Race Report 2007 #20: Tour De Villa Italia - Failure

September 2, 2007: Race report #20, Tour de Villa Italia, Canada. Failure.

The last race of the season – and my favorite. 

 

I drove the RV pell-mell from Chicago to Detroit Saturday night, arriving in Canada at nearly 1am for the race the following afternoon. All the sights and sounds of Erie Street or “little Italy” in Windsor, Ontario, Canada were the same as I remembered them since childhood. The little cafés with the weathered looking men smoking cigarettes and drinking tiny coffees in the early morning sun, the traffic barriers being set up and the towing of vehicles on the course, the construction of the announcer’s booth, the arrival of the riders.

 

I spent the morning and early afternoon in the company of two best friends since grade school, sipping espresso, sampling morning pasta and then a cheese pizza before heading out for warmup. I warmed up hard by the river, slinging through the gears and establishing a strong rhythm at 25mph humming down the path across from the skyline of Detroit.

 

I was ready.

 

I lined up with over 100 other riders as the sun angled behind the shops and restaurants lining Erie St. and Tom Demerling the announcer and the referee sent us on our way. The race was fast, really fast, though I didn’t know it as my cycling computer had decided to die on the start line, so I had no real sense of the speed of the race. To me it seemed “mild.” Later Ray Dybowski was to indicate that it was the fastest race he’d been in in over a decade – average speed was over 30mph.

 

I was determined to be in a breakaway if there was one. I was determined to be a factor for the win, not just the winner of the losers like last year when I won the field sprint for 19th place.

 

I raced up front.

 

I danced in breakaways, spent a lap or two off the front, and generally stayed in the top ten for the first hour or 30 miles. I was happy, I was strong, I was proud, and I remember thinking, “so this is what it is like to be ‘one of them’…” A roadie.

 

With about 30 miles down and 32 miles to go I began to have trouble with the light of the setting sun – like it was too bright when we were moving into it, and too dark in the shadows. I felt like I couldn’t see the road surface, or that the jerseys around me were so brilliant in the sun that I wanted to block my eyes.

 

I removed my glasses thinking it was the reflective surface. It didn’t help.

 

I dropped back in the pack suddenly lethargic. I kept shaking my head, trying to clear my eyes. I returned my sunglasses to my face in the brilliance of the backstretch. Nothing helped. I was numb, swimming through the course now, faces slowed, claps become gunshots.

 

I was bonking.

 

How the hell was I bonking? I had eaten more than enough, I had consumed plenty of fluids, I had eaten 2 of my 3 gels at the 40 and now 80 minute marks… ohhh… Then I remembered…

 

I’d had a bit of a stomach bug over the preceding few days. Shannon and I had eaten some carryout on Thursday, 3 days before, and within an hour we were both retching and emptying our stomachs and intestines. I’d had only diarrhea since… but… my body wasn’t really processing all the energy I had so planfully provided.

 

I assumed my old position at the rear of the pack, and saved my last gel – perhaps I could squeeze enough energy out of it with a few laps left to go for the win?

 

The laps drifted by and finally with 5 laps to go I squeezed the viscous chocolate liquid into my mouth and then made my way through the pack. With 2 laps to go I was back in the top 8, and stayed there. With one to go I found the wheel of sprinter extraordinare Ben Renkema, and followed him all the way to the last corner….

 

Sun sideways, shadows black, bikes and bodies white I entered the last 400meter straightaway in 8th place, got out of my saddle, pressed sinews and muscle to pedal, and…

 

…nothing happened.

 

The race went on around me, and I sprinted all out going backward, watching rider after rider pass me. Ben shot through to finish second at the line.

 

By the time I hit the line I was in 16th place.

 

I hated this last 20 seconds – more than anything I can remember I hated the feeling of going backward in the sprint – the one thing that I am good at…

 

…That I used to be good at.

 

This failure wasn’t born of pain. It wasn’t a result of injury or illness. It was one of getting beat – of seeing talent, youth or ability overcome experience. Or so I thought at the time.

 

I pondered these questions as I had dinner in one of the fantastic restaurants lining little Italy, and as I drove home the next morning.

 

It was more than a month later before I put all the data together and had my middle of the night epiphany about trading fast twitch for slow twitch. The overload of training and racing had once again made me into someone else. Capable – sure. Strong – sure. But incapable of winning races.  I was now racing my weaknesses…

 

2007 was notable for several reasons: 1) I was in better aerobic shape in 2007 than EVER in my whole life.  2) It is the first and only year since 1977 that I didn’t stand on a podium – despite competing in 26 races over the summer.

 

Sometimes I blame Walden for the paucity of his observations. “Finish at the line Coyle, finish at the line!” That was always his advice and coaching to me. In contrast, it becomes obvious that he never said, “Get in the break Coyle, get in the break.” But common perceptions, pressures – this is what those voices say. For me to be in a breakaway – that would very clearly be me “racing my weaknesses”…

 

2 years ago I had returned back to Detroit for these same races for the first time in decades. With only minimal training, on that fateful Monday after the Tour de Villa Italia, I raced the Cat 3 race, the Masters 30+ race, and the Pro 1/2/3 race, and placed in the top 6 in all 3. The “trifecta” was born.

 

However much I wish it, I can never truly be a roadie. I am who I am.

 

I am a sprinter.

 

Maybe next year I’ll do it right.

 

-John

Race Report 2007 #19: Downer's Grove in the Rain

August 18, 2007: Race report #19, Downers Grove “nationals”, Illinois. My birthday.

 

I woke on my 39th birthday to leaden skies and cool temperatures. I had not had a lot of sleep the week prior, pulling an all-nighter, and a couple other late nights for project “Mythos” at work. Nonetheless, this race… Downers Grove Nationals… this was MY course – a podium finish for 5 years running, and 10 total podium finishes. In fact, a podium finish every year that I’ve raced it.

 

I arrived on time at the course, registered, warmed up with a jacket on, and then arrived to the line just as the first sprinkles fell.

 

Downer’s Grove in the rain… had never tried that before. Eight corners, manhole covers, fresh white lane marker paint , a steep uphill, two high speed downhill corners… a disaster in the making. I could still feel the itchy pink tightening glaze of shiny new skin over the road rash from the crash just a week ago.

 

We set out onto a still dry course, with a light drizzle. Within a few laps the drizzle heavied, and then became solid rain. The course then turned to the equivalent of ice. Every corner had either manhole covers, off camber sections, or wide swaths of freshly painted lane markers. Almost every corner someone went down. Within 2 laps, the pack became a single file line. Within 10 laps a majority of the 118 riders quit.

 

I sat in about 6th place. Sometimes the top 10 of us were in a breakaway. Sometimes the top 3 were in a breakway. I just pedaled and held on, and tried to stay upright.

 

It was like walking on black ice when you have a little bit of fresh snow on the soles of your shoes. In order to not windmill out of control and fall, you have to soften every motion, control every finite movement as you try to stabilize, every fine motor control trying to eliminate the possibility of slipping. Gentle steering, gentle shifting, gentle pedaling – full circles, no hard strokes, no knee wobbles, and tender, tender braking. Quickly every part of my hands, forearms, shoulders and neck tired from the tension. Several times a lap a tire would slip and for a second I’d feel the vertigo of falling – until the tires would catch on a patch of decent pavement and then I’d recover only to try and be more tightly controlled than ever.

 

Riders pass me… and I watch disinterestedly as they go spinning out to the left or right for trying to ride any other than the widest smoothest line through the corners. Moving up became a very difficult and dangerous proposition. I did my few moves forward through the single file peleton on the hill.

 

The pack winnowed down. The crazies were eliminated. It began to feel like a practice. A couple guys passed me, and then one more. I let them in. I found the whole thing numbing really…

 

Suddenly the bell rang. I hadn’t been paying attention – after staying in the top 6 for the first 40 minutes of a 45 minute race I was suddenly in 12th with only one lap to go. Normally not a big deal, but with the rain, moving up on this course was an exercise in risk and danger.

 

I moved up 4 slots on the hill into 8th – but I should have been able to sweep the whole field – my power was seemingly more limited. Screaming down the hill into the next corner – there was no room to make a pass without entering the off camber zone with the white paint. Next corner was the same thing – no place to slot in.

 

3 corners to go and still in 8th. But the corners were like ice and taking any other line than the widest was a sure prediction for a crash, so I bided my time, and slotted up one spot prior to the final straightaway.

 

Entering the final 150m straightline to the finish I moved up one more spot to finish 6th. My worst finish at Downer’s grove in the last 6 years… But in reality even finishing given the conditions was a significant performance… But it was very, very unlike me…

 

 

Flashback: August 17. Scene: Friday morning at 6:30am and I’m getting ready for work. It is the day before my 39th birthday and the day before one of the most important races of the year – Downer’s Grove nationals.

 

Too tired to agonize over what the numbers might say, I stepped firmly up onto the pebbled white plastic of our digital scale. Same pebbled plastic surface, same white feet with tan calves rising above. Something different though – even as the digital wheels spin, the numbers and the visual dissonance register at the same time 172.8 lbs – more than 2 lbs lighter than my goal weight – I had lost 24 lbs in 5 months.

 

My gaze traveled up from the scale and gathered the images of my thighs and calves – but with a discordant note. I glanced down and was transfixed by the ‘look’ of my legs.

 

For dozens of years I had experienced a regular disappointment  - despite all the training, weights, riding and skating, I never developed those massive oak thighs of an Eric Heiden or Dan Jansen full of knotty bulging muscles. Instead I typically stared down a smoother, slimmer version of the athletic leg. Neither heavily muscled nor well defined, the springy, smooth Elm-like bows of my legs had been a fixture for most of my athletic life. But this time it was different…

 

This time though they had a new look – gone were the thicknesses and rounded springiness of a young branch. Replaced was something harder, more sinewed, varnished, knotty. Like the water on driftwood the lengthy races had reshaped my limbs and in the light and shadows I found new angles, rounded cutouts, hollows where it used to be solid.  I was transforming

 

 

I never should have been able to finish Downer’s Grove in the rain – that type of race is for endurance athletes: it was essentially a time trial – something I typically have NO true ability to do. So what happened? I was no longer me – I was no longer the 10 second, Elm-limbed sprinter. I had transformed my body – by necessity, my body had adjusted after all the long races, miles and intensity, into some facsimile of an endurance athlete.

 

I had converted my fast twitch muscle to slow twitch muscle.

 

The upside – I could finish and even place in incredibly difficult aerobic races. The downside – as I was soon to discover, is that by cultivating my weaknesses, I had all but eliminated my one true strength – to go really fast for 6 – 8 seconds.

2007 Race Reports #17 & #18: Elk Grove - Crashing worse..

August 11 & 12, 2007: Race reports 17 & 18, Elk Grove, Illinois

 

Somehow this quiet little Chicago suburb has developed cycling fever with major dollars to be won here over this two day series - one of the only races series besides the nationals to separate the pros from Cat 1/2’s, and the highest purse in all of American cycling . For Cat 1/2: $10,000 day one, and $25,000 day two.

 

Day One: I arrived and used my U. S. Cellular parking passes, complements of Keith Blackmon and our sponsorship there, to park right by the course. As I headed for the registration area, I realized that I had no money. Go figure. Then I passed Frankie Andreu enroute, and, in that instant, childhood bonds worked their magic – I asked him without even a second thought for $60 and he, without blinking gave it to me. I love that about childhood friendships. Of course I paid him back, and of course he didn’t worry about it.

 

The race got underway.  I played it a little safe after last year’s crash, coming around the last corner in second place with 400m to go – and facing a headwind sprint, finally ended up in 7th.

 

Day two: A $5000 first prize, $25,000 total and a fast pace, and an even scarier pack. When I arrived, I coasted to the course only to stumble upon one of those David Lynch-like scenes:

 

A rider had just crashed in the Cat 4 race and was face down alone in the middle of the course, the pack long gone, limbs splayed out at awkward angles and blood was slowly puddling in front of his cracked helmet. As police arrived to cordon off the scene, the rider’s son suddenly appeared. As the boy rushed closer, time rippled away and his 18 years become 8 – and he began screaming, his voice cracking, begging with agonizing high pitched broken shrieks like a little boy, his age betrayed only by the hoarse throaty inhales – trying to push through the gauntlet. “DAD!!!!” – intercepted by paramedics, “Leave me alone!” “DAD! DAD! DAD!!!!” Most of the women standing around the scene were crying. I felt sick. What if Katelina… I stopped the thought.

 

I’m rattled now.

 

The race is nervous, packed and fast. I hang in the back for safety and then make my moves in the last lap to slot to the front. I could go all the way up and lead the sprint like yesterday – guarantee top 10 finish – but I slot in in about 10th – same place that I crashed in last year – to try and have a shot at the win - it couldn’t happen twice – right?

 

In the final lap, the oddest crash I’ve ever witnessed happened. I was moving up the right side of the peleton on one of the mild curves in the long straightaways. Ahead the road narrowed again, so I slotted back into the pack, watching with interest another rider trying to use the same section of pavement to clear all the way into the front of the pack.

 

The subtle turn found his trajectory and that of the lead riders in conflict and predictably, he was forced into the grey metal skeleton of the barriers, with the always surprising loud staccato of handlebars tapping out a rhythm against the ribs, followed by the loud gunshot report of the final catch of a pedal or brake handle and the shrieking of metal on metal and carbon on tarmac as he fell.

 

All this is quite normal, sadly. But what was uncommon was what his feather-lite bike did next.

 

I watched him go down, I watched his shoulders bite the pavement, and then I watched in awe as his feet whipped over his head and launched his bike through the air with exactly the same whipping motion that professional soccer players use for “throw-ins” from the sidelines.

 

His bike knifed through the air sideways like a giant tubular boomerang, traveling at twice our speed, and then even more oddly, scissored onto the seatpost of one of the lead riders – 50 feet in front of the downed rider.

 

It stopped and stuck – perfectly sideways – like a gigantic mudguard over the rider’s rear wheel. The rider was still able to function perfectly and continued to pedal while carting this large pannier over his rear wheel. I’m not even sure he was immediately aware – but all of us started talking all at once with virtually the same words – “holy sh*# - I’ve never, ever, seen anything like that before!”

 

The rider eventually reached down and with some insistent tugging, dropped the errant frame from his own to the dismay of several riders behind who then plowed into it. By this time, the entire front half of the field was laughing though gasping for breath.

 

Meanwhile I moved up…

 

On the backstretch there was a crosswind and we were all riding in the right-hand gutter. There was a leadout man and it was safe because he wound it up to 40mph and stretched it out: 600m to go and I’m in 10th place in a single file line – perfect. Only 200m until the next and final corner – no chance of it bunching up now – I’m safe…

 

Then it happens… the rider in 8th suddenly tracks too close to the curb and has to hop up to keep his balance. No big deal – except that he also brakes, just a little, and then swings back down, bouncing back off the lip of the curb clipping the front wheel of the rider in 9th in the process.

 

At 40mph the physics are virtually instantaneous – rider #9’s front wheel turns from the impact and launches his body like a rocket over the handle bars. My front wheel slams directly into his sideways frame and I repeat the launch – somehow abandoning my bike in the process.

 

When I finally skid to a stop, I’m over 100 feet from our interlocked bikes and in a state of absolute adrenaline overload from the preceding moments in between.

 

The in-between is the worst kind of torture. You might imagine that the meat of your limbs, grinding against the sandpaper of concrete at 40mph might be a nerve jangling grating experience, but its nothing like that at all.

 

Imagine pressing your hand to a smoking hot iron griddle left too long on the burner in the kitchen – that’s the initial feeling – that incredible overwhelming desire to pull it away from that searing, smoking pain. But… this is where it really gets worse – now imagine as you try to pull away, that someone clamps down on your hand, and presses your palm 2, and 3 times as hard into the pan, flattening the flesh, burning quickly into those softer recesses – those most sensitive areas.

 

THAT’s what it feels like when your naked flesh skids across yards of pavement at 40mph – first it was my shoulder held to the burning crucible, harder, harder, smoldering as I shriek internally, and then a sudden tumble, legs flailing, shoes clipping the pavement and then my hip – smoldering, flaming, and then my leg, my other shoulder, my knee, my elbow – and so on like the spasmodic turnings of a hellish human rotisserie.

 

When all is done, the concrete has burned holes through my skinsuit in a half dozen spots, and burned raw deep flaying wounds in both shoulders, both elbows, both knees, both shins, and worst of all, two red pancake sized rib-eyes into both sides of my gluteus maximus.

 

I retrieve my bike. I mount. I sit. I ride. “You gotta get back on the bike Coyle!” Walden’s voice plain as day in my head.

 

I laugh my way through the eternal cleaning, scrubbing, and bandaging process in the medical tent, marveling at my own progress in compartmentalizing the pain. But I know the worst is to come. Always before the road rash has had a “side” to it – front, left, right, or back. But this time – no place to hide, and no place to sit down. No place to sleep.

 

Walking back to the car I find myself suddenly shrinking with embarrassment – like a kid in junior high who has thrown up in the hallway. Pausing for the janitor to scrub it up, and now suddenly I can’t wait to not be seen… why?

 

Sitting down in the bed on the day after the crash takes over a full minute, and relaxing each abdominal contraction creates a new swollen compressing burning agony. Waking past midnight, I realize I am stuck to the sheets, wanting to turn, but I can’t without massive tearing agony.

 

I’m frozen. Claustrophobic.

 

 I stare at the ceiling and feel the fibers of the gauze slowly but inevitably cleave to my flesh in an itchy ratcheting progression – each requiring an agonizing bloody separation the next morning with the change of bandages. What, exactly, is it in the body that provides the yellow color to the gauze?

 

Back at work the next day, it requires 20 seconds to sit down on all the gauze between me and the seat, and nearly as long to stand up – feeling the seepage, seeing the small stains on my dress pants – back to the restrooms for 2, now 3 gauze pad changes. Why do I do this again?

