Walden Race Rule #1: Get on a wheel!

Race Rule #1: Walden says: “Get on a wheel!”  A variation: "Close the gap!"

Translation: Always, (always!) “Be in the draft.” (unless trying to break away, or trying to win the final few meters of the sprint).

Like all of Walden’s pithy phrases, there can be an entire art and science to discover the full meaning behind the words.  

The Science: In this case, the physics of the equation are cut and dry – proper drafting saves up to 30% of the energy expended by another rider pedaling the same speed without drafting. This scientific fact succinctly explains the sole reason I am able to be a bike racer. If I can get my aerobic capacity to be only as much as 70% of the strongest riders, then I can finish the race… and if I can finish the race – get within 7 seconds of the finish line -  then I have a good shot at winning – it is simple as that.  

Turning the phrase differently, one might say that virtually every person in the race is better than me – by the conventional athletic standard of endurance anyway. 

The Art: The science ends with the math, and the art begins with questions like “paint me a picture of the draft – where is it? How can you conserve the most energy? Does that require physical danger due to proximity?” Due to my weak aerobic capacity (my parents blame it on my Cesaerian birth – no squeeze of life to fully expand my lungs) I’ve been focused on finding the draft - or “wheelsucking” as it is commonly referred to by those with the luxury of not requiring this aid -  for 30 years now. 

Of my limited strengths, wheelsucking is my strongest. I intuitively know where the draft is – to the point where, on a training ride with a friend, if I “tune out” for a few seconds, I will often find myself suddenly “riding the hip” in a cross wind, and find my friend staring at me crossly as I absorb the energy that they have transferred to the air. 

Getting on a wheel is the first step to finding the draft. However, depending on the shape of the rider, the angle of the wind, and the relationship of other riders, the most efficient draft may well be found to the left, right, or even somewhat back from the wheel in front of you.  I don’t know the physics behind it, but some winds allow for efficient drafting and in a paceline or “peleton” of riders you may find rest periods of “riding the wheel” that are a true respite from the efforts of the race, where heart rates can drop 25 beats per minute.  Other “airs” seem to suggest a more agile wind that resists the rider’s impetus in front of you and still manages to block your path. In these cases, you may only find a 10 beat per minute savings while drafting in a straight line pace line. I hate air like this… 

Then there is “pack drafting” which has its own dynamics – especially on a criterium course, and especially on one in town where the wind can swirl and eddy from different directions between each cross street, with tall buildings deflecting the overall currents.  Over the last season, I’ve tried to retrieve my intuitive and instinctual (blink) reactions to drafting into logical understanding with some limited success. What I’ve been able to observe:  

1)       Generally speaking “turbulence” or “buffeting” against your chest and arms is an explicit sign that you are in the draft – try to center that visceral feel on your sternum.

2)       In large packs, the single best draft is in the “rear triangle” – near the back, but still connected to the 3 or 4 abreast portion of the pack. Sometimes I’ll find the perfect position: 3 riders in front, then two slightly forward left and right, and then I anchor between them with my front wheel parallel with their rear wheels. This is the ultimate wind shade and has allowed me to pass through 30, 40, even 50 miles of a criterium conserving energy the whole way. (See chart below – “perfect drafting”) “perfect drafting” in blue.. 3)       The draft changes in the corners –  in dead still air, the draft will be slightly outside the wheel in front of you, as the instantaneous velocity of the riders in front of you is in a vector toward the outside of the turn – e.g. ride outside the rider in front of you on corners when the air is still.

4)       Learn to ride close to the wheel. (particularly when the pack is strung out) I tend to ride about 6 – 8 inches from the wheel when I’m not miserably suffering, and half that distance when I am suffering. Each inch closer gives another percentage of energy savings (and some increased risk.) Practices at the track with Walden were invaluable in learning this skill – riding 2 inches from the wheel in front of you traveling 25 mph on a bike with no brakes helps you to learn spacial relationships on the bike quickly. 

5)       Learn to estimate proximity without looking at the wheel in front of you. Walden would yell “Don’t look at the tire in front of you – Look Ahead!” as, ultimately, the reactions of the rider in front of you were largely dependent, and amplified by the motions 2, 3 or more riders ahead.  

Sure - you can work on your strength and aerobic base and improve them by 10% if you are out of shape or 5% if you are in shape, or 1% if you are world class... or you can, with a bit of focus and practice, save 1% or 2% or 5% by adjusting your 'wind shade'. I'm constantly amazed (and perplexed) by scene after scene of Tour De France riders cruising along off a wheel. Sure - they are strong enough to do it (which is probably why they never learned it really well) but imagine the energy they are squandering that could be better saved to help a teammate, make a breakaway, or climb a hill...

