Casablanca 25 years ago Vol. 6: The perfect race Pt. 4

The Perfect race - finale:

Jim Michener was vomiting into a trash bin in the center of the track, his muscular hulk shuddering, rattling the metal against concrete. He stood up and wiped his mouth as I passed by. “Good luck against Jamie – he’s tough, but you can beat him.”

These encouraging words came from my defeated semi-final round competitor at these Junior World trials. Jim had given me a run for my money two races in a row, possessing an uncanny ability to wind it up from 300 meters and keep the acceleration going all the way to the line – a race strategy directly in contrast to my ability to produce surge of speed and then try to sustain. Jim confessed to having thrown-up after each and every race.

Match sprints and short track speedskating have much in common in terms of the waves of lactic acid induced nausea and weakness after each event and the need to recompose in a relatively short interval of 15 minutes for the next round.  Showing back up to the line after a maximal anaerobic effort is parallel to spooning up another plateful of whatever food you just threw up – “as a dog returneth to its own vomit…”

My stomach troubles were further exacerbated by the self induced pressure that had been building for 6 months since the day I hadn’t been selected to the national team training camp. I could hear Ed’s voice in my head, “What are you getting all high and mighty about Coyle?…If you are as good as you say you are… just come back in July and win the trials." Jamie had pulled out of the last sprint and was probably fresh, I was still shaky and breathing from the effort.

Jamie and I lined up at a safe distance 15 minutes later and without theatrics the 4th gun was fired for the potential finale of the Junior World Championship trials. By now, all the Juniors had clustered right down by the line and were on their feet yelling at us from the moment the gun went off. The “cool” kids were cheering for Jamie but I noticed that I had adequate representation in the stands.

I drew pole position and was required to lead the first lap and did so without deliberation, setting a pace of 20mph and following the black pole lane for one lap.

We came around with 2 laps to go and as soon as we crossed the line I swung up and slowed. I had seen Jamie’s face on the line - he’d been bested despite the theatrics and tactics – his guidance would be to take the race on merit. Sure enough as I slowed, he paused and then pulled through on the pole lane and we continued around the backstretch and into the far corner, 1 ¼ laps to go.

We entered the final straightaway with 1 lap to go and the bell began to ring, Jamie moved up the track and began upping the pace such that we were traveling 25mph by the time we hit the start/finish line. I kept about a 3 bike length space between us and I rode high towards the barriers where the juniors were leaning over, screaming almost right in my ear as we streamed by. I kept “slingshot room”

We sped through the corner high up the track, both of us out of the saddle, Jamie ever vigilant, watching me, riding down lower to intersect any early attacks. As headed for the far side of the turn Jamie jumped and dropped down to the pole, accelerating to more than 30mph as we crossed the 200m mark.  I followed, halving the distance between us in order to capture the benefits of the draft. Whether he knew it or not, Jamie was coldly eliminating my strengths of a quick acceleration, short sprint and bike handling. If the race were to become a straight out drag race it would be close.

Then pride interceded: midway down the straightaway, Jamie paused in his constant acceleration and, looking back, dodged up to just above lane two ( about 5 feet above the pole lane) providing a tempting hole to dive through. I was not foolish enough to spring that trap and hovered above waiting. The pace stabilized for a moment - breathing room.

The final corner approached and I started to accelerate laddering up the track out of the saddle to keep the distance between us steady while increasing my potential energy. Jamie bobbed and weaved trying to own all three lanes looking back. As we began the turn in earnest, Jamie committed, turning his head forward and hitting it hard. Back out of the saddle, he scissored down to just above the pole lane and our pace leapt from 30mph to 40mph in 20 meters – it was on.

The even pace on the backstretch had given me a moment to reload my springs and I uncoiled everything I had remaining. The G-forces in the corner pressed me into the saddle and as I leaned far to the left, the cracks in the track rattled through my forearms. I arched over the bars forming a protective shell over the motor of my quads and calves thundering below and that warm hum began as power throbbed through my legs into the pedals. I matched Jamie’s acceleration and more: despite having the outside lane and longer trajectory, I closed the distance and began riding up on his back wheel.

