2008 Race Report #15: Evanston Pro Race

Race Report #15: Superweek Stage 12, Evanston, IL, Sunday, July 20. Category: Pro 1/2.  Weather: 87 degrees, light winds. Course: flat, 0.8 miles/lap, 6 corners, Distance, 70 laps, 100 kilometers. Average speed 30.4 mph, Average pulse 181.

 

I had intended to fire up the RV about a week before our annual trek up north, but got busy and of course ended up doing it the night before. I was pleasantly surprised that it started immediately: that is, immediately after about 45 minutes of sweating and cursing as I lay wedged underneath the front end of the vehicle, with a cement parking block neatly wedged directly under the center of my back, arching it into painful contortions I as I lifted the 3 heavy batteries in place and attached the leads.

 

The life of Riley: The generator fired right up as well, as did the A/C, refrigerator, microwave, TV and stereo. I was pleasantly surprised that I had left myself ¾ tank of gas last year at those super cheap $3.25 prices, and as I tooled out of storage with 10,000 lbs of 1987’s finest beneath me burning gas at 6 mpg, I felt I was living the life of Riley.

 

The Tribulations of Job: However, it is never quite that easy with the RV – from tires, to A/C to the generator to the brakes and exhaust the vehicle has never made things quite that easy. After I brought it home and began loading I also began filling the 100 gallon freshwater tank – but it leaked like a sieve and turning on the water pump only made things worse. Late that night, and then again the next morning I crawled underneath the 20 year old rusting undercarriage to try and determine the root cause of the issue, but merely succeeded in getting rusty water splashed in my eyes that took the better part of the night to clear.

 

By late morning the day of the Evanston race I threw in the towel and decided we’d go without running water for the shower, sink and kitchen. This was to be the last ride of the RV and I was determined to make the most of it so loaded up everything I could think of.

 

Until midnight I was running back and forth to the RV with blankets, groceries, bug spray, music, movies, pillows, the grill and everything you’d bring if you were moving and then the same in the morning. I didn’t properly hydrate in the hot humid weather and my lower back began to spasm – most likely a combo of the time arched under the RV, carrying lots of heavy objects cantilevered out in front of me, improper hydration and not very much rest. Honestly, there probably couldn’t have been worse preparation for the Evanston race. In theory I should have been quietly hydrating with my legs up all day… That, and I had already challenge the Roadie Gods….

 

 

Tribulations of Job: So, I guess I asked for it. In a previous post I challenged the roadies to “keep a fast pace, shake and bake me, form breakways and single file paces.”  So, of course so what else should I expect other than that they should answer – punatively of course. Over the next week I suffered the lash of their whips, their accels, their shake-n-bake tactics desperately holding onto wheels and hoping for the pressure to be relieved, for air to refill my lungs, for the burning asphyxiating pain to leave my legs. They showed little mercy…

 

 

Evanston Start Line

 

 

I just described Evanston – a relentless onslaught by the Pro teams on the front of the Peleton. The race started fast and never slowed down. With 6 fairly smooth corners, the course is actually pretty decent for me – except for the one achilles heel that I was to rediscover over the coming days in several races: my criterium kryptonite comes in the form of a long, slightly uphill straightaway with a headwind.

 

 

A corner early on

 

 

Now that I’m more aware of my strengths, this just makes sense. A small hill? I can power over that and leverage my strengths. Straightaways between 200 and 400m? Perfect again – short sprints, followed by a lot of coasting. I’m quite good at coasting (a natural corollary to my wheelsucking abilities). However, a tight corner followed by a really long straightaway requires pedaling well beyond my little tiny strength of 6 – 10 seconds of power: on each finish stretch at Evanston I found myself going well beyond my aerobic threshold and creating lactic acid on the 45 second haul up the long, slightly uphill finish stretch with winds swirling around me.

 

 

What a 160 rider field looks like

 

 

“Hot Goosebumps” – that’s what I began to feel as things stretched out I began to enter that oxygen deprived, lactic acid filled world that haunts my dreams – a place of sheer agony and repeated lies to my body – “you can quit next lap – just one more lap”. As my body processed less and less oxygen my legs experienced that ugly symptom of ‘hot chills’ where the leg felt half asleep and as blood continued to course through the veins it would feel hot despite showing goose bumps on the outside.

 

 

A long, single file death march

 

 

I continued my lies and internal mantra: “just make it 10 laps.” Then 20, then 30, then halfway to 35, then 40, then 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, then 50, and then, for the next set of lies, the all consuming goal was to make it to lap 60 (out of 70 laps).

 

 

Staying mid-field

 

 

Usually by this point in a given race, I can stop lying and realize I’ll make it to the end, and usually my mind set re-enters the proactive zone where I begin planning my attack for the final laps. But, like Downer Avenue last year, these thoughts were given no oxygen to formulate and instead I merely followed the wheel ahead, using my strengths effectively on corners one through five, and then hanging on for dear life each time down the long, bumpy, slightly uphill, single file finish stretch.

 

Mid-race I had moved to the middle of the 160 rider field – maybe 60th place or so. With about 30 laps to go after a particularly hard acceleration I was surprised to find only a dozen riders behind me or so – nearly half of this field of top category riders and professionals from around the country and the world had been dropped.

 

I remained even more dedicated to finishing and tried to move up again. I stayed in the middle front for another 5 laps but the race remained stretched out, single file and I was losing position. Just then a split occurred on the long finish stretch and suddenly I was bridging a fairly decent gap. I started faltering and riders swarmed by attempting to reconnect. It all broke up into confusion and a couple riders made it across but I found myself in a group of 10 that fell off the back and then disintegrated as we crossed the line with 12 laps to go.

 

 

Gaps begin to open

 

 

Bridging a gap...

 

Really suffering

 

I had not yet made my most recent goal of lap 60 (10 to go) so I continued riding, alone, as fast as I could go. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was averaging about 24 mph all by myself – that’s as fast as I can ever remember riding alone – and then I decided to check average speed so far – 30.4 mph – the fastest, ever, in a race that I’ve been in.

 

 

Agony... (why's he smiling?)

 

 

(Yes, roadies, I have a low VO2 and my typical wattage at my aerobic threshold is probably about 240-260 watts – no where near your 300, 330, or even 400 watts. That ‘book of matches’ you talk about burning during the race? If you flip over the creased white cardboard cover of my matchbook, you’ll find one lonely match – just one. Fortunately it’s got a little extra )

 

So even at my max I was riding over 6 mph slower than the field. That’s the advantage of the draft and the distinction of roadie vs. sprinter. I made it a couple laps alone, and then, just at 60 laps I was pulled from the race by the referees and then a lone Columbian came screaming past – riding 31 mph all by himself. As I pulled off, lapped, I cursed the roadie gods for that incomprehensible ability to ride that fast for more than 8 seconds.

 

 

The life of Riley: I piled into the air conditioned RV and headed off the to beach in Sheboygan for 4 fun and sun filled days at the beach...

 

 

2008 Race Report #10: Superweek Blue Island Pro/Am

2008: Race Report #10 Superweek Stage 2

                                                         

Race Report #10: Saturday, July 13. Category: Pro 1/2, Weather: 81 degrees, 18 mph winds. Course: 4 corners, 1 mile – mostly flat. Distance 62 miles (I made it 46 out of 62 miles) ~140 riders. Average speed, 30.3 mph, Avg. pulse 176 before getting dropped

 

Unfortunately, sadly, the biggest story here was the ‘race to the race.’ While this is far from uncommon in my experience due to the demands of work, home, and an absent mind, this day was different. With my wife and daughter heading up to visit family early in the day Saturday, I had the remainder of the day to focus on prepping properly for my debut pro race at Superweek. I wanted a ‘no excuses’ kind of race – so I cleaned my bike and cleaned my chain and cassette (discovering as a side product, that my chain was too short and couldn’t even go into my big rings in front and back without destroying my rear derailleur). That chain change at Village Cyclesport has been my bane...

 

I got the car loaded, and made sports drinks for before and after the race, ate pasta at exactly 3 1/2 hours before start time and then headed on my way, hydrating heavily. About an hour and a half before the race I was about to exit the highway – a mere 2 miles from the race course – and I called SRAM mechanic extraordinaire and former Wolverine Jose Alcala – and sure enough he was again working superweek. I was glad as my front wheel with its bent spokes was out of true and I have now lost any trust in any other mechanic. He kidded me about ‘showing up 10 minutes before the race’ and I told him, “this time maybe I’ll surprise you…” Sure enough I saw the sign for my exit off 294 South for Highway 50. I did end up surprising him though…

 

There was a wrinkle though – as always… About 5 miles back, the highway, under ongoing construction, had divided left and right and I had gone left. There was no indication of anything out of the ordinary – for instance, a sign saying,  “take the lanes on the left and you’ll be trapped in a concrete barrier from hell for the next 22 miles unable to exit until you drop out onto highway 80” would have been somewhat useful information.

