Mike Walden

People I owe: Mike Walden What do a tennis school in Siberia, a soccer club in Brazil, a music camp in upstate New York, and a baseball club in Curacao all have in common with a bicycling club from Detroit?

They are all “chicken-wire Harvards,” a term coined by Daniel Coyle in his great book “The Talent Code”. That is, each of these remote destinations has a number of things in common: they tend to be underfunded, they have programs with a relentless focus on the fundamentals of a sport or activity, and at their helm they have or have had iconic coaches who “say a lot in a little,” and “repeat a little a lot.”

They also produce champions. Lots of them. So many that, when plotted on map in red, they become a “talent bloom” – a rose against the white of the page. In fact, one small, yet famous tennis club in Siberia, called Spartak, which has only one indoor court, achieved eight year-end top 20 women’s rankings for professional tennis players for 3 years running (as of 2007.) During the same period, the entire United States only had 7. As it happens there is also a little cycling club in Detroit with even more striking results.

Statistically speaking, it is impossible to conceive that there was more talent concentrated in the environs of Spartak in 2007, or around the Dorais velodrome in Detroit in 1980 than the entire United States. In fact the preponderance of talent from these locales belies their demographics – the argument can, and should be made that these coaches and environments created talent. But how?

Detroit, 1978. The Wolverine Sports Club was one of many of its ilk – typical in many ways. Underfunded, provided for primarily by largesse from Mike Walden’s bike shop in Hazel Park, the club also supported its activity through fund raiser “bike-a-thons” (also a Walden invention.) The Wolverine Sports Club (WSC) ran a regular series of practices – Tuesdays at the run-down Dorais Velodrome in Detroit, Wednesdays were the iconic “Wednesday night ride” from the Royal Oak Library complete with fans in lawn chairs who blocked traffic for the huge peleton, and Thursdays featuring practice races in Waterford on a 2.2 mile race car track. Weekends were for racing, because “racing is the best training,” or so we were told.

To an 8, 10, 12, even 18 year old kid, it all became so normal. I remember my first visit to the Dorais velodrome. Names were inscribed in the cement along the homestretch – Fred Cappy, Mike Walden, Clair Young, Jim Smith. These etchings were meaningless to me and hidden each year under more and more graffiti. Today the track has fallen into disrepair.

One of my first nights at the Dorais velodrome was in the fall, with a low turnout and leaves skittering across the cracked banked surface. Walden was mostly occupied shouting at two female racers who were preparing for a big competition somewhere. I was clueless and didn’t care. That is until, after a series of timed flying 200m events by the two women, Walden suddenly focused his shouting at me. “What about you? Let’s go: 200m as fast as you can go! Pedal circles and finish at the line!”

The two muscular women quickly shared some strategy – line up high on the track on the first corner and then dive for the blue line (marking the 200m mark) and then stay as low as possible on the “pole lane” or black line to the finish.

Moments later, exhausted but exhilarated by the speed, Walden barked out a time (“13.8!”) and turned to other riders. The two women, Sue Novara and Sheila Young, slowed to pass along compliments, “wow – you’re a fast little thing.” Little did I know that both were rivals and world champions in this exact event – the match sprint on the velodrome.  I was surrounded by greatness. I was lucky. It only takes a quick spin through Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” to realize that one of the core elements of the Wolverine Sport Club and my own success was simply the environment: we all got an early start on the requisite 10 years/10,000 hours of deliberate practice that greatness requires.

Another great book, that might have have featured Walden as its poster child is by Geoff Colvin’s “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.” The thesis? “Greatness doesn’t come from DNA but from practice and perseverance honed over decades - and not just plain old hard work, like your grandmother might have advocated, but a very specific kind of work.”

“The key is how you practice, how you analyze the results of your progress and learn from your mistakes, that enables you to achieve greatness.” Deliberate practice, as practiced by Mozart, Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, Sheila Young and Frankie Andreu, is an unrelenting focus on the potentially mind-numbing basics of a sport or activity. In fact, at the tennis camp in Spartak, Siberia referenced earlier, kids spent an inordinate amount of time swinging rackets at the air before they were even allowed to hit balls, and then they were not allowed to enter a tournament until they had 3 years of practice under their belts.

Daniel Coyle then describes the unique characteristics of the coaches who create the right environment for focus on deliberate practice. In one chapter he details the key elements of a master coach, by documenting the actions of a certain famous athletic coach. This coach’s “teaching utterances or comments were short, punctuated, and numerous. “There were no lectures, no extended harangues…. "He rarely spoke longer than twenty seconds. “What made this coach great, “wasn’t praise, wasn’t denunciation, and certainly wasn’t pep talks. “His skill resided in the Gatling-gun rattle of targeted information he fired at his players.”

This, not that. Here, not there. “His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something. “He was seeing and fixing errors. “He was honing circuits.”

For those that knew him, this sounds exactly like Mike Walden. But this case study was of basketball’s John Wooden. The circuits Daniel refers to are the biological occurrences of “myelination” – the wrapping of neural circuits that become “talent” through repetition, coaching, and deliberate practice.

