Casablanca 25 years ago Vol. 5: The perfect race part 3

Two starts and two crashes. As I disentangled my bike from Jamie’s for the second time my blood was boiling. I was tempted to respond to the taunts but I kept my mouth shut. In the process of returning to the start line the steam burned off and instead of being furious, I was radiating with a new kind of energy…

Back up on the line I clasped each hand calmly over the bars and waited. Below me Eddy B. and Craig were giving Jamie a serious talking-to. No one had bothered to talk to me.

I had been there nearly a week, had won every race, and yet despite being a favorite to win the only spot for the U.S. team at the World sprint championships, Craig had only said hello, and I had yet to even meet Eddy B.

In the first days I timidly waited for my opportunity to talk to this legend (Eddy B.) but with each passing day I realized it was not a meritocracy – other criteria were being used to evaluate the riders. Despite winning 17 races the prior season I had not even been invited to the spring camp. No U.S. team coach wanted anything to do with me. Now I had skinned up shins, knees and elbows thanks to their “favorite.”

Head down on the line I waited for the gun. Where before there was fear, nausea, and doubt now there was clarity. “No way I lead this out,” I thought, “and… no way he beats me.”

Jamie moved forward from the line at a relatively brisk pace without the usual theatrics. A stern warning from the referee did the trick and we managed to complete the first lap without mishap. However, halfway through the second lap, just upon entering the relatively flat section of the backstretch, Jamie stopped. I locked my legs and skidded to a halt next to him, both our bikes angled slightly down the track, bodies rigid and standing up, forearms and legs providing a contracting set of forces that compensated for the gyroscopic effects of the wheels. A “track stand.”

A few seconds ticked by and we hovered motionless. Then 30. Then 60. Now the crowd of junior riders assembled for the trial began to voice their opinions. “C’mon! Race!” “Hold it and race in the dark!?” “Want a slurpee, slurpee?” (7-11 riders were known as the slurpee team.) “C’mon Carney, kick his ass and lets head to the arcade!” “Coyle, Coy-le, Coy-ale!” I could hear my best friend at the camp, Rich Hincapie (brother to George – the Tour de France great) chanting and building energy for me. Now I could hear Clark, Rishy Grewal, and others.

Still we balanced and ants trickled through the cracks and the sun beat down on our backs and we grimaced and waited. I had no intention of taking the lead. I could-have and would-have waited for hours. I was calm.

Perhaps sensing this, 3 or 4 minutes later, Jamie pretended to sprint, but merely pushed away and I followed casually. I felt that odd sense of “knowing” and instead of my vision narrowing it widened and I could see the track ahead, the track behind, the boys in the crowd chattering and still we had over a lap to go.  I followed Jamie’s wheel pretending I was in his thrall.

The bell was loud as we crossed the line and it brought with it anxiety and acceleration. The junior racers and general audience had come to their feet roaring in anticipation. We paced by the blue finish line and entered the corner gaining speed, Jamie’s neck swiveled, eyes darting every half second to gauge my position. I waited, stalking. This was it - predator and prey. We filed neatly through the corner and as I waded through Jamie’s draft he accelerated.

Around the corner and there it was – the horizontal line of the 200 meter mark, and suddenly, oddly, Jamie slowed - tight on the pole lane. I rolled up next to him, wheels overlapping. He smirked and then began to accelerate again, out of the saddle but head angled to the right, watching me continuously. I rose from the saddle as well, but allowed my momentum to keep me just even with his hip, playing his game.

We proceeded down the backstretch gaining speed but still only at 24, 26 mph,  Jamie always watching, gauging. The plan was now explicitly clear – he intended to utilize our overlapping wheels to  ride me up the track and then dive back down before I could respond. I knew when and where it would start.

I knew too, what I would do.

150 meters to go and we entered steepening confines of the final corner. As predicted, Jamie began rising from the pole lane as the slope began to increase. Watching my wheel, he climbed from the pole lane up through lane three, rising toward the fence, starting to accelerate as he readied for the final pounce…

I beat him to it.

As we neared the top of the track I pushed my bike forward while slowing my pedal stroke. Under his watchful eye, I prepared my escape - my wheel staying even with his seatpost even as my center of gravity retreated. At the top of the his arc, just before the impending jump I thrust my bike backward and body forward to clear his rear wheel. Head down, shoulders up, I breached my handlebars between my knees, hands narrow on the stem, twisted sideways and cut left down the track.

I cleared his wheel by 1/8th inch plummeting down the track. Throwing the bars forward and re-gripping the drops, I put every single shred of energy, fear, hatred and pride into the muscles and electrons surrounding my legs and heart. Out of the saddle my tires tore against the surface of the track with the beautiful sound of ripping paper. 

Like Han Solo I sat down and hit hyperspace as the backdrop blurred and the track streaked by in a hum.

Octaves rising I was head down hitting 200 rpms down the final straightaway. I knew, just knew, that no-one, just no-one could sustain that kind of onslaught. It was a crowning moment, an emblem of every single one of my limited strengths. Never in my life had I been mind-gamed or out-jumped. Here, in the most important race of my life, my arch-enemy had just overplayed his hand. I had dropped the ace, and the roar of the crowd answered my move. With a surge of pride I raised my hands from the bars to celebrate victory and dared a peek to my right just prior to the line.

Sure enough… no Jamie. To the rear, no Jamie – and then… the Joker as trump card...

Instead of raising my hands to the sky, I put them on my head. There he was, 50 feet back, freeing his feet from the straps and then pedals windmilling, legs splayed widely as he looked quizzically down at his bike…. He had aborted when the win was out of reach - and now the theatrics again - an invented equipment failure. He coasted across the line then immediately dismounted, inspecting his bike and pedals from the side.

It was effective – no celebration for me. At least one more round before the chance at desert, sands, and bizarre bazaars. And... Jamie was fresher for pulling out.

