2009 Race Report #17: Wind, Rain, Cobblestones and the Grand Cycling Classic

2009 Race Reports 17: Wind, Rain and Cobblestones  Friday, August 7: A long drive, like the 5 hour trip to Grand Rapids the night before the Grand Cycling Classic, unearthed for me a host of echoes of the travels of my youth, and the associated conflicting thoughts and feelings. I dreaded the drive and the packing and the worry over forgetting something, yet at the exact same time, I was eager to depart and couldn't wait for that cloistered freedom of being on the road where the tyranny of choices – which email to answer, what project should I be undertaking, should the lawn be watered, does the pool have enough chlorine, what should I eat – is replaced by the quiet comfortable monotony of driving.

Once the traffic of Chicago cleared, so too did my mind and I found myself happily alone, listening to music, without choices save one – to drive or not.

I once read in a book loaned to me by a friend at work about a man who sailed alone from Canada all the way to Tahiti, who was marooned in the doldrums of the Pacific (a place with very little wind, calm seas and brilliant sunshine) for over a week. Someone later asked if he was bored.

He gave a considered response, one that I still think about now… No, he said, boredom is an emotion that comes when there are things you should be doing, but can’t. On the sailboat, once he had checked the compass, the keel and the horizon, there was nothing else to be done. Everything that could be done was complete, and he was peacefully alone in the freedom of his thoughts. So too was my experience as I passed into the hall of trees lining the highway north into Michigan as the sky darkened, brooding.. a foreshadowing of the weather to come.

I arrived late to the home of my friend Dave Heitiko, who had apparently forgiven me for crashing him the year prior (by accident) in the same race. Joining us were Randy Rodd, Ray Dybowski, Luke Cavender, and Adrian Fear, along with Dave and his wife. Wines were poured, stories were told, and as is always the case, we ignored the sprawling spaces of the large house and stood around the kitchen island until the wee hours even as coronas of lightning began outside the shelter of the house.

Saturday, August 8: I slept in the basement on a couch in a sleeping bag and was perfectly content, though I did not want to wake up at 7am when the household stirred. We met again in the kitchen and prepared our various breakfast preferences before heading out in a complete downpour to the course.

Slick black and red cobbles worn into ruts from 100 years of traffic, off camber corners, manhole covers like black ice, metal barriers sharpened like guillotines from the rain – this was what greeted us as we arrived and fear ran cold like the rain pouring down from overhead. The sky lightened a bit and it finally stopped raining as I registered, then began again as I “warmed up” gingerly taking the corners of the course at low speeds.

The race itself was almost the exact opposite of my feelings prior – my tires felt sticky, my legs strong, and for once I felt I could do whatever I wanted within the small peleton. It was a small field, but full of names I was familiar with – strong riders. I stayed mostly in the top 5 for safety and even won a prime (which I donated to the Randy Rodd fund) and as we came around with 2 laps to go there was not really any doubt in my head that I would win this race. I tried to turn on the camera, but it errored out – either from the rain or low battery..

I remembered that feeling – I used to have it most races as a junior and often as a speedskater, but as a part time cyclist the last few years, my fitness has always been right on the edge and most of my energy in a race was spent just hanging on. To experience, for a day, that old feeling of control, to be able to move when and where I wanted, to sling up the outside of the pack in the wind – these were real joys despite the rooster tails of water, the skittering of tires on the wet cobbles, the death traps of icy manhole covers dotting the road like landmines.

With one to go a leadout emerged and a Bissell rider shot to the front. Behind him was Rob Daksowicz (sp?) last year’s masters winner, and I sat easily in third. I knew exactly where to go and how it would play out, and it went just as I had imagined – 150 meters prior to the final corner, I hit the afterburners and jumped out front, gapping the field before braking hard on the slippery pavement of the final corner and then leaning my body while holding my bike upright around the bend.

I took it quite fast, but had the perfect line, avoiding the white paint strips and the off camber cobbles to the outside, and as soon as I returned to vertical, I shifted up and got out of the saddle and poured every thread of energy I had into the pedals for the next 150 meters.

Then I did something I have never done before in 33 seasons of racing  - I looked back…

I was sure that no one could have matched the first accel, the hard cornering in the rain, and the second accel, so I risked the look back, potentially putting the win at risk.

But no one was close by – I had 100 feet or more, and as I approached the white stripe of the finish line I did a second thing I have never done before. Sure, it was a small race, sure it was only the masters group, sure it was in the rain with only a few spectators, but I wanted to do this, I needed to do this, and as I screamed across the line, contrails of water spouting above my head, I removed my hands from the handlebars and shot them straight up in the air to celebrate in this fashion for the very first time in my career…

It felt good, really good.

The Wolverines had a good showing in later races, with Randy Rodd in 3rd, Ray in 4th, and Adrian in 8th. I raced the BMW back to Illinois with a large heavy brick trophy from the cobblestone streets on the seat next to me inscribed with the race date and name, its heft belying the own lightness of being I was experiencing. Now, if I could only bring this same feeling to Downers Grove – 7 days away….

2009 Race Reports 14 – 16: The Race to the Race

2009 Race Reports 14 – 16: The Race to the Race It was a carnival freak show caricature of the real thing. Everything that took place during those swollen seconds was a bloated, leviathan equivalent of the norm. Reminiscent of the movie Wall-E, every healthy element was eliminated and replaced by a supersized, unhealthy counterpart.

In the race to the race of the Chicago Criterium, I desperately needed food “on-the-go,” and the Lake Forest Oasis became my “feed-zone” where I received my “hand-up.”  To explain: the feed-zone is the area in bike races like the Tour de France where racers pick up “musette bags” full of healthy carbs and proteins, “hand-ups” by helpful members of the staff who run along side the racers as they slowly climb the steep slopes. Shoulder straps allow the racers to sling these bags of healthy calories over their shoulders so they can eat as they ride. I might as well have strapped it to my face…

In my case, the mountain was the small hill of the Lake Forest Oasis overpass, and the “musette bag” was a folded McDonalds to-go bag containing two fatty hamburgers on white bread with ketchup. The “racer,” (me) was not pedaling a 15lb carbon fiber frame… instead I was casually pushing the gas pedal of a rusting RV getting 7mpg - a 10,000lb hulk of fiberglass and steel zooming awkwardly over the top of the oasis. My friend Matt, unwittingly involved in this sordid satire, stood balanced on the curb in front of McDonalds on his tiptoes holding out my feed bag as I snatched it from his grasp at about 10mph, wallowing back down the overpass to I-294 spewing fumes en-route to the Chicago Criterium.

Thus continued the single worst preparations for any race of my life…

Race Report 14: July 26, 2009 – The Chicago Criterium, Grant Park Chicago – Masters 1 / 2  

The night before the Chicago Crit started way too early, involving copious quantities of Red Zinfandel out of a plastic cup while hiking the Downer Avenue course with my 21 year old teammate Randy Rodd and my great friend Matt Dula while watching the Pro Race. We ended the evening with the usual routine of entertaining guests in the RV by the start finish line and then hit North Avenue, staying up until 2:30am. Randy had to leave just 3 hours later for his race and successfully woke in time. He’s 21 and gets no sympathy. I on the other hand had difficulty waking up at 8:30 when I needed to, and when I finally did get on the road, found myself racing the clock for the 12:05pm race in a vehicle that can’t go much faster than 60mph at 7mpg.

I began chugging water just like the year prior, but this time had no food. I polished off 9 20oz bottles of water in the 3 hour drive, but could already feel the lack of calories. There was no way I could race without eating something, but I didn’t have time to stop… what to do?

I called Matt who was speeding on ahead in his car – and we arranged the now infamous “Lake Forest feed-zone hand-up.” I had asked for a relatively healthy breakfast sandwich and was suddenly thwarted by the switch to lunch. I was stumped - I should have gotten a grilled chicken wrap rather than plain burgers – what was I thinking?!

Finally, 20 minutes before race start time, I parked the RV for $40 and sped to registration, where I received my number (104 – hence there were 104 race participants – once again I was the last to register) and then sped to the wheel pit where Jose and another mechanic helped to get 4 pins in my number just as they called out the racer instructions. The fourth safety pin was latched just as they shot the gun and off we went – and I joined the rear of the peleton about 200 feet past the start finish – no warmup, tired, dehydrated, and fueled with fatty ground beef, ketchup and white bread. I felt like hell.

The race was relatively short and I actually wanted it to be longer, because the longer it lasted, the better I felt. I started lazy and lethargic and gained a little bit of energy every lap. It was an easy race and it was amazing that the peleton let 4 riders escape.

Finally it was the last lap and I woke up. It required the urgency of the bell to finally spur me into motion. The video below captures the action of the final lap, beginning right as we cross the line with one to go where I’m still sitting probably 60 deep or more in the peleton. I learned later than a couple guys were watching my wheel and determined I had given up on the race when I hadn’t yet moved up with less than one to go.

I tried to sling up front into the second corner, but others had the same idea and it was a bind around the corner and I had to brake hard. Swarming continued on the backstretch and I was trapped in the middle and dropped from 12h to 25th before turn 3 of 4 where I had intended to be 2nd – 4th. However, as we passed turn 3 into the short uphill, I still had my one little match, and I lit it out of that corner, getting out of the saddle and shooting up the outside, passing about 15 riders over the top to slot into 4th place into the final corner. I’m sure the same move from 8th or higher would have earned me the field sprint win, but I was just too far back, and by the short final sprint I had no juice left and finished 4th in the field sprint, 8th overall. The video makes it look all in slo-mo, but in real life I felt like I entered hyper-space up the hill and loved that feeling of acceleration. I do love that course…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mhpbVuI2D8]

Race Report 15: August 1st, 2009 – Elk Grove Cat 1/2 75 Kilometers.

I arrived on time, warmed up, and suffered like a dog. For each of the 37 laps I determined that the next lap I would drop out. There was a crosswind and the peleton was spread out single file from lap one, and each long (1000m) finish stretch had me on the rivet. I quickly determine that I would quit at 35 to go (2 laps in), then I lied to myself and said, “at least make 5 laps”.

At lap 32 to go, I lied again and said, “10 laps would be at least a decent showing for your teammates in town” (I had 4 fellow Wolverines visiting and staying with me – Randy, Brett, Pat, and Sarah).  So with 27 to go I determined to quit again, but there they were, cheering, so I decided to go one more lap. Then another, and another. Even with 5 laps to go I wasn’t sure I would make one more lap. The idea of moving up did not enter my oxygen starved brain until 2 to go, and with gaps opening and wheels single file, I only managed to get into the upper quarter of the peleton by the finish despite using every possible fragment of energy in my body (see video below).

Race Report 16: August 2nd, 2009 – Elk Grove Masters 1/2 45 Kilometers. Every POSSIBLE mistake…

Saturday night ended nice and early despite my teammates being town, and after only one glass of wine with Randy and Pat, I hit the hay early and then returned to the course with them the next morning with over an hour to register, pin on my numbers and make the start of the race.

I registered, returned to the car with my number, and then started scrambling, tearing the car apart, searching for, but not finding my skinsuit. Mistake #1 – I forgot my skinsuit. My God – even when I’m early I’m late. I had to head all the way back to get my skinsuit – but Pat Robb had my keys, so first I had to find him… I did get somewhat of a warmup chasing him down while coordinating with Randy via phone. Once I had the keys, I had the traffic lights perfectly timed as I raced back to get my suit, and then returned to the course. When I parked, it was 10:27am, and I still had to get on my numbers, helmet, shoes, gloves and get to the start/finish line in less than 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, they were apparently calling my name at the start/finish, and co-workers John Cregier, Ed Perez, and Dave Torgerson were scratching their heads as I succeeded in becoming a caricature of myself by skidding to the line during the final race announcements with an unbuckled helmet, un-strapped shoes, no gloves, no shoe covers, and no number on. Randy was there to help put the number on, but a couple of ladies by the barriers took over and managed to get 3 of the numbers pinned on before the sent us on our way.

I felt quite good and stayed mostly mid-pack, biding my time for the very long (700m) sprint. Near the end I dropped back, and then as we came around and I saw 3 laps to go, I started making my moves to the front. Mistake #2 – I never looked at the lap cards again…I’m sure now, that when I looked up with 3 laps to go, I was probably dead last, and they had already flipped the cards, so there were actually 4 laps to go, not 3.