2006 Race Report #13: Downer's Grove Nationals: 7 seconds to remember...

Race Report – August 19, 2006 – Downers Grove “National Championships” Race 1 – Masters Championships 4:00pm. 45 minutes timed, 80 degrees   Downers’ Grove is a suburb Southwest of Chicago that has a lot in common with other surbuban railway commuter towns in Illinois – a small brick “old town” revised into cafes and shops, with a central garter of the railway anchoring the community. I’ve been coming here on and off since the mid 80’s and have had a long streak of excellent results. I’ve probably raced here 10 times in various categories (junior, cat 3, masters) and have finished in the top 5 every time (except last year’s crash), and have won 2 or 3 times. 

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

Over the last decade the race has turned into a Mecca of sorts for Criterium racers, featuring the U.S. Pro and Elite championships for the last 8 years or so, and various other category nationals on alternating years. The difficulty of the course, and timing of the event near the end of the racing season gives it panache in the eyes of the domestic cycling crowd and attracts a top quality international set that come over with their sights set on the prize list. The shortness of the races (about 45 minutes for Masters) adds a special element of panic to the large peletons and the pace is always blisteringly fast. 

The day after my 38th birthday I headed down from Madison in the RV and spent a brief period at my friend Matt’s house in St. Charles before it was time to head over to the course for the first of (hopefully) two races. The first race on tap was the Masters race – all the top riders in the country over 30 years old (as a reference, Lance won the Tour de France 3 times over the age of 30…) This was to be followed by the Professional/Amateur combined race at 6:30pm. As it turns out, the Pro/Am race was full, over 200 riders had registered, with another 50 on the wait list, so all my eggs were in the Master’s 30+ event – still a significant annual race with the usual roster of top riders. 

We arrived, amazingly with almost an hour to spare, but it took a while to park. Still, I had a little time to register and warm-up. I was amazed to find that my race number was already #129 – and when we eventually lined up to start the event, there were over 150 riders competing on this overcast Saturday afternoon. I managed to do a lot of the stupid things I usually do – like  

  1. Forgetting my wallet when going to register and needing to return all the way to the RV to get it.
  2. Registering and then leaving my race number and pins on the counter at the registration desk, returning all the way to the far side of the course (about 2 miles) to the RV and then realizing that I didn’t have my race number…
  3. Riding back to registration again to get my race number, and then starting back to the RV to get ready only to have
  4. …A flat tire on the way, requiring a stop at the wheel pit for a quick change.

 By the time I actually finished preparing at the RV I only had 10 minutes for a traditional warm-up. Clearly my pre-race planning sucks… Or, the other hand, my pre-race shenanigans may create enough adrenaline to serve as a warm-up… I got in a quick ride and then squeezed myself into the second row on the start line, marveling at the tight mass of bikes and bodies that stretched back 20 or more rows behind me. I was glad to be up front on this tight course. The Chief referee – Heidi Mingus - sends us on our way with the whistle and the pace starts rather mildly, easing up the hill and then accelerating down the corners on the backstretch. 

Why, exactly, do I race? 

It is a convoluted thought/response really. I race because… well, I train for it.   I train for it (racing) because otherwise training would seem devoid of purpose: each feeds the other. On a deeper level I think I need training because it provides me singular clarity of thought, action, and reward – unlike the relatively complicated worlds of work, and even family.  In the simple cause-and-effect of the sporting world, effort - for the most part - becomes results. No politics, no moods, no clients or customers – just effort, skill, ability, and results.

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

Here are my prints: the blurred outline of my front tire as my head drops and I roar past the finish line – when all sound and motion returns to my senses. The mottled outline of my thighs and shins flinty with the residue of the road and gleaming with the streaking trails of tiny emerging water droplets as I coast around the first turn and congratulate fellow riders. Salt streaked sunglasses glinting against the blue skies and white clouds as my heart-rate returns to earth.   

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

I love getting back to the finish stretch and finding that friendly face - an old friend, or my family, my daughter’s eyes lighting up as I maneuver to the side to stop by her side. And lately at Downer’s the last couple of years my friend Matt – with his camera. I love immediately reliving and relaying the stories of the race.

Standing, shiny in the sun, facing the course, with the announcer’s voice in the distance, and the occasional inquisitive face or congratulatory interlude as you relate the final moments, and (hopefully) that secret ingredient that led to success to your “fans”. 

