Fri, July 22, 2005.
After Manitowoc, Kenosha is probably my favorite course, and in terms of spectators and ambience Kenosha has it all. The majority of the course centers on a park, that every year is filled with restaurant booths (this year Thai, Mexican, Italian, Brats, Corn on the cob, shaved ham, funnel cakes, cotton candy etc.), activities – including a skateboard and bmx demonstration involving a half pipe, a Disney troup singing and dancing and teaching kids to use a hula hoop, vendors – including bike vendors, banks, real estate agents and… grrr Cingular, and then a host of blow up kiddie rides – slides, bouncy castle, etc.
We managed to secure a sweet parking space right off the square across from the food vendors and 10 feet from the course itself by moving a few cones, and I headed off to register. I had a good feeling in my legs and in my mind – the music, the reasonably successful last few days, and the fact is wasn’t overly hot or raining added to my upbeat mood.
I stopped by the wheel pit and promised Jose – the head mechanic – my profits for the day – as I have done the last few years, and then went back and got ready. I couldn’t for the life of me find my supply of “Goo” and settled on a half of a Clif Bar tucked under my shorts. I warmed up a little and then headed to the line.
There were a lot of riders – I’d guess about 100, but things started fairly slow, and I stayed in the top 20 for the first 10 of 70 laps. A breakaway made its way off the front including an old friend Bob Springer, but we could always see it. Another break started shortly after that one and I bridged up feeling good, but we were caught by the pack shortly thereafter. And so the laps passed.
The Kenosha course used to be pretty rough, but the recently re-paved most of the surfaces, and now it is quite smooth. The first corner is huge and wide, and the second corner has a rather sharp camber on the inside and a slight off camber on the outside. On the backstretch, the road has a little chicane that can tend to crush riders to the inside and then later to the outside when the pack bunches up. Major pileups have been known to happen. Turn 3 is fairly wide, but is where a majority of the accidents happen in the last few laps as everyone tries to use this corner to move up.
And so the race went on, and I surfed the pack from front to the very back, but mostly stayed just behind the A*@hole zone – in around 25th place – just in case a breakaway went. Meanwhile I tried my damndest to eat a dry Clif bar. I swear I chewed the first bite for 3 laps before using my water to wash the dry chunks down whole, and then the second bite I didn’t even screw around – I merely broke it up with my teeth and pretended it was a huge horse vitamin and slowed it down with water… And so the laps counted down… 60, 50, 40, 30, 20, 15 to go, 10 to go….. 5 to go…
And then that magic happens.. something odd happens in these last few laps. The composition and harmonics of the race change – subtly at first, but quickly and completely thereafter. I would liken it to that feeling on an international flight – you leave the airport, taxi out and head off into the skies, and everything is English spoken, mundane, and ordinary, and then you take a long nap and wake up and suddenly the food is different and everyone around you is speaking German or French or Dutch and while everything is the same – suddenly everything is different.
For racing, for me, this change is a good thing. For me it means that the guys that used to be out there taking long pulls into the wind suddenly pull off earlier, saving themselves – but at the same time, there are more to replace them. The pack gets tighter. There is anticipation in the air, and the whole group draws closer together. It feels slower, though the pace rally doesn’t change. A whole new idling, surging, and revolving of riders begins – a series of eddies and flows of inside and outside moves surging to the front only to be absorbed and drained backward through the slower inner current.
For 65 laps I’ve been pretty much a lifeless black and white thing – a worn-out husk of a rider biding his time, trying to finish the laps, and then this magic occurs and suddenly I’m awake and alive – riding the tides of the race. Suddenly the game is on and it is a test of wits and skill and courage and effort to try and maintain the right position. Get too far back and you are out of contention. Spend too much time up front and you’ve spent all of your energy fighting the wind. I have a weird love/hate of this moment – I dread it for the 65 laps or so it took to get there, and then once I’m in it I get a surge of adrenaline bordering on happiness. I’m suddenly aware of the breathing of the riders, I’m suddenly aware of the tiny spaces I can slide into. I notice the crowd and the announcer and the color of the banners. I’ll put my handlebars within one inch of another bike when 10 laps earlier, 10 inches was too close…
So, with 5, 4, and 3 laps to go, the whole pack rode this way – shoulder to shoulder, bars to bars, with only a few dangerous moves on the left and the right in the chicane causing any considerable movement in the pack. In the meantime a small breakaway of 4 that was just off the front began to get a few hundred feet, and then few hundred yards… I floated in about 20th, trying to use my usual tricks of downshifting into the corner to allow me to move up quickly into the open wedges out of the corner, but the pack was allowing nothing… I couldn’t find an opening, and nothing and no-one was moving.
Undaunted, I closed in closer – moved in nearer, touched a few bars or hips and drew closer to the front as we hit the finish stretch with 2 to go. I was probably in the 3rd row now of an 8 abreast clutter down the straightaway, and then a move went up the left side – fast.
I bobbed and bounced and pounced on the first opening in front of me as bars swayed and shot on through joining the chasers and closing the gap into 3rd – not counting the breakaway.
The man in red who led – he kicked it for a whole lap and drew us within about 150 yards of the breakaway as we heard the bell. We were heading down the finish stretch fast and stretched out with one to go, and I was in 7th place with a 2 man leadout and a small break of 4 just down the road. My prayer was that one of the two horses ahead of me would lead us to the break – because if they did I was pretty sure I could take this one…
Unfortunately horse 1 gave up the ghost and sat up just after turn 1. Horse 2 took us well into the backstretch, but his efforts dwindled midway down the stretch. With a half lap to go I was left with a tough choice – bridge the 300 feet to the breakway, or hope that someone behind me had the juice to take me there.
I decided to take it myself and launched into a full sprint down the latter half of the backstretch. Oddly, the 4 man breakaway had apparently decided to shuffle and position rather than hold the pace high, so when I did catch them entering turn 3, I was coming at them pretty fast – maybe 10 mph faster than they were going.
Again choices – sit up, wait, and try to outsprint whoever led-out the sprint down the finish stretch? Or use my inertia to try and go over the top and gap them before the knew what him them?
I decided to use the slingshot approach and I pedaled through corner 3, and accelerated into corner 4 using their draft to slingshot into the lead on the finish stretch. I took the breakaway on the outside of corner 4 and entered the 300m finish stretch in first place - with a gap. It is a lovely notion this - to be in the lead down the final few hundred meters of a race - hundreds of eyes willing you forward. The noise was incredible and I put my head down and prayed I had enough speed to keep me there…
And so the next 200 meters went, and I could hear the drumming of the crowd, and the voices to the left and right, and for a little while I thought I had it – my legs were still turning, and I still felt reasonably strong. But as we neared the line I could feel and hear the riders who had followed my wake – both of them from the breakway, and as we hit the line, both swarmed to the left and right and left me third place in the sprint – but not by much.
A bit disappointed, I was still pleased with a podium spot and headed up to talk to the announcer after the warmdown lap. He introduced me as “Mr. Stoughton” and I didn’t really care. After my competitors were introduced I found out more about them and was pleased to find out that the race winner was the Junior national road, time trial, and criterium champion. Good company on the podium. We were talking after, and I started describing my Junior World’s experience in Casablanca Morrocco, and then I stopped short saying, “but that was in 1986…. when were you born?” and he said, “1987.” I don’t feel old too often, but I’m often reminded…
I stepped down and then had to run 100 yards to help my daughter compete in her first ever race (age 4). She finished with “pack time” in the peleton but had a good time, and then we set up camp to watch the pros race. Robbie Ventura showed, but didn’t finish, and in the end the ensuing battle for the sprint jersey became the main feature as Frank Pipp and Abrams fought it out for the sprint points and the $5000.