But I moved through the pack as though there were 3, then 2, then 1 lap to go. Around the final bend there were two riders off, and the pack, as expected in the headwind, bunched up and I launched off the front, bridging between the pack and the lead riders, knowing the race was mine… until I realized it had all been too easy, and, glancing back, seeing that the pack had done nothing. A sudden cold feeling rang through me with the bell as I sat 100 meters off the front of the peleton… “One Lap to Go!, one lap to go riders!” yelled the announcer. Mistake #3 – sprinting with one lap to go…

No what? I had burned most of my match and couldn’t possibly hold the lead… so I sat up and waited, and then jumped back into the accelerating peleton in about 15th. Over the final corners, things played out well and I was in perfect position, but had no match left and merely followed wheels to finish in 6th place, the taste of blood and pennies in my mouth like yesterday…

Still, my legs felt like they were finally coming on… and the Grand Cycling Classic – in Grand Rapids Michigan – where I had had my first win in a while the year prior was coming up next… I liked this feeling of possiblities...

2009 Race Reports #10 –11: Superweek Evanston Masters 30+ & 40+

Sunday, July 19th - Evanston, IL: I decided to register for both of the Masters events early in the day, and if the legs felt good, to return for the evening Pro race. As it turned out, the legs felt good, but circumstances interfered and I was unable to return for the pro race and had to settle for racing twice. The Masters 30+ and 40+ races were similar - pretty fast paced with a lot of breakaway attempts - all of which were reeled in. I sat in the middle/rear of the field in both races as usual.

The two races were back to back, so I only had time to pin on my new number and I was back out racing.

Masters 30+: The video starts with a lap and a half to go as I start moving through the field in prep for the sprint. You can see that the field is strung out over 200meters down the finish stretch with various small breakaways trying to get away. I used the draft and moved up into the lead of the field and then got a great stroke of luck - like magic, 3 Bissell riders lined up directly in front of me for a leadout, their first guy swinging off on the backstretch, their second guy taking us into the long (400m) slightly uphill finish stretch. I really didn't have much left and tried to come around but couldn't and meanwhile Clayton Goldsmith - who was on my wheel, went winging by and I ended up 3rd.

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

Masters 40+: Some days you just seem to know exactly what to do - and this video picks up with one to go as I shoot up through the field to move into position  on the backside. There I hopscotch from Robert Krohn's wheel to Paul Swinand, and then neatly onto the 3 man leadout on the backstretch. This finish was quite close - almost come around by the line but again don't have quite enough juice and end up 3rd again.

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

2008 Race Report #19: RV Racing - the Chicago Criterium

Race Report #18 – RV Racing: The inaugural Chicago Criterium, Grant Park, Chicago IL, Sunday, July 27. Category: Elite Masters 30+.  Weather: 75 degrees, light winds. Course: bumpy, mostly wide, 1.1 mile/lap, 6 corners w/ two small hills per lap. Distance 47 miles, Avg speed, 27.9mph, avg pulse 171bpm.

 

Gary and I awoke to church bells on Sunday morning after the antics on Downer Avenue the night before and absorbed the brown shag of the RV after just a few hours of sleep. I gruffly reminded Gary of his transgressions from the back of the RV hoping he would attend service and leave me aloneas he muddled around up front and I tried to go back to sleep but ultimately ended up joining him at Starbucks across the street on Downer Ave in Milwaukee at about 7:30 a bit tired and very dehydrated.

 

I used the wi-fi and Google Maps to plan out our day – I would drop Gary, his bike and his backpack off on a back road near Racine where he’d have a 50 or-so mile ride home. I would then continue on my path to Chicago for the inaugural Chicago Criterium – another big-money Chicago-land race – this time right downtown around Grant Park.

 

The race was set to start at 12:30, so we aimed to head out at 9am to give me ample time to make Chicago and drop Gary off enroute without using Chicago mafia drop-off tactics (i.e. pushing him out at 45mph). Alas it ended up closer to 9:30 before we headed out – but still – I had 3 hours to go 90 miles…  plenty of time – right?

 

You guessed it – wrong! I dropped Gary off in Racine around 10am and then hit construction on 294 and then the tolls (no IPASS for a multi-wheel vehicle) and my stress levels began their usual rise as the clock ticked on.

 

Meanwhile along the way I had realized that I was completely dehydrated. I seems so simple to stay hydrated, but it really requires a significant level of discipline when your body can lose over a gallon an hour during an intensive race effort. The wines and wheelies the night before didn’t help. So as I hovered in traffic, I began to aggressively imbibe those 16.9 ounce Dasani water bottles stacked beside me. I drank two in the morning and then two more before dropping Gary off and then proceeded to drink 7 more before I hit downtown. Only after 11 bottles of water (about a gallon and a half) did I start to feel somewhat hydrated. Obviously what comes in must go out – Gatorade doesn’t make those wide mouthed bottles for nothing…

 

Meanwhile with all the traffic, it was 11:30 when I exited Ohio street off 90 for downtown. Still – I had an hour to go 3 miles – no problem right?

 

WRONG again – Closing down Grant Park created quite a traffic quagmire. The RV is not exactly suited to traffic and Michigan Avenue was down to one lane and each light had a single policeman waving traffic off to sidestreets mostly and allowing only a couple of vehicles to pass straight through. As it turns out I would have been better off on the sidestreets, but I was hoping to park right on the course – wishful thinking.

 

At one point the lanes narrowed to one, and traffic followed the zipper effect of notching into the single lane – one car left, one car right. As it became my turn to merge, the car next toand slightly behind me began to tailgate the car in front of it – essentially ‘taking my place’ in the rotation – so typical of Chicago drivers.

 

The thing is – he was driving a 2500 lb, $40,000 car. Meanwhile I’m driving a 10,000lb, $5000 RV. It was silly I know, but I was in racing mode was determined not to lose my spot in the peleton – so I shoved my bumper within an inch of his shiny sleek car doors while looking calmly and arrogantly down at his passenger – who nervously shouted something unintelligible to the driver. Suddenly the car rocked and bucked from the stopping power of its disc brakes and I established my rightful place in the lane. I smiled grimly and raced on. Seriously I could have driven right over that little thing like a monster truck – don’t mess with an RV driver who races criteriums – you will lose…

 

I dodged through traffic like a tortoise strapped to the back of a rabbit and watched my countdown clock go from 50 to 40 to 30 to 20 before finally making my way back West to find a pay parking lot. After I finally found parking, I had 9 minutes before the start of the race.

 

Meanwhile, during various stops at lights I had run into the back of the RV and had gathered and changed into my racing suit – shorts, jersey, gloves, shoes, and helmet. Had I been wearing this getup during the traffic altercation, it probably would have helped convince the driver to give way…

 

I exited the RV, pumped up my tires, and brought my available cash and a credit card in my pocket and raced to the start/finish to register.

The registration guy was a bit amused… “Lets see – race starts in 5 minutes – hope you can pin your numbers on that quick. That’ll be $50 - $40 plus a $10 late registration fee.”

“Oh man – I only have $45…” 

“OK,” he says, “you owe me $5.” “Now let me see your license…” 

Oh boy…“Uh – that’s back in the RV…”

“OK you don’t have enough money and you don’t have a license and the race starts in 5 minutes… I suppose you’d like me to allow this anyway right?”

So I say, “tell you what – you give me the registration packet and I’ll run to the RV after I get my number on and show you my license before I hit the line.”

“Deal.”

So I stripped down quickly, put four sloppy pins in for my number and threw away the second number and bike number and then raced to the RV and grabbed my license.

I swung back through and showed him my license only to hear those perfectly joyous words, “don’t worry – they are running late.”  FINALLY!

I got in a short warmup and then lined up with the field. There were 105 riders. I know that because my number was 105. Lots of money on the line and I was still tired and lethargic but I liked the course – two small sprinter hills and a relatively short (200m) finish stretch.

The first 46 miles were a mind numbing grind. The peleton stayed mostly together and sometimes stretched out on the backstretch and it was sometimes pretty hard. I actually considered dropping out about a dozen times in the race. I wasn’t completely burnt, but it was a weird sort of boring suffering – the race seemed to stretch on forever.

Suddenly, and finally, it was one lap to go and I yet again experienced that odd and faithful resurgence of energy and focus. My time. I slotted up to 30th on the long homestretch. Up and over the first sprinter hill into 20th and then into the single file high speed backstretch… waiting, waiting and then a hard move up the outside prior to corner three and as we entered the second to last straightaway, I’m suddenly, perfectly, in 3rd position with 450 meters to go and one small hill.

I was fresh. I had languished in the back for 46 miles and began to notice in the final 10 miles how quickly riders were going backward on this short hill on the short straightaway prior to the homestretch and finish line. For some reason these small hills hurt the roadies but allow me to leverage my strengths.

Time slowed – I was on the outside of a single file line riding the hip of rider #2 entering turn 3. We were traveling at about 34mph and bouncing over cracked pavement. This was considerably faster than prior laps and both riders up front used the entire width of the road to exit the turn, swinging all the way into the sloping gutter of the curb. Their nervousness was evident.

I followed the wheels to the outside, still feeling the draft. I looked up at the small climb facing us and knew exactly what was to come next. As our trajectories flattened out, I would hit the afterburners and use the 6 seconds of my tiny nuclear reactor to leap past riders 1 and 2 and hum into the lead. I would scream over the top of the hill and launch into the short downhill into the final corner at 40+ mph, flat on my top tube, leaning hard.

I would start pedaling early on the exit of the corner over the bumpy pavement and then,  using the final reserves of my fading strengths, I would streak to the line and cross well ahead of the field for the win. There was no doubt now, only the details of executing the plan.

All these thoughts accumulated and resonated in a half second of time as we exited the corner. All I had to do was exit the corner safely and then jump up the inside – my one little superpower, my little nuclear reactor ready to finally be lit.

And then, of course, it happened. Rider #2 clipped the curb, pulled out a foot, and meandered right into my launch trajectory.

I slammed on both brakes locking up the bike, grazing his back wheel. Riders went winging by, the hum and chatter of their wheels on the cracked pavement giving evidence to my backward motion.

I re-launched my explosion – but instead of coming from a 34mph slingshot, I fought the ropes against a deceleration to 25mph. Still, my little nuclear reactor got me back in the game and I shot back from 15th to 7th over the hill as we headed into the final corner.

Lined up neatly behind the contrails of draft provided by the riders up front, victory was still in reach except for that little nagging weakness of mine – I only have one 6 second sprint to use – and I had used it up. I had nothing, absolutely nothing left and drifted across in 7th, head down, disappointed. I was doubly disappointed when I realized I had completely forgotten to turn on the video-cam.

Still, I could taste it… I remembered what it was like to launch at the right time on the right course and I knew it was possible – completely possible that I could win a big race like this. I was hungry for it.

As it turns out I only had to wait a couple of weeks…

Next year though, Chicago is mine.

Walden Race Rule #4: Get into Position to Win.

Walden Race Rule #4: Get into Position to Win.

This principle is really the predecessor to Race Rule #3 – “Win it at the Line”.  You can’t ‘win it at the line’ from 60th place. 

So, what are the key mechanisms that enable the Walden rule of “Get into position to win?”

1)      Shift down. This is the single most important part of moving through a crowded peleton. Tired limbs and ragged lungs prefer slower RPM’s, but, having the discipline to pedal rapid circles and taking on the additional aerobic burden it carries it provides the reward of being able to take advantage of opportunities before that of your fellow riders. When riders suddenly divide in front of you creating a Tetris-like body space – only the swiftest acceleration will garner that spot. Be that rider that fills in the gap…Do it 20 times and you can move through an entire peleton without feeling the wind…

2)     Never move up on the “hard parts” unless out of desperation or it is the final sprint. For me, the dozens of laps preceding the finish are like a giant science project – how does the peleton move? What are its weaknesses? Where does it consistently slow? Most courses have their Achilles heels – places where the dynamics of the race create opportunities. Elk Grove had no Achilles heel – the whole thing was scary, fast, and dangerous. I had to use other opportunities.

3)      Get a better view: ride on the hoods (upper part of the handlebars) with your head up. I never even realized I did this until someone gave me a hard time about it a few years ago. Riding head down makes perfect sense when in the front of the field or on a breakaway, but when trapped in the compression of the peleton, use the draft to get a good look around. This is probably the single easiest thing to do to aid you during this critical portion of the race. Visibility of the swaying patterns of the peleton is critical to being able to ‘read the tea leaves’ of the race and find a space to move up.

4)      Broadcast your intended movements – herd the cats. Oddly most riders seem intent on maintaining their position – and if you, through your body language and the occasional hand gesture or touch on the hip – indicate a direction you wish to go, more often than not they’ll accommodate. For myself I use a combination of the “slow drift”, the flip of the hand, and the touch on the hip to try and create my path. Sometimes you’ll encounter the cycling equivalent of the ‘Chicago driver’ who actually goes counter to your intended movement and shuts you down – but they too are creating space and sometimes you can anticipate this reaction and quickly swing around them on the other side.