Back to the Diary, 1986


Today I got up with difficulty and ate breakfast. I then rode my bike for an hour – once again getting lost. I ended up riding right past the market place (bazaar) – packed as usual. I then saw the Hyatt Regency – right across from the bazaar. Then I rode right past the Libyan Arab Airlines – scary – but some strange part of me was tempted to go paint an American Flag on the wall.

I was first up in the 200m time trial and I sat around for 2 hours watching pursuits after my warmup. I tried to warm up on rollers, but then I got a flat in my front. I didn’t climb the banking until the last lap which was wrong. I had to climb before jumping, which took away the impetus of my jump, so basically I jumped up the track, then had nothing. I was dead before I started. My time was terrible – 12.31. I was not very happy. The next 2 times were slower, but then came a rush of good riders. I was really worried about the qualifying. I had to beat 9 of the 33 riders to qualify.

The next 6 riders were all in the 11’s – a Russian did 11.3 – a whole second faster. The Moroccan riders were very slow – all in the 13’s. But the crowd cheered them anyway.

With 12 riders to go I still had to beat one to qualify. Jamie rode 31st. Then I beat a Korean – he rode 12.37 – Ahhh – sigh of relief. Craig had said that if we didn’t make the top 24, he would send us home. I’m sure he meant it for me… but what about Jamie? That’s what I was worried about the most. Jamie rode a 12.52. He was stunned – devastated. He didn't make the cut. I’m sure he’ll blame it on the diarrhea he had though. I ended up 20th – but I could do much better. Oh well…

After it was over I returned to the hotel, chatted with Azdine and wrote all this – goodnight.


Today I got up at 12:00 noon. I then ate lunch then went for an hour ride. I was once again struck by the extreme poverty of the people here. The apartment complexes are horribly run-down. 50% of the people here are unemployed. I talked with Azdine again during lunch. Yesterday I let him borrow my jacket and I was really worried about it the rest of the day – although needlessly. I was just suspicious after seeing how Mustafa turned out.

After my massage today I rode to the track. We missed Mike’s ride. He lost with a slower time than yesterday – a 3:43. He was pretty upset. The other guy only beat him by 2/10’s of a second. I guess they both relaxed at first then at the end Mike kicked, but then the other guy kicked also.

Everyone predicted that Aaron Frahm would do a good kilo, but I knew that he wouldn’t do that well, because I’m riding so slow as is everyone else because of the low altitude and humid air – our bodies have not adjusted yet. Anyways, the first rider did a 109.8 – very fast for this track – an Italian. Aaron rode a 1:12.20 – the slowest of the first 5 riders. The Moroccan rode a 1:18.6. They are so slow – I feel bad for them. The guys were bummed about Aaron’s kilo – we have the technology, but not the speed. Aaron had a rubber skin-suit, funny bike and disc wheel. The Spaniard after him did a 108.7 without anything – not even a funny bike – normal, stock everything – he ended up third. A Russian (who else) won and a Pole was second. Their times? 107.7 and 108.1. 

After the races we went back to the Hotel. Dinner was excellent, starting with bean soup (no beans – just mush – good!) and a shishkabob of some fish – it was great. Azdine gave me two.

After dinner Azdine came to my room. He wanted some help with his English class. I helped him figure out some pre-test dittoes. He is really nice. I found out he has a room on the top of the hotel. We talked and then exchanged addresses, and he wrote in Arabic in my other book. Then Craig said I had to go to bed so goodnight.

Next up - the conclusion of 'the perfect race' and racing the fat Bulgarian...

Race Your Strengths! Vol. 2

Colorado Springs, July 1990 continued…


Tests #2 & 3: Body Fat & VO2 Max


Over the coming days I eventually recovered from that initial breakdown from the heavy training and started to rejoin the competitive fray in the workouts. Sprints, jumps, reaction drills, low walks, lunges, hamstring curls, hip sleigh, bike rides, inline skating, weights, circuit training, “fartlechs”, stairs, plyometrics – we did it all and after a couple of weeks I was more fit and it was time for testing. Meanwhile, one particular workout we did stood out in my mind: on the infield of the track on the astro-turf we had to lay flat on the ground, facing away from a ‘runner’ positioned the same way 15 feet away and upon a clap were supposed to jump up, turn around, and try and catch our prey. I was quite good at this – at the signal I bounced up rotating in air and was running as soon as my feet hit the ground. I often caught my “prey” before they even started running.


I tried to selectively view this little area of strength as a sign of my athletic prowess (I still didn’t really understand the granular nature of strengths and I wouldn’t for more than a decade.) Instead I used these “crutch moments” to shore up my resolve on the days to come. As it was many, if not most, of the other workouts and tests seemed to go a different direction…


Over the next few days we were to undergo the following  ‘tests’: 1) body fat (through calipers,) 2) VO2 Max, 3) Max squats, 4) Vertical leap, and 5) Max power output (watts.)


Body fat testing took 2 minutes. I had always been thin and lean so I didn’t give it much thought. That is until the “hmmm” of the sports doctor and assistants. They told me my body fat composition: 10.2%. It meant nothing to me – until I found out I had the second highest of any male at the camp, and that Bonnie Blair’s body fat (at 9.8%) was less than mine (men typically have considerably lower body fat than women  - the general ranges for elite athletes are 2-6% for men, and 10-13% for women.)


Test #1 – Hard Training:       Failure

Test #2 – Body Fat:               Failure


Earlier that day we had been given our start times for the VO2 test to take place over that afternoon and all the next day. Everyone seemed nervous and stressed, but when I asked someone about the test they said, “don’t worry – it’s a cycling test so it will be easy for you – but it is hard!” Meanwhile a buzz was going around campus that a superstar young cyclist was there by the name of Lance Armstrong and that he would also be testing. As a long time cyclist I had never heard of him and did not give it much thought.


It was late the next morning when it finally came time for my VO2 test. I remember riding my bike across the extended campus of the Colorado Springs Olympic Training center – down the hill from the dorms, past the rubberized track and into the maze of structures in between the track and the cafeteria. This series of low outlying buildings (former barracks) ran in neat rows and were completely nondescript – each one looked like the other. The light outside was crisply brilliant as I locked my bike up and entered the white fluorescent lights of the hallway and plastic tile floors into a small waiting room where I changed into my cycling gear.


