The Sprinter's Choice...

 Think of those moments as a kid where you tried to stay underwater to swim a distance or find an object at the bottom of the pool or lake – and then of that last burst of frantic, lung burning energy as you exploded to the surface and finally breathed the fresh air of recovery.

 

Now imagine the same maneuver - doing that same impulsive set of thrumming kicks normally reserved for breaking back to the surface – but instead use them to knowingly enter a tunnel: a darkening culvert with the water rising - the dark spirals of the galvanized ceiling pressing down – lips pursed to capture a breath just above water in the dark as the air disappears. This is the sprinters choice – continue these death throes or back up and hope for more air.

 

Often the right choice is forward: thrashing forward under the dark nape of the water and all air gone, the horizon closing. Lungs are on fire, legs become molten lead and every evolutionary fiber in your body tells you to dart for a surface that is no longer there – asphyxiating paroxysms of fear threaten to undermine your survival…

 

This is fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – that deep inner panic starts to simmer and boil over – to pervade everything – it tells you to find a way to surface, to escape this intentional drowning. But there is no short cut and those that try to find one – by diving into corners or by taking them too fast – find disaster and wash up on the shores of the barriers.  Instead you must discipline yourself, duck lower, and kick through to the other end of this tunnel of pain before you can rise to the surface.

 

 It is as a result of exactly these kinds of panic attacks that I’ve ended up burning through my own skin on the tarmac at various races – not my panic, rather the dying gropings of another drowning rider panicking – groping, and pulling me under.

 

It is this element of fear that makes racing difficult to describe - after all, we choose this fear right?

Walden Principle #2: Racing is the best Training (Sleeping in a Haystack)

 

 

 

Racing is the Best Training  - or, Sleeping in a Haystack

 

Spring 1990.

 

Life was golden: A senior at a northern California University , I was enjoying the sun and elegant architecture of campus life in California and reveling in my lot as an upperclassman close to graduation. I was in love with my remaining classes in engineering and art design required to complete a degree in mechanical engineering - product design in June.

 

I was also coming off a successful speed skating season: national and world team member, second in the national championships, and a 10th place finish at the world speed skating championships in the 500m despite training on my own in California of all places, while completing one of the toughest curriculums in the country.

 

Newly single, physically at the top of my game, ready to graduate, the world was my oyster.

 

During that spring of 1990 I made a significant decision – to put all my eggs in one basket and pursue speed skating with all the passion I had and let my new degree sit on a shelf: after graduation, I entered, for the first time in my skating career, the full time summer training program of the national speedskating team.

 

That July I moved to Colorado Springs to train with the national team along with Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair and about 20 other top U.S. Speedskaters and participate in a number of tests including V02 Max (ability to process oxygen), BMI (body mass index), Max Power Output (peak watts on the bike), Max Squats (lbs. lifted), Vertical leap and others.

 

To say that I failed these tests (for the most part) would be an understatement – as it turns out I had the lowest test VO2 Max of anyone on the team – held to be the single greatest predictor of success in the sport. Other tests results were middling at best except for the peak power output.

 

As the season progressed, after a strong start, my world started falling apart. Training always hurts and you learn to ignore the pain and focus on the future, but at some point that autumn, my lap times – which were always a bit unpredictable, began to have a pattern to their unpredictability – they were bad and worse depending on the day. By the time of the trials for the world cup and world championships, they were so bad that I had to face the fact that I was not going to have a shot at making the team – despite being in the top 5 the last two years – without consistent training – living in California.

 

I think I ended up 12th.

 

People patted me on the back at the national team trials – “next year Coyle – this year doesn’t matter.” And it was mostly true – the next year, the same competition would be the selection for Albertville : the Olympic trials – the true goal of all this suffering.

 

The rest of my training woes and eventual recovery I’ll save for a separate write-up on principle #1 “Race your Strengths,” but for this report, I’ll focus on a very important decision that came next: I still had the remainder of a full winter season ahead of me – without the support and funding of the team – what should I do?

 

I didn’t qualify to travel and race on the national team, supported and paid for by the Olympic committee funds (like I had the last few years), so I had only two choices:

 

  1. Stay back in the U.S. and train (fully funded) at the U.S. Olympic training center with the other members of the team who didn’t qualify for travel team support and funding for travel or…   
  2. Find a way to get overseas and travel the world cup circuit on my own dime, racing in the ‘open’ category in the competitions that would allow it.

The coaches’ perspective was as predictable as it was compelling: “Stay back John, focus on building your aerobic base, make up for all those lost years in California ” (by the way… lost years? What about the successes during that period?)

 

I felt like any other choice than that recommendation would be stupid – that those ‘in the know’ knew what was best for me. These were smart people who cared about me and were unilateral in both wanting me to succeed and in recommending the best way to do so.

 

But…there was that other part of me – the rebellious part - the part of me that didn’t relish in training for its own sake – that found little gratification in posting laps and times just for the sake of laps and times - the part of me that loved the thrill and unpredictability of racing.

 

The idea of spending the rest of the winter pounding out laps in the cold and dark of Lake Placid , New York had me in a state of depression… yet I felt like I couldn’t really justify any other choice.

 

Fortunately I do have that occasional stubborn and rebellious streak – and that side of me came to the fore during those days and it was then that I remembered the words pounded into my head for years and years by a different coach at a different time...

 

“Racing is the best training, Coyle, racing is the best training.”

 

I can still hear Walden’s voice and, more importantly, the overbearing conviction that came through that an alternative viewpoint was not only without merit, but would not to be entertained. (In many ways Mike Walden reminds me of our CEO and my occasional mentor, Jack Rooney of U.S. Cellular®).

 

Discussions with Mike were nearly entirely one-way.

 

After the speedskating world cup team trials, as the ‘official’ team was preparing to leave for Europe , decision time for me came. When asked for my decision, suddenly those words came tumbling out verbatim to my coaches Stan and Susan. I said, “You know, as much as continued training in the program is compelling and I appreciate the offer, I think that for me, racing is the best training, so I’m going to find a way to get over to Europe for the world cups.”

 

It was rather interesting that by embracing one set of conventions, I was bucking another. More importantly, since that day 18 years ago, I can say with complete conviction that any other set of training or racing guidelines not in agreement with those held by Walden have inevitably led to failure.

 

The reality of confidence is much more ephemeral and emotional in nature than the logic of time suggests: it comes minutes at a time. A perfect extension, a pair of straightaway strokes, fast lap, a winning race - these feelings ladder up and can build confidence - particularly when there is a progression. Ultimately though confidence can be a house of cards undone by the faintest breath of weakness.

 

A slip? Getting passed? Dying on the final corner in an important race? Back to back exhausted practices where form seems to disappear? Like water in a drain, the tide of confidence washes away quickly and leaves no reminder of its presence. As each week and hour and second and skate stroke grew consecutively weaker and more anemic, so my confidence atrophied like light from the stub of a dying candle.

