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

    Race Report #9: A return to the Pro 1/2's - Whitefish Bay

    Race Report, Sunday July 23rd 2006, Superweek Stage 16 - Finale, Whitefish Bay, Milwaukee, WI 62 miles, 82 degrees.  We woke around 8:30am with the bright sun seeping through every crack in the shades and blinds in the RV. I had a headache and felt slightly hungover from the night before. What a great way to prep for my first pro race in 20 years. I felt nervous already – I just didn’t want to get dropped – at least not right away anyway. 

    Jeff and I headed over to Silver Spring Ave to have some breakfast and I wolfed down a breakfast burrito and a waffle and orange juice and coffee. My stomach felt better. Jeff registered for his noon race, and then we returned to the RV to change and warmup. I ran into the race leader Dennis Hauweizen while Jeff was registering and asked him why he was suited up so early in the day (our race wouldn’t start until 6pm). He laughed and said in his thick German accent, “I must clear out zo much alcohol from last night – big headache today – not so goot”. I then said, “Well how about keeping the pace slow today – remember this is my first time racing with you guys in a long, long time.” “Sure John," he answered, "today I go slow – no problem.”

    We shook hands and then I joined Jeff in his pre-race warmup, feeling OK. I returned to the RV and changed back into my civilian clothes even as Jeff headed to the start finish line for his race. Unfortunately he ended up in the back of the pack of the Masters race, and when they started the race, it became immediately clear that this was no cake walk. After one lap when they came around, the pack was completely single file – not a single rider was doubled up. Jeff was hanging on the back, and I encouraged him saying, “It’ll let up soon….” But it didn’t.  Next lap 4 or 5 riders fell of the back and Jeff was losing touch with the string of riders in front of him. Still the pace continued, and I feared he wouldn’t be seen the following lap even as he entered turn one 30 feet off the back. Incredibly, he was still 30 feet off after 3 laps even as a few more riders fell off.

    I remembered riding with Jeff that morning and marveling at how strong he was, and here I was seeing it first-hand. He just hadn’t raced enough to be comfortable on these bumpy, tight courses while keeping his front wheel 2 inches from the wheel in front of him.  Another lap and he had finally lost some ground and shortly thereafter pulled out, upset and disgusted. Still, it was quite impressive to me, but made me nervous – was this to be my own fate? What the hell was I thinking anyway? 

    So it was 1pm, and I still had 5 hours until my race… Jeff and I waited in the shade as the day grew warmer, and then finally headed to eat lunch a little after 3pm at Brueggers bagels. We both ordered the Cuban sandwich and it was delicious, but I remember thinking that I tasted some mayonnaise in the sandwich – something that generally doesn’t settle well with me. Shortly thereafter Jeff gave his partings – he had to drive 8 hours back to Pittsburg. It was only then that I learned my race was suddenly slated to start at 5:30pm rather than 6:00. I texted my former boss Ed Perez and let him know that we would be starting earlier than I had thought.  Meanwhile, I felt tension, nervousness, anxiety – like I rarely had felt in my 29 seasons of bike racing.  

    I dressed in the heated, humid RV, packing an extra water bottle, and then headed out on my bike for a warmup – with only 30 minutes to go. Immediately I knew something was wrong. I felt fat, bloated, like a puffer fish. My knees were hitting my stomach and my lungs would only fill up half way as I tried to get in a decent warmup. I couldn’t even begin to work hard enough to get my heart rate up, because the motion of the bike, the bumps on the road, and the heat all combined with my lunch to make me feel quite sick. I’m generally anti medicine, anti-doctors etc. and it didn’t occur to me for quite some time that maybe I just had a simple condition to be cured by Tums or Rolaids. I hit the grocery store, bought a roll of Tums, and took 4 of them even as I headed over to the masses of colorfully dressed cyclist at the start line.  5 minutes later, I suddenly deflated – my stomach must have been like a balloon, but with a couple quiet burps I was myself again. Now I was standing on the start finish line with 155 professional or near professional riders, and I was able to focus a little. Wow. There were a LOT of people lining the start finish – in fact the whole course. All these years of racing in the “not quite professional category” had inured me to the fact that there could be that many people out to watch a bike race. As they introduced the race leaders, including an unfortunately fresh looking Dennis Hauweizen, and the applause echoed off the storefronts and banners, I could feel my adrenaline start pumping.   

