2009 Race Reports 14 – 16: The Race to the Race

2009 Race Reports 14 – 16: The Race to the Race It was a carnival freak show caricature of the real thing. Everything that took place during those swollen seconds was a bloated, leviathan equivalent of the norm. Reminiscent of the movie Wall-E, every healthy element was eliminated and replaced by a supersized, unhealthy counterpart.

In the race to the race of the Chicago Criterium, I desperately needed food “on-the-go,” and the Lake Forest Oasis became my “feed-zone” where I received my “hand-up.”  To explain: the feed-zone is the area in bike races like the Tour de France where racers pick up “musette bags” full of healthy carbs and proteins, “hand-ups” by helpful members of the staff who run along side the racers as they slowly climb the steep slopes. Shoulder straps allow the racers to sling these bags of healthy calories over their shoulders so they can eat as they ride. I might as well have strapped it to my face…

In my case, the mountain was the small hill of the Lake Forest Oasis overpass, and the “musette bag” was a folded McDonalds to-go bag containing two fatty hamburgers on white bread with ketchup. The “racer,” (me) was not pedaling a 15lb carbon fiber frame… instead I was casually pushing the gas pedal of a rusting RV getting 7mpg - a 10,000lb hulk of fiberglass and steel zooming awkwardly over the top of the oasis. My friend Matt, unwittingly involved in this sordid satire, stood balanced on the curb in front of McDonalds on his tiptoes holding out my feed bag as I snatched it from his grasp at about 10mph, wallowing back down the overpass to I-294 spewing fumes en-route to the Chicago Criterium.

Thus continued the single worst preparations for any race of my life…

Race Report 14: July 26, 2009 – The Chicago Criterium, Grant Park Chicago – Masters 1 / 2  

The night before the Chicago Crit started way too early, involving copious quantities of Red Zinfandel out of a plastic cup while hiking the Downer Avenue course with my 21 year old teammate Randy Rodd and my great friend Matt Dula while watching the Pro Race. We ended the evening with the usual routine of entertaining guests in the RV by the start finish line and then hit North Avenue, staying up until 2:30am. Randy had to leave just 3 hours later for his race and successfully woke in time. He’s 21 and gets no sympathy. I on the other hand had difficulty waking up at 8:30 when I needed to, and when I finally did get on the road, found myself racing the clock for the 12:05pm race in a vehicle that can’t go much faster than 60mph at 7mpg.

I began chugging water just like the year prior, but this time had no food. I polished off 9 20oz bottles of water in the 3 hour drive, but could already feel the lack of calories. There was no way I could race without eating something, but I didn’t have time to stop… what to do?

I called Matt who was speeding on ahead in his car – and we arranged the now infamous “Lake Forest feed-zone hand-up.” I had asked for a relatively healthy breakfast sandwich and was suddenly thwarted by the switch to lunch. I was stumped - I should have gotten a grilled chicken wrap rather than plain burgers – what was I thinking?!

Finally, 20 minutes before race start time, I parked the RV for $40 and sped to registration, where I received my number (104 – hence there were 104 race participants – once again I was the last to register) and then sped to the wheel pit where Jose and another mechanic helped to get 4 pins in my number just as they called out the racer instructions. The fourth safety pin was latched just as they shot the gun and off we went – and I joined the rear of the peleton about 200 feet past the start finish – no warmup, tired, dehydrated, and fueled with fatty ground beef, ketchup and white bread. I felt like hell.

The race was relatively short and I actually wanted it to be longer, because the longer it lasted, the better I felt. I started lazy and lethargic and gained a little bit of energy every lap. It was an easy race and it was amazing that the peleton let 4 riders escape.

Finally it was the last lap and I woke up. It required the urgency of the bell to finally spur me into motion. The video below captures the action of the final lap, beginning right as we cross the line with one to go where I’m still sitting probably 60 deep or more in the peleton. I learned later than a couple guys were watching my wheel and determined I had given up on the race when I hadn’t yet moved up with less than one to go.

I tried to sling up front into the second corner, but others had the same idea and it was a bind around the corner and I had to brake hard. Swarming continued on the backstretch and I was trapped in the middle and dropped from 12h to 25th before turn 3 of 4 where I had intended to be 2nd – 4th. However, as we passed turn 3 into the short uphill, I still had my one little match, and I lit it out of that corner, getting out of the saddle and shooting up the outside, passing about 15 riders over the top to slot into 4th place into the final corner. I’m sure the same move from 8th or higher would have earned me the field sprint win, but I was just too far back, and by the short final sprint I had no juice left and finished 4th in the field sprint, 8th overall. The video makes it look all in slo-mo, but in real life I felt like I entered hyper-space up the hill and loved that feeling of acceleration. I do love that course…


Race Report 15: August 1st, 2009 – Elk Grove Cat 1/2 75 Kilometers.

I arrived on time, warmed up, and suffered like a dog. For each of the 37 laps I determined that the next lap I would drop out. There was a crosswind and the peleton was spread out single file from lap one, and each long (1000m) finish stretch had me on the rivet. I quickly determine that I would quit at 35 to go (2 laps in), then I lied to myself and said, “at least make 5 laps”.

At lap 32 to go, I lied again and said, “10 laps would be at least a decent showing for your teammates in town” (I had 4 fellow Wolverines visiting and staying with me – Randy, Brett, Pat, and Sarah).  So with 27 to go I determined to quit again, but there they were, cheering, so I decided to go one more lap. Then another, and another. Even with 5 laps to go I wasn’t sure I would make one more lap. The idea of moving up did not enter my oxygen starved brain until 2 to go, and with gaps opening and wheels single file, I only managed to get into the upper quarter of the peleton by the finish despite using every possible fragment of energy in my body (see video below).

Race Report 16: August 2nd, 2009 – Elk Grove Masters 1/2 45 Kilometers. Every POSSIBLE mistake…

Saturday night ended nice and early despite my teammates being town, and after only one glass of wine with Randy and Pat, I hit the hay early and then returned to the course with them the next morning with over an hour to register, pin on my numbers and make the start of the race.

I registered, returned to the car with my number, and then started scrambling, tearing the car apart, searching for, but not finding my skinsuit. Mistake #1 – I forgot my skinsuit. My God – even when I’m early I’m late. I had to head all the way back to get my skinsuit – but Pat Robb had my keys, so first I had to find him… I did get somewhat of a warmup chasing him down while coordinating with Randy via phone. Once I had the keys, I had the traffic lights perfectly timed as I raced back to get my suit, and then returned to the course. When I parked, it was 10:27am, and I still had to get on my numbers, helmet, shoes, gloves and get to the start/finish line in less than 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, they were apparently calling my name at the start/finish, and co-workers John Cregier, Ed Perez, and Dave Torgerson were scratching their heads as I succeeded in becoming a caricature of myself by skidding to the line during the final race announcements with an unbuckled helmet, un-strapped shoes, no gloves, no shoe covers, and no number on. Randy was there to help put the number on, but a couple of ladies by the barriers took over and managed to get 3 of the numbers pinned on before the sent us on our way.

I felt quite good and stayed mostly mid-pack, biding my time for the very long (700m) sprint. Near the end I dropped back, and then as we came around and I saw 3 laps to go, I started making my moves to the front. Mistake #2 – I never looked at the lap cards again…I’m sure now, that when I looked up with 3 laps to go, I was probably dead last, and they had already flipped the cards, so there were actually 4 laps to go, not 3.

But I moved through the pack as though there were 3, then 2, then 1 lap to go. Around the final bend there were two riders off, and the pack, as expected in the headwind, bunched up and I launched off the front, bridging between the pack and the lead riders, knowing the race was mine… until I realized it had all been too easy, and, glancing back, seeing that the pack had done nothing. A sudden cold feeling rang through me with the bell as I sat 100 meters off the front of the peleton… “One Lap to Go!, one lap to go riders!” yelled the announcer. Mistake #3 – sprinting with one lap to go…

No what? I had burned most of my match and couldn’t possibly hold the lead… so I sat up and waited, and then jumped back into the accelerating peleton in about 15th. Over the final corners, things played out well and I was in perfect position, but had no match left and merely followed wheels to finish in 6th place, the taste of blood and pennies in my mouth like yesterday…

Still, my legs felt like they were finally coming on… and the Grand Cycling Classic – in Grand Rapids Michigan – where I had had my first win in a while the year prior was coming up next… I liked this feeling of possiblities...

2009 Race Reports 1 - 4, and 2009 Race schedule:

So I've been slacking in many ways - I've now raced 4 times (sort of) and haven't posted a thing.. I haven't finished my tour of Albania from nearly 6 weeks ago, and I haven't figured out what races I'm doing this year... Work has been quite busy.. 2009 Race Report #1: ABR National Master's Championships, Winfield, IL - June 7, 2009

This has to be the most uneventful race of the last few years for me. I planned ahead to do the race, knew my way to the course, got there on time, had money and my license, warmed up properly, made the start line on time, moved through the pack on the final lap, came out of the final corner in decent position and then ended up 3rd in the field sprint, 7th in the race (4 guys off in breaks) and 4th in the Men's 40 master's nationals. Afterward I was changing and missed the podium call, but the real highlight of the race was spending the post-race vibe hanging with fellow Wolverines Maia, Brent, Cruise, and Luke at a local restaurant.