 

It seems hard to fathom – that ones’ results and confidence could be so high one year prior, only to fall so low. But in the mirror of hindsight and distance it becomes easy to gloss over the weeks and days and hours and suggest, “Well, you were great the year before – you knew you’d recover…”

 

I DID NOT know. Part of me believed the test results – that I was a poor athlete and that I didn’t belong… Part of me didn’t know what, or who to believe… If someone stopped me and said, "4 years from now you'll be standing on the podium at the Olympic games with a medal around your neck," I  would have nodded and smiled - but deep down I had begun to accept the possibility that I really wasn't very good. Fortunately a small part of me believed what Mike Walden, and Mark Affholter, and Stan Klotkowski had told me – that I could be world and olympic champion. So I chose to try and believe that…

 

...and prepared as if it were true...

 

 

By January of that season I was no longer the celebrated “ California skater who won the 1000m time trial at the world team trials and was 10th in the world” the year before, I was another burnt ember: the “low V02, ‘lucky’ guy, who couldn’t hack the realities of ‘real’ training for the sport.”

 

Unsurprisingly to those of you that know me now: despite all the advice and signs, I decided to buck convention and all of the advice: I went to Europe anyway.

 

I sold one of my bikes and received a little gift from my parents and raised a total of $1500 for my 2 month trip (which became 3 months by the way) to Europe . The $1500 I needed had to cover round trip airfare, 2 new pairs of skates, housing, food, and travel for 90 days....

 

I was all set.

 

I got a roundtrip fare from Chicago to Amsterdam for $400 and negotiated with the Viking skate factory in Holland to give me the national team discount and provide me new skates for $150/pair, so I spent another $300 on new skates. Now I had $700 left for 2 months. $1.33/day – perfect.

 

My parents helped me by springing for a Eurail pass in addition  - good for 60 days and 15 rides. I hoped to stay beyond the skating season and see a little bit of Europe so I decided to not activate it for those first 30 days. I got on the plane to Europe .

 

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

 

I arrived in Amsterdam in the early gray of morning after the usual overnight flight, exiting the white modern white terminal filled with the acrid smoke of European cigarettes to a typically gray, moist and damp Dutch day. After some navigation between the train station and the closest tram, I managed to find public transport to the Viking skate factory on the outskirts of town.

 

After a quick tour of the massive warehouse, I spent about 2 hours in the factory trying on skates barefoot in order to find a pair that fit perfectly. Sure they all “look the same” but the reality is that minute differences in the shape, stretch, and contours of the leather and blade made for significant differences. I’m a size 43 but I bought two pairs of size 41 skates for a tight fit, and added to that a custom distinction – switching the standard set of 16 ½ inch 1mm wide blades blades for 17 ½ blades and carrying a spare pair in a cardboard poster tube. I was set for the season.

 

I left the huge factory (the interior of which looked much like the end of the first Indiana Jones movie) where there were aisles and aisles of speed skates – primarily for the domestic public (there are over 1.2 million registered Dutch speed skaters – vs. about 2000 in the United States ) and walked back to where the main highway cut through town and followed an entrance ramp down to the viaduct.

 

First stop, Munich , and then onto Inzell, about 800km away. Ready, set, …. THUMB. I had never hitchhiked, but the concept was easy to understand.

 

Standing by the roadside next to the roaring traffic I was carrying a number of objects that, as it turns out, would become important later. I had my large black backpack with an internal frame full of about 50 lbs of clothing, shoes, and gear. I also had 2 boxes of skates, and one small poster tube with a spare set of blades. And then I had my 40lb duffel bag with all my skating stuff: sharpening jig and stones, oil, tools, skinsuits and warmups. All told I had about 100lbs of stuff – both hands were full and I had a back full of a backpack.

 

Other than the recent massive failures with regards to my training I generally considered myself as serendipitous – having a ‘green thumb for life’ – and on that day I got four aces. Not 20 minutes after I first stuck out my thumb, a rusty old jalopy pulled up and 4 doors popped open full of friendly, smiling young faces with Australian accents who asked pleasantly, “Where you headed mate?”

 

I told them.

 

“ Munich ? No shit! That’s where we are going! We just bought this old beater and are heading to Munich for Octoberfest! Climb on in!”

 

I had to tie my backpack to the roof and then held my skatebag and boxes on my lap in the middle seat of the rear of the old jalopy, but the warm dutch beers they passed around quickly had me laughing and jabbering away with the rest of them and we headed on our way all the way to the German border (OK, that’s like 30 miles – Holland is tiny).

 

Serendipity then lost her grip and a god-awful shaking took over the car and then shiny metal disks began to shoot from underneath the car in all directions to an incredible cacophony. At first I though the engine had exploded – except it was still running – but our forward progress began to slow as we coasted: we had dropped the transmission.

 

My newfound pals immediately began the mourning process but I had no vested interest in the bum auto deal they had made that morning and instead untied my backpack and resumed what would come to be a very typical posture over the coming months – standing with a slight lean at the edge of the road, arm curved with thumb out, trying to look ‘safe.’

 

A tow truck came and I said goodbye to the Aussies but an hour went without anyone stopping for me. Then two hours. I began to despair… and then it began to rain… hard.

 

I began to panic and ran for the next overpass and stopped in the shadow underneath. Now dueling needs began their wrestling: stay in the dark and not get picked up? Or be wet and miserable but visible?

 

I opted for a compromise and would choose cars that looked “kindhearted” and would dodge out into the light and rain with my thumb out.

 

This went on for quite some time and finally after another 2 hours (which is an incredibly long time by the way) suddenly my luck turned again. Behind a “kind looking” Euro station wagon was a large Euro truck/trailer combo that put on its air brakes and roared to a stop about 100m beyond the overpass.

 

I was overjoyed and sprinted up to the bright red cab.

 

I’ll never forget the face of the man who swung open the door – not because he was so memorable or unique by his-self – instead because his visage was so much like another – that of “Timmons” - the unfortunate wagon train driver in the movie “Dances with Wolves”. The same greasy hair, pudgy face, and the same cigar clenched firmly in his brown molars.

 

The difference in this case was that when he spoke, instead of a patois of redneck English, my driver spoke only in French and I had not the slightest idea of what he was saying. He didn’t seem to care, and jabbered away for quite a while until I was able to squeeze in, what seemed to me, an important verbal salvo: “ Munich – Munchen” – my destination.

 

“Deutschland!” I added, and he nodded and smiled and then began talking again and then began working the gears judiciously.

 

I was wet and tired (I was up all night on the overnight flight) and it was warm and dry and despite the smoke and the ambiguity of where I was going I just decided to trust in fate, and close my eyes.

 

Still talking my driver put the pedal to the metal and off we roared, crossing the German border shortly thereafter.

