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 3: Sign Sprints

INTRO: Sprinters are the pariahs of the peleton, despised and verbally abused as “wheelsuckers,” “peleton trollers,” or worse: http://www.truesport.com/bike/2005/articles/druber/druber13.html   Deep down though is the unspoken truth: jealousy is at the heart of the contempt.... But, being a sprinter is more than fast twitch muscles, podiums, and podium girls – it is a lifestyle, with a clear set of unspoken rules and traditions – most of which are in direct contrast to the majority roadie rule. In these next few volumes I’ll attempt capture some of them.

Volume 3: The Sprinter’s Guide to Sign Sprints

Sign sprints are a common element of group rides that create a love/hate relationship with roadies. On one hand roadies design the routes for most group rides, and attend them religiously – hence they have insider knowledge of where and when the key sign sprints  are. If you see a roadie suddenly pop out of his saddle and accelerate out of the peleton in the middle of nowhere (when it is not a hill or false flat)– then you can be assured a sign sprint is in the making.

That said, sign sprints are… sprints.  And hence, in the absence of an element of surprise, will ultimately lend themselves to the fast-twitch group.

Rules: The rules of sign sprints are fairly simple: group rides will abandon the traditional rules of steady pacelines, pulling through, accelerating only on inclines, if, and only if certain street signs are within a reasonable distance on low traffic roads with ample time to slow & regroup.

Typical Sign sprints – in order of ‘importance’:

“Yellow signs” – any yellow sign is potentially fair game, though it is usually specific to the ride and sprinting for an “undesignated” yellow sign can look foolish.

“Stop Ahead” – these signs, depending on locale, are ubiquitous, and are generally “legitimate” as long as there is ample distance before the actual stop sign. They are convenient in that the looming Stop sign also creates the natural opportunity for the group to re-form

“Tractor crossing” – in the Midwest these are premo destinations. Rare, usually very rural, and typically requiring insider knowledge, these signs will tend to have a ¾ mile ramp up.

“Town line” – these are the kings of sign sprints – these matter most as they indicate a true change of venue.

“The final sign” – at best a “town line” sign, but perhaps merely a “stop ahead" sign, the final sign of the day features the greatest effort, and the most glory. Win this one, and you’ve won them all…

Below is a great set of posts I found on a forum from a “Newbie” rider who is clearly a sprinter and feeling some guilt about it. He was getting hassled for not pulling enough for some sign sprints. I love his final post – no way to argue with that...

================ 

Newbie Sprinter: Is the cyclist wrong by sprinting at the end if he did not pull "during" the sprint? In most cases during these sprints, several strong riders try to up the pace as much as possible, but these same riders usually do not engage in the final sprint. But often times I hear riders condemn the rider who did not pull "during" the sprint, with comments like " he was never in the wind" etc. And if it matters, the prize is just a beer for the winner of the zone. My feeling is someone who doesn't work with the group or do his/her share during the ride shouldn't sprint, but in the actual sprint zone it's every man for himself and no one's forcing anyone to push the pace at the front. For instance I've not seen Cavendish "take a turn at the front" before he sprints to the finish.

Roadie Response: In my experience, the guys who sprint for county line signs, etc., are usually the ones who do the least pulling during the actual rides. The same guys tend to crank it up in the last mile or so of a long recreational ride -- like they are actually proving something by "winning" the sprint or being the first one back to the parking lot after sitting in at the back of the paceline for most of the ride.

Newbie Sprinter: I'm willing to pull, just can't sustain a long (mile or more) pull at the speed of the best pullers. Is that my fault?

Roadie1 Response: Yes! You should be working on your weaknesses rather than showboating your "talent".

Roadie2 Response: If you're this concerned about sprinting, you should save it for an actual race.

Newbie Sprinter: I have… and I won the race…

=================

Next up: The Sprinter’s Guide to cold weather riding

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/

 

 

 

2008 Race Report #13 1/2: A "Good Tired"

Flash Forward - Sunday July 27th: A “Good Tired”

 

After 8  days and  nights  on the road, radiant, glowing days in the dunes and at the beaches of Lake Michigan, hot turbulent racing and suffering over swollen burning cracked pavement,  and moist, sweaty yet cooling evenings under the open windows in shell of the RV, I pulled into my driveway and began the interminable unloading process.

 

The preceding 4 days were particularly intense – days of “really living”  – comprised of lengthy drives, incredibly difficult races full of highs and lows, and more importantly the resumption of old friendships and assumption of new ones: celebrations with friends and loved ones. Oddly enough – in that same husk of the RV where most of these activities took place we were carrying 5 chrysalides – waiting for the butterflies to emerge.

 

By the time I reached home at about 6pm, I was entering that strange netherworld of the overtired – I was on autopilot. I wandered back and forth from the RV to the house carrying odds and ends without much plan or strategy. I could have probably cut my trips down by half if I had the ability to think, but my brain had shut down and only my nervous system and musculature were carrying the day.

 

I was physically destroyed and mentally incompetent – yet I was stumbling through happiness. Each glimpse at my bed – the cotton sheets and fresh pillows, the air conditioned air – contrasted with the humid dank air of the garage and RV as I muddled my way through the extensive unloading process.

 

3 hours later and I finally finished the task. 3 hours? Yes – the RV is like a rolling home – and it is like moving in and moving out – between sheets, pillows, chairs, coolers, equipment, tools, music, movies, books, papers, pots, pans, cutlery, napkins, plates, condiments, dry goods, pasta, cereal, sports drinks, snack bars, water bottles, coffee, milk, cream, soda, water, bread, meat, chicken, fruit, yogurt, oil, firewood, vegetables, spices, onions, fresh produce, spatulas, bowls, clothes, swimsuits, jackets, bug spay, dog food, and about 100 other things I had redecorated the interior of our home with the insides of the husk of the RV.

 

As I moved the last few loads, a recurring thought kept running through the remnants of my brain, “bed… I love bed… can’t wait to go to bed…” 9:30pm and I laid down for the first time since departing Milwaukee early that morning before the race (and the race to the race) in Chicago and the 2 hour fight with traffic back home and I think I entered Stage 2 sleep within 5 seconds of closing my eyes.

 

I loved that motion - of actually laying down on my bed. It, my bed, had become like a long lost lover and it embraced me with its dry cool perfumed arms. At some point I wondered in my fog… “maybe people who can’t sleep aren’t tired enough…”

2008 Race Report #13: Portrait of a sprinter

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.

 You roadies - 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 twist in the wind and 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.”

 

2008 Race Report #5: Winfield Master's National Championships

2008: Race Report #5: Winfield Master’s National Championships (ABR)

 

Sunday, June 1. ABR Masters’ National Championships, Winfield, IL. Category: Masters 30+/40+ combined. Weather: 78 degrees, 9 mph winds. Course: 4 corners, large (80 ft vertical) hill, 22 miles, 58 riders, average speed – 26.5mph, average pulse 171 bpm, max pulse 192 bpm. Sprint speed 36mph.

 

So… now there are three ‘national championships’… – ABR (American Bicycle Racing) decided to run their version of master’s nationals this last weekend in Winfield, IL. For the USCF (United States Cycling Federation) their version of Masters’ nationals will be in late June in Kentucky, and then Category 1/2/3 and Pro (ageless) will be in Downer’s Grove, August 17/18th (my favorite race.)

 

I didn’t really care about it being ‘nationals’ or not (except for the cool jersey you get to wear for a year as ‘national champion’) and just showed up for this race only 15 miles from my home, more excited about being able to race with my friend and 2nd season racer, Matt Dula.

 

I was chagrined to find that it was a course I’ve done before with a significant hill – and that every lap I would be forced to go up it. Matt was diligently warming up on his rollers in the parking lot by the train station when I arrived – his daughter Rosemary had taken second in the teen girls group earlier, medal dangling proudly from her neck.

 

I took a warmup lap, climbing the hill, following the sharp left at the top.

 

It hurt. I hate going up.

 

The race began. I was conservative. I focused on my strengths: drafting, tucking in on the downhill, pedaling some corners and cutting up the inside on others. Mostly I followed Walden Rule #2 (shift, dammit!) and shifted down for the climb. Each lap as we approached the daunting hill, I clicked my left shifter down from the big ring to the little ring, while double clicking with my right hand to bring my gearing on the rear cog into a relatively appropriate range, spinning over the top.

 

Early in the race I told Matt to do the same, and for the next 15 laps or so we both were amazed by the glaciating masses drifting backward on the uphill, calving riders trapped in their big ring, struggling to adjust to the steep incline – as we both buzzed around these riders, finding opportunities to sling forward 5 or 10 spots each lap. I had mounted the camera to my bike but totally forgot to use it except for recording one lap behind Matt to capture his technique.

 

Suddenly it was 2 laps to go: ‘my time’ and I’m sad to share that I was a terrible helper to Matt in his first Cat 1/2/3 race, (and he was staying the pack without any difficulties). I should have had him follow my wheel as I set up for the sprint, but suddenly I was in the zone, instinctively following those race eddies and slotting up into the front – and all I could do was say “hey – time to move up” as I passed by on my way into the top 12. Meanwhile a breakaway of 2 bided their time out front.

 

Unlike last year’s races, I felt complete control over my placement – not too far up – but not too far back. I could have easily shot to the front of the pack (and then some) up the hill with 1 ½ laps, but I refrained and saved my strength. I felt that roiling, powerful energy of my sprint legs ready to be let loose and merely sidled up to 10th over the top and then followed a wheel down the hill to the finish line as they rang the bell indicating one lap to go.

 

Lots of movement took place in the first two corners, but I just ping ponged forward to maintain my position as other riders shot forward and others fell back. I maintained 10th place at the base of the hill sliding to 8th halfway up, and then 6th at the top – but still I had not used much. As we headed for the final long downhill corridor, preceded by a hard and tight left turn, I stayed on the inside, knowing that the outside curb on this downhill corner was a death trap (I had warned Matt earlier).

 

The field spread wide around the corner, and a just to my left a rider accelerated hard coming off the corner. I accelerated and followed his lead. He was fast, and the wind on the downhill section must have had a downdraft to it – I didn’t really feel much protection from my leadout man as we sped down the hill, heads down against the wind, and running first and second, we surged away from the mustering field.

 

I waited and waited and as we neared 100m to go, accelerated up the inside – but my leadout man had some in reserve and matched my move and I only made up a half a wheel on him before the line, finishing in second in the sprint, fourth overall.

 

Still – I felt good. This was a tough course and I really had no true difficulties. Matt and I chatted and then returned to the finish area for the awards ceremony. This is where things got a bit funny. I was not familiar with the rules of this ‘other’ cycling federation, so when I filled out my forms in a rush, I didn’t bother to ponder a potentially important question: “age?”. I had written 39.

 

As the announcer was beginning to separate the 30+ masters results from the 40+ masters, Matt and I had the same thought simultaneously: are you a masters 30+ or a masters 40+ according to ABR rules? (under USCF rules, my racing age - set on Dec 31st of the coming year - is 40.)  So I wandered over and asked the officials whether I should be a masters 30+ (the category they had me registered in) or a masters 40+. They consulted the referee and then decided that my ‘racing age’ was 40 and hence they had me in the wrong group. I was unsure whether this would help or hurt my results.

 

After some deliberation one of the refs motioned to me and let me know, “you probably should have just let sleeping dogs lie – you were just about to be crowned the masters 30+ national champion, but instead you came in fourth in the masters 40+ - the top 5 places were all masters 40+…”

 

I laughed and then joined my fellow racers on the podium for the awards ceremony as Mike Dienhart took some film with the helmet cam. Again I walk away from the race with confidence – my sprint was there, I was able to make it up a significant hill, and I was able to move into position for the sprint exactly where I wanted to be.

 

 

 

podium 1

 

podium 2 

My next race will be back with the Pro I/II’s – in Sherman Park on the 14th. We’ll see how my fitness lasts for the longer, faster races…

2006 Race Report #11: Elk Grove - crashing

Race Report Elk Grove Masters Challenge, August 13, 2006. 75 degrees, 45 minutes timed.  In prep for the $25,000 Pro/Am event later in the day on Sunday I decided to race the short Master’s event earlier in the day – it also happened to have a decent purse of $5000. The race was fairly early for me (9am) and arriving at 8am in the relative cool of the day brought back memories of racing when I was younger – when all our racers were the first of the day – seemingly so that our parents could get back to their yardwork or other activities. 

Warming up at 8:30 am I bumped into a number of my Wolverine Sports Club teammates or ex-teammates including Ben and Jamie, Jan and Todd. I felt tired and sluggish for the first half of the race and hung out in the rear of the pack. However about mid-way through the race they rang a bell for a prime sprint and I decided to test out the course and the sprint. I started moving up on the backstretch where the pack was wall to wall and felt like I was playing a video game – much like frogger – anticipate movement and then move into the evacuated space.  

In such a manner I moved halfway through the pack and then on the far side of the course made an easy move up to the top 20 riders.  As we headed into the last mile, the pace picked up and small packs of riders went shooting up the inside and outside. I picked a promising group and followed it into the last corner and the last 500m. I exited the corner in 3rd and noticed that I didn’t have much draft. As we headed down the final stretch some riders came up the outside and eventually I moved up the inside, only to be blocked near the finish by the leadout man (déjà vu from yesterday) and ended up second.

I drifted back into the pack and when asked by Jamie how it went I used my fingers (still tired) to indicate 2nd or 3rd. He indicated that it was a 3 place prime – that made me happy. The rest of the race proceeded without notable circumstance and with one to go, I began moving up (it was a long course after all…)

As we left the first U-turn, I moved up to top 50, and then into the backstretch I jumped all the way into the front – the pace was quite low.  We finally entered the last two straights, the pace picked up significantly and we hummed into the last turn, with the speed falling just shy of the corner.  My “spidey senses” tingled: sure enough, even though I was in 6th position in a single file leadout, the lowering pace had created the ultimate “race killer” – a slow entry into the final corner.

At the last second I considered trying to move up on the outside, but I remembered how widely everyone had been coming out of the corner and held my position anxiously. I entered the corner at 25 mph, following the wheel ahead of me, but even as I began to lean, I saw something or rather several “somethings” out of the corner of my eye. It was a full-on charge up the inside, with 4 riders trying to enter the corner together.  

Even as I heard the inevitable shouts, and the first of those loud “pops” and the screeching of metal on concrete indicating the first tire being blown and the first bike sliding on bare metal and torsioned tires, I began to throw my body backward, and my bike forward hoping against the odds to “scoot” my bike past the wreckage coming from behind. 

Through the corner of my eye, I could feel the inertia of the mayhem tumbling my way.  The dominoes began to fall, with the inside, #2, #3, and #4 riders piling on top of one another, limbs and bikes flipping and sliding, their looming presence entering the corner of my eye. Even as I threw my bike forward, I could see the body and bike of the rider behind me sliding toward my rear wheel… 

And then, with perfectly predictable precision, my bike began to go sideways – with the mass of the bike and body of the fallen rider plowing into the rear triangle of my bike causing the back end to pass to the right of my adjusting front wheel and I started the “mud track slide” more familiar in dirt bike racing.  For a half second I thought I might hang onto it – I was still balanced overtop my increasingly sideways bike, and my inertia was slowing dramatically via the sliding of my tires and the emergency braking I had resorted to.  Then my rear wheel clipped the curb and I flopped oddly overtop the bike and slapped shoulder first onto the pavement still attached to my bike, covering my face with my hands to avoid the teeth of the 114 remaining chainrings headed at my face as the riders behind tried to navigate the corner through the pileup. 

Eventually the traffic lessened and I grabbed my bike, hopped on, and headed for the finish, only then noticing the “flump, flump, flump” of an out of true wheel – or so I thought. As I finished the 100meter stretch to the wheel pit and mechanics, and climbed off my bike, suddenly my frayed and bubbled rear tire blew loudly like a gunshot, causing the mechanic to wince. “At least you made it here” he said.

 As it turned out it was just my tire that was destroyed, not my wheel and they replaced it with a well worn spare so that I could warm down.  

------------------------------------------------  Fast forward for a moment – Saturday, August 26th, 2006 and I’m heading out for a 50 mile training ride in the rain – out and back to Janesville. It was dry, but threatening as I started, but not long after the air turned to mist, then drizzle, then light rain, and then a steady downpour that did not let up until I returned home almost 3 hours later. 