5)      Use EVERYTHING to get into position: finally, and most importantly, be willing to use everything you have to get into position. As your body moves beyond its VO2 max and enters oxygen debt, it is easy to give into the physical and mental malaise that accompanies this searing agony and ‘settle in’ and hope that somehow, somewhere, an opportunity to get into position will emerge.

The single greatest lesson to be learned from this Walden rule is that you have to make it happen – and if necessary use every single ounce of energy at your disposal, sacrificing your actual sprint to get into position. Said differently, a ‘non-sprint’ from 3rd position as you blow up and drift backward is 99% more likely to land you a top ten position than a somewhat rested move from 25th. 

Let me say this again with more urgency: there is NO POINT to sprinting from 30th… (unless you have just moved up from 60th with every ounce of your power.) The first priority for every single available ounce of your energy is to get into striking distance of the win – after that the subtleties of 10th vs. 5th vs. 1st around the final corner is a luxury to be considered for Walden Race Rule #3 (Win it at the Line!)

 Think of those moments as a kid where you tried to stay underwater to swim a distance or find an object at the bottom of the pool or lake – and then of that last burst of frantic, lung burning energy as you exploded to the surface and finally breathed the fresh air of recovery.

Now imagine the same maneuver - doing that same impulsive set of thrumming kicks normally reserved for breaking back to the surface – but instead use them to knowingly enter a tunnel: a darkening culvert with the water rising - the dark spirals of the galvanized ceiling pressing down – lips pursed to capture a breath just above water in the dark as the air disappears. The sprinters choice – continue these death throes or back up and hope for more air?

Often the right choice is forward: thrashing forward under the dark nape of the water and all air gone, the horizon closing. Lungs are on fire, legs become molten lead and every evolutionary fiber in your body tells you to dart for a surface that is no longer there – asphyxiating paroxysms of panic threaten to undermine your survival…

This is fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – that deep inner panic starts to simmer and boil over – to pervade everything – it tells you to find a way to surface, to escape this intentional drowning. But there is no short cut and those that try to find one – by diving into corners or by taking them too fast – find disaster and wash up on the shores of the barriers.  Instead you must discipline yourself, duck lower, and kick through to the other end of this tunnel of pain before you can rise to the surface.

 It is as a result of exactly these kinds of panic attacks that I’ve ended up burning through my own skin on the tarmac at various races – usually not my panic, rather the dying gropings of another drowning rider panicking – groping, and pulling me under.

It is this element of fear that makes this probably the hardest of all the Walden rules to follow...

The video to follow shows the sort of ‘slo mo’ version of various high speed nervous exercises to move up. The slow frame rate fails to capture virtually any of the relevant frenetic action in the peleton as we vibrated through those final miles - coasting, sprinting, braking, bumping, crashing and sweating through those narrow boulevards at over 30 mph – sudden sways echoing through the field, the sudden hiss and burning smell of brakes, and rapid swings to avoid wheels and limbs. Nonetheless, what the video does capture is the suffocating closeness of the field preparing for the final sprint, the closed road ahead when it comes to moving up, the proximity of other riders, and the press of bodies blocking any forward progress.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9W0WETpST8] 

2008 Race Report #17: Superweek Stage 15 (Kenosha) and “Really Living”

2008 Race Report #17: Superweek Stage 15 (Kenosha) and “Really Living”

After collecting my check for 9th place in Racine, we piled into the RV and headed to Lake Geneva, WI – home of Gary & Monica as well as their two sons, Rico (Otto) and Ogzila (Owen).

 We pulled into the forested cul-de-sac in Lake Geneva to revisit these favorite friends, the dappled light from tall trees welcoming us back a year after our last visit when the stars had swooned from my exhaustion. However, other than my relatively fresh legs it might as well have been 20 minutes: time ratchets on many cogs and it is a mistake of the modern era to conclude that it is linear. As we gathered round the kitchen watching Monica finish preparing an incredible feast of homegrown vegetables, salsa, and an amazingly tender and flavorful pork tenderloin, we resumed the chain of our previous conversations about life and happiness without shifting gears. 

 Monica was ever the gracious, relaxed and attentive host and chef, and Gary, as usual was full of stories and stocked with fine wine. We all sat out under the fading light talking and enjoying one of those perfect midwestern nights where the air is soft and still, the only currents the blue fingers of the cool evening air descending to massage our limbs. 

 I was determined to race well at Kenosha – yet could not tear away from the conversation either. This is where my purposes, and that of the professional athlete diverge – the professional has no so quandries – he merely announces, “I have to go to work” and heads off to bed. I have no such desire to make that kind of sacrifice – but nor do I want to get crushed in the race due to crippling fatigue – so I typically settle for the next best thing – staying up way too late, getting up way too early, and getting just barely enough sleep to function reasonably well. That may very well sound like poor decision making, but for me, the goal has changed – the old goal was “winning” – the new goal is “really living” which requires different choices and different sacrifices.

 “Really living” as a concept is quite different than happiness and has slowly evolved as a core concept to my own identity. What I love about it is its honesty: it implies the necessity of suffering and acknowledges the reality of looming and inevitable death as fodder for living a life of meaning. There are numerous literary and cultural references to this concept but for some reason my favorite is from the 1995 film “Braveheart” where the main character, William Wallace, says simply, “every man dies, not every man really lives.”

 Said differently, this concept includes the latin “Carpe Diem” (Seize the Day), and a favorite quote from within a book by John Izzo, “When life gives you choices, choose the one that will make the best story.” Viktor Frankl also speaks to the essence of this concept (particularly with regards to suffering) in his famous book “Man’s Search For Meaning.”

 I’m particularly focused on this concept of late, and for odd reasons. A few weeks ago, a high school classmate I had not spoken to in more than two decades wrote to me on Facebook. This person had been one our schools’ top athletes and our shared past included events to bond us despite relatively little time together. After exchanging the usual pleasantries he asked whether I was still competing. “Of course,” I answered, and then I threw an alternate question back to him, “are you happy?”. His answer was absolutely un-extraordinary and somewhat typical and expected – yet for some reason it rocked me on my heels. I wrestled with it for hours that became days that became weeks.

 Perhaps it was partially because I was about to cross a point in time in life indicating that arbitrary line of my 40th birthday – maybe deep down my subconscious (my elephant – to reference Jonathan Haidt) did believe this was a significant milestone even if my rational mind gave it scarcely a thought.

 Here’s his quote to my question of whether he was happy:

 “I think I'm more content than happy which is okay by me, the highs and lows of life are a bit overrated. I've grown to appreciate the calm, steady times in my old age.” (bold is mine)

 I began to question my sanity. As an almost 40 year old, shouldn’t this be what I aspire to?  To gracefully relax my white knuckled “Carpe Diem” grip on life and fade into the wallpaper? After all isn’t my goal to trade the paint pots and brushes of the artist for that of the canvas maker – to create the playing field for others to discover their dreams? To create the backdrop upon which my daughter, my team, and others in my life can paint their own destinies in bright and vibrant colors? Was I starting to become like that overly elegant frame in the museum – trying or succeeding in outshadowing the art?

 Again and again I circled and vacillated – servant leader vs. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and eventually concluded that, for now, parts of my life still call for the role of participant – or via leading through doing and that despite the usual barriers, cynicism, and conventional wisdom, that I would go ahead and follow my own moral compass.

 Calm steady times sound great, and go down easy – no question. But… they are often forgotten. I still want to grow – to experience the “squeeze of life” and the subsequent expansion and rush that follows suffering. And besides, there was just no possible way that I had become old… yet.

 Thank God for Dara Torres.

 Race Report #17: Superweek Stage 17, Kenosha, Wisconsin, Friday, July 25. Category: Pro ½.  Weather: 82 degrees, light winds. Course: flat, four corners,  0.6miles/lap, Distance, 100 laps, 100km, average speed 29.7mph, Average pulse over 2 hours, 10 minutes:  176bpm.

 After a morning by the pool with the kids playing, and then a pasta extravaganza produced by Monica featuring my favorite of favorites - the pasta with fresh tomato-basil, onion, zuccini, squash combo we had made for them the year prior, it was time to go race.

Kenosha is one of my favorite races – both for the “gemutlichheit” sense or feeling of positive energy that pervades the overall event, as well as for the more selfish reasons that the race tends to be one where I place well – mostly on the podium these past years.

 Sudden note to self – the few races that I do really well in (Sheboygan, Kenosha, Downer’s Grove) tend to draw the greatest crowds – why is that?  Probably because the simplicity of these courses tends to the leave the outcome uncertain… and because you can see a good portion of the race and follow it from many positions. I rarely rejoice in being a sprinter, but courses like this do provide the sprinter some panache – you roadies can go ahead and destroy each other on Holy Hill where ‘both spectators’ can watch, or you can come to a race with throngs like this where it ‘gets interesting.’

 I arrived on time, warmed up well and started mid-field in this epic event. I was a little nervous prior to the start as my thwarted move last year on the last lap held out that there was a possibility that I could win or place in a Pro race. But mostly my attitude remained in that fun place of “all upside” and I found a weird contrary enjoyment in the first 60 of 100 laps.

 For more than 2 decades I’ve clinically evaluated the elements of this course and leveraged my limited strengths against them. For the first 2/3’s of the race I focused on efficiency and maintaining position and absolutely nothing else. Breaks? Crashes? These were merely mosquitoes to be swatted at and I found some positive meaning in being the “best” at my little internal game of moving up during the lulls, staying out of trouble, and finding the best wheel, the best line through the corner, the best position in the peleton to conserve, and pedaling the least.

 As we drifted down the lap countdown, the pace continued to reign high and I had to move up and close some gaps. It remained strung out, single file from laps 30 down to 15. At this point it relaxed just a little bit. I was ever thankful and wheezed on the snorkel of recovery. Part of me warned, though, that this was a temporary reprieve, and my own challenge to the roadie gods was not completely gone from my own mind. After two laps of rest, I saw that traditional and perfect opportunity – the front had lost focus and the pack had swarmed and I could merely put in a hard accel up the left and I would find myself in the top 20 – in position for the suffering to follow.

 I did nothing.

 12 laps still seemed like a long way. I had never been in a race that didn’t regroup at least once underneath the 5 mile mark (we were at 7 miles to go) so I didn’t panic. I should have.

 It was though the challenge I had issued to the roadie gods was answered (and it was not a prayer.) With 12 laps to go, the Columbian team, followed by Kelly Benefits and Rock Racing, began an onslaught the likes of which I’ve never experienced, watched or witnessed. Even as I entered that rare territory of my strengths (a few laps to go on a fast course) all my weaknesses were dealt against me like playing against a deck of Aces.

 The pace up front lifted and lifted some more, averaging over 31mph, with straightaway speeds 33, and 34 each and every lap. The Columbian team was determined to protect themselves from the usual ‘sprint surge’ typical in courses like these. Like the high water surge of a hurricane, these currents are ultimately damaging to the strengths of the time trialists and endurance athletes leading the peleton, so they, wisely, decided to eliminate them.

 I shredded every fiber of my being to move up and was lucky to slot up 5 riders per lap. The first minute and a half of the video is a couple snippets of the race with 6 and then 5 laps to go and at a minute in, I'm riding the wheel of one of the Rock Racing Pros and continue to move up.

At 1:40 in the video we rejoin just a lap later, and the pressure is on and it is single file with 4 laps to go and stays that way. At 2:01 in the video, a gap opens and we close it, meanwhile, riders start shelling off to the left and right, including one of the Jittery Joes pros at 2:07. The next 3 minutes are a tunnel of pain - asphyxiating darkness taking over everything but the wheel ahead of me. At 3:01 I have to close another gap. At 3:15 a crash and I dodged around the riders - then a 3:35 the bridge back to the field - I tagged onto the end of the chain - dying with 3 laps to go.  

I numbly followed wheels for the remaining laps as the tattered field exploded around me to cross the line at 7:30 on the video to finish 63rd. I did not sprint – I couldn’t – I had nothing left. Even without the crash I would not have been in contention…

 I couldn’t, and didn’t really complain. The roadies were smart: they contained and/or eliminated the moves of the sprinters and ruled the day. As a strategist I would have advised nothing less.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lddvfZE671E]

 Gary had received a weekend pass and joined me in the RV. We picked up some wine and then prepared to head to Milwaukee for the last ride of the RV (coming soon.)

