4 am is early. Even if you’re not fully used to your new time zone and you think it should still feel like noon. It doesn’t. It’s early, too early.
At the pre-race briefing on Sunday night we received our launch times. Karen managed to pick a time somewhere in one of the early groups that start launching at 7 am, and I picked a time that was closer to the last launches around 9 am. So, it was all hands on deck to get out for Karen’s launch.
First step was food, and luckily I had family that had brought me food as breakfast at 4 am was not about to be found anywhere in town. I wanted to make sure that I was well nourished with plenty of time to have it all digested so I could get as much energy as possible and not risk any ill effects. But, eating at 4 am is a struggle, especially as a normal bedtime for me is around 3 am. Yes, dealing with time was going to be a challenge. Every day, a new challenge.
Life seems to be much slower at 4 am. Unsettled. And I can’t stress enough how hot it was in Battle Mountain; so much so that I had to sleep with the air conditioning on. But, at 4 am this remote town was cool and refreshing and I could enjoy some quiet cool air with the door open, the A/C off as sat in my hotel doorway munching away on hard boiled eggs and gluten free cinnamon bread watching the stars thinking how amazing it was that all this had come together and that I was here.
In that calm state, it slowly dawned on me that not only did that early morning feel slow, it was, or rather, I was. Sitting there, time had flown by and no doubt I probably nodded off a bit. So, I scrambled to get my riding gear on. Taking no chances on delays down the line, I’m race ready in my room. I’m calm, quiet, cool, and ready to ride with no bike in sight. Glancing at the clock, I see I have time before my designated pickup time. So I lay down on the bed and rest, trying to feel centred, relaxing my arms and shoulders, and visualising State Route 305 rushing by in a blaze of glory.
Knock, knock, knock came the gentle tap at my half open door. My driver had arrived. How posh it is that I had a driver!
“Are you awake, it’s time to race?”
“Aye, just resting and visualising setting a world record”
True be told, I wasn’t awake. Not really. I was in was a bit of a daze heading out to the course as the sun rose, seeing the desert pass by, trying to spot the critical zones that I’d been shown over the weekend when we’d recced the course.
Arriving at the start point, the team began to set up for Karen’s launch. Most of the teams are there as well, from the large teams like Delft down to the smaller teams made up of a single rider and family supporting. Race officials are out and about keeping everyone in check and making sure that all the launches will abide by the very strict time schedule. The makeshift car park is quite the hub of excitement and energy. Sitting in the car with my eyeshade on, slipped up to my forehead, I see Karen across the way warming up on her bike and rollers. Many other riders are doing the same; some like Karen on boards protecting them from dust while others are in the back of freight trucks and vans. A plethora of amazing bikes are being tinkered with and finessed by engineers left and right… the excitement is intense. And I’m going back to sleep.
With well over an hour before I need to even start getting ready I crawl into the back of our truck, thankful that it’s the size of the Titanic, and try to get some sleep, muttering to one of the team, “Tell Karen I said good luck.” It was a fitful rest. I don’t know if it was the excitement, feeling like I was missing out on the start, feeling the pressure of everyone’s and my own expectations, or the seatbelt poking me in the back, but I didn’t get much more sleep. But what I did get was much appreciated.
Finally, I decided it was time to get up. I managed to see Karen just as she was getting situated in Arion4, ready for launch. Suddenly, I’m feeling this is getting real. The first couple of bikes launch and I know I need to get prepped. Our team is divided; some are at the finish to help with catch and to bring Arion4 back for me. Some are helping at launch and prepped to be in the chase car. A couple are here with me. I’m feeling out of place without a bike I can warm up on but luckily Anwar, one of our visual systems engineers comes by to help me with my resistance band warm up.
I don’t want to do too much, just loosen the muscles. Given that sleep was short, tension is high; it’s all about finding the right balance, with no reference at all, as to how much I’m going to have to warm up without starting to deplete my energy stores too early. And by warm up, I mean warm up. Contrary to most of what I’ve experienced of Battle Mountain so far, it’s quite cold out. I ask Anwar about the launch and Arion4. He’s calm and cool; almost shrugging it off like it’s no big deal. That helps. Sometimes you need to stop thinking about what’s happening.