    The race director announced the distance (62 miles) and number of laps (75), and then turned the microphone back to Eddy. Eddy then began to announce that there was a special guest racing tonight and I listened with interest as he began to recount a couple of bike racing statistics – former national champion, member of the 7-11 team, and former Olympian and suddenly flushed as I realized he was talking about me. He had me raise my arm and the crowd applauded, even as I felt all the other racers’ eyes on me. What an odd and memorable event – after 18 years, I was back in “the big event” just honored to riding with the likes of these guys – many with names familiar to me – but at the same time what many - if not most of them - aspired to, was to race in the Olympics. In that moment I felt this odd admixture of humility and pride even as a few guys around me introduced themselves and shook my hand. 

    “Just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped…” This, along with a brutal searing pain in the legs and lungs were the only feelings I remember from the first 15 laps or 30 minutes of the race. 

    It WAS fast. Faster than I’d ever gone in a race – EVER. 31, 32 mph every straightaway – headwind or tailwind – didn’t matter. Several times during those first few laps, I found myself saying – “just make it one more lap.” Or, “just make it to the next corner – they’ll slow up…” But they didn’t. After one lap, even with the slowing in the corners to 20mph or slower, the average mph was 28.1, and that never changed – not for the next 2 hours or 62 miles. 

    After 15 laps, I started to loosen up – I realized I’d made it ¼ of the way, and that maybe it wasn’t going to get worse. I started gauging my position in the pack, and getting more strategic about my line through the corners.  It was only after this first half hour that my eyes re-adjusted from their narrow fixation on the tire in front of me. And on this occasion, my returning senses took in the black horn rimmed glasses and red shirt of Jose, who screamed, “Move up Coyle!!!!” I glanced behind me – sure enough, we’d lost a good section of the group and I was riding near the tail end, and it was pretty strung out and the drafting was weak. Next couple of laps I moved up into the belly of the group and found the going just a tiny bit easier…  

    One notable thing about the pros… They are not, as a group, ANY better bike handlers than the masters – maybe worse. At one point in the race, some yahoo came barging up the inside just before a corner, hit my handlebars, and then coming out of the corner, hit my front tire with his rear wheel as he snaked randomly left and right while out of the saddle.  Later in the race, I saw him doing it again, and I turned to the racer next to me and said, “look at that guy – keep your distance – he’s all over the place – watch him exit this corner.” The guy next to me didn’t even look over, he just said, “That’s Andrew Crater – he’s allowed to do that sh*#!” Andrew is a pretty prominent U.S. Pro who has won Superweek before, as well as some of the other big races in the U.S. Midway through the race, Andy suddenly materialized next to me and said, “7-11 eh? You ride with (Tommy) Matush?  I said yes. I asked him how old he was and he said “28,” and I told him, “I guess I moved into skating before you became so famous – I don’t remember racing you.” He said, “I’ve been racing a long time though….” and seemed vaguely disappointed. He then weeble-wobbled his way through the pack again – forward backward – all over the place – and disappeared. 

    When 40 laps had gone by, and the lap cards showed only 35 to go, I realized that I was going to make it, and my awareness raised another level, and for the first time I took in  Ed Perez (my former boss) and his kids cheering for me. They looked excited and at some point I started getting excited too – after all I had always believed that if I didn’t get dropped, I had a shot… Meanwhile I discovered that a breakaway of 11 riders was off the front by 20 seconds – but not my problem today… I began to focus on saving energy, pedaling my corners, finding inside or outside lines without obstruction, gaining a few spots into or out of the turns, and letting a few positions go during the long hard accelerations on the straightaways.

    My favorite trick was the outside line on turn one – a particularly bumpy corner approached at 30+ mph. Most riders dove inside and then braked, dropping their speed to the low 20’s. I found that every other lap or more that I could find an unobstructed line through the turn on the outside and carry it at 30 mph, darting forward 10 or more spots on the outside even as I leaned the bike way over to the left. I began to enjoy this game and played it until the last laps. 

    With 10 laps to go I felt a tug in my right hamstring after a particularly hard backstretch. Not good – generally a sign of dehydration – and I only had probably 2oz’s of water left. Next straightaway – same thing – long tug from my right hamstring when I tried to pull up. So I adapted and used my quads and left hamstring and favored my right and figured I’d save all my remaining water until 2 to go, drink it then and then see if I could get one good lap out of my right leg. Meanwhile, that feeling of “flow” of sudden focus, awareness, and “knowing” returned to me. With four to go I moved up from 80th to 60th, with 3 to go to 40th, with 2 to go to 20th, and with one to go I came across the start finish in about 8th place.  

    As I passed the wheel pit, I could see Jose and Todd, eyes wide open, fists shaking yelling “Go Coyle!!!!!” Disbelief in their eyes. I too was in a bit of a state of disbelief. How was it possible that I could just… do this?