2009 Race Report #2: Sherman Park Criterium - Pro 1/2, Chicago, IL - June 13, 2009

Thwarted twice! Last year I experienced the reverse breakaway where the Triple XXX team practically pushed the field backward from a large breakaway - now this year I missed the start altogether. I had printed out the flyer for this event about a month before and lo and behold, they had changed the time - earlier by 30 minutes. Underestimating Chicago traffic as usual, I arrived after fighting traffic for over 2 hours with only 30 minutes to spare and was devastated to discover that the race just heading from the start line as I stood at registration was MY race. The guy working the registration, when I showed him my flyer with the incorrect time said, "so sorry man - not sure what happened.... Why don't you just jump in on the backside and at least get some laps in..."

So I did - I got my skinsuit on and kept on my number from Winfield and jumped in 10 minutes later on the backside and rode the remaining 70 minutes of the Pro 1/2 race with the medium sized field.  I felt really good but knew I couldn't do anything or sprint for the finish, so as a gesture of defiance, I led out a friend on the backside of the last lap gaining 100m on the field and setting him up for an easy field sprint win - it felt good and I felt good. I skidded to a stop and rode over the grass to my car before the race was over and headed home.

2009 Race Report #3: Tour of America's Dairyland Stage 8: Sheboygan Pro-Am - June 25th

The Sheboygan course looked like candy for my sprinter's sweet tooth, but I had meetings until 5pm on Thursday - or so I thought. Mid-day I realized we would be wrapping up early, and that, if I was out of the office by 2:30, I just might make the start of the big Pro race up in Sheboygan as part of the new "Tour of America's Dairyland" series put on by Tom Schuler and Bill Ochowicz. I sped up 294 and realized a couple things enroute: 1) I didn't have my helmet - I had only planned to ride at Bussy woods, not race, and 2) 294 traffic is horrible right now due to construction.

It took me 3 hours and 15 minutes to make it to the course and I changed in the car enroute. I assembled my bike and sped to registration even as they were doing the pre-race announcements. The reg ladies were awesome and let me just leave my credit card and license to finish up later, and they gave me a number. I stripped off my shirt right there on the sidewalk and put on my number, and then sped around the barriers as they were about to start, casting about for a familiar face. Aha! Mike Beuchel and Kent Savit - I borrowed Mike's sweaty helmet and rode to the line just as they were about to start. I had time to text Jay Moncel and Kelly Patterson that I was lined up next to "tool #1" with his short shorts (an IS guy we like to laugh about) and then we headed off.

The race was fast - we averaged 28.7mph - but my kind of course - I only had to pedal in 10 second spurts, so I never really suffered too much. The last few laps saw leadout men take the helm and it strung out and the draft was hard to find as we screamed around the course at 35, 36, 38mph down the backstretch. I was sitting 15th into the last two corners - the heart of the a!*hole zone but I was unable to get far enough up due to the pace and sure enough, there was a crash in the last corner. I breaked hard and dodged bodies and bikes and gave my remaining effort into resuming speed. I maintained position into the finish line crossing 18th - in the money. I was pretty happy actually considering...

2009 Race Report #4: Tour of America's Dairyland Stage 10 - Downer Avenue, Milwaukee - Masters

I knew I was not ready for the Pro Peleton at Downer Avenue - actually I'm quite sure I'll never race pro there again - the course just does not favor my limited abilities - you have to pedal for more than 10 seconds in a row for god's sake! So I decided to join my cronies in the master's event - including Joe Holmes - friend from Toledo since 1983, Aaron Frahm - fellow Morocco world championships teammate from 1986, veterans Mike Beuchel and Kent Savit, and fellow "Slurpee" - i.e. 7-11 team member Jeff Bradley on the line for the 70 minute event.

Either the pace was not so high, or I'm in better shape that I've been for a while, but I didn't hurt too bad (my cyclometer got bounced around too much and refused to read speed/distance) and found myself a contender for the sprint. I moved up just right and came around the final corner 4th and finished... 4th. Too long a sprint with a slight incline - not the best sort of finish for me. Beuchel was 5th, Frahm was 6th, and Jeff Bradley was 7th, so I was in front of good company... Feeling good about the coming season..

Speaking of which, here's a tentative schedule:

  1. June 7 (complete) ABR National Criterium Championships, Masters: Winfield, IL - 4th place
  2. June 13 (complete) Sherman Park Criterium,  Pro 1/2: Chicago, IL  - missed the start, raced for training and pulled out on the last lap to avoid trouble
  3. June 25 (complete) Tour of America's Dairyland - Pro 1/2: Sheboygan - 18th place
  4. June 27 (complete) Tour of America's Dairyland - Masters: Downer Avenue, Milwaukee - 4th place
  5. July 5, ABR Illinois State Criterium Championships, Wood Dale, IL: Masters 12:30pm, Pro 1/2 3:30pm - 2nd place
  6. July 11, Superweek, Blue Island Pro-am: Pro 1/2 - 5:45pm - 100km - dnf
  7. July 12, Superweek, Elgin Cycling Classic, Elgin, Il: Masters 9:45am - 40 miles - 4th place
  8. July 14, Superweek, Arlington Heights, IL: Masters 12:50pm - 35 miles - 7th place
  9. July 15, Superweek, Bensenville, IL: Masters 12:00pm - 30miles - 9th place
  10. July 19, Superweek, Evanston Grand Prix, IL: Pro 1/2 5:30pm - 100km
  11. July 23, Superweek, Racine: Masters - 12:35pm - 35 miles
  12. July 24, Superweek, Kenosha Pro-Am: Pro 1/2 - 5:30pm - 100km
  13. July 26, Chicago Criterium - Grant Park - Masters 12:05pm, Pro-Am, 2:15pm
  14. August 1, Elk Grove Criterium #1 - Cat 1/2: 1:45pm, 70k
  15. August 2, Elk Grove Criterium #2 - Masters 10:30am
  16. August 8, Grand Rapids Cycling Classic - Masters and Pro 1/2  (tbd)
  17. August 15, Downers Grove Nationals: Masters 4:10pm, Cat 1/2 7:10pm
  18. August 16, Downers Grove Nationals: Cat 2, 10:00am
  19. August 30, Windsor, Canada: Tour de Villa Italia Pro Am, 5:00pm 100km

2008 Race Report #19: RV Racing - the Chicago Criterium

Race Report #18 – RV Racing: The inaugural Chicago Criterium, Grant Park, Chicago IL, Sunday, July 27. Category: Elite Masters 30+.  Weather: 75 degrees, light winds. Course: bumpy, mostly wide, 1.1 mile/lap, 6 corners w/ two small hills per lap. Distance 47 miles, Avg speed, 27.9mph, avg pulse 171bpm.


Gary and I awoke to church bells on Sunday morning after the antics on Downer Avenue the night before and absorbed the brown shag of the RV after just a few hours of sleep. I gruffly reminded Gary of his transgressions from the back of the RV hoping he would attend service and leave me aloneas he muddled around up front and I tried to go back to sleep but ultimately ended up joining him at Starbucks across the street on Downer Ave in Milwaukee at about 7:30 a bit tired and very dehydrated.


I used the wi-fi and Google Maps to plan out our day – I would drop Gary, his bike and his backpack off on a back road near Racine where he’d have a 50 or-so mile ride home. I would then continue on my path to Chicago for the inaugural Chicago Criterium – another big-money Chicago-land race – this time right downtown around Grant Park.


The race was set to start at 12:30, so we aimed to head out at 9am to give me ample time to make Chicago and drop Gary off enroute without using Chicago mafia drop-off tactics (i.e. pushing him out at 45mph). Alas it ended up closer to 9:30 before we headed out – but still – I had 3 hours to go 90 miles…  plenty of time – right?


You guessed it – wrong! I dropped Gary off in Racine around 10am and then hit construction on 294 and then the tolls (no IPASS for a multi-wheel vehicle) and my stress levels began their usual rise as the clock ticked on.


Meanwhile along the way I had realized that I was completely dehydrated. I seems so simple to stay hydrated, but it really requires a significant level of discipline when your body can lose over a gallon an hour during an intensive race effort. The wines and wheelies the night before didn’t help. So as I hovered in traffic, I began to aggressively imbibe those 16.9 ounce Dasani water bottles stacked beside me. I drank two in the morning and then two more before dropping Gary off and then proceeded to drink 7 more before I hit downtown. Only after 11 bottles of water (about a gallon and a half) did I start to feel somewhat hydrated. Obviously what comes in must go out – Gatorade doesn’t make those wide mouthed bottles for nothing…


Meanwhile with all the traffic, it was 11:30 when I exited Ohio street off 90 for downtown. Still – I had an hour to go 3 miles – no problem right?


WRONG again – Closing down Grant Park created quite a traffic quagmire. The RV is not exactly suited to traffic and Michigan Avenue was down to one lane and each light had a single policeman waving traffic off to sidestreets mostly and allowing only a couple of vehicles to pass straight through. As it turns out I would have been better off on the sidestreets, but I was hoping to park right on the course – wishful thinking.