 

And so I drove and cursed and cursed and drove as I watched each of my potential exits fade on the other side of my impermeable, infinite concrete barrier as the My Navigator application on my U.S. Cellular® phone kept saying “re-calculating route”. Honestly – I was screaming in my car – trapped behind a careful tourist driving 50 mph ahead of me and no way to go back or get out.

 

Finally I dropped down to highway 80 and exited Dixie Highway, following the prompts back to Blue Island – 8 miles or 15 minutes away – still 45 minutes left until race time.

 

Then, only a half mile from the course, I hit the train tracks. An engine was crossing with one car – slowly – but heck it was only one car. 5 minutes later and the gates lifted – but only for about 10 seconds – one car got through, and down they came again. The train now backed up and recrossed and picked up about 1000 other cars and they began trundling across the road at a speed of about zero-point-one. 5 minutes became 10 became 15. Meanwhile I had changed into my full racing regalia in the car – but still it trundled along… I considered parking the car on the side of the road and then running through an opening between cars with my bike and then riding the remaining ½ mile to the course. I actually would have done it – but the train was finally picking up steam – probably 4mph now.

 

So I used Google maps on my U.S. Cellular BlackBerry® Curve and found an alternate route and circled several miles around – putting the four liters of my V8 to full use – like a rental car - only two speeds – floored or braking.

 

I screamed into the parking lot in Blue Island with 5 minutes to go before race time. I dropped my wheel with Jose, registered with Chris who seemed amused and expectant over my mad last minute rush, put my number on in the wheel pit, and just as I was inserting the last pin, Eddy Van Guys announced, “and here, ready to shoot the starter’s pistol is the mayor of Blue Island – mayor?”

 

So much for warmup, though I did have an adrenaline rush to fire the muscles…

 

The race itself? Fast. First few laps were mundane, and then it began to string out. As the pack was stretched from 5 abreast to 3 to 2 abreast, I surfed and rode well, but when it became single file I struggled, and my pulse – holding in the mid 170’s the first 10 laps, began to rise and I was riding in the low 180’s – right at my sustainable max.

 

(Video 1 - joins the action a few laps into the race when it is still 5 abreast and the peleton is a still a crowd. By a 1:30 into the video things began to stretch out, and at 2:10 we begin a long painful hammer session down  the home stretch. At 2:40 you can see that the pack has now stretched 200 yards from tip to tail. By the end of this clip (video is 3:20) we are mostly single file...)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dc_3i1pHiiU]

 

Meanwhile the front wheel I had borrowed from Jose was a bit misaligned with my brake pads, and they began to make more and more noise as the pad was starting to bite into the tire. After about 15 laps it began to make me nervous (it was the front) and as the pace continued to lift and I was forced to dive into corners and brake hard, I was using my front break more than ever. Finally I decided to risk a free lap (would it count?) and coasted into the pits where Jose put on my newly trued wheel and let Carl the referee know that it was a legitimate stop – “failure of critical mechanical part”.

 

The one lap rest was incredibly welcome and I swung back out into the field with 45 laps to go already very tired. But my legs performed and I rode the pack as best as I could despite finish stretch speeds in excess of 35 mph, and an average speed (when I dropped) of 30.3 mph. (this did not include the first 16 laps – when I had the wheel pit wheel on my bike without the magnet for my bike computer)

 

(Video 2 – Here I turn on the camera while I'm waiting in the wheel pit after my free lap - note the breakaway rider fly by at over 30mph by himself. I continually ask myself how that is possible. For the next couple of laps I ride behind or near Ken and another rider from bicycle heaven in the blue jersey and blue shoe covers. At about 5:15, I hit a manhole cover and the camera tilts up. Over the next lap, the pace picks up and more and more I'm riding a single file or two abreast line on a wheel where all you can see is the guy's butt ahead of me - pretty boring really. The rest of the video, unfortunately goes off the frame as the camera tilts even farther - nothing much to see anyway)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta079Nxk2ho]

 

The Columbian team continued to push breakaways and the field was unwilling to let them go, so the peleton resumed the strung out 2 abreast or single file structure for dozens of laps and I began to tire. I had fallen to the rear of the peleton and after passing the halfway mark at 31 miles, I was hopeful that I was going to finish, but the pace stayed high and riders were dropping out ahead of me forcing me to bridge gaps. Several of these were full out efforts pushing my pulse to 187 and 188 for several laps, and with 16 laps to go, after completing 46 miles or 90 minutes at an average heartrate of 176 bpm, another gap opened that I couldn’t close and I drifted away off the back down the backstretch.

 

It’s a terrible feeling – this. Pulse at 188 bpm and watching 100 riders pedal away from you as though it were easy. For a few moments, that deep morose funk hit me – “not good enough”, “couldn’t hack it,” “loser.”

 

But as I made my way back to Jose in the wheel pit, I was able to remember those good moments in the race – those hard accels from the corners where I neatly moved up 10 spots easily, the tight balance of my body over the wheels in the corners where I could swing up several spots by pedaling earlier and later than everyone. I also considered that, unlike last year, I knew, absolutely knew, that I had not killed my sprint by overtraining.

 

So I reframed this ‘loss’ as an, “I almost made it…”

 

When Jose asked me about my fitness, I waxed philosophical… “I think its about right – if I was able to hang easily in a race this fast, then odds are good I’d have overtrained…” and then, “I think, honestly, that all of my best, big races have had two things in common: 1) I was barely, barely hanging on for a majority of the race, and 2) Due to that, at the end I was one of the few with a sprint motor left…”

 

We’ll see if my ‘half full’ approach proves to be accurate.  After the race I was able to chat with the Garrison brothers, and Eddy Van Guys. I was particularly humbled when Eddy, out of the blue, said, “You are a great writer – I’ve been following your blog…”

 

That means a lot Eddy – thanks,

 

-John

 

PS: Coming soon - videos  and picutures from the Olympia Fields Master's Criterium - my friend Matt brought his camera.

 

2008 Race Report #7: Giro de Grafton

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I wasn’t good enough.”

 

How often do we hear that from our top athletes?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

-John

 

 

 

 

 

2007 Race Report #15: Suffering Part II...

Saturday, July 28th, 2007: Race report #15, Whitefish Bay, WI 

Eyes open. Dust flecks flap their brilliant wings in the rays of light escaping underneath the crack of the flimsy plastic window shades. It is morning and I am alive… barely.

I took a moment to register the location – low ceilings, the surround of cheap laminated wood cabinets, the brilliantly glowing eggshell of the plastic skylight, bug shadows on the forward curve: the RV’s awkward charms remained the same.. but, where, exactly, were we?

Synapses flickered and suddenly I realized that like a year ago I was parked behind the same Sendiks grocery in Whitefish Bay, WI – 100 feet from the finish line of the 17th and final stage of the 2007 Superweek “International Cycling Classic” series of bike races.

A year ago this was an opening – the frisson of the new – the proverbial ‘stirring of the pot’ - the entering of the fray. Now it was different. Long gone was the purity of stage one of Superweek – the milling of the crowd - the anticipation of the roll call. Long lost in the “hedonic treadmill” of life was the pleasure of the lineup and the announcements, the colors, the jerseys, the lines and faces of my fellow racers.

I had re-entered the world of the symbolic – where day to day pleasures recede, where the people and faces and cracked concrete and gritty asphalt all became pawns in a bigger game.

Why must we lose the present in pursuit of the future?

Present had reigned at least briefly the night before. Like the year previous I pulled the RV right into the center of the course at Downer Avenue, opened the doors and enjoyed the visits and conversations of the cyclists, speedskaters and friends that bothered to drop by. Missing was Eddy Van Guise, Chris, Jose, & Camie and others but still we had a fine sultry evening of guests in our little rolling home, Katelina tucked in early in the bed in back and Olu, Todd, Brenda, Jon and others swinging by for a bite of pasta or glass of wine.

I was reminded of the year previous – where, after a glass or two of wine, I had spent a good deal of time riding long wheelies on my $4000 race bike up and down Downer Ave and Jeff and I had treated the Milram team to a few extra beers in hopes of slowing their assault the following day.  No wheelies and just one glass of wine last night – and a focus on what was to come in the morning…

Stars, like sparrows, circled my inner eyelids when I finally rose. I felt swollen, full, hot, so I drink water and turn on the fans. Still I continued to feel lethargic, dry, bloated – yet empty. I had hardly slept. The flashes – the sudden startles – the gunshots in my legs, had increased in their frequency and intensity and kept me up most of the night. I started the generator and ran the overhead A/C unit. Straightening up – again the vertigo – it was surprising, unexpected – but not new…

The same old deja-vu.

