The race report is secondary here, but here goes the short version…
Warm, swimmingly humid, the race was 100K or 62 miles, 50 laps on a flat, speedway course – wide open and flat – right up my alley. The race seemed to last forever and the heat and humidity took their toll. However, the wide course and open corners meant that I never even hit my aerobic threshold until 2 laps to go. When it was finally “my time,” I was relatively fresh, strong, and ready to sprint.
I moved up into position with a couple laps to go. Not to the top 10 like I would in a course with tight corners – instead to about 20th as I knew that in the final laps there would be a series of surges, and that being too far out front would lead to being swallowed up by the pack.
I was sitting pretty in about 20th place with one lap to go when it happened again – the screeching of metal on concrete as a crash occurred right in front of me.. again.
I was moving at 30mph at the time and I braked so hard that I have a flat spot on my rear tire from the long skid. Even as I skidded and avoided, I saw Ben Renkema – former Wolverine and fellow Michigander catapult off the wheels and body of a downed biker and then tumble to the ground himself.
Skidding to a stop, other riders pinging off me from behind like a pinball bumper, I found a path through the fallen even as the masses came to a stop behind me.
I gave chase.
Like Evanston I had about a 200 foot gap to close to the peleton, but this time I only had less than a lap to try and recover my position. I was furious.
I caught the peleton about halfway down the backstretch – now half its size due the crash. I moved obnoxiously through the middle of the 50 rider pack as gaps opened and I came around the last bend in about 30th. The pack accelerated and I accelerated. I shifted up, and then up again as the pace continued to increase. I shifted one more time as the finish line began to come into distant view and found my final gear unavailable. I’ve never used that gear and never expected to, so I notched it one back and cranked out the highest RPM’s my tired legs were capable of, dodging this way and that as I continued to work my way forward, finishing a few riders behind young sprint prodigy Luke Cavender from my club as we crossed the line in about 12th and 14th respectively.
The tension relieved, the pack splayed wide into course. I drifted aimlessly amongst the riders, thoughts elsewhere. A right turn, another right, coasting, pedaling, listening to the other riders, I made my way around the course, focused on nothing… Finally I made it all the way around and coasted into the pits to confess to my high counselor Jose…
I began to question aloud my tactics for the last laps of the race - historically my one area of strategic and tactical mastery. I was beginning to lose confidence in my ability to read the tea leaves of the race and avoid incident. Was it just bad luck and coincidence? Or was the Brownian motion of the riders in the pro peleton different and less predictable? Were my instincts based on an outdated paradigm? Did I need to be in a different place in the pack? Sure the easy answer is always, “move into the top 3 riders” - an answer whose result is also easy – I’d last 300 meters and then blow up long before the sprint.
Somehow, from a previous pattern of going 20, 30, 50 races without being involved with an incident, I was now facing the reality that for 4 races in a row I have been thwarted by crashes. I wondered aloud again whether I “need to revisit my race strategy” and wondered quietly whether my limited strengths really gave me any choice. Jose voiced it best asking, “Do you think you’ve gotten strong enough to ride right up front during those final laps?”
The answer was “no.”
I clipped back in my pedals and headed downstream in the dampening evening. The sun was now setting - a brilliant corona of light escaping the close knit clouds and then disappearing, sound and shapes now muffled by the moist sweater of the descending humidity.
My mood was still a bit heavy with the results and effort of the long race but my long face disappeared entirely when I was suddenly visited by the brightening visages of Ray, Scott, Kelly and Brent – all teammates from my Detroit based cycling club and associated racing team. The lingering remorse over the outcome of the race quickly fled, and was replaced by that lightness of being, that inner glow from the reflecting beacons of each of their faces, and their playful recognition of a hard fought finish – regardless the outcome.
An unexpected surge of energy began to course through my veins, replacing the lactic acid and by-products of the exertion and I began to feel that arbitrary happiness, that youthful optimism and sense of good spirits return. The subtle mix of humor and respect (“Coyle – there is no prize for most laps last across the line…”) they expressed for the effort was much the same as I felt for their same suffering and mixed results… we began packing up our equipment…
I’ve written before about the post-race vibe – that special human condition where the soil for ideas is fertile and where the interactions between humans on our tiny planet become truly that – human. Tonight was one of those nights – one of those special evenings where the post-race vibe found resonance in the boxy shell of an old RV.