At one point the lanes narrowed to one, and traffic followed the zipper effect of notching into the single lane – one car left, one car right. As it became my turn to merge, the car next toand slightly behind me began to tailgate the car in front of it – essentially ‘taking my place’ in the rotation – so typical of Chicago drivers.


The thing is – he was driving a 2500 lb, $40,000 car. Meanwhile I’m driving a 10,000lb, $5000 RV. It was silly I know, but I was in racing mode was determined not to lose my spot in the peleton – so I shoved my bumper within an inch of his shiny sleek car doors while looking calmly and arrogantly down at his passenger – who nervously shouted something unintelligible to the driver. Suddenly the car rocked and bucked from the stopping power of its disc brakes and I established my rightful place in the lane. I smiled grimly and raced on. Seriously I could have driven right over that little thing like a monster truck – don’t mess with an RV driver who races criteriums – you will lose…


I dodged through traffic like a tortoise strapped to the back of a rabbit and watched my countdown clock go from 50 to 40 to 30 to 20 before finally making my way back West to find a pay parking lot. After I finally found parking, I had 9 minutes before the start of the race.


Meanwhile, during various stops at lights I had run into the back of the RV and had gathered and changed into my racing suit – shorts, jersey, gloves, shoes, and helmet. Had I been wearing this getup during the traffic altercation, it probably would have helped convince the driver to give way…


I exited the RV, pumped up my tires, and brought my available cash and a credit card in my pocket and raced to the start/finish to register.

The registration guy was a bit amused… “Lets see – race starts in 5 minutes – hope you can pin your numbers on that quick. That’ll be $50 - $40 plus a $10 late registration fee.”

“Oh man – I only have $45…” 

“OK,” he says, “you owe me $5.” “Now let me see your license…” 

Oh boy…“Uh – that’s back in the RV…”

“OK you don’t have enough money and you don’t have a license and the race starts in 5 minutes… I suppose you’d like me to allow this anyway right?”

So I say, “tell you what – you give me the registration packet and I’ll run to the RV after I get my number on and show you my license before I hit the line.”


So I stripped down quickly, put four sloppy pins in for my number and threw away the second number and bike number and then raced to the RV and grabbed my license.

I swung back through and showed him my license only to hear those perfectly joyous words, “don’t worry – they are running late.”  FINALLY!

I got in a short warmup and then lined up with the field. There were 105 riders. I know that because my number was 105. Lots of money on the line and I was still tired and lethargic but I liked the course – two small sprinter hills and a relatively short (200m) finish stretch.

The first 46 miles were a mind numbing grind. The peleton stayed mostly together and sometimes stretched out on the backstretch and it was sometimes pretty hard. I actually considered dropping out about a dozen times in the race. I wasn’t completely burnt, but it was a weird sort of boring suffering – the race seemed to stretch on forever.

Suddenly, and finally, it was one lap to go and I yet again experienced that odd and faithful resurgence of energy and focus. My time. I slotted up to 30th on the long homestretch. Up and over the first sprinter hill into 20th and then into the single file high speed backstretch… waiting, waiting and then a hard move up the outside prior to corner three and as we entered the second to last straightaway, I’m suddenly, perfectly, in 3rd position with 450 meters to go and one small hill.

I was fresh. I had languished in the back for 46 miles and began to notice in the final 10 miles how quickly riders were going backward on this short hill on the short straightaway prior to the homestretch and finish line. For some reason these small hills hurt the roadies but allow me to leverage my strengths.

Time slowed – I was on the outside of a single file line riding the hip of rider #2 entering turn 3. We were traveling at about 34mph and bouncing over cracked pavement. This was considerably faster than prior laps and both riders up front used the entire width of the road to exit the turn, swinging all the way into the sloping gutter of the curb. Their nervousness was evident.

I followed the wheels to the outside, still feeling the draft. I looked up at the small climb facing us and knew exactly what was to come next. As our trajectories flattened out, I would hit the afterburners and use the 6 seconds of my tiny nuclear reactor to leap past riders 1 and 2 and hum into the lead. I would scream over the top of the hill and launch into the short downhill into the final corner at 40+ mph, flat on my top tube, leaning hard.

I would start pedaling early on the exit of the corner over the bumpy pavement and then,  using the final reserves of my fading strengths, I would streak to the line and cross well ahead of the field for the win. There was no doubt now, only the details of executing the plan.

All these thoughts accumulated and resonated in a half second of time as we exited the corner. All I had to do was exit the corner safely and then jump up the inside – my one little superpower, my little nuclear reactor ready to finally be lit.

And then, of course, it happened. Rider #2 clipped the curb, pulled out a foot, and meandered right into my launch trajectory.

I slammed on both brakes locking up the bike, grazing his back wheel. Riders went winging by, the hum and chatter of their wheels on the cracked pavement giving evidence to my backward motion.

I re-launched my explosion – but instead of coming from a 34mph slingshot, I fought the ropes against a deceleration to 25mph. Still, my little nuclear reactor got me back in the game and I shot back from 15th to 7th over the hill as we headed into the final corner.

Lined up neatly behind the contrails of draft provided by the riders up front, victory was still in reach except for that little nagging weakness of mine – I only have one 6 second sprint to use – and I had used it up. I had nothing, absolutely nothing left and drifted across in 7th, head down, disappointed. I was doubly disappointed when I realized I had completely forgotten to turn on the video-cam.

Still, I could taste it… I remembered what it was like to launch at the right time on the right course and I knew it was possible – completely possible that I could win a big race like this. I was hungry for it.

As it turns out I only had to wait a couple of weeks…

Next year though, Chicago is mine.

2008 Race Report #22: Downers Grove Elite Masters 1/2

2008: Race Report  #22: Downer’s Grove Nationals Masters’ Elite ½:  Weather: 84 degrees, light winds. Course: twisty, dangerous, seven corners, short steep hill, 0.8 miles/lap, Distance, 45 minutes + 2 laps, Average pulse 170. Avg speed - ?

There’s something about the prep for a ‘big race’ that unfolds memories from the cramped spaces of the past – the thoughts, images and feelings fan backward in ever dimming shades and echoes like the outline of your visage in a pair of dressing room mirrors.

In the two weeks preceding the annual extravaganza at Downer’s Grove a corkscrew of subtle déjà vus rotated into my consciousness and receded – flashes of memory, of sounds and scents as I pulled on my jersey over the bloom of sweat, changing clothes in the seat of my car at Bussy woods, as I pedaled circles under the arching late summer shadows on my training rides, or as I coasted into the driveway, cog ratcheting slowly to a stop as I dismounted and leaned my bike against the wall in the garage.

Downer’s Grove holds, for me, an underlying electric current - subsonic vibrations of years past – moments of ‘really living,’ including 2007’s slippery, rainy 6th place, 2006’s battle to the finish line - finishing 2nd by inches, of a 3rd place in 2005 and the subsequent crash in the Master’s race. Another third back in 2004, and a win in 2003 - holding a then-toddler Katelina on the podium.

Earlier memories still: a win in 1995 when I took the sprint out with two corners to go, and the whole peleton crashed behind me blocking the entire road. That year I coasted to the line looking uncertainly behind me and seeing no one (does that count as a breakaway?) I was too confused about the disappearing act of the peleton to use the ample time for a proper hands-in-the-air celebration.

The buckled asphalt, manhole covers, paint lines, metal barriers, short steeps and false flats all re-drew themselves in the etch-a-sketch of my mind and as the day drew near I began an endless play-action exercise to trace the race that was yet to come.

Throughout it all was a feeling… A feeling that maybe, just maybe this race was to be mine. In the weekdays prior, my training reached those perfect moments of motivation aligning with performance. As the days passed my confidence grew with each training ride, until…

…Until race day – despite all the anticipation - of being inspired all week for the coming event, by the time the actual day arrived, for some reason I just didn’t want to go.

Let me clarify - it wasn’t that I didn’t want to race, and it wasn’t that I didn’t want to win (or think it possible.)

Actually the malaise I felt was directly proportional to that fact that I thought I could, even, maybe should win. It was this sense of expectation that really made the drive to Downer’s Grove an exercise in discipline. I was steeped in an unexplainable soul deadening funk.  

Being tired was one element that probably added to my lethargy – despite a truly great week of training with ample rest, there was the unfortunate timing of an event on Friday, the day before the race, where I attended (and acted as the photographer) for the wedding of my wife’s cousin up in Wisconsin Dells. The only problem was that it was a 3 hour drive each way and when we finally arrived home at midnight I was wide awake from driving and it took me until 1:30am to fall asleep.

In my own little domain, Downer’s Grove (and to a lesser extent Kenosha) is the only fiefdoms where I can claim the right to have “expectations” – due to consistent podium finishes the last 8 or so visits with the exception of last year in the rain where I ended up 6th.

The psychology of these feelings is completely irrational and an interesting contrast - when racing with the top domestic professionals on difficult courses (Superweek), I usually drive to the race inspired to give it my all, and I arrive at the line loose and ready, my will warming to the challenge and the lack of expectations invigorating my limbs. I have no real expectations - after all by all rights I should be getting my ass kicked (and often do). Conversely though, the days prior to the event are sometimes filled with visions of the suffering to come.

