Faster than I could say, "Excuse me, but I really don't think this is fair, after all...," the starter counted us down. Along with 30 or so other riders I then clicked into my pedals, and we, too, were off.
Once under way, I forgot all the intricate strategies that Fraiman and I had discussed. Instead, I was reduced to the old just-do-what-the-guy-in-front-of-you-is-doing approach. The first lap went quickly, about 15 minutes (my average speed was roughly 25 miles per hour). Fraiman was right. Cruising with the peloton was exhilarating and definitely made you feel as if you were floating.
As I passed Fraiman at the start/finish line from the middle of the peloton, I flashed an upturned thumb. I felt good and not at all winded, although my mouth was starting to feel kind of dry. I had not been dropped. Better still, I hadn't fallen and been mashed between someone's gears.
Halfway through the second lap I pulled alongside Boyd. I took it as a sign that I must be doing something right, although I was getting just a bit tired and my mouth was starting to feel like a sawdust-filled long jump pit.
After finishing the third lap I was not only undropped by the pack but also in fifth place, precisely where Fraiman said a winner wanted to be. Suddenly a tremor of invincibility rippled through my body. Obviously Fraiman had underestimated the ability of the Kid. I could win this thing, PANIC IN CENTRAL PARK and other nifty New York Post-ian headlines telling of my sensational victory flashed across my mind. Yes, I thought to myself. Yes.
As we whizzed past East 90th Street, a little more than five miles from the finish line, I heard a couple of riders arguing about who was going to take the lead. No problem, dudes, I thought. I unshifted and sprinted ahead. Miraculously, stupefyingly, I was in the lead. I felt an intense rush as I put the peloton behind me.
Just as I began to climb the course's largest hill at the north end of the park, one of the dudes passed me, then another and another. By the time I reached the top of the hill, it felt like my blood had turned to vinegar. My mouth felt as dry as Death Valley, and my tongue felt as big as the Empire State Building. What hurt the most, though, was discovering I was now in second-to-last place. I would have cried, but I couldn't. I had no moisture to spare.
I rested as I coasted down the other side of the hill and began reciting a please-don't-let-me-be-dropped mantra over and over and over. Somehow it worked, probably because the other guys were tired, too. I was suddenly right back beside Boyd in the middle of the pack.
With about a half mile to go, Boyd leaned toward me and said, "This is where things get hairy." I knew he meant the riders would soon be getting into position for the final sprint. Hold the presses! The Post might have its headline yet. (I only hoped it wouldn't be along the lines Of CYCLIST COMBUSTS.)
Coming into the final stretch I heard a guy in front of me laughing and talking to a guy on his left. Figuring that if he had that much oxygen to spare he must be feeling better than I did, I sucked onto his back wheel like a remora. A few seconds later he shut up and made his move, cutting around the right side of the pack with me in his wake.