2013 Race Report: Birmingham Bike Festival

2013 Race Report: Birmingham The drive from Chicago to Detroit began a structure of energy and feeling that emerged like a fractal: it started with the frenzy and stress of the busy suburbs, frequent merges required to traverse the ant trails of the city, my right foot a hummingbird between the nectar of the accelerator and the threat of the brake, bright sunlight from above burning twitching limbs and blinding eyes.

The transition to Indiana began with a ribbed series of long, straight, tarred concrete boulevards surrounded by a parade of ugly billboards pimping everything from hardware to strip clubs and then finally, the curve to the north and the relief of the Michigan border. The transition came quickly its first relief from the afternoon heat found in dappled wood-lined bends, shadows stretching in the late August sun. With the cruise control humming, calm emerged and I grew thoughtful, leaning into the curves.

As usual it was a “race to the race,” but this time merely to join members of my team the Wolverine Sports Club for a simple breaking of bread the night before the actual event. I arrived with ample time to spare and sat in the parking lot of my old grade school / middle school / high school in Southfield marveling at how it was both novel and natural to park the same parking spot of my 17 year old self and gaze upon the bricks that enwombed and entombed me for 13 years as a child, teen and young adult. Egg shells and dripping yolks by the high school entrance reminded me of a series of senior pranks including cementing the doors shut and painting handicapped symbols in every single parking space. Good times.

Pulling into Birmingham I felt the easy embrace of my cycling brethren: the graceful green intellect of Kelly and Jay, the joyful banter of the Rodd brothers and their ladies Chelsey and Sam, Sarah’s competitive curiosity and Kroske with his camera and quick humor. The night was warm then cool, conversation transitioned and groups reformed and I stumbled into Jay and Kelly’s house near midnight, content yet missing my family.

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I slept in the dark basement without setting an alarm never questioning the notion that I’d awaken in time for an 11:20am race. Wine and time zones conspired and I awoke at 10:20am and faced the usual mad scramble to make the race: eat, shower, dress, pack, lockup, drive, get money a the ATM, register for the race, pin the number on the jersey, assemble the bike, pump up the tires, and then, with 7 minutes left, “warmup.”

The race started fast and strung out quickly. For two laps I stayed in 5th position before folding and tucking back behind the draft of the larger peleton. I had forgotten to fill my water bottle and only had ½ bottle for the 50 minute long race and had to ration my sips. The first ten laps were difficult but eventually the pack settled in and I rode the eddies and currents of the rear of the peleton. I felt the newfound power of a clean drivetrain coursing through my veins and into the pedals and determined I would have a shot at the win. I could hear twice that my friend and competitor Paulo Eugeni won two primes in a row. Good for him.

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Then the pace picked up again and the pack slinkied out single file with 10 laps to go as a break of strong riders went clean. I danced inside and outside the turns with Ray Dybowski and had glimpses of fellow Wolverines Jay, John and Kroske for a few laps and then heard from Tim Finkle the announcer that Ray was putting in his signature move of a late break, but to no avail. There was already a break up the road and the peleton was determined to bring it back.

The sun was now heating the pavement and limbs. Families were lining up in advance of the kids race. Tires were grippy and risks could be taken on the tight yet smooth turns and I spent 10 laps enjoying the mastery of efficient pack surfing, gracefully pedaling through corners on cruise control. With 5 to go we gained sight of the breakaway and began to reel it in. The pace was high and the peleton single file – 200 yards from tip to tail. I was sitting 2nd to last and waited for the pack to hit the inevitable lull so that I could move up for the sprint. It never happened.

We caught the break with 2 to go but another surge happened and finally I realized I had to play the hand I had been dealt. On the backstretch with 1 ½ to go I surged up the outside, asking John Sammut for permission to move out. I jumped from 60th to 30th and then followed wheels through the turbulence and then heard the bell for one lap to go. Again on the backstretch I lit a match and jumped up the inside from 30th to 10th before entering the chicane, but now, with only 400m left I realized that my efforts were too late and that my weakness from the accelerations and the single file line ahead of me would not present any opportunity for the win. I skipped a few wheels and finished a reasonable but unsatisfactory 8th – in the money but hardly fulfilled.

Nostalgia reigned after the race as voices and faces from my youth emerged as the kids race and then the Pro race were sent from the line. My great friend Kirk had arrived and we meandered the course, I talked with Ray, cheered Randy and Ryan and Ryan and Ray, ate with Kelly and Jay, talked with Kirk, saw TJ and Duane and the Andreau’s and Stechkines. The sun angled early and I got back in the Jag and pointed the smoothly humming V8 west at 80mph for for the ride into the setting sun.

Something, many things stuck with me. Most of all what I recall was Kelly and Jay talking about their exit and return to Michigan. They had moved to Wisconsin, and then faced adversity. They looked for community; they cast hooks and reeled in empty lines. They realized, she realized, that they were lonely. The defined loneliness and I sat and listened in rapt attention. They realized that they missed their friends and the sense of belonging of Detroit’s cycling community. One year later they moved back. Despite the economics, despite the city’s woes, despite the climate they moved back and were once again happy.

I have been a Wolverine since 1976 and in some way part of that community since I was 8 years old. I always look forward to seeing anyone from the club or cycling community including previous members – Ryan Cross, the Rodd Bros, Ray D., Frankie, Jose, Sarah, Brett, TJ, Duane, Jason, John Sammut, Cullen, Duane, Mark, Scott, Kelly, Jay, Danny, Jamie, Tim, and dozens of others. Other than a brief stint with 7-11 I have always had a Wolverine cycling license despite many offers to switch to teams when I lived in Arizona, Wisconsin or Illinois. To be honest I didn’t give it much thought – I liked being part of the “club of champions” and flying my colors in remote regions.

The sun was setting as I turned off the cruise control and crossed the Indiana state line with a line of cars blocking my way as I headed west. I was having an unnamed feeling, one that I had felt on and off for a few years. The sun was lighting up the worn stones in the concrete like gold coins. I tried to thread my way through traffic but lapsed into the single file queue towards the border. The feeling grew stronger and I avoided naming it. I tried the radio, flipped stations but the sun dipped lower and lower and avoided my visor and lit up my retinas with its brilliance and eclipsing descent towards my current home.

A rush of nostalgia for the previous hours returned. Perhaps my feelings had a name. Perhaps I too am “lonely.”

Perhaps I too need to head “home.”

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

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

The last race of the season – and my favorite. 

 

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

 

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

 

I was ready.

 

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

 

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

 

I raced up front.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I was bonking.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

…nothing happened.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

…That I used to be good at.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I am a sprinter.

 

Maybe next year I’ll do it right.

 

-John