One might think that you might be more motivated when you are quite sure you can win, but for me, and I suspect, most, this proves not to be the case on race day. There is a stark contrast between the mentality and drive of the “what is possible” underdog role vs. the “expected” results of the consistent player. This makes the achievements of a Michael Phelps or Eric Heiden even that much more incredible - they were expected to win, they thought they could/should win, and, they STILL DID…

Despite my funk, I showed up (I had to – my friend Gary was coming.)  I managed the ‘perfect’ parking space not 50 feet from the start line and forced myself to warm up well on my trainer. (For those few that have followed these race reports it should be notable that I have had fewer and fewer ‘races to the race.’ – small self-pat on the back.)

The race itself was reasonably fast, but as expected, all breakaways were pulled back prior to the finish.

I surfed the front 20 riders for about 5 laps and then settled back into my comfortable groove in the back of the peleton. Mike Beuchel and Kent Savit were in the field and made their moves in the closing laps as we moved from time clock to lap counter but their breakaways were brought back.

Sometimes, as we get close to the final laps, I get an anxious feeling that “I need to move up now”. I can then find myself too far forward too early and end up battling the a*@hole zone for multiple laps slinging back and forth through the swirling vortex at the front of the peleton.

Other times, I feel a bit lazy (like Bensenville) and have to move up rather late in the game taking risks. At Downer’s Grove I had a clear, and accurate sense that 2 1/2 laps was the right time to get up front. More than that I also knew where on the course to move up - on the backstretch after the right hand turn on the downhill, and on the short steep hill.

2 1/2 laps to go and I put in a short sprint and swung up 30 places on the backstretch, slotting in and following wheels. As we hit the line, the race swirled all around, and riders were bumping and bruising and riding way to close to the barriers. Rationally I could see all the mayhem and it was terrifying and for sure I was on red alert with both hands on the brakes, but at the same time there was that sick, risk-loving side of me that knows that this is my element… I moved up.

I stayed in the top 20 carefully tucked in for the next lap and a half, and then, as we entered the final straightaway with 1 lap to go I had that old feeling - that “I just know what the peleton will do” feeling

I have written at length about the suffering and agony of being a sprinter, and even on this, one of the best sprinter courses in the country, I still had to suffer just to hang on. I have also written at length about the transformation that occurs as the chrysalis of limited aerobic capacity and recovery are lifted and, after 99% of the race is over, the moment arrives which all the prior suffering has delivered: those few moments where the fast twitch muscles of the sprinter are finally allowed to unfurl and fully flex - knowing that the end is near and no recovery will be required.

(Short video - last lap)


The video shows the story from here:  from seconds 0:010 to 0:30 on the video I dodge left and right, inches from the barriers and then find those opportunities emerging, parting the waters and shooting right through to the front with very little effort, coming around turn one in 3rd. All my life I have variously thought that I was a sprinter, a trackie, a crit racer, a match sprinter. Perhaps the event for my true strength doesn’t exist - I may be one of the very best ‘hole fillers’ on the planet…

After sliding up to the front on the home stretch things remain skittish and dicey around the next two corners and up the hill. At 0:52 on the video we are single file, but not going quite fast enough - and sure enough a move goes up the right and I lose my top 5 position. It is anxious up and over the top of the hill (1:05) and the following left turn and it gets even slower on the downhill (keep in mind slow is a relative concept - we are going at least 33 mph - but we need to be going closer to 40mph in order to keep the swarming moves from happening).

Finally just as we are entering the downhill right hand turn at 1:29 on the video an attack goes off the front (off camera at first) and at the same time a rider comes screaming over the top on the left side chopping the trajectory of the rider in front of me resulting in a near disaster at 1:31. I brake slightly and then burn half my match to accelerate hard and tag onto the end of the train in 8th place (there’s still a rider a ways off the front) as we then swing right to set up for the final two corners (1:48).

On the second downhill stretch the leadout man realizes he’s brought along a 10 man train and swings left and then back right (1:55 – 1:57), and we slow going into the second to last corner and I sense with impending doom exactly what will happen and swing wide: sure enough a rider dives in on me as we enter the corner - right at 2:00 my bars twitch and I see haybales as we bounce off each other going 38mph I but hold my own and slot forward one more spot coming out of the corner (2:06) and then follow the train in a near full out sprint against the headwind to enter the last corner, hoping I have something left.

As we round the final corner (2:16)  I accelerate briefly and pick off one rider on the right and then I follow rider #45 as he gets out of the saddle for his full out sprint, using his draft to accelerate. At 2:21 I light my 5 second torch and pass him to the right at 2:22 and finally see a line opening up in front of me. I give it everything I have left but it was a little too little a little too late - I heave at the leading riders and at the line at 2:27 I’m just coming around the Rock Racing guy to the left and then you can see the winner to right (who had taken off on the backstretch) raise his hands as I coast into the lead: 30 more feet to the race and I might have been able to take it home. As it is I don’t quite catch the Rock Racing guy before the line and end up 5th.

Finish at 2008 Downer's Grove

Something of note here - the video is pretty smooth. That’s because I never get out of my saddle - not once in the whole race nor the finish. I rarely do except to stretch.

(Longer video description)

This video begins with 3 laps to go.  At 1:26 with 2 ½ to go I begin my first of several moves to the front to be “in position to win.” What’s not seen on camera are a series of dive bombs, mayhem, and bumping going on all around.


2008 Race Report #14: Superweek Waukesha Master's Criterium

2008: Race Report #14 Waukesha - The Life of Riley and the Tribulations of Job…


Prior to my departure for the annual, and in this case, final RV trip up to Wisconsin for Superweek I experienced a bit of the ‘Life of Riley”. On Tuesday the week before, I was invited to a charitable function for UCAN – a foundation for underprivileged Chicago youth. The guest speaker was none other than Chris Gardner – the budding homeless entrepreneur that Will Smith portrayed in the excellent movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness”. Shannon, my wife, was particularly struck with meeting him in person and after they talked for awhile, he pulled me aside and asked for a business card. I gladly obliged and was super surprised when I received a call from him a few days later – he wanted our address so he could send Shannon a signed copy of his book. Very cool – he had real presence.


A few days later I was invited to attend a pretty significant celebration in Millenium Park in downtown Chicago where Mayor Daley, Bart Conner, Cirque de Soleil, the Chicago Symphony orchestra and about 100 other Olympic Alumni and myself along with the crème of Chicago industry gathered to celebrate Chicago’s selection into the final round for the 2016 Olympics. I had the pleasure of catching up with Chuck Brooks – speedskater from the ’58 and ’62 Olympics – and a long time family friend sitting alongside my parents in the timers booth and many a race (and us having no idea he was an Olympian!) and then discovering a cyclist on the program list – a John Van Veld. I introduced myself and we got to talking and shortly thereafter I discovered the spelling error – this was none other than the father of Christian Vandeveld – the prodigy who was still in podium position in the current tour de France. Furthermore I learned that just as Eddy Van Guys played the lead ‘bad guy’ role in “Breaking Away” – it was John who Eddy had brought in to play the second bad guy – the one who shifts all the gears on the protagonist’s bike before Eddy delivers the punchline with the bike pump.


Race Report #14: Superweek Stage 11, Waukesha Wisconsin, Saturday, July 19. Category: Masters 40+.  Weather: 82 degrees, light winds. Course: flat, 0.7 miles/lap, 8 corners, Distance, 35 laps, ~25 miles (shortened from 50), average speed ~25mph, Average pulse 172.


Tibulations of Job: I really hate this course and don’t know why I keep coming back ‘as a dog returneth to his vomit’. 8 corners over 7/10ths of a mile becomes a single file death march every year. I stayed up front early but eventually stopped fighting for every corner, and, sure enough, as soon as I strayed too far from the front, the pack split… then it split again. By the final lap, 16 riders were away in two separate breakaways of about 8 each, and another single rider was out chasing those. We were sprinting for 18th – the final money spot. (video coming soon)


I considered “doing nothing” but decided I’d go for the 18th and final paid position. My motivation was low, but as we headed into the final corner, I slotted into 3rd in the pack, and as we exited the final corner, I hit the afterburners and found that magic – that special strength – and shot out of the pack and just about caught the lone chaser, leaving the pack behind. I guess I should have been happy to be able to use my tiny little super power, but at some point it loses relevance…

Race Report 2007 #19: Downer's Grove in the Rain

August 18, 2007: Race report #19, Downers Grove “nationals”, Illinois. My birthday.


I woke on my 39th birthday to leaden skies and cool temperatures. I had not had a lot of sleep the week prior, pulling an all-nighter, and a couple other late nights for project “Mythos” at work. Nonetheless, this race… Downers Grove Nationals… this was MY course – a podium finish for 5 years running, and 10 total podium finishes. In fact, a podium finish every year that I’ve raced it.


I arrived on time at the course, registered, warmed up with a jacket on, and then arrived to the line just as the first sprinkles fell.


Downer’s Grove in the rain… had never tried that before. Eight corners, manhole covers, fresh white lane marker paint , a steep uphill, two high speed downhill corners… a disaster in the making. I could still feel the itchy pink tightening glaze of shiny new skin over the road rash from the crash just a week ago.


