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.”

2006 Race Report #12: Elk Grove

Race Report Elk Grove Pro-Am Challenge, August 13, 2006. 100km.  After warming down from the crash and checking my body for problems (minor roadrash on my shoulder, a few considerable bruises that showed up days later) I went over to registration and paid my $55 entry fee for the Pro Am race later in the afternoon. I was quite excited to have my second shot at the professionals, on a course that, as it turns out, was fairly well suited to my strengths. 

Meanwhile my plan was to head back to my friend Matt’s house where I had left my daughter to play with his children, spend some time with her, and then we were all going to head over together for the pro race.  Just minutes after registering, I received a call from my wife (who was having a relaxing weekend to herself back in Madison) that Kat was “homesick.”

Kat had asked to call home and was upset when she talked to Shannon. I drove back to Matt’s house to find her slightly feverish and with a stomach-ache. I sat on Matt’s couch and cradled her sweaty head and warm limbs in my lap for a ½ hour and then ‘called it’ deciding to head back up to Madison and home.

Katelina was definitely not in a mode to spend 3 hours outside in the heat at a bike race without her mama or papa around.  Fatherhood before racing, so I packed her in the car and we headed back and the race went on without me.

My next shot at the pros would have to come at Downer’s Grove the following weekend… Til then, John

2006 Race Report #11: Elk Grove - crashing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2006 Race Report #10: Elk Grove Cat II Challenge

Race Report Elk Grove Category II Challenge, August 12, 2006. 80 degrees, 55 minutes timed.  Flashback: August of 1977.

I am 8 years old and my father and I are pulling our GM Beauville van into the parking lot of the Dearborn Twin Towers office buildings where I was to participate in my first ever bike race. It was pouring outside and I remember not wanting to get out of the van into the cold rain. I dressed in the van into my wool jersey and black cotton and wool shorts (with a real leather chamois), my leather helmet and gloves, and then, with my father holding the umbrella, I climbed outside the sliding door and onto my bike, goosebumps standing out on my shiny forearms. 

He suggested that I “warm up” by riding around the parking lot a few times, and I did but I was immediately back under the umbrella and back into the van, shivering from the cold and wet. We waited until almost race time before heading toward the start/finish area. With his plastic raincoat on, and holding the umbrella, my father walked and I coasted on my bike over to the start finish line where a stocky, bald, grumpy older man with glasses and a mustache was yelling instructions to the parents, “Midgets! – midgets – you have to roll out your bikes before the race! – bring them over to Clair…C’mon Andreu – you know the drill!” 

His name was Mike Walden and I disliked him immediately. Clair, however, I recognized. Clair Young, wearing his referee uniform, was the reason I was there in the first place. During the summer, as I began to join my father on these long tours or “century rides” as these 100 mile bike tours were called, we were passed at one point by a fit couple in their 50's on a tandem who marveled at my tiny legs pushing the pedals in circles on this 100 mile circuit. When my father indicated that this was the 13th Century ride I had completed that summer – at age 8 – they expressed their admiration and then encouraged my father to get me racing. The couple was none other than Clair and Dorothy Young, parents of national and world champion cyclists and speedskaters Roger and Sheila Young.  

A few phone calls later, and there I was at the Dearborn Twin Towers just outside Detroit in the pouring rain, checking out my gears (12 and under or “midget category” racers were limited in their gears so as to not injure their knees) by “rolling out” my bike backwards for a full revolution of the pedals between two tape marks to ensure that my tenth gear was not too big (this was in the time where bikes still only had “ten speeds”)  10 minutes, and an eternity in the rain later, they lined up the boys, and then the girls behind us on the line.

There were about 12 of us boys, to the right of me was the tallest of the group, with dark hair and a fixed expression, seemingly unphazed by the rain. Next to him was a hyperactive boy who was badgering his father, “This rain is freezing me – why can’t we start? What are they waiting for? Frankie’s going to win anyway – why did we come?” Next to him was a pale, hollow cheeked boy of 10, whose father, like mine, hovered over him with the umbrella, guarding him as best he could. 

And so we lined up, myself – a few days before my 9th birthday: the tall one - Frankie Andreu – age 11 (eventual 9 time tour de France finisher and 4th in the Olympic games), the hyper one: Jamie Carney – age 9 (3 time Olympic team member, my arch-rival for decades to come,) the pale englishman: longtime friend Paul Jacqua – age 10, and a number of other boys, readying for a short 3 lap, 3 mile race. 

In the old Italian tradition Mike, (or was it Clair?) announced, “Torreador, Attencione, Go!” and within seconds Frankie had disappeared into the mist while I was still trying to get my foot in the toeclips. Once I finally did, I could see the outline of two riders ahead of me in the rain, roostertails kicking up high with the water flying off their rear wheels. Frankie was nowhere to be seen and I was left strugging through the downpour with Jamie and Paul and we headed through the darkened corners of the course, wheels whizzing with water and rain, pain and breathing only matched by wonderment of “where did he go?”  

