Race Report 2007 #20: Tour De Villa Italia - Failure

September 2, 2007: Race report #20, Tour de Villa Italia, Canada. Failure.

The last race of the season – and my favorite. 


I drove the RV pell-mell from Chicago to Detroit Saturday night, arriving in Canada at nearly 1am for the race the following afternoon. All the sights and sounds of Erie Street or “little Italy” in Windsor, Ontario, Canada were the same as I remembered them since childhood. The little cafés with the weathered looking men smoking cigarettes and drinking tiny coffees in the early morning sun, the traffic barriers being set up and the towing of vehicles on the course, the construction of the announcer’s booth, the arrival of the riders.


I spent the morning and early afternoon in the company of two best friends since grade school, sipping espresso, sampling morning pasta and then a cheese pizza before heading out for warmup. I warmed up hard by the river, slinging through the gears and establishing a strong rhythm at 25mph humming down the path across from the skyline of Detroit.


I was ready.


I lined up with over 100 other riders as the sun angled behind the shops and restaurants lining Erie St. and Tom Demerling the announcer and the referee sent us on our way. The race was fast, really fast, though I didn’t know it as my cycling computer had decided to die on the start line, so I had no real sense of the speed of the race. To me it seemed “mild.” Later Ray Dybowski was to indicate that it was the fastest race he’d been in in over a decade – average speed was over 30mph.


I was determined to be in a breakaway if there was one. I was determined to be a factor for the win, not just the winner of the losers like last year when I won the field sprint for 19th place.


I raced up front.


I danced in breakaways, spent a lap or two off the front, and generally stayed in the top ten for the first hour or 30 miles. I was happy, I was strong, I was proud, and I remember thinking, “so this is what it is like to be ‘one of them’…” A roadie.


With about 30 miles down and 32 miles to go I began to have trouble with the light of the setting sun – like it was too bright when we were moving into it, and too dark in the shadows. I felt like I couldn’t see the road surface, or that the jerseys around me were so brilliant in the sun that I wanted to block my eyes.


I removed my glasses thinking it was the reflective surface. It didn’t help.


I dropped back in the pack suddenly lethargic. I kept shaking my head, trying to clear my eyes. I returned my sunglasses to my face in the brilliance of the backstretch. Nothing helped. I was numb, swimming through the course now, faces slowed, claps become gunshots.


I was bonking.


How the hell was I bonking? I had eaten more than enough, I had consumed plenty of fluids, I had eaten 2 of my 3 gels at the 40 and now 80 minute marks… ohhh… Then I remembered…


I’d had a bit of a stomach bug over the preceding few days. Shannon and I had eaten some carryout on Thursday, 3 days before, and within an hour we were both retching and emptying our stomachs and intestines. I’d had only diarrhea since… but… my body wasn’t really processing all the energy I had so planfully provided.


I assumed my old position at the rear of the pack, and saved my last gel – perhaps I could squeeze enough energy out of it with a few laps left to go for the win?


The laps drifted by and finally with 5 laps to go I squeezed the viscous chocolate liquid into my mouth and then made my way through the pack. With 2 laps to go I was back in the top 8, and stayed there. With one to go I found the wheel of sprinter extraordinare Ben Renkema, and followed him all the way to the last corner….


Sun sideways, shadows black, bikes and bodies white I entered the last 400meter straightaway in 8th place, got out of my saddle, pressed sinews and muscle to pedal, and…


…nothing happened.


The race went on around me, and I sprinted all out going backward, watching rider after rider pass me. Ben shot through to finish second at the line.


By the time I hit the line I was in 16th place.


I hated this last 20 seconds – more than anything I can remember I hated the feeling of going backward in the sprint – the one thing that I am good at…


…That I used to be good at.


This failure wasn’t born of pain. It wasn’t a result of injury or illness. It was one of getting beat – of seeing talent, youth or ability overcome experience. Or so I thought at the time.