I forced morning activities into “normal” and with discipline metered out a routine of hydration, food, registration, and a short “pre-warmup” on the bike. In hindsight, these formalities were like reading the music for “Taps” – a prelude for what was to come.

 A month later and in a middle- of-the-night moment of clarity the deja-vu’s were suddenly placed. The shooting stars in my legs, the midnight panicked awakenings, the leg sweats. All these were incredibly familiar – yet distant. These were not constants in my 30 years as an athlete – these memories were concentrated during critical focal points and subsequent failures in my athletic career: The first time was the summer of 1986 after moving into the Olympic Training Center in Colorado in prep for the World Cycling Championships. A few weeks of intensive training later and… 

The second was the fall and winter of 1990 in Calgary – the  first year of full time speedskating training. 3 workouts a day for 4 or 5 months and suddenly nights stopped being restful, I lost muscle mass, I trained better and better and raced worse and worse.  

Then again in the following year in 1991 training in Colorado Springs again – this time for skating – by the 1992 Olympic trials I was slower in the 500m than I had been since I was a teenager living in California…  

Most recently was in Lake Placid, New York, in preparations for the 1998 Olympics where I had my worst finish in an Olympic trials ever, despite working harder than I ever had.  

These were the years where I had experienced these same visceral electrical stimuli and associated exhaustion. These were the years where I believed the most, trained the hardest and had results that… 

The results in those years? So simple to see it now - all of those years had three things in common:  

1) Ever more ‘solid’ and ‘consistent’ endurance training sessions (meeting coaches expectations) paralleled by…  

2) An ever deepening physical and psychological gloom, and… 

3) Solid, consistent, and absolutely uninspired racing results - well below my expectations.  

Psychologically, these years were devastating – lost was that “magic” – that inspiring ability to race well beyond my training. To lay it all on the line and come up with “average,” this was the part that was most heart-rending of all…  

I watched my friend Matt  Dula start his first licensed race – a brutal, large, relatively experienced field of cat 5 riders, all 15 to 20 years younger than he ping-ponging pell-mell around the circuit. Tense, nervous, cautious on the corners, yet he hung on  - precariously, like a raindrop on a vertical surface, struggling to maintain position for a lap only to suddenly dodge backward and sideways and then pause again – swelling – stationary for a moment before another sudden drop to the next section of the peleton until he was isolated into a chase pack after 7 or 8 laps.

I watched and cheered as he attempted to stay safe and finish his first licensed race. I did fear for the worst – that this first foray into the weird dynamics of cycling might result in the horrendous feeling of getting completely dropped and suffering alone against the wind, or worse yet, a crash…

A lap later and suddenly he’s gone. A fall on the far side of the course has lost him his sunglasses, dented his helmet, and left him dazed. I tried to talk him into returning, but he is unsure. First race blues – a fall, no visible injuries, but fear… it grows. Walden would always, ALWAYS demand, “get back on the bike Coyle! Finish the race, or at least the lap!” I failed Matt – and he stayed on the sidelines.

Hours and hours until my final bout of Superweek suffering, so Shannon, Kat, Matt and three of his children made for the beach at the lakefront of lake Michigan. The escarpment overlooking the lake features a dramatic wood and cement staircase with a half-dozen switchbacks leading down the 200 vertical feet to the sand. Despite some evil smelling offal washing ashore it was a picturesque day and we laid our towels upwind of the odors and tried to relax, Matt was quickly horizontal in the post-race peace, and myself just walking, walking, trying to limber up, while ignoring every signal my body was sending.

It wasn’t until the return up the stairs that the dire circumstances of my physical condition truly made itself manifest. The hundreds of steps we had descended in an easy ramshackle file to the beach had to be re-scaled in order to return to the race course.

We passed beyond the amber sands and after a matter of only 5 or 6 steps up the weathered wooden stairs I stopped - a buzzing in my ears, intensifying whites bleaching through the lines of the reflected sun on the wood. The white cement expanded and coursed through all levels of contrast, overexposing everything within my view. A wave of weariness & nausea starting in my ankles washed through my limbs. I was again reminded of how dry and swollen my mouth was.

In agonizingly slow motion I climbed a few more steps. Shannon, Matt and the kids chattering as they swarmed past me. Their sounds seemed to grow in volume and fill my thoughts even while receding in the distance - colors began to fade again, whiteness, heat, dry mouth, sparks and fireflies – then like the blades of a slow motion helicopter, my neck seemed to rotate and the sky throbbed – voom, vooom, voooom.

Like a sailor in a gale I held the railing, head down, white knuckles, riding the roiling disequilibrium. Dozens of steps ahead the voices finally faded. I dreaded sight, I dreaded sound. I didn’t want anyone to see. Then, the inevitable question from above - one of the wooden switchbacks, a strangely familiar voice – like someone I knew… “John – are you OK?”

My friend Matt. The kids were well beyond earshot. I shook my head mildly, downplaying my predicament and made an attempt to resume the climb – stopping every 4 or 5 steps.

The kids were playing at the top of the stairs and only Matt noticed how long it took me to make the trek. “Are you OK?” he asked again with real concern. Again I shrugged my shoulders with a rueful smile, then we piled into our cars and the RV and made our way back to the racecourse.

The race itself is a footnote. I lined up. I read the lap cards: “80” while crowds milled about in the beer tents, announcements were made, and the sun moved westward. I suffered through the usual pain of the first laps despite an extremely hard warmup with Matt that was fueled by a sudden suspicion that the start time was earlier than we had thought.

But unlike Downer Avenue, where the pain was controlled, focused, having behind it the bruising power of heavy machinery running cool and powerful, the feeling at Whitefish Bay was one of heat and disorder and of fear – muscles out of order, knees sloppily rotating, feet pedaling squares, never settling into any kind of rhythm –  my legs were like egg-beaters whipping a bowl full of marbles – the pain was shocking, tinny, abrupt, and visceral.

Like the little steel ball in a Japanese Plinko machine I bounced left, up, right and inevitably back and after 35 laps I finally fell out the back, coasting to the sidelines mouth open wide gasping for air, legs quivering, knees out.

 

The race whirred by eventually spitting out 85% of the starters. Even Ben Renkema – last year’s Cat 2 national champion and Michigan State Champion was dropped – with only 4 laps remaining – how does that happen? Catching my breath I said goodbye to Matt and tasted the poignant bitterness of disappointment - no Superweek win this year. We said our goodbyes to Eddy, Jose and some of the racers, loaded up the RV and I climbed behind the wheel to drive home.

Enroute back to Chicago I cracked the window, feeling the evening air as it cooled, its play on my face reminding me of so many things. I grew still and sad – another summer on the wane. We arrived home late, and the next morning I got up early and returned back to work.

 Flashback: October, 1983. I was sitting on the smooth green padded vinyl bench of a schoolbus, traveling from Ohio to West Virginia – encased in the yellow metal shell, the musty smell, the  dirty black floors and the roar of the diesel straining against the wind, cars passing us. 39 other student members of my high school music band and I were out for our annual “band tour.”

Fortunately I had no conception of the dorkiness I represented: skinny, short, braces, pimples, unfashionable clothes, honor society, and on tour with the high school band playing 2nd French horn. My mind was elsewhere. 

I pinched the double latches, and with some effort pulled down the bus window above my seat, ignoring the feeble protest of another band geek behind me, his papers riffling with the wind.  The yellow raft of light piercing the open window warmed my face as the last wisps of the Indian Summer air swirled through the window.

I remember with clarity feeling a nameless ache I had already begun to associate with this time of year – the melancholy of falling leaves, the crisp fading light, the end of summer and of the cycling season.  Regardless of my personally undetermined state in the high school hierarchy, I had become a force to be reckoned with in the cycling world, and each year I yearned for more warm days, more races, more time on the bike.

Every year I became more keenly aware of the first signs of the changing weather patterns signaling the end of the season. And of course there was the girl back at school – taller, older, an Egyptian carving: beautiful alabaster skin with black pools for eyes and those budding hints at mysteries unknown. She knew my name – but to her I was probably what I really was – a sideshow to the older, taller, stronger, white-toothed upperclassman. I longed for her and for summer, and ached deeper for something unknown. I was nostalgic and mournful in the grandest sense without knowing why.

I was the first and only band geek to have a “jam box” or more accurately a stereo cassette player/radio with a handle and large speakers. It was silver and I had spent virtually all my winnings of bike races that summer on it and it was loud and powerful. On and off I received requests to play tapes, but mostly we tuned into various radio stations as the countryside drifted by and the season changed. 

