The Sprinter's Margin: 36 years and 18 seconds

The Sprinter’s Margin: 36 years and 18 seconds A recent conversation:

Ray Dybowski: Hey did you hear? Alan Antonuk won that road race by 7 minutes. 

(Me) 7 minutes!? I don’t think the entire margin of victory from every race I’ve won would total to seven minutes!

(Ray) Laughs, thinks I’m kidding. 

As it turns out I completely overestimated my prowess as a bike racer. I truly was disciple of the Walden mantra, “win it at the line.” After this conversation I did a little math, totaling the number of races competed on a bike over the last 36 years and the rough percentage of those that I won and by how much and then estimated the average finish speed to calculate the average total time between my front wheel and second place. Finally I added up those races to calculate the minutes… or seconds that those margins added up to.

So guess… Guess the total margin of victory for a somewhat accomplished cyclist, who won 400* out of about 4000 races over 36 years? Alan Antonuk won one single race by 7 minutes – surely it must add to more than that, right? (*Includes heats, semis, finals etc. in BMX and track racing – perhaps not as impressive a number as it might look.)

Wrong. 18 seconds. Count it out: one one-thousand, two one-thousand… Get to 18 one thousand and you’ve counted the entire impression of my cycling career across multiple formats: road / velodrome / cyclo-cross / criterium / & bmx.

Here’s the math, complements of excel:

Value Metric Description


feet # feet in a mile


seconds # seconds in an hour


mph average sprint speed


ft/s average sprint speed  (in ft/s (5280*37.5/3600) )


feet typical margin of victory: 1/2 bike length = 2.5 feet


seconds time to travel 1/2 bike length at a sprint speed of 55.0 ft/s


races # of races (including heats, semis & finals) entered over the last 36 years (road, track, crit, cyclocross, bmx)


win ratio percent of races won over the 36 years (used to be much higher…)


wins approximate # of career wins over 36 year career at an average span of one-half of a bike length


seconds total margin of victory for 400 wins with 1/2 bike length lead at 37.5mph (=400*.045)

Really? My entire cycling career boils down to 18 seconds?  ½ second a year?

Yes. This is a fact. So also is the fact that these victories weigh heavier than the chronological time involved in completing them suggests.

I embrace this conundrum – that time is inherently flexible and that, perhaps, “really living” is found at the margins, at the pendulum swings of the hours, days and weeks of suffering condensed to prepare for a race, meeting, or test, and then again in the expansion of that invested time through the seconds those long hours deliver: a dash across the finish line, a flash of insight, or a compelling soundbite at the right moment in a meeting. The math of the mind is logarithmic and paradoxical: investment measured in years often results in outcomes measured in seconds or lesser intervals (sprinters are the “comedians” of the peleton for a reason). Yet, in the timeless continuum of the human psyche they are equals.

What is the value of those 18 seconds? How many hours, days, weeks, even years would I trade for that tiny slice of ever expanding time? Contained within the long yawn this moment comprises is series of unforgettable moments burned into my retinas and into the fibers of my legs and lungs. That first churning, panic-stricken race in the rain at age 8 with Frankie Andreu, Paul Jaqua and Jamie Carney around the Dearborn Towers. Hundreds of perfectly anointed sprints from 5th wheel and 150m to go to win as a junior and then again in the Cat 3’s. My largest margin of victory at Downer’s Grove when a 160+ rider peleton crashed in my wake in the final corner and I coasted across the line alone. The bike throw against Jamie Carney on the track to win a spot to the world championships in North Africa. Flinging across the shiny cobbles in the rain downtown Grand Rapids year before last to finally raise my hands in celebration.

The wins matter little, but there are synapses built in the process that are separate from pedaling: wires bent toward confidence, towards persistence, and inclined to treat the heat of battle as enjoyable. These connections made in the heat and pressure of the race stay melded together long after…

I’m a terrible bike racer in the grand scheme of things. A non-factor surfing the waves of the strong players forever relegated to the vagaries of the field sprint on easy courses. Yet in 18 seconds over 36 years a great deal of my character has been formed. In the early days a quiet standoffish confidence resulted – when asked to predict my results I would say, “I think I’m going to win, but we’ll see.” In more recent days a willing recognition of all my weakness and failures surrounding a tiny little jet engine of a strength – and hope.  “I hope to finish – and if I do, then I have a shot.” Hope, perhaps is the source of all good, all energy, all tenacity. It is irrational, hope. It specifically is designed NOT to meet the facts. Facts represent the past and carry its inertia. Hope represents the eventualities of the future and provides a trajectory that necessarily includes uncertainty and the possibility of humiliation, or glory.

Bill Strickland, editor of bicycling magazine, wrote a compelling book called “Ten Points” that anchored much of his life and his pursuits, failures, and successes to a Wednesday Worlds local bike race.  Bill Strickland was also abused, severely, as a child and the reverberations of this horrible past had begun to creep into his present. Earning “ten points” in the local series for his daughter was less about beating his significantly challenging rivals, and far more about the magic provided by a “point” earned through suffering for a noble cause.

Bill never did earn his ten points.  But he did end up exorcising some of his demons and becoming a good father and the editor of the nation’s largest cycling publication.

I’ll likely never increase the span of my wins from 18 to even 20 seconds much less 7 minutes. But, on the margin… it doesn’t matter. It was worth it.

2009 Race Reports #10 –11: Superweek Evanston Masters 30+ & 40+

Sunday, July 19th - Evanston, IL: I decided to register for both of the Masters events early in the day, and if the legs felt good, to return for the evening Pro race. As it turned out, the legs felt good, but circumstances interfered and I was unable to return for the pro race and had to settle for racing twice. The Masters 30+ and 40+ races were similar - pretty fast paced with a lot of breakaway attempts - all of which were reeled in. I sat in the middle/rear of the field in both races as usual.

The two races were back to back, so I only had time to pin on my new number and I was back out racing.

Masters 30+: The video starts with a lap and a half to go as I start moving through the field in prep for the sprint. You can see that the field is strung out over 200meters down the finish stretch with various small breakaways trying to get away. I used the draft and moved up into the lead of the field and then got a great stroke of luck - like magic, 3 Bissell riders lined up directly in front of me for a leadout, their first guy swinging off on the backstretch, their second guy taking us into the long (400m) slightly uphill finish stretch. I really didn't have much left and tried to come around but couldn't and meanwhile Clayton Goldsmith - who was on my wheel, went winging by and I ended up 3rd.


Masters 40+: Some days you just seem to know exactly what to do - and this video picks up with one to go as I shoot up through the field to move into position  on the backside. There I hopscotch from Robert Krohn's wheel to Paul Swinand, and then neatly onto the 3 man leadout on the backstretch. This finish was quite close - almost come around by the line but again don't have quite enough juice and end up 3rd again.


Harrowing victory? Brilliant, jubilant defeat?

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 win - 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.

2008 Race Reports #25 & 26: One day, two races, two podiums... satisfaction

2008: Race Report  #25, September 6, 2008 : Priority Health Cat 2/3 Criterium, Grand Rapids, MI. Weather: 74 degrees, light winds. Course: twisty, 6 corners mostly on brick 0.8 miles/lap, Distance, 40 minutes. Avg speed – 26.7mph, max speed, 38.3mph

I groggily and grumpily awoke to my alarm at 6:30am on a Saturday morning and 15 minutes later piled in the car for a 3 ½ hour drive to Grand Rapids for the first of two races the same day – the Priority Health Classic a newer race with big sponsors in its second year running.

I was quite proud of myself – the night before I had loaded the car, cleaned my chain, and filled my water bottles. Everything was set for a timely departure, and after a shower and a bowl of oatmeal, I was on my way, munching a Powerbar as I turned up the stereo. I was easily going to be on time for the race for once.

The light rising from the fields near my home indicated the pending change of seasons: the heavy dew was lit from below and made my glasses seem like they were fogged up. I pushed the big V8 to a steady hum at 85 down highway 90 and made great time, crossing two state lines, and slinging into the parking lot right by the race at 10:30. I pulled in right next to Ray, Scott & Tom and began to casually unload while shouting my greetings… enjoying the concept of taking my time…that is until Ray said, “Dude – you better go register soon or they may close it up on you…”


I paused and said with just a note of swagger, “Dude, I have an hour and half – I never get to a race this early!”. Then Ray made my blood run cold… “Dude – it’s 11:35… not 10:35 – the race is in 25 minutes!”

I had totally forgotten about the time change to Eastern Daylight. And… of course I had no money to pay my entry fees, so I borrowed some from Scott and Ray and then sprinted to registration. They informed me that they had closed registration. I started to bargain with them, but an old friend Todd Sanders overheard and went to ask the race promoter – another old friend – Jamie Smith – and they went ahead and let me register for both races – back to back – Cat 2/3 and then Master’s 40. Of course, I wasn’t “supposed” to be racing at all: usually Labor Day weekend is the final racing of the year for me, and, after 24 races this summer and 3 hard races back to back at Downer’s Grove in mid August, I was starting to look forward to the season winding down. Over the last two years I’ve begun to take a more seasonal, cyclical view of the calendar year – based in part on some research I had done at work regarding generations and their ties to seasons. The advice was “you want your efforts and actions to be seasonal or even a little pre-seasonal – not post seasonal” – i.e. you don’t want to plant crops in July or harvest them in December.” By mid-August, I felt as though I had “sucked the marrow out of summer” – and that it had returned the favor, and that it was about time to rest. At first I was probably as ready as I have ever been to really focus on the joys of autumn – easy rides on a carpet of crisp, colorful leaves, nights with the windows open and that clean fall air. Time to explore some creative concepts at work, finish all my race reports, and focus on Katelina’s school work and prepare for winter. But… I still had my favorite race of the year – Tour di Villa Italia… and as I went out for training rides with no agenda, I found myself performing long intervals, and sprinting better than all season – perhaps ever. But alas, family needs intervened and I was unable to attend my favorite race and I was suddenly hanging – a climax without a denouement – drifting between seasons. I had called Ray Dybowski – to let him know I wouldn’t be coming to Detroit (the plan was to stay with him). He let me know that there was another weekend of big races coming the next weekend – in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. I committed to trying to make it to Grand Rapids – and hence had made the early morning drive to Michigan. I sprinted back to the car and Ray – ever the helpful, generous man he is, pumped up my tires as I pulled on my jersey and shoes and then headed over the line, where a couple other racers put on my number for me, finishing just as they shot the gun. No warmup. Even when I’m early I’m still late. The course was rough – mostly brick, with manhole covers and those tear shaped tar masses in the asphalt that can really throw you. But… as I realized in those first few exploratory laps, it was a series of not too long, no too short segments well suited to my “5 second sprint” strengths. After about 5 laps, I started to feel that old hum, that sense of ‘I can go or do whatever I want’. I was suffering at a more manageable level… As the laps clicked down, I moved carefully through the pack into the top 20 with 2 laps to go and then on the backstretch I moved into the top 10 – but with a very unfortunate incident – the pace had slowed a little, and like always I was ready to take advantage – and I swung up the left to slot up a few spots. A lot happens in a second, so the video to follow won’t show much, but at about 20 seconds in I start to sling up the left. Just at 26 seconds, and old friend and great rider Dave Hietekko jumped out to the left just as I was coming through. At that same point on the course there was an indent for a driveway and I was able to move off-course for a tenth of second in order to not just plow right into him, but instead the worst happened – my handbar hit his from behind and in an instant, he was gone, down hard with that usual train wreck noise to follow as several other riders went down. These pivotal moments happen a lot in racing and the frame rate of the camera misses just about everything – though you can see that I use the full space of that little reprieve from the curb at that critical moment. I recovered my position, but my mind was on Dave quite a bit for the rest of the lap. As far as I know I’ve never caused anyone I know to crash before so this was very disconcerting. But the race went on and I used that internal radar that seemed to finally be back in full working order to slot up a couple spots but still avoid the dreaded wind at the front. We passed through the start finish as they rang the bell and then rounded turn 1. At about 1:12 on the video, two riders suddenly separate even as others peel off – and they get an instant gap. At 1:24 I light half my match to join two chasers – we are now going pretty hard and turn onto the next section of brick where I get a small reprieve before setting up for the big move. At 1:44, I set up on the outside to begin my real sprint of the race which begins at 1:50 as I accelerate at the two riders off the front. Into the final two corners and I have perfect position, tagging onto the lead rider with 200m to go and a significant gap on the field. Amazingly, he didn’t fall or pull his foot out around the last corner and despite having very little gas left I had the draft and the slingshot and was able to come around him for the win, crossing the line at 2:25 on the video. [youtube=] Man that was really satisfying – after all the near misses over the last two years - yes, satisfying. No arms raised for me. In fact, I’m not sure I have ever done that – and back in the day I won a lot of races. The thing is 1) When I do win, it is usually by thin margins (win it at the line!) and 2) When I win by larger margins, I never have any idea, because I never look back – and hence just assume its close. Also,  I ALWAYS throw my bike, and after that’s done it just seems too late to raise your arms. Still, it would have been satisfying to raise my hands just once – and apparently I had the room to do so…Some other time.

