Mike Walden

People I owe: Mike Walden What do a tennis school in Siberia, a soccer club in Brazil, a music camp in upstate New York, and a baseball club in Curacao all have in common with a bicycling club from Detroit?

They are all “chicken-wire Harvards,” a term coined by Daniel Coyle in his great book “The Talent Code”. That is, each of these remote destinations has a number of things in common: they tend to be underfunded, they have programs with a relentless focus on the fundamentals of a sport or activity, and at their helm they have or have had iconic coaches who “say a lot in a little,” and “repeat a little a lot.”

They also produce champions. Lots of them. So many that, when plotted on map in red, they become a “talent bloom” – a rose against the white of the page. In fact, one small, yet famous tennis club in Siberia, called Spartak, which has only one indoor court, achieved eight year-end top 20 women’s rankings for professional tennis players for 3 years running (as of 2007.) During the same period, the entire United States only had 7. As it happens there is also a little cycling club in Detroit with even more striking results.

Statistically speaking, it is impossible to conceive that there was more talent concentrated in the environs of Spartak in 2007, or around the Dorais velodrome in Detroit in 1980 than the entire United States. In fact the preponderance of talent from these locales belies their demographics – the argument can, and should be made that these coaches and environments created talent. But how?

Detroit, 1978. The Wolverine Sports Club was one of many of its ilk – typical in many ways. Underfunded, provided for primarily by largesse from Mike Walden’s bike shop in Hazel Park, the club also supported its activity through fund raiser “bike-a-thons” (also a Walden invention.) The Wolverine Sports Club (WSC) ran a regular series of practices – Tuesdays at the run-down Dorais Velodrome in Detroit, Wednesdays were the iconic “Wednesday night ride” from the Royal Oak Library complete with fans in lawn chairs who blocked traffic for the huge peleton, and Thursdays featuring practice races in Waterford on a 2.2 mile race car track. Weekends were for racing, because “racing is the best training,” or so we were told.

To an 8, 10, 12, even 18 year old kid, it all became so normal. I remember my first visit to the Dorais velodrome. Names were inscribed in the cement along the homestretch – Fred Cappy, Mike Walden, Clair Young, Jim Smith. These etchings were meaningless to me and hidden each year under more and more graffiti. Today the track has fallen into disrepair.

One of my first nights at the Dorais velodrome was in the fall, with a low turnout and leaves skittering across the cracked banked surface. Walden was mostly occupied shouting at two female racers who were preparing for a big competition somewhere. I was clueless and didn’t care. That is until, after a series of timed flying 200m events by the two women, Walden suddenly focused his shouting at me. “What about you? Let’s go: 200m as fast as you can go! Pedal circles and finish at the line!”

The two muscular women quickly shared some strategy – line up high on the track on the first corner and then dive for the blue line (marking the 200m mark) and then stay as low as possible on the “pole lane” or black line to the finish.

Moments later, exhausted but exhilarated by the speed, Walden barked out a time (“13.8!”) and turned to other riders. The two women, Sue Novara and Sheila Young, slowed to pass along compliments, “wow – you’re a fast little thing.” Little did I know that both were rivals and world champions in this exact event – the match sprint on the velodrome.  I was surrounded by greatness. I was lucky. It only takes a quick spin through Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” to realize that one of the core elements of the Wolverine Sport Club and my own success was simply the environment: we all got an early start on the requisite 10 years/10,000 hours of deliberate practice that greatness requires.

Another great book, that might have have featured Walden as its poster child is by Geoff Colvin’s “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.” The thesis? “Greatness doesn’t come from DNA but from practice and perseverance honed over decades - and not just plain old hard work, like your grandmother might have advocated, but a very specific kind of work.”

“The key is how you practice, how you analyze the results of your progress and learn from your mistakes, that enables you to achieve greatness.” Deliberate practice, as practiced by Mozart, Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, Sheila Young and Frankie Andreu, is an unrelenting focus on the potentially mind-numbing basics of a sport or activity. In fact, at the tennis camp in Spartak, Siberia referenced earlier, kids spent an inordinate amount of time swinging rackets at the air before they were even allowed to hit balls, and then they were not allowed to enter a tournament until they had 3 years of practice under their belts.

Daniel Coyle then describes the unique characteristics of the coaches who create the right environment for focus on deliberate practice. In one chapter he details the key elements of a master coach, by documenting the actions of a certain famous athletic coach. This coach’s “teaching utterances or comments were short, punctuated, and numerous. “There were no lectures, no extended harangues…. "He rarely spoke longer than twenty seconds. “What made this coach great, “wasn’t praise, wasn’t denunciation, and certainly wasn’t pep talks. “His skill resided in the Gatling-gun rattle of targeted information he fired at his players.”

This, not that. Here, not there. “His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something. “He was seeing and fixing errors. “He was honing circuits.”

For those that knew him, this sounds exactly like Mike Walden. But this case study was of basketball’s John Wooden. The circuits Daniel refers to are the biological occurrences of “myelination” – the wrapping of neural circuits that become “talent” through repetition, coaching, and deliberate practice.

The hubris of youth suggests the following: “everything good that I have - I’ve earned.” And then the corollary “Everything I don’t have? Not my fault – I wasn’t born with that talent (or I’ve been thwarted by outside forces.”)

With time, maturity and a series of books by acclaimed authors I’ve been forced to realize that virtually all my athletic accomplishments and perhaps even all of my achievements in general – even in academics - boil down a couple simple facts: 1) I had the right parents (a subject for another day), and 2) I was born, raised, and trained at the right place at the right time: Detroit, 1980, WSC... with Walden.

Take away Dorais, Walden, Waterford, and the repeated refrains of “pedal circles,” “win it at the line,” and “race your strengths, train your weaknesses,” and humbly, it is clear that my entire life’s journey would be on a different trajectory. Gone would have been a bid for the Olympics, gone the silver medal, gone the singular element that encouraged some strong undergraduate (and graduate) schools to accept a student with SAT’s and GMAT’s that were at best “average” for these institutions.

My relationship with Mike Walden was not one I would have described as friendly: I came to practice, and he yelled at me. During practice, he yelled at me. Sometimes, after practice, he yelled at me. This was the same for most of the team, though I sometimes I felt singled out. Dorais velodrome was the worst – in the oval you were always within shouting distance. The bumpy track in the inner city was fraught with danger – bumps, graffiti, random kids throwing rocks, and the worst of all, crosswinds. Week after week, year after year, Walden demanded that riders should have only a 4 – 8 inch distance between the tires of other riders in high speed pacelines against crosswinds, over uncertain pavement, and variable speeds – all on racing bikes without brakes or gears. “Follow the wheel” meant be right on the wheel in front of you. If you let a few more inches stretch out as the peleton accordioned down the homestretch, then Walden’s penetrating voice was right there, “close the gap Coyle! Get on the wheel!”

Between each activity, Walden was not shy on letting anyone and everyone know how bad they had failed. “Alcala – you’re a disaster – can’t ride a straight line.” “Andreu – you pick it up every single time you hit the front.” “Paellela – you’re herky-jerky – ride smoothly, quit riding up on everyone.” I was afraid - everyone was afraid - to get it wrong, and you modified each and every pedal stroke to pedal circles, keep an even distance, accelerate smoothly, and drop down after pull at the front. I didn’t know it then, but this extraordinary focus on pedaling fundamentals every Tuesday for nearly 10 years allowed a 30+ year racing career featuring 3000+ races, with almost no crashes (<10), and not one injury serious enough to prevent racing the next day. It also gave my limited strengths a path for success: to move swiftly and safely through the peleton in preparation for the sprint in a manner that may be my primary defining strength as a cyclist. Mike always said, “race your strengths,” here’s a video of that put into action. 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9W0WETpST8]

Walden was not one to shower complements. In 1980 at 11 years old, racing as a Wolverine, I won the national championships at the Balboa Park Velodrome in San Diego, California. In the process I also met Eric Heiden who I would “pro-fro” with (live with for a week as a prospective freshman/frosh at Stanford 6 years later.) My relationship with Walden had only slightly warmed over the years, nonetheless I was fully expecting some warm words after my victory against some difficult odds against the likes of Jamie Carney. Immediately after the awards ceremony, still wearing my stars-and-stripes jersey, Walden sought me out and came up extending his hand. I was beaming and expecting (finally) some recognition. Instead I heard, “Don’t get cocky - it’s just a race. “There are a lot more important ones in your future.” He turned on his heel and stomped away. 30 years later and I can still feel the flush of heat to my cheeks as I describe that moment.

By the time I was in my late teens, I was winning races left and right. At 15, like Frankie Andreu, I was solicited by the almighty 7-11 team, and raced for them over the next couple of years. I continued attending Walden practices and continued to fear his penetrating bark. I had decided that he must clearly hate me until an odd morning one summer when I was 18.

I had been invited to a club ride that was leaving from Walden’s house in Berkley one Saturday morning. I rolled into the driveway a little early and no one was there, so Harriet Walden, Mike’s wife invited me into their comfortable, but humble home. I was struck by how normal it seemed. For nearly a decade Mike had been an enigma to me, someone ‘other than human’ who only pushed and prodded, who only repeated the same damn things again and again, “pedal circles! “Finish at the line! “Race your strengths!” Harriet was very accommodating and seemed to know all about me. As I waited for the other riders to arrive, she said something to me that shocked me then, and still cuts me to the core now, “You know, Mike is quite fond of you…” She paused, waiting for her words to sink in. “He speaks very highly of you.” I was stunned.

I didn’t know. But I know now. I should have known then. How could I not know? What kind of courage does it take to push someone to become all they can be and never even ask for any acknowledgment in return?  

A few years ago Richard Noiret made a movie, “Chasing the Wind” about Walden and the Wolverine Sports Club. I believe this is the tip of the iceberg. How did a club in a random suburb of Detroit produce 5 Olympians, 10 World Champions, 300 National medalists, and more than 25% of the nation’s national champion cyclists for two decades?

I’m a coach myself now, both for an incredible team at work, and as the head coach for the Franklin Park speedskating club. It’s odd: I’m relatively terrible at coaching speedskating despite a life dedicated to practicing the sport - it feels like total mayhem. Yet, every Tuesday night, more than one of the kids will say to me, “thanks Coach John!” as they leave the ice, despite all my yelling and it gives he a huge thrill. During all my formative years, it never, ever occurred to me to thank my coach – Affholter, Young, Walden – and it never occurred to me that they weren’t paid for all that time, effort and shouting.

Theron Walden (Mike) died February 12, 1996. I never even new his real name. I was probably busy with something I thought was important. I missed the funeral. It came to me later that I had never really known the man, and worse, that never, in my life had I ever said, the simple words I write now, 15 ½ years later. Thank you, Mike.

I owe you more than you could possibly imagine, but it is only now that I realize it. Thank you Mike – for your (tough) love, and your legacy that I’m attempting, clumsily, to pass on.

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PS: In order to pass on Mike’s legacy I feel I must pass on the below verbatim. It concerns a sophisticated understanding of strengths vs. weaknesses that is best described in the incredible book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham. As usual, an incredible amount of science belies the couple sharp barks that only become clear with time and repetition. This is another great legacy of Mike’s: repetition is the key to coaching. Think carefully about the conundrum posed by the below and what it suggests for your life’s path regarding your strengths, passions, and weaknesses:

Race your strengths, train your weaknesses. Racing is the best training. Race your strengths, train your weaknesses.

References:

  • “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell 

 http://www.amazon.com/Outliers-Story-Success-Malcolm-Gladwell/dp/0316017930/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1318566226&sr=8-1

  • “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle 

 http://www.amazon.com/Talent-Code-Greatness-Born-Grown/dp/055380684X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1318566246&sr=1-1

  • “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin 

 http://www.amazon.com/Talent-Overrated-World-Class-Performers-EverybodyElse/dp/1591842948/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1318566269&sr=1-1

  • “Now Discover Your Strengths" by Marcus Buckingham

 http://www.amazon.com/Discover-Your-Strengths-Marcus-Buckingham/dp/0743201140/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1321302063&sr=8-1

National Championship results, 10 years:  1972 – 1981, Road & Track

1972 -  Road – Milwaukee, WI, Aug. 5-6

SENIOR WOMEN

1.        Debbie Bradley, IA, 28mi in 1:19:10

2.        Jeanne Omelenchuk, MI

3.        Eileen Brennan, MI

 

 1973 Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 1-4

SENIOR MEN 10 MILE  -

1.        Roger Young, MI

SENIOR MEN’S MATCH SPRINT : final for 1st and 2nd: Roger Young. Ml beat Jack Disney, CA, 2,0

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT: final for 1st and 2nd: Sheila Young, Ml, beat Sue Novara, Ml, 2,0

MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 21

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 10

 

1974 Road – Pontiac, MI, July 27-28

JUNIOR MEN

1.  David Mayer-Oakes, TX

2. Pat Nielsen, MI

3. Tom Schuler, MI

 

1974 Track – Northbrook, IL, July 31-Aug. 3

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT – Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara, MI, beat Sheila Young, MI, 2.0

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.      Connie Paraskevin, MI, 21

MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.         Kevin Johnson, MI, 14

2.          Troy Stetina, IN, 8

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jacque Bradley, IA, 21

2.         Debbie Zbikowski, MI, 9

 

1975 Road – Louisville, KY, Aug. 14-15

SENIOR MEN

1.        Wayne Stetina, IN, 114mi in 4:35:53.22

2.        Dave Boll, CA

3.        Tom Schuler, MI

 

1976 – Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 3-4

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT- Final for 1st and 2nd: Sheila Young, MI, beat Sue Novara, MI, 2,1