We set out onto a still dry course, with a light drizzle. Within a few laps the drizzle heavied, and then became solid rain. The course then turned to the equivalent of ice. Every corner had either manhole covers, off camber sections, or wide swaths of freshly painted lane markers. Almost every corner someone went down. Within 2 laps, the pack became a single file line. Within 10 laps a majority of the 118 riders quit.


I sat in about 6th place. Sometimes the top 10 of us were in a breakaway. Sometimes the top 3 were in a breakway. I just pedaled and held on, and tried to stay upright.


It was like walking on black ice when you have a little bit of fresh snow on the soles of your shoes. In order to not windmill out of control and fall, you have to soften every motion, control every finite movement as you try to stabilize, every fine motor control trying to eliminate the possibility of slipping. Gentle steering, gentle shifting, gentle pedaling – full circles, no hard strokes, no knee wobbles, and tender, tender braking. Quickly every part of my hands, forearms, shoulders and neck tired from the tension. Several times a lap a tire would slip and for a second I’d feel the vertigo of falling – until the tires would catch on a patch of decent pavement and then I’d recover only to try and be more tightly controlled than ever.


Riders pass me… and I watch disinterestedly as they go spinning out to the left or right for trying to ride any other than the widest smoothest line through the corners. Moving up became a very difficult and dangerous proposition. I did my few moves forward through the single file peleton on the hill.


The pack winnowed down. The crazies were eliminated. It began to feel like a practice. A couple guys passed me, and then one more. I let them in. I found the whole thing numbing really…


Suddenly the bell rang. I hadn’t been paying attention – after staying in the top 6 for the first 40 minutes of a 45 minute race I was suddenly in 12th with only one lap to go. Normally not a big deal, but with the rain, moving up on this course was an exercise in risk and danger.


I moved up 4 slots on the hill into 8th – but I should have been able to sweep the whole field – my power was seemingly more limited. Screaming down the hill into the next corner – there was no room to make a pass without entering the off camber zone with the white paint. Next corner was the same thing – no place to slot in.


3 corners to go and still in 8th. But the corners were like ice and taking any other line than the widest was a sure prediction for a crash, so I bided my time, and slotted up one spot prior to the final straightaway.


Entering the final 150m straightline to the finish I moved up one more spot to finish 6th. My worst finish at Downer’s grove in the last 6 years… But in reality even finishing given the conditions was a significant performance… But it was very, very unlike me…



Flashback: August 17. Scene: Friday morning at 6:30am and I’m getting ready for work. It is the day before my 39th birthday and the day before one of the most important races of the year – Downer’s Grove nationals.


Too tired to agonize over what the numbers might say, I stepped firmly up onto the pebbled white plastic of our digital scale. Same pebbled plastic surface, same white feet with tan calves rising above. Something different though – even as the digital wheels spin, the numbers and the visual dissonance register at the same time 172.8 lbs – more than 2 lbs lighter than my goal weight – I had lost 24 lbs in 5 months.


My gaze traveled up from the scale and gathered the images of my thighs and calves – but with a discordant note. I glanced down and was transfixed by the ‘look’ of my legs.


For dozens of years I had experienced a regular disappointment  - despite all the training, weights, riding and skating, I never developed those massive oak thighs of an Eric Heiden or Dan Jansen full of knotty bulging muscles. Instead I typically stared down a smoother, slimmer version of the athletic leg. Neither heavily muscled nor well defined, the springy, smooth Elm-like bows of my legs had been a fixture for most of my athletic life. But this time it was different…


This time though they had a new look – gone were the thicknesses and rounded springiness of a young branch. Replaced was something harder, more sinewed, varnished, knotty. Like the water on driftwood the lengthy races had reshaped my limbs and in the light and shadows I found new angles, rounded cutouts, hollows where it used to be solid.  I was transforming



I never should have been able to finish Downer’s Grove in the rain – that type of race is for endurance athletes: it was essentially a time trial – something I typically have NO true ability to do. So what happened? I was no longer me – I was no longer the 10 second, Elm-limbed sprinter. I had transformed my body – by necessity, my body had adjusted after all the long races, miles and intensity, into some facsimile of an endurance athlete.


I had converted my fast twitch muscle to slow twitch muscle.


The upside – I could finish and even place in incredibly difficult aerobic races. The downside – as I was soon to discover, is that by cultivating my weaknesses, I had all but eliminated my one true strength – to go really fast for 6 – 8 seconds.

2006 Race Report #13: Downer's Grove Nationals: 7 seconds to remember...

Race Report – August 19, 2006 – Downers Grove “National Championships” Race 1 – Masters Championships 4:00pm. 45 minutes timed, 80 degrees   Downers’ Grove is a suburb Southwest of Chicago that has a lot in common with other surbuban railway commuter towns in Illinois – a small brick “old town” revised into cafes and shops, with a central garter of the railway anchoring the community. I’ve been coming here on and off since the mid 80’s and have had a long streak of excellent results. I’ve probably raced here 10 times in various categories (junior, cat 3, masters) and have finished in the top 5 every time (except last year’s crash), and have won 2 or 3 times. 

At first glance the Downers Grove course is not exactly my cup of tea… 8 corners on a short course with very little rest in between each, tight, winding, turn. Combine this with a small but reasonably steep hill and you have a challenging circuit for 100+ riders to navigate. Normally a major detriment to my success, I think the hill on this course is my saving grace as it is brief enough to power over in short order, and short enough to recover from quickly. 8 turns in just over a kilometer makes for a technical course, and indeed, the pack stretches out early, and crashes are not unusual. 

Over the last decade the race has turned into a Mecca of sorts for Criterium racers, featuring the U.S. Pro and Elite championships for the last 8 years or so, and various other category nationals on alternating years. The difficulty of the course, and timing of the event near the end of the racing season gives it panache in the eyes of the domestic cycling crowd and attracts a top quality international set that come over with their sights set on the prize list. The shortness of the races (about 45 minutes for Masters) adds a special element of panic to the large peletons and the pace is always blisteringly fast. 

The day after my 38th birthday I headed down from Madison in the RV and spent a brief period at my friend Matt’s house in St. Charles before it was time to head over to the course for the first of (hopefully) two races. The first race on tap was the Masters race – all the top riders in the country over 30 years old (as a reference, Lance won the Tour de France 3 times over the age of 30…) This was to be followed by the Professional/Amateur combined race at 6:30pm. As it turns out, the Pro/Am race was full, over 200 riders had registered, with another 50 on the wait list, so all my eggs were in the Master’s 30+ event – still a significant annual race with the usual roster of top riders. 

We arrived, amazingly with almost an hour to spare, but it took a while to park. Still, I had a little time to register and warm-up. I was amazed to find that my race number was already #129 – and when we eventually lined up to start the event, there were over 150 riders competing on this overcast Saturday afternoon. I managed to do a lot of the stupid things I usually do – like  

  1. Forgetting my wallet when going to register and needing to return all the way to the RV to get it.
  2. Registering and then leaving my race number and pins on the counter at the registration desk, returning all the way to the far side of the course (about 2 miles) to the RV and then realizing that I didn’t have my race number…
  3. Riding back to registration again to get my race number, and then starting back to the RV to get ready only to have
  4. …A flat tire on the way, requiring a stop at the wheel pit for a quick change.

 By the time I actually finished preparing at the RV I only had 10 minutes for a traditional warm-up. Clearly my pre-race planning sucks… Or, the other hand, my pre-race shenanigans may create enough adrenaline to serve as a warm-up… I got in a quick ride and then squeezed myself into the second row on the start line, marveling at the tight mass of bikes and bodies that stretched back 20 or more rows behind me. I was glad to be up front on this tight course. The Chief referee – Heidi Mingus - sends us on our way with the whistle and the pace starts rather mildly, easing up the hill and then accelerating down the corners on the backstretch. 

Why, exactly, do I race? 

It is a convoluted thought/response really. I race because… well, I train for it.   I train for it (racing) because otherwise training would seem devoid of purpose: each feeds the other. On a deeper level I think I need training because it provides me singular clarity of thought, action, and reward – unlike the relatively complicated worlds of work, and even family.  In the simple cause-and-effect of the sporting world, effort - for the most part - becomes results. No politics, no moods, no clients or customers – just effort, skill, ability, and results.

But again – I couldn’t just train… I need a more tangible outlet for my suffering. That, and the fact that I’ve been competing for 29 years… Who wouldn’t fall in love the with the post race vibe? Maybe the “high” is artificial and temporary, but at the end of the day, there is a strong sense of legitimacy – of “I’ve earned this dead sleep” that the night brings you after the car is parked, bike is unloaded, and the lights are dimmed. As your eyes close, the disjointed tumbling of thoughts leave parting snapshots of the day  – chiaroscuro highlights like the imprint of sunset on the back of your eyelids… 

Here are my prints: the blurred outline of my front tire as my head drops and I roar past the finish line – when all sound and motion returns to my senses. The mottled outline of my thighs and shins flinty with the residue of the road and gleaming with the streaking trails of tiny emerging water droplets as I coast around the first turn and congratulate fellow riders. Salt streaked sunglasses glinting against the blue skies and white clouds as my heart-rate returns to earth.   