 

2008 Race Reports #25 & 26: One day, two races, two podiums... satisfaction

2008: Race Report  #25, September 6, 2008 : Priority Health Cat 2/3 Criterium, Grand Rapids, MI. Weather: 74 degrees, light winds. Course: twisty, 6 corners mostly on brick 0.8 miles/lap, Distance, 40 minutes. Avg speed – 26.7mph, max speed, 38.3mph

I groggily and grumpily awoke to my alarm at 6:30am on a Saturday morning and 15 minutes later piled in the car for a 3 ½ hour drive to Grand Rapids for the first of two races the same day – the Priority Health Classic a newer race with big sponsors in its second year running.

I was quite proud of myself – the night before I had loaded the car, cleaned my chain, and filled my water bottles. Everything was set for a timely departure, and after a shower and a bowl of oatmeal, I was on my way, munching a Powerbar as I turned up the stereo. I was easily going to be on time for the race for once.

The light rising from the fields near my home indicated the pending change of seasons: the heavy dew was lit from below and made my glasses seem like they were fogged up. I pushed the big V8 to a steady hum at 85 down highway 90 and made great time, crossing two state lines, and slinging into the parking lot right by the race at 10:30. I pulled in right next to Ray, Scott & Tom and began to casually unload while shouting my greetings… enjoying the concept of taking my time…that is until Ray said, “Dude – you better go register soon or they may close it up on you…”

 

I paused and said with just a note of swagger, “Dude, I have an hour and half – I never get to a race this early!”. Then Ray made my blood run cold… “Dude – it’s 11:35… not 10:35 – the race is in 25 minutes!”

I had totally forgotten about the time change to Eastern Daylight. And… of course I had no money to pay my entry fees, so I borrowed some from Scott and Ray and then sprinted to registration. They informed me that they had closed registration. I started to bargain with them, but an old friend Todd Sanders overheard and went to ask the race promoter – another old friend – Jamie Smith – and they went ahead and let me register for both races – back to back – Cat 2/3 and then Master’s 40. Of course, I wasn’t “supposed” to be racing at all: usually Labor Day weekend is the final racing of the year for me, and, after 24 races this summer and 3 hard races back to back at Downer’s Grove in mid August, I was starting to look forward to the season winding down. Over the last two years I’ve begun to take a more seasonal, cyclical view of the calendar year – based in part on some research I had done at work regarding generations and their ties to seasons. The advice was “you want your efforts and actions to be seasonal or even a little pre-seasonal – not post seasonal” – i.e. you don’t want to plant crops in July or harvest them in December.” By mid-August, I felt as though I had “sucked the marrow out of summer” – and that it had returned the favor, and that it was about time to rest. At first I was probably as ready as I have ever been to really focus on the joys of autumn – easy rides on a carpet of crisp, colorful leaves, nights with the windows open and that clean fall air. Time to explore some creative concepts at work, finish all my race reports, and focus on Katelina’s school work and prepare for winter. But… I still had my favorite race of the year – Tour di Villa Italia… and as I went out for training rides with no agenda, I found myself performing long intervals, and sprinting better than all season – perhaps ever. But alas, family needs intervened and I was unable to attend my favorite race and I was suddenly hanging – a climax without a denouement – drifting between seasons. I had called Ray Dybowski – to let him know I wouldn’t be coming to Detroit (the plan was to stay with him). He let me know that there was another weekend of big races coming the next weekend – in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. I committed to trying to make it to Grand Rapids – and hence had made the early morning drive to Michigan. I sprinted back to the car and Ray – ever the helpful, generous man he is, pumped up my tires as I pulled on my jersey and shoes and then headed over the line, where a couple other racers put on my number for me, finishing just as they shot the gun. No warmup. Even when I’m early I’m still late. The course was rough – mostly brick, with manhole covers and those tear shaped tar masses in the asphalt that can really throw you. But… as I realized in those first few exploratory laps, it was a series of not too long, no too short segments well suited to my “5 second sprint” strengths. After about 5 laps, I started to feel that old hum, that sense of ‘I can go or do whatever I want’. I was suffering at a more manageable level… As the laps clicked down, I moved carefully through the pack into the top 20 with 2 laps to go and then on the backstretch I moved into the top 10 – but with a very unfortunate incident – the pace had slowed a little, and like always I was ready to take advantage – and I swung up the left to slot up a few spots. A lot happens in a second, so the video to follow won’t show much, but at about 20 seconds in I start to sling up the left. Just at 26 seconds, and old friend and great rider Dave Hietekko jumped out to the left just as I was coming through. At that same point on the course there was an indent for a driveway and I was able to move off-course for a tenth of second in order to not just plow right into him, but instead the worst happened – my handbar hit his from behind and in an instant, he was gone, down hard with that usual train wreck noise to follow as several other riders went down. These pivotal moments happen a lot in racing and the frame rate of the camera misses just about everything – though you can see that I use the full space of that little reprieve from the curb at that critical moment. I recovered my position, but my mind was on Dave quite a bit for the rest of the lap. As far as I know I’ve never caused anyone I know to crash before so this was very disconcerting. But the race went on and I used that internal radar that seemed to finally be back in full working order to slot up a couple spots but still avoid the dreaded wind at the front. We passed through the start finish as they rang the bell and then rounded turn 1. At about 1:12 on the video, two riders suddenly separate even as others peel off – and they get an instant gap. At 1:24 I light half my match to join two chasers – we are now going pretty hard and turn onto the next section of brick where I get a small reprieve before setting up for the big move. At 1:44, I set up on the outside to begin my real sprint of the race which begins at 1:50 as I accelerate at the two riders off the front. Into the final two corners and I have perfect position, tagging onto the lead rider with 200m to go and a significant gap on the field. Amazingly, he didn’t fall or pull his foot out around the last corner and despite having very little gas left I had the draft and the slingshot and was able to come around him for the win, crossing the line at 2:25 on the video. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKj_8vb56w0] Man that was really satisfying – after all the near misses over the last two years - yes, satisfying. No arms raised for me. In fact, I’m not sure I have ever done that – and back in the day I won a lot of races. The thing is 1) When I do win, it is usually by thin margins (win it at the line!) and 2) When I win by larger margins, I never have any idea, because I never look back – and hence just assume its close. Also,  I ALWAYS throw my bike, and after that’s done it just seems too late to raise your arms. Still, it would have been satisfying to raise my hands just once – and apparently I had the room to do so…Some other time.

2008: Race Report  #26, September 6, 2008 : Priority Health Masters Criterium, Grand Rapids, MI. Weather: 74 degrees, light winds. Course: twisty, 6 corners mostly on brick 0.8 miles/lap, Distance, 40 minutes. Max speed, 37.7mph

No rest for the wicked – after coasting a lap, my favorite announcer – none other than THE Eddy Van Guys – pulled me up on stage for a quick interview and a podium shot. The trophy for first place is really, really cool – honestly the single best trophy I have from cycling. It is a brick from the road we raced on with a chainring inserted into it, a metal plaque, and laser cut class in the middle of the chainring. There were flowers too – gladiolas. But I still had to switch numbers and get back down off the podium for the master’s race which was to begin right after.

Trophy for first
Trophy for first

So there he is – the great man he is, Jamie Smith – the promoter, announcing, managing, and pinning on my number for me – thank you Jamie. And back on the bike and to the line – and off we go – as fast as that. And, damn them, the masters went out hard and I was processing lactic acid for the first 4 laps. Eventually I settled in, and kind of tuned out for a bit. I was surprised when I suddenly saw 6 laps to go. I was pretty sure I had a good shot at this one too and made my moves into position – though with 2 to go (where the video starts) I almost went into the barriers on the first corner. Eventually I get into good position with a ½ lap to go, but a leadout (by Jim Bruce) took the pace up too high for my original plan to lead it out myself and instead I followed wheels around the second to last corner and then wound up the machine for a go into the last corner. I swung wide left before the final corner and then dove up the inside coming out of the corner and found myself chasing a wheel with almost no closing speed – Rob Daksawicz had the leadout and the power to hold it and I settled for second. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTPEyQfsv6I]

  Back to the podium again – but this time I was able to enjoy it – and then back to chat with a dozen old friends and acquaintances including childhood friend Kevin Collins, fellow racer Danny Klein, and 24 hour endurance athlete extraordinaire Tim Finklestein. Ray, Tom, Scott, Dan, Tim, Whitney and I ate lunch together, and were joined by other great cycling faces of past and present and then it was back on the road for home. I really wanted to stay and hang with the boys and then head to Ann Arbor – but I knew where my priorities were and with my trophy and flowers on the seat next to me I cruised home at 85mph. The light entered that angle I love, where the pebbles of the worn asphalt light up like gold medallions, and the contrasts of the golden green of the leaves and black of the depths of the forests on either side create a sense of the depth and vitality of life. I was happy.  I knew my luck had truly returned when the red and blue flashers of “the law” pulled me over for doing 85 in a 55 on the skyway and still let me go with just a warning. -John

2008 Race Report #22: Downers Grove Elite Masters 1/2

2008: Race Report  #22: Downer’s Grove Nationals Masters’ Elite ½:  Weather: 84 degrees, light winds. Course: twisty, dangerous, seven corners, short steep hill, 0.8 miles/lap, Distance, 45 minutes + 2 laps, Average pulse 170. Avg speed - ?

There’s something about the prep for a ‘big race’ that unfolds memories from the cramped spaces of the past – the thoughts, images and feelings fan backward in ever dimming shades and echoes like the outline of your visage in a pair of dressing room mirrors.

In the two weeks preceding the annual extravaganza at Downer’s Grove a corkscrew of subtle déjà vus rotated into my consciousness and receded – flashes of memory, of sounds and scents as I pulled on my jersey over the bloom of sweat, changing clothes in the seat of my car at Bussy woods, as I pedaled circles under the arching late summer shadows on my training rides, or as I coasted into the driveway, cog ratcheting slowly to a stop as I dismounted and leaned my bike against the wall in the garage.

Downer’s Grove holds, for me, an underlying electric current - subsonic vibrations of years past – moments of ‘really living,’ including 2007’s slippery, rainy 6th place, 2006’s battle to the finish line - finishing 2nd by inches, of a 3rd place in 2005 and the subsequent crash in the Master’s race. Another third back in 2004, and a win in 2003 - holding a then-toddler Katelina on the podium.

Earlier memories still: a win in 1995 when I took the sprint out with two corners to go, and the whole peleton crashed behind me blocking the entire road. That year I coasted to the line looking uncertainly behind me and seeing no one (does that count as a breakaway?) I was too confused about the disappearing act of the peleton to use the ample time for a proper hands-in-the-air celebration.

The buckled asphalt, manhole covers, paint lines, metal barriers, short steeps and false flats all re-drew themselves in the etch-a-sketch of my mind and as the day drew near I began an endless play-action exercise to trace the race that was yet to come.

Throughout it all was a feeling… A feeling that maybe, just maybe this race was to be mine. In the weekdays prior, my training reached those perfect moments of motivation aligning with performance. As the days passed my confidence grew with each training ride, until…

…Until race day – despite all the anticipation - of being inspired all week for the coming event, by the time the actual day arrived, for some reason I just didn’t want to go.

Let me clarify - it wasn’t that I didn’t want to race, and it wasn’t that I didn’t want to win (or think it possible.)

Actually the malaise I felt was directly proportional to that fact that I thought I could, even, maybe should win. It was this sense of expectation that really made the drive to Downer’s Grove an exercise in discipline. I was steeped in an unexplainable soul deadening funk.  

Being tired was one element that probably added to my lethargy – despite a truly great week of training with ample rest, there was the unfortunate timing of an event on Friday, the day before the race, where I attended (and acted as the photographer) for the wedding of my wife’s cousin up in Wisconsin Dells. The only problem was that it was a 3 hour drive each way and when we finally arrived home at midnight I was wide awake from driving and it took me until 1:30am to fall asleep.

In my own little domain, Downer’s Grove (and to a lesser extent Kenosha) is the only fiefdoms where I can claim the right to have “expectations” – due to consistent podium finishes the last 8 or so visits with the exception of last year in the rain where I ended up 6th.

The psychology of these feelings is completely irrational and an interesting contrast - when racing with the top domestic professionals on difficult courses (Superweek), I usually drive to the race inspired to give it my all, and I arrive at the line loose and ready, my will warming to the challenge and the lack of expectations invigorating my limbs. I have no real expectations - after all by all rights I should be getting my ass kicked (and often do). Conversely though, the days prior to the event are sometimes filled with visions of the suffering to come.