By now I know this course and with the results this season I have some confidence about my abilities. Nonetheless it is hard to forget the painful lessons from last year’s finish where I ended up in a brutal crash on the last corner and crossed the finish with the broken pieces of my bike over my shoulder, and the bloody meat of my shoulder and ass hanging out for all to see as I walked across the start finish. Not to mention last week’s debacle in Elk Grove. In this Masters race, despite the famous names and high speeds, I continue to build a fortress of confidence against the vagaries of the race.  

And so I settle in – staying in the “head” of the peloton – the upper 20 riders in the race. Behind us, the long 150 rider pack curves sinuously around the bends into the distance, riders safely 2 and 3 abreast, gracefully winding their way around the course, diminishing to the narrow tail of single file stragglers following over ¼ mile back. As always the questions early on are practical, “am I suffering?” Usually, “yes”.  Next question – “how bad?” 

If the answer indicates a potential withdrawal from the race, then my entire existence becomes one of preservation – maximizing the efficiency effects from drafting, pedaling through corners, and generally being as efficient (lazy) as possible. Not far distant are the other answers “suffering medium”, “lightly suffering” or the rare “feeling good.” In this case, I am suffering only mildly and bordering on feeling good. So I move around the pack testing out various efficiency strategies. Nonetheless I am always “on a wheel” – meaning I always stay in the draft of the rider in front of me. 

Race Rule #1: Walden says: “Get on a wheel!” 

Translation – always, (always!) “Be in the draft.” (unless trying to break away, or trying to win the final few meters of the sprint).

Like all of Walden’s pithy phrases, there can be an entire art and science to discover the full meaning behind the words.  

The Science: In this case, the physics of the equation are cut and dry – proper drafting saves up to 30% of the energy expended by another rider pedaling the same speed without drafting. This scientific fact succinctly explains the sole reason I am able to be a bike racer. If I can get my aerobic capacity to be only as much as 70% of the strongest riders, then I can finish the race… and if I can finish the race – get within 7 seconds of the finish line -  then I have a good shot at winning – it is simple as that.  

Turning the phrase differently, one might say that virtually every person in the race is better than me – by the conventional athletic standard of endurance anyway. 

The Art: The science ends with the math, and the art begins with questions like “paint me a picture of the draft – where is it? How can you conserve the most energy? Does that require physical danger due to proximity?” Due to my weak aerobic capacity (my parents blame it on my Cesaerian birth – no squeeze of life to fully expand my lungs) I’ve been focused on finding the draft - or “wheelsucking” as it is commonly referred to by those with the luxury of not requiring this aid -  for 30 years now. Of my limited strengths, wheelsucking is my strongest. I intuitively know where the draft is – to the point where, on a training ride with a friend, if I “tune out” for a few seconds, I will often find myself suddenly “riding the hip” in a cross wind, and find my friend staring at me crossly as I absorb the energy that they have transferred to the air. 

Getting on a wheel is the first step to finding the draft. However, depending on the shape of the rider, the angle of the wind, and the relationship of other riders, the most efficient draft may well be found to the left, right, or even somewhat back from the wheel in front of you.  I don’t know the physics behind it, but some winds allow for efficient drafting and in a paceline or “peleton” of riders you may find rest periods of “riding the wheel” that are a true respite from the efforts of the race, where heart rates can drop 25 beats per minute.  Other “airs” seem to suggest a more agile wind that resists the rider’s impetus in front of you and still manages to block your path. In these cases, you may only find a 10 beat per minute savings while drafting in a straight line pace line. I hate air like this… 

Then there is “pack drafting” which has its own dynamics – especially on a criterium course, and especially on one in town where the wind can swirl and eddy from different directions between each cross street, with tall buildings deflecting the overall currents.  Over the last season, I’ve tried to retrieve my intuitive and instinctual (blink) reactions to drafting into logical understanding with some limited success. What I’ve been able to observe:  

1)       Generally speaking “turbulence” or “buffeting” against your chest and arms is an explicit sign that you are in the draft – try to center that visceral feel on your sternum.

2)       In large packs, the single best draft is in the “rear triangle” – near the back, but still connected to the 3 or 4 abreast portion of the pack. Sometimes I’ll find the perfect position: 3 riders in front, then two slightly forward left and right, and then I anchor between them with my front wheel parallel with their rear wheels. This is the ultimate wind shade and has allowed me to pass through 30, 40, even 50 miles of a criterium conserving energy the whole way. (See chart below – “perfect drafting”) “perfect drafting” in blue..