 

Sometime after a laborious dispute with the border guards and the repeated exit and return of my cigar smoking driver to review the contents of his load I fell asleep. It was just twilight, but the 36 hours I’d been awake, combined with the Dutch beers and contrast of the damp cold and the sudden warmth found me susceptible and I slept for hours without a care for where my wagon-train driver was taking me.

 

I was dreaming. Somone was fighting with me – buffeting me around my head and shoulders, intent on delivering a message. Finally I opened my eyes to find that I was being shaken.

 

4 inches from my face was the stub end of a dead cigar and my driver was shouting in French, roughly shaking me, stopping only when I finally moved an arm to indicate I was alive. I lifted up groggily looking through the windshield – seeing nothing but black.

 

The impassioned dialog and gesticulating continued but my head swam in a fog and it wasn’t until Timmons reached across me and unlatched the door and waved his finger that I finally understood.

 

Translation. “Get out.”

 

That’s what all that meant…

 

So I got out.

 

What else could I do?

 

I grabbed my backpack, my two boxes and tube and the heavy duffel bag and climbed down the steps of the big red cab, black in the darkness.

 

I first noticed the cold when the winds of the departing trailer swirled around me – it must have been only 35 degrees – and damp...

 

Then, location: where was I?  Ahead there was a lit sign over the highway and seemingly the only illumination for miles. Like a moth I staggered with my load to the flame.

 

I drew close enough to read the sign even as in the brightening gloom I could see the sudden division of the highway. The sign read, “Franzosich Rechts, Deutschland Links” – “ France left, Germany right.” My driver and his big red truck has gone right, the streaks of his disappearing taillights still remaining imprinted on my retinas – to France.

 

Thank you Timmons.

 

Now what?

 

As if on cue, it began to rain. At first it was a smattering of drops, but it then quickly settled into one of those steady downpours that last for hours.

 

The drops were initially stopped by hair and clothing, but within minutes they began to find channels through the already damp materials of my clothes and course down my back and into my shoes.

 

I began to shiver – violently. I immediately began walking as a defense mechanism – my 100lbs of ‘stuff’ burning more calories than a brisk walk would. But.. I hadn’t actually eaten.. and only a feeble warmth was generated from the effort. My teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. I still remember it. I kept thinking of George Washington for some reason. Wooden teeth. Mine sounded wooden – and it was so clichéd to have them bouncing up and down like as if they were in the hand of a spastic mannequin.  

 

Worse still – with my forward progress, all light disappeared and I found myself sloshing through inky blackness, just the twinkling of the drops and the occasional glint of road markers flashing wetly against the black giving any indication of time or space.

 

As my clothes became more thoroughly sodden it suddenly occurred to me – not one vehicle had passed in the last half hour… So I checked the time: 2am.

 

As I walked, I began to dissect what I knew about hypothermia – how your energy fails and instead of fighting you start to give in and then a calm begins to permeate your limbs. With a start I realized I had stopped walking. My jaw was still chattering though.

 

I began again – but back towards the light.

 

I crossed beyond it and then turned around, and then headed back again. One foot in front of the other, arms aching with the load.

 

So I began what became an incredibly long military drill of marching and discipline. Suffering.

 

Enduring.

 

My hands turned to ice, and my feet too. My legs and arms grew numb and I stopped wiping the water from my eyes and stopped hunching my shoulders to protect my neck. I just walked and when I grew tired of walking I began an ugly sloppy jog, lead footed and sloppy, but I jogged.

 

Sometimes I carried my stuff, other times I set it by the side of the road. I kept moving. I have never, ever been more tired… leaden, deadened, numb, cold.

 

At some point I began to realize that I could die.

 

Right there on a lonely stretch of highway I could just stop walking and die – and that in fact it could probably happen in less than an hour. I was so cold that it didn’t really phase me… and the lack of emotional response did scare my rational mind…

 

It was then that a sudden light grew behind me. Headlights.

 

Unbelievable!

 

Life resumed and hope grew and I marched back toward those lights waving my arms. The headlights remained dim pricks in the inky blackness for a while an then suddenly became bright with that weird sound familiar from TV – “wreee-oooowwwww” and the car erupted from the distance to directly in front of me to long gone in a matter of seconds.

 

My despair reached new levels.

 

3 am and I’m wearing dark clothes and I’m sopping wet in freezing temperatures while in the middle of f!#ing nowhere and I’m trying hitchhike on the goddamn autobahn! People are driving 120 mph! Who in their right mind is going to stop for the wet madman hitching on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere?

 

No one.

 

I might die. Maybe I’m ready to die. So tired, so cold, so hungry, so weak. No fire stoked below as I walked, no warmth stole through my limbs, but I knew if I stopped walking I would die and I didn’t want to die – I was too young to die, I had too much to do to die.

 

So I walked – away from the light, toward the light, away from the light, toward the light..

 

After about an hour and a half more of marching I decided to do some more exploring. There was an embankment to the right and I re-climbed it and saw… nothing. Not a light, not a house, not even a telephone pole – just the grass underneath my feet, and blackness…

 

Still, I resolved to pick a direction and assume that this, this hay, or grass or whatever that had been neatly mowed into rows, that someone – somewhere had done this work.

 

I resolved to follow a row.

 

I followed that row.

 

It didn’t take long before two things occurred: one, it began to get extremely dark – and hard to find my footing, and two, I began to think about all this grass, this neatly manicured row of grass… maybe…. maybe  I could…

 

I stopped. I turned around.

 

I saved my own life.

 

I walked back as close to the light as I could while still up the embankment and then I implemented the plan that had been slowly gestating in my head for the last 10 minutes.

 

First, I set down my bags and boxes, and then I began to gather the grass. Shoving, combing, lifting, gathering, I quickly developed a coffee table sized mound, and then it grew to the size of a doghouse, then two doghouses. For once the exertion warmed me and in about 15 minutes I had gathered a mound of grass about 5 feet high, ten feet in length (including taper) and 6 feet wide. Think about it – that’s a HUGE mound of grass – and fifteen minutes in the dark can feel like forever…

 

What came next took the most courage of all: after shoving my bags and boxes under protective cover of the grass, I then stripped down, exposing my body to the 35 degree downpour, and I removed every single bit of sodden clothing I had on including my soaking wet shoes until I stood naked in the field under the pouring 35 degree rain, shivering violently, hardly able to control my hands which were becoming more numb by the second.

 

Next, I pulled my one dry warmup jacket out of my backpack, and 3 dry racing skinsuits out of my duffel bag. Draping the jacket over my head like a floppy umbrella, I proceeded to put on all 3 spandex suits – one over the other, while staying mostly dry under the jacket.

 

Finally, I grabbed the heavy cardboard tube with the spare set of blades and shook the spare blades out onto the grass and then pushed them underneath the pile. I then pulled the tube under the protective cover of the jacket and then shoved it through one of its arms.