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jane Brennan, MI, 17

INTERMEDIATE BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jeff Bradley, LA, 17

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 15

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 19

2.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 12

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Kirstie Walz, NJ, 19

2.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 15

3.        Anne Obermeyer, MI, 8

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 5

 

1977 – Road, Seattle, WA, July 26-Aug. 6

SENIOR WOMEN – 1.        Connie Carpenter, WI, 38.24mi in 1:38:31

JUNIOR MEN

1.        Greg LeMond, NV, 71.5mi in 3:10:40

 

2.        Jeff Bradley IA

JUNIOR WOMEN

1.        Beth Heiden, WI, 31.5mi in 1:24:28

MIDGET BOYS

1.        Grant Foster, CA, 11.25mi in 31:27

2.        Greg Foster, CA

3.        Jimmy Georgler, CA

4.        Glen Driver, CA

5.        Frankie Andreu, MI

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Sue Schaugg, MI, 9mi in 27:50

2.        Lisa Parkes , MI

3.        Ann Marie Obermayer , MI

 

1977 – Track  - Marymoor Velodrome, Redmond, WA, Aug. 2-6

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 15

2.        Dana Scruggs, IN, 10

3.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 8

4.        Rena Walls, MI, 7

5.        Jane Brennan, MI, 7

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 14

2.        Lisa Parks, MI, 12

 

1978 Road Milwaukee, WI, July 26-30

JUNIOR MEN

1.        Jeff Bradley, IA. 7Omi in 2:50:48

2.        Greg LeMond, NV

JUNIOR WOMEN

1.        Sherry Nelsen, MO, 24mi in 1:03:51

2.        Tracy McConachie, IL

3.        Nancy Merlo, MI

4.        Karen Schaugg, MI

5.        Louise Olson, MI

VETERAN WOMEN

1.        Jeanne Omelenchuck, MI 15mi in 40:26

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Elise Lobdell, IN

2.        Tyra Goodman, MI

3.        Beth Burger, PA

4.        Karn Radford, CA

5.        Celeste Andreu, MI

 

1978 – Track – Kenosha, WI, Aug. 1-5

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT – final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Jackie Disney, CA, 2,0

SENIOR WOMEN POINTS RACE

1.        Mary Jane Reoch, PA

2.        Cary Peterson, WA

3.        Sue Novara-Reber, MI

JUNIOR MEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Eric Baltes, WI, 13 pts

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 12

3.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 8

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 17

2.        Sherry Nelsen, MO, 15

 

3.        Tracy McConachie, IL, 7

4.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 6

5.        Rena Walls, MI, 3

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Beth Burger, PA, 19

2.        Elise Lobdell, IN, 11

3.        Tyra Goodman, MI, 7

4.        Karn Radford, CA, 7

5.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 7

 

1979  - Road – Milwaukee, WI, Aug. 1-5

SENIOR WOMEN

1.        Connie Carpenter, CA. 39.6mi in 1:44:16

2.        Beth Heiden, WI

JUNIOR MEN

1.        Greg LeMond, NV, 70.4mi in 2:55:08

VETERAN WOMEN

1.        Jean Omelenchuk, MI, 15mi in 43:30

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS

1.        Sarah Docter, WI, 15mi in 38:02

2.        Sue Schaugg, MI

3.        Abby Eldridge, CO

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI

5.        Laura Merlo, MI

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 9mi in 27:09

2.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA

3.        Melanie Parkes, MI

1979 – Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 7-12

SENIOR MEN POINTS RACE

1.        Gus Pipenhagen, IL, 18 pts

2.        Roger Young, MI, 18

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT  Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Jackie Disney, CA, 2,0

JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Rebecca Twigg, WA, 16

2.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 13

JUNIOR MEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Mark Whitehead, CA, 15 pts

2.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 13

3.        Peter Kron, IL, 7

4.        James Gesquiere, MI, 6

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Brenda Hetlet, WI, 17

2.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 10

3.        Laura Merlo, MI, 10

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 7

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Susan Clayton, IA, 17

2.        Jennifer Gesquiere, MI, 15

3.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 13

4.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA, 4

5.        Melanie Parkes, MI, 3

1980 – Road – Bisbee, Az, Aug. 13-17

SENIOR WOMEN

1.        Beth Heiden, WI, 35mi in 1:43:56

JUNIOR WOMEN

1.        Sarah Docter, WI, 28mi in 1:25:58

2.        Rebecca Twigg, WA

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS

1.        Dedra Chamberlin, CA, l7mi in 57:52

2.        Lisa Lobdell, IN

3.        Mary Farnsworth, CA

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI

5.        Susan Schaugg, MI

MIDGET BOYS

1.        John Chang, MI, 7mi in 24:29.54

2.        Steve MacGregor, WI

3.        Hector Jacome, CA

4.        John Coyle, MI

5.        Jamie Carney, NJ

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 7mi in 39:59

2.        Lisa Andreu, MI

 

1980 – Track – San Diego, CA, Aug. 20-23

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT -Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Pam Deem, PA, 2,0

INTERMEDIATE BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Tim Volker, IA, 19

2.        Brad Hetlet, WI, 11

3.        Bobby Livingston, GA, 10

4.        Joe Chang, WI, 4

5.        Frankie Andreu, MI, 4

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 14

2.        Dedra Chamberlin, CA, 9

3.        Amy Saling, NJ, 7

4.        Mary Krippendorf, WI, 7

5.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 6

MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        John Coyle, MI, 19

2.        Jamie Carney, NJ, 11

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Celeste Andrau, MI, 17

2.        Jennie Gesquiere, MI, 15

 

1981 Bear Mountain, NY, Aug. 3-9

INTERMEDIATE BOYS

1.        Gordon Holterman, VA, 33mi in 1:33:47

2.        David Farmer, PA

3.        Frankie Andreu, MI

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS

1.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA, 23.4mi in 1:15:15

2.        Bozena Zalewski, NJ

3.        Celeste Andreu, MI

MIDGET GIRLS

1.        Lisa Andreu, MI, 11.7mi in 38:17

2.        Joella Harrison, AZ

3.        Gina Novara, M

 

1981 Track – Trexlertown, PA, Aug. 11-16

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT –  Final for lat and 2nd: Sheila Young-Ochowicz, WI, beat Connie Paraskevin, MI, 2,0

Final for 3rd and 4th: Sue Navara-Reber, MI, beat Betsy Davis, NJ, 2,0

INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Rene Duprel, WA, 19

2.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 15

MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS

1.        Jenny Gesquiere, MI, 21

2.        Gina Novara, MI, 15

3.        Alicia Andreu, MI, 9

 

This list only represents cycling – note the rising tide of MI athletes on the national stage.

 What is missing is the world and Olympic results for cycling and the same results for speedskating. Champions like Gold, Silver and Bronze Olympic medalist Sheila Young, World Champion Roger Young, World Champion and Olympic medalists Connie Paraskevan, World Champion Sue Novara, 9 Times Tour de France Rider and Olympic 4th place finisher Frankie Andreu – and on and on the list is a Who’s Who of American cyclists and speedskaters.

The Sprinter's Guide to Cycling Volume 5: Bike Maintenance

Volume 5: The Sprinter’s Guide to Bike Maintenance “It’s the rider not the bike” – Mike Walden

Roadies obsess over their equipment and view it as an ally in their route to success. Sprinters view the bike as a necessary evil. A great roadie finish includes references to how the bike and rider have “become one” – Lance Armstrong’s famous quote - “no chain man - no chain.”

Roadies and sprinters part ways when it comes to bicycle maintenance, sprinters win despite their equipment. Before a race, the toolio roadie is waxing his chain, rebuilding his bottom bracket and putting ceramic bearings in his derailleur wheelies. The sprinter hopes he remembers to put air in his tires.

A quick inventory of my own equipment proves my genetics - below was the current state of my bike (upon this writing), and some typical sprinter solutions:

Issue #1: Rust. Recently I noticed a squeaking sound than intruded over the volume of my ipod headphones. To my chagrin I noticed after the ride that my chain, and cog were rusty after a winter of disuse.  

Solution #1: Lube. I didn’t have any expensive “roadie lube” handy, but figured oil is oil so I dumped some 10W40 motor oil from my car onto my chain. Problem solved – look, you can barely see the rust in the “after” picture (sadly my Blackberry self destructed and I lost this wonderful archive of photos of dumping a quart of motor oil on my chain in a Target parking lot in South Barrington)

Issue #2: Brakes.  Again, a foreign sound recently intruded over my headphones (I usually ride on a bike path w/ no cars and hence can listen to music) – this time it was the grating of metal on metal. Sure enough my front brakes had managed to wear themselves out.

Solution #2: Adjust. Right hand = rear brakes. Enough said. (Hear is a picture of the offending pads)

Issue #3: Cracked Seat. I didn’t even notice this problem until someone pointed it out to me. My immediate thought was, “what’s all that extra material on the back part of the seat for? - clearly not necessary” However, over the past weeks, the crack has continued to grow…

Solution #3: Adjust. Sit a little more forward – a typical sprinter move – in a match sprint on the track you end up riding the nose of the saddle anyway…

Issue #4: Threadbare Tires: I only noticed this one because I was taking off my rear wheel to put it in the trunk of my car – apparently if you ride them enough, tires wear out.

Solution #4: Keep riding back to the car – I ride “run flat” heavy tubes on my training wheels, so no big deal if I get a flat.

Issue #5: A month or two ago I received an email from Ray Dybowski about inspecting your bike, and in particular, your cleats. A month later and in putting together this inventory, I actually looked at the bottom of my shoes and discovered this – half a cleat.

Solution #5: In this case, I was forced to admit that actual maintenance was required and I replaced this cleat. (As an aside, during the mid 90’s one of my shoes had a slightly loose cleat with stripped screws, and like a good sprinter I kept my pedal tension very tight.) The solution here was to leave my left shoe clipped to the pedal – in fact it stayed  on the bike for a 4 year period – until I replaced the bike.

Issue #6: Lately, when I’m in the big ring, but using a smaller gear, if I get out of the saddle, my chain will drop to the small ring without shifting. I used to think this was my bike flexing, but now, after experience with this, I realize it means my chain is worn out. Last season I broke two chains – one during a race.

Solution #6: I’ll have to replace the chain soon… and likely that will require a new cassette as well… instead, considering all these issues stacking up, there really is only one solution: a new bike.

My new Trek Madone 6.5 arrived a few weeks after I wrote this (last spring): complete with a new chain, cogs, seat, brakepads, and whatever else was about to go bad on my 5 year old Colnago. Problem solved.

Next Up: The Sprinter's Guide to "Kits" (that's Roadie for bike shorts/jerseys)

Enhance Your Weaknesses! Vol 4 1/2: A parody

A parody of my last post by my friend, Eric Hankins - teacher extraordinare and one of the funniest people I know. Too bad I can't post the original - alas here's the toned down version.
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Enhance your Weaknesses, Vol. 197
 
As time goes by, I find myself contemplating what it takes to be a failure as an athlete.  I have trained with the best: Marek "My Waist Size is Smaller Than My Wrist" Kotrly; Dave "Could Anyone Lend Me Some Money" Dohnal; and John "I Will Be Wearing Adult Diapers Under My Spandex Skin Suit At The Nursing Home" Coyle to name a few.
 
In the book. "We Are All Failures" by Miguel inotrain, he makes a great point to say that every athlete has specific weaknesses that can be only appreciated by the athlete himself.  I maintain that there are four attributes that can make a for a truly terrible athlete.
  1. Lack of Motivation
  2. Substitutional Training
  3. Diet
  4. Deadbeat Parents
The first of these, Lack of Motivation, is something that I can relate to and as I reflect on my cycling career 20+ years ago, this is something that really comes to surface.  I remember my coach, the infamous Dr. Charles Kotrly, would yell at our team about sacrifice and being self motivated.  He maintained that consistent success is determined by consistent commitment and the desire to win will dominate at a critical time when an athlete is wavering on staying home and venturing out into the elements to train all day.  This lack of motivation is something that I not only had...I treasured.  When I think back to those rainy, windy days, I would think I should be on the bike, but then I contemplated how comfortable I was and realized getting lapped out of a race was well worth staying on the couch.  I would envision throwing my hands up, crossing the finish line in first place or being the last guy across the line.  Being a couch potato was well worth getting dropped in a race.
 
The second, Substitutional Training, is something that I was very good at doing.  I still remember looking out my window for Dave Dohnal to go cycling past my house while playing Atari.  While it might have made a difference between standing on the podium at the next race versus being fully changed with an ice cream cone in hand to cheer on the rest of my team because I got lapped out, three laps into the race, I still considered my substitutional activity to be worthwhile.  My max heart-rate and VO2 might not have equated to the same outcome as leaving the house and hooking onto Dohnal's wheel, but scoring my personal best on Pong was well worth skipping the training ride.
 
The third, Diet, is very important to failing.  There is no doubt that plenty of fruit and veggies along with a protein diet will make you strong, but consider how much more impressed we are of seeing the likes of my brother, Jonny "I look like I Am In My Third Trimester" Hankins pedal all the way across Wisconsin a few summers ago.  I actually look at fat guys with envy.  They have to work that much harder than everyone else.  I can remember how much I enjoyed an ice cream sandwich at races while everyone else was eating bars that tasted like cardboard and drinking energy drinks that looked and tasted like urine.  Eat like crap, get crap results.  It might not have been the biggest factor in my dismal performance, but it sure didn't make me any better.
 
