After Ironman 70.3 World Champs I stayed in Germany and spent a solid week riding my bike. I was nervous. After hearing Aaron’s stories from the summer’s world cups in Europe I wasn’t sure how I would handle road racing on a tandem. I was pretty confident in the time trial, but piloting a tandem in a group was going to be completely new. Like the time trial, I would need to communicate every move ahead of time – something that takes getting used to as years of cycling turn many of these decisions into instinct. Riding alone, I want to shift and I shift. Riding with Aaron, I want to shift gears and I say “shift” as I click so Aaron and I can both ease off the pedal for a split second (the same split second). The same is true for turns, pot-hole avoidance, pedaling effort, coasting, how hard to lean the bike, when to stand, sit, etc. And that’s just for time trialing!
Put me in a road race and suddenly I’m communicating what other teams are doing, how hard to pedal to stay an inch off another bike’s wheel, when to brake, how hard to lean, what team is next to us, when to attack, when to settle in and when I see another team making a move. The prospect of learning to do this for the first time in a world cup, when the result actually mattered, was terrifying.
The time trial came first. We had a couple chances to ride ahead of time and I was immediately struck by the metamorphosis that had happened in Aaron since our race in Chattanooga at the National Championshps. In Tennessee Aaron was tentative and kept telling me not to take too many risks. I was the aggressive one telling him we could go faster through turns and get more speed on the downhill sections. In South Africa our roles were reversed. Our entire first day of riding was spent with Aaron encouraging me to lean harder, to go faster, to “trust the bike”. Had I gotten much more risk averse? More likely Aaron and Colin had been thrown into the ocean and forced to swim. Aaron was relentless. We practiced the turns over and over and even when the tires were squeaking on rough pavement Aaron kept asking for more. “Let’s try it again, we will have to go faster than that in the race.”
Race day came, and we did really well. The time trial was closer than I could have imagined. We took second in a 30 minute time trial with first place just 10 seconds ahead and third and fourth just three seconds behind. Suddenly I wished I’d listened to Aaron and taken those turns just a little harder, accelerated from the turns just a little faster, and been more aggressive to pass other athletes on the course. Ten seconds? It feels like nothing.
Two days later was the road race. I might have had a panic attack, but Aaron calmed me, and we focused on what we could. Aaron insisted I take the lead and do more than our share of the work in the beginning so that we could get used to the turns and being in the pack. It was smart because, unlike the time trial course, we didn’t have a chance to preview the road course.
It was no problem, as it turned out. We had been marked after our time trial result and the rest of the teams let us stay in front despite the leisurely pace we set on the first two laps. As the field started to mix and rotate I realized it was not much different from a criterium. My instincts on the tandem were quickly taking form and I was no longer struggling to think out loud to communicate with Aaron. “easy… right turn… speed bump… lean… hard left… Australians coming up… let’s go… give me more… GO GO GO…” Aaron was almost silent throughout the race, giving me information only as needed. He reminded me to drink water, pulled a gel from my pocket to keep my hands on the bars longer, told me when he could hear a bike coming up beside us, and made sure I knew when to grab bottles from the feed zone. Over four days I could feel our muscles beginning to sync.
The course had a short climb and a long descent. A few 90 degree turns and one long left at the bottom of a really fast descent. A few days earlier I would have been terrified, but by the time the road race came around we were flying through that left at 40+mph with the bike laying over and skipping over the rough pavement. My adrenaline was through the rough every time we went through that turn, but I was having a blast.
After six laps we made a turn and flatted. Luckily it was right before the feed zone and our coach was able to put on a new wheel and get us moving in 35 seconds. We knew catching back on would be hard – one of the two Spanish teams had already broken away so the pack was working together and moving fast – yet after a lap were were just 15 seconds behind. Another lap and we were less than 10 seconds behind, and on the short hill we within reach when we dropped a chain due to the different chain-line on the pit wheel. The gap went back to ten and it took another lap to close it. We finally did catch back on, but it was at the base of the hill and when Great Brittain attacked up the hill we had no matches left to burn. We fell back with the Dutch team.
For most of a lap I tried to get the Dutch to work with us. They are superb time trailers, but as the gap to Great Britain, Canada and the second Spanish team grew we realized we had to ditch the Dutch and go back to time trialing. With four laps left in the race our legs were shot. As I saw my power numbers tanking I felt like I was letting Aaron down. Our pedal strokes became inefficient and out of sync and the bike started to feel heavy beneath us. We pushed to the finish and I nearly fell off the bike. We were fifth. Aaron’s best World Cup finish.
I had so much fun at these races. I’ve spent much of my travel home planning how Aaron and I can get more time together on the bike. I don’t know what would have happened without that flat tire, but I can’t wait to find out what we can do with a little more time together on the bike.
This weekend we go back to multisport. Aaron and I will race the ITU Paratriathlon World Championships back home in Chicago just a few days from now. We haven’t done much swimming or running, but we sure will be ready to ride fast on the bike!