2006 Race Report #13: Downer's Grove Nationals: 7 seconds to remember...

Race Report – August 19, 2006 – Downers Grove “National Championships” Race 1 – Masters Championships 4:00pm. 45 minutes timed, 80 degrees   Downers’ Grove is a suburb Southwest of Chicago that has a lot in common with other surbuban railway commuter towns in Illinois – a small brick “old town” revised into cafes and shops, with a central garter of the railway anchoring the community. I’ve been coming here on and off since the mid 80’s and have had a long streak of excellent results. I’ve probably raced here 10 times in various categories (junior, cat 3, masters) and have finished in the top 5 every time (except last year’s crash), and have won 2 or 3 times. 

At first glance the Downers Grove course is not exactly my cup of tea… 8 corners on a short course with very little rest in between each, tight, winding, turn. Combine this with a small but reasonably steep hill and you have a challenging circuit for 100+ riders to navigate. Normally a major detriment to my success, I think the hill on this course is my saving grace as it is brief enough to power over in short order, and short enough to recover from quickly. 8 turns in just over a kilometer makes for a technical course, and indeed, the pack stretches out early, and crashes are not unusual. 

Over the last decade the race has turned into a Mecca of sorts for Criterium racers, featuring the U.S. Pro and Elite championships for the last 8 years or so, and various other category nationals on alternating years. The difficulty of the course, and timing of the event near the end of the racing season gives it panache in the eyes of the domestic cycling crowd and attracts a top quality international set that come over with their sights set on the prize list. The shortness of the races (about 45 minutes for Masters) adds a special element of panic to the large peletons and the pace is always blisteringly fast. 

The day after my 38th birthday I headed down from Madison in the RV and spent a brief period at my friend Matt’s house in St. Charles before it was time to head over to the course for the first of (hopefully) two races. The first race on tap was the Masters race – all the top riders in the country over 30 years old (as a reference, Lance won the Tour de France 3 times over the age of 30…) This was to be followed by the Professional/Amateur combined race at 6:30pm. As it turns out, the Pro/Am race was full, over 200 riders had registered, with another 50 on the wait list, so all my eggs were in the Master’s 30+ event – still a significant annual race with the usual roster of top riders. 

We arrived, amazingly with almost an hour to spare, but it took a while to park. Still, I had a little time to register and warm-up. I was amazed to find that my race number was already #129 – and when we eventually lined up to start the event, there were over 150 riders competing on this overcast Saturday afternoon. I managed to do a lot of the stupid things I usually do – like  

  1. Forgetting my wallet when going to register and needing to return all the way to the RV to get it.
  2. Registering and then leaving my race number and pins on the counter at the registration desk, returning all the way to the far side of the course (about 2 miles) to the RV and then realizing that I didn’t have my race number…
  3. Riding back to registration again to get my race number, and then starting back to the RV to get ready only to have
  4. …A flat tire on the way, requiring a stop at the wheel pit for a quick change.

 By the time I actually finished preparing at the RV I only had 10 minutes for a traditional warm-up. Clearly my pre-race planning sucks… Or, the other hand, my pre-race shenanigans may create enough adrenaline to serve as a warm-up… I got in a quick ride and then squeezed myself into the second row on the start line, marveling at the tight mass of bikes and bodies that stretched back 20 or more rows behind me. I was glad to be up front on this tight course. The Chief referee – Heidi Mingus - sends us on our way with the whistle and the pace starts rather mildly, easing up the hill and then accelerating down the corners on the backstretch. 

Why, exactly, do I race? 

It is a convoluted thought/response really. I race because… well, I train for it.   I train for it (racing) because otherwise training would seem devoid of purpose: each feeds the other. On a deeper level I think I need training because it provides me singular clarity of thought, action, and reward – unlike the relatively complicated worlds of work, and even family.  In the simple cause-and-effect of the sporting world, effort - for the most part - becomes results. No politics, no moods, no clients or customers – just effort, skill, ability, and results.

But again – I couldn’t just train… I need a more tangible outlet for my suffering. That, and the fact that I’ve been competing for 29 years… Who wouldn’t fall in love the with the post race vibe? Maybe the “high” is artificial and temporary, but at the end of the day, there is a strong sense of legitimacy – of “I’ve earned this dead sleep” that the night brings you after the car is parked, bike is unloaded, and the lights are dimmed. As your eyes close, the disjointed tumbling of thoughts leave parting snapshots of the day  – chiaroscuro highlights like the imprint of sunset on the back of your eyelids… 

Here are my prints: the blurred outline of my front tire as my head drops and I roar past the finish line – when all sound and motion returns to my senses. The mottled outline of my thighs and shins flinty with the residue of the road and gleaming with the streaking trails of tiny emerging water droplets as I coast around the first turn and congratulate fellow riders. Salt streaked sunglasses glinting against the blue skies and white clouds as my heart-rate returns to earth.   

One of my favorite moments in life is finishing the final lap after a race and searching the crowd for family and friends. For me it generally doesn’t matter the position that I’ve finished. Rare is the race where I’ve not given it everything I’ve had. If I walk across the line with a broken bike and ragged skinsuit, or I rocket through ahead of the pack and raise my hands – the last lap remains remarkably the same. I am sweaty and dripping, flushed but no longer hot, covered with salt and dust - yet cleaned out inside. I am physically stressed to the max - yet emotionally completely relaxed as I return to the normal sense of my body with a sense of pride. 

I love getting back to the finish stretch and finding that friendly face - an old friend, or my family, my daughter’s eyes lighting up as I maneuver to the side to stop by her side. And lately at Downer’s the last couple of years my friend Matt – with his camera. I love immediately reliving and relaying the stories of the race.

Standing, shiny in the sun, facing the course, with the announcer’s voice in the distance, and the occasional inquisitive face or congratulatory interlude as you relate the final moments, and (hopefully) that secret ingredient that led to success to your “fans”. 

By now I know this course and with the results this season I have some confidence about my abilities. Nonetheless it is hard to forget the painful lessons from last year’s finish where I ended up in a brutal crash on the last corner and crossed the finish with the broken pieces of my bike over my shoulder, and the bloody meat of my shoulder and ass hanging out for all to see as I walked across the start finish. Not to mention last week’s debacle in Elk Grove. In this Masters race, despite the famous names and high speeds, I continue to build a fortress of confidence against the vagaries of the race.  

And so I settle in – staying in the “head” of the peloton – the upper 20 riders in the race. Behind us, the long 150 rider pack curves sinuously around the bends into the distance, riders safely 2 and 3 abreast, gracefully winding their way around the course, diminishing to the narrow tail of single file stragglers following over ¼ mile back. As always the questions early on are practical, “am I suffering?” Usually, “yes”.  Next question – “how bad?” 

If the answer indicates a potential withdrawal from the race, then my entire existence becomes one of preservation – maximizing the efficiency effects from drafting, pedaling through corners, and generally being as efficient (lazy) as possible. Not far distant are the other answers “suffering medium”, “lightly suffering” or the rare “feeling good.” In this case, I am suffering only mildly and bordering on feeling good. So I move around the pack testing out various efficiency strategies. Nonetheless I am always “on a wheel” – meaning I always stay in the draft of the rider in front of me. 

Race Rule #1: Walden says: “Get on a wheel!” 

Translation – always, (always!) “Be in the draft.” (unless trying to break away, or trying to win the final few meters of the sprint).

Like all of Walden’s pithy phrases, there can be an entire art and science to discover the full meaning behind the words.  

The Science: In this case, the physics of the equation are cut and dry – proper drafting saves up to 30% of the energy expended by another rider pedaling the same speed without drafting. This scientific fact succinctly explains the sole reason I am able to be a bike racer. If I can get my aerobic capacity to be only as much as 70% of the strongest riders, then I can finish the race… and if I can finish the race – get within 7 seconds of the finish line -  then I have a good shot at winning – it is simple as that.  

Turning the phrase differently, one might say that virtually every person in the race is better than me – by the conventional athletic standard of endurance anyway. 

The Art: The science ends with the math, and the art begins with questions like “paint me a picture of the draft – where is it? How can you conserve the most energy? Does that require physical danger due to proximity?” Due to my weak aerobic capacity (my parents blame it on my Cesaerian birth – no squeeze of life to fully expand my lungs) I’ve been focused on finding the draft - or “wheelsucking” as it is commonly referred to by those with the luxury of not requiring this aid -  for 30 years now. Of my limited strengths, wheelsucking is my strongest. I intuitively know where the draft is – to the point where, on a training ride with a friend, if I “tune out” for a few seconds, I will often find myself suddenly “riding the hip” in a cross wind, and find my friend staring at me crossly as I absorb the energy that they have transferred to the air. 

Getting on a wheel is the first step to finding the draft. However, depending on the shape of the rider, the angle of the wind, and the relationship of other riders, the most efficient draft may well be found to the left, right, or even somewhat back from the wheel in front of you.  I don’t know the physics behind it, but some winds allow for efficient drafting and in a paceline or “peleton” of riders you may find rest periods of “riding the wheel” that are a true respite from the efforts of the race, where heart rates can drop 25 beats per minute.  Other “airs” seem to suggest a more agile wind that resists the rider’s impetus in front of you and still manages to block your path. In these cases, you may only find a 10 beat per minute savings while drafting in a straight line pace line. I hate air like this… 

Then there is “pack drafting” which has its own dynamics – especially on a criterium course, and especially on one in town where the wind can swirl and eddy from different directions between each cross street, with tall buildings deflecting the overall currents.  Over the last season, I’ve tried to retrieve my intuitive and instinctual (blink) reactions to drafting into logical understanding with some limited success. What I’ve been able to observe:  

1)       Generally speaking “turbulence” or “buffeting” against your chest and arms is an explicit sign that you are in the draft – try to center that visceral feel on your sternum.

2)       In large packs, the single best draft is in the “rear triangle” – near the back, but still connected to the 3 or 4 abreast portion of the pack. Sometimes I’ll find the perfect position: 3 riders in front, then two slightly forward left and right, and then I anchor between them with my front wheel parallel with their rear wheels. This is the ultimate wind shade and has allowed me to pass through 30, 40, even 50 miles of a criterium conserving energy the whole way. (See chart below – “perfect drafting”) “perfect drafting” in blue..

Wind direction

                  3)       The draft changes in the corners –  in dead still air, the draft will be slightly outside the wheel in front of you, as the instantaneous velocity of the riders in front of you is in a vector toward the outside of the turn – e.g. ride outside the rider in front of you on corners when the air is still.

4)       Learn to ride close to the wheel. (particularly when the pack is strung out) I tend to ride about 6 – 8 inches from the wheel when I’m not miserably suffering, and half that distance when I am suffering. Each inch closer gives another percentage of energy savings (and some increased risk.) Practices at the track with Walden were invaluable in learning this skill – riding 2 inches from the wheel in front of you traveling 25 mph on a bike with no brakes helps you to learn spacial relationships on the bike quickly. 5)       Learn to estimate proximity without looking at the wheel in front of you. Walden would yell “Don’t look at the tire in front of you – Look Ahead!” as, ultimately, the reactions of the rider in front of you were largely dependent, and amplified by the motions 2, 3 or more riders ahead.  

On lap four, as we head up the hill, my water bottle suddenly bounces out of its holder, lands neatly on the right side of my frame on the rear triangle, and proceeds to cleverly rotate, align, and insert its tapered nozzle between my chain, the front derailleur, and the front chainring in one swift motion.  A millisecond later and I powerfully pedal the narrowed neck of the plastic right into my derailleur, losing my chain, and bending the front derailleur like so much tin. As we reach the steepest part of the hill, I can’t pedal – my chain is completely knotted around my derailleur and crank and I decelerate quickly, maintaining just enough inertia to get over the incline and coast down the backside of the hill. Breaking wide of the pack on the downhill section, I find an opportunity to put the chain back on with my fingers, but when I pedal, it is with the sound of a chainsaw – the bent derailleur playing the part of the tree.

Fortunately the wheel pit is just at the bottom of the hill and I coast my way in under the awning to get my bike repaired. With an extended hiss, the long pack slithers by and I dismount and put my bike in the hands of the mechanics for the second time that day. 

Now keep in mind – the guys in the wheel pit had fixed a flat just 20 minutes prior, and just 6 days earlier – on their last working day, they had helped to fix my rear wheel from the crash at Elk Grove. I was becoming a “repeat customer” which was not necessarily a good thing. But with good humor they say, “back again?” and take care of me, re-aligning my derailleur and then holding my bike up and prepping me for “re-entry” into the pack after the “free lap” or allowance for a “mechanical” which will allow me to rejoin the race without penalty. 

After the fix, I lined up all alone on the inside of the downhill turn in prep for re-entry and when the mechanic finally lets go of my seat near the tail of the pack, I sprint from a dead stop to try and tag onto the rear of the peleton. 

Race Rule #2: Walden says: “Shift down at the bottom of the hill, Shift up before the top!” Translation – always, (always!) “be in the right gear.” Another shouted Waldenism full of meaning.  

The Science:

1) shifting under massive torque results in mechanical failures (translation – shifting while pedaling hard may result in dropping, breaking or tangling your chain)

2) The human body is most efficient for certain efforts at a certain RPM. Generally speaking, maximal acceleration and power output comes from high RPM’s (120Rpm+), and efficiency comes from lower (but consistent) RPM’s (70 – 100 Rpm’s). 

The Art: Always being the right gear means knowing the demands of the race at any given time. Uphills require acceleration of mass up the hill – hence “shift down” (smaller gear, higher rpm). Downhills are a chance for efficiency and rest – hence “shift up” (bigger gear, slower rpm) – not to mention the rotational inertia of two muscle laden legs weighing 70+ pounds, when slowing from 150Rpms to 70 Rpms provides extra inertia to the pedals without an extra ounce of energy.

Then there is the rest of the race… which follows similar patterns. 

1)       Always downshift prior to a short hill – into your small chainring if required – BEFORE applying torque

2)       Always upshift right before the top of the hill (not when heading down) – use that rotational energy and the efficiencies of that motion to start recovering early

(subtle note – I always time my downshifting for when my left leg is nearing the top of its stroke, and my upshifting (larger gear) for when my right leg is nearing the top of the stroke) I didn’t even realize the physics of it, but this assures that during the maximal torque associated with each down cycle of the pedal stroke, the flex from the torque on the crank arm aligns with the direction you want the chain to be pulled.

3)       Always downshift prior to corners (and pedal once to make sure you are in gear) I think more “last corner” crashes are due to this failure (shifting midway through the corner, then cranking hard, skipping a gear, causing slippage) than any other maneuverings

4)       In the final laps of the race, always ride in a smaller gear. Taking advantage of opportunities to move up without spending time “in the wind” requires instant accelerations to “fill the gaps”. In the last few laps of any given criterium, I generally ride between 120 – 130 rpms, and ride with both hands clenching the brakes – to take advantage of internal opportunities to move up in the draft, while at the same time using my brakes to keep safe.  

With significant effort I get back up to speed and rejoin the pack’s downhill pace of 35mph after fixing my mechanical problem, and reconnecting near the tail in about 140th place. After collecting myself briefly on the remainder of the downhill, I resolve to get back up front – and, in just over a lap I manage to make my way past over 130 riders and return back into the top 10.  Every year I’m astounded by the idiots that don’t shift down prior to the hill and clog the main artery going up – and then subsequently find themselves struggling in a gigantic gear, dropping their chain or grinding their gears while trying to shift under power going up the hill. Conversely, I find that I can pick up 10, 20, or more positions each time up the incline – just by shifting correctly. And these are the best riders in the country… 

I pass at least 50 riders on the hill with relatively little effort, veering to the outside of the backward flow of riders and turbulence going up the hill, listening with amusement to grinding gears, tires locking up, and frustrated cries from the center of the pack even as I spin my way easily in a low gear accelerating quickly to the top and then quietly click back into my large chainring, shifting up and turning that rotational inertia into power for the downhill – again I slingshot forward past the other riders.  

Flashback: 1985, Waterford Hills Speedway, Waterford Michigan. It’s yet another hot, humid Thursday afternoon practice with the Wolverine Sports Club, and I’m at the Speedway – a 2+ mile asphalt car racing track in the NW suburbs of Detroit. 

Mike Walden, as always, is there, and is standing at the top of the short (35 ft vertical or so) hill mid-way through the course, and has, as usual, few words to say, but he’s shouting them and shouting them over and over. “Shift down at the bottom of the hill, Shift Up before the top!”… “Shift down at the bottom of the hill! Shift before the top!”  I get distracted and spin all the way over the top… “Dammit Coyle – what the hell are you doing?!” (He said this a lot.) 

Mike is older now – in fact walking with a cane, but still wearing the big glasses, mustache, and the beret that defined his presence in my life over the last 8 years. He had had some health problems and subsequently had lost weight – was even riding again – on beater bike that he had with him that day. At one point he got on his bike at the top of the hill even as we were still practicing, and began to coast down the incline, but on the way he lost control and ended up heading straight down on the grass rather than the pavement – on the steepest section of the hill no less. 

I can still remember seeing him bumping down the grassy knoll, bouncing off the seat and then falling without grace at the bottom, flopping into the deep grass and disappearing. Our peleton was just turning the corner to head up the same hill, and we all saw it happen.  Pitifully we all laughed heartily at this rough man finally getting some of his own and a few catcalls arced out even as he got up and dusted himself off. I’m sure I laughed, and who knows, maybe I even yelled something.  Mike did not acknowledge our calls or blink or blush, though I did then, and I am now.

Shortly thereafter began that same voice: “Shift down at the bottom of the hill, Shift up before the top!” and so it went – round and round and round.  21 years later, and I now realize that the hill at Downers Grove is identical in length and steepness to that of Waterford… 

The race is very short to begin with, and now we have already eaten 1/3 of the total distance. I am bound and determined to be in a breakaway should one occur, and I continue to maintain my position in the lead of the pack. However over the successive laps, no escapes of note occur and the race proceeds at a fast, but predictable tempo until the final 2 laps.  As we cross the finish line, the lap counter flips to read “2”. As the pack passes the crowds at the announcer’s booth it seems as though the vertical metal ribs of the barriers strain with our passing, spectators removing their hands from the rails and cautioning their neighbors to back up even as they cheer, hands in the air. 

It is at this point that the nature and feel of a criterium bike race often changes: when the pull of repeated breakaway attempts are suddenly replaced by the stagnation, lethargy and swelling tension that the looming yet still-distant finish brings. Prior to this change the race possessed the graceful moves of a flock of geese: loosely organized gliding movements with the occasional re-organization within the pack. The leadership provided by the pacesetters up front provided those of us following the ability to see and predict a path through corners, to move up or back, to sprint ahead if so desired.

However, now the pack begins to pulse slowly forward like an overfed reptile straining within its skin: slowed and bulging, the formerly tapered profile of the lithe serpent suddenly distended and sluggish.  For the next 2 minutes – an entire lap, the lump goes undigested – except for the scraping of the sides by the corners of the course. Scales of riders, or even pacelines of skin are peeled back by the rough edges and sloughed off for the medics to attend to. 

In this new mode, visibility for the racer vanishes - visibility of the road, the corners – visibility of everything but the bodies in front of us. We can’t see a corner coming – rather we “read the tea leaves” or more accurately the “Brownian motion” of the suddenly swaying jerseys in front of us that flow suddenly to the left and right and then, as quickly begin to lean – forcing us to follow – and then just as suddenly we find ourselves straightening back up. Bumps? Potholes? Curbs? Also blocked by bodies: the racer “sees” only by reading the Braille of the helmets ahead. It is not unlike one of those indoor rollercoasters –  it is dark, you are strapped into the machine, and you can’t tell where you are going - the only predictor of your uncertain path is bobbing, waving necks and heads in front of you as they weave left and right, and then disappear screaming…. 

The feeling of doom is inescapable and even as the compressing mass twitches, the beast regurgitates some unwilling prey - riders shooting out the front of the maw. With a tongue-like chase from the pack these riders are captured and are then quickly re-absorbed. Elbows like whiskers we continue our slow progress, thrusting our angular protrusions wider to “feel” our way and protect our softer parts, senses completely focused for any indications of progress or danger. 

These minutes are the “moment of truth” in Criterium racing. Riders spend their entire careers, and endless hours at the head of the pack trying to separate themselves from this very moment – the moment where you lose control of your bike, can’t steer, can’t see, can’t stop, and can’t pedal your way out. For the next 2 ½ minutes, power, speed, and endurance fail to matter, and courage, skill, and luck are the primary determinants of the race outcome, with courage the single most important. For some extremely talented endurance athletes, these are the moments where they suddenly “give up,” drifting to the back. “Not worth it,” they say.  “I didn’t want to lose all my skin just to mix it up with the crazies up front,” say others.  

It makes sense if you have enough of an aerobic motor to get away in breakaways in the 50% of races that have them. However, in my mind the true competitor never lets a finish get away – a Lance Armstrong, a George Hincappie – these guys always race to win and if necessary would put themselves right into the field sprint mix. For me? I have no choice. This is my lot in life. I too hate being in these moments, perhaps less than some though. However, I do love watching them as a spectator. Like a gigantic ballet with over 100 participants, the racers stack neatly coming into the corners, and then, in syncopated unison, tilt right in liquid slow motion, and then reverse the angle in the same perfectly timed change of alignment coming out of the corner – that is, until the first shudder of a wheel touching wheel, or a u-shaped handlebar looping another, and then suddenly the whole choreographed works falls apart – a sudden bobble -  the silent heat and smell of brakes and then the sea of riders divides, the ripples of the impending catastrophe moving deadly, silent and quicker than road speed - like a tsunami racing outward, the wave of trepidation washes in concentric circles away from the incident, the true affects of its power observed in the wreckage piling on the shores of the road – clattering against the barriers,  flipping over curbs, or pinned by the barriers -  bodies and bikes stacking on top of each other like so much flotsam and jetsam. 

Why else do all the spectators stand by the corners during the race? 

The fear during these laps is palpable – the damp hush inside the pack defying and absorbing the crowd’s reverent and escalating exhortations. With 2 laps to go, the peleton squeezes through the finish tunnel, the parabolic lump pressing the outer scales of the barriers and clapping hands of the crowd, while inside, inert and suffocating, we racers stifle in a paralysis of pressure. 

With 2 laps to go at Downer’s Grove, I am surrounded, blind. I am bumping and bruising in the center of the “asshole zone” during the tensest moments of the race. As we enter turn 1 – a metallic clanging like an ugly xylophone is heard at the barriers as bodies and bikes of the outermost layer stop themselves with a collapsed clavicle or a burning slide of skin across the sandpaper of the pavement.  Turn two and thank god the barriers are gone as a half dozen riders squirt out onto the grass and re-enter the pack going up the hill. The hill itself is a complete disaster, with a near dead stop half way up, riders piling into each layer from behind in slow motion, feet coming out of pedals, cleats skittering on the rough asphalt. I come to a near stop behind a crush of riders on the hill but manage to squeeze past the masses still detangling on the downhill, staying in the top 15.

The downhill sections breed their own disasters with multiple shake-ups and a couple explosive crashes echoing from the glass windows of the shops lining the course. And so we continue with repeated touch and go moments of sprinting, locking up the brakes, bumping, overlapping of wheels, hitting the brakes again, and then sprinting again, avoiding each of the entanglements and bodies bumping ahead of me and beside me until I finally re-enter the finish straightaway with 1 lap to go.  

With one lap to go - digestion begins and the constriction holding back the smooth passage of the serpent begins to give way. Despite the near certain death faced by leading the pack with one lap to go, the pressure of the crowd and the noise and the barriers gets into the heads of certain riders, and with a last skeletal crack, they shoot out the mouth of the peleton like so much jelly…  

I’ve never understood this lemming-like rush to the front with one to go, but I’m always grateful, as it breaks the spine of the pack and shortly thereafter the riders re-align into a more traditional paceline, allowing passing, and the proper positioning for the final sprint to the line. 

As we pass the announcer’s booth the noise and roaring of the crowd the ringing of the bell and the shouting of the announcer combine to break the will of the animal and a jet of riders flies zinging out the front of the pack – uphill at over 30 mph. I pause and then follow in about 20th place, knowing that the hill will digest this initial vomit and that my opportunity to win will come from staying protected until well into the downhill section of the course.  

True to form, these addled lemmings give up the ghost on the uphill portion of the course, and the pack, myself included, swarms around them and I find myself suddenly coasting into first place entering the downhill – “too much effort” I chide myself – “settle in!” So I swing my bike to the far right and coast… and I wait…and for a moment, nothing happens. Then, finally, the move – a rider, then 2, then 3, then 10 go flinging down the left and I swing back over accelerating hard, pushing myself onto a wheel and re-joining in about 11th place, making the right turn into the lower section of the eight corner course at 36 miles and hour, 3 corners to go. 

Now! Now! Now!  A loosening of positions up the inside near the 6th corner and I accelerate quickly and then brake to move up to 8th just prior to the next turn.  We lean hard and then straighten, humming down the remainder of descent prior to the last two corners. This is an extremely sensitive and fearful moment. We are heading downhill at over 40mph on an extremely wide avenue and about to enter a very narrow corner. The pack behind has the draft and the room to do all kinds of suicidal things – notably to go winging up the inside hoping to clear the front of the pack prior to the corner.  

Coming out of the previous corner I move up the inside to block the inside lane a little bit and hopefully reduce consideration for any such suicide moves. The speed, fortunately, stays high, nearly 40 mph and as we shoot down the wide open stretch, I drift back to the right finding an opening to move all the way to the far right curb.  We now have 450m or 25 seconds to go, and we are 100m or 6 seconds from the second-to-last-corner and

NOW! NOW! NOW! I put in a significant effort to move up two spots and slot in on the outside of two riders, braking quickly to even out my pace and entering the 7th corner full barrel in 6th place. Now all that remains is a short, narrow 150M straightaway into the final corner and then the slightly uphill 150m stretch to the finish.

I coast a little watching, watching, and as we move down this cramped stretch my senses reach out to feel the vibrations around me – any sense of a move from behind? No. Any reckless moves or last minute dives up the inside? No. So I guardedly keep my station in 6th for the first 50 meters and watch the unfolding, unfurling, churning movements of the five riders beginning their sprint in front of me. Then I find it – an emerging pattern: Yes - two riders separating and accelerating on the left… 

GO! GO! GO! I engage all my reserves for what is probably the most powerful effort of the race, and I accelerate around the left of 3 riders in front of me, diving up the inside and then veering back to the right just in time to slot into third place going into the last turn, pedaling hard until the angle of my trajectory stops my feet and I begin to lean…  

Our inertia carries us forward and left until we glide past the arch of the curb and the barriers holding in the crowds at the crosswalk and we finally break out onto that last shiny, gleaming stretch of hands and lungs and teeth and noise defining the rarified air of the finish stretch… As the three of us enter the last, off-camber turn of the race at a speed of over 28mph, our bodies began the tilt required to change our trajectories.

In the viscosity of time I watch the rider in first place lean hard left but his bike drifts wide towards the right barrier. In parallel, milliseconds behind him, rider #2 slants even farther and finds a path just inside of the lead rider.  Keeping with the choreography, I lay my bike over – hips in, shoulders low, tilting even farther – forgetting my crash of last year – and take my bike to the point of breaking contact with the pavement, rear tire skittering on the slightly disconnected joints of the concrete… Sideways on the road I take a path just inside the lead and second riders, and in so doing set up a “3-up sprint” drag race to the finish.  

It only takes about 7 seconds, these last 150 meters, but each one of these breaths, each one of these pedal strokes, each one of these glances, and each of one these minute corrections of the handlebars is 150 times more important than all the efforts of the prior 25 miles.  

Awareness is an ever changing lens: in the 2 second effort to move into third place, the world closes, and for that instant there is only my 2 wheels and the thrumming of my thighs and pedals to deliver the thrust required to bring my front wheel into position.  Then, for the following 2 seconds, as we began the lean into the final straightaway, for a moment, light, color, and sound returns to my senses, and for just an instant I can see the bright tunnel of color and light and hear the building roar of the crowd and mentally tap out the rhythm of the clapping flash of the white palm on my left before the world closes back down. And, finally it is that moment in time that bodies like mine were built for…

150 meters and 7 seconds to go…  

As our bikes leave the g-forces of the corner, our frames began to lift out of the precarious tilts put on by centripetal forces and changing velocities, and as we exit the final turn, our legs begin to churn with the ferocity born of anaerobic power and years of training.  

Sinews digging into shoes, cleats digging into titanium, titanium digging into carbon fiber, our powerful legs begin to deliver the kind of efforts saved for “fight or flight” death throe struggles of prey or predator in the wild. No need to breathe, no need to think, no thought of holding back - the rescue of the finish line was only 150, 140, 130 meters away. 

After a quick glimpse of the finish banner and the positions of my competitors, I put my head down and watched as the machinery of my legs began to deliver every single ounce of power available to my system down to my pedals. The mushroom swirls of my quadriceps bulging, the cords behind the knees extending, and the teardrop shapes of my calves plummeting downward only to quickly rise again. Not long after the corner the lead rider fades to the right and I find myself in a life or death struggle with rider number 2.  

As we began the slight incline into the finish, my thighs, hamstrings, and calves began to feel the incredible efforts of the prior 3 seconds, and I raise my body from the seat and pull myself into the pedals: hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders and abdominals compressing all my remaining reserves and all my passion into the circling crank arms driving the bike forward. 

Next to me my nemesis mirrors my actions and matches my elevation on his bike -  yet with each pedal stroke my front tire inches forward compared with his – 2 feet separating us, then 18 inches, 16 inches. Then the looming banner of the finish line begins weighing on me – but still – with 4 seconds, 3 seconds, and 2 seconds to go I am now within 12 inches, 8 inches, 4 inches of winning the race.   

Another second ticks by and I feel our bodies come parallel with each other. Into that last second, locked into the final 2 ½ rotations of the pedals that would decide the race while pedaling at 150 rpms I bend my head and give everything, absolutely everything I have…   …that is until just before the line… With 1/10 of a second to go, instincts take over, and I abandon my final pedal stroke to throw the full weight of my body downward and backward, my hamstrings and glutes just clearing my seat and almost touching my rear tire even as my forearms extend my handlebars to the tips of my fingers and the 16 lb carbon fiber bike shoots forward at least 8 inches propelled by the rapid rearward motion of my body mass.  

At that pivotal moment where my front tire rolls over the shiny white line of the finish, my body is a perfect sideways U – legs and arms and neck extended forward, collapsed over each other with my bike thrust well out from my frame. I remember thinking, “that was perfectly timed – it must be mine” even as I decompress and pull my body over top my bike and sit down. Time resumed, and the roar of the crowd suddenly rocked my consciousness like a concussion.

Rider #2, similarly bewildered sits up next to me and with our close proximity I offer a hand that is quickly met even as we continue to shoot forward at 35 mph, arms raised, and then part prior to entering the looming first turn. As we enter the corner, the announcer’s voice suddenly registers, “…and what an un-be-live-able finish! A knock-down, drag-out, drag-race to the line, both riders throwing their bikes and crossing the line within one inch of each other. We’ll have to wait for the photo-finish, but I believe it was number 113 that took home the victory!” 

I look over at my fellow finisher and note his number – 113, and slowly shake my head. “Did you get it?” I ask. “No idea” he says, “I had my head down all the way to the line and then threw my bike as far as my arms would let me.” It was then that I noted his height – clearly several inches taller than me… 

We finish the lap and I quickly find my little blond angel clapping at the finish, “You won papa! You won!” and I quickly suggest that maybe I was second. I am happy either way, but I’m still hoping for the “W”. 

30 minutes later relaxing and chatting on the sidelines I wander over to the stage to receive the results. Chief referee Heidi confirms it – “Sorry John - he got you by about an inch.” With a smile and a shrug I head back to play with my daughter in the sun, relaxing with the laurels and medal for second place at the Downer’s Grove Nationals.    

2006 Race Report #12: Elk Grove

Race Report Elk Grove Pro-Am Challenge, August 13, 2006. 100km.  After warming down from the crash and checking my body for problems (minor roadrash on my shoulder, a few considerable bruises that showed up days later) I went over to registration and paid my $55 entry fee for the Pro Am race later in the afternoon. I was quite excited to have my second shot at the professionals, on a course that, as it turns out, was fairly well suited to my strengths. 

Meanwhile my plan was to head back to my friend Matt’s house where I had left my daughter to play with his children, spend some time with her, and then we were all going to head over together for the pro race.  Just minutes after registering, I received a call from my wife (who was having a relaxing weekend to herself back in Madison) that Kat was “homesick.”

Kat had asked to call home and was upset when she talked to Shannon. I drove back to Matt’s house to find her slightly feverish and with a stomach-ache. I sat on Matt’s couch and cradled her sweaty head and warm limbs in my lap for a ½ hour and then ‘called it’ deciding to head back up to Madison and home.

Katelina was definitely not in a mode to spend 3 hours outside in the heat at a bike race without her mama or papa around.  Fatherhood before racing, so I packed her in the car and we headed back and the race went on without me.

My next shot at the pros would have to come at Downer’s Grove the following weekend… Til then, John

2006 Race Report #11: Elk Grove - crashing

Race Report Elk Grove Masters Challenge, August 13, 2006. 75 degrees, 45 minutes timed.  In prep for the $25,000 Pro/Am event later in the day on Sunday I decided to race the short Master’s event earlier in the day – it also happened to have a decent purse of $5000. The race was fairly early for me (9am) and arriving at 8am in the relative cool of the day brought back memories of racing when I was younger – when all our racers were the first of the day – seemingly so that our parents could get back to their yardwork or other activities. 

Warming up at 8:30 am I bumped into a number of my Wolverine Sports Club teammates or ex-teammates including Ben and Jamie, Jan and Todd. I felt tired and sluggish for the first half of the race and hung out in the rear of the pack. However about mid-way through the race they rang a bell for a prime sprint and I decided to test out the course and the sprint. I started moving up on the backstretch where the pack was wall to wall and felt like I was playing a video game – much like frogger – anticipate movement and then move into the evacuated space.  

In such a manner I moved halfway through the pack and then on the far side of the course made an easy move up to the top 20 riders.  As we headed into the last mile, the pace picked up and small packs of riders went shooting up the inside and outside. I picked a promising group and followed it into the last corner and the last 500m. I exited the corner in 3rd and noticed that I didn’t have much draft. As we headed down the final stretch some riders came up the outside and eventually I moved up the inside, only to be blocked near the finish by the leadout man (déjà vu from yesterday) and ended up second.

I drifted back into the pack and when asked by Jamie how it went I used my fingers (still tired) to indicate 2nd or 3rd. He indicated that it was a 3 place prime – that made me happy. The rest of the race proceeded without notable circumstance and with one to go, I began moving up (it was a long course after all…)

As we left the first U-turn, I moved up to top 50, and then into the backstretch I jumped all the way into the front – the pace was quite low.  We finally entered the last two straights, the pace picked up significantly and we hummed into the last turn, with the speed falling just shy of the corner.  My “spidey senses” tingled: sure enough, even though I was in 6th position in a single file leadout, the lowering pace had created the ultimate “race killer” – a slow entry into the final corner.

At the last second I considered trying to move up on the outside, but I remembered how widely everyone had been coming out of the corner and held my position anxiously. I entered the corner at 25 mph, following the wheel ahead of me, but even as I began to lean, I saw something or rather several “somethings” out of the corner of my eye. It was a full-on charge up the inside, with 4 riders trying to enter the corner together.  

Even as I heard the inevitable shouts, and the first of those loud “pops” and the screeching of metal on concrete indicating the first tire being blown and the first bike sliding on bare metal and torsioned tires, I began to throw my body backward, and my bike forward hoping against the odds to “scoot” my bike past the wreckage coming from behind. 

Through the corner of my eye, I could feel the inertia of the mayhem tumbling my way.  The dominoes began to fall, with the inside, #2, #3, and #4 riders piling on top of one another, limbs and bikes flipping and sliding, their looming presence entering the corner of my eye. Even as I threw my bike forward, I could see the body and bike of the rider behind me sliding toward my rear wheel… 

And then, with perfectly predictable precision, my bike began to go sideways – with the mass of the bike and body of the fallen rider plowing into the rear triangle of my bike causing the back end to pass to the right of my adjusting front wheel and I started the “mud track slide” more familiar in dirt bike racing.  For a half second I thought I might hang onto it – I was still balanced overtop my increasingly sideways bike, and my inertia was slowing dramatically via the sliding of my tires and the emergency braking I had resorted to.  Then my rear wheel clipped the curb and I flopped oddly overtop the bike and slapped shoulder first onto the pavement still attached to my bike, covering my face with my hands to avoid the teeth of the 114 remaining chainrings headed at my face as the riders behind tried to navigate the corner through the pileup. 

Eventually the traffic lessened and I grabbed my bike, hopped on, and headed for the finish, only then noticing the “flump, flump, flump” of an out of true wheel – or so I thought. As I finished the 100meter stretch to the wheel pit and mechanics, and climbed off my bike, suddenly my frayed and bubbled rear tire blew loudly like a gunshot, causing the mechanic to wince. “At least you made it here” he said.

 As it turned out it was just my tire that was destroyed, not my wheel and they replaced it with a well worn spare so that I could warm down.  

------------------------------------------------  Fast forward for a moment – Saturday, August 26th, 2006 and I’m heading out for a 50 mile training ride in the rain – out and back to Janesville. It was dry, but threatening as I started, but not long after the air turned to mist, then drizzle, then light rain, and then a steady downpour that did not let up until I returned home almost 3 hours later. 

So, why did I do it? Why did I ride in the rain? I hate the rain for some reason.  I’m a racer, not a trainer. Generally speaking I don’t “get off” on training – I don’t, generally speaking even really enjoy training – rather it is a necessarily evil to prep for racing, and a necessary balancing factor in a busy personal and professional life full of unpredictable stresses. 

I’m not an endurance athlete, and I’ve never seemed to have had much of the “control” over my body that more traditional distance athletes seem to enjoy over theirs. My body is a somewhat unwilling participant – grudgingly providing a rather inconsistent level of fitness that seems to vary according to its own whim, and a somewhat more predictable reserve of short term speed and power to be drawn on assuming I find myself in a position to use it. 

But Saturday just happened to be one of those magic times where, despite seemingly adverse conditions, my body decided it was ready to ride. So after an initial hour of warmup I suddenly found my legs to be smoothly turning circles, my seat feeling comfortable, my breathing regular, my pulse steady at about 150 beats per minute, and my speed steady at about 22 mph – despite the rooster tails of water thrown off by the standing puddles on the road.

Lance would have said, “no chain man – no chain…” I assume that this feeling is something endurance athletes feel all the time – I’m lucky to have it a couple times a year… I marveled at the “scratching their heads” expressions portrayed by the farmers I passed along the way and enjoyed the cleansing effect of the incessant downpour on the roads, my bike and even my skin as all the silt, tar, and exhaust were removed from the road, my bike frame and my mind.

Life became squeaky clean. During the last hour I had an analytically detached sense of glycogen depletion (better known as “bonking”) occurring as I could feel the lethargic muscle responses to my mental demands, and the occasional disassociation from reality where the normal real time monitoring of road noise, direction, and balance were replaced by gaps of blank space – of “nothing.” 

These momentary “grey-outs” were followed by quick “snaps” of compressed processing shunting all the visceral feedback into a “spike of  time” leaving my brain “startled” with the updated reality.  Sometimes the snap of sensory overload would trigger a minor “fight or flight” synaptic reaction releasing adrenaline and resulting in momentary vertigo. This would then be followed by a return to reality until the next “greyout.”. 

Ride, rain, pedal, think… greyness… “Ah! Almost off the road”. Jolt of adrenaline, return to status quo – ride, rain, pedal, think… “Car headlights – move right!” and so on… All of this occurred with no pain, and little anxiety. I knew that I was running out of muscle fuel and I also knew that my body was responding imperfectly, but I was somewhat pre-emptive in my ability to predict the symptoms and was still able to keep on pace and force my body to comply and I experienced a clear sense of flow for the latter 2 hours of the ride before coasting back into my driveway, parking my bike, and heading in for a snack of everything in the fridge that was edible, and a  nice long hot shower. 

In contrast, there are days where even though “fresh” and rested, with proper training and perfect conditions, I’m just completely unable to produce significant power, and the relative levels of pain, and just plain awkwardness are incredibly frustrating. Heavy, irregular breathing, sloppy pedaling, with my feet squeaking in the pedals, knees mis-aligned, “pedaling squares”, tense back – one might swear that it was a completely different bike – or more aptly, a different body pedaling it. 

Once, years ago, at a practice race at the Ciaccaro Club in Windsor Canada, I had forgotten to eat and experienced an in-race bonk scenario second to none. My “greyout” phases started becoming 1/10th  seconds and then ½ seconds and then nearly a second. At one point I overlapped the wheel in front of me and almost went down. A little later, and I just plain forgot to turn and wound up on the grass. I ended up pulling out of a race with only 2 laps to go because I could no longer see any color other than yellow and I was losing awareness for seconds at a time. 

My memory of what came next is vague, but I have a vague sense of shame as I’m quite certain that I wandered the sidelines of the race dragging my bike asking if anyone had “a cracker, a fig Newton – any food at all?”  This all culminated in the worst food binge in history – I spent over $13.00 at Taco Bell AND ATE IT ALL. I believe that this was about 16 items. I do remember clearly sitting in my car, with my belly hitting the steering wheel, realizing I couldn’t possibly drive. I then slept fitfully in the parking lot for a couple of hours before finally heading across the border toward home.

2006 Race Report #10: Elk Grove Cat II Challenge

Race Report Elk Grove Category II Challenge, August 12, 2006. 80 degrees, 55 minutes timed.  Flashback: August of 1977.

I am 8 years old and my father and I are pulling our GM Beauville van into the parking lot of the Dearborn Twin Towers office buildings where I was to participate in my first ever bike race. It was pouring outside and I remember not wanting to get out of the van into the cold rain. I dressed in the van into my wool jersey and black cotton and wool shorts (with a real leather chamois), my leather helmet and gloves, and then, with my father holding the umbrella, I climbed outside the sliding door and onto my bike, goosebumps standing out on my shiny forearms. 

He suggested that I “warm up” by riding around the parking lot a few times, and I did but I was immediately back under the umbrella and back into the van, shivering from the cold and wet. We waited until almost race time before heading toward the start/finish area. With his plastic raincoat on, and holding the umbrella, my father walked and I coasted on my bike over to the start finish line where a stocky, bald, grumpy older man with glasses and a mustache was yelling instructions to the parents, “Midgets! – midgets – you have to roll out your bikes before the race! – bring them over to Clair…C’mon Andreu – you know the drill!” 

His name was Mike Walden and I disliked him immediately. Clair, however, I recognized. Clair Young, wearing his referee uniform, was the reason I was there in the first place. During the summer, as I began to join my father on these long tours or “century rides” as these 100 mile bike tours were called, we were passed at one point by a fit couple in their 50's on a tandem who marveled at my tiny legs pushing the pedals in circles on this 100 mile circuit. When my father indicated that this was the 13th Century ride I had completed that summer – at age 8 – they expressed their admiration and then encouraged my father to get me racing. The couple was none other than Clair and Dorothy Young, parents of national and world champion cyclists and speedskaters Roger and Sheila Young.  

A few phone calls later, and there I was at the Dearborn Twin Towers just outside Detroit in the pouring rain, checking out my gears (12 and under or “midget category” racers were limited in their gears so as to not injure their knees) by “rolling out” my bike backwards for a full revolution of the pedals between two tape marks to ensure that my tenth gear was not too big (this was in the time where bikes still only had “ten speeds”)  10 minutes, and an eternity in the rain later, they lined up the boys, and then the girls behind us on the line.

There were about 12 of us boys, to the right of me was the tallest of the group, with dark hair and a fixed expression, seemingly unphazed by the rain. Next to him was a hyperactive boy who was badgering his father, “This rain is freezing me – why can’t we start? What are they waiting for? Frankie’s going to win anyway – why did we come?” Next to him was a pale, hollow cheeked boy of 10, whose father, like mine, hovered over him with the umbrella, guarding him as best he could. 

And so we lined up, myself – a few days before my 9th birthday: the tall one - Frankie Andreu – age 11 (eventual 9 time tour de France finisher and 4th in the Olympic games), the hyper one: Jamie Carney – age 9 (3 time Olympic team member, my arch-rival for decades to come,) the pale englishman: longtime friend Paul Jacqua – age 10, and a number of other boys, readying for a short 3 lap, 3 mile race. 

In the old Italian tradition Mike, (or was it Clair?) announced, “Torreador, Attencione, Go!” and within seconds Frankie had disappeared into the mist while I was still trying to get my foot in the toeclips. Once I finally did, I could see the outline of two riders ahead of me in the rain, roostertails kicking up high with the water flying off their rear wheels. Frankie was nowhere to be seen and I was left strugging through the downpour with Jamie and Paul and we headed through the darkened corners of the course, wheels whizzing with water and rain, pain and breathing only matched by wonderment of “where did he go?”  

I was not used to being beat – the fastest kid on my block during tag, and the fastest kid at school during recess, I felt a frantic, almost asphyxiating rhythm take over my pedaling and breathing. There was pain in every pore of my skin and my lungs were on fire but I was fixated on the mysterious disappearance of the rider ahead.  Jamie and Paul shortly established the pattern known to racers the world over as a “paceline” pulling into the wind for a short distance and then moving aside for the rider behind to pedal through, blocking the wind for the riders behind.

For perhaps the only time in my career, I took the role of a “roadie” and would pull through faster, chasing the elusive Frankie, or even making attacks to the side of our little peleton.  2 laps into the race and suddenly a dark figure appeared and quickly disappeared outside our little group. It was Celeste Andreu – Frankie’s sister, and she had already made up the 1 minute start gap provided between the boys and girls, and passed us. We made a fruitless effort to chase, but resolved back into the loosely formed paceline we had formed after the start, Paul doing most of the consistent work, and Jamie and I occasionally trying to sneak away off the front. 

We came by the start finish with one to go and the few parents remaining in the rain cheered and then disappeared and we continued our route around this urban maze. As we headed out of the last corner, Paul sprang out into the lead and as I started to follow, Jamie slingshotted past him. But I had grabbed his wheel (i.e. gotten into his draft), and as our tiny gears spun, and out little feet rotated at over 200 rpms, I passed Jamie just before the line to win the “field sprint” and come in 2nd establishing in that 3 mile microcosm a pattern in the world that would be significant in my life for the following 30+ years. 

After drying off (and the rain stopped) there was a medals ceremony followed by a trip to a tent where the sponsor of the race from the local bike shop provided me with my prize – a heavy, chrome plated bottom bracket tool kit.  I didn’t know what a bottom bracket was, but I could tell that this was a significant prize by its weight and shininess and I resolved to really like bike racing. I still have this bottom bracket tool kit, now 29 years later, and it has never been used as far as I know. But it is still shiny… 

August 12: Elk Grove is an unusual setting for a bike race. Instead of a criterium race run on a squared of circuit set in a downtown setting, or a traditional road race course with a long circuit and hills (the kind I avoid for obvious reasons) set out in the country where traffic would not be an issue, the Elk Grove challenge course was a mid length flat circuit of 2.3 miles set on and “out and back” pair of divided lane roads set in a quiet suburban neighborhood.  The course was essentially the shape of a sans serif “L” if you outlined it going counterclockwise: starting from the bottom: a left U turn, a right 90 degree turn, a left U turn, a left 90 degree turn.  

The course was quite narrow for the most part, and that, combined with the large field of Category 2 riders (approximately 120) made for a high degree of tension and nervousness in the pack after the start – elbows hitting elbows, and the occasional bumping of handlebars leading to tires locking up and panic around the fringes. This was a rare race where category 2 riders were separated from the Pro’s and Elite’s (Category 1 amateurs) who had their own race later in the day with a $125,000 prize list. First place in that event was $25,000. Next year…. Next year… 

I lined up on the front line and sprinted to the front after the start in order to have a good position into the first U-turn. I then found myself oddly off the front of the pack by 100 feet into the second stretch. I paused and waited for some riders to catch up and throttled up into 3rd as we headed down the long straightaway. I marveled that I was still up front in this new category of racing and wondered why the race was so slow, checking my cycling computer for the first time only to discover we were moving 33mph, and that my pulse was 180 bpm. Yet I was not suffering – wow – what gives?  

Backing up – August 10th, 2006, our Thursday Night “fast ride” training ride with the Stoton Velo Club. This is a weekly ‘suffer fest’ training ride attended by generally sick individuals that get a weird lift out of pain. I attend solely to improve my racing, but I’m thankful for the twisted individuals that show up to this weekly extravaganza.  We generally do 30 – 40 miles and use the “stop ahead” signs that signal crossroads as interim sprints, and use the tops of the hills as “King of the mountain” challenges. It is all for pride, but the competition is intense: last week we did 18 sprints, the first 10 of which came in the first 10 miles.

Several of us were about to vomit, but we kept going. Here are some of the usual players:

 Glen Gernert: “False Flat Glen” – haven’t seen much of him this year, but Glen holds a special spot on my pain-o-meter for a very unique ability to lift the pace at just the absolutely worst times. Picture this:  I am just barely hanging on to the wheel in front of me up yet another hill, and just as we hit the crest, I see yet another, slightly less steep rise following it. It is just at this point, when I’m absolutely beyond my threshold, when I need to rest, that the notorious site of Glen G’s steel bike will come slicing up the outside requiring the taste of blood, and acid in your veins in order to not get dropped. I hate Glen.  

Andy Nowlan – Andy N. is the reason I’ve even come out on these rides. A sprinter by genetics like me, he and I have spent a bit of time together getting shelled off the back, and struggling to regain the group. Andy suffers quietly along side me when the going is rough and then when we have a moment to actually breathe finds just the right way to describe exactly what I’m feeling, generally with a few f-bombs mixed in. From a pure speed standpoint, Andy’s probably the fastest of the group, but fortunately we (OK, the others) make him hurt just enough that he only occasionally gets to use it. 

Travis – Travis is just a motor – pure and simple. He gets the machinery turning and can keep it going indefinitely. I’m just barely fit enough to hang Travis’ wheel when he cranks it up, which basically makes him 30% stronger than me (after accounting for the benefits of drafting). Travis was Wisconsin state champion in the time trial. 

Glenn J. (or Glenn2) has the most massive calves in the universe. Glenn specializes in all kinds of hurts, but I think his strongest suit is cranking up the steeper hills at an insane rate of speed that leaves you racked for breath and (in my case) recovering for miles. 

Matt E. (or fast Matt) is a pro rider waiting to happen. He’s got a motor like Travis, a sprint like Andy, and the middle pain power of the two Glenns. He’s the triple threat and often gets away for miles at end by using his jump to get the gap, his extended sprint to put on distance, and then the motor to just tick away the miles. Matt is my primary trainer as I use him to gauge my fitness, sprint and “sticking power”. Matt is stronger, faster, and more powerful than me. I’m craftier than Matt. On the occasions where I beat Matt to “stop ahead” sign sprints, it is only through a careful combination of wheel sucking and sheer sneakiness. Hey – if it is worth winning, its worth cheating for… 

On this particular Thursday, the sign sprints are few and far between, but as we enter the “home stretch” toward the final sprint of the evening, I sense another evolution within my body – a change that only seems to respond to severe physical conditions...  I’ve read before about body builders, who, despite visible, incremental muscle increases, don’t see increases in strength correlating to the additional muscle. But then, days, or weeks later, suddenly, significantly, the increase in strength occurs. Physiologists hypothesize that the mass gain in muscle does not necessarily correspond to the electrochemical “turning on” of those same fibers, and that the two events are separate, discrete activities. So the lesson is that physical (and I would argue also mental and even spiritual) development is not so much a gradual curve rather than a set of discrete “jumps”. 

As we headed into the last set of small rolling hills and curves prior to the long stretch to the big finale sign sprint, I took off - creating my own little breakaway with Matt and another racer (Mark D.)  chasing. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay away, but what I did do was absolutely maximize the power through the pedals up each of the small hills, coasting and recovering down the other side. In this way I was able to stay away for a couple miles before being caught. As we wended our way toward the final sign sprint, a series of moves occurred, with fast Matt initiating the ‘shake and bake’ movements that can often prove my undoing.

However, in this case, his effort was matched by Phil, and then Mark leapfrogged Phil with about 400m to go and gained a significant gap quickly. But as always, I followed Matt’s wheel. However, Matt has gotten a little wise and was determined to not lead me out such a distance and we waited and hovered and coasted, watching as Phil pulled away and Mark’s gap widened significantly.  With 250m to go I shifted up and got out of the saddle and rocketed up the right side. As I hit 35mph, I shifted again and I hit 37mph, slingshotting by Phil and heading for Mark’s rear wheel.

Just then a large deer loomed by the side of the road with a full set of antlers even as I swung past Mark to the stop ahead sign. Mark was certainly distracted by the deer and may have been able to counter my move, but what was significant to me was the ability to shift up during a sprint - not sure I’ve ever done that, and hit and extend 37 mph by myself was also pretty significant. As we coasted towards the short hill to the highway home, I considered myself “well trained” for my next race. 

Return to Elk Grove, August 12, 2006: And so the race progressed – I stayed in the top ten riders, generally single file off the front of the pack, spending only a few moments in the tense anxiousness of the wider pack behind us that were raggedly wending the corners and tensely hovering on the narrow straightaways, trying to get out of the soup. With one to go I stayed in excellent position and watched three riders sneak off the front of the pack. As we headed into the last mile of the race, the pace picked up substantially – 34, 35, 36 mph into the last corner, and we closed on the breakaway. Into the last half mile – a narrow, slightly winding stretch to the finish and the pace remained high – 36, 37, 38 mph and I huddled behind my protection of the 2 leadout men. As we entered the last 300 meters, a move up the inside and I jumped on it, and then I made my bid for the win up the inside, chasing down the breakaway men into the last 150m. I followed the inside line accelerating hard to 40mph and found myself suddenly blocked by the rearward trajectory of 1 of the 3 breakaway men who tried to put himself out of harms way and swung to the inside.

AGAIN I had to brake and then try to re-accelerate. There was a substantial muddle near the finish and I had no-where to go and I crossed the line 9th, frustrated with the finish – but excited about the pending Pro/Am race coming the next day – a chance again for a “W” or win. Hoping it wasn’t going to rain…  

Backflash – July, 1980.  It was 2am when my father woke me up. Numbly grasping my pillow, I tumbled down the stairs of the house and headed into the damp black air of our dimly lit driveway to sprawl into the back seat of our Chevy Chevette and immediately fall asleep again. My father pulled gently out of our subdivision and headed out of our Detroit suburb to head west across the state of Michigan on highway 94 toward our final destination of Milwaukee, Wisconsin for to my first “Superweek” series of bike races across Wisconsin.

It was July of 1980, I was 11 years old, and I had just won my second straight Michigan state cycling championship and was prepping for my first national championships. Midway through our trip I woke and sat bolt upright, sweating with fright, the quiet movements of the air and the unheard decibels of powerfully low apocalyptic rumbling signifying the portents of the moment, my body shaking, my stomach turning inside out. I ached with fear even as I turned with paranormal foreboding, knowing the inevitable outcome even before my eyes registered upon the looming shape in the rearview mirror… 

Even though we were moving, it was as though in a liquid fog – a slow-moving soup barring our progress even as the huge truck was bearing down on us from behind with an approach velocity of 50 mph over our own. I heard my screams even before I felt my lungs fill and they pierced the quiet gathering of forces like lightening through the black of night even as the headlights filled the moist rear window with the brilliance of the a million tiny lights signifying the imminent collision. The feeling was like that of being split in half as the world exploded around me and… I saw the headlights gathering, and the truck fast approaching, and the car and the truck revolved and we were in front of it, on top of it, underneath it and a world of sparks erupted even as the gas tank exploded and…. I watched the maniacal driver bearing down on us and could see the gleam from his menacing glare even as the rain drops in the rear view mirror glinted with the reflections of the huge semi about to strike us mercilessly from behind and I uttered a guttural stream of screams and a roar that broke the silence with fear and evil and longing…. And… 

I woke up, sweating, on the side of the road, my father’s arms awkwardly cradling my sweaty head and clammy cold and damp limbs in the backseat of the Chevette, as a husky rattle of the final scream trailed off and I found myself gasping to replace the air my lungs had expelled. I looked around and the glint of the grey morning light exposed the contours of the landscape hidden in the former blackness and despair of the fever-induced “night terrors” or hallucinations the onset of the flu had brought. My body and our car were all intact and the only remnant of reality matching that of my recurring dreams was the headlights flashing past our emergency parking spot on the apron of highway 94. I was trembling and sweating and then suddenly freezing and I shuddered violently in the backseat as I tried to tell my father what I had seen.

Even as I described the oddly mundane artificiality of a simple car crash the graying shroud of fear lingering over my thoughts and eyes lifted and I found myself fully awake, alive, and very sick in the backseat of a tiny yellow car somewhere in southwestern Michigan. He tried to talk me into turning around to head home, but I was having none of it. “I’m feeling better” I declared, and by drinking lots of water I was able to reduce some of the symptoms, and though I alternately froze and sweated all the way to Milwaukee, we made it there prior to the race, arriving at 7am local time – to find the lakefront shrouded in mist, unseasonably cold temperatures, and a steady downpour of rain. My race was a 8:30am and I remember putting on my shorts and jersey, still clammy with sweat, and pulling on the flimsy rainjacket we had brought along to attempt to go “warmup”. 

I immediately began trembling horrifically and my father could see my handlebars jerking as I tried to get my foot in the toeclips as I headed away from the car. Only minutes later and I was back shivering violently and nearly falling as I dismounted my little blue Romic bike which I left leaning against the car as I climbed back in and demanded that he rev the engine and crank the heat. We sat and watched as the other racers filed out of their vehicles and lined up to race the first stage of Superweek, in the rain and cold, without me, - without me! -  even as my father sweated in front and I shivered in the backseat. 

Still the grip of the competition pulled at me and I started arguing halfheartedly about going out to race, but my father was having none of it and I guiltily agreed with a sigh of relief to stay in the warm car, still feeling as though I should have argued better or pushed harder.  

I can still remember very clearly my feelings pulling out of that lot at the lakefront in Milwaukee that day, watching my rivals speeding away into the rain, disappearing, their fading colors yet remaining fixed in my head and leaving a streak across my psyche.  Quitter.

Race Report #9: A return to the Pro 1/2's - Whitefish Bay

Race Report, Sunday July 23rd 2006, Superweek Stage 16 - Finale, Whitefish Bay, Milwaukee, WI 62 miles, 82 degrees.  We woke around 8:30am with the bright sun seeping through every crack in the shades and blinds in the RV. I had a headache and felt slightly hungover from the night before. What a great way to prep for my first pro race in 20 years. I felt nervous already – I just didn’t want to get dropped – at least not right away anyway. 

Jeff and I headed over to Silver Spring Ave to have some breakfast and I wolfed down a breakfast burrito and a waffle and orange juice and coffee. My stomach felt better. Jeff registered for his noon race, and then we returned to the RV to change and warmup. I ran into the race leader Dennis Hauweizen while Jeff was registering and asked him why he was suited up so early in the day (our race wouldn’t start until 6pm). He laughed and said in his thick German accent, “I must clear out zo much alcohol from last night – big headache today – not so goot”. I then said, “Well how about keeping the pace slow today – remember this is my first time racing with you guys in a long, long time.” “Sure John," he answered, "today I go slow – no problem.”

We shook hands and then I joined Jeff in his pre-race warmup, feeling OK. I returned to the RV and changed back into my civilian clothes even as Jeff headed to the start finish line for his race. Unfortunately he ended up in the back of the pack of the Masters race, and when they started the race, it became immediately clear that this was no cake walk. After one lap when they came around, the pack was completely single file – not a single rider was doubled up. Jeff was hanging on the back, and I encouraged him saying, “It’ll let up soon….” But it didn’t.  Next lap 4 or 5 riders fell of the back and Jeff was losing touch with the string of riders in front of him. Still the pace continued, and I feared he wouldn’t be seen the following lap even as he entered turn one 30 feet off the back. Incredibly, he was still 30 feet off after 3 laps even as a few more riders fell off.

I remembered riding with Jeff that morning and marveling at how strong he was, and here I was seeing it first-hand. He just hadn’t raced enough to be comfortable on these bumpy, tight courses while keeping his front wheel 2 inches from the wheel in front of him.  Another lap and he had finally lost some ground and shortly thereafter pulled out, upset and disgusted. Still, it was quite impressive to me, but made me nervous – was this to be my own fate? What the hell was I thinking anyway? 

So it was 1pm, and I still had 5 hours until my race… Jeff and I waited in the shade as the day grew warmer, and then finally headed to eat lunch a little after 3pm at Brueggers bagels. We both ordered the Cuban sandwich and it was delicious, but I remember thinking that I tasted some mayonnaise in the sandwich – something that generally doesn’t settle well with me. Shortly thereafter Jeff gave his partings – he had to drive 8 hours back to Pittsburg. It was only then that I learned my race was suddenly slated to start at 5:30pm rather than 6:00. I texted my former boss Ed Perez and let him know that we would be starting earlier than I had thought.  Meanwhile, I felt tension, nervousness, anxiety – like I rarely had felt in my 29 seasons of bike racing.  

I dressed in the heated, humid RV, packing an extra water bottle, and then headed out on my bike for a warmup – with only 30 minutes to go. Immediately I knew something was wrong. I felt fat, bloated, like a puffer fish. My knees were hitting my stomach and my lungs would only fill up half way as I tried to get in a decent warmup. I couldn’t even begin to work hard enough to get my heart rate up, because the motion of the bike, the bumps on the road, and the heat all combined with my lunch to make me feel quite sick. I’m generally anti medicine, anti-doctors etc. and it didn’t occur to me for quite some time that maybe I just had a simple condition to be cured by Tums or Rolaids. I hit the grocery store, bought a roll of Tums, and took 4 of them even as I headed over to the masses of colorfully dressed cyclist at the start line.  5 minutes later, I suddenly deflated – my stomach must have been like a balloon, but with a couple quiet burps I was myself again. Now I was standing on the start finish line with 155 professional or near professional riders, and I was able to focus a little. Wow. There were a LOT of people lining the start finish – in fact the whole course. All these years of racing in the “not quite professional category” had inured me to the fact that there could be that many people out to watch a bike race. As they introduced the race leaders, including an unfortunately fresh looking Dennis Hauweizen, and the applause echoed off the storefronts and banners, I could feel my adrenaline start pumping.   

The race director announced the distance (62 miles) and number of laps (75), and then turned the microphone back to Eddy. Eddy then began to announce that there was a special guest racing tonight and I listened with interest as he began to recount a couple of bike racing statistics – former national champion, member of the 7-11 team, and former Olympian and suddenly flushed as I realized he was talking about me. He had me raise my arm and the crowd applauded, even as I felt all the other racers’ eyes on me. What an odd and memorable event – after 18 years, I was back in “the big event” just honored to riding with the likes of these guys – many with names familiar to me – but at the same time what many - if not most of them - aspired to, was to race in the Olympics. In that moment I felt this odd admixture of humility and pride even as a few guys around me introduced themselves and shook my hand. 

“Just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped…” This, along with a brutal searing pain in the legs and lungs were the only feelings I remember from the first 15 laps or 30 minutes of the race. 

It WAS fast. Faster than I’d ever gone in a race – EVER. 31, 32 mph every straightaway – headwind or tailwind – didn’t matter. Several times during those first few laps, I found myself saying – “just make it one more lap.” Or, “just make it to the next corner – they’ll slow up…” But they didn’t. After one lap, even with the slowing in the corners to 20mph or slower, the average mph was 28.1, and that never changed – not for the next 2 hours or 62 miles. 

After 15 laps, I started to loosen up – I realized I’d made it ¼ of the way, and that maybe it wasn’t going to get worse. I started gauging my position in the pack, and getting more strategic about my line through the corners.  It was only after this first half hour that my eyes re-adjusted from their narrow fixation on the tire in front of me. And on this occasion, my returning senses took in the black horn rimmed glasses and red shirt of Jose, who screamed, “Move up Coyle!!!!” I glanced behind me – sure enough, we’d lost a good section of the group and I was riding near the tail end, and it was pretty strung out and the drafting was weak. Next couple of laps I moved up into the belly of the group and found the going just a tiny bit easier…  

One notable thing about the pros… They are not, as a group, ANY better bike handlers than the masters – maybe worse. At one point in the race, some yahoo came barging up the inside just before a corner, hit my handlebars, and then coming out of the corner, hit my front tire with his rear wheel as he snaked randomly left and right while out of the saddle.  Later in the race, I saw him doing it again, and I turned to the racer next to me and said, “look at that guy – keep your distance – he’s all over the place – watch him exit this corner.” The guy next to me didn’t even look over, he just said, “That’s Andrew Crater – he’s allowed to do that sh*#!” Andrew is a pretty prominent U.S. Pro who has won Superweek before, as well as some of the other big races in the U.S. Midway through the race, Andy suddenly materialized next to me and said, “7-11 eh? You ride with (Tommy) Matush?  I said yes. I asked him how old he was and he said “28,” and I told him, “I guess I moved into skating before you became so famous – I don’t remember racing you.” He said, “I’ve been racing a long time though….” and seemed vaguely disappointed. He then weeble-wobbled his way through the pack again – forward backward – all over the place – and disappeared. 

When 40 laps had gone by, and the lap cards showed only 35 to go, I realized that I was going to make it, and my awareness raised another level, and for the first time I took in  Ed Perez (my former boss) and his kids cheering for me. They looked excited and at some point I started getting excited too – after all I had always believed that if I didn’t get dropped, I had a shot… Meanwhile I discovered that a breakaway of 11 riders was off the front by 20 seconds – but not my problem today… I began to focus on saving energy, pedaling my corners, finding inside or outside lines without obstruction, gaining a few spots into or out of the turns, and letting a few positions go during the long hard accelerations on the straightaways.

My favorite trick was the outside line on turn one – a particularly bumpy corner approached at 30+ mph. Most riders dove inside and then braked, dropping their speed to the low 20’s. I found that every other lap or more that I could find an unobstructed line through the turn on the outside and carry it at 30 mph, darting forward 10 or more spots on the outside even as I leaned the bike way over to the left. I began to enjoy this game and played it until the last laps. 

With 10 laps to go I felt a tug in my right hamstring after a particularly hard backstretch. Not good – generally a sign of dehydration – and I only had probably 2oz’s of water left. Next straightaway – same thing – long tug from my right hamstring when I tried to pull up. So I adapted and used my quads and left hamstring and favored my right and figured I’d save all my remaining water until 2 to go, drink it then and then see if I could get one good lap out of my right leg. Meanwhile, that feeling of “flow” of sudden focus, awareness, and “knowing” returned to me. With four to go I moved up from 80th to 60th, with 3 to go to 40th, with 2 to go to 20th, and with one to go I came across the start finish in about 8th place.  

As I passed the wheel pit, I could see Jose and Todd, eyes wide open, fists shaking yelling “Go Coyle!!!!!” Disbelief in their eyes. I too was in a bit of a state of disbelief. How was it possible that I could just… do this?

As we passed the start finish and the bell rang, I resolved myself to an old Mike Walden axiom, “Get in position – you can’t win unless you are in position.” We made the first corner and headed down the shorter stretch into turn 2 and that’s when I saw it… Out of the corner of my eye, a motion to the left and suddenly a train of 4 riders in green and one in red went shooting up the inside – just enough time to clear the front of the group, but not enough time to jump on their wheels… 

Into the long backstretch, the “green train” had widened their lead on us to 3, 4, 5 bike lengths, and the single file string in front of me collapsed as the pace climbed to 34, 35, 36 mph.  The two riders in front of me sat up, even as the two riders in front of them made an attempt to bridge the gap to the green train of 4 Sierra Nevada Pro Cycling riders, with a tag-a-long of Alex Candelario from the Jelly Belly Pro Team. 

I then began my attempt to close to the 2 chasing riders, and gave it every single tendon, tendril and muscle that I had, pace climbing to 37, 38mph alone on the backstretch even as I connected to the back of the 2 rider pace group, and we then connected with the back of the “Sierra Nevada Train”.  We passed through turn 3, and my two riders suddenly gave up the ghost and I found myself with a 3 bike length gap to bridge back to the Jelly Belly rider.

Again I fired the pistons, but the fuel was running low, and even as I entered turn 4, with 400 meters to go, one bike length off the lead group, in 6th place in my first pro race in 20 years, I knew there was nothing left…. absolutely nothing.  

A friend and fellow racer from the Cat 3’s said, “I saw you come through turn 4 and for a second I thought you were going to win it… that was until I saw the FACE OF DEATH…” 

I had acid for blood and could barely turn the pedals. I made feeble attempts to keep my profile low in order to keep my speed going and watched the train accelerate away from my station and then watched wheel after wheel, jersey after jersey swing by me as the road heaved in jerky motions pinwheeling me, the bike, and the other racers into the vortex of the screaming crowd at the finish line. 

I was completely disoriented for a while, but slowly returned out of the depths of the pain of oxygen debt and circled the course to my friend Ed and his kids. They seemed honestly impressed even though what they must have seen was me going “backwards” against the press of the crowd during the finish sprint. 

I said my goodbyes to Ed and his kids and circled by the awards stand to say goodbye to Eddy, John, Todd and Jose – another Superweek over with, another summer now firmly on the ebb. I shook hands with Eddy, waved to John and then stopped by the wheel pit and humbly found them cheering as I approached… “Yeah Coyle!!! – that was almost yours – I thought you were going to take it!!!…”  “Next year I work for you – only for you!” said Jose as I gave them both a quick “man hug” and said my goodbyes. 

So I returned to the RV and then started the interminable drive home – only 2 hours, but forever after the last 4 days…. As the RV rumbled down the highway, I was left alone with my thoughts… Thoughts about time… thoughts about life and living… thoughts about memories and their relative “share of mind.” 

I conceived that in the past 4 days I had lived … a month? A year? I had watched my daughter scatter seagulls with her playful screams. I had held the felt imprint of her tiny toes in the sand. I had joyously watched her learn to ride her bike the same day we also celebrated the life of a rider who had lost it while in pursuit of the same dream. I had raced multiple times under various adversities – rain, cracked pavement, and the toll that the speed and power of full time professionals can bring to the uninitiated. I had also proved something to myself – I had proved the words of my first and most important coach, Mike Walden, who had always said, “race your strengths, train your weaknesses.” 

At the age of 37, I had finally heeded and understood these words fully and I had decided to put Mike’s philosophy to work. I had trained, for the first time in my athletic career, using a key strength – I had trained strategically. I worked on my weaknesses – aerobic ability and my aerobic threshold, but I also trained and raced my strengths – power, short term speed, drafting, and effective navigation through the pack. I’ve been preaching Mike’s words, above, for the better part of a year, having now given public speaking presentations to more than 1000 people, but had always felt I had better prove this theorem in the classroom of my own life.  

Even though I didn’t yet win a single race, and even though I finished 17th in the field sprint, and 27th overall at Whitefish Bay, I felt I had proven the truth of “train your weaknesses, Race Your Strengths.” The teams, names and countries finishing ahead of me were almost exclusively full time professionals from around the world – Alex Candelario from Jelly Belly, Dennis Haueisen from Jan Ullrich’s German team Milram, riders from Sweden, Denmark, Peru, Hong Kong… 

Walden would have been proud, though he still would have yelled at me. “Goddamit Coyle! You should have expected that move on turn one – you should have been the caboose on the Green Train – not flailing in the wind on the backstretch!” And as always, he would have been right. 

Most importantly, and as always, the pursuit of a “noble goal” has created memories – of love, of family, of important events, as well as that collegial atmosphere that follows the dramas of athletics – shared experience and adversity creating a quiet vacuum from the normal conversational inhibitions: a safe place where smiles, wine, and food form a simple common ground for important conversations about… life. 

Of course, newfound friendships and shared experiences will not keep me from doing my best to crush these same racers at my final races of the season in Downer’s Grove Illinois August 19 and 20th, and on Erie Street in Windsor, Canada September 3rd 

Til then, -John 

2006 Race Report #8: Downer Avenue, Milwaukee

Non-Race Report, Saturday July 22nd, Superweek Stage 15, Downer Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 62 miles, 75 degrees.  No, I didn’t race this night. Downer Avenue is a “Pro 1/2 only” event. As it turns out, I could have but I wanted to enjoy the Downer Ave. race one more time as a spectator.