Shortly thereafter one of the other skaters came down the hallway into this small room to change back into his street clothes. He was shiny with sweat and looked grey. “Good luck,” he said, “that sucked.”


I had no idea what I was in for. 


Dressed and ready, I followed a lab assistant down the white tiled hallway, my cleats clicking and sliding as I navigated a small set of stairs with those wooden handrails and aluminum scuff guards sprinkled with shiny specks of stone on the toe of each stair. I clicked my way safely down and into a room full of equipment – all centered around a stationary bike. There were a half dozen people in the room, most were wearing white medical garb.


One of them approached me and encouraged me to get set up on the bike in the middle of the room and let me know that they would be attaching some monitoring equipment and asked me to remove my shirt.


I climbed onto the contraption and all at once the room became a hive of activity: extended fingers pushing buttons, cords clicking into machines, and the shiny steel mandibles of various instruments gathering my vital signs. One attendant suddenly and unapologetically began to slather a clear cold gel on my chest while another began attaching black backed sensors to the viscous goop. A third attached electrodes to the sensors, while a fourth pried a finger loose from the handlebars, and then, without asking, stabbed me in the finger with a pin she had just swabbed with alcohol, greedily milking the blood out of it into a tiny glass test tube and then disappearing into the hallway behind the machines.


A web of wires from the machines around the room were then clipped to the electrodes as though I were ready to be lit up like a wedding gazebo. Like a maggot writhing in a spider’s web, I was turned, prodded, and poked. Finally the doctor approached, consulting his shiny black metallic wristwatch and asking, “are you ready?” It was clear that he wasn’t waiting for the answer and he nodded to yet another assistant.


“This may feel a bit awkward” she said as they fitted an ugly contraption from an orthodontic patient’s nightmare to my head – crisscrossing straps pressed into place over the top of my scalp supporting a mechanism that that contained a length of a thick plastic tubing.


I didn’t mind it so much until they rotated the large tube into place in front of my lips and then said “open” and then jammed it backward into my mouth. My jaws were ratcheted open like in a dental X-ray and then left that way. Another intern brought over what looked exactly like a long, stretchable, clear hose from a vacuum cleaner and attached it to the other end of the tube in my mouth. The far end of the 15 foot tube draped to the floor and then rose again to where it was connected to one of the many large machines in the room.


Even as my jaw began to ache from being pried so wide, the doctor said again, “ready?” and turned away before I could answer. He wasn’t talking to me. I swear I heard his mandibles click as he walked away  - or perhaps it was just the clamp of his clipboard. Actually, it was the positioning of an ordinary clothespin on my nostrils to keep me from breathing through my nose. My claustrophobia reached its max and I had to fight the gag reflex. It got worse when I considered that others had had this tube in their mouth, and others had had the gag reflex, and perhaps that taste and smell….


Fortunately I was distracted by the start of the test and all the assistants and lab coats disappeared into far corners except for one of the younger girls in the room who advised me, “Just maintain 90 rpms – we have set the resistance at 175 watts.” “In two minutes, we’ll increase the watts and rpms, and continue to do so until we get a reading at your max.”


Translation to the maggot, “we are going to roast your fat white body on this spit until you die or explode.”


Still, 90 rpms at 175 watts wasn’t too bad and the 2 minutes passed with only a small level of effort and the warming of my limbs and lungs. If it hadn’t been for the jaw pain and consciousness of all the dangling cords swaying with my body I would have been comfortable.


At two minutes the intern was back, turning the dial of resistance and informing me, “You are now at 200 watts of resistance – please increase your rpms to 95.” At the same moment the vampire with the pin suddenly stabbed a second appendage and began sinuously squeezing that finger to extract more blood. I would have said something – except for the tree trunk in my mouth.


I pedaled and entered that middle realm of work on the bike that is satisfying. I monitored my rpms and my heartrate and watched it climb from the 140’s to the 150’s into the 160’s. I began to sweat a little which didn’t bother me. I began to drool a little, and that bothered me immensely. I followed the spit as it stairstepped down the accordion layers of the tube and then followed the hose back to the machine, then the machine to the heavy black cord, and the heavy black cord to the outlet in the wall. I began to consider the physics of electricity – voltage and amperage – and the conductive properties of water. This was all rational cover for my building claustrophobia. I pedaled and tried not to panic.


2 minutes later and 4 minutes into the test, my little intern reappeared and I cast about for the vampire as well. Sure enough she materialized at the same time, and even as the soothing voice began to announce the next level of torture (225 watts, 100 rpms), my middle finger was extended, stabbed, and milked for blood in one swift and fluid effort by her sidekick.


225 watts is hard. It is not killer by itself, but what begins to make it hard is the idea of what was to come – a never ending ladder to hell – more watts, more rpms, and more pedaling. As the effort increased, I was starting to be able to move beyond staring at the wires and machines and even the gigantic snorkel in my mouth. I finished the 6 minutes, working hard, and was beginning to breathe quite heavily. My pulse was in the mid-170’s.


The intern began her dulcet announcement, “250 watts, 105 rpms” and in complete synch I held out my still immaculate index finger for the pin and the blood and the test tube. The vampire scooted away with a flap of her gown.


Head down, I began to work in earnest and watched the gleaming sweat on the hair of my forearms as I swayed in the saddle and worked through the 2 minute interval. I was beginning to labor now, my breath coming faster and faster, pulse climbing to the mid 180’s.


At 8 minutes I was sweating and breathing hard and convinced I was almost done.


“Halfway” said the white coated intern smooth but emotionless, “shoot for 16 minutes.” 


16 minutes?! NO FREAKIN’ WAY! I thought as she changed the resistance to 275 watts and asked me to increase my rpms to 110. I decided to shoot for finishing this 2 minute interval.


It got hard – really hard. My lungs worked like bellows, and my thighs began that burn from lack of oxygen. Head down I had lost all contact with the tube and the vampire and the lab coats except for a sudden realization that they were all drifting back into the place. My suffering was a magnet pulling them in, and the harder I worked, and the more my heart rate climbed, the closer they got, and the more they talked.