On this particular evening the sun had set and the rows of seats in the bus had changed from green to gray. Outside the windows all that remained of the day was a glimmer on the horizon that last kiss of the day on the undersides of the clouds. I had the window open and we were thousands of miles from anything or anyone and my pining for something lost and lamented increased and the presence of so many others only amplified my loneliness.

Then suddenly, as I turned the tuner dial – it came – that first piano chord… It was just unaccompanied piano – but it was the perfect capture of this melancholy, this longing, the ghostly cool air, the barren trees.

Instinctively I hit “record” and listened transfixed, turning up the volume. The piano played on and again I turned it up and the bus – full of the usual hum of teenage conversations – grew oddly still. 40 teenagers away from home, disembodied on plastic seats, grew still and listened and the piano played on. Then Bono’s voice came out,  

“October…and the trees are stripped bare…of all they wear… what do I care?”“October… and kingdoms rise, and kingdoms fall… but you go on… and on…” 

As I write this it is yet another October, and again I feel that same teenage melancholy – another summer gone, Fall on its way, and the chill of Winter is coming. The seasons rule and I have to wait another year to prove my mettle.

But at least I have the warmth of my two girls which removes the sting of the cold.

Maturity tells me I need the rest anyway…

-John Coyle, October, 2007

2007 Race Report #14: Downer Avenue Pro Race - Suffering

Friday July 27th, 2007: Race report #14, Downer Avenue, Milwaukee: Suffering

 Conventional wisdom has it that athletic minds and their finely trained bodies are completely in tune: that the discipline of training creates in the cavity of the diaphragm, heart, and sinews the same rich resonance that is produced within the oiled wood of a fine cello when rubbed to resonance by fibrous strands of the horsehair bow.

Yes, during those magical moments in training or a competition where forces align and the moving parts become orchestrated with some semblance of harmony, a low hum begins, that understated harmony, that resonant frequency which keeps a metronome on an ever shortening interval – the pace increases, lento becomes andente, andente becomes moderato, moderato becomes allegretto…

However, for a majority of scores the music is freeform dissonant jazz: a “bitches brew” of piercing notes out of key and out of synch with the untrained mind, a raucous cacophony twanging the nerves, jangling the sinews and muscles. Contrary to popular belief, one of the main disciplines involved with being a high caliber athlete is learning to tune out and manage the confusing jumble of noise and pain the body shouts to the brain. The learned response is to ignore many of the most obvious biological responses to trauma – pain, soreness, nausea, swelling etc. and continue to drive the beat, to perform.

In the summer of 1991 I was living with a pair of brothers from Minnesota in a run-down apartment complex in Menominee Falls outside Milwaukee, and training with Peter Mueller – the top coach in the world at the time – and training along side Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen, and a small number of other handpicked speedskaters.  

John Albrecht, my roommate, was a Stradivarius of an athlete: powerful shoulders, a six pack of abdominals, massive thighs tapering gracefully to tuning fork knees, and then a pair of thunderous calves – all muscle and power.

One late morning after a particularly tough session running hills at the Milwaukee lakefront, John quizzically asked me, brow frowning only slightly, “Do you think it’s bad if I have blood in my urine? It’s only been a couple of days now but… what do you think?” 

The halls of pain echo for an experienced athlete. The suffering is nothing and yet is everything. The pain is white. It is black. It lacks color or sibilant sound – just reverberations reflecting off the porcelain tiles of the stony discipline of the psyche. But blood, glittering red-black blood, pulses through hidden rivulets in the gutters of the mind.

Thursday, July 26: After the pro race in Kenoha I followed directions and drove the creaking RV to Lake Geneva and the the cul-de-sac drive fronting the abode of our friends Gary and Monica for the night. After dinner with friends, I stood up in the cool moist evening air and, for a brief moment, the stars swooned. When they swung back into sight, vertigo turned their winks to streaks as they flit left and right like flock of tiny metallic sparrows before re-settling in the tall oaks surrounding the cul-de-sac. Regaining balance I returned to the RV and climbed the stairs like an 85 year old – each step requiring effort followed by rest and controlled breathing.

I had forgotten, somehow - completely forgotten - the effects of heavy training & racing – of day after day of grinding physical effort. I had forgotten the subtle ribbing of the sky, the bricking in of the landscape, the rising gray tiles of the floor. Through suffering, life becomes a tunnel – a turbulent passage from the torrents of one storm grate to the next.

Like stops on the subway, regular life events - a dinner, a conversation, a book, a nap – become passing glimpses into the outside world while, ever elusive, the light arcing down the curving tunnel is an ever receding goal. Sometimes even that glow disappears and all that remains are the halls of pain, the passing outlines of real life outside graying in shadows.

The discipline of the mind is iron, it is stone: it surrounds. If my mind had momentarily escaped the confines of discipline I would have realized that I was exhausted. I would registered and considered the implications of the “leg sweats” taking place each night, where despite normal body temps, my legs would glisten, uncovered, with perspiration most of the night. I would have been daunted by the “jerks” – neurons randomly firing in muscle groups in my legs creating momentary “fight or flight” responses like gunshots, repeatedly waking me up. I would have noticed how hard mundane daily tasks like standing up (headrush again – whoah), climbing the two steps into the RV, or even reaching over my head had become.

Suffering? No – not really – most of those regular body feedback mechanisms had already been switched to “off.” In fact, it was once again “normal.” Like the second week of a bad cold – only the healthy symptoms became notable, “say – I can breathe through my nose!” the counterpart after a good rest, “say – I can stand up without a headrush!”

Friday, July 27th - The Downer Avenue Pro Criterium: The bike is an amazing contraption for suffering. Marathon runners are incredible athletes who suffer all kinds of agonies on route in the 2 hours or so it takes the best to finish the 26 miles. But marathon runners have one crutch that we don’t – they require balance, coordination and consciousness to finish the race. Not so the cyclist.

A 100Km, 62 mile bike race in the Pro 1-2 division takes a little over 2 hours - approximately the same amount of time as a marathon run by a top athlete. At the end of a marathon, runners may stagger, and sometimes fall and then either get up and finish, or are taken away by the medical crew. In cycling, the rotational inertia of the wheels on the bike keeps the cyclist upright long after power ceases to flow to the pedals and there is very little coordination required to keep a bike level at speed: hence a cyclist can still continue forward on inertia with almost no consciousness. What this means is: a cyclist can literally race until the point of losing consciousness - and beyond - before forward progress stops.

 I’ve only passed out 4 times from bike racing and only two times while actually on a moving bike..

The first time I lost consciousness from racing I was 11 years old and attempting for the first time in my short career to climb mountains and deal with the affects of altitude. Despite a weak aerobic constitution I managed a 4th place finish, falling over just after the finish line still strapped into my pedals. I came-to a few moments later with a white rim of dried lactic acid spit all around my lips that would not come off despite the repeated scrubs of my forearms.

The second collapse was right after the 90 miles of the Michigan State cycling championships in 1985. I had run out of water well before the finish of the long race and after the sprint where I came in second, the dehydration hit me and I passed out while still coasting past the finish and went into a ditch.

While comatose, the muscles in my hands, and one of my calves decided to spasm and when I came to, both hands were clenched into claws, the talons of my own fingernails digging into my own flesh, the leg belonging to an alien except for the incredible pain coursing through my body.  A family came to my rescue and gave me water and helped to unclench my hands and release my leg with the result of 4 half circles diced neatly into each palm, bright blood welling up to fill the crescents, and my right calf virtually unusable for the rest of the evening.  

I began my warmup for the Downer Avenue pro race. The breeze was off the lake and the sun was starting to set over the hill to my left as I began the climb back up from the beach area on Lakefront drive. I worked hard as I knew from the stories that the Downer Avenue course was a study in pain, and that the pros would be out for blood. I did not want the lack of a warmup to be an excuse for getting dropped. If I was going to get dropped tonight, it would be only because I could not see for blindness from pain, could not steer because I was comatose, could not pedal because my legs were bleeding. I dug tunnels for my suffering. I built walls for my agony. I capped it all with self deceit: I was not going to get dropped.

The warmup was useless – we sat baking in the sun on the start finish line at Downer Avenue for more than an hour as the sponsors and referees and announcers talked on and on. Finally an hour later they sent us on our way.

Suffering. What a generic term – and it is hard to describe really – like a nightmare, the reality of suffering, those horrors, pains, fears, those empty chasms of thought and thoughtlessness slowly dwindle with time and all that is left are the empty words that fall flat in describing the event…

“It was really hard…” What does that mean?

Nothing.

We hear stories all the time about suffering. It is something to talk about, but more often that not the empathy is missing for real suffering - not because the listener doesn’t care - rather the storyteller fails to effectually muster up the true images of what he or she was feeling at the time.