One might think that you might be more motivated when you are quite sure you can win, but for me, and I suspect, most, this proves not to be the case on race day. There is a stark contrast between the mentality and drive of the “what is possible” underdog role vs. the “expected” results of the consistent player. This makes the achievements of a Michael Phelps or Eric Heiden even that much more incredible - they were expected to win, they thought they could/should win, and, they STILL DID…

Despite my funk, I showed up (I had to – my friend Gary was coming.)  I managed the ‘perfect’ parking space not 50 feet from the start line and forced myself to warm up well on my trainer. (For those few that have followed these race reports it should be notable that I have had fewer and fewer ‘races to the race.’ – small self-pat on the back.)

The race itself was reasonably fast, but as expected, all breakaways were pulled back prior to the finish.

I surfed the front 20 riders for about 5 laps and then settled back into my comfortable groove in the back of the peleton. Mike Beuchel and Kent Savit were in the field and made their moves in the closing laps as we moved from time clock to lap counter but their breakaways were brought back.

Sometimes, as we get close to the final laps, I get an anxious feeling that “I need to move up now”. I can then find myself too far forward too early and end up battling the a*@hole zone for multiple laps slinging back and forth through the swirling vortex at the front of the peleton.

Other times, I feel a bit lazy (like Bensenville) and have to move up rather late in the game taking risks. At Downer’s Grove I had a clear, and accurate sense that 2 1/2 laps was the right time to get up front. More than that I also knew where on the course to move up - on the backstretch after the right hand turn on the downhill, and on the short steep hill.

2 1/2 laps to go and I put in a short sprint and swung up 30 places on the backstretch, slotting in and following wheels. As we hit the line, the race swirled all around, and riders were bumping and bruising and riding way to close to the barriers. Rationally I could see all the mayhem and it was terrifying and for sure I was on red alert with both hands on the brakes, but at the same time there was that sick, risk-loving side of me that knows that this is my element… I moved up.

I stayed in the top 20 carefully tucked in for the next lap and a half, and then, as we entered the final straightaway with 1 lap to go I had that old feeling - that “I just know what the peleton will do” feeling

I have written at length about the suffering and agony of being a sprinter, and even on this, one of the best sprinter courses in the country, I still had to suffer just to hang on. I have also written at length about the transformation that occurs as the chrysalis of limited aerobic capacity and recovery are lifted and, after 99% of the race is over, the moment arrives which all the prior suffering has delivered: those few moments where the fast twitch muscles of the sprinter are finally allowed to unfurl and fully flex - knowing that the end is near and no recovery will be required.

(Short video - last lap)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fmgb5ECRywI]

The video shows the story from here:  from seconds 0:010 to 0:30 on the video I dodge left and right, inches from the barriers and then find those opportunities emerging, parting the waters and shooting right through to the front with very little effort, coming around turn one in 3rd. All my life I have variously thought that I was a sprinter, a trackie, a crit racer, a match sprinter. Perhaps the event for my true strength doesn’t exist - I may be one of the very best ‘hole fillers’ on the planet…

After sliding up to the front on the home stretch things remain skittish and dicey around the next two corners and up the hill. At 0:52 on the video we are single file, but not going quite fast enough - and sure enough a move goes up the right and I lose my top 5 position. It is anxious up and over the top of the hill (1:05) and the following left turn and it gets even slower on the downhill (keep in mind slow is a relative concept - we are going at least 33 mph - but we need to be going closer to 40mph in order to keep the swarming moves from happening).

Finally just as we are entering the downhill right hand turn at 1:29 on the video an attack goes off the front (off camera at first) and at the same time a rider comes screaming over the top on the left side chopping the trajectory of the rider in front of me resulting in a near disaster at 1:31. I brake slightly and then burn half my match to accelerate hard and tag onto the end of the train in 8th place (there’s still a rider a ways off the front) as we then swing right to set up for the final two corners (1:48).

On the second downhill stretch the leadout man realizes he’s brought along a 10 man train and swings left and then back right (1:55 – 1:57), and we slow going into the second to last corner and I sense with impending doom exactly what will happen and swing wide: sure enough a rider dives in on me as we enter the corner - right at 2:00 my bars twitch and I see haybales as we bounce off each other going 38mph I but hold my own and slot forward one more spot coming out of the corner (2:06) and then follow the train in a near full out sprint against the headwind to enter the last corner, hoping I have something left.

As we round the final corner (2:16)  I accelerate briefly and pick off one rider on the right and then I follow rider #45 as he gets out of the saddle for his full out sprint, using his draft to accelerate. At 2:21 I light my 5 second torch and pass him to the right at 2:22 and finally see a line opening up in front of me. I give it everything I have left but it was a little too little a little too late - I heave at the leading riders and at the line at 2:27 I’m just coming around the Rock Racing guy to the left and then you can see the winner to right (who had taken off on the backstretch) raise his hands as I coast into the lead: 30 more feet to the race and I might have been able to take it home. As it is I don’t quite catch the Rock Racing guy before the line and end up 5th.

Finish at 2008 Downer's Grove

Something of note here - the video is pretty smooth. That’s because I never get out of my saddle - not once in the whole race nor the finish. I rarely do except to stretch.

(Longer video description)

This video begins with 3 laps to go.  At 1:26 with 2 ½ to go I begin my first of several moves to the front to be “in position to win.” What’s not seen on camera are a series of dive bombs, mayhem, and bumping going on all around.

 [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNNI3RSafZs]

2008 Race Report #16: Superweek Racine Master's Criterium

 

 

 

2008 Superweek Racine Master's Finish Sprint

Race Report #16:

Superweek Stage 14, Racine, WI, Thursday, July 24. Category: Master 40.  Weather: 84 degrees, light winds. Course: nearly flat, very bumpy, 0.8 miles/lap, 4 corners, Average speed ~27mph.

 

 

 

It must be a roadie conspiracy – all my favorite 4 corner flat wide open courses from the past (Sheboygan, De Pere, Manitowoc, Green Bay) have been replaced with courses that have my primary weakness designed right into them: a very long, false flat slightly uphill finish stretch. Blue Island, Shorewood, Waukesha, Evanston, Racine, & Downer Avenue all have this feature and it makes for some intense suffering, and – if I finish – can end in middling sprint results.

 

Nothing too notable occurred during the race – the usual blocks and breakaways, with several riders getting away off the front (these master’s love their breakaways) and as we moved into the final lap it was finally my time and I moved up into position around the turn 2 on the outside, slotting into about 5th position on the backstretch, riding the hip of Chris Black.

 

In my opinion and experience, this move was precise and absolutely unsurprising nor dangerous – I rode the left hip of Chris for 150 before a small zig zag on the straightaway leading into corner 3. I was well established in my position, and there was ample room for riders to go 2, 3, even 4 abreast on this part of the course.

 

I was slightly exposed to the wind, but the slight downhill made it possible for me to maintain the pace without too much effort – I wanted to be about 5th around that last corner.

 

We made the first slight right bend of the zig zag uneventfully as I allowed the rider on my right some space, and then we headed the 200 feet to the next left zag.

 

It was at this point that the rider to my right apparently decided that I had ‘invaded his space’ and abruptly swung left, hitting me hard and forcing me into a trajectory that had only two possible outcomes: 1) A high speed impact with the curb, or 2) an return impact with that other rider if I forced my way back out to the right to clear the corner. (see video at 1:19)

 

There was no time for anger or quibbling: instincts took over and the long years of track racing came to the fore. I quickly leaned hard right using my shoulder and elbow to move the larger rider to my right out of my way with considerable force. He moved... but I bounced. In the one second of video that covers this entire incident, you can see my bike lean right, bounce left, and then lean right again to fill the void I created by bouncing the other rider out of my path. There was no true danger of anyone going down – handlbars and wheels were kept safely out of the fray – but sounds of dismay erupted from the riders behind us and after a moment fraught with significant bodily contact I broke free.

 

I made it back into a manageable trajectory just in time and now firmly established my ownership of Chris’s wheel. We zoomed around turn 3, and then into the final straightaway. For a period confusion reigned as riders were both zooming forward and fading back at the same time, and the wind and the slight uphill made for a long big effort. I could feel my sprint ebbing from me and finally used what I had left to move up the middle and then left. I found open air and, throwing my bike at the line, missed winning the field sprint by inches, coming in 3rd in the field sprint and 9th overall.

 [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXWV48cipbU]

 

As we coasted around, I suddenly began to get angry as I thought about that collision on the backstretch. As we circled one full lap and headed by the start/finish, suddenly the other rider loomed aggressively at my side yelling at me.

 

With adrenaline pumping and heart-rates sky high, verbal post race clashes are pretty common, and despite a pretty serious competitive streak, I normally manage to keep my cool. But the way this rider came up and cut me off, almost forcing me into the barriers – it shocked me back into adrenaline overload and I suddenly lost my cool.

 

He began shouting at me again, telling me that ‘next time’ I made a move like that he’d take me out. Just as inarticulately, I responded in kind letting him know that HE would be the one on the ground next time if he pulled a stunt like that and then in return for his clipping me toward the barriers, I suddenly accelerated and then cut in front of him nearly clipping his front wheel.

 

It was childish: clearly we were both not exactly on our best behavior – but then it got worse when he accelerated next to me unclipping his foot and asking to “settle it right here!” I had to laugh a little inwardly and I began to regain my perspective.

 

I paused and then said, “Come on – really? We’re going to skitter around on our cleats and fight in the street?”  I think he also realized we were way beyond ourselves and acting like children, so we rode on in silence around the first corner. I then reached out my hand and said, “what’s your name.”

(We've all seen how awkward a cycling fight is - what with the lycra and the slippery shoes and emaciated upper bodies - Thanks to friend Luke Seemann for this link:)

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

 

With a pause he took it, and said simply, “Steve.”

 

I said, “Steve – I have right here on my bars a video camera – how about this: Let’s look at the video -  I’m willing to admit the possibility that I’m in the wrong – I’ve been wrong before…”

 

“So have I,” he said suddenly

 

“So let’s just agree that we both look at the video and then one of us admits he’s wrong.”

 

“Deal.”

 

So we shook hands and then ended up chatting amiably for the rest of the lap. I ended up feeling rather fond of his fiery spirit, and, as for the video… I’ll let it speak for itself – you the reader can decide. (However, if you remain unclear, then read the Downer Avenue race report : ) coming soon)

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 #20: Elk Grove Criterium Elite Cat 1/2 - Day One

I’m working backwards – I drafted many of these as the season progressed… I enjoy writing, but I’m not enthused about editing…)

 

Race Report #20: Elk Grove Stage 1: Saturday, August 2. Category: Elite 1/2. Weather: 84 degrees, light winds. Course: flat, 2.85 miles circuit with two U-turns and two 90 degree corners. Distance, 49 miles, average speed 28.1mph, Max speed 39.1 mph. Average pulse 172, max pulse 192.

 

Over the last few years, Chicagoland has risen as the center of U.S. cycling, with races every weekend, nationals of various disciplines held here seemingly every year, and the most lucrative purses in all of domestic cycling. Topping all of these in terms of $$$ is the 3rd annual Elk Grove Cycling Classic with the single highest prize list of any race in the United States.

 

I must admit I was a little apprehensive registering for the pair of Elite Category 1/2 races after experiencing fairly serious high speed crashes on the final lap each of the last two years racing the event (and to think I have gone 300 races in a row without a crash in the past). Something about the narrow long, snaking course, and the large field full of aspiring 20-something riders looking for a shot at the massive paycheck ($45,000 in total) has repeatedly created a nervous, skittish racing environment fraught with danger.

 

The worst part about the peril during the Elk Grove series is that there is no predictability to these train wrecks. Most races you can pick the dangerous corners or sections of the course to avoid where crashes were likely to occur, but at Elk Grove, the entire circuit tends to feel like “running the gauntlet.” As prior Superweek champion and one of the U.S.’s best criterium racers Andy “the Volcano” Crater shouted to me during the middle of the race after a random explosive crash against the barriers on a straightaway, “Holy F*@! I’ve never seen worse riding or bike handling – this is some scary “sh*#!” 

 

The fact that Andy was even having a conversation with me in the very back of the peleton belied the reality of the situation – the entire front half of the field was a gigantic assh*!# zone – a crush of riders repeatedly trying to find a route outside to the front, only to be confronted with the swirling winds accompanying a peleton traveling upwards of 33, 35 – even 37 mph, and like the fumerole behind a jet engine being sucked backward into the same compression they aimed to escape.

