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