The hubris of youth suggests the following: “everything good that I have - I’ve earned.” And then the corollary “Everything I don’t have? Not my fault – I wasn’t born with that talent (or I’ve been thwarted by outside forces.”)

With time, maturity and a series of books by acclaimed authors I’ve been forced to realize that virtually all my athletic accomplishments and perhaps even all of my achievements in general – even in academics - boil down a couple simple facts: 1) I had the right parents (a subject for another day), and 2) I was born, raised, and trained at the right place at the right time: Detroit, 1980, WSC... with Walden.

Take away Dorais, Walden, Waterford, and the repeated refrains of “pedal circles,” “win it at the line,” and “race your strengths, train your weaknesses,” and humbly, it is clear that my entire life’s journey would be on a different trajectory. Gone would have been a bid for the Olympics, gone the silver medal, gone the singular element that encouraged some strong undergraduate (and graduate) schools to accept a student with SAT’s and GMAT’s that were at best “average” for these institutions.

My relationship with Mike Walden was not one I would have described as friendly: I came to practice, and he yelled at me. During practice, he yelled at me. Sometimes, after practice, he yelled at me. This was the same for most of the team, though I sometimes I felt singled out. Dorais velodrome was the worst – in the oval you were always within shouting distance. The bumpy track in the inner city was fraught with danger – bumps, graffiti, random kids throwing rocks, and the worst of all, crosswinds. Week after week, year after year, Walden demanded that riders should have only a 4 – 8 inch distance between the tires of other riders in high speed pacelines against crosswinds, over uncertain pavement, and variable speeds – all on racing bikes without brakes or gears. “Follow the wheel” meant be right on the wheel in front of you. If you let a few more inches stretch out as the peleton accordioned down the homestretch, then Walden’s penetrating voice was right there, “close the gap Coyle! Get on the wheel!”

Between each activity, Walden was not shy on letting anyone and everyone know how bad they had failed. “Alcala – you’re a disaster – can’t ride a straight line.” “Andreu – you pick it up every single time you hit the front.” “Paellela – you’re herky-jerky – ride smoothly, quit riding up on everyone.” I was afraid - everyone was afraid - to get it wrong, and you modified each and every pedal stroke to pedal circles, keep an even distance, accelerate smoothly, and drop down after pull at the front. I didn’t know it then, but this extraordinary focus on pedaling fundamentals every Tuesday for nearly 10 years allowed a 30+ year racing career featuring 3000+ races, with almost no crashes (<10), and not one injury serious enough to prevent racing the next day. It also gave my limited strengths a path for success: to move swiftly and safely through the peleton in preparation for the sprint in a manner that may be my primary defining strength as a cyclist. Mike always said, “race your strengths,” here’s a video of that put into action. 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9W0WETpST8]

Walden was not one to shower complements. In 1980 at 11 years old, racing as a Wolverine, I won the national championships at the Balboa Park Velodrome in San Diego, California. In the process I also met Eric Heiden who I would “pro-fro” with (live with for a week as a prospective freshman/frosh at Stanford 6 years later.) My relationship with Walden had only slightly warmed over the years, nonetheless I was fully expecting some warm words after my victory against some difficult odds against the likes of Jamie Carney. Immediately after the awards ceremony, still wearing my stars-and-stripes jersey, Walden sought me out and came up extending his hand. I was beaming and expecting (finally) some recognition. Instead I heard, “Don’t get cocky - it’s just a race. “There are a lot more important ones in your future.” He turned on his heel and stomped away. 30 years later and I can still feel the flush of heat to my cheeks as I describe that moment.

By the time I was in my late teens, I was winning races left and right. At 15, like Frankie Andreu, I was solicited by the almighty 7-11 team, and raced for them over the next couple of years. I continued attending Walden practices and continued to fear his penetrating bark. I had decided that he must clearly hate me until an odd morning one summer when I was 18.

I had been invited to a club ride that was leaving from Walden’s house in Berkley one Saturday morning. I rolled into the driveway a little early and no one was there, so Harriet Walden, Mike’s wife invited me into their comfortable, but humble home. I was struck by how normal it seemed. For nearly a decade Mike had been an enigma to me, someone ‘other than human’ who only pushed and prodded, who only repeated the same damn things again and again, “pedal circles! “Finish at the line! “Race your strengths!” Harriet was very accommodating and seemed to know all about me. As I waited for the other riders to arrive, she said something to me that shocked me then, and still cuts me to the core now, “You know, Mike is quite fond of you…” She paused, waiting for her words to sink in. “He speaks very highly of you.” I was stunned.

I didn’t know. But I know now. I should have known then. How could I not know? What kind of courage does it take to push someone to become all they can be and never even ask for any acknowledgment in return?  

A few years ago Richard Noiret made a movie, “Chasing the Wind” about Walden and the Wolverine Sports Club. I believe this is the tip of the iceberg. How did a club in a random suburb of Detroit produce 5 Olympians, 10 World Champions, 300 National medalists, and more than 25% of the nation’s national champion cyclists for two decades?