    As we passed the start finish and the bell rang, I resolved myself to an old Mike Walden axiom, “Get in position – you can’t win unless you are in position.” We made the first corner and headed down the shorter stretch into turn 2 and that’s when I saw it… Out of the corner of my eye, a motion to the left and suddenly a train of 4 riders in green and one in red went shooting up the inside – just enough time to clear the front of the group, but not enough time to jump on their wheels… 

    Into the long backstretch, the “green train” had widened their lead on us to 3, 4, 5 bike lengths, and the single file string in front of me collapsed as the pace climbed to 34, 35, 36 mph.  The two riders in front of me sat up, even as the two riders in front of them made an attempt to bridge the gap to the green train of 4 Sierra Nevada Pro Cycling riders, with a tag-a-long of Alex Candelario from the Jelly Belly Pro Team. 

    I then began my attempt to close to the 2 chasing riders, and gave it every single tendon, tendril and muscle that I had, pace climbing to 37, 38mph alone on the backstretch even as I connected to the back of the 2 rider pace group, and we then connected with the back of the “Sierra Nevada Train”.  We passed through turn 3, and my two riders suddenly gave up the ghost and I found myself with a 3 bike length gap to bridge back to the Jelly Belly rider.

    Again I fired the pistons, but the fuel was running low, and even as I entered turn 4, with 400 meters to go, one bike length off the lead group, in 6th place in my first pro race in 20 years, I knew there was nothing left…. absolutely nothing.  

    A friend and fellow racer from the Cat 3’s said, “I saw you come through turn 4 and for a second I thought you were going to win it… that was until I saw the FACE OF DEATH…” 

    I had acid for blood and could barely turn the pedals. I made feeble attempts to keep my profile low in order to keep my speed going and watched the train accelerate away from my station and then watched wheel after wheel, jersey after jersey swing by me as the road heaved in jerky motions pinwheeling me, the bike, and the other racers into the vortex of the screaming crowd at the finish line. 

    I was completely disoriented for a while, but slowly returned out of the depths of the pain of oxygen debt and circled the course to my friend Ed and his kids. They seemed honestly impressed even though what they must have seen was me going “backwards” against the press of the crowd during the finish sprint. 

    I said my goodbyes to Ed and his kids and circled by the awards stand to say goodbye to Eddy, John, Todd and Jose – another Superweek over with, another summer now firmly on the ebb. I shook hands with Eddy, waved to John and then stopped by the wheel pit and humbly found them cheering as I approached… “Yeah Coyle!!! – that was almost yours – I thought you were going to take it!!!…”  “Next year I work for you – only for you!” said Jose as I gave them both a quick “man hug” and said my goodbyes. 

    So I returned to the RV and then started the interminable drive home – only 2 hours, but forever after the last 4 days…. As the RV rumbled down the highway, I was left alone with my thoughts… Thoughts about time… thoughts about life and living… thoughts about memories and their relative “share of mind.” 

    I conceived that in the past 4 days I had lived … a month? A year? I had watched my daughter scatter seagulls with her playful screams. I had held the felt imprint of her tiny toes in the sand. I had joyously watched her learn to ride her bike the same day we also celebrated the life of a rider who had lost it while in pursuit of the same dream. I had raced multiple times under various adversities – rain, cracked pavement, and the toll that the speed and power of full time professionals can bring to the uninitiated. I had also proved something to myself – I had proved the words of my first and most important coach, Mike Walden, who had always said, “race your strengths, train your weaknesses.” 

    At the age of 37, I had finally heeded and understood these words fully and I had decided to put Mike’s philosophy to work. I had trained, for the first time in my athletic career, using a key strength – I had trained strategically. I worked on my weaknesses – aerobic ability and my aerobic threshold, but I also trained and raced my strengths – power, short term speed, drafting, and effective navigation through the pack. I’ve been preaching Mike’s words, above, for the better part of a year, having now given public speaking presentations to more than 1000 people, but had always felt I had better prove this theorem in the classroom of my own life.  

    Even though I didn’t yet win a single race, and even though I finished 17th in the field sprint, and 27th overall at Whitefish Bay, I felt I had proven the truth of “train your weaknesses, Race Your Strengths.” The teams, names and countries finishing ahead of me were almost exclusively full time professionals from around the world – Alex Candelario from Jelly Belly, Dennis Haueisen from Jan Ullrich’s German team Milram, riders from Sweden, Denmark, Peru, Hong Kong… 

    Walden would have been proud, though he still would have yelled at me. “Goddamit Coyle! You should have expected that move on turn one – you should have been the caboose on the Green Train – not flailing in the wind on the backstretch!” And as always, he would have been right. 