The last is something that is probably the single most important - Deadbeat Parents.  My divorced parents were awesome.  I think they went to a few bike races and managed to not attend one speed-skating race.  When I was 8, my dad was rarely around according to my lovely mother who spent all her free time at the Unitarian Church conversing with middle aged hippies.  Whether it was talking to other ladies who shared books on astrology or how to make a casserole that turns your stool into something that looks like a yellow Baby Ruth laced with celery, my mom was always about enjoying life more than winning anything in it.  My mom would go to my cycling races and spend the entire event trying to get some random spectator signed up for Amway.  Meanwhile, the referee is blowing the whistle at her idiot son to get out of the race because he was so far behind.  To this day I remember coming up behind my mom while she was writing her phone number down for some rehabilitated inmate and she was always like "oh Eric, isn't your race still going on?"  Then there was my dad who was always offering ways I could improve my performance on the drive home with a cigarette dangling from his lip.  Blowing an entire pack of cigarette smoke in my face while preaching his ideas on how to improve performance.  Thanks for helping me win a certificate for asthma and sinusitis dad!
 
Stay tuned, more to come...
 
Eric

Race Your Strengths! Vol. 3

Next up, Tests #4, 5, 6: Max Squats, Vertical Leap & Max Power (Wingate Test)

 

Flashforward - 1 year to 1991. Back at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for another camp. The Junior World Cycling Championships are taking place at the same time, and I catch up with cycling friends Jessica Grieco and George Hincapie. Jessica and I spend a good deal of time together and another cyclist I only know by name, Lance Armstrong, notices.

After the Junior World Cycling Championships were over, I  attended a house party near the Olympic Training Center (OTC) with skater and Olympic silver medalist Eric Flaim and some of the other skaters and hooked up with George and Jessica and met many of the other cyclists. At one point mid-way through the evening, after a long discussion with Jessica, I was motioned outside by a “minion” of Lance’s. Lance was only 19 but already had assumed command of the junior ranks. He was waiting for me out front of the house and asked me if I would walk and talk with him. It was very movie-like. I said, “sure.”

 We walked to the curb, and then sat down. He then proceeded to ask a series of targeted questions about Jessica (who was not without her charms) with that same, now famous, hawk-like stare. He started with, “How did you get her?” I explained that we were just friends and that we were not romantically involved. He immediately followed up with “Well, how can I get her?” and then asked a series of very specific questions. “What kind of music does she like? What does she read? Does she wear perfume? What are her hobbies outside cycling? Is she smart? What’s her favorite subject in school?” and then again, “How can I get her?”

 I can imagine Lance and Chris Carmichael planning his comeback in much a similar fashion, “how can I get tour #8?”

 I tried to be helpful, but found it all a little bit like a science project and wanted to ask, “what does, ‘get’ mean, exactly?” but I didn’t. Later I saw him talking to Jessica with some of the same intensity – though he did bother to smile and laugh.

Back in Colorado Springs, July 1990.

 

Just two days later and the testing continued. The next test was Max Squats: the ability to lift heavy objects dangling from a metal bar resting on your shoulders from a compressed position. I was happily not dead last. In the intervening weeks I had gotten better at the exercise and had moved up to being able to lift three 45lb plates on each side of the bar – for a total of 315 lbs – my one repetition max.

 

DJ (Dan Jansen’s preferred nickname) maxed out near 600 lbs.

 

Next we tested vertical leap. Honestly I was expecting to do really well. But the rules were strict. Bend slowly as deep as you wish, and then jump as high as possible swinging your arms and hands up over your head, and then using the tips of your fingers to swat at rotating height markers. I found my jumps lackluster, empty – as though I was missing something – like I almost wanted more weight on my shoulders. What I figured out now, writing this 18 years later is that what I really was missing was resistance or compression. With no real load (like skating a short track corner, or the gearing on a bike) my legs and synapses were just average. My results put me squarely in the middle of the pack. Conversely, over the years whenever we did a typical set of hurdle plyometrics - 10 hurdles set back to back at their highest setting (around 4ft), completed by doing knee to chest jumps, one to each hurdle - I was able to fly high. But I needed that compression of my weight returning from the prior hurdle – I needed that tension.

This came into stark contrast with another jump workout one summer in Calgary where my very specific, granular strengths came into play. The track team at U of C had built a series of tall steps – almost leaps – 2 feet between each block, 6 steps total, taking you up 12 ft vertical by the final step, and ending with a foam lined landing pit beneath the steps. The challenge was to run down a short lane, bound up each large step and then launch into the air over the pit, landing safely in the foam – sort of a combo between a “hop-skip-and-jump” and the high jump.

 

Most everyone else accelerated to the steps, and then decelerated up them, thumping up each step and then sailing sideways into the pit. But this setup really was perfect for me - - I was like an astronaut on the moon - each terrace had my feet on springs and my speed and vertical speed increased with each bounding step – by the last few stairs my feet were hammering the wood like jackhammers and I would launch into orbit, legs and arms wind-milling in slow motion during the extended hang time as I would finally drop back to earth. I was so good at this random exercise that at one point, that the University of Calgary track team coach asked me to return and demonstrate my prowess to the track team: what it looked like at its best.

 

It was moments like this that I used as a mental crutch to shore up my mental resolve during the coming months and years of failure and weakness. Without these occasional moments of brilliance, I would never have had the mental fortitude to survive the mind-numbing months of workouts and inconsistent or declining results.

 

Test #1 – Hard Training:       F - Failure

Test #2 – Body Fat:               F - Failure

Test #3: - VO2 Max:             F - Failure

Test #4: - Max Squats:         C - Average

Test #5: - Vertical Leap        C - Average

 

Back in Colorado, training camp really was not going so well. After coming in with the highest of hopes and expectations, I was mentally and physically exhausted. Sadly, I had continually proved myself to be one of the weakest on the whole team. If it weren’t for these occasional moments where my specific and unique talents came to the fore, I probably would have been a mental basket case, but as it was I tried to stay confident and actually looked forward to the final test of the camp – Max Power Output - also known as the "Wingate Test."

 

Again, everyone seemed nervous about the test, but I think it was Bonnie Blair who said, “don’t worry Coyle – it’s a cycling test – it’ll be easy for you!” (Everyone seemed to think that anything on the bike would be easy for me, notwithstanding my last place finish on the VO2 test.)

 

As with the VO2 test, we received time slot assignments, and like before, I showed up to another low-lying barracks not far from the previous torture chamber on the OTC grounds. Like before there was a hallway to a small room with a stationary bike. Unlike before, the hallway was carpeted as was the room, and there were no big machines and only a few attendants, and no white lab coats. It was comforting at first until that first recoiling of my nostrils to the vague scent in the room – the unmistakable stench of vomit hidden under cleanser. Once again I got nervous – now what?

 

After I entered, one of the attendants asked me to get the seat height set up and make sure everything was comfortable. There was no eye contact. I did so. He then explained the nature of the test, “30 seconds with resistance, all out – as fast as you can go –  got it? “Remember – hit it full out from ‘go’ else the test is wasted.”

 

I said “got it,” and got my feet cinched in good even as another technician began to turn the dial on the front of the flywheel while viewing his clipboard.

 

“All set,” he said, and then the first attendant said, “you might want to test the resistance…” Until this point I still had confidence. 30 seconds on a stationary bike with a flywheel to sending zinging – how hard could that be? Finally, something I’d be good at – a way to race my strengths instead of basting in my weaknesses.

 

A half second later a warm rush of terror caused a flush of sweat to appear on my arms and legs despite the dry air. When I pressed on the pedals, all that happened was that I stood up. I tried again – with my right leg in the two o’clock position I put my weight into the pedal and all that happened was that my body lifted from the seat.

 

“Um, I think the bike locked up,” I said.

 

“No no,” the two assured me in unison, and then one continued “just push real hard, and pull with the other leg – you’ve got 497 watts of resistance on due to the ratio with your weight so it’s a bit hard to get started.”

 

In disbelief I used all my might to push my right leg down while straining with my left hamstring to raise that leg. Immediately the wheel stopped. Suddenly the concept of 30 seconds became an eternity – to pedal THAT for a half minute! NO WAY! It was the approximate equivalent of finding the longest steepest (say, 15% grade) hill you've ever seen, and then sprinting up it from a dead stop in a big gear. This new news brought fear - real fear - out of every pore of my skin.

But they knew better than to let me think it over and suddenly in an official voice one was counting, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Go! GO! GO! GO!” And I drove my left quad (as my left foot was now in the up position) with all my might and convulsed my right hamstring to lift at the same time. Every tendon in my forarms stood out like razor blades, but, sure enough, the shiny chrome 50 lb flywheel began to turn, sluggishly at first, then building – 1, 2, 3 seconds passed by and I began to get inertia and rotational energy going. I moved out of the panic zone and began to really pedal and the two assistants continued, like me, to watch the seconds tick, and the RPM’s rise on the monitor.

 Another second, and I began to enter the tiny realm of my little superpower: energy began crackling out of my legs and as, 4, 5, 6, seconds passed and my feet began to turn circles, spinning, then buzzing with a kind of manic yet fluid energy despite the heavy resistance: the shiny flywheel flew despite the band of resistance, and heat rose off of it releasing a new smell to the room.

 I distinctly remember looking around the room at the astonished faces of the attendants as my feet hummed along and my rpms rocketed up 100, 140, 160, 180, 200, the bike vibrating the air and the floor as though I might lift off. Now, at 7 and 8 seconds, for once the faces were interested in something other than my failure. For the next two seconds, as heat continued to rise off the flywheel, I played roulette with my body having no idea what was to happen next.

 

How does that verse go? “Pride goes before….?”

 

9, seconds then 10... and my began feet slowing, just a little at first, but then dramatically as that humming energy faded to emptiness, 11, 12, 13 seconds, laboring, and the massive anaerobic effort suddenly began hitting my lungs and legs and brain all at the same time and a wave of paranoid fear rolled over me as the walls and ceiling of a tunnel of pain closed over my head.

 

I continued thrashing forward under the dark nape of fear, but all air was gone and the horizon continued to close as my lungs caught fire and my legs become molten lead.

Running out of air creates fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – a deep inner panic that starts to simmer and boil over – to pervade everything – telling you to find a way to surface, to escape this intentional drowning. But there was no way out and like the VO2 test, the attendants were ready and had moved into a small semi-circle in front of the bars, “Keep it going! 14 seconds! … Halfway!” My legs had gone from 200 rpms down to 100rpms in 2 seconds. I was dying and there was no blood left in my whole body: it had been replaced by battery acid and fire erupted in every synapse. “16 seconds! 100% effort! You are on a good one!” they cried and suddenly their faces zoomed in and grew whiter even as an odd buzzing began.  

Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen seconds and the dark tunnel I was in suddenly began to open and brighten and I began to hear a new sound: a wretched keening and rasping. It was me. I surprised myself with the volume and ugliness of the rattling, wheezing breaths that issued from my lungs. I tasted steel as my heart rate continued its climb; my blood scoured my veins and beat like a gong against my ear drums.

My laboring legs dropped to 80rpms, then 60 rpms. I had never felt pain this excruciating. “Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one seconds!” they screamed, the attendants were leaning in now, faces only inches from mine, shouting – yet sort of in slow motion, with fading sound – just movements and mouths and this ever building buzzing and brightening. I could feel my legs stopping altogether despite my concerted efforts to make them turn – but they no longer belonged to me – they belonged to the fire and the buzz of the fluorescent lights in the room.

I was strangely interested in how overexposed everything had become and even as I felt my legs stop and I looked up the crescendo came, a buzzing rotation up and over my head like a low flying airplane dropping a mesh of nausea. Everything turned white then yellow then black. Then it was quiet.

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

When I woke up, I was on a cot, in another room. Someone was touching my arm as I opened my eyes, “you are OK.” Another voice was squealing from another part of the room, in response to some ongoing dialog, “…yeah I know! But no one has ever passed out ON the bike before!”

I was disgusted. I got up, woozy, and hands steadied me. Voices seemed to be indicating success (like last time after the V02) but I couldn’t wait to get away. They continued their monologue with something about peak power and rapid decline but I thought to myself with contempt, “here’s the final test – the one I thought I’d finally get some results worth having. “Instead, I barely finished half the test without passing out. “I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck…” Over and over those were the words my pedals repeated as I rode back for the dorms.

When the manila envelopes were passed out that evening again under the door, I didn’t bother to open mine for a while. Finally, when no one else was around, I lifted the flap to my reality – it looked like this:

Max power output graph

At my peak power, I had produced 23.1 watts/kilo and a peak power 1785 watts – the highest of the team regardless of weight. Unfortunately, as the doctor who reviewed my chart with me noted, “you also have the highest rate of decline of anyone on the team.” Thanks doc, for pointing out the obvious.

Here was the clincher for me – if the shortest event in speedskating lasts about 36 seconds – how is it possible I could ever hope to be good at the sport?

Yet, as I reminded myself, I already had been. I had been quite good – even at events lasting 2, 3, even 7 minutes…

In hindsight, this was an absolutely compelling piece of data to use to my advantage – it really merely informed what I should have already known – than in situations that called for short bursts of power, I had a natural advantage. It didn’t occur to me that this strength could be used and repeated with recovery in intervals – instead I merely considered the fact that I was apparently only competitive in events lasting less than 15 seconds, and it immediately came to mind that the shortest event in speedskating, the 500 meters, lasts somewhere around 35-40 seconds. So I decided, once again, to ignore this data.