 

The long straight sections of the course at Elk Grove allowed for some extremely high speeds – particularly on the return half of the course. On laps 2 – 9 of the 18 lap race I consistently hit and held 36 and 37 mph down the mile long finish stretch. Each of these single file sprints had me in that unfortunately familiar state of acid-for-blood agony I’d experienced during Superweek. At one point as we hit the halfway point I looked over to see Michigan sprinter Ben Renkema suffering near me at the back of the field and I said, “I think I may get dropped.” He didn’t reply - instead he sprinted forward a few spots – perhaps realizing that being near me quite possibly meant being too far back. Ben remains my litmus test of a race – young and talented, and gifted/cursed with a similar set of fast twitch muscles, my basic sense of a race is that “If Ben gets dropped, then I’m OK – there is no chance in hell I could have stayed in.”

 

Given my tenuous position in the single file train near the back of the field I decided to trade my risk of getting dropped for the risk of crashing and slotted up about 60 spots on the backstretch right into the danger zone – or rather, where the danger zone had been on earlier laps.

 

Fortunately, the field had settled into the course a bit and it had become much safer in the front of the field. As we headed down the homestretch I was quite surprised to discover that instead of the 37 mph single file sprints I had been experiencing as the slinky re-compacted, there was a relatively sedate steady state of 32 mph two rider abreast situations that were completely manageable. I began to recover a little bit from the massive efforts of the first 25 miles.

 

As we entered the last two laps, I was physically drained and despite the relatively easier laps for the latter half of the race, I could tell that I had frayed my lungs and legs in that first 25 miles. But I set my jaw and determined to follow a certain discipline I knew: “Get in position to win.”

 

-----------------------------

 

Walden Race Rule #4: Get into Position to Win.

 

This principle is really the predecessor to Race Rule #3 – “Win it at the Line”.  You can’t ‘win it at the line’ from 60th place. For a ‘roadie’, “get into position to win” may also imply “Make the breakaway” – I’m not exactly sure, nonetheless, let me make the attempt and share those elusive and counterintuitive elements of the breakaway art as I have witnessed through my experience watching them take place.

 

First – hang on for dear life during one of the hardest accelerations of the race where you are just about to get dropped. Then, just as you are about to get dropped…

 

Second - invent a new pair of legs and lungs and accelerate through the group and double your output as you now face the wind at the front of the peleton at over 30mph unsheltered from the draft.

 

Third - continue and accelerate as required to break completely off the front of the pack.

 

Fourth - now, make contact with the breakaway riders and enter the echelon rotation of the paceline facing that same wind for long periods each lap until the end of the race.

 

Honestly there can hardly be anything further from my experience.

 

Instead, let me tell you of the sprinter’s approach to placement in the peleton during the field sprint. For the roadie reader this is still relevant info: if you are not strong enough or lucky enough to make the breakaway, then you are stuck with the field sprint, and at this point you have to make the best of the cards you’ve been dealt.

 

Welcome to my world.

 

I have a very limited retinue of strengths. Interestingly, since my study of ‘strengths’ began about 3 years ago, there has been a pattern to my discovery – my list of weaknesses has grown by leaps and bounds, and my strengths have gotten ever more specific, isolated, and limited. Here’s a short list:

 

­       Wheelsucking: I’m definitely in the top 2 percentile when it comes to drafting.

­       Coasting: well, I suppose everyone is good at that.

­       Cornering: I’m probably in the top decile (10%) when it comes to cornering.

­       Short Intervals: I can produce a 1 - 3 second “pseudo-sprint” which, followed by a short rest, can be reproduced virtually ad infinitum without serious consequences. This also features into my ability to move up during and at the end of the race.

­       Max Power – <10 seconds: as indicated in other writings, as a sprinter, I can produce a significant amount of watts for 5 - 8 seconds – but one time only without significant rest.

 

My weaknesses would take a book to compile – basically I suck at anything not included in the list above, including, but not limited to: aerobic endurance, hill climbing, time trialing, long intervals, medium intervals, steady efforts, multiple sprints, fighting the wind, leading…

 

I do have one other strength that may actually be the single strongest tool in my arsenal: I can often predict where to be – in another man’s words, how to “get into position to win.”

 

Now, given my list of weaknesses above, ‘get into position to win’ guarantees me very little, but my short list of strengths above does help to deliver this Walden rule.

 

Back to Elk Grove: As probably the single most consistently skittish and dangerous peleton I’ve ridden, this circuit serves as a singularly great case study on “get into position to win.”

 

With one lap to go at Elk Grove I was in the rear guard of a dozen riders backing a compressed peleton ahead of 85+ riders twitching and convulsing through the long narrow course. As we crossed the line with one lap and 2.85 miles to go, suddenly the residue of the preceding 46 miles, the brutal long sprint efforts to hang on to the field on the homestretch, the wheezing in my lungs and hot goosebumps in my legs were forgotten. For the next 2/3’s of a lap what I faced was an effort of a different sort – like a game of Frogger or Tetris, my mission for the coming 2 miles remaining in the circuit was a combination of analytics and anerobics: to anticipate openings and find the energy to slot my body into those spaces.

 

This will probably sound odd to a roadie as this is probably the part of the race they hate the most, but for me it was like suddenly coming off life support – for the preceding miles I was just suffering, hanging on, desperately trying not to get dropped – and then the masochistic exercise in suffering for suffering’s sake was over and now it was time to use a different discipline: to answer the looming question of how, exactly to move safely through 80 riders compacted into a tight, dangerous mass – and do so safely.

 

One of the luxuries or perhaps a penance of being a sprinter is our relegation to the mid-peleton position. Without any need to focus on or consider breaking away, or the conditioning of rivals (everyone is stronger), or any real need to hover at the front, we are provided with ample time to scour and evaluate the course and actions of the peleton for weaknesses.

 

If it looks easy, sometimes, when I move up, that’s because it usually is – on a relative scale – I never move up on the “hard parts” unless out of desperation or it is the final sprint. For me, the dozens of laps preceding the finish are like a giant science project – how does the peleton move? What are its weaknesses? Where does it consistently slow? Most courses have their Achilles heels – places where the dynamics of the race create opportunities. Elk Grove had no Achilles heel – the whole thing was scary, fast, and dangerous. I had to use other opportunities.

 

The video to follow shows the sort of ‘slo mo’ version of the high speed nervous exercise that I went through on that last lap. The slow frame rate fails to capture virtually any of the relevant frenetic action in the peleton as we vibrated through those final two miles - coasting, sprinting, braking, bumping, crashing and sweating through those narrow boulevards at over 30 mph – sudden sways echoing through the field, the sudden hiss and burning smell of brakes, and rapid swings to avoid wheels and limbs. Nonetheless, what the video does capture is the suffocating closeness of the field preparing for the final sprint, the closed road ahead when it comes to moving up, the proximity of other riders, and the press of bodies blocking any forward progress.

 

The video starts about ½ mile past the start finish as we are about to enter the first of two U-turns on the course. Just to my right a couple riders cross wheels and almost go down – bodies bumping all around and then suddenly we are all leaning left and finding a path around the U-turn at about 8 mph. We then immediately sprint back up to 31, 32, 33 mph and I shift around in the back for a few moments trying to find a line forward through the pack. I don’t see much but decide to slot up the right – only to be shut down moments later against the curb. 

 

I then resolve to the only recourse left available to me (no Achilles heel) – to move right through the middle of the field. For the next 90 seconds I wade right into and through the mashing mesh of bodies comprising the 85 rider ass*#@ zone the entire front of the field had become. What is hard to ascertain is when I’m accelerating quickly or when the field of riders and slowing - to the hiss and stink of burning brake pads.

 

So, what are the key mechanisms that enable the Walden rule of “Get into position to win?”

 

1)      Shift down. This is the single most important part of moving through a crowded peleton. Tired limbs and ragged lungs prefer slower RPM’s, but, having the discipline to pedal rapid circles and taking on the additional aerobic burden it carries it provides the reward of being able to take advantage of opportunities before that of your fellow riders. When riders suddenly divide in front of you creating a Tetris-like body space – only the swiftest acceleration will garner that spot. Be that rider that fills in the gap…Do it 20 times and you can move through an entire peleton without feeling the wind…

 

2)      Get a better view: ride on the hoods (upper part of the handlebars) with your head up. I never even realized I did this until someone gave me a hard time about it a few years ago. Riding head down makes perfect sense when in the front of the field or on a breakaway, but when trapped in the compression of the peleton, use the draft to get a good look around. This is probably the single easiest thing to do to aid you during this critical portion of the race. Visibility of the swaying patterns of the peleton is critical to being able to ‘read the tea leaves’ of the race and find a space to move up.

 

3)      Broadcast your intended movements – herd the cats. Oddly most riders seem intent on maintaining their position – and if you, through your body language and the occasional hand gesture or touch on the hip – indicate a direction you wish to go, more often than not they’ll accommodate. For myself I use a combination of the “slow drift”, the flip of the hand, and the touch on the hip to try and create my path. Sometimes you’ll encounter the cycling equivalent of the ‘Chicago driver’ who actually goes counter to your intended movement and shuts you down – but they too are creating space and sometimes you can anticipate this reaction and quickly swing around them on the other side.

 

4)      Use EVERYTHING to get into position: finally, and most importantly, be willing to use everything you have to get into position. As your body moves beyond its VO2 max and enters oxygen debt, it is easy to give into the physical and mental malaise that accompanies this searing agony and ‘settle in’ and hope that somehow, somewhere, an opportunity to get into position will emerge.

 

The single greatest lesson to be learned from this Walden rule is that you have to make it happen – and if necessary use every single ounce of energy at your disposal, sacrificing your actual sprint to get into position. Said differently, a ‘non-sprint’ from 3rd position as you blow up and drift backward is 99% more likely to land you a top ten position than a somewhat rested move from 25th. 

 

Let me say this again with more urgency: there is NO POINT to sprinting from 30th… (unless you have just moved up from 60th with every ounce of your power.) The first priority for every single available ounce of your energy is to get into striking distance of the win – after that the subtleties of 10th vs. 5th vs. 1st around the final corner is a luxury to be considered for Walden Race Rule #3 (Win it at the Line!)

 

At Elk Grove, with thousands of dollars on the line on a dangerous course against hungry men 15 years my junior, we entered that desperate last lap and the peleton was erratic, frenzied. I moved from 80th to 70th , from 50th to 30th to 20th and then 90 seconds later swung all the way to the front before the set of corners that would determine the race outcome. I lit half of my match to get into position, and the other half to maintain it into the final corner. I had absolutely nothing left when we entered the sprint with 600 meters to go.

 

That is a simple statement, but let me paint it differently. With 600 meters to go in a huge money race I was sitting in a top 6 position – a race winning position – in the biggest amateur money race in the United States – sounds great – right? The other view is that with 600m to go in this huge race I was in an anaerobic oxygen debt filled chasm of fear – palapable fear – unlike anything we face in regular life.

 

Think of those moments as a kid where you tried to stay underwater to swim a distance or find an object at the bottom – and then of that last burst of frantic, lung burning energy as you exploded to the surface and finally breathed the fresh air of recovery.

 

Now imagine the same maneuver - doing that same impulsive set of thrumming kicks to break you back to the surface just as you are running out of air – but now knowingly doing them into a closed long tunnel between pools with nowhere to breathe – your lungs are on fire, your legs become molten lead and every evolutionary fiber in your body tells you to dart for the surface – but instead you duck lower and now you have another 50 feet of tunnel in front of you before you can rise to the surface.

 

This is asphyxiating fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – and deep inside panic starts to simmer and boil over – to pervade everything – it tells you to find a way to surface, to escape this intentional drowning. But there is no short cut and those that try to find one – by diving into corners or by taking them too fast – find disaster and wash up on the shores of the barriers. It is through exactly those kinds of panic attacks that I’ve ended up burning through my own skin on the tarmac at Elk Grove – not my panic, rather the dying gropings of another drowning swimmer pulling me under.

 

It is this element of fear that makes this probably the hardest of all the Walden rules to follow...

The video starts after 1 to go, just before the first U turn - with a near crash. I’m in the back about 80th place and after the corner manage to move to first over the next mile - directly through the innards of the pack for the most part. 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0y2kX6z_Lg]

At 2:13, near the front, I finally sprint clear and find my way to Cat 1 extraordinaire Andy Crater’s wheel – (grey Menasha shorts) and use the first half of my one match that I have to burn. Andy Sprints up again at 3:17 (the second half of my match), and at 3:37 the pace picks up again (my final oxygen starved kick). We slow after that and then the final acceleration to the line begins at 4:12. By then I’m drowning and can barely see, much less respond.

