2012 Race Reports 5 - 6: Strategy is Great Until You Get Punched in the Face

2012 Race Reports 5 - 6: Tour Des Villas, Wood Dale State Criterium Championships

Race Five: Tour Des Villas, Masters. Distance ~20 miles. Temp 94 degrees, 67% humidity = 105 degrees “real feel”. Wind = light. Avg pace 25.2mph, Sprint finish max speed 37.2mph

You pass them on the sidewalk, in the supermarket, in the parking lot, at the movies, and even at the race course – some of them even leaning on sleek but untested bikes: non racers. You feel sorry for them. What do they know of suffering in the heat, of penetrating the turbulent airfoils of racers shuttling at 35mph across cracked concrete lined with sticky pits of soft hot tar? Of leaning 4 abreast through the final corner knowing that 1/1000th of a second stands between potential victory and a burning, tumbling, skin-tearing disaster. Poor souls.

What then can they know of freedom, of the liberation from petty worldly concerns boiled and burned away through the crucible of the race? How can they know clarity? 

Walking – that innocuous benign activity known by billions the world over – is a different matter after a bike race. Unlike any other sport of intensity where ligaments are strained, muscles are sore or stiff: after a bike race, the neurons and filaments of the leg structure are alive with light. After a race even the simple walk from the car back to check results is filled with an absurd sense of mastery – every articulation of bone, tendon and synapse sending signals to the brain through channels cleared for instant communication. It is not an overstatement to say that a racer walks with a kind of confidence unique to the world.

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“Where has this course been my whole life?” I asked Brian from Enzo’s as we began our first lap around the one mile oval shaped course. With no wind, no corners and no hills, there was little chance for a break and a great setup for a sprinter victory.

“Strategy is great until you are punched in the face” – Mike Tyson.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Two riders managed to gain a 50m, then 100m, then 300m gap. Laziness born of heat perhaps, but we weren’t moving, so I ended up taking a series of pulls on the backstretch (yes, me) to try and close the gap. Each hard pull at the front at about 31mph for 400m left me gasping and would bring us within reach of a bridge to the break – but, of course, I was toast and incapable of bridging at that point. No one took over, though one tall strongman kept the pace going in between efforts. After a few of these yoyos I gave it up and prepared for the sprint. It was going to be easy – I’d sit about 8th and w/ 400m to go I’d light it up on the outside using a slight tailwind to shoot into the homestretch.

Except… on the backstretch the race fragmented with an Enzo’s rider hitting it hard w/ 800m to go and I was suddenly gapped and 60m back from the race leaders. I burned most of my match to close the gap and found myself coming on the lead 5 riders with too much momentum and 500m to go… Too early and already hurting, but I decided to keep it going and lit the rest of my match… jumping into the clear air of the lead, the breakaway suddenly looming ahead and within reach. 400m, 300m, 200m, 100m to go and I’m in the lead but I’m dying, I’m dying, like a fish trying to breathe air I was gasping and struggling and sure enough 5 then 6 riders went sailing by just at the line and I finished 6th in the field, and 8th overall, just within the money.

Race Six: Wooddale State Championships, Masters. Distance ~20 miles. Temp 88 degrees, 80% humidity. Wind = light. Avg pace 26.3mph, Sprint finish max speed 36.1mph.

A massive thunderstorm had rolled through during the Master’s 40+ race and they had to stop and restart. It was cool and when I was warming up but by the time we headed off the start/finish it had warmed up and the road was dry.

The Wooddale course is a great sprinter course – bowl shaped with a small hill and only 2 real corners. I felt good right from the start and was dismayed when a group of 7 moved off the front. Again I put chase along with a couple other riders, but the Bicycle Heaven and Enzo’s team played a smart hand and insinuated themselves in the front immediately & repeatedly slowed things down. I even bridged 100m to a 2 man break and rode a lap in a breakaway (! I didn’t actually pull…). Like Tour Des Villas I tried some hard pulls in front to bring us within striking distance hoping the pack would surge with the break in sight, but to no avail.

With 5 laps to go I retreated to my comfortable spot on the back of the field. Oddly, with 2 to go the pack came to its senses and started to reel in the break, taking a 600m gap down to 300m with 1 to go. I followed my instincts sitting 10th across the start/finish line and then jumping up to 5th on the backstretch, waiting for the surge. It happened right in front of me, a powerful rider in green (one of the chasers as well) lit it up just before the 3rd turn and then hit it hard up the hill. I followed and was impressed – I was geared perfectly and this guy was cranking a monster gear up the hill leaving the pack behind. We entered the final corner 1, 2 and I dared a quick look back – no one had followed. I waited until 250m and then lit the remaining fuse I had left, jumping out of the saddle and suddenly seeing the breakaway within my sights. I shot ahead winning the field sprint with a good margin and picked off one breakaway rider along the way coasting past 3 more just after the line finishing 7th.  

I changed clothes in a burning hot car and then walked to check the results, marveling at how alive my legs felt…

2012 Race Reports 1 - 4

2012 Race Reports 1 – 4: It has been a while since I posted a race report – hopefully this season will see more racing and more writing: both are things I find joy in.

So far the season has progressed in a predictable sprinter fashion:

  • Race one (April): dropped, shelled
  • Race two (Early May): last place, exploded
  • Race three (Late May): 10th Place, purging
  • Race four (Mid June): 2nd Place, surging

As a general rule spring racing sucks for the sprinter. First, the roadies have been at it all winter, bundled up in smart wool splashing for hours on end through the slush or languishing through interval workouts on the trainer or doing group trainer workouts or “trainer racing” - whatever that is.

The unvarnished lungs of the sprinter are further shredded by the cold air and winds that rake the early season courses.  My first two races were noted by 15 – 20 mph crosswinds that created massive echelons and I found myself constantly riding in gravel by the curb or through puddles near the grass for much of the race. I lasted only half the first race, quickly shelled when gaps opened up. I managed to finish the second race, but exploded during the sprint setup, coasting through the last 300m having already lit my match. Race 3 saw some suffering, but I had a bit left at the end (despite the 98 degree temps) and a decent field sprint finish landed me 3rd in the pack and 10th overall.

