What can I say about Galena? So much was experienced that race it’s hard to determine what’s worth sharing…

The main theme: partaking in such a challenging affair will inevitably teach you tons about your own abilities (mentally and physically), the importance of your team, and your love (or lack thereof) for bike racing. Pushing your limits and leaving it all on the road is the only way it could be a positive experience (even then that’s not a guarantee). Personally, I was hoping for a better place, but in my heart I know I fought with strength and honor and am proud of my performance.

The race started like any other: we talked and laughed on the neutral rollout which was followed by a brief surge that soon steadied into a comfortable pace. Then came the hills, like none I had experienced before. On the first steep incline I shifted my weight abruptly and my front tire lifted off the ground suddenly. After that I couldn’t fight the feeling that at any moment I was going to a somersault backwards. I hadn’t specifically trained for this event, my training rides have been more geared toward the Chicago area crits- rarely are my rides much longer than 2 hours and my hardest hillwork is done on the viaducts over the Edens.  At first I tried to match the climbing pace of those around me, and it was wearing me on me too soon in the race.

Early in the race, on one of the steeper climbs, there was a split second I thought about throwing in the towel and dropping off the pack (dare I admit I considered walking up the incline?), but at just the right moment I saw a Half Acre jersey out of the corner of my eye suffering harder as he was slowly passing me on the hill. Then I realized I am not just some random kid in this race, I am representing my team; forget this pain, forget this feeling of defeat, it’s up to me to show the rest of the field what HAC is capable of! I came over the climb thinking this must be what it feels like to die. 

Right about then my comrade Tom Riley (4th place in the race last year) gave me the advice that you need to relax and climb at your own pace. I took his advice (I even narrowed my visual focus so not to notice those climbing faster) and though I lost the lead pack on a hill near the end of the first lap, I persevered and fell in with a small group that soon started passing a number of riders. From about mile 20 to the finish we had a group of 5-7 guys working well together; we dropped a few and picked up a few along the way. Sadly one we lost was Tom: he was taking a heroic pull that lead the group into a turn at the bottom of a steep hill, he took the turn just a millimeter too wide and ended up on the aggregate shoulder. A lip at the edge of the pavement made it almost impossible for him to get back on the road- but he shouted that he was good and we kept our heads forward.

In the end there were about 3 of us that stuck together for the last 25 miles (most notably Zernyu from Bonkers who spent a substantial time leading our small pack). For the longest time we were ~30 seconds behind another group of 5-7 that seemed to be working together well. We weren’t letting them pull away but it was hard to imagine we would catch them. Then all the sudden one of their men appeared in our pack. Now they were one weaker and we were one stronger. At about mile 37 the group we'd been chasing fell apart on one of the soul-crushing climbs; only two of them made it up without dismounting. Seeing them unravel ahead of us gave our group the motivation to overcome the climb that killed them, and honestly I don’t think I could have done it without that motivation. ¾ up that hill I knew, this IS what death feels like. But I couldn’t quit, I had come too far at this point to stop now.

When I got to the top of the hill I decided that if any others in my group had the slightest semblance of strength or motivation after such a defeating climb, I would just soft pedal until I could breathe again and finish at my own pace; goodbye group it was fun. But what I found at the top of that hill gave me such a burst of joy I might’ve even cracked a grotesque smile. Unknown to me, one of the leaders in the group ahead of us, one of the two that made it up the hill, the only one that didn’t crack was wearing our flag: Mike Brady. At just the right moment Mike’s chain fell off at the top of the climb and just as we caught him he was hopping back on his pony. Knowing I had Mike there to help me and that I had to be there to help him gave me renewed purpose and energy. What would’ve been the darkest point of the race was now illuminated and the excitement was back in my heart. Thankfully those final miles did not feel as harsh and the preceding; Mike and I finished strong toward the front of our small group, one right after the other. I couldn’t have finished the race without my team, of this I’m sure. 

I can’t wait to do it again next year and look forward to working with my HAC cat 4s in the Willow Springs Road Race. I don’t have much experience with road races, but I am finding that I like the longer races even though they are not my strength (yet). Unlike crits, they seem to be more determined by a rider’s real abilities rather than a willingness to be overly aggressive in the pack, taking an advantage with subtle, risky maneuvers or just flat out luck. Though few and far between, the road races also give the chance for riders with different strengths to shine- a number of riders I tend to beat in crits beat me at Galena, and a number of riders that usually beat me in crits, I beat at Galena

Major props to our boy James Yoo for following up the road race with the crit the next day and placing strong!  Thank god my team told me to get an easier cassette- certainly would have been walking up hills otherwise…

~Dan O'Connell