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.)

 

Kenosha, 2005

Fri, July 22, 2005.

 

After Manitowoc, Kenosha is probably my favorite course, and in terms of spectators and ambience Kenosha has it all. The majority of the course centers on a park, that every year is filled with restaurant booths (this year Thai, Mexican, Italian, Brats, Corn on the cob, shaved ham, funnel cakes, cotton candy etc.), activities – including a skateboard and bmx demonstration involving a half pipe, a Disney troup singing and dancing and teaching kids to use a hula hoop, vendors – including bike vendors, banks, real estate agents and… grrr Cingular, and then a host of blow up kiddie rides – slides, bouncy castle, etc.

 

We managed to secure a sweet parking space right off the square across from the food vendors and 10 feet from the course itself by moving a few cones, and I headed off to register. I had a good feeling in my legs and in my mind – the music, the reasonably successful last few days, and the fact is wasn’t overly hot or raining added to my upbeat mood.

 

I stopped by the wheel pit and promised Jose – the head mechanic – my profits for the day – as I have done the last few years, and then went back and got ready. I couldn’t for the life of me find my supply of “Goo” and settled on a half of a Clif Bar tucked under my shorts.  I warmed up a little and then headed to the line.

 

There were a lot of riders – I’d guess about 100, but things started fairly slow, and I stayed in the top 20 for the first 10 of 70 laps.  A breakaway made its way off the front including an old friend Bob Springer, but we could always see it.  Another break started shortly after that one and I bridged up feeling good, but we were caught by the pack shortly thereafter. And so the laps passed.

 

The Kenosha course used to be pretty rough, but the recently re-paved most of the surfaces, and now it is quite smooth. The first corner is huge and wide, and the second corner has a rather sharp camber on the inside and a slight off camber on the outside.  On the backstretch, the road has a little chicane that can tend to crush riders to the inside and then later to the outside when the pack bunches up. Major pileups have been known to happen. Turn 3 is fairly wide, but is where a majority of the accidents happen in the last few laps as everyone tries to use this corner to move up.

 

And so the race went on, and I surfed the pack from front to the very back, but mostly stayed just behind the A*@hole zone – in around 25th place – just in case a breakaway went. Meanwhile I tried my damndest to eat a dry Clif bar. I swear I chewed the first bite for 3 laps before using my water to wash the dry chunks down whole, and then the second bite I didn’t even screw around – I merely broke it up with my teeth and pretended it was a huge horse vitamin and slowed it down with water… And so the laps counted down… 60, 50, 40, 30, 20, 15 to go, 10 to go….. 5 to go…

 

And then that magic happens.. something odd happens in these last few laps.  The composition and harmonics of the race change – subtly at first, but quickly and completely thereafter. I would liken it to that feeling on an international flight – you leave the airport, taxi out and head off into the skies, and everything is English spoken, mundane, and ordinary, and then you take a long nap and wake up and suddenly the food is different and everyone around you is speaking German or French or Dutch and while everything is the same – suddenly everything is different.

 

For racing, for me, this change is a good thing. For me it means that the guys that used to be out there taking long pulls into the wind suddenly pull off earlier, saving themselves – but at the same time, there are more to replace them. The pack gets tighter. There is anticipation in the air, and the whole group draws closer together. It feels slower, though the pace rally doesn’t change. A whole new idling, surging, and revolving of riders begins – a series of eddies and flows of inside and outside moves surging to the front only to be absorbed and drained backward through the slower inner current.