 

A few days  later and I’m out on a post- superweek training ride. I have always loved training rides at this time of the season. Gone are the muscular aches and pains. Gone is the guilt for not putting in more hours, gone is the need to put in massive efforts. If in April the same level of effort and discomfort was 14 mph, in August it was 22mph – gained in the passing months was fitness, confidence, speed, the wind, and that August air – heat and light and that special warm blue…

 

Usually, when I’m feeling good on a training ride and don’t have a particular agenda, I’ll suddenly sprint – warm up the legs, get a good bit of speed going, feel the wind of 25, 30, 34mph stream past my face. This all usually takes about 10 seconds – from concept to fulfillment.

 

Today was different. Suddenly I felt no real spring when I started up out of the saddle. But instead of sitting down I continued on, ‘winding it up’ – something I usually hated to do. But I was loving it – this gradual inertia, faster, longer on the pedals, breathing – breathing – what a novel concept in a sprint – and ever faster.

 

The hum began and extended – what a pleasure to be able to “sprint” for more than a few seconds. I finally started to have a vague concept of what some athletes felt or meant when they said “I attacked and then kept going” – it was a feeling of extended power, confidence, tenacity.

 

30 seconds in, my speed was at 30mph. 45 seconds and I was at 31mph. One minute and I was at 32mph… This was an eternity at this speed and I was proud, confident. I used my reserves to push beyond my usual limits …. Looking down with expectation was deflated by the 33mph I saw there. Even out of shape I could usually hit 34 mph – lost… lost… lost…lost was the ‘magic.’

 

My sprint was gone.

 

I had become a “roadie.”

2007 Race Report #15: Suffering Part II...

Saturday, July 28th, 2007: Race report #15, Whitefish Bay, WI 

Eyes open. Dust flecks flap their brilliant wings in the rays of light escaping underneath the crack of the flimsy plastic window shades. It is morning and I am alive… barely.

I took a moment to register the location – low ceilings, the surround of cheap laminated wood cabinets, the brilliantly glowing eggshell of the plastic skylight, bug shadows on the forward curve: the RV’s awkward charms remained the same.. but, where, exactly, were we?

Synapses flickered and suddenly I realized that like a year ago I was parked behind the same Sendiks grocery in Whitefish Bay, WI – 100 feet from the finish line of the 17th and final stage of the 2007 Superweek “International Cycling Classic” series of bike races.

A year ago this was an opening – the frisson of the new – the proverbial ‘stirring of the pot’ - the entering of the fray. Now it was different. Long gone was the purity of stage one of Superweek – the milling of the crowd - the anticipation of the roll call. Long lost in the “hedonic treadmill” of life was the pleasure of the lineup and the announcements, the colors, the jerseys, the lines and faces of my fellow racers.

I had re-entered the world of the symbolic – where day to day pleasures recede, where the people and faces and cracked concrete and gritty asphalt all became pawns in a bigger game.

Why must we lose the present in pursuit of the future?

Present had reigned at least briefly the night before. Like the year previous I pulled the RV right into the center of the course at Downer Avenue, opened the doors and enjoyed the visits and conversations of the cyclists, speedskaters and friends that bothered to drop by. Missing was Eddy Van Guise, Chris, Jose, & Camie and others but still we had a fine sultry evening of guests in our little rolling home, Katelina tucked in early in the bed in back and Olu, Todd, Brenda, Jon and others swinging by for a bite of pasta or glass of wine.

I was reminded of the year previous – where, after a glass or two of wine, I had spent a good deal of time riding long wheelies on my $4000 race bike up and down Downer Ave and Jeff and I had treated the Milram team to a few extra beers in hopes of slowing their assault the following day.  No wheelies and just one glass of wine last night – and a focus on what was to come in the morning…

Stars, like sparrows, circled my inner eyelids when I finally rose. I felt swollen, full, hot, so I drink water and turn on the fans. Still I continued to feel lethargic, dry, bloated – yet empty. I had hardly slept. The flashes – the sudden startles – the gunshots in my legs, had increased in their frequency and intensity and kept me up most of the night. I started the generator and ran the overhead A/C unit. Straightening up – again the vertigo – it was surprising, unexpected – but not new…

The same old deja-vu.

I forced morning activities into “normal” and with discipline metered out a routine of hydration, food, registration, and a short “pre-warmup” on the bike. In hindsight, these formalities were like reading the music for “Taps” – a prelude for what was to come.

 A month later and in a middle- of-the-night moment of clarity the deja-vu’s were suddenly placed. The shooting stars in my legs, the midnight panicked awakenings, the leg sweats. All these were incredibly familiar – yet distant. These were not constants in my 30 years as an athlete – these memories were concentrated during critical focal points and subsequent failures in my athletic career: The first time was the summer of 1986 after moving into the Olympic Training Center in Colorado in prep for the World Cycling Championships. A few weeks of intensive training later and… 

The second was the fall and winter of 1990 in Calgary – the  first year of full time speedskating training. 3 workouts a day for 4 or 5 months and suddenly nights stopped being restful, I lost muscle mass, I trained better and better and raced worse and worse.  

Then again in the following year in 1991 training in Colorado Springs again – this time for skating – by the 1992 Olympic trials I was slower in the 500m than I had been since I was a teenager living in California…  

Most recently was in Lake Placid, New York, in preparations for the 1998 Olympics where I had my worst finish in an Olympic trials ever, despite working harder than I ever had.  

These were the years where I had experienced these same visceral electrical stimuli and associated exhaustion. These were the years where I believed the most, trained the hardest and had results that… 

The results in those years? So simple to see it now - all of those years had three things in common:  

1) Ever more ‘solid’ and ‘consistent’ endurance training sessions (meeting coaches expectations) paralleled by…  

2) An ever deepening physical and psychological gloom, and… 

3) Solid, consistent, and absolutely uninspired racing results - well below my expectations.  

Psychologically, these years were devastating – lost was that “magic” – that inspiring ability to race well beyond my training. To lay it all on the line and come up with “average,” this was the part that was most heart-rending of all…  

I watched my friend Matt  Dula start his first licensed race – a brutal, large, relatively experienced field of cat 5 riders, all 15 to 20 years younger than he ping-ponging pell-mell around the circuit. Tense, nervous, cautious on the corners, yet he hung on  - precariously, like a raindrop on a vertical surface, struggling to maintain position for a lap only to suddenly dodge backward and sideways and then pause again – swelling – stationary for a moment before another sudden drop to the next section of the peleton until he was isolated into a chase pack after 7 or 8 laps.

I watched and cheered as he attempted to stay safe and finish his first licensed race. I did fear for the worst – that this first foray into the weird dynamics of cycling might result in the horrendous feeling of getting completely dropped and suffering alone against the wind, or worse yet, a crash…

A lap later and suddenly he’s gone. A fall on the far side of the course has lost him his sunglasses, dented his helmet, and left him dazed. I tried to talk him into returning, but he is unsure. First race blues – a fall, no visible injuries, but fear… it grows. Walden would always, ALWAYS demand, “get back on the bike Coyle! Finish the race, or at least the lap!” I failed Matt – and he stayed on the sidelines.

Hours and hours until my final bout of Superweek suffering, so Shannon, Kat, Matt and three of his children made for the beach at the lakefront of lake Michigan. The escarpment overlooking the lake features a dramatic wood and cement staircase with a half-dozen switchbacks leading down the 200 vertical feet to the sand. Despite some evil smelling offal washing ashore it was a picturesque day and we laid our towels upwind of the odors and tried to relax, Matt was quickly horizontal in the post-race peace, and myself just walking, walking, trying to limber up, while ignoring every signal my body was sending.

It wasn’t until the return up the stairs that the dire circumstances of my physical condition truly made itself manifest. The hundreds of steps we had descended in an easy ramshackle file to the beach had to be re-scaled in order to return to the race course.

We passed beyond the amber sands and after a matter of only 5 or 6 steps up the weathered wooden stairs I stopped - a buzzing in my ears, intensifying whites bleaching through the lines of the reflected sun on the wood. The white cement expanded and coursed through all levels of contrast, overexposing everything within my view. A wave of weariness & nausea starting in my ankles washed through my limbs. I was again reminded of how dry and swollen my mouth was.

In agonizingly slow motion I climbed a few more steps. Shannon, Matt and the kids chattering as they swarmed past me. Their sounds seemed to grow in volume and fill my thoughts even while receding in the distance - colors began to fade again, whiteness, heat, dry mouth, sparks and fireflies – then like the blades of a slow motion helicopter, my neck seemed to rotate and the sky throbbed – voom, vooom, voooom.

Like a sailor in a gale I held the railing, head down, white knuckles, riding the roiling disequilibrium. Dozens of steps ahead the voices finally faded. I dreaded sight, I dreaded sound. I didn’t want anyone to see. Then, the inevitable question from above - one of the wooden switchbacks, a strangely familiar voice – like someone I knew… “John – are you OK?”

My friend Matt. The kids were well beyond earshot. I shook my head mildly, downplaying my predicament and made an attempt to resume the climb – stopping every 4 or 5 steps.

The kids were playing at the top of the stairs and only Matt noticed how long it took me to make the trek. “Are you OK?” he asked again with real concern. Again I shrugged my shoulders with a rueful smile, then we piled into our cars and the RV and made our way back to the racecourse.

The race itself is a footnote. I lined up. I read the lap cards: “80” while crowds milled about in the beer tents, announcements were made, and the sun moved westward. I suffered through the usual pain of the first laps despite an extremely hard warmup with Matt that was fueled by a sudden suspicion that the start time was earlier than we had thought.

But unlike Downer Avenue, where the pain was controlled, focused, having behind it the bruising power of heavy machinery running cool and powerful, the feeling at Whitefish Bay was one of heat and disorder and of fear – muscles out of order, knees sloppily rotating, feet pedaling squares, never settling into any kind of rhythm –  my legs were like egg-beaters whipping a bowl full of marbles – the pain was shocking, tinny, abrupt, and visceral.

Like the little steel ball in a Japanese Plinko machine I bounced left, up, right and inevitably back and after 35 laps I finally fell out the back, coasting to the sidelines mouth open wide gasping for air, legs quivering, knees out.

 

The race whirred by eventually spitting out 85% of the starters. Even Ben Renkema – last year’s Cat 2 national champion and Michigan State Champion was dropped – with only 4 laps remaining – how does that happen? Catching my breath I said goodbye to Matt and tasted the poignant bitterness of disappointment - no Superweek win this year. We said our goodbyes to Eddy, Jose and some of the racers, loaded up the RV and I climbed behind the wheel to drive home.

Enroute back to Chicago I cracked the window, feeling the evening air as it cooled, its play on my face reminding me of so many things. I grew still and sad – another summer on the wane. We arrived home late, and the next morning I got up early and returned back to work.

 Flashback: October, 1983. I was sitting on the smooth green padded vinyl bench of a schoolbus, traveling from Ohio to West Virginia – encased in the yellow metal shell, the musty smell, the  dirty black floors and the roar of the diesel straining against the wind, cars passing us. 39 other student members of my high school music band and I were out for our annual “band tour.”

Fortunately I had no conception of the dorkiness I represented: skinny, short, braces, pimples, unfashionable clothes, honor society, and on tour with the high school band playing 2nd French horn. My mind was elsewhere. 

I pinched the double latches, and with some effort pulled down the bus window above my seat, ignoring the feeble protest of another band geek behind me, his papers riffling with the wind.  The yellow raft of light piercing the open window warmed my face as the last wisps of the Indian Summer air swirled through the window.

I remember with clarity feeling a nameless ache I had already begun to associate with this time of year – the melancholy of falling leaves, the crisp fading light, the end of summer and of the cycling season.  Regardless of my personally undetermined state in the high school hierarchy, I had become a force to be reckoned with in the cycling world, and each year I yearned for more warm days, more races, more time on the bike.

Every year I became more keenly aware of the first signs of the changing weather patterns signaling the end of the season. And of course there was the girl back at school – taller, older, an Egyptian carving: beautiful alabaster skin with black pools for eyes and those budding hints at mysteries unknown. She knew my name – but to her I was probably what I really was – a sideshow to the older, taller, stronger, white-toothed upperclassman. I longed for her and for summer, and ached deeper for something unknown. I was nostalgic and mournful in the grandest sense without knowing why.

I was the first and only band geek to have a “jam box” or more accurately a stereo cassette player/radio with a handle and large speakers. It was silver and I had spent virtually all my winnings of bike races that summer on it and it was loud and powerful. On and off I received requests to play tapes, but mostly we tuned into various radio stations as the countryside drifted by and the season changed. 

On this particular evening the sun had set and the rows of seats in the bus had changed from green to gray. Outside the windows all that remained of the day was a glimmer on the horizon that last kiss of the day on the undersides of the clouds. I had the window open and we were thousands of miles from anything or anyone and my pining for something lost and lamented increased and the presence of so many others only amplified my loneliness.

Then suddenly, as I turned the tuner dial – it came – that first piano chord… It was just unaccompanied piano – but it was the perfect capture of this melancholy, this longing, the ghostly cool air, the barren trees.

Instinctively I hit “record” and listened transfixed, turning up the volume. The piano played on and again I turned it up and the bus – full of the usual hum of teenage conversations – grew oddly still. 40 teenagers away from home, disembodied on plastic seats, grew still and listened and the piano played on. Then Bono’s voice came out,  

“October…and the trees are stripped bare…of all they wear… what do I care?”“October… and kingdoms rise, and kingdoms fall… but you go on… and on…” 

As I write this it is yet another October, and again I feel that same teenage melancholy – another summer gone, Fall on its way, and the chill of Winter is coming. The seasons rule and I have to wait another year to prove my mettle.

But at least I have the warmth of my two girls which removes the sting of the cold.

Maturity tells me I need the rest anyway…

-John Coyle, October, 2007

2007 Race Report #14: Downer Avenue Pro Race - Suffering

Friday July 27th, 2007: Race report #14, Downer Avenue, Milwaukee: Suffering

 Conventional wisdom has it that athletic minds and their finely trained bodies are completely in tune: that the discipline of training creates in the cavity of the diaphragm, heart, and sinews the same rich resonance that is produced within the oiled wood of a fine cello when rubbed to resonance by fibrous strands of the horsehair bow.

Yes, during those magical moments in training or a competition where forces align and the moving parts become orchestrated with some semblance of harmony, a low hum begins, that understated harmony, that resonant frequency which keeps a metronome on an ever shortening interval – the pace increases, lento becomes andente, andente becomes moderato, moderato becomes allegretto…

However, for a majority of scores the music is freeform dissonant jazz: a “bitches brew” of piercing notes out of key and out of synch with the untrained mind, a raucous cacophony twanging the nerves, jangling the sinews and muscles. Contrary to popular belief, one of the main disciplines involved with being a high caliber athlete is learning to tune out and manage the confusing jumble of noise and pain the body shouts to the brain. The learned response is to ignore many of the most obvious biological responses to trauma – pain, soreness, nausea, swelling etc. and continue to drive the beat, to perform.

In the summer of 1991 I was living with a pair of brothers from Minnesota in a run-down apartment complex in Menominee Falls outside Milwaukee, and training with Peter Mueller – the top coach in the world at the time – and training along side Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen, and a small number of other handpicked speedskaters.  

John Albrecht, my roommate, was a Stradivarius of an athlete: powerful shoulders, a six pack of abdominals, massive thighs tapering gracefully to tuning fork knees, and then a pair of thunderous calves – all muscle and power.

One late morning after a particularly tough session running hills at the Milwaukee lakefront, John quizzically asked me, brow frowning only slightly, “Do you think it’s bad if I have blood in my urine? It’s only been a couple of days now but… what do you think?” 

The halls of pain echo for an experienced athlete. The suffering is nothing and yet is everything. The pain is white. It is black. It lacks color or sibilant sound – just reverberations reflecting off the porcelain tiles of the stony discipline of the psyche. But blood, glittering red-black blood, pulses through hidden rivulets in the gutters of the mind.

Thursday, July 26: After the pro race in Kenoha I followed directions and drove the creaking RV to Lake Geneva and the the cul-de-sac drive fronting the abode of our friends Gary and Monica for the night. After dinner with friends, I stood up in the cool moist evening air and, for a brief moment, the stars swooned. When they swung back into sight, vertigo turned their winks to streaks as they flit left and right like flock of tiny metallic sparrows before re-settling in the tall oaks surrounding the cul-de-sac. Regaining balance I returned to the RV and climbed the stairs like an 85 year old – each step requiring effort followed by rest and controlled breathing.

I had forgotten, somehow - completely forgotten - the effects of heavy training & racing – of day after day of grinding physical effort. I had forgotten the subtle ribbing of the sky, the bricking in of the landscape, the rising gray tiles of the floor. Through suffering, life becomes a tunnel – a turbulent passage from the torrents of one storm grate to the next.

Like stops on the subway, regular life events - a dinner, a conversation, a book, a nap – become passing glimpses into the outside world while, ever elusive, the light arcing down the curving tunnel is an ever receding goal. Sometimes even that glow disappears and all that remains are the halls of pain, the passing outlines of real life outside graying in shadows.

The discipline of the mind is iron, it is stone: it surrounds. If my mind had momentarily escaped the confines of discipline I would have realized that I was exhausted. I would registered and considered the implications of the “leg sweats” taking place each night, where despite normal body temps, my legs would glisten, uncovered, with perspiration most of the night. I would have been daunted by the “jerks” – neurons randomly firing in muscle groups in my legs creating momentary “fight or flight” responses like gunshots, repeatedly waking me up. I would have noticed how hard mundane daily tasks like standing up (headrush again – whoah), climbing the two steps into the RV, or even reaching over my head had become.

Suffering? No – not really – most of those regular body feedback mechanisms had already been switched to “off.” In fact, it was once again “normal.” Like the second week of a bad cold – only the healthy symptoms became notable, “say – I can breathe through my nose!” the counterpart after a good rest, “say – I can stand up without a headrush!”

Friday, July 27th - The Downer Avenue Pro Criterium: The bike is an amazing contraption for suffering. Marathon runners are incredible athletes who suffer all kinds of agonies on route in the 2 hours or so it takes the best to finish the 26 miles. But marathon runners have one crutch that we don’t – they require balance, coordination and consciousness to finish the race. Not so the cyclist.

