2008 Race Report #2: Vernon Hills, IL

2008: Race Report #2: Vernon Hills Grand Prix


Race Report, Sunday, May 4. Vernon Hills Grand Prix Criterium, Vernon Hills, IL. Category: Masters 30+. Weather: 60 degrees, 15 mph winds. Course: 20 miles, 50 riders, average speed – 25.9mph, average pulse 170 bpm, max pulse 191 bpm. Sprint speed 38mph.


Another early season race. I’m determined to follow Walden’s core principles this season as well as his race rules. I’ve documented the race rules in my blog, but have been saving the two core principles for an appropriate writeup. Nonetheless, in short they are, 1) Race Your Strengths, Train Your Weaknesses, and 2) Racing is the Best Training.


Since racing is the best training I’ve decided to abandon my ‘long aerobic ride’ focus of last year’s preseason and mix in more early season races. My friend Matt’s energy and enthusiasm is making it easy. He got 10th in the Masters 4/5 race and mixed it up in the sprint – an awesome finish.


Another windy day, and on this 4 corner course of about a mile it means 1 straightaway with a headwind, 1 with a tailwind, and 2 with cross winds. It also meant a decent amount of suffering and the implosion of the field as the wind took its toll. After about 5 laps, I suddenly found myself on the wrong side of a split within the field, with 18 riders out front quickly getting a 10, then 15, then 20 second gap on our chase group of 20 (10 riders dropped out in the first few laps.)


For the next 5 laps I stayed in my “you are a sprinter John” zone and did nothing but draft and suffer, but eventually the slowing pace and continued visibility of the large breakaway overcame my natural weaknesses and I began to take hard pulls at the front of our field (granted on the tail wind or cross wind sections) and exhorted other riders to pull through and work together.


Over the next few laps we closed the gap to about 12 seconds, but meanwhile the lap cards read “3” laps to go. I watched Ken, one of my friend Matt’s Bicycle Heaven teammates make a huge effort on the headwind side to bridge the gap and considered going with him but had just finished a hard pull on the backstretch to pull us within striking distance and wasn’t quite recovered.


It took Ken nearly a lap, but I saw him finally catch the lead group. Meanwhile the lead group shelled 3 riders off the back who were struggling to organize and re-catch the lead breakaway. With two laps to go I ascertained that my struggling peleton was not strong or organized enough to close the gap and I decided to make a ‘go-for-broke’ effort to catch the lead group. No sense in sprinting for 19th


One benefit was the 3 rider group in between the leaders and my pack…


I timed my effort carefully and used the draft to my advantage and just prior to the first corner of the 4 corner course I accelerated up the inside and then shot down the second straightaway at 33 mph amongst blasts of sideways wind, catching the chase group just prior to the backstretch.


The fear of this kind of effort is difficult to describe. I can liken it to drowning. The effort to spring from the warm shrouded belly of the peleton into the suddenly roaring air in front of the pack steals the air from your lungs and you begin to panic for breath as your legs and arms burn. The most significant, yet easily forgotten effect is the taste of blood and steel in your mouth as you go well beyond your aerobic threshold to pedal beyond the peleton. Like drowning, as your air runs out, your focus can easily become all about the feeling of oxygen deprivation – but instead you must focus forward on the goal.


I coasted the corner on the tail end of the group, catching a tiny bit of rest. I wanted to do nothing else but rest and recover, but I knew that was a recipe for 18th place and I swallowed the panic rising in my lungs and heart and then swung up the inside and cranked it up to 35, 36mph on the tailwind backstretch – a full out sprint – a mouthful of pennies and blood and a roaring in my ears beyond the wind – I was at my max. I kept the momentum going taking corner 3 full out and barely missing the curb. Finally I latched onto the rear of the breakaway group just as we entered the final corner and we headed down the finish stretch and the bell began to ring indicating one lap to go.


I continued my momentum right into the top 5 of the lead group, hoping for a few moments to recover from the maximal efforts of the last 2 minutes, but to no avail – the pace accelerated yet again and I found myself barely hanging onto the 5th place wheel down the backstretch. Like hundreds of episodes in my past, my focus narrowed to the tread of the rear wheel in front of me and I followed like a dog on a leash, whimpering with the effort.


I still hoped for a small rest prior to the final two stretches, but the pace stayed high, and as we entered the second to last straightaway, my legs, lungs, and heart gave out and I began to drift backward, from 5th to 7th to 10th, eventually crossing the line in 12th place.


I was actually super pleased. In 31 seasons of racing I can count the number of breakaway gaps I have bridged on one hand, and the number in the last 10 years on one finger.


I have that sense… that particular looming confident feeling that things will align this year and that somewhere, at some point, I’ll be standing on the podium in a significant race.




Preview for Race Report #3: On Thursday of this week, after some schedule juggling, I finally committed to my second annual European training vacation – this time to Gerona, Spain – home to significant portion of leading tour de France riders – Lance has a house there, as does my remaining friend in professional cycling George Hincappie.


I leave next Tuesday for a 4 day trip. Like last years amazing experience in the Monferrato Hills, Italy  - link - http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/01/26/race-report-2-a-brief-tour-of-italy/  I will take lots of pictures and maybe even break out the helmet cam.


To ‘really living’,