    Most importantly, and as always, the pursuit of a “noble goal” has created memories – of love, of family, of important events, as well as that collegial atmosphere that follows the dramas of athletics – shared experience and adversity creating a quiet vacuum from the normal conversational inhibitions: a safe place where smiles, wine, and food form a simple common ground for important conversations about… life. 

    Of course, newfound friendships and shared experiences will not keep me from doing my best to crush these same racers at my final races of the season in Downer’s Grove Illinois August 19 and 20th, and on Erie Street in Windsor, Canada September 3rd 

    Til then, -John 

    Race Report #7: Cudahay

    Race Report, Saturday July 22nd, Superweek Stage 15, Cudahay WI 40 miles, 71 degrees, overcast, bumpy.  So Jeff and I woke and started watching the tour – Landis overcoming the odds by winning the time trial and securing his yellow jersey for the next day.

    Meanwhile we loaded up the RV with food, water, bikes, blankets and food. Our plan was to race, watch the pro race at Downer Avenue, and camp in the RV overnight at Whitefish bay in prep for Sunday’s finale. 

    We arrived at Cudahay a little late – between watching the tour and loading up, we had little time to spare for warmup. For the first time Jeff and I would finally race together, and I was excited to show him the “lazy man ropes” to cycling that I had perfected through the years. We met at the line and proceeded around a course full of aged, cracked concrete, complete with major potholes and off-camber corners full of mysterious cracks. Turn two had both – an off camber approach, and a cracked convex surface. It was followed immediately by a short hill. Nothing major, but for those riders unaccustomed to risking their life with a large pack over terrible surfaces, a climb of monumental magnitude. 

    Due to our late arrival, Jeff and I lined up in back, and sure enough, his second big race of the season on a dangerous course, Jeff found himself gapped after that first round of turn 2. He reconnected after a long hard uphill upwind stretch on straightaway 3, only to be gapped again the next lap.  After 3 laps, he was somehow managing to ride all alone and still keep up just 30 feet off the back, even as a few others peeled off.  I dropped back to bring him into the pack. He followed my wheel into the group, and I gave him a little shove. But sure enough, next time around on the moonscape of turn 2, he was gapped again, and even as I drifted back and brought him back into the fold of the draft, I could feel the anguish coming from his legs.  One more round of this, and I had to sprint back into the draft as Jeff folded slowly off the back.

    I remember thinking, “I could never last that long facing the wind alone.” But the race continued, and the corner continued to take its prisoners as the pack whittled its way down. After 40 laps, 4 men had managed to lap the field and I was then in the unhappy position of sprinting for 5th. The rough course created quite a landgrab for the front and I was forced again and again to sprint up to the front to defend my position – quite unlike my “internal” work in previous races.

    With 3 to go, I sprinted up to 2nd, only to find myself back in 15th on the backstretch. Same with 2 to go. Finally with one to go, again I sprinted up to 4th on the homestretch, only to find myself blocked by a rider failing to address turn 2 properly. I fell to 9th on the backstretch, finding no openings to move up. On the second to last stretch, I stayed outside and moved up to 8th, following the leadout that was hammering down the left side.  

    We entered the final 300m downhill stretch of the course and … nothing happened. I stayed in 8th, but the pace stayed the same.  I got out of my saddle to make a move up the inside just as a flyer went by to my right. I jumped on the wheel and we swung up the inside, as I darted around one rider that put himself into my path. We accelerated past the chain on the left and I gave it all I had to come by the rider ahead of me, but missed by a wheel. 2nd in the field sprint, but another 6th place finish.

    Nonetheless, I had made my decision. Tonight I would commit – to move up to the Pro I/II category and race with the full time professionals.  

    I’m 37, working full time, with a family, but it was time to put myself to the test in the biggest series in the US, against full time professionals whose sole job is to eat guys like me for lunch and win money and fame for their sponsors. Tomorrow night, at Whitefish bay, the last of the Superweek series, I would skip the masters race, and the category 3 race to do 100 kilometers with Jan Ullrich’s teammates from the Milram team, the Jelly Belly professional team, and 155 other professional or near-professional riders.

     I remember lining up at Cudahay with Jeff. He looked visibly nervous even as I stretched. I asked if he was nervous.. “Absolutely” he said, “I don’t want to get dropped.” The following day I would know that feeling, but in between, a lot would happen. As it turned out,. Cudahay was a footnote in the broader story of the day… But Saturday night deserves its own entry….