I’m a coach myself now, both for an incredible team at work, and as the head coach for the Franklin Park speedskating club. It’s odd: I’m relatively terrible at coaching speedskating despite a life dedicated to practicing the sport - it feels like total mayhem. Yet, every Tuesday night, more than one of the kids will say to me, “thanks Coach John!” as they leave the ice, despite all my yelling and it gives he a huge thrill. During all my formative years, it never, ever occurred to me to thank my coach – Affholter, Young, Walden – and it never occurred to me that they weren’t paid for all that time, effort and shouting.

Theron Walden (Mike) died February 12, 1996. I never even new his real name. I was probably busy with something I thought was important. I missed the funeral. It came to me later that I had never really known the man, and worse, that never, in my life had I ever said, the simple words I write now, 15 ½ years later. Thank you, Mike.

I owe you more than you could possibly imagine, but it is only now that I realize it. Thank you Mike – for your (tough) love, and your legacy that I’m attempting, clumsily, to pass on.

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PS: In order to pass on Mike’s legacy I feel I must pass on the below verbatim. It concerns a sophisticated understanding of strengths vs. weaknesses that is best described in the incredible book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham. As usual, an incredible amount of science belies the couple sharp barks that only become clear with time and repetition. This is another great legacy of Mike’s: repetition is the key to coaching. Think carefully about the conundrum posed by the below and what it suggests for your life’s path regarding your strengths, passions, and weaknesses:

Race your strengths, train your weaknesses. Racing is the best training. Race your strengths, train your weaknesses.

References:

  • “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell 

 http://www.amazon.com/Outliers-Story-Success-Malcolm-Gladwell/dp/0316017930/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1318566226&sr=8-1

  • “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle 

 http://www.amazon.com/Talent-Code-Greatness-Born-Grown/dp/055380684X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1318566246&sr=1-1

  • “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin 

 http://www.amazon.com/Talent-Overrated-World-Class-Performers-EverybodyElse/dp/1591842948/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1318566269&sr=1-1

  • “Now Discover Your Strengths" by Marcus Buckingham

 http://www.amazon.com/Discover-Your-Strengths-Marcus-Buckingham/dp/0743201140/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1321302063&sr=8-1

National Championship results, 10 years:  1972 – 1981, Road & Track

1972 -  Road – Milwaukee, WI, Aug. 5-6

SENIOR WOMEN

1.        Debbie Bradley, IA, 28mi in 1:19:10

2.        Jeanne Omelenchuk, MI

3.        Eileen Brennan, MI

 

 1973 Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 1-4

SENIOR MEN 10 MILE  -

1.        Roger Young, MI

SENIOR MEN’S MATCH SPRINT : final for 1st and 2nd: Roger Young. Ml beat Jack Disney, CA, 2,0

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT: final for 1st and 2nd: Sheila Young, Ml, beat Sue Novara, Ml, 2,0

MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 21

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 10

 

1974 Road – Pontiac, MI, July 27-28

JUNIOR MEN

1.  David Mayer-Oakes, TX

2. Pat Nielsen, MI

3. Tom Schuler, MI

 

1974 Track – Northbrook, IL, July 31-Aug. 3

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT – Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara, MI, beat Sheila Young, MI, 2.0

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.      Connie Paraskevin, MI, 21

MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.         Kevin Johnson, MI, 14

2.          Troy Stetina, IN, 8

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jacque Bradley, IA, 21

2.         Debbie Zbikowski, MI, 9

 

1975 Road – Louisville, KY, Aug. 14-15

SENIOR MEN

1.        Wayne Stetina, IN, 114mi in 4:35:53.22

2.        Dave Boll, CA

3.        Tom Schuler, MI

 

1976 – Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 3-4

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT- Final for 1st and 2nd: Sheila Young, MI, beat Sue Novara, MI, 2,1

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jane Brennan, MI, 17

INTERMEDIATE BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jeff Bradley, LA, 17

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 15

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 19

2.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 12

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Kirstie Walz, NJ, 19

2.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 15

3.        Anne Obermeyer, MI, 8

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 5

 

1977 – Road, Seattle, WA, July 26-Aug. 6

SENIOR WOMEN – 1.        Connie Carpenter, WI, 38.24mi in 1:38:31

JUNIOR MEN

1.        Greg LeMond, NV, 71.5mi in 3:10:40

 

2.        Jeff Bradley IA

JUNIOR WOMEN

1.        Beth Heiden, WI, 31.5mi in 1:24:28

MIDGET BOYS

1.        Grant Foster, CA, 11.25mi in 31:27

2.        Greg Foster, CA

3.        Jimmy Georgler, CA

4.        Glen Driver, CA

5.        Frankie Andreu, MI

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Sue Schaugg, MI, 9mi in 27:50

2.        Lisa Parkes , MI

3.        Ann Marie Obermayer , MI

 

1977 – Track  - Marymoor Velodrome, Redmond, WA, Aug. 2-6

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 15

2.        Dana Scruggs, IN, 10

3.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 8

4.        Rena Walls, MI, 7

5.        Jane Brennan, MI, 7

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 14

2.        Lisa Parks, MI, 12

 