I was not used to being beat – the fastest kid on my block during tag, and the fastest kid at school during recess, I felt a frantic, almost asphyxiating rhythm take over my pedaling and breathing. There was pain in every pore of my skin and my lungs were on fire but I was fixated on the mysterious disappearance of the rider ahead.  Jamie and Paul shortly established the pattern known to racers the world over as a “paceline” pulling into the wind for a short distance and then moving aside for the rider behind to pedal through, blocking the wind for the riders behind.

For perhaps the only time in my career, I took the role of a “roadie” and would pull through faster, chasing the elusive Frankie, or even making attacks to the side of our little peleton.  2 laps into the race and suddenly a dark figure appeared and quickly disappeared outside our little group. It was Celeste Andreu – Frankie’s sister, and she had already made up the 1 minute start gap provided between the boys and girls, and passed us. We made a fruitless effort to chase, but resolved back into the loosely formed paceline we had formed after the start, Paul doing most of the consistent work, and Jamie and I occasionally trying to sneak away off the front. 

We came by the start finish with one to go and the few parents remaining in the rain cheered and then disappeared and we continued our route around this urban maze. As we headed out of the last corner, Paul sprang out into the lead and as I started to follow, Jamie slingshotted past him. But I had grabbed his wheel (i.e. gotten into his draft), and as our tiny gears spun, and out little feet rotated at over 200 rpms, I passed Jamie just before the line to win the “field sprint” and come in 2nd establishing in that 3 mile microcosm a pattern in the world that would be significant in my life for the following 30+ years. 

After drying off (and the rain stopped) there was a medals ceremony followed by a trip to a tent where the sponsor of the race from the local bike shop provided me with my prize – a heavy, chrome plated bottom bracket tool kit.  I didn’t know what a bottom bracket was, but I could tell that this was a significant prize by its weight and shininess and I resolved to really like bike racing. I still have this bottom bracket tool kit, now 29 years later, and it has never been used as far as I know. But it is still shiny… 

August 12: Elk Grove is an unusual setting for a bike race. Instead of a criterium race run on a squared of circuit set in a downtown setting, or a traditional road race course with a long circuit and hills (the kind I avoid for obvious reasons) set out in the country where traffic would not be an issue, the Elk Grove challenge course was a mid length flat circuit of 2.3 miles set on and “out and back” pair of divided lane roads set in a quiet suburban neighborhood.  The course was essentially the shape of a sans serif “L” if you outlined it going counterclockwise: starting from the bottom: a left U turn, a right 90 degree turn, a left U turn, a left 90 degree turn.  

The course was quite narrow for the most part, and that, combined with the large field of Category 2 riders (approximately 120) made for a high degree of tension and nervousness in the pack after the start – elbows hitting elbows, and the occasional bumping of handlebars leading to tires locking up and panic around the fringes. This was a rare race where category 2 riders were separated from the Pro’s and Elite’s (Category 1 amateurs) who had their own race later in the day with a $125,000 prize list. First place in that event was $25,000. Next year…. Next year… 

I lined up on the front line and sprinted to the front after the start in order to have a good position into the first U-turn. I then found myself oddly off the front of the pack by 100 feet into the second stretch. I paused and waited for some riders to catch up and throttled up into 3rd as we headed down the long straightaway. I marveled that I was still up front in this new category of racing and wondered why the race was so slow, checking my cycling computer for the first time only to discover we were moving 33mph, and that my pulse was 180 bpm. Yet I was not suffering – wow – what gives?  

Backing up – August 10th, 2006, our Thursday Night “fast ride” training ride with the Stoton Velo Club. This is a weekly ‘suffer fest’ training ride attended by generally sick individuals that get a weird lift out of pain. I attend solely to improve my racing, but I’m thankful for the twisted individuals that show up to this weekly extravaganza.  We generally do 30 – 40 miles and use the “stop ahead” signs that signal crossroads as interim sprints, and use the tops of the hills as “King of the mountain” challenges. It is all for pride, but the competition is intense: last week we did 18 sprints, the first 10 of which came in the first 10 miles.

Several of us were about to vomit, but we kept going. Here are some of the usual players:

 Glen Gernert: “False Flat Glen” – haven’t seen much of him this year, but Glen holds a special spot on my pain-o-meter for a very unique ability to lift the pace at just the absolutely worst times. Picture this:  I am just barely hanging on to the wheel in front of me up yet another hill, and just as we hit the crest, I see yet another, slightly less steep rise following it. It is just at this point, when I’m absolutely beyond my threshold, when I need to rest, that the notorious site of Glen G’s steel bike will come slicing up the outside requiring the taste of blood, and acid in your veins in order to not get dropped. I hate Glen.  