Wind direction

                  3)       The draft changes in the corners –  in dead still air, the draft will be slightly outside the wheel in front of you, as the instantaneous velocity of the riders in front of you is in a vector toward the outside of the turn – e.g. ride outside the rider in front of you on corners when the air is still.

4)       Learn to ride close to the wheel. (particularly when the pack is strung out) I tend to ride about 6 – 8 inches from the wheel when I’m not miserably suffering, and half that distance when I am suffering. Each inch closer gives another percentage of energy savings (and some increased risk.) Practices at the track with Walden were invaluable in learning this skill – riding 2 inches from the wheel in front of you traveling 25 mph on a bike with no brakes helps you to learn spacial relationships on the bike quickly. 5)       Learn to estimate proximity without looking at the wheel in front of you. Walden would yell “Don’t look at the tire in front of you – Look Ahead!” as, ultimately, the reactions of the rider in front of you were largely dependent, and amplified by the motions 2, 3 or more riders ahead.  

On lap four, as we head up the hill, my water bottle suddenly bounces out of its holder, lands neatly on the right side of my frame on the rear triangle, and proceeds to cleverly rotate, align, and insert its tapered nozzle between my chain, the front derailleur, and the front chainring in one swift motion.  A millisecond later and I powerfully pedal the narrowed neck of the plastic right into my derailleur, losing my chain, and bending the front derailleur like so much tin. As we reach the steepest part of the hill, I can’t pedal – my chain is completely knotted around my derailleur and crank and I decelerate quickly, maintaining just enough inertia to get over the incline and coast down the backside of the hill. Breaking wide of the pack on the downhill section, I find an opportunity to put the chain back on with my fingers, but when I pedal, it is with the sound of a chainsaw – the bent derailleur playing the part of the tree.

Fortunately the wheel pit is just at the bottom of the hill and I coast my way in under the awning to get my bike repaired. With an extended hiss, the long pack slithers by and I dismount and put my bike in the hands of the mechanics for the second time that day. 

Now keep in mind – the guys in the wheel pit had fixed a flat just 20 minutes prior, and just 6 days earlier – on their last working day, they had helped to fix my rear wheel from the crash at Elk Grove. I was becoming a “repeat customer” which was not necessarily a good thing. But with good humor they say, “back again?” and take care of me, re-aligning my derailleur and then holding my bike up and prepping me for “re-entry” into the pack after the “free lap” or allowance for a “mechanical” which will allow me to rejoin the race without penalty. 

After the fix, I lined up all alone on the inside of the downhill turn in prep for re-entry and when the mechanic finally lets go of my seat near the tail of the pack, I sprint from a dead stop to try and tag onto the rear of the peleton. 

Race Rule #2: Walden says: “Shift down at the bottom of the hill, Shift up before the top!” Translation – always, (always!) “be in the right gear.” Another shouted Waldenism full of meaning.  

The Science:

1) shifting under massive torque results in mechanical failures (translation – shifting while pedaling hard may result in dropping, breaking or tangling your chain)

2) The human body is most efficient for certain efforts at a certain RPM. Generally speaking, maximal acceleration and power output comes from high RPM’s (120Rpm+), and efficiency comes from lower (but consistent) RPM’s (70 – 100 Rpm’s). 

The Art: Always being the right gear means knowing the demands of the race at any given time. Uphills require acceleration of mass up the hill – hence “shift down” (smaller gear, higher rpm). Downhills are a chance for efficiency and rest – hence “shift up” (bigger gear, slower rpm) – not to mention the rotational inertia of two muscle laden legs weighing 70+ pounds, when slowing from 150Rpms to 70 Rpms provides extra inertia to the pedals without an extra ounce of energy.

Then there is the rest of the race… which follows similar patterns. 

1)       Always downshift prior to a short hill – into your small chainring if required – BEFORE applying torque

2)       Always upshift right before the top of the hill (not when heading down) – use that rotational energy and the efficiencies of that motion to start recovering early

(subtle note – I always time my downshifting for when my left leg is nearing the top of its stroke, and my upshifting (larger gear) for when my right leg is nearing the top of the stroke) I didn’t even realize the physics of it, but this assures that during the maximal torque associated with each down cycle of the pedal stroke, the flex from the torque on the crank arm aligns with the direction you want the chain to be pulled.