Nonetheless this was a near perfect race in terms of positioning: I can hear Walden say it, “you have to get in position to win!” I end up 17th – getting passed by about 10 riders in the final 50 meters. Still – I picked up $150 – and while not ‘happy’ I was satisfied.

2008 Race Report 12 1/2: Updated schedule and results

Here are the races I've completed, or intend to participate this year.

  1. April 6: Beloit Criterium (1st in field sprint, 6th overall)
  2. May 4: Vernon Hills Criterium (12th)
  3. May 25: ABD Wood Dale Masters Criterium (1st in field sprint, 7th overall)
  4. June 1: Winfield ABR National Masters Championships (2nd in field sprint, 4th overall)
  5. June 14: Sherman Park Criterium - Pro race (DNF - broke my chain)
  6. June 21: Giro de Grafton - Pro 1/2, 90 minutes (DNF - got my ass kicked)
  7. July 6: Wood Dale Illinois State ABR Masters 40+ championships (1st in field sprint, 8th overall)
  8. July 6: Wood Dale Illinois State ABR Master’s 30+ championships (5th place)
  9. July 12: Superweek - Blue Island, IL, 5:30 pm - Pro race (DNF - dropped)
  10. July 13: Superweek - Olympia Fields, IL - Masters (1st in field sprint, 7th overall)
  11. July 15: Superweek - Bensenville, IL - Masters (1st in field sprint, 5th overall)
  12. July 19: Superweek - Waukesha, WI -Masters (1st in field sprint, 18th overall)
  13. July 20: Superweek - Evanston, IL Pro race, (DNF dropped after 54 miles)
  14. July 24: Superweek - Racine, WI Masters, (3rd in field sprint, 9th overall)
  15. July 25: Superweek - Kenosha, WI Pro race (field finish (62nd overall)
  16. July 26: Superweek - Downer Ave, WI masters (18th place)
  17. July 27:Chicago Criterium in Grant Park masters (7th place)
  18. Aug 2: Elk Grove, IL - Cat 1/2 Elite (11th in field sprint, 17th overall)
  19. Aug 16: Downers Grove, IL Elite Master's 1/2 (5th place)
  20. Aug 16: Race #2, Downers Grove, Pro/Am (started but dropped out)
  21. Aug 17: Downers Grove Nationals, IL, Elite Cat 2 (9th place)
  22. Aug 31: Tour de Villa Italia, Windsor, Canada Pro race, 62 miles
  23. Sept 1: Debates Daevos Classic, Detroit, MI Pro race, 62 miles

2008 Race Report #12: Superweek Stage 5: Bensenville Criterium

2008: Race Report #12: Superweek Stage 7 – Bensenville (day 1)

                                           

Race Report #12: Tuesday, July 16. Category: Masters 1/2/3 30+, Weather: 90 degrees, 17 mph winds with gusts to 24mph. Course: flat, 0.8 miles/lap, 4 corners with a snaking finish stretch against the headwind adding some danger and excitement.  Distance, 35 laps, ~30 miles (shortened from 50), average speed ~26mph, Average pulse 172.

 

I took a half day off work to race this course only 5 miles from my office. I left right on time and arrived to the course with 1 hour and 15 minutes to warmup. I registered, dressed, and then mounted my trainer (a way to ride stationary on your bike while simulating the road – this is the safest way to warmup when surrounded by busy roads.) I couldn’t believe the sweat pouring off of me during my 40 minute warmup on the trainer, but at the end of it I knew I was truly “warmed up” and that I would not have to suffer through this process during the first laps of the race. Its not supposed to be unusual to get a good warmup…

 

I sped around the course and rolled to the line with the group right on time at 1pm. I looked around and the group seemed… a little different. Gone were the super lean bodies and bulging muscles of the master’s 1, 2, 3 group – and instead of team jerseys and carbon fiber wheels on $7000 bikes I noticed more standard, $2000 bikes and more youthful, less hardened bodies. Just then the chief judge winked at me and said, “Not yet – this is the Cat 4/5 race.” (Category 4’s and 5’s are the newest racers and have to earn their way from Category 5, to category 4, to 3 etc.) “You’re up next – we’re an hour behind schedule.”

 

So sure enough – no good deed will go un-punished and all my warmup was in vain and I had to sit in the heat on the sidelines for the next hour before making a half hearted attempt to ‘re-warmup’ before my race. Why can’t this ever happen when I’m LATE for a race I wondered.

 

So… I’ve written many times that I’m a ‘sprinter’ – what, exactly, does that mean in the world of cycling? In the world of track and field I would run the 100meters and maybe do long jump like I did in high school. On the velodrome (bike track) I used to specialize in the ‘match sprint’ which is a kilometer long race typically characterized by a 200meter sprint at the end. In 1986 I competed in this event at the junior world championships in Casablanca, Morocco after earning the top spot in the United States against my nemesis Jamie Carney – who also joined me over there.

 

So, one might ask,  if what I’m truly good at lasts about 10 seconds, the what, exactly is someone like me doing racing 45 mile, 90 minute, master’s races or 100 kilometer, 2 hour pro races? And, how is it that someone like me can even keep up? Especially, as I occasionally forget, as I’m about to turn 40, and actually have a “real job” - and a demanding one at that. Professionals only race – that’s why they are pros, and many category 1 and 2 riders live to race and either ‘get by’ living hand to mouth working part time in bike shops, or have part time or limited “9 to 5” jobs with much better schedules than I. (However, Texas Roadhouse extraordinare and Superweek stage winner Paul Martin is a lawyer with a family – so I’d be remiss to suggest I’m the only one with a demanding job and a family – but Paul’s a ‘roadie’…”)

 

Let’s take a look at it, for a moment from the point of view of the endurance athlete – better known in cycling circles as a “roadie”. Roadies dominate cycling – it is their sport, their culture, their races, their training schedules, their blogs, and their wins that make the most headlines. It just makes sense – if you don’t have much of an aerobic motor (like me) than odds are good you’ll either be marginalized or quit the sport quickly as aerobic capabilities are the basic currency of most of the events.

 

Let me take it further – from a ‘roadie’ perspective, people like me (sprinters) are the ‘bottom feeders’ of the peleton – “sucking wheel” in the back the pack – never leading, only using the draft that they themselves work so hard to create. One of my favorite email forwards of all time was from my friend Jeff, who was on a group email list where the riders were complaining about the sprinters. It went something like, “we led 39 out of 40 laps – pulling through hard, keeping the pace high, and then at the end, those damn wheelsuckers appeared out of nowhere and blew by us for the win – its ridiculous – they didn’t earn any of it.”

 

OK, so apologies in advance to all my roadie friends (and that’s pretty much just about everyone in the sport – there are few true sprinters out there.) But this is where I’m going to beg to differ, and, because this is my blog and I can say whatever I want, I’m going to speak my mind…

 

You roadies – all of you – so high and mighty in your tyranny of the peleton and the wind. Out there in the race, I watch you sitting in the wind, off the wheel as though the draft were merely a ‘nice to have’ while people like me – without your ability to process oxygen – suck off the draft like a diver would from their air hose – one breath missed – one second off a wheel, and we drown and float up off the back – dropped like a drowned swimmer.

 

You roadies think that the race is all about breakaways and out dueling each other for long stretches of suffering – suffering with a purpose – matching wits for the length of the race in order to guarantee success – but you fail to see or appreciate the role of the sprinter.

 

You suffer for a purpose – each lap you choose your suffering in order to put your best foot forward. But the sprinters? We have absolutely no purpose for our suffering other than to endure. As you string it out up front and our vision narrows to the 23mm tire ahead of us, we have one and only one purpose, “please don’t get dropped, please don’t get dropped, please don’t get dropped.”

 

You talk about suffering up front – yes, I’m sure you do it. But proactive, self determined suffering is different than the torture you inflict on us at the back. For us it’s a Vietnamise war camp and you are our torturers and executioners. We don’t choose this suffering, and unlike you at the front, we can’t just drift back for a few minutes to recover – if we lose that wheel in front of us, its over – just like that.

 

I have a running joke that I like to tell that starts like this, “You know that feeling, after you’ve taken a hard pull at the front, and then realize you’ve got a small gap, and then all you have to do is push it a little longer and maybe you’ll stay away?”

 

I pause for effect and then say…

 

“Yeah – I’ve never felt that before – ever.”

 

I’ve been racing for 32 seasons and competed in over 1200 road bike races and I’ve only been in two breakaways that have stayed away, and could count on both hands the number of breakaways I’ve EVER been in.

 

There’s another joke – another favorite. So, one of the other aspects of training and racing that differs for roadies and sprinters is the volume of riding that each must do. I’ve fallen victim to the roadie mentality several times throughout my career – the kind of mentality that, “if you didn’t win, you didn’t train hard enough.” Yes, for endurance athletes with type 1 muscles (slow twitch) there’s a pretty reasonable correlation between training and results. However when it comes to type 2A and 2B muscles (fast twitch A & B) that correlation gets sketchier and training becomes more about quality and less about quantity. Further, with a preponderance of type 2B muscles (like me) too much quality OR quantity can be deleterious to results.

 

But, back to the roadie joke. Roadies are notorious for their anal retentive addiction to their training schedules – rain, snow, or sleet, if their training regimen calls for a 5 hour ride, then that’s what they do. So here’s the joke, paraphrased from when it was originally sent to me.

 

 

The roadie:

 

My alarm went off on Sunday morning – another wet March day, and another 5 hour slog in the cold and damp. I slid out of bed trying not to wake my wife and headed to the front closet and numbly dressed – shoes, booties, shorts, insulated bib tights, undershirt, jersey, rain jacket, neoprene gloves, hat, helmet, heart rate monitor etc.

 

I made toast with honey and peanut butter, tea with more honey, and drank some accelerade. I filled three bottles per usual and stuffed my pockets with tubes and inflation devices and power bars. I sat in front of the TV and munched and then listened to the report: “sleet and freezing rain, dangerous roads, cars in ditches.” I paused, still chewing and waited for the forcast – more of the same and getting worse.

 

I sighed and threw in the towel – just today, just one day, I would not go out  - I’d have to make it up on the trainer later. So I took everything off – booties, shoes, bibs, shorts, jacket, jersey, gloves, hat, glasses, helmet and put it all away. Then I tiptoed back into the bedroom and slid under the warm blankets next to my wife and cuddled up to her whispering, “Its god awful out there.”

 

 

And she huskily mumbled back, “Yeah – I know – can believe my husband’s out in this crap? Thank God he’s a roadie else I’d never see you.”

 

-------------

 

One of the best, if not THE best book on cycling ever written was written in the early 70’s by a Dutch author by the name of Tim Krabbe’. Its an elegant short tome depicting one single road race complete with flashbacks to other races and events in Tim’s life.

 

The Rider is written very clearly from the mindset of the ‘roadie’ and one of the things I love about it is the internal struggle Tim has for the “sprinter” in that book – the “golden boy” name Reilehan. At one point in the book he says, “its all about squandering energy isn’t it?” as he refers to Reilehan’s wheelsucking, but later in the same book, he mocks one of his other competitors for not knowing how to race – when to push it and when to conserve. I’ve read the book 5 times and after contacting Tim, proposed the idea of writing the equivalent of its sequel a little while back and asked whether he’d be interested in writing a forward if I did write it. (Tim’s over 60 but still racing)

 

Here was his response,

 

----------------

 

“Your idea sounds interesting - a portrait of the sprinter. I can relate to it because although I'm not one of those superfast guys (I've started racing again with the 60+ Masters) I did mix (and still mix) in every final sprint, even for 8th place, and occasionally for first - and I do win a few.

 

I've always been interested in the 'life of the sprinter' - they're sometimes treated like pariahs and act that way, some never trying to be in breakaways, just waiting to ply their trade, whether it's for 1st, 5th or 12th place.

 

The tactics, strategy, dangers, excitement of the sprints themselves are of course addictive - and you, as an ex-pro, would know a side of it that I don't; the massive sprint as a team sport in professional cycling. Although gifts are given and grudges will be fought out, in my amateur races sprinting was always essentially an individual thing.

 

There are a 1001 sides to sprinting.

Which goes to say that trying to write that book does seem worth the effort - although at this point, even if I'm flattered that you should ask, I don't know whether I would want to write a foreword.”

Best regards, Tim Krabbé

-------------    

So, I’ll take that as a “maybe.” : )

 

So, roadies, let me tell you how it is. Your job is to drop me. Keep a fast pace, shake and bake me, form breakways and single file paces. But after all that, let’s be fair then.