My pulse entered the 190’s and then the low 200’s. I was pulverizing the pedals and the air in my lungs began to burn. Somewhere around this time, the vampire began slashing my fingers at 30 second intervals and I stopped caring which finger had holes in it already. Sweat coursing off my body, and rivers of saliva draining into the tube I finished off the 10 minutes and it was time, again for an increase.


This time it was the doc himself: “300 watts, 115 rpms – from here on, the rpms will stay the same – continue” and I felt the resistance increase yet again. The resistance was less of a factor than the increase in rpms. 115 rpms felt like a hurricane for my tired legs and I was certain I would last less then 30 seconds.


The group that had gathered sensed this internal negotiating and one said, “make it 60 more seconds – you can definitely make that.” I looked up and noticed my heartrate – 210 beats per minute. I determined to make it the full 60 seconds and did – but they were ready, “Make it 30 more seconds! You can do it!” They pressed closer and in hindsight I wonder what kind of mindset revels in such suffering. I made eleven minutes and 30 seconds and they said “30 more seconds – make the 12 minute mark!”


By now my legs were gigantic burning red balloons and my lungs were embers. Still I struggled on and when my rpms dropped below 115 they poked and prodded and I returned to 115 on the monitor.


Twelve minutes arrived and I was intending to quit, but suddenly there were 5 faces in front of mine and none were relenting. “You can do more than this! You must continue!” and the doctor’s voice droned on, “325 watts, 115 rpms.” The vampire continued to collect her blood from my bloody fingertips without the pin as we’d given up trying to close up the holes in between. A drop fell from my fingertip.


So I gave it my all and focused on making 30 seconds as the room pinwheeled around me and my pulse climbed to 215. I made it and still they pushed “30 more!” They were screaming now, “Go! Go! Go!”  Knees flailing, lungs flapping like bellows I continued and the wheezing and rasping sounds of my death rattle began. But still I made thirteen minutes and they convinced me to shoot for 13:30.


At thirteen minutes, thirty seconds my body began to implode. My heart rate had reached 217 beats per minute, and by the excited squeals of the vampire I determined that the lactic acid levels in my blood had also reached significant levels. I tried to follow directions from the room to make the fourteen minute milestone, but 9 seconds later my legs stopped turning. 13:39.


They all congratulated me in a seemingly sincere way, so I assumed I had done well, and that 16:00 was the “holy grail” and that I had gotten close. One mentioned that I had one of the highest lactic acid levels they had measured as well. I asked what that meant, and she said, "You are good at suffering." Great.


I could barely crawl down from the bike after they removed the tube and all the wires and with considerable effort grabbed my shirt and walked back down the hallway to the dressing room. I was gray. Along the way I passed a fresh faced cyclist I didn’t know by the name of Lance Armstrong on the way to his test.


I dressed and headed back to the dorms. After a convivial dinner with my roommates and other skaters I received a manila envelope under the door with my test results.


I tore it open eagerly. I had been congratulated. The ants and spiders had been genuinely interested.  I had worked harder than most humans are capable of conceiving and suffered to the point where I nearly passed out. I had been 10th in the world the prior year at age 21 with minimal training. I expected results that matched my talent, my effort and my prior performance.


Instead I received a chart that showed my result compared to the average team member.



1990 VO2 Max results



According to this test, I had the worst VO2 of the entire team – and this was a test the coaches had suggested was the single greatest predictor of success in our sport. Later, I learned that Lance Armstrong had survived 26 1/2 minutes and maxed out at 500 watts. When I was done, he was only halfway – and it only got harder…


Test #1 – Hard Training:       Failure

Test #2 – Body Fat:               Failure

Test #3: - VO2 Max:             Failure


If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized that this was a true weakness for me – that I lacked the kind of “steady, building” aerobic capacity that the test was measuring for. In fact it wasn’t until the last few years that I realized how specific strengths are and how even tests like the above really can’t accurately capture reality. Let me put it another way – according to the test above, my aerobic threshold at my prime was around 275 watts. Yet I constantly finish races that require an AVERAGE watts of 330 or so just to finish – for a 2 ½ hour period and can sustain watts of 600+ for 4 - 5 minutes, and. How is this possible.? 


It is possible because I can produce multiple 2-5 second pulses of 800 watts with 5-10 second “rests” of 150 watts over and over again.


But this test failed to measure these kinds of variations – it only measured steadily increasing watts – like the kind required to climb a mountain or timetrial against a headwind. For the record, I cannot climb, nor fight a headwind - though I spent many years trying.


The test was right. But I disavowed it from the beginning. “Can’t be right,” I thought and began a series of denials that stayed with me for the next decade. This despite the fact that the other 2 times I took the test I also scored exactly a “52”.


These results really should not have been a surprise. That said, I think many athletes, myself included at the time, try not to think about their failures, or if they do, do so in an emotional, rather than a clinical way. With any understanding of my capabilities at all, these tests would have been a mere reflection of my reality. Here’s an example.


Flashback: in the summer of 1985, while riding for the 7-11 Junior Development Team, I was required to ride in the Red Zinger Mini Classic/Junior National Tour – a 10 day stage race through the mountains of Colorado.


I quickly proved I was incapable of climbing and proceeded to get dropped on every mountain stage race at the bottom of the first hill. I was completely confused – I had won 11 races in a row prior to heading out to Colorado – against many of the same riders – how could this be?


I started to understand when, on the same day, I placed last in the Vail Mountain uphill time trial, right after winning the field sprint and 4th place in the Vail Criterium. Someone else had to tell me though: “Dude, you just can’t go UP!”


The next day was a long road race – from Copper Mountain to Leadville, with a series of climbs after a flat start. By then the entire peleton realized I couldn’t climb, so my teammates and the field conspired to let me breakaway on the first 7 mile flat section. By the time we hit the first climb, I had a 5 minute advantage on the field – one of the only breakaways of my life. Rather than attesting to my abilities, this was a testament to my well known inability to climb – the entire field was so confident I couldn’t climb, that they rode about 15mph for the first 7 miles to let me get away and then chase me down on the ascent.