It is so easy to relate the story of the surly waitress, the missed flight, the smashed finger. The true elements of these stories were accurately remembered and can be accurately relayed.

But real suffering – of the kind where a miasma of pain clouds the perceptions, alters memories, displaces consciousness -  with real suffering, something happens. the stories start with the same energy, the listeners lean in with the same attention, and then it fades - the storyteller, disappointed, suddenly realizes that he or she no longer contains the  memories of those harrowing moments – of the fear and hollow spikes and pangs and dread that they suffered. They realize that while the lingering echoes of those moments remain, that the actual memories themselves are missing, or are censored – a chalk outline - the violence, death, fear and blood and profanity missing.  They suddenly trail off and end with a few uninteresting stats…

The worst suffering transcends rationality and hence becomes almost impossible to describe using the vocabulary of the rational mind. The emotional imprint – like a footprint on the grass on a humid day – remains for a brief period, but then it too is gone and inevitably the blades of grass resume their prior reach for the sun, and when shadows are recast on the same indented perception, little remains to describe what had transacted except what is reinvented.

Here is the coroner’s report of the Downer Avenue race. After a slow lap behind the Saturn pace vehicle, the race began in earnest. The Downer’s course is a bit unique: a triangle with three long straightaways, each followed by three 120 degree corners. Unlike most criteriums, this created a uniquely painful series of intervals: approximately 30 seconds on, 15 seconds off for each 2 minute and 10 second lap.

With over 215 riders, the pack was like a gigantic slinky. In the middle and rear of the pack where I spent my time, the corners became jammed with riders and soon we were consistently slowing below 5mph in each corner before a full out sprint back to 35, 37 mph to keep pace with the professionals setting the pace at the front. More than 100 of these riders would be dropped over the coming laps…

This was purposeful suffering…so I could stop anytime. And, unlike the hot surface pain native to the untrained athlete, where muscles give, and blisters rent, the well trained athlete has developed hardened muscles and calloused skin. The lacerating pain is deeper, closer to the bone, and the damage done is gathered in invisible places.

Within a few laps I began lying – “one more lap”. A straightaway later and I began the nearly invisible internal cry that kept me in the race, “Just one more straightaway and then you can quit.”

Again and again I entered turn one, raised joints of concrete rippling through my forearms, shaking my biceps, my body balanced overtop the wheels to absorb the vibrations. I began pedaling a stroke earlier than most competitors, and then jumped out of the saddle, standing on the pedals to make the small rise early in the first straightaway and then smoothly lowering to the saddle as the rise receded behind me. I calmed the shrieks in my head, lungs and legs and pedaled smoothly preparing for second 120 degree corner of the course.

Braking started 100 feet out, and paths through the gigantic 200+ rider peleton were rare. Most times I end up in traffic and slowed to a near stop and then had to sprint with every single ounce of energy just to maintain bearing on the wheel in front of me as we headed down the dark backstretch, towering trees and their skeletal reaches blocking out light overhead.

The whips of those accelerations ripped my legs down to their core threads, my lungs fraying like an ancient flag, snapping, gasping croaks for air. I followed the thin red line of the pacing riders, and the skin around my skull shriveled, my eyeballs bobbing in their vacuous chasms, floating and dripping in blood, painting the world red. Empty with the jarring, the reddened orbs bounced down the white porcelain hallways of the pain. As we approached each corner my sightless body ambled up to collect the bloody globes, coasting for those few critical moments to regain sight and sound. But then again like a nightmare it repeats: 30 seconds of the whip, teeth clenched, paroxysms of fear, 15 seconds of the dripping cooling, burning sweat trying to find a line through the corner, hands on the brakes.

The reality of the race expanded time during the effort like few other events I have ever participated in. Each corridor beneath the trees became an odyssey – an expansive journey into the deepest reserves of my aerobic capacity, of my musculature, of the strength of my quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, forearms… of my beautiful wrists glistening as they held true to the handlebars, tendons standing out like razor blades as my ever thinning skin revealed the bones below.

During the 62 lap race of 186 corners, I actually faced down about 170 individual thirty second sprints where I was quite certain my race would end. Meaningless numbers I know, but I can remember training sessions where the workout would be 2 sets of 3 times 30 seconds and dreading it, dreading it, and then being exhausted after the effort. Here I performed the same thirty second full-on sprints with slightly less than half the usual rest – over one-hundred-eighty  times. 

Several times, as my soul shriveled with the repeated failures of my legs and lungs, I decided to actually quit – and my “one straightaway more” lie became true. But as I reached the corner coasting, with riders passing me left and right, I found myself in a situation of danger where the compression of the riders behind me was greater than that in front of me and I “pedaled 2 more strokes” to be able to cleanly get through the corner.

A few seconds later, and I found that the peleton had re-embraced me and here I was – on a wheel, and traveling at the requisite speed to finish yet another straightaway. So I lied again and decided “one more straightaway.” I failed to intentionally quit the race 3 separate times.

The mind creates a portrait of the past, but memory has a paintbrush, not a camera. As such it is inherently inaccurate. Is it any wonder that there are few descriptions of “harrowing victory” in the annals of competitive history? In the same way is it any wonder that there are few memories of a “brilliant, jubilant defeat?” The pixels of light and darkness captured in the mind’s eye are filled with the pallet of color of the results – hence the memories of winning somehow pull from the yellows and golds, success and color implying a relatively easier effort, while the losses are inevitably painted with the charcoals of those chiaroscuro efforts – blackened, brutish, pain and disappointment closely linked.

I choose to repaint this race differently. No – I didn’t finish in the money (26th of over 200 starters) – but I did finish. And in so doing what I did accomplish was a unique mastery of the instrument of my body. For over two hours, I played it like the first violinist – drawing out of it with every lash of the straight bow every possible note, every emotion, every tremble of resonance the space of ribs and air and bones was capable of producing. In the end was it all meaningless? A black deep hole – a fissure to the worst unknowns? Or was there transcendence in the agony I endured? Did I learn something so raw and true about myself that I’ll be describing it for decades? I don’t really know to be honest – more than two months later as I write this and I still feel as though I’m clawing my way out of that black crevasse, that hallowed and horrifying yet blindingly brilliant 2 hours and 10 minutes I spent at the edge of sanity and consciousness.

I remember making the halfway mark and having not the least sense that my suffering had changed or that I might possibly finish. I remember seeing 3 laps to go and having no change in my race posture – no thoughts of moving up, of positioning myself for the sprint – just the thin red line of riders and the pain. 2 laps to go and it is the same – I didn't even look up.

With one lap to go, nothing about me changed, but suddenly riders were sitting up. They didn’t care anymore – the race was up the road… And I, I had one silent, tiny reserve left, and as I made my way down the backstretch dodging the bodies of the riders going backward, I found that one last pure emotion of anaerobic ability left. I swung through the crowd of riders to release every single thread of my existence to the bike and ridiculously throw it at the finish line for an unimportant 26th place – one place out of the money, but passing 70 riders in the last lap. Not a victory in the traditional sense, but still I had a still, silent pride…

As I stretched out my bike at the finish line, my right hamstring convulsed and whipped my right pedal into the uppermost position like a steel band pulling my heel into my glutes. The contrast of this cutting, active retching pain against the steady lacerations of the preceding 2 hours caused me to scream but in the noise of the crowd my anguish went un-noticed.

I used all my remaining strength to force the leg to extend and stood upon my right leg, heel down, out of the saddle – even through the first right turn as I entering the gloaming of the brightening night and the throngs of spectators…

I drifted around the backstretch, suddenly noticing the crowd of 20,000, hearing the call outs – hanging in the air “Great race!”, “Hey Dude!” “Wow – that was incredible!” “Hey want a beer?”. For a while I didn’t realize that I was one of those racers – one of those elites they were talking to as well. When I stopped and a bunch of 20 something guys slapped me on my sweaty back and filled my water bottles – one with water, and one with beer I was confused. What did I do that was good or noble or strong that they could know about? Did they actually recognize that this was suffering? Of course they did. I smiled for the first time in hours. And, carefully keeping my right leg in check, circled the course.

I found my daughter Katelina, my wife, Shannon, and her parents, and her aunt and uncle near the start finish line, and I drifted into the barriers listening to the vibrations of the throng and the calls of the announcer. The deep lines of the grimace holding my face still held a little, but there was pride in the eyes of my family – real pride. After hugging my wife and listening to the sparkling words of my little one and her relatives for a moment I suddenly swayed, like a brown-out, the lights suddenly dimming, my balance failing, and I nearly collapsed. The noise dissolved into a buzz and I clung to the barricade, clinging to the bright droplets of the glistening words of my daughter. I kept my right leg straight, and began drinking the water forced upon me, and in seconds the bass drum of life returned and I smiled back at my little girl, still carefully clutching the grey aluminum of the vertical ribs of the barricade.