1978 Road Milwaukee, WI, July 26-30

JUNIOR MEN

1.        Jeff Bradley, IA. 7Omi in 2:50:48

2.        Greg LeMond, NV

JUNIOR WOMEN

1.        Sherry Nelsen, MO, 24mi in 1:03:51

2.        Tracy McConachie, IL

3.        Nancy Merlo, MI

4.        Karen Schaugg, MI

5.        Louise Olson, MI

VETERAN WOMEN

1.        Jeanne Omelenchuck, MI 15mi in 40:26

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Elise Lobdell, IN

2.        Tyra Goodman, MI

3.        Beth Burger, PA

4.        Karn Radford, CA

5.        Celeste Andreu, MI

 

1978 – Track – Kenosha, WI, Aug. 1-5

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT – final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Jackie Disney, CA, 2,0

SENIOR WOMEN POINTS RACE

1.        Mary Jane Reoch, PA

2.        Cary Peterson, WA

3.        Sue Novara-Reber, MI

JUNIOR MEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Eric Baltes, WI, 13 pts

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 12

3.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 8

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 17

2.        Sherry Nelsen, MO, 15

 

3.        Tracy McConachie, IL, 7

4.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 6

5.        Rena Walls, MI, 3

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Beth Burger, PA, 19

2.        Elise Lobdell, IN, 11

3.        Tyra Goodman, MI, 7

4.        Karn Radford, CA, 7

5.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 7

 

1979  - Road – Milwaukee, WI, Aug. 1-5

SENIOR WOMEN

1.        Connie Carpenter, CA. 39.6mi in 1:44:16

2.        Beth Heiden, WI

JUNIOR MEN

1.        Greg LeMond, NV, 70.4mi in 2:55:08

VETERAN WOMEN

1.        Jean Omelenchuk, MI, 15mi in 43:30

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS

1.        Sarah Docter, WI, 15mi in 38:02

2.        Sue Schaugg, MI

3.        Abby Eldridge, CO

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI

5.        Laura Merlo, MI

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 9mi in 27:09

2.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA

3.        Melanie Parkes, MI

1979 – Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 7-12

SENIOR MEN POINTS RACE

1.        Gus Pipenhagen, IL, 18 pts

2.        Roger Young, MI, 18

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT  Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Jackie Disney, CA, 2,0

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Rebecca Twigg, WA, 16

2.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 13

JUNIOR MEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Mark Whitehead, CA, 15 pts

2.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 13

3.        Peter Kron, IL, 7

4.        James Gesquiere, MI, 6

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Brenda Hetlet, WI, 17

2.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 10

3.        Laura Merlo, MI, 10

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 7

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Susan Clayton, IA, 17

2.        Jennifer Gesquiere, MI, 15

3.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 13

4.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA, 4

5.        Melanie Parkes, MI, 3

1980 – Road – Bisbee, Az, Aug. 13-17

SENIOR WOMEN

1.        Beth Heiden, WI, 35mi in 1:43:56

JUNIOR WOMEN

1.        Sarah Docter, WI, 28mi in 1:25:58

2.        Rebecca Twigg, WA

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS

1.        Dedra Chamberlin, CA, l7mi in 57:52

2.        Lisa Lobdell, IN

3.        Mary Farnsworth, CA

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI

5.        Susan Schaugg, MI

MIDGET BOYS

1.        John Chang, MI, 7mi in 24:29.54

2.        Steve MacGregor, WI

3.        Hector Jacome, CA

4.        John Coyle, MI

5.        Jamie Carney, NJ

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 7mi in 39:59

2.        Lisa Andreu, MI

 

1980 – Track – San Diego, CA, Aug. 20-23

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT -Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Pam Deem, PA, 2,0

INTERMEDIATE BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Tim Volker, IA, 19

2.        Brad Hetlet, WI, 11

3.        Bobby Livingston, GA, 10

4.        Joe Chang, WI, 4

5.        Frankie Andreu, MI, 4

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 14

2.        Dedra Chamberlin, CA, 9

3.        Amy Saling, NJ, 7

4.        Mary Krippendorf, WI, 7

5.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 6

MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        John Coyle, MI, 19

2.        Jamie Carney, NJ, 11

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Celeste Andrau, MI, 17

2.        Jennie Gesquiere, MI, 15

 

1981 Bear Mountain, NY, Aug. 3-9

INTERMEDIATE BOYS

1.        Gordon Holterman, VA, 33mi in 1:33:47

2.        David Farmer, PA

3.        Frankie Andreu, MI

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS

1.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA, 23.4mi in 1:15:15

2.        Bozena Zalewski, NJ

3.        Celeste Andreu, MI

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Lisa Andreu, MI, 11.7mi in 38:17

2.        Joella Harrison, AZ

3.        Gina Novara, M

 

1981 Track – Trexlertown, PA, Aug. 11-16

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT –  Final for lat and 2nd: Sheila Young-Ochowicz, WI, beat Connie Paraskevin, MI, 2,0

Final for 3rd and 4th: Sue Navara-Reber, MI, beat Betsy Davis, NJ, 2,0

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Rene Duprel, WA, 19

2.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 15

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jenny Gesquiere, MI, 21

2.        Gina Novara, MI, 15

3.        Alicia Andreu, MI, 9

 

This list only represents cycling – note the rising tide of MI athletes on the national stage.