One of my favorite moments in life is finishing the final lap after a race and searching the crowd for family and friends. For me it generally doesn’t matter the position that I’ve finished. Rare is the race where I’ve not given it everything I’ve had. If I walk across the line with a broken bike and ragged skinsuit, or I rocket through ahead of the pack and raise my hands – the last lap remains remarkably the same. I am sweaty and dripping, flushed but no longer hot, covered with salt and dust - yet cleaned out inside. I am physically stressed to the max - yet emotionally completely relaxed as I return to the normal sense of my body with a sense of pride. 

I love getting back to the finish stretch and finding that friendly face - an old friend, or my family, my daughter’s eyes lighting up as I maneuver to the side to stop by her side. And lately at Downer’s the last couple of years my friend Matt – with his camera. I love immediately reliving and relaying the stories of the race.

Standing, shiny in the sun, facing the course, with the announcer’s voice in the distance, and the occasional inquisitive face or congratulatory interlude as you relate the final moments, and (hopefully) that secret ingredient that led to success to your “fans”. 

By now I know this course and with the results this season I have some confidence about my abilities. Nonetheless it is hard to forget the painful lessons from last year’s finish where I ended up in a brutal crash on the last corner and crossed the finish with the broken pieces of my bike over my shoulder, and the bloody meat of my shoulder and ass hanging out for all to see as I walked across the start finish. Not to mention last week’s debacle in Elk Grove. In this Masters race, despite the famous names and high speeds, I continue to build a fortress of confidence against the vagaries of the race.  

And so I settle in – staying in the “head” of the peloton – the upper 20 riders in the race. Behind us, the long 150 rider pack curves sinuously around the bends into the distance, riders safely 2 and 3 abreast, gracefully winding their way around the course, diminishing to the narrow tail of single file stragglers following over ¼ mile back. As always the questions early on are practical, “am I suffering?” Usually, “yes”.  Next question – “how bad?” 

If the answer indicates a potential withdrawal from the race, then my entire existence becomes one of preservation – maximizing the efficiency effects from drafting, pedaling through corners, and generally being as efficient (lazy) as possible. Not far distant are the other answers “suffering medium”, “lightly suffering” or the rare “feeling good.” In this case, I am suffering only mildly and bordering on feeling good. So I move around the pack testing out various efficiency strategies. Nonetheless I am always “on a wheel” – meaning I always stay in the draft of the rider in front of me. 

Race Rule #1: Walden says: “Get on a wheel!” 

Translation – always, (always!) “Be in the draft.” (unless trying to break away, or trying to win the final few meters of the sprint).

Like all of Walden’s pithy phrases, there can be an entire art and science to discover the full meaning behind the words.  

The Science: In this case, the physics of the equation are cut and dry – proper drafting saves up to 30% of the energy expended by another rider pedaling the same speed without drafting. This scientific fact succinctly explains the sole reason I am able to be a bike racer. If I can get my aerobic capacity to be only as much as 70% of the strongest riders, then I can finish the race… and if I can finish the race – get within 7 seconds of the finish line -  then I have a good shot at winning – it is simple as that.  

Turning the phrase differently, one might say that virtually every person in the race is better than me – by the conventional athletic standard of endurance anyway. 

The Art: The science ends with the math, and the art begins with questions like “paint me a picture of the draft – where is it? How can you conserve the most energy? Does that require physical danger due to proximity?” Due to my weak aerobic capacity (my parents blame it on my Cesaerian birth – no squeeze of life to fully expand my lungs) I’ve been focused on finding the draft - or “wheelsucking” as it is commonly referred to by those with the luxury of not requiring this aid -  for 30 years now. Of my limited strengths, wheelsucking is my strongest. I intuitively know where the draft is – to the point where, on a training ride with a friend, if I “tune out” for a few seconds, I will often find myself suddenly “riding the hip” in a cross wind, and find my friend staring at me crossly as I absorb the energy that they have transferred to the air. 

Getting on a wheel is the first step to finding the draft. However, depending on the shape of the rider, the angle of the wind, and the relationship of other riders, the most efficient draft may well be found to the left, right, or even somewhat back from the wheel in front of you.  I don’t know the physics behind it, but some winds allow for efficient drafting and in a paceline or “peleton” of riders you may find rest periods of “riding the wheel” that are a true respite from the efforts of the race, where heart rates can drop 25 beats per minute.  Other “airs” seem to suggest a more agile wind that resists the rider’s impetus in front of you and still manages to block your path. In these cases, you may only find a 10 beat per minute savings while drafting in a straight line pace line. I hate air like this… 

Then there is “pack drafting” which has its own dynamics – especially on a criterium course, and especially on one in town where the wind can swirl and eddy from different directions between each cross street, with tall buildings deflecting the overall currents.  Over the last season, I’ve tried to retrieve my intuitive and instinctual (blink) reactions to drafting into logical understanding with some limited success. What I’ve been able to observe:  

1)       Generally speaking “turbulence” or “buffeting” against your chest and arms is an explicit sign that you are in the draft – try to center that visceral feel on your sternum.

2)       In large packs, the single best draft is in the “rear triangle” – near the back, but still connected to the 3 or 4 abreast portion of the pack. Sometimes I’ll find the perfect position: 3 riders in front, then two slightly forward left and right, and then I anchor between them with my front wheel parallel with their rear wheels. This is the ultimate wind shade and has allowed me to pass through 30, 40, even 50 miles of a criterium conserving energy the whole way. (See chart below – “perfect drafting”) “perfect drafting” in blue..

Wind direction

                  3)       The draft changes in the corners –  in dead still air, the draft will be slightly outside the wheel in front of you, as the instantaneous velocity of the riders in front of you is in a vector toward the outside of the turn – e.g. ride outside the rider in front of you on corners when the air is still.

4)       Learn to ride close to the wheel. (particularly when the pack is strung out) I tend to ride about 6 – 8 inches from the wheel when I’m not miserably suffering, and half that distance when I am suffering. Each inch closer gives another percentage of energy savings (and some increased risk.) Practices at the track with Walden were invaluable in learning this skill – riding 2 inches from the wheel in front of you traveling 25 mph on a bike with no brakes helps you to learn spacial relationships on the bike quickly. 5)       Learn to estimate proximity without looking at the wheel in front of you. Walden would yell “Don’t look at the tire in front of you – Look Ahead!” as, ultimately, the reactions of the rider in front of you were largely dependent, and amplified by the motions 2, 3 or more riders ahead.  

On lap four, as we head up the hill, my water bottle suddenly bounces out of its holder, lands neatly on the right side of my frame on the rear triangle, and proceeds to cleverly rotate, align, and insert its tapered nozzle between my chain, the front derailleur, and the front chainring in one swift motion.  A millisecond later and I powerfully pedal the narrowed neck of the plastic right into my derailleur, losing my chain, and bending the front derailleur like so much tin. As we reach the steepest part of the hill, I can’t pedal – my chain is completely knotted around my derailleur and crank and I decelerate quickly, maintaining just enough inertia to get over the incline and coast down the backside of the hill. Breaking wide of the pack on the downhill section, I find an opportunity to put the chain back on with my fingers, but when I pedal, it is with the sound of a chainsaw – the bent derailleur playing the part of the tree.

Fortunately the wheel pit is just at the bottom of the hill and I coast my way in under the awning to get my bike repaired. With an extended hiss, the long pack slithers by and I dismount and put my bike in the hands of the mechanics for the second time that day. 

Now keep in mind – the guys in the wheel pit had fixed a flat just 20 minutes prior, and just 6 days earlier – on their last working day, they had helped to fix my rear wheel from the crash at Elk Grove. I was becoming a “repeat customer” which was not necessarily a good thing. But with good humor they say, “back again?” and take care of me, re-aligning my derailleur and then holding my bike up and prepping me for “re-entry” into the pack after the “free lap” or allowance for a “mechanical” which will allow me to rejoin the race without penalty. 

After the fix, I lined up all alone on the inside of the downhill turn in prep for re-entry and when the mechanic finally lets go of my seat near the tail of the pack, I sprint from a dead stop to try and tag onto the rear of the peleton. 

Race Rule #2: Walden says: “Shift down at the bottom of the hill, Shift up before the top!” Translation – always, (always!) “be in the right gear.” Another shouted Waldenism full of meaning.  

The Science:

1) shifting under massive torque results in mechanical failures (translation – shifting while pedaling hard may result in dropping, breaking or tangling your chain)

2) The human body is most efficient for certain efforts at a certain RPM. Generally speaking, maximal acceleration and power output comes from high RPM’s (120Rpm+), and efficiency comes from lower (but consistent) RPM’s (70 – 100 Rpm’s). 

The Art: Always being the right gear means knowing the demands of the race at any given time. Uphills require acceleration of mass up the hill – hence “shift down” (smaller gear, higher rpm). Downhills are a chance for efficiency and rest – hence “shift up” (bigger gear, slower rpm) – not to mention the rotational inertia of two muscle laden legs weighing 70+ pounds, when slowing from 150Rpms to 70 Rpms provides extra inertia to the pedals without an extra ounce of energy.

Then there is the rest of the race… which follows similar patterns. 

