I'd love to build the drama of this into something that would make a great Movie of the Week and tell you that I came from behind and won every race of the evening, driven by determination and squinting to see through tear-soaked eyes as I crushed the other riders in the races and my daughter danced in circles screaming the famous "GO DADDY GO" she is known for... but I ain't gonna do that. The night was much less dramatic, though still very emotionally charged for me.
I got to the track early enough to not have to stress out getting ready. As I unloaded my gear from my car, I talked to a guy I had only met once who only knew me through the blog and meeting at the Tour of California briefly. As a fellow track racer, he'd kinda followed along with my blogging about the recovery and was really happy to see me at the track again. The only other guy there unloading and getting ready to enter the track chimed in, "so you're the Masiguy... wow, welcome back man". And that kinda sets up the entire night.
It seems like every body I talked to during the night knew about the crash from last year. Apparently, I made more than just an impact on the actual track itself. Needless to say, it was very moving and I felt blessed to be around so many people so excited to see me on a bike again. It only grew from there too, as more and more of the people I know and who were there last April 29th began to show up. There were hugs and handshakes and more than a few "wow" comments. The previously mangled thumb was quite a hit, with very few people unimpressed by the fact it looks like "a real thumb" now.
I got suited up and got the bike ready to hit... no, wait... ride the track for the very first time since the crash last year. On the drive to the track, I was a mess with the nervous energy and even felt a little nauseous as I got onto the track for the first few laps. As I rode the track very tentatively and tried to get myself to ride close to the boards, I felt nervous and had a few of the "what the hell am I doing here" moments. As I cruised around for the first minutes, I did my best to relax my grip and remember to breathe. After a few minutes another rider pulled up beside me and we began to talk- he's a physician and was at the track the night of the crash and is the one who took care of me until the ambulance arrived. In many ways, I owe the fact that I was not in more trauma to his actions that night. He said he was very happy to see me back on the track and even a bit shocked- "when they put you in the ambulance, I didn't think we'd ever see you out here riding again".
Slowly, I began to feel a little less nervous and a bit more relaxed, so I started to speed up a little bit... looking for the edges of my comfort zone. It didn't take me long to find those edges, but I kept trying to expand them a little at a time. Towards the end of our open warm-up time, as I was high on the banking and talking to another rider going through turn one into turn two, I heard the painfully familiar explosion of a tire blowing... directly in front of me by about 5 bikes. My first thought was, "NO, not tonight!" As the rider with the blown tire slid down the track, at least one other rider went down with him, but I was able to navigate through the confusion without incident- though I doubt I took a breath for a lap. I instantly thought of packing up the bike and simply watching the racing, but the rider I was talking to didn't skip a beat in our conversation and that kept me calm enough to relax again.
Open track time closed and we went into the infield for the rider's meeting prior to the racing. After receiving our instructions from the officials, the juniors were off for their first race of the night. The race was short and then it was time for the racing to begin. At this time, the usual event is the motor-paced burnout, so I planned to sit in the infield and ride my rollers while the other riders contested the motor-paced event... since it was during that event that I had my crash- I figured that was one logical concession to my fear and anxiety. As they described the event to the racers and fans, they stated that there were no longer sprints at the end and that the event was a true warm-up and not a race. With this bit of news, I nervously decided to take to the rail with the other racers and see if I could choke down my anxiety and sit in for a few laps, giving myself the permission to pull out at any time to sit and watch. The first few laps were nervous as I settled in and learned to trust the wheel of the rider in front of me. The usual accordion effect of the undulating pace and surges at the front gave me fits, but I sat in and completed the 25 laps for my group and then happily got off the track!
The juniors were back up for their second short race and then the C group was up for their first race. As I rolled around on the warm up track and talked to a friend, the C's began to ramp up the speed of their race and then that is when the second crash of the night happened... and I saw the whole thing again. As the riders slammed into each other and then slid down the banking into a pile, the other rider I was talking to patted me on the back and laughed saying, "that's gotta make you feel good". I guess my anxiety was showing. Fortunately all of the riders were able to walk away from the crash, though some with a bit of scrapes and busted bikes. Still, they walked away and that's the best kind of crash.
Next, the B's were up... and I was racing the B's. Our first even was a short 12 lap Points Race with sprints on the 6th and 12th laps. As I took to the rail, I admit the nervousness was growing again. When they gave the gun after a neutral lap, the pace immediately jumped pretty sharply and the first race of my return was officially underway. I fought with the bike a little during the first few laps, just feeling uncomfortable at race speed and worrying that I was on the wrong sized gear. After a few more laps and the first sprint was done, I decided to try to get back up to the front part of the large field we had. I got back up to the front half of the group just in time for the final sprint and was far enough back that there was no real reason to sprint, so I didn't contest it as much as I just tried to see if I could accelerate with the group all the way to the line- which I did just fine. My very first race was done! There was one spot about 4 laps in when the group bunched up after a quick deceleration at the front and I got my hear rate up really quickly when people started bumping... but nobody went down and I survived. Race #1 in the done pile!
After the first race, I was much more comfortable and relaxed and even more ready and excited for the next two races. Next up was a 10 lap Scratch race that was blisteringly fast with another break off the front immediately. With about 4 laps to go, I attacked from the rear half of the field along the back stretch of the track and accelerated through the field pretty powerfully and was off on my own for the next 3 laps trying to close the gap to the leading 3 riders... and then my motor failed as I crossed the line to start the last lap with the filed catching me. I got back in and managed to keep from getting dropped or finishing last, but I realized that I have the speed... just no endurance. But I felt good for racing, rather than sitting in. Next up was a 20 lap Point-a-Lap with $2 to the winner of each lap, which always brings out the competitive nature in folks. I sat near the front, but was unsure of my legs still and didn't really want to do anything too soon, knowing I had poor endurance. I sat in for about the first 10 laps, but another group was rolling off the front taking all the money and points. So, I jumped out of the field again and flogged myself solo for about 6 laps with friends screaming for me to keep the hammer down. For a few laps, I thought I would actually catch the break and got close a few times bu they always slipped away when they sprinted each lap. With about 3-4 laps to go, I finally got caught by the field again and settled back in. I sat in for a couple laps near the very end of what remained of the field. On the last lap, I buried myself to get to the line as quickly as possible and finish as strongly as I could. It felt great to have worked so hard and to still find the strength to dig hard one more time.
After that, my racing was done for the night and I packed up my stuff while the last A's race finished up. I got lots of pats on the back from my friends and fellow racers. As I kept saying, it was great to complete the cycle of my recovery and get back on the track and push the pedals as hard as I could. I won nothing, but I proved to myself that my life did not end last April 29th. With time to train and continue to recover and regain my strength, I might even have a chance to win a race again. I know I am driven to try.
Again, I can not say enough thanks to everybody who supported and encouraged me during my recovery. It's not entirely done yet, but I am much closer and I am now able to say with confidence that I can still ride a track bike on the track. It is the camaraderie I have shared with my friends on the track over the years that made my desire to get back so strong. As one of my friends and fellow racers said, "welcome home". It sure felt like it.
(All photos by Pete Demos- our Creative Director and photographer extraordinaire. He and Rick Ortiz, his cohort in the graphic department and the guy behind the Masi ads and graphics, were there at the track. They were joined by Pete's girlfriend Amber and Rick's youngest daughter. Also there was my Product Manager, Wayne Doran, who works with me to create all of the fantastic Masi products. I owe them all a big thanks for being there to help cheer me on as well. )