As we exited the corner I had drawn even with his hip and my front tire had come into view. Jamie flicked up and we had momentary contact and then he dropped and locked onto the pole lane. Any movement from there and he would be disqualified. Meanwhile the liability of the outside lane around the corner delivered its double rewards of higher rotational velocity and declining altitude as the corner flattened. I burned the remainder of my reserves and loosed the catapult, now shoulder to shoulder with Jamie, both of us hammering into the pedals.

Pulse hammering in my brain, my head, hands and hamstrings delivered a pulse of speed down the short straightaway, elbow to elbow for a moment, I then surged past Jamie to cross the line with a ¾ length advantage.

Sound returned and a sudden roar filled my ears and I realized I had done it. As I swung high up the track to absorb my speed I realized that I had won the Junior World Championships Trials and the one and only spot to the Worlds in North Africa. I raised my hands… again only to cradle my head – this time in relief – and spun down around the corner, cheers echoing from the far side of the track.

I finished the warm-down lap, slapped high fives with a core group still at the fence and then retreated to the apron. Richie and a few other juniors were there to catch me and hold the bike as I unstrapped, and Richie shared the unofficial 200m time – at 10.96 possibly a new junior record.

I quickly gathered my things, and as I prepared to leave, there he was, the “man” himself, Eddy B., who shook my hand, smiled stiffly and in his thick accent said, “Yes, good racing. Jamie not race well though…  Perhaps we must bring two sprinters to Junior Championships…” and then he was gone.

Disappointed that I would potentially yet have to face the threat of my mortal enemy across continents I was thrilled with the outcome of the most stressful and rewarding races of my career.

I crossed the track into the shadows of the stands and as I re-emerged into the lights, was humbled to find two dozen junior elite athletes waiting to escort me back to the Olympic Training Center. The sun had set yet I could feel the warmth radiating from the stucco buildings and we parted the trees on the sidewalk as we passed through the park for the 10 minute ride back home.

Conversation was mostly hushed but I rode at the arrow of the peleton with honor guard coverage for street crossings. As we entered the parking lot, an arbitrary paceline formed to give me a leadout to the PedXing sign and I took the bait, winning the parking lot prime sprint with a surge towards the line and a bike throw and we all laughed as we headed for the cafeteria.

It was Richie Hincapie who brought a dose of reality back into the ceremonies. “Great race – I hope you get to go – you earned it.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, my voice turning shrill, “I won the trials, of course I’m going.” I paused and thinking said, “but I guess Eddy B. thinks Jamie should go too.”

“No Coyle…, that’s not what I heard. I heard Eddy talking to Campbell about maybe they should bring you too…”

My mind raced back to Eddy’s words, “Perhaps we will have to bring two sprinters to Junior Championships.”  “No,” I said, mind blackening with the darkening sky as realization set in, “they were talking about Jamie – Jamie might get to go – I won…” “I won the trials..”

“Sorry John, but all these trials disguise the reality that it is coach’s discretion – Jamie’s going already. That was decided long ago. But the good news is you still might get to go if you keep beating Jamie at practice…”

Seeing my face he added, “Sorry man, thought you knew…”

Days 2 through 10 of the never ending junior world trials began the next day…


(Video – this is the 2007 world championships, final race. This race went down in a classic match sprint pattern almost identical to the race w/ Jamie. If this were us, Jamie would be in blue, and I’d be in orange)



Back to the Diary:

Tuesday – sprint day:

Today I got up at 9:20, ate breakfast, then slept until 12:00pm. My neck was still stiff – yesterday I couldn’t even turn it to the left. I couldn’t see traffic coming. Anyways, after getting up, I got ready for a ride, only to discover my front wheel was missing. I later discovered that Scott had taken it on Craig’s advice when he discovered he had a flat. I was the only one racing today and I couldn’t even go for a ride so I waited.