Sure enough, a few miles into the long, heartwrenching climb, they caught me. I sped backward through the 100+ member field, and then fell out the back a half a minute later.


Then, the girls caught me. Sadly, they had started 5 minutes after the boys, so I had squandered not only my 5 minute lead on the boys field, but had lost the difference to the women’s field.


I managed to stay with the leaders of the girl’s race, and finally entered the high altitude flats of Leadville and the finish stretch. I’d like to say that I coasted in with the girls with my head down, but I CAME TO RACE and blasted out of 15th position with 200m to go to destroy the women’s peleton in the sprint.


In his great book "Now, Discover Your Strengths" written 15 years later, Marcus Buckingham summarizes natural strengths as follows:


Each person’s talents are unique and enduring:  “The definition of strength is quite specific: consistent near perfect performance in an activity.”


For the last 32 years of my life, I have never been able to climb, or time trial, or break away, or win long sprints. What I have been able to do nearly perfectly is to win short sprints on technical courses in crowded conditions. Add a small hill prior to the finish and my results almost always include a spot on the podium.


Damn, this would have been nice to know back in, say, 1985….



Next up, Tests #4 & 5: Vertical Leap, and Max Power Output




2008 Race Report #4: Volta a Catalunya

2008: Ride Report #4: Volta a Catalunya (Tour of Catalonia) 
 Sun, stone, wine & Spain

 2008: Ride Report #4 – Volta a Catalunya en 4 dias

 As an adult, it can be hard - really hard - to experience happiness. No, not that typical thing we call happiness (when we mean contentment or satisfaction,) I mean joy - that unrestrained ability to ‘really live’ – to live and love life with that same exuberant energy we had as children at the beach when at some unseen signal we were all suddenly running pell-mell across the dimpled sand into the warm shallows, kicking through the smoothly distorted reflections of ourselves while creating a wake of turbulence in our path and launching forward, bellies flopping down on the water and laughing. Arms scooped we would then turn to splashing, water sparkling in the sun. Why is it so hard for us to re-create this feeling as adults?

 It is so hard because, it seemed to me, the older I get, the more “have-to’s” fill my life – deadlines, requests, emails, texts, voicemails, bills, finances, maintenance, repair, painting, oil changes, lawn care, plants, fish, dogs…. Other things, other people… “Growing up” some would say. Responsibilities.

 Sure, I can argue, by going on this trip, I’ll return refreshed – a better husband, father, boss, peer, employee, neighbor. If you read the research, and look at it in hindsight, this is truism, (but it tends to feel like rationalizing.) From another, more cynical angle, one could just write an adventure like this off as a “self absorbed escape.”

 It is those warring thoughts, and the underlying emotions – excitement versus guilt, anticipation vs. fear – that I think keeps most adults from actually doing something like this trip to Spain for 4 days. Sure, many talk about ‘escaping,’ or that ‘someday’ trip, but actually pushing “purchase” button the website for the $900 ticket? Being away from your family, house, and job over a long weekend? That was one of the scariest nerve jangling things I’ve done in the last year. The thing is, it is hard to do something for yourself – because in that common narrow view there 100 other things that you could and “should” be doing.

 The trip to Spain, admittedly was planned rather late and a bit ad-hoc – a last minute change in timing and location from a late May return to Italy to a mid-May foray to Spain, but still – I had done it all before, right?

 Day 1 (An epic day): Thursday, May 15. Girona to L’Estartit, Spain, roundtrip 


  • Distance/vertical: 73 miles/4320 feet of climbing
  • Weather: partly cloudy, 72 degrees, 16 mph winds 
  • Average pulse: 139bpm
  • Time in saddle (including getting lost): 5 ½  hours
  • Calories burned: 4432
  • After leaving the outskirst of Girona, we immediately began a climb – a gentle (~6 - 8% grade) incline toward the summit named aptly ‘Els Angeles’ which we immediately Americanized into “Hells Angels”.  The 10Km climb rose over 1200 ft vertical and as we began, the sun came out and about 15 minutes into the ride I felt that first blush of sweat and the blooming of my lungs and sinuses as I began to absorb the scents of the mountain.

     As the Spanish sun continued to warm my skin, the internally radiated heat continued to travel all my limbs and soon my heart, lungs and legs developed a rhythm matched to the gentle curves of the smoothly paved road side-winding in front of me. Thirty minutes into the climb and I began to experience an irrational rush of pure joy. As Jeff and I rose, switchback after switchback with steady breathing and very little talking, I suddenly announced, looking out at all of Girona, corralling my giddiness, “I’m happy.”


    We continued climbing into the sky, heart rates high but just below aerobic threshold and after a time I finally figured out what it was all about – “so… this is what climbing is really like…”

    Not so steep as to make you anaerobic, but not so gentle as to where you have to make a choice about your effort, what I came to realize is that European climbs typical of the Tour de France have a steady incline that requires a strong aerobic effort, but not more. Unlike my steep climbs of 15% or more last year in Italy, these gentle grades allowed us to develop a steady rhythm and meter, and a sense of pride and progress.Hincapie the Tour hero

    We reached the heights of Els Angeles, passing spray-painted signs wishing Hincapie and Barry luck in the tour, and then descended the other side – considerably steeper, and far more rough. We descended the same vertical in half the distance (5K) but with both hands on the brakes bouncing numbly down the very rough roads.riding a village in spain

    Finally we entered the Mediterranean coast and sped down into a series of medieval villages, some from Roman times.


    Unlike last year in Italy, where I rode in the bosom of the shrouded hinterland between mountain ranges where there were no winds, the Costa Brava was wild and exposed and the capricious winds often found us as we descended and passed through open fields. A bit of agoraphobia gripped me in a mild way and I sometimes felt like a tiny ant exposed to all the world trying desperately to cling to my lane against the forces of the sun and wind and the tides of the ocean.Field and stone house in Spain

    We eventually made it all the way to the bright azure of the Mediterranean in L’Estartit and wandered north along the beachfront, hotels, yachts and harbors, slowly meandering, taking in the sights of the sea until we found a restaurant with ocean views and outdoor sunlit seating.