 

Finally, I got on my hands and knees and, with my head draped in a shoulder of the jacket, used it as protective cover against the wet outer layers of grass and burrowed carefully into the interior of the grass mound.

 

I had been careful to layer the dry bottom layers of grass from the mown rows into the bottom of my mound and quickly my problem became breathing amongst the dust and tendrils of dry grass versus the expected battle against drowning in the wet drops.

 

I wriggled carefully into what I conceived of as the middle of the mound and felt a million pricks of grass around me itching and catching the fabric of my skinsuit. But what I also felt was unique again that night – the sudden return of warmth reflected to my limbs from these same pricks.

 

Finally I reached out an arm and pushed it through the grass until I could feel the damp of the rain and then jammed the cardboard tube, along with the arm of the jacket through that tunnel in the hay and then adjusted the drape of the jacket – which still remained over my head – such that the arm and the corresponding tunnel of outside air created by the tube was right in front of my mouth and nose.

 

I blew out hard through the tube like a snorkel to clear the passage and then took a deep breath.  I was pleased to receive not the dusty air of the interior of my new straw home, but the cool damp oxygen of the outside world.

 

It may sound odd, but in about 90 seconds I was 100% out-cold asleep: warm, dry, a little itchy, but safe.

 

I was dreamless in my little cocoon – the long flight, the endless walking and worrying, the rain and shivering all passed into the warm depths of sleeps’ embrace.

 

Finally, the noise and rumble of passing traffic woke me up. It was still dark – yet I woke feeling refreshed as though I’d slept a decent long time. I figured I better wait until it was light before I began hitching, but I went through the exercise of pulling my arm up into my cocoon under the jacket and pushed the button to glow the light to see what time it was…. 2pm!  I had managed to sleep nearly 10 hours under a pile of grass – but wait – it was still dark – how could that be?

 

When I finally lifted an arm and parted the grass, a few faint streaks of light began to penetrate and I realized that it was, indeed, midday.

 

I stretched a little and then decided to burrow out through the top of my lair. Sure enough when I finally began to extricate myself, the brilliant afternoon sun of a clear day began to shine through.

 

It was then that my senses tingled… with the sudden quiet – the traffic noise and rumble of the autobahn and suddenly, inexplicably been, well, ‘turned off.’

 

The traffic noise and vibrations I had felt from the nearby autobahn had entered a deathly erie silence that seemed, oddly, to correspond with my recent exit from my cocoon.

 

Shaking off the straw, I opened my eyes fully and saw nothing at first but the brilliance of the midday sun and the shining piles of straw and grass littering the field in front of me. Beyond that I could see a corner of the autobahn with no cars navigating its long stretch.

 

Another run of cold blood… with that sensation I began to turn.

 

Behind me – not 15 feet away was one of the world’s largest pieces of machinery – a 20 foot high behemoth of modern industrial capacity – a ‘thresher’ collecting the fruits of the summer harvest – stopped dead in its tracks due to the odd formation of grass – the nest of which I had suddenly hatched…

 

I’ll never, for as long as I live, forget the next few seconds – both what actually happened, as well as the processes in my brain that finally switched on at this opportune time.

 

The door of the bright red cab swung open and out popped the head of a German farmer – at exactly the same time that I registered his expression – a face I’ll never forget in its openmouthed astonishment - I realized exactly what it was that I was wearing.

 

I had changed in the pitch black of a downpour without a thought to style or color. I had only 3 skinsuits in my possession at that time – two blue USA skinsuits, and one rather odd trade – a purple, pink and silver suit from the Belgian national team. Most notable was that this was the last one I put on, and furthermore I was wearing the purple hood – overtop the other 2 hoods and suits.

 

So… to conclude this interesting convergence of events, let me play it out from the farmer’s perspective: A long, stormy night… a huge field finally drying up in order to gather up the grass for market – let’s fire up the big machine – but Achtung! What’s this weird mound of grass… better slow down…

 

And then it happens – the mound moves and an appendage appears – it looks like a hand… but it is shiny and purple…

 

Out of it next comes the rest of this.. thing. Purple, pink and silver and shiny, no hair to be seen, this alien creature stretches as though it owns the place and then turns – and…

 

And it LOOKED RIGHT AT ME!

 

I began to laugh.  The ludicrousness of the situation suddenly permeated my core and I began to laugh and laugh and laugh. I bent over, rustling in the pile and pulled out my pack, bag and boxes and then carried those, along with my semi-scarecrow jacket with the tube still in the arm down the embankment to the autobahn still laughing.

 

I didn’t bother to dress – just stood by the road in the purple, pink and silver spandex and in less than two minutes a couple in a Ford Probe pulled over and picked me up and drove me not only to Munich, but the 30 miles beyond to Inzell, where they dropped me off at the rink in time for the Dutch national team training session.

 

I had missed the USA practice, so I asked for, and received permission to skate with the Dutch national team. Bart Veldkamp and Rintje Ritsma, famous in their roles within their country and for brief periods during the Olympic games, these same skaters were on the ice when my awkward limbs finally made their way out onto the rink.

 

I was doing some warmup laps, trying to gain some semblance of form and a couple of the younger Dutch team members formed behind me, but after a little while a chorus of curses rang in my ears and finally one of them skated up on the outside of me and said – “whats with all the grass?” They had been slipping on the bits of hay and grass continuing to escape from my skinsuit.

 

Chastened, I retired from the ice, entered the restroom and threshed my skinsuit like a doormat, finally returning to the ice without complaint.

 

After the session, Dutch laughter rang around the room, and finally someone switched to English and asked the inevitable question – “why so much grass? Old skinsuit? Sleep in a hayloft?” (laughter)

 

I finally explained my ordeal and they laughed, but now the distance was gone and many came by to thank me for entertaining them.

 

Even in Torino , 16 years later, I saw several of these Dutch skaters and without hesitance the called me by the appellation coined that day, “Hey Grasshopper!”

 

Afterword:

 

I would have quit speedskating for sure if I hadn’t had that miraculous tour through Europe 18 years ago. Mike, like always, was right: racing is the best training.

 

-John

2008 Race Report #7: Giro de Grafton

2008: Race Report #7: Giro de Grafton, WI

 

Saturday, June 21. Giro de Grafton, WI. Category: Pro 1/2. Weather: 72 degrees, 9 mph winds. Course: 6 corners, 1 mile, small hill. Distance, 75 minutes plus 2 laps, 90 riders Average speed, pulse, distance etc. – none – DNF.

 

My friend Mike Engley joined me for this jaunt up to WI for a 7:30pm start time for a bike race – a ‘twilight criterium’.

 

With a $6500 prize list and no other nearby races of note, this race was bound to draw a strong field of pros and top riders. I was excited to try and reverse my misfortune at Sherman Park the week prior but unsure of the course and my own fitness.

 

Traffic on 294 was horrendous and we arrived only 30 minutes before start time. After registering, I noticed my rear tire was low – another flat – so I spent precious time replacing the tube. By the time I was dressed and had replaced my flat, I only had 10 minutes to warmup – the usual deal for me I guess.

 

I was able to warmup on the course – a long, slightly downhill finish stretch, followed by a mild hill and a zig zag of turns on the backstretch before the course killer – a 120 degree corner back into the long finish stretch. This would have been fine except for the pair of shiny white crosswalk marks exiting the inside corner making a V crossing both sides of that tight turn.

 

After the start, that one turn slowly decided my fate – lap by lap my strengths were unraveled like someone pulling on a thread of a sweater. Slowly, surely, inevitably I failed: each lap someone would slip and on about every third lap someone fell – and that meant a gap to be closed. Not impossible generally, but on very long slightly downhill shot through the finish line those gaps proved extremely debilitating to close.

 

Bicycling is an ever humbling sport, but in this case, I was completely and systematically crushed. Malcolm Gladwell – one of my favorite authors - once talked about failure and toughness. He made the connection that many of the top professional athletes from football or baseball or nearer to home the Winter Olympics’ own Bodie Miller show up untrained or out of shape or party too much as par for the course. Why does this happen? For one reason and one reason only – because when failure comes, the mind has a ready excuse – “I would have won but…” “I didn’t warmup or I didn’t train properly or I missed spring training or work interfered” – all these excuses form a psychological refuge – a way of protecting ourselves from the cold black hole that prepared failure brings: if I show up undertrained and don’t win, then I undertrained. If I show up but miss warmup and don’t keep up, then I didn’t warmup… But if I prepare perfectly and still don’t win…? Then it means I lost – that I wasn’t good enough.

 

This can be death to a competitive athlete’s mentality – if I can maintain the belief that I’m the best and that other mundane excuses have kept me from peak form – that’s a way to weather the storms. But the truly tough – Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, Frankie Andreu, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning – they not only prepare perfectly – but they weather failures without any clear excuse.

 

“I wasn’t good enough.”

 

How often do we hear that from our top athletes?

 

Actually, the best answer is, “I wasn’t good enough… today.”

 

I can still remember it with complete clarity – those moments of asphyxiating apoplexy as I focused on the tire ahead of me and gave everything my heart and legs had to offer and watched it inch away, blood boiling in my ears and lungs rasping with a guttural ugliness – and then suddenly it was over – they were gone – riding away from me. Suddenly it was quiet and I wondered how that parade of bikers could have dropped me and I sat up confused. The mind starts to protect, to rationalize, “I didn’t get enough warmup.” “These guys – the train year round – its early.” “Most of these guys are full time or nearly so…” In reality I got my ass handed to me and there was no way of escaping it…

 

At Grafton, I wasn’t good enough…on that day.  I got dropped – despite using every trick in the book, drafting, pedaling corners, moving up in the slow spots – I got dropped – meaning that the entire peleton that remained (granted about half the riders had dropped out before I got dropped) were considerably stronger than me, and that the lead riders were at least 30% stronger than me given the effects of the draft.

 

 

Mike and I wandered the course, had a cup of quality Wisconsin suds, and then headed back to Wisconsin. In prior days I would have been in a deep funk – a constant deliberation of whether my drubbing was due to some ‘excusable situation” or whether I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Really though it is just a feeling… so while rationalizing might serve as a bridge, the reality is that that feeling always fades – but only time and experience can provide that hope – in the meantime failure looms and feelings sway with the winds.

 

For me, years of concentric circles have been built around that flexible bough of my youth, giving me the strength to weather these storms of doubt. I know now that I’ll ride to fight on another day and perhaps – even probably still do well. Part and parcel with this perspective comes the other side – that if and when I do win, I can no longer just believe that it is “all me” and that part of it – perhaps much of it – will be do to the vagaries of circumstance – and that when and if I do stand on that podium, luck will be one of the biggest strengths I bring with me.

 

Oddly this doesn’t bother me at all. Next weekend I’ll show up. I’ll suffer. I’ll fail or succeed or more likely have some middling result – an “almost” that keeps me inspired. Every time I stand on the podium I sheepishly just can’t wait to get down… so clearly that’s really never been the goal. Til then…

 

-John

 

 

 

 

 

2008 Race Report #4: Volta a Catalunya

2008: Ride Report #4: Volta a Catalunya (Tour of Catalonia) 
 Sun, stone, wine & Spain

 2008: Ride Report #4 – Volta a Catalunya en 4 dias

 As an adult, it can be hard - really hard - to experience happiness. No, not that typical thing we call happiness (when we mean contentment or satisfaction,) I mean joy - that unrestrained ability to ‘really live’ – to live and love life with that same exuberant energy we had as children at the beach when at some unseen signal we were all suddenly running pell-mell across the dimpled sand into the warm shallows, kicking through the smoothly distorted reflections of ourselves while creating a wake of turbulence in our path and launching forward, bellies flopping down on the water and laughing. Arms scooped we would then turn to splashing, water sparkling in the sun. Why is it so hard for us to re-create this feeling as adults?

 It is so hard because, it seemed to me, the older I get, the more “have-to’s” fill my life – deadlines, requests, emails, texts, voicemails, bills, finances, maintenance, repair, painting, oil changes, lawn care, plants, fish, dogs…. Other things, other people… “Growing up” some would say. Responsibilities.

 Sure, I can argue, by going on this trip, I’ll return refreshed – a better husband, father, boss, peer, employee, neighbor. If you read the research, and look at it in hindsight, this is truism, (but it tends to feel like rationalizing.) From another, more cynical angle, one could just write an adventure like this off as a “self absorbed escape.”

 It is those warring thoughts, and the underlying emotions – excitement versus guilt, anticipation vs. fear – that I think keeps most adults from actually doing something like this trip to Spain for 4 days. Sure, many talk about ‘escaping,’ or that ‘someday’ trip, but actually pushing “purchase” button the website for the $900 ticket? Being away from your family, house, and job over a long weekend? That was one of the scariest nerve jangling things I’ve done in the last year. The thing is, it is hard to do something for yourself – because in that common narrow view there 100 other things that you could and “should” be doing.

 The trip to Spain, admittedly was planned rather late and a bit ad-hoc – a last minute change in timing and location from a late May return to Italy to a mid-May foray to Spain, but still – I had done it all before, right?