Andy Nowlan – Andy N. is the reason I’ve even come out on these rides. A sprinter by genetics like me, he and I have spent a bit of time together getting shelled off the back, and struggling to regain the group. Andy suffers quietly along side me when the going is rough and then when we have a moment to actually breathe finds just the right way to describe exactly what I’m feeling, generally with a few f-bombs mixed in. From a pure speed standpoint, Andy’s probably the fastest of the group, but fortunately we (OK, the others) make him hurt just enough that he only occasionally gets to use it. 

Travis – Travis is just a motor – pure and simple. He gets the machinery turning and can keep it going indefinitely. I’m just barely fit enough to hang Travis’ wheel when he cranks it up, which basically makes him 30% stronger than me (after accounting for the benefits of drafting). Travis was Wisconsin state champion in the time trial. 

Glenn J. (or Glenn2) has the most massive calves in the universe. Glenn specializes in all kinds of hurts, but I think his strongest suit is cranking up the steeper hills at an insane rate of speed that leaves you racked for breath and (in my case) recovering for miles. 

Matt E. (or fast Matt) is a pro rider waiting to happen. He’s got a motor like Travis, a sprint like Andy, and the middle pain power of the two Glenns. He’s the triple threat and often gets away for miles at end by using his jump to get the gap, his extended sprint to put on distance, and then the motor to just tick away the miles. Matt is my primary trainer as I use him to gauge my fitness, sprint and “sticking power”. Matt is stronger, faster, and more powerful than me. I’m craftier than Matt. On the occasions where I beat Matt to “stop ahead” sign sprints, it is only through a careful combination of wheel sucking and sheer sneakiness. Hey – if it is worth winning, its worth cheating for… 

On this particular Thursday, the sign sprints are few and far between, but as we enter the “home stretch” toward the final sprint of the evening, I sense another evolution within my body – a change that only seems to respond to severe physical conditions...  I’ve read before about body builders, who, despite visible, incremental muscle increases, don’t see increases in strength correlating to the additional muscle. But then, days, or weeks later, suddenly, significantly, the increase in strength occurs. Physiologists hypothesize that the mass gain in muscle does not necessarily correspond to the electrochemical “turning on” of those same fibers, and that the two events are separate, discrete activities. So the lesson is that physical (and I would argue also mental and even spiritual) development is not so much a gradual curve rather than a set of discrete “jumps”. 

As we headed into the last set of small rolling hills and curves prior to the long stretch to the big finale sign sprint, I took off - creating my own little breakaway with Matt and another racer (Mark D.)  chasing. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay away, but what I did do was absolutely maximize the power through the pedals up each of the small hills, coasting and recovering down the other side. In this way I was able to stay away for a couple miles before being caught. As we wended our way toward the final sign sprint, a series of moves occurred, with fast Matt initiating the ‘shake and bake’ movements that can often prove my undoing.

However, in this case, his effort was matched by Phil, and then Mark leapfrogged Phil with about 400m to go and gained a significant gap quickly. But as always, I followed Matt’s wheel. However, Matt has gotten a little wise and was determined to not lead me out such a distance and we waited and hovered and coasted, watching as Phil pulled away and Mark’s gap widened significantly.  With 250m to go I shifted up and got out of the saddle and rocketed up the right side. As I hit 35mph, I shifted again and I hit 37mph, slingshotting by Phil and heading for Mark’s rear wheel.

Just then a large deer loomed by the side of the road with a full set of antlers even as I swung past Mark to the stop ahead sign. Mark was certainly distracted by the deer and may have been able to counter my move, but what was significant to me was the ability to shift up during a sprint - not sure I’ve ever done that, and hit and extend 37 mph by myself was also pretty significant. As we coasted towards the short hill to the highway home, I considered myself “well trained” for my next race. 

Return to Elk Grove, August 12, 2006: And so the race progressed – I stayed in the top ten riders, generally single file off the front of the pack, spending only a few moments in the tense anxiousness of the wider pack behind us that were raggedly wending the corners and tensely hovering on the narrow straightaways, trying to get out of the soup. With one to go I stayed in excellent position and watched three riders sneak off the front of the pack. As we headed into the last mile of the race, the pace picked up substantially – 34, 35, 36 mph into the last corner, and we closed on the breakaway. Into the last half mile – a narrow, slightly winding stretch to the finish and the pace remained high – 36, 37, 38 mph and I huddled behind my protection of the 2 leadout men. As we entered the last 300 meters, a move up the inside and I jumped on it, and then I made my bid for the win up the inside, chasing down the breakaway men into the last 150m. I followed the inside line accelerating hard to 40mph and found myself suddenly blocked by the rearward trajectory of 1 of the 3 breakaway men who tried to put himself out of harms way and swung to the inside.