 

For 65 laps I’ve been pretty much a lifeless black and white thing – a worn-out  husk of a rider biding his time, trying to finish the laps, and then this magic occurs and suddenly I’m awake and alive – riding the tides of the race. Suddenly the game is on and it is a test of wits and skill and courage and effort to try and maintain the right position. Get too far back and you are out of contention. Spend too much time up front and you’ve spent all of your energy fighting the wind. I have a weird love/hate of this moment – I dread it for the 65 laps or so it took to get there, and then once I’m in it I get a surge of adrenaline bordering on happiness. I’m suddenly aware of the breathing of the riders, I’m suddenly aware of the tiny spaces I can slide into. I notice the crowd and the announcer and the color of the banners. I’ll put my handlebars within one inch of another bike when 10 laps earlier, 10 inches was too close…

 

So, with 5, 4, and 3 laps to go, the whole pack rode this way – shoulder to shoulder, bars to bars, with only a few dangerous moves on the left and the right in the chicane causing any considerable movement in the pack. In the meantime a small breakaway of 4 that was just off the front began to get a few hundred feet, and then few hundred yards… I floated in about 20th, trying to use my usual tricks of downshifting into the corner to allow me to move up quickly into the open wedges out of the corner, but the pack was allowing nothing… I couldn’t find an opening, and nothing and no-one was moving.

 

Undaunted, I closed in closer – moved in nearer, touched a few bars or hips and drew closer to the front as we hit the finish stretch with 2 to go. I was probably in the 3rd row now of an 8 abreast clutter down the straightaway, and then a move went up the left side – fast.

 

I bobbed and bounced and pounced on the first opening in front of me as bars swayed and shot on through joining the chasers and closing the gap into 3rd – not counting the breakaway.

 

The man in red who led – he kicked it for a whole lap and drew us within about 150 yards of the breakaway as we heard the bell. We were heading down the finish stretch fast and stretched out with one to go, and I was in 7th place with a 2 man leadout and a small break of 4 just down the road. My prayer was that one of the two horses ahead of me would lead us to the break – because if they did I was pretty sure I could take this one…

 

Unfortunately horse 1 gave up the ghost and sat up just after turn 1.  Horse 2 took us well into the backstretch, but his efforts dwindled midway down the stretch.  With a half lap to go I was left with a tough choice – bridge the 300 feet to the breakway, or hope that someone behind me had the juice to take me there.

 

I decided to take it myself and launched into a full sprint down the latter half of the backstretch. Oddly, the 4 man breakaway had apparently decided to shuffle and position rather than hold the pace high, so when I did catch them entering turn 3, I was coming at them pretty fast – maybe 10 mph faster than they were going.

 

Again choices – sit up, wait, and try to outsprint whoever led-out the sprint down the finish stretch? Or use my inertia to try and go over the top and gap them before the knew what him them?

 

I decided to use the slingshot approach and I pedaled through corner 3, and accelerated into corner 4 using their draft to slingshot into the lead on the finish stretch. I took the breakaway on the outside of corner 4 and entered the 300m finish stretch in first place - with a gap. It is a lovely notion this - to be in the lead down the final few hundred meters of a race - hundreds of eyes willing you forward. The noise was incredible and I put my head down and prayed I had enough speed to keep me there…

 

And so the next 200 meters went, and I could hear the drumming of the crowd, and the voices to the left and right, and for a little while I thought I had it – my legs were still turning, and I still felt reasonably strong. But as we neared the line I could feel and hear the riders who had followed my wake – both of them from the breakway, and as we hit the line, both swarmed to the left and right and left me third place in the sprint – but not by much.

 

A bit disappointed, I was still pleased with a podium spot and headed up to talk to the announcer after the warmdown lap. He introduced me as “Mr. Stoughton” and I didn’t really care. After my competitors were introduced I found out more about them and was pleased to find out that the race winner was the Junior national road, time trial, and criterium champion. Good company on the podium. We were talking after, and I started describing my Junior World’s experience in Casablanca Morrocco, and then I stopped short saying, “but that was in 1986…. when were you born?” and he said, “1987.” I don’t feel old too often, but I’m often reminded…

 

 

I stepped down and then had to run 100 yards to help my daughter compete in her first ever race (age 4). She finished with “pack time” in the peleton but had a good time, and then we set up camp to watch the pros race.  Robbie Ventura showed, but didn’t finish, and in the end the ensuing battle for the sprint jersey became the main feature as Frank Pipp and Abrams fought it out for the sprint points and the $5000.