A 100Km, 62 mile bike race in the Pro 1-2 division takes a little over 2 hours - approximately the same amount of time as a marathon run by a top athlete. At the end of a marathon, runners may stagger, and sometimes fall and then either get up and finish, or are taken away by the medical crew. In cycling, the rotational inertia of the wheels on the bike keeps the cyclist upright long after power ceases to flow to the pedals and there is very little coordination required to keep a bike level at speed: hence a cyclist can still continue forward on inertia with almost no consciousness. What this means is: a cyclist can literally race until the point of losing consciousness - and beyond - before forward progress stops.

 I’ve only passed out 4 times from bike racing and only two times while actually on a moving bike..

The first time I lost consciousness from racing I was 11 years old and attempting for the first time in my short career to climb mountains and deal with the affects of altitude. Despite a weak aerobic constitution I managed a 4th place finish, falling over just after the finish line still strapped into my pedals. I came-to a few moments later with a white rim of dried lactic acid spit all around my lips that would not come off despite the repeated scrubs of my forearms.

The second collapse was right after the 90 miles of the Michigan State cycling championships in 1985. I had run out of water well before the finish of the long race and after the sprint where I came in second, the dehydration hit me and I passed out while still coasting past the finish and went into a ditch.

While comatose, the muscles in my hands, and one of my calves decided to spasm and when I came to, both hands were clenched into claws, the talons of my own fingernails digging into my own flesh, the leg belonging to an alien except for the incredible pain coursing through my body.  A family came to my rescue and gave me water and helped to unclench my hands and release my leg with the result of 4 half circles diced neatly into each palm, bright blood welling up to fill the crescents, and my right calf virtually unusable for the rest of the evening.  

I began my warmup for the Downer Avenue pro race. The breeze was off the lake and the sun was starting to set over the hill to my left as I began the climb back up from the beach area on Lakefront drive. I worked hard as I knew from the stories that the Downer Avenue course was a study in pain, and that the pros would be out for blood. I did not want the lack of a warmup to be an excuse for getting dropped. If I was going to get dropped tonight, it would be only because I could not see for blindness from pain, could not steer because I was comatose, could not pedal because my legs were bleeding. I dug tunnels for my suffering. I built walls for my agony. I capped it all with self deceit: I was not going to get dropped.

The warmup was useless – we sat baking in the sun on the start finish line at Downer Avenue for more than an hour as the sponsors and referees and announcers talked on and on. Finally an hour later they sent us on our way.

Suffering. What a generic term – and it is hard to describe really – like a nightmare, the reality of suffering, those horrors, pains, fears, those empty chasms of thought and thoughtlessness slowly dwindle with time and all that is left are the empty words that fall flat in describing the event…

“It was really hard…” What does that mean?

Nothing.

We hear stories all the time about suffering. It is something to talk about, but more often that not the empathy is missing for real suffering - not because the listener doesn’t care - rather the storyteller fails to effectually muster up the true images of what he or she was feeling at the time.

It is so easy to relate the story of the surly waitress, the missed flight, the smashed finger. The true elements of these stories were accurately remembered and can be accurately relayed.

But real suffering – of the kind where a miasma of pain clouds the perceptions, alters memories, displaces consciousness -  with real suffering, something happens. the stories start with the same energy, the listeners lean in with the same attention, and then it fades - the storyteller, disappointed, suddenly realizes that he or she no longer contains the  memories of those harrowing moments – of the fear and hollow spikes and pangs and dread that they suffered. They realize that while the lingering echoes of those moments remain, that the actual memories themselves are missing, or are censored – a chalk outline - the violence, death, fear and blood and profanity missing.  They suddenly trail off and end with a few uninteresting stats…

The worst suffering transcends rationality and hence becomes almost impossible to describe using the vocabulary of the rational mind. The emotional imprint – like a footprint on the grass on a humid day – remains for a brief period, but then it too is gone and inevitably the blades of grass resume their prior reach for the sun, and when shadows are recast on the same indented perception, little remains to describe what had transacted except what is reinvented.

Here is the coroner’s report of the Downer Avenue race. After a slow lap behind the Saturn pace vehicle, the race began in earnest. The Downer’s course is a bit unique: a triangle with three long straightaways, each followed by three 120 degree corners. Unlike most criteriums, this created a uniquely painful series of intervals: approximately 30 seconds on, 15 seconds off for each 2 minute and 10 second lap.

With over 215 riders, the pack was like a gigantic slinky. In the middle and rear of the pack where I spent my time, the corners became jammed with riders and soon we were consistently slowing below 5mph in each corner before a full out sprint back to 35, 37 mph to keep pace with the professionals setting the pace at the front. More than 100 of these riders would be dropped over the coming laps…

This was purposeful suffering…so I could stop anytime. And, unlike the hot surface pain native to the untrained athlete, where muscles give, and blisters rent, the well trained athlete has developed hardened muscles and calloused skin. The lacerating pain is deeper, closer to the bone, and the damage done is gathered in invisible places.

Within a few laps I began lying – “one more lap”. A straightaway later and I began the nearly invisible internal cry that kept me in the race, “Just one more straightaway and then you can quit.”

Again and again I entered turn one, raised joints of concrete rippling through my forearms, shaking my biceps, my body balanced overtop the wheels to absorb the vibrations. I began pedaling a stroke earlier than most competitors, and then jumped out of the saddle, standing on the pedals to make the small rise early in the first straightaway and then smoothly lowering to the saddle as the rise receded behind me. I calmed the shrieks in my head, lungs and legs and pedaled smoothly preparing for second 120 degree corner of the course.

Braking started 100 feet out, and paths through the gigantic 200+ rider peleton were rare. Most times I end up in traffic and slowed to a near stop and then had to sprint with every single ounce of energy just to maintain bearing on the wheel in front of me as we headed down the dark backstretch, towering trees and their skeletal reaches blocking out light overhead.

The whips of those accelerations ripped my legs down to their core threads, my lungs fraying like an ancient flag, snapping, gasping croaks for air. I followed the thin red line of the pacing riders, and the skin around my skull shriveled, my eyeballs bobbing in their vacuous chasms, floating and dripping in blood, painting the world red. Empty with the jarring, the reddened orbs bounced down the white porcelain hallways of the pain. As we approached each corner my sightless body ambled up to collect the bloody globes, coasting for those few critical moments to regain sight and sound. But then again like a nightmare it repeats: 30 seconds of the whip, teeth clenched, paroxysms of fear, 15 seconds of the dripping cooling, burning sweat trying to find a line through the corner, hands on the brakes.

The reality of the race expanded time during the effort like few other events I have ever participated in. Each corridor beneath the trees became an odyssey – an expansive journey into the deepest reserves of my aerobic capacity, of my musculature, of the strength of my quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, forearms… of my beautiful wrists glistening as they held true to the handlebars, tendons standing out like razor blades as my ever thinning skin revealed the bones below.

During the 62 lap race of 186 corners, I actually faced down about 170 individual thirty second sprints where I was quite certain my race would end. Meaningless numbers I know, but I can remember training sessions where the workout would be 2 sets of 3 times 30 seconds and dreading it, dreading it, and then being exhausted after the effort. Here I performed the same thirty second full-on sprints with slightly less than half the usual rest – over one-hundred-eighty  times. 

Several times, as my soul shriveled with the repeated failures of my legs and lungs, I decided to actually quit – and my “one straightaway more” lie became true. But as I reached the corner coasting, with riders passing me left and right, I found myself in a situation of danger where the compression of the riders behind me was greater than that in front of me and I “pedaled 2 more strokes” to be able to cleanly get through the corner.

A few seconds later, and I found that the peleton had re-embraced me and here I was – on a wheel, and traveling at the requisite speed to finish yet another straightaway. So I lied again and decided “one more straightaway.” I failed to intentionally quit the race 3 separate times.

The mind creates a portrait of the past, but memory has a paintbrush, not a camera. As such it is inherently inaccurate. Is it any wonder that there are few descriptions of “harrowing victory” in the annals of competitive history? In the same way is it any wonder that there are few memories of a “brilliant, jubilant defeat?” The pixels of light and darkness captured in the mind’s eye are filled with the pallet of color of the results – hence the memories of winning somehow pull from the yellows and golds, success and color implying a relatively easier effort, while the losses are inevitably painted with the charcoals of those chiaroscuro efforts – blackened, brutish, pain and disappointment closely linked.

I choose to repaint this race differently. No – I didn’t finish in the money (26th of over 200 starters) – but I did finish. And in so doing what I did accomplish was a unique mastery of the instrument of my body. For over two hours, I played it like the first violinist – drawing out of it with every lash of the straight bow every possible note, every emotion, every tremble of resonance the space of ribs and air and bones was capable of producing. In the end was it all meaningless? A black deep hole – a fissure to the worst unknowns? Or was there transcendence in the agony I endured? Did I learn something so raw and true about myself that I’ll be describing it for decades? I don’t really know to be honest – more than two months later as I write this and I still feel as though I’m clawing my way out of that black crevasse, that hallowed and horrifying yet blindingly brilliant 2 hours and 10 minutes I spent at the edge of sanity and consciousness.

I remember making the halfway mark and having not the least sense that my suffering had changed or that I might possibly finish. I remember seeing 3 laps to go and having no change in my race posture – no thoughts of moving up, of positioning myself for the sprint – just the thin red line of riders and the pain. 2 laps to go and it is the same – I didn't even look up.

With one lap to go, nothing about me changed, but suddenly riders were sitting up. They didn’t care anymore – the race was up the road… And I, I had one silent, tiny reserve left, and as I made my way down the backstretch dodging the bodies of the riders going backward, I found that one last pure emotion of anaerobic ability left. I swung through the crowd of riders to release every single thread of my existence to the bike and ridiculously throw it at the finish line for an unimportant 26th place – one place out of the money, but passing 70 riders in the last lap. Not a victory in the traditional sense, but still I had a still, silent pride…

As I stretched out my bike at the finish line, my right hamstring convulsed and whipped my right pedal into the uppermost position like a steel band pulling my heel into my glutes. The contrast of this cutting, active retching pain against the steady lacerations of the preceding 2 hours caused me to scream but in the noise of the crowd my anguish went un-noticed.

I used all my remaining strength to force the leg to extend and stood upon my right leg, heel down, out of the saddle – even through the first right turn as I entering the gloaming of the brightening night and the throngs of spectators…

I drifted around the backstretch, suddenly noticing the crowd of 20,000, hearing the call outs – hanging in the air “Great race!”, “Hey Dude!” “Wow – that was incredible!” “Hey want a beer?”. For a while I didn’t realize that I was one of those racers – one of those elites they were talking to as well. When I stopped and a bunch of 20 something guys slapped me on my sweaty back and filled my water bottles – one with water, and one with beer I was confused. What did I do that was good or noble or strong that they could know about? Did they actually recognize that this was suffering? Of course they did. I smiled for the first time in hours. And, carefully keeping my right leg in check, circled the course.

I found my daughter Katelina, my wife, Shannon, and her parents, and her aunt and uncle near the start finish line, and I drifted into the barriers listening to the vibrations of the throng and the calls of the announcer. The deep lines of the grimace holding my face still held a little, but there was pride in the eyes of my family – real pride. After hugging my wife and listening to the sparkling words of my little one and her relatives for a moment I suddenly swayed, like a brown-out, the lights suddenly dimming, my balance failing, and I nearly collapsed. The noise dissolved into a buzz and I clung to the barricade, clinging to the bright droplets of the glistening words of my daughter. I kept my right leg straight, and began drinking the water forced upon me, and in seconds the bass drum of life returned and I smiled back at my little girl, still carefully clutching the grey aluminum of the vertical ribs of the barricade.

Windex smell – the smell of muscle burning – the combustion of muscle proteins when other energy sources fail results in the byproduct of sweat that contains ammonia – when you really work hard, you actually smell clean… The night had been rent open, I had fallen deeper than ever, but I had returned… and now, the night was yet young, and there was an RV, friends, music, pasta, and a glass of Sangiovese waiting for me… But I was determined to remember this suffering this time.

I remembered, at that moment, a line from my favorite book by St. Euxpery,

"I swear that what I went through, no animal would have gone through…”  

I lifted Katelina on my bike and rode with her on my seat the 400 yards back to the RV – her hair whipping out in the blackness, her shrill screams marveling at our speed… Another night to be remembered at Downer Avenue…

2007 Race Report #13: Courage & Arrogance

Race report #13, Friday, July 27th, Kenosha, Superweek Stage 15 Pro/Am Criterium, Kenosha, WI: Courage and arrogance 

Hands down Kenosha is the best course at Superweek for my limited talents. At exactly a kilometer long with four corners, the course is very short and hence, no acceleration lasts for more than 10 or 20 seconds before you have to brake again for the next corner.

 

100 laps, 400 corners, 400 hard sprints… Breaking it down this way starts to make it sound hard… and it was… for a while.

 

We lined up in the late afternoon sun and it was quite warm and humid – just the way I like it. As usual I had only a few minutes of warmup – arriving late with just enough time to dress and register before heading to the line. I had again struggled with the tradeoff between beach-&-Katelina time vs. travel-to-race time and the planned departure from the beach in Sheboygan at 2:30pm quickly became 3:00pm and then 3:30pm. Sure enough I had to drive the RV like a race car just to make it to the course on time.

 

The chief referee sent us off into the lengthening shadows and bright rays of the afternoon sun, and the huge peleton immediately stretched out over a full straightaway, the long tail of riders flicking around each corner.

 

I remember looking up after a long period of suffering – breathing heavily after several dozen sprints, hanging desperately on to the wheel in front of me and blasting full throttle down yet another of the long finish stretch straightaways. My eyes finally registered the lap cards.

 92 

92 laps to go. 8 down, 92 to go. 92 laps. 92… How is it possible I could ever hope to finish 100 laps? No way. Well, let’s get in at least 10 laps total – just two more - so as to not be too embarrassing to my friends…

 

And so the lying started up – but only for a little while longer. Eventually I warmed up after about 20 laps and found the course, as always, to my liking. The short straightaways allowed me to leverage my single strength – of going pretty fast for 7 or 8 seconds – and move through the peleton without too much trouble.

 

After further reflection it is quite clearly my only strength besides strategy. Any hard acceleration longer than 7 or 8 seconds and my strength fades quickly. I have virtually no ability to hammer the pedals for extended periods. But for 3 or 5 or 7 seconds, I can put out tremendous power, without really feeling the effort. As long as it is followed by 10, 15 or preferably 20 seconds of relatively light effort I’m in pretty good shape – THAT is the one thing I can do quite well…

 

Here’s what it feels like – this tiny little area of strength that I have. Each corner I choose my path and more often than not, find a tiny sliver of an opening that I would predict to become an opening on the far side of the turn. I then center my front tire on that sliver, and lean into the corner just like the other rides.

 

Exiting the corner, I start pedaling one stroke sooner than the others, making sure my bike is counterbalanced to eliminate the risk of hitting a pedal on the downstroke.

 

Then – and this is my little private note of pride - of “flow” – of quiet power and strength – I start spinning the pedals and reach a certain RPM where a “hum” of resonance passes through my body, and I  watch as my bike and body  accelerates forward through the wheels of the fellow riders – many out of their saddles, bodies swaying. This magic resonance happens at 118rpms and above. Every lap I can look down just as I hit my stride and inevitably the bike computer will read “118” climbing quickly to 120, 122, 124 rpms before I shift gears again.

 

Quietly my little strength carries me forward to fill those gaps and move through or maintain my position near the front the peleton. This is partially how I do it – how I move through the middle of large peletons.

 

That, and there are a couple other little tricks to allow this to happen. The riders in the peleton are constantly shifting, overlapping, transiting left and right – like multicolored shards of shale set loose down a hillside, the patterns at first seem completely random. However, just as an experienced seaman can read the silent signatures of the waves, so too can some subconscious part of my mind read the Brownian motion of the peleton and anticipate the next gap. If those shards were scrabble pieces being dumped out the box, my mind appears to be capable of recognizing the important letters and creating words on-the-fly with their movement.

 

Anticipation, timing, movement, perception – even these are not enough – no one can perfectly predict the movements of imperfect humans, so what remains is the reflexive movements on the bike that mitigate disaster and prevent those unrecoverable incidents of wheel touching wheel or, worse, axle touching spokes.

 

The average racer weighs 160lbs or so, the average bike 16. Despite this fact, bodies can bounce, bash and crush each other without much incident – rather it is the rotational inertia below that presents the greatest danger. By moving the body counterintuitively into the oncoming riders inertia (much like white water rafters moving towards the rock) you can stave off that disastrous conflict of bikes and merely have the rubbery reflection of sweaty forarms and shoulders pressing and then parting.

 

Fear in the pack is high – most riders, having experienced the long sweaty nights without sleep that roadrash brings are naturally reticent to meet the pavement again. The natural, instinctual association they have is that of the contact of another rider just prior to the accident. Hence, a light touch – of an elbow, or the outside of a hand – brushed lightly against a hip, a shoulder, helps to steer those riders in front of you. The touch must be feather light though – else the body will convulse and the desired behavior of steering the rider in front quickly dissolves into a shudder of the bars and the ultimate sin – braking.

 

So… how do I move up through the middle of a peleton during the tightest, most tense moments of the race? I anticipate the movements of the pack, accelerate quickly, and gently steer those recalcitrant riders that wander into my path. On good days it feels like magic and a high speed camera would probably catch that sly smile and twinkling focus I have when I feel that I can part the waters of the pack with just my thoughts… The pro peleton, of late though, has proved to be quite stubborn to my Jedi mind tricks.

 

Once warmed up, the laps went by quickly and with 15 laps to go I decided it was time to move to the very front of the group. Over the next few laps I worked my way through the peleton – sliding neatly into invisible gaps, gently herding other riders, and moving up through over 100 riders and into the top 15 without incident

 

Then, of course, there is the challenge of the “a%$hole zone.” Every peleton has it, though the size and location differs depending on the nature of the course. If you consider the pack as almost always shaped like an arrow, the a%$hole zone is the rear of the arrowhead and the widest part of the entire pack.