3)       Always downshift prior to corners (and pedal once to make sure you are in gear) I think more “last corner” crashes are due to this failure (shifting midway through the corner, then cranking hard, skipping a gear, causing slippage) than any other maneuverings

4)       In the final laps of the race, always ride in a smaller gear. Taking advantage of opportunities to move up without spending time “in the wind” requires instant accelerations to “fill the gaps”. In the last few laps of any given criterium, I generally ride between 120 – 130 rpms, and ride with both hands clenching the brakes – to take advantage of internal opportunities to move up in the draft, while at the same time using my brakes to keep safe.  

With significant effort I get back up to speed and rejoin the pack’s downhill pace of 35mph after fixing my mechanical problem, and reconnecting near the tail in about 140th place. After collecting myself briefly on the remainder of the downhill, I resolve to get back up front – and, in just over a lap I manage to make my way past over 130 riders and return back into the top 10.  Every year I’m astounded by the idiots that don’t shift down prior to the hill and clog the main artery going up – and then subsequently find themselves struggling in a gigantic gear, dropping their chain or grinding their gears while trying to shift under power going up the hill. Conversely, I find that I can pick up 10, 20, or more positions each time up the incline – just by shifting correctly. And these are the best riders in the country… 

I pass at least 50 riders on the hill with relatively little effort, veering to the outside of the backward flow of riders and turbulence going up the hill, listening with amusement to grinding gears, tires locking up, and frustrated cries from the center of the pack even as I spin my way easily in a low gear accelerating quickly to the top and then quietly click back into my large chainring, shifting up and turning that rotational inertia into power for the downhill – again I slingshot forward past the other riders.  

Flashback: 1985, Waterford Hills Speedway, Waterford Michigan. It’s yet another hot, humid Thursday afternoon practice with the Wolverine Sports Club, and I’m at the Speedway – a 2+ mile asphalt car racing track in the NW suburbs of Detroit. 

Mike Walden, as always, is there, and is standing at the top of the short (35 ft vertical or so) hill mid-way through the course, and has, as usual, few words to say, but he’s shouting them and shouting them over and over. “Shift down at the bottom of the hill, Shift Up before the top!”… “Shift down at the bottom of the hill! Shift before the top!”  I get distracted and spin all the way over the top… “Dammit Coyle – what the hell are you doing?!” (He said this a lot.) 

Mike is older now – in fact walking with a cane, but still wearing the big glasses, mustache, and the beret that defined his presence in my life over the last 8 years. He had had some health problems and subsequently had lost weight – was even riding again – on beater bike that he had with him that day. At one point he got on his bike at the top of the hill even as we were still practicing, and began to coast down the incline, but on the way he lost control and ended up heading straight down on the grass rather than the pavement – on the steepest section of the hill no less. 

I can still remember seeing him bumping down the grassy knoll, bouncing off the seat and then falling without grace at the bottom, flopping into the deep grass and disappearing. Our peleton was just turning the corner to head up the same hill, and we all saw it happen.  Pitifully we all laughed heartily at this rough man finally getting some of his own and a few catcalls arced out even as he got up and dusted himself off. I’m sure I laughed, and who knows, maybe I even yelled something.  Mike did not acknowledge our calls or blink or blush, though I did then, and I am now.

Shortly thereafter began that same voice: “Shift down at the bottom of the hill, Shift up before the top!” and so it went – round and round and round.  21 years later, and I now realize that the hill at Downers Grove is identical in length and steepness to that of Waterford… 

The race is very short to begin with, and now we have already eaten 1/3 of the total distance. I am bound and determined to be in a breakaway should one occur, and I continue to maintain my position in the lead of the pack. However over the successive laps, no escapes of note occur and the race proceeds at a fast, but predictable tempo until the final 2 laps.  As we cross the finish line, the lap counter flips to read “2”. As the pack passes the crowds at the announcer’s booth it seems as though the vertical metal ribs of the barriers strain with our passing, spectators removing their hands from the rails and cautioning their neighbors to back up even as they cheer, hands in the air. 

It is at this point that the nature and feel of a criterium bike race often changes: when the pull of repeated breakaway attempts are suddenly replaced by the stagnation, lethargy and swelling tension that the looming yet still-distant finish brings. Prior to this change the race possessed the graceful moves of a flock of geese: loosely organized gliding movements with the occasional re-organization within the pack. The leadership provided by the pacesetters up front provided those of us following the ability to see and predict a path through corners, to move up or back, to sprint ahead if so desired.

However, now the pack begins to pulse slowly forward like an overfed reptile straining within its skin: slowed and bulging, the formerly tapered profile of the lithe serpent suddenly distended and sluggish.  For the next 2 minutes – an entire lap, the lump goes undigested – except for the scraping of the sides by the corners of the course. Scales of riders, or even pacelines of skin are peeled back by the rough edges and sloughed off for the medics to attend to. 

