TBT: People I Owe - 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. 

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.

podium-1980.jpg

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 many years later after he had passed away.

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I had been invited to a club ride that was leaving from Walden’s house in Berkley one Saturday morning (we still met there even though Mike had passed away). I rolled into the driveway a little early and no one was there, so Harriet Walden, Mike’s widow invited me into the 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!” It was odd to think of him having the normal accoutrements of modern life. 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 was very fond of you…” She paused, waiting for her words to sink in. “He spoke 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.

Racing is the best training.

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 (Virtually all the MI racers were club members or trained with Mike)

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 nationals – 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.

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.

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

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.

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