 

 

Race Report #6: Kenosha

Race Report, Friday July 21st, Superweek Stage 14, Kenosha WI 50 miles, 67 degrees, pouring rain.  Another memorable day, though again, the race itself paled (literally) to the circumstances surrounding it. We woke at our campsite in Kohler Andrae State park, and after some hot coffee, eggs, bacon, cereal and a banana, Katelina and I headed off to ride her pink bike and explore the park. 

The AC ran on and off all night and by morning, we opened the windows to smell the sweet pitch of pine, and the rolling humidity of the lakeshore.  I had re-assembled Katelina’s training wheels in a very off balance position and we began practicing “riding without the noise” produced by the training wheels rattling against the asphalt. Sure enough she was able to go long stretches without touching, balancing well and I was quite proud and excited for her.  We ended up going off-road over a windswept grassy hill that became a dune and rolled down the other side toward the lakeshore.

We parked her bike and raced up and over the last dune separating the camping area from the beach. We were all alone on miles of lakeshore (it was still 8:30am) and there was a huge flock of seagulls loitering just south of us. Katelina looked at me with a particular gleam in her eye and I nodded and said, “I know exactly what you are thinking.” She nodded back at me with that  mischievious little smile or hers and went streaking off across the dune. 

I was filled with wonder and humility as I watched my tiny little offspring, limbs flailing, run directly into hundreds of seagulls on the shore, as they took to their wings and circled her tiny frame, legs splayed as she pranced among them, face filled with glee. I found myself smiling so much that my cheeks hurt.

She would stop, let them circle back to the ground a little further on, and then rush at them full speed again mouth open screaming bird cries. As I traced her path, I could see her little accelerating foot prints, spaced widely in the wet sand, with toe shaped clumps of detrius littered behind each print reflecting the ferocity of her approach. “Another sprinter?” I thought… 

We stayed down at the beach for an hour  and then headed back for another round of riding the bike and balancing, and another pass at the beach, the sand, the waves, and of course, the seagulls.  We collected seashells and amazingly circular and flat polished pebbles that Katelina added to her rock collection. Finally it was time to head back to the campsite and get on our way to Kenosha.

We made sandwiches and I guzzled Gatorade as we headed into the darkening and graying skies over Milwaukee and eventually Kenosha. We found a very nice parking spot right by the course in Kenosha. I was also in touch with my former boss and partner from DiamondCluster – Jeff Huff, who had taken to cycling in a big way. Jeff had recently hired Robbie Ventura as his coach (Floyd Landis’s coach) and helped me get much more scientific about my training. More on that later.

Jeff had raced earlier in the Master’s category hanging in very well for his first big race of the season. I registered but did not find Jeff, so I went off to warm up, following the seashore and feeling some tired legs and truculent heart as I tried to get a decent pre-race warmup. 

Finally, I took to the line – 70 laps, 280 corners, and just as the first few big drops came down, they started the race. Kenosha is probably my favorite race of Superweek. Centered right on a sizeable city park, it is filled with music, tents with vendors providing food, massages, banking, cell service, and lots and lots of giant blowup activities for kids (rock climbing wall, slide, fun house, pirate ship, mystery house, trampoline tent etc.) There are a lot people around the course watching and cheering, and more importantly I knew that Katelina would have a lot to do – Including her very own race – the big wheel race slated to start right after my race finished. 

Meanwhile, by lap 5 or 6, the course was fully saturated with water, and by lap 10 it began coming down really hard. Racing in the rain is particularly hard for me. Not so much for the skill needed in cornering (have to be extra careful) but because it forces the pace into a “sprint, brake, sprint, brake” format due to the extra caution into the corners. So the pack strings out pretty much single file and it becomes a wet death march toward the finish.  This, and the fact that its just impossible to see anything. Each tire in front of you sends up an amazing peacock tail of water, that, when you are more than a few bikes back, adds to the overall downpour, with the special additive of “silt.”

