The 2016 Ken Woods Memorial Road Race in Cannon Falls, MN on Saturday was Koen’s first USA Cycling sanctioned road race. At 10 years old, Koen has been riding his bike with me for the last 5 years and he has also competed in a couple of time trials, duathalons, and family fun races. However, this was the first race that felt like the “real deal.” He had a timing chip strapped around his ankle, two numbers pinned to the back of his jersey, and a group of kids his own age who he would be competing against head-to-head. This would also be his first race for the NorthStar Development Team.
Koen and his best friend Cole arrived at the race course shortly after I finished racing in the morning wave of Ken Woods. I could tell immediately that he was inside of his own head as nerves were clearly present. Koen has gotten better over the years, but he still puts an immense amount of pressure on himself in all areas of his life. It’s really hard to know what he is thinking before a big event.
As all three of us warmed up, I tried to keep the atmosphere light and give the kids as much advice as I thought would be helpful. We rolled down the finishing hill to give both boys an idea of what they will face during the last two miles of the race. Both of them did great, but I could tell that they were thinking about how this would feel after racing for 12 miles.
After the warm-up and course preview, we loaded up the bikes and proceeded to the starting line on the backside of the 21 mile course. The starting line for the kids was near a beautiful brick church outside of Cannon Falls as the race organizers didn’t want the really young kids to race the full 21 mile loop—14 miles was plenty. Because the race schedule was running slightly behind, the kids had some time to roll around the parking lot and goof around a bit before the start of the race. I knew Koen’s nerves were running high when he couldn’t figure out whether he needed to poop or not (we’ve all been there) and then when he fell because he forgot to unclip from his pedals.
It was finally time to start and I was extremely excited to ride behind both of the boys in a coaching capacity. The USA Cycling Official blew the starting whistle and they were off! Koen clipped into his pedals like a champ and the kids were ripping down the tarmac as if the race was a 200 meter sprint.
With Koen’s racing age category ranging from ages 10 to 14, there is a huge diversity in strength and skill level among the racers. The race quickly broke into about three groups with Koen and Cole fighting for position in the middle group. Koen then got popped off the middle group, but was riding strong and determined.
While riding behind Koen for the first 6 or 7 miles of the race, I continued to be a positive voice in his ear and he continued to ride an amazingly consistent and focused race. By Mile 8 we were in a tailwind section of the course and he began picking some kids off that had started too strong and then faded. I could tell that he was loving it! After he passed his friend Cole, I held back and made sure Cole cranked out those last grueling 2-3 miles. However, it was so much fun to watch Koen rip up the second to last climb. He is a much more determined and gritty kid than I ever was.
At the end of the race all the boys were exhausted, but smiling ear-to-ear on a job well done. Koen finished in fifth place overall in his age category and had a great experience. Not too bad for his first road race.
The part of the day I will remember most is when Koen and I were able to sit down after the race and share a hot dog and chips. Since it was just the two of us sitting on a picnic table near the podium, I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.
- The first thing I asked him was what he was thinking when the group of four boys broke away from the group at the start of the race. He said, “I knew they were going a little too fast for me, so I decided to ride my own race.” Wow! Sometimes his maturity level still amazes me.
- The second thing I asked him was if he preferred me riding behind him at the beginning of the race or if he liked riding on his own at the end of the race. He said, “It didn’t really matter because when I was on my own I just thought about what you would be saying.” I had to hold back my emotions a bit after that comment.
- The last thing I asked was about his level of nerves before the race. He said, “I wasn’t really nervous because you had prepared me about what to expect.” Even though I knew he was clearly nervous, I thought that was very nice thing for him to say. He knew this day was important to me and I think this was his way of saying, “thanks dad.”
I’m sure Koen will always remember his first road race, but probably not as much as his dad will. I have really enjoyed coaching both of the boys over the last month and look forward to getting much more involved in this role. I think I will always enjoy testing my own abilities on the bike, but that side of the sport now pales in comparison. Looking forward to a fun season or riding and racing with this amazing kid.