Even before the race I my spirits were lifted when I discovered my long lost Michigan teammates were here – racing in Wisconsin. With a banner, a tent, and bikes hanging, I rediscovered my team of old – the Wolverine Sports Club.
Days before, at Blue Island I kept hearing voices, and seeing a pair of faces – male and female – that would raise their fists and yell “Wolverines” (reminding me of the old movie “Red Dawn”) appearing intermittently throughout the course during the long race. Tonight I was to learn that they were Brent and Maia and wore my team colors – that of the long celebrated WSC or Wolverine Sports Club.
I finally met them in person tonight.
Unclipping, I spoke to Ray Dybowski first and noticing the flush of sweat still on his brow let him know that he was welcome to come cool off in the RV. He embraced the idea and indicated that several other club members were intrigued by the previous descriptions of the tottering old vehicle and all its charms and would enjoy coming aboard.
As Ray and I chatted Scott, Kelly and Brent came by and I extended to them the same offer to visit us in the RV for a glass of wine or water.
Standing, one foot still locked in the pedals in the deepening gloom we then began to relate a few tales of the day – the crash in the final corner, Brent’s magnificent win, Kelly’s great finish, Ray’s decision to become a spectator, Ben’s injuries. At one point I looked down and pressed a few buttons on my cycling computer: max speed, 48.6 mph. I pointed down at it. Scott’s eyes registered the sprint speed.
“Check this out,” he said to the others and pointed down at the LCD display… “on a flat course…”
“And I didn’t win…” I added, and one by one they glanced at the figures with the same reaction… wow… that’s fast.
I told everyone to come over in about 10 minutes after they finished packing up their trailer and I made my way over to the RV to find Katelina curled up on the couch with a blanket watching a movie. I took a quick rinse in the nice hot water of the RV shower. I made a post race electrolyte drink and changed into civilian clothes to go collect whatever winnings I might have earned.
I stepped down out of the chill air of the RV and re-entered the warm green waters of humidity that had been my font during the race. I drank deeply and smiled.
Extremely humid nights like this are strangely familiar: like old negatives the colors are inverted and the grainy green-gray light creates an air of mystery around everything and everyone. Suddenly the looming shapes of cars and people and the hulking presences of mundane buildings become the plots of a mystery or romance novel – an unseen but vaguely glimpsed world around us assumes the dark and dusky forms of shadowy possibility. These were the nights growing up where my friends and I would sneak out and go on midnight bike rides to the old “haunted” mansion in Wabeek Hills, or go play “ding dong ditch”, or go for a midnight swim in the lake.
I felt my way through the damp to the registration area but the results were not yet posted, so I waded back to the RV just as the first of our visitors arrived. We climbed in past the creaking screen door into the relatively bright world of the old RV. Ray, Kelly, Alan, Maia, Brent, Ben, Scott, Luke and Tim – they all found places in the relative cool of the interior along with Katelina and I. It was into this mix of humanity, that I began to find myself again.
Each time I consider selling this RV that has been the bane of my existence on more than one occasion, I consider these moments that it seems instrumental in creating.
Despite its significant size from the outside, the RV’s interior is designed with utilitarian prospects and is fairly tight. As the 12 of us poured in, we had to crowd. Despite being sweaty and dirty, having spent an entire day outside hot humid weather, suffering the effects of wheels and wind and sun, in came my teammates with grace and ease, elegantly folding themselves into all the nooks and crannies the RV offers up as seats, casually leaning against each other, exhausted outstretched legs overlapping without any sense of discomfort or intrusion.
Contrast this to the office, where showered, and clean shaven, in our wrinkle free spotless clothes the idea of physical contact with each other is so uncomfortable that a tight fit in an elevator is a story to be repeated as distasteful, or a prospect uncomfortable enough that people wait for the next ride, while sharing banal “elevator talk” to pass the time.