So, why did I do it? Why did I ride in the rain? I hate the rain for some reason.  I’m a racer, not a trainer. Generally speaking I don’t “get off” on training – I don’t, generally speaking even really enjoy training – rather it is a necessarily evil to prep for racing, and a necessary balancing factor in a busy personal and professional life full of unpredictable stresses. 

I’m not an endurance athlete, and I’ve never seemed to have had much of the “control” over my body that more traditional distance athletes seem to enjoy over theirs. My body is a somewhat unwilling participant – grudgingly providing a rather inconsistent level of fitness that seems to vary according to its own whim, and a somewhat more predictable reserve of short term speed and power to be drawn on assuming I find myself in a position to use it. 

But Saturday just happened to be one of those magic times where, despite seemingly adverse conditions, my body decided it was ready to ride. So after an initial hour of warmup I suddenly found my legs to be smoothly turning circles, my seat feeling comfortable, my breathing regular, my pulse steady at about 150 beats per minute, and my speed steady at about 22 mph – despite the rooster tails of water thrown off by the standing puddles on the road.

Lance would have said, “no chain man – no chain…” I assume that this feeling is something endurance athletes feel all the time – I’m lucky to have it a couple times a year… I marveled at the “scratching their heads” expressions portrayed by the farmers I passed along the way and enjoyed the cleansing effect of the incessant downpour on the roads, my bike and even my skin as all the silt, tar, and exhaust were removed from the road, my bike frame and my mind.

Life became squeaky clean. During the last hour I had an analytically detached sense of glycogen depletion (better known as “bonking”) occurring as I could feel the lethargic muscle responses to my mental demands, and the occasional disassociation from reality where the normal real time monitoring of road noise, direction, and balance were replaced by gaps of blank space – of “nothing.” 

These momentary “grey-outs” were followed by quick “snaps” of compressed processing shunting all the visceral feedback into a “spike of  time” leaving my brain “startled” with the updated reality.  Sometimes the snap of sensory overload would trigger a minor “fight or flight” synaptic reaction releasing adrenaline and resulting in momentary vertigo. This would then be followed by a return to reality until the next “greyout.”. 

Ride, rain, pedal, think… greyness… “Ah! Almost off the road”. Jolt of adrenaline, return to status quo – ride, rain, pedal, think… “Car headlights – move right!” and so on… All of this occurred with no pain, and little anxiety. I knew that I was running out of muscle fuel and I also knew that my body was responding imperfectly, but I was somewhat pre-emptive in my ability to predict the symptoms and was still able to keep on pace and force my body to comply and I experienced a clear sense of flow for the latter 2 hours of the ride before coasting back into my driveway, parking my bike, and heading in for a snack of everything in the fridge that was edible, and a  nice long hot shower. 

In contrast, there are days where even though “fresh” and rested, with proper training and perfect conditions, I’m just completely unable to produce significant power, and the relative levels of pain, and just plain awkwardness are incredibly frustrating. Heavy, irregular breathing, sloppy pedaling, with my feet squeaking in the pedals, knees mis-aligned, “pedaling squares”, tense back – one might swear that it was a completely different bike – or more aptly, a different body pedaling it. 

Once, years ago, at a practice race at the Ciaccaro Club in Windsor Canada, I had forgotten to eat and experienced an in-race bonk scenario second to none. My “greyout” phases started becoming 1/10th  seconds and then ½ seconds and then nearly a second. At one point I overlapped the wheel in front of me and almost went down. A little later, and I just plain forgot to turn and wound up on the grass. I ended up pulling out of a race with only 2 laps to go because I could no longer see any color other than yellow and I was losing awareness for seconds at a time. 

My memory of what came next is vague, but I have a vague sense of shame as I’m quite certain that I wandered the sidelines of the race dragging my bike asking if anyone had “a cracker, a fig Newton – any food at all?”  This all culminated in the worst food binge in history – I spent over $13.00 at Taco Bell AND ATE IT ALL. I believe that this was about 16 items. I do remember clearly sitting in my car, with my belly hitting the steering wheel, realizing I couldn’t possibly drive. I then slept fitfully in the parking lot for a couple of hours before finally heading across the border toward home.

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.

Race Report #9: A return to the Pro 1/2's - Whitefish Bay

Race Report, Sunday July 23rd 2006, Superweek Stage 16 - Finale, Whitefish Bay, Milwaukee, WI 62 miles, 82 degrees.  We woke around 8:30am with the bright sun seeping through every crack in the shades and blinds in the RV. I had a headache and felt slightly hungover from the night before. What a great way to prep for my first pro race in 20 years. I felt nervous already – I just didn’t want to get dropped – at least not right away anyway. 

Jeff and I headed over to Silver Spring Ave to have some breakfast and I wolfed down a breakfast burrito and a waffle and orange juice and coffee. My stomach felt better. Jeff registered for his noon race, and then we returned to the RV to change and warmup. I ran into the race leader Dennis Hauweizen while Jeff was registering and asked him why he was suited up so early in the day (our race wouldn’t start until 6pm). He laughed and said in his thick German accent, “I must clear out zo much alcohol from last night – big headache today – not so goot”. I then said, “Well how about keeping the pace slow today – remember this is my first time racing with you guys in a long, long time.” “Sure John," he answered, "today I go slow – no problem.”

We shook hands and then I joined Jeff in his pre-race warmup, feeling OK. I returned to the RV and changed back into my civilian clothes even as Jeff headed to the start finish line for his race. Unfortunately he ended up in the back of the pack of the Masters race, and when they started the race, it became immediately clear that this was no cake walk. After one lap when they came around, the pack was completely single file – not a single rider was doubled up. Jeff was hanging on the back, and I encouraged him saying, “It’ll let up soon….” But it didn’t.  Next lap 4 or 5 riders fell of the back and Jeff was losing touch with the string of riders in front of him. Still the pace continued, and I feared he wouldn’t be seen the following lap even as he entered turn one 30 feet off the back. Incredibly, he was still 30 feet off after 3 laps even as a few more riders fell off.

I remembered riding with Jeff that morning and marveling at how strong he was, and here I was seeing it first-hand. He just hadn’t raced enough to be comfortable on these bumpy, tight courses while keeping his front wheel 2 inches from the wheel in front of him.  Another lap and he had finally lost some ground and shortly thereafter pulled out, upset and disgusted. Still, it was quite impressive to me, but made me nervous – was this to be my own fate? What the hell was I thinking anyway? 

So it was 1pm, and I still had 5 hours until my race… Jeff and I waited in the shade as the day grew warmer, and then finally headed to eat lunch a little after 3pm at Brueggers bagels. We both ordered the Cuban sandwich and it was delicious, but I remember thinking that I tasted some mayonnaise in the sandwich – something that generally doesn’t settle well with me. Shortly thereafter Jeff gave his partings – he had to drive 8 hours back to Pittsburg. It was only then that I learned my race was suddenly slated to start at 5:30pm rather than 6:00. I texted my former boss Ed Perez and let him know that we would be starting earlier than I had thought.  Meanwhile, I felt tension, nervousness, anxiety – like I rarely had felt in my 29 seasons of bike racing.  

I dressed in the heated, humid RV, packing an extra water bottle, and then headed out on my bike for a warmup – with only 30 minutes to go. Immediately I knew something was wrong. I felt fat, bloated, like a puffer fish. My knees were hitting my stomach and my lungs would only fill up half way as I tried to get in a decent warmup. I couldn’t even begin to work hard enough to get my heart rate up, because the motion of the bike, the bumps on the road, and the heat all combined with my lunch to make me feel quite sick. I’m generally anti medicine, anti-doctors etc. and it didn’t occur to me for quite some time that maybe I just had a simple condition to be cured by Tums or Rolaids. I hit the grocery store, bought a roll of Tums, and took 4 of them even as I headed over to the masses of colorfully dressed cyclist at the start line.  5 minutes later, I suddenly deflated – my stomach must have been like a balloon, but with a couple quiet burps I was myself again. Now I was standing on the start finish line with 155 professional or near professional riders, and I was able to focus a little. Wow. There were a LOT of people lining the start finish – in fact the whole course. All these years of racing in the “not quite professional category” had inured me to the fact that there could be that many people out to watch a bike race. As they introduced the race leaders, including an unfortunately fresh looking Dennis Hauweizen, and the applause echoed off the storefronts and banners, I could feel my adrenaline start pumping.   

The race director announced the distance (62 miles) and number of laps (75), and then turned the microphone back to Eddy. Eddy then began to announce that there was a special guest racing tonight and I listened with interest as he began to recount a couple of bike racing statistics – former national champion, member of the 7-11 team, and former Olympian and suddenly flushed as I realized he was talking about me. He had me raise my arm and the crowd applauded, even as I felt all the other racers’ eyes on me. What an odd and memorable event – after 18 years, I was back in “the big event” just honored to riding with the likes of these guys – many with names familiar to me – but at the same time what many - if not most of them - aspired to, was to race in the Olympics. In that moment I felt this odd admixture of humility and pride even as a few guys around me introduced themselves and shook my hand. 

“Just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped…” This, along with a brutal searing pain in the legs and lungs were the only feelings I remember from the first 15 laps or 30 minutes of the race. 

It WAS fast. Faster than I’d ever gone in a race – EVER. 31, 32 mph every straightaway – headwind or tailwind – didn’t matter. Several times during those first few laps, I found myself saying – “just make it one more lap.” Or, “just make it to the next corner – they’ll slow up…” But they didn’t. After one lap, even with the slowing in the corners to 20mph or slower, the average mph was 28.1, and that never changed – not for the next 2 hours or 62 miles. 

After 15 laps, I started to loosen up – I realized I’d made it ¼ of the way, and that maybe it wasn’t going to get worse. I started gauging my position in the pack, and getting more strategic about my line through the corners.  It was only after this first half hour that my eyes re-adjusted from their narrow fixation on the tire in front of me. And on this occasion, my returning senses took in the black horn rimmed glasses and red shirt of Jose, who screamed, “Move up Coyle!!!!” I glanced behind me – sure enough, we’d lost a good section of the group and I was riding near the tail end, and it was pretty strung out and the drafting was weak. Next couple of laps I moved up into the belly of the group and found the going just a tiny bit easier…  

One notable thing about the pros… They are not, as a group, ANY better bike handlers than the masters – maybe worse. At one point in the race, some yahoo came barging up the inside just before a corner, hit my handlebars, and then coming out of the corner, hit my front tire with his rear wheel as he snaked randomly left and right while out of the saddle.  Later in the race, I saw him doing it again, and I turned to the racer next to me and said, “look at that guy – keep your distance – he’s all over the place – watch him exit this corner.” The guy next to me didn’t even look over, he just said, “That’s Andrew Crater – he’s allowed to do that sh*#!” Andrew is a pretty prominent U.S. Pro who has won Superweek before, as well as some of the other big races in the U.S. Midway through the race, Andy suddenly materialized next to me and said, “7-11 eh? You ride with (Tommy) Matush?  I said yes. I asked him how old he was and he said “28,” and I told him, “I guess I moved into skating before you became so famous – I don’t remember racing you.” He said, “I’ve been racing a long time though….” and seemed vaguely disappointed. He then weeble-wobbled his way through the pack again – forward backward – all over the place – and disappeared. 

When 40 laps had gone by, and the lap cards showed only 35 to go, I realized that I was going to make it, and my awareness raised another level, and for the first time I took in  Ed Perez (my former boss) and his kids cheering for me. They looked excited and at some point I started getting excited too – after all I had always believed that if I didn’t get dropped, I had a shot… Meanwhile I discovered that a breakaway of 11 riders was off the front by 20 seconds – but not my problem today… I began to focus on saving energy, pedaling my corners, finding inside or outside lines without obstruction, gaining a few spots into or out of the turns, and letting a few positions go during the long hard accelerations on the straightaways.

My favorite trick was the outside line on turn one – a particularly bumpy corner approached at 30+ mph. Most riders dove inside and then braked, dropping their speed to the low 20’s. I found that every other lap or more that I could find an unobstructed line through the turn on the outside and carry it at 30 mph, darting forward 10 or more spots on the outside even as I leaned the bike way over to the left. I began to enjoy this game and played it until the last laps. 

With 10 laps to go I felt a tug in my right hamstring after a particularly hard backstretch. Not good – generally a sign of dehydration – and I only had probably 2oz’s of water left. Next straightaway – same thing – long tug from my right hamstring when I tried to pull up. So I adapted and used my quads and left hamstring and favored my right and figured I’d save all my remaining water until 2 to go, drink it then and then see if I could get one good lap out of my right leg. Meanwhile, that feeling of “flow” of sudden focus, awareness, and “knowing” returned to me. With four to go I moved up from 80th to 60th, with 3 to go to 40th, with 2 to go to 20th, and with one to go I came across the start finish in about 8th place.  

As I passed the wheel pit, I could see Jose and Todd, eyes wide open, fists shaking yelling “Go Coyle!!!!!” Disbelief in their eyes. I too was in a bit of a state of disbelief. How was it possible that I could just… do this?

As we passed the start finish and the bell rang, I resolved myself to an old Mike Walden axiom, “Get in position – you can’t win unless you are in position.” We made the first corner and headed down the shorter stretch into turn 2 and that’s when I saw it… Out of the corner of my eye, a motion to the left and suddenly a train of 4 riders in green and one in red went shooting up the inside – just enough time to clear the front of the group, but not enough time to jump on their wheels… 

Into the long backstretch, the “green train” had widened their lead on us to 3, 4, 5 bike lengths, and the single file string in front of me collapsed as the pace climbed to 34, 35, 36 mph.  The two riders in front of me sat up, even as the two riders in front of them made an attempt to bridge the gap to the green train of 4 Sierra Nevada Pro Cycling riders, with a tag-a-long of Alex Candelario from the Jelly Belly Pro Team. 

I then began my attempt to close to the 2 chasing riders, and gave it every single tendon, tendril and muscle that I had, pace climbing to 37, 38mph alone on the backstretch even as I connected to the back of the 2 rider pace group, and we then connected with the back of the “Sierra Nevada Train”.  We passed through turn 3, and my two riders suddenly gave up the ghost and I found myself with a 3 bike length gap to bridge back to the Jelly Belly rider.

Again I fired the pistons, but the fuel was running low, and even as I entered turn 4, with 400 meters to go, one bike length off the lead group, in 6th place in my first pro race in 20 years, I knew there was nothing left…. absolutely nothing.  

A friend and fellow racer from the Cat 3’s said, “I saw you come through turn 4 and for a second I thought you were going to win it… that was until I saw the FACE OF DEATH…” 

I had acid for blood and could barely turn the pedals. I made feeble attempts to keep my profile low in order to keep my speed going and watched the train accelerate away from my station and then watched wheel after wheel, jersey after jersey swing by me as the road heaved in jerky motions pinwheeling me, the bike, and the other racers into the vortex of the screaming crowd at the finish line. 

I was completely disoriented for a while, but slowly returned out of the depths of the pain of oxygen debt and circled the course to my friend Ed and his kids. They seemed honestly impressed even though what they must have seen was me going “backwards” against the press of the crowd during the finish sprint. 

I said my goodbyes to Ed and his kids and circled by the awards stand to say goodbye to Eddy, John, Todd and Jose – another Superweek over with, another summer now firmly on the ebb. I shook hands with Eddy, waved to John and then stopped by the wheel pit and humbly found them cheering as I approached… “Yeah Coyle!!! – that was almost yours – I thought you were going to take it!!!…”  “Next year I work for you – only for you!” said Jose as I gave them both a quick “man hug” and said my goodbyes. 

So I returned to the RV and then started the interminable drive home – only 2 hours, but forever after the last 4 days…. As the RV rumbled down the highway, I was left alone with my thoughts… Thoughts about time… thoughts about life and living… thoughts about memories and their relative “share of mind.” 

I conceived that in the past 4 days I had lived … a month? A year? I had watched my daughter scatter seagulls with her playful screams. I had held the felt imprint of her tiny toes in the sand. I had joyously watched her learn to ride her bike the same day we also celebrated the life of a rider who had lost it while in pursuit of the same dream. I had raced multiple times under various adversities – rain, cracked pavement, and the toll that the speed and power of full time professionals can bring to the uninitiated. I had also proved something to myself – I had proved the words of my first and most important coach, Mike Walden, who had always said, “race your strengths, train your weaknesses.” 