  

It is only natural for this phenomenon to occur. In the rear of the peleton, the goals of the riders are merely to stay connected, so they organize 2 abreast (most common), 3 abreast, or single file if the pace is very high. There is no incentive to “ride the hip” and add another layer to the width of the pack as there is no clear path to the front and only the disadvantage of the wind when you are farther back in the pack.

 

Conversely at the very front of the pack, it is almost always a single rider leading, and depending on the pace, it may be single file for several riders, before other riders start layering up and “riding the hip” of the rider ahead in order keep position, forming the triangle or arrowhead leading the pack.

 

In between these two shapes (rectangle, triangle) we find the flange of the a%$hole zone. It is into this space that the masses of the larger pack behind fling themselves in order to move into the rarified ranks of the top riders ahead.

 

On longer courses, the arrowhead is fairly long and thin, as the long straightaways allow riders moving up from behind ample opportunities to slot in and ride the hip of someone up front.

Conversely, on short courses like Kenosha, in the 20 or 30 seconds of the long straightaways, and the 10 – 15 seconds of the short ones, there is only so far that riders and swing before needing to slot in for the next corner.

  

The a%$hole zone in Kenosha is gargantuan – corner after corner of 7, 8, 9 riders abreast trying to enter the corner at the same time.

 

I always avoid the a%$hole zone by transiting across it quickly and at Kenosha it reigned supreme in about 8th-20th place. Starting lap 15, I tried to stay ahead of it, but on lap 11 a surge caught me unawares on the backstretch, and entering turn 3, I found myself in an 8 abreast situation.

 

I braked and watched the inevitable unfold – 2 riders going up the inside slamming on their brakes, and then the ripple affect as their abortive entry into the corner caused the entire peleton to shift right.

 

The riders on the far outside panicked and 2 went down prior to hitting the curb. 4 more behind them flipped over their bikes, and then even as I skidded to a halt, I performed a slow motion endo over the rear triangle of one of the fallen, turning my bars at the last minute to fall to the left and avoid landing on the bike underneath me.

 

I was up in a flash, but in no hurry – I still had time to get a free lap.

 

About 10 of us entered the wheel pit and waited for the pack to come around and we received the signal from the referee to rejoin the peleton – unfortunately right back in the tail end of the 150 rider peleton.

 

Nonetheless, adrenaline served me well and I shot through the pack in a matter of 2 laps or 3 minutes and reappeared back in front – ready for the big sprint to follow.

 

As we moved into the final two laps, the race dynamic changed in that predictable way. I wrote about it last year so apologies for the repeat for those who read it before:

 

We cross the finish line, and 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, nervous hands in the air.

 

It is at this point that the nature and feel of a criterium bike race 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.

 

For all the preceding laps the race possessed the graceful moves of migrating geese: loosely organized gliding movements with the occasional re-organization within the flock. The leadership provided by the arrowhead up front giving 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, with the end of the race within its grasp, 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 becomes distended and sluggish. In other words, the entire peleton becomes the a%$hole zone.

 

The speed slows from 30 to 25, and 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 - even pacelines of skin - are peeled back by the rough edges of the course 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. As the riders condense, those visual queues of the road disappear: we can’t see a bump, manhole cover, or 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. They lean – forcing us to follow – and then just as suddenly we find ourselves straightening back up. Bumps? Potholes? Curbs? All blocked by bodies: the racer “sees” only by reading the Braille of the helmets ahead. It is not unlike Space Mountain at Disneyworld –  it is dark, you are strapped into a machine, and you can’t tell where you are going - the only predictor of your uncertain path is the 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 critical and dangerous circumstance – the brief snapshot in time 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. Not to mention, it happens to be something I am usually pretty good at…

 

I too feel stress in these moments, perhaps less than some though. I do, however, 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 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  the sea of riders divides, 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 effects 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 its outer scales against 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 in Kenosha, I am surrounded, blind. I am bumping and bruising in the center of the “a%$hole 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 into the backstretch.

 

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. In Kenosha, I’m sitting just right in about 8th place, and I pause and then follow in about 15th place, knowing that the leadout men will churn on the backstretch.

 

I jump up a few spots on the short second straightaway, and then prepare for my annual signature Kenosha move – an attack just before turn 3 to lead out the sprint. It has never worked for a win, but it has been good for a 4 or 5 year string of consecutive podium finishes over the years – including a 3rd place last year – granted it took place in the less competitive Cat III race.

 

We drop through the dip in turn two and then head down the longer backstretch. I bide my time for a few seconds and then begin my acceleration. I watch the leadout men take us up to 37mph and then pick the side for my attack.

 

Normally I’ve used the gutter on the right side to make my move, but it was thick with the leaders, so I was forced to the left side. The other benefit of the left side is that the curb gives way half way down the backstretch, and suddenly more room becomes available. I used the draft and put my full effort into the pedals and slingshotted up the left side, aiming for that last rounded section of curb as it bends away to make my break from the field.

 

As expected the leaders fanned out and filled most of the road, but my sliver of daylight remained up the left as I headed toward the open space. For just a moment my path was clear and in that interval my mind jumped forward to what would happen next: I would enter turn 3 in first place, I would hold it through turn 4…

 

I would enter the pandemonium of the screaming crowds on the finish stretch in first place in one of the great pro races of the year, and as we screamed toward the finish I might, or might not, get caught coming into the last 100 meters… and 0? 1? 2? 3? riders would pass me before the line… The potential of a podium finish gave me that extra shot of adrenaline and I gave my kick everything I had heading for a sliver of light on the left side. Arrogance at its finest. I moved nearly abreast of the lead two riders in about 3rd place, still accelerating…

 

A half second before the road widened, the first place leadout man on the left sat up and swung abruptly left – and our handlebars locked like light-sabers in a Star Wars movie.

 

My forward progress caused his bars to turn right, and then his rear wheel endoed slightly up and then hit my rear skewer and his bike bucked as spokes twanged and carbon wheels skittered making awful crackling electrical sounds.

 

He returned to earth, but now righted at an angle taking him directly into my path. I locked up both brakes, but ran right back into his side. Now my bike bucked and endoed and for a second I remember leaning out way over his bike, leaning on his forearms and pushing back with my own trying to get my bike back under me even as he veered back right trying to hold onto it.

 

I bucked and skittered and then suddenly found the open space past the curb available to me. Despite both of us traveling 40 mph and having both bikes turn sideways and skip and skitter on the rough pavement while our bodies nearly took orbit, we amazingly both stayed on our bikes and neither of us went down. Whoever he was (I only saw his sweaty forearms and multi-colored gloves) he was an experienced rider. There was no panic, no shouting, no anger – nothing but the cold clinical re-balancing efforts to separate our bodies and bikes.

 

Alive and rolling, but we had slowed from 40 mph to 25mph, and the pack was streaming past us to the right. I accelerated and rejoined the group, but instead of entering turn 3 in first place with some afterburners to enter hyperspace as I had just fantasized, I entered in 20th, engines depleted from the second acceleration.  

 

Leaning hard into the final straightaway, I had nothing left and lost a couple of places in the sprint, latching onto a larger asteroid to finish 24th (again) - still in the money, still surrounded by the same full time professionals I’d been racing, yet disappointed. This was probably my best chance to achieve my goal of winning a Superweek race. Downer Avenue in Milwaukee – to follow the next day – was notorious as one of the hardest races in American cycling, and rumors of a $5000 prime sprint during the race was anticipated to draw additional professionals from all around the country…

 

After collecting my winnings, I retired to the RV with, Jose & Todd from the wheel pit, Gary and Monica Goebel and their two boys and we laughed and talked and ate. But all the while the little thought remained… “almost… almost…”

 Accompanying that was another note – a shrill warning reminding me that one of the toughest challenges in cycling was the following day… “just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped.” And then… “Mochi-dado.”  

2007 Race Report #12: Mochi-Dado

Race Report #12, Thursday, July 26th, Superweek Stage 14 Pro/Am  Criterium, Sheboygan, WI, 100K. 

Waking in the RV Thursday morning it is a glorious dawn – sunny, warm but not hot. The creaking of the trees and fanning of the leaves have kept us company all night. After lolling around in the feather bed in the back of the RV playing with Katelina’s “lu lu’s” (her tiny little feet) I finally get up and  westart our day.

 

I fire up the propane burners of the stove in the RV and spread our little white and green tablecloth over the picnic table outside the RV in the green drapery of the 100 year old forest canopy, and we make eggs and bacon to accompany our cereal, juice and yogurt, sitting outside to eat under the swaying trees.

 

Katelina wanted desperately to go ride her bike, so we mounted our bikes, Katelina straddling her little pink bike with the white tires and 16” wheels and we headed off around the damp, pine needle covered lanes tracing through the grounds.

 

Like her father, the tow headed 6 yr old appears to have an achievement orientation and asked me, “what’s the farthest I’ve ever ridden my bike Papa?” I told her she had ridden about 7 miles the night we got stranded in Elgin – the night of the fireflies.

 

“I want to do 7 and ONE-HALF miles!” she exclaimed and so we wandered the beachfront in order to put on the mileage she hoped to accumulate. There was a very light breeze off the lake, and we observed the oddest phenomenon when we traversed the dunes to the shore – the cool air off the lake meeting the warm damp sands of the shores was creating a golden fog – the condensation rising from the sands must have had minute sand particles in it – and for miles down the beachfront there were these sparkling billowy golden mushrooms forming and glowing in the distance.

 

Katelina: Katelina is my daughter and by that lineage alone is endowed with special consideration by her father. Of course she is the most beautiful little girl in the world – her blue green eyes, with those glints of yellow in the sunlight. Those mischievous wrinkles forming her underlids, the beauty mark on her upper lip, and the long golden tresses of brilliant white blond hair. Of course what she says has just that little special lilt of music, her laughter like chimes – can’t you hear it? Of course when she rides her bike, it is with style and panache, her pedaling rhythm suggesting all kinds of vaguely conceived future accomplishments (though without the accompanying realities of the long sweat-baked travels and am-radio-only loneliness on the Midwestern plains my father and I suffered through.)

 

I don’t have a son, so I can’t really speak directly to what the feeling of having a male offspring is like. But a daughter – who knew that it would be like this? I am certain – quite certain, that until now I never knew the meaning of courage. Not until her…

 

Sometimes at night after gazing at her delicate profile in the half light of our reading lights (yes she sleeps with us far too often) I will, move a stray lock of golden hair from her cheek and then lean back into my own pillow and after switching off the light contemplate just how precious that tiny form is next to me, and just how aggressive my response would be if her safety were ever in question…

 The “movie sequence” goes like this: we are safely in bed – at home, camping, or in the RV – doesn’t matter. And then in the grainy half-light of night the intruder comes into this little screenplay. As always he’s faceless and nameless, black in the chiaroscuro of the dim backlight of the entrance. As always, there is malice in the air, and he threatens my family somehow. Prior to Katelina, responses would have been about strategy, about bargaining,, but not any longer.Something about having flesh and blood of Eve’s line begets a kind of clarity that eliminates choices. The scenario always plays out the same. Without fear, without doubt, without vacillation I edge to the edge of the bed, and then in one fluid, swift motion, I accelerate and launch my body full on into the intruder – I can feel the spring and speed in my strides and my leg muscles involuntarily clench. Surprised, the attacker reaches – but, regardless of weapon, there is nothing he can do that inertia won’t override – and even as the gunshot explodes, or the knife enters my flesh, I can always hear my voice shouting with clear authority, “Run!, out the door! NOW!” as I bowl the attacker over and begin to ransack his limbs with my face, elbows, hands and legs – anything to buy time – without a single care to myself.  Of course, I do hope this never happens and believe that it probably never will. But this clarity – this ability to have this one confidence in my own courage… it provides me some semblance of understanding of my place in the scheme of things.  I used to wonder about war… I’d sometimes imagine myself sweating in muddy khakis, crawling along the jungle floor, wet leaves brushing my face as I wriggled uphill in the rain. Then, when the bullets started to rip, wet leaves and mud spraying my face, and  my commanding officer shouting “TAKE THE BUNKER!”… I’d have to really think about it… “What are the odds? “What’s in it for me? “Why do I need to die NOW? “Seriously – isn’t this whole thing stupid anyway? “Why are we shooting at each other anyway?” It wasn’t until I had a daughter that this same screenplay runs differently – and… isn’t it the same for all men?  Deep down, isn’t it that the men (and women) that throw themselves in front of bullets for some cause or another – isn’t it because they can somehow characterize the other side as capable of my previous delusion: of malicious intent toward a tiny, precious child? 

Katelina rides in front of me down the hill – until I see a car coming at us, and then I ride up outside her. It is usually a simple transaction – just protective cover. But once in a while I conceive that the oncoming car may not provide ample space and I consider just how hard I will hit that windshield in order to get the driver to veer away from Kat. For this one thing - courage.

 

We continue on our way, investigating the dunes, stopping so she can take pictures of the beach. Then we turn to head back to our camping spot in order to pack up and head for the beach. Suddenly I hear the bells of her little voice – “papa! Papa! – come look!”

 

I stop and see her crouched next to the road. Even from the distance I can see that she’s observing yet another insect in a long parade that day. But something about this one catches my attention – even from 50 feet away I can see that its figure is unusual.

 

“What is it?” I ask as I get closer. “Not sure,” she answers and then casually extends the finger that the brightly colored caterpillar with the odd tooth shaped white bristles on its back has marched its bristly little legs right up and onto. She was very excited, and immediately named him/her Mocho Dado (female version is Mochi Dado).

 

Weeks later, during U.S. Cellular®’s “Bring your child to work day,” Tyler Carroll graciously helped Katelina figure out that the extremely odd caterpillar was that of the “Whitemarked Tussock Moth”

 

The morning turns to noon, and then mid-day to afternoon, and I do the thing I usually do – wait until the last possible minute to leave behind the paradise of the beach, the golden fog, the sand, and playtime with Kat to travel to the race. Thunderheads are building to the north and that makes it easier to finally clear the beach. As we head out of the state park, the sky grows darker, and I begin to remember what it is like to race in the rain with Category 3’s or Masters and realize that the Pros will be oh-so-worse.

 

After a short warmup I lineup on the same start/finish where I finished 2nd last year in the “Cat 3” category – to the teammate of the rider who had died the day before at the Tour of Holy Hill – and I began to consider the course, and the downhill corner – turn 3, and how it might be with 100+ pro riders in the rain… I wasn’t afraid – I was full of dread…

 

We set off – 80 laps, 62 miles. The pace was high, but the course was dry – for about 10 laps. Then the light drizzle set in and it started getting slippery. Every corner a rider or two went down but mostly by themselves. The pack began to string out, and riders started abandoning and I had to close gaps – which I did – but my own motivation was dwindling as the sky continued to darken and thunder boomed in the distance.

 

Meanwhile that odd facet of human existence that seems to occur during repetitive but mundane suffering (like having the flu) began – a word, or in this case, a pair of words got stuck in my head. This happens often in races. The word starts playing in a repetitive loop in my head – I analyze it, turn it upside, down, backwards, just the vowels, just the consonants – and then just the picture of the word itself, and then – as always – it suddenly loses all meaning.

 

One race a long time ago in New Jersey, the word was a long one “anthropomorphism” – I quickly lost the meaning of the word and then began to be frustrated by this long set of vowels and consonants. I remember the long drive back to Michigan and being annoyed the whole way that I couldn’t remember what the word meant. I even broke it down to the latin roots and while knowing it had something to do with “change” and “man” I had no memory of what the word actually meant (it means the attribution of human traits to non-humans).

 

Another, really, really bad day, and the word was “the” and as I mulled it over and over and over, by the end of the race I no longer recognized the word, had no idea how to use it in a sentence, and was pronouncing it in my own internal dialogue just like Jeff Daniels in “Dumb and Dumber” according to its visual spelling: “ta, heh… ta teh”. What the hell does “ta heh mean? What a stupid stupid word – I hate it.”

 

For 25 laps in Sheboygan, as the rain began, every pedal stroke was either a “Mochi” or a “Mocho”, and then the corresponding downstroke was “Dado.”

 “Mochi-Dado, mochi-dado, mochi-dado, mochi-dado, mochi-dado…. (pause, turn left…), “Mocho-dado, mocho-dado, mocho-dado, mocho-dado, mocho-dado.” 

I officially reserve and trademark this name for some future product or service – 2 months later, and they are still sticky…(I wonder how long I’m going to have these words going in my head today.)

 

20 laps in, 60 to go, the big drops start and now it is pouring – I begin to hope they’ll call off the race. Surely with these gusts of wind, these flashes splintering the sky? The pace escalates and I’m running full out in the rain, with hardly anything to see. Why am I doing this? Who am I trying to impress? It all doesn’t matter… I have a family, a job, I’m ‘important’… all the thoughts of a quitter begin to enter my brain. Now, left turn and “mochi-dado, mochi-dado…”

 

I continue on, pressing the pedals smoothly to keep traction, braking gingerly, accelerating hard, and closing the gaps as rider after rider abandons in front of me, next to me, behind me.

 

Turn 1, 30 laps down, 60 to go. Two riders go down just after the turn, their tires suddenly losing grip on the ¼ inch of water on the road surface, their wheels swooping up, torsos bouncing down. They slide on their backs - almost accelerating like as if they were on black ice, their bikes up in the air, hands slapping at the pavement to try and stop their velocity as skin and skinsuits give way and rent, skin taking on that black burn of wet pavement.(Road rash in the rain is actually quite minor – mostly dirt and that light zinging sting of a minor abrasion.) I pick my way through and then another rider gives up right in front of me and yet another gap opens that I’ll need to close to stay connected to the pack and the protective cover off the draft.

 

Suddenly I stop attacking – and the release of that pressure on my legs and lungs creates instantaneous relief. It is not a conscious decision, but by the time my rational mind connects to what my body has done, there is no time left to reconnect to the pack. My mind berates my body briefly and then shrugs its shoulders. “Mocho…..”

 

the “dado” never comes.

 

The wind stops roaring through my ears and the rain decreases its rattling on my helmet. I coast through turn two and sit up. A few riders sprint by me, and a few more coast up near me and sit up themselves. 6 or 7 of us drift, pedals motionless, down the backstretch into the coming storm, the huge drops bouncing off the pavement, the grey of rain replacing the green of the suburban landscape surrounding us.