 What is missing is the world and Olympic results for cycling and the same results for speedskating. Champions like Gold, Silver and Bronze Olympic medalist Sheila Young, World Champion Roger Young, World Champion and Olympic medalists Connie Paraskevan, World Champion Sue Novara, 9 Times Tour de France Rider and Olympic 4th place finisher Frankie Andreu – and on and on the list is a Who’s Who of American cyclists and speedskaters.

Really Living: Casablanca, Morocco, 25 years ago, vol 2.

 "DeathPace 2000"   Day three, junior cycling camp in Colorado Springs: I had been dropped again. Flying out, I had imagined very different circumstances - instead of being heralded as one of the top junior cyclists in the country I arrived instead to a camp and culture that viewed midwesterners and sprinters as pariahs, worthy of contempt. I proved them right by falling off the back of the peleton yet again on an uphill ride east out of Colorado Springs. Buffeted by the cold cross winds, I came to a stop with a flat tire high up on the plateau, exposed to the elements. The pacing vehicle, a station wagon with a half dozen bikes astride the roof, was manned by famed sprinter and crazy man Les Barczewski. He skidded the wagon to a stop and helped me switch wheels. Then he grinned broadly, leaned in with his pink face and, jabbing me, said, “hang on to the door – I’ll pace you up”. I grabbed the door jamb with my left hand, grabbed my handlebar stem with my right, and he began to accelerate, cackling through the open window, “Hold ON!”

Knuckles white on the bars I began to ratchet back and forth – the 25 mile an hour cross winds bouncing me against the car causing my wheels to angle underneath due to the sheer forces against the gyroscope they had become. Les’s gravely face leered at me through the window, “hold on! Taking us up to 85!” and he laughed again as my bike became a bumper car for the wind, terrain, and tiny adjustments from the one free hand guiding my handlebars. He announced speeds through the open window, "75! 80! 85!) I was terrified and knew I would be pulled under the car and die if I let go, so I held on and contained the onslaught of winds, road, and tires to regain the shelter of the peleton.

This was all part of the qualifications for the 1986 Junior World Team - though I certainly didn’t know it at the time - the first of many lessons of how other factors can matter as much as actual performance.  Annual training camps were held as a pre-selection to hone the “best and brightest” at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. A few dozen riders joined for a late winter camp, then about 20 or so were invited back for a spring camp. Finally, a select few were elected by the national team coaches to stay as “permanent residents” for the summer training to be conditioned and trained and coached not only by Craig Campbell (the junior coach) but with Eddy Boreysewizc (Eddy B.) himself.

Many of the riders had attended prior camps, but I missed my opportunity the season prior due to competing at the speedskating world championships. Instead I joined the ranks of the 7-11 junior development squad and, wearing the green, white, and almost-red jerseys of that team, spent the summer training in Indianapolis under coach Roger Young (son of Clair and Dorothy, brother of Sheila) along with 1984 Olympic gold medalist Mark Gorski, Scott Berriman and Frank Filardi.

When I finally made it to that first camp in Colorado Springs in late winter of 1986, I found myself a fish out of water. The coaches had their favorites and the riders were surprisingly clique-ish. Already pretty shy, but fiercely competitive, I turned inward and said little in the early days and grew more isolated with each passing day.

Over time I began to learn the names and faces that would surround me in the desert of north Africa months later: Stefan was a slight, shy individual – the caricature of the athlete-as-intellectual. At first Stefan seemed to be just another wallflower in Scott McKinley’s circle of admirers. Over time though it became clear that Stefan and Scott were friends and that despite Scott’s sway over the rest of the team, he would sometimes defer to Stefan’s quiet but firmly stated opinion. I don’t have a memory of meeting Stefan – he crept slowly into my awareness over time, mostly for his prowess in climbing, and his odd lack of ego. With Ed Johnson we shared aspirations for academics – Ed was going to Duke, I was going to Stanford, Stefan to Berkley.

Scott McKinley, however, I remember meeting very clearly. Scott was a caricature of the athlete as extrovert, the Tom Cruise of cycling. Outgoing, gregarious, good looking (he actually did, and does look very much like Tom Cruise) Scott carried the air of someone who attended to such matters like a training camp out of his own good graces - a favor to the coaches and riders. Scott made his mark just a few days into the camp.

Each morning Craig Campbell and Andrej would call us out at about 7am for calisthenics by the back fence outside the dorms, but on this particular morning after a few jumping jacks and toe touches, Campbell suddenly said, “where the hell is McKinley? Anyone seen McKinley?” There were smirks and nervous titters from the group, but no one said anything. Campbell sent one of the assistant coaches, along with a roommate back up to the third floor barracks. Moments later Scott appeared, groggy, but all smiles, sauntering casually down the steel grated steps despite prods from the coach to hurry it up. In his sternest voice Campbell got in Scott’s face and started to berate him, but stopped suddenly, pausing, then sniffing, “Are you drunk? Have you been drinking?” Shameless, confident, and without a touch of malice, Scott calmly looked up, smiled, and said brightly, “I sure am.”

Everyone laughed and Campbell didn’t know what to do. This was one if his superstars from the prior year. After a moments pause he said, “I’ll deal with you later – send him back to his room.” It was hard not to admire that calm and courage.