Final Results, 1990 Training Camp:   

Test #1 – Hard Training:       F - Failure

Test #2 – Body Fat:               F - Failure

Test #3: - VO2 Max:             F - Failure

Test #4: - Max Squats:          C - Average

Test #5: - Vertical Leap        C - Average

Test #6: - Max Power            F - Failure

 

Attached below is a pair of video segments that paints a clear picture of what the test show – and what I should have already known – that my talents are in the realm of accelerations with limited duration.

 

Both videos are from the 1986 North American Short Track Championships – Intermediate division 500m final (the highest level of competition at that time for ages 18 and under).

 

The first video shows my strengths in all their short lived glory – sprinting from lane 5 into the lead and extending it quickly over the next 10 seconds. As Marcus Buckingham or Mike Walden would say – “race your strengths.” Again – here is the definition:

 

“The definition of strength is quite specific: consistent near perfect performance in an activity.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EqcDkeCZCw] 

This would be my strength. In all my years of short track I could usually win the start – no matter the lane.

 

The second video shows my weakness – the remainder of the race – this snippet is the last half of that same race. I did end up winning – but just barely:

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhGfGzeXAQ8]

 

It is obvious now, but really I didn’t see these obvious talents and challenges back then, and frankly, coaches just wanted to train those weaknesses out of me – but that approach never worked - though I certainly tried. Instead, what did work was for me to put my strengths to work in unique and sometimes subtle ways - as Walden always knew... But that is a topic for Vol. 4.

 Marcus Buckingham again, "Each person's greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength. "You will excel only by maximizing your strengths, not by fixing your weaknesses."

Next Up: Vol 4. Ignoring good advice and Racing my Strengths

 

Race Your Strengths! Vol. 1

Race Your Strengths! Vol. 1

 

THE core principle of the Walden school of thought: more than just a ‘race rule’, this is the essential philosophy of my coach Mike Walden’s approach to training – and to life.

 

What I didn’t know is that this refrain would serve as a protective layer from the good intentions and unintended negative outcomes of almost all the coaches to succeed Mike over the years.

 

What I learned much later is that this concept has become the core principal behind one of the great new movements in modern psychology, better known as “positive psychology,” this concept of “Discovering your Strengths” has become part of the corporate ideology for success – and rightly so.

 

 

In the summer of 1990 I moved to Colorado Springs to train with the national team along with Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair and about 20 other top U.S. Speed skaters. The summer program had at its heart a series of tests to determine athletic potential and I was excited to prove my mettle with the best of the best.

 

I flew into the bright dry air of Colorado Springs flush with confidence: despite spending the prior four years mastering the curriculum of one of the toughest academic programs in the country and living in California, of all places, I had managed to make the world speed skating team both of my last two years, and mustered a 10th place finish at the world speed skating championships in the 500m.

 

Up until this point I was one of those lucky ones – despite the usual setbacks and failures along the way (I got lapped in my first speed skating race – and that was a long track event in Farwell field, Detroit,) I had made steady progress almost every year.

 

Four years earlier, as a high school senior, still training under local coaches Mike Walden, Clair Young and Marc Affholter I managed to be the top junior athlete (under 18) in the country in two sports – cycling and speedskating, and traveled to both Morocco and the Netherlands to compete in the world championships for both sports. Four years of progress later, and in the winter of 1990 I was posting some of the fastest lap times in the country for any age group for skating. Indeed, my 10th place finish at the world short track speedskating championships was a result of a fall in the quarter final. I had convinced myself I could win that event…

 

I assumed, at the time, that with the right coaches and training, my performance would accelerate – that once I joined a “real” program and trained harder, and more consistently, that results would come in spades. The training program set by Mike Walden, Clair Young, Marc Affholter, which I still pretty much followed by default on my own in California had been good enough to get me where I was, but…

 

At the time I guess I thought it was decent enough stuff for those ‘local coaches’ – but considered myself ready for ‘the real thing.’ I was fully convinced I would not only make the 1992 Olympic team, but that I had a great shot at standing on the podium. Indeed – I was so full of myself, I actually thought I could possibly compete in 3 different sports in one Olympic year – short track, long track, and cycling. Why not?

 

I had no idea that every one of these assumptions was wrong. I could never have imagined that a mere six months later that I would be a shell of my former self without even a prayer of making even a “B” travel team in any one of those sports, and that after the national team trials in my primary sport I would find myself unfunded, coachless, jobless, hopeless and confused… and that it would only get worse from there as I prepped for the Olympics in 1992 and beyond…

 

Test #1 of 5, Hard Training: (July, 1990:)

 

When I stepped off the plane in Colorado Springs, CO less than a month after college graduation. I was not fit. I had just returned from a weeklong trip to Mexico with four of my best friends for a week of partying in Cancun. My lack of fitness was also due to the 36 credit load I had to finish spring quarter to make up for a full slate of incompletes I took in winter quarter due to traveling in Europe for competitions and the world championships.

 

Still, I wasn’t worried – I had always responded well to hard training and fully expected to quickly assume a spot very high up in the speedskating hierarchy. One thing though, was different this time: I had made the switch to long track speedskating at the end of the season. After getting knocked down in the quarterfinals at the short track world championships in March in an echoing arena largely absent of spectators, I had walked outside of Edens Icehall in Amsterdam to discover nearly 3000 people skating for fun on the long track right outside its doors. I fell in love with the idea that someone (besides my parents) might watch and cheer for the sport that was slated to become my full time occupation.

 

The coaches at the camp – Susan Sandvig, John Teaford, and Mike Crowe wasted no time in clarifying the route to success: hard work, mental toughness (suffering,) and volume. This was the proven program originally defined by Diana Holum and Eric Heiden and it produced the sport’s single greatest champion (Heiden). This would be our model, and if we wanted to have a chance to be like Eric (we all did) then this was the way to do it. (Eric won 5 gold medals – one in every speedskating distance – in the 1980 Olympics. Just to put this in perspective – this would be like Husain Bolt winning not only the 100m and 200m but the 400m, 1500m, and 10,000m events as well. This is astounding even to this day.)

 

I, like everyone else, was a believer. The concept of ‘the harder you work, the more you’ll achieve’ was clear and compelling. I threw myself, as is my mode, into it with all my heart and sinew.

 

This proved to be my undoing rather quickly. After a light jog on the evening of our first day, we entered the 3 – a –day workout regimen that was to dominate the next month, the next year – indeed the next 4 years of my life. The very next morning we did a long bike ride in the morning (at least something I was used to) and then followed it up by a weights ‘test’ in the late morning, and sprints and jumps in the afternoon.

 

In the weight room I was eager to show my strengths. I had never really done squats before but I didn’t let that bother me. I was encouraged to just use the bar and ‘get used to it’ but I was way too gung-ho to listen and soon was stacking on a pair of 45lb plates, and then 4 (still nowhere near the 10 or 12 plates Dan Jansen would regularly put on) but enough to at least walk out of the gym with my pride intact. I also did bench press, hamstring curls, leg extensions, crunches and all the other things everyone else was doing. Ah… the innocence and stupidity of youth.

 

That same afternoon, I’ll never forget – we went up into the foothills near the Broadmoor as the sun began to make the fields golden and we embarked on a sprint & plyometrics (jumps) workout, swapping a dozen “knee to chest” jumps with 100 yard sprints. We did 10 sets of each.

 

Climbing down from the bus prior to the workout, I had some new sensations – I felt awkward and my muscles felt, well, tweaked – sending all kinds of startling signals and shocks to my brain, yet not responding to basic requests. They felt like foreign limbs with electrodes implanted in them jerking them into motion. But after some hill runs for a warmup during which I suffered immensely I regained some semblance of control for the main workout. After a sloppy first set of jumps and the follow-on sprint I was fully warmed up. On the second and third sets, I was on my game – floating like a gazelle on the knee-to-chest jumps – rising up above the crowd in almost in slow motion – bouncing quickly up and then during the peak of my jump, banging my knees upward to extend that float before time resumed and I dropped back down. Then the whistle and I found myself breaking quickly into the clean air of the lead during the sprints as I sailed out into the lead of some of the world’s best athletes. I smiled inwardly, just a little smug in my confidence: everything was turning out just as I planned…

 

That is until repetitions #s 4, 5, 6, 7 followed through. Each sprint and jump tore the remaining flaps and threads of my muscles. The coaches shouted encouragement and then resulted to goads, “C’mon Coyle – where’s that sprint? Where’s that height?” I tried to respond and for a while I did. By sprint #9 I was done. I couldn’t actually lift my hamstrings and did sort of standing dead lift jumps and then as I tried to sprint I was kicking myself sloppily after a few steps. I broke off and stood to the side as the coaches prodded me, shouting. I said nothing – I couldn’t even begin to describe what was going on in my body – but it had entered that deep down bone ebb – I knew I was hurt but I didn’t know exactly how or why.

 

I winced and hobbled back to the bus, and then did the same wobbling act to get to dinner with an excruciating effort only exceeded by the walk back to the dorms. After dinner everyone went out to the hot tubs and I desperately wanted to go, but I couldn’t seem to straighten out my legs without incredible pain, so I stayed in bed.

 

Things got worse.

 

The next 24 hours reigns unique in my life. It is the one and only full day that I’ve ever been truly bedridden. For more than 24 hours I never left my bed. I was on the top bunk and I couldn’t bend my legs. I had bleeding wooden joints. Even slight movements had me gasping and sweating in place. My abdominals didn’t fare much better – from the jumps – and I couldn’t sit up. Top it off with an extraordinarily sore chest and biceps (I couldn’t straighten my arms), and the unraveling was complete – I couldn’t move.

 

That day, as everyone packed up in the morning for practice, I asked my roommates Brendan Eppert and Dave Besteman to give me a couple plastic cups of water and then I lay back down – and didn’t move for an entire day.

 

It wasn’t until late the following evening that biological needs drove me from my bed. I had to have Dave and Brendan lift me down, sweating in pain, after I swung my legs over the edge. It took me several days to recover and rejoin the team. In the meantime, my confidence started to waver

 

Results of Test #1, Hard Training:  FAILURE

 

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

 

Next up Test #2: VO2 Max w/ Lance Armstrong

 

Clair Young

In July of 1977, I was just 8 years old, and I was already a ‘bike rider,’ I just didn’t know what that meant yet. I had a black, red, and yellow Raleigh ten speed with 24 inch chrome wheels and relatively narrow tires (at least as compared with my BMX bike) that I began riding on local AYH rides with my father, and then began attending longer supported rides on the weekends together.

My dad was a former telegraph delivery boy in his youth and had rediscovered bike riding in the past few years. He had tried a couple century rides the previous year and had decided to bring me along. Seems that like him I had a penchant for suffering and he found pride in my ability to weather through a 7 or 8 or 9 hour day on the bike. I was in it for the snacks (candy bars every 10 miles!) and I didn't really know any better - at first it was just something to do.

I do, however, remember a particular 2 day, 200 mile ride we put in that summer. We rode from Detroit to Lansing, stayed in dorms on the Michigan state campus after the first 100 miles, and then headed back on a somewhat hilly route on the return (I think it was called “Helluva Ride” because it passed through Hell, Michigan.) Along the way, an elegant older couple passed us on a tandem, and slowed to take a look at me - this tiny, boney, scrappy 8 year old following desperately in his dad's draft (I learned early how to survive) into a headwind as we completed the long slog back to Detroit.

The couple were both interested and complementary - slowing to spend some time talking to my father, to encourage me. I remember Dorothy’s penetrating blue eyed gaze – like she was looking right through you to your soul – with just a twinkle of amusement. The couple was none other than Clair and Dorothy Young, parents of national and world champion cyclists and speedskaters Roger and Sheila Young.  

It was then, that I heard Clair say those infamous words that changed my whole world and the rest of my life in a half a second, "He’s a good bike rider - he should be a bike racer - bring him to a race," in that clipped direct way Clair has. The way Clair says “bike rider” is also somehow unique – when he said it, it meant more than someone who is capable of riding a bike – it had panache. I wanted to be whatever that was…

I ponder now, 32 years later, what my life would be like if those words had never been uttered. My life, in its entirety, would have been completely different. I had no grand ideas about anything – much less of being an athlete. The concepts, beliefs, activities and confidence that were to come: of competing in the state championships, of driving across the country to the national championships, of qualifying for the world championships – none of these ideas had ever passed through our heads -  we were just ‘regular’ people. The very idea of the Olympics was some great mystery reserved for those ‘other’ people that had money, contacts, and talent.

But in a flash of care, understanding and engagement, these two people changed my whole life. My father managed to remember the location and timing of the race (Dearborn Towers, Dearborn, MI) and he and I showed up to race with Frankie Andreu (9 time Tour de France finisher), Celeste Andreu (10 time national champion) and Jamie Carney (3 time Olympian and my arch-nemesis to this day – whether he knows it or not.)

Here are my impressions of that fateful first day:

Flashback: August of 1977.

I am 8 years old and my father and I are pulling our GM Beauville van into the parking lot of the Dearborn Twin Towers office buildings where I was to participate in my first ever bike race. It was pouring outside and I remember not wanting to get out of the van into the cold rain. I dressed in the van into my wool jersey and black cotton and wool shorts (with a real leather chamois), my leather “hairnet” helmet and gloves, and then, with my father holding the umbrella, I climbed outside the sliding door and onto my bike, goosebumps standing out on my shiny forearms. 

He suggested that I “warm up” by riding around the parking lot a few times, and I did but I was immediately back under the umbrella and back into the van, shivering from the cold and wet. We waited until almost race time before heading toward the start/finish area. With his plastic raincoat on, and holding the umbrella, my father walked and I coasted on my bike over to the start finish line where a stocky, bald, grumpy older man with glasses and a mustache was yelling instructions to the parents, “Midgets! – midgets – you have to roll out your bikes before the race! – bring them over to Clair…C’mon Andreu – you know the drill!” 