2008: Race Report  #26, September 6, 2008 : Priority Health Masters Criterium, Grand Rapids, MI. Weather: 74 degrees, light winds. Course: twisty, 6 corners mostly on brick 0.8 miles/lap, Distance, 40 minutes. Max speed, 37.7mph

No rest for the wicked – after coasting a lap, my favorite announcer – none other than THE Eddy Van Guys – pulled me up on stage for a quick interview and a podium shot. The trophy for first place is really, really cool – honestly the single best trophy I have from cycling. It is a brick from the road we raced on with a chainring inserted into it, a metal plaque, and laser cut class in the middle of the chainring. There were flowers too – gladiolas. But I still had to switch numbers and get back down off the podium for the master’s race which was to begin right after.

Trophy for first
Trophy for first

So there he is – the great man he is, Jamie Smith – the promoter, announcing, managing, and pinning on my number for me – thank you Jamie. And back on the bike and to the line – and off we go – as fast as that. And, damn them, the masters went out hard and I was processing lactic acid for the first 4 laps. Eventually I settled in, and kind of tuned out for a bit. I was surprised when I suddenly saw 6 laps to go. I was pretty sure I had a good shot at this one too and made my moves into position – though with 2 to go (where the video starts) I almost went into the barriers on the first corner. Eventually I get into good position with a ½ lap to go, but a leadout (by Jim Bruce) took the pace up too high for my original plan to lead it out myself and instead I followed wheels around the second to last corner and then wound up the machine for a go into the last corner. I swung wide left before the final corner and then dove up the inside coming out of the corner and found myself chasing a wheel with almost no closing speed – Rob Daksawicz had the leadout and the power to hold it and I settled for second. [youtube=]

  Back to the podium again – but this time I was able to enjoy it – and then back to chat with a dozen old friends and acquaintances including childhood friend Kevin Collins, fellow racer Danny Klein, and 24 hour endurance athlete extraordinaire Tim Finklestein. Ray, Tom, Scott, Dan, Tim, Whitney and I ate lunch together, and were joined by other great cycling faces of past and present and then it was back on the road for home. I really wanted to stay and hang with the boys and then head to Ann Arbor – but I knew where my priorities were and with my trophy and flowers on the seat next to me I cruised home at 85mph. The light entered that angle I love, where the pebbles of the worn asphalt light up like gold medallions, and the contrasts of the golden green of the leaves and black of the depths of the forests on either side create a sense of the depth and vitality of life. I was happy.  I knew my luck had truly returned when the red and blue flashers of “the law” pulled me over for doing 85 in a 55 on the skyway and still let me go with just a warning. -John

2008 Race Report #7: Giro de Grafton

2008: Race Report #7: Giro de Grafton, WI


Saturday, June 21. Giro de Grafton, WI. Category: Pro 1/2. Weather: 72 degrees, 9 mph winds. Course: 6 corners, 1 mile, small hill. Distance, 75 minutes plus 2 laps, 90 riders Average speed, pulse, distance etc. – none – DNF.


My friend Mike Engley joined me for this jaunt up to WI for a 7:30pm start time for a bike race – a ‘twilight criterium’.


With a $6500 prize list and no other nearby races of note, this race was bound to draw a strong field of pros and top riders. I was excited to try and reverse my misfortune at Sherman Park the week prior but unsure of the course and my own fitness.


Traffic on 294 was horrendous and we arrived only 30 minutes before start time. After registering, I noticed my rear tire was low – another flat – so I spent precious time replacing the tube. By the time I was dressed and had replaced my flat, I only had 10 minutes to warmup – the usual deal for me I guess.


I was able to warmup on the course – a long, slightly downhill finish stretch, followed by a mild hill and a zig zag of turns on the backstretch before the course killer – a 120 degree corner back into the long finish stretch. This would have been fine except for the pair of shiny white crosswalk marks exiting the inside corner making a V crossing both sides of that tight turn.


After the start, that one turn slowly decided my fate – lap by lap my strengths were unraveled like someone pulling on a thread of a sweater. Slowly, surely, inevitably I failed: each lap someone would slip and on about every third lap someone fell – and that meant a gap to be closed. Not impossible generally, but on very long slightly downhill shot through the finish line those gaps proved extremely debilitating to close.


Bicycling is an ever humbling sport, but in this case, I was completely and systematically crushed. Malcolm Gladwell – one of my favorite authors - once talked about failure and toughness. He made the connection that many of the top professional athletes from football or baseball or nearer to home the Winter Olympics’ own Bodie Miller show up untrained or out of shape or party too much as par for the course. Why does this happen? For one reason and one reason only – because when failure comes, the mind has a ready excuse – “I would have won but…” “I didn’t warmup or I didn’t train properly or I missed spring training or work interfered” – all these excuses form a psychological refuge – a way of protecting ourselves from the cold black hole that prepared failure brings: if I show up undertrained and don’t win, then I undertrained. If I show up but miss warmup and don’t keep up, then I didn’t warmup… But if I prepare perfectly and still don’t win…? Then it means I lost – that I wasn’t good enough.


This can be death to a competitive athlete’s mentality – if I can maintain the belief that I’m the best and that other mundane excuses have kept me from peak form – that’s a way to weather the storms. But the truly tough – Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, Frankie Andreu, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning – they not only prepare perfectly – but they weather failures without any clear excuse.


“I wasn’t good enough.”


How often do we hear that from our top athletes?


Actually, the best answer is, “I wasn’t good enough… today.”


I can still remember it with complete clarity – those moments of asphyxiating apoplexy as I focused on the tire ahead of me and gave everything my heart and legs had to offer and watched it inch away, blood boiling in my ears and lungs rasping with a guttural ugliness – and then suddenly it was over – they were gone – riding away from me. Suddenly it was quiet and I wondered how that parade of bikers could have dropped me and I sat up confused. The mind starts to protect, to rationalize, “I didn’t get enough warmup.” “These guys – the train year round – its early.” “Most of these guys are full time or nearly so…” In reality I got my ass handed to me and there was no way of escaping it…


At Grafton, I wasn’t good enough…on that day.  I got dropped – despite using every trick in the book, drafting, pedaling corners, moving up in the slow spots – I got dropped – meaning that the entire peleton that remained (granted about half the riders had dropped out before I got dropped) were considerably stronger than me, and that the lead riders were at least 30% stronger than me given the effects of the draft.



Mike and I wandered the course, had a cup of quality Wisconsin suds, and then headed back to Wisconsin. In prior days I would have been in a deep funk – a constant deliberation of whether my drubbing was due to some ‘excusable situation” or whether I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Really though it is just a feeling… so while rationalizing might serve as a bridge, the reality is that that feeling always fades – but only time and experience can provide that hope – in the meantime failure looms and feelings sway with the winds.


For me, years of concentric circles have been built around that flexible bough of my youth, giving me the strength to weather these storms of doubt. I know now that I’ll ride to fight on another day and perhaps – even probably still do well. Part and parcel with this perspective comes the other side – that if and when I do win, I can no longer just believe that it is “all me” and that part of it – perhaps much of it – will be do to the vagaries of circumstance – and that when and if I do stand on that podium, luck will be one of the biggest strengths I bring with me.


Oddly this doesn’t bother me at all. Next weekend I’ll show up. I’ll suffer. I’ll fail or succeed or more likely have some middling result – an “almost” that keeps me inspired. Every time I stand on the podium I sheepishly just can’t wait to get down… so clearly that’s really never been the goal. Til then…








2008 Race Report #6: Sherman Park Criterium - the "reverse breakaway"

2008: Race Report #6: Sherman Park Criterium, Chicago, IL

Saturday, June 14. Sherman Park Criterium, Chicago, IL. Category: Pro 1/2. Weather: 78 degrees, 12 mph winds. Course: large oval, 1.1 miles, slight uphill into the finish. Distance, 90 minutes (approx 42 miles), 38 riders, average speed, pulse, distance etc. – none – DNF.

(This is a re-write as the first one disappeared somehow) I was excited to attempt my first pro race of the year – especially when I discovered a course shaped like a giant velodrome – a 1.1 mile oval in the heart of Chicago’s South side.

After arriving  I registered and then bumped over broken sidewalks, dodging broken glass and bouncing to the thumps of massive subwoofers as I warmed up for this 90 minute race in the late afternoon on a brilliant Saturday. As we lined up I was a little disappointed with the size of the field though – only 38 riders at the start. What I should have noticed is that the field was characterized by 5 or so large teams – which was a major factor in the race.

We started out slow, and after a lap or two cruising underneath the park trees, dodging shadow and light, I joked to my friend Chris in the field, “This is the best race – EVER” – in particular because my pulse had never even risen above 150.

Eventually though, the race heated up and the pace began a series of fits and starts. A small breakaway of 5 riders assembled a short distance off the front. I considered bridging – it was still within my 5 or 6 second reach – but decided it couldn’t possibly get away – what with no corners and great visibility.

After another lap, the pace stayed high and now the pack split in two – the breakaway, and about 12 or 13 riders in between, and then the rest of us. I began to worry.

A 5 or 6 man break is one thing, a 15 man chase group is another – I figured our pack just needed a little motivation, so I swung into the lead and pulled a hard half lap up the backstretch into the small rise across the finish line: 31mph hard and steady, and swung off in a world of hurt, but with the chase group within 100 feet. I assumed that someone would quickly bridge that gap and I could return to the embrace of the peleton.

Nothing happened. I pulled off and coasted. The pack coasted. We slowed – 29, 27, 25, 23… The breakaways began to recede.

I cursed and fired up again, heart in my throat, a roaring in my ears. The downhill section was full of bumps and I again brought us close to the chase, but couldn’t quite get us there. I swung off again and yelled, “Let’s go! Let’s go!”

And nothing happened again. As we slowed to 20 on the backstretch I began to berate the small “pack” that was left. “That’s not a breakaway gentleman – that’s the FIELD!” “Whoever you are protecting, you are not granting them anything!” Doesn’t ANYONE want to race?!”

No response.

I suddenly realized - we were in a reverse breakaway. 20 riders up the road and for whatever reason or discipline, teams were still blocking. I took over the front again and led - and led some more. I suck at leading, but I probably led 4 or 5 laps before I completely gave up the ghost. “

As I finally sat up and watched our speed drop – 25, 23, 21, 19, 17mph, I couldn’t help but have a frustrated thought rattle through my head, “THIS I can do all by myself – I don’t need help to get DROPPED!”