Then there was Jamie Carney. Jamie is a whole other story. Jamie and I had history. More on him later.

I quickly grew to hate the camp. There was no “racing," no criteriums or sprint finishes – none of the things I was good at. Instead there were long rides in cross winds in pacelines that provided no protection, odd tests of endurance like max situps, max pushups, max back-ups, max leg-ups, time trials and for some, the dreaded V02. They did do some specialized tests for sprinting capability, but due to my very slight build (6’, 140 lbs) and my resume of road racing wins, the coaches assumed I was a “roadie” – an endurance racer.

Slotted with the likes of a Greg McNeil, Mike McCarthy or a Stefan Spielman, I quickly found myself at the bottom of the pecking order, the bottom of the lists, and off the back of the pack during the road rides. I grew bitter and aloof, trading self doubt for a facade of arrogance.  At the end of the camp, when the selection for the spring camp was made, I somehow managed to assume I’d be chosen - that my race resume would carry me through vs. the arbitrary tests of the camp. I was wrong. My name was not on the list and I grew furious.

Holding my empty piece of paper as we left the meeting I vented loudly, arrogantly to Ed Johnson - one of my few friends - about my race resume, the arbitrary nature of the “tests” and the bias of the coaches against “new” riders. He turned and quickly gained my attention, ire, and then respect.

“What are you getting all high and mighty about Coyle? "If you are as good as you say you are, then who cares whether you made some arbitrary cut to a camp you don’t want to go to and a team you don’t want to join? "If you are that good, just come back in July and win the trials. "If you aren’t as good as you say, then this is all false bravado and you should beg for them to let you in because deep down you know you probably can’t cut it and need their help. “Which is it Coyle? Either way cut the arrogance and stop bitching.” I stopped short. No one had ever talked to me that way. He then smiled and said, “I didn’t make it either, but I don’t care because I hate these people and I’m going to Duke in the fall, and THAT is my future.”

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

Back to the Diary: Casablanca, Morroco, 1986:

Wednesday (actually its Thursday – I forgot about the night flight over). I woke up when my alarm went off – at 2:00pm. I went downstairs to eat and was told I missed lunch. I didn’t wake up with the rest of the guys because I have a room by myself – no one wanted to room with me – who knows why?

I get along the best with Stefan and Scott – they (Scott and Stefan) went to the bazaar today with some guys they met at the bank. I guess these two guys took them to their house, fed them, and showed them how to take the bus to the bazaar and haggled for them. Scott bought a really nice jacket for $20.00 and they both bought leather sandals - $6. They said it is really cool and that there are hundreds of shops and thousands of people – I want to go so bad! Meanwhile I was asleep!

Oh, today I found out that Mohammed was arrested. Stefan said it was the most pitiful sight he has ever seen. He said that the president of the cycling federation here is also the chief of police and that he recognized and arrested him. Craig said he was known as a common thief. He thinks that Mohammed was a con artist and that he was going to rip us off – including our bikes. Anje thinks not. He said that Mohammed stole something 2 years ago and that now he would be beaten and whipped and God knows what else. He thinks he was just trying to help.

I don’t know – he certainly seemed nice enough but maybe he was after Craig’s briefcase with $15,000 in it. All I know is that when he was being dragged away he was groveling and crying and pleading in the most pitiful way – making no attempt to protect himself from the rough scrapings as he was dragged across the pavement – acting as though where he was going was worse than death. Jamie has his address (or fake address?) I’m going to write him next year and see what happens…

Anyway, after lunch, I unpacked my track bike and then went for an hour ride by myself. I rode North along the coast until I was even with the center of the city. I then turned right and headed straight downtown – I was looking for the bazaar – but I never found it. I rode about 6 miles and the city never stopped, so I turned around. The people weren’t as friendly to a lone rider – not as many waved – but no one was hostile.

I returned, then I went down to the beach. There must have been 100,000 people on the beach running around in the tidal pools and on the wet sand – all playing soccer – how they know whose ball it is I don’t know. I wish I had a camera. The beach is about ¾ of a mile long and is full from 10am to 4pm. Otherwise it is not as full. None of them go in the water unless they go in huge groups of at least 100 – in which they form a triangle of link hands and move a short ways out. I have never seen them go over their waist in the water. If anyone goes too far the lifeguards blow whistles – at least that is what I have determined is the reason for all the whistle sounds constantly coming through my balcony door. I have a great view of the beach from my window – here is how it is situated. (I’ll draw a picture shortly)

After going to the beach I went to eat with the other track riders because we were going to miss the Hotel-served dinner. Once again finding a place to serve us was hard – we finally ate at the Hotel Bellevue (on the map). We had rice and lamb again – but it wasn’t as good as our Hotel. After this we went and rode the track. It was awful. It has joints every 15 feet or so – whch are smooth enough – but aren’t actually in angled alignment with each other – which creates a very bumpy and uncertain ride at any kind of speed except slow. Which brings up another point – you can’t ride slow.

