2008: Race Report #22: Downer’s Grove Nationals Masters’ Elite ½: Weather: 84 degrees, light winds. Course: twisty, dangerous, seven corners, short steep hill, 0.8 miles/lap, Distance, 45 minutes + 2 laps, Average pulse 170. Avg speed - ?
There’s something about the prep for a ‘big race’ that unfolds memories from the cramped spaces of the past – the thoughts, images and feelings fan backward in ever dimming shades and echoes like the outline of your visage in a pair of dressing room mirrors.
In the two weeks preceding the annual extravaganza at Downer’s Grove a corkscrew of subtle déjà vus rotated into my consciousness and receded – flashes of memory, of sounds and scents as I pulled on my jersey over the bloom of sweat, changing clothes in the seat of my car at Bussy woods, as I pedaled circles under the arching late summer shadows on my training rides, or as I coasted into the driveway, cog ratcheting slowly to a stop as I dismounted and leaned my bike against the wall in the garage.
Downer’s Grove holds, for me, an underlying electric current - subsonic vibrations of years past – moments of ‘really living,’ including 2007’s slippery, rainy 6th place, 2006’s battle to the finish line - finishing 2nd by inches, of a 3rd place in 2005 and the subsequent crash in the Master’s race. Another third back in 2004, and a win in 2003 - holding a then-toddler Katelina on the podium.
Earlier memories still: a win in 1995 when I took the sprint out with two corners to go, and the whole peleton crashed behind me blocking the entire road. That year I coasted to the line looking uncertainly behind me and seeing no one (does that count as a breakaway?) I was too confused about the disappearing act of the peleton to use the ample time for a proper hands-in-the-air celebration.
The buckled asphalt, manhole covers, paint lines, metal barriers, short steeps and false flats all re-drew themselves in the etch-a-sketch of my mind and as the day drew near I began an endless play-action exercise to trace the race that was yet to come.
Throughout it all was a feeling… A feeling that maybe, just maybe this race was to be mine. In the weekdays prior, my training reached those perfect moments of motivation aligning with performance. As the days passed my confidence grew with each training ride, until…
…Until race day – despite all the anticipation - of being inspired all week for the coming event, by the time the actual day arrived, for some reason I just didn’t want to go.
Let me clarify - it wasn’t that I didn’t want to race, and it wasn’t that I didn’t want to win (or think it possible.)
Actually the malaise I felt was directly proportional to that fact that I thought I could, even, maybe should win. It was this sense of expectation that really made the drive to Downer’s Grove an exercise in discipline. I was steeped in an unexplainable soul deadening funk.
Being tired was one element that probably added to my lethargy – despite a truly great week of training with ample rest, there was the unfortunate timing of an event on Friday, the day before the race, where I attended (and acted as the photographer) for the wedding of my wife’s cousin up in Wisconsin Dells. The only problem was that it was a 3 hour drive each way and when we finally arrived home at midnight I was wide awake from driving and it took me until 1:30am to fall asleep.
In my own little domain, Downer’s Grove (and to a lesser extent Kenosha) is the only fiefdoms where I can claim the right to have “expectations” – due to consistent podium finishes the last 8 or so visits with the exception of last year in the rain where I ended up 6th.
The psychology of these feelings is completely irrational and an interesting contrast - when racing with the top domestic professionals on difficult courses (Superweek), I usually drive to the race inspired to give it my all, and I arrive at the line loose and ready, my will warming to the challenge and the lack of expectations invigorating my limbs. I have no real expectations - after all by all rights I should be getting my ass kicked (and often do). Conversely though, the days prior to the event are sometimes filled with visions of the suffering to come.
One might think that you might be more motivated when you are quite sure you can win, but for me, and I suspect, most, this proves not to be the case on race day. There is a stark contrast between the mentality and drive of the “what is possible” underdog role vs. the “expected” results of the consistent player. This makes the achievements of a Michael Phelps or Eric Heiden even that much more incredible - they were expected to win, they thought they could/should win, and, they STILL DID…
Despite my funk, I showed up (I had to – my friend Gary was coming.) I managed the ‘perfect’ parking space not 50 feet from the start line and forced myself to warm up well on my trainer. (For those few that have followed these race reports it should be notable that I have had fewer and fewer ‘races to the race.’ – small self-pat on the back.)
The race itself was reasonably fast, but as expected, all breakaways were pulled back prior to the finish.
