sanity.

"I don’t even care about winning," I told myself as the race day approached. "Why am I doing this? I am not even really that competitive, honestly I think I will just race this one race. Folks will see that I am not really made for racing and then they will stop telling me those things."

All day long I was spinning in my head about it and couldn’t concentrate on anything. I kept imagining horrible crashes and being afraid of getting hurt, afraid of my bike getting wrecked, afraid of getting dropped, afraid of not being fast enough and afraid of my own fear.

We got there early for the women’s clinic. I signed up and joined in the clinic as they were talking about the pack and drafting and hand signals and not crossing wheels. We rode around the track together as the coaches watched us and gave us random tips. After the clinic, however, I was 10 times more confused and nervous than when I had showed up, as nothing the coaches had said made any sense to me. Suddenly, it was 6:20 p.m., Novice Women’s start time. Without knowing exactly what I was doing, I quickly positioned myself at the front and the whistle blew. Here we go!

I was immediately out in the front, and as the race got going, so did my nerves. My mouth was dry, my heart was racing and my breathing seemed out of control. Still, I hung in there and I actually managed to stay out in front and take the lead the first three times around. I had to work hard talking my breathing down, telling myself that I really needed to relax and take it easy. Once I was able to calm my breathing down, I focused on really seeing the whole course, trying my best to watch every rider in front of me, "not just the wheel in front of you" as they had told me. Being part of Sorella Forte made all the difference, because several times during the race, a team member would tell me, "Katy, get out of the wind, get back in here" or, "Go Katy, grab that wheel!"

Right before the last lap, one of the clinic coaches, who was riding with us during the race, came up behind me and put her hand on my back and kept it there as we were riding.

"I can see you are a very strong rider," she told me, "but you are wasting energy that should be saved for the end." I can’t remember what else she told me, but her hand was surprisingly comforting on my back, and her message was encouraging.

Things seemed to tighten up as the end of the race neared, and around the very last lap, right towards the end, I could tell folks were about to start going for it. I was looking for a hole and I found one. I made it through to the left of the pack and so did a few of my teammates and friends. Jen Ulrich was screaming at me to go, just screaming, "Katy GO! You can do it, GO!" If it weren’t for her screaming at me, I don’t know if I could have pushed it like I did at the end. And one thing I am kicking myself for now is that I forgot to stand up to sprint.

I placed 6th, Jen placed 5th and our friend Melissa took 3rd. The race was SUCH a rush, and I can’t believe I did so well, even if I did waste a bunch of energy at the beginning, starting "off like a rabbit" that no one wanted to chase, as they told me. I also had no idea that I would have it in me to want to win so badly. I was so spun out all week long from placing 6th, that it was all I could think about to do even better next time.

I still have a lot to learn, like working as a team, pulling my teammates and saving my energy and learning to really stand up and go for it at the end. I’m coming up on two years off of being a smoker for 14 years, I just raced in Silverton Sunday, and I can’t wait for my next race at PIR.

Oh, and did I mention that I love being a Sorella Forte!? Thanks Zan, Jen, MJ, Shari and Anne. You women are amazing!

(Race photos courtesy of Tim Schallberger).