    L\'Estartit, Spain There we ordered some seafood and pasta and made calls home. All the while, between the wind and the quickly moving clouds, the open expanses exposed by the downhill slopes from the Pyrenees, it was almost with relief that we headed back into the protective layer of the foothills on our return loop.

    Crulles, Spain

    We passed through several more stone medieval villages and experienced yet another dirt road traverse through wheat fields before we finally closed our loop and began our climb back to Els Angeles.

    Along the way, we passed a wine store and I bought a bottle of locally produced wine for $1.55 Euros ($2.75) that turned out to be excellent when we finally uncorked it later: in the meantime it found a proud home in the back pocket of my jersey.

    riding the dirt

    Meanwhile that magic thing happened. If I was happy before as we climbed the gentle heights of Els Angeles on our way out of Gerona, then I was enraptured with life as the setting sun preceded us and the fields lit up with warm golden contrasts of light and shadow, green, gold, auburn, yellows and black and all thoughts, feelings, and actions aligned with each pedal stroke. The gently undulating fields of grain glinting with the setting sun, punctuated by broad brilliant orange brushstrokes of poppies created one of those ‘perfect moments’ and as we rode, we said nothing, but with smiles of disbelief we gestured at the ruins, the fields, a village, a castle or a cathedral, while the jasmine hedges, red clay & tile and natural stone surrounds reflected the warmth of the Spanish sun.

    rising through fields of grain and poppies

    It began to get steeper, but still we pedaled. We breathed. Auburn rock became molten soil became baked pavement and still up we went. The trees became more stunted, our breath came out louder, but still we climbed and breathed and the world expanded beneath our tires.






    Another switchback and the entire Costa Brava lay at our feet. How lucky are we? How blessed to earn this view with our sweat? Warm and moving, out of the saddle and back in it, the trees passed and the world shrank below and we finally saw the heights and lights of the Cathedral at the top. 8pm and the sun is setting – not stopping now – just floating on the new pavement down to Girona and that incredible feeling of speed and control on the descent.

    Almost an hour up, and now 15 minutes down. Switchbacks become a game – how fast can we go, how far can I lean? Rubber tires grip black asphalt and our sinuous curves grow ever more aggressive. We possess the land and fly across rocky ridges warmed by the fading sun and then drop into resinous valleys, sinking into the setting sun and absorbing the dark sap of the pines as the geology lost its eminence, and the trees took over - taller, thicker, darker.

    We rocketed through the brackets of those final corridors of the setting sun, contrasts of cool damp and dusty sun like streetlights and smiled that giddy, crazy smile that only those who have suffered the ups can express on the downs – coasting & pedaling breakneck at 35 and 40 mph while tilting crazily and yet still trying to talk – shouting over the howl of the wind.

    I skidded to a stop at the car. Wow. Now that was a day. “Hey – I’ve been in Spain for almost 36 hours!” I shouted to Jeff and then thought, “and I’ve experienced a ½ year of really living...” But the day wasn’t over yet…

    We packed it up, drove to the hotel, showered, and at about 10:30pm we headed into old town Girona, and incredible maze of old stone buildings and cathedrals rising about the river, nothing about the exteriors of the buildings, plazas or walk ways indicating a date after to 1100AD. Girona, Spain at night

    But there were dozens of restaurants around a plaza and we found some decent German food before settling in on a wine bar for an after dinner cocktail.

    After a glass of red wine, we thought about leaving, but Manolo, the owner, brought us champagne – gratis before we left.Streets of Girona

    I asked him about Lance Amstrong… and George Hincapie (his teammate).

    “Oh yes, Lance Armstrong - he here many times – was living here just a few meters away, but gone now. George Hinacapie– he had one house here – just around the corner – I show you – but I think he too is gone. George Hinacapie – he likes this place very much…”

    I told Manolo that I used to know George. He seemed excited “I think, maybe, he is back here – perhaps he will come?” He looked in askance.

    I had meant to contact Rich Hincapie – George’s brother – before leaving the U.S. but it got lost in my to-do’s and so I didn’t know if George was in town, nor did I have any contact info. Nonetheless, something about the night, and the vibrations of that old city spoke and I started to just have that feeling we might see him anyway..

    I told Manoloa we would look for him, and with that, and few pictures, we headed back to our hotel…

    John in Girona

      Day 2 (“…and then his bike exploded”): Friday, May 16. Monelles to Palamos, Spain  

    “I predict that the winds will turn around and we’ll have a tailwind on our route back” Jeff had said. That too became true, as did a dozen smaller predictions that day and the day before.

    So, we headed up the Els Angeles climb in the car on our way to the Costa Brava. Then, suddenly, arbitrarily Jeff said, “We are going to see your old friend George Hincapie today on this road.” When he said it like that, like our weather predictions before, I didn’t doubt him in the least.

    We passed the cathedral at the top of the climb and began the bumpy descent, still in the rental car. Just as we completed the majority the steep descent, at the foot of the hill, 5km later, we suddenly passed a passel of riders, 4 in total, one wearing white Oakleys with a classic visage obvious from 100 ft, “That’s George!” I said amazed.

    Jeff swung a U-turn and we sped back up the mountain, amazed at the speed at which these riders were climbing. I hadn’t seen or talked to George in 15 years and suddenly that time and distance loomed and I began to wonder if he would remember me.