 Race Four: Wonder Lake Criterium, Masters 1/2/3 30+. Distance ~18 miles (timed: 40 minutes) Temp 88 degrees. Wind = light. Avg pace 25.2mph, Sprint finish max speed 37.8mph

My second visit to the Wonder Lake Criterium was held in lieu of heading all the way to Waukesha, WI, to race on a ToAD  (Tour of America’s Dairyland) course that I hate.

I faced some of the usual pre-race challenges spending too much time relaxing over breakfast and not wanting to depart from my family. I finally hit the road without a great deal of buffer time to change, register, and warmup. Proudly though, I thought of pumping up my tires and oiling my chain before piling in the car. I couldn’t find lube, but I did find the pump and proceeded to quickly break off the presta valve of my front wheel. I checked the pressure w/ my thumb and it wasn’t terrible – probably 50 pounds – so I grabbed a spare tube and figured I change it at the race, assuming I arrived in time.

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Sure enough the back roads to northern Illinois were slow going, and the 32 mile drive took an hour and fifteen minutes leaving me 30 minutes to register, pin on #’s, change and warmup.

Wonder Lake is a pretty little lake like the one I grew up on in West Bloomfield, and the smell of lake water & exhaust combined with the sun dappling off small green waves had me nostalgic for Walnut Lake, water skiing, swimming and… bike racing.

No time to change the tube, so I just lined up with the rest of the masters 1/2/3 field and listened to the race instructions. The course was the same as 2 years ago – 1.3 miles around with two long straightaways, one along the lakeside, the other up a small hill then running parallel. A long 4 corner crit, but with narrow roads, and some small changes in elevation. I never noticed the low pressure in the front...

The masters were feeling the sun and scenery and the first lap was luxurious – averaging just over 20mph. Then the attacks came and speeds in excess of 30mph down the straights were common. However, the few times I was on the rivet, things slowed down and I recovered. With a lap and half to go a lone rider snapped off the front, but no one chased. With one lap to go, I moved up to about 6th wheel assuming there would be a surge on the backstretch. Our lone rider was within reach, but with a 100m gap. Finally just prior to turn 3, the inevitable surge heaved out left and I joined a wheel slinging out right and moved up to 5th with 600m and 1 turn to go.

The pace held up front and we headed down a slight incline in view of the lake. The downhill created opportunity for the riders behind to encroach and I could feel but not see the jockeying behind me. I held my spot and exited the final corner with 400m to go in 5th spot, the lone breakaway still 75m out front.

The next 200m headed downhill and the speed increased and the leadout rider faded and the sprint was on, downhill into a slight headwind. I prefer not to sprint until <150m to go, but the inertia of the downhill was important so the 3 of us spread wide w/ 300m to go and for a moment we were 3 abreast screaming into the wind at 38mph w/ 150m to go. However, I had the slingshot from the later move and surged by the other two riders, suddenly closing on the breakaway rider. With 100m to go I was sure I would be second to the breakaway rider, until a sudden surge from behind by another rider who perfectly surfed our 3 abreast draft and shot around me and closed on the lead rider.

Coming to the line the breakaway rider and surging sprinter faded and I was able to regain 2nd position by passing the breakaway artist while closing the gap on the winner.

Image

A 350m sprint is a really long way for me and when I crossed the line it was with a feeling of every circuit in my body on fire with the agony of lactic acid. As I drifted around the backside and the flames diminished and the embers remained I wondered if this kind of effort had any effect on the cardiovascular system – whether it could clear the cobwebs – or unhealthy deposits of the winter – from the circulatory system.

I circled around the start finish and was apprised of a protest regarding race #s (duplicates) that would take a while to resolve, so I warmed down by riding around the lake dodging in and out of spurs and cul-de-sacs to traverse the lake properties. I found myself wallowing in nostalgia for my lake-bound-youth: boats towing skiers, ramshackle homes with outboard motors mounted to plywood in driveways, the occasional massive home at odds with the cottage feel of the neighborhood, but all around the recognition that summer is for being outdoors – hunting frogs, swimming, skiing, bonfires, riding bikes, ding-dong-ditchit. Upon returning home I immediately commenced a search for lake properties.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

“Oh man – I only have $45…” 

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

Oh boy…“Uh – that’s back in the RV…”

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

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

“Deal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next year though, Chicago is mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Short video - last lap)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fmgb5ECRywI]

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

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

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

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

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

Finish at 2008 Downer's Grove

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

(Longer video description)

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

 [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNNI3RSafZs]

2008 Race Report #16: Superweek Racine Master's Criterium

 

 

 

2008 Superweek Racine Master's Finish Sprint

Race Report #16:

Superweek Stage 14, Racine, WI, Thursday, July 24. Category: Master 40.  Weather: 84 degrees, light winds. Course: nearly flat, very bumpy, 0.8 miles/lap, 4 corners, Average speed ~27mph.

 

 

 

It must be a roadie conspiracy – all my favorite 4 corner flat wide open courses from the past (Sheboygan, De Pere, Manitowoc, Green Bay) have been replaced with courses that have my primary weakness designed right into them: a very long, false flat slightly uphill finish stretch. Blue Island, Shorewood, Waukesha, Evanston, Racine, & Downer Avenue all have this feature and it makes for some intense suffering, and – if I finish – can end in middling sprint results.

 

Nothing too notable occurred during the race – the usual blocks and breakaways, with several riders getting away off the front (these master’s love their breakaways) and as we moved into the final lap it was finally my time and I moved up into position around the turn 2 on the outside, slotting into about 5th position on the backstretch, riding the hip of Chris Black.

 

In my opinion and experience, this move was precise and absolutely unsurprising nor dangerous – I rode the left hip of Chris for 150 before a small zig zag on the straightaway leading into corner 3. I was well established in my position, and there was ample room for riders to go 2, 3, even 4 abreast on this part of the course.

 

I was slightly exposed to the wind, but the slight downhill made it possible for me to maintain the pace without too much effort – I wanted to be about 5th around that last corner.

 

We made the first slight right bend of the zig zag uneventfully as I allowed the rider on my right some space, and then we headed the 200 feet to the next left zag.

 

It was at this point that the rider to my right apparently decided that I had ‘invaded his space’ and abruptly swung left, hitting me hard and forcing me into a trajectory that had only two possible outcomes: 1) A high speed impact with the curb, or 2) an return impact with that other rider if I forced my way back out to the right to clear the corner. (see video at 1:19)

 

There was no time for anger or quibbling: instincts took over and the long years of track racing came to the fore. I quickly leaned hard right using my shoulder and elbow to move the larger rider to my right out of my way with considerable force. He moved... but I bounced. In the one second of video that covers this entire incident, you can see my bike lean right, bounce left, and then lean right again to fill the void I created by bouncing the other rider out of my path. There was no true danger of anyone going down – handlbars and wheels were kept safely out of the fray – but sounds of dismay erupted from the riders behind us and after a moment fraught with significant bodily contact I broke free.

 

I made it back into a manageable trajectory just in time and now firmly established my ownership of Chris’s wheel. We zoomed around turn 3, and then into the final straightaway. For a period confusion reigned as riders were both zooming forward and fading back at the same time, and the wind and the slight uphill made for a long big effort. I could feel my sprint ebbing from me and finally used what I had left to move up the middle and then left. I found open air and, throwing my bike at the line, missed winning the field sprint by inches, coming in 3rd in the field sprint and 9th overall.

 [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXWV48cipbU]

 

As we coasted around, I suddenly began to get angry as I thought about that collision on the backstretch. As we circled one full lap and headed by the start/finish, suddenly the other rider loomed aggressively at my side yelling at me.

 

With adrenaline pumping and heart-rates sky high, verbal post race clashes are pretty common, and despite a pretty serious competitive streak, I normally manage to keep my cool. But the way this rider came up and cut me off, almost forcing me into the barriers – it shocked me back into adrenaline overload and I suddenly lost my cool.

 

He began shouting at me again, telling me that ‘next time’ I made a move like that he’d take me out. Just as inarticulately, I responded in kind letting him know that HE would be the one on the ground next time if he pulled a stunt like that and then in return for his clipping me toward the barriers, I suddenly accelerated and then cut in front of him nearly clipping his front wheel.

 

It was childish: clearly we were both not exactly on our best behavior – but then it got worse when he accelerated next to me unclipping his foot and asking to “settle it right here!” I had to laugh a little inwardly and I began to regain my perspective.

 

I paused and then said, “Come on – really? We’re going to skitter around on our cleats and fight in the street?”  I think he also realized we were way beyond ourselves and acting like children, so we rode on in silence around the first corner. I then reached out my hand and said, “what’s your name.”

(We've all seen how awkward a cycling fight is - what with the lycra and the slippery shoes and emaciated upper bodies - Thanks to friend Luke Seemann for this link:)

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

 

With a pause he took it, and said simply, “Steve.”

 

I said, “Steve – I have right here on my bars a video camera – how about this: Let’s look at the video -  I’m willing to admit the possibility that I’m in the wrong – I’ve been wrong before…”

 

“So have I,” he said suddenly

 

“So let’s just agree that we both look at the video and then one of us admits he’s wrong.”

 

“Deal.”

 

So we shook hands and then ended up chatting amiably for the rest of the lap. I ended up feeling rather fond of his fiery spirit, and, as for the video… I’ll let it speak for itself – you the reader can decide. (However, if you remain unclear, then read the Downer Avenue race report : ) coming soon)

2008 Race Report #15: Evanston Pro Race

Race Report #15: Superweek Stage 12, Evanston, IL, Sunday, July 20. Category: Pro 1/2.  Weather: 87 degrees, light winds. Course: flat, 0.8 miles/lap, 6 corners, Distance, 70 laps, 100 kilometers. Average speed 30.4 mph, Average pulse 181.

 

I had intended to fire up the RV about a week before our annual trek up north, but got busy and of course ended up doing it the night before. I was pleasantly surprised that it started immediately: that is, immediately after about 45 minutes of sweating and cursing as I lay wedged underneath the front end of the vehicle, with a cement parking block neatly wedged directly under the center of my back, arching it into painful contortions I as I lifted the 3 heavy batteries in place and attached the leads.

 

The life of Riley: The generator fired right up as well, as did the A/C, refrigerator, microwave, TV and stereo. I was pleasantly surprised that I had left myself ¾ tank of gas last year at those super cheap $3.25 prices, and as I tooled out of storage with 10,000 lbs of 1987’s finest beneath me burning gas at 6 mpg, I felt I was living the life of Riley.

 

The Tribulations of Job: However, it is never quite that easy with the RV – from tires, to A/C to the generator to the brakes and exhaust the vehicle has never made things quite that easy. After I brought it home and began loading I also began filling the 100 gallon freshwater tank – but it leaked like a sieve and turning on the water pump only made things worse. Late that night, and then again the next morning I crawled underneath the 20 year old rusting undercarriage to try and determine the root cause of the issue, but merely succeeded in getting rusty water splashed in my eyes that took the better part of the night to clear.

 

By late morning the day of the Evanston race I threw in the towel and decided we’d go without running water for the shower, sink and kitchen. This was to be the last ride of the RV and I was determined to make the most of it so loaded up everything I could think of.