His name was Mike Walden and I disliked him immediately. Clair, however, I recognized. Clair Young, wearing his referee uniform, was the reason I was there in the first place. After Clair's intervention on that ride it was only a matter of a few calls, and there I was at the Dearborn Twin Towers just outside Detroit in the pouring rain, checking out my gears (12 and under or “midget category” racers were limited in their gears so as to not injure their knees) by “rolling out” my bike backwards for a full revolution of the pedals between two tape marks to ensure that my tenth gear was not too big (this was in the time where bikes still only had “ten speeds”)  10 minutes, and an eternity in the rain later, they lined up the boys, and then the girls behind us on the line.

There were about 12 of us boys, to the right of me was the tallest of the group, with dark hair and a fixed expression, seemingly unfazed by the rain. Next to him was a hyperactive boy who was badgering his father, “This rain is freezing me – why can’t we start? What are they waiting for? Frankie’s going to win anyway – why did we come?” Next to him was a pale, hollow cheeked boy of 10, whose father, like mine, hovered over him with the umbrella, guarding him as best he could. 

And so we lined up, myself – a few days before my 9th birthday: the tall one - Frankie Andreu – age 11 (eventual 9 time tour de France finisher and 4th in the Olympic games), the hyper one: Jamie Carney – age 9 (3 time Olympic team member, my arch-rival for decades to come,) the pale Englishman: longtime friend Paul Jacqua – age 10, and a number of other boys, readying for a short 3 lap, 3 mile race. 

In the old Italian tradition Mike, (or was it Clair?) announced, “Torreador, Attencione, Go!” and within seconds Frankie had disappeared into the mist while I was still trying to get my foot in the toeclips. Once I finally did, I could see the outline of two riders ahead of me in the rain, roostertails kicking up high with the water flying off their rear wheels. Frankie was nowhere to be seen and I was left strugging through the downpour with Jamie and Paul and we headed through the darkened corners of the course, wheels whizzing with water and rain, pain and breathing only matched by wonderment of “where did he go?”  

I was not used to being beat – the fastest kid on my block during tag, and the fastest kid at school during recess, I felt a frantic, almost asphyxiating rhythm take over my pedaling and breathing. There was pain in every pore of my skin and my lungs were on fire but I was fixated on the mysterious disappearance of the rider ahead.  Jamie and Paul and I shortly established the pattern known to racers the world over as a “paceline” pulling into the wind for a short distance and then moving aside for the rider behind to pedal through, blocking the wind for the riders behind.

For perhaps the only time in my career, I took the role of a “roadie” and would pull through faster, chasing the elusive Frankie, or even making attacks to the side of our little peleton.  2 laps into the race and suddenly a dark figure appeared and quickly disappeared outside our little group. It was Celeste Andreu – Frankie’s sister, and she had already made up the 1 minute start gap provided between the boys and girls, and passed us. We made a fruitless effort to chase, but resolved back into the loosely formed paceline we had formed after the start, Paul doing most of the consistent work, and Jamie and I occasionally trying to sneak away off the front. 

We came by the start finish with one to go and the few parents remaining in the rain cheered and then disappeared and we continued our route around this urban maze. As we headed out of the last corner, Paul sprang out into the lead and as I started to follow, Jamie slingshotted past him. But I had grabbed his wheel (i.e. gotten into his draft), and as our tiny gears spun, and out little feet rotated at over 200 rpms, I passed Jamie just before the line to win the “field sprint” and come in 2nd establishing in that 3 mile microcosm a pattern in the world that would be significant in my life for the following 30+ years. 

After drying off (and the rain stopped) there was a medals ceremony followed by a trip to a tent where the sponsor of the race from the local bike shop provided me with my prize – a heavy, chrome plated bottom bracket tool kit.  I didn’t know what a bottom bracket was, but I could tell that this was a significant prize by its weight and shininess and I resolved to really like bike racing. I still have this bottom bracket tool kit, now 32 years later, and it has never been used as far as I know. But it is still shiny… 

Thank you Clair and Dorothy – for bothering to notice a skinny kid dangling in the wind on a hot windy July day. I’m sure it was par for the course for you, but it made all the difference in the world to me.

-John

PS: 29 years later I discovered that I had inadvertently “paid it forward” to another athlete – Alex Izychowski – and so the circle of life continues. http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/02/19/torino-journal-9-epilogue/

 

 

 

Walden Race Rule #4: Get into Position to Win.

Walden Race Rule #4: Get into Position to Win.

This principle is really the predecessor to Race Rule #3 – “Win it at the Line”.  You can’t ‘win it at the line’ from 60th place. 

So, what are the key mechanisms that enable the Walden rule of “Get into position to win?”

1)      Shift down. This is the single most important part of moving through a crowded peleton. Tired limbs and ragged lungs prefer slower RPM’s, but, having the discipline to pedal rapid circles and taking on the additional aerobic burden it carries it provides the reward of being able to take advantage of opportunities before that of your fellow riders. When riders suddenly divide in front of you creating a Tetris-like body space – only the swiftest acceleration will garner that spot. Be that rider that fills in the gap…Do it 20 times and you can move through an entire peleton without feeling the wind…

2)     Never move up on the “hard parts” unless out of desperation or it is the final sprint. For me, the dozens of laps preceding the finish are like a giant science project – how does the peleton move? What are its weaknesses? Where does it consistently slow? Most courses have their Achilles heels – places where the dynamics of the race create opportunities. Elk Grove had no Achilles heel – the whole thing was scary, fast, and dangerous. I had to use other opportunities.

3)      Get a better view: ride on the hoods (upper part of the handlebars) with your head up. I never even realized I did this until someone gave me a hard time about it a few years ago. Riding head down makes perfect sense when in the front of the field or on a breakaway, but when trapped in the compression of the peleton, use the draft to get a good look around. This is probably the single easiest thing to do to aid you during this critical portion of the race. Visibility of the swaying patterns of the peleton is critical to being able to ‘read the tea leaves’ of the race and find a space to move up.

4)      Broadcast your intended movements – herd the cats. Oddly most riders seem intent on maintaining their position – and if you, through your body language and the occasional hand gesture or touch on the hip – indicate a direction you wish to go, more often than not they’ll accommodate. For myself I use a combination of the “slow drift”, the flip of the hand, and the touch on the hip to try and create my path. Sometimes you’ll encounter the cycling equivalent of the ‘Chicago driver’ who actually goes counter to your intended movement and shuts you down – but they too are creating space and sometimes you can anticipate this reaction and quickly swing around them on the other side.

5)      Use EVERYTHING to get into position: finally, and most importantly, be willing to use everything you have to get into position. As your body moves beyond its VO2 max and enters oxygen debt, it is easy to give into the physical and mental malaise that accompanies this searing agony and ‘settle in’ and hope that somehow, somewhere, an opportunity to get into position will emerge.

The single greatest lesson to be learned from this Walden rule is that you have to make it happen – and if necessary use every single ounce of energy at your disposal, sacrificing your actual sprint to get into position. Said differently, a ‘non-sprint’ from 3rd position as you blow up and drift backward is 99% more likely to land you a top ten position than a somewhat rested move from 25th. 

Let me say this again with more urgency: there is NO POINT to sprinting from 30th… (unless you have just moved up from 60th with every ounce of your power.) The first priority for every single available ounce of your energy is to get into striking distance of the win – after that the subtleties of 10th vs. 5th vs. 1st around the final corner is a luxury to be considered for Walden Race Rule #3 (Win it at the Line!)

 Think of those moments as a kid where you tried to stay underwater to swim a distance or find an object at the bottom of the pool or lake – and then of that last burst of frantic, lung burning energy as you exploded to the surface and finally breathed the fresh air of recovery.

Now imagine the same maneuver - doing that same impulsive set of thrumming kicks normally reserved for breaking back to the surface – but instead use them to knowingly enter a tunnel: a darkening culvert with the water rising - the dark spirals of the galvanized ceiling pressing down – lips pursed to capture a breath just above water in the dark as the air disappears. The sprinters choice – continue these death throes or back up and hope for more air?

Often the right choice is forward: thrashing forward under the dark nape of the water and all air gone, the horizon closing. Lungs are on fire, legs become molten lead and every evolutionary fiber in your body tells you to dart for a surface that is no longer there – asphyxiating paroxysms of panic threaten to undermine your survival…

This is fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – that deep inner panic starts to simmer and boil over – to pervade everything – it tells you to find a way to surface, to escape this intentional drowning. But there is no short cut and those that try to find one – by diving into corners or by taking them too fast – find disaster and wash up on the shores of the barriers.  Instead you must discipline yourself, duck lower, and kick through to the other end of this tunnel of pain before you can rise to the surface.

 It is as a result of exactly these kinds of panic attacks that I’ve ended up burning through my own skin on the tarmac at various races – usually not my panic, rather the dying gropings of another drowning rider panicking – groping, and pulling me under.

It is this element of fear that makes this probably the hardest of all the Walden rules to follow...

The video to follow shows the sort of ‘slo mo’ version of various high speed nervous exercises to move up. The slow frame rate fails to capture virtually any of the relevant frenetic action in the peleton as we vibrated through those final miles - coasting, sprinting, braking, bumping, crashing and sweating through those narrow boulevards at over 30 mph – sudden sways echoing through the field, the sudden hiss and burning smell of brakes, and rapid swings to avoid wheels and limbs. Nonetheless, what the video does capture is the suffocating closeness of the field preparing for the final sprint, the closed road ahead when it comes to moving up, the proximity of other riders, and the press of bodies blocking any forward progress.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9W0WETpST8] 

Walden Principle #2: Racing is the best Training (Sleeping in a Haystack)

 

 

 

Racing is the Best Training  - or, Sleeping in a Haystack

 

Spring 1990.

 

Life was golden: A senior at a northern California University , I was enjoying the sun and elegant architecture of campus life in California and reveling in my lot as an upperclassman close to graduation. I was in love with my remaining classes in engineering and art design required to complete a degree in mechanical engineering - product design in June.

 

I was also coming off a successful speed skating season: national and world team member, second in the national championships, and a 10th place finish at the world speed skating championships in the 500m despite training on my own in California of all places, while completing one of the toughest curriculums in the country.

 

Newly single, physically at the top of my game, ready to graduate, the world was my oyster.

 

During that spring of 1990 I made a significant decision – to put all my eggs in one basket and pursue speed skating with all the passion I had and let my new degree sit on a shelf: after graduation, I entered, for the first time in my skating career, the full time summer training program of the national speedskating team.

 

That July I moved to Colorado Springs to train with the national team along with Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair and about 20 other top U.S. Speedskaters and participate in a number of tests including V02 Max (ability to process oxygen), BMI (body mass index), Max Power Output (peak watts on the bike), Max Squats (lbs. lifted), Vertical leap and others.

 

To say that I failed these tests (for the most part) would be an understatement – as it turns out I had the lowest test VO2 Max of anyone on the team – held to be the single greatest predictor of success in the sport. Other tests results were middling at best except for the peak power output.

 

As the season progressed, after a strong start, my world started falling apart. Training always hurts and you learn to ignore the pain and focus on the future, but at some point that autumn, my lap times – which were always a bit unpredictable, began to have a pattern to their unpredictability – they were bad and worse depending on the day. By the time of the trials for the world cup and world championships, they were so bad that I had to face the fact that I was not going to have a shot at making the team – despite being in the top 5 the last two years – without consistent training – living in California.

 

I think I ended up 12th.

 

People patted me on the back at the national team trials – “next year Coyle – this year doesn’t matter.” And it was mostly true – the next year, the same competition would be the selection for Albertville : the Olympic trials – the true goal of all this suffering.

 

The rest of my training woes and eventual recovery I’ll save for a separate write-up on principle #1 “Race your Strengths,” but for this report, I’ll focus on a very important decision that came next: I still had the remainder of a full winter season ahead of me – without the support and funding of the team – what should I do?

 

I didn’t qualify to travel and race on the national team, supported and paid for by the Olympic committee funds (like I had the last few years), so I had only two choices:

 

  1. Stay back in the U.S. and train (fully funded) at the U.S. Olympic training center with the other members of the team who didn’t qualify for travel team support and funding for travel or…   
  2. Find a way to get overseas and travel the world cup circuit on my own dime, racing in the ‘open’ category in the competitions that would allow it.

The coaches’ perspective was as predictable as it was compelling: “Stay back John, focus on building your aerobic base, make up for all those lost years in California ” (by the way… lost years? What about the successes during that period?)

 

I felt like any other choice than that recommendation would be stupid – that those ‘in the know’ knew what was best for me. These were smart people who cared about me and were unilateral in both wanting me to succeed and in recommending the best way to do so.

 

But…there was that other part of me – the rebellious part - the part of me that didn’t relish in training for its own sake – that found little gratification in posting laps and times just for the sake of laps and times - the part of me that loved the thrill and unpredictability of racing.

 

The idea of spending the rest of the winter pounding out laps in the cold and dark of Lake Placid , New York had me in a state of depression… yet I felt like I couldn’t really justify any other choice.

 

Fortunately I do have that occasional stubborn and rebellious streak – and that side of me came to the fore during those days and it was then that I remembered the words pounded into my head for years and years by a different coach at a different time...

 

“Racing is the best training, Coyle, racing is the best training.”

 

I can still hear Walden’s voice and, more importantly, the overbearing conviction that came through that an alternative viewpoint was not only without merit, but would not to be entertained. (In many ways Mike Walden reminds me of our CEO and my occasional mentor, Jack Rooney of U.S. Cellular®).

 

Discussions with Mike were nearly entirely one-way.

 

After the speedskating world cup team trials, as the ‘official’ team was preparing to leave for Europe , decision time for me came. When asked for my decision, suddenly those words came tumbling out verbatim to my coaches Stan and Susan. I said, “You know, as much as continued training in the program is compelling and I appreciate the offer, I think that for me, racing is the best training, so I’m going to find a way to get over to Europe for the world cups.”

 

It was rather interesting that by embracing one set of conventions, I was bucking another. More importantly, since that day 18 years ago, I can say with complete conviction that any other set of training or racing guidelines not in agreement with those held by Walden have inevitably led to failure.

 

The reality of confidence is much more ephemeral and emotional in nature than the logic of time suggests: it comes minutes at a time. A perfect extension, a pair of straightaway strokes, fast lap, a winning race - these feelings ladder up and can build confidence - particularly when there is a progression. Ultimately though confidence can be a house of cards undone by the faintest breath of weakness.

 

A slip? Getting passed? Dying on the final corner in an important race? Back to back exhausted practices where form seems to disappear? Like water in a drain, the tide of confidence washes away quickly and leaves no reminder of its presence. As each week and hour and second and skate stroke grew consecutively weaker and more anemic, so my confidence atrophied like light from the stub of a dying candle.

 

It seems hard to fathom – that ones’ results and confidence could be so high one year prior, only to fall so low. But in the mirror of hindsight and distance it becomes easy to gloss over the weeks and days and hours and suggest, “Well, you were great the year before – you knew you’d recover…”

 

I DID NOT know. Part of me believed the test results – that I was a poor athlete and that I didn’t belong… Part of me didn’t know what, or who to believe… If someone stopped me and said, "4 years from now you'll be standing on the podium at the Olympic games with a medal around your neck," I  would have nodded and smiled - but deep down I had begun to accept the possibility that I really wasn't very good. Fortunately a small part of me believed what Mike Walden, and Mark Affholter, and Stan Klotkowski had told me – that I could be world and olympic champion. So I chose to try and believe that…

 

...and prepared as if it were true...

 

 

By January of that season I was no longer the celebrated “ California skater who won the 1000m time trial at the world team trials and was 10th in the world” the year before, I was another burnt ember: the “low V02, ‘lucky’ guy, who couldn’t hack the realities of ‘real’ training for the sport.”

 

Unsurprisingly to those of you that know me now: despite all the advice and signs, I decided to buck convention and all of the advice: I went to Europe anyway.

 

I sold one of my bikes and received a little gift from my parents and raised a total of $1500 for my 2 month trip (which became 3 months by the way) to Europe . The $1500 I needed had to cover round trip airfare, 2 new pairs of skates, housing, food, and travel for 90 days....

 

I was all set.

 

I got a roundtrip fare from Chicago to Amsterdam for $400 and negotiated with the Viking skate factory in Holland to give me the national team discount and provide me new skates for $150/pair, so I spent another $300 on new skates. Now I had $700 left for 2 months. $1.33/day – perfect.

 

My parents helped me by springing for a Eurail pass in addition  - good for 60 days and 15 rides. I hoped to stay beyond the skating season and see a little bit of Europe so I decided to not activate it for those first 30 days. I got on the plane to Europe .

 

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

 

I arrived in Amsterdam in the early gray of morning after the usual overnight flight, exiting the white modern white terminal filled with the acrid smoke of European cigarettes to a typically gray, moist and damp Dutch day. After some navigation between the train station and the closest tram, I managed to find public transport to the Viking skate factory on the outskirts of town.

 

After a quick tour of the massive warehouse, I spent about 2 hours in the factory trying on skates barefoot in order to find a pair that fit perfectly. Sure they all “look the same” but the reality is that minute differences in the shape, stretch, and contours of the leather and blade made for significant differences. I’m a size 43 but I bought two pairs of size 41 skates for a tight fit, and added to that a custom distinction – switching the standard set of 16 ½ inch 1mm wide blades blades for 17 ½ blades and carrying a spare pair in a cardboard poster tube. I was set for the season.

 

I left the huge factory (the interior of which looked much like the end of the first Indiana Jones movie) where there were aisles and aisles of speed skates – primarily for the domestic public (there are over 1.2 million registered Dutch speed skaters – vs. about 2000 in the United States ) and walked back to where the main highway cut through town and followed an entrance ramp down to the viaduct.

 

First stop, Munich , and then onto Inzell, about 800km away. Ready, set, …. THUMB. I had never hitchhiked, but the concept was easy to understand.

 

Standing by the roadside next to the roaring traffic I was carrying a number of objects that, as it turns out, would become important later. I had my large black backpack with an internal frame full of about 50 lbs of clothing, shoes, and gear. I also had 2 boxes of skates, and one small poster tube with a spare set of blades. And then I had my 40lb duffel bag with all my skating stuff: sharpening jig and stones, oil, tools, skinsuits and warmups. All told I had about 100lbs of stuff – both hands were full and I had a back full of a backpack.

 

Other than the recent massive failures with regards to my training I generally considered myself as serendipitous – having a ‘green thumb for life’ – and on that day I got four aces. Not 20 minutes after I first stuck out my thumb, a rusty old jalopy pulled up and 4 doors popped open full of friendly, smiling young faces with Australian accents who asked pleasantly, “Where you headed mate?”

 

I told them.

 

“ Munich ? No shit! That’s where we are going! We just bought this old beater and are heading to Munich for Octoberfest! Climb on in!”

 

I had to tie my backpack to the roof and then held my skatebag and boxes on my lap in the middle seat of the rear of the old jalopy, but the warm dutch beers they passed around quickly had me laughing and jabbering away with the rest of them and we headed on our way all the way to the German border (OK, that’s like 30 miles – Holland is tiny).

 

Serendipity then lost her grip and a god-awful shaking took over the car and then shiny metal disks began to shoot from underneath the car in all directions to an incredible cacophony. At first I though the engine had exploded – except it was still running – but our forward progress began to slow as we coasted: we had dropped the transmission.

 

My newfound pals immediately began the mourning process but I had no vested interest in the bum auto deal they had made that morning and instead untied my backpack and resumed what would come to be a very typical posture over the coming months – standing with a slight lean at the edge of the road, arm curved with thumb out, trying to look ‘safe.’

 

A tow truck came and I said goodbye to the Aussies but an hour went without anyone stopping for me. Then two hours. I began to despair… and then it began to rain… hard.

 

I began to panic and ran for the next overpass and stopped in the shadow underneath. Now dueling needs began their wrestling: stay in the dark and not get picked up? Or be wet and miserable but visible?

 

I opted for a compromise and would choose cars that looked “kindhearted” and would dodge out into the light and rain with my thumb out.

 

This went on for quite some time and finally after another 2 hours (which is an incredibly long time by the way) suddenly my luck turned again. Behind a “kind looking” Euro station wagon was a large Euro truck/trailer combo that put on its air brakes and roared to a stop about 100m beyond the overpass.

 

I was overjoyed and sprinted up to the bright red cab.

 

I’ll never forget the face of the man who swung open the door – not because he was so memorable or unique by his-self – instead because his visage was so much like another – that of “Timmons” - the unfortunate wagon train driver in the movie “Dances with Wolves”. The same greasy hair, pudgy face, and the same cigar clenched firmly in his brown molars.

 

The difference in this case was that when he spoke, instead of a patois of redneck English, my driver spoke only in French and I had not the slightest idea of what he was saying. He didn’t seem to care, and jabbered away for quite a while until I was able to squeeze in, what seemed to me, an important verbal salvo: “ Munich – Munchen” – my destination.

 

“Deutschland!” I added, and he nodded and smiled and then began talking again and then began working the gears judiciously.

 

I was wet and tired (I was up all night on the overnight flight) and it was warm and dry and despite the smoke and the ambiguity of where I was going I just decided to trust in fate, and close my eyes.

 

Still talking my driver put the pedal to the metal and off we roared, crossing the German border shortly thereafter.

 

Sometime after a laborious dispute with the border guards and the repeated exit and return of my cigar smoking driver to review the contents of his load I fell asleep. It was just twilight, but the 36 hours I’d been awake, combined with the Dutch beers and contrast of the damp cold and the sudden warmth found me susceptible and I slept for hours without a care for where my wagon-train driver was taking me.

 

I was dreaming. Somone was fighting with me – buffeting me around my head and shoulders, intent on delivering a message. Finally I opened my eyes to find that I was being shaken.

 

4 inches from my face was the stub end of a dead cigar and my driver was shouting in French, roughly shaking me, stopping only when I finally moved an arm to indicate I was alive. I lifted up groggily looking through the windshield – seeing nothing but black.

 

The impassioned dialog and gesticulating continued but my head swam in a fog and it wasn’t until Timmons reached across me and unlatched the door and waved his finger that I finally understood.

 

Translation. “Get out.”

 

That’s what all that meant…

 

So I got out.

 

What else could I do?

 

I grabbed my backpack, my two boxes and tube and the heavy duffel bag and climbed down the steps of the big red cab, black in the darkness.

 

I first noticed the cold when the winds of the departing trailer swirled around me – it must have been only 35 degrees – and damp...

 

Then, location: where was I?  Ahead there was a lit sign over the highway and seemingly the only illumination for miles. Like a moth I staggered with my load to the flame.

 

I drew close enough to read the sign even as in the brightening gloom I could see the sudden division of the highway. The sign read, “Franzosich Rechts, Deutschland Links” – “ France left, Germany right.” My driver and his big red truck has gone right, the streaks of his disappearing taillights still remaining imprinted on my retinas – to France.

 

Thank you Timmons.

 

Now what?

 

As if on cue, it began to rain. At first it was a smattering of drops, but it then quickly settled into one of those steady downpours that last for hours.

 

The drops were initially stopped by hair and clothing, but within minutes they began to find channels through the already damp materials of my clothes and course down my back and into my shoes.

 

I began to shiver – violently. I immediately began walking as a defense mechanism – my 100lbs of ‘stuff’ burning more calories than a brisk walk would. But.. I hadn’t actually eaten.. and only a feeble warmth was generated from the effort. My teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. I still remember it. I kept thinking of George Washington for some reason. Wooden teeth. Mine sounded wooden – and it was so clichéd to have them bouncing up and down like as if they were in the hand of a spastic mannequin.  

 

Worse still – with my forward progress, all light disappeared and I found myself sloshing through inky blackness, just the twinkling of the drops and the occasional glint of road markers flashing wetly against the black giving any indication of time or space.

 

As my clothes became more thoroughly sodden it suddenly occurred to me – not one vehicle had passed in the last half hour… So I checked the time: 2am.

 

As I walked, I began to dissect what I knew about hypothermia – how your energy fails and instead of fighting you start to give in and then a calm begins to permeate your limbs. With a start I realized I had stopped walking. My jaw was still chattering though.

 

I began again – but back towards the light.

 

I crossed beyond it and then turned around, and then headed back again. One foot in front of the other, arms aching with the load.

 

So I began what became an incredibly long military drill of marching and discipline. Suffering.

 

Enduring.

 

My hands turned to ice, and my feet too. My legs and arms grew numb and I stopped wiping the water from my eyes and stopped hunching my shoulders to protect my neck. I just walked and when I grew tired of walking I began an ugly sloppy jog, lead footed and sloppy, but I jogged.

 

Sometimes I carried my stuff, other times I set it by the side of the road. I kept moving. I have never, ever been more tired… leaden, deadened, numb, cold.

 

At some point I began to realize that I could die.

 

Right there on a lonely stretch of highway I could just stop walking and die – and that in fact it could probably happen in less than an hour. I was so cold that it didn’t really phase me… and the lack of emotional response did scare my rational mind…

 

It was then that a sudden light grew behind me. Headlights.

 

Unbelievable!

 

Life resumed and hope grew and I marched back toward those lights waving my arms. The headlights remained dim pricks in the inky blackness for a while an then suddenly became bright with that weird sound familiar from TV – “wreee-oooowwwww” and the car erupted from the distance to directly in front of me to long gone in a matter of seconds.

 

My despair reached new levels.

 

3 am and I’m wearing dark clothes and I’m sopping wet in freezing temperatures while in the middle of f!#ing nowhere and I’m trying hitchhike on the goddamn autobahn! People are driving 120 mph! Who in their right mind is going to stop for the wet madman hitching on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere?

 

No one.

 

I might die. Maybe I’m ready to die. So tired, so cold, so hungry, so weak. No fire stoked below as I walked, no warmth stole through my limbs, but I knew if I stopped walking I would die and I didn’t want to die – I was too young to die, I had too much to do to die.

 

So I walked – away from the light, toward the light, away from the light, toward the light..

 

After about an hour and a half more of marching I decided to do some more exploring. There was an embankment to the right and I re-climbed it and saw… nothing. Not a light, not a house, not even a telephone pole – just the grass underneath my feet, and blackness…

 

Still, I resolved to pick a direction and assume that this, this hay, or grass or whatever that had been neatly mowed into rows, that someone – somewhere had done this work.

 

I resolved to follow a row.

 

I followed that row.

 

It didn’t take long before two things occurred: one, it began to get extremely dark – and hard to find my footing, and two, I began to think about all this grass, this neatly manicured row of grass… maybe…. maybe  I could…

 

I stopped. I turned around.

 

I saved my own life.

 

I walked back as close to the light as I could while still up the embankment and then I implemented the plan that had been slowly gestating in my head for the last 10 minutes.

