The opening of ultracycling season with a victory at Sebring 12h Race

I’ve been thinking about doing the Sebring 12/24h Cycling Race for a very long time. All of my friends (Hoppo, Valerio, Dex) had nothing but praise for the race. Unfortunately the time or the money issues never allowed me to do it. This year I was determined to train hard through the winter having quite a few training camps with my coaching client Scott, so I was sure I was going to be well prepared to go for the 24h race record (500miles, by the way). And on December 10th, 2013 in the early morning I finally bought the plane ticket to Florida. A few hours later I was lying in the hospital with dislocated and broken shoulder and some torn ligaments, wandering what the hell happened on that slippery road.

After two weeks of forced rest, finally my physiotherapist told me to ride my turbo (one handed, or course), if I really need to. So, that was it, with my left arm in the sling, I did 1-2h one-handed turbo trainer sessions for more than a month, until I was allowed to remove the sling. And surprise, surprise, of course I was not able to stretch my arm all the way to hold the handlebars. It took quite a few days of therapy to be able to reach it. Still dreaming about how long it might take until I am able to reach for the triathlon bar, I started contemplating going to Florida even if underprepared. The winter in Slovenia was as bad as they come and I could use some training in the sunshine. The fact that my plane ticket was unrefundable helped with my decision to go to Sebring finally. Of course, I couldn’t dream of doing the 24h race, but 12h should be manageable.

My friend Anthony Parsells was nice enough to pick me up at the Ornaldo airport and drop me off at Ramada Inn some 20 miles south of Sebring. My plan for the week was not complicated at all, do a big chunk of base training and don’t even think about tapering for the race, as I am going to suck anyway. What I did was endurance rides of 100+ miles every day. It was awesome, to be able to ride on the road again after 2 months of only riding the turbo trainer. The sun was bright, it was warm, if windy and I was enjoying myself for the first two days. I was even able to stretch down to my aero-bars finally, though I couldn’t stay in that position for a long time without considerable pain. Life was good!  

Than my legs started feeling lack of riding and they kind of refused to cooperate in the strong winds. Joining a Wednesday group ride with Highland Pedalers did help raise my spirit a bit. Feeling as tired as I was, I decided to shorten my Thursday and Friday rides after all, to be able to try to stay with the fast guys in the 12h drafting race. It was a bit nerve wrecking not knowing what to expect after 8 or 10 hours, as I seriously missed my ultra-endurance training.

It was very nice to catch up with other RAAM veterans Chris, Cassie, Kurt and all other friendly cyclists and their crews before the race. It is a really special group of people and I am glad to be a part of it. After the registration for the race, it was time for me and Anthony to retire to Ramada Inn and try to get some sleep before the 4.30AM wake up call. My sleep wasn’t all that good, partly because the shoulder pain still doesn’t allow me to sleep on my left side and I must admit I was pretty nervous, too. Especially for someone who has been racing ultra-cycling races for the past 13 years. 

Morning came too soon and it was pretty hectic with having to prepare 12 bottles of a drink and all the WinForce gels needed for 12 hours of racing. Hoppo’s girlfriend Jenny was kind enough to offer to provide support for me during the race, handing me a bottle every hour or so. It was a pretty cold morning, so I was shaking quite a bit before the start. The nervousness disapeared as soon as the starting gun went off. I knew my biggest adversary (at least from the guys I knew) for 12h, Kurt Searvogel, is a very fast starter, so I wanted to be in the first lines when he goes. And he did, taking a few of us with him almost from the gun. What we didn’t expect was Hoppo flying by us and leaving us in the dust before we knew what hit us. Of course, he was in a non-drafting 24h race, but it was even more interesting, as those guys usually start more conservatively. It took us quite a big effort to catch up with him a few miles out of Sebring and in the process there were only 5 of us left in the first group: Brasilian Claudio Clarindo, Kurt, Denis, a recumbent rider and myself. Apart from the recumbent rider who stayed behind at all times, all of us shared some work. The truth being told, Kurt and me did a majority of work and kept our speed close to 24miles/hour at the turning point of the long loop. On the way back, the headwind became brutal, the speed dropped a bit and the two 24h drafting riders were left in the dust somewhere on US 98. Before we came to the race track, Kurt told me that he has a puncture and he was going to change the bikes. I decided to wait for him as I really didn’t want to work alone for the next 8 hours (we did the 100 miles in 4h 15min). I took a peeing brake while waiting for him and after that felt quite good, so I took a long turn at the front up on US 98. When I wanted to change places at the front, Kurt was not there anymore, only aforementioned recumbent rider, who just didn’t want or couldn’t help sharing the pace setting.

It was time to decide - do I wait for Kurt or do I continue alone (as by now I expected not to get any help from the recumbent rider)? On one hand I was afraid to go it alone, as I knew I will get into trouble sooner than later, on the other, the same fear has kept me from waiting for Kurt. Yes, I was sure the man with the hammer will get me sooner or later and I wouldn’t like for a strong rider like Kurt to be around at that time and take advantage of my weekness. So, I continued to ride and kept a fast pace for maybe a few more laps, but than my pace began plumeting down. Every lap my time was half a minute slower, the headwind on US98 just slowly killing my spirit. The shadow of recumbent rider was still following me and knowing he is in a different category than me, it didn’t bother me that much. Still, I must admit, I would have liked him taking a pull or two at least into the headwind, even if I know I wouldn’t get much of a shelter. Pretty much sucks, this kind of wheel sucking, even if he did apologize after the race and admitted he couldn’t do it even if I asked him to.

Anyway, the race was evolving, I kept laping the riders one after another, just Kurt was never again in my eyesight. So I kept pushing and worrying he might catch me sooner or later. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t the only one suffering out there and when my lap times stopped getting longer (it stopped at 34min 07sec), my spirit improved a bit. Beside the (almost) constant shoulder pain, my feet started to hurt, too, so 3 hours before the finish I changed my shoes to releave the pressure. It helped and I was on the role again. Maybe the wind has subsided a bit in the last hour or so, because my speed has picked up. Especially coming back to the race track my speed was up to 36+km/h and I was enjoying myself again.

I had quite of embivalent feeling after the finish on one hand I was sorry for the 24h riders, who had to continue into the night, on the other, I was sort of envious, because they were able to ride on into a beautiful night with a full moon shining. My mileage was pretty descent, it was 264,9miles (or 426km), which was a nice surprise considering what I have been through these last two months. On the other hand, I was only 6 miles behind the course record, which I am certain would have been possible either with me being in better shape or having some more help from the other drafting racers. What can I say, you can’t have it all, can you?

Congratulations to all the racers who showed up and put in their best effort and to all the crews for the great support they give to ultra-cycling. A special thanks goes to Mark Andrews and his team who do an excellent job of organizing this bike race. The race is really superbly organized and fast, so you can expect me to come back and go for that 24h record that has been standing for too long now... CU next year!

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