AGAIN I had to brake and then try to re-accelerate. There was a substantial muddle near the finish and I had no-where to go and I crossed the line 9th, frustrated with the finish – but excited about the pending Pro/Am race coming the next day – a chance again for a “W” or win. Hoping it wasn’t going to rain…  

Backflash – July, 1980.  It was 2am when my father woke me up. Numbly grasping my pillow, I tumbled down the stairs of the house and headed into the damp black air of our dimly lit driveway to sprawl into the back seat of our Chevy Chevette and immediately fall asleep again. My father pulled gently out of our subdivision and headed out of our Detroit suburb to head west across the state of Michigan on highway 94 toward our final destination of Milwaukee, Wisconsin for to my first “Superweek” series of bike races across Wisconsin.

It was July of 1980, I was 11 years old, and I had just won my second straight Michigan state cycling championship and was prepping for my first national championships. Midway through our trip I woke and sat bolt upright, sweating with fright, the quiet movements of the air and the unheard decibels of powerfully low apocalyptic rumbling signifying the portents of the moment, my body shaking, my stomach turning inside out. I ached with fear even as I turned with paranormal foreboding, knowing the inevitable outcome even before my eyes registered upon the looming shape in the rearview mirror… 

Even though we were moving, it was as though in a liquid fog – a slow-moving soup barring our progress even as the huge truck was bearing down on us from behind with an approach velocity of 50 mph over our own. I heard my screams even before I felt my lungs fill and they pierced the quiet gathering of forces like lightening through the black of night even as the headlights filled the moist rear window with the brilliance of the a million tiny lights signifying the imminent collision. The feeling was like that of being split in half as the world exploded around me and… I saw the headlights gathering, and the truck fast approaching, and the car and the truck revolved and we were in front of it, on top of it, underneath it and a world of sparks erupted even as the gas tank exploded and…. I watched the maniacal driver bearing down on us and could see the gleam from his menacing glare even as the rain drops in the rear view mirror glinted with the reflections of the huge semi about to strike us mercilessly from behind and I uttered a guttural stream of screams and a roar that broke the silence with fear and evil and longing…. And… 

I woke up, sweating, on the side of the road, my father’s arms awkwardly cradling my sweaty head and clammy cold and damp limbs in the backseat of the Chevette, as a husky rattle of the final scream trailed off and I found myself gasping to replace the air my lungs had expelled. I looked around and the glint of the grey morning light exposed the contours of the landscape hidden in the former blackness and despair of the fever-induced “night terrors” or hallucinations the onset of the flu had brought. My body and our car were all intact and the only remnant of reality matching that of my recurring dreams was the headlights flashing past our emergency parking spot on the apron of highway 94. I was trembling and sweating and then suddenly freezing and I shuddered violently in the backseat as I tried to tell my father what I had seen.

Even as I described the oddly mundane artificiality of a simple car crash the graying shroud of fear lingering over my thoughts and eyes lifted and I found myself fully awake, alive, and very sick in the backseat of a tiny yellow car somewhere in southwestern Michigan. He tried to talk me into turning around to head home, but I was having none of it. “I’m feeling better” I declared, and by drinking lots of water I was able to reduce some of the symptoms, and though I alternately froze and sweated all the way to Milwaukee, we made it there prior to the race, arriving at 7am local time – to find the lakefront shrouded in mist, unseasonably cold temperatures, and a steady downpour of rain. My race was a 8:30am and I remember putting on my shorts and jersey, still clammy with sweat, and pulling on the flimsy rainjacket we had brought along to attempt to go “warmup”. 

I immediately began trembling horrifically and my father could see my handlebars jerking as I tried to get my foot in the toeclips as I headed away from the car. Only minutes later and I was back shivering violently and nearly falling as I dismounted my little blue Romic bike which I left leaning against the car as I climbed back in and demanded that he rev the engine and crank the heat. We sat and watched as the other racers filed out of their vehicles and lined up to race the first stage of Superweek, in the rain and cold, without me, - without me! -  even as my father sweated in front and I shivered in the backseat. 

Still the grip of the competition pulled at me and I started arguing halfheartedly about going out to race, but my father was having none of it and I guiltily agreed with a sigh of relief to stay in the warm car, still feeling as though I should have argued better or pushed harder.  

I can still remember very clearly my feelings pulling out of that lot at the lakefront in Milwaukee that day, watching my rivals speeding away into the rain, disappearing, their fading colors yet remaining fixed in my head and leaving a streak across my psyche.  Quitter.