It is an "off" day for the professional cyclists who are racing in the NRC Speed Week. So while the professional cyclists are sleeping in, getting massages, eating planned meals and going for recovery spins, Karel is spending his time at both Jacksonville Trek Stores today. As much as Karel would love to race for a living, we both love our sports as a lifestyle and at the end of the day, triathlons and cycling comprise a only a minor portion of our life. Karel and myself are not defined by our sports because it is an outlet to relieve stress, put our training to the test, reach our goals and to challenge our mind and body. We are not professional athletes and in the case of injury, sickness or financial reasons, we would not feel as if our life was over if we could not race. For we love helping others, spending time together, traveling, spending time with Campy, watching movies, training/exercising and fueling our body with heart-healthy food and when it's all said in done, we both want to live our life to the fullest.
Having said that....
The Athens Twilight is like no other cycling race you will ever witness in your life. Karel has attempted the Athens Twilight for the past 3 years (in the Professional category) and the longest he has survived was around 40-50 min. Last year, in the pouring rain, he made it 14 minutes and said it was the hardest 14 min of his life. This year, he expected nothing less and wondered if his body would be able to tolerate the pain just one last time.
I will post a description found in a magazine on the Athens Twilight but to make it brief, one hundred and sixty professional cyclists sit in the corral, waiting for call-ups (riders 11-87, which included Karel as #82 were placed near the front-middle because they participated in the Computrainer heats on fri afternoon). This is all happening at 8:45pm on a Saturday night with thousands of drunk University of Georgia students at least 3 rows deep, surrounding the 1K course. When the gun goes off, the speed quickly exceeds the average pace of 30 mph, which could be considered "slow" for a course like Athens. The course is not flat and there is a steep hill immediately after corner 2 which made for Watts close to 1000 for Karel (Karel's power file looks very painful!). And even with the race being fast, it is super long for a criterium. The riders cover 80K (on a 1K course) and race for nearly an hour and 45 minutes at max heart rate. There is no letting up or time to for a quick shake of the legs for if you try to exhale to release the massive buildup of lactic acid in your legs, you may as well consider your night over because you will be dropped and quickly escorted off the course. With prems and attacks being thrown left and right, there is no letting up during this race. You are forced to go from 0 to 100% in a blink of an eye and you get to relax when your race is over. With 160 starters at the 2011 Athens Twilight, 110 riders saw the finish line.
Karel knew this would be the most painful race of his life if he wanted to survive longer than he had ever survived before. Karel said to me that this would be his last year doing the Athens Twilight because he knew he could not continue to punish his aging body any more (in cycling years, the younger the better) and it is nearly impossible to keep up with the other cyclist who eat, breath and live cycling for a full-time job.
For Karel, being an Athens Twilight finisher is comparable to qualifying to the Ironman World Championsips. For once you qualify for Kona, it is simply up to you to enjoy your day and reach the finish line. However, qualifying for Kona is another story and there are so many variables thrown at you and you have to have the best race of your life in order to qualify. Now certainly, racing Athens is far more demanding and painful than any Ironman because "your" race is dependent on the pace of the other teams. Either you stay on a wheel or your day is done before it even started.
Campy and I walked from our hotel to downtown Athens to join a few friends who came from Jacksonville FL. It's a very special feeling knowing that people will come near and far just to watch Athens and if they know someone in the race, it is even more exciting.
And look at that..even the REAL professionals come to watch the race!
I wonder if Campy realizes that he just met George Hincapie ????
Around 9:05 pm, the riders were off. I took a video of the 2nd lap of the course. Sadly, the pace only got faster. Also, I was on the "quite" part of the course :)
Words can't describe my emotion and nerve level during this race. With a big crash at turn 1 around 30 min into the race, I lost Karel in the crown and I thought his day was done. For crashes and bike technicals are also variables when it comes to finishing the Athens Twilight. I can't tell you how many times you hear carbon pedals scrapping the ground when the riders are in the corners (there are 4 corners for each 1K loop).
Luckily, Karel and nearly 20+ riders got a free lap in the wheel pit and Karel moved right back to mid pack where he was sitting.
The race seemed long and I knew Karel was suffering. After an hour, the field was shrinking and Karel was making his way to the back of the pack. I could tell his body and mind were fighting and was really hurting. For a good 5-10 min, Karel was one of the last riders, just listening to the motorcycle at the end, wanting to kick him off the course. Karel fought as hard as he could and with around 20 laps to go he painfully made his way to the mid pack.
As the laps ticked away, I tried to imagine what Karel was feeling after riding for over an hour and 20 minutes. But then I quickly realized that I had never experienced pain like that before, so I cheered as loud as I could (Campy did plenty of cheering/barking as well) and hoped that he could fight this out for the last 20 laps.
When the announcer yelled 10 to go, I knew it wasn't over until Karel crossed the finish line. With a no-free-lap policy with 5 to go, I just hoped that there would be no crashes and Karel could just hang on for dear life as the pace got faster and faster.
With 3 laps to go, the crowd was getting loud and my heart rate was pumping. I had to step away and call my parents because I could not take the stress.
With 1 lap to go, I saw Karel (still in mid pack) and it wasn't until I saw Karel on his victory lap (after he crossed the finish line) that I could breath knowing that Karel just finished the race of his life.
Campy and I ran to our meeting spot to see Karel drinking a beer (given to him from someone in the crowd-which is typical for the "celebrities" who finish Athens) and with the biggest smile on his face. His first words "that hurt so bad".
Karel is thrilled that he can check Athens off his bucket list and he is now a 2011 Athens Twilight Finisher.
Not to mention that Karel ALSO finished the Roswell crit last night, as the 2nd of 7 races for Speed Week. Karel finished near the back of the mid pack (with a very tired body and very sore legs and back) after racing for 90 minutes in a field of 175 riders.
RESULTS (Karel was 61st):
When the camera moves, you can see Karel in his red and white outfit, sitting nicely in mid pack.