Roads are dirty – with exhaust, gas, oil, sand, dirt, garbage – whatever. All of that is picked up and flung directly into your eyes by the bike tires in front of you. Which is why we wear glasses. Glasses that get full of dirt and fog up after a few laps and then get put in your pocket for the rest of the race. So the laps counted down, and my tear ducts filled with black gunk that would come seeping out over the next 24 hours. (Middle of the night, I rub my eyes, and boulders of black junk come out that were… where? Behind my eyeball?) Later I would shower and the floor of the shower was black with all the stuff from the road… and my jerseys – will never quite become as bright as they used to be. 

60 to go, 50 to go, 40 to go, 30 to go, 20 to go. I sat up to drink some water and have some “goo” (liquid food) and realized that it had stopped raining – the water hitting my eyes was merely from the bikes in front of me.  In the meantime I had stayed in the top 20 to stay out of trouble. With the lessening of the rain, it was time to relax a little before the final effort to the line. Drifting back and starting to see some dry patches on the road, suddenly a major accident occurred in front of me on turn one: 7, 10, 12 riders sliding out to avoid the first rider that had leaned to far on the still-wet surface. I locked up both tires going straight at the rider down in front of me, but avoiding the turning/lean mechanism that would have put me into the asphalt with him. I stopped completely 6 inches from his body, turned and leaned out of the saddle, re-accelerating back into the strung out masses of riders filing up the inside. This effort hurt, and I remember thinking “I’m too tired to sprint.” 

With 10 to go I was riding dead last. Same with 9, 8, 7, 6, and 5 to go. There were short moments when the pack slowed down and I thought it was time to move up, but I still felt tired and worried over the slick pavement. In particular, turn 2 had some very large white paint stripes that caused virtually tire to skip, slip, and grab on the way around. 4 to go… I guess I should move up. Too lazy to move outside or inside with all this wind. Lets see if I can just slide up a few spots in the middle of the pack.

Unlike Sheboygan, there was no sudden energy boost. Just the discipline to know that with 3 to go I had better be at least halfway through the pack. So as the pack fanned into and out of turns, I picked off 2 riders here, 4 there, and dove into narrow gaps, making my space into the corners.  75th with four to go, 40th with 3 to go, 10th with 2 to go, and 5th with 1 to go.

We screamed past the start finish and I had a good position heading into turn 1. Into the backstretch, but the pace was too low. I drifted outside the draft, waiting for the inevitable surge due to the low pace. Sure enough, 7 riders flinging up the inside and I attached in 8th going into turn 3, 400m to go. I slipped up to 6th on the second to last straightaway, and decided to go full bore into the final 250M stretch hoping for a draft and leadout to perhaps get me the “W”. But to no avail. I was all alone on the far right, charging forward even as riders #3 and #4 used the draft to spring up the inside. No way to get their wheels, and any move inside would have put me into the backward movements of the disintegrating leadout men. I surged up the outside, but could only muster 3rd place. 

Again thwarted at Kenosha, where I have finished 2nd or 3rd for 5 years running, but not mastered a win. As I finished, I found Shannon with Katelina and Jeff, as well as some friends, who were surprised at my finish, “amazing! great job! we thought you were done!” 

Apparently the dirt from the road had given me a “grey-green” appearance, and my inability to see anything beyond the dirt had given them the impression that I was “done for.” Jeff, apparently, had chided a friend for yelling “move up!” with 6 to go by saying, “Maybe we should leave him alone – he looks grey – even sick…” After a brief warmdown lap, it was time for Katelina’s race. We had to borrow a helmet, and she had to wait, impatiently for the 3-4 year olds to finish, and then it was her turn.

She pedaled like a madwoman against her 15 peers, and mustered a 3rd place finish to two boys, only to disintegrate into tears, and then a tantrum for “not winning.” Appears that she is a bit competitive after all.  We were ultimately able to calm her by indicating that she got the same place (3rd) as her papa, and that it was GOOD to get 3rd. (I swear I will never be one of those “3rd place is ‘second loser’” kind of parents) 

We then ate some excellent Thai food and watched the pro race under clearing skies, with the sun eventually coming out. This, of course, after I took a nice hot shower in the RV where the dirt ran of me in black rivulets. I decided to take Kat on some of the rides and ended up missing the pro finish due to the lines for the rