Submitted by Crystal Anthony
The best athlete
wants his opponent at his best…
…All of them embody
the virtue of non-competition.
Not that they don’t love to compete,
but they do it in the spirit of play.
In this they are like children
and in harmony with the Tao.
-Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching
“Do we go?” Cynthia Nelson looked over at me, then over her shoulder as we crested the three-mile climb, the first of five on the day in the 100k road race. The max 20% grade had flicked one rider after another off the back of the group until there were just six of us heaving breathlessly at the top. I just nodded and we plunged down the descent, gradually organizing into a paceline together to keep the tempo quick and maintain the separation from the rest of the field. With Cynthia in 1st GC, myself in 2nd, and the others being strong riders it seemed we had a good chance to make a successful break. However, 3rd GC was in the chase as well as several other good riders, and with a long descent ahead we had to be aggressive. In just my third road race ever, I didn’t think much about the decision and simply went with my gut instinct.
There at 17 miles, the mission began. A rhythm developed as we circled through, each of us pushing through the discomfort, our legs still rattled from the climb but our determination set to push all the way to the finish. Approaching the base of the second climb, one just as nasty as the first, the peloton was still out of sight behind. As the grade ramped up to as much as 18%, Cynthia and I found ourselves hauling the group up the slope. While I felt strong, and Cynthia made it look effortless as she spun, seated, up the entire climb, I knew I would crack without everyone’s pitching in. “Come on, everyone’s got to work!” I yelled. At times, competing requires an enormous amount of cooperation and generosity. When those around you are at their best and you are all working synergistically, there can be an element of play as Lao Tsu suggests. I enjoyed exerting pulls until my legs burned yet equally enjoyed the relief when the next rider’s wheel slipped in front of me. With a united goal, we became a temporary, composite team.
Having taxed myself up the climb, my legs gave in on the descent and I dropped off the back of the small group. Elle caught up to me and we rotated for a while, but eventually the extra work of pulling up the climb caught up to me anew. The follow vehicle lingered close behind, threatening to pass us if we didn’t latch on soon. This motivated me to strain for a few minutes, but eventually I told Elle I was toast. She made a strong pull all the way up the four riders and our paceline resumed once again. After taking in some gels, my legs bounced back quickly.
Over halfway through the race our alliance had solidified and our collaboration became efficient. As we flew along, everyone making valuable contributions, Lao Tsu’s words again seemed ever wise: I wanted everyone at her best! Obviously, in this situation it made sense in that it helped us all beat the field. However, as we rolled closer to the finish line, and our group goal had clearly been achieved, did that maxim still hold true? Did I really want all of them at their best? Oddly, I wasn’t thinking, I hope rider “x” is tired, or I hope she can’t sprint. For some reason, the strength of the group made me feel strong as well, and I approached thinking, “hey of course I can sprint.” In some way, everyone raised the bar for what we expected of each other and ourselves.
In contrast, in the TT, having started second and then passed the rider ahead several miles in, I had no target. While I worked what I thought was my hardest to the finish, I know that I always dig deeper when I see a rider ahead or when I’m trying to beat a specific time or number. At the same time, riders ahead that are too much stronger can be a source of discouragement as they pedal further from view! For example, in my debut crit last year, the cornering speed and maneuvering of the race overwhelmed me whereas in the Bennington crit, I actually felt the pace was comfortable allowing me to practice navigating the field, trying out different positions, 2nd wheel, 3rd wheel, middle of the pack, even leading. To my surprise, I felt most comfortable on the front as I could control the race, and no one was challenging the pace so I didn’t have to waste myself breaking wind. Racing cross had also improved my handling skills significantly, helping me to overcome some of my crit phobia! Overall, the weekend was just the type of racing in which the level of competition was just high enough to stretch my skills and fitness a bit.
Perhaps I was overly focused on the uplifting feeling of this spontaneous teamwork, or perhaps just lacking in road racing experience, but I had not adequately strategized my finishing tactics as we turned left for the 500-meter uphill sprint to the line. The next thing I knew I was leading into the corner and the group was lingering behind. Oops. Suddenly realizing it was a poor position, I jumped immediately, figuring my only chance was to take advantage of the gap. Sadly, my sprint faded a bit too soon. Elle finished 3rd and I 4th.
Debriefing later with my brother Jesse, I was able to see the race through the lens of his experience. With the second fastest time of the day in the TT, I had gone into the crit down 31 seconds, with about as much time between myself and 3rd place. During the crit, I had snuck in two time bonus sprints to gain back 12 seconds on the leader. Thus, I entered the road race needing to make up 19 seconds. While it was gratifying in a way to work together and survive a long break, perhaps I hadn’t really thought about the big picture of trying to win the stage race and make up the 19 seconds on the leader. I had focused so intently on making it to the finish in the break that I didn’t stop to consider all the ramifications of such a mission. To protect my own interests and go for the win, it didn’t really make sense for me to be working so hard to keep away from the peloton. I didn’t need to make up time on them, but rather on the leader. So the learning continues, but it was a positive experience (or should I say, an experience harmonious with the Tao) for my first “stage race.” Jim Marshall organized a great new event with the Bennington Race Weekend and I hope next year the women’s field is even larger and stronger, and of course, each competitor is at her best!