I surfed the front 20 riders for about 5 laps and then settled back into my comfortable groove in the back of the peleton. Mike Beuchel and Kent Savit were in the field and made their moves in the closing laps as we moved from time clock to lap counter but their breakaways were brought back.
Sometimes, as we get close to the final laps, I get an anxious feeling that “I need to move up now”. I can then find myself too far forward too early and end up battling the a*@hole zone for multiple laps slinging back and forth through the swirling vortex at the front of the peleton.
Other times, I feel a bit lazy (like Bensenville) and have to move up rather late in the game taking risks. At Downer’s Grove I had a clear, and accurate sense that 2 1/2 laps was the right time to get up front. More than that I also knew where on the course to move up - on the backstretch after the right hand turn on the downhill, and on the short steep hill.
2 1/2 laps to go and I put in a short sprint and swung up 30 places on the backstretch, slotting in and following wheels. As we hit the line, the race swirled all around, and riders were bumping and bruising and riding way to close to the barriers. Rationally I could see all the mayhem and it was terrifying and for sure I was on red alert with both hands on the brakes, but at the same time there was that sick, risk-loving side of me that knows that this is my element… I moved up.
I stayed in the top 20 carefully tucked in for the next lap and a half, and then, as we entered the final straightaway with 1 lap to go I had that old feeling - that “I just know what the peleton will do” feeling
I have written at length about the suffering and agony of being a sprinter, and even on this, one of the best sprinter courses in the country, I still had to suffer just to hang on. I have also written at length about the transformation that occurs as the chrysalis of limited aerobic capacity and recovery are lifted and, after 99% of the race is over, the moment arrives which all the prior suffering has delivered: those few moments where the fast twitch muscles of the sprinter are finally allowed to unfurl and fully flex - knowing that the end is near and no recovery will be required.
(Short video - last lap)
The video shows the story from here: from seconds 0:010 to 0:30 on the video I dodge left and right, inches from the barriers and then find those opportunities emerging, parting the waters and shooting right through to the front with very little effort, coming around turn one in 3rd. All my life I have variously thought that I was a sprinter, a trackie, a crit racer, a match sprinter. Perhaps the event for my true strength doesn’t exist - I may be one of the very best ‘hole fillers’ on the planet…
After sliding up to the front on the home stretch things remain skittish and dicey around the next two corners and up the hill. At 0:52 on the video we are single file, but not going quite fast enough - and sure enough a move goes up the right and I lose my top 5 position. It is anxious up and over the top of the hill (1:05) and the following left turn and it gets even slower on the downhill (keep in mind slow is a relative concept - we are going at least 33 mph - but we need to be going closer to 40mph in order to keep the swarming moves from happening).
Finally just as we are entering the downhill right hand turn at 1:29 on the video an attack goes off the front (off camera at first) and at the same time a rider comes screaming over the top on the left side chopping the trajectory of the rider in front of me resulting in a near disaster at 1:31. I brake slightly and then burn half my match to accelerate hard and tag onto the end of the train in 8th place (there’s still a rider a ways off the front) as we then swing right to set up for the final two corners (1:48).
On the second downhill stretch the leadout man realizes he’s brought along a 10 man train and swings left and then back right (1:55 – 1:57), and we slow going into the second to last corner and I sense with impending doom exactly what will happen and swing wide: sure enough a rider dives in on me as we enter the corner - right at 2:00 my bars twitch and I see haybales as we bounce off each other going 38mph I but hold my own and slot forward one more spot coming out of the corner (2:06) and then follow the train in a near full out sprint against the headwind to enter the last corner, hoping I have something left.
As we round the final corner (2:16) I accelerate briefly and pick off one rider on the right and then I follow rider #45 as he gets out of the saddle for his full out sprint, using his draft to accelerate. At 2:21 I light my 5 second torch and pass him to the right at 2:22 and finally see a line opening up in front of me. I give it everything I have left but it was a little too little a little too late - I heave at the leading riders and at the line at 2:27 I’m just coming around the Rock Racing guy to the left and then you can see the winner to right (who had taken off on the backstretch) raise his hands as I coast into the lead: 30 more feet to the race and I might have been able to take it home. As it is I don’t quite catch the Rock Racing guy before the line and end up 5th.
Something of note here - the video is pretty smooth. That’s because I never get out of my saddle - not once in the whole race nor the finish. I rarely do except to stretch.
(Longer video description)
This video begins with 3 laps to go. At 1:26 with 2 ½ to go I begin my first of several moves to the front to be “in position to win.” What’s not seen on camera are a series of dive bombs, mayhem, and bumping going on all around.