I pondered these questions as I had dinner in one of the fantastic restaurants lining little Italy, and as I drove home the next morning.


It was more than a month later before I put all the data together and had my middle of the night epiphany about trading fast twitch for slow twitch. The overload of training and racing had once again made me into someone else. Capable – sure. Strong – sure. But incapable of winning races.  I was now racing my weaknesses…


2007 was notable for several reasons: 1) I was in better aerobic shape in 2007 than EVER in my whole life.  2) It is the first and only year since 1977 that I didn’t stand on a podium – despite competing in 26 races over the summer.


Sometimes I blame Walden for the paucity of his observations. “Finish at the line Coyle, finish at the line!” That was always his advice and coaching to me. In contrast, it becomes obvious that he never said, “Get in the break Coyle, get in the break.” But common perceptions, pressures – this is what those voices say. For me to be in a breakaway – that would very clearly be me “racing my weaknesses”…


2 years ago I had returned back to Detroit for these same races for the first time in decades. With only minimal training, on that fateful Monday after the Tour de Villa Italia, I raced the Cat 3 race, the Masters 30+ race, and the Pro 1/2/3 race, and placed in the top 6 in all 3. The “trifecta” was born.


However much I wish it, I can never truly be a roadie. I am who I am.


I am a sprinter.


Maybe next year I’ll do it right.



2007 Race Report #1, The Country Sprint

June 5, 2007 So it begins – my first entry into my annual race journal. It is already June and I have not raced yet this season – though I have selected my first race – the “Giro de Grafton” in Wisconsin on June 16th. Meanwhile, my family are in the middle of preparations to move to Chicagoland as we close on our new house in Streamwood this Friday, and - we are also still selling our old house, as well as 2 cars and a boat. It is a busy time… Nonetheless I’m still getting in a decent amount of hours on the bike.

Flashback: Mid March, 2007

Scene: standing undressed in front of a brand new scale (our old one died a couple years ago and we never replaced it). I inched forward, my toes wriggling across the slate floor in our bathroom and I gingerly stepped onto the textured white plastic surface of the digital scale. As the LED lights began to whirl, I reflected on the preceding months leading to this moment.

Great weather in November and December and early January (for winter in the Midwest anyway) led to a pretty consistent set of weekend training rides, with the occasional spinning session during the week and I was still feeling reasonably fit going into the new year. Then… work, and weather happened and I found myself spending up to 10 days at a time off the bike, without even the semblance of another workout to take its place.  Long commutes to Chicago, McDonalds several times a week - it all started to add up...

I’m lucky enough to add weight evenly across my body – with the result that, when I’m fat, I’ll be oddly accused for “working out” as my shoulders, chest, even my neck will grow along with my waist. Sure enough, just earlier in the week someone had slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Coyle – you’ve been working out!” – a sure sign that the LED’s  on the scale were going to tell an ugly story.

Sure enough, the lights finished blinking, and the scale read “197”. Nearly 200 lbs. on a frame that at its best carried 164 lbs of muscle. I had gained 15 lbs since September, and probably lost muscle as well. A long hard road ahead indeed.

 One of the big realizations I had going in to this season was that it was likely to be my last semi-serious cycling season. With a daughter in kindergarten, almost old enough for organized sports, the window for traveling almost every weekend to bike races was quickly closing. Once she’s in ballet, or soccer, or gymnastics or… whatever sport or hobby becomes her focus, our orbits will change and my life will necessarily revolve around hers. That, and the fact that at the age of 38, even the great Mario Cipollini finally threw in the towel – but not without winning a significant victory in one of his last stage races ever...

For the 2007 season I had set some rather aggressive goals… to win a Pro Race stage at my favorite annual Wisconsin/Illinois sporting event in July – “Superweek”, and then to win the nationals in Downer’s Grove in August, and then, finally to win the Pro I/II race in little Italy, Windsor, Canada over Labor day in September. I estimated that I would need a body weight of approximately 175lbs in order to compete at this level. Odds of any of this happening were…. Slight.

To this end, and partially to escape the stresses of work, I made a rather last minute trip to Italy in late May, and in the period of 3 ½ days I spent over 19 hours just riding, riding riding… I’ll give a bit of detail of that trip in my next update.

Meanwhile, back at home, May 20th, after some incredible riding viewing the vistas of the vineyards of Italy, and my naked toes are lined up on the slate in front of the scale again. With a mixture of trepidation and pride I line up my white feet and tanned calves on the pebbled plastic and watch the numbers flash. “184.8 lbs” – 12 lbs gone, 10lbs to go.

Flashback: Saturday, April 21st. My first long ride of the year – way overdue as it was already late April. But the weather in February and March was awful. I actually rode more in December and January than I did in February. Crisp and cold can be quite rideable, sleet or cold rain becomes more of a challenge.

I had ridden about 2 ½ hours of the 3 hour ride, and was struggling on my way back home against a 20+ mile/hour headwind. I was tiring quickly and was out of food, and running low on water.

I passed some typical milestones on the route home – the forested dip into the Yahara river valley, and the high speed ride over its swollen waters, followed by a short climb to an open plateau of corn fields. This was followed by a stop sign at Highway M, and then a “ false flat” (a steady hill disguised as flat road) leading for over a mile across a still-desolate plain of shredded gray corn stalks and crenellated earth before a "T" in the road and a left turn leading back down to the river valley once again.

As I crossed Highway M and began the mile long exposed stretch of slightly uphill country road, I noticed my speed hovering around 9mph against the headwind and incline – even with considerable effort. Head down, thinking of nothing but turning the pedals, getting home, and Coca-Cola, I continued to plow slowly forward, body imperceptibly weakening.

Then I sensed it – that scratch in my sunglasses suddenly taking action, that shadowy form gathering at the edges of my awareness and streaking inward even as the first sharp staccato barks thudded against my ears.

Farm dogs are a reality of rural riding the world over, and their actions are relatively predictable. There must be something about the gentle perambulations of a bicycle, the circular motion of those sweaty, meaty limbs spiraling so delectably that, combined with the lure of open greenspace and the ability satisfy their predatory instincts, completely outweighs the farm dog’s natural reticence for the open road and associated hurtling metal cars: in a snap of instincts overriding discipline, their bodies respond.

The “country sprint” as it oft becomes can be quite motivating – just like the dog, as that blotch on the sunglasses takes form, instincts take over and the human body responds. Something about the snapping jaws, bared teeth, and guttural growls of the enraged animal bypasses conscious thought and stirs the more primal responses of our modern bodies and minds and without a moments thought or hesitation, I’m up, out of the saddle, sprinting, with seemingly considerable reserves of power despite my fatigue.

Even as I accelerate forward, the parts of my brain that calculate spacial relationships, velocity, direction and trajectory began to do the math… This animal, unlike most, did not appear to aiming for where I WAS, it was aiming for where I was GOING

There is something about the predatory motion of dog on the attack that is compelling in the same way as a car crash or horror movie. Something of their motion that reminds me of a tick – tiny in the distance but looming larger, hooked forelimbs and claws curving underneath their flattened shiny swollen bodies as they move smoothly and swiftly across uneven ground, clinging tightly to the clipped grass and curves of the surface. This particular animal had a manic glint in its eyes, and even as it reached top speed and headed for and disappeared behind the berm and ditch separating the farmhouse lawn from the road, I knew intuitively that when I next saw him, he would be coming directly at me like the bolt from a cross bow.

This was no small rat-hound – rather a meaty, 110 lab/pit bull/mastiff mix that seemed first intent on knocking me into oblivion before gnawing my bones. Even as the dog disappeared behind the berm and into the ditch, additional power previously unavailable suddenly coursed through my body, and I shifted up and hit the pedals with every ounce of energy and power available to my tired and out-of-shape legs.

When the sleek mass of canine muscle reappeared, my acceleration was just enough to foil his attempt to T-bone me and take me down, and he went winging past my rear wheel by only inches, the ticks of his claws changing to scrapes as he course-corrected and began to bear down on me from behind, legs in full horizontal stretch, muzzle snarling, the growls echoing off the damp pavement.

At this point, only 7 or 8 seconds had gone by – a seemingly interminable time where sound and sight, adrenaline and scent, instinct and response had played out the first round of moves of a chess game played the world over by predator and prey. 7 or 8 seconds just also happens to be the extremely limited scope of my strengths on the bike. And as 9, 10, and 11 seconds ticked by my advantages diminished, even as the enraged growls and howls from the dog began to amplify.

12 seconds of sprinting uphill, into a 20mph headwind began to take a very serious toll on my legs and lungs, and I found myself slowing, thighs like pink balloons, knuckles white on the bars even as my pursuing predator pulled even with my left leg and began to turn his snapping maw to latch on. I could feel strings of saliva touch my legs as his jowls touched my ankle and calf… I swung the bike left and my rear wheel and flashing bladed spokes briefly touched the muzzle of the animal before it slowed slightly and then began bounding up the right side, accelerating quickly to try and gnaw on me on that side.

16, 17, 18 seconds into a maximal effort, and even with the full aid of adrenaline, my system is beginning to shut down. My fear subsides to resignation as my physical ability to separate myself from the predator decreases, and I swing the bike to the right and again bring spinning rubber and metal to bear on the rabid chops of the dog who again backs off.

19, 20, 21, 22 seconds – and the game repeats back on the left side, and then 23, 24, 25, 26 seconds, back on the right. My speed has considerably slowed now, and I’m laboring out of the saddle gasping for air to try and keep some semblance of speed as my oxygen starved muscles and brain try to protect me. 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 seconds and the dog is back on the left, and then finally, FINALLY, pulling up, panting heavily, tongue dangling, and peeling off back onto the shoulder of the road staring emotionless at the havoc he has caused, then pausing to trot back to its farmhouse – another day, another prey.

I begin coasting and my speed dwindles almost immediately from 20+ mph to 3 or 4 mph, and I start having trouble steering the bike as my inertia almost stops from the wind and incline.

I force my legs to move and surprise myself with the volume and ugliness of the rattling wheezing breaths that come out of my lungs and into the cool spring air. I taste blood and acid as my heartrate reaches its climax and the blood pounds in my ears. I wonder if I have ever felt pain this excruciating. I can barely turn the pedals, and my breathing speeds up again as my feeble efforts force my bloodstream and system to begin clearing out the toxic by-products of a significant anaerobic effort. For the next 20 minutes I average little over 5mph against the wind and then only 7 or 8 when I make the turn and begin heading home against the crosswind, head hanging, lungs still gasping, legs dangling awkwardly in the pedals.

Moments later, when another, much smaller farm dog suddenly appears nipping at my heels I do respond with a short sprint, but sit down quickly and break out my water bottle – hoping to remove the menace with the placement of a few quick wet spurts to the eyes of the small predator.  20mph crosswinds dice the water into millions of flashing droplets and I'm forced to extend my sprint to 8 or 10 seconds to outrun this tiny predator before I subside to an even deeper funk on the bike.

By the time I reach home I'm beyond hope or despair and merely churn small circles with my feet in the vain belief that the circular motion below me will somehow summon up food if I persist in the motions. I unclip in the driveway and abandon my bike with a thump to the lawn, wheels still spinning and proceed to eat anything with sugar, protein or fat that I can find for the next 20 minutes.

And so begins my professional preparation for the 2007 cycling season. Coming in Pre-season race report #2 - "A 3 1/2 day journey to Italy - the hills of Monferrato". Til then,