2008 Race Report #18: Downer Avenue Revisited

Race Report #18 – The Last Ride of the RV: Superweek Stage 16, Downer Avenue, WI, Sunday, July 20. Category: Masters.  Weather: 75 degrees, light winds. Course: flat, 1 mile/lap, 3 corners

Yes, sad but true, this was to be the last ride of the RV. Now in its 4th season it has been both a blessing and a curse – at its best it remains a chrysalis for the tender wings of new experiences and burgeoning friendships. At its worst it has been a hole to throw money in.

Since it was at Downer Avenue that the RV first found its wings a few years prior, it was only appropriate to leverage its charms for one last time in the same location.

Driving the RV

 

From that same race report in 2006, here’s a quick description of the vehicle:

A little about the RV… well… it is “retro.” Meaning “old.”  It is a 1988, 28 foot Georgie Boy Cruise Air II. It is replete with wall to wall brown shag, mauve couches and seats, and faux wood paneling tables and real wood paneled kitchen cabinets. It has 3 beds and comfortably sleeps… well, 3. The exterior is a taupe fiberglass box with the horizontal ridges so typical of the era. It has a working stove, microwave, TV, AC, generator, hot water heater, coffeemaker, bathroom with toilet and sink, shower with hot water, fridge, freezer, CD player and VCR. The entire 10,000lb vehicle has a blue book value only slightly more than my 16 lb Italian, hand-painted carbon fiber bicycle balanced delicately on the rack on the back.  

 

equal value

 There is some sort of weird credibility in that juxtaposition… Yes, I get a lot of jealous looks from the other cyclists as they pile into their cramped team vans or other tiny vehicles. Cyclists typically have a keen retro whimsy. I recently added some vintage looking throw rugs from Target to spice up the interior and now it almost looks 1988 – even 1989.

Until this year I really didn’t have to do any maintenance, but now I’m thinking of upgrading – but on the other hand, it only has 31,000 miles on it…. I admit it, I love my second home – even though I keep forgetting to deduct it on my taxes…

Gary and I circled Downer Ave and found a spot after avoiding the ubiquitous “No Parking” signs posted for the race. I got a ticket anyway and I’m still fighting it with the city of Milwaukee…

The race the next day was not particularly noteworthy – it was a suffer-fest that I did not enjoy and without the panache of racing with the pros was hardly worth all the pain. I ended up 18th – last spot in the money (vs. last year where I was the first spot out of the money).

The only notable occurrence happened coming into turn 2 on the bell (final) lap. We were lined up single file and I was in about 10th place in perfect position. As we headed into the 120 degree turn, I suddenly saw a rider shoot up the inside and dive into the turn in a trajectory that could only carry him to intersect directly with the riders right ahead of me. This wasn’t a suble “slotting in” move like I used in Bensenville, it was a last ditch reckless maneuver that had only two possible outcomes –either the riders entering the corner on the normal wide-to-tight trajectory would have to brake and head for the curb, or there would be an ugly crash.

The reason this move was significant was because it was performed by none other than “Steve” – the same gentleman from the Racine race that had so aggressively closed the door on me into a mild bend on the backstretch and then blamed me for it…It was probably a good thing I wasn’t in the group of riders in his path – they swung wide and braked near the curb and all us following did the same as Steve careened around the corner and continued on his way.

If I had been… well, there’s no telling what my response would have been. Either way I consider the Racine debate closed : )Finally it was time to spread the RV’s wing one last time – directly after the race I took the gallon water bottle I had set out on the bumper to heat for “shower” water (keep in mind the pump had stopped working – so no water pressure) and enjoyed a hot shower. After toweling off and pulling on some clothes from the closet I exited the RV and extending the massive yet delicate awning off the side of the vehicle. Unraveling the RV

 

 

 I then collected my check and added it to my little pile.

Superweek Winnings

 

And now it was time to enjoy the fruits of suffering: we were parked one block from the start/finish line of the single best spectator race in the United States and party central was open for business.

Gary and I ran to the Sendiks market to pick up fresh produce and the ingredients for an excellent meal – chicken breasts, pancetta, fragrant fresh basil, olive oil, yellow onion, Pecorino Romano cheese, and vine ripened tomatoes.  We also picked up items for an appetizer: walnuts, prosciutto, honey, grapes, smoked Gouda and Edam cheeses.

I began cooking inside while Gary grilled the chicken outside. We sent Dave Dohnal to get water and a few other items and as the Pro race started, appetizers were served.

 

Appetizers

 

Already we were joined by a few old and new faces. Kelly Patterson and her husband Jay Moncel materialized during the masters race and encamped by the RV. Dave Dohnal joined Gary to jeer me on at the same time. Later other faces old and new were to join us as well.