    Yes sure, his brother Rich and I had roomed for weeks together at the Olympic training center, and yes, we had once followed the same circuit of high profile races through the eastern United States where I had experienced the single longest winning streak of my life (11 straight wins). Yes, during the same trip I had noticed how George, at age 12, was precocious enough to finish and even win races with the 14 -15 year olds, (that, and he was 6ft tall at this age)

    But, now it is 20 years later since those times, and 15 since the last time I’d seen George at the Tour de Villa Italia in Windsor, Canada, and George has had a racing and tour career few could ever hope to obtain – a multi-millionaire rider, he’s finished the Tour de France 11 times, he replaced my old teammate Frankie Andreu as Lance’s first lieutenant (and raced all 7 wins with him.) He’s won a big stage in the Tour de France and many other classics and he also has had been a significant force in many of the big one day classics and was 2nd  in the most prestigious one day race of all – Paris-Roubaix a few years back, and 9th this season.

    As we approached the riders from behind, I suddenly began to doubt. These guys were too … skinny. Coming closer, we discovered that these guys were rail thin – leaner than raw meat - all of them. Remembering the oft repeated phrase from TV of “Big George Hincapie” as Phil Legget and Paul Sherwin always referred to him, I couldn’t possibly imagine it to describe one of these riders ahead of me.

    Nonetheless, as we passed them on the left, I leaned out the window and taking a chance, yelled “George!”

    Sure enough the guy who looked like a too-thin George’s head snapped around and looked right at me.

    I paused, and then said, “Hey George, Its Coyle – John Coyle – how are you?” I was 2 feet away traveling 16mph on a bumpy climb, leaning out the window of the rental car.

    He too paused, and then smiled and said calmly, “Hey John – long time. How are you?” and then offered his sweaty gloved hand through the window. I would be lying if I didn’t say I suddenly felt incredibly lucky.

    We chatted a bit and then he said, “Why don’t you wait for us at the top and we can talk more?”

    George Hincapie on the top of Els Angeles, Girona, Spain

    Little did I know at the time that this was one of the main Cat 1 climbs of the coming ‘Volta a Catalunya’ (the third oldest stage race after the Tour de France and Giro de Italia) starting only 2 days hence that was to serve as George’s primary prep for the Tour de France. (George was second in the prologue time trial, generating and average 565 watts for 4 ½ minutes)

    We sped up the mountain and waited for them at the top. As it turned out it, the other 3 riders were George’s key teammates on the High Road Team – Michael Barry (whose name we’d seen on the road along with Hincapie several times), Michael Rodgers, and another teammate.           .

    Hincapie and Barry hammered into view first, followed several minutes by his other teammates. George and I talked a little bit about old times, and Jeff and Michael talked about local rides, and then eventually if was time for those guys to head back to town. George offered, “how about coffee around 6pm in town? I have to pick my daughter in about an hour, but after that I’ll be free.” It was 4pm.Michael Barry & Jeff Huff

    Jeff programmed his local cell number and we agreed to call, but I knew we wouldn’t be back in that time frame. Meanwhile my mind registered the height and weight of this key professional: 6’ 3”, and 165 lbs. “I have to lose a few pounds before the tour” George had said.  At 5’ 11 and 188 lbs, I suddenly comprehended, briefly, the whole supermodel anorexia thing…George Hincapie & John Coyle, Girona, Spain May 2008

    Back down we went and parked at the beautiful little town of Monelles and then proceeded to make another route to the Med – another climb and descent, plummeting all the way to the sea. 6pm on day 3 of the 4 days and in Palamos we finally bought a map – only to confirm our suspicion that there was no road up the coast and that we’d have to spend time on a highway to head north to the next route back to Monelles, so we agreed to just return the same way and spend some more time in the next valley over to complete our mileage for the day.

    Just before re-engaging the climb, we found another wine store and purchased the same local vintage we had enjoyed the day before. This time Jeff put it in his rear pocket and joked, “boy it would suck to crash and land on this!”

    Predictions are great, but they can be dangerous too…

    Up and over we climbed and then back down the other side. We had finished the final downhill and were entering the mildly descending flats to the valley when all hell broke loose.

    Jeff was talking about his power meter and how he could, out of the saddle, hit a certain wattage threshold with a consistent pedal stroke and hold it. He chose to demonstrate on a long straight, slightly downhill section of the smooth narrow road.

    I watched as he upped his gearing and then accelerated, out of the saddle, to the right of me, taking the speed, in three or full power rotations, from 22mph to 30 mph.

    Instinctively I swung behind him to capture the draft, and it was just as I entered the eddies of air his body had created when World War III started. His bike just exploded – one second and he was cranking straight forward, accelerating, and in the next, his legs skipped a beat, his bike endoed, and then suddenly he was at right angles to my path skittering sideways with the sound of a train wreck before launching up and over, performing a perfect summersault, landing flat on his back and then tumbling over and over.

    In his great book, “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell calls attention to the ability of experienced technicians in their field of expertise to  “thin slice” – that is – to process or shunt a great deal of high speed information past the normal rational processing and come to informed and wise courses of action. In essence, ‘thin slicing’ is the ability to raise the ‘frames per second’ of your mental camera and in the same vein, to ‘slow down time’.

    Just as Jeff passed me, time entered a new warp. I watched as his right leg, poised for a massive hammer stroke, suddenly ‘missed’ and then suddenly it was firing straight down and his left was lifting up and his weight was transferring forward while his whole body entered a slightly counterclockwise rotation to the right, pivoting forward on that front wheel – a sideways endo..

    He rotated right before the rear tire reconnected with the grippy tarmac and that’s when all the noise – the shrieking, shrilling, vibrating of a composite carbon shell running through a grinder hit my ears.

    In the next moments Jeff ceased to be my friend or someone I knew – he became an obstacle in my path and I threw my bike forward and locked up my brakes, fully expecting his body to be my next piece of road.

    As his rear tire caught to the right and skittered, suddenly the rotational inertia began and he flipped up and over his right shoulder, performing a neat flip, his abandoned bike flying cover just above his rotating body as he hit the pavement directly, neatly, dead center and flat on his back, and directly on the wine bottle tucked neatly in his back pocket… exactly as predicted.

    The next moments after predictable - the tumbling after the crash, Jeff’s body going end over end down the road and settling against the guardrail as I braked hard, and narrowly avoided running down both Jeff and his bike. A long bloody streak of red wine – or was it blood? – marking the disaster.