Meanwhile, Karen has raced and Arion4 has been brought back to the start. I ask how it went and it sounds good, but no one knows any results yet. I’ve now got a driver and we have a plan for the start which was used for Karen since neither of us can push ourselves across the dirt lot, up the wee dirt ramp, and over the asphalt lip of the road to get to the start… well maybe we can actually, but someone came up with a much better plan. The call comes from the start official for all the teams in our launch group to get onto the road. I’m driven a short distance to up to Arion4 which is already being prepped.
“Amusingly”, the plan is to get my chair out of the back of the truck so I can get myself to Arion4 but for some reason the boot lid won’t open. Not to be defeated by technology, two of the team members come over and I sling an arm over each of their shoulders and get carried the few feet to the bike. This proves so much more effective than trying to sort out a remote control from GMC and its obsessive safety lockouts that it becomes a regular thing. All hail manual control!
I’m lowered into Arion4 and there is so much activity that I start to forget about the pressures. I don’t even see the first bikes launching. The team is working like a well-oiled machine already. I’ve got people strapping my legs in place on either side, someone connecting the racing harness, another situating my helmet and radio and doing radio checks. I check in with my liaison, Stephen, to verify the plan for putting down power and I check what the lane positioning rules are so I don’t disqualify myself. Suddenly, the top of the shell appears. I take off my riding sleeves, and wait to be sealed in.
Hands reach in and take over locking the top of the shell down leaving me to tighten the securing straps. Other hands push my knees and feet in so they don’t get crushed and suddenly it’s dark, only a slight glow comes from the monitor in front of me and all the sounds of the world are muffled. Despite all the activity around me and the knocking on the shell to get my attention, everything had gone a little calm… but only for the briefest of moments.
There’s a tap on the shell and someone tells me to put the brake on so the engineers can finesse the position of the lid. It’s this moment that I suddenly realise how dehydrated I feel, despite taking sips of water and spitting them out while getting situated in the bike. My mouth is as dry as the landscape around me. I suddenly remember that everyone is watching me. And then I hear the unmistakable rasp of tape being unfurled and feel Arion4 jostled as the tale sealing the top and bottom halves of the shell is put on. I know now that there’s no escape even if something goes wrong.
Focusing, I channel all my energy on the pre-race visualisations I’ve been doing for well over six months, watching myself accelerate faster, and faster, and faster until the speed trap flag pass by in a blur. I grip the pedals and make sure I can feel where the derailleur controls are. I take a deep breath and try to relax as I watch the last of the riders before me set off knowing I’ve now got less than two minutes to go time.
A knock on the shell comes, and I hear Leandre call my name,
“Ken, you ready? “
“Rider ready!” I call back immediately thinking, “Why am I being so formal, like there’s a massive command hierarchy in place here?” Then, immediately wondering why I’m worrying about such an insignificant detail when there are more important things at stake. I see ahead of me the start official, counting down with his fingers.
“Ooo, so official, like the Tour de France time trials”
“Focus, man. Focus”
Go time and I feel Arion4 lunge smoothly forward. It’s a fast kick and I’m impressed that not only was Leandre apparently the fastest sprinter, but he seems to have taken into account quality service in making it feel that he’s just gently easing me and Arion4 forward.
“Focus, man. Focus”
I begin pedalling and match Leandre‘s speed, knowing I’ve only got a couple meters to get coordinated. The drivetrain is smooth, gears are working. Knuckles are only just brushing the shell, “Watch your grip.”
“Feck, what’s punching me in the gut? Is something broken? Nope, cranks. Why?”
“Long cranks! That’s it! Leverage is good, but longer also means lower. Smashing my abdomen. Hurts. Breathe… time your breathing, inhale every time the cranks come down. What’s my cadence? How many times per minute will I have to inhale? Can I keep it up without suffocating when there’s only so much air in here? Wait, everything works; works well; stop doing the math. Foot hurts like mad too but, so be it. Sacrifices have to be made. Chill, chill. Enjoy the ride.”