 Day 1 (An epic day): Thursday, May 15. Girona to L’Estartit, Spain, roundtrip 

 

  • Distance/vertical: 73 miles/4320 feet of climbing
  • Weather: partly cloudy, 72 degrees, 16 mph winds 
  • Average pulse: 139bpm
  • Time in saddle (including getting lost): 5 ½  hours
  • Calories burned: 4432
  • After leaving the outskirst of Girona, we immediately began a climb – a gentle (~6 - 8% grade) incline toward the summit named aptly ‘Els Angeles’ which we immediately Americanized into “Hells Angels”.  The 10Km climb rose over 1200 ft vertical and as we began, the sun came out and about 15 minutes into the ride I felt that first blush of sweat and the blooming of my lungs and sinuses as I began to absorb the scents of the mountain.

     As the Spanish sun continued to warm my skin, the internally radiated heat continued to travel all my limbs and soon my heart, lungs and legs developed a rhythm matched to the gentle curves of the smoothly paved road side-winding in front of me. Thirty minutes into the climb and I began to experience an irrational rush of pure joy. As Jeff and I rose, switchback after switchback with steady breathing and very little talking, I suddenly announced, looking out at all of Girona, corralling my giddiness, “I’m happy.”

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKPgWSO2Wd4]

    We continued climbing into the sky, heart rates high but just below aerobic threshold and after a time I finally figured out what it was all about – “so… this is what climbing is really like…”

    Not so steep as to make you anaerobic, but not so gentle as to where you have to make a choice about your effort, what I came to realize is that European climbs typical of the Tour de France have a steady incline that requires a strong aerobic effort, but not more. Unlike my steep climbs of 15% or more last year in Italy, these gentle grades allowed us to develop a steady rhythm and meter, and a sense of pride and progress.Hincapie the Tour hero

    We reached the heights of Els Angeles, passing spray-painted signs wishing Hincapie and Barry luck in the tour, and then descended the other side – considerably steeper, and far more rough. We descended the same vertical in half the distance (5K) but with both hands on the brakes bouncing numbly down the very rough roads.riding a village in spain

    Finally we entered the Mediterranean coast and sped down into a series of medieval villages, some from Roman times.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqIwLUmKyI4]

    Unlike last year in Italy, where I rode in the bosom of the shrouded hinterland between mountain ranges where there were no winds, the Costa Brava was wild and exposed and the capricious winds often found us as we descended and passed through open fields. A bit of agoraphobia gripped me in a mild way and I sometimes felt like a tiny ant exposed to all the world trying desperately to cling to my lane against the forces of the sun and wind and the tides of the ocean.Field and stone house in Spain

    We eventually made it all the way to the bright azure of the Mediterranean in L’Estartit and wandered north along the beachfront, hotels, yachts and harbors, slowly meandering, taking in the sights of the sea until we found a restaurant with ocean views and outdoor sunlit seating.

    L\'Estartit, Spain There we ordered some seafood and pasta and made calls home. All the while, between the wind and the quickly moving clouds, the open expanses exposed by the downhill slopes from the Pyrenees, it was almost with relief that we headed back into the protective layer of the foothills on our return loop.

    Crulles, Spain

    We passed through several more stone medieval villages and experienced yet another dirt road traverse through wheat fields before we finally closed our loop and began our climb back to Els Angeles.

    Along the way, we passed a wine store and I bought a bottle of locally produced wine for $1.55 Euros ($2.75) that turned out to be excellent when we finally uncorked it later: in the meantime it found a proud home in the back pocket of my jersey.

    riding the dirt

    Meanwhile that magic thing happened. If I was happy before as we climbed the gentle heights of Els Angeles on our way out of Gerona, then I was enraptured with life as the setting sun preceded us and the fields lit up with warm golden contrasts of light and shadow, green, gold, auburn, yellows and black and all thoughts, feelings, and actions aligned with each pedal stroke. The gently undulating fields of grain glinting with the setting sun, punctuated by broad brilliant orange brushstrokes of poppies created one of those ‘perfect moments’ and as we rode, we said nothing, but with smiles of disbelief we gestured at the ruins, the fields, a village, a castle or a cathedral, while the jasmine hedges, red clay & tile and natural stone surrounds reflected the warmth of the Spanish sun.

    rising through fields of grain and poppies

    It began to get steeper, but still we pedaled. We breathed. Auburn rock became molten soil became baked pavement and still up we went. The trees became more stunted, our breath came out louder, but still we climbed and breathed and the world expanded beneath our tires.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nlBwnA4P28]

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1kYrkBgx_w]

     

     

     

    Another switchback and the entire Costa Brava lay at our feet. How lucky are we? How blessed to earn this view with our sweat? Warm and moving, out of the saddle and back in it, the trees passed and the world shrank below and we finally saw the heights and lights of the Cathedral at the top. 8pm and the sun is setting – not stopping now – just floating on the new pavement down to Girona and that incredible feeling of speed and control on the descent.

    Almost an hour up, and now 15 minutes down. Switchbacks become a game – how fast can we go, how far can I lean? Rubber tires grip black asphalt and our sinuous curves grow ever more aggressive. We possess the land and fly across rocky ridges warmed by the fading sun and then drop into resinous valleys, sinking into the setting sun and absorbing the dark sap of the pines as the geology lost its eminence, and the trees took over - taller, thicker, darker.

    We rocketed through the brackets of those final corridors of the setting sun, contrasts of cool damp and dusty sun like streetlights and smiled that giddy, crazy smile that only those who have suffered the ups can express on the downs – coasting & pedaling breakneck at 35 and 40 mph while tilting crazily and yet still trying to talk – shouting over the howl of the wind.

    I skidded to a stop at the car. Wow. Now that was a day. “Hey – I’ve been in Spain for almost 36 hours!” I shouted to Jeff and then thought, “and I’ve experienced a ½ year of really living...” But the day wasn’t over yet…

    We packed it up, drove to the hotel, showered, and at about 10:30pm we headed into old town Girona, and incredible maze of old stone buildings and cathedrals rising about the river, nothing about the exteriors of the buildings, plazas or walk ways indicating a date after to 1100AD. Girona, Spain at night

    But there were dozens of restaurants around a plaza and we found some decent German food before settling in on a wine bar for an after dinner cocktail.

    After a glass of red wine, we thought about leaving, but Manolo, the owner, brought us champagne – gratis before we left.Streets of Girona

    I asked him about Lance Amstrong… and George Hincapie (his teammate).

    “Oh yes, Lance Armstrong - he here many times – was living here just a few meters away, but gone now. George Hinacapie– he had one house here – just around the corner – I show you – but I think he too is gone. George Hinacapie – he likes this place very much…”

    I told Manolo that I used to know George. He seemed excited “I think, maybe, he is back here – perhaps he will come?” He looked in askance.

    I had meant to contact Rich Hincapie – George’s brother – before leaving the U.S. but it got lost in my to-do’s and so I didn’t know if George was in town, nor did I have any contact info. Nonetheless, something about the night, and the vibrations of that old city spoke and I started to just have that feeling we might see him anyway..