Still despite my frustration, the easy answer is, “then you should have been up the road in the breakaway”… of course, playing to my strengths, I don’t DO breakways…

This is where friend and co-worker Cregier would say, that I must learn acceptance. Ah Grasshopper – so much to learn…

We coasted two laps and then were caught by the now 8 man break and the pace returned to a semblance of a race. The formerly docile team members now switched into protect mode and we kept the chase group at bay (the plan all along?) while chasing down any further breakaway attempts.

I hung out in the back, still frustrated – the idea of sprinting for 21st place did not particularly intrigue me, but I still was considering it good practice for the bigger races to come… and I wanted to crush these guys in the sprint just for some semblance of pride. Well… pride goeth before…

My bike had other ideas. After about 60 of the 90 minutes I began to notice a subtle ticking as I rotated the pedals. I didn’t like this feeling – not at all. With memories of my friend Jeff’s nuclear detonation in Spain just a few weeks prior in my head, I began to be careful and stopped getting out of the saddle.

The ticking feeling grew and pretty soon I could hear it too – though I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Then, sure enough, 75 minutes into the race, my legs suddenly swung free (“no chain man, no chain!”) and my broken chain dragged behind the bike on the rough asphalt.

I coasted to a stop near my car and roughly put my bike into the trunk and sped home. At least I got home in time to swim in the pool.

2008 Race Report #3: Wood Dale Master's Criterium

Race Report - Wood Dale Criterium. 66 degrees, 17mph winds, 45 minutes plus 2 laps (about 23 1/2 miles), 38 riders, average speed 27.9 mph, max speed 49 mph, average heart rate 169 bpm, max heart rate 192 bpm. And the debut of the bike-cam...

So I'll tell the race story with 3 short videos. The first is the start. I got to the line late and lined up in the second row. I prefer front row, but you can't always predict rider behavior and my front line preference wrestles with my need to keep moving and staying warmed up as near to start time as possible.

As the video shows, I clipped in quickly and in a small gear accelerated into the lead and then let the usual one or two (one in this case) riders pass me to stretch things out and, on occasion, get rid of some chaff in the back.

(Video 1 - a good start)


I settled into the mid rear of the pack and the cross winds took their expected toll and the race broke up into pieces time and time again. I began to get nervous about a breakaway with about 15 minutes remaining and decided to bridge up to a small chase group in hopes of making it to the lead breakaway. 

  • #1 Rule of bridging is to know how far you can go.
  • #2 Rule is to put most of your efforts into the tailwind section where you can make the most headway with the windfall of a burst of acceleration having 'legs' and momentum being sustained.

In this particular example, I had about a 5 second gap to bridge and I used the slingshot effect of the draft of the pack, and accelerated hard on the right side of the pack in the 'wind shade' of their draft, then set up for a high speed corner and ultimately coasted right into the back of the breakaway. The whole effort took only about 15 seconds, but it hurt quite a bit. I suck at bridging.

(Video - How to bridge a gap)


Finally, the race began to enter its final laps and the wind took its toll: in the final 10 laps a series of breakaways had again split off. The video rejoins the race with only a lap and half to go on this 4 corner square course: 6 corners left to be exact. At this point I'm in the back of the main field - about 20 of us -  then there is breakaway of 7 riders not far off that we catch as they ring the bell, and then  farther out is another small breakaway of 3 that shatters apart on the last lap and I ultimately ride ride into them. Finally, totally unseen is a break of 5 riders that stayed away.

As the 2 minutes in the video unfolds, I'm biding my time in the field. I'm capable of bridging to the next small breakaway, but sense that the guys up front will do the work. I dodge around in the wind shadows, never seeing anything but draft until we catch them just prior to the bell (and corresponding yellow line) and then I shoot up the inside in a carefully timed move to slot into about 8th place w/ three-quarters of a lap to go.

One guy goes off at this point, but I bide my time and ride the wheels of a couple different horses - a big Mack guy and then another rider up the inside until we head into the last two rounded corners where I slot inside, then outside, and then back inside, coming off the corner in second position, and then I put my head down and put on the afterburners. (The slow frame rate puts this all into a bit of slo-mo, but I can assure you we were moving - we never went below 31mph during this whole video)

I had a lot of wattage in me and put my head down and as I streaked toward the line at about 38mph, I actually caught one of the breakaway riders, and just missed passing the second one, swooping around them prior to rounding the corner after the finish.

(Video: How to win criterium field sprint)


This, generally, is how I race. I guess it looks fairly straightforward, but it takes quite a bit of experience to know when to move, and more importantly, when to wait. Overall, I was pleased. My sprint, it seems, is back...


2008 Race Report #2: Vernon Hills, IL

2008: Race Report #2: Vernon Hills Grand Prix


Race Report, Sunday, May 4. Vernon Hills Grand Prix Criterium, Vernon Hills, IL. Category: Masters 30+. Weather: 60 degrees, 15 mph winds. Course: 20 miles, 50 riders, average speed – 25.9mph, average pulse 170 bpm, max pulse 191 bpm. Sprint speed 38mph.


Another early season race. I’m determined to follow Walden’s core principles this season as well as his race rules. I’ve documented the race rules in my blog, but have been saving the two core principles for an appropriate writeup. Nonetheless, in short they are, 1) Race Your Strengths, Train Your Weaknesses, and 2) Racing is the Best Training.


Since racing is the best training I’ve decided to abandon my ‘long aerobic ride’ focus of last year’s preseason and mix in more early season races. My friend Matt’s energy and enthusiasm is making it easy. He got 10th in the Masters 4/5 race and mixed it up in the sprint – an awesome finish.


Another windy day, and on this 4 corner course of about a mile it means 1 straightaway with a headwind, 1 with a tailwind, and 2 with cross winds. It also meant a decent amount of suffering and the implosion of the field as the wind took its toll. After about 5 laps, I suddenly found myself on the wrong side of a split within the field, with 18 riders out front quickly getting a 10, then 15, then 20 second gap on our chase group of 20 (10 riders dropped out in the first few laps.)


For the next 5 laps I stayed in my “you are a sprinter John” zone and did nothing but draft and suffer, but eventually the slowing pace and continued visibility of the large breakaway overcame my natural weaknesses and I began to take hard pulls at the front of our field (granted on the tail wind or cross wind sections) and exhorted other riders to pull through and work together.


Over the next few laps we closed the gap to about 12 seconds, but meanwhile the lap cards read “3” laps to go. I watched Ken, one of my friend Matt’s Bicycle Heaven teammates make a huge effort on the headwind side to bridge the gap and considered going with him but had just finished a hard pull on the backstretch to pull us within striking distance and wasn’t quite recovered.


It took Ken nearly a lap, but I saw him finally catch the lead group. Meanwhile the lead group shelled 3 riders off the back who were struggling to organize and re-catch the lead breakaway. With two laps to go I ascertained that my struggling peleton was not strong or organized enough to close the gap and I decided to make a ‘go-for-broke’ effort to catch the lead group. No sense in sprinting for 19th


One benefit was the 3 rider group in between the leaders and my pack…


I timed my effort carefully and used the draft to my advantage and just prior to the first corner of the 4 corner course I accelerated up the inside and then shot down the second straightaway at 33 mph amongst blasts of sideways wind, catching the chase group just prior to the backstretch.


The fear of this kind of effort is difficult to describe. I can liken it to drowning. The effort to spring from the warm shrouded belly of the peleton into the suddenly roaring air in front of the pack steals the air from your lungs and you begin to panic for breath as your legs and arms burn. The most significant, yet easily forgotten effect is the taste of blood and steel in your mouth as you go well beyond your aerobic threshold to pedal beyond the peleton. Like drowning, as your air runs out, your focus can easily become all about the feeling of oxygen deprivation – but instead you must focus forward on the goal.


I coasted the corner on the tail end of the group, catching a tiny bit of rest. I wanted to do nothing else but rest and recover, but I knew that was a recipe for 18th place and I swallowed the panic rising in my lungs and heart and then swung up the inside and cranked it up to 35, 36mph on the tailwind backstretch – a full out sprint – a mouthful of pennies and blood and a roaring in my ears beyond the wind – I was at my max. I kept the momentum going taking corner 3 full out and barely missing the curb. Finally I latched onto the rear of the breakaway group just as we entered the final corner and we headed down the finish stretch and the bell began to ring indicating one lap to go.


I continued my momentum right into the top 5 of the lead group, hoping for a few moments to recover from the maximal efforts of the last 2 minutes, but to no avail – the pace accelerated yet again and I found myself barely hanging onto the 5th place wheel down the backstretch. Like hundreds of episodes in my past, my focus narrowed to the tread of the rear wheel in front of me and I followed like a dog on a leash, whimpering with the effort.


I still hoped for a small rest prior to the final two stretches, but the pace stayed high, and as we entered the second to last straightaway, my legs, lungs, and heart gave out and I began to drift backward, from 5th to 7th to 10th, eventually crossing the line in 12th place.


I was actually super pleased. In 31 seasons of racing I can count the number of breakaway gaps I have bridged on one hand, and the number in the last 10 years on one finger.


I have that sense… that particular looming confident feeling that things will align this year and that somewhere, at some point, I’ll be standing on the podium in a significant race.




Preview for Race Report #3: On Thursday of this week, after some schedule juggling, I finally committed to my second annual European training vacation – this time to Gerona, Spain – home to significant portion of leading tour de France riders – Lance has a house there, as does my remaining friend in professional cycling George Hincappie.


I leave next Tuesday for a 4 day trip. Like last years amazing experience in the Monferrato Hills, Italy  - link -  I will take lots of pictures and maybe even break out the helmet cam.


To ‘really living’,








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.



Race Report 2007 #19: Downer's Grove in the Rain

August 18, 2007: Race report #19, Downers Grove “nationals”, Illinois. My birthday.


I woke on my 39th birthday to leaden skies and cool temperatures. I had not had a lot of sleep the week prior, pulling an all-nighter, and a couple other late nights for project “Mythos” at work. Nonetheless, this race… Downers Grove Nationals… this was MY course – a podium finish for 5 years running, and 10 total podium finishes. In fact, a podium finish every year that I’ve raced it.


I arrived on time at the course, registered, warmed up with a jacket on, and then arrived to the line just as the first sprinkles fell.


Downer’s Grove in the rain… had never tried that before. Eight corners, manhole covers, fresh white lane marker paint , a steep uphill, two high speed downhill corners… a disaster in the making. I could still feel the itchy pink tightening glaze of shiny new skin over the road rash from the crash just a week ago.


We set out onto a still dry course, with a light drizzle. Within a few laps the drizzle heavied, and then became solid rain. The course then turned to the equivalent of ice. Every corner had either manhole covers, off camber sections, or wide swaths of freshly painted lane markers. Almost every corner someone went down. Within 2 laps, the pack became a single file line. Within 10 laps a majority of the 118 riders quit.


I sat in about 6th place. Sometimes the top 10 of us were in a breakaway. Sometimes the top 3 were in a breakway. I just pedaled and held on, and tried to stay upright.


It was like walking on black ice when you have a little bit of fresh snow on the soles of your shoes. In order to not windmill out of control and fall, you have to soften every motion, control every finite movement as you try to stabilize, every fine motor control trying to eliminate the possibility of slipping. Gentle steering, gentle shifting, gentle pedaling – full circles, no hard strokes, no knee wobbles, and tender, tender braking. Quickly every part of my hands, forearms, shoulders and neck tired from the tension. Several times a lap a tire would slip and for a second I’d feel the vertigo of falling – until the tires would catch on a patch of decent pavement and then I’d recover only to try and be more tightly controlled than ever.


Riders pass me… and I watch disinterestedly as they go spinning out to the left or right for trying to ride any other than the widest smoothest line through the corners. Moving up became a very difficult and dangerous proposition. I did my few moves forward through the single file peleton on the hill.