Windex smell – the smell of muscle burning – the combustion of muscle proteins when other energy sources fail results in the byproduct of sweat that contains ammonia – when you really work hard, you actually smell clean… The night had been rent open, I had fallen deeper than ever, but I had returned… and now, the night was yet young, and there was an RV, friends, music, pasta, and a glass of Sangiovese waiting for me… But I was determined to remember this suffering this time.

I remembered, at that moment, a line from my favorite book by St. Euxpery,

"I swear that what I went through, no animal would have gone through…”  

I lifted Katelina on my bike and rode with her on my seat the 400 yards back to the RV – her hair whipping out in the blackness, her shrill screams marveling at our speed… Another night to be remembered at Downer Avenue…

2007 Race Report #12: Mochi-Dado

Race Report #12, Thursday, July 26th, Superweek Stage 14 Pro/Am  Criterium, Sheboygan, WI, 100K. 

Waking in the RV Thursday morning it is a glorious dawn – sunny, warm but not hot. The creaking of the trees and fanning of the leaves have kept us company all night. After lolling around in the feather bed in the back of the RV playing with Katelina’s “lu lu’s” (her tiny little feet) I finally get up and  westart our day.

 

I fire up the propane burners of the stove in the RV and spread our little white and green tablecloth over the picnic table outside the RV in the green drapery of the 100 year old forest canopy, and we make eggs and bacon to accompany our cereal, juice and yogurt, sitting outside to eat under the swaying trees.

 

Katelina wanted desperately to go ride her bike, so we mounted our bikes, Katelina straddling her little pink bike with the white tires and 16” wheels and we headed off around the damp, pine needle covered lanes tracing through the grounds.

 

Like her father, the tow headed 6 yr old appears to have an achievement orientation and asked me, “what’s the farthest I’ve ever ridden my bike Papa?” I told her she had ridden about 7 miles the night we got stranded in Elgin – the night of the fireflies.

 

“I want to do 7 and ONE-HALF miles!” she exclaimed and so we wandered the beachfront in order to put on the mileage she hoped to accumulate. There was a very light breeze off the lake, and we observed the oddest phenomenon when we traversed the dunes to the shore – the cool air off the lake meeting the warm damp sands of the shores was creating a golden fog – the condensation rising from the sands must have had minute sand particles in it – and for miles down the beachfront there were these sparkling billowy golden mushrooms forming and glowing in the distance.

 

Katelina: Katelina is my daughter and by that lineage alone is endowed with special consideration by her father. Of course she is the most beautiful little girl in the world – her blue green eyes, with those glints of yellow in the sunlight. Those mischievous wrinkles forming her underlids, the beauty mark on her upper lip, and the long golden tresses of brilliant white blond hair. Of course what she says has just that little special lilt of music, her laughter like chimes – can’t you hear it? Of course when she rides her bike, it is with style and panache, her pedaling rhythm suggesting all kinds of vaguely conceived future accomplishments (though without the accompanying realities of the long sweat-baked travels and am-radio-only loneliness on the Midwestern plains my father and I suffered through.)

 

I don’t have a son, so I can’t really speak directly to what the feeling of having a male offspring is like. But a daughter – who knew that it would be like this? I am certain – quite certain, that until now I never knew the meaning of courage. Not until her…

 

Sometimes at night after gazing at her delicate profile in the half light of our reading lights (yes she sleeps with us far too often) I will, move a stray lock of golden hair from her cheek and then lean back into my own pillow and after switching off the light contemplate just how precious that tiny form is next to me, and just how aggressive my response would be if her safety were ever in question…

 The “movie sequence” goes like this: we are safely in bed – at home, camping, or in the RV – doesn’t matter. And then in the grainy half-light of night the intruder comes into this little screenplay. As always he’s faceless and nameless, black in the chiaroscuro of the dim backlight of the entrance. As always, there is malice in the air, and he threatens my family somehow. Prior to Katelina, responses would have been about strategy, about bargaining,, but not any longer.Something about having flesh and blood of Eve’s line begets a kind of clarity that eliminates choices. The scenario always plays out the same. Without fear, without doubt, without vacillation I edge to the edge of the bed, and then in one fluid, swift motion, I accelerate and launch my body full on into the intruder – I can feel the spring and speed in my strides and my leg muscles involuntarily clench. Surprised, the attacker reaches – but, regardless of weapon, there is nothing he can do that inertia won’t override – and even as the gunshot explodes, or the knife enters my flesh, I can always hear my voice shouting with clear authority, “Run!, out the door! NOW!” as I bowl the attacker over and begin to ransack his limbs with my face, elbows, hands and legs – anything to buy time – without a single care to myself.  Of course, I do hope this never happens and believe that it probably never will. But this clarity – this ability to have this one confidence in my own courage… it provides me some semblance of understanding of my place in the scheme of things.  I used to wonder about war… I’d sometimes imagine myself sweating in muddy khakis, crawling along the jungle floor, wet leaves brushing my face as I wriggled uphill in the rain. Then, when the bullets started to rip, wet leaves and mud spraying my face, and  my commanding officer shouting “TAKE THE BUNKER!”… I’d have to really think about it… “What are the odds? “What’s in it for me? “Why do I need to die NOW? “Seriously – isn’t this whole thing stupid anyway? “Why are we shooting at each other anyway?” It wasn’t until I had a daughter that this same screenplay runs differently – and… isn’t it the same for all men?  Deep down, isn’t it that the men (and women) that throw themselves in front of bullets for some cause or another – isn’t it because they can somehow characterize the other side as capable of my previous delusion: of malicious intent toward a tiny, precious child? 

Katelina rides in front of me down the hill – until I see a car coming at us, and then I ride up outside her. It is usually a simple transaction – just protective cover. But once in a while I conceive that the oncoming car may not provide ample space and I consider just how hard I will hit that windshield in order to get the driver to veer away from Kat. For this one thing - courage.

 

We continue on our way, investigating the dunes, stopping so she can take pictures of the beach. Then we turn to head back to our camping spot in order to pack up and head for the beach. Suddenly I hear the bells of her little voice – “papa! Papa! – come look!”

 

I stop and see her crouched next to the road. Even from the distance I can see that she’s observing yet another insect in a long parade that day. But something about this one catches my attention – even from 50 feet away I can see that its figure is unusual.

 

“What is it?” I ask as I get closer. “Not sure,” she answers and then casually extends the finger that the brightly colored caterpillar with the odd tooth shaped white bristles on its back has marched its bristly little legs right up and onto. She was very excited, and immediately named him/her Mocho Dado (female version is Mochi Dado).

 

Weeks later, during U.S. Cellular®’s “Bring your child to work day,” Tyler Carroll graciously helped Katelina figure out that the extremely odd caterpillar was that of the “Whitemarked Tussock Moth”

 

The morning turns to noon, and then mid-day to afternoon, and I do the thing I usually do – wait until the last possible minute to leave behind the paradise of the beach, the golden fog, the sand, and playtime with Kat to travel to the race. Thunderheads are building to the north and that makes it easier to finally clear the beach. As we head out of the state park, the sky grows darker, and I begin to remember what it is like to race in the rain with Category 3’s or Masters and realize that the Pros will be oh-so-worse.

 

After a short warmup I lineup on the same start/finish where I finished 2nd last year in the “Cat 3” category – to the teammate of the rider who had died the day before at the Tour of Holy Hill – and I began to consider the course, and the downhill corner – turn 3, and how it might be with 100+ pro riders in the rain… I wasn’t afraid – I was full of dread…

 

We set off – 80 laps, 62 miles. The pace was high, but the course was dry – for about 10 laps. Then the light drizzle set in and it started getting slippery. Every corner a rider or two went down but mostly by themselves. The pack began to string out, and riders started abandoning and I had to close gaps – which I did – but my own motivation was dwindling as the sky continued to darken and thunder boomed in the distance.

 

Meanwhile that odd facet of human existence that seems to occur during repetitive but mundane suffering (like having the flu) began – a word, or in this case, a pair of words got stuck in my head. This happens often in races. The word starts playing in a repetitive loop in my head – I analyze it, turn it upside, down, backwards, just the vowels, just the consonants – and then just the picture of the word itself, and then – as always – it suddenly loses all meaning.

 

One race a long time ago in New Jersey, the word was a long one “anthropomorphism” – I quickly lost the meaning of the word and then began to be frustrated by this long set of vowels and consonants. I remember the long drive back to Michigan and being annoyed the whole way that I couldn’t remember what the word meant. I even broke it down to the latin roots and while knowing it had something to do with “change” and “man” I had no memory of what the word actually meant (it means the attribution of human traits to non-humans).