1)       Always downshift prior to a short hill – into your small chainring if required – BEFORE applying torque

2)       Always upshift right before the top of the hill (not when heading down) – use that rotational energy and the efficiencies of that motion to start recovering early

(subtle note – I always time my downshifting for when my left leg is nearing the top of its stroke, and my upshifting (larger gear) for when my right leg is nearing the top of the stroke) I didn’t even realize the physics of it, but this assures that during the maximal torque associated with each down cycle of the pedal stroke, the flex from the torque on the crank arm aligns with the direction you want the chain to be pulled.

3)       Always downshift prior to corners (and pedal once to make sure you are in gear) I think more “last corner” crashes are due to this failure (shifting midway through the corner, then cranking hard, skipping a gear, causing slippage) than any other maneuverings

4)       In the final laps of the race, always ride in a smaller gear. Taking advantage of opportunities to move up without spending time “in the wind” requires instant accelerations to “fill the gaps”. In the last few laps of any given criterium, I generally ride between 120 – 130 rpms, and ride with both hands clenching the brakes – to take advantage of internal opportunities to move up in the draft, while at the same time using my brakes to keep safe.  

With significant effort I get back up to speed and rejoin the pack’s downhill pace of 35mph after fixing my mechanical problem, and reconnecting near the tail in about 140th place. After collecting myself briefly on the remainder of the downhill, I resolve to get back up front – and, in just over a lap I manage to make my way past over 130 riders and return back into the top 10.  Every year I’m astounded by the idiots that don’t shift down prior to the hill and clog the main artery going up – and then subsequently find themselves struggling in a gigantic gear, dropping their chain or grinding their gears while trying to shift under power going up the hill. Conversely, I find that I can pick up 10, 20, or more positions each time up the incline – just by shifting correctly. And these are the best riders in the country… 

I pass at least 50 riders on the hill with relatively little effort, veering to the outside of the backward flow of riders and turbulence going up the hill, listening with amusement to grinding gears, tires locking up, and frustrated cries from the center of the pack even as I spin my way easily in a low gear accelerating quickly to the top and then quietly click back into my large chainring, shifting up and turning that rotational inertia into power for the downhill – again I slingshot forward past the other riders.  

Flashback: 1985, Waterford Hills Speedway, Waterford Michigan. It’s yet another hot, humid Thursday afternoon practice with the Wolverine Sports Club, and I’m at the Speedway – a 2+ mile asphalt car racing track in the NW suburbs of Detroit. 

Mike Walden, as always, is there, and is standing at the top of the short (35 ft vertical or so) hill mid-way through the course, and has, as usual, few words to say, but he’s shouting them and shouting them over and over. “Shift down at the bottom of the hill, Shift Up before the top!”… “Shift down at the bottom of the hill! Shift before the top!”  I get distracted and spin all the way over the top… “Dammit Coyle – what the hell are you doing?!” (He said this a lot.) 

Mike is older now – in fact walking with a cane, but still wearing the big glasses, mustache, and the beret that defined his presence in my life over the last 8 years. He had had some health problems and subsequently had lost weight – was even riding again – on beater bike that he had with him that day. At one point he got on his bike at the top of the hill even as we were still practicing, and began to coast down the incline, but on the way he lost control and ended up heading straight down on the grass rather than the pavement – on the steepest section of the hill no less. 

I can still remember seeing him bumping down the grassy knoll, bouncing off the seat and then falling without grace at the bottom, flopping into the deep grass and disappearing. Our peleton was just turning the corner to head up the same hill, and we all saw it happen.  Pitifully we all laughed heartily at this rough man finally getting some of his own and a few catcalls arced out even as he got up and dusted himself off. I’m sure I laughed, and who knows, maybe I even yelled something.  Mike did not acknowledge our calls or blink or blush, though I did then, and I am now.

Shortly thereafter began that same voice: “Shift down at the bottom of the hill, Shift up before the top!” and so it went – round and round and round.  21 years later, and I now realize that the hill at Downers Grove is identical in length and steepness to that of Waterford… 

The race is very short to begin with, and now we have already eaten 1/3 of the total distance. I am bound and determined to be in a breakaway should one occur, and I continue to maintain my position in the lead of the pack. However over the successive laps, no escapes of note occur and the race proceeds at a fast, but predictable tempo until the final 2 laps.  As we cross the finish line, the lap counter flips to read “2”. As the pack passes the crowds at the announcer’s booth it seems as though the vertical metal ribs of the barriers strain with our passing, spectators removing their hands from the rails and cautioning their neighbors to back up even as they cheer, hands in the air. 

It is at this point that the nature and feel of a criterium bike race often changes: when the pull of repeated breakaway attempts are suddenly replaced by the stagnation, lethargy and swelling tension that the looming yet still-distant finish brings. Prior to this change the race possessed the graceful moves of a flock of geese: loosely organized gliding movements with the occasional re-organization within the pack. The leadership provided by the pacesetters up front provided those of us following the ability to see and predict a path through corners, to move up or back, to sprint ahead if so desired.

However, now the pack begins to pulse slowly forward like an overfed reptile straining within its skin: slowed and bulging, the formerly tapered profile of the lithe serpent suddenly distended and sluggish.  For the next 2 minutes – an entire lap, the lump goes undigested – except for the scraping of the sides by the corners of the course. Scales of riders, or even pacelines of skin are peeled back by the rough edges and sloughed off for the medics to attend to. 

In this new mode, visibility for the racer vanishes - visibility of the road, the corners – visibility of everything but the bodies in front of us. We can’t see a corner coming – rather we “read the tea leaves” or more accurately the “Brownian motion” of the suddenly swaying jerseys in front of us that flow suddenly to the left and right and then, as quickly begin to lean – forcing us to follow – and then just as suddenly we find ourselves straightening back up. Bumps? Potholes? Curbs? Also blocked by bodies: the racer “sees” only by reading the Braille of the helmets ahead. It is not unlike one of those indoor rollercoasters –  it is dark, you are strapped into the machine, and you can’t tell where you are going - the only predictor of your uncertain path is bobbing, waving necks and heads in front of you as they weave left and right, and then disappear screaming…. 

The feeling of doom is inescapable and even as the compressing mass twitches, the beast regurgitates some unwilling prey - riders shooting out the front of the maw. With a tongue-like chase from the pack these riders are captured and are then quickly re-absorbed. Elbows like whiskers we continue our slow progress, thrusting our angular protrusions wider to “feel” our way and protect our softer parts, senses completely focused for any indications of progress or danger. 

These minutes are the “moment of truth” in Criterium racing. Riders spend their entire careers, and endless hours at the head of the pack trying to separate themselves from this very moment – the moment where you lose control of your bike, can’t steer, can’t see, can’t stop, and can’t pedal your way out. For the next 2 ½ minutes, power, speed, and endurance fail to matter, and courage, skill, and luck are the primary determinants of the race outcome, with courage the single most important. For some extremely talented endurance athletes, these are the moments where they suddenly “give up,” drifting to the back. “Not worth it,” they say.  “I didn’t want to lose all my skin just to mix it up with the crazies up front,” say others.  

It makes sense if you have enough of an aerobic motor to get away in breakaways in the 50% of races that have them. However, in my mind the true competitor never lets a finish get away – a Lance Armstrong, a George Hincappie – these guys always race to win and if necessary would put themselves right into the field sprint mix. For me? I have no choice. This is my lot in life. I too hate being in these moments, perhaps less than some though. However, I do love watching them as a spectator. Like a gigantic ballet with over 100 participants, the racers stack neatly coming into the corners, and then, in syncopated unison, tilt right in liquid slow motion, and then reverse the angle in the same perfectly timed change of alignment coming out of the corner – that is, until the first shudder of a wheel touching wheel, or a u-shaped handlebar looping another, and then suddenly the whole choreographed works falls apart – a sudden bobble -  the silent heat and smell of brakes and then the sea of riders divides, the ripples of the impending catastrophe moving deadly, silent and quicker than road speed - like a tsunami racing outward, the wave of trepidation washes in concentric circles away from the incident, the true affects of its power observed in the wreckage piling on the shores of the road – clattering against the barriers,  flipping over curbs, or pinned by the barriers -  bodies and bikes stacking on top of each other like so much flotsam and jetsam. 

Why else do all the spectators stand by the corners during the race? 

The fear during these laps is palpable – the damp hush inside the pack defying and absorbing the crowd’s reverent and escalating exhortations. With 2 laps to go, the peleton squeezes through the finish tunnel, the parabolic lump pressing the outer scales of the barriers and clapping hands of the crowd, while inside, inert and suffocating, we racers stifle in a paralysis of pressure. 

With 2 laps to go at Downer’s Grove, I am surrounded, blind. I am bumping and bruising in the center of the “asshole zone” during the tensest moments of the race. As we enter turn 1 – a metallic clanging like an ugly xylophone is heard at the barriers as bodies and bikes of the outermost layer stop themselves with a collapsed clavicle or a burning slide of skin across the sandpaper of the pavement.  Turn two and thank god the barriers are gone as a half dozen riders squirt out onto the grass and re-enter the pack going up the hill. The hill itself is a complete disaster, with a near dead stop half way up, riders piling into each layer from behind in slow motion, feet coming out of pedals, cleats skittering on the rough asphalt. I come to a near stop behind a crush of riders on the hill but manage to squeeze past the masses still detangling on the downhill, staying in the top 15.