 

Until midnight I was running back and forth to the RV with blankets, groceries, bug spray, music, movies, pillows, the grill and everything you’d bring if you were moving and then the same in the morning. I didn’t properly hydrate in the hot humid weather and my lower back began to spasm – most likely a combo of the time arched under the RV, carrying lots of heavy objects cantilevered out in front of me, improper hydration and not very much rest. Honestly, there probably couldn’t have been worse preparation for the Evanston race. In theory I should have been quietly hydrating with my legs up all day… That, and I had already challenge the Roadie Gods….

 

 

Tribulations of Job: So, I guess I asked for it. In a previous post I challenged the roadies to “keep a fast pace, shake and bake me, form breakways and single file paces.”  So, of course so what else should I expect other than that they should answer – punatively of course. Over the next week I suffered the lash of their whips, their accels, their shake-n-bake tactics desperately holding onto wheels and hoping for the pressure to be relieved, for air to refill my lungs, for the burning asphyxiating pain to leave my legs. They showed little mercy…

 

 

Evanston Start Line

 

 

I just described Evanston – a relentless onslaught by the Pro teams on the front of the Peleton. The race started fast and never slowed down. With 6 fairly smooth corners, the course is actually pretty decent for me – except for the one achilles heel that I was to rediscover over the coming days in several races: my criterium kryptonite comes in the form of a long, slightly uphill straightaway with a headwind.

 

 

A corner early on

 

 

Now that I’m more aware of my strengths, this just makes sense. A small hill? I can power over that and leverage my strengths. Straightaways between 200 and 400m? Perfect again – short sprints, followed by a lot of coasting. I’m quite good at coasting (a natural corollary to my wheelsucking abilities). However, a tight corner followed by a really long straightaway requires pedaling well beyond my little tiny strength of 6 – 10 seconds of power: on each finish stretch at Evanston I found myself going well beyond my aerobic threshold and creating lactic acid on the 45 second haul up the long, slightly uphill finish stretch with winds swirling around me.

 

 

What a 160 rider field looks like

 

 

“Hot Goosebumps” – that’s what I began to feel as things stretched out I began to enter that oxygen deprived, lactic acid filled world that haunts my dreams – a place of sheer agony and repeated lies to my body – “you can quit next lap – just one more lap”. As my body processed less and less oxygen my legs experienced that ugly symptom of ‘hot chills’ where the leg felt half asleep and as blood continued to course through the veins it would feel hot despite showing goose bumps on the outside.

 

 

A long, single file death march

 

 

I continued my lies and internal mantra: “just make it 10 laps.” Then 20, then 30, then halfway to 35, then 40, then 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, then 50, and then, for the next set of lies, the all consuming goal was to make it to lap 60 (out of 70 laps).

 

 

Staying mid-field

 

 

Usually by this point in a given race, I can stop lying and realize I’ll make it to the end, and usually my mind set re-enters the proactive zone where I begin planning my attack for the final laps. But, like Downer Avenue last year, these thoughts were given no oxygen to formulate and instead I merely followed the wheel ahead, using my strengths effectively on corners one through five, and then hanging on for dear life each time down the long, bumpy, slightly uphill, single file finish stretch.

 

Mid-race I had moved to the middle of the 160 rider field – maybe 60th place or so. With about 30 laps to go after a particularly hard acceleration I was surprised to find only a dozen riders behind me or so – nearly half of this field of top category riders and professionals from around the country and the world had been dropped.

 

I remained even more dedicated to finishing and tried to move up again. I stayed in the middle front for another 5 laps but the race remained stretched out, single file and I was losing position. Just then a split occurred on the long finish stretch and suddenly I was bridging a fairly decent gap. I started faltering and riders swarmed by attempting to reconnect. It all broke up into confusion and a couple riders made it across but I found myself in a group of 10 that fell off the back and then disintegrated as we crossed the line with 12 laps to go.

 

 

Gaps begin to open

 

 

Bridging a gap...

 

Really suffering

 

I had not yet made my most recent goal of lap 60 (10 to go) so I continued riding, alone, as fast as I could go. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was averaging about 24 mph all by myself – that’s as fast as I can ever remember riding alone – and then I decided to check average speed so far – 30.4 mph – the fastest, ever, in a race that I’ve been in.

 

 

Agony... (why's he smiling?)

 

 

(Yes, roadies, I have a low VO2 and my typical wattage at my aerobic threshold is probably about 240-260 watts – no where near your 300, 330, or even 400 watts. That ‘book of matches’ you talk about burning during the race? If you flip over the creased white cardboard cover of my matchbook, you’ll find one lonely match – just one. Fortunately it’s got a little extra )

 

So even at my max I was riding over 6 mph slower than the field. That’s the advantage of the draft and the distinction of roadie vs. sprinter. I made it a couple laps alone, and then, just at 60 laps I was pulled from the race by the referees and then a lone Columbian came screaming past – riding 31 mph all by himself. As I pulled off, lapped, I cursed the roadie gods for that incomprehensible ability to ride that fast for more than 8 seconds.

 

 

The life of Riley: I piled into the air conditioned RV and headed off the to beach in Sheboygan for 4 fun and sun filled days at the beach...

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

2008 Race Report #20: Elk Grove Criterium Elite Cat 1/2 - Day One

I’m working backwards – I drafted many of these as the season progressed… I enjoy writing, but I’m not enthused about editing…)

 

Race Report #20: Elk Grove Stage 1: Saturday, August 2. Category: Elite 1/2. Weather: 84 degrees, light winds. Course: flat, 2.85 miles circuit with two U-turns and two 90 degree corners. Distance, 49 miles, average speed 28.1mph, Max speed 39.1 mph. Average pulse 172, max pulse 192.

 

Over the last few years, Chicagoland has risen as the center of U.S. cycling, with races every weekend, nationals of various disciplines held here seemingly every year, and the most lucrative purses in all of domestic cycling. Topping all of these in terms of $$$ is the 3rd annual Elk Grove Cycling Classic with the single highest prize list of any race in the United States.

 

I must admit I was a little apprehensive registering for the pair of Elite Category 1/2 races after experiencing fairly serious high speed crashes on the final lap each of the last two years racing the event (and to think I have gone 300 races in a row without a crash in the past). Something about the narrow long, snaking course, and the large field full of aspiring 20-something riders looking for a shot at the massive paycheck ($45,000 in total) has repeatedly created a nervous, skittish racing environment fraught with danger.

 

The worst part about the peril during the Elk Grove series is that there is no predictability to these train wrecks. Most races you can pick the dangerous corners or sections of the course to avoid where crashes were likely to occur, but at Elk Grove, the entire circuit tends to feel like “running the gauntlet.” As prior Superweek champion and one of the U.S.’s best criterium racers Andy “the Volcano” Crater shouted to me during the middle of the race after a random explosive crash against the barriers on a straightaway, “Holy F*@! I’ve never seen worse riding or bike handling – this is some scary “sh*#!” 

 

The fact that Andy was even having a conversation with me in the very back of the peleton belied the reality of the situation – the entire front half of the field was a gigantic assh*!# zone – a crush of riders repeatedly trying to find a route outside to the front, only to be confronted with the swirling winds accompanying a peleton traveling upwards of 33, 35 – even 37 mph, and like the fumerole behind a jet engine being sucked backward into the same compression they aimed to escape.

 

The long straight sections of the course at Elk Grove allowed for some extremely high speeds – particularly on the return half of the course. On laps 2 – 9 of the 18 lap race I consistently hit and held 36 and 37 mph down the mile long finish stretch. Each of these single file sprints had me in that unfortunately familiar state of acid-for-blood agony I’d experienced during Superweek. At one point as we hit the halfway point I looked over to see Michigan sprinter Ben Renkema suffering near me at the back of the field and I said, “I think I may get dropped.” He didn’t reply - instead he sprinted forward a few spots – perhaps realizing that being near me quite possibly meant being too far back. Ben remains my litmus test of a race – young and talented, and gifted/cursed with a similar set of fast twitch muscles, my basic sense of a race is that “If Ben gets dropped, then I’m OK – there is no chance in hell I could have stayed in.”

 

Given my tenuous position in the single file train near the back of the field I decided to trade my risk of getting dropped for the risk of crashing and slotted up about 60 spots on the backstretch right into the danger zone – or rather, where the danger zone had been on earlier laps.

 

Fortunately, the field had settled into the course a bit and it had become much safer in the front of the field. As we headed down the homestretch I was quite surprised to discover that instead of the 37 mph single file sprints I had been experiencing as the slinky re-compacted, there was a relatively sedate steady state of 32 mph two rider abreast situations that were completely manageable. I began to recover a little bit from the massive efforts of the first 25 miles.

 

As we entered the last two laps, I was physically drained and despite the relatively easier laps for the latter half of the race, I could tell that I had frayed my lungs and legs in that first 25 miles. But I set my jaw and determined to follow a certain discipline I knew: “Get in 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. For a ‘roadie’, “get into position to win” may also imply “Make the breakaway” – I’m not exactly sure, nonetheless, let me make the attempt and share those elusive and counterintuitive elements of the breakaway art as I have witnessed through my experience watching them take place.

 

First – hang on for dear life during one of the hardest accelerations of the race where you are just about to get dropped. Then, just as you are about to get dropped…

 

Second - invent a new pair of legs and lungs and accelerate through the group and double your output as you now face the wind at the front of the peleton at over 30mph unsheltered from the draft.

 

Third - continue and accelerate as required to break completely off the front of the pack.

 

Fourth - now, make contact with the breakaway riders and enter the echelon rotation of the paceline facing that same wind for long periods each lap until the end of the race.

 

Honestly there can hardly be anything further from my experience.

 

Instead, let me tell you of the sprinter’s approach to placement in the peleton during the field sprint. For the roadie reader this is still relevant info: if you are not strong enough or lucky enough to make the breakaway, then you are stuck with the field sprint, and at this point you have to make the best of the cards you’ve been dealt.

 

Welcome to my world.

 

I have a very limited retinue of strengths. Interestingly, since my study of ‘strengths’ began about 3 years ago, there has been a pattern to my discovery – my list of weaknesses has grown by leaps and bounds, and my strengths have gotten ever more specific, isolated, and limited. Here’s a short list:

 

­       Wheelsucking: I’m definitely in the top 2 percentile when it comes to drafting.

­       Coasting: well, I suppose everyone is good at that.

­       Cornering: I’m probably in the top decile (10%) when it comes to cornering.

­       Short Intervals: I can produce a 1 - 3 second “pseudo-sprint” which, followed by a short rest, can be reproduced virtually ad infinitum without serious consequences. This also features into my ability to move up during and at the end of the race.

­       Max Power – <10 seconds: as indicated in other writings, as a sprinter, I can produce a significant amount of watts for 5 - 8 seconds – but one time only without significant rest.

 

My weaknesses would take a book to compile – basically I suck at anything not included in the list above, including, but not limited to: aerobic endurance, hill climbing, time trialing, long intervals, medium intervals, steady efforts, multiple sprints, fighting the wind, leading…

 

I do have one other strength that may actually be the single strongest tool in my arsenal: I can often predict where to be – in another man’s words, how to “get into position to win.”

 

Now, given my list of weaknesses above, ‘get into position to win’ guarantees me very little, but my short list of strengths above does help to deliver this Walden rule.

 

Back to Elk Grove: As probably the single most consistently skittish and dangerous peleton I’ve ridden, this circuit serves as a singularly great case study on “get into position to win.”

 

With one lap to go at Elk Grove I was in the rear guard of a dozen riders backing a compressed peleton ahead of 85+ riders twitching and convulsing through the long narrow course. As we crossed the line with one lap and 2.85 miles to go, suddenly the residue of the preceding 46 miles, the brutal long sprint efforts to hang on to the field on the homestretch, the wheezing in my lungs and hot goosebumps in my legs were forgotten. For the next 2/3’s of a lap what I faced was an effort of a different sort – like a game of Frogger or Tetris, my mission for the coming 2 miles remaining in the circuit was a combination of analytics and anerobics: to anticipate openings and find the energy to slot my body into those spaces.

 

This will probably sound odd to a roadie as this is probably the part of the race they hate the most, but for me it was like suddenly coming off life support – for the preceding miles I was just suffering, hanging on, desperately trying not to get dropped – and then the masochistic exercise in suffering for suffering’s sake was over and now it was time to use a different discipline: to answer the looming question of how, exactly to move safely through 80 riders compacted into a tight, dangerous mass – and do so safely.

 

One of the luxuries or perhaps a penance of being a sprinter is our relegation to the mid-peleton position. Without any need to focus on or consider breaking away, or the conditioning of rivals (everyone is stronger), or any real need to hover at the front, we are provided with ample time to scour and evaluate the course and actions of the peleton for weaknesses.

 

If it looks easy, sometimes, when I move up, that’s because it usually is – on a relative scale – I 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.

 

The video to follow shows the sort of ‘slo mo’ version of the high speed nervous exercise that I went through on that last lap. The slow frame rate fails to capture virtually any of the relevant frenetic action in the peleton as we vibrated through those final two 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.

 

The video starts about ½ mile past the start finish as we are about to enter the first of two U-turns on the course. Just to my right a couple riders cross wheels and almost go down – bodies bumping all around and then suddenly we are all leaning left and finding a path around the U-turn at about 8 mph. We then immediately sprint back up to 31, 32, 33 mph and I shift around in the back for a few moments trying to find a line forward through the pack. I don’t see much but decide to slot up the right – only to be shut down moments later against the curb. 

 

I then resolve to the only recourse left available to me (no Achilles heel) – to move right through the middle of the field. For the next 90 seconds I wade right into and through the mashing mesh of bodies comprising the 85 rider ass*#@ zone the entire front of the field had become. What is hard to ascertain is when I’m accelerating quickly or when the field of riders and slowing - to the hiss and stink of burning brake pads.

 

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)      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.

 

3)      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.

 

4)      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!)

 

At Elk Grove, with thousands of dollars on the line on a dangerous course against hungry men 15 years my junior, we entered that desperate last lap and the peleton was erratic, frenzied. I moved from 80th to 70th , from 50th to 30th to 20th and then 90 seconds later swung all the way to the front before the set of corners that would determine the race outcome. I lit half of my match to get into position, and the other half to maintain it into the final corner. I had absolutely nothing left when we entered the sprint with 600 meters to go.

 

That is a simple statement, but let me paint it differently. With 600 meters to go in a huge money race I was sitting in a top 6 position – a race winning position – in the biggest amateur money race in the United States – sounds great – right? The other view is that with 600m to go in this huge race I was in an anaerobic oxygen debt filled chasm of fear – palapable fear – unlike anything we face in regular life.

 

Think of those moments as a kid where you tried to stay underwater to swim a distance or find an object at the bottom – 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 to break you back to the surface just as you are running out of air – but now knowingly doing them into a closed long tunnel between pools with nowhere to breathe – your lungs are on fire, your legs become molten lead and every evolutionary fiber in your body tells you to dart for the surface – but instead you duck lower and now you have another 50 feet of tunnel in front of you before you can rise to the surface.

 

This is asphyxiating fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – and deep inside 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. It is through exactly those kinds of panic attacks that I’ve ended up burning through my own skin on the tarmac at Elk Grove – not my panic, rather the dying gropings of another drowning swimmer pulling me under.

 

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

The video starts after 1 to go, just before the first U turn - with a near crash. I’m in the back about 80th place and after the corner manage to move to first over the next mile - directly through the innards of the pack for the most part. 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0y2kX6z_Lg]

At 2:13, near the front, I finally sprint clear and find my way to Cat 1 extraordinaire Andy Crater’s wheel – (grey Menasha shorts) and use the first half of my one match that I have to burn. Andy Sprints up again at 3:17 (the second half of my match), and at 3:37 the pace picks up again (my final oxygen starved kick). We slow after that and then the final acceleration to the line begins at 4:12. By then I’m drowning and can barely see, much less respond.

Nonetheless this was a near perfect race in terms of positioning: I can hear Walden say it, “you have to get in position to win!” I end up 17th – getting passed by about 10 riders in the final 50 meters. Still – I picked up $150 – and while not ‘happy’ I was satisfied.

2008 Race Report #12: Superweek Stage 5: Bensenville Criterium

2008: Race Report #12: Superweek Stage 7 – Bensenville (day 1)

                                           

Race Report #12: Tuesday, July 16. Category: Masters 1/2/3 30+, Weather: 90 degrees, 17 mph winds with gusts to 24mph. Course: flat, 0.8 miles/lap, 4 corners with a snaking finish stretch against the headwind adding some danger and excitement.  Distance, 35 laps, ~30 miles (shortened from 50), average speed ~26mph, Average pulse 172.

 

I took a half day off work to race this course only 5 miles from my office. I left right on time and arrived to the course with 1 hour and 15 minutes to warmup. I registered, dressed, and then mounted my trainer (a way to ride stationary on your bike while simulating the road – this is the safest way to warmup when surrounded by busy roads.) I couldn’t believe the sweat pouring off of me during my 40 minute warmup on the trainer, but at the end of it I knew I was truly “warmed up” and that I would not have to suffer through this process during the first laps of the race. Its not supposed to be unusual to get a good warmup…

 

I sped around the course and rolled to the line with the group right on time at 1pm. I looked around and the group seemed… a little different. Gone were the super lean bodies and bulging muscles of the master’s 1, 2, 3 group – and instead of team jerseys and carbon fiber wheels on $7000 bikes I noticed more standard, $2000 bikes and more youthful, less hardened bodies. Just then the chief judge winked at me and said, “Not yet – this is the Cat 4/5 race.” (Category 4’s and 5’s are the newest racers and have to earn their way from Category 5, to category 4, to 3 etc.) “You’re up next – we’re an hour behind schedule.”

 

So sure enough – no good deed will go un-punished and all my warmup was in vain and I had to sit in the heat on the sidelines for the next hour before making a half hearted attempt to ‘re-warmup’ before my race. Why can’t this ever happen when I’m LATE for a race I wondered.

 

So… I’ve written many times that I’m a ‘sprinter’ – what, exactly, does that mean in the world of cycling? In the world of track and field I would run the 100meters and maybe do long jump like I did in high school. On the velodrome (bike track) I used to specialize in the ‘match sprint’ which is a kilometer long race typically characterized by a 200meter sprint at the end. In 1986 I competed in this event at the junior world championships in Casablanca, Morocco after earning the top spot in the United States against my nemesis Jamie Carney – who also joined me over there.

 

So, one might ask,  if what I’m truly good at lasts about 10 seconds, the what, exactly is someone like me doing racing 45 mile, 90 minute, master’s races or 100 kilometer, 2 hour pro races? And, how is it that someone like me can even keep up? Especially, as I occasionally forget, as I’m about to turn 40, and actually have a “real job” - and a demanding one at that. Professionals only race – that’s why they are pros, and many category 1 and 2 riders live to race and either ‘get by’ living hand to mouth working part time in bike shops, or have part time or limited “9 to 5” jobs with much better schedules than I. (However, Texas Roadhouse extraordinare and Superweek stage winner Paul Martin is a lawyer with a family – so I’d be remiss to suggest I’m the only one with a demanding job and a family – but Paul’s a ‘roadie’…”)

 

Let’s take a look at it, for a moment from the point of view of the endurance athlete – better known in cycling circles as a “roadie”. Roadies dominate cycling – it is their sport, their culture, their races, their training schedules, their blogs, and their wins that make the most headlines. It just makes sense – if you don’t have much of an aerobic motor (like me) than odds are good you’ll either be marginalized or quit the sport quickly as aerobic capabilities are the basic currency of most of the events.

 

Let me take it further – from a ‘roadie’ perspective, people like me (sprinters) are the ‘bottom feeders’ of the peleton – “sucking wheel” in the back the pack – never leading, only using the draft that they themselves work so hard to create. One of my favorite email forwards of all time was from my friend Jeff, who was on a group email list where the riders were complaining about the sprinters. It went something like, “we led 39 out of 40 laps – pulling through hard, keeping the pace high, and then at the end, those damn wheelsuckers appeared out of nowhere and blew by us for the win – its ridiculous – they didn’t earn any of it.”

 

OK, so apologies in advance to all my roadie friends (and that’s pretty much just about everyone in the sport – there are few true sprinters out there.) But this is where I’m going to beg to differ, and, because this is my blog and I can say whatever I want, I’m going to speak my mind…

 

You roadies – all of you – so high and mighty in your tyranny of the peleton and the wind. Out there in the race, I watch you sitting in the wind, off the wheel as though the draft were merely a ‘nice to have’ while people like me – without your ability to process oxygen – suck off the draft like a diver would from their air hose – one breath missed – one second off a wheel, and we drown and float up off the back – dropped like a drowned swimmer.

 

You roadies think that the race is all about breakaways and out dueling each other for long stretches of suffering – suffering with a purpose – matching wits for the length of the race in order to guarantee success – but you fail to see or appreciate the role of the sprinter.

 

You suffer for a purpose – each lap you choose your suffering in order to put your best foot forward. But the sprinters? We have absolutely no purpose for our suffering other than to endure. As you string it out up front and our vision narrows to the 23mm tire ahead of us, we have one and only one purpose, “please don’t get dropped, please don’t get dropped, please don’t get dropped.”

 

You talk about suffering up front – yes, I’m sure you do it. But proactive, self determined suffering is different than the torture you inflict on us at the back. For us it’s a Vietnamise war camp and you are our torturers and executioners. We don’t choose this suffering, and unlike you at the front, we can’t just drift back for a few minutes to recover – if we lose that wheel in front of us, its over – just like that.

 

I have a running joke that I like to tell that starts like this, “You know that feeling, after you’ve taken a hard pull at the front, and then realize you’ve got a small gap, and then all you have to do is push it a little longer and maybe you’ll stay away?”

 

I pause for effect and then say…

 

“Yeah – I’ve never felt that before – ever.”

 

I’ve been racing for 32 seasons and competed in over 1200 road bike races and I’ve only been in two breakaways that have stayed away, and could count on both hands the number of breakaways I’ve EVER been in.

 

There’s another joke – another favorite. So, one of the other aspects of training and racing that differs for roadies and sprinters is the volume of riding that each must do. I’ve fallen victim to the roadie mentality several times throughout my career – the kind of mentality that, “if you didn’t win, you didn’t train hard enough.” Yes, for endurance athletes with type 1 muscles (slow twitch) there’s a pretty reasonable correlation between training and results. However when it comes to type 2A and 2B muscles (fast twitch A & B) that correlation gets sketchier and training becomes more about quality and less about quantity. Further, with a preponderance of type 2B muscles (like me) too much quality OR quantity can be deleterious to results.

 

But, back to the roadie joke. Roadies are notorious for their anal retentive addiction to their training schedules – rain, snow, or sleet, if their training regimen calls for a 5 hour ride, then that’s what they do. So here’s the joke, paraphrased from when it was originally sent to me.

 

 

The roadie:

 

My alarm went off on Sunday morning – another wet March day, and another 5 hour slog in the cold and damp. I slid out of bed trying not to wake my wife and headed to the front closet and numbly dressed – shoes, booties, shorts, insulated bib tights, undershirt, jersey, rain jacket, neoprene gloves, hat, helmet, heart rate monitor etc.

 

I made toast with honey and peanut butter, tea with more honey, and drank some accelerade. I filled three bottles per usual and stuffed my pockets with tubes and inflation devices and power bars. I sat in front of the TV and munched and then listened to the report: “sleet and freezing rain, dangerous roads, cars in ditches.” I paused, still chewing and waited for the forcast – more of the same and getting worse.

 

I sighed and threw in the towel – just today, just one day, I would not go out  - I’d have to make it up on the trainer later. So I took everything off – booties, shoes, bibs, shorts, jacket, jersey, gloves, hat, glasses, helmet and put it all away. Then I tiptoed back into the bedroom and slid under the warm blankets next to my wife and cuddled up to her whispering, “Its god awful out there.”

 

 

And she huskily mumbled back, “Yeah – I know – can believe my husband’s out in this crap? Thank God he’s a roadie else I’d never see you.”

 

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

 

One of the best, if not THE best book on cycling ever written was written in the early 70’s by a Dutch author by the name of Tim Krabbe’. Its an elegant short tome depicting one single road race complete with flashbacks to other races and events in Tim’s life.

 

The Rider is written very clearly from the mindset of the ‘roadie’ and one of the things I love about it is the internal struggle Tim has for the “sprinter” in that book – the “golden boy” name Reilehan. At one point in the book he says, “its all about squandering energy isn’t it?” as he refers to Reilehan’s wheelsucking, but later in the same book, he mocks one of his other competitors for not knowing how to race – when to push it and when to conserve. I’ve read the book 5 times and after contacting Tim, proposed the idea of writing the equivalent of its sequel a little while back and asked whether he’d be interested in writing a forward if I did write it. (Tim’s over 60 but still racing)

 

Here was his response,

 

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

 

“Your idea sounds interesting - a portrait of the sprinter. I can relate to it because although I'm not one of those superfast guys (I've started racing again with the 60+ Masters) I did mix (and still mix) in every final sprint, even for 8th place, and occasionally for first - and I do win a few.

 

I've always been interested in the 'life of the sprinter' - they're sometimes treated like pariahs and act that way, some never trying to be in breakaways, just waiting to ply their trade, whether it's for 1st, 5th or 12th place.

 

The tactics, strategy, dangers, excitement of the sprints themselves are of course addictive - and you, as an ex-pro, would know a side of it that I don't; the massive sprint as a team sport in professional cycling. Although gifts are given and grudges will be fought out, in my amateur races sprinting was always essentially an individual thing.

 

There are a 1001 sides to sprinting.

Which goes to say that trying to write that book does seem worth the effort - although at this point, even if I'm flattered that you should ask, I don't know whether I would want to write a foreword.”

Best regards, Tim Krabbé

-------------    

So, I’ll take that as a “maybe.” : )

 

So, roadies, let me tell you how it is. Your job is to drop me. Keep a fast pace, shake and bake me, form breakways and single file paces. But after all that, let’s be fair then.

 

If you don’t drop me as I suffer with an average pulse of 180+ , as I strangle for 2 hours in asphyxiating oxygen debt and agonizing muscle complaint, then I assert that I have every bit as much right to that podium as you. For every hard pull up front and breakaway attempt you make, I’ve made parallel efforts to hang a wheel or bridge a gap.

 

Stated another way, if it comes down to a field sprint, and I suddenly materialize out of the bowels of the pack and manage to sling past you to the finish line using the 8 seconds of the one and only strength God gave me, don’t shake your head in frustration. Don’t be angry or contemptuous that “he didn’t do anything – just sat in the back.” Know what it is really like for me – for us – for sprinters like me.

 

Instead, how about replacing that contemptuous remark with a rueful smile and the thought of, “damn, he must have really suffered back there today – but he hung on and pulled one out  - good for him.”

 

Back to Bensenville. They shortened the race to 35 laps (I was one of the few who cheered) and we headed off around the oddly shaped course. After a few laps I started having that feeling again – and realized what it was. I wasn’t “completely desperate” – which, said differently, meant that I could move around the pack a little bit and felt some confidence.

 

The laps moved on and a small breakaway formed with 4 riders (Mike Beuchel – again!) and got away, and then it was that time again – my time – 1 lap to go.

 

I think I was a little over confident. I sat pretty far back  - maybe 30th even  with a half lap to go, with the idea that I’d swing up the outside and enter the second to last straightaway in about 5th. Just as I began my move up the right side against the curb, the pack swung back right and I was shut down hard. I drifted back into the middle of the pack.

 

Still, for some reason I wasn’t worried – I hadn’t really ‘squandered any energy’ thus far and as we entered the 3rd of 4 corners, I set up on the inside and pedaled the corner hard and accelerated up about 7 positions. Then, as the pack strung out down the windy stretch I accelerated again and leapt up to 5th into the final corner. To be fair, it was not the kind of move that is appreciated in the peleton – the last minute inside move. However, to my defense, the corner was being taken quite wide and I rode the short route over the manhole cover and never even came close to touching the rider to my right.  (see video below)

 

As we entered the snaking windy alley to the finish, things played out just right and I had a leadout man who took me within 100m of the line and within 15 feet of the lead rider. I accelerated to the right and took the field sprint win and 5th place.

 

Still, these were the master’s – cat 1, 2, & 3. Although these were quality riders, including the guy who had won the Pro ½ race at Snake Alley this year and then followed it up with a back-to-back win with the master’s race. But the average speeds were a couple mph less than the pro races – and I’d already been dropped twice – at Grafton, and then at Blue Island. With Evanston coming on Sunday I had a pretty good feeling I might be ready – but really, it is just not, and never has been in my hands – it will all depend on how well I prepare, and whether the roadies put the screws to the sprinters.

 

-John

Video starts with 1 1/4 laps to go. At 1:15 in I try to move up the outside and get shut down - hard! Then I'm trapped, so I pedal the corner on the inside at 1:33 and shoot up the inside about 6 spots. Then at 1:42, I accelerate up the left of the single file line to move into winning position around the last corner in 5th place - exactly where I wanted to be.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Mc7HGVEDUA]