 

Another, really, really bad day, and the word was “the” and as I mulled it over and over and over, by the end of the race I no longer recognized the word, had no idea how to use it in a sentence, and was pronouncing it in my own internal dialogue just like Jeff Daniels in “Dumb and Dumber” according to its visual spelling: “ta, heh… ta teh”. What the hell does “ta heh mean? What a stupid stupid word – I hate it.”

 

For 25 laps in Sheboygan, as the rain began, every pedal stroke was either a “Mochi” or a “Mocho”, and then the corresponding downstroke was “Dado.”

 “Mochi-Dado, mochi-dado, mochi-dado, mochi-dado, mochi-dado…. (pause, turn left…), “Mocho-dado, mocho-dado, mocho-dado, mocho-dado, mocho-dado.” 

I officially reserve and trademark this name for some future product or service – 2 months later, and they are still sticky…(I wonder how long I’m going to have these words going in my head today.)

 

20 laps in, 60 to go, the big drops start and now it is pouring – I begin to hope they’ll call off the race. Surely with these gusts of wind, these flashes splintering the sky? The pace escalates and I’m running full out in the rain, with hardly anything to see. Why am I doing this? Who am I trying to impress? It all doesn’t matter… I have a family, a job, I’m ‘important’… all the thoughts of a quitter begin to enter my brain. Now, left turn and “mochi-dado, mochi-dado…”

 

I continue on, pressing the pedals smoothly to keep traction, braking gingerly, accelerating hard, and closing the gaps as rider after rider abandons in front of me, next to me, behind me.

 

Turn 1, 30 laps down, 60 to go. Two riders go down just after the turn, their tires suddenly losing grip on the ¼ inch of water on the road surface, their wheels swooping up, torsos bouncing down. They slide on their backs - almost accelerating like as if they were on black ice, their bikes up in the air, hands slapping at the pavement to try and stop their velocity as skin and skinsuits give way and rent, skin taking on that black burn of wet pavement.(Road rash in the rain is actually quite minor – mostly dirt and that light zinging sting of a minor abrasion.) I pick my way through and then another rider gives up right in front of me and yet another gap opens that I’ll need to close to stay connected to the pack and the protective cover off the draft.

 

Suddenly I stop attacking – and the release of that pressure on my legs and lungs creates instantaneous relief. It is not a conscious decision, but by the time my rational mind connects to what my body has done, there is no time left to reconnect to the pack. My mind berates my body briefly and then shrugs its shoulders. “Mocho…..”

 

the “dado” never comes.

 

The wind stops roaring through my ears and the rain decreases its rattling on my helmet. I coast through turn two and sit up. A few riders sprint by me, and a few more coast up near me and sit up themselves. 6 or 7 of us drift, pedals motionless, down the backstretch into the coming storm, the huge drops bouncing off the pavement, the grey of rain replacing the green of the suburban landscape surrounding us.

 

We all abandon the course halfway and split up, making our way back to our cars and loved ones. In my case I’m luckier than just about all and return to the large well lit warm interior of the RV.

 

I coast up and dismount shaking my head. I mount my bike to the back of the RV as they duck back into the calm of the RV interior. Nothing is said. I drive off, and the storm gets worse, thunder booming close by. The road is so dark I turn on the headlights. It turns out that only 33 of the 108 starters actually finish the race.

 

Courage? Maybe I have it, maybe I don’t. What is it anyway?

2007 Race Report #8: Crashing...

Race Report #8, Thursday, July19th, Superweek Stage 7 Pro/Am Criterium, Shorewood, WI, 100K. 

The best thing about the race in Shorewood was that I didn’t have a single incident on the way to and from the race. It helped that I drove the new car.

Shorewood is a relatively new course to Superweek and hence does not quite have the crowds of the famous Downer Avenue race to come later in the tour. However it did share that upscale neighborhood, the large homes lining the course, and the sense that the spectators were as analytically involved with the races as they were emotionally.

I ran into Eddy Van Guyse – the announcer of “Breaking Away” fame prior to the race and he asked me to remind him of my athletic credentials. I gave him the details, got in a decent warmup and then lined up a bit far back in the crowd gathered at the start/finish line as Eddy began introducing the race leaders and riders of notable fame.

Again I was surprised to hear some of my own credentials as Eddy related my background and introduced me along with the top 5, but it was a bit embarrassing – I had lined up so far back in the peleton that I couldn’t make my way through the 130+ riders – so I just stayed in position and waved to the crowd.

I won’t bother to describe the first 40 laps of the 58 lap, 100 kilometer race except to say it was quite similar to Bensenville – a lot of “barely hanging on” going on. Considerable suffering. I was quite uncertain whether I was going to finish and spent my mental efforts focusing on the lies required to keep me in the race.

Finally, the lap cards read 10 laps to go and I knew I would finish, and I knew I had a little bit of juice left in the tanks. From a low point where the world was a single focal point of the wheel in front of me, my consciousness began to expand and I began to register the complicated machinery of the race, the riders. I began to gather that low thrumming energy from the crowd and the wheels around me.

I heard my name around turn 4 of the four corner course and looked up to see my old friend Kent Savit – giving me a hard time about being dead last with 7 laps to go. Next lap I grinned and held up 4 fingers – indicating when I intended to move up.

When the lap cards read 5 to go, I did my thing and used the gutters on straightaway 2, and then the inside line on turn 3 to shoot through the pack and as I came out of turn 4 with 4 laps to go I nodded to Kent as I hovered in about 10th position – having moved up through over 100 riders in the space of a lap. Then, head down, I began to watch the race patterns unfold and the setup of a big sprint finish.

Three laps to go and I’m still holding my position in the top 15. Things bunch up a bit as we enter the second straightaway, and a surge goes through on the inside.

I’ve been favoring the outside line in turn two the whole race and ride my usual line entering the corner, only to be suddenly, and immediately confronted by the bodies and bikes and that awful train wreck noise of the 4 or 5 riders who crash right in my path: I’m heading right at them while leaning hard into the deepest part of the corner going 25mph.

There is no way out – I’m blocked to the left by riders, and to the right is only a dead-on run into a curb. I know immediately that I’m going down and hard, but still use my brakes to reduce the impact.

With the lean and the speed, my rear wheel breaks tension with the concrete first and begins to slide and even as the riders and bikes blocking my way loom, I begin a sideways slide to the left – like I’m in a full out sprint sliding in to second base – but on concrete. My left side hits the pavement just shy of my bike hitting the rider in front of me and I feel that burning heat – that roasting, tearing sensation of skin sliding, grinding against concrete as I skid sideways 15, 20 feet on my left hip and my bike then hits the bike and rider blocking my path with only a minor impact.

I’m up in a flash as hundreds of riders veer around us, and I try to disentangle my bike from the rider in front of me. My front wheel’s spokes are scissored into the front hub of another rider and only by aggressive shaking do I release my bike and can finally mount it.

By then, the peleton is gone – the tail end 200 yards away and receding quickly and there is no chance of catching. Worse still – the “free lap” rule is now over – only in effect until 5 laps to go, I can no longer go into the pits and jump back into the pack with no penalty.

So… my only option is to withdraw… or… is it? My stubborn side comes through and I get angry thinking that I suffered for more than two hours and won’t even get to do the one thing I do well – sprint. So after quick consideration I resolve to let the referees know of my illegal maneuver if I actually gain anything out of it, and I cut the course diagonally, and jump right back into the rear of the peleton – dead last, (again), with two laps to go. Illegal for sure, but not really unethical…

The sprint to just catch on took its toll, but I worked my way as best as I could through the pack, and finished 67th – about halfway through the field when we came around again.

It was with some gritty resolve that I spoke to Jose after the race as I examined the football sized patch of raw meat on my left thigh… “I could have done well today…” shaking my head and then limped my way back to the car for the two hour drive home, dreading that first shower, looking forward to Advil…

2007 Race Report #7: Humility

Race Report #7, Sunday, July15th, Superweek Stage 3 Masters, Bensenville, IL, 60K. Humility… 

If I was flush with confidence after finishing my second Pro/Am Superweek race – even finding myself contending for the sprint - then the race in Bensenville quickly put my limited strengths back into perspective. If yesterday at Blue Island I felt that sense of flow, that ability to wade in amongst the stars, today I was reminded of how strong the currents can be, and how weak my unwitting limbs can be against the torrents of the wind and vagaries of the peleton.