I do, I can see where I’m going and everything is mechanically sound. I’m feeling fit and fresh, no longer dehydrated. I look at the data feed on the screen. Power is good, I’m at the “warm up” phase. Cadence is good too, ideal speed for optimum power. I’m feeling loose and suddenly I realise the sound, that unmistakeable rumble of carbon fibre. I’ve always loved the sound of carbon discs on a bike, but now, I’m in it, surrounded by it. It’s loud, very loud, but so soothing. Back to the data feed. Power, check. Cadence, check. Distance, close enough, I’ve spotted the roadside boards that have, conveniently, been made big enough that people only focusing power and cadence can still see them on a tiny monitor. What’s left… speed, that’s right, that what we’re here for.
“Jeez! That’s awfully fast! Oh, this baby want to race!”
“No, this one is about control, a stable finish to qualify”
I’m well down the course when I realise I’m already in the high 30’s and not even really into the bigger power jumps.
“Oh yeah, we’re gonna have some good speeds here”
“No, this one is STILL about control, a stable finish to qualify”
I do one of the mid-ride power increases and see the speed hit 42 mph already and I’m not even at the end of the course or the power sequence. What I don’t realise though is two very important things: 1) I’m actually lost…yes, in a straight line I’ve gotten lost and I realise that distance here is just as critical as any series of turns, chicanes, or hills in any other race. 2) Most importantly… just how deadly knowing what my speed is, and how weak willed my mind is at this point.
“40 MPH!!! THE RECORD IS ONLY 47-ISH!!! 7 MPH IS NOTHING!!! SMASH IT, RIGHT OUT OF THE GATE, DAY 1!!! SPRIIIIIIINNNNNT!!!”
And I do… not realising at that moment that I’m only around halfway down the course and haven’t completed the full power profile we’d established. A full, max-effort sprint ensues and I can’t tell where the speed trap is. I hold it as long as I can, hoping I’ve well overshot.
“Holding it, holding it… can’t, that’s it… oh…look… here comes the speed trap…”
“OK, keep the power on, don’t let the team see you’ve blown it when they look at the data.”
But it’s done, I’ve blown out. No wonder we have this power profile to follow. Stupid mad sprinting doesn’t work. It turns out there’s so much more strategy to riding Battle Mountain than you’d think. But I keep pushing it hard still, there’s no way I’m going to coast through the timing gates.
Now, this is where things get a bit hazy (this first of many hazy moments). I believe this may have been the point where I got the first flat tyre, the first of four, I believe. I’ve check with my team liaison and apparently it’s a blur for everyone we just remember a lot of flats. But, there was one flat where I was told that the people overseeing the timing system could hear as I went through the gates. That became a bit of a theme for me… flat tyres at over 40 mph!
But, we had a successful run (as did Karen) which was confirmed at the post-race meeting. Standard procedure after each round of morning and evening racing is to announce the bike speeds and wind speeds to see whose runs were wind legal and if anyone broke a world record or a personal target. Having successfully qualified with a speed of 42.37 I was then allowed to pick a launch time for the evening set of runs. It was at this meeting that I swear I could see a cheeky smile from Mike Sova that seemed to say,
“Not this time, not ever.”
I glanced back to say, “Well, if that’s not a challenge, I don’t know what is. Just watch that record fall.”
After the Monday morning meeting the team went back to the hotel and while some of the engineers were giving the bike a check-over and fine tuning some adjustments I sat down with Stephen and Leandre to look at the power profile and ride data… and explain to them how I completely disregarded it. We did though; see that my peak speed was higher that what was recorded in the timing gates, so we knew that faster speeds were possible, if I rode responsibly. Additionally, we factored in the matter that I hadn’t been on my bike for over five days and hadn’t had a proper warm-up, so I was essentially going incomplete cold.
The other factor I realised was the power of persuasion and the weakness of the mind; my mind. This wasn’t new and I’d been working on the psychological aspects of racing and training as much as the physical training. I was trying to find my weak spots, looking for the moments in training where I lapsed, failed, questioned, and I’d step back and analyse why I performed as I did. Equally, I looked at the good, successful sessions and tried to work out what about them made those sessions so good.