The downhill sections breed their own disasters with multiple shake-ups and a couple explosive crashes echoing from the glass windows of the shops lining the course. And so we continue with repeated touch and go moments of sprinting, locking up the brakes, bumping, overlapping of wheels, hitting the brakes again, and then sprinting again, avoiding each of the entanglements and bodies bumping ahead of me and beside me until I finally re-enter the finish straightaway with 1 lap to go.  

With one lap to go - digestion begins and the constriction holding back the smooth passage of the serpent begins to give way. Despite the near certain death faced by leading the pack with one lap to go, the pressure of the crowd and the noise and the barriers gets into the heads of certain riders, and with a last skeletal crack, they shoot out the mouth of the peleton like so much jelly…  

I’ve never understood this lemming-like rush to the front with one to go, but I’m always grateful, as it breaks the spine of the pack and shortly thereafter the riders re-align into a more traditional paceline, allowing passing, and the proper positioning for the final sprint to the line. 

As we pass the announcer’s booth the noise and roaring of the crowd the ringing of the bell and the shouting of the announcer combine to break the will of the animal and a jet of riders flies zinging out the front of the pack – uphill at over 30 mph. I pause and then follow in about 20th place, knowing that the hill will digest this initial vomit and that my opportunity to win will come from staying protected until well into the downhill section of the course.  

True to form, these addled lemmings give up the ghost on the uphill portion of the course, and the pack, myself included, swarms around them and I find myself suddenly coasting into first place entering the downhill – “too much effort” I chide myself – “settle in!” So I swing my bike to the far right and coast… and I wait…and for a moment, nothing happens. Then, finally, the move – a rider, then 2, then 3, then 10 go flinging down the left and I swing back over accelerating hard, pushing myself onto a wheel and re-joining in about 11th place, making the right turn into the lower section of the eight corner course at 36 miles and hour, 3 corners to go. 

Now! Now! Now!  A loosening of positions up the inside near the 6th corner and I accelerate quickly and then brake to move up to 8th just prior to the next turn.  We lean hard and then straighten, humming down the remainder of descent prior to the last two corners. This is an extremely sensitive and fearful moment. We are heading downhill at over 40mph on an extremely wide avenue and about to enter a very narrow corner. The pack behind has the draft and the room to do all kinds of suicidal things – notably to go winging up the inside hoping to clear the front of the pack prior to the corner.  

Coming out of the previous corner I move up the inside to block the inside lane a little bit and hopefully reduce consideration for any such suicide moves. The speed, fortunately, stays high, nearly 40 mph and as we shoot down the wide open stretch, I drift back to the right finding an opening to move all the way to the far right curb.  We now have 450m or 25 seconds to go, and we are 100m or 6 seconds from the second-to-last-corner and

NOW! NOW! NOW! I put in a significant effort to move up two spots and slot in on the outside of two riders, braking quickly to even out my pace and entering the 7th corner full barrel in 6th place. Now all that remains is a short, narrow 150M straightaway into the final corner and then the slightly uphill 150m stretch to the finish.

I coast a little watching, watching, and as we move down this cramped stretch my senses reach out to feel the vibrations around me – any sense of a move from behind? No. Any reckless moves or last minute dives up the inside? No. So I guardedly keep my station in 6th for the first 50 meters and watch the unfolding, unfurling, churning movements of the five riders beginning their sprint in front of me. Then I find it – an emerging pattern: Yes - two riders separating and accelerating on the left… 

GO! GO! GO! I engage all my reserves for what is probably the most powerful effort of the race, and I accelerate around the left of 3 riders in front of me, diving up the inside and then veering back to the right just in time to slot into third place going into the last turn, pedaling hard until the angle of my trajectory stops my feet and I begin to lean…  

Our inertia carries us forward and left until we glide past the arch of the curb and the barriers holding in the crowds at the crosswalk and we finally break out onto that last shiny, gleaming stretch of hands and lungs and teeth and noise defining the rarified air of the finish stretch… As the three of us enter the last, off-camber turn of the race at a speed of over 28mph, our bodies began the tilt required to change our trajectories.

In the viscosity of time I watch the rider in first place lean hard left but his bike drifts wide towards the right barrier. In parallel, milliseconds behind him, rider #2 slants even farther and finds a path just inside of the lead rider.  Keeping with the choreography, I lay my bike over – hips in, shoulders low, tilting even farther – forgetting my crash of last year – and take my bike to the point of breaking contact with the pavement, rear tire skittering on the slightly disconnected joints of the concrete… Sideways on the road I take a path just inside the lead and second riders, and in so doing set up a “3-up sprint” drag race to the finish.  

It only takes about 7 seconds, these last 150 meters, but each one of these breaths, each one of these pedal strokes, each one of these glances, and each of one these minute corrections of the handlebars is 150 times more important than all the efforts of the prior 25 miles.  

Awareness is an ever changing lens: in the 2 second effort to move into third place, the world closes, and for that instant there is only my 2 wheels and the thrumming of my thighs and pedals to deliver the thrust required to bring my front wheel into position.  Then, for the following 2 seconds, as we began the lean into the final straightaway, for a moment, light, color, and sound returns to my senses, and for just an instant I can see the bright tunnel of color and light and hear the building roar of the crowd and mentally tap out the rhythm of the clapping flash of the white palm on my left before the world closes back down. And, finally it is that moment in time that bodies like mine were built for…

150 meters and 7 seconds to go…  

As our bikes leave the g-forces of the corner, our frames began to lift out of the precarious tilts put on by centripetal forces and changing velocities, and as we exit the final turn, our legs begin to churn with the ferocity born of anaerobic power and years of training.  

Sinews digging into shoes, cleats digging into titanium, titanium digging into carbon fiber, our powerful legs begin to deliver the kind of efforts saved for “fight or flight” death throe struggles of prey or predator in the wild. No need to breathe, no need to think, no thought of holding back - the rescue of the finish line was only 150, 140, 130 meters away. 

After a quick glimpse of the finish banner and the positions of my competitors, I put my head down and watched as the machinery of my legs began to deliver every single ounce of power available to my system down to my pedals. The mushroom swirls of my quadriceps bulging, the cords behind the knees extending, and the teardrop shapes of my calves plummeting downward only to quickly rise again. Not long after the corner the lead rider fades to the right and I find myself in a life or death struggle with rider number 2.  

As we began the slight incline into the finish, my thighs, hamstrings, and calves began to feel the incredible efforts of the prior 3 seconds, and I raise my body from the seat and pull myself into the pedals: hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders and abdominals compressing all my remaining reserves and all my passion into the circling crank arms driving the bike forward. 

Next to me my nemesis mirrors my actions and matches my elevation on his bike -  yet with each pedal stroke my front tire inches forward compared with his – 2 feet separating us, then 18 inches, 16 inches. Then the looming banner of the finish line begins weighing on me – but still – with 4 seconds, 3 seconds, and 2 seconds to go I am now within 12 inches, 8 inches, 4 inches of winning the race.   

Another second ticks by and I feel our bodies come parallel with each other. Into that last second, locked into the final 2 ½ rotations of the pedals that would decide the race while pedaling at 150 rpms I bend my head and give everything, absolutely everything I have…   …that is until just before the line… With 1/10 of a second to go, instincts take over, and I abandon my final pedal stroke to throw the full weight of my body downward and backward, my hamstrings and glutes just clearing my seat and almost touching my rear tire even as my forearms extend my handlebars to the tips of my fingers and the 16 lb carbon fiber bike shoots forward at least 8 inches propelled by the rapid rearward motion of my body mass.  

At that pivotal moment where my front tire rolls over the shiny white line of the finish, my body is a perfect sideways U – legs and arms and neck extended forward, collapsed over each other with my bike thrust well out from my frame. I remember thinking, “that was perfectly timed – it must be mine” even as I decompress and pull my body over top my bike and sit down. Time resumed, and the roar of the crowd suddenly rocked my consciousness like a concussion.

Rider #2, similarly bewildered sits up next to me and with our close proximity I offer a hand that is quickly met even as we continue to shoot forward at 35 mph, arms raised, and then part prior to entering the looming first turn. As we enter the corner, the announcer’s voice suddenly registers, “…and what an un-be-live-able finish! A knock-down, drag-out, drag-race to the line, both riders throwing their bikes and crossing the line within one inch of each other. We’ll have to wait for the photo-finish, but I believe it was number 113 that took home the victory!” 

I look over at my fellow finisher and note his number – 113, and slowly shake my head. “Did you get it?” I ask. “No idea” he says, “I had my head down all the way to the line and then threw my bike as far as my arms would let me.” It was then that I noted his height – clearly several inches taller than me… 

We finish the lap and I quickly find my little blond angel clapping at the finish, “You won papa! You won!” and I quickly suggest that maybe I was second. I am happy either way, but I’m still hoping for the “W”. 

30 minutes later relaxing and chatting on the sidelines I wander over to the stage to receive the results. Chief referee Heidi confirms it – “Sorry John - he got you by about an inch.” With a smile and a shrug I head back to play with my daughter in the sun, relaxing with the laurels and medal for second place at the Downer’s Grove Nationals.