In this new mode, visibility for the racer vanishes - visibility of the road, the corners – visibility of everything but the bodies in front of us. We can’t see a corner coming – rather we “read the tea leaves” or more accurately the “Brownian motion” of the suddenly swaying jerseys in front of us that flow suddenly to the left and right and then, as quickly begin to lean – forcing us to follow – and then just as suddenly we find ourselves straightening back up. Bumps? Potholes? Curbs? Also blocked by bodies: the racer “sees” only by reading the Braille of the helmets ahead. It is not unlike one of those indoor rollercoasters –  it is dark, you are strapped into the machine, and you can’t tell where you are going - the only predictor of your uncertain path is bobbing, waving necks and heads in front of you as they weave left and right, and then disappear screaming…. 

The feeling of doom is inescapable and even as the compressing mass twitches, the beast regurgitates some unwilling prey - riders shooting out the front of the maw. With a tongue-like chase from the pack these riders are captured and are then quickly re-absorbed. Elbows like whiskers we continue our slow progress, thrusting our angular protrusions wider to “feel” our way and protect our softer parts, senses completely focused for any indications of progress or danger. 

These minutes are the “moment of truth” in Criterium racing. Riders spend their entire careers, and endless hours at the head of the pack trying to separate themselves from this very moment – the moment where you lose control of your bike, can’t steer, can’t see, can’t stop, and can’t pedal your way out. For the next 2 ½ minutes, power, speed, and endurance fail to matter, and courage, skill, and luck are the primary determinants of the race outcome, with courage the single most important. For some extremely talented endurance athletes, these are the moments where they suddenly “give up,” drifting to the back. “Not worth it,” they say.  “I didn’t want to lose all my skin just to mix it up with the crazies up front,” say others.  

It makes sense if you have enough of an aerobic motor to get away in breakaways in the 50% of races that have them. However, in my mind the true competitor never lets a finish get away – a Lance Armstrong, a George Hincappie – these guys always race to win and if necessary would put themselves right into the field sprint mix. For me? I have no choice. This is my lot in life. I too hate being in these moments, perhaps less than some though. However, I do love watching them as a spectator. Like a gigantic ballet with over 100 participants, the racers stack neatly coming into the corners, and then, in syncopated unison, tilt right in liquid slow motion, and then reverse the angle in the same perfectly timed change of alignment coming out of the corner – that is, until the first shudder of a wheel touching wheel, or a u-shaped handlebar looping another, and then suddenly the whole choreographed works falls apart – a sudden bobble -  the silent heat and smell of brakes and then the sea of riders divides, the ripples of the impending catastrophe moving deadly, silent and quicker than road speed - like a tsunami racing outward, the wave of trepidation washes in concentric circles away from the incident, the true affects of its power observed in the wreckage piling on the shores of the road – clattering against the barriers,  flipping over curbs, or pinned by the barriers -  bodies and bikes stacking on top of each other like so much flotsam and jetsam. 

Why else do all the spectators stand by the corners during the race? 

The fear during these laps is palpable – the damp hush inside the pack defying and absorbing the crowd’s reverent and escalating exhortations. With 2 laps to go, the peleton squeezes through the finish tunnel, the parabolic lump pressing the outer scales of the barriers and clapping hands of the crowd, while inside, inert and suffocating, we racers stifle in a paralysis of pressure. 

With 2 laps to go at Downer’s Grove, I am surrounded, blind. I am bumping and bruising in the center of the “asshole zone” during the tensest moments of the race. As we enter turn 1 – a metallic clanging like an ugly xylophone is heard at the barriers as bodies and bikes of the outermost layer stop themselves with a collapsed clavicle or a burning slide of skin across the sandpaper of the pavement.  Turn two and thank god the barriers are gone as a half dozen riders squirt out onto the grass and re-enter the pack going up the hill. The hill itself is a complete disaster, with a near dead stop half way up, riders piling into each layer from behind in slow motion, feet coming out of pedals, cleats skittering on the rough asphalt. I come to a near stop behind a crush of riders on the hill but manage to squeeze past the masses still detangling on the downhill, staying in the top 15.

The downhill sections breed their own disasters with multiple shake-ups and a couple explosive crashes echoing from the glass windows of the shops lining the course. And so we continue with repeated touch and go moments of sprinting, locking up the brakes, bumping, overlapping of wheels, hitting the brakes again, and then sprinting again, avoiding each of the entanglements and bodies bumping ahead of me and beside me until I finally re-enter the finish straightaway with 1 lap to go.  

