. . . and it was pathetic, really. First, a little about me and my riding, then onto the absolutely insane competition . . .
I ride a cheap (read Schwinn) 16 speed aluminum road frame, 42/52 x 11/28 that I have extensively cleaned up and slightly modified. I like to wrench and this thing (barring thousands of dollars of upgrades) is as good as it's going to get. I only paid $350 for it, and sold some old flipped vintage roadies to fund it. I have been having fun and success on 50k road rides, with shorter solo training rides and the occasional small group or wheel-suck when I caught a larger group out riding. I am reasonably fit, have been putting in some miles, and have had success in other sports, notably high alpine backcountry snowboarding including hiking and riding well above 10,000 ft for many miles in the remote wilderness.
Suffice to say . . . I got smoked . . . BAD.
I decided to do the race and originally signed up for the "citizen's race" which was supposed to be 25k or one lap on the course, assuming it was within my ability to go all out for 14ish miles. Turns out I was the only one signed up for the field, and when I showed on race day they told me I had two options 1) go out with the men's cat 5 or 2) go out with the women's/junior cat 5. Guess which one I chose? Yes I decided to line up with the men. This was to be 2 laps or 50k, with about 750ft of vertical climb over the first 7 miles of the lap, including one BIG climb right at the halfway, with a rolling downhill on the way back.
In the parking lot, I noticed that basically everyone was on a full race frame carbon bike with aero wheels and the whole 9 yards, with 80% of the crowd, THE ENTIRE CROWD, in team kit. There was a guy next to me who looked like he was on steroids, tape on his nose and all, in full team kit, on a bike that weighed less than my shoe and cost more than my car, literally panting like a bull on his trainer like he was gonna kill someone. His helmet literally cost more than my bike. I thought to myself "this is what a cat 1 racer looks like." And boy was I wrong . . .
Race time comes and I line up at the start. Cat 1/2/3 goes out, then the women, then the cat 4, then masters cat 4/5, then its down to us. And guess who's still at the lineup?! With his whole team of 5 guys in full coordinated kit?! JESUS! "This is Cat 5!" I say to myself . . . There were about 20 guys in my field and best I can tell it was 4 teams of 4 or 5 guys, me, and one other solo rider who at least looked like he had his $ish together.
The start was pretty mellow, a few 50ish foot rollers over the first few miles, and I was keeping up, mingling with the pack, riding strong, and feeling like "ok if this is the rolling pace for a while maybe I can actually make it both laps and at least stick with the pack until the climb about 7 miles in." YEAH RIGHT! At 1.75 miles there was a quick 2 turn section followed by a short sharp hill. At that point the team riders obviously decided they were done warming up and within 500 ft I was off the back. By 3 miles in I was hopelessly dropped and by 4 miles I was totally alone with not another rider in sight ahead or behind me on the road. Good thing this race had decent marshals and road marking, because I had no idea where I was and was starting to be in the hurt.
After a while I saw a corner marshal, which was right before the halfway climb and I thought "OK here comes the big effort." I turned the corner and saw what looked like the stairway to Oz 3/4 of the way up I popped, nuclear meltdown, if I had a HR monitor it would have been broken. My muscles weren't the problem, actually my legs felt good, I just felt like I literally couldn't breath any more air no matter how hard I tried. When I glanced at the speedo and it said 2.4mph I just unclipped and stepped off the bike. Yes, I will admit it publicly - in a sanctioned race, with a bib number and all, I unclipped and walked up a hill. So very sad.
Before I crested the top, I had the pleasure of being passed by a handful of Cat 4 women who had caught me, and had to answer to the follow car when they inquired if I had a mechanical failure or if I was "feeling ok?" to which I could only muster "I'm in the hurt."
The ride back towards the start was ok, it was a nice day, and being so very alone, it felt like I was out for a nice, fast training ride. There was one major downhill where, chasing some of the women that passed me, I eclipsed 45mph for the first time, which was a bit of a thrill in itself. At the start/finish, having completed what I actually set out to do, I decided to call it, which is a good thing because as I was putting my bike up in the parking lot minutes later, I WAS LAPPED BY THE ENTIRE CAT 1-4 MENS FIELD. So glad I was done, because if that had happened on the open road, I would have been so demoralized I would probably have just turned around.
Some takeaways - I am lightyears from fit enough to do this on the regular and even though my gear is not up to par, I'm not even close to riding at the limit of my kit, which means I have A LOT more training to do. Also, now for my griping, the entry level of this sport is goddamn ridiculous. The entrants to my field don't even come close to doing justice to the term "sandbaggers."
When the "entry" level category is 20 guys, 18 of whom are in full team kit on carbon racing bikes, they are NOT IN ANY WAY ENTRY LEVEL. When, at the lineup, the other 19 guys in your field talk about how they raced the night before, and 3 times last week, and so on and so forth, ALL SUMMER, how the hell are they cat 5?! I looked into the "upgrades" on USAC and it only takes 10 race finishes to be upgraded to Cat 4, so why are ANY of these guys still in cat 5?! Because they sandbag to get "team" wins on the board, that's why. Why are teams like this even allowed to race at this level when they clearly belong at cat 4 or even cat 3 or above?! Why is there literally NOBODY in the citizen's category? I bet I can answer that question myself after today.
Not gonna lie - this was an extremely bad experience, bordering on not fun. No wonder nobody signs up for this stuff.
Most important to me . . . how the hell do you get into this sport?!