2009 Race Report #17: Wind, Rain, Cobblestones and the Grand Cycling Classic

2009 Race Reports 17: Wind, Rain and Cobblestones  Friday, August 7: A long drive, like the 5 hour trip to Grand Rapids the night before the Grand Cycling Classic, unearthed for me a host of echoes of the travels of my youth, and the associated conflicting thoughts and feelings. I dreaded the drive and the packing and the worry over forgetting something, yet at the exact same time, I was eager to depart and couldn't wait for that cloistered freedom of being on the road where the tyranny of choices – which email to answer, what project should I be undertaking, should the lawn be watered, does the pool have enough chlorine, what should I eat – is replaced by the quiet comfortable monotony of driving.

Once the traffic of Chicago cleared, so too did my mind and I found myself happily alone, listening to music, without choices save one – to drive or not.

I once read in a book loaned to me by a friend at work about a man who sailed alone from Canada all the way to Tahiti, who was marooned in the doldrums of the Pacific (a place with very little wind, calm seas and brilliant sunshine) for over a week. Someone later asked if he was bored.

He gave a considered response, one that I still think about now… No, he said, boredom is an emotion that comes when there are things you should be doing, but can’t. On the sailboat, once he had checked the compass, the keel and the horizon, there was nothing else to be done. Everything that could be done was complete, and he was peacefully alone in the freedom of his thoughts. So too was my experience as I passed into the hall of trees lining the highway north into Michigan as the sky darkened, brooding.. a foreshadowing of the weather to come.

I arrived late to the home of my friend Dave Heitiko, who had apparently forgiven me for crashing him the year prior (by accident) in the same race. Joining us were Randy Rodd, Ray Dybowski, Luke Cavender, and Adrian Fear, along with Dave and his wife. Wines were poured, stories were told, and as is always the case, we ignored the sprawling spaces of the large house and stood around the kitchen island until the wee hours even as coronas of lightning began outside the shelter of the house.

Saturday, August 8: I slept in the basement on a couch in a sleeping bag and was perfectly content, though I did not want to wake up at 7am when the household stirred. We met again in the kitchen and prepared our various breakfast preferences before heading out in a complete downpour to the course.

Slick black and red cobbles worn into ruts from 100 years of traffic, off camber corners, manhole covers like black ice, metal barriers sharpened like guillotines from the rain – this was what greeted us as we arrived and fear ran cold like the rain pouring down from overhead. The sky lightened a bit and it finally stopped raining as I registered, then began again as I “warmed up” gingerly taking the corners of the course at low speeds.

The race itself was almost the exact opposite of my feelings prior – my tires felt sticky, my legs strong, and for once I felt I could do whatever I wanted within the small peleton. It was a small field, but full of names I was familiar with – strong riders. I stayed mostly in the top 5 for safety and even won a prime (which I donated to the Randy Rodd fund) and as we came around with 2 laps to go there was not really any doubt in my head that I would win this race. I tried to turn on the camera, but it errored out – either from the rain or low battery..

I remembered that feeling – I used to have it most races as a junior and often as a speedskater, but as a part time cyclist the last few years, my fitness has always been right on the edge and most of my energy in a race was spent just hanging on. To experience, for a day, that old feeling of control, to be able to move when and where I wanted, to sling up the outside of the pack in the wind – these were real joys despite the rooster tails of water, the skittering of tires on the wet cobbles, the death traps of icy manhole covers dotting the road like landmines.

With one to go a leadout emerged and a Bissell rider shot to the front. Behind him was Rob Daksowicz (sp?) last year’s masters winner, and I sat easily in third. I knew exactly where to go and how it would play out, and it went just as I had imagined – 150 meters prior to the final corner, I hit the afterburners and jumped out front, gapping the field before braking hard on the slippery pavement of the final corner and then leaning my body while holding my bike upright around the bend.

I took it quite fast, but had the perfect line, avoiding the white paint strips and the off camber cobbles to the outside, and as soon as I returned to vertical, I shifted up and got out of the saddle and poured every thread of energy I had into the pedals for the next 150 meters.

Then I did something I have never done before in 33 seasons of racing  - I looked back…

I was sure that no one could have matched the first accel, the hard cornering in the rain, and the second accel, so I risked the look back, potentially putting the win at risk.

But no one was close by – I had 100 feet or more, and as I approached the white stripe of the finish line I did a second thing I have never done before. Sure, it was a small race, sure it was only the masters group, sure it was in the rain with only a few spectators, but I wanted to do this, I needed to do this, and as I screamed across the line, contrails of water spouting above my head, I removed my hands from the handlebars and shot them straight up in the air to celebrate in this fashion for the very first time in my career…

It felt good, really good.

The Wolverines had a good showing in later races, with Randy Rodd in 3rd, Ray in 4th, and Adrian in 8th. I raced the BMW back to Illinois with a large heavy brick trophy from the cobblestone streets on the seat next to me inscribed with the race date and name, its heft belying the own lightness of being I was experiencing. Now, if I could only bring this same feeling to Downers Grove – 7 days away….