With one lap to go - digestion begins and the constriction holding back the smooth passage of the serpent begins to give way. Despite the near certain death faced by leading the pack with one lap to go, the pressure of the crowd and the noise and the barriers gets into the heads of certain riders, and with a last skeletal crack, they shoot out the mouth of the peleton like so much jelly…  

I’ve never understood this lemming-like rush to the front with one to go, but I’m always grateful, as it breaks the spine of the pack and shortly thereafter the riders re-align into a more traditional paceline, allowing passing, and the proper positioning for the final sprint to the line. 

As we pass the announcer’s booth the noise and roaring of the crowd the ringing of the bell and the shouting of the announcer combine to break the will of the animal and a jet of riders flies zinging out the front of the pack – uphill at over 30 mph. I pause and then follow in about 20th place, knowing that the hill will digest this initial vomit and that my opportunity to win will come from staying protected until well into the downhill section of the course.  

True to form, these addled lemmings give up the ghost on the uphill portion of the course, and the pack, myself included, swarms around them and I find myself suddenly coasting into first place entering the downhill – “too much effort” I chide myself – “settle in!” So I swing my bike to the far right and coast… and I wait…and for a moment, nothing happens. Then, finally, the move – a rider, then 2, then 3, then 10 go flinging down the left and I swing back over accelerating hard, pushing myself onto a wheel and re-joining in about 11th place, making the right turn into the lower section of the eight corner course at 36 miles and hour, 3 corners to go. 

Now! Now! Now!  A loosening of positions up the inside near the 6th corner and I accelerate quickly and then brake to move up to 8th just prior to the next turn.  We lean hard and then straighten, humming down the remainder of descent prior to the last two corners. This is an extremely sensitive and fearful moment. We are heading downhill at over 40mph on an extremely wide avenue and about to enter a very narrow corner. The pack behind has the draft and the room to do all kinds of suicidal things – notably to go winging up the inside hoping to clear the front of the pack prior to the corner.  

Coming out of the previous corner I move up the inside to block the inside lane a little bit and hopefully reduce consideration for any such suicide moves. The speed, fortunately, stays high, nearly 40 mph and as we shoot down the wide open stretch, I drift back to the right finding an opening to move all the way to the far right curb.  We now have 450m or 25 seconds to go, and we are 100m or 6 seconds from the second-to-last-corner and

NOW! NOW! NOW! I put in a significant effort to move up two spots and slot in on the outside of two riders, braking quickly to even out my pace and entering the 7th corner full barrel in 6th place. Now all that remains is a short, narrow 150M straightaway into the final corner and then the slightly uphill 150m stretch to the finish.

I coast a little watching, watching, and as we move down this cramped stretch my senses reach out to feel the vibrations around me – any sense of a move from behind? No. Any reckless moves or last minute dives up the inside? No. So I guardedly keep my station in 6th for the first 50 meters and watch the unfolding, unfurling, churning movements of the five riders beginning their sprint in front of me. Then I find it – an emerging pattern: Yes - two riders separating and accelerating on the left… 

GO! GO! GO! I engage all my reserves for what is probably the most powerful effort of the race, and I accelerate around the left of 3 riders in front of me, diving up the inside and then veering back to the right just in time to slot into third place going into the last turn, pedaling hard until the angle of my trajectory stops my feet and I begin to lean…  

Our inertia carries us forward and left until we glide past the arch of the curb and the barriers holding in the crowds at the crosswalk and we finally break out onto that last shiny, gleaming stretch of hands and lungs and teeth and noise defining the rarified air of the finish stretch… As the three of us enter the last, off-camber turn of the race at a speed of over 28mph, our bodies began the tilt required to change our trajectories.

In the viscosity of time I watch the rider in first place lean hard left but his bike drifts wide towards the right barrier. In parallel, milliseconds behind him, rider #2 slants even farther and finds a path just inside of the lead rider.  Keeping with the choreography, I lay my bike over – hips in, shoulders low, tilting even farther – forgetting my crash of last year – and take my bike to the point of breaking contact with the pavement, rear tire skittering on the slightly disconnected joints of the concrete… Sideways on the road I take a path just inside the lead and second riders, and in so doing set up a “3-up sprint” drag race to the finish.  

It only takes about 7 seconds, these last 150 meters, but each one of these breaths, each one of these pedal strokes, each one of these glances, and each of one these minute corrections of the handlebars is 150 times more important than all the efforts of the prior 25 miles.  