    Most memorable of all during this 0.25 seconds of noise and visual chaos was a certain totally out-of-place sound. Just as his bike went sideways and caused him to flip, just after he rose and then fell landing squarely on his back from a height of 4 or 5 feet, just as his back, the bottle of wine, and the pavement formed a sandwich, I heard a sound…Opening a bottle of wine with your back

    The sound, and the mechanism to follow, will never fully be understood, but what Jeff and I both distinctly heard just as he impacted the pavement was a “thwock” - much like someone opening a champagne bottle.

    After skidding to a stop I circled back quickly to assess the damage. With visions of half a wine bottle extruded from his spine, we were amazed to find that the final effects of the crash were bruises, tiny cuts from the glass, and a broken chain – the source of the whole debacle. Jeff’s sprint had broken the chain and all else that occurred fell out of that event.


    Nonetheless, the find that started us laughing, and that caused a series of unstoppable guffaws during dinner, drinks, the car ride home after, and all during the next day, was the discovery of the intact top of the glass bottle in the ditch, and separately, neatly in the middle of the road, (see picture) the wine cork. The cork - lower left in the middle of the road

    Somehow, someway, Jeff’s somersault onto the wine bottle had created enough pressure to actually uncork the bottle before destroying it.

    Jeff has the unique designation of being the one and only human being on the planet who has opened a wine bottle at 30mph against the open road with his back.

     Sitting at dinner that evening, when the waiter brought the first bottle of wine, I couldn’t stop myself, “no, Sir,  don’t open it… Jeff can do that… with his back!” and then I broke up and the laughing started again.

    We decided to eat at the same wine bar from the night before and proceeded to order an incredible sampler of local cheeses –  several brie’s and goat cheeses, and a few other ‘moldy’ types – gorgonzola and blue cheese.

    These were accompanied by the moist aroma and taste of fresh breads and a rich red  “Javelina” wine. We gorged ourselves and discussed the day, fully alive and in the moment. For the next two hours, there was no yesterday and no tomorrow – only the present of the last few hours of suffering and joy, the feast and famine, desert and rich fields of the low flying experience of the cyclist. We toasted to ‘really living’ and to our families and jobs that allowed us this respite from the day to day of the working world.

    Girona, Spain

    I also showed Manolo the pictures with George Hincapie and Michael Barry and he was suitably impressed. We finally headed back to the hotel. One more day to go, one more story…

    Day 4 (“Like riding the tour”): Saturday, May 16 – the finale’ :Santa Coloma De Farners to Sant Hilari Sacalm, then Girona to Peratellada, roundtrip.  


    We dragged out lunch of seafood and fresh bread and after hoping for a clearing, finally threw in the towel and headed back down the mountain around 2pm slogging through a cold drizzle and roostertails of frigid water that caused shivers to run down our spines. It was difficult to separate the vibrations from our brakes and the rough road from the violent shivers running through my forearms. Farther below, the rain stopped and the roads began to dry.

    Finally, we reached the bottom and returned to the hotel where we packed up all our things and put them into a storage room in prep for ride 2 of the day.

    We returned to our parking spot at the base of Els Angeles and set out again under brightening skies – up, and over the climb and on through several towns to Peratellada where we had a bocadillo (sandwich) and a glass of wine. Village restaurant


    Finally, it was time to return. Legs were tired, hearts struggled to warm up and keep the blood flowing. But we again entered that special zone of golden light, still air, and rising roads that perfectly caricatured our days in spain. We climbed.

    Riding in Spain


    This time though, it was not with fresh legs and a naïve innocence to the views around us. This time, as we discovered later, we both felt like we had begun to understand what it was like to be a professional bike racer. Slightly numb all over from the long days, legs operating on a disciplined autopilot and that set to the jaw: “have to survive this climb.” We worked hard, though our pace was no faster than two days prior, and in that discipline and rhythm and suffering there was its own joy.

    Fields in Spain


    I can, I will, I do: pedal.

    This discipline, really, was nothing new to Jeff – nor myself. Jeff is a former sub 2:30 marathon runner, ex U.S. military. Oddly similarly, I spent many years training in ice rinks.

    Each pedal stroke required a sometimes laborious synchronizing of elements – legs, feet, pedals, bars – but more often it was just progress – higher, faster, stronger – the Olympic motto all over again.

    It was only 5K and 1200 feet of climbing, but it was rated a Category 1 climb for the Tour de Catalunya, and it was with a feeling of pride that we mounted and conquered that hill after 5000 feet of climbing already that day.

    We reached to top, slapped a high five, and then delved into the deep shadows of the descent – one last time to test our tires and mettle against the curves and pines of Els Angeles.

    We caught a car. I thought about passing. The car decided it wanted to race, and so the squealing of tires began around the corners, and the accelerations on the straightaways, puffs of exhaust marking the driver’s aggressive slinging through his gears as he tried to lose us.

    We sprinted the straightaways, and leaned ever harder into the switchbacks, losing ground on the straights, but gaining it all back on the curves. It was a game of cat and mouse and for once we were the cat and at the end we declared victory when we pulled within 1 meter of the rear bumper of the car around the final switchback before he roared away in a puff of exhaust and road dust on the flattening finish.


     This was really it. 6200 vertical feet. Rain, sun, cold, heat, climbs, descents, - we’d experienced it all – but we still had dinner and a drive to Barcelona, and a few hours sleep before our flights the next day.

    We returned to our wine bar and it took a while for my thoughts to escape the stony disciplined trap my mind had created in order for my body to get over that hill. We sat together but distant – both of us with a glazed look and a sense of numbness from the massive efforts of the day.

    Finally I said, “that was hard.” 

    “Yeah,” Jeff said.

    And in those mundane phrases all was acknowledged and understood – the effort, discipline, suffering, and joy of the day were all melded into two human beings acknowledging the struggles of each other. We toasted and ate and ate some more and drank some wine.

    wine and cheese

    Then Manolo brought a bottle of champagne and was about to open it. But I looked at Jeff and said simply,

    “No wait – Jeff can do that – just lay it here on the floor in front of him…”