The pack winnowed down. The crazies were eliminated. It began to feel like a practice. A couple guys passed me, and then one more. I let them in. I found the whole thing numbing really…


Suddenly the bell rang. I hadn’t been paying attention – after staying in the top 6 for the first 40 minutes of a 45 minute race I was suddenly in 12th with only one lap to go. Normally not a big deal, but with the rain, moving up on this course was an exercise in risk and danger.


I moved up 4 slots on the hill into 8th – but I should have been able to sweep the whole field – my power was seemingly more limited. Screaming down the hill into the next corner – there was no room to make a pass without entering the off camber zone with the white paint. Next corner was the same thing – no place to slot in.


3 corners to go and still in 8th. But the corners were like ice and taking any other line than the widest was a sure prediction for a crash, so I bided my time, and slotted up one spot prior to the final straightaway.


Entering the final 150m straightline to the finish I moved up one more spot to finish 6th. My worst finish at Downer’s grove in the last 6 years… But in reality even finishing given the conditions was a significant performance… But it was very, very unlike me…



Flashback: August 17. Scene: Friday morning at 6:30am and I’m getting ready for work. It is the day before my 39th birthday and the day before one of the most important races of the year – Downer’s Grove nationals.


Too tired to agonize over what the numbers might say, I stepped firmly up onto the pebbled white plastic of our digital scale. Same pebbled plastic surface, same white feet with tan calves rising above. Something different though – even as the digital wheels spin, the numbers and the visual dissonance register at the same time 172.8 lbs – more than 2 lbs lighter than my goal weight – I had lost 24 lbs in 5 months.


My gaze traveled up from the scale and gathered the images of my thighs and calves – but with a discordant note. I glanced down and was transfixed by the ‘look’ of my legs.


For dozens of years I had experienced a regular disappointment  - despite all the training, weights, riding and skating, I never developed those massive oak thighs of an Eric Heiden or Dan Jansen full of knotty bulging muscles. Instead I typically stared down a smoother, slimmer version of the athletic leg. Neither heavily muscled nor well defined, the springy, smooth Elm-like bows of my legs had been a fixture for most of my athletic life. But this time it was different…


This time though they had a new look – gone were the thicknesses and rounded springiness of a young branch. Replaced was something harder, more sinewed, varnished, knotty. Like the water on driftwood the lengthy races had reshaped my limbs and in the light and shadows I found new angles, rounded cutouts, hollows where it used to be solid.  I was transforming



I never should have been able to finish Downer’s Grove in the rain – that type of race is for endurance athletes: it was essentially a time trial – something I typically have NO true ability to do. So what happened? I was no longer me – I was no longer the 10 second, Elm-limbed sprinter. I had transformed my body – by necessity, my body had adjusted after all the long races, miles and intensity, into some facsimile of an endurance athlete.


I had converted my fast twitch muscle to slow twitch muscle.


The upside – I could finish and even place in incredibly difficult aerobic races. The downside – as I was soon to discover, is that by cultivating my weaknesses, I had all but eliminated my one true strength – to go really fast for 6 – 8 seconds.

2007 Race Reports #17 & #18: Elk Grove - Crashing worse..

August 11 & 12, 2007: Race reports 17 & 18, Elk Grove, Illinois


Somehow this quiet little Chicago suburb has developed cycling fever with major dollars to be won here over this two day series - one of the only races series besides the nationals to separate the pros from Cat 1/2’s, and the highest purse in all of American cycling . For Cat 1/2: $10,000 day one, and $25,000 day two.


Day One: I arrived and used my U. S. Cellular parking passes, complements of Keith Blackmon and our sponsorship there, to park right by the course. As I headed for the registration area, I realized that I had no money. Go figure. Then I passed Frankie Andreu enroute, and, in that instant, childhood bonds worked their magic – I asked him without even a second thought for $60 and he, without blinking gave it to me. I love that about childhood friendships. Of course I paid him back, and of course he didn’t worry about it.


The race got underway.  I played it a little safe after last year’s crash, coming around the last corner in second place with 400m to go – and facing a headwind sprint, finally ended up in 7th.


Day two: A $5000 first prize, $25,000 total and a fast pace, and an even scarier pack. When I arrived, I coasted to the course only to stumble upon one of those David Lynch-like scenes:


A rider had just crashed in the Cat 4 race and was face down alone in the middle of the course, the pack long gone, limbs splayed out at awkward angles and blood was slowly puddling in front of his cracked helmet. As police arrived to cordon off the scene, the rider’s son suddenly appeared. As the boy rushed closer, time rippled away and his 18 years become 8 – and he began screaming, his voice cracking, begging with agonizing high pitched broken shrieks like a little boy, his age betrayed only by the hoarse throaty inhales – trying to push through the gauntlet. “DAD!!!!” – intercepted by paramedics, “Leave me alone!” “DAD! DAD! DAD!!!!” Most of the women standing around the scene were crying. I felt sick. What if Katelina… I stopped the thought.


I’m rattled now.


The race is nervous, packed and fast. I hang in the back for safety and then make my moves in the last lap to slot to the front. I could go all the way up and lead the sprint like yesterday – guarantee top 10 finish – but I slot in in about 10th – same place that I crashed in last year – to try and have a shot at the win - it couldn’t happen twice – right?


In the final lap, the oddest crash I’ve ever witnessed happened. I was moving up the right side of the peleton on one of the mild curves in the long straightaways. Ahead the road narrowed again, so I slotted back into the pack, watching with interest another rider trying to use the same section of pavement to clear all the way into the front of the pack.


The subtle turn found his trajectory and that of the lead riders in conflict and predictably, he was forced into the grey metal skeleton of the barriers, with the always surprising loud staccato of handlebars tapping out a rhythm against the ribs, followed by the loud gunshot report of the final catch of a pedal or brake handle and the shrieking of metal on metal and carbon on tarmac as he fell.


All this is quite normal, sadly. But what was uncommon was what his feather-lite bike did next.


I watched him go down, I watched his shoulders bite the pavement, and then I watched in awe as his feet whipped over his head and launched his bike through the air with exactly the same whipping motion that professional soccer players use for “throw-ins” from the sidelines.


His bike knifed through the air sideways like a giant tubular boomerang, traveling at twice our speed, and then even more oddly, scissored onto the seatpost of one of the lead riders – 50 feet in front of the downed rider.


It stopped and stuck – perfectly sideways – like a gigantic mudguard over the rider’s rear wheel. The rider was still able to function perfectly and continued to pedal while carting this large pannier over his rear wheel. I’m not even sure he was immediately aware – but all of us started talking all at once with virtually the same words – “holy sh*# - I’ve never, ever, seen anything like that before!”


The rider eventually reached down and with some insistent tugging, dropped the errant frame from his own to the dismay of several riders behind who then plowed into it. By this time, the entire front half of the field was laughing though gasping for breath.


Meanwhile I moved up…


On the backstretch there was a crosswind and we were all riding in the right-hand gutter. There was a leadout man and it was safe because he wound it up to 40mph and stretched it out: 600m to go and I’m in 10th place in a single file line – perfect. Only 200m until the next and final corner – no chance of it bunching up now – I’m safe…


Then it happens… the rider in 8th suddenly tracks too close to the curb and has to hop up to keep his balance. No big deal – except that he also brakes, just a little, and then swings back down, bouncing back off the lip of the curb clipping the front wheel of the rider in 9th in the process.


At 40mph the physics are virtually instantaneous – rider #9’s front wheel turns from the impact and launches his body like a rocket over the handle bars. My front wheel slams directly into his sideways frame and I repeat the launch – somehow abandoning my bike in the process.


When I finally skid to a stop, I’m over 100 feet from our interlocked bikes and in a state of absolute adrenaline overload from the preceding moments in between.


The in-between is the worst kind of torture. You might imagine that the meat of your limbs, grinding against the sandpaper of concrete at 40mph might be a nerve jangling grating experience, but its nothing like that at all.


Imagine pressing your hand to a smoking hot iron griddle left too long on the burner in the kitchen – that’s the initial feeling – that incredible overwhelming desire to pull it away from that searing, smoking pain. But… this is where it really gets worse – now imagine as you try to pull away, that someone clamps down on your hand, and presses your palm 2, and 3 times as hard into the pan, flattening the flesh, burning quickly into those softer recesses – those most sensitive areas.


THAT’s what it feels like when your naked flesh skids across yards of pavement at 40mph – first it was my shoulder held to the burning crucible, harder, harder, smoldering as I shriek internally, and then a sudden tumble, legs flailing, shoes clipping the pavement and then my hip – smoldering, flaming, and then my leg, my other shoulder, my knee, my elbow – and so on like the spasmodic turnings of a hellish human rotisserie.


When all is done, the concrete has burned holes through my skinsuit in a half dozen spots, and burned raw deep flaying wounds in both shoulders, both elbows, both knees, both shins, and worst of all, two red pancake sized rib-eyes into both sides of my gluteus maximus.


I retrieve my bike. I mount. I sit. I ride. “You gotta get back on the bike Coyle!” Walden’s voice plain as day in my head.


I laugh my way through the eternal cleaning, scrubbing, and bandaging process in the medical tent, marveling at my own progress in compartmentalizing the pain. But I know the worst is to come. Always before the road rash has had a “side” to it – front, left, right, or back. But this time – no place to hide, and no place to sit down. No place to sleep.


Walking back to the car I find myself suddenly shrinking with embarrassment – like a kid in junior high who has thrown up in the hallway. Pausing for the janitor to scrub it up, and now suddenly I can’t wait to not be seen… why?


Sitting down in the bed on the day after the crash takes over a full minute, and relaxing each abdominal contraction creates a new swollen compressing burning agony. Waking past midnight, I realize I am stuck to the sheets, wanting to turn, but I can’t without massive tearing agony.


I’m frozen. Claustrophobic.


 I stare at the ceiling and feel the fibers of the gauze slowly but inevitably cleave to my flesh in an itchy ratcheting progression – each requiring an agonizing bloody separation the next morning with the change of bandages. What, exactly, is it in the body that provides the yellow color to the gauze?


Back at work the next day, it requires 20 seconds to sit down on all the gauze between me and the seat, and nearly as long to stand up – feeling the seepage, seeing the small stains on my dress pants – back to the restrooms for 2, now 3 gauze pad changes. Why do I do this again?


A few days  later and I’m out on a post- superweek training ride. I have always loved training rides at this time of the season. Gone are the muscular aches and pains. Gone is the guilt for not putting in more hours, gone is the need to put in massive efforts. If in April the same level of effort and discomfort was 14 mph, in August it was 22mph – gained in the passing months was fitness, confidence, speed, the wind, and that August air – heat and light and that special warm blue…


Usually, when I’m feeling good on a training ride and don’t have a particular agenda, I’ll suddenly sprint – warm up the legs, get a good bit of speed going, feel the wind of 25, 30, 34mph stream past my face. This all usually takes about 10 seconds – from concept to fulfillment.


Today was different. Suddenly I felt no real spring when I started up out of the saddle. But instead of sitting down I continued on, ‘winding it up’ – something I usually hated to do. But I was loving it – this gradual inertia, faster, longer on the pedals, breathing – breathing – what a novel concept in a sprint – and ever faster.


The hum began and extended – what a pleasure to be able to “sprint” for more than a few seconds. I finally started to have a vague concept of what some athletes felt or meant when they said “I attacked and then kept going” – it was a feeling of extended power, confidence, tenacity.


30 seconds in, my speed was at 30mph. 45 seconds and I was at 31mph. One minute and I was at 32mph… This was an eternity at this speed and I was proud, confident. I used my reserves to push beyond my usual limits …. Looking down with expectation was deflated by the 33mph I saw there. Even out of shape I could usually hit 34 mph – lost… lost… lost…lost was the ‘magic.’


My sprint was gone.


I had become a “roadie.”

2007 Race Report #5: Changing in a Port-o-Pottie

Race Report #5, Saturday, July7th, Wisconsin State Pro 1/2 Criterium Championships, Elkhorn, WI  On Thursday, July 5th, we picked up our Toyota Landcruiser from the dealership where we had new bearings put in the front right wheel – a result of overtightening of a tech’s wrench when we had the brakes done a couple weeks earlier. We then dropped off our other car (the BMW 740iL of splashing oil fame) at Patrick BMW to have brakes and wipers done as well.

On the way home, my wife Shannon received a bad telephone call – her grandmother in Detroit had gone into the hospital for immediate double bypass surgery, and given her relative age and state of health, the outcome was uncertain. Shannon’s parents picked her up at the house on their way down from Madison a couple hours later and headed on their way to Detroit. The surgery was to take place the next morning (Friday.)

So, it was now Katelina and papa time, and after saying goodbye to mama, a tearful Katelina climbed into the recently fixed Landcruiser and we headed to a park in Elgin on the banks of the Fox River where we could ride the Fox River Trail.

Enroute to the park, and suddenly every dummy light is glowing red on the black plastic Toyota dashboard. Engine Oil, Battery, Transmission oil, AT Temperature, Brakes, Fuel – you name it. I quietly cursed the Toyota dealership and called Shannon to vent – “every damn light is on – its like Christmas on the dashboard – they must have ‘done something’ to it at the dealership.” Otherwise it was running fine…

Upon arrival, I pulled Katelina, my 6 year old daughter, in the Burley trailer for about 90 minutes and then rollerbladed while she rode her little pink bike. We ended up doing about 5 miles down the Fox River Trail. Her lean long little legs turning the white plastic pedals on her little pink bike, her tires weaving and her long blond tresses tossing left and right with each pedal stroke.  Suddenly she skids to a stop – noticing a strange little flower growing by the path. She picks it and hands it to me “for mama” she says, and we continue on our way.

By the time we return to the car, the sky has darkened with only the blazing clouds near the horizon providing a memory of the brilliant hues of sunset. I put Katelina’s bike in the car and remove my rollerblades and we both buckle in to our respective seats. I turn the key and receive the audible cues of the motor turning over - but without a spark. I try again pushing on the pedals. And again. Eventually the starter slows. Another try – and another. Within the space of a few minutes, I’m resolved to the dreaded “click-click-click” when I turn of the key and I sit in stunned silence in the darkening shadows of the car, Katelina sitting oblivious in the back.

I try to sort out what to do. Shannon is hours away, so I try friends on the cell – Mike, Matt – leaving messages. Kevin is out of town. Do I know anyone else? No…

“Katelina – how about a special magical bike ride to town through all these fireflies?” I ask. Elgin is only a mile away… through the dark on an unlit path…

“But Papa… Its dark… I’m scared…”

“Lets try it – just a short trip into the fireflies – I’ll hold your seat if you want.”

And we headed off into the tunnel of blackness under the dark arches of the trees. It had become so dark that the path became a strip of "light black" but… the hundreds and thousands of fireflies created a magical backdrop – it was like swimming into the universe, wading through the stars in the black currents and eddies of the evening.

I kept up conversation with Katelina to reduce her fears and we floated down the path into the evening, kept buoyant with our lighthearted conversation. It was so dark underneath the trees that I had to stop and wade forward, arms in front, feet stepping higher in case of an obstacle, but 5 minutes later the lights of Elgin began to appear. We wended our way through town and shortly thereafter Mike Dienhart returned my call and came to pick us up. Still – I will always remember that journey “through the stars.”

I took Friday off and played with Katelina most of the day – but what to do on Saturday – as Shannon was not back and I really wanted to hit my second race of the season: Wisconsin state championships in Elkhorn, WI.

My friend Matt came to the rescue and I dropped Katelina off in St. Charles at his house where she proceeded to play with his kids -  swimming in their portable pool and bouncing on their trampoline, playing hide-and-seek, and generally doing everything a child should do on a 92 degree July afternoon.

Meanwhile, my own journey to Elkhorn proved daunting. Even as I was trying to hydrate for the 90 minute, 40 mile Pro 1 & 2 State Championships Criterium, I was baking in the sun in our one remaining automobile: the black 20 year old convertible with no air conditioning. A breeze would have helped, but my mapquest route up highway 12 led to an average speed of 33 mph and interminable periods of sitting in traffic baking in the heat and humidity and sun of a hot Midwestern July afternoon.

The drive to the race was only 70 miles, but it took me two hours and due to the traffic delays I only had a little time to warmup and register. I had probably the largest cheering section of the race, with friends Gary Goebel, Monica, his two tow-head boys, and several of their siblings, spouses, and children in attendance.

When I arrived, I registered quickly and then returned to the car shimmering in the heat of the sun. I then began the dreaded ritual cyclists without RV’s the world over face: the snakeskin dance into your skinsuit.

The seats were already hot enough to sting as I sank back into the leather and then looked around. Oblivious to the crowds around, I removed my shorts, pulling my shirt down into my lap and then pulled the legs of my skinsuit over my feet, wriggling against the sticky hot leather in a frustrated fashion trying to help the tight folds of spandex and lycra to allow my sweaty skin to slide through. Further awkward contortions brought my arms into their holes and then, under the merciless sun and heat, I bent and put on my shoes, helmet, and gloves. I then had to do the top part all over again because I realized I had not put on my heart rate monitor.

On days like these, there is no need to warmup.

It was windy.

It was hot.

There were lots of corners.

I hate this – why do I do it?

The starter’s gun sent us off, and within 100m my pulse hit 170bpm. By the middle of the second straightaway it hit 180bpm. And there it stayed. From a brief low of 176, to a high of 195bpm in the final sprint, my overall heart rate averaged 180bpm for the whole 90 minutes: right at or slightly above my aerobic threshold in high heat (it is several beats lower when it is cooler)

Translation:  I was running at or near my maximum. Nonetheless, I never really feared getting dropped and focused only on finding a good rhythm and a good spot in the peleton. Actually, when my heartrate is high without too much suffering, it means I’m properly rested. Superweek would show the effects of multiple races on my average pulse…

I surfed the pack in the six corner, ¾ mile course for the requisite time and then began my preparations for the sprint finish. 7 riders had made it away in a breakaway, so we were sprinting for 8th place but that really was not my concern. I was a little too far back on the last lap and managed only a 4th place sprint finish, coming in 11th overall. Generally I was pleased that my first race of the season at Elm Grove the week prior wasn’t a fluke, and that I could actually finish a pro1/2 race.

And then I began an even more dreaded ritual in the cycling world. When the car is parked in public view, and has been baking for hours in the sun, there is one alternative (other than risking arrest for public indecency) to changing in the car. The pluses are that you can stand up, you have complete privacy, and you do not have to wriggle against hot leather in an exposed area. The downside is that the “Port-o-Let” or "Port-a-Pottie’s" are inevitably placed directly in the sun, and the temperature inside of the blue plastic igloos seems to be exactly the right thermal index to encourage odor causing bacteria to spawn: in the never ending battle of blue vs. brown, brown wins when it is hot… Even as I rotate the large plastic latch into place behind me, the heat, and the raging humidity, active with arguing forces of offal and septic cleansers locked onto my nostrils and the first breath nearly made me swoon and as I swayed in the narrow confines I tried not to touch anything.

In the 130 degree heat and stench, I wriggled out of my skinsuit, and the flush of sweat in the interior helped it to drop limply to the floor and I quickly climbed into my shorts and t-shirt, exploding out of the blue plastic door before requiring my second breath. God I miss the RV…

I returned to the car, neatly dis-assembled my bike into the parts of the small vehicle that would take those parts, and then slid my over-heated, dehydrated body onto the 150 degree leather seats for the 2 hour journey home in the 92 degree heat with no air conditioning, shade or respite. I was reliving my youth all over again…

Time to get the RV out of storage…

2007 Race Report #4: Racing Sick

Saturday June 30th, 2007:  Race report #4: Elm Grove Criterium – 35 miles, 82 degrees

In typical “too many things going on” fashion I arrived to the course with very little time to warmup for this 60 minute + two lap race in a suburb of Milwaukee.

The course was rectangular, but bowl shaped topographically, with the finish line and backstretch falling into the bottom of the bowl, and the two turns at either end of the rectangle rising up from the valley of the straightaways.

I hurriedly put in 15 minutes of warm-up and then arrived at the start line. I was surprised to find a couple of pro teams represented including team Hyundi. Also represented were about 50 or so Category 1 and 2 racers – all of whom looked much leaner and fitter than me.

The race referee sent us off with verbal commands and up the first small climb we sprinted. In 30 seconds my pulse was up over 170 beats/minute and for the next 4 or 5 laps I was hanging on for dear life…

I was reminded during the drive over this day that sometimes the hardest part about racing is showing up. Some days I can’t wait to race – particularly when the sun is shining, when there is low wind, and when it is not too incredibly hot or cold. This day – despite the sunny skies and relatively mild weather, I just… really didn’t want to go.

As a competitive athlete most of my life, one of the big surprises when I retired from full time competition back in 1998 was how much energy I felt – quite the opposite of what I expected. I can remember for years of my life dreading staircases of any sort, and how I would often have a headrush at the top of a short set of stairs. Little did I know then, that I was generally overtrained most of my career.

On this particular morning I remember using the stairs on the back deck after watering my little garden, and stopping at the top with that same feeling of exhausted vertigo. I just felt a bit tired and lugubrious.

I had some of that same feeling in the race – just a feeling of not being entirely present – like I was watching the race from a distance – and of being just a bit tired and slightly unmotivated. Also my stomach was turbulent and felt full even though it wasn’t. I just didn’t feel great…

Nonetheless discipline won out and I followed wheels, maintained my position, used the downhills and short climbs to my advantage and generally conserved as best I could.

When a breakaway of 4 got away mid-race, I found myself unable to care. I soldiered on, but did not spend as much time assessing the race motions as I probably would have normally.

With 5 to go I was dead last. 4 to go and 7 more guys went off the front – one group of 3 and another of 4 - but I was still dead last. 3 to go and I moved up just a little – maybe 35th. Two laps to go and I was cradled in the middle of the pack – shielded from the wind and watching, but I found myself finally waking up a bit. With one to go I was still in 25th, but now all senses were on full alert and as we accelerated up the small hill into turn one, I followed a surge up the left and entered the second straightaway in about 15th.

Making the turn into the backstretch and traveling back down into the small valley, another surge moved up the left and I followed in 3rd position and we peeled clear of the pack and moved within striking distance of the two breakaways.

Even though I was still not overly motivated, I did know what to do and even as we reached the back of the first of the two small breakaways, I made my move and accelerated left of their draft and shot forward to the second small breakaway, reaching their draft just shy of turn 3 and swinging wide, still accelerating…

We entered the fairly wide, downhill corner at probably 40mph, and they didn’t know I was coming. I remember clearly the sudden startled looks and shuddering of brakes and bikes as they realized I was taking them on the outside and that they wouldn’t be able to swing wide coming out of the corner without intersecting my launch path.

My acceleration took my clear of them by the end of the corner and I entered the 4th corner – still slightly downhill at a full sprint and screamed through it at probably 45mph.

The 200 meters left to the finish line had a small rise and then another downhill and I used the last of my reserves to maintain my speed over the rise and I slingshotted down the hill and to the finish line without even a vague sense of the pack behind me.

As it turns out, I did win the field sprint by several bike lengths and came in 6th overall – as there were 5 riders up on the breakaway.

I should have been pleased – really pleased with the result, and while I was happy intellectually… emotionally I just felt flat.

My friend Matt and his son Willie were there and seemed genuinely impressed with my sudden emergence from the bowels of the pack to the strong field sprint finish, and the photos Matt took – by failing to show the breakaway off-camera – almost look like a victory.

I thanked them for being there and then piled back into the car to drive back to Madison and then on again to Streamwood (Chicago). I felt tired and lightheaded and what I didn’t know then was that my physical challenges for the day were just beginning.

When I arrived in Madison, I picked up some Chinese food ready to go from a local carryout and I mistook my stomach’s rumblings for hunger and scarfed down several piles of noodles and rice.

It was only then that the inevitable began. My daughter had had it, and now it was my turn. Spasms and cramps gripped my stomach, and waves of nausea begin flowing through my body on the drive back to in Streamwood.

My hands were sweating on the wheel when we left Stoughton, but by the time I hit Rockford, I was shivering and freezing so badly that the car was vibrating with my shudders. I thought about pulling over, but I figured that driving was the only thing keeping me from decorating the car with the contents of my stomach and when I made it home I was beyond exhaustion.

The flu or more accurately the gastrointestinal illness I had contracted had another lovely feature – my back and shoulders felt exactly as though someone had driven a screw through them all the way to my hips, and then tighten a nut on my shoulders, creating an incredible amount of ache and thudding pain in my neck and shoulders and back. After a 20 minute scaldingly hot shower, I shivered my way to bed, hunched my shoulders, and proceeded to spend most of the night in the bathroom before finally falling asleep around 5am.

At some point in the night as my thoughts tumbled and repeated and some mundane sequence repeated itself over and over in my head, I remember thinking, “My God – can’t I just go to a bike race without event LIKE A NORMAL PERSON!?”

Next: Report #5: Wisconsin State Criterium Championships in Elkhorn, Wisconsin,

Til then,


Downers Grove Nationals - 2005

Race Report – August 20 – Downers Grove “National Championships”  Race 1 – Category 3, 2:00pm 

Downers’ Grove is a suburb Southwest of Chicago that has a lot in common with other surbuban railway commuter towns in Illinois – a small brick “old town” revised into cafes and shops, with a central garter of the railway anchoring the community. I’ve been coming here on and off since the mid 80’s and have had a long streak of excellent results. I’ve probably raced here 10 times and have finished in the top 5 every time, and have won 3 or 4 times. 

I was traveling for work all 5 days prior to the event, making any training difficult... Nonetheless, despite these drawbacks my confidence was high coming to the race as I had more miles under my belt this year than in the last 10 years. That, and the “superbike” Colnago that I had grown to love and enjoy racing.  

At first glance the Downers Grove course is not exactly my cup of tea… 8 corners on a short course with very little rest in between each, tight, windy, turn. Combine this with a small but reasonably steep hill and you have a challenging circuit for 100+ riders to navigate.. Normally a major detriment to my success, I think the hill on this course is my saving grace as it is brief enough to power over in short order, but short enough to recover from quickly.

8 turns in just over a kilometer makes for a technical course, and indeed, it strings out early, and crashes are not unusual. Over the last decade the race has turned into a Mecca of sorts for Criterium riders, featuring the U.S. Pro championships for the last 8 years or so, and various other category nationals on alternating years. This year was again the nationals for Category 3 (but not Masters 30+) as it was 2 years ago when I won. The difficulty of the course, and timing of the event near the end of the racing season gives it panache in the eyes of the domestic cycling crowd. The shortness of the races (about 15-20 miles for cat 3 and masters 30) adds a special element of panic to the large peletons and the pace is always blisteringly fast. 

Due to my recent successes (top 3 the last 3 years in a row) I actually was a little nervous before the race. It is rare for me in cycling events – in hindsight I think it is a reflection of the fact that the races often last near 2 hours… and since all but the last 10 minutes of a race are essentially “warmup” for me, there really seems to be little cause for nerves.   However, in this case the fact that it was a timed event, with a limit of 30 minutes seemed to have that enervating effect on me that I really don’t enjoy.

The body is an amazing thing, full of natural instincts like “fight or flight” and “blink” that make all kinds of intuitive and rational sense. Pre-race nerves, however, make no rational sense: explain to me how the sensation of barely molten lead for blood flowing through your legs, mental numbness, and a vague sense of nausea contribute to “survival of the fittest.” If lions readying for the kill felt this way they’d have starved off years ago… of course, maybe I’m the prey… 

Getting there late didn’t help – I only had a 10 minute warmup, and it was a serious act of discipline to get my pulse up to 175 in prep for the suffering ahead. So, if the occasional but predictable feelings like those described above are part of the package (particularly back during my skating days) then why, exactly, do I race? It is a convoluted thought/response really. I race because… well, I train for it.  I train for it (racing) because otherwise training would seem devoid of purpose: each feeds the other. On a deeper level I think I need training because it provides me singular clarity of thought, action, and reward – unlike the relatively complicated worlds of work, and even family.  In the simple cause-and-effect of the sporting world, effort - for the most part - becomes results. No politics, no moods, no clients or customers – just effort, skill, and results. But again – I couldn’t just train… I need a more tangible outlet for my suffering.

That, and the fact that I’ve been competing for 29 years… Who wouldn’t fall in love the with the post race vibe? Maybe the “high” is artificial and temporary, but at the end of the day, there is a strong sense of legitimacy – of “I’ve earned this dead sleep” that the night brings you after the car is parked, bike is unloaded, and the lights are dimmed. As your eyes close, the disjointed tumbling of thoughts leave parting snapshots of the day  – chiaroscuro highlights like the imprint of sunset on the back of your eyelids… 

Here are my prints: the blurred outline of your front tire as your head drops and you roar past the finish line as all sound and motion returns to your senses. The mottled outline of your legs and shins with the flinty road residue streaked with water droplet trails as you coast around the first turn and congratulate fellow riders. Sweat streaked sunglasses glinting against the blue skies and white clouds as your heart-rate returns to earth.   One of my favorite moments in life is finishing the final lap after a race and searching the crowd for family and friends.

For me it generally doesn’t matter the position that I’ve finished. Rare is the race where I’ve not given it everything I’ve had. If I walk across the line with a broken bike and ragged skinsuit, or I rocket through ahead of the pack and raise my hands – the last lap remains remarkably the same. I am sweaty and dripping, flushed but no longer hot, covered with dirt and dust - but yet cleaned out inside. I am -physically stressed to the max - yet emotionally completely relaxed as I return to the normal sense of my body with a sense of pride. 

I love getting back to the finish stretch and finding that friendly face – lately my wife and daughter – seeing her eyes light up and her clapping as I maneuver to the side to stop at her side. And lately at Downer’s the last couple of years my friend Matt – with his camera. I love immediately reliving and relaying the stories of the race. Standing, shiny in the sun, facing the course, with the announcer’s voice in the distance, and the occasional inquisitive face or congratulatory interlude as you relate the final moments, and (hopefully) that secret ingredient that led to success to your “fans”.  

But, back to the race… Lining up at Downer’s Grove I managed to get a second row spot. It looked to be about 85 to 100 riders for the Cat 3 race. After brief introductions we were on our way, and the first time up the hill the leaden legs continued…  But discipline prevailed and I used all my skills to keep in the top 20 or so. With the time limit in the race we probably ended up only doing about 15 laps. The finish stretch was slightly uphill, but sheltered from the cross wind and we managed about 29 mph up that straightaway. A right turn into a short, narrow stretch, and then a left with a nice inner camber into the top part of the figure “8”…  A false flat leading into a reasonably steep uphill with a hard left turn in the middle. Inevitably, the riders would slow right in the middle of the climb…

 If managed properly (i.e. being in the front ahead of the asshole zone, or being behind the asshole zone) you could climb this section at a steady pace in a lower gear and shoot forward without effort to pass several riders through the steeper part and then make the hard left at the top into the downhill. In the asshole zone you would find yourself braking into the first lefthand turn and struggling up the steepest part of the hill, potentially in the wrong gear going slowly, and then have to really max out your power to get back up to speed. 

 In this race I managed to stay in the right places and shoot through the pack nearly every lap on the hill. If I were boasting I would say that I was “powering up the hill” to overtake the weaker riders. To be honest, it was a simple matter of shifting to the right gear… And so the 13 laps went by until the clock ran out (30 minutes) and the lap counter began (2 laps to go). At this point in the race I continued in about 15th and looked for opportunities to move to 8th or so… The sprint in this race can be tricky… with only 150 meters from the final corner to the finish line, one might think that the first one through that corner would win – and indeed that tactic has worked for me in the past. However, more often than not, there is a strong headwind into that last corner, which allows some considerable jockeying through the turn. 

Today the wind was VERY strong – probably 20 mph in that second to last stretch. Testing it throughout the race, and watching the pattern of the peleton in the primes I decided that 5th-8th was the appropriate placing going into the last corner.  I was pleased to note that yet again I had a teammate in the race – Ben from the Wolverines, and we were side by side on the last lap heading into the backstretch. I watched him move up into 3rd or so on the downhill with two turns to go and was tempted to follow as I knew he was a good sprinter, but the blast of wind expected on the second to last stretch kept me grounded in 6th as we headed into the headwind with 300 meters to go. 

As predicted, near the end of that short straightaway, the pace slowed and the pack spread wide in prep for the final sprint even as the headwind hit. Going into the last corner I actually had to hit the brakes before I found a route through – up the outside. I had lost some momentum due to the braking but quickly burst past 5, 4, 3 and 2 and saw only the lone rider in the middle of the road snaking his bike up the slight incline to the finish. I gave it all I had but realized I wasn’t going to reach him, even as a rider slingshotting from behind nipped me at the line and I finished 3rd by inches. 


Downer\'s finish sprint - I\'m in the stars and stripes on the left

 I was more disturbed about the catch from behind than not catching Ben – yes it was my teammate who won – and was already fashioning my strategy for the next race as I coasted down the finish stretch and made my way around the course. And so I came back across the finish line and found my wife and daughter who gave me big hugs, and my friend Matt, his son Joey, and another friend Richard with his little ones Jackson and Georgia. We chatted for a little bit and it was funny to hear the note in Matt’s voice – a bit apologetic of the fact that I didn’t win. Sure – I wanted to, and in some sense had a good vibe that I might – but ultimately was happy to enter the fray and come out with a podium spot. 

I had about a half hour until my next race – the Master’s 30+ race, so I wandered back to the RV and entered the refrigerated air of the house on wheels – what an excellent invention. I refilled my bottle and then headed out for a short warmdown/warmup for the next race, and then sped back to town where I found my wife and friends … shopping. We picked out a really cool retro French cycling poster and wine bottle rack and then it was time to head back to the line. On the way I saw Jan – another of my Michigan cohorts I had met a superweek – and we chatted prior to heading to the line. 

I ended up about 5 lines deep in the lineup and it looked to be between 115 – 130 riders in the field. Lots of expensive looking bikes. Given that Masters 30+ is “categoryless” and that the pro/1/2 nationals are always the next day, there is usually a decent Pro contingent. A couple years prior, the last time I doubled up, I finished just behind Frankie Andreu – Lance Armstrong’s Lieutenant, and just ahead of Thurlough Rogers – a former Olympic medalist. Today I only recognized one famous face – that of former U.S. Pro and teammate of Lance’s on US Postal Service team Robbie Ventura. He was armed or rather saddled with a camel back pack with two cameras – one facing forward and one facing rear. They were filming the race for a documentary of sorts. The officials sent us off, and the pace immediately surpassed that of the cat 3 race, with speeds on the uphill false flat of the finish line of 32 mph.

I drifted in the middle for several laps – not in trouble – but suffering enough to not feel any great impetus to move up. I ended up following Jan’s wheel for a half dozen laps, finding some symmetry in his riding to my own – It seemed to me that the efficient pack riding styles beaten into me under my years with Mike Walden still continued to manifest themselves in the Michigan riders…. 

After 30 of the 40 minutes, I did the math and realized that there were only about 6 laps to go including the “+2” laps after the 35 minute time lapse. I started using the hill – again – to move up and found that despite their strength, speed, and relatively greater skill, the Masters 30+ were just as inefficient at shifting properly as the cat 3’s. 

With about 4 to go I made top 25 (I had been surfing in about 60th), and then with 2 to go, I took a hard inside into the finish stretch and coasted neatly into the front to lead the way past the start/finish line and into turn one. After that the race went the way that I usually prefer – a team or two went to the front and strung the pack out. Going into the hill with 1 ½ to go I was sitting about 12th and moved to 8th, then back to 12th on the downhill. Somewhere shortly after the hill, I caught Robbie’s wheel, and figuring that he would stay in the action I followed.  As we headed down the last of the downhill section Robbie moved up to about 8th – right about where I wanted to be. We raced up the finish stretch as the bell rang, and the pace was quite high – but I just followed Robbie. 

Up the hill, and Robbie – like me – downshifted and we swarmed around a few riders to 3rd and 4th. Like me though, he let a few riders sprint past on the downhill and we made the next right in about 7th and 8th.  As we entered the last 500 meters, with two turns to go, Robbie jumped up the inside to about 4th place. Given my experience with the 3’s I was reticent to be so far up with the looming headwind, and at that point I let him go. In hindsight I should have made the move.. 

As we headed down the last downhill stretch and entered the second to last turn, a sudden, dangerous surge up the inside caused the riders in 5th – 8th to swing wide or cause and accident. I had to brake and swung out all the way to the curb to let the dive bombers in, falling to about 12th, but still with some good legs, and a 120 meter stretch into a massive headwind in my favor prior to the final turn… So, I waited a few pedal strokes and then following my plan developed in the last race.

I put the afterburners on straight into the rear of the 11 riders ahead of me, timing it so that as we started entering the corner and facing the worst of the wind gusts I’d be at max speed even as the leaders were slowing dramatically. As a strategy and a prediction of race dynamics it was perfect: the leading few riders did EXACTLY as predicted and slowed dramatically into the last corner, forcing the following riders to spread wide across the road to avoid braking. Meanwhile my kick put me at top speed just as they were all slowing/braking – creating the perfect opportunity to shoot on and through – to gap the field and hit the finish stretch with bells on and no one following. Potentially a decisive victory… 

Alas, there was but one potential flaw in the plan… I needed a gap the width of my handlebars to shoot through… As the front triangle slowed, and the followers spread – my momentum carried me within reach of the leaders and I searched for that space… I was heading toward their back wheels at a pace probably 10 mph faster than the 27 mph they had slowed to.  But the master’s 30 are better and more calculated than the 3’s and the whole lead group spread like a neat accordion and created a garrote for my momentum. The only real estate on the road left to me was wide right towards the barriers and I swung wide and then began leaning in for the corner… 

Well, let me just say that I pride myself on my cornering ability. I can usually get to that flash point where the tires skitter, but no momentum is lost on any given course in any given condition. Even as I entered the corner and shifted from the right lean (to swing wide) and the hard left lean required to make the corner I knew I was at the max of what man and machine and narrow rubber tires could handle. I put my weight inside the bike and began “steering the bike” (an old Walden mainstay) trying to minimize the “lean” that would take too much rubber off the road and that could lead to a washout.  I kept all my momentum…but the worst followed – a rider in the top ten swung wide, closing off the only open space and placing his body directly into my trajectory.

I had nowhere to go. 

I faced haybales or rapidly expanding slanted rearwheel…. both options having a guarantee of a crash… So I did the normally unthinkable – I tried my brakes – both front and rear, with a slight emphasis on the front… in the middle of a corner at full speed. For a moment, the rotational inertia of my wheels kept the bike vertical even as both wheels started slipping… then the rear gained a little momentum and a millisecond later my orientation was like a rally car driver on a muddy turn – my rear wheel headed at right angles to my momentum. My body position still kept me vertical, and for a few seconds I slid completely sideways. To stop the rotation I momentarily let off both brakes. Immediately the rear wheel chattered and caught, my weight shifted right with the misplaced momentum, and within another millisecond, I was now barreling DIRECTLY at the haybales – albeit with slightly less momentum than the 37+ mph I was carrying prior.  Until this moment, panic had not quite set in, but at this point with 25+ mph and only 20 feet between me and the barrier I KNEW there was no return. Nonetheless I leaned left as hard as I could to try to pull out of the gravitational pull of the barrier and for a second I  thought I just might make it…I entered another hard lean and my wheels started slipping again.

The barriers shifted back more parallel, but I was closing too fast.  At the last second I lifted up just as my front wheel hit the barrier – probably at an angle of 20 degrees and a speed of 25mph.  Rubber and spokes and lightweight carbon fiber bikes don’t have enough mass to bounce off the barriers and keep their 185 lb riders upright… instead, in this case, the wheel grabs the barrier, bites in, pretzels neatly into an oblong shape and then stops completely. The front fork takes the blow next. In this case, due to the shallow angle of the entry, the speed, and the weight behind it, the right front fork took a massive torsional force and decided to give up the ghost and snap cleanly in half.  With my bike effectively stopped – all 16 lbs of it, my mass still had a little inertia…  I’m not really sure what happened at this point. I remember rising upward and abandoning the bars (probably a bit of an endo), striking the haybale, and flywheeling my arms upward as I rode the plastic surface of the advertising covering the haybale. At some point my inertia rebounded and I remember landing hard on my left side, rolling quickly and then being back on my feet sans bike. 

Fortunately there was a little gap between the lead group and the rest of the peleton, and I was able to jump out of the way as the next 100 riders came screaming through the corner… However my broken bike presented a bit of a barrier and one rider following an outside path found it a distracting obstacle. He careened and hit the barrier right in front of where I was standing, flopping back down into the road. 

After the rest of the riders had gone by, the story gets interesting. Full of adrenaline, and echoes of coaches gone by telling me to “finish the race, and do another lap too” to get over the fear of crashing, I immediately went for my bike only to be dismayed to find it in pieces. As I stood there surveying the carnage of the first bike that I ever paid good money for, the other rider that had gone down suddenly materialized behind me and I heard his voice even as he entered my peripheral vision.  

“Fucking dumbshit! – what the fuck you have to go and crash for in the last corner!?”  He yelled politely as I continued to survey the dangling piece of fork connected by my cyclometer as the insistent voice continued to invade my assessment of the damage… “Stupid fuck – what you can’t hear me? Was it worth it? Was it worth it crashing for 10th place? What the HELLLLLLLLL!!!!????” He was screaming now…. Some part of his histrionics touched me enough to make me to swing and face him, or maybe it was just the volume had grown. Sure enough, he was now bearing down on my with both fists raised, shoulders squared, some blood streaming down his forearms, and his cleats skittering just a bit as he tried to walk aggressively toward me… 

“Click click click” said his cleats and I watched him with detachment as he re-entered the sphere of my inner turmoil… (How much for a fork? a Colnago fork for God’s sake? Can I get one in time for the Windsor/Detroit races? click click click... WHAT DOES HE WANT!?!) 

I thought he was actually going to swing his fist at me as I watched somewhat dispassionately, but I think due to the difficult footing on the asphalt with cleats he settled for a very aggressive pass through swing of his shoulder – he connected cleanly with mine which caused me to stagger back a bit as he passed by. I assumed he was done and turned back to my bike and began to lift my front wheel as I heard his “clicks” turn to more of a “skitter” and then watched in disbelief as he at first made his way back to me in an off balance sort of way. However before reaching me he suddenly sank down on his heels holding his upper arm even as the referees intercepted his progress.  

Thankful for the cessation of noise I turned back to my bike and lifted it up, even as the referee who had stopped the progress of the other racer's aggressive antics picked up my wheel from behind the moaning rider and lifted it over his huddled body to hand it to me. It was at this point that the first of two funny things happened. The tire blew like a gunshot and caused the ref to nearly drop the wheel and my antagonist to duck and wince. Very amusing.

Even as I received the broken wheel and gathered up the remnants of my bike, the injustice of the situation finally intruded on my thoughts and my adrenaline began to focus itself back on the rider behind me.  Not one for ready quips, I did muster a decent comment in this case. I swung around, broken fork ticking against the frame, and said, “Two things guy:  one – shit happens – this is a bike race…. two, if you have a problem with the way I race you shouldn’t have been behind me…” finishing loudly.

I heard some appreciative murmurs from the crowd who had gathered at the scene…. And I turned and walked off – walked all the way to the finish line and lunged playfully across the line as the announcer gave me a few kudos and the spectators gave that polite applause reserved for the injured but walking. I maneuvered all the way up to the wheel pit where they announced the front wheel dead on arrival, but the rear “retrievable”.

I then walked (with my wife and daughter now with me) back through the heat and afternoon sun to the medical area to get my left elbow and left hip cleaned up.  As I neared the medical tent, I saw some familiar red jerseys – those of the team of the rider who had the unfortunate collision with my bike. Seeing only one medic and the ailing figure of annoyance from the race spread-eagled  on the table I turned and carried my clacking bike toward the RV determined to do my own cleanup. However, even as I turned the guy on the table piped up and said, “serves you right asshole – glad you broke your fucking bike!”. 

I continued on not really caring, but what I didn’t realize is that these words really began to burn in my wife Shannon’s mind. I had already briefed her on the altercation at the corner, and now she had received ample support for the bizarre behavior of my fellow crash victim. Even as we entered the RV, she was announcing, “I… I uh… forget to pay for that poster we were looking at – I’m going to run back and get it – are you OK here by yourself?” I replied that I’d be fine – the air conditioned RV had already begun to work its charms on my tired aches and I began prepping mentally for the scrubbing of open wounds required ahead in order to avoid infection and heal properly. 

Little did I know – as she headed off and I washed my hands-  that she was on a mission – a mission to intercept the gentlemen on the medical table and to give him a LARGE piece of her mind. To Shannon, my new bike was a long time in coming – a piece of equipment that I had continually avoided purchasing due to various family obligations. So, to hear someone say that they were happy that something so nice and obtained at such cost was broken struck a note deep down in her.

I can picture the set in her face and her forceful stride back toward that medical tent. And I can only think that the guy previously lying there was lucky that he had left by the time she arrived… 

And so – the second funny thing that happened that day… To hear my wife tell it, she basically marched right back to the tent to give the guy and earful – of what exactly – I’m not even sure she knows. But, when she arrived back, she found the lone medic standing in the tent.

When asked about the whereabouts of the recumbent cyclist, she was told matter of factly, “oh – we had to send him to the hospital…” “His road rash was minor, but he managed to separate his shoulder in the accident.” Upon retelling the story to me, I began to laugh…. and laugh and laugh.

I reminded Shannon of the way the guy was bearing down on me – both fists held high, and how after hitting me he sank down in pain… At the time I assumed his crash injuries had finally come to the fore, but in hindsight it seems quite clear that his sole injury in the crash was from swinging his shoulder at me.   

Still gives me a chuckle…


2007 Race Report #3 - Giro De Grafton

Race report #3, June 2007: Giro de Grafton…

 (OK perhaps this is more accurately just “report #3” as the other two were not races.. but then again – does this one count?”) 

I realized tonight that I’m a practitioner of a dieing art – like homespun, cursive, and a hundred languages like Latin, Romansch and Frieslander, I’m likely one of the last of a generation that will understand the rational and intuitive aspects of a previously important activity.

Tonight I glued on a pair of tubular tires to their respective rims. For the uninitiated this means very little – and by the way, “why would you ‘glue’ tires on anyway?” For cyclists the world over until the mid-to-late 80’s this was an art – an activity that required experience, strength, and finesse.

It was sad, really, how much I remembered – and at the same time how much I forgot. I remembered exactly how much glue to press out of heavy metal foil of the tube onto the shallow concave receptacle of the rim. I rotated the wheels slowly, carefully in my lap and laid down beads of the world’s stickiest glue onto the thin aluminum shell lining the rim.

Tubular cement (tire glue) has the consistency of melted hot tar on the road right after application – viscous and extremely sticky - any touch of it tends to leave long glistening trails drooping with gathering glistening droplets like tiny spiders climbing down the shiny webs. It is quite easy to quickly find yourself covered with these webs on all sides and with multiple strands if you are not careful…

I remembered with perfection how to slide my fingertip around the finger-shaped concavity until the glue was perfectly spread from edge to center to edge, stopping just shy of each of the circular punches where the spokes connect. I remembered to let it slightly congeal for about 10 minutes.  I even remembered to put down newspaper to capture the stray drops of glue.

However, I forgot, at first, to put a slight amount of air into the tube/tire combo before attempting to stretch it over the rim. I also forgot to “pre-stretch” the tires onto that old glue covered rim I’ve carried around with me for the last 20 year for exactly that purpose. “Tell me again John, why do you carry around that nasty old rim?” my wife has asked on more than one occasion…

The hard part about gluing on a tubular is getting the tire on without getting the glue everywhere.  “Tubasti Cement” or variations thereof do not, actually, ever dry – they remain tacky for years and years. Without reading up on the physics of it, my guess is that the material in the glue resists sheer forces (i.e. sideways sliding of the tire off the “rimless rim” while remaining somewhat tacky keeps them relatively weak in bonding (i.e. the tires on not welded to the rim – hence you can remove them by pulling straight up and actually change flats).

Back in the day, you could spot a rookie “tubular” tire mount from a distance – strings of glue in the spokes, glops of the stuff oozing out from the tight intersection of the tire and the rim, and, inevitably, streaks of it on the sidewalls of the rim – right where the brake pads make contact (on road bikes). The days of squealing brakes due to glue residue are now a distant memory and even the thought of it now makes me feel like a relic. In the same way that I have very clear tactile memories of the quick finger-flicking motion and slow rasping hydraulic return of that clear plastic disk on the old rotary phones, these clichés are lost on the new generation of riders.

I managed to recover before getting glue everywhere, stretching the tube physically by putting a foot inside of it and then pulling upward with all my might, feeling the material give just a little. Then, after pumping in a small amount of air, I mounted the tire, very carefully stretching, pulling and wrapping the rim in its new rubber and silk shawl. Miraculously, both tires went on pretty straight.

So, WHY was I gluing on tires in an age of “clinchers?” (Clinchers: tires with tubes and the requisite rims that have tall sidewalls and a lip to catch the rim of the tires – i.e. “normal tires”).

I was preparing to return to race on the velodrome. My move to Chicago put me within striking distance of one of the few banked cycling tracks in the country. Velodrome or “track” cycling has some strong retro tendencies – not the least because the bikes used on the tracks are severely stripped down: no brakes, no gears, and – most importantly – no coasting. The chain is fixed to the gears and there is no ratcheting mechanism to allow you to coast.

Trying to coast on a track bike or “fixed gear” bike results in the “track bike rodeo” – your bike throws you – it bucks you right off. When your legs try to stop, the inertia of your weight and the grip of the tires on the pavement cause the “fixed gears” of the chain to redistribute that force in other directions and inevitably the rear wheel rises and the next thing you know, such a rider is upside down, bike wheels still spinning along with the legs attached in some sort of bizarre miniature carousel.

On Thursday, July 12th, I will return to the velodrome after 10 years away – we’ll see how that works out.

I weighed in again today. Last week I managed to catch one of those minor cold/flu things going around – though with less severe symptoms than most. It’s probably helping me lose weight  181.8lbs – only 6.8 lbs to go to my goal weight.

  Sunday, June 17th, Giro de Grafton: 

I was resolute in trying to get to my first race of the season on time, to NOT having a vehicle breakdown, to having my bike in good order, to getting in a good warmup, and hoping against all odds, to actually finish the race in my relatively new category of Pro I/II without getting dropped. Ideas of placing “in the money” or of a podium finish did not cross my mind.

The race was in the afternoon, and we actually left, more or less, with enough time to spare to allow a warmup. As it was father’s day, I convinced my wife to come along and bring my daughter. She even drove, and two hours later as I snacked on a Mojo bar, and drank Accelerade and water on the way over, we pulled into the small town of Grafton, Wisconsin – about 20 miles north of Milwaukee.

I had already changed into my racing skinsuit enroute, had my license ready and cash to pay the entry fees, and shortly after entering town we saw the barriers found marking bike races around the world for re-routing traffic – those orange and white diagonal stripes briefly igniting with the reflection of the sun.

I was about to suggest some shaded parking opportunities when I noticed that these particular barriers were actually pulled aside and were propped up on the sidewalk – the way was still clear. So we pulled forward, and at the next corner we found the same thing – barriers stacked neatly against a lightpost on the corner – but off the road.

We made a left turn, and it was about then that I had a dose of very cold blood run through my heart and lift a cold sweat to my skin… Where were the cars? The cyclists? The people? The loudspeaker announcements? The town was a ghost town – just carefully stacked barriers and empty streets.

 We were just about to ask someone when I noticed a flyer in the window indicating the 2007 Giro de Grafton – on Saturday, June 16th.   


 Thank God it was father’s day. The look Shannon gave me said it all… but then again it was father’s day and all she said was, “Its father’s day, so I’m not going to say anything else – nothing else at all… except, I’m in charge of the schedule from now on…” 

And we drove the 2 hours home…

Race Report #3, Waukesha

Race Report, Saturday, July 15, 2006 – Waukesha Wisconsin. 40 miles, 92 degrees.  Weather predictions were calling for a high temperature of 95 degrees, with a “real feel” of 103. I was pleased that the my race was early in the day… that is, until I walked out into the breaking sunlight over the rooftops to start loading the car at 7:45 am and realized it was already 82 degrees and dripping with humidity. 

The Cadillac seemed to be running a little rough when I headed out, so I stopped and checked the oil (and bought a banana and Gatorade for the ride). Sure enough I was at least a quart of oil down. Dejavu was the feeling I had as I hit the road, remembering the trials of last week.  

I headed off the 75 miles to Waukesha having lost a little time, but feeling pretty good. I arrived, checked in and warmed up reasonably well: a 30 minute warmup of 15 minutes, easy, 5 minutes at my aerobic threshold and a 90 second acceleration. I arrived at the line with 2 or 3 minutes to spare prior to race time only to find that the previous race still had 16 laps to go – about 45 minutes. 

The heat was already oppressive – I drank a large Gatorade and two 1 liter bottles of water on the way to the race, and then drank one full water bottle warming up. Now I had too much time on my hands.  I traced the course and discovered that the usual 6 turn snaking course of ¾ miles had gotten even more difficult. 8 turns – with 7 of 8 straightaways being approximately 50 meters long.

The course looked like a saw blade – one long straightaway, with saw-toothed turns comprising the remainder of the course. As I watched the preceding race, I was daunted by the splintering effect of the turns and the heat. Several small, single file groups remained, all with hollow flushed cheeks, mouths wide open gasping for air – suffering. 

We took to the line and I could feel the sun on my head and limbs. After they sent us off we began what became, ultimately, a 40 mile, single file death march under the sun. The turns, and the pace of the race, combined with 8 primes, created a time trialist’s dream, and a sprinters nightmare – no pack, no coasting, just hammering short straightaway after short straightaway, braking as little as possible to keep the momentum going.  I stayed up front for the first 15 of 45 laps, but started caring less about breakaways, and more about finishing at all.

For the next 15 laps I sat in the middle of the string of riders, in sight of the front and the repeated one-off breakaways, but getting as much draft as a single file line can give you in the swirling winds of a downtown course. For the next 10 laps I was at the end of the pack. I’m not certain if I moved back, or if the end of the pack got a lot shorter (we lost over half the riders during the event). 

With 6 to go, I began my one-by-one move up the long string of riders, from 30th to 29th. From 29th to 27th and so on. With 3 laps to go I was about 15th. With 2 laps to go I had moved up to about 8th. Normally I would have been happy with this position, but with all the corners, and yo-yo-ing occurring, I wanted to be farther up. But the pace, with 2 to go, was a full sprint.  I barely made it down the finish stretch attached to the rider in front of me and for the next two laps, I held onto the wheel in front of me with a graying tunnel vision and a hopeless detached focus on the tire in front of me – just follow the wheel – left, right, turn, sprint, turn, sprint, turn, accelerate… 

With one lap to go… I was still in 8th, huddled down behind the same wheel I followed one lap earlier. Through the zig-zag of the saw-toothed turns, mouth wide open, every effort to just hold the wheel, we headed down the short downhill into the final turn and long straightaway into the finish… and I was still…. in 8th. As we pulled through the final turn, the rider in front of me lost connection with the first 6 riders. I continued my full out effort with the remains of my strength and pulled by him, trying to regain the 6 riders in front of him. Then rider in 6th suddenly sat up and shot backward, but I still had 4 bike lengths to go to reach the top 5. They fanned out as we approached the finish line, and I could hear the roar of the crowd and I finally started to feel the suction of the draft, but it was too late – my front wheel caught #5’s rear just as we crossed  the line and I came across in 6th. 

We averaged 25.9 miles/hour for these 40 miles in the heat – despite each turn putting us below 20 mph. Each finish stretch we would hit 33 to 35 mph. I was actually quite pleased that I finished the race.  Ed Perez and his two oldest children were there cheering and I shakily sat down with them and learned about their amazing athletics feats (gymnastics and running) before finally going to collect my winnings and heading home.  News reports about a heat wave for the following day filled my head as we loaded up the boat and headed out to the lake. Bensenville, the next day, was predicting temperatures in the upper 90’s, with a “real feel” of 105… 

Race Report #2, Manitowoc

Race Report, Sunday July 9, Superweek Stage 2, Manitowoc, WI 35 miles, 86 degrees.   Lining up in the July sun, I had a sense of optimism as I viewed my other racers. Surely today would be my first win at this perfect sprinters course. 4 corners, wide, and flat, Manitowoc was fast and safe.   I started up front, but quickly moved to my comfortable position near the rear of the pack “surfing” the slinky, avoiding the compression into the corners, and coasting into the rear of the group on the way out. Midway through the race I moved to the front and was surprised to find myself in a short breakaway for one lap with one other rider. My confidence increased… 

The pace was high – ranging between 26 on the corners, to 33mph on the straightaways, but the effort in the pack was light – my pulse settled into the mid 150’s and stayed there. Coming into the final lap I knew I wanted to be between 4th and 7th coming out of the last corner.

The last 200 meters had a headwind so I needed some protection. I moved into 7th with one lap to go, and to 5th on the backstretch, jumping into 4th coming into the final corner. I was fresh, strong and not at all suffering, and set up wide to put on the afterburners coming into the final stretch… That’s just when the #3 rider decided to get out of his saddle too early coming out of the corner and completely lost control of his bike, skittering sideways on the asphalt and creating a perfect obstacle to my progress. I locked up my front and rear brakes and was immediately buffeted from behind by the mass of bodies coming by me – left and right, shoulders hitting my hips and elbows.  

I maintained control and got out of my saddle, and shifted back up to a big gear, and accelerated, passing back about 8 of the 10 riders that had passed me. Heading toward the line, the riders fanned across the road and I headed straight through a hole on the left… 50 feet after the line I was well out in front, but at the line I had only made 7th (or so the judges put me with 3 question marks “???” on the unofficial results for 5th, 6th and 7th.)  I thought I was 5th as did my wife – but we didn’t stick around to argue the facts – (apparently the videocamera had quit). Instead we hopped back in the RV and headed home to pick up our new puppy pug who had turned 7 weeks that day and was ready to be adopted to his new home.