 

We all abandon the course halfway and split up, making our way back to our cars and loved ones. In my case I’m luckier than just about all and return to the large well lit warm interior of the RV.

 

I coast up and dismount shaking my head. I mount my bike to the back of the RV as they duck back into the calm of the RV interior. Nothing is said. I drive off, and the storm gets worse, thunder booming close by. The road is so dark I turn on the headlights. It turns out that only 33 of the 108 starters actually finish the race.

 

Courage? Maybe I have it, maybe I don’t. What is it anyway?

2007 Race Report #11: The Post Race Vibe... (and almost crashing, again)

Race Report #11,, Wednesday, July 25th, Superweek Stage 12 Pro/Am  Criterium, Green Bay, WI, 100K. The post-race vibe… 

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.

 

green-bay.jpg

 

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.

2007 Race Report #10: Almost Crashing...

Race Report #10, Sunday, July 22nd, Superweek Stage 9 Pro/Am Criterium, Evanston, IL, 100K. Flashback, Friday, July 20th:Scene: standing undressed again in front of the scale. Again I inched forward, my toes wriggling across the tile floor in our new bathroom in the new house in Chicago. The LED lights began to whirl, and again I reflected on the preceding months leading to this moment: 6 races down, and now into the annual Superweek season. My goal was to be 175 lbs by this time of year. I felt fit but.. what would my weight say? The LED’s flashed: 177.8 – and parts of me warred over the result – on one hand I was still nearly 3 lbs off the goal I had set for myself months ago – with plenty of time to achieve the result. On the other – I had lost 20 lbs and  was lighter than I had been since shortly after retiring from speedskating 9 ½ years ago…

Evanston is a great spectator course – a six corner, figure-eight loop where the finish stretch and backstretch meet in the middle so that fans can truly see a large portion of the action of the race. It was centered right in the middle of downtown where there are a lot of people naturally present, and, once a lap, it carried a strong smell of curry from an Indian restaurant proximate to the course.

 

Initially disconcerted by the idea of all the corners, early on in the race I realized that the course favored my strengths – bike handling, agility in handling the multiple turns, short accelerations, and riding in the peleton. For once, my fear of getting dropped ebbed well before the halfway mark.

 

Eddy Van Guyse introduced me again to all the world and again I was chagrined to find myself too far back to be able to move up behind the race leaders and other “celebs” on the start/finish. “I need to do something about that,” I thought… After the gun went off we began our 100 kilometer, 70 lap, 420 corner race.

 

The race passed without much incident and I passed the first two hours hanging out near the back catching the echoing cheers of John Poplett, his daughter, and a friend rooting me on from turn two. With about 10 laps to go I began my climb up the long ladder to the front of the peleton, and by 8 laps to go I was sitting pretty in the top 15.

 

For the next 6 laps there were a series of fits and starts, charges up the inside and outside, and I had to use all my skills and put in a series of hard and tight accelerations to maintain my position – diving full speed into the corners and braking hard at the last minute when a line through the traffic did not represent itself, and then sprinting full out from a near stand still mid-corner to return to the 35mph pace down the straightaways.

 

With two laps to go I came across the start finish line around 10th again – perfectly positioned and we entered the rather wide corner of turn 1 at full speed, 3 or 4 riders single file out front and then a couple pairs of riders ahead of me side by side – perfectly safe on a corner that could take riders at least 5 abreast…

 

Then it happened – a rider a couple spots ahead of me shifted slightly – a tiny shiver of the handlebars – resulting in overlapping wheels: the tiny mal-adjustment in trajectory resulting in the wrenching of his handle bars out from under him as his front wheel turned across his momentum caused him to careen left and then burrow directly into the pavement, taking down the rider next to him as well.

 

A tenth of second later and the two riders directly in front of me were down, performing the cycling world’s ugliest acrobatic act – “the endo” overtop the downed riders. An endo happens when forward motion of the bike is stopped, but not the inertia of the rider, and the front axel acts as the fulcrum for the entire bike to cantilever up, over, and down, head first into the ground. Like a catapult gone wrong, a bed endo looks as though the rider is driven like a nail into the ground.

 

I had sensed that the riders were itchy entering the corner – my “spidey senses” tingling: something about the skittishness of the pack had made me nervous and hence I was on full alert before the first rider went down, with both hands on the brake hoods. Before the second rider even knew what hit him, I had begun to straighten up and apply pressure to my front and rear brakes – about double the pressure to the front vs. the rear – simultaneously initiating a transfer of my center of gravity rearward and down by sliding back on the saddle and tilting back my hips, hollowing my back.

 

My bike shuddered as the front brake tried to hold back my inertia and my rear began to lock up. Amazingly the deceleration offered by the two narrow rubber tires paralleled that of the tumbling riders and I stopped just short of the downed racers. Around me, like an arrowhead of dominoes, riders continued to meet the pavement in various ways as others swarmed around; however after about 50 riders made it through the mayhem, the road was effectively blocked by the bodies of the fallen or stopped.

 

I popped out of my left pedal and used my left foot to give several small skipping pushes before navigating a very narrow route between the wheels and limbs of the riders ahead of me and regaining the free air of the first straightaway, while watching the rearguard of the peleton disappear around turn two 200 feet ahead of me.

 

I punched the afterburners and gave it everything, legs screaming in protest as I fought the winds alone around turns 2, 3 and then 4, before finally rejoining the pack just before the final double corner leading to the finish stretch and the “bell lap” – the universal signal indicating “one lap to go.”

 

I tried desperately to regain some composure, but my pulse was already in the low 190’s and I had that taste of blood in my mouth indicating a significant amount of lactic acid already running through my veins and confounding my muscles.

 

I used every trick and took a series of risks through the next corners to move up through the field, but each acceleration, each effort brought me even further beyond my aerobic limits and by the time we reached the final straightline sprint for the finish, I had nothing left to give, and after exiting the final corner in about 15th, I dropped to 33th in the official results.

 

Thwarted again…

 

2007 Race Report #9: Moses and his rod...

Race Report #9, Saturday, July 21st, Superweek Stage 8 Masters Criterium, Waukesha, WI, 60K. 

Not much to say about Waukesha – a tough, short course that weeded out a lot of the masters. I rode up front for the latter half of the race after a large (10 man) breakaway got away. I set up a little far back for the sprint given all the corners and my late surge to the line only got me 5th in the field sprint and 15th overall.

 Flashback: Superweek circa 1995 – a North Milwaukee suburb I was riding category 3 back in 1995 – the year after the Lillehammer Olympics – and having a good time participating in the field sprints at superweek. I had won several field sprints already but had not yet won a stage, but was feeling like this particular course might be my day.  Nearly perfectly round with the exception of one corner, this particular course on the north side of Milwaukee was in one of the many excellent county parks dotting the Milwaukee area.  After putting in the requisite first 35 of the 40 mile race, I decided to move up and scout out the finish sprint.

The one and only corner was about 400m before the finish and I decided to hit it hard like I would in a sprint. The course was wide and I used the draft of the peleton to slingshot outside and into the lead – one of the things I used to be able to do before I started racing with the pros where the pace puts me in a different, more limited mode of moving through the pack. As I passed the outside of the peleton and coasted out into the lead – intending only to be re-absorbed into the pack, I noticed some movement off to the left.  

Just to the left of the course was a small, but popular fishing hole, and during the race there were dozens of fisherman sitting in folding chairs facing the lake, poles up at the ready. Each lap the their heads would sway in unison away from the shining surface of the lake to catch the wind of the pack of riders bearing down the park roads towards them for another round of the course. On this particular lap though, one of the fishermen had decided to pack up his gear and head home. Along with a styrofoam Igloo cooler strapped with bungee cords to the small rack on the back of his bike, he had also tied up his two fishing poles… sideways.  

I watched with detached amusement as this somewhat inebriated gentleman made his way awkwardly across the grass onto the sidewalk, expecting him to turn and follow the asphalt path toward some local destination. Instead, he continued, head down, pedaling right across the small patch of grass between the sidewalk path and the course, and then bumped down across the curb onto the course, lazily righting the bike as it veered left and right. He still hadn’t looked up… 

It was about this time that energy spiked in my legs and I stood on the pedals and leaned hard right… He was heading almost directly toward me… but worse, he had nearly seven feet of fishing pole sticking out at a perpendicular angle quite ready to take me down.  I completed my acceleration and adjustment and then began to finally recognize the inevitable next… he was riding, eyes down, poles horizontal, head-on, directly into the pack of 100 riders swarming behind me.  Even as I swung clear, I sat up coasting and rotated my torso, hand on my thigh to watch the inevitable destruction to follow.

Like the pin-setter at the bowling alley after two gutter balls, I prepared for the worst  as the lone fisherman and his pole made their way like a drunken snow plow straight  into the peleton with an impact speed of over 40mph.  

I will never forget what I saw next – it remains imprinted upon my retinas like that of a biblical event. Moses and his rods parted the multi-colored sea and with the elegance of a choreographed movie scene, the peleton separating neatly in the middle, creating a teardrop shaped ripple that flowed smoothly backward, the sudden reflection off the circular rims reminding me of a school of minnows reacting to a predator – flashing left and then right – and then the pack zipped itself up neatly back together behind the intruder -  all in the matter of seconds.  I’ve never been more amazed at the skills of men on bikes as I was at that moment – like detritus out the back the fisherman continued on his way – never even realizing the extent of his danger… 

A few laps later I reprised my outside sprint and was able to win my first stage of that year’s Superweek.

But all we talked about was the fisherman…

2007 Race Report #8: Crashing...

Race Report #8, Thursday, July19th, Superweek Stage 7 Pro/Am Criterium, Shorewood, WI, 100K. 

The best thing about the race in Shorewood was that I didn’t have a single incident on the way to and from the race. It helped that I drove the new car.

Shorewood is a relatively new course to Superweek and hence does not quite have the crowds of the famous Downer Avenue race to come later in the tour. However it did share that upscale neighborhood, the large homes lining the course, and the sense that the spectators were as analytically involved with the races as they were emotionally.

I ran into Eddy Van Guyse – the announcer of “Breaking Away” fame prior to the race and he asked me to remind him of my athletic credentials. I gave him the details, got in a decent warmup and then lined up a bit far back in the crowd gathered at the start/finish line as Eddy began introducing the race leaders and riders of notable fame.

Again I was surprised to hear some of my own credentials as Eddy related my background and introduced me along with the top 5, but it was a bit embarrassing – I had lined up so far back in the peleton that I couldn’t make my way through the 130+ riders – so I just stayed in position and waved to the crowd.

I won’t bother to describe the first 40 laps of the 58 lap, 100 kilometer race except to say it was quite similar to Bensenville – a lot of “barely hanging on” going on. Considerable suffering. I was quite uncertain whether I was going to finish and spent my mental efforts focusing on the lies required to keep me in the race.

Finally, the lap cards read 10 laps to go and I knew I would finish, and I knew I had a little bit of juice left in the tanks. From a low point where the world was a single focal point of the wheel in front of me, my consciousness began to expand and I began to register the complicated machinery of the race, the riders. I began to gather that low thrumming energy from the crowd and the wheels around me.

I heard my name around turn 4 of the four corner course and looked up to see my old friend Kent Savit – giving me a hard time about being dead last with 7 laps to go. Next lap I grinned and held up 4 fingers – indicating when I intended to move up.

When the lap cards read 5 to go, I did my thing and used the gutters on straightaway 2, and then the inside line on turn 3 to shoot through the pack and as I came out of turn 4 with 4 laps to go I nodded to Kent as I hovered in about 10th position – having moved up through over 100 riders in the space of a lap. Then, head down, I began to watch the race patterns unfold and the setup of a big sprint finish.

Three laps to go and I’m still holding my position in the top 15. Things bunch up a bit as we enter the second straightaway, and a surge goes through on the inside.

I’ve been favoring the outside line in turn two the whole race and ride my usual line entering the corner, only to be suddenly, and immediately confronted by the bodies and bikes and that awful train wreck noise of the 4 or 5 riders who crash right in my path: I’m heading right at them while leaning hard into the deepest part of the corner going 25mph.

There is no way out – I’m blocked to the left by riders, and to the right is only a dead-on run into a curb. I know immediately that I’m going down and hard, but still use my brakes to reduce the impact.

With the lean and the speed, my rear wheel breaks tension with the concrete first and begins to slide and even as the riders and bikes blocking my way loom, I begin a sideways slide to the left – like I’m in a full out sprint sliding in to second base – but on concrete. My left side hits the pavement just shy of my bike hitting the rider in front of me and I feel that burning heat – that roasting, tearing sensation of skin sliding, grinding against concrete as I skid sideways 15, 20 feet on my left hip and my bike then hits the bike and rider blocking my path with only a minor impact.

I’m up in a flash as hundreds of riders veer around us, and I try to disentangle my bike from the rider in front of me. My front wheel’s spokes are scissored into the front hub of another rider and only by aggressive shaking do I release my bike and can finally mount it.

By then, the peleton is gone – the tail end 200 yards away and receding quickly and there is no chance of catching. Worse still – the “free lap” rule is now over – only in effect until 5 laps to go, I can no longer go into the pits and jump back into the pack with no penalty.

So… my only option is to withdraw… or… is it? My stubborn side comes through and I get angry thinking that I suffered for more than two hours and won’t even get to do the one thing I do well – sprint. So after quick consideration I resolve to let the referees know of my illegal maneuver if I actually gain anything out of it, and I cut the course diagonally, and jump right back into the rear of the peleton – dead last, (again), with two laps to go. Illegal for sure, but not really unethical…

The sprint to just catch on took its toll, but I worked my way as best as I could through the pack, and finished 67th – about halfway through the field when we came around again.

It was with some gritty resolve that I spoke to Jose after the race as I examined the football sized patch of raw meat on my left thigh… “I could have done well today…” shaking my head and then limped my way back to the car for the two hour drive home, dreading that first shower, looking forward to Advil…

2007 Race Report #7: Humility

Race Report #7, Sunday, July15th, Superweek Stage 3 Masters, Bensenville, IL, 60K. Humility… 

If I was flush with confidence after finishing my second Pro/Am Superweek race – even finding myself contending for the sprint - then the race in Bensenville quickly put my limited strengths back into perspective. If yesterday at Blue Island I felt that sense of flow, that ability to wade in amongst the stars, today I was reminded of how strong the currents can be, and how weak my unwitting limbs can be against the torrents of the wind and vagaries of the peleton.

Humility… cycling teaches this virtue often to its participants. Even as I write about this strange unusual sport, I’m struck with how often I wax and wane, quietly and internally between these extremes of humility and confidence. Most of all, I’m struck about just how much lying I do…to myself… during those long painful laps, a practice I executed to perfection in a future stage of the race on Downer Avenue in Milwaukee…

 The first few laps… 

If my last 5 laps in my second pro race at Blue Island the day before were filled with confidence, aggressively moving up through the pack, an over-riding compulsion to set up “for the win” despite everything, then Bensenville quickly became a lesson an obeisance to the gods of cycling. From the start of the race I was a pathetic husk of a racer. It started fast, and strung out into a single file chain of silver and black double loops ringing the oddly shaped neck of the 0.8 mile, six corner course. During the 40 mile, 48 lap race, the pace only relinquished twice.

I wanted to quit after two laps…

Sure, the first few laps of most races tend to put me into hurt as I fully warm up and accustom my muscles to the race environment. However, at Bensenville, each lap as we came around the tight bend into the long, slightly uphill finish stretch was a near full-out sprint for me every single time. Every finish stretch was the limit of my abilities and for 40 of the 48 laps. I was literally sprinting almost as hard as I would in a sprint finish on the last lap of a race. Legs straining to the max, lungs completely out of air, that burning, swelling sensation in your quads, the internal begging for it to just slow down – “just let me coast a little – just a little!”

But the peleton wouldn’t listen to my silent demands and the wind roared through my ears and cluttered my thoughts with its volume as we continued headlong pace into the dueling oblivions of pain and fear.

 Within the first lap, the long sticky tendrils of those dark shadowy thoughts and doubts began to get a grip on my psyche… What the hell am I doing here? I’m clearly no pro rider if I’m suffering this bad during the beginning of a race. I can’t even keep up with guys 30 years old (and older). Am I poser? Do I deserve to be here? Every single person here is better than me. Can I possibly last another 45, 40, 30, 29, 28, 27, 20, 15 more laps? Should I quit now and recover for the next race? How is possible that they do this every day in the Tour – and with hills?  

I remember very clearly coming out of the last corner of the first of 48 laps and watching the peleton string out – the double braid of the backstretch pulled taut by the speed and wind and tensioned straight as a guitar string - and I wondered between gasps for air and knees pulling full force into my chest as we accelerated to 34mph, “how it is that I’m sprinting full out into a headwind – yet at least covered by the draft of the wheels in front of me and yet, and YET, these guys up there so far away, they are breaking away, solo or in small groups and plunging through it, churning through this wind, diving under it or brute forcing it. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? I was less impressed with my own inabilities as I was with the power generated by those lead riders…

That’s when the lying starts. In retrospect, this lying might well be one of my greatest strengths apart from my ability to go 7 or 8 seconds pretty fast. Self deceit is a critical component of bicycle racing.

 The first quarter of the race… 

The lying starts like this… my mind starts to realize what I’ve signed up for – a 60 mile, 70, 90 or 100 lap death march on bumpy roads where everyone in the race is stronger than me, and my psyche starts to rebel and think things like, “there’s no way I can make it 97 more laps like this,” or “One more straightway like this and we’re done.” Even worse is the thought of, “oh yeah – even if I finish, I have to do it all again tomorrow…”

So I lie. I blatantly and conspicuously generate falsehoods in my brain to reduce the impossibility of the task at hand. I redirect my thoughts and say, “OK, after one more lap I’ll just pull off and quit – but I HAVE to stay attached for one lap – that’s my little goal..”

Then I stay attached, and I start to lie again… “OK, we’ve made 8 out of 100 laps. Let’s at least get in 1/10th  of the race as training – and then you can quit .” And I make it the two more laps – but just barely.