Awareness is an ever changing lens: in the 2 second effort to move into third place, the world closes, and for that instant there is only my 2 wheels and the thrumming of my thighs and pedals to deliver the thrust required to bring my front wheel into position.  Then, for the following 2 seconds, as we began the lean into the final straightaway, for a moment, light, color, and sound returns to my senses, and for just an instant I can see the bright tunnel of color and light and hear the building roar of the crowd and mentally tap out the rhythm of the clapping flash of the white palm on my left before the world closes back down. And, finally it is that moment in time that bodies like mine were built for…

150 meters and 7 seconds to go…  

As our bikes leave the g-forces of the corner, our frames began to lift out of the precarious tilts put on by centripetal forces and changing velocities, and as we exit the final turn, our legs begin to churn with the ferocity born of anaerobic power and years of training.  

Sinews digging into shoes, cleats digging into titanium, titanium digging into carbon fiber, our powerful legs begin to deliver the kind of efforts saved for “fight or flight” death throe struggles of prey or predator in the wild. No need to breathe, no need to think, no thought of holding back - the rescue of the finish line was only 150, 140, 130 meters away. 

After a quick glimpse of the finish banner and the positions of my competitors, I put my head down and watched as the machinery of my legs began to deliver every single ounce of power available to my system down to my pedals. The mushroom swirls of my quadriceps bulging, the cords behind the knees extending, and the teardrop shapes of my calves plummeting downward only to quickly rise again. Not long after the corner the lead rider fades to the right and I find myself in a life or death struggle with rider number 2.  

As we began the slight incline into the finish, my thighs, hamstrings, and calves began to feel the incredible efforts of the prior 3 seconds, and I raise my body from the seat and pull myself into the pedals: hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders and abdominals compressing all my remaining reserves and all my passion into the circling crank arms driving the bike forward. 

Next to me my nemesis mirrors my actions and matches my elevation on his bike -  yet with each pedal stroke my front tire inches forward compared with his – 2 feet separating us, then 18 inches, 16 inches. Then the looming banner of the finish line begins weighing on me – but still – with 4 seconds, 3 seconds, and 2 seconds to go I am now within 12 inches, 8 inches, 4 inches of winning the race.   

Another second ticks by and I feel our bodies come parallel with each other. Into that last second, locked into the final 2 ½ rotations of the pedals that would decide the race while pedaling at 150 rpms I bend my head and give everything, absolutely everything I have…   …that is until just before the line… With 1/10 of a second to go, instincts take over, and I abandon my final pedal stroke to throw the full weight of my body downward and backward, my hamstrings and glutes just clearing my seat and almost touching my rear tire even as my forearms extend my handlebars to the tips of my fingers and the 16 lb carbon fiber bike shoots forward at least 8 inches propelled by the rapid rearward motion of my body mass.  

At that pivotal moment where my front tire rolls over the shiny white line of the finish, my body is a perfect sideways U – legs and arms and neck extended forward, collapsed over each other with my bike thrust well out from my frame. I remember thinking, “that was perfectly timed – it must be mine” even as I decompress and pull my body over top my bike and sit down. Time resumed, and the roar of the crowd suddenly rocked my consciousness like a concussion.

Rider #2, similarly bewildered sits up next to me and with our close proximity I offer a hand that is quickly met even as we continue to shoot forward at 35 mph, arms raised, and then part prior to entering the looming first turn. As we enter the corner, the announcer’s voice suddenly registers, “…and what an un-be-live-able finish! A knock-down, drag-out, drag-race to the line, both riders throwing their bikes and crossing the line within one inch of each other. We’ll have to wait for the photo-finish, but I believe it was number 113 that took home the victory!” 

I look over at my fellow finisher and note his number – 113, and slowly shake my head. “Did you get it?” I ask. “No idea” he says, “I had my head down all the way to the line and then threw my bike as far as my arms would let me.” It was then that I noted his height – clearly several inches taller than me… 

We finish the lap and I quickly find my little blond angel clapping at the finish, “You won papa! You won!” and I quickly suggest that maybe I was second. I am happy either way, but I’m still hoping for the “W”. 

30 minutes later relaxing and chatting on the sidelines I wander over to the stage to receive the results. Chief referee Heidi confirms it – “Sorry John - he got you by about an inch.” With a smile and a shrug I head back to play with my daughter in the sun, relaxing with the laurels and medal for second place at the Downer’s Grove Nationals.