I’m afraid to ride the banking at under 20mph. I tried riding around 10mph really low on the banking and fell and re-opened the newly healed wound on my hip. If you go faster than 20 that is bad too, because the woop-de-doos in the corners flip up your back wheel. Riding out of the saddle is very dangerous. The pole line is fairly smooth, but it curves to nearly flat at the pole line so in a sprint you end up riding at the red line most of the time. Another problem is that the track is steeper at the beginning and end of the turn than the middle by quite a lot, so when coming into and out of the turn up high and at high speed, you can “lift off” quite a scary jump.

Jamie and I did 4 jumps. We were pretty much even at the beginning of the jumps but I could come around him at the end when he led, while he could not. Before we started he told me he was riding a 45 front chain ring (small gear). After the jumps, he looked at his bike and said, “Oh, I was wrong I’m riding a 46.” Craig then made us do a wind up sprint because otherwise we would be going too slow and fall. I led it out, not climbing the banking until the last lap. I led fast early. I finished and still Jamie still hadn’t come around. I looked back and he was 10 feet behind. Getting off the track, he had two things to inform Craig and I with: #1 - he was indeed using his 45 (I guess it’s worse getting beat in a full out sprint than a jump, so a better excuse is needed for the sprint) and #2 “You can’t pass on this track, "its too bumpy," "I almost fell," "I shot tot the top of the track" etc. etc.

Jamie and I are getting along fine though – I just have to put up with a lot of his B.S.

Thursday continued: Our times at the track were really slow – my fastest 200 was only 11.92 and I felt incredibly sluggish. I hope I feel better for the time trial – if I don’t make the top 24 cut, Craig said he’ll send me home (Jamie too?). Jamie and I are going to go shopping tomorrow even though Craig doesn’t want us to. Oh, by the way, Jamie and Ted set up this little betting pool – giving out a piece of paper with everyone’s name on it. What you do is put the place you think each person is going to get in their respective world championship event. Everyone did it – even Craig, though he crumpled his up cuz he said it would be bad for team morale if they saw how he put them and they thought they could do better. I guess he’s right – but I saw it before he crumpled it – it said: Coyle – 4th, Carney – 5th. I wish Jamie could have seen it. I myself put Coyle – 5th, Carney 6th. Jamie did see that one – Goodnight!

(Next Up - a trip to the bazaar and then I am lost in the slums and attacked)

 

 

Clair Young

In July of 1977, I was just 8 years old, and I was already a ‘bike rider,’ I just didn’t know what that meant yet. I had a black, red, and yellow Raleigh ten speed with 24 inch chrome wheels and relatively narrow tires (at least as compared with my BMX bike) that I began riding on local AYH rides with my father, and then began attending longer supported rides on the weekends together.

My dad was a former telegraph delivery boy in his youth and had rediscovered bike riding in the past few years. He had tried a couple century rides the previous year and had decided to bring me along. Seems that like him I had a penchant for suffering and he found pride in my ability to weather through a 7 or 8 or 9 hour day on the bike. I was in it for the snacks (candy bars every 10 miles!) and I didn't really know any better - at first it was just something to do.

I do, however, remember a particular 2 day, 200 mile ride we put in that summer. We rode from Detroit to Lansing, stayed in dorms on the Michigan state campus after the first 100 miles, and then headed back on a somewhat hilly route on the return (I think it was called “Helluva Ride” because it passed through Hell, Michigan.) Along the way, an elegant older couple passed us on a tandem, and slowed to take a look at me - this tiny, boney, scrappy 8 year old following desperately in his dad's draft (I learned early how to survive) into a headwind as we completed the long slog back to Detroit.

The couple were both interested and complementary - slowing to spend some time talking to my father, to encourage me. I remember Dorothy’s penetrating blue eyed gaze – like she was looking right through you to your soul – with just a twinkle of amusement. The couple was none other than Clair and Dorothy Young, parents of national and world champion cyclists and speedskaters Roger and Sheila Young.  

It was then, that I heard Clair say those infamous words that changed my whole world and the rest of my life in a half a second, "He’s a good bike rider - he should be a bike racer - bring him to a race," in that clipped direct way Clair has. The way Clair says “bike rider” is also somehow unique – when he said it, it meant more than someone who is capable of riding a bike – it had panache. I wanted to be whatever that was…

I ponder now, 32 years later, what my life would be like if those words had never been uttered. My life, in its entirety, would have been completely different. I had no grand ideas about anything – much less of being an athlete. The concepts, beliefs, activities and confidence that were to come: of competing in the state championships, of driving across the country to the national championships, of qualifying for the world championships – none of these ideas had ever passed through our heads -  we were just ‘regular’ people. The very idea of the Olympics was some great mystery reserved for those ‘other’ people that had money, contacts, and talent.

But in a flash of care, understanding and engagement, these two people changed my whole life. My father managed to remember the location and timing of the race (Dearborn Towers, Dearborn, MI) and he and I showed up to race with Frankie Andreu (9 time Tour de France finisher), Celeste Andreu (10 time national champion) and Jamie Carney (3 time Olympian and my arch-nemesis to this day – whether he knows it or not.)

Here are my impressions of that fateful first day:

Flashback: August of 1977.