When it gets really bad, I shorten the distance to when I’ll quit: “Just make it to the next corner, and then you can sit up and coast and bail out of the race.” And I believe it every time – it is truly my intention to quit within 30 seconds… but I rarely do.

When the lies come in flurries – where I’m barely hanging on straightaway to straightaway – that’s when “getting dropped” becomes a real likelihood.

“Getting Dropped” is my greatest fear in a bike race. If a gap grows between the relative calm and comfort offered by the “draft” – the swirl of forward moving wind created by the peleton ahead – then a rider like me faces two choices – to “bridge the gap” and sprint to reconnect to the riders and draft ahead, or to give up. Continuing to ride solo at 30mph is not an option for a rider like me, and the idea that a rider could be dropped and reconnect is as foreign to me as are the languages of Hungarian and Hindi.

“Bridging the gap” if it occurs, is the hardest thing I have to do in a race. It has its parallel in the breakaway efforts of those riders strong enough to be in the lead of the pack – as they bridge gaps to solo or small group efforts with the potential of a guaranteed podium or top 10 finish to serve as their reward.

The only reward for bridging a gap that occurs on the far side of the peleton (my side) is more suffering.

The artifice gets a little harder during the second quarter of the race. I start dividing the distance into thirds (but the math rarely works – let’s see, 70/3 = 23.333, so my new goal is to make it to 46.666 laps to go…) and if in a pinch I resolve back to the “one more lap” approach or the “just one more straightaway” focus.

During the Bensenville race, I used all of these fabrications and more, and not even once during the first half of the race did I even remotely consider the option of finishing the whole thing a possibility. Really though, I avoided that thought all together spending no less than 9 laps on the “one more lap” lie while doing full-out-sprints each straightaway.

 Halfway… 

Cycling is as much a mental as a physical sport. I use these tricks to remove the daunting prospect of the coming miles from my psyche so I can focus on the present. Still, there is a part of me that prefers the analytical detachment of “mind over body” and I’m always surprised and a bit irritated by the fact that the “halfway” mark in the race seems to somehow physically change me and the race almost inevitably becomes easier.

The first half of the race is almost always ridden in a defensive posture – gliding and being efficient, staying out of trouble, and then when the math reads that I’ve done half the race, it suddenly feels easier.

It really, honestly, feels easier. I can’t explain it. Wheels to draft off of are suddenly more available, the roads are smoother, and power is more available…  I know intellectually it is B.S. – but I feel it, so it is true.

 The final quarter 

With 20 laps to go at Bensenville, I finally began to realize I was going to make it – that I would finish the race… however thoughts of doing more than that did not yet enter my mind.

Somewhere around 10 laps to go in the Bensenville race and I start to allow my brain to think forward – instead of dreading the 60, 50, or 40 miles to go, it takes a new, natural tack… “how should I set up for the sprint?”

My intuitive self is quite able in this regard. I am, when it comes to it, a pretty awful bike racer – limited aerobic abilities, too heavy, undertrained, too old, and unable to push the pedals hard for more than 7 or 8 seconds. However, my limitations don’t seem to daunt my subconscious, and as I begin to visualize the future on laps 10, 9, 8 and so on, I see myself moving up, using my limited abilities to jump up 5 or 50 places and then getting in perfect position for the finish.

At Bensenville, with about 6 to go, I suddenly remembered that a friend and co-worker Ed Perez and his kids were present and acknowledged them with a nod and then began to focus on climbing up the braid of riders, rider by rider, switching left and right to get to the head of the pack.

The pace had finally slowed a bit as a breakaway had gotten away and I was then able to move quickly up into the top 15 riders of the race with 3 laps to go. Even though I was exhausted, I still felt I had a decent shot at a strong finish.

Then it got ugly.

It is rare that I’m afraid in a race. Often I feel that the peleton is far too conservative in entering and exiting corners and get frustrated with the amount of braking going on. The Masters category tends to be very safe as the riders are both experienced, and old enough to not risk everything: that is, with the exception of the last two laps at Bensenville. The last two laps felt exactly like the one and only Category 3, 4, and 5 race I had done a few years ago – mindless and heedless charges up the inside with 7, 8 and 9 riders lining up abreast to enter corners capable of handling perhaps 4, maybe 5 riders at best.

With 2 laps to go the lump in the hose reached the kink and in the third turn, a spray of riders exploded all over the edges of the course, resulting in a big pileup and a dozen riders hopping the curbs, bouncing off of trees and spilling out over the lawns and gardens of the homes nearby. I hoped this would relieve the pressure, but it did not and for the next 3 corners there were crashes right up front in the peleton.

I ended up braking and staying out of the mayhem, but as we hit the line with one lap to go, my nerves were jangling – this type of behavior was very unusual.

Sure enough, heading down the long backstretch into the last 4 back-to-back tight corners, there was yet another headlong rush up the inside, and I heeded my nerves and backed off before the corner, dropping from about 6th spot to about 30th in the space of 200 feet, and then watching another pileup occur in front of me.

With riders re-entering the course from the sidewalks on both sides like ants marching to a picnic, I picked my way through the downed riders and then did my best to overtake the long single file train of riders ahead of me, crossing the line about 8th in the sprint, and ending up 14th overall due to the breakaways. Little did I know that these crashes on the last two laps were to become a pattern over the next stages of Superweek…

2007 Race Report #6: Wading through the stars

Race Report #6, Saturday, July14th, Superweek Stage 2 Pro/Am Criterium, Blue Island, IL, 100K.   

The rest of week passed by and Saturday came and it was time to try my first Superweek (International Cycling Classic) race, and my second Superweek stage ever racing as a Pro 1/2 since my inaugural journey last year during the final stage in Whitefish Bay, WI. Our trip in the new car over to Blue Island, IL was uneventful (for once), though I did have some bike issues that Jose Alcala and Todd Downes – again the official SRAM pit crew and mechanics extraordinaire – sorted out before I lined up for my second time ever as a Pro/am participant at Superweek. As I coasted to the start finish line, I again marveled at all of the pageantry associated with racing at this level.

 

I’m certain that most of the other pros and probably even the remaining amateurs in the ranks are quite habituated to the preliminaries that the promoters and announcers use to warm up the crowd and thank the sponsors, but for me – I was eating it up – looking around at the expectant faces in the crowds, watching the various teams in their whispered huddles, admiring the latest greatest technology in the team bikes all around, and just soaking in the atmosphere radiating from the eyes and hands lining the barriers  – one of expectancy and pride.

 

I wondered, as I always do, if I would finish the race or if I would get dropped. But I didn’t worry much – I was just happy to participate, and after a round of introductions and the national anthem, the chief official, Heidi Mingus sent us off.

 

The race was fast – averaging over 28mph, with typical finish stretch speeds of 33 and 34mph. I pedaled circles, followed wheels, and for the first 20 of 60 laps hung on for dear life wondering if I was going to be dropped. A breakaway got away at about this point, and for a couple of laps, the pace became more manageable and I recovered a bit. It was about at this time I saw my friend Mike Dienhart near the finish stretch, along with his son Kevin, cheering along with Shannon and Katelina.

 

40 to go, 30 to go, 20 to go, 10 to go – the laps counted down as I bided my time about ¾’s of the way back in the pack. Then we caught the breakaway...

 

5 to go – my time – and I immersed myself in the pack, riding those eddies and currents formed by the bodies and bikes of those pros surrounding me and waded through the stars on my way through the center of the peleton. Without once feeling the wind, or even seeing the sidelines, the faces in the crowd, or my family, suddenly, with one lap to go I found myself on Andy Crater’s wheel (winner of stage 1) and sitting in about 7th place heading down the finish stretch.

 

Perfect position… again.

 

Again I marvel at this – how is it possible?  I’ll consider this question further at a future writing.

 

Making the first turn onto the short stretch before the backstretch and Crater looks back at me and gives a flick of his wrist down by his hip “C’mon Wolverine” he says, and shoots up the inside into turn 2 and the short straightaway before the long backstretch. I hate leadouts - they never work out… but...

 

Instincts war with the invite and for just a second I waver and then follow the wheel and I find myself entering the backstretch in second place on the wheel of the previous day’s stage winner. But… we are traveling at 37 mph and the wind is beginning to take its toll. I follow Crater and desperately hope for a surge to allow me a shield of riders to hide behind.

 

It comes on both sides and with a flick of his elbow, Crater drops into 3rd spot on the right side surge. Again I hesitate – suffering from the last move – and part ways with him and follow the slightly slower surge to the left – which almost immediately peters out, leaving me waffling in the wind on the left side of the surging peleton.

 

“Get in position to win!” Walden would say, so I give almost all of my remaining energy to keep pace riding the hips of the surge up the right, exposed to the wind at 40mph and only find a wheel as we enter turn 3 in about 12th place, side by side with another rider on my inside hip.

 

No one brakes and neither do I (usually someone does and you can find a perfect line into the corner) and with a sudden terror I feel the presences of another rider close by me on the outside and now both riders are touching me – one on my left hip and right hip as we all lean in to take the corner full speed at 40 mph – manhole covers and all. Miraculously we escape certain death by roadrash and we straighten up and head down the short stretch for the final turn and finish.

 

As always, I geared down prior to the corner, and I used the immediate RPM’s to jump up the inside 5 or 6 spots and entered the final corner in 6th place – 400 meters to go and in perfect position in my second big pro/am race in more than 15 years.

 

I came out of the corner and the pace accelerated again and I stayed with it, passing the two leadout men who came backwards like stones hurtling end over end into a well, but that brief glimpse of the lead lasted only for150 meters or 8 seconds. Then, the legs began to give out and by 250 meters I was falling backwards much as the leadout men did, from 4th to 6th to 8th and so on. Heading towards the banners in about 10th place, 2 more guys came around me and I finally was able to sit up – only to realize the finish line was another 20 meters away and even as I tried to start turn the pedals again, another 4 guys swarmed by on the inside and I crossed the line 16th.

 

I listened to the announcer’s voice recede as we re-traced the course and as the echoes faded a small, still note of pride began to surface…. I finished… in the money - in a Pro Race at Superweek. Then I checked my computer – max speed, 45.0 mph – the finish speed. Never sprinted that fast before – that’s 72kph – never heard of a sprint at the Tour De France that fast…

 

I chatted with Mike and Kevin and Katelina for awhile near the stage as the famed announcer Eddy Van Guyse interviewed the top 3 riders, and then, after a quick change in the air-conditioned new car, I hoisted Kat on my shoulders, and waded and waited - surrounded by 2 dozen professional riders from around the world - to pick up my check for 16th place - $65.00 – and headed home.

2007 Race Report #5: Changing in a Port-o-Pottie

Race Report #5, Saturday, July7th, Wisconsin State Pro 1/2 Criterium Championships, Elkhorn, WI  On Thursday, July 5th, we picked up our Toyota Landcruiser from the dealership where we had new bearings put in the front right wheel – a result of overtightening of a tech’s wrench when we had the brakes done a couple weeks earlier. We then dropped off our other car (the BMW 740iL of splashing oil fame) at Patrick BMW to have brakes and wipers done as well.

On the way home, my wife Shannon received a bad telephone call – her grandmother in Detroit had gone into the hospital for immediate double bypass surgery, and given her relative age and state of health, the outcome was uncertain. Shannon’s parents picked her up at the house on their way down from Madison a couple hours later and headed on their way to Detroit. The surgery was to take place the next morning (Friday.)

So, it was now Katelina and papa time, and after saying goodbye to mama, a tearful Katelina climbed into the recently fixed Landcruiser and we headed to a park in Elgin on the banks of the Fox River where we could ride the Fox River Trail.

Enroute to the park, and suddenly every dummy light is glowing red on the black plastic Toyota dashboard. Engine Oil, Battery, Transmission oil, AT Temperature, Brakes, Fuel – you name it. I quietly cursed the Toyota dealership and called Shannon to vent – “every damn light is on – its like Christmas on the dashboard – they must have ‘done something’ to it at the dealership.” Otherwise it was running fine…

Upon arrival, I pulled Katelina, my 6 year old daughter, in the Burley trailer for about 90 minutes and then rollerbladed while she rode her little pink bike. We ended up doing about 5 miles down the Fox River Trail. Her lean long little legs turning the white plastic pedals on her little pink bike, her tires weaving and her long blond tresses tossing left and right with each pedal stroke.  Suddenly she skids to a stop – noticing a strange little flower growing by the path. She picks it and hands it to me “for mama” she says, and we continue on our way.

By the time we return to the car, the sky has darkened with only the blazing clouds near the horizon providing a memory of the brilliant hues of sunset. I put Katelina’s bike in the car and remove my rollerblades and we both buckle in to our respective seats. I turn the key and receive the audible cues of the motor turning over - but without a spark. I try again pushing on the pedals. And again. Eventually the starter slows. Another try – and another. Within the space of a few minutes, I’m resolved to the dreaded “click-click-click” when I turn of the key and I sit in stunned silence in the darkening shadows of the car, Katelina sitting oblivious in the back.

I try to sort out what to do. Shannon is hours away, so I try friends on the cell – Mike, Matt – leaving messages. Kevin is out of town. Do I know anyone else? No…

“Katelina – how about a special magical bike ride to town through all these fireflies?” I ask. Elgin is only a mile away… through the dark on an unlit path…

“But Papa… Its dark… I’m scared…”

“Lets try it – just a short trip into the fireflies – I’ll hold your seat if you want.”

And we headed off into the tunnel of blackness under the dark arches of the trees. It had become so dark that the path became a strip of "light black" but… the hundreds and thousands of fireflies created a magical backdrop – it was like swimming into the universe, wading through the stars in the black currents and eddies of the evening.

I kept up conversation with Katelina to reduce her fears and we floated down the path into the evening, kept buoyant with our lighthearted conversation. It was so dark underneath the trees that I had to stop and wade forward, arms in front, feet stepping higher in case of an obstacle, but 5 minutes later the lights of Elgin began to appear. We wended our way through town and shortly thereafter Mike Dienhart returned my call and came to pick us up. Still – I will always remember that journey “through the stars.”

I took Friday off and played with Katelina most of the day – but what to do on Saturday – as Shannon was not back and I really wanted to hit my second race of the season: Wisconsin state championships in Elkhorn, WI.

My friend Matt came to the rescue and I dropped Katelina off in St. Charles at his house where she proceeded to play with his kids -  swimming in their portable pool and bouncing on their trampoline, playing hide-and-seek, and generally doing everything a child should do on a 92 degree July afternoon.

Meanwhile, my own journey to Elkhorn proved daunting. Even as I was trying to hydrate for the 90 minute, 40 mile Pro 1 & 2 State Championships Criterium, I was baking in the sun in our one remaining automobile: the black 20 year old convertible with no air conditioning. A breeze would have helped, but my mapquest route up highway 12 led to an average speed of 33 mph and interminable periods of sitting in traffic baking in the heat and humidity and sun of a hot Midwestern July afternoon.

The drive to the race was only 70 miles, but it took me two hours and due to the traffic delays I only had a little time to warmup and register. I had probably the largest cheering section of the race, with friends Gary Goebel, Monica, his two tow-head boys, and several of their siblings, spouses, and children in attendance.

When I arrived, I registered quickly and then returned to the car shimmering in the heat of the sun. I then began the dreaded ritual cyclists without RV’s the world over face: the snakeskin dance into your skinsuit.

The seats were already hot enough to sting as I sank back into the leather and then looked around. Oblivious to the crowds around, I removed my shorts, pulling my shirt down into my lap and then pulled the legs of my skinsuit over my feet, wriggling against the sticky hot leather in a frustrated fashion trying to help the tight folds of spandex and lycra to allow my sweaty skin to slide through. Further awkward contortions brought my arms into their holes and then, under the merciless sun and heat, I bent and put on my shoes, helmet, and gloves. I then had to do the top part all over again because I realized I had not put on my heart rate monitor.

On days like these, there is no need to warmup.

It was windy.

It was hot.

There were lots of corners.

I hate this – why do I do it?

The starter’s gun sent us off, and within 100m my pulse hit 170bpm. By the middle of the second straightaway it hit 180bpm. And there it stayed. From a brief low of 176, to a high of 195bpm in the final sprint, my overall heart rate averaged 180bpm for the whole 90 minutes: right at or slightly above my aerobic threshold in high heat (it is several beats lower when it is cooler)

Translation:  I was running at or near my maximum. Nonetheless, I never really feared getting dropped and focused only on finding a good rhythm and a good spot in the peleton. Actually, when my heartrate is high without too much suffering, it means I’m properly rested. Superweek would show the effects of multiple races on my average pulse…

I surfed the pack in the six corner, ¾ mile course for the requisite time and then began my preparations for the sprint finish. 7 riders had made it away in a breakaway, so we were sprinting for 8th place but that really was not my concern. I was a little too far back on the last lap and managed only a 4th place sprint finish, coming in 11th overall. Generally I was pleased that my first race of the season at Elm Grove the week prior wasn’t a fluke, and that I could actually finish a pro1/2 race.

And then I began an even more dreaded ritual in the cycling world. When the car is parked in public view, and has been baking for hours in the sun, there is one alternative (other than risking arrest for public indecency) to changing in the car. The pluses are that you can stand up, you have complete privacy, and you do not have to wriggle against hot leather in an exposed area. The downside is that the “Port-o-Let” or "Port-a-Pottie’s" are inevitably placed directly in the sun, and the temperature inside of the blue plastic igloos seems to be exactly the right thermal index to encourage odor causing bacteria to spawn: in the never ending battle of blue vs. brown, brown wins when it is hot… Even as I rotate the large plastic latch into place behind me, the heat, and the raging humidity, active with arguing forces of offal and septic cleansers locked onto my nostrils and the first breath nearly made me swoon and as I swayed in the narrow confines I tried not to touch anything.