I wonder – why does comfort breed distance? Millions of men and women toiling neatly in their comfortable jobs are granted silver plated plaques or trophies as a result of their “achievements”. Did they realize that they too were becoming plated, year by year, by a reflective, insular coating? Trapping the light within, and reflecting away the lights of others?
We “polished professionals…” has the combination our analytical logical approaches to business problems, combined with modern comforts of quiet cars, humming air conditioning, the gauze of TV, Advil and carpeting – has this insulated us from the real, human features and flaws of other humans? Our ability to recognize each other’s feelings – have these comforts so reduced our highs and lows, our smile and frown lines so much that we can’t read each other?
Designed by God and nature, the human body is capable of physically working at relatively high intensity without food or water for long periods, with the notable and needed side effects of hunger, thirst and suffering providing reminders of what the body needs in order to continue producing. Has it now become so muffled by the platinum sweater of decent living that its capabilities for “really living” are compromised?
But suffering – nominally this awful thing to be avoided – it more than anything else strips away the plating – like an acid wash it removes this layer of chrome and allows, for a brief moment, a glimpse back at our humanity, that human connection flesh upon flesh – all the warm sweat of it.
It is always amazing to me – the dirt of a race. Every exposed wrinkle becomes black with dust – upon inspection the dust of suffering on the road becomes a fine tracery of black veins delineating the fold of the inner elbow, the creases of thumbs, eggshell folds of the ears and underlids and the worry lines of the forehead. Like a patina added to the contours of our modern life, humanity again becomes obvious and for those brief post race moments we ignore the normal formalities that add distance between us and use the memories of our common suffering to cleave to one another.
Tonight, the silver plating was off, the patina was on and real people pressed against each other in the closeness of the brown shag and mauve velvet cushions and began to regale each other with the stories that follow such efforts. Faces shiny, opening up like like moonflowers to embrace the evening dew, they shared the suffering of the day, sloughing off the façade of indifference, the discomfort of contact, and becoming – for a brief moment in the chrysalis of the ancient husk of the RV – transfigured. Our stories weaving a web of color, our contact cementing future friendships.
We talked about old races, old faces. We talked about the future, and travels. We talked quite a bit about Luke’s one-handed 48mph sprint. It seems that during the final meters of the finish Luke crossed paths with another rider. A track sprinter to the core, Luke took one hand off the bars to fend the other rider off and hold his position. The digital photos to prove it made us all laugh, and we howled louder when I pronounced, “the speed has to be over 50mph before Luke needs to use both hands in the sprint.”
But then again, it is, afterall, just a dirty old trailer full of filthy bikers and booze, so it seemed only appropriate to crank up “Cowboy” by Kid Rock as the post-race festivities continued, and we sang and a warm, hearty laugher rocked the RV. We decided to fulfill a relatively new Wolverine tradition and take photos of all the racers with their “winnings” – their checks for their performance. After multiple tries, we were able to get some that took and laughed again when we saw that Katelina was making a different crazy face or posture in each one in the background.
In theory the team was supposed to be driving 8 or 9 straight hours back to Detroit from Green Bay that evening, but as the clock continued to tick and nobody got up, they slowly began to realize that maybe that wasn’t such a great idea and they decided to stay the night in Sheboygan before heading the rest of the way home. Eventually they all disentangled and squeezed out of the RV to make their way south.
I returned to the cockpit and turned the key, starting the big V8, and pulled slowly out of the parking area to make our way back to the highway and back to our campsite. I couldn’t stop smiling. The setbacks, the long, long races, the inability to find that magic route to the finish line and come out on top – maybe it all didn’t matter.
Maybe we suffer like animals so that we can learn to be human again.
In the end, it isn’t the race or the finish or the money or even the achievement that we remember. The weightless riches we carry on in our journeys are nothing more and nothing less than the human connections we make in the process of suffering for a noble goal.
As I accelerated down highway 43 and time closed in on the black of midnight, I sat in my vinyl captains chair, my feet nestled in the brown shag, the vibrations and the rattling of the 10,000lb, 20 year old vehicle traveling up my calves, and I felt wealthy beyond my dreams.