I am 8 years old and my father and I are pulling our GM Beauville van into the parking lot of the Dearborn Twin Towers office buildings where I was to participate in my first ever bike race. It was pouring outside and I remember not wanting to get out of the van into the cold rain. I dressed in the van into my wool jersey and black cotton and wool shorts (with a real leather chamois), my leather “hairnet” helmet and gloves, and then, with my father holding the umbrella, I climbed outside the sliding door and onto my bike, goosebumps standing out on my shiny forearms. 

He suggested that I “warm up” by riding around the parking lot a few times, and I did but I was immediately back under the umbrella and back into the van, shivering from the cold and wet. We waited until almost race time before heading toward the start/finish area. With his plastic raincoat on, and holding the umbrella, my father walked and I coasted on my bike over to the start finish line where a stocky, bald, grumpy older man with glasses and a mustache was yelling instructions to the parents, “Midgets! – midgets – you have to roll out your bikes before the race! – bring them over to Clair…C’mon Andreu – you know the drill!” 

His name was Mike Walden and I disliked him immediately. Clair, however, I recognized. Clair Young, wearing his referee uniform, was the reason I was there in the first place. After Clair's intervention on that ride it was only a matter of a few calls, and there I was at the Dearborn Twin Towers just outside Detroit in the pouring rain, checking out my gears (12 and under or “midget category” racers were limited in their gears so as to not injure their knees) by “rolling out” my bike backwards for a full revolution of the pedals between two tape marks to ensure that my tenth gear was not too big (this was in the time where bikes still only had “ten speeds”)  10 minutes, and an eternity in the rain later, they lined up the boys, and then the girls behind us on the line.

There were about 12 of us boys, to the right of me was the tallest of the group, with dark hair and a fixed expression, seemingly unfazed by the rain. Next to him was a hyperactive boy who was badgering his father, “This rain is freezing me – why can’t we start? What are they waiting for? Frankie’s going to win anyway – why did we come?” Next to him was a pale, hollow cheeked boy of 10, whose father, like mine, hovered over him with the umbrella, guarding him as best he could. 

And so we lined up, myself – a few days before my 9th birthday: the tall one - Frankie Andreu – age 11 (eventual 9 time tour de France finisher and 4th in the Olympic games), the hyper one: Jamie Carney – age 9 (3 time Olympic team member, my arch-rival for decades to come,) the pale Englishman: longtime friend Paul Jacqua – age 10, and a number of other boys, readying for a short 3 lap, 3 mile race. 

In the old Italian tradition Mike, (or was it Clair?) announced, “Torreador, Attencione, Go!” and within seconds Frankie had disappeared into the mist while I was still trying to get my foot in the toeclips. Once I finally did, I could see the outline of two riders ahead of me in the rain, roostertails kicking up high with the water flying off their rear wheels. Frankie was nowhere to be seen and I was left strugging through the downpour with Jamie and Paul and we headed through the darkened corners of the course, wheels whizzing with water and rain, pain and breathing only matched by wonderment of “where did he go?”  

I was not used to being beat – the fastest kid on my block during tag, and the fastest kid at school during recess, I felt a frantic, almost asphyxiating rhythm take over my pedaling and breathing. There was pain in every pore of my skin and my lungs were on fire but I was fixated on the mysterious disappearance of the rider ahead.  Jamie and Paul and I shortly established the pattern known to racers the world over as a “paceline” pulling into the wind for a short distance and then moving aside for the rider behind to pedal through, blocking the wind for the riders behind.

For perhaps the only time in my career, I took the role of a “roadie” and would pull through faster, chasing the elusive Frankie, or even making attacks to the side of our little peleton.  2 laps into the race and suddenly a dark figure appeared and quickly disappeared outside our little group. It was Celeste Andreu – Frankie’s sister, and she had already made up the 1 minute start gap provided between the boys and girls, and passed us. We made a fruitless effort to chase, but resolved back into the loosely formed paceline we had formed after the start, Paul doing most of the consistent work, and Jamie and I occasionally trying to sneak away off the front. 

We came by the start finish with one to go and the few parents remaining in the rain cheered and then disappeared and we continued our route around this urban maze. As we headed out of the last corner, Paul sprang out into the lead and as I started to follow, Jamie slingshotted past him. But I had grabbed his wheel (i.e. gotten into his draft), and as our tiny gears spun, and out little feet rotated at over 200 rpms, I passed Jamie just before the line to win the “field sprint” and come in 2nd establishing in that 3 mile microcosm a pattern in the world that would be significant in my life for the following 30+ years. 

After drying off (and the rain stopped) there was a medals ceremony followed by a trip to a tent where the sponsor of the race from the local bike shop provided me with my prize – a heavy, chrome plated bottom bracket tool kit.  I didn’t know what a bottom bracket was, but I could tell that this was a significant prize by its weight and shininess and I resolved to really like bike racing. I still have this bottom bracket tool kit, now 32 years later, and it has never been used as far as I know. But it is still shiny… 

Thank you Clair and Dorothy – for bothering to notice a skinny kid dangling in the wind on a hot windy July day. I’m sure it was par for the course for you, but it made all the difference in the world to me.

-John

PS: 29 years later I discovered that I had inadvertently “paid it forward” to another athlete – Alex Izychowski – and so the circle of life continues. http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/02/19/torino-journal-9-epilogue/