I decided to go to Azdine’s room and listen to my Brian Adam’s tape I loaned him. I was really shaken by his room. It is about the same size as mine at home. I figured Azdine had a pretty good job and would be reasonably well off for a Moroccan. I was wrong. All that Azdine owns in life can be easily laid in a normal suitcase. He has no furniture other than his bed. He shares this cement floored and cement walled room with another worker. He has no other furniture besides a small table. On it he has all his worldly possessions – a half-full suitcase of clothing, 2 magazines, 7 or 8 copied cassettes, a walkman type tape player (no radio or recording) and two small speakers powered by the walkman. My box of tapes is worth more than all he owns.

His tapes are funny. He has one for the English class he is taking, along with a magazine-like textbook, one store bought tape of “1984 Superstars!” a K-Tel type tape of top-40 music, a couple of Arab music tapes, a couple copies of American music, presumably off the radio, and his second and final store bought tape, “Canary Birdsongs,” for his 3 canaries.

I don’t know what he does with his money – maybe it isn’t much and it all goes to pay rent and for his class or maybe he is saving it.

At the track, I waited while the coaches and Mr. Kirkbride (who, by the way has been staying in my room since Friday) put my bike together. I guess the tread had flaked off my white, light tires, so they put Panaracers on those wheels. I tried warming up on the new tires, but they are narrow profile and slid very easily – I almost fell when I slid from 2 feet above the red line to the pole line, so I switched to my trust old heavy Wolber rims and tires.

My first sprint was a 3-up. I was the 6th ride out of 8. I was up against a Bulgarian and an East German – both big and muscular. The Bulgarian had qualified 11th and the East German 5th – their times 11.6 and 11.5 respectively.

I drew lane 2. The East German led slowly on the pole until the backstretch. He picked up speed and climbed the banking. I was about 10 feet behind him when the fat Bulgarian came underneath me, then hooked sharply and hit my front wheel – trying to knock me down. I made it though, but I didn’t want 3rd, so I dove underneath and was in first by the end of the turn. I led across the finish with 2 laps to go and around the corner and down the backstretch. Then the East German dove to the pole and started leading. I dropped down in second and was sitting comfortably a little below the red line where the German was riding when I was slammed from underneath again! The Bulgarian had slipped underneath me and from the apron he shot up and hit me. I bounced up, and then down a little and still, before I had time to recover my composure he came and hit me again.

At about this point I got mad. I don’t know if he was just trying to intimidate me, if he wanted 2nd position that bad, or if he didn’t like the USA, but I didn’t like him, so at this point – about halfway through the corner, I took a steep angle down the track and chopped that stupid Bulgarian.

He was 5 feet onto the apron after that – there was no doubt about my intent on that move – he knew then that I wasn’t intimidated.

The German steadily picked up speed – apparently thinking that the Bulgarian was the one to worry about – and that the Bulgarian certainly couldn’t come around from third.

The Bulgarian made his move around the second corner. I saw him coming out of the corner of my eye, waited until he overlapped my wheel, then rode him up past the third line before diving back to the East German’s wheel – who was sprinting now. I was just he and I now…

I knew it would be nearly impossible to pass in the uneven corner so I waited. I felt good, so I let a small gap go then made a run at him at the end of the corner. Into the straightaway we came, neck and neck – but the East German had a very strong kick, and the straightaway was short (wide turns, short straightaways) so I missed beating him by 6 inches. Oh well.

Craig was very pleased with my ride and I knew I had ridden well but I didn’t win and if I lost the repechage round I was out – done.

Back at the hotel I talked with Azdine at his house on the roof. There is some garlic up there in a corner – who knows why – aging I guess, or to ward off vampires. Anyways, I showed him how to freak people out by throwing it (the garlic) into the street.

Not about to be outdone, Azdine grabbed one, went to the back part of the hotel roof, leaned over and pointed to a lady seated by the pool of the hotel next door. I laughed because I thought he was joking, but then he threw it – hard.

It shattered on her table. She freaked out screaming and was looking up in all directions. I was on the ground I was laughing so hard. Azdine is a lot of fun. We talked for an hour and then I went to bed.