In the 130 degree heat and stench, I wriggled out of my skinsuit, and the flush of sweat in the interior helped it to drop limply to the floor and I quickly climbed into my shorts and t-shirt, exploding out of the blue plastic door before requiring my second breath. God I miss the RV…

I returned to the car, neatly dis-assembled my bike into the parts of the small vehicle that would take those parts, and then slid my over-heated, dehydrated body onto the 150 degree leather seats for the 2 hour journey home in the 92 degree heat with no air conditioning, shade or respite. I was reliving my youth all over again…

Time to get the RV out of storage…

2007 Race Report #4: Racing Sick

Saturday June 30th, 2007:  Race report #4: Elm Grove Criterium – 35 miles, 82 degrees

In typical “too many things going on” fashion I arrived to the course with very little time to warmup for this 60 minute + two lap race in a suburb of Milwaukee.

The course was rectangular, but bowl shaped topographically, with the finish line and backstretch falling into the bottom of the bowl, and the two turns at either end of the rectangle rising up from the valley of the straightaways.

I hurriedly put in 15 minutes of warm-up and then arrived at the start line. I was surprised to find a couple of pro teams represented including team Hyundi. Also represented were about 50 or so Category 1 and 2 racers – all of whom looked much leaner and fitter than me.

The race referee sent us off with verbal commands and up the first small climb we sprinted. In 30 seconds my pulse was up over 170 beats/minute and for the next 4 or 5 laps I was hanging on for dear life…

I was reminded during the drive over this day that sometimes the hardest part about racing is showing up. Some days I can’t wait to race – particularly when the sun is shining, when there is low wind, and when it is not too incredibly hot or cold. This day – despite the sunny skies and relatively mild weather, I just… really didn’t want to go.

As a competitive athlete most of my life, one of the big surprises when I retired from full time competition back in 1998 was how much energy I felt – quite the opposite of what I expected. I can remember for years of my life dreading staircases of any sort, and how I would often have a headrush at the top of a short set of stairs. Little did I know then, that I was generally overtrained most of my career.

On this particular morning I remember using the stairs on the back deck after watering my little garden, and stopping at the top with that same feeling of exhausted vertigo. I just felt a bit tired and lugubrious.

I had some of that same feeling in the race – just a feeling of not being entirely present – like I was watching the race from a distance – and of being just a bit tired and slightly unmotivated. Also my stomach was turbulent and felt full even though it wasn’t. I just didn’t feel great…

Nonetheless discipline won out and I followed wheels, maintained my position, used the downhills and short climbs to my advantage and generally conserved as best I could.

When a breakaway of 4 got away mid-race, I found myself unable to care. I soldiered on, but did not spend as much time assessing the race motions as I probably would have normally.

With 5 to go I was dead last. 4 to go and 7 more guys went off the front – one group of 3 and another of 4 - but I was still dead last. 3 to go and I moved up just a little – maybe 35th. Two laps to go and I was cradled in the middle of the pack – shielded from the wind and watching, but I found myself finally waking up a bit. With one to go I was still in 25th, but now all senses were on full alert and as we accelerated up the small hill into turn one, I followed a surge up the left and entered the second straightaway in about 15th.

Making the turn into the backstretch and traveling back down into the small valley, another surge moved up the left and I followed in 3rd position and we peeled clear of the pack and moved within striking distance of the two breakaways.

Even though I was still not overly motivated, I did know what to do and even as we reached the back of the first of the two small breakaways, I made my move and accelerated left of their draft and shot forward to the second small breakaway, reaching their draft just shy of turn 3 and swinging wide, still accelerating…

We entered the fairly wide, downhill corner at probably 40mph, and they didn’t know I was coming. I remember clearly the sudden startled looks and shuddering of brakes and bikes as they realized I was taking them on the outside and that they wouldn’t be able to swing wide coming out of the corner without intersecting my launch path.

My acceleration took my clear of them by the end of the corner and I entered the 4th corner – still slightly downhill at a full sprint and screamed through it at probably 45mph.

The 200 meters left to the finish line had a small rise and then another downhill and I used the last of my reserves to maintain my speed over the rise and I slingshotted down the hill and to the finish line without even a vague sense of the pack behind me.

As it turns out, I did win the field sprint by several bike lengths and came in 6th overall – as there were 5 riders up on the breakaway.

I should have been pleased – really pleased with the result, and while I was happy intellectually… emotionally I just felt flat.

My friend Matt and his son Willie were there and seemed genuinely impressed with my sudden emergence from the bowels of the pack to the strong field sprint finish, and the photos Matt took – by failing to show the breakaway off-camera – almost look like a victory.

I thanked them for being there and then piled back into the car to drive back to Madison and then on again to Streamwood (Chicago). I felt tired and lightheaded and what I didn’t know then was that my physical challenges for the day were just beginning.

When I arrived in Madison, I picked up some Chinese food ready to go from a local carryout and I mistook my stomach’s rumblings for hunger and scarfed down several piles of noodles and rice.

It was only then that the inevitable began. My daughter had had it, and now it was my turn. Spasms and cramps gripped my stomach, and waves of nausea begin flowing through my body on the drive back to in Streamwood.

My hands were sweating on the wheel when we left Stoughton, but by the time I hit Rockford, I was shivering and freezing so badly that the car was vibrating with my shudders. I thought about pulling over, but I figured that driving was the only thing keeping me from decorating the car with the contents of my stomach and when I made it home I was beyond exhaustion.

The flu or more accurately the gastrointestinal illness I had contracted had another lovely feature – my back and shoulders felt exactly as though someone had driven a screw through them all the way to my hips, and then tighten a nut on my shoulders, creating an incredible amount of ache and thudding pain in my neck and shoulders and back. After a 20 minute scaldingly hot shower, I shivered my way to bed, hunched my shoulders, and proceeded to spend most of the night in the bathroom before finally falling asleep around 5am.

At some point in the night as my thoughts tumbled and repeated and some mundane sequence repeated itself over and over in my head, I remember thinking, “My God – can’t I just go to a bike race without event LIKE A NORMAL PERSON!?”

Next: Report #5: Wisconsin State Criterium Championships in Elkhorn, Wisconsin,

Til then,

John

2007 Race Report #3 - Giro De Grafton

Race report #3, June 2007: Giro de Grafton…

 (OK perhaps this is more accurately just “report #3” as the other two were not races.. but then again – does this one count?”) 

I realized tonight that I’m a practitioner of a dieing art – like homespun, cursive, and a hundred languages like Latin, Romansch and Frieslander, I’m likely one of the last of a generation that will understand the rational and intuitive aspects of a previously important activity.

Tonight I glued on a pair of tubular tires to their respective rims. For the uninitiated this means very little – and by the way, “why would you ‘glue’ tires on anyway?” For cyclists the world over until the mid-to-late 80’s this was an art – an activity that required experience, strength, and finesse.

It was sad, really, how much I remembered – and at the same time how much I forgot. I remembered exactly how much glue to press out of heavy metal foil of the tube onto the shallow concave receptacle of the rim. I rotated the wheels slowly, carefully in my lap and laid down beads of the world’s stickiest glue onto the thin aluminum shell lining the rim.

Tubular cement (tire glue) has the consistency of melted hot tar on the road right after application – viscous and extremely sticky - any touch of it tends to leave long glistening trails drooping with gathering glistening droplets like tiny spiders climbing down the shiny webs. It is quite easy to quickly find yourself covered with these webs on all sides and with multiple strands if you are not careful…

I remembered with perfection how to slide my fingertip around the finger-shaped concavity until the glue was perfectly spread from edge to center to edge, stopping just shy of each of the circular punches where the spokes connect. I remembered to let it slightly congeal for about 10 minutes.  I even remembered to put down newspaper to capture the stray drops of glue.

However, I forgot, at first, to put a slight amount of air into the tube/tire combo before attempting to stretch it over the rim. I also forgot to “pre-stretch” the tires onto that old glue covered rim I’ve carried around with me for the last 20 year for exactly that purpose. “Tell me again John, why do you carry around that nasty old rim?” my wife has asked on more than one occasion…

The hard part about gluing on a tubular is getting the tire on without getting the glue everywhere.  “Tubasti Cement” or variations thereof do not, actually, ever dry – they remain tacky for years and years. Without reading up on the physics of it, my guess is that the material in the glue resists sheer forces (i.e. sideways sliding of the tire off the “rimless rim” while remaining somewhat tacky keeps them relatively weak in bonding (i.e. the tires on not welded to the rim – hence you can remove them by pulling straight up and actually change flats).

Back in the day, you could spot a rookie “tubular” tire mount from a distance – strings of glue in the spokes, glops of the stuff oozing out from the tight intersection of the tire and the rim, and, inevitably, streaks of it on the sidewalls of the rim – right where the brake pads make contact (on road bikes). The days of squealing brakes due to glue residue are now a distant memory and even the thought of it now makes me feel like a relic. In the same way that I have very clear tactile memories of the quick finger-flicking motion and slow rasping hydraulic return of that clear plastic disk on the old rotary phones, these clichés are lost on the new generation of riders.

I managed to recover before getting glue everywhere, stretching the tube physically by putting a foot inside of it and then pulling upward with all my might, feeling the material give just a little. Then, after pumping in a small amount of air, I mounted the tire, very carefully stretching, pulling and wrapping the rim in its new rubber and silk shawl. Miraculously, both tires went on pretty straight.

So, WHY was I gluing on tires in an age of “clinchers?” (Clinchers: tires with tubes and the requisite rims that have tall sidewalls and a lip to catch the rim of the tires – i.e. “normal tires”).

I was preparing to return to race on the velodrome. My move to Chicago put me within striking distance of one of the few banked cycling tracks in the country. Velodrome or “track” cycling has some strong retro tendencies – not the least because the bikes used on the tracks are severely stripped down: no brakes, no gears, and – most importantly – no coasting. The chain is fixed to the gears and there is no ratcheting mechanism to allow you to coast.

Trying to coast on a track bike or “fixed gear” bike results in the “track bike rodeo” – your bike throws you – it bucks you right off. When your legs try to stop, the inertia of your weight and the grip of the tires on the pavement cause the “fixed gears” of the chain to redistribute that force in other directions and inevitably the rear wheel rises and the next thing you know, such a rider is upside down, bike wheels still spinning along with the legs attached in some sort of bizarre miniature carousel.

On Thursday, July 12th, I will return to the velodrome after 10 years away – we’ll see how that works out.

I weighed in again today. Last week I managed to catch one of those minor cold/flu things going around – though with less severe symptoms than most. It’s probably helping me lose weight  181.8lbs – only 6.8 lbs to go to my goal weight.

  Sunday, June 17th, Giro de Grafton: 

I was resolute in trying to get to my first race of the season on time, to NOT having a vehicle breakdown, to having my bike in good order, to getting in a good warmup, and hoping against all odds, to actually finish the race in my relatively new category of Pro I/II without getting dropped. Ideas of placing “in the money” or of a podium finish did not cross my mind.

The race was in the afternoon, and we actually left, more or less, with enough time to spare to allow a warmup. As it was father’s day, I convinced my wife to come along and bring my daughter. She even drove, and two hours later as I snacked on a Mojo bar, and drank Accelerade and water on the way over, we pulled into the small town of Grafton, Wisconsin – about 20 miles north of Milwaukee.

I had already changed into my racing skinsuit enroute, had my license ready and cash to pay the entry fees, and shortly after entering town we saw the barriers found marking bike races around the world for re-routing traffic – those orange and white diagonal stripes briefly igniting with the reflection of the sun.

I was about to suggest some shaded parking opportunities when I noticed that these particular barriers were actually pulled aside and were propped up on the sidewalk – the way was still clear. So we pulled forward, and at the next corner we found the same thing – barriers stacked neatly against a lightpost on the corner – but off the road.

We made a left turn, and it was about then that I had a dose of very cold blood run through my heart and lift a cold sweat to my skin… Where were the cars? The cyclists? The people? The loudspeaker announcements? The town was a ghost town – just carefully stacked barriers and empty streets.

 We were just about to ask someone when I noticed a flyer in the window indicating the 2007 Giro de Grafton – on Saturday, June 16th.   

Yesterday.

 Thank God it was father’s day. The look Shannon gave me said it all… but then again it was father’s day and all she said was, “Its father’s day, so I’m not going to say anything else – nothing else at all… except, I’m in charge of the schedule from now on…” 

And we drove the 2 hours home…

2007 Race Report #2: A brief tour of Italy

Tuesday, May 15, 2007: -------------------

Row 48, seat A, Air France flight 051 to Paris, France with a connection to Milan Italy.  Staring out the tiny etched plexiglass window, tiny droplets of condensation navigate randomly upward, backward as we streak through the sky. I watch another jet and its corresponding trail of tiny icicles disappear to my left through the oval porthole.

“What the hell am I doing here?” I think as I watch the navy blue suited airline attendants move briskly up and down the aisles bringing out champagne and freshly baked bread and a plastic tray containing dinner. “Who goes to Italy  for 3 ½ days to ride their bike?” someone asked.

I guess now the answer is, “I do.”

I leaned back and thought about the last 24 hours. “What a nightmare – why can’t I go to a cycling event without having a major logistical snafu?” Last year it was the RV, yesterday it was the BMW…

-----------------

Monday morning – the day before my flight, and I was preparing to head to Chicago for work – and also bringing all the accoutrements needed for the trip to Italy. Given my track record of vehicle problems when heading to bike races, I decided to check the oil in the BMW, and found it a touch low. I put in a little extra oil just “to make sure,” capped it off, closed the hood and headed off out of Stoughton, Wisconsin at 6:15am passing through town, heading out to highway 90 and making good time toward Rockford, settling in at 85mph in the early parts of the 130 mile trip to Chicago.

It was only a quarter of an hour after my departure that I first began to notice the grey/blue shadowy haze trailing my vehicle. Sure enough, the car was burning oil like an old jalopy. I assumed that the slight overfill I had put in the oil reservoir the night before was burning off, so I continued on my way, and the car seemed to be responding normally and not overheating. However the smoke continued to cast a darkened haze onto my rear view mirror and did not quickly abate as I expected…

As I entered the usual constrictions at Randall Rd. near Elgin, my worries grew as the oil pressure light began fluttering on and off, and the smoke began drifting all around the car. Stopped dead for minutes at a time in the worst traffic of the year, I began to watch the temperature gauge climb… Visions of a car fire, or just being stranded, blocking traffic, hitchhiking or walking to the next exit, taxis, tow trucks, dealerships – all of this flashed through my head even as I realized I was leaving the country the next day… My stress levels rose further…

But, I couldn’t actually do anything about it… so I continued on, inching my way forward through traffic and 3 hours after starting my “regular” Monday morning commute I made it into the office, swirling into the parking garage like Pig Pen with wheels. When I stopped the car and took a look underneath, I was rather astonished to discover that oil wasn’t dripping out of the engine block…It was actually raining from two dozen spots – from the struts, chassis, drivetrain – everywhere.

Late now for a meeting, I didn’t have time to check the oil and it wasn’t until that evening, when I pulled the dipstick and found it bone dry that I realized I had lost almost 6 quarts of oil on the road to Chicago. Even worse, and more embarrassing, was how...

No, no major engine malfunction here. I had lost all that oil through the same hole it had entered the engine – right out of the top of the block. When I lifted the hood, I found the oil cap conveniently wedged between the block and some cables and in the yawning circular mouth just in front of it I could see the shiny mechanical bowels of the engine. And there, angled above it, I could see the deftly curved splashguard the hood had become – distributing those quarts of oil liberally over the entire engine compartment.

I had failed to properly seal the oil cap back onto the engine block… and apparently that little disk of black plastic serves an important purpose.

So I put in two quarts, and then two more, and then two more and finally the oil level registered on the dipstick and I roared away back to hotel to begin packing for the trip the next morning. If I had thought, at the time, that my troubles were behind me, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

I wheeled my bike, bike box, tools, and clothing for my trip up to my hotel room and proceeded to dismantle my bike for international shipping in the hard plastic case I had rented for the trip. Nominally the operation was quite simple – remove the seat and seatpost, remove the wheels, remove the pedals and “voila” into the box it goes.

I unpacked my pedal wrench for the pedals, allen wrenches for the seatpost, and at around 10pm, after some room service, began the process. It was then that I realized that my new pedals didn’t use a pedal wrench – instead they required a gigantic allen wrench the size of a hammer. 10pm – no bike shops are open, and I have meetings all day tomorrow. Damn! I’m going to have to cancel a meeting and travel to a bike shop prior to leaving for the airport at 3pm. Wait – I call hotel maintenance, and Ignacio just happens to have a full set of allen keys and at 11pm I have the pedals off.

Next step – remove the seat and seatpost. Easy enough – loosen the seatpost clamp, twist the seat a bit, and off it comes – right?

No.

My Colnago C40 frame is carbon fiber. My seatpost is carbon fiber. I have raced in the rain, and all kinds of silt and sand have apparently made their way into those tiny gaps between these two composite surfaces. Net result? Friction - significant friction.

The next full hour I spent straddling my rear wheel, knees gripping the frame and rear triangle, as I wrenched the seat back and forth with a twisting motion in attempts to remove the seat and seatpost from the frame. Each twist and pull required my knees to dig into the frame, my forearms and hands, shoulders and biceps to strain to their max, and all of this was accompanied not only by my grunts and profanities, but by a hair raising squeal of carbon on carbon as I tried to un-mate two surfaces welded by thousands of tiny particles of grit. “Eeee-er! Eeee-er!” – shrieked the carbon. It was so loud my ears rang and I really expected hotel security at any second.

After a half hour I had moved the seat up about 2 inches, 45 minutes got me 2 ½. And hour got me 2 ¾ inches. It was then that I felt the heat rising from the frame below – all my efforts twisting and creating sheer forces were heating up the carbon fiber potentially making matters worse. It really was this factor that ultimately led to the solution. But meanwhile I was physically and mentally exhausted – It was now after midnight and there was no way to get my bike into the box it needed to be in. A quick internet search worsened my mood as it began to mention hack saws and milling machines.

I sat on the bed quivering and sweating from the exertion and started thinking about the basic physical properties of materials – heat expands them, cold shrinks them. I grabbed a towel and walked, shirtless and dripping sweat out into the hotel hallway, passing two guys in suits and ties without a second glance and walked to the ice machine and proceeded to fill the towel with ice. I then returned to the room, past the same two guys, trailing a few runaway ice cubes as they stared, and then put the bulging bundle under cold water for a second. I then tied the whole works around my seatpost. I proceeded to pack other essentials and 15 minutes later began to tug at the seat again.

