James Scott, the organizer of the Blue Hills Cycling Club's time trial is trying to reassure me. “Don’t worry, time trials are fun. You won’t embarrass yourself. Really, it’s just a fitness test of you against the clock. See you Sunday.”
A time trial is like no other race, which is why I want to do one. Each rider is sent out one at a time, which means no hiding in the pack or relying on the rider in front of you to pull you along. Who’s strong, who’s having a bad day: it’s all there in plain sight. That’s why it’s called the race of truth.
James stopped racing after he graduated from college for all of the usual reasons: work, family and two young kids. A few years ago he got back onto the bike: “that’s when my obsession kicked in again and here I am. This kind of race is safe: you’re riding alone so there’s no one to crash into. Also, it starts at 8:00am on a Sunday morning and there aren’t too many cars on the road. As much as I love to ride, I have a lot to live for.”
The morning of my race of truth, I got up early and obsessed. Long sleeves or short? My usual bowl of oatmeal, or eggs? My stomach was doing somersaults, so I nibbled on a power bar.
I biked the 12 miles from my house to the starting line. It was far enough to loosen up my legs, but not so long that I’d be toast before I even began. James was tooling around the parking lot on his bike in what he called his full dork outfit: skintight racing suit, disc wheels (the kind you can’t see through), a helmet that looked like an elongated teardrop and aero bars. The former college racer looked fit and fast.
By 8 am five of us had gathered for this 7.2-mile race around Blue Hill. Can, Nick and Eric, went out before me, each sent out after a one-minute interval. James would go last which put me next. I lined up at the starting line while Jim, James’ father and our official scorekeeper, counted off the time: “Ten, five, four, three, two, GO!”
James had given me one piece of advice before the race: “Don't take off too fast or you’ll run out of steam before you finish.” Bikers call this bonking. It’s like hitting the wall in a marathon, that moment when you have nothing left in your tank. But how fast is too fast in a time trial?
I started off strong, I was going nearly 18 mph up the hill on Unquity Rd. and feeling pretty good. According to the gauge on my heart rate monitor I was in my red zone, which meant I was right at the edge of too fast.
1.8 miles into my race I saw James in my rear mirror. A tenth of a mile later he passed me. Somehow he had made up that one-minute gap in less than two miles. I smiled as he rode by but I don’t think he noticed. James was lost in competition.
A hundred yards up the road I saw the rider who had started out before me. My legs were on fire and my thighs ached but I did what all bikers do: I acted like this was nothing, like I could ride this fast all day. I smiled as I passed him and called out casually, “How are you doing?”
The last half mile was mostly downhill, and for that, I will always be grateful. Yep, I'd bonked. Gravity was my new best friend. Somehow I managed to maintain my lead over the rider behind me, but my smile had gone flat.
After we all clocked in, after the handshakes and exhilaration, after my ride home and a big lunch, I napped. Then I rode over to join the annual Brookline bicycle parade. I was too late for the main event down Beacon St., but I was there just in time for the younger kids’ parade around the block. A bike ride is a bike ride, right? I jumped in. All around me were tricycles with streamers and bicycles with training wheels. Not a stopwatch in sight, and everyone was smiling. Not to win, but to have fun. This, I thought, is the real race of truth.
Here are some other time trials in the area:
Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist.