Downers Grove Nationals - 2005

Race Report – August 20 – Downers Grove “National Championships”  Race 1 – Category 3, 2:00pm 

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 and have finished in the top 5 every time, and have won 3 or 4 times. 

I was traveling for work all 5 days prior to the event, making any training difficult... Nonetheless, despite these drawbacks my confidence was high coming to the race as I had more miles under my belt this year than in the last 10 years. That, and the “superbike” Colnago that I had grown to love and enjoy racing.  

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, windy, 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, but short enough to recover from quickly.

8 turns in just over a kilometer makes for a technical course, and indeed, it strings out early, and crashes are not unusual. Over the last decade the race has turned into a Mecca of sorts for Criterium riders, featuring the U.S. Pro championships for the last 8 years or so, and various other category nationals on alternating years. This year was again the nationals for Category 3 (but not Masters 30+) as it was 2 years ago when I won. 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. The shortness of the races (about 15-20 miles for cat 3 and masters 30) adds a special element of panic to the large peletons and the pace is always blisteringly fast. 

Due to my recent successes (top 3 the last 3 years in a row) I actually was a little nervous before the race. It is rare for me in cycling events – in hindsight I think it is a reflection of the fact that the races often last near 2 hours… and since all but the last 10 minutes of a race are essentially “warmup” for me, there really seems to be little cause for nerves.   However, in this case the fact that it was a timed event, with a limit of 30 minutes seemed to have that enervating effect on me that I really don’t enjoy.

The body is an amazing thing, full of natural instincts like “fight or flight” and “blink” that make all kinds of intuitive and rational sense. Pre-race nerves, however, make no rational sense: explain to me how the sensation of barely molten lead for blood flowing through your legs, mental numbness, and a vague sense of nausea contribute to “survival of the fittest.” If lions readying for the kill felt this way they’d have starved off years ago… of course, maybe I’m the prey… 

Getting there late didn’t help – I only had a 10 minute warmup, and it was a serious act of discipline to get my pulse up to 175 in prep for the suffering ahead. So, if the occasional but predictable feelings like those described above are part of the package (particularly back during my skating days) then 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, 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 your front tire as your head drops and you roar past the finish line as all sound and motion returns to your senses. The mottled outline of your legs and shins with the flinty road residue streaked with water droplet trails as you coast around the first turn and congratulate fellow riders. Sweat streaked sunglasses glinting against the blue skies and white clouds as your 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 dirt and dust - but 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 – lately my wife and daughter – seeing her eyes light up and her clapping as I maneuver to the side to stop at 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”.  

But, back to the race… Lining up at Downer’s Grove I managed to get a second row spot. It looked to be about 85 to 100 riders for the Cat 3 race. After brief introductions we were on our way, and the first time up the hill the leaden legs continued…  But discipline prevailed and I used all my skills to keep in the top 20 or so. With the time limit in the race we probably ended up only doing about 15 laps. The finish stretch was slightly uphill, but sheltered from the cross wind and we managed about 29 mph up that straightaway. A right turn into a short, narrow stretch, and then a left with a nice inner camber into the top part of the figure “8”…  A false flat leading into a reasonably steep uphill with a hard left turn in the middle. Inevitably, the riders would slow right in the middle of the climb…

 If managed properly (i.e. being in the front ahead of the asshole zone, or being behind the asshole zone) you could climb this section at a steady pace in a lower gear and shoot forward without effort to pass several riders through the steeper part and then make the hard left at the top into the downhill. In the asshole zone you would find yourself braking into the first lefthand turn and struggling up the steepest part of the hill, potentially in the wrong gear going slowly, and then have to really max out your power to get back up to speed. 

 In this race I managed to stay in the right places and shoot through the pack nearly every lap on the hill. If I were boasting I would say that I was “powering up the hill” to overtake the weaker riders. To be honest, it was a simple matter of shifting to the right gear… And so the 13 laps went by until the clock ran out (30 minutes) and the lap counter began (2 laps to go). At this point in the race I continued in about 15th and looked for opportunities to move to 8th or so… The sprint in this race can be tricky… with only 150 meters from the final corner to the finish line, one might think that the first one through that corner would win – and indeed that tactic has worked for me in the past. However, more often than not, there is a strong headwind into that last corner, which allows some considerable jockeying through the turn. 

Today the wind was VERY strong – probably 20 mph in that second to last stretch. Testing it throughout the race, and watching the pattern of the peleton in the primes I decided that 5th-8th was the appropriate placing going into the last corner.  I was pleased to note that yet again I had a teammate in the race – Ben from the Wolverines, and we were side by side on the last lap heading into the backstretch. I watched him move up into 3rd or so on the downhill with two turns to go and was tempted to follow as I knew he was a good sprinter, but the blast of wind expected on the second to last stretch kept me grounded in 6th as we headed into the headwind with 300 meters to go. 

As predicted, near the end of that short straightaway, the pace slowed and the pack spread wide in prep for the final sprint even as the headwind hit. Going into the last corner I actually had to hit the brakes before I found a route through – up the outside. I had lost some momentum due to the braking but quickly burst past 5, 4, 3 and 2 and saw only the lone rider in the middle of the road snaking his bike up the slight incline to the finish. I gave it all I had but realized I wasn’t going to reach him, even as a rider slingshotting from behind nipped me at the line and I finished 3rd by inches. 


Downer\'s finish sprint - I\'m in the stars and stripes on the left

 I was more disturbed about the catch from behind than not catching Ben – yes it was my teammate who won – and was already fashioning my strategy for the next race as I coasted down the finish stretch and made my way around the course. And so I came back across the finish line and found my wife and daughter who gave me big hugs, and my friend Matt, his son Joey, and another friend Richard with his little ones Jackson and Georgia. We chatted for a little bit and it was funny to hear the note in Matt’s voice – a bit apologetic of the fact that I didn’t win. Sure – I wanted to, and in some sense had a good vibe that I might – but ultimately was happy to enter the fray and come out with a podium spot. 

I had about a half hour until my next race – the Master’s 30+ race, so I wandered back to the RV and entered the refrigerated air of the house on wheels – what an excellent invention. I refilled my bottle and then headed out for a short warmdown/warmup for the next race, and then sped back to town where I found my wife and friends … shopping. We picked out a really cool retro French cycling poster and wine bottle rack and then it was time to head back to the line. On the way I saw Jan – another of my Michigan cohorts I had met a superweek – and we chatted prior to heading to the line. 

I ended up about 5 lines deep in the lineup and it looked to be between 115 – 130 riders in the field. Lots of expensive looking bikes. Given that Masters 30+ is “categoryless” and that the pro/1/2 nationals are always the next day, there is usually a decent Pro contingent. A couple years prior, the last time I doubled up, I finished just behind Frankie Andreu – Lance Armstrong’s Lieutenant, and just ahead of Thurlough Rogers – a former Olympic medalist. Today I only recognized one famous face – that of former U.S. Pro and teammate of Lance’s on US Postal Service team Robbie Ventura. He was armed or rather saddled with a camel back pack with two cameras – one facing forward and one facing rear. They were filming the race for a documentary of sorts. The officials sent us off, and the pace immediately surpassed that of the cat 3 race, with speeds on the uphill false flat of the finish line of 32 mph.

I drifted in the middle for several laps – not in trouble – but suffering enough to not feel any great impetus to move up. I ended up following Jan’s wheel for a half dozen laps, finding some symmetry in his riding to my own – It seemed to me that the efficient pack riding styles beaten into me under my years with Mike Walden still continued to manifest themselves in the Michigan riders…. 

After 30 of the 40 minutes, I did the math and realized that there were only about 6 laps to go including the “+2” laps after the 35 minute time lapse. I started using the hill – again – to move up and found that despite their strength, speed, and relatively greater skill, the Masters 30+ were just as inefficient at shifting properly as the cat 3’s. 

With about 4 to go I made top 25 (I had been surfing in about 60th), and then with 2 to go, I took a hard inside into the finish stretch and coasted neatly into the front to lead the way past the start/finish line and into turn one. After that the race went the way that I usually prefer – a team or two went to the front and strung the pack out. Going into the hill with 1 ½ to go I was sitting about 12th and moved to 8th, then back to 12th on the downhill. Somewhere shortly after the hill, I caught Robbie’s wheel, and figuring that he would stay in the action I followed.  As we headed down the last of the downhill section Robbie moved up to about 8th – right about where I wanted to be. We raced up the finish stretch as the bell rang, and the pace was quite high – but I just followed Robbie. 

Up the hill, and Robbie – like me – downshifted and we swarmed around a few riders to 3rd and 4th. Like me though, he let a few riders sprint past on the downhill and we made the next right in about 7th and 8th.  As we entered the last 500 meters, with two turns to go, Robbie jumped up the inside to about 4th place. Given my experience with the 3’s I was reticent to be so far up with the looming headwind, and at that point I let him go. In hindsight I should have made the move.. 

As we headed down the last downhill stretch and entered the second to last turn, a sudden, dangerous surge up the inside caused the riders in 5th – 8th to swing wide or cause and accident. I had to brake and swung out all the way to the curb to let the dive bombers in, falling to about 12th, but still with some good legs, and a 120 meter stretch into a massive headwind in my favor prior to the final turn… So, I waited a few pedal strokes and then following my plan developed in the last race.

I put the afterburners on straight into the rear of the 11 riders ahead of me, timing it so that as we started entering the corner and facing the worst of the wind gusts I’d be at max speed even as the leaders were slowing dramatically. As a strategy and a prediction of race dynamics it was perfect: the leading few riders did EXACTLY as predicted and slowed dramatically into the last corner, forcing the following riders to spread wide across the road to avoid braking. Meanwhile my kick put me at top speed just as they were all slowing/braking – creating the perfect opportunity to shoot on and through – to gap the field and hit the finish stretch with bells on and no one following. Potentially a decisive victory… 

Alas, there was but one potential flaw in the plan… I needed a gap the width of my handlebars to shoot through… As the front triangle slowed, and the followers spread – my momentum carried me within reach of the leaders and I searched for that space… I was heading toward their back wheels at a pace probably 10 mph faster than the 27 mph they had slowed to.  But the master’s 30 are better and more calculated than the 3’s and the whole lead group spread like a neat accordion and created a garrote for my momentum. The only real estate on the road left to me was wide right towards the barriers and I swung wide and then began leaning in for the corner… 

Well, let me just say that I pride myself on my cornering ability. I can usually get to that flash point where the tires skitter, but no momentum is lost on any given course in any given condition. Even as I entered the corner and shifted from the right lean (to swing wide) and the hard left lean required to make the corner I knew I was at the max of what man and machine and narrow rubber tires could handle. I put my weight inside the bike and began “steering the bike” (an old Walden mainstay) trying to minimize the “lean” that would take too much rubber off the road and that could lead to a washout.  I kept all my momentum…but the worst followed – a rider in the top ten swung wide, closing off the only open space and placing his body directly into my trajectory.

I had nowhere to go. 

I faced haybales or rapidly expanding slanted rearwheel…. both options having a guarantee of a crash… So I did the normally unthinkable – I tried my brakes – both front and rear, with a slight emphasis on the front… in the middle of a corner at full speed. For a moment, the rotational inertia of my wheels kept the bike vertical even as both wheels started slipping… then the rear gained a little momentum and a millisecond later my orientation was like a rally car driver on a muddy turn – my rear wheel headed at right angles to my momentum. My body position still kept me vertical, and for a few seconds I slid completely sideways. To stop the rotation I momentarily let off both brakes. Immediately the rear wheel chattered and caught, my weight shifted right with the misplaced momentum, and within another millisecond, I was now barreling DIRECTLY at the haybales – albeit with slightly less momentum than the 37+ mph I was carrying prior.  Until this moment, panic had not quite set in, but at this point with 25+ mph and only 20 feet between me and the barrier I KNEW there was no return. Nonetheless I leaned left as hard as I could to try to pull out of the gravitational pull of the barrier and for a second I  thought I just might make it…I entered another hard lean and my wheels started slipping again.

The barriers shifted back more parallel, but I was closing too fast.  At the last second I lifted up just as my front wheel hit the barrier – probably at an angle of 20 degrees and a speed of 25mph.  Rubber and spokes and lightweight carbon fiber bikes don’t have enough mass to bounce off the barriers and keep their 185 lb riders upright… instead, in this case, the wheel grabs the barrier, bites in, pretzels neatly into an oblong shape and then stops completely. The front fork takes the blow next. In this case, due to the shallow angle of the entry, the speed, and the weight behind it, the right front fork took a massive torsional force and decided to give up the ghost and snap cleanly in half.  With my bike effectively stopped – all 16 lbs of it, my mass still had a little inertia…  I’m not really sure what happened at this point. I remember rising upward and abandoning the bars (probably a bit of an endo), striking the haybale, and flywheeling my arms upward as I rode the plastic surface of the advertising covering the haybale. At some point my inertia rebounded and I remember landing hard on my left side, rolling quickly and then being back on my feet sans bike. 

Fortunately there was a little gap between the lead group and the rest of the peleton, and I was able to jump out of the way as the next 100 riders came screaming through the corner… However my broken bike presented a bit of a barrier and one rider following an outside path found it a distracting obstacle. He careened and hit the barrier right in front of where I was standing, flopping back down into the road. 

After the rest of the riders had gone by, the story gets interesting. Full of adrenaline, and echoes of coaches gone by telling me to “finish the race, and do another lap too” to get over the fear of crashing, I immediately went for my bike only to be dismayed to find it in pieces. As I stood there surveying the carnage of the first bike that I ever paid good money for, the other rider that had gone down suddenly materialized behind me and I heard his voice even as he entered my peripheral vision.  

“Fucking dumbshit! – what the fuck you have to go and crash for in the last corner!?”  He yelled politely as I continued to survey the dangling piece of fork connected by my cyclometer as the insistent voice continued to invade my assessment of the damage… “Stupid fuck – what you can’t hear me? Was it worth it? Was it worth it crashing for 10th place? What the HELLLLLLLLL!!!!????” He was screaming now…. Some part of his histrionics touched me enough to make me to swing and face him, or maybe it was just the volume had grown. Sure enough, he was now bearing down on my with both fists raised, shoulders squared, some blood streaming down his forearms, and his cleats skittering just a bit as he tried to walk aggressively toward me… 

“Click click click” said his cleats and I watched him with detachment as he re-entered the sphere of my inner turmoil… (How much for a fork? a Colnago fork for God’s sake? Can I get one in time for the Windsor/Detroit races? click click click... WHAT DOES HE WANT!?!) 

I thought he was actually going to swing his fist at me as I watched somewhat dispassionately, but I think due to the difficult footing on the asphalt with cleats he settled for a very aggressive pass through swing of his shoulder – he connected cleanly with mine which caused me to stagger back a bit as he passed by. I assumed he was done and turned back to my bike and began to lift my front wheel as I heard his “clicks” turn to more of a “skitter” and then watched in disbelief as he at first made his way back to me in an off balance sort of way. However before reaching me he suddenly sank down on his heels holding his upper arm even as the referees intercepted his progress.  

Thankful for the cessation of noise I turned back to my bike and lifted it up, even as the referee who had stopped the progress of the other racer's aggressive antics picked up my wheel from behind the moaning rider and lifted it over his huddled body to hand it to me. It was at this point that the first of two funny things happened. The tire blew like a gunshot and caused the ref to nearly drop the wheel and my antagonist to duck and wince. Very amusing.

Even as I received the broken wheel and gathered up the remnants of my bike, the injustice of the situation finally intruded on my thoughts and my adrenaline began to focus itself back on the rider behind me.  Not one for ready quips, I did muster a decent comment in this case. I swung around, broken fork ticking against the frame, and said, “Two things guy:  one – shit happens – this is a bike race…. two, if you have a problem with the way I race you shouldn’t have been behind me…” finishing loudly.

I heard some appreciative murmurs from the crowd who had gathered at the scene…. And I turned and walked off – walked all the way to the finish line and lunged playfully across the line as the announcer gave me a few kudos and the spectators gave that polite applause reserved for the injured but walking. I maneuvered all the way up to the wheel pit where they announced the front wheel dead on arrival, but the rear “retrievable”.

I then walked (with my wife and daughter now with me) back through the heat and afternoon sun to the medical area to get my left elbow and left hip cleaned up.  As I neared the medical tent, I saw some familiar red jerseys – those of the team of the rider who had the unfortunate collision with my bike. Seeing only one medic and the ailing figure of annoyance from the race spread-eagled  on the table I turned and carried my clacking bike toward the RV determined to do my own cleanup. However, even as I turned the guy on the table piped up and said, “serves you right asshole – glad you broke your fucking bike!”. 

I continued on not really caring, but what I didn’t realize is that these words really began to burn in my wife Shannon’s mind. I had already briefed her on the altercation at the corner, and now she had received ample support for the bizarre behavior of my fellow crash victim. Even as we entered the RV, she was announcing, “I… I uh… forget to pay for that poster we were looking at – I’m going to run back and get it – are you OK here by yourself?” I replied that I’d be fine – the air conditioned RV had already begun to work its charms on my tired aches and I began prepping mentally for the scrubbing of open wounds required ahead in order to avoid infection and heal properly. 

Little did I know – as she headed off and I washed my hands-  that she was on a mission – a mission to intercept the gentlemen on the medical table and to give him a LARGE piece of her mind. To Shannon, my new bike was a long time in coming – a piece of equipment that I had continually avoided purchasing due to various family obligations. So, to hear someone say that they were happy that something so nice and obtained at such cost was broken struck a note deep down in her.

I can picture the set in her face and her forceful stride back toward that medical tent. And I can only think that the guy previously lying there was lucky that he had left by the time she arrived… 

And so – the second funny thing that happened that day… To hear my wife tell it, she basically marched right back to the tent to give the guy and earful – of what exactly – I’m not even sure she knows. But, when she arrived back, she found the lone medic standing in the tent.

When asked about the whereabouts of the recumbent cyclist, she was told matter of factly, “oh – we had to send him to the hospital…” “His road rash was minor, but he managed to separate his shoulder in the accident.” Upon retelling the story to me, I began to laugh…. and laugh and laugh.

I reminded Shannon of the way the guy was bearing down on me – both fists held high, and how after hitting me he sank down in pain… At the time I assumed his crash injuries had finally come to the fore, but in hindsight it seems quite clear that his sole injury in the crash was from swinging his shoulder at me.   

Still gives me a chuckle…