 

If you don’t drop me as I suffer with an average pulse of 180+ , as I strangle for 2 hours in asphyxiating oxygen debt and agonizing muscle complaint, then I assert that I have every bit as much right to that podium as you. For every hard pull up front and breakaway attempt you make, I’ve made parallel efforts to hang a wheel or bridge a gap.

 

Stated another way, if it comes down to a field sprint, and I suddenly materialize out of the bowels of the pack and manage to sling past you to the finish line using the 8 seconds of the one and only strength God gave me, don’t shake your head in frustration. Don’t be angry or contemptuous that “he didn’t do anything – just sat in the back.” Know what it is really like for me – for us – for sprinters like me.

 

Instead, how about replacing that contemptuous remark with a rueful smile and the thought of, “damn, he must have really suffered back there today – but he hung on and pulled one out  - good for him.”

 

Back to Bensenville. They shortened the race to 35 laps (I was one of the few who cheered) and we headed off around the oddly shaped course. After a few laps I started having that feeling again – and realized what it was. I wasn’t “completely desperate” – which, said differently, meant that I could move around the pack a little bit and felt some confidence.

 

The laps moved on and a small breakaway formed with 4 riders (Mike Beuchel – again!) and got away, and then it was that time again – my time – 1 lap to go.

 

I think I was a little over confident. I sat pretty far back  - maybe 30th even  with a half lap to go, with the idea that I’d swing up the outside and enter the second to last straightaway in about 5th. Just as I began my move up the right side against the curb, the pack swung back right and I was shut down hard. I drifted back into the middle of the pack.

 

Still, for some reason I wasn’t worried – I hadn’t really ‘squandered any energy’ thus far and as we entered the 3rd of 4 corners, I set up on the inside and pedaled the corner hard and accelerated up about 7 positions. Then, as the pack strung out down the windy stretch I accelerated again and leapt up to 5th into the final corner. To be fair, it was not the kind of move that is appreciated in the peleton – the last minute inside move. However, to my defense, the corner was being taken quite wide and I rode the short route over the manhole cover and never even came close to touching the rider to my right.  (see video below)

 

As we entered the snaking windy alley to the finish, things played out just right and I had a leadout man who took me within 100m of the line and within 15 feet of the lead rider. I accelerated to the right and took the field sprint win and 5th place.

 

Still, these were the master’s – cat 1, 2, & 3. Although these were quality riders, including the guy who had won the Pro ½ race at Snake Alley this year and then followed it up with a back-to-back win with the master’s race. But the average speeds were a couple mph less than the pro races – and I’d already been dropped twice – at Grafton, and then at Blue Island. With Evanston coming on Sunday I had a pretty good feeling I might be ready – but really, it is just not, and never has been in my hands – it will all depend on how well I prepare, and whether the roadies put the screws to the sprinters.

 

-John

Video starts with 1 1/4 laps to go. At 1:15 in I try to move up the outside and get shut down - hard! Then I'm trapped, so I pedal the corner on the inside at 1:33 and shoot up the inside about 6 spots. Then at 1:42, I accelerate up the left of the single file line to move into winning position around the last corner in 5th place - exactly where I wanted to be.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Mc7HGVEDUA]

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 Reports 8 & 9: Wood Dale ABR State Criterium Championships

2008: Race Report #8 & 9: Wood Dale, IL ABR State Criterium Championships
 
Race Report #8: Sunday, July 6. Category: Master’s 40+, Weather: 84 degrees, 9 mph winds. Course: 4 corners, 1 mile, small hill. Distance, 45 minutes plus 2 laps, ~70 riders Average speed, 26.1 mph, Avg. pulse 164

As I tell my friend and new racer Matt on some interval, “You can never judge your future performance in a race by how you feel when you line up: some of my best races ever were begun with overwhelming feelings of tiredness, weakness or even sickness.”

This was a bit of my mantra as I rolled to the line for the first of two or three races that day. I was hoping to complete the Dybowski ‘trifecta’ and race and place in 3 races: the master’s 40, master’s 30, and Pro ½ races. As it turned out I only ended up starting the first two. My friend Matt also started both and as the pictures will show, was having a good series before disaster struck.

Masters 40+ start

For myself it didn’t help that the day before was comprised of a pool party at my house:  I blame Mike Dienhart for any wine consumption that occurred that evening. The fireworks I provided myself and we knew it was a good party when the police arrived to politely shut down the 2” mortar display I was in the middle of shooting off over the pond beyond our house.

 masters 40 field

My legs didn’t feel good at first and that, for whatever reason, is typical of any ride following a swim in the pool – it is as though all that freedom to kick and use all the unused muscles in the legs in all directions causes those straight and narrow cycling muscles to get distracted and I ‘pedaled squares’ for the first half of the race. The pace was fairly consistent – not brutal – but never slow. These Master’s 40’s clearly proved their dominance at Winfield nationals over their younger bretheren.

My favorite spot - the back

I didn’t bother even thinking about chasing breakaways considering that I was planning on racing 3 times and over 100 miles. Eventually, a 6 man breakway did get away – I considered attempting a bridge when the gap was within my range, but decided to save that energy for later races.

With two laps to go, Chris Black – a very strong Master’s racer – pulled his signature move and broke away off the front of the field. I watched him go from the middle of the pack and symbolically tipped my helmet with respect - as I decided at the end of last year my job is the last lap – everything else is merely preparation. Luck will have to decide the one-lap-to-go situation – from there I’ll take the reins if I can..

So suddenly it was 1 lap to go and in fits and starts we passed the start/finish line. I surfed the peleton near the middle. My plan was a little different than normal – rather than ‘finding the perfect wheel’ to the line, I intended to lead out the sprint with about 500m to go – due to the proximity of two back-to-back corners with a short uphill in between shortly before the finish.

 

I figured I could get a gap before the corner to the uphill, put all my horsepower out up the hill, and then try to hold it to the line.

 

However, in between, several riders had strung themselves out in front of the peleton in pursuit of Mr. Black. If you watch the video, I stay safely in the bowels of the peleton until about 50 seconds into the video, and then the camera starts shaking as I get out of my saddle and kick off my sprint. In the video it looks odd – there’s no where to go – but what I’m shooting for is a sudden opening up the right side. Meanwhile you can also see the distances to the lead riders…

 

After my accel I swing all the way right with some momentum and then ride the wind shadows of the riders, following the “string of pearls” of the leading riders, passing each in turn, saving the last two for the uphill stretch. The beauty of this approach was that I never really had to face the wind on my own and could instead put in short sprints (my strength) before putting my head down on the final stretch trying to close in on Chris Black.

 

These are the moments of racing I love – that sudden knowledge that there is gas in the tanks and that despite my heart rate being above 190, that the legs and pedals and bike are willing. Its hard to tell from the video, but my full on sprint only started just as the lead rider looked back on the uphill – that’s when I kicked in the turbo and passed him on the inside setting up the final turn. I actually thought I might catch Chris – but he accelerated yet again and I didn’t catch him – what a stud.

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

Race Report #9: Sunday, July 6. Category: Master’s 30+, Weather: 86 degrees, 9 mph winds. Course: 4 corners, 1 mile, small hill. Distance, 45 minutes plus 2 laps, ~45 riders Average speed, 26.3 mph, Avg. pulse 165

Clearly a pattern is developing: there are more 40+ racers in Illinois than 30+, and quite possibly they are stronger as well. Overall the pace was only slightly higher – and that was only from a significant organized chase of a breakway. Otherwise the race was relatively mild.

My friend Matt and I

The first half of the race went quickly and Matt and I rode together quite a bit – switching wheels, sometimes following, sometimes leading. As a breakaway got away, I began to feel guilty for my mentoring of Matt. Yes, for me, a breakaway is a distant target and not something to concern myself with. But Matt’s got an aerobic motor – shouldn’t he be up there?

Matt in the forground of an early crash

As the pace picked up and things began to string out, I swung up the outside on the downhill and said, “we have to get up there” to Matt – and sure enough his motor kicked in and he actually took one of the hardest pulls of the race after a series of hard laps.

 

Ultimately we closed on the leaders and caught them, but in between things went a little haywire. After Matt’s hard pull, we entered the 3rd corner at high speeds and behind me I heard the train wreck explosions that are unfortunately all too common in cycling. I wouldn’t have given it much thought except that Matt had just swung off the lead and was just behind me in the general vicinity of the noise.

 Matt taking the lead

As the next laps unwound, I found no trace of Matt – but neither did I see him on the sidelines, and his 11 year old daughter Rose continued to take pictures – so assumed he was at the tail of the peleton or safely on the sidelines. As it turned either – neither was true.

 Getting busy...

And for a second time it was one lap to go…

 

I had the same general intention of the previous race – to lead out the sprint from the backstretch, but given the smaller size of the field I didn’t move up as aggressively and suddenly found myself boxed in. In the video you can see my switching left to right looking for a hole – I was still intending to lead it out – but when I finally squeezed through a 1 inch hole, I found myself neatly tacked right onto the leadout move - I timed it right and found a hole 58 seconds into the video to follow the leadout, taking the second to last corner at 35mph in 5th, with a lot of power to spare having never seen the wind.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLM94sE1fEc]

Shrouded by the field I still had not used any real juice and anticipated on using my full sprint on the uphill. As always, plans need to be adjusted – as you can see on the video, just as I began to exit the 3rd corner for my big sprint, the rider in 3rd position clipped a pedal, lost both feet, bounced off rider #4, and then careened into me – feet flapping wide, sending me towards the curb, as I locked both brakes up.

Due to the slow frame rate, what is missing from this scene is the absolute terror of that half second…

In those milleseconds I went from an adrenaline soaked anticipation of a sprint to a two handed skid toward the curb, slowing to 20mph from the 35mph sprint speed around the corner.

My saving grace was the parking lot entrance that allowed me to just miss the curb and then immediately get out of my saddle (camera shaking) to attempt to regain all that lost momentum as my 3 leadout men disappear into the distance. So much happens so fast that the camera misses much – meanwhile as they recede, two new riders winging around me as I try to undo the damage and I find myself in 6th with a big gap to 4th

But I had some horsepower to spare, and I furiously put on the afterburners and re-accelerated uphill back to 35mph and entered the 4th and final corner in 6th, swinging wide with a visual lock on 3rd place coming out of the corner.

This is where the camera really misses the most terrifying moment of the whole race for me. As I accelerate up the outside from 6th position, the the rider in 5th suddenly gets out of his saddle and swings 3 feet to the left, hitting my front wheel, to the sound of angry xylophone, and bending several of my spokes in the process. I lock up both brakes again and swing left and manage to hold onto my bucking and endoing bike.

I screamed an epithet at this point and then coasted to the line. (Virtually all this happens between frames or mostly out of view – all you can see is the sudden appearance of the rider to my right and then the sudden ‘backward’ movement of my sprint). 

At this point I coast in for 5th… feeling lucky.. and scared.

I coasted around and found Matt sitting in the grass in turn 3 - right where I almost went down. His seat was destroyed, and his helmet cracked nearly all the way through. With just a couple key questions I realized he had a concussion - "Matt, what city are we in?"  "Ummm  I don't know - how did I crash? I don't remember..."

Matt's road rash was mild, but his hand started to swell up pretty good. In his short term memory state he reminded me and others several times, “I don’t think it’s broken – just some ligaments – see I can move everything”. But even as his memory returned, “Oh yeah – I had a flat – that’s how I crashed!” the swelling in his hand continued. Eventually he had all his memory back as we sat in the shade near the cars after I was able to obtain ice and water from the very helpful promoter Vince.

Even as he recounted the flat, the skidding, and the eventual contact with the pavement I was reminded of my two close calls in my race and considered myself lucky. A day later and he got his X-ray back – and the base of his thumb joint had basically crumbled (see picture)and was impacted into the other joint, requiring the surgical imposition of metal pins and 6 weeks recovery off the bike minimum. Damn. At least it was his left hand.

Matts thumb Xray

Perhaps I’m a bad friend, but I did remind Matt that time trial handlebars use only forearms and that they might provide him a new, safer outlet while he mends. It is amazing that after 32 years of racing I've never actually had any kind of serious injury - I'm thankful for my luck...

Tomorrow begins the 2008 Superweek series – see my 2008 Race Report 2 ½ for the schedule I’ll be attending, I’m both nervous and excited for the races. I’m nervous because of getting dropped at Grafton… I’m excited because I clearly still have my sprint and if I ever get a chance to actually use it I’m reasonably certain it might bring me results.

Til then,

-John