The two key points that really stuck for me were the sessions where people were watching: The simulated race with Paul and JP, the simulated runs with my riding coach… none of them were as good as I wanted to me to be. In fact, I’d rack them up as failures. It was clear from most, if not all of them that a record was not in the cards. But why? It was clear that I was quite susceptible to external views and influences, and those would cause me to get distracted, to act in a way that was different to when I was focused. So what was it about this Monday race that influenced me to lose my focus, to deviate, to fail…? Speed, ironically.
Deep down, I knew it as soon as it happened: it was knowing my speed that caused me to deviate. Once I saw that 40 Mph on the display I knew I was so close to the record that there was no way I could not beat it. But there was and I did it; going to max power too fast, and too soon. It was as if Paul, JP, and Davie were yelling and cheering on the test runs. The solution was obvious then. Get rid of the speed.
And so I asked the visual and data systems engineers if they could reconfigure my display to remove the speed. I realised all I needed to see was power and cadence, and distance as a backup. Not only did this make it easier to read the data in the screen, especially the most critical information, but it then eliminated any superfluous information that would distract me from the plan.
You might ask why I didn’t care about speed when that was my ultimate goal (apart from apparently being a weak-willed and easily tainted by the nefarious calls of that demon: speed). On a simple level, you could say that it’s like the Pythagorean Theorem, A sq + B sq = C sq; all other things being equal and constant (or as close as possible in a hot windy desert) put in values for A and B and you can only have one result for C. So, for any given cadence and power, the speed is inevitable. If I know what A and B are, I don’t have to get distracted by doing the math to solve for C.
Monday evening would be the test of my theory.
But first, Monday afternoon…
By now it’s mid-day and hotter than an oven burning a Sunday roast. I took some time to refuel a bit, not wanting to overdo it. I knew I’d need the energy but food and heat can be a catastrophe.
I then begin my hunt… Bikeo, bikeo, where for art thou, Bikeo? I pop into the hotel reception to see if any enormous parcels have been left for me. I’m hoping to not be disappointed as I was on Saturday. On Saturday there had been a delivery slip and some of the team rushed out to collect the parcel. After much confusion about the size of the parcel the postie was looking for, they were presented with a tiny box that ended up being spare parts for the bike. And here a bit of chaos ensues… rumour has it another delivery slip has arrived. As I await confirmation I’m hit in the back of the head… family! Turns out two more family members have arrived from California to watch the action with, I think, quite a typical greeting! Having to reluctantly put them off for now and encouraging them to get settled in and enjoy the myriad of sights the town has I get handed a parcel delivery slip.
I can’t remember if I took this with great caution and suspicion after Saturdays events, or if I was ecstatic about the possibility but I’m sure I sprinted across the car park (possibly breaking a speed record) shouting for everyone on the team so we could see if it was my bike. Brilliant team that they are, a few of them gathered up and headed out and returned shortly (Battle Mountain is quite a small town, you know) with, wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, my bike! And not only did they collect it, but being talented engineers, they offered to build if for me so I could get some pre-race rest. If I haven’t said it before, the team support was brilliant!
So, I’m chilling out in my room with the A/C on. Heat exhaustion is a clear risk, and that will become very evident in a couple days. I’m half dozing, half visualising the race course, intermittently using my elastic bands to loosen my muscles when a gentle knock comes at my door. I can’t believe it’s race time already, I don’t feel like I’ve rested at all. Oye, this is turning into a brutal week already! Luckily, it’s just Kieran stopping by to mention that they can’t figure out how the bike needs to be reassembled. Fair do’s, he’s never done it before and even I barely remember, plus, it’s mostly just a jumble of random parts in a bag.
I pop out in the shade of some nearby potted plants and Kieran and I work on the reassembly. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “don’t waste your energy doing this” but thankful that I’ll finally be able to get a proper warm-up in (that’s how critical energy conservation is sitting on my mind). Vastly thankful that I’ve had Kieran to help me rebuild my bike I can finally break out the SportCrafters rollers that have been sitting, lonely, in my room and I get them secured and ready for warm-ups. But first, more rest.