Well almost none of my fears were realized. I did get dropped, and pretty early, too. But I managed to catch a small group and work my way midway through that before the pack broke up.
There were only two other women racing, so they combined our race with the cat 5 men. That downgraded our distance from 60 miles (2 laps) to 30 (one lap). I wasn't too excited about that, because I needed a long ride for training purposes today, and 60 miles would have been perfect. But as I talked with my teammates, I quickly began to appreciate the fact that my first road race would be considerably shorter than I had earlier planned.
Absolutely no pomp accompanied the start. We scooted up to the line for roll call and sat for a minute. Then one of the officials noticed that the hand cyclists were coming to the finish, and said, "Okay, we're gonna start a little early so we can clear out for the hand bikes. Cyclists read? Go!" And we went. There were a couple dozen of us, mostly cat 5 men, us three women, and one junior male. The start was much more gentle than I expected, given what I've seen of cyclo-cross, where you start with an early sprint for position.
Within the first quarter mile, there's a sharp turn and a steep hill. Then there's another hill, and another, and another . . . the whole course is rolling. Now admittedly, "rolling" in Kansas is sort of a separate thing from "rolling" in, say, a place where there actually hills. But the course was still pretty tough, because the hills just keep coming. There's no recovery on the entire course; the whole thing seems like it's up and down, and the downs are never quite long enough.
Anyway, someone jumped on one of the early hills, and everyone tried to stay with him, which stretched the field out considerably. And I--climber that I am--completely lost the group. Yep. I got dropped in the first five minutes.
There was some really nasty self-talk during that period. "I suck. Why did I even come out here? I'm not a roadie, I'm not a cyclist. I'm a triathlete. Guess teaching cycling classes all the time doesn't help me that much. I might as well just settle in for a $30 training ride and call it a day." This low point was compounded by the fact that the wheel vehicle passed me at about this time, following the rest of the racers. Man that sucked.
But I saw a couple of other riders up ahead, and figured I could work my way back up to them. And one of them happened to be my cross yoda, so that gave me further incentive to catch them. It took several minutes, but I finally hopped onto their (short) paceline and we all worked through, taking our own turns pulling. After another few miles, we caught the other two girls, who were working together (I assume). We picked them up, along with another guy, somewhere along the way (although he dropped off the back pretty quickly). So we had a pack of six, for a while.
And that was nice. I'd pacelined before, but never at this intensity level. I'd never experienced the difference between working so hard for a short time, then sitting in and recovering. No wonder intervals are so important to cycling.
We got within about 7 miles of the finish before I got dropped again. We'd just come down a long hill (very glad we didn't have to go up that one, by the way). I was second in line, and one of the other women was leading. We started up another hill, and she kept gaining on me. The rest of the pack was dropping back, too, and I called out, "Gap!" At that point, though, she was in her own rhythm and climbing on her own. She broke away and we never caught her.
The other woman was right behind me, with the rest of our pack (only two men left, at this point) falling farther and farther behind. I started pursuing Shannon, but she put more and more time into me going up that hill. We crested the hill (my heart was thumping and I could barely turn my legs). I thought that I might be able to catch her on the downhill, but it wasn't long enough. We came quickly to another hill, and she pulled away some more. She was gone, unless there was a long (really long!) flat stretch coming up (there wasn't) and I could keep her within striking distance (I couldn't).
But at this same time, the other chick was right behind me. She'd pass me on the uphills, I'd pass her on the downhills and flats. We finally hit a long downhill with a slight flat stretch immediately following, and I dropped her by about 50 meters. I thought I had her.
Then we hit the inevitable next hill. She blew past me with no apparent effort. Just out for a pleasure cruise. I kept her within striking distance for about the next mile, but there were just too many hills. Towards the end, I could see them cresting the hills ahead, and the chaser was catching the lead woman (I found out later that the lead woman had dropped her chain).
The wheel vehicle passed me again, and I began vascillating between bouts of "You can still catch 'em! C'mon, in the drops, and work this next downhill!" and "Oh God. I suck. I want this to be over." I started looking for landmarks that would tell me the end was near. Finally, we passed Latham cemetary, and I knew we were within a mile of the end. I could still see the other two women, could even see them as they crossed the finish line, but it was definitely too late to catch them. With that knowledge firmly in my mind, I settled into my drops to make sure that I finished as strongly as possible.
I didn't sprint, at the end. I've got a one-hour run scheduled for later today and a 2800 m swim tomorrow--not to mention the time trial and crit, the other two elements of the Wichita Stage Race. Considering that my position (3rd place AND last place; woohoo!) was set, it seemed unnecessary for me to kick it to the end with tomorrow's races looming on the horizon. Better to save some juice for a finish at the TT than blow it on looking good at the finish line today.
So that was my first foray into road racing. I hope it won't be the last, but it probably won't be a regular thing. I'm just not strong enough. If I concentrated on building some biking power, I might be able to hang a little better. But I'm a triathlete, still, and I like the challenge of putting all three sports together. Maybe as I improve as a triathlete, I'll improve as a cyclist, too; in fact, I know I will. It's only a matter of time.