Humility… cycling teaches this virtue often to its participants. Even as I write about this strange unusual sport, I’m struck with how often I wax and wane, quietly and internally between these extremes of humility and confidence. Most of all, I’m struck about just how much lying I do…to myself… during those long painful laps, a practice I executed to perfection in a future stage of the race on Downer Avenue in Milwaukee…

 The first few laps… 

If my last 5 laps in my second pro race at Blue Island the day before were filled with confidence, aggressively moving up through the pack, an over-riding compulsion to set up “for the win” despite everything, then Bensenville quickly became a lesson an obeisance to the gods of cycling. From the start of the race I was a pathetic husk of a racer. It started fast, and strung out into a single file chain of silver and black double loops ringing the oddly shaped neck of the 0.8 mile, six corner course. During the 40 mile, 48 lap race, the pace only relinquished twice.

I wanted to quit after two laps…

Sure, the first few laps of most races tend to put me into hurt as I fully warm up and accustom my muscles to the race environment. However, at Bensenville, each lap as we came around the tight bend into the long, slightly uphill finish stretch was a near full-out sprint for me every single time. Every finish stretch was the limit of my abilities and for 40 of the 48 laps. I was literally sprinting almost as hard as I would in a sprint finish on the last lap of a race. Legs straining to the max, lungs completely out of air, that burning, swelling sensation in your quads, the internal begging for it to just slow down – “just let me coast a little – just a little!”

But the peleton wouldn’t listen to my silent demands and the wind roared through my ears and cluttered my thoughts with its volume as we continued headlong pace into the dueling oblivions of pain and fear.

 Within the first lap, the long sticky tendrils of those dark shadowy thoughts and doubts began to get a grip on my psyche… What the hell am I doing here? I’m clearly no pro rider if I’m suffering this bad during the beginning of a race. I can’t even keep up with guys 30 years old (and older). Am I poser? Do I deserve to be here? Every single person here is better than me. Can I possibly last another 45, 40, 30, 29, 28, 27, 20, 15 more laps? Should I quit now and recover for the next race? How is possible that they do this every day in the Tour – and with hills?  

I remember very clearly coming out of the last corner of the first of 48 laps and watching the peleton string out – the double braid of the backstretch pulled taut by the speed and wind and tensioned straight as a guitar string - and I wondered between gasps for air and knees pulling full force into my chest as we accelerated to 34mph, “how it is that I’m sprinting full out into a headwind – yet at least covered by the draft of the wheels in front of me and yet, and YET, these guys up there so far away, they are breaking away, solo or in small groups and plunging through it, churning through this wind, diving under it or brute forcing it. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? I was less impressed with my own inabilities as I was with the power generated by those lead riders…

That’s when the lying starts. In retrospect, this lying might well be one of my greatest strengths apart from my ability to go 7 or 8 seconds pretty fast. Self deceit is a critical component of bicycle racing.

 The first quarter of the race… 

The lying starts like this… my mind starts to realize what I’ve signed up for – a 60 mile, 70, 90 or 100 lap death march on bumpy roads where everyone in the race is stronger than me, and my psyche starts to rebel and think things like, “there’s no way I can make it 97 more laps like this,” or “One more straightway like this and we’re done.” Even worse is the thought of, “oh yeah – even if I finish, I have to do it all again tomorrow…”

So I lie. I blatantly and conspicuously generate falsehoods in my brain to reduce the impossibility of the task at hand. I redirect my thoughts and say, “OK, after one more lap I’ll just pull off and quit – but I HAVE to stay attached for one lap – that’s my little goal..”

Then I stay attached, and I start to lie again… “OK, we’ve made 8 out of 100 laps. Let’s at least get in 1/10th  of the race as training – and then you can quit .” And I make it the two more laps – but just barely.

When it gets really bad, I shorten the distance to when I’ll quit: “Just make it to the next corner, and then you can sit up and coast and bail out of the race.” And I believe it every time – it is truly my intention to quit within 30 seconds… but I rarely do.

When the lies come in flurries – where I’m barely hanging on straightaway to straightaway – that’s when “getting dropped” becomes a real likelihood.

“Getting Dropped” is my greatest fear in a bike race. If a gap grows between the relative calm and comfort offered by the “draft” – the swirl of forward moving wind created by the peleton ahead – then a rider like me faces two choices – to “bridge the gap” and sprint to reconnect to the riders and draft ahead, or to give up. Continuing to ride solo at 30mph is not an option for a rider like me, and the idea that a rider could be dropped and reconnect is as foreign to me as are the languages of Hungarian and Hindi.

“Bridging the gap” if it occurs, is the hardest thing I have to do in a race. It has its parallel in the breakaway efforts of those riders strong enough to be in the lead of the pack – as they bridge gaps to solo or small group efforts with the potential of a guaranteed podium or top 10 finish to serve as their reward.

The only reward for bridging a gap that occurs on the far side of the peleton (my side) is more suffering.

The artifice gets a little harder during the second quarter of the race. I start dividing the distance into thirds (but the math rarely works – let’s see, 70/3 = 23.333, so my new goal is to make it to 46.666 laps to go…) and if in a pinch I resolve back to the “one more lap” approach or the “just one more straightaway” focus.

During the Bensenville race, I used all of these fabrications and more, and not even once during the first half of the race did I even remotely consider the option of finishing the whole thing a possibility. Really though, I avoided that thought all together spending no less than 9 laps on the “one more lap” lie while doing full-out-sprints each straightaway.

 Halfway… 

Cycling is as much a mental as a physical sport. I use these tricks to remove the daunting prospect of the coming miles from my psyche so I can focus on the present. Still, there is a part of me that prefers the analytical detachment of “mind over body” and I’m always surprised and a bit irritated by the fact that the “halfway” mark in the race seems to somehow physically change me and the race almost inevitably becomes easier.

The first half of the race is almost always ridden in a defensive posture – gliding and being efficient, staying out of trouble, and then when the math reads that I’ve done half the race, it suddenly feels easier.

It really, honestly, feels easier. I can’t explain it. Wheels to draft off of are suddenly more available, the roads are smoother, and power is more available…  I know intellectually it is B.S. – but I feel it, so it is true.

 The final quarter 

With 20 laps to go at Bensenville, I finally began to realize I was going to make it – that I would finish the race… however thoughts of doing more than that did not yet enter my mind.

Somewhere around 10 laps to go in the Bensenville race and I start to allow my brain to think forward – instead of dreading the 60, 50, or 40 miles to go, it takes a new, natural tack… “how should I set up for the sprint?”

My intuitive self is quite able in this regard. I am, when it comes to it, a pretty awful bike racer – limited aerobic abilities, too heavy, undertrained, too old, and unable to push the pedals hard for more than 7 or 8 seconds. However, my limitations don’t seem to daunt my subconscious, and as I begin to visualize the future on laps 10, 9, 8 and so on, I see myself moving up, using my limited abilities to jump up 5 or 50 places and then getting in perfect position for the finish.

At Bensenville, with about 6 to go, I suddenly remembered that a friend and co-worker Ed Perez and his kids were present and acknowledged them with a nod and then began to focus on climbing up the braid of riders, rider by rider, switching left and right to get to the head of the pack.

The pace had finally slowed a bit as a breakaway had gotten away and I was then able to move quickly up into the top 15 riders of the race with 3 laps to go. Even though I was exhausted, I still felt I had a decent shot at a strong finish.

Then it got ugly.

It is rare that I’m afraid in a race. Often I feel that the peleton is far too conservative in entering and exiting corners and get frustrated with the amount of braking going on. The Masters category tends to be very safe as the riders are both experienced, and old enough to not risk everything: that is, with the exception of the last two laps at Bensenville. The last two laps felt exactly like the one and only Category 3, 4, and 5 race I had done a few years ago – mindless and heedless charges up the inside with 7, 8 and 9 riders lining up abreast to enter corners capable of handling perhaps 4, maybe 5 riders at best.

With 2 laps to go the lump in the hose reached the kink and in the third turn, a spray of riders exploded all over the edges of the course, resulting in a big pileup and a dozen riders hopping the curbs, bouncing off of trees and spilling out over the lawns and gardens of the homes nearby. I hoped this would relieve the pressure, but it did not and for the next 3 corners there were crashes right up front in the peleton.

I ended up braking and staying out of the mayhem, but as we hit the line with one lap to go, my nerves were jangling – this type of behavior was very unusual.

Sure enough, heading down the long backstretch into the last 4 back-to-back tight corners, there was yet another headlong rush up the inside, and I heeded my nerves and backed off before the corner, dropping from about 6th spot to about 30th in the space of 200 feet, and then watching another pileup occur in front of me.

With riders re-entering the course from the sidewalks on both sides like ants marching to a picnic, I picked my way through the downed riders and then did my best to overtake the long single file train of riders ahead of me, crossing the line about 8th in the sprint, and ending up 14th overall due to the breakaways. Little did I know that these crashes on the last two laps were to become a pattern over the next stages of Superweek…