 

First, I set down my bags and boxes, and then I began to gather the grass. Shoving, combing, lifting, gathering, I quickly developed a coffee table sized mound, and then it grew to the size of a doghouse, then two doghouses. For once the exertion warmed me and in about 15 minutes I had gathered a mound of grass about 5 feet high, ten feet in length (including taper) and 6 feet wide. Think about it – that’s a HUGE mound of grass – and fifteen minutes in the dark can feel like forever…

 

What came next took the most courage of all: after shoving my bags and boxes under protective cover of the grass, I then stripped down, exposing my body to the 35 degree downpour, and I removed every single bit of sodden clothing I had on including my soaking wet shoes until I stood naked in the field under the pouring 35 degree rain, shivering violently, hardly able to control my hands which were becoming more numb by the second.

 

Next, I pulled my one dry warmup jacket out of my backpack, and 3 dry racing skinsuits out of my duffel bag. Draping the jacket over my head like a floppy umbrella, I proceeded to put on all 3 spandex suits – one over the other, while staying mostly dry under the jacket.

 

Finally, I grabbed the heavy cardboard tube with the spare set of blades and shook the spare blades out onto the grass and then pushed them underneath the pile. I then pulled the tube under the protective cover of the jacket and then shoved it through one of its arms.

 

Finally, I got on my hands and knees and, with my head draped in a shoulder of the jacket, used it as protective cover against the wet outer layers of grass and burrowed carefully into the interior of the grass mound.

 

I had been careful to layer the dry bottom layers of grass from the mown rows into the bottom of my mound and quickly my problem became breathing amongst the dust and tendrils of dry grass versus the expected battle against drowning in the wet drops.

 

I wriggled carefully into what I conceived of as the middle of the mound and felt a million pricks of grass around me itching and catching the fabric of my skinsuit. But what I also felt was unique again that night – the sudden return of warmth reflected to my limbs from these same pricks.

 

Finally I reached out an arm and pushed it through the grass until I could feel the damp of the rain and then jammed the cardboard tube, along with the arm of the jacket through that tunnel in the hay and then adjusted the drape of the jacket – which still remained over my head – such that the arm and the corresponding tunnel of outside air created by the tube was right in front of my mouth and nose.

 

I blew out hard through the tube like a snorkel to clear the passage and then took a deep breath.  I was pleased to receive not the dusty air of the interior of my new straw home, but the cool damp oxygen of the outside world.

 

It may sound odd, but in about 90 seconds I was 100% out-cold asleep: warm, dry, a little itchy, but safe.

 

I was dreamless in my little cocoon – the long flight, the endless walking and worrying, the rain and shivering all passed into the warm depths of sleeps’ embrace.

 

Finally, the noise and rumble of passing traffic woke me up. It was still dark – yet I woke feeling refreshed as though I’d slept a decent long time. I figured I better wait until it was light before I began hitching, but I went through the exercise of pulling my arm up into my cocoon under the jacket and pushed the button to glow the light to see what time it was…. 2pm!  I had managed to sleep nearly 10 hours under a pile of grass – but wait – it was still dark – how could that be?

 

When I finally lifted an arm and parted the grass, a few faint streaks of light began to penetrate and I realized that it was, indeed, midday.

 

I stretched a little and then decided to burrow out through the top of my lair. Sure enough when I finally began to extricate myself, the brilliant afternoon sun of a clear day began to shine through.

 

It was then that my senses tingled… with the sudden quiet – the traffic noise and rumble of the autobahn and suddenly, inexplicably been, well, ‘turned off.’

 

The traffic noise and vibrations I had felt from the nearby autobahn had entered a deathly erie silence that seemed, oddly, to correspond with my recent exit from my cocoon.

 

Shaking off the straw, I opened my eyes fully and saw nothing at first but the brilliance of the midday sun and the shining piles of straw and grass littering the field in front of me. Beyond that I could see a corner of the autobahn with no cars navigating its long stretch.

 

Another run of cold blood… with that sensation I began to turn.

 

Behind me – not 15 feet away was one of the world’s largest pieces of machinery – a 20 foot high behemoth of modern industrial capacity – a ‘thresher’ collecting the fruits of the summer harvest – stopped dead in its tracks due to the odd formation of grass – the nest of which I had suddenly hatched…

 

I’ll never, for as long as I live, forget the next few seconds – both what actually happened, as well as the processes in my brain that finally switched on at this opportune time.

 

The door of the bright red cab swung open and out popped the head of a German farmer – at exactly the same time that I registered his expression – a face I’ll never forget in its openmouthed astonishment - I realized exactly what it was that I was wearing.

 

I had changed in the pitch black of a downpour without a thought to style or color. I had only 3 skinsuits in my possession at that time – two blue USA skinsuits, and one rather odd trade – a purple, pink and silver suit from the Belgian national team. Most notable was that this was the last one I put on, and furthermore I was wearing the purple hood – overtop the other 2 hoods and suits.

 

So… to conclude this interesting convergence of events, let me play it out from the farmer’s perspective: A long, stormy night… a huge field finally drying up in order to gather up the grass for market – let’s fire up the big machine – but Achtung! What’s this weird mound of grass… better slow down…

 

And then it happens – the mound moves and an appendage appears – it looks like a hand… but it is shiny and purple…

 

Out of it next comes the rest of this.. thing. Purple, pink and silver and shiny, no hair to be seen, this alien creature stretches as though it owns the place and then turns – and…

 

And it LOOKED RIGHT AT ME!

 

I began to laugh.  The ludicrousness of the situation suddenly permeated my core and I began to laugh and laugh and laugh. I bent over, rustling in the pile and pulled out my pack, bag and boxes and then carried those, along with my semi-scarecrow jacket with the tube still in the arm down the embankment to the autobahn still laughing.

 

I didn’t bother to dress – just stood by the road in the purple, pink and silver spandex and in less than two minutes a couple in a Ford Probe pulled over and picked me up and drove me not only to Munich, but the 30 miles beyond to Inzell, where they dropped me off at the rink in time for the Dutch national team training session.

 

I had missed the USA practice, so I asked for, and received permission to skate with the Dutch national team. Bart Veldkamp and Rintje Ritsma, famous in their roles within their country and for brief periods during the Olympic games, these same skaters were on the ice when my awkward limbs finally made their way out onto the rink.

 

I was doing some warmup laps, trying to gain some semblance of form and a couple of the younger Dutch team members formed behind me, but after a little while a chorus of curses rang in my ears and finally one of them skated up on the outside of me and said – “whats with all the grass?” They had been slipping on the bits of hay and grass continuing to escape from my skinsuit.

 

Chastened, I retired from the ice, entered the restroom and threshed my skinsuit like a doormat, finally returning to the ice without complaint.

 

After the session, Dutch laughter rang around the room, and finally someone switched to English and asked the inevitable question – “why so much grass? Old skinsuit? Sleep in a hayloft?” (laughter)

 

I finally explained my ordeal and they laughed, but now the distance was gone and many came by to thank me for entertaining them.

 

Even in Torino , 16 years later, I saw several of these Dutch skaters and without hesitance the called me by the appellation coined that day, “Hey Grasshopper!”

 

Afterword:

 

I would have quit speedskating for sure if I hadn’t had that miraculous tour through Europe 18 years ago. Mike, like always, was right: racing is the best training.

 

-John

Walden Race Rule #3: Win it at the line!

Race Rule #3: Walden says: “Win it at the line!” 

Translation: in a sprint finish, master the timing required to come around or just get caught at the finish line.

The Science:

1) As the level of competition increases - from local to state to national to international, the differences in abilities between riders becomes more compressed, and winning by a huge margin in the sprint becomes less of an option. This is where strategy and skill replace the minute differences in ability. By mastering the 'surge to the line' technique using the draft to its maximal effectiveness, a racer with less endurance or with less sprint horsepower can make up for those weaknesses, and maximize their strengths using this technique.

2) Gauging the distance to the line, the movements within the pack, and knowing which wheel to follow - this is the science of this rule.

The Art:

1)       Learn to read the race patterns - and know exactly where to be in the pack to avoid the to antithesis to "finish at the line" which are a) being hung out to dry - out front to early fighting the wind or b) getting caught in the back - no place to go, energy available with no outlet

2)       Intuitively understand how corners, wind, gradient (uphill/downhill), heat, and race speed combine with the twitching mass of riders in the pack to create final sprint conditions. In one race it might be a single file leadout string where being in 3rd place with a lap to go is the winning strategy. In another, being 20th and following the pending surges might be the right position.

3) The best way to predict a sprint finish other than real time intuition, is to participate in prime sprints. I usually surf the prime sprints (I rarely contest them) in order to gain more information around how the sprint will play out. No guarantee that if the prime sprint surged on the right that the final sprint will as well, but odds are probably 60/40...

This race rule is much more art than science ultimately requires experience to develop. Back when I was racing on the 7-11 team, my teammates used to try to set up leadouts for the sprint finish and I found time and again that I could read the race better than I could utilize their leadouts and I usually abandoned the leadouts (much to their chagrin).

 

 

Walden Race Rule #2: Shift Dammit!

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 (115Rpm+), and efficiency comes from lower (but consistent) RPM’s (70 – 115 Rpm’s). Walden believed (as do I) that steady state efforts are best between 105 and 110 RPM's and specifically noted 107 as the magic number. Exactly to this point, after Walden passed, Chris Boardman set the world hour record with an average RPM of 107.

Walden was a total genius...

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 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 115 – 125 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. 

Walden Race Rule #1: Get on a wheel!

Race Rule #1: Walden says: “Get on a wheel!”  A variation: "Close the gap!"

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.. 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.  

Sure - you can work on your strength and aerobic base and improve them by 10% if you are out of shape or 5% if you are in shape, or 1% if you are world class... or you can, with a bit of focus and practice, save 1% or 2% or 5% by adjusting your 'wind shade'. I'm constantly amazed (and perplexed) by scene after scene of Tour De France riders cruising along off a wheel. Sure - they are strong enough to do it (which is probably why they never learned it really well) but imagine the energy they are squandering that could be better saved to help a teammate, make a breakaway, or climb a hill...

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.    

2006 Race Report #10: Elk Grove Cat II Challenge

Race Report Elk Grove Category II Challenge, August 12, 2006. 80 degrees, 55 minutes timed.  Flashback: August of 1977.

I am 8 years old and my father and I are pulling our GM Beauville van into the parking lot of the Dearborn Twin Towers office buildings where I was to participate in my first ever bike race. It was pouring outside and I remember not wanting to get out of the van into the cold rain. I dressed in the van into my wool jersey and black cotton and wool shorts (with a real leather chamois), my leather helmet and gloves, and then, with my father holding the umbrella, I climbed outside the sliding door and onto my bike, goosebumps standing out on my shiny forearms. 

He suggested that I “warm up” by riding around the parking lot a few times, and I did but I was immediately back under the umbrella and back into the van, shivering from the cold and wet. We waited until almost race time before heading toward the start/finish area. With his plastic raincoat on, and holding the umbrella, my father walked and I coasted on my bike over to the start finish line where a stocky, bald, grumpy older man with glasses and a mustache was yelling instructions to the parents, “Midgets! – midgets – you have to roll out your bikes before the race! – bring them over to Clair…C’mon Andreu – you know the drill!” 

His name was Mike Walden and I disliked him immediately. Clair, however, I recognized. Clair Young, wearing his referee uniform, was the reason I was there in the first place. During the summer, as I began to join my father on these long tours or “century rides” as these 100 mile bike tours were called, we were passed at one point by a fit couple in their 50's on a tandem who marveled at my tiny legs pushing the pedals in circles on this 100 mile circuit. When my father indicated that this was the 13th Century ride I had completed that summer – at age 8 – they expressed their admiration and then encouraged my father to get me racing. The couple was none other than Clair and Dorothy Young, parents of national and world champion cyclists and speedskaters Roger and Sheila Young.  

A few phone calls later, and there I was at the Dearborn Twin Towers just outside Detroit in the pouring rain, checking out my gears (12 and under or “midget category” racers were limited in their gears so as to not injure their knees) by “rolling out” my bike backwards for a full revolution of the pedals between two tape marks to ensure that my tenth gear was not too big (this was in the time where bikes still only had “ten speeds”)  10 minutes, and an eternity in the rain later, they lined up the boys, and then the girls behind us on the line.

There were about 12 of us boys, to the right of me was the tallest of the group, with dark hair and a fixed expression, seemingly unphazed by the rain. Next to him was a hyperactive boy who was badgering his father, “This rain is freezing me – why can’t we start? What are they waiting for? Frankie’s going to win anyway – why did we come?” Next to him was a pale, hollow cheeked boy of 10, whose father, like mine, hovered over him with the umbrella, guarding him as best he could. 

And so we lined up, myself – a few days before my 9th birthday: the tall one - Frankie Andreu – age 11 (eventual 9 time tour de France finisher and 4th in the Olympic games), the hyper one: Jamie Carney – age 9 (3 time Olympic team member, my arch-rival for decades to come,) the pale englishman: longtime friend Paul Jacqua – age 10, and a number of other boys, readying for a short 3 lap, 3 mile race. 

In the old Italian tradition Mike, (or was it Clair?) announced, “Torreador, Attencione, Go!” and within seconds Frankie had disappeared into the mist while I was still trying to get my foot in the toeclips. Once I finally did, I could see the outline of two riders ahead of me in the rain, roostertails kicking up high with the water flying off their rear wheels. Frankie was nowhere to be seen and I was left strugging through the downpour with Jamie and Paul and we headed through the darkened corners of the course, wheels whizzing with water and rain, pain and breathing only matched by wonderment of “where did he go?”  