    I told Manoloa we would look for him, and with that, and few pictures, we headed back to our hotel…

    John in Girona

      Day 2 (“…and then his bike exploded”): Friday, May 16. Monelles to Palamos, Spain  

    “I predict that the winds will turn around and we’ll have a tailwind on our route back” Jeff had said. That too became true, as did a dozen smaller predictions that day and the day before.

    So, we headed up the Els Angeles climb in the car on our way to the Costa Brava. Then, suddenly, arbitrarily Jeff said, “We are going to see your old friend George Hincapie today on this road.” When he said it like that, like our weather predictions before, I didn’t doubt him in the least.

    We passed the cathedral at the top of the climb and began the bumpy descent, still in the rental car. Just as we completed the majority the steep descent, at the foot of the hill, 5km later, we suddenly passed a passel of riders, 4 in total, one wearing white Oakleys with a classic visage obvious from 100 ft, “That’s George!” I said amazed.

    Jeff swung a U-turn and we sped back up the mountain, amazed at the speed at which these riders were climbing. I hadn’t seen or talked to George in 15 years and suddenly that time and distance loomed and I began to wonder if he would remember me.

    Yes sure, his brother Rich and I had roomed for weeks together at the Olympic training center, and yes, we had once followed the same circuit of high profile races through the eastern United States where I had experienced the single longest winning streak of my life (11 straight wins). Yes, during the same trip I had noticed how George, at age 12, was precocious enough to finish and even win races with the 14 -15 year olds, (that, and he was 6ft tall at this age)

    But, now it is 20 years later since those times, and 15 since the last time I’d seen George at the Tour de Villa Italia in Windsor, Canada, and George has had a racing and tour career few could ever hope to obtain – a multi-millionaire rider, he’s finished the Tour de France 11 times, he replaced my old teammate Frankie Andreu as Lance’s first lieutenant (and raced all 7 wins with him.) He’s won a big stage in the Tour de France and many other classics and he also has had been a significant force in many of the big one day classics and was 2nd  in the most prestigious one day race of all – Paris-Roubaix a few years back, and 9th this season.

    As we approached the riders from behind, I suddenly began to doubt. These guys were too … skinny. Coming closer, we discovered that these guys were rail thin – leaner than raw meat - all of them. Remembering the oft repeated phrase from TV of “Big George Hincapie” as Phil Legget and Paul Sherwin always referred to him, I couldn’t possibly imagine it to describe one of these riders ahead of me.

    Nonetheless, as we passed them on the left, I leaned out the window and taking a chance, yelled “George!”

    Sure enough the guy who looked like a too-thin George’s head snapped around and looked right at me.

    I paused, and then said, “Hey George, Its Coyle – John Coyle – how are you?” I was 2 feet away traveling 16mph on a bumpy climb, leaning out the window of the rental car.

    He too paused, and then smiled and said calmly, “Hey John – long time. How are you?” and then offered his sweaty gloved hand through the window. I would be lying if I didn’t say I suddenly felt incredibly lucky.

    We chatted a bit and then he said, “Why don’t you wait for us at the top and we can talk more?”

    George Hincapie on the top of Els Angeles, Girona, Spain

    Little did I know at the time that this was one of the main Cat 1 climbs of the coming ‘Volta a Catalunya’ (the third oldest stage race after the Tour de France and Giro de Italia) starting only 2 days hence that was to serve as George’s primary prep for the Tour de France. (George was second in the prologue time trial, generating and average 565 watts for 4 ½ minutes)

    We sped up the mountain and waited for them at the top. As it turned out it, the other 3 riders were George’s key teammates on the High Road Team – Michael Barry (whose name we’d seen on the road along with Hincapie several times), Michael Rodgers, and another teammate.           .

    Hincapie and Barry hammered into view first, followed several minutes by his other teammates. George and I talked a little bit about old times, and Jeff and Michael talked about local rides, and then eventually if was time for those guys to head back to town. George offered, “how about coffee around 6pm in town? I have to pick my daughter in about an hour, but after that I’ll be free.” It was 4pm.Michael Barry & Jeff Huff

    Jeff programmed his local cell number and we agreed to call, but I knew we wouldn’t be back in that time frame. Meanwhile my mind registered the height and weight of this key professional: 6’ 3”, and 165 lbs. “I have to lose a few pounds before the tour” George had said.  At 5’ 11 and 188 lbs, I suddenly comprehended, briefly, the whole supermodel anorexia thing…George Hincapie & John Coyle, Girona, Spain May 2008

    Back down we went and parked at the beautiful little town of Monelles and then proceeded to make another route to the Med – another climb and descent, plummeting all the way to the sea. 6pm on day 3 of the 4 days and in Palamos we finally bought a map – only to confirm our suspicion that there was no road up the coast and that we’d have to spend time on a highway to head north to the next route back to Monelles, so we agreed to just return the same way and spend some more time in the next valley over to complete our mileage for the day.

    Just before re-engaging the climb, we found another wine store and purchased the same local vintage we had enjoyed the day before. This time Jeff put it in his rear pocket and joked, “boy it would suck to crash and land on this!”

    Predictions are great, but they can be dangerous too…

    Up and over we climbed and then back down the other side. We had finished the final downhill and were entering the mildly descending flats to the valley when all hell broke loose.

    Jeff was talking about his power meter and how he could, out of the saddle, hit a certain wattage threshold with a consistent pedal stroke and hold it. He chose to demonstrate on a long straight, slightly downhill section of the smooth narrow road.

    I watched as he upped his gearing and then accelerated, out of the saddle, to the right of me, taking the speed, in three or full power rotations, from 22mph to 30 mph.

    Instinctively I swung behind him to capture the draft, and it was just as I entered the eddies of air his body had created when World War III started. His bike just exploded – one second and he was cranking straight forward, accelerating, and in the next, his legs skipped a beat, his bike endoed, and then suddenly he was at right angles to my path skittering sideways with the sound of a train wreck before launching up and over, performing a perfect summersault, landing flat on his back and then tumbling over and over.

    In his great book, “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell calls attention to the ability of experienced technicians in their field of expertise to  “thin slice” – that is – to process or shunt a great deal of high speed information past the normal rational processing and come to informed and wise courses of action. In essence, ‘thin slicing’ is the ability to raise the ‘frames per second’ of your mental camera and in the same vein, to ‘slow down time’.

    Just as Jeff passed me, time entered a new warp. I watched as his right leg, poised for a massive hammer stroke, suddenly ‘missed’ and then suddenly it was firing straight down and his left was lifting up and his weight was transferring forward while his whole body entered a slightly counterclockwise rotation to the right, pivoting forward on that front wheel – a sideways endo..

    He rotated right before the rear tire reconnected with the grippy tarmac and that’s when all the noise – the shrieking, shrilling, vibrating of a composite carbon shell running through a grinder hit my ears.