It moved quite easily up another couple of inches, but wedged again. Trying a different tack I was able to make it go down quite easily, so I moved the seatpost all the way down, and then removed the seat, leaving only ½ inch of seatpost sticking above the carbon frame. Sure enough, the frame and fork and seatpost now barely fit into the bike box, and by 1am I had managed to complete packing all my materials for the trip.

I set my alarm for 6:30 am and then, on Tuesday attended my usual, but never-ending series of meetings before rushing to the airport in the rain at 3pm for my 5:30pm overnight flight to Paris…

 Why did I do it? Why did I go? I was in a critical phase of a major project at work. I was moving in less than a month. I was behind on a dozen things.

To be honest it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. “How could it be hard to decide to take a vacation to Italy?” one might ask… 

We are all driven to achieve, to meet expectations, to cover all our bases, to only feed our souls when all of life’s mundane demands are met. Every intuitive bone in my body was screaming “cancel!” “You can’t go right now!”, “There’s so much to do!” But in reality all those things stacking up were stacking up because I had lost my perspective. What did it all mean? What was truly important? Why was I working 14, 16, sometimes 18 hours a day?

I was (as usual) overestimating my importance in the grand scheme of things at work, and under-delivering against some of life’s basics such as sleep, exercise, nutrition & relationships. It felt noble to rob myself of some of these elements – I was “sacrificing” – but really, was it effective? No. 

I have some history of overworking and overtraining, though not nearly as bad as some... In some sense it is easy to do – because you can clearly show how you “did all you could.” It provides a safe layer of CYA.  But as I agonized over and over about it, I finally decided to ignore all my natural alarm systems and to listen to my rational mind that said, “John – you need a break – you need to just get away and think of nothing other than turning the pedals.” 

I’m glad I listened…

 ------------------------- 

Wed, May 16, 2007: Monferrato Hills, Italy

How can I describe the pastoral setting in which I, by luck, found myself? Bordered on the North by the river Po, the Monferrato hills are a relatively unknown slice of northern Italy. Characterized by rolling hills filled with open expanses of vineyards and orchards, the region is laced with single lane paved country roads, these delicate iron gray balustrades framing the intricate leafwork of the vineyards and sprinkled with small villages cresting each significant hill, each of these ancient stone and tile layer cakes having at its apex the requisite castle and cathedral as decorations.

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Even as I arrived to my farmhouse-come-bed-&-breakfast, my senses were awakening. Instead of bumper to bumper traffic and tollways, I found myself zipping up switchbacks in my tiny rental car eagerly anticipating the next vista. This pattern – of climbing, followed by an extravagant view, characterized the next 3 ½ days of my visit.

I could describe each day in detail – how I overslept the first day, how I rode until sunset each day because I woke so late, how I rode a total of 19 hours, and climbed over 10,000 feet, but I won’t bother. The statistics are meaningless compared to the experience.

The region is really quite sparsely populated – so I really had the tiny bike path width roads to myself.

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Getting lost – originally a major concern – went out the window once I realized the nature of the territory: each village is on top of a hill. The hills are about 2 – 5 miles apart. There is only 1 road between each village. From each village, at the cathedral and castle at its summit, you can see 360 degrees to all the neighboring villages.

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Using that simple logic, it became quite simple to navigate my way, village by village through the landscape. But roads, villages, cathedrals, castles – this is all still logistics. What was it really like?

Like always, I sat on my narrow seat and my legs and feet turned the pedals. Like always, I drank water from my water bottle, ate energy foods from my back pocket, and listened to music on my ipod. I created a 6 hour long playlist on the flight over that seemed to perfectly catch the moods of the day. I started slow and just followed the flowing hilltops and rows of the vineyards. I suffered a lot, climbing steep switchbacks up into the golden heights and was rewarded with the next vista flowing to my eyes even as the sun heated the cobbles and stones behind me. I descended each hill in a manic streak of speed into the cool gray greenery of the next valley, drinking in the sudden humidity.

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Unlike always it was like being in love.

Jasmine, jasmine and more jasmine – the scent hung heavy in the air, and as the sinking sun veined the green vistas with gold, I could see the golden pollen of its scent and others floating above the fields in the brilliant chiaroscuro light of the evening.

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I navigated the curving valleys, listening to that hollow thrumming of my tires – that sound they only make when there is no wind, and then the tune would change as decline became incline and I would hear the gentle tinkling of the mechanicals: the ratcheting chain on well oiled gears and I would climb to the next dusty heights of stone and cobbles. The repetition of the smells had a pattern too – damp rich earthy loam in the valleys, and then the aristocratic and dry herbs at the heights. And always, jasmine.

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 Right outside my apartment was a huge climbing vine of jasmine and every evening I collected a dozen sprigs of the tiny white perfumed flowers and placed them in a cup of water next to the bed.

The climbs, for me, were hard. Averaging between 300 and 1000 feet vertical to reach the crest of the next town, I had to try to find a rhythm to climbing – something I’ve never been good at. For 10 or 15 minutes I would be out of the saddle, with relatively low rpms making my way up the next set of switchbacks, passing through vineyards and orchards, then the stone fences marking the village boundaries, and finally with washes of radiant heat even in the shadow, entering the echoing stone surrounds of the narrow village streets – mostly unchanged for 100’s of years.

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Throughout the day I would stop sometimes at the top – for a Panini, an espresso, or just to take pictures or let the light of the surrounds enter my corneas. Gold, copper, yellow and a millions shades in between – these colors somehow quickly breathed life into my graying mindset. Few people were around – after all it was a weekday – but I was happy to have the villages to myself and rode without a care for cars or people, taking corners at breakneak speed.

My 2nd day, and each day thereafter, I managed my route to land me at the small village of Oliveria around 7pm. Bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, the tiny village centered evenly on a relatively small hill, allowing 360 degree views of the area. In the small square at the top of the hill, next to the Cathedral there was a small café and wine bar.

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The first time I arrived, I allowed myself my first glass of Barolo and found it accompanied by a large wooden cutting board platter with an assortment of local cheeses, sausages, grapes, walnuts, olives and chunks of homemade breads, all drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a bit of honey.

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It was heaven. All fresh, all locally made. Seemingly heavy, these foods never once gave me a single physical discomfort.  I returned every day thereafter.

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Each evening I seemed to have a pinnacle moment – where the scents and the sights, the mood, and the colors, the music, and my own efforts brought about a renewed sense of clarity – of hope, and of happiness. It recurred always as the sun was starting to set and the fields were set ablaze and I was beginning yet another curvy descent to the next valley.

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The superlight but stable carbon fiber of the Italian made Colnago between my knees, the still, but perfumed air of the Italian countryside filling my lungs, the smooth narrow roads filling my sights, I would inevitably raise my arms exactly perpendicular and float down the side of the hill, wheels whispering as my speed built, flying down the mountain.

Was this it? I wondered… What speed did the Wright brothers require for flight at Kittyhawk? With my arms wide and my bike traveling 35+ mph leaning down the curving roads it felt exactly like flight. I would grip the bars and inevitably put in a sprint to take the speed up to 40, 50. Wide bends arcing through the fields and with utmost confidence my bicycle and body would lean in, rubber gripping the asphalt, and then smoothly rotate up and over the other way for the next curve…

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Each night I pulled in just as it was getting too dark to ride safely, and I would plunge quickly into the cool waters of the pool before heading back to my room to change, shower and head to town for dinner.  I was inevitably so exhausted that I had very few thoughts other than a complete present tense focus on my current activity. I had to actually coach myself through basic activities – “lift arms, now slide t-shirt down over head”. “Put on shoes.” “Don’t forget the keys.”

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This same present focus really lent itself to my dinners and I savored my salmon rigatoni in vodka sauce, my veal and “tartufo” raviolis, my bread and oil and sausages and cheeses and wine with a single minded discipline.

As I would climb into the old four poster bed each night, the cool evening air pouring slowly into the room and chilling the stone floor, I was lulled to sleep with thoughts of nothingness and the scent of jasmine.

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Next issue: the first race report – the exciting Giro d’Grafton

2007 Race Report #1, The Country Sprint

June 5, 2007 So it begins – my first entry into my annual race journal. It is already June and I have not raced yet this season – though I have selected my first race – the “Giro de Grafton” in Wisconsin on June 16th. Meanwhile, my family are in the middle of preparations to move to Chicagoland as we close on our new house in Streamwood this Friday, and - we are also still selling our old house, as well as 2 cars and a boat. It is a busy time… Nonetheless I’m still getting in a decent amount of hours on the bike.

Flashback: Mid March, 2007

Scene: standing undressed in front of a brand new scale (our old one died a couple years ago and we never replaced it). I inched forward, my toes wriggling across the slate floor in our bathroom and I gingerly stepped onto the textured white plastic surface of the digital scale. As the LED lights began to whirl, I reflected on the preceding months leading to this moment.

Great weather in November and December and early January (for winter in the Midwest anyway) led to a pretty consistent set of weekend training rides, with the occasional spinning session during the week and I was still feeling reasonably fit going into the new year. Then… work, and weather happened and I found myself spending up to 10 days at a time off the bike, without even the semblance of another workout to take its place.  Long commutes to Chicago, McDonalds several times a week - it all started to add up...

I’m lucky enough to add weight evenly across my body – with the result that, when I’m fat, I’ll be oddly accused for “working out” as my shoulders, chest, even my neck will grow along with my waist. Sure enough, just earlier in the week someone had slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Coyle – you’ve been working out!” – a sure sign that the LED’s  on the scale were going to tell an ugly story.

Sure enough, the lights finished blinking, and the scale read “197”. Nearly 200 lbs. on a frame that at its best carried 164 lbs of muscle. I had gained 15 lbs since September, and probably lost muscle as well. A long hard road ahead indeed.

 One of the big realizations I had going in to this season was that it was likely to be my last semi-serious cycling season. With a daughter in kindergarten, almost old enough for organized sports, the window for traveling almost every weekend to bike races was quickly closing. Once she’s in ballet, or soccer, or gymnastics or… whatever sport or hobby becomes her focus, our orbits will change and my life will necessarily revolve around hers. That, and the fact that at the age of 38, even the great Mario Cipollini finally threw in the towel – but not without winning a significant victory in one of his last stage races ever...

For the 2007 season I had set some rather aggressive goals… to win a Pro Race stage at my favorite annual Wisconsin/Illinois sporting event in July – “Superweek”, and then to win the nationals in Downer’s Grove in August, and then, finally to win the Pro I/II race in little Italy, Windsor, Canada over Labor day in September. I estimated that I would need a body weight of approximately 175lbs in order to compete at this level. Odds of any of this happening were…. Slight.

To this end, and partially to escape the stresses of work, I made a rather last minute trip to Italy in late May, and in the period of 3 ½ days I spent over 19 hours just riding, riding riding… I’ll give a bit of detail of that trip in my next update.

Meanwhile, back at home, May 20th, after some incredible riding viewing the vistas of the vineyards of Italy, and my naked toes are lined up on the slate in front of the scale again. With a mixture of trepidation and pride I line up my white feet and tanned calves on the pebbled plastic and watch the numbers flash. “184.8 lbs” – 12 lbs gone, 10lbs to go.

Flashback: Saturday, April 21st. My first long ride of the year – way overdue as it was already late April. But the weather in February and March was awful. I actually rode more in December and January than I did in February. Crisp and cold can be quite rideable, sleet or cold rain becomes more of a challenge.

I had ridden about 2 ½ hours of the 3 hour ride, and was struggling on my way back home against a 20+ mile/hour headwind. I was tiring quickly and was out of food, and running low on water.

I passed some typical milestones on the route home – the forested dip into the Yahara river valley, and the high speed ride over its swollen waters, followed by a short climb to an open plateau of corn fields. This was followed by a stop sign at Highway M, and then a “ false flat” (a steady hill disguised as flat road) leading for over a mile across a still-desolate plain of shredded gray corn stalks and crenellated earth before a "T" in the road and a left turn leading back down to the river valley once again.

As I crossed Highway M and began the mile long exposed stretch of slightly uphill country road, I noticed my speed hovering around 9mph against the headwind and incline – even with considerable effort. Head down, thinking of nothing but turning the pedals, getting home, and Coca-Cola, I continued to plow slowly forward, body imperceptibly weakening.

Then I sensed it – that scratch in my sunglasses suddenly taking action, that shadowy form gathering at the edges of my awareness and streaking inward even as the first sharp staccato barks thudded against my ears.

Farm dogs are a reality of rural riding the world over, and their actions are relatively predictable. There must be something about the gentle perambulations of a bicycle, the circular motion of those sweaty, meaty limbs spiraling so delectably that, combined with the lure of open greenspace and the ability satisfy their predatory instincts, completely outweighs the farm dog’s natural reticence for the open road and associated hurtling metal cars: in a snap of instincts overriding discipline, their bodies respond.

The “country sprint” as it oft becomes can be quite motivating – just like the dog, as that blotch on the sunglasses takes form, instincts take over and the human body responds. Something about the snapping jaws, bared teeth, and guttural growls of the enraged animal bypasses conscious thought and stirs the more primal responses of our modern bodies and minds and without a moments thought or hesitation, I’m up, out of the saddle, sprinting, with seemingly considerable reserves of power despite my fatigue.

Even as I accelerate forward, the parts of my brain that calculate spacial relationships, velocity, direction and trajectory began to do the math… This animal, unlike most, did not appear to aiming for where I WAS, it was aiming for where I was GOING

There is something about the predatory motion of dog on the attack that is compelling in the same way as a car crash or horror movie. Something of their motion that reminds me of a tick – tiny in the distance but looming larger, hooked forelimbs and claws curving underneath their flattened shiny swollen bodies as they move smoothly and swiftly across uneven ground, clinging tightly to the clipped grass and curves of the surface. This particular animal had a manic glint in its eyes, and even as it reached top speed and headed for and disappeared behind the berm and ditch separating the farmhouse lawn from the road, I knew intuitively that when I next saw him, he would be coming directly at me like the bolt from a cross bow.

This was no small rat-hound – rather a meaty, 110 lab/pit bull/mastiff mix that seemed first intent on knocking me into oblivion before gnawing my bones. Even as the dog disappeared behind the berm and into the ditch, additional power previously unavailable suddenly coursed through my body, and I shifted up and hit the pedals with every ounce of energy and power available to my tired and out-of-shape legs.

When the sleek mass of canine muscle reappeared, my acceleration was just enough to foil his attempt to T-bone me and take me down, and he went winging past my rear wheel by only inches, the ticks of his claws changing to scrapes as he course-corrected and began to bear down on me from behind, legs in full horizontal stretch, muzzle snarling, the growls echoing off the damp pavement.

At this point, only 7 or 8 seconds had gone by – a seemingly interminable time where sound and sight, adrenaline and scent, instinct and response had played out the first round of moves of a chess game played the world over by predator and prey. 7 or 8 seconds just also happens to be the extremely limited scope of my strengths on the bike. And as 9, 10, and 11 seconds ticked by my advantages diminished, even as the enraged growls and howls from the dog began to amplify.

12 seconds of sprinting uphill, into a 20mph headwind began to take a very serious toll on my legs and lungs, and I found myself slowing, thighs like pink balloons, knuckles white on the bars even as my pursuing predator pulled even with my left leg and began to turn his snapping maw to latch on. I could feel strings of saliva touch my legs as his jowls touched my ankle and calf… I swung the bike left and my rear wheel and flashing bladed spokes briefly touched the muzzle of the animal before it slowed slightly and then began bounding up the right side, accelerating quickly to try and gnaw on me on that side.

16, 17, 18 seconds into a maximal effort, and even with the full aid of adrenaline, my system is beginning to shut down. My fear subsides to resignation as my physical ability to separate myself from the predator decreases, and I swing the bike to the right and again bring spinning rubber and metal to bear on the rabid chops of the dog who again backs off.

19, 20, 21, 22 seconds – and the game repeats back on the left side, and then 23, 24, 25, 26 seconds, back on the right. My speed has considerably slowed now, and I’m laboring out of the saddle gasping for air to try and keep some semblance of speed as my oxygen starved muscles and brain try to protect me. 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 seconds and the dog is back on the left, and then finally, FINALLY, pulling up, panting heavily, tongue dangling, and peeling off back onto the shoulder of the road staring emotionless at the havoc he has caused, then pausing to trot back to its farmhouse – another day, another prey.

I begin coasting and my speed dwindles almost immediately from 20+ mph to 3 or 4 mph, and I start having trouble steering the bike as my inertia almost stops from the wind and incline.

I force my legs to move and surprise myself with the volume and ugliness of the rattling wheezing breaths that come out of my lungs and into the cool spring air. I taste blood and acid as my heartrate reaches its climax and the blood pounds in my ears. I wonder if I have ever felt pain this excruciating. I can barely turn the pedals, and my breathing speeds up again as my feeble efforts force my bloodstream and system to begin clearing out the toxic by-products of a significant anaerobic effort. For the next 20 minutes I average little over 5mph against the wind and then only 7 or 8 when I make the turn and begin heading home against the crosswind, head hanging, lungs still gasping, legs dangling awkwardly in the pedals.

Moments later, when another, much smaller farm dog suddenly appears nipping at my heels I do respond with a short sprint, but sit down quickly and break out my water bottle – hoping to remove the menace with the placement of a few quick wet spurts to the eyes of the small predator.  20mph crosswinds dice the water into millions of flashing droplets and I'm forced to extend my sprint to 8 or 10 seconds to outrun this tiny predator before I subside to an even deeper funk on the bike.

By the time I reach home I'm beyond hope or despair and merely churn small circles with my feet in the vain belief that the circular motion below me will somehow summon up food if I persist in the motions. I unclip in the driveway and abandon my bike with a thump to the lawn, wheels still spinning and proceed to eat anything with sugar, protein or fat that I can find for the next 20 minutes.

And so begins my professional preparation for the 2007 cycling season. Coming in Pre-season race report #2 - "A 3 1/2 day journey to Italy - the hills of Monferrato". Til then,

-John