Early in the evening I had a conversation on the announcers stand with Heidi, the chief referee –  “After many years,” I said, “I’ve decided to go ahead and move up and race with the pro 1/2’s.”  Somehow I expected her to know who I was, but of course I was just another of a zillion racers… “Well, to move up, I’ll need a race resume, and I’m not sure I’ll have time to review it before registration closes…” 

“No, not for tonight” I said, “For tomorrow – but I can write you a race resume tonight and bring it by later.”   “OK,” she said and we agreed to check in later that evening, where I brought her some of the race finishes I’d had over the last year – more than enough to move up. (In order to move up to the elite categories you need to prove that you’ve earned it by earning points. Basically you can move up with 3 top 3 finishes, or 5 top 5 finishes or 10 top 10 finishes.  

Downer Avenue, 5pm: Gemutlicheit is how the Germans would describe the intangible positive vibe in this wealthy North Shore neighborhood on this evening. Promoter estimates suggest 20 – 30,000 people line the course of this annual event, though it feels like more… The one mile triangular course consists of two tree lined neighborhood streets, concluding with the third: the long finish stretch with the finish line right in the heart of the boutique coffee-house and restaurant lined section of town. The outdoor seating of the cafes, the upscale markets, all accentuated by the elegant lines of the wealthy patrons and their automobiles makes for rather excellent people watching. As the picnicking public arrives, it is not beer and brats – rather wine and brie, steaks and shrimp that they carry in their coolers. 

Jeff and I arrived early enough to get a decent spot for the RV, next to a tiny little green space lining the final corner of the race. We dressed in our cycling gear and headed out for an easy 40 minute ride down the lakefront area of Milwaukee, and then returned and “prepped” for the race. The game plan was for

  • A) me to hit the Chiropractic services as my back was killing me, and
  • B) to walk the course, and
  • C) for us to cook an excellent pasta dinner in large quantities, and
  • D) to deliver some of it to our favorite people – Jose and Todd in the mechanics wheel pit area, Sarah in Chiropractic/massage, and to Eddy and John on the announcing booth. 

As it turned out, that was a rather aggressive game plan, as the grocery shopping, followed by the “back cracking”, followed by the walk around the course put us nearly halfway through the 60 lap, 2hr. race. On the backstretch, we ran into Robbie Ventura’s father and chatted for a few minutes about old times, and Floyd’s amazing success in the tour (Robbie is Floyd’s coach – as well as the coach my friend Jeff). 

Finally, we made it back to the RV and boiled water for the penne pasta  on one propane burner, and began chopping up the onions, garlic, yellow squash, and zucchini to fry in olive oil in the pan next to it. Meanwhile I quickly boiled, peeled, and crushed fresh tomato, and pulled fresh basil from the stems in prep for the sauce. Meanwhile, outside Jeff grilled the chicken on our portable grill and then sliced it.  After finishing the pasta, we added the chicken and fresh tomatoe to the vegetables, and added in fresh basil, and pecorino romano cheese, and only then realized we had no salt! 

We wrapped 5 portions in bowls and aluminum foil, and then headed of to deliver them, stopping to “borrow” a salt shaker from a local restaurant, properly salting the sauce. We delivered dinner to Jose, Todd, Sarah, Eddie, and John and then headed back to serve ourselves. However, by the time we returned to the RV, served up our plates, opened some wine, and retired to our previously placed folding chairs, there was only 2 laps left to go in the race. 

We watched the final laps, and then wandered down to the awards ceremony while still carrying our fresh pasta to watch the medals being distributed. Finally, we broke camp and loaded up the RV to implement the final stage of the plan… Earlier we had picked up a number of bottles of wine to share with whomever came by. We pulled out in the RV, bypassed the barricades and drove right into the center of town, parking right next to the wheel pit and the announcer’s booth.

We unrolled the awning, turned on the interior and exterior lights, broke out the folding chairs, turned up some music, and sat out on the sidewalk under the darkening skies as the bulk of the spectators faded, and the post race rituals for the initiated commenced. 

A little about the RV… well… it is “retro.” Meaning “old.”  It is a 1987, 28 foot Georgie Boy Cruise Air II. It is replete with wall to wall brown shag, mauve couches and seats, and faux wood paneling tables and real wood paneled kitchen cabinets. It has 3 beds and comfortably sleeps… well, 3. The exterior is a taupe fiberglass box with the horizontal ridges so typical of the era. It has a working stove, microwave, TV, AC, generator, hot water heater, coffeemaker, bathroom with toilet and sink, shower with hot water, fridge, freezer, CD player and VCR. The entire 10,000lb vehicle has a blue book value only slightly more than my 16 lb Italian, hand-painted carbon fiber bicycle balanced delicately on the rack on the back.

There is some sort of weird credibility in that juxtaposition… Yes, I get a lot of jealous looks from the other cyclists as they pile into their cramped team vans or other tiny vehicles. Cyclists typically have a keen retro whimsy. I recently added some vintage looking throw rugs from Target to spice up the interior and now it almost looks 1988 – even 1989. Until this year I really didn’t have to do any maintenance, but now I’m thinking of upgrading – but on the other hand, it only has 31,000 miles on it…. I admit it, I love my second home – even though I keep forgetting to deduct it on my taxes… 

Soon Jose and Todd from the SRAM sponsored mechanical support team materialized, and Todd gave me a signed copy of his recently published tome on bicycle maintenance, jokingly suggesting that now I’d at least know SOMETHING about taking care of a bike when he signed it for me.  Eddy Van Guys (the announcer – and former actor who played the “evil Italian” racer in the Oscar winning movie “Breaking Away) and his son came by next and he ended up chatting with Jeff at length while I talked to his son. Eventually Eddy and I talked and I told him of my intent to move up to race with the pros the following day. He said, “John, I’ve had a few glasses of wine, but I want to celebrate this long overdue occasion – do me a favor tomorrow and give me a brief bio, and then wave to me on the start line to remind me OK?” I promised I would. 

Next came the chiropractic/massage girls and doctor and a number of racers, including a couple of the German Milram riders, followed by Chris (the coordinator of the registration, payments and everything in between) and Hillary (a former race coordinator) and several others. Pretty soon we had a good sized group hanging out in and out of the RV and we ended up staying until almost midnight – right on Downer Ave. 

At one point I remember stepping out of my “home” with a bottle of wine in hand ready to pour into the empty glasses of our “guests”, the remnants of our pasta in a bowl for one of the cyclists and I paused to look out at the relaxed smiling faces… and I felt home. For that moment, on that street, with old friends and new, it was though we were hosts to the world and the street was ours, and I smiled and breathed deep before heading down the final step to the curb.. 

The Milram team racers indicated they were going to the “Eastsider” on North Avenue, so we packed it up and joined Dennis Hauweizer and his teammates and a dozen other pros on their last night of the Superweek classic at the Eastsider in Milwaukee. Dennis already had enough points to win the overall title for the series and would soon be heading back to join his somewhat defamed teammate Jan Ullrich. We talked for a little while at the bar and mostly people watched. Jeff and I sipped the last of our wine, said goodbye to Chris, Hillary, Dennis, Sarah and various other racers and support personnel and then finally headed off to Whitefish bay.

As we pulled into an empty lot behind Sendicks, I was happy to discover the air had miraculously turned cool with the proximity of some large storms. Even as I collapsed on the bed in the rear of the RV, I remember thinking, “I need to drink some water….”

It was 2am and I was not exactly preparing properly for one of the most competitive professional races run in the USA… or was I? Dennis and his teammates were still there after we left, and I bought them a round of beer just before we headed out the door…

I smiled before drifting off to sleep.

Race Report #7: Cudahay

Race Report, Saturday July 22nd, Superweek Stage 15, Cudahay WI 40 miles, 71 degrees, overcast, bumpy.  So Jeff and I woke and started watching the tour – Landis overcoming the odds by winning the time trial and securing his yellow jersey for the next day.

Meanwhile we loaded up the RV with food, water, bikes, blankets and food. Our plan was to race, watch the pro race at Downer Avenue, and camp in the RV overnight at Whitefish bay in prep for Sunday’s finale. 

We arrived at Cudahay a little late – between watching the tour and loading up, we had little time to spare for warmup. For the first time Jeff and I would finally race together, and I was excited to show him the “lazy man ropes” to cycling that I had perfected through the years. We met at the line and proceeded around a course full of aged, cracked concrete, complete with major potholes and off-camber corners full of mysterious cracks. Turn two had both – an off camber approach, and a cracked convex surface. It was followed immediately by a short hill. Nothing major, but for those riders unaccustomed to risking their life with a large pack over terrible surfaces, a climb of monumental magnitude. 

Due to our late arrival, Jeff and I lined up in back, and sure enough, his second big race of the season on a dangerous course, Jeff found himself gapped after that first round of turn 2. He reconnected after a long hard uphill upwind stretch on straightaway 3, only to be gapped again the next lap.  After 3 laps, he was somehow managing to ride all alone and still keep up just 30 feet off the back, even as a few others peeled off.  I dropped back to bring him into the pack. He followed my wheel into the group, and I gave him a little shove. But sure enough, next time around on the moonscape of turn 2, he was gapped again, and even as I drifted back and brought him back into the fold of the draft, I could feel the anguish coming from his legs.  One more round of this, and I had to sprint back into the draft as Jeff folded slowly off the back.

I remember thinking, “I could never last that long facing the wind alone.” But the race continued, and the corner continued to take its prisoners as the pack whittled its way down. After 40 laps, 4 men had managed to lap the field and I was then in the unhappy position of sprinting for 5th. The rough course created quite a landgrab for the front and I was forced again and again to sprint up to the front to defend my position – quite unlike my “internal” work in previous races.

With 3 to go, I sprinted up to 2nd, only to find myself back in 15th on the backstretch. Same with 2 to go. Finally with one to go, again I sprinted up to 4th on the homestretch, only to find myself blocked by a rider failing to address turn 2 properly. I fell to 9th on the backstretch, finding no openings to move up. On the second to last stretch, I stayed outside and moved up to 8th, following the leadout that was hammering down the left side.  

We entered the final 300m downhill stretch of the course and … nothing happened. I stayed in 8th, but the pace stayed the same.  I got out of my saddle to make a move up the inside just as a flyer went by to my right. I jumped on the wheel and we swung up the inside, as I darted around one rider that put himself into my path. We accelerated past the chain on the left and I gave it all I had to come by the rider ahead of me, but missed by a wheel. 2nd in the field sprint, but another 6th place finish.

Nonetheless, I had made my decision. Tonight I would commit – to move up to the Pro I/II category and race with the full time professionals.  

I’m 37, working full time, with a family, but it was time to put myself to the test in the biggest series in the US, against full time professionals whose sole job is to eat guys like me for lunch and win money and fame for their sponsors. Tomorrow night, at Whitefish bay, the last of the Superweek series, I would skip the masters race, and the category 3 race to do 100 kilometers with Jan Ullrich’s teammates from the Milram team, the Jelly Belly professional team, and 155 other professional or near-professional riders.

 I remember lining up at Cudahay with Jeff. He looked visibly nervous even as I stretched. I asked if he was nervous.. “Absolutely” he said, “I don’t want to get dropped.” The following day I would know that feeling, but in between, a lot would happen. As it turned out,. Cudahay was a footnote in the broader story of the day… But Saturday night deserves its own entry…. 

Race Report #6: Kenosha

Race Report, Friday July 21st, Superweek Stage 14, Kenosha WI 50 miles, 67 degrees, pouring rain.  Another memorable day, though again, the race itself paled (literally) to the circumstances surrounding it. We woke at our campsite in Kohler Andrae State park, and after some hot coffee, eggs, bacon, cereal and a banana, Katelina and I headed off to ride her pink bike and explore the park. 

The AC ran on and off all night and by morning, we opened the windows to smell the sweet pitch of pine, and the rolling humidity of the lakeshore.  I had re-assembled Katelina’s training wheels in a very off balance position and we began practicing “riding without the noise” produced by the training wheels rattling against the asphalt. Sure enough she was able to go long stretches without touching, balancing well and I was quite proud and excited for her.  We ended up going off-road over a windswept grassy hill that became a dune and rolled down the other side toward the lakeshore.

We parked her bike and raced up and over the last dune separating the camping area from the beach. We were all alone on miles of lakeshore (it was still 8:30am) and there was a huge flock of seagulls loitering just south of us. Katelina looked at me with a particular gleam in her eye and I nodded and said, “I know exactly what you are thinking.” She nodded back at me with that  mischievious little smile or hers and went streaking off across the dune. 

I was filled with wonder and humility as I watched my tiny little offspring, limbs flailing, run directly into hundreds of seagulls on the shore, as they took to their wings and circled her tiny frame, legs splayed as she pranced among them, face filled with glee. I found myself smiling so much that my cheeks hurt.

She would stop, let them circle back to the ground a little further on, and then rush at them full speed again mouth open screaming bird cries. As I traced her path, I could see her little accelerating foot prints, spaced widely in the wet sand, with toe shaped clumps of detrius littered behind each print reflecting the ferocity of her approach. “Another sprinter?” I thought… 

We stayed down at the beach for an hour  and then headed back for another round of riding the bike and balancing, and another pass at the beach, the sand, the waves, and of course, the seagulls.  We collected seashells and amazingly circular and flat polished pebbles that Katelina added to her rock collection. Finally it was time to head back to the campsite and get on our way to Kenosha.

We made sandwiches and I guzzled Gatorade as we headed into the darkening and graying skies over Milwaukee and eventually Kenosha. We found a very nice parking spot right by the course in Kenosha. I was also in touch with my former boss and partner from DiamondCluster – Jeff Huff, who had taken to cycling in a big way. Jeff had recently hired Robbie Ventura as his coach (Floyd Landis’s coach) and helped me get much more scientific about my training. More on that later.

Jeff had raced earlier in the Master’s category hanging in very well for his first big race of the season. I registered but did not find Jeff, so I went off to warm up, following the seashore and feeling some tired legs and truculent heart as I tried to get a decent pre-race warmup. 

Finally, I took to the line – 70 laps, 280 corners, and just as the first few big drops came down, they started the race. Kenosha is probably my favorite race of Superweek. Centered right on a sizeable city park, it is filled with music, tents with vendors providing food, massages, banking, cell service, and lots and lots of giant blowup activities for kids (rock climbing wall, slide, fun house, pirate ship, mystery house, trampoline tent etc.) There are a lot people around the course watching and cheering, and more importantly I knew that Katelina would have a lot to do – Including her very own race – the big wheel race slated to start right after my race finished. 

Meanwhile, by lap 5 or 6, the course was fully saturated with water, and by lap 10 it began coming down really hard. Racing in the rain is particularly hard for me. Not so much for the skill needed in cornering (have to be extra careful) but because it forces the pace into a “sprint, brake, sprint, brake” format due to the extra caution into the corners. So the pack strings out pretty much single file and it becomes a wet death march toward the finish.  This, and the fact that its just impossible to see anything. Each tire in front of you sends up an amazing peacock tail of water, that, when you are more than a few bikes back, adds to the overall downpour, with the special additive of “silt.”

Roads are dirty – with exhaust, gas, oil, sand, dirt, garbage – whatever. All of that is picked up and flung directly into your eyes by the bike tires in front of you. Which is why we wear glasses. Glasses that get full of dirt and fog up after a few laps and then get put in your pocket for the rest of the race. So the laps counted down, and my tear ducts filled with black gunk that would come seeping out over the next 24 hours. (Middle of the night, I rub my eyes, and boulders of black junk come out that were… where? Behind my eyeball?) Later I would shower and the floor of the shower was black with all the stuff from the road… and my jerseys – will never quite become as bright as they used to be. 

60 to go, 50 to go, 40 to go, 30 to go, 20 to go. I sat up to drink some water and have some “goo” (liquid food) and realized that it had stopped raining – the water hitting my eyes was merely from the bikes in front of me.  In the meantime I had stayed in the top 20 to stay out of trouble. With the lessening of the rain, it was time to relax a little before the final effort to the line. Drifting back and starting to see some dry patches on the road, suddenly a major accident occurred in front of me on turn one: 7, 10, 12 riders sliding out to avoid the first rider that had leaned to far on the still-wet surface. I locked up both tires going straight at the rider down in front of me, but avoiding the turning/lean mechanism that would have put me into the asphalt with him. I stopped completely 6 inches from his body, turned and leaned out of the saddle, re-accelerating back into the strung out masses of riders filing up the inside. This effort hurt, and I remember thinking “I’m too tired to sprint.” 

With 10 to go I was riding dead last. Same with 9, 8, 7, 6, and 5 to go. There were short moments when the pack slowed down and I thought it was time to move up, but I still felt tired and worried over the slick pavement. In particular, turn 2 had some very large white paint stripes that caused virtually tire to skip, slip, and grab on the way around. 4 to go… I guess I should move up. Too lazy to move outside or inside with all this wind. Lets see if I can just slide up a few spots in the middle of the pack.

Unlike Sheboygan, there was no sudden energy boost. Just the discipline to know that with 3 to go I had better be at least halfway through the pack. So as the pack fanned into and out of turns, I picked off 2 riders here, 4 there, and dove into narrow gaps, making my space into the corners.  75th with four to go, 40th with 3 to go, 10th with 2 to go, and 5th with 1 to go.

We screamed past the start finish and I had a good position heading into turn 1. Into the backstretch, but the pace was too low. I drifted outside the draft, waiting for the inevitable surge due to the low pace. Sure enough, 7 riders flinging up the inside and I attached in 8th going into turn 3, 400m to go. I slipped up to 6th on the second to last straightaway, and decided to go full bore into the final 250M stretch hoping for a draft and leadout to perhaps get me the “W”. But to no avail. I was all alone on the far right, charging forward even as riders #3 and #4 used the draft to spring up the inside. No way to get their wheels, and any move inside would have put me into the backward movements of the disintegrating leadout men. I surged up the outside, but could only muster 3rd place. 

Again thwarted at Kenosha, where I have finished 2nd or 3rd for 5 years running, but not mastered a win. As I finished, I found Shannon with Katelina and Jeff, as well as some friends, who were surprised at my finish, “amazing! great job! we thought you were done!” 

Apparently the dirt from the road had given me a “grey-green” appearance, and my inability to see anything beyond the dirt had given them the impression that I was “done for.” Jeff, apparently, had chided a friend for yelling “move up!” with 6 to go by saying, “Maybe we should leave him alone – he looks grey – even sick…” After a brief warmdown lap, it was time for Katelina’s race. We had to borrow a helmet, and she had to wait, impatiently for the 3-4 year olds to finish, and then it was her turn.

She pedaled like a madwoman against her 15 peers, and mustered a 3rd place finish to two boys, only to disintegrate into tears, and then a tantrum for “not winning.” Appears that she is a bit competitive after all.  We were ultimately able to calm her by indicating that she got the same place (3rd) as her papa, and that it was GOOD to get 3rd. (I swear I will never be one of those “3rd place is ‘second loser’” kind of parents) 

We then ate some excellent Thai food and watched the pro race under clearing skies, with the sun eventually coming out. This, of course, after I took a nice hot shower in the RV where the dirt ran of me in black rivulets. I decided to take Kat on some of the rides and ended up missing the pro finish due to the lines for the rides, but she had a grand time jumping, bumping and sliding until time ran out and we headed for the RV for the 2 hour drive home in the gathering gloom. 

Jeff and I watched the Tour de France as Shannon and Katelina went to bed, and we each headed to sleep after midnight with the plans of doing it again (on Saturday), and again on Sunday. 

As my mind wandered as I headed off to sleep, I was again struck by what a day full of life it had been – a true full day – riding bikes with my daughter, time at the beach one on one, seagulls and wading in the water, more beach time and shell collecting, a downpour, a podium finish, a race for Kat and then playtime with Kat, and watching the Tour de France while  catching up with an old friend – all in one day… What could Saturday bring….?

Amazingly life continued its full pace the next 2 days….

Race Report #5: Sheboygan

Race Report, Thursday July 20th, Superweek Stage 13, Sheboygan, WI 50 miles, 81 degrees.    Sometimes life packs a lot of life into a few days. Regardless of being good or bad, unique experiences tend to fill your memory, extending and expanding time, turning hours into days, and days into weeks in your mind.  

The 4 days of this extended weekend were definitely one of those times where I was able to “suck the marrow out of life” and live fully – if not always pleasantly. Take, for instance Wednesday night, July 19th. Arriving home after a long trip back from my job in Chicago at 5:30pm, my goal was to have us turned around and in the RV by 6pm so that we could get to one of our favorite state parks – Kohler Andrae – in Sheboygan on the beaches of lake Michigan, before dark. 

I had picked up the RV from a repair shop where I had had a few minor – and I mean MINOR repairs completed. Specifically a CD player installed (that I already owned), a replacement sunroof, a new battery cable, and a new seal where the toilet connects to the septic system (was leaking a little – not a good thing). I could have done the work myself, but my work schedule didn’t allow a lot of time for this so I brought it in. The parts came to $126 – about what I expected, but the labor came to $1100 (for 13.2 hours of labor).  No estimate, no call on expected time – nothing. And when my wife picked it up earlier that day, the guy there had the gumption to say, “I spent most of the time putting in the CD player”. So basically, an operation I could have had done for $50 at Best Buy cost me $800 for some guy at the RV shop to “learn while doing”. This still irks me just writing about it and I wonder if I have any recourse.  Lessons learned.

Anyway, I arrived home and began loading up the RV. One of the other repair items for the “stellar team” at Custom RV was to fix the exhaust/muffler from the generator. Specifically, the exhaust pipe coming from the generator was rusty and getting shorter each time it banged loose from the C-clamp I had installed.  They called just hours before we picked it up to say, “we didn’t fix the generator – we still have to order that part” indicating to me that they hadn’t even looked at it in the preceding 5 days they had had the vehicle.  

So after loading up, I disconnected the 120 volt power from the house and fired up the generator (which runs the AC) to keep it cool while we started our drive.  It started rough and bucked around a lot, and the muffler detached itself yet again, taking another inch of rusty exhaust pipe with it. So I crawled underneath the RV, body half up on the curb and angled awkwardly in the gathering dark and slid the C-clamp upward to the next length of rusty pipe and re-attached the muffler.

 I started the generator, and it continued to run a little rough but kept the AC running cool. We decided to eat dinner at home prior to our departure, so made a quick meal, and then headed out to the RV. The generator had quit, and furthermore, the muffler had come loose AGAIN! I spent another 30 minutes reattaching the muffler with the associated, bruised knuckles and showers of rusty flakes into my eyes, only to find that the generator would not even start.  

It being 90 degrees, with a hot night expected, and not having an electric campsite to plug in and run the AC, we finally gave up the ghost and decided to not drive to Sheboygan that night. I was frustrated and disappointed. I had been anticipating all week waking up on the shores of Lake Michigan and having an early morning walk, riding bikes with Kat, and cooking out under the clean lake air. Instead I watched part of the tour de France and then retired to bed. 

The next morning I awoke early with a new plan. The AC unit run by the generator was one of two units in the RV, the other was the typical type found in any vehicle, but it had never worked well. So I brought it over to the local GM dealer to have it charged with Freon. I arrived at 7:45 am, but the process took until after 10am, with the caveat that “there may be a leak” and cost another $200. But… it did blow cool air. 

So finally, at 10:30 we hit the road to Sheboygan, with the AC keeping it fairly reasonable inside except when we slowed down passing through Fond Du Lac. We arrived at the State Park around 1:15pm and were able to get an electric campsite (thank God!) but were told that the checkout time was 3pm so we may not be able to get in. Sure enough, there was still a camper there at 1:30, and again at 2pm when we stopped by again.

Meanwhile we had walked down to the beach to pass the time and I took a short swim with Katelina who was just a doll. But now it was getting late, and HOT again. With a 5 year old girl, and a new puppy of 8 weeks, we were concerned about the heat getting to either of them. So I set off towards the race course (the race started at 3:50pm) with a new mission – to find a house where we could plug in the RV to run the rooftop air conditioner. 

Traffic was tough and we arrived near the course at 3:15pm – not giving me much time to get ready and warmup – and still I need to find a house to plug in the RV. I circled the course slowly, meandering down dead end lanes and finding no one about. Finally I found a house with a woman and child playing out front. I must have seemed odd with my conversation as I asked, “I’ll pay you $20 to be able to plug in an extension cord somewhere into an outlet in your house….” She responded, “well, as long as you are not going to kill me or break into my house or something….” So I unraveled the power cable, which she plugged in down in her basement (and we promptly blew a circuit breaker) and another 5 minutes later while she located the fuse box, we were in business – the overhead AC unit was blowing cool. 

Now I had 20 minutes to dress, pump up my tires, register and warmup… Not exactly the best race prep. 10 minutes later I was checked in, and after 7 minutes of warmup, I lined up next to the 90 racers who would share my suffering for the next 2 hours. What came next was unexpected.  In tears, the race announcer then let the crowd know that something terrible had happened on the preceding day. In the first accident of its kind in the 37 year history of the superweek tour, a rider had been killed in a collision with a car during a road race. We held a moment of silence on the line, and they announced by name and pulled forward to the line all the teammates of the departed racer.  

As a pack, we solemnly followed Aaron Beberitz’s teammates quietly around the course, noting the black arm warmer and front wheel being used by Aaron’s closest friend and team mate who led the lap. A few riders started to move up on the outside or inside and each was interfered with to keep the moment proper. After we finished the lap of silence, the race began in earnest and a light rain began to fall, cooling things off, but not wetting the pavement fully.  

Shortly after the start I realized two things: 1) I had hydrated properly all day, drinking more than a gallon of liquids, and 2) in the rush of things I had not been able to relieve myself in the past hour… my discomfort began to build. 

Oddly, about 20 laps in, the race was stopped. “Please stop racing, leave the course, there is a medical emergency – please stop racing, leave the course.” Never in my 29 seasons of racing had this happened, and my heart sank as I considered that perhaps another racing tragedy had occurred.

However, as we all peeled off in ones and twos to side streets, the arrival of ambulances, coincided with an announcement, “there has been a medical emergency in one of the houses lining the course and the fire dept. and ambulances are blocking the road.” Sad that anyone should be experiencing a medical emergency, but at least it was not another serious cycling incident. 

Just then I had an idea – I leaned my bike over and headed across course to the Port-o-potties and was able to complete my pre-race preparations – 20 laps into the race. Sure enough, within minutes another 20 or 30 racers rolled over to take care of business… We all milled around the start line for about 20 or 30 minutes and finally they recalled us to the start. They removed 10 laps from the race and off we went – now with 30 instead of 40 laps to go (they shortened the race to try and keep on time). 

I was feeling pretty good and maneuvered around the pack getting a gauge of the wind and how to finish the race. With 27 to go, they rang the bell for a $30 prime sprint. I moved up easily through the pack to watch the sprint unwind on the backstretch and found myself in 3rd coming through the final corner. I decided to go for it and came up inches shy of winning the prime. More notably though was the significant gap we had on the field. 

So it started – the dreaded breakaway death march. For the next 7 laps I maintained my stance as the significantly weakest player in a 3 man breakaway. Each of the other two would lead somewhere between 1 or 2 straightaways at a pace of 27 – 29 mph, and I would pull half a straightaway at 26 – 27 mph, struggling to re-connect each time I pulled off. After about 3 laps we had a full straightaway lead, and I resigned myself to the possibility that my suffering would continue for another hour. 

Instead, the pack gave chase, and I was, frankly, relieved when I looked back and saw them close behind. I immediately sat up and faded into the rear of the back as we saw 20 laps to go. I continued to suffer for a number of laps from the oxygen deprivation I had undergone during my short stint in a breakaway (only the second of my whole career) and even as the laps read “5 to go” I was still uncertain as to whether I was going to muster the courage to set myself up for the sprint. I felt tired, lazy, moribund. 

But… something changed. I can’t exactly even put my finger on it. It is emotional, it is physical, it is…spiritual. With a lap card showing “4” in front of me, something physically changed within me, as though there was a subconscious galvanizing of forces and energy previously unavailable at my disposal. I dropped my hands to the drops (the lower part of the handlebars – more aerodynamic) and started using each corner to move up a few slots. From 60th to 55th, from 55th to 42nd, and so on. I can’t claim any real rationality to this complex maneuver except to say that it felt pretty easy, as though the position I “needed” to be in on a certain lap was exactly where I was… 25th with 3 laps to go…. 15th with 2 laps to go, and 6th with one lap to go… All with no greater perceived effort, really, than riding the race.

A glance to my heart-rate moniter, and I was operating in the upper 170’s – a big effort, but I didn’t feel it…  I moved up to 5th on the backstretch and with 2 corners and 400m to go I had that “feeling” that I was going to win.  As we headed through the downhill corner into the short uphill prior to the finish stretch, I prepped for the maximal effort ahead. Just then, rider #4 directly ahead of me, clipped a pedal and was suddenly sideways on the course. I locked up both front and rear brakes and narrowly escaped hitting him full force before he flopped over the curb onto the grass. 