At the age of 37, I had finally heeded and understood these words fully and I had decided to put Mike’s philosophy to work. I had trained, for the first time in my athletic career, using a key strength – I had trained strategically. I worked on my weaknesses – aerobic ability and my aerobic threshold, but I also trained and raced my strengths – power, short term speed, drafting, and effective navigation through the pack. I’ve been preaching Mike’s words, above, for the better part of a year, having now given public speaking presentations to more than 1000 people, but had always felt I had better prove this theorem in the classroom of my own life.  

Even though I didn’t yet win a single race, and even though I finished 17th in the field sprint, and 27th overall at Whitefish Bay, I felt I had proven the truth of “train your weaknesses, Race Your Strengths.” The teams, names and countries finishing ahead of me were almost exclusively full time professionals from around the world – Alex Candelario from Jelly Belly, Dennis Haueisen from Jan Ullrich’s German team Milram, riders from Sweden, Denmark, Peru, Hong Kong… 

Walden would have been proud, though he still would have yelled at me. “Goddamit Coyle! You should have expected that move on turn one – you should have been the caboose on the Green Train – not flailing in the wind on the backstretch!” And as always, he would have been right. 

Most importantly, and as always, the pursuit of a “noble goal” has created memories – of love, of family, of important events, as well as that collegial atmosphere that follows the dramas of athletics – shared experience and adversity creating a quiet vacuum from the normal conversational inhibitions: a safe place where smiles, wine, and food form a simple common ground for important conversations about… life. 

Of course, newfound friendships and shared experiences will not keep me from doing my best to crush these same racers at my final races of the season in Downer’s Grove Illinois August 19 and 20th, and on Erie Street in Windsor, Canada September 3rd 

Til then, -John 

2007 Race Report #15: Suffering Part II...

Saturday, July 28th, 2007: Race report #15, Whitefish Bay, WI 

Eyes open. Dust flecks flap their brilliant wings in the rays of light escaping underneath the crack of the flimsy plastic window shades. It is morning and I am alive… barely.

I took a moment to register the location – low ceilings, the surround of cheap laminated wood cabinets, the brilliantly glowing eggshell of the plastic skylight, bug shadows on the forward curve: the RV’s awkward charms remained the same.. but, where, exactly, were we?

Synapses flickered and suddenly I realized that like a year ago I was parked behind the same Sendiks grocery in Whitefish Bay, WI – 100 feet from the finish line of the 17th and final stage of the 2007 Superweek “International Cycling Classic” series of bike races.

A year ago this was an opening – the frisson of the new – the proverbial ‘stirring of the pot’ - the entering of the fray. Now it was different. Long gone was the purity of stage one of Superweek – the milling of the crowd - the anticipation of the roll call. Long lost in the “hedonic treadmill” of life was the pleasure of the lineup and the announcements, the colors, the jerseys, the lines and faces of my fellow racers.

I had re-entered the world of the symbolic – where day to day pleasures recede, where the people and faces and cracked concrete and gritty asphalt all became pawns in a bigger game.

Why must we lose the present in pursuit of the future?

Present had reigned at least briefly the night before. Like the year previous I pulled the RV right into the center of the course at Downer Avenue, opened the doors and enjoyed the visits and conversations of the cyclists, speedskaters and friends that bothered to drop by. Missing was Eddy Van Guise, Chris, Jose, & Camie and others but still we had a fine sultry evening of guests in our little rolling home, Katelina tucked in early in the bed in back and Olu, Todd, Brenda, Jon and others swinging by for a bite of pasta or glass of wine.

I was reminded of the year previous – where, after a glass or two of wine, I had spent a good deal of time riding long wheelies on my $4000 race bike up and down Downer Ave and Jeff and I had treated the Milram team to a few extra beers in hopes of slowing their assault the following day.  No wheelies and just one glass of wine last night – and a focus on what was to come in the morning…

Stars, like sparrows, circled my inner eyelids when I finally rose. I felt swollen, full, hot, so I drink water and turn on the fans. Still I continued to feel lethargic, dry, bloated – yet empty. I had hardly slept. The flashes – the sudden startles – the gunshots in my legs, had increased in their frequency and intensity and kept me up most of the night. I started the generator and ran the overhead A/C unit. Straightening up – again the vertigo – it was surprising, unexpected – but not new…

The same old deja-vu.

I forced morning activities into “normal” and with discipline metered out a routine of hydration, food, registration, and a short “pre-warmup” on the bike. In hindsight, these formalities were like reading the music for “Taps” – a prelude for what was to come.

 A month later and in a middle- of-the-night moment of clarity the deja-vu’s were suddenly placed. The shooting stars in my legs, the midnight panicked awakenings, the leg sweats. All these were incredibly familiar – yet distant. These were not constants in my 30 years as an athlete – these memories were concentrated during critical focal points and subsequent failures in my athletic career: The first time was the summer of 1986 after moving into the Olympic Training Center in Colorado in prep for the World Cycling Championships. A few weeks of intensive training later and… 

The second was the fall and winter of 1990 in Calgary – the  first year of full time speedskating training. 3 workouts a day for 4 or 5 months and suddenly nights stopped being restful, I lost muscle mass, I trained better and better and raced worse and worse.  

Then again in the following year in 1991 training in Colorado Springs again – this time for skating – by the 1992 Olympic trials I was slower in the 500m than I had been since I was a teenager living in California…  

Most recently was in Lake Placid, New York, in preparations for the 1998 Olympics where I had my worst finish in an Olympic trials ever, despite working harder than I ever had.  

These were the years where I had experienced these same visceral electrical stimuli and associated exhaustion. These were the years where I believed the most, trained the hardest and had results that… 

The results in those years? So simple to see it now - all of those years had three things in common:  

1) Ever more ‘solid’ and ‘consistent’ endurance training sessions (meeting coaches expectations) paralleled by…  

2) An ever deepening physical and psychological gloom, and… 

3) Solid, consistent, and absolutely uninspired racing results - well below my expectations.  

Psychologically, these years were devastating – lost was that “magic” – that inspiring ability to race well beyond my training. To lay it all on the line and come up with “average,” this was the part that was most heart-rending of all…  

I watched my friend Matt  Dula start his first licensed race – a brutal, large, relatively experienced field of cat 5 riders, all 15 to 20 years younger than he ping-ponging pell-mell around the circuit. Tense, nervous, cautious on the corners, yet he hung on  - precariously, like a raindrop on a vertical surface, struggling to maintain position for a lap only to suddenly dodge backward and sideways and then pause again – swelling – stationary for a moment before another sudden drop to the next section of the peleton until he was isolated into a chase pack after 7 or 8 laps.

I watched and cheered as he attempted to stay safe and finish his first licensed race. I did fear for the worst – that this first foray into the weird dynamics of cycling might result in the horrendous feeling of getting completely dropped and suffering alone against the wind, or worse yet, a crash…

A lap later and suddenly he’s gone. A fall on the far side of the course has lost him his sunglasses, dented his helmet, and left him dazed. I tried to talk him into returning, but he is unsure. First race blues – a fall, no visible injuries, but fear… it grows. Walden would always, ALWAYS demand, “get back on the bike Coyle! Finish the race, or at least the lap!” I failed Matt – and he stayed on the sidelines.

Hours and hours until my final bout of Superweek suffering, so Shannon, Kat, Matt and three of his children made for the beach at the lakefront of lake Michigan. The escarpment overlooking the lake features a dramatic wood and cement staircase with a half-dozen switchbacks leading down the 200 vertical feet to the sand. Despite some evil smelling offal washing ashore it was a picturesque day and we laid our towels upwind of the odors and tried to relax, Matt was quickly horizontal in the post-race peace, and myself just walking, walking, trying to limber up, while ignoring every signal my body was sending.

It wasn’t until the return up the stairs that the dire circumstances of my physical condition truly made itself manifest. The hundreds of steps we had descended in an easy ramshackle file to the beach had to be re-scaled in order to return to the race course.

We passed beyond the amber sands and after a matter of only 5 or 6 steps up the weathered wooden stairs I stopped - a buzzing in my ears, intensifying whites bleaching through the lines of the reflected sun on the wood. The white cement expanded and coursed through all levels of contrast, overexposing everything within my view. A wave of weariness & nausea starting in my ankles washed through my limbs. I was again reminded of how dry and swollen my mouth was.

In agonizingly slow motion I climbed a few more steps. Shannon, Matt and the kids chattering as they swarmed past me. Their sounds seemed to grow in volume and fill my thoughts even while receding in the distance - colors began to fade again, whiteness, heat, dry mouth, sparks and fireflies – then like the blades of a slow motion helicopter, my neck seemed to rotate and the sky throbbed – voom, vooom, voooom.

Like a sailor in a gale I held the railing, head down, white knuckles, riding the roiling disequilibrium. Dozens of steps ahead the voices finally faded. I dreaded sight, I dreaded sound. I didn’t want anyone to see. Then, the inevitable question from above - one of the wooden switchbacks, a strangely familiar voice – like someone I knew… “John – are you OK?”

My friend Matt. The kids were well beyond earshot. I shook my head mildly, downplaying my predicament and made an attempt to resume the climb – stopping every 4 or 5 steps.

The kids were playing at the top of the stairs and only Matt noticed how long it took me to make the trek. “Are you OK?” he asked again with real concern. Again I shrugged my shoulders with a rueful smile, then we piled into our cars and the RV and made our way back to the racecourse.

The race itself is a footnote. I lined up. I read the lap cards: “80” while crowds milled about in the beer tents, announcements were made, and the sun moved westward. I suffered through the usual pain of the first laps despite an extremely hard warmup with Matt that was fueled by a sudden suspicion that the start time was earlier than we had thought.

But unlike Downer Avenue, where the pain was controlled, focused, having behind it the bruising power of heavy machinery running cool and powerful, the feeling at Whitefish Bay was one of heat and disorder and of fear – muscles out of order, knees sloppily rotating, feet pedaling squares, never settling into any kind of rhythm –  my legs were like egg-beaters whipping a bowl full of marbles – the pain was shocking, tinny, abrupt, and visceral.

Like the little steel ball in a Japanese Plinko machine I bounced left, up, right and inevitably back and after 35 laps I finally fell out the back, coasting to the sidelines mouth open wide gasping for air, legs quivering, knees out.

 

The race whirred by eventually spitting out 85% of the starters. Even Ben Renkema – last year’s Cat 2 national champion and Michigan State Champion was dropped – with only 4 laps remaining – how does that happen? Catching my breath I said goodbye to Matt and tasted the poignant bitterness of disappointment - no Superweek win this year. We said our goodbyes to Eddy, Jose and some of the racers, loaded up the RV and I climbed behind the wheel to drive home.

Enroute back to Chicago I cracked the window, feeling the evening air as it cooled, its play on my face reminding me of so many things. I grew still and sad – another summer on the wane. We arrived home late, and the next morning I got up early and returned back to work.

 Flashback: October, 1983. I was sitting on the smooth green padded vinyl bench of a schoolbus, traveling from Ohio to West Virginia – encased in the yellow metal shell, the musty smell, the  dirty black floors and the roar of the diesel straining against the wind, cars passing us. 39 other student members of my high school music band and I were out for our annual “band tour.”

Fortunately I had no conception of the dorkiness I represented: skinny, short, braces, pimples, unfashionable clothes, honor society, and on tour with the high school band playing 2nd French horn. My mind was elsewhere. 

I pinched the double latches, and with some effort pulled down the bus window above my seat, ignoring the feeble protest of another band geek behind me, his papers riffling with the wind.  The yellow raft of light piercing the open window warmed my face as the last wisps of the Indian Summer air swirled through the window.

I remember with clarity feeling a nameless ache I had already begun to associate with this time of year – the melancholy of falling leaves, the crisp fading light, the end of summer and of the cycling season.  Regardless of my personally undetermined state in the high school hierarchy, I had become a force to be reckoned with in the cycling world, and each year I yearned for more warm days, more races, more time on the bike.

Every year I became more keenly aware of the first signs of the changing weather patterns signaling the end of the season. And of course there was the girl back at school – taller, older, an Egyptian carving: beautiful alabaster skin with black pools for eyes and those budding hints at mysteries unknown. She knew my name – but to her I was probably what I really was – a sideshow to the older, taller, stronger, white-toothed upperclassman. I longed for her and for summer, and ached deeper for something unknown. I was nostalgic and mournful in the grandest sense without knowing why.

I was the first and only band geek to have a “jam box” or more accurately a stereo cassette player/radio with a handle and large speakers. It was silver and I had spent virtually all my winnings of bike races that summer on it and it was loud and powerful. On and off I received requests to play tapes, but mostly we tuned into various radio stations as the countryside drifted by and the season changed. 

On this particular evening the sun had set and the rows of seats in the bus had changed from green to gray. Outside the windows all that remained of the day was a glimmer on the horizon that last kiss of the day on the undersides of the clouds. I had the window open and we were thousands of miles from anything or anyone and my pining for something lost and lamented increased and the presence of so many others only amplified my loneliness.

Then suddenly, as I turned the tuner dial – it came – that first piano chord… It was just unaccompanied piano – but it was the perfect capture of this melancholy, this longing, the ghostly cool air, the barren trees.

Instinctively I hit “record” and listened transfixed, turning up the volume. The piano played on and again I turned it up and the bus – full of the usual hum of teenage conversations – grew oddly still. 40 teenagers away from home, disembodied on plastic seats, grew still and listened and the piano played on. Then Bono’s voice came out,  

“October…and the trees are stripped bare…of all they wear… what do I care?”“October… and kingdoms rise, and kingdoms fall… but you go on… and on…” 

As I write this it is yet another October, and again I feel that same teenage melancholy – another summer gone, Fall on its way, and the chill of Winter is coming. The seasons rule and I have to wait another year to prove my mettle.

But at least I have the warmth of my two girls which removes the sting of the cold.

Maturity tells me I need the rest anyway…

-John Coyle, October, 2007

2006 Race Report #8: Downer Avenue, Milwaukee

Non-Race Report, Saturday July 22nd, Superweek Stage 15, Downer Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 62 miles, 75 degrees.  No, I didn’t race this night. Downer Avenue is a “Pro 1/2 only” event. As it turns out, I could have but I wanted to enjoy the Downer Ave. race one more time as a spectator.

Early in the evening I had a conversation on the announcers stand with Heidi, the chief referee –  “After many years,” I said, “I’ve decided to go ahead and move up and race with the pro 1/2’s.”  Somehow I expected her to know who I was, but of course I was just another of a zillion racers… “Well, to move up, I’ll need a race resume, and I’m not sure I’ll have time to review it before registration closes…” 

“No, not for tonight” I said, “For tomorrow – but I can write you a race resume tonight and bring it by later.”   “OK,” she said and we agreed to check in later that evening, where I brought her some of the race finishes I’d had over the last year – more than enough to move up. (In order to move up to the elite categories you need to prove that you’ve earned it by earning points. Basically you can move up with 3 top 3 finishes, or 5 top 5 finishes or 10 top 10 finishes.  

Downer Avenue, 5pm: Gemutlicheit is how the Germans would describe the intangible positive vibe in this wealthy North Shore neighborhood on this evening. Promoter estimates suggest 20 – 30,000 people line the course of this annual event, though it feels like more… The one mile triangular course consists of two tree lined neighborhood streets, concluding with the third: the long finish stretch with the finish line right in the heart of the boutique coffee-house and restaurant lined section of town. The outdoor seating of the cafes, the upscale markets, all accentuated by the elegant lines of the wealthy patrons and their automobiles makes for rather excellent people watching. As the picnicking public arrives, it is not beer and brats – rather wine and brie, steaks and shrimp that they carry in their coolers. 

Jeff and I arrived early enough to get a decent spot for the RV, next to a tiny little green space lining the final corner of the race. We dressed in our cycling gear and headed out for an easy 40 minute ride down the lakefront area of Milwaukee, and then returned and “prepped” for the race. The game plan was for

  • A) me to hit the Chiropractic services as my back was killing me, and
  • B) to walk the course, and
  • C) for us to cook an excellent pasta dinner in large quantities, and
  • D) to deliver some of it to our favorite people – Jose and Todd in the mechanics wheel pit area, Sarah in Chiropractic/massage, and to Eddy and John on the announcing booth. 

As it turned out, that was a rather aggressive game plan, as the grocery shopping, followed by the “back cracking”, followed by the walk around the course put us nearly halfway through the 60 lap, 2hr. race. On the backstretch, we ran into Robbie Ventura’s father and chatted for a few minutes about old times, and Floyd’s amazing success in the tour (Robbie is Floyd’s coach – as well as the coach my friend Jeff). 

Finally, we made it back to the RV and boiled water for the penne pasta  on one propane burner, and began chopping up the onions, garlic, yellow squash, and zucchini to fry in olive oil in the pan next to it. Meanwhile I quickly boiled, peeled, and crushed fresh tomato, and pulled fresh basil from the stems in prep for the sauce. Meanwhile, outside Jeff grilled the chicken on our portable grill and then sliced it.  After finishing the pasta, we added the chicken and fresh tomatoe to the vegetables, and added in fresh basil, and pecorino romano cheese, and only then realized we had no salt! 

We wrapped 5 portions in bowls and aluminum foil, and then headed of to deliver them, stopping to “borrow” a salt shaker from a local restaurant, properly salting the sauce. We delivered dinner to Jose, Todd, Sarah, Eddie, and John and then headed back to serve ourselves. However, by the time we returned to the RV, served up our plates, opened some wine, and retired to our previously placed folding chairs, there was only 2 laps left to go in the race. 

We watched the final laps, and then wandered down to the awards ceremony while still carrying our fresh pasta to watch the medals being distributed. Finally, we broke camp and loaded up the RV to implement the final stage of the plan… Earlier we had picked up a number of bottles of wine to share with whomever came by. We pulled out in the RV, bypassed the barricades and drove right into the center of town, parking right next to the wheel pit and the announcer’s booth.

We unrolled the awning, turned on the interior and exterior lights, broke out the folding chairs, turned up some music, and sat out on the sidewalk under the darkening skies as the bulk of the spectators faded, and the post race rituals for the initiated commenced. 

A little about the RV… well… it is “retro.” Meaning “old.”  It is a 1987, 28 foot Georgie Boy Cruise Air II. It is replete with wall to wall brown shag, mauve couches and seats, and faux wood paneling tables and real wood paneled kitchen cabinets. It has 3 beds and comfortably sleeps… well, 3. The exterior is a taupe fiberglass box with the horizontal ridges so typical of the era. It has a working stove, microwave, TV, AC, generator, hot water heater, coffeemaker, bathroom with toilet and sink, shower with hot water, fridge, freezer, CD player and VCR. The entire 10,000lb vehicle has a blue book value only slightly more than my 16 lb Italian, hand-painted carbon fiber bicycle balanced delicately on the rack on the back.

There is some sort of weird credibility in that juxtaposition… Yes, I get a lot of jealous looks from the other cyclists as they pile into their cramped team vans or other tiny vehicles. Cyclists typically have a keen retro whimsy. I recently added some vintage looking throw rugs from Target to spice up the interior and now it almost looks 1988 – even 1989. Until this year I really didn’t have to do any maintenance, but now I’m thinking of upgrading – but on the other hand, it only has 31,000 miles on it…. I admit it, I love my second home – even though I keep forgetting to deduct it on my taxes… 

Soon Jose and Todd from the SRAM sponsored mechanical support team materialized, and Todd gave me a signed copy of his recently published tome on bicycle maintenance, jokingly suggesting that now I’d at least know SOMETHING about taking care of a bike when he signed it for me.  Eddy Van Guys (the announcer – and former actor who played the “evil Italian” racer in the Oscar winning movie “Breaking Away) and his son came by next and he ended up chatting with Jeff at length while I talked to his son. Eventually Eddy and I talked and I told him of my intent to move up to race with the pros the following day. He said, “John, I’ve had a few glasses of wine, but I want to celebrate this long overdue occasion – do me a favor tomorrow and give me a brief bio, and then wave to me on the start line to remind me OK?” I promised I would. 

Next came the chiropractic/massage girls and doctor and a number of racers, including a couple of the German Milram riders, followed by Chris (the coordinator of the registration, payments and everything in between) and Hillary (a former race coordinator) and several others. Pretty soon we had a good sized group hanging out in and out of the RV and we ended up staying until almost midnight – right on Downer Ave. 

At one point I remember stepping out of my “home” with a bottle of wine in hand ready to pour into the empty glasses of our “guests”, the remnants of our pasta in a bowl for one of the cyclists and I paused to look out at the relaxed smiling faces… and I felt home. For that moment, on that street, with old friends and new, it was though we were hosts to the world and the street was ours, and I smiled and breathed deep before heading down the final step to the curb.. 

The Milram team racers indicated they were going to the “Eastsider” on North Avenue, so we packed it up and joined Dennis Hauweizer and his teammates and a dozen other pros on their last night of the Superweek classic at the Eastsider in Milwaukee. Dennis already had enough points to win the overall title for the series and would soon be heading back to join his somewhat defamed teammate Jan Ullrich. We talked for a little while at the bar and mostly people watched. Jeff and I sipped the last of our wine, said goodbye to Chris, Hillary, Dennis, Sarah and various other racers and support personnel and then finally headed off to Whitefish bay.

As we pulled into an empty lot behind Sendicks, I was happy to discover the air had miraculously turned cool with the proximity of some large storms. Even as I collapsed on the bed in the rear of the RV, I remember thinking, “I need to drink some water….”

It was 2am and I was not exactly preparing properly for one of the most competitive professional races run in the USA… or was I? Dennis and his teammates were still there after we left, and I bought them a round of beer just before we headed out the door…

I smiled before drifting off to sleep.

Race Report #7: Cudahay

Race Report, Saturday July 22nd, Superweek Stage 15, Cudahay WI 40 miles, 71 degrees, overcast, bumpy.  So Jeff and I woke and started watching the tour – Landis overcoming the odds by winning the time trial and securing his yellow jersey for the next day.

Meanwhile we loaded up the RV with food, water, bikes, blankets and food. Our plan was to race, watch the pro race at Downer Avenue, and camp in the RV overnight at Whitefish bay in prep for Sunday’s finale. 

We arrived at Cudahay a little late – between watching the tour and loading up, we had little time to spare for warmup. For the first time Jeff and I would finally race together, and I was excited to show him the “lazy man ropes” to cycling that I had perfected through the years. We met at the line and proceeded around a course full of aged, cracked concrete, complete with major potholes and off-camber corners full of mysterious cracks. Turn two had both – an off camber approach, and a cracked convex surface. It was followed immediately by a short hill. Nothing major, but for those riders unaccustomed to risking their life with a large pack over terrible surfaces, a climb of monumental magnitude. 

Due to our late arrival, Jeff and I lined up in back, and sure enough, his second big race of the season on a dangerous course, Jeff found himself gapped after that first round of turn 2. He reconnected after a long hard uphill upwind stretch on straightaway 3, only to be gapped again the next lap.  After 3 laps, he was somehow managing to ride all alone and still keep up just 30 feet off the back, even as a few others peeled off.  I dropped back to bring him into the pack. He followed my wheel into the group, and I gave him a little shove. But sure enough, next time around on the moonscape of turn 2, he was gapped again, and even as I drifted back and brought him back into the fold of the draft, I could feel the anguish coming from his legs.  One more round of this, and I had to sprint back into the draft as Jeff folded slowly off the back.

I remember thinking, “I could never last that long facing the wind alone.” But the race continued, and the corner continued to take its prisoners as the pack whittled its way down. After 40 laps, 4 men had managed to lap the field and I was then in the unhappy position of sprinting for 5th. The rough course created quite a landgrab for the front and I was forced again and again to sprint up to the front to defend my position – quite unlike my “internal” work in previous races.

With 3 to go, I sprinted up to 2nd, only to find myself back in 15th on the backstretch. Same with 2 to go. Finally with one to go, again I sprinted up to 4th on the homestretch, only to find myself blocked by a rider failing to address turn 2 properly. I fell to 9th on the backstretch, finding no openings to move up. On the second to last stretch, I stayed outside and moved up to 8th, following the leadout that was hammering down the left side.  

We entered the final 300m downhill stretch of the course and … nothing happened. I stayed in 8th, but the pace stayed the same.  I got out of my saddle to make a move up the inside just as a flyer went by to my right. I jumped on the wheel and we swung up the inside, as I darted around one rider that put himself into my path. We accelerated past the chain on the left and I gave it all I had to come by the rider ahead of me, but missed by a wheel. 2nd in the field sprint, but another 6th place finish.

Nonetheless, I had made my decision. Tonight I would commit – to move up to the Pro I/II category and race with the full time professionals.  

I’m 37, working full time, with a family, but it was time to put myself to the test in the biggest series in the US, against full time professionals whose sole job is to eat guys like me for lunch and win money and fame for their sponsors. Tomorrow night, at Whitefish bay, the last of the Superweek series, I would skip the masters race, and the category 3 race to do 100 kilometers with Jan Ullrich’s teammates from the Milram team, the Jelly Belly professional team, and 155 other professional or near-professional riders.

 I remember lining up at Cudahay with Jeff. He looked visibly nervous even as I stretched. I asked if he was nervous.. “Absolutely” he said, “I don’t want to get dropped.” The following day I would know that feeling, but in between, a lot would happen. As it turned out,. Cudahay was a footnote in the broader story of the day… But Saturday night deserves its own entry…. 

Race Report #6: Kenosha

Race Report, Friday July 21st, Superweek Stage 14, Kenosha WI 50 miles, 67 degrees, pouring rain.  Another memorable day, though again, the race itself paled (literally) to the circumstances surrounding it. We woke at our campsite in Kohler Andrae State park, and after some hot coffee, eggs, bacon, cereal and a banana, Katelina and I headed off to ride her pink bike and explore the park. 

The AC ran on and off all night and by morning, we opened the windows to smell the sweet pitch of pine, and the rolling humidity of the lakeshore.  I had re-assembled Katelina’s training wheels in a very off balance position and we began practicing “riding without the noise” produced by the training wheels rattling against the asphalt. Sure enough she was able to go long stretches without touching, balancing well and I was quite proud and excited for her.  We ended up going off-road over a windswept grassy hill that became a dune and rolled down the other side toward the lakeshore.

We parked her bike and raced up and over the last dune separating the camping area from the beach. We were all alone on miles of lakeshore (it was still 8:30am) and there was a huge flock of seagulls loitering just south of us. Katelina looked at me with a particular gleam in her eye and I nodded and said, “I know exactly what you are thinking.” She nodded back at me with that  mischievious little smile or hers and went streaking off across the dune. 

I was filled with wonder and humility as I watched my tiny little offspring, limbs flailing, run directly into hundreds of seagulls on the shore, as they took to their wings and circled her tiny frame, legs splayed as she pranced among them, face filled with glee. I found myself smiling so much that my cheeks hurt.

She would stop, let them circle back to the ground a little further on, and then rush at them full speed again mouth open screaming bird cries. As I traced her path, I could see her little accelerating foot prints, spaced widely in the wet sand, with toe shaped clumps of detrius littered behind each print reflecting the ferocity of her approach. “Another sprinter?” I thought… 

We stayed down at the beach for an hour  and then headed back for another round of riding the bike and balancing, and another pass at the beach, the sand, the waves, and of course, the seagulls.  We collected seashells and amazingly circular and flat polished pebbles that Katelina added to her rock collection. Finally it was time to head back to the campsite and get on our way to Kenosha.

We made sandwiches and I guzzled Gatorade as we headed into the darkening and graying skies over Milwaukee and eventually Kenosha. We found a very nice parking spot right by the course in Kenosha. I was also in touch with my former boss and partner from DiamondCluster – Jeff Huff, who had taken to cycling in a big way. Jeff had recently hired Robbie Ventura as his coach (Floyd Landis’s coach) and helped me get much more scientific about my training. More on that later.

Jeff had raced earlier in the Master’s category hanging in very well for his first big race of the season. I registered but did not find Jeff, so I went off to warm up, following the seashore and feeling some tired legs and truculent heart as I tried to get a decent pre-race warmup. 

Finally, I took to the line – 70 laps, 280 corners, and just as the first few big drops came down, they started the race. Kenosha is probably my favorite race of Superweek. Centered right on a sizeable city park, it is filled with music, tents with vendors providing food, massages, banking, cell service, and lots and lots of giant blowup activities for kids (rock climbing wall, slide, fun house, pirate ship, mystery house, trampoline tent etc.) There are a lot people around the course watching and cheering, and more importantly I knew that Katelina would have a lot to do – Including her very own race – the big wheel race slated to start right after my race finished. 

Meanwhile, by lap 5 or 6, the course was fully saturated with water, and by lap 10 it began coming down really hard. Racing in the rain is particularly hard for me. Not so much for the skill needed in cornering (have to be extra careful) but because it forces the pace into a “sprint, brake, sprint, brake” format due to the extra caution into the corners. So the pack strings out pretty much single file and it becomes a wet death march toward the finish.  This, and the fact that its just impossible to see anything. Each tire in front of you sends up an amazing peacock tail of water, that, when you are more than a few bikes back, adds to the overall downpour, with the special additive of “silt.”

Roads are dirty – with exhaust, gas, oil, sand, dirt, garbage – whatever. All of that is picked up and flung directly into your eyes by the bike tires in front of you. Which is why we wear glasses. Glasses that get full of dirt and fog up after a few laps and then get put in your pocket for the rest of the race. So the laps counted down, and my tear ducts filled with black gunk that would come seeping out over the next 24 hours. (Middle of the night, I rub my eyes, and boulders of black junk come out that were… where? Behind my eyeball?) Later I would shower and the floor of the shower was black with all the stuff from the road… and my jerseys – will never quite become as bright as they used to be. 

60 to go, 50 to go, 40 to go, 30 to go, 20 to go. I sat up to drink some water and have some “goo” (liquid food) and realized that it had stopped raining – the water hitting my eyes was merely from the bikes in front of me.  In the meantime I had stayed in the top 20 to stay out of trouble. With the lessening of the rain, it was time to relax a little before the final effort to the line. Drifting back and starting to see some dry patches on the road, suddenly a major accident occurred in front of me on turn one: 7, 10, 12 riders sliding out to avoid the first rider that had leaned to far on the still-wet surface. I locked up both tires going straight at the rider down in front of me, but avoiding the turning/lean mechanism that would have put me into the asphalt with him. I stopped completely 6 inches from his body, turned and leaned out of the saddle, re-accelerating back into the strung out masses of riders filing up the inside. This effort hurt, and I remember thinking “I’m too tired to sprint.” 

With 10 to go I was riding dead last. Same with 9, 8, 7, 6, and 5 to go. There were short moments when the pack slowed down and I thought it was time to move up, but I still felt tired and worried over the slick pavement. In particular, turn 2 had some very large white paint stripes that caused virtually tire to skip, slip, and grab on the way around. 4 to go… I guess I should move up. Too lazy to move outside or inside with all this wind. Lets see if I can just slide up a few spots in the middle of the pack.

Unlike Sheboygan, there was no sudden energy boost. Just the discipline to know that with 3 to go I had better be at least halfway through the pack. So as the pack fanned into and out of turns, I picked off 2 riders here, 4 there, and dove into narrow gaps, making my space into the corners.  75th with four to go, 40th with 3 to go, 10th with 2 to go, and 5th with 1 to go.

We screamed past the start finish and I had a good position heading into turn 1. Into the backstretch, but the pace was too low. I drifted outside the draft, waiting for the inevitable surge due to the low pace. Sure enough, 7 riders flinging up the inside and I attached in 8th going into turn 3, 400m to go. I slipped up to 6th on the second to last straightaway, and decided to go full bore into the final 250M stretch hoping for a draft and leadout to perhaps get me the “W”. But to no avail. I was all alone on the far right, charging forward even as riders #3 and #4 used the draft to spring up the inside. No way to get their wheels, and any move inside would have put me into the backward movements of the disintegrating leadout men. I surged up the outside, but could only muster 3rd place. 

Again thwarted at Kenosha, where I have finished 2nd or 3rd for 5 years running, but not mastered a win. As I finished, I found Shannon with Katelina and Jeff, as well as some friends, who were surprised at my finish, “amazing! great job! we thought you were done!” 

Apparently the dirt from the road had given me a “grey-green” appearance, and my inability to see anything beyond the dirt had given them the impression that I was “done for.” Jeff, apparently, had chided a friend for yelling “move up!” with 6 to go by saying, “Maybe we should leave him alone – he looks grey – even sick…” After a brief warmdown lap, it was time for Katelina’s race. We had to borrow a helmet, and she had to wait, impatiently for the 3-4 year olds to finish, and then it was her turn.

She pedaled like a madwoman against her 15 peers, and mustered a 3rd place finish to two boys, only to disintegrate into tears, and then a tantrum for “not winning.” Appears that she is a bit competitive after all.  We were ultimately able to calm her by indicating that she got the same place (3rd) as her papa, and that it was GOOD to get 3rd. (I swear I will never be one of those “3rd place is ‘second loser’” kind of parents) 

We then ate some excellent Thai food and watched the pro race under clearing skies, with the sun eventually coming out. This, of course, after I took a nice hot shower in the RV where the dirt ran of me in black rivulets. I decided to take Kat on some of the rides and ended up missing the pro finish due to the lines for the rides, but she had a grand time jumping, bumping and sliding until time ran out and we headed for the RV for the 2 hour drive home in the gathering gloom. 

Jeff and I watched the Tour de France as Shannon and Katelina went to bed, and we each headed to sleep after midnight with the plans of doing it again (on Saturday), and again on Sunday. 

As my mind wandered as I headed off to sleep, I was again struck by what a day full of life it had been – a true full day – riding bikes with my daughter, time at the beach one on one, seagulls and wading in the water, more beach time and shell collecting, a downpour, a podium finish, a race for Kat and then playtime with Kat, and watching the Tour de France while  catching up with an old friend – all in one day… What could Saturday bring….?

Amazingly life continued its full pace the next 2 days….

Race Report #5: Sheboygan

Race Report, Thursday July 20th, Superweek Stage 13, Sheboygan, WI 50 miles, 81 degrees.    Sometimes life packs a lot of life into a few days. Regardless of being good or bad, unique experiences tend to fill your memory, extending and expanding time, turning hours into days, and days into weeks in your mind.  

The 4 days of this extended weekend were definitely one of those times where I was able to “suck the marrow out of life” and live fully – if not always pleasantly. Take, for instance Wednesday night, July 19th. Arriving home after a long trip back from my job in Chicago at 5:30pm, my goal was to have us turned around and in the RV by 6pm so that we could get to one of our favorite state parks – Kohler Andrae – in Sheboygan on the beaches of lake Michigan, before dark. 

I had picked up the RV from a repair shop where I had had a few minor – and I mean MINOR repairs completed. Specifically a CD player installed (that I already owned), a replacement sunroof, a new battery cable, and a new seal where the toilet connects to the septic system (was leaking a little – not a good thing). I could have done the work myself, but my work schedule didn’t allow a lot of time for this so I brought it in. The parts came to $126 – about what I expected, but the labor came to $1100 (for 13.2 hours of labor).  No estimate, no call on expected time – nothing. And when my wife picked it up earlier that day, the guy there had the gumption to say, “I spent most of the time putting in the CD player”. So basically, an operation I could have had done for $50 at Best Buy cost me $800 for some guy at the RV shop to “learn while doing”. This still irks me just writing about it and I wonder if I have any recourse.  Lessons learned.

Anyway, I arrived home and began loading up the RV. One of the other repair items for the “stellar team” at Custom RV was to fix the exhaust/muffler from the generator. Specifically, the exhaust pipe coming from the generator was rusty and getting shorter each time it banged loose from the C-clamp I had installed.  They called just hours before we picked it up to say, “we didn’t fix the generator – we still have to order that part” indicating to me that they hadn’t even looked at it in the preceding 5 days they had had the vehicle.  

So after loading up, I disconnected the 120 volt power from the house and fired up the generator (which runs the AC) to keep it cool while we started our drive.  It started rough and bucked around a lot, and the muffler detached itself yet again, taking another inch of rusty exhaust pipe with it. So I crawled underneath the RV, body half up on the curb and angled awkwardly in the gathering dark and slid the C-clamp upward to the next length of rusty pipe and re-attached the muffler.

 I started the generator, and it continued to run a little rough but kept the AC running cool. We decided to eat dinner at home prior to our departure, so made a quick meal, and then headed out to the RV. The generator had quit, and furthermore, the muffler had come loose AGAIN! I spent another 30 minutes reattaching the muffler with the associated, bruised knuckles and showers of rusty flakes into my eyes, only to find that the generator would not even start.  

It being 90 degrees, with a hot night expected, and not having an electric campsite to plug in and run the AC, we finally gave up the ghost and decided to not drive to Sheboygan that night. I was frustrated and disappointed. I had been anticipating all week waking up on the shores of Lake Michigan and having an early morning walk, riding bikes with Kat, and cooking out under the clean lake air. Instead I watched part of the tour de France and then retired to bed. 

The next morning I awoke early with a new plan. The AC unit run by the generator was one of two units in the RV, the other was the typical type found in any vehicle, but it had never worked well. So I brought it over to the local GM dealer to have it charged with Freon. I arrived at 7:45 am, but the process took until after 10am, with the caveat that “there may be a leak” and cost another $200. But… it did blow cool air. 

So finally, at 10:30 we hit the road to Sheboygan, with the AC keeping it fairly reasonable inside except when we slowed down passing through Fond Du Lac. We arrived at the State Park around 1:15pm and were able to get an electric campsite (thank God!) but were told that the checkout time was 3pm so we may not be able to get in. Sure enough, there was still a camper there at 1:30, and again at 2pm when we stopped by again.

Meanwhile we had walked down to the beach to pass the time and I took a short swim with Katelina who was just a doll. But now it was getting late, and HOT again. With a 5 year old girl, and a new puppy of 8 weeks, we were concerned about the heat getting to either of them. So I set off towards the race course (the race started at 3:50pm) with a new mission – to find a house where we could plug in the RV to run the rooftop air conditioner. 

Traffic was tough and we arrived near the course at 3:15pm – not giving me much time to get ready and warmup – and still I need to find a house to plug in the RV. I circled the course slowly, meandering down dead end lanes and finding no one about. Finally I found a house with a woman and child playing out front. I must have seemed odd with my conversation as I asked, “I’ll pay you $20 to be able to plug in an extension cord somewhere into an outlet in your house….” She responded, “well, as long as you are not going to kill me or break into my house or something….” So I unraveled the power cable, which she plugged in down in her basement (and we promptly blew a circuit breaker) and another 5 minutes later while she located the fuse box, we were in business – the overhead AC unit was blowing cool. 

Now I had 20 minutes to dress, pump up my tires, register and warmup… Not exactly the best race prep. 10 minutes later I was checked in, and after 7 minutes of warmup, I lined up next to the 90 racers who would share my suffering for the next 2 hours. What came next was unexpected.  In tears, the race announcer then let the crowd know that something terrible had happened on the preceding day. In the first accident of its kind in the 37 year history of the superweek tour, a rider had been killed in a collision with a car during a road race. We held a moment of silence on the line, and they announced by name and pulled forward to the line all the teammates of the departed racer.  

As a pack, we solemnly followed Aaron Beberitz’s teammates quietly around the course, noting the black arm warmer and front wheel being used by Aaron’s closest friend and team mate who led the lap. A few riders started to move up on the outside or inside and each was interfered with to keep the moment proper. After we finished the lap of silence, the race began in earnest and a light rain began to fall, cooling things off, but not wetting the pavement fully.  

Shortly after the start I realized two things: 1) I had hydrated properly all day, drinking more than a gallon of liquids, and 2) in the rush of things I had not been able to relieve myself in the past hour… my discomfort began to build. 

Oddly, about 20 laps in, the race was stopped. “Please stop racing, leave the course, there is a medical emergency – please stop racing, leave the course.” Never in my 29 seasons of racing had this happened, and my heart sank as I considered that perhaps another racing tragedy had occurred.

However, as we all peeled off in ones and twos to side streets, the arrival of ambulances, coincided with an announcement, “there has been a medical emergency in one of the houses lining the course and the fire dept. and ambulances are blocking the road.” Sad that anyone should be experiencing a medical emergency, but at least it was not another serious cycling incident. 

Just then I had an idea – I leaned my bike over and headed across course to the Port-o-potties and was able to complete my pre-race preparations – 20 laps into the race. Sure enough, within minutes another 20 or 30 racers rolled over to take care of business… We all milled around the start line for about 20 or 30 minutes and finally they recalled us to the start. They removed 10 laps from the race and off we went – now with 30 instead of 40 laps to go (they shortened the race to try and keep on time). 

I was feeling pretty good and maneuvered around the pack getting a gauge of the wind and how to finish the race. With 27 to go, they rang the bell for a $30 prime sprint. I moved up easily through the pack to watch the sprint unwind on the backstretch and found myself in 3rd coming through the final corner. I decided to go for it and came up inches shy of winning the prime. More notably though was the significant gap we had on the field. 

So it started – the dreaded breakaway death march. For the next 7 laps I maintained my stance as the significantly weakest player in a 3 man breakaway. Each of the other two would lead somewhere between 1 or 2 straightaways at a pace of 27 – 29 mph, and I would pull half a straightaway at 26 – 27 mph, struggling to re-connect each time I pulled off. After about 3 laps we had a full straightaway lead, and I resigned myself to the possibility that my suffering would continue for another hour. 

Instead, the pack gave chase, and I was, frankly, relieved when I looked back and saw them close behind. I immediately sat up and faded into the rear of the back as we saw 20 laps to go. I continued to suffer for a number of laps from the oxygen deprivation I had undergone during my short stint in a breakaway (only the second of my whole career) and even as the laps read “5 to go” I was still uncertain as to whether I was going to muster the courage to set myself up for the sprint. I felt tired, lazy, moribund. 

But… something changed. I can’t exactly even put my finger on it. It is emotional, it is physical, it is…spiritual. With a lap card showing “4” in front of me, something physically changed within me, as though there was a subconscious galvanizing of forces and energy previously unavailable at my disposal. I dropped my hands to the drops (the lower part of the handlebars – more aerodynamic) and started using each corner to move up a few slots. From 60th to 55th, from 55th to 42nd, and so on. I can’t claim any real rationality to this complex maneuver except to say that it felt pretty easy, as though the position I “needed” to be in on a certain lap was exactly where I was… 25th with 3 laps to go…. 15th with 2 laps to go, and 6th with one lap to go… All with no greater perceived effort, really, than riding the race.

A glance to my heart-rate moniter, and I was operating in the upper 170’s – a big effort, but I didn’t feel it…  I moved up to 5th on the backstretch and with 2 corners and 400m to go I had that “feeling” that I was going to win.  As we headed through the downhill corner into the short uphill prior to the finish stretch, I prepped for the maximal effort ahead. Just then, rider #4 directly ahead of me, clipped a pedal and was suddenly sideways on the course. I locked up both front and rear brakes and narrowly escaped hitting him full force before he flopped over the curb onto the grass. 

The good news was – the whole pack behind had watched the unfolding debacle and braked, meaning that no one passed me even as my progress slowed from 30 mph to 15mph. The bad news was that there were 3 riders that were unencumbered by the crash who were now 2, 3, 4, now 5 bike lengths in front of me as we headed up the short hill to the final corner into the finish stretch. 

I was still fairly fresh though, and I got out of the saddle and strained every muscle and tendon in my body to regain my lost inertia. As we headed up the hill, I kicked with every ounce of power I had and started closing the gap, and as we swung wide round the last turn, I reconnected with the 3 riders even as they fanned out across the road, each seeking his own path to the finish line. I headed straight at the back wheels of riders, 2 and 3 (on the right side) even as I had no real place to go, but fortunately, they left enough space for me to squeeze through. 

I rocketed between them, and lit it up toward the finish only to miss passing the inside rider until well after the line. I was slightly disappointed, but yet pleased with managing a second place in the face of near disaster.  As we coasted toward the first corner, it was only then that I noticed the black armband of the winner.

It was none other than the best friend of the recently deceased rider, riding on pure adrenaline, honoring his departed friend.  Later, friends and acquaintances congratulated me on having the “most appropriate” second place in tour history. I didn’t give it to him – he won it fair and square – but I’m glad he won….

 I returned to the start finish line and watched the start of the pro-race as the tallied up the results from my race. As it turned out, the generator for the operations crew had quit with one lap to go, and there was no video record of the finish. The race official, Craig, gathered us together to say, “other than first and second, we really don’t have any idea who placed in this race, so we’ll be using the honor system to sort it out…”  Thank God I was second.

The racers argued for the next hour so we sat and watched the pro race and I ended up speaking to a man who’s daughter Maddie (shorthand for a Sanskrit word) was playing with Kat. He was in a movie we had watched last year called Endless summer II – essentially a surf documentary – as the “king of freshwater surfing.”

Apparently Sheboygan can get 10-12 foot waves when the winds are right. Eventually Craig and the racers settled their differences, though none of them seemed satisfied, but eventually I collected my $100 check for second place and we headed back to the campsite to cook dinner. 

Jose and Mark joined us and we cooked out at the beach, sharing some wine and grilling chicken breasts, zucchini, squash, with salsa, refried beans and tortilla chips. The sky was so blue with humidity that the lake and sky were exactly the same color and there was no horizon. There was a sense of vertigo as though the beach ended at the edge of the world and there was only sand and sky and an endless dropoff into space.  

Race Report #4: Bensenville

Race Report, Sunday July 16, Superweek Stage 9, Bensenville, IL 40 miles, 96 degrees, 105 “real feel”, 132 degree pavement temperature.    The real story regarding the Bensenville stage was the “race to the race.” The race was slated to begin at 3:30pm, so I figured I had better get out of the house by 12:00 – 12:30 at the latest. I was just finished packing up around 12:15 and Shannon was due to be returning from a bike ride when I received a call on my cell phone – she had gotten a flat out in the country and I needed to go get her. So I headed off 7 miles into the country, picked her home and drove home. Now it was 12:45 and I didn’t finally hit the road until 1pm. Still – Sunday afternoon – how bad could traffic be? 

I started calling Jose (the head mechanic) at 3:15 – still sitting in 294 toll traffic. “Jose – can you get me registered? I’ll pay you back with an extra $20 when I get there…”  “Sure John – we’ll take care of you – just get here.” I finally found the course at about 3:28pm – 2 minutes before race time. Meanwhile on the way in, while on the tollway, in the crowds of weekend travelers, I had managed to wriggle into my spandex cycling jersey, shorts, shoes, glasses, - even my helmet, as well as refilling my water bottles.

 I must have looked odd racing down Irving Park Road in a green Cadillac, wearing a brightly colored spandex jersey and a helmet. I jumped out and assembled my bike, put my bottles on and went to look for Jose – I still needed a race number as I had lost one of the two they had given me before.  I headed toward the start finish, stopping at the wheel pit but Jose was not there, but one of the referees was – just as they blew the whistle and started the race – without me…. “Damn!” I hopped on my bike following the departing riders and headed past the start finish and found Jose. He had my racers armband (proving my registration) but not my numbers… “Just jump in…” he said. 

Well, I didn’t want to race without a number, so I went off-road back to my car and pinned on the one number I had – (and, as it turns out, I pinned it on the wrong side) and then headed over to the back side of the course, where the 75 racers were just completing their second of 45 laps.  As they came around, I drifted out onto the course and melded neatly into the back of the pack. Illegal… yes. Unethical – not really – I did not really gain any advantage from missing those two laps.  

The race was fairly uneventful except in the fact of how strong I felt. I rode up near the front for the next 30 laps going off the front of the pack with a series of small breakaways. Everything was pulled back by the pack though, so I decided to rest up for the final sprint and drifted back in the pack. I was surprised at how small it had become – the heat had taken its toll… 

A few more small breakaways drifted off the front and as I moved back into the top 10 riders in prep for the sprint I was surprised to find that they were out of sight – damn – another race with no chance for the “W” (win). I lined up in my usual top 5 position going into the last lap, and then 4th coming into the second to last straightaway just as a rider swooped up the inside going into the last 110 degree turn. I tried to catch his wheel prior to the corner, but became concerned over the speed he was entering the turn. Sure enough midway through the turn, his rear wheel skittered and for one second I thought I was going to “t-bone” him and locked up my brakes. But he held onto it. 

I had lost some speed, but got out of my saddle and kicked with all my strength and caught him just at the line and blazed past him – just after the line, second in the field sprint and 6th overall due to the breakaway… 

2007 Race Report #14: Downer Avenue Pro Race - Suffering

Friday July 27th, 2007: Race report #14, Downer Avenue, Milwaukee: Suffering

 Conventional wisdom has it that athletic minds and their finely trained bodies are completely in tune: that the discipline of training creates in the cavity of the diaphragm, heart, and sinews the same rich resonance that is produced within the oiled wood of a fine cello when rubbed to resonance by fibrous strands of the horsehair bow.

Yes, during those magical moments in training or a competition where forces align and the moving parts become orchestrated with some semblance of harmony, a low hum begins, that understated harmony, that resonant frequency which keeps a metronome on an ever shortening interval – the pace increases, lento becomes andente, andente becomes moderato, moderato becomes allegretto…

However, for a majority of scores the music is freeform dissonant jazz: a “bitches brew” of piercing notes out of key and out of synch with the untrained mind, a raucous cacophony twanging the nerves, jangling the sinews and muscles. Contrary to popular belief, one of the main disciplines involved with being a high caliber athlete is learning to tune out and manage the confusing jumble of noise and pain the body shouts to the brain. The learned response is to ignore many of the most obvious biological responses to trauma – pain, soreness, nausea, swelling etc. and continue to drive the beat, to perform.

In the summer of 1991 I was living with a pair of brothers from Minnesota in a run-down apartment complex in Menominee Falls outside Milwaukee, and training with Peter Mueller – the top coach in the world at the time – and training along side Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen, and a small number of other handpicked speedskaters.  

John Albrecht, my roommate, was a Stradivarius of an athlete: powerful shoulders, a six pack of abdominals, massive thighs tapering gracefully to tuning fork knees, and then a pair of thunderous calves – all muscle and power.

One late morning after a particularly tough session running hills at the Milwaukee lakefront, John quizzically asked me, brow frowning only slightly, “Do you think it’s bad if I have blood in my urine? It’s only been a couple of days now but… what do you think?” 

The halls of pain echo for an experienced athlete. The suffering is nothing and yet is everything. The pain is white. It is black. It lacks color or sibilant sound – just reverberations reflecting off the porcelain tiles of the stony discipline of the psyche. But blood, glittering red-black blood, pulses through hidden rivulets in the gutters of the mind.

Thursday, July 26: After the pro race in Kenoha I followed directions and drove the creaking RV to Lake Geneva and the the cul-de-sac drive fronting the abode of our friends Gary and Monica for the night. After dinner with friends, I stood up in the cool moist evening air and, for a brief moment, the stars swooned. When they swung back into sight, vertigo turned their winks to streaks as they flit left and right like flock of tiny metallic sparrows before re-settling in the tall oaks surrounding the cul-de-sac. Regaining balance I returned to the RV and climbed the stairs like an 85 year old – each step requiring effort followed by rest and controlled breathing.

I had forgotten, somehow - completely forgotten - the effects of heavy training & racing – of day after day of grinding physical effort. I had forgotten the subtle ribbing of the sky, the bricking in of the landscape, the rising gray tiles of the floor. Through suffering, life becomes a tunnel – a turbulent passage from the torrents of one storm grate to the next.

Like stops on the subway, regular life events - a dinner, a conversation, a book, a nap – become passing glimpses into the outside world while, ever elusive, the light arcing down the curving tunnel is an ever receding goal. Sometimes even that glow disappears and all that remains are the halls of pain, the passing outlines of real life outside graying in shadows.

The discipline of the mind is iron, it is stone: it surrounds. If my mind had momentarily escaped the confines of discipline I would have realized that I was exhausted. I would registered and considered the implications of the “leg sweats” taking place each night, where despite normal body temps, my legs would glisten, uncovered, with perspiration most of the night. I would have been daunted by the “jerks” – neurons randomly firing in muscle groups in my legs creating momentary “fight or flight” responses like gunshots, repeatedly waking me up. I would have noticed how hard mundane daily tasks like standing up (headrush again – whoah), climbing the two steps into the RV, or even reaching over my head had become.

Suffering? No – not really – most of those regular body feedback mechanisms had already been switched to “off.” In fact, it was once again “normal.” Like the second week of a bad cold – only the healthy symptoms became notable, “say – I can breathe through my nose!” the counterpart after a good rest, “say – I can stand up without a headrush!”

Friday, July 27th - The Downer Avenue Pro Criterium: The bike is an amazing contraption for suffering. Marathon runners are incredible athletes who suffer all kinds of agonies on route in the 2 hours or so it takes the best to finish the 26 miles. But marathon runners have one crutch that we don’t – they require balance, coordination and consciousness to finish the race. Not so the cyclist.

A 100Km, 62 mile bike race in the Pro 1-2 division takes a little over 2 hours - approximately the same amount of time as a marathon run by a top athlete. At the end of a marathon, runners may stagger, and sometimes fall and then either get up and finish, or are taken away by the medical crew. In cycling, the rotational inertia of the wheels on the bike keeps the cyclist upright long after power ceases to flow to the pedals and there is very little coordination required to keep a bike level at speed: hence a cyclist can still continue forward on inertia with almost no consciousness. What this means is: a cyclist can literally race until the point of losing consciousness - and beyond - before forward progress stops.

 I’ve only passed out 4 times from bike racing and only two times while actually on a moving bike..

The first time I lost consciousness from racing I was 11 years old and attempting for the first time in my short career to climb mountains and deal with the affects of altitude. Despite a weak aerobic constitution I managed a 4th place finish, falling over just after the finish line still strapped into my pedals. I came-to a few moments later with a white rim of dried lactic acid spit all around my lips that would not come off despite the repeated scrubs of my forearms.

The second collapse was right after the 90 miles of the Michigan State cycling championships in 1985. I had run out of water well before the finish of the long race and after the sprint where I came in second, the dehydration hit me and I passed out while still coasting past the finish and went into a ditch.

While comatose, the muscles in my hands, and one of my calves decided to spasm and when I came to, both hands were clenched into claws, the talons of my own fingernails digging into my own flesh, the leg belonging to an alien except for the incredible pain coursing through my body.  A family came to my rescue and gave me water and helped to unclench my hands and release my leg with the result of 4 half circles diced neatly into each palm, bright blood welling up to fill the crescents, and my right calf virtually unusable for the rest of the evening.  

I began my warmup for the Downer Avenue pro race. The breeze was off the lake and the sun was starting to set over the hill to my left as I began the climb back up from the beach area on Lakefront drive. I worked hard as I knew from the stories that the Downer Avenue course was a study in pain, and that the pros would be out for blood. I did not want the lack of a warmup to be an excuse for getting dropped. If I was going to get dropped tonight, it would be only because I could not see for blindness from pain, could not steer because I was comatose, could not pedal because my legs were bleeding. I dug tunnels for my suffering. I built walls for my agony. I capped it all with self deceit: I was not going to get dropped.

The warmup was useless – we sat baking in the sun on the start finish line at Downer Avenue for more than an hour as the sponsors and referees and announcers talked on and on. Finally an hour later they sent us on our way.

Suffering. What a generic term – and it is hard to describe really – like a nightmare, the reality of suffering, those horrors, pains, fears, those empty chasms of thought and thoughtlessness slowly dwindle with time and all that is left are the empty words that fall flat in describing the event…

“It was really hard…” What does that mean?

Nothing.

We hear stories all the time about suffering. It is something to talk about, but more often that not the empathy is missing for real suffering - not because the listener doesn’t care - rather the storyteller fails to effectually muster up the true images of what he or she was feeling at the time.

It is so easy to relate the story of the surly waitress, the missed flight, the smashed finger. The true elements of these stories were accurately remembered and can be accurately relayed.

But real suffering – of the kind where a miasma of pain clouds the perceptions, alters memories, displaces consciousness -  with real suffering, something happens. the stories start with the same energy, the listeners lean in with the same attention, and then it fades - the storyteller, disappointed, suddenly realizes that he or she no longer contains the  memories of those harrowing moments – of the fear and hollow spikes and pangs and dread that they suffered. They realize that while the lingering echoes of those moments remain, that the actual memories themselves are missing, or are censored – a chalk outline - the violence, death, fear and blood and profanity missing.  They suddenly trail off and end with a few uninteresting stats…

The worst suffering transcends rationality and hence becomes almost impossible to describe using the vocabulary of the rational mind. The emotional imprint – like a footprint on the grass on a humid day – remains for a brief period, but then it too is gone and inevitably the blades of grass resume their prior reach for the sun, and when shadows are recast on the same indented perception, little remains to describe what had transacted except what is reinvented.

Here is the coroner’s report of the Downer Avenue race. After a slow lap behind the Saturn pace vehicle, the race began in earnest. The Downer’s course is a bit unique: a triangle with three long straightaways, each followed by three 120 degree corners. Unlike most criteriums, this created a uniquely painful series of intervals: approximately 30 seconds on, 15 seconds off for each 2 minute and 10 second lap.

With over 215 riders, the pack was like a gigantic slinky. In the middle and rear of the pack where I spent my time, the corners became jammed with riders and soon we were consistently slowing below 5mph in each corner before a full out sprint back to 35, 37 mph to keep pace with the professionals setting the pace at the front. More than 100 of these riders would be dropped over the coming laps…

This was purposeful suffering…so I could stop anytime. And, unlike the hot surface pain native to the untrained athlete, where muscles give, and blisters rent, the well trained athlete has developed hardened muscles and calloused skin. The lacerating pain is deeper, closer to the bone, and the damage done is gathered in invisible places.

Within a few laps I began lying – “one more lap”. A straightaway later and I began the nearly invisible internal cry that kept me in the race, “Just one more straightaway and then you can quit.”

Again and again I entered turn one, raised joints of concrete rippling through my forearms, shaking my biceps, my body balanced overtop the wheels to absorb the vibrations. I began pedaling a stroke earlier than most competitors, and then jumped out of the saddle, standing on the pedals to make the small rise early in the first straightaway and then smoothly lowering to the saddle as the rise receded behind me. I calmed the shrieks in my head, lungs and legs and pedaled smoothly preparing for second 120 degree corner of the course.

Braking started 100 feet out, and paths through the gigantic 200+ rider peleton were rare. Most times I end up in traffic and slowed to a near stop and then had to sprint with every single ounce of energy just to maintain bearing on the wheel in front of me as we headed down the dark backstretch, towering trees and their skeletal reaches blocking out light overhead.

The whips of those accelerations ripped my legs down to their core threads, my lungs fraying like an ancient flag, snapping, gasping croaks for air. I followed the thin red line of the pacing riders, and the skin around my skull shriveled, my eyeballs bobbing in their vacuous chasms, floating and dripping in blood, painting the world red. Empty with the jarring, the reddened orbs bounced down the white porcelain hallways of the pain. As we approached each corner my sightless body ambled up to collect the bloody globes, coasting for those few critical moments to regain sight and sound. But then again like a nightmare it repeats: 30 seconds of the whip, teeth clenched, paroxysms of fear, 15 seconds of the dripping cooling, burning sweat trying to find a line through the corner, hands on the brakes.

The reality of the race expanded time during the effort like few other events I have ever participated in. Each corridor beneath the trees became an odyssey – an expansive journey into the deepest reserves of my aerobic capacity, of my musculature, of the strength of my quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, forearms… of my beautiful wrists glistening as they held true to the handlebars, tendons standing out like razor blades as my ever thinning skin revealed the bones below.

During the 62 lap race of 186 corners, I actually faced down about 170 individual thirty second sprints where I was quite certain my race would end. Meaningless numbers I know, but I can remember training sessions where the workout would be 2 sets of 3 times 30 seconds and dreading it, dreading it, and then being exhausted after the effort. Here I performed the same thirty second full-on sprints with slightly less than half the usual rest – over one-hundred-eighty  times. 

Several times, as my soul shriveled with the repeated failures of my legs and lungs, I decided to actually quit – and my “one straightaway more” lie became true. But as I reached the corner coasting, with riders passing me left and right, I found myself in a situation of danger where the compression of the riders behind me was greater than that in front of me and I “pedaled 2 more strokes” to be able to cleanly get through the corner.

A few seconds later, and I found that the peleton had re-embraced me and here I was – on a wheel, and traveling at the requisite speed to finish yet another straightaway. So I lied again and decided “one more straightaway.” I failed to intentionally quit the race 3 separate times.

The mind creates a portrait of the past, but memory has a paintbrush, not a camera. As such it is inherently inaccurate. Is it any wonder that there are few descriptions of “harrowing victory” in the annals of competitive history? In the same way is it any wonder that there are few memories of a “brilliant, jubilant defeat?” The pixels of light and darkness captured in the mind’s eye are filled with the pallet of color of the results – hence the memories of winning somehow pull from the yellows and golds, success and color implying a relatively easier effort, while the losses are inevitably painted with the charcoals of those chiaroscuro efforts – blackened, brutish, pain and disappointment closely linked.

I choose to repaint this race differently. No – I didn’t finish in the money (26th of over 200 starters) – but I did finish. And in so doing what I did accomplish was a unique mastery of the instrument of my body. For over two hours, I played it like the first violinist – drawing out of it with every lash of the straight bow every possible note, every emotion, every tremble of resonance the space of ribs and air and bones was capable of producing. In the end was it all meaningless? A black deep hole – a fissure to the worst unknowns? Or was there transcendence in the agony I endured? Did I learn something so raw and true about myself that I’ll be describing it for decades? I don’t really know to be honest – more than two months later as I write this and I still feel as though I’m clawing my way out of that black crevasse, that hallowed and horrifying yet blindingly brilliant 2 hours and 10 minutes I spent at the edge of sanity and consciousness.

I remember making the halfway mark and having not the least sense that my suffering had changed or that I might possibly finish. I remember seeing 3 laps to go and having no change in my race posture – no thoughts of moving up, of positioning myself for the sprint – just the thin red line of riders and the pain. 2 laps to go and it is the same – I didn't even look up.

With one lap to go, nothing about me changed, but suddenly riders were sitting up. They didn’t care anymore – the race was up the road… And I, I had one silent, tiny reserve left, and as I made my way down the backstretch dodging the bodies of the riders going backward, I found that one last pure emotion of anaerobic ability left. I swung through the crowd of riders to release every single thread of my existence to the bike and ridiculously throw it at the finish line for an unimportant 26th place – one place out of the money, but passing 70 riders in the last lap. Not a victory in the traditional sense, but still I had a still, silent pride…

As I stretched out my bike at the finish line, my right hamstring convulsed and whipped my right pedal into the uppermost position like a steel band pulling my heel into my glutes. The contrast of this cutting, active retching pain against the steady lacerations of the preceding 2 hours caused me to scream but in the noise of the crowd my anguish went un-noticed.

I used all my remaining strength to force the leg to extend and stood upon my right leg, heel down, out of the saddle – even through the first right turn as I entering the gloaming of the brightening night and the throngs of spectators…

I drifted around the backstretch, suddenly noticing the crowd of 20,000, hearing the call outs – hanging in the air “Great race!”, “Hey Dude!” “Wow – that was incredible!” “Hey want a beer?”. For a while I didn’t realize that I was one of those racers – one of those elites they were talking to as well. When I stopped and a bunch of 20 something guys slapped me on my sweaty back and filled my water bottles – one with water, and one with beer I was confused. What did I do that was good or noble or strong that they could know about? Did they actually recognize that this was suffering? Of course they did. I smiled for the first time in hours. And, carefully keeping my right leg in check, circled the course.

I found my daughter Katelina, my wife, Shannon, and her parents, and her aunt and uncle near the start finish line, and I drifted into the barriers listening to the vibrations of the throng and the calls of the announcer. The deep lines of the grimace holding my face still held a little, but there was pride in the eyes of my family – real pride. After hugging my wife and listening to the sparkling words of my little one and her relatives for a moment I suddenly swayed, like a brown-out, the lights suddenly dimming, my balance failing, and I nearly collapsed. The noise dissolved into a buzz and I clung to the barricade, clinging to the bright droplets of the glistening words of my daughter. I kept my right leg straight, and began drinking the water forced upon me, and in seconds the bass drum of life returned and I smiled back at my little girl, still carefully clutching the grey aluminum of the vertical ribs of the barricade.

Windex smell – the smell of muscle burning – the combustion of muscle proteins when other energy sources fail results in the byproduct of sweat that contains ammonia – when you really work hard, you actually smell clean… The night had been rent open, I had fallen deeper than ever, but I had returned… and now, the night was yet young, and there was an RV, friends, music, pasta, and a glass of Sangiovese waiting for me… But I was determined to remember this suffering this time.

I remembered, at that moment, a line from my favorite book by St. Euxpery,

"I swear that what I went through, no animal would have gone through…”  

I lifted Katelina on my bike and rode with her on my seat the 400 yards back to the RV – her hair whipping out in the blackness, her shrill screams marveling at our speed… Another night to be remembered at Downer Avenue…

2007 Race Report #13: Courage & Arrogance

Race report #13, Friday, July 27th, Kenosha, Superweek Stage 15 Pro/Am Criterium, Kenosha, WI: Courage and arrogance 

Hands down Kenosha is the best course at Superweek for my limited talents. At exactly a kilometer long with four corners, the course is very short and hence, no acceleration lasts for more than 10 or 20 seconds before you have to brake again for the next corner.

 

100 laps, 400 corners, 400 hard sprints… Breaking it down this way starts to make it sound hard… and it was… for a while.

 

We lined up in the late afternoon sun and it was quite warm and humid – just the way I like it. As usual I had only a few minutes of warmup – arriving late with just enough time to dress and register before heading to the line. I had again struggled with the tradeoff between beach-&-Katelina time vs. travel-to-race time and the planned departure from the beach in Sheboygan at 2:30pm quickly became 3:00pm and then 3:30pm. Sure enough I had to drive the RV like a race car just to make it to the course on time.

 

The chief referee sent us off into the lengthening shadows and bright rays of the afternoon sun, and the huge peleton immediately stretched out over a full straightaway, the long tail of riders flicking around each corner.

 

I remember looking up after a long period of suffering – breathing heavily after several dozen sprints, hanging desperately on to the wheel in front of me and blasting full throttle down yet another of the long finish stretch straightaways. My eyes finally registered the lap cards.

 92 

92 laps to go. 8 down, 92 to go. 92 laps. 92… How is it possible I could ever hope to finish 100 laps? No way. Well, let’s get in at least 10 laps total – just two more - so as to not be too embarrassing to my friends…

 

And so the lying started up – but only for a little while longer. Eventually I warmed up after about 20 laps and found the course, as always, to my liking. The short straightaways allowed me to leverage my single strength – of going pretty fast for 7 or 8 seconds – and move through the peleton without too much trouble.

 

After further reflection it is quite clearly my only strength besides strategy. Any hard acceleration longer than 7 or 8 seconds and my strength fades quickly. I have virtually no ability to hammer the pedals for extended periods. But for 3 or 5 or 7 seconds, I can put out tremendous power, without really feeling the effort. As long as it is followed by 10, 15 or preferably 20 seconds of relatively light effort I’m in pretty good shape – THAT is the one thing I can do quite well…

 

Here’s what it feels like – this tiny little area of strength that I have. Each corner I choose my path and more often than not, find a tiny sliver of an opening that I would predict to become an opening on the far side of the turn. I then center my front tire on that sliver, and lean into the corner just like the other rides.

 

Exiting the corner, I start pedaling one stroke sooner than the others, making sure my bike is counterbalanced to eliminate the risk of hitting a pedal on the downstroke.

 

Then – and this is my little private note of pride - of “flow” – of quiet power and strength – I start spinning the pedals and reach a certain RPM where a “hum” of resonance passes through my body, and I  watch as my bike and body  accelerates forward through the wheels of the fellow riders – many out of their saddles, bodies swaying. This magic resonance happens at 118rpms and above. Every lap I can look down just as I hit my stride and inevitably the bike computer will read “118” climbing quickly to 120, 122, 124 rpms before I shift gears again.

 

Quietly my little strength carries me forward to fill those gaps and move through or maintain my position near the front the peleton. This is partially how I do it – how I move through the middle of large peletons.

 

That, and there are a couple other little tricks to allow this to happen. The riders in the peleton are constantly shifting, overlapping, transiting left and right – like multicolored shards of shale set loose down a hillside, the patterns at first seem completely random. However, just as an experienced seaman can read the silent signatures of the waves, so too can some subconscious part of my mind read the Brownian motion of the peleton and anticipate the next gap. If those shards were scrabble pieces being dumped out the box, my mind appears to be capable of recognizing the important letters and creating words on-the-fly with their movement.

 

Anticipation, timing, movement, perception – even these are not enough – no one can perfectly predict the movements of imperfect humans, so what remains is the reflexive movements on the bike that mitigate disaster and prevent those unrecoverable incidents of wheel touching wheel or, worse, axle touching spokes.

 

The average racer weighs 160lbs or so, the average bike 16. Despite this fact, bodies can bounce, bash and crush each other without much incident – rather it is the rotational inertia below that presents the greatest danger. By moving the body counterintuitively into the oncoming riders inertia (much like white water rafters moving towards the rock) you can stave off that disastrous conflict of bikes and merely have the rubbery reflection of sweaty forarms and shoulders pressing and then parting.

 

Fear in the pack is high – most riders, having experienced the long sweaty nights without sleep that roadrash brings are naturally reticent to meet the pavement again. The natural, instinctual association they have is that of the contact of another rider just prior to the accident. Hence, a light touch – of an elbow, or the outside of a hand – brushed lightly against a hip, a shoulder, helps to steer those riders in front of you. The touch must be feather light though – else the body will convulse and the desired behavior of steering the rider in front quickly dissolves into a shudder of the bars and the ultimate sin – braking.

 

So… how do I move up through the middle of a peleton during the tightest, most tense moments of the race? I anticipate the movements of the pack, accelerate quickly, and gently steer those recalcitrant riders that wander into my path. On good days it feels like magic and a high speed camera would probably catch that sly smile and twinkling focus I have when I feel that I can part the waters of the pack with just my thoughts… The pro peleton, of late though, has proved to be quite stubborn to my Jedi mind tricks.

 

Once warmed up, the laps went by quickly and with 15 laps to go I decided it was time to move to the very front of the group. Over the next few laps I worked my way through the peleton – sliding neatly into invisible gaps, gently herding other riders, and moving up through over 100 riders and into the top 15 without incident

 

Then, of course, there is the challenge of the “a%$hole zone.” Every peleton has it, though the size and location differs depending on the nature of the course. If you consider the pack as almost always shaped like an arrow, the a%$hole zone is the rear of the arrowhead and the widest part of the entire pack.

  

It is only natural for this phenomenon to occur. In the rear of the peleton, the goals of the riders are merely to stay connected, so they organize 2 abreast (most common), 3 abreast, or single file if the pace is very high. There is no incentive to “ride the hip” and add another layer to the width of the pack as there is no clear path to the front and only the disadvantage of the wind when you are farther back in the pack.

 

Conversely at the very front of the pack, it is almost always a single rider leading, and depending on the pace, it may be single file for several riders, before other riders start layering up and “riding the hip” of the rider ahead in order keep position, forming the triangle or arrowhead leading the pack.

 

In between these two shapes (rectangle, triangle) we find the flange of the a%$hole zone. It is into this space that the masses of the larger pack behind fling themselves in order to move into the rarified ranks of the top riders ahead.

 

On longer courses, the arrowhead is fairly long and thin, as the long straightaways allow riders moving up from behind ample opportunities to slot in and ride the hip of someone up front.

Conversely, on short courses like Kenosha, in the 20 or 30 seconds of the long straightaways, and the 10 – 15 seconds of the short ones, there is only so far that riders and swing before needing to slot in for the next corner.

  

The a%$hole zone in Kenosha is gargantuan – corner after corner of 7, 8, 9 riders abreast trying to enter the corner at the same time.

 

I always avoid the a%$hole zone by transiting across it quickly and at Kenosha it reigned supreme in about 8th-20th place. Starting lap 15, I tried to stay ahead of it, but on lap 11 a surge caught me unawares on the backstretch, and entering turn 3, I found myself in an 8 abreast situation.

 

I braked and watched the inevitable unfold – 2 riders going up the inside slamming on their brakes, and then the ripple affect as their abortive entry into the corner caused the entire peleton to shift right.

 

The riders on the far outside panicked and 2 went down prior to hitting the curb. 4 more behind them flipped over their bikes, and then even as I skidded to a halt, I performed a slow motion endo over the rear triangle of one of the fallen, turning my bars at the last minute to fall to the left and avoid landing on the bike underneath me.

 

I was up in a flash, but in no hurry – I still had time to get a free lap.

 

About 10 of us entered the wheel pit and waited for the pack to come around and we received the signal from the referee to rejoin the peleton – unfortunately right back in the tail end of the 150 rider peleton.

 

Nonetheless, adrenaline served me well and I shot through the pack in a matter of 2 laps or 3 minutes and reappeared back in front – ready for the big sprint to follow.

 

As we moved into the final two laps, the race dynamic changed in that predictable way. I wrote about it last year so apologies for the repeat for those who read it before:

 

We cross the finish line, and 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, nervous hands in the air.

 

It is at this point that the nature and feel of a criterium bike race 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.

 

For all the preceding laps the race possessed the graceful moves of migrating geese: loosely organized gliding movements with the occasional re-organization within the flock. The leadership provided by the arrowhead up front giving 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, with the end of the race within its grasp, 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 becomes distended and sluggish. In other words, the entire peleton becomes the a%$hole zone.

 

The speed slows from 30 to 25, and 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 - even pacelines of skin - are peeled back by the rough edges of the course 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. As the riders condense, those visual queues of the road disappear: we can’t see a bump, manhole cover, or 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. They lean – forcing us to follow – and then just as suddenly we find ourselves straightening back up. Bumps? Potholes? Curbs? All blocked by bodies: the racer “sees” only by reading the Braille of the helmets ahead. It is not unlike Space Mountain at Disneyworld –  it is dark, you are strapped into a machine, and you can’t tell where you are going - the only predictor of your uncertain path is the 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 critical and dangerous circumstance – the brief snapshot in time 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. Not to mention, it happens to be something I am usually pretty good at…

 

I too feel stress in these moments, perhaps less than some though. I do, however, 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 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  the sea of riders divides, 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 effects 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 its outer scales against 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 in Kenosha, I am surrounded, blind. I am bumping and bruising in the center of the “a%$hole 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 into the backstretch.

 

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. In Kenosha, I’m sitting just right in about 8th place, and I pause and then follow in about 15th place, knowing that the leadout men will churn on the backstretch.

 

I jump up a few spots on the short second straightaway, and then prepare for my annual signature Kenosha move – an attack just before turn 3 to lead out the sprint. It has never worked for a win, but it has been good for a 4 or 5 year string of consecutive podium finishes over the years – including a 3rd place last year – granted it took place in the less competitive Cat III race.

 

We drop through the dip in turn two and then head down the longer backstretch. I bide my time for a few seconds and then begin my acceleration. I watch the leadout men take us up to 37mph and then pick the side for my attack.

 

Normally I’ve used the gutter on the right side to make my move, but it was thick with the leaders, so I was forced to the left side. The other benefit of the left side is that the curb gives way half way down the backstretch, and suddenly more room becomes available. I used the draft and put my full effort into the pedals and slingshotted up the left side, aiming for that last rounded section of curb as it bends away to make my break from the field.

 

As expected the leaders fanned out and filled most of the road, but my sliver of daylight remained up the left as I headed toward the open space. For just a moment my path was clear and in that interval my mind jumped forward to what would happen next: I would enter turn 3 in first place, I would hold it through turn 4…

 

I would enter the pandemonium of the screaming crowds on the finish stretch in first place in one of the great pro races of the year, and as we screamed toward the finish I might, or might not, get caught coming into the last 100 meters… and 0? 1? 2? 3? riders would pass me before the line… The potential of a podium finish gave me that extra shot of adrenaline and I gave my kick everything I had heading for a sliver of light on the left side. Arrogance at its finest. I moved nearly abreast of the lead two riders in about 3rd place, still accelerating…

 

A half second before the road widened, the first place leadout man on the left sat up and swung abruptly left – and our handlebars locked like light-sabers in a Star Wars movie.

 

My forward progress caused his bars to turn right, and then his rear wheel endoed slightly up and then hit my rear skewer and his bike bucked as spokes twanged and carbon wheels skittered making awful crackling electrical sounds.

 

He returned to earth, but now righted at an angle taking him directly into my path. I locked up both brakes, but ran right back into his side. Now my bike bucked and endoed and for a second I remember leaning out way over his bike, leaning on his forearms and pushing back with my own trying to get my bike back under me even as he veered back right trying to hold onto it.

 

I bucked and skittered and then suddenly found the open space past the curb available to me. Despite both of us traveling 40 mph and having both bikes turn sideways and skip and skitter on the rough pavement while our bodies nearly took orbit, we amazingly both stayed on our bikes and neither of us went down. Whoever he was (I only saw his sweaty forearms and multi-colored gloves) he was an experienced rider. There was no panic, no shouting, no anger – nothing but the cold clinical re-balancing efforts to separate our bodies and bikes.

 

Alive and rolling, but we had slowed from 40 mph to 25mph, and the pack was streaming past us to the right. I accelerated and rejoined the group, but instead of entering turn 3 in first place with some afterburners to enter hyperspace as I had just fantasized, I entered in 20th, engines depleted from the second acceleration.  

 

Leaning hard into the final straightaway, I had nothing left and lost a couple of places in the sprint, latching onto a larger asteroid to finish 24th (again) - still in the money, still surrounded by the same full time professionals I’d been racing, yet disappointed. This was probably my best chance to achieve my goal of winning a Superweek race. Downer Avenue in Milwaukee – to follow the next day – was notorious as one of the hardest races in American cycling, and rumors of a $5000 prime sprint during the race was anticipated to draw additional professionals from all around the country…

 

After collecting my winnings, I retired to the RV with, Jose & Todd from the wheel pit, Gary and Monica Goebel and their two boys and we laughed and talked and ate. But all the while the little thought remained… “almost… almost…”

 Accompanying that was another note – a shrill warning reminding me that one of the toughest challenges in cycling was the following day… “just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped.” And then… “Mochi-dado.”  

2007 Race Report #12: Mochi-Dado

Race Report #12, Thursday, July 26th, Superweek Stage 14 Pro/Am  Criterium, Sheboygan, WI, 100K. 

Waking in the RV Thursday morning it is a glorious dawn – sunny, warm but not hot. The creaking of the trees and fanning of the leaves have kept us company all night. After lolling around in the feather bed in the back of the RV playing with Katelina’s “lu lu’s” (her tiny little feet) I finally get up and  westart our day.

 

I fire up the propane burners of the stove in the RV and spread our little white and green tablecloth over the picnic table outside the RV in the green drapery of the 100 year old forest canopy, and we make eggs and bacon to accompany our cereal, juice and yogurt, sitting outside to eat under the swaying trees.

 

Katelina wanted desperately to go ride her bike, so we mounted our bikes, Katelina straddling her little pink bike with the white tires and 16” wheels and we headed off around the damp, pine needle covered lanes tracing through the grounds.

 

Like her father, the tow headed 6 yr old appears to have an achievement orientation and asked me, “what’s the farthest I’ve ever ridden my bike Papa?” I told her she had ridden about 7 miles the night we got stranded in Elgin – the night of the fireflies.

 

“I want to do 7 and ONE-HALF miles!” she exclaimed and so we wandered the beachfront in order to put on the mileage she hoped to accumulate. There was a very light breeze off the lake, and we observed the oddest phenomenon when we traversed the dunes to the shore – the cool air off the lake meeting the warm damp sands of the shores was creating a golden fog – the condensation rising from the sands must have had minute sand particles in it – and for miles down the beachfront there were these sparkling billowy golden mushrooms forming and glowing in the distance.

 

Katelina: Katelina is my daughter and by that lineage alone is endowed with special consideration by her father. Of course she is the most beautiful little girl in the world – her blue green eyes, with those glints of yellow in the sunlight. Those mischievous wrinkles forming her underlids, the beauty mark on her upper lip, and the long golden tresses of brilliant white blond hair. Of course what she says has just that little special lilt of music, her laughter like chimes – can’t you hear it? Of course when she rides her bike, it is with style and panache, her pedaling rhythm suggesting all kinds of vaguely conceived future accomplishments (though without the accompanying realities of the long sweat-baked travels and am-radio-only loneliness on the Midwestern plains my father and I suffered through.)

 

I don’t have a son, so I can’t really speak directly to what the feeling of having a male offspring is like. But a daughter – who knew that it would be like this? I am certain – quite certain, that until now I never knew the meaning of courage. Not until her…

 

Sometimes at night after gazing at her delicate profile in the half light of our reading lights (yes she sleeps with us far too often) I will, move a stray lock of golden hair from her cheek and then lean back into my own pillow and after switching off the light contemplate just how precious that tiny form is next to me, and just how aggressive my response would be if her safety were ever in question…

 The “movie sequence” goes like this: we are safely in bed – at home, camping, or in the RV – doesn’t matter. And then in the grainy half-light of night the intruder comes into this little screenplay. As always he’s faceless and nameless, black in the chiaroscuro of the dim backlight of the entrance. As always, there is malice in the air, and he threatens my family somehow. Prior to Katelina, responses would have been about strategy, about bargaining,, but not any longer.Something about having flesh and blood of Eve’s line begets a kind of clarity that eliminates choices. The scenario always plays out the same. Without fear, without doubt, without vacillation I edge to the edge of the bed, and then in one fluid, swift motion, I accelerate and launch my body full on into the intruder – I can feel the spring and speed in my strides and my leg muscles involuntarily clench. Surprised, the attacker reaches – but, regardless of weapon, there is nothing he can do that inertia won’t override – and even as the gunshot explodes, or the knife enters my flesh, I can always hear my voice shouting with clear authority, “Run!, out the door! NOW!” as I bowl the attacker over and begin to ransack his limbs with my face, elbows, hands and legs – anything to buy time – without a single care to myself.  Of course, I do hope this never happens and believe that it probably never will. But this clarity – this ability to have this one confidence in my own courage… it provides me some semblance of understanding of my place in the scheme of things.  I used to wonder about war… I’d sometimes imagine myself sweating in muddy khakis, crawling along the jungle floor, wet leaves brushing my face as I wriggled uphill in the rain. Then, when the bullets started to rip, wet leaves and mud spraying my face, and  my commanding officer shouting “TAKE THE BUNKER!”… I’d have to really think about it… “What are the odds? “What’s in it for me? “Why do I need to die NOW? “Seriously – isn’t this whole thing stupid anyway? “Why are we shooting at each other anyway?” It wasn’t until I had a daughter that this same screenplay runs differently – and… isn’t it the same for all men?  Deep down, isn’t it that the men (and women) that throw themselves in front of bullets for some cause or another – isn’t it because they can somehow characterize the other side as capable of my previous delusion: of malicious intent toward a tiny, precious child? 

Katelina rides in front of me down the hill – until I see a car coming at us, and then I ride up outside her. It is usually a simple transaction – just protective cover. But once in a while I conceive that the oncoming car may not provide ample space and I consider just how hard I will hit that windshield in order to get the driver to veer away from Kat. For this one thing - courage.

 

We continue on our way, investigating the dunes, stopping so she can take pictures of the beach. Then we turn to head back to our camping spot in order to pack up and head for the beach. Suddenly I hear the bells of her little voice – “papa! Papa! – come look!”

 

I stop and see her crouched next to the road. Even from the distance I can see that she’s observing yet another insect in a long parade that day. But something about this one catches my attention – even from 50 feet away I can see that its figure is unusual.

 

“What is it?” I ask as I get closer. “Not sure,” she answers and then casually extends the finger that the brightly colored caterpillar with the odd tooth shaped white bristles on its back has marched its bristly little legs right up and onto. She was very excited, and immediately named him/her Mocho Dado (female version is Mochi Dado).

 

Weeks later, during U.S. Cellular®’s “Bring your child to work day,” Tyler Carroll graciously helped Katelina figure out that the extremely odd caterpillar was that of the “Whitemarked Tussock Moth”

 

The morning turns to noon, and then mid-day to afternoon, and I do the thing I usually do – wait until the last possible minute to leave behind the paradise of the beach, the golden fog, the sand, and playtime with Kat to travel to the race. Thunderheads are building to the north and that makes it easier to finally clear the beach. As we head out of the state park, the sky grows darker, and I begin to remember what it is like to race in the rain with Category 3’s or Masters and realize that the Pros will be oh-so-worse.

 

After a short warmup I lineup on the same start/finish where I finished 2nd last year in the “Cat 3” category – to the teammate of the rider who had died the day before at the Tour of Holy Hill – and I began to consider the course, and the downhill corner – turn 3, and how it might be with 100+ pro riders in the rain… I wasn’t afraid – I was full of dread…

 

We set off – 80 laps, 62 miles. The pace was high, but the course was dry – for about 10 laps. Then the light drizzle set in and it started getting slippery. Every corner a rider or two went down but mostly by themselves. The pack began to string out, and riders started abandoning and I had to close gaps – which I did – but my own motivation was dwindling as the sky continued to darken and thunder boomed in the distance.

 

Meanwhile that odd facet of human existence that seems to occur during repetitive but mundane suffering (like having the flu) began – a word, or in this case, a pair of words got stuck in my head. This happens often in races. The word starts playing in a repetitive loop in my head – I analyze it, turn it upside, down, backwards, just the vowels, just the consonants – and then just the picture of the word itself, and then – as always – it suddenly loses all meaning.

 

One race a long time ago in New Jersey, the word was a long one “anthropomorphism” – I quickly lost the meaning of the word and then began to be frustrated by this long set of vowels and consonants. I remember the long drive back to Michigan and being annoyed the whole way that I couldn’t remember what the word meant. I even broke it down to the latin roots and while knowing it had something to do with “change” and “man” I had no memory of what the word actually meant (it means the attribution of human traits to non-humans).

 

Another, really, really bad day, and the word was “the” and as I mulled it over and over and over, by the end of the race I no longer recognized the word, had no idea how to use it in a sentence, and was pronouncing it in my own internal dialogue just like Jeff Daniels in “Dumb and Dumber” according to its visual spelling: “ta, heh… ta teh”. What the hell does “ta heh mean? What a stupid stupid word – I hate it.”

 

For 25 laps in Sheboygan, as the rain began, every pedal stroke was either a “Mochi” or a “Mocho”, and then the corresponding downstroke was “Dado.”

 “Mochi-Dado, mochi-dado, mochi-dado, mochi-dado, mochi-dado…. (pause, turn left…), “Mocho-dado, mocho-dado, mocho-dado, mocho-dado, mocho-dado.” 

I officially reserve and trademark this name for some future product or service – 2 months later, and they are still sticky…(I wonder how long I’m going to have these words going in my head today.)

 

20 laps in, 60 to go, the big drops start and now it is pouring – I begin to hope they’ll call off the race. Surely with these gusts of wind, these flashes splintering the sky? The pace escalates and I’m running full out in the rain, with hardly anything to see. Why am I doing this? Who am I trying to impress? It all doesn’t matter… I have a family, a job, I’m ‘important’… all the thoughts of a quitter begin to enter my brain. Now, left turn and “mochi-dado, mochi-dado…”

 

I continue on, pressing the pedals smoothly to keep traction, braking gingerly, accelerating hard, and closing the gaps as rider after rider abandons in front of me, next to me, behind me.

 

Turn 1, 30 laps down, 60 to go. Two riders go down just after the turn, their tires suddenly losing grip on the ¼ inch of water on the road surface, their wheels swooping up, torsos bouncing down. They slide on their backs - almost accelerating like as if they were on black ice, their bikes up in the air, hands slapping at the pavement to try and stop their velocity as skin and skinsuits give way and rent, skin taking on that black burn of wet pavement.(Road rash in the rain is actually quite minor – mostly dirt and that light zinging sting of a minor abrasion.) I pick my way through and then another rider gives up right in front of me and yet another gap opens that I’ll need to close to stay connected to the pack and the protective cover off the draft.

 

Suddenly I stop attacking – and the release of that pressure on my legs and lungs creates instantaneous relief. It is not a conscious decision, but by the time my rational mind connects to what my body has done, there is no time left to reconnect to the pack. My mind berates my body briefly and then shrugs its shoulders. “Mocho…..”

 

the “dado” never comes.

 

The wind stops roaring through my ears and the rain decreases its rattling on my helmet. I coast through turn two and sit up. A few riders sprint by me, and a few more coast up near me and sit up themselves. 6 or 7 of us drift, pedals motionless, down the backstretch into the coming storm, the huge drops bouncing off the pavement, the grey of rain replacing the green of the suburban landscape surrounding us.

 

We all abandon the course halfway and split up, making our way back to our cars and loved ones. In my case I’m luckier than just about all and return to the large well lit warm interior of the RV.

 

I coast up and dismount shaking my head. I mount my bike to the back of the RV as they duck back into the calm of the RV interior. Nothing is said. I drive off, and the storm gets worse, thunder booming close by. The road is so dark I turn on the headlights. It turns out that only 33 of the 108 starters actually finish the race.

 

Courage? Maybe I have it, maybe I don’t. What is it anyway?

2007 Race Report #10: Almost Crashing...

Race Report #10, Sunday, July 22nd, Superweek Stage 9 Pro/Am Criterium, Evanston, IL, 100K. Flashback, Friday, July 20th:Scene: standing undressed again in front of the scale. Again I inched forward, my toes wriggling across the tile floor in our new bathroom in the new house in Chicago. The LED lights began to whirl, and again I reflected on the preceding months leading to this moment: 6 races down, and now into the annual Superweek season. My goal was to be 175 lbs by this time of year. I felt fit but.. what would my weight say? The LED’s flashed: 177.8 – and parts of me warred over the result – on one hand I was still nearly 3 lbs off the goal I had set for myself months ago – with plenty of time to achieve the result. On the other – I had lost 20 lbs and  was lighter than I had been since shortly after retiring from speedskating 9 ½ years ago…

Evanston is a great spectator course – a six corner, figure-eight loop where the finish stretch and backstretch meet in the middle so that fans can truly see a large portion of the action of the race. It was centered right in the middle of downtown where there are a lot of people naturally present, and, once a lap, it carried a strong smell of curry from an Indian restaurant proximate to the course.

 

Initially disconcerted by the idea of all the corners, early on in the race I realized that the course favored my strengths – bike handling, agility in handling the multiple turns, short accelerations, and riding in the peleton. For once, my fear of getting dropped ebbed well before the halfway mark.

 

Eddy Van Guyse introduced me again to all the world and again I was chagrined to find myself too far back to be able to move up behind the race leaders and other “celebs” on the start/finish. “I need to do something about that,” I thought… After the gun went off we began our 100 kilometer, 70 lap, 420 corner race.

 

The race passed without much incident and I passed the first two hours hanging out near the back catching the echoing cheers of John Poplett, his daughter, and a friend rooting me on from turn two. With about 10 laps to go I began my climb up the long ladder to the front of the peleton, and by 8 laps to go I was sitting pretty in the top 15.

 

For the next 6 laps there were a series of fits and starts, charges up the inside and outside, and I had to use all my skills and put in a series of hard and tight accelerations to maintain my position – diving full speed into the corners and braking hard at the last minute when a line through the traffic did not represent itself, and then sprinting full out from a near stand still mid-corner to return to the 35mph pace down the straightaways.

 

With two laps to go I came across the start finish line around 10th again – perfectly positioned and we entered the rather wide corner of turn 1 at full speed, 3 or 4 riders single file out front and then a couple pairs of riders ahead of me side by side – perfectly safe on a corner that could take riders at least 5 abreast…

 

Then it happened – a rider a couple spots ahead of me shifted slightly – a tiny shiver of the handlebars – resulting in overlapping wheels: the tiny mal-adjustment in trajectory resulting in the wrenching of his handle bars out from under him as his front wheel turned across his momentum caused him to careen left and then burrow directly into the pavement, taking down the rider next to him as well.

 

A tenth of second later and the two riders directly in front of me were down, performing the cycling world’s ugliest acrobatic act – “the endo” overtop the downed riders. An endo happens when forward motion of the bike is stopped, but not the inertia of the rider, and the front axel acts as the fulcrum for the entire bike to cantilever up, over, and down, head first into the ground. Like a catapult gone wrong, a bed endo looks as though the rider is driven like a nail into the ground.

 

I had sensed that the riders were itchy entering the corner – my “spidey senses” tingling: something about the skittishness of the pack had made me nervous and hence I was on full alert before the first rider went down, with both hands on the brake hoods. Before the second rider even knew what hit him, I had begun to straighten up and apply pressure to my front and rear brakes – about double the pressure to the front vs. the rear – simultaneously initiating a transfer of my center of gravity rearward and down by sliding back on the saddle and tilting back my hips, hollowing my back.

 

My bike shuddered as the front brake tried to hold back my inertia and my rear began to lock up. Amazingly the deceleration offered by the two narrow rubber tires paralleled that of the tumbling riders and I stopped just short of the downed racers. Around me, like an arrowhead of dominoes, riders continued to meet the pavement in various ways as others swarmed around; however after about 50 riders made it through the mayhem, the road was effectively blocked by the bodies of the fallen or stopped.

 

I popped out of my left pedal and used my left foot to give several small skipping pushes before navigating a very narrow route between the wheels and limbs of the riders ahead of me and regaining the free air of the first straightaway, while watching the rearguard of the peleton disappear around turn two 200 feet ahead of me.

 

I punched the afterburners and gave it everything, legs screaming in protest as I fought the winds alone around turns 2, 3 and then 4, before finally rejoining the pack just before the final double corner leading to the finish stretch and the “bell lap” – the universal signal indicating “one lap to go.”

 

I tried desperately to regain some composure, but my pulse was already in the low 190’s and I had that taste of blood in my mouth indicating a significant amount of lactic acid already running through my veins and confounding my muscles.

 

I used every trick and took a series of risks through the next corners to move up through the field, but each acceleration, each effort brought me even further beyond my aerobic limits and by the time we reached the final straightline sprint for the finish, I had nothing left to give, and after exiting the final corner in about 15th, I dropped to 33th in the official results.

 

Thwarted again…

 

2007 Race Report #9: Moses and his rod...

Race Report #9, Saturday, July 21st, Superweek Stage 8 Masters Criterium, Waukesha, WI, 60K. 

Not much to say about Waukesha – a tough, short course that weeded out a lot of the masters. I rode up front for the latter half of the race after a large (10 man) breakaway got away. I set up a little far back for the sprint given all the corners and my late surge to the line only got me 5th in the field sprint and 15th overall.

 Flashback: Superweek circa 1995 – a North Milwaukee suburb I was riding category 3 back in 1995 – the year after the Lillehammer Olympics – and having a good time participating in the field sprints at superweek. I had won several field sprints already but had not yet won a stage, but was feeling like this particular course might be my day.  Nearly perfectly round with the exception of one corner, this particular course on the north side of Milwaukee was in one of the many excellent county parks dotting the Milwaukee area.  After putting in the requisite first 35 of the 40 mile race, I decided to move up and scout out the finish sprint.

The one and only corner was about 400m before the finish and I decided to hit it hard like I would in a sprint. The course was wide and I used the draft of the peleton to slingshot outside and into the lead – one of the things I used to be able to do before I started racing with the pros where the pace puts me in a different, more limited mode of moving through the pack. As I passed the outside of the peleton and coasted out into the lead – intending only to be re-absorbed into the pack, I noticed some movement off to the left.  

Just to the left of the course was a small, but popular fishing hole, and during the race there were dozens of fisherman sitting in folding chairs facing the lake, poles up at the ready. Each lap the their heads would sway in unison away from the shining surface of the lake to catch the wind of the pack of riders bearing down the park roads towards them for another round of the course. On this particular lap though, one of the fishermen had decided to pack up his gear and head home. Along with a styrofoam Igloo cooler strapped with bungee cords to the small rack on the back of his bike, he had also tied up his two fishing poles… sideways.  

I watched with detached amusement as this somewhat inebriated gentleman made his way awkwardly across the grass onto the sidewalk, expecting him to turn and follow the asphalt path toward some local destination. Instead, he continued, head down, pedaling right across the small patch of grass between the sidewalk path and the course, and then bumped down across the curb onto the course, lazily righting the bike as it veered left and right. He still hadn’t looked up… 

It was about this time that energy spiked in my legs and I stood on the pedals and leaned hard right… He was heading almost directly toward me… but worse, he had nearly seven feet of fishing pole sticking out at a perpendicular angle quite ready to take me down.  I completed my acceleration and adjustment and then began to finally recognize the inevitable next… he was riding, eyes down, poles horizontal, head-on, directly into the pack of 100 riders swarming behind me.  Even as I swung clear, I sat up coasting and rotated my torso, hand on my thigh to watch the inevitable destruction to follow.

Like the pin-setter at the bowling alley after two gutter balls, I prepared for the worst  as the lone fisherman and his pole made their way like a drunken snow plow straight  into the peleton with an impact speed of over 40mph.  

I will never forget what I saw next – it remains imprinted upon my retinas like that of a biblical event. Moses and his rods parted the multi-colored sea and with the elegance of a choreographed movie scene, the peleton separating neatly in the middle, creating a teardrop shaped ripple that flowed smoothly backward, the sudden reflection off the circular rims reminding me of a school of minnows reacting to a predator – flashing left and then right – and then the pack zipped itself up neatly back together behind the intruder -  all in the matter of seconds.  I’ve never been more amazed at the skills of men on bikes as I was at that moment – like detritus out the back the fisherman continued on his way – never even realizing the extent of his danger… 

A few laps later I reprised my outside sprint and was able to win my first stage of that year’s Superweek.

But all we talked about was the fisherman…