As the pro race kicked off, I prepared to enter the ‘kitchen’ and prepare a big meal, but first I stood outside and watched the first few laps of the single hardest race I have ever finished the previous year (see 2007 race report # 14 ) In one lap the 180 rider field had strung out over the entire 1/3 mile finish stretch, and by lap 3 it had already become the single file death march that I had experienced last year.

It was exhilarating to witness the race back from the safety of the curb again – I had had some consideration of attempting it again despite the fact that it was exactly counter to my strengths, but upon witnessing the thrashing of the field and the drawn faces gasping for air after only 3 laps I was suddenly filled with joy, and as they rolled around, the words practically exploded from my mouth, “Welcome to SUFFERING boys!” as Jay (who had suffered through it the prior year with me) and Kelly began to laugh.

 

Toasting the suffering

 

I boiled the 4 lbs of fresh tomatoes for a minute, peeled the shiny fragile skin off, and then crushed the red fragile meat in a bowl before adding them to the pot on the propane burner. I sliced the onions and chopped the pancetta and browned both in the sizzling olive oil, as the whole RV began to smell like a fine Italian restaurant.

 

Preparing a great meal

 

I separated the leaves and stems of the basil and grated the salty tangy Pecorino Romano as Gary sliced the tender chicken breasts and wrapped it in foil in prep for the final presentation.

 

As the race continued we all sampled the prosciutto/honey/walnut/grape/Gouda/Edam appetizer plate and the Italian wines we had picked up from Sendicks. Kelly was every gregarious and funny and Jay proved to be her match with quick wit and clever humor. Dave played his usual sarcastic foil and Gary was his usual self as the conversational engine should there be a lull.

We laughed and talked and ate and watched the race inside and outside the RV until the tomato mixture reached its earthy textured half cooked/half fresh perfection. I then added the fresh and fragrant basil leaves, several dashes of Kosher salt and then we spooned it over the penne pasta cooking on burner 3, topping it off with the steaming grilled chicken and grated pecorino cheese. Gary helped me deliver plates around, and then after a second boiling of pasta I delivered foil covered bowls to Jose in the race pits, and to Eddy Van Guys in the announcing booth.

Jose and a Rock Racing bike

Freshly poured wine in cups all around we settled in, ate, and ate some more and watched the exciting finish of the race as Williams from Rock Racing repeated Rashaan Bahatie’s performance from last year winning a prime over $8000 and then retiring off the back.

We then wandered over to the start/finish to watch the awards ceremonies and along the way we ran into “Toolbox #1” an IS Corp racer that Kelly had developed a personal irritation with who also happened to have a rather unfortunate habit of wearing skinsuits either too short for him or that he intentionally scrunched up. Kelly wedgied up her shorts and rolled them under and then sauntered by as Jay tried to distance himself but Toolbox #1 failed to notice and we moved on to say hello to Jose in the wheel pit and many other familiar faces.

Toolbox #1

 

Toolbox Groupie

An aside – perhaps during the Tour de France you might have seen a long commercial (a “sixty” as its called in the biz) for Trek featuring a series of athletes on bikes of all ages and ending with Lance saying, “we believe… in bikes.”  Well at about 35 seconds into the commercial, the VO (voice over) says, “We believe in firsts…. And lifestyles that last” showing a young boy learning to ride quickly followed a very fit older man with triathalon numbers on his arms riding a triathalon bike.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlH5I2IzRNc]

Well, in the small world of cycling, this older, fit gentleman turns out to be Gary’s wife’s uncle (does that make him an uncle-in-law?) and was at the Downer Avenue race watching. He joined us for a period in the RV and was a joy to speak with.

Trek Commercial Stud

I ended up talking with Eddy Van Guys while he ate dinner with his family, meeting his lovely wife and daughter and revisiting with his son who I had met a year prior. His daughter was preparing to enter college and I offered my services to help her make her selection – (that offer still stands Eddy.)

On the way back to the RV we chatted with Ben Renkema, Andy Crater and Olu and then we brought Brenda and Chris along back to the RV where we all imbibed too much wine and laughed and talked until well after midnight.

Ben Renkema

At some point I walked outside the RV and took one final picture to recognize the important role it has played over the past couple of years in creating memorable “really living” experiences.

Jose the 'wheel god'

With a bit of a deja-vu I retired to my feather bed in the back remembering, “Oh man, I’ve got the first inaugural Chicago Criterium tomorrow – that’s going to be really hard – and I forgot to drink water in addition to wine…”

I’d pay for that the next day.. but that’s another story…

-John

 

 

 

 

Andy Crater

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