The good news was – the whole pack behind had watched the unfolding debacle and braked, meaning that no one passed me even as my progress slowed from 30 mph to 15mph. The bad news was that there were 3 riders that were unencumbered by the crash who were now 2, 3, 4, now 5 bike lengths in front of me as we headed up the short hill to the final corner into the finish stretch. 

I was still fairly fresh though, and I got out of the saddle and strained every muscle and tendon in my body to regain my lost inertia. As we headed up the hill, I kicked with every ounce of power I had and started closing the gap, and as we swung wide round the last turn, I reconnected with the 3 riders even as they fanned out across the road, each seeking his own path to the finish line. I headed straight at the back wheels of riders, 2 and 3 (on the right side) even as I had no real place to go, but fortunately, they left enough space for me to squeeze through. 

I rocketed between them, and lit it up toward the finish only to miss passing the inside rider until well after the line. I was slightly disappointed, but yet pleased with managing a second place in the face of near disaster.  As we coasted toward the first corner, it was only then that I noticed the black armband of the winner.

It was none other than the best friend of the recently deceased rider, riding on pure adrenaline, honoring his departed friend.  Later, friends and acquaintances congratulated me on having the “most appropriate” second place in tour history. I didn’t give it to him – he won it fair and square – but I’m glad he won….

 I returned to the start finish line and watched the start of the pro-race as the tallied up the results from my race. As it turned out, the generator for the operations crew had quit with one lap to go, and there was no video record of the finish. The race official, Craig, gathered us together to say, “other than first and second, we really don’t have any idea who placed in this race, so we’ll be using the honor system to sort it out…”  Thank God I was second.

The racers argued for the next hour so we sat and watched the pro race and I ended up speaking to a man who’s daughter Maddie (shorthand for a Sanskrit word) was playing with Kat. He was in a movie we had watched last year called Endless summer II – essentially a surf documentary – as the “king of freshwater surfing.”

Apparently Sheboygan can get 10-12 foot waves when the winds are right. Eventually Craig and the racers settled their differences, though none of them seemed satisfied, but eventually I collected my $100 check for second place and we headed back to the campsite to cook dinner. 

Jose and Mark joined us and we cooked out at the beach, sharing some wine and grilling chicken breasts, zucchini, squash, with salsa, refried beans and tortilla chips. The sky was so blue with humidity that the lake and sky were exactly the same color and there was no horizon. There was a sense of vertigo as though the beach ended at the edge of the world and there was only sand and sky and an endless dropoff into space.  

Race Report #4: Bensenville

Race Report, Sunday July 16, Superweek Stage 9, Bensenville, IL 40 miles, 96 degrees, 105 “real feel”, 132 degree pavement temperature.    The real story regarding the Bensenville stage was the “race to the race.” The race was slated to begin at 3:30pm, so I figured I had better get out of the house by 12:00 – 12:30 at the latest. I was just finished packing up around 12:15 and Shannon was due to be returning from a bike ride when I received a call on my cell phone – she had gotten a flat out in the country and I needed to go get her. So I headed off 7 miles into the country, picked her home and drove home. Now it was 12:45 and I didn’t finally hit the road until 1pm. Still – Sunday afternoon – how bad could traffic be? 

I started calling Jose (the head mechanic) at 3:15 – still sitting in 294 toll traffic. “Jose – can you get me registered? I’ll pay you back with an extra $20 when I get there…”  “Sure John – we’ll take care of you – just get here.” I finally found the course at about 3:28pm – 2 minutes before race time. Meanwhile on the way in, while on the tollway, in the crowds of weekend travelers, I had managed to wriggle into my spandex cycling jersey, shorts, shoes, glasses, - even my helmet, as well as refilling my water bottles.

 I must have looked odd racing down Irving Park Road in a green Cadillac, wearing a brightly colored spandex jersey and a helmet. I jumped out and assembled my bike, put my bottles on and went to look for Jose – I still needed a race number as I had lost one of the two they had given me before.  I headed toward the start finish, stopping at the wheel pit but Jose was not there, but one of the referees was – just as they blew the whistle and started the race – without me…. “Damn!” I hopped on my bike following the departing riders and headed past the start finish and found Jose. He had my racers armband (proving my registration) but not my numbers… “Just jump in…” he said. 

Well, I didn’t want to race without a number, so I went off-road back to my car and pinned on the one number I had – (and, as it turns out, I pinned it on the wrong side) and then headed over to the back side of the course, where the 75 racers were just completing their second of 45 laps.  As they came around, I drifted out onto the course and melded neatly into the back of the pack. Illegal… yes. Unethical – not really – I did not really gain any advantage from missing those two laps.  

The race was fairly uneventful except in the fact of how strong I felt. I rode up near the front for the next 30 laps going off the front of the pack with a series of small breakaways. Everything was pulled back by the pack though, so I decided to rest up for the final sprint and drifted back in the pack. I was surprised at how small it had become – the heat had taken its toll… 

A few more small breakaways drifted off the front and as I moved back into the top 10 riders in prep for the sprint I was surprised to find that they were out of sight – damn – another race with no chance for the “W” (win). I lined up in my usual top 5 position going into the last lap, and then 4th coming into the second to last straightaway just as a rider swooped up the inside going into the last 110 degree turn. I tried to catch his wheel prior to the corner, but became concerned over the speed he was entering the turn. Sure enough midway through the turn, his rear wheel skittered and for one second I thought I was going to “t-bone” him and locked up my brakes. But he held onto it. 

I had lost some speed, but got out of my saddle and kicked with all my strength and caught him just at the line and blazed past him – just after the line, second in the field sprint and 6th overall due to the breakaway… 

Race Report #3, Waukesha

Race Report, Saturday, July 15, 2006 – Waukesha Wisconsin. 40 miles, 92 degrees.  Weather predictions were calling for a high temperature of 95 degrees, with a “real feel” of 103. I was pleased that the my race was early in the day… that is, until I walked out into the breaking sunlight over the rooftops to start loading the car at 7:45 am and realized it was already 82 degrees and dripping with humidity. 

The Cadillac seemed to be running a little rough when I headed out, so I stopped and checked the oil (and bought a banana and Gatorade for the ride). Sure enough I was at least a quart of oil down. Dejavu was the feeling I had as I hit the road, remembering the trials of last week.  

I headed off the 75 miles to Waukesha having lost a little time, but feeling pretty good. I arrived, checked in and warmed up reasonably well: a 30 minute warmup of 15 minutes, easy, 5 minutes at my aerobic threshold and a 90 second acceleration. I arrived at the line with 2 or 3 minutes to spare prior to race time only to find that the previous race still had 16 laps to go – about 45 minutes. 

The heat was already oppressive – I drank a large Gatorade and two 1 liter bottles of water on the way to the race, and then drank one full water bottle warming up. Now I had too much time on my hands.  I traced the course and discovered that the usual 6 turn snaking course of ¾ miles had gotten even more difficult. 8 turns – with 7 of 8 straightaways being approximately 50 meters long.

The course looked like a saw blade – one long straightaway, with saw-toothed turns comprising the remainder of the course. As I watched the preceding race, I was daunted by the splintering effect of the turns and the heat. Several small, single file groups remained, all with hollow flushed cheeks, mouths wide open gasping for air – suffering. 

We took to the line and I could feel the sun on my head and limbs. After they sent us off we began what became, ultimately, a 40 mile, single file death march under the sun. The turns, and the pace of the race, combined with 8 primes, created a time trialist’s dream, and a sprinters nightmare – no pack, no coasting, just hammering short straightaway after short straightaway, braking as little as possible to keep the momentum going.  I stayed up front for the first 15 of 45 laps, but started caring less about breakaways, and more about finishing at all.

For the next 15 laps I sat in the middle of the string of riders, in sight of the front and the repeated one-off breakaways, but getting as much draft as a single file line can give you in the swirling winds of a downtown course. For the next 10 laps I was at the end of the pack. I’m not certain if I moved back, or if the end of the pack got a lot shorter (we lost over half the riders during the event). 

With 6 to go, I began my one-by-one move up the long string of riders, from 30th to 29th. From 29th to 27th and so on. With 3 laps to go I was about 15th. With 2 laps to go I had moved up to about 8th. Normally I would have been happy with this position, but with all the corners, and yo-yo-ing occurring, I wanted to be farther up. But the pace, with 2 to go, was a full sprint.  I barely made it down the finish stretch attached to the rider in front of me and for the next two laps, I held onto the wheel in front of me with a graying tunnel vision and a hopeless detached focus on the tire in front of me – just follow the wheel – left, right, turn, sprint, turn, sprint, turn, accelerate… 

With one lap to go… I was still in 8th, huddled down behind the same wheel I followed one lap earlier. Through the zig-zag of the saw-toothed turns, mouth wide open, every effort to just hold the wheel, we headed down the short downhill into the final turn and long straightaway into the finish… and I was still…. in 8th. As we pulled through the final turn, the rider in front of me lost connection with the first 6 riders. I continued my full out effort with the remains of my strength and pulled by him, trying to regain the 6 riders in front of him. Then rider in 6th suddenly sat up and shot backward, but I still had 4 bike lengths to go to reach the top 5. They fanned out as we approached the finish line, and I could hear the roar of the crowd and I finally started to feel the suction of the draft, but it was too late – my front wheel caught #5’s rear just as we crossed  the line and I came across in 6th. 

We averaged 25.9 miles/hour for these 40 miles in the heat – despite each turn putting us below 20 mph. Each finish stretch we would hit 33 to 35 mph. I was actually quite pleased that I finished the race.  Ed Perez and his two oldest children were there cheering and I shakily sat down with them and learned about their amazing athletics feats (gymnastics and running) before finally going to collect my winnings and heading home.  News reports about a heat wave for the following day filled my head as we loaded up the boat and headed out to the lake. Bensenville, the next day, was predicting temperatures in the upper 90’s, with a “real feel” of 105… 

Race Report #2, Manitowoc

Race Report, Sunday July 9, Superweek Stage 2, Manitowoc, WI 35 miles, 86 degrees.   Lining up in the July sun, I had a sense of optimism as I viewed my other racers. Surely today would be my first win at this perfect sprinters course. 4 corners, wide, and flat, Manitowoc was fast and safe.   I started up front, but quickly moved to my comfortable position near the rear of the pack “surfing” the slinky, avoiding the compression into the corners, and coasting into the rear of the group on the way out. Midway through the race I moved to the front and was surprised to find myself in a short breakaway for one lap with one other rider. My confidence increased… 

The pace was high – ranging between 26 on the corners, to 33mph on the straightaways, but the effort in the pack was light – my pulse settled into the mid 150’s and stayed there. Coming into the final lap I knew I wanted to be between 4th and 7th coming out of the last corner.

The last 200 meters had a headwind so I needed some protection. I moved into 7th with one lap to go, and to 5th on the backstretch, jumping into 4th coming into the final corner. I was fresh, strong and not at all suffering, and set up wide to put on the afterburners coming into the final stretch… That’s just when the #3 rider decided to get out of his saddle too early coming out of the corner and completely lost control of his bike, skittering sideways on the asphalt and creating a perfect obstacle to my progress. I locked up my front and rear brakes and was immediately buffeted from behind by the mass of bodies coming by me – left and right, shoulders hitting my hips and elbows.  

I maintained control and got out of my saddle, and shifted back up to a big gear, and accelerated, passing back about 8 of the 10 riders that had passed me. Heading toward the line, the riders fanned across the road and I headed straight through a hole on the left… 50 feet after the line I was well out in front, but at the line I had only made 7th (or so the judges put me with 3 question marks “???” on the unofficial results for 5th, 6th and 7th.)  I thought I was 5th as did my wife – but we didn’t stick around to argue the facts – (apparently the videocamera had quit). Instead we hopped back in the RV and headed home to pick up our new puppy pug who had turned 7 weeks that day and was ready to be adopted to his new home.  

Race Report #1: Menasha

Race Report, Saturday, July 8, 2006 – Superweek Stage 1 – Menasha, WI. 50 miles, 84 degrees  On our way to this first stage of Superweek in the RV, my excitement for racing was soon replaced by frustration as we had the first of many vehicle mishaps. As I passed Sun Prairie and headed toward Columbus on Highway 151, a very loud thumping began on the left rear of the RV and the vibration forced me to pull over quickly. Sure enough one of the inner tires of the dual rear wheels was flat and throwing tread. 

Without any real idea of what to do, I pulled out the jack, and the crowbar, and wriggling far underneath the 30ft vehicle I proceeded, on the hot tarmac, nose inches from the radiating heat of the transmission and exhaust, to jack up the 11,000lb vehicle, bashing my knuckles on the oil transmission, and burning my forearms on the rusty hot exhaust pipes, and blinking away years of rust flakes that were coming down like a July blizzard directly into my eyes. I had a strong feeling of claustrophobia so far underneath such a massive structure balanced so precariously on a 1 inch round jack. 

2 hours of sweating and straining later, blackened with grease and exhaust, and covered with rust chips, I had removed both wheels, swapped the spare tire, replaced both wheels and stowed the flat on the rear of the vehicle. Finally, as night fell we were ready to hit the road, with 2 ½ hours of driving still left to our destination – High Cliff State Park. 

We pulled into the campsite at high cliff state park at 11pm. Instead of taking the time to back in, I just pulled in straight because it was so dark and so late. I turned on the internal fans, but didn’t run the generator as I didn’t want to be rude to our camping neighbors.  

After a restless and sticky night we decided to head to the bottom of the hill by the beach to cook breakfast and run the AC. Only then did I turn the key to start the RV so we could head off. But of course – there was no power. The fans had pulled too much juice from the battery. And, of course by pulling straight into the campsite, there was no way to get anywhere near the battery in order to jump start the RV.  

An hour of walking around like a derelict later, I had borrowed two sets of jumper cables and found a camper willing to drive over the small trees near the vehicle to get close enough to jump start us.  

We headed on our way, stopping at the bottom of the hill to cook breakfast, only to suddenly hear the generator get 4 times louder. Sure enough, the muffler had fallen off the generator.  

So I spent another hour in my now usual spot underneath the RV, crimping the C-clamp of the muffler to an even higher section of rusted pipe coming out of the generator.  By the time we made it to Menasha I was mentally exhausted by all the tribulations, and had almost no time to warm up.

With clouds obscuring the heat of the sun, the temperature was pretty manageable and 70 laps and 50 miles later, I came in second in the field sprint (3 guys got away) to finish 5th. An auspicious start to the racing, if not for the general logistics of travel…