I was not used to being beat – the fastest kid on my block during tag, and the fastest kid at school during recess, I felt a frantic, almost asphyxiating rhythm take over my pedaling and breathing. There was pain in every pore of my skin and my lungs were on fire but I was fixated on the mysterious disappearance of the rider ahead.  Jamie and Paul shortly established the pattern known to racers the world over as a “paceline” pulling into the wind for a short distance and then moving aside for the rider behind to pedal through, blocking the wind for the riders behind.

For perhaps the only time in my career, I took the role of a “roadie” and would pull through faster, chasing the elusive Frankie, or even making attacks to the side of our little peleton.  2 laps into the race and suddenly a dark figure appeared and quickly disappeared outside our little group. It was Celeste Andreu – Frankie’s sister, and she had already made up the 1 minute start gap provided between the boys and girls, and passed us. We made a fruitless effort to chase, but resolved back into the loosely formed paceline we had formed after the start, Paul doing most of the consistent work, and Jamie and I occasionally trying to sneak away off the front. 

We came by the start finish with one to go and the few parents remaining in the rain cheered and then disappeared and we continued our route around this urban maze. As we headed out of the last corner, Paul sprang out into the lead and as I started to follow, Jamie slingshotted past him. But I had grabbed his wheel (i.e. gotten into his draft), and as our tiny gears spun, and out little feet rotated at over 200 rpms, I passed Jamie just before the line to win the “field sprint” and come in 2nd establishing in that 3 mile microcosm a pattern in the world that would be significant in my life for the following 30+ years. 

After drying off (and the rain stopped) there was a medals ceremony followed by a trip to a tent where the sponsor of the race from the local bike shop provided me with my prize – a heavy, chrome plated bottom bracket tool kit.  I didn’t know what a bottom bracket was, but I could tell that this was a significant prize by its weight and shininess and I resolved to really like bike racing. I still have this bottom bracket tool kit, now 29 years later, and it has never been used as far as I know. But it is still shiny… 

August 12: Elk Grove is an unusual setting for a bike race. Instead of a criterium race run on a squared of circuit set in a downtown setting, or a traditional road race course with a long circuit and hills (the kind I avoid for obvious reasons) set out in the country where traffic would not be an issue, the Elk Grove challenge course was a mid length flat circuit of 2.3 miles set on and “out and back” pair of divided lane roads set in a quiet suburban neighborhood.  The course was essentially the shape of a sans serif “L” if you outlined it going counterclockwise: starting from the bottom: a left U turn, a right 90 degree turn, a left U turn, a left 90 degree turn.  

The course was quite narrow for the most part, and that, combined with the large field of Category 2 riders (approximately 120) made for a high degree of tension and nervousness in the pack after the start – elbows hitting elbows, and the occasional bumping of handlebars leading to tires locking up and panic around the fringes. This was a rare race where category 2 riders were separated from the Pro’s and Elite’s (Category 1 amateurs) who had their own race later in the day with a $125,000 prize list. First place in that event was $25,000. Next year…. Next year… 

I lined up on the front line and sprinted to the front after the start in order to have a good position into the first U-turn. I then found myself oddly off the front of the pack by 100 feet into the second stretch. I paused and waited for some riders to catch up and throttled up into 3rd as we headed down the long straightaway. I marveled that I was still up front in this new category of racing and wondered why the race was so slow, checking my cycling computer for the first time only to discover we were moving 33mph, and that my pulse was 180 bpm. Yet I was not suffering – wow – what gives?  

Backing up – August 10th, 2006, our Thursday Night “fast ride” training ride with the Stoton Velo Club. This is a weekly ‘suffer fest’ training ride attended by generally sick individuals that get a weird lift out of pain. I attend solely to improve my racing, but I’m thankful for the twisted individuals that show up to this weekly extravaganza.  We generally do 30 – 40 miles and use the “stop ahead” signs that signal crossroads as interim sprints, and use the tops of the hills as “King of the mountain” challenges. It is all for pride, but the competition is intense: last week we did 18 sprints, the first 10 of which came in the first 10 miles.

Several of us were about to vomit, but we kept going. Here are some of the usual players:

 Glen Gernert: “False Flat Glen” – haven’t seen much of him this year, but Glen holds a special spot on my pain-o-meter for a very unique ability to lift the pace at just the absolutely worst times. Picture this:  I am just barely hanging on to the wheel in front of me up yet another hill, and just as we hit the crest, I see yet another, slightly less steep rise following it. It is just at this point, when I’m absolutely beyond my threshold, when I need to rest, that the notorious site of Glen G’s steel bike will come slicing up the outside requiring the taste of blood, and acid in your veins in order to not get dropped. I hate Glen.  

Andy Nowlan – Andy N. is the reason I’ve even come out on these rides. A sprinter by genetics like me, he and I have spent a bit of time together getting shelled off the back, and struggling to regain the group. Andy suffers quietly along side me when the going is rough and then when we have a moment to actually breathe finds just the right way to describe exactly what I’m feeling, generally with a few f-bombs mixed in. From a pure speed standpoint, Andy’s probably the fastest of the group, but fortunately we (OK, the others) make him hurt just enough that he only occasionally gets to use it. 

Travis – Travis is just a motor – pure and simple. He gets the machinery turning and can keep it going indefinitely. I’m just barely fit enough to hang Travis’ wheel when he cranks it up, which basically makes him 30% stronger than me (after accounting for the benefits of drafting). Travis was Wisconsin state champion in the time trial. 

Glenn J. (or Glenn2) has the most massive calves in the universe. Glenn specializes in all kinds of hurts, but I think his strongest suit is cranking up the steeper hills at an insane rate of speed that leaves you racked for breath and (in my case) recovering for miles. 

Matt E. (or fast Matt) is a pro rider waiting to happen. He’s got a motor like Travis, a sprint like Andy, and the middle pain power of the two Glenns. He’s the triple threat and often gets away for miles at end by using his jump to get the gap, his extended sprint to put on distance, and then the motor to just tick away the miles. Matt is my primary trainer as I use him to gauge my fitness, sprint and “sticking power”. Matt is stronger, faster, and more powerful than me. I’m craftier than Matt. On the occasions where I beat Matt to “stop ahead” sign sprints, it is only through a careful combination of wheel sucking and sheer sneakiness. Hey – if it is worth winning, its worth cheating for… 

On this particular Thursday, the sign sprints are few and far between, but as we enter the “home stretch” toward the final sprint of the evening, I sense another evolution within my body – a change that only seems to respond to severe physical conditions...  I’ve read before about body builders, who, despite visible, incremental muscle increases, don’t see increases in strength correlating to the additional muscle. But then, days, or weeks later, suddenly, significantly, the increase in strength occurs. Physiologists hypothesize that the mass gain in muscle does not necessarily correspond to the electrochemical “turning on” of those same fibers, and that the two events are separate, discrete activities. So the lesson is that physical (and I would argue also mental and even spiritual) development is not so much a gradual curve rather than a set of discrete “jumps”. 

As we headed into the last set of small rolling hills and curves prior to the long stretch to the big finale sign sprint, I took off - creating my own little breakaway with Matt and another racer (Mark D.)  chasing. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay away, but what I did do was absolutely maximize the power through the pedals up each of the small hills, coasting and recovering down the other side. In this way I was able to stay away for a couple miles before being caught. As we wended our way toward the final sign sprint, a series of moves occurred, with fast Matt initiating the ‘shake and bake’ movements that can often prove my undoing.

However, in this case, his effort was matched by Phil, and then Mark leapfrogged Phil with about 400m to go and gained a significant gap quickly. But as always, I followed Matt’s wheel. However, Matt has gotten a little wise and was determined to not lead me out such a distance and we waited and hovered and coasted, watching as Phil pulled away and Mark’s gap widened significantly.  With 250m to go I shifted up and got out of the saddle and rocketed up the right side. As I hit 35mph, I shifted again and I hit 37mph, slingshotting by Phil and heading for Mark’s rear wheel.

Just then a large deer loomed by the side of the road with a full set of antlers even as I swung past Mark to the stop ahead sign. Mark was certainly distracted by the deer and may have been able to counter my move, but what was significant to me was the ability to shift up during a sprint - not sure I’ve ever done that, and hit and extend 37 mph by myself was also pretty significant. As we coasted towards the short hill to the highway home, I considered myself “well trained” for my next race. 

Return to Elk Grove, August 12, 2006: And so the race progressed – I stayed in the top ten riders, generally single file off the front of the pack, spending only a few moments in the tense anxiousness of the wider pack behind us that were raggedly wending the corners and tensely hovering on the narrow straightaways, trying to get out of the soup. With one to go I stayed in excellent position and watched three riders sneak off the front of the pack. As we headed into the last mile of the race, the pace picked up substantially – 34, 35, 36 mph into the last corner, and we closed on the breakaway. Into the last half mile – a narrow, slightly winding stretch to the finish and the pace remained high – 36, 37, 38 mph and I huddled behind my protection of the 2 leadout men. As we entered the last 300 meters, a move up the inside and I jumped on it, and then I made my bid for the win up the inside, chasing down the breakaway men into the last 150m. I followed the inside line accelerating hard to 40mph and found myself suddenly blocked by the rearward trajectory of 1 of the 3 breakaway men who tried to put himself out of harms way and swung to the inside.

AGAIN I had to brake and then try to re-accelerate. There was a substantial muddle near the finish and I had no-where to go and I crossed the line 9th, frustrated with the finish – but excited about the pending Pro/Am race coming the next day – a chance again for a “W” or win. Hoping it wasn’t going to rain…  

Backflash – July, 1980.  It was 2am when my father woke me up. Numbly grasping my pillow, I tumbled down the stairs of the house and headed into the damp black air of our dimly lit driveway to sprawl into the back seat of our Chevy Chevette and immediately fall asleep again. My father pulled gently out of our subdivision and headed out of our Detroit suburb to head west across the state of Michigan on highway 94 toward our final destination of Milwaukee, Wisconsin for to my first “Superweek” series of bike races across Wisconsin.

It was July of 1980, I was 11 years old, and I had just won my second straight Michigan state cycling championship and was prepping for my first national championships. Midway through our trip I woke and sat bolt upright, sweating with fright, the quiet movements of the air and the unheard decibels of powerfully low apocalyptic rumbling signifying the portents of the moment, my body shaking, my stomach turning inside out. I ached with fear even as I turned with paranormal foreboding, knowing the inevitable outcome even before my eyes registered upon the looming shape in the rearview mirror… 

Even though we were moving, it was as though in a liquid fog – a slow-moving soup barring our progress even as the huge truck was bearing down on us from behind with an approach velocity of 50 mph over our own. I heard my screams even before I felt my lungs fill and they pierced the quiet gathering of forces like lightening through the black of night even as the headlights filled the moist rear window with the brilliance of the a million tiny lights signifying the imminent collision. The feeling was like that of being split in half as the world exploded around me and… I saw the headlights gathering, and the truck fast approaching, and the car and the truck revolved and we were in front of it, on top of it, underneath it and a world of sparks erupted even as the gas tank exploded and…. I watched the maniacal driver bearing down on us and could see the gleam from his menacing glare even as the rain drops in the rear view mirror glinted with the reflections of the huge semi about to strike us mercilessly from behind and I uttered a guttural stream of screams and a roar that broke the silence with fear and evil and longing…. And… 

I woke up, sweating, on the side of the road, my father’s arms awkwardly cradling my sweaty head and clammy cold and damp limbs in the backseat of the Chevette, as a husky rattle of the final scream trailed off and I found myself gasping to replace the air my lungs had expelled. I looked around and the glint of the grey morning light exposed the contours of the landscape hidden in the former blackness and despair of the fever-induced “night terrors” or hallucinations the onset of the flu had brought. My body and our car were all intact and the only remnant of reality matching that of my recurring dreams was the headlights flashing past our emergency parking spot on the apron of highway 94. I was trembling and sweating and then suddenly freezing and I shuddered violently in the backseat as I tried to tell my father what I had seen.

Even as I described the oddly mundane artificiality of a simple car crash the graying shroud of fear lingering over my thoughts and eyes lifted and I found myself fully awake, alive, and very sick in the backseat of a tiny yellow car somewhere in southwestern Michigan. He tried to talk me into turning around to head home, but I was having none of it. “I’m feeling better” I declared, and by drinking lots of water I was able to reduce some of the symptoms, and though I alternately froze and sweated all the way to Milwaukee, we made it there prior to the race, arriving at 7am local time – to find the lakefront shrouded in mist, unseasonably cold temperatures, and a steady downpour of rain. My race was a 8:30am and I remember putting on my shorts and jersey, still clammy with sweat, and pulling on the flimsy rainjacket we had brought along to attempt to go “warmup”. 

I immediately began trembling horrifically and my father could see my handlebars jerking as I tried to get my foot in the toeclips as I headed away from the car. Only minutes later and I was back shivering violently and nearly falling as I dismounted my little blue Romic bike which I left leaning against the car as I climbed back in and demanded that he rev the engine and crank the heat. We sat and watched as the other racers filed out of their vehicles and lined up to race the first stage of Superweek, in the rain and cold, without me, - without me! -  even as my father sweated in front and I shivered in the backseat. 

Still the grip of the competition pulled at me and I started arguing halfheartedly about going out to race, but my father was having none of it and I guiltily agreed with a sigh of relief to stay in the warm car, still feeling as though I should have argued better or pushed harder.  

I can still remember very clearly my feelings pulling out of that lot at the lakefront in Milwaukee that day, watching my rivals speeding away into the rain, disappearing, their fading colors yet remaining fixed in my head and leaving a streak across my psyche.  Quitter.