    In the next moments Jeff ceased to be my friend or someone I knew – he became an obstacle in my path and I threw my bike forward and locked up my brakes, fully expecting his body to be my next piece of road.

    As his rear tire caught to the right and skittered, suddenly the rotational inertia began and he flipped up and over his right shoulder, performing a neat flip, his abandoned bike flying cover just above his rotating body as he hit the pavement directly, neatly, dead center and flat on his back, and directly on the wine bottle tucked neatly in his back pocket… exactly as predicted.

    The next moments after predictable - the tumbling after the crash, Jeff’s body going end over end down the road and settling against the guardrail as I braked hard, and narrowly avoided running down both Jeff and his bike. A long bloody streak of red wine – or was it blood? – marking the disaster.

    Most memorable of all during this 0.25 seconds of noise and visual chaos was a certain totally out-of-place sound. Just as his bike went sideways and caused him to flip, just after he rose and then fell landing squarely on his back from a height of 4 or 5 feet, just as his back, the bottle of wine, and the pavement formed a sandwich, I heard a sound…Opening a bottle of wine with your back

    The sound, and the mechanism to follow, will never fully be understood, but what Jeff and I both distinctly heard just as he impacted the pavement was a “thwock” - much like someone opening a champagne bottle.

    After skidding to a stop I circled back quickly to assess the damage. With visions of half a wine bottle extruded from his spine, we were amazed to find that the final effects of the crash were bruises, tiny cuts from the glass, and a broken chain – the source of the whole debacle. Jeff’s sprint had broken the chain and all else that occurred fell out of that event.

     

    Nonetheless, the find that started us laughing, and that caused a series of unstoppable guffaws during dinner, drinks, the car ride home after, and all during the next day, was the discovery of the intact top of the glass bottle in the ditch, and separately, neatly in the middle of the road, (see picture) the wine cork. The cork - lower left in the middle of the road

    Somehow, someway, Jeff’s somersault onto the wine bottle had created enough pressure to actually uncork the bottle before destroying it.

    Jeff has the unique designation of being the one and only human being on the planet who has opened a wine bottle at 30mph against the open road with his back.

     Sitting at dinner that evening, when the waiter brought the first bottle of wine, I couldn’t stop myself, “no, Sir,  don’t open it… Jeff can do that… with his back!” and then I broke up and the laughing started again.

    We decided to eat at the same wine bar from the night before and proceeded to order an incredible sampler of local cheeses –  several brie’s and goat cheeses, and a few other ‘moldy’ types – gorgonzola and blue cheese.

    These were accompanied by the moist aroma and taste of fresh breads and a rich red  “Javelina” wine. We gorged ourselves and discussed the day, fully alive and in the moment. For the next two hours, there was no yesterday and no tomorrow – only the present of the last few hours of suffering and joy, the feast and famine, desert and rich fields of the low flying experience of the cyclist. We toasted to ‘really living’ and to our families and jobs that allowed us this respite from the day to day of the working world.

    Girona, Spain

    I also showed Manolo the pictures with George Hincapie and Michael Barry and he was suitably impressed. We finally headed back to the hotel. One more day to go, one more story…

    Day 4 (“Like riding the tour”): Saturday, May 16 – the finale’ :Santa Coloma De Farners to Sant Hilari Sacalm, then Girona to Peratellada, roundtrip.  

      

    We dragged out lunch of seafood and fresh bread and after hoping for a clearing, finally threw in the towel and headed back down the mountain around 2pm slogging through a cold drizzle and roostertails of frigid water that caused shivers to run down our spines. It was difficult to separate the vibrations from our brakes and the rough road from the violent shivers running through my forearms. Farther below, the rain stopped and the roads began to dry.

    Finally, we reached the bottom and returned to the hotel where we packed up all our things and put them into a storage room in prep for ride 2 of the day.

    We returned to our parking spot at the base of Els Angeles and set out again under brightening skies – up, and over the climb and on through several towns to Peratellada where we had a bocadillo (sandwich) and a glass of wine. Village restaurant

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LgJ8pHI-mtA]

    Finally, it was time to return. Legs were tired, hearts struggled to warm up and keep the blood flowing. But we again entered that special zone of golden light, still air, and rising roads that perfectly caricatured our days in spain. We climbed.

    Riding in Spain

     

    This time though, it was not with fresh legs and a naïve innocence to the views around us. This time, as we discovered later, we both felt like we had begun to understand what it was like to be a professional bike racer. Slightly numb all over from the long days, legs operating on a disciplined autopilot and that set to the jaw: “have to survive this climb.” We worked hard, though our pace was no faster than two days prior, and in that discipline and rhythm and suffering there was its own joy.

    Fields in Spain

     

    I can, I will, I do: pedal.

    This discipline, really, was nothing new to Jeff – nor myself. Jeff is a former sub 2:30 marathon runner, ex U.S. military. Oddly similarly, I spent many years training in ice rinks.

    Each pedal stroke required a sometimes laborious synchronizing of elements – legs, feet, pedals, bars – but more often it was just progress – higher, faster, stronger – the Olympic motto all over again.

    It was only 5K and 1200 feet of climbing, but it was rated a Category 1 climb for the Tour de Catalunya, and it was with a feeling of pride that we mounted and conquered that hill after 5000 feet of climbing already that day.

    We reached to top, slapped a high five, and then delved into the deep shadows of the descent – one last time to test our tires and mettle against the curves and pines of Els Angeles.

    We caught a car. I thought about passing. The car decided it wanted to race, and so the squealing of tires began around the corners, and the accelerations on the straightaways, puffs of exhaust marking the driver’s aggressive slinging through his gears as he tried to lose us.

    We sprinted the straightaways, and leaned ever harder into the switchbacks, losing ground on the straights, but gaining it all back on the curves. It was a game of cat and mouse and for once we were the cat and at the end we declared victory when we pulled within 1 meter of the rear bumper of the car around the final switchback before he roared away in a puff of exhaust and road dust on the flattening finish.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNqVnFANgUg]

     This was really it. 6200 vertical feet. Rain, sun, cold, heat, climbs, descents, - we’d experienced it all – but we still had dinner and a drive to Barcelona, and a few hours sleep before our flights the next day.

    We returned to our wine bar and it took a while for my thoughts to escape the stony disciplined trap my mind had created in order for my body to get over that hill. We sat together but distant – both of us with a glazed look and a sense of numbness from the massive efforts of the day.

    Finally I said, “that was hard.” 

    “Yeah,” Jeff said.

    And in those mundane phrases all was acknowledged and understood – the effort, discipline, suffering, and joy of the day were all melded into two human beings acknowledging the struggles of each other. We toasted and ate and ate some more and drank some wine.

    wine and cheese

    Then Manolo brought a bottle of champagne and was about to open it. But I looked at Jeff and said simply,

    “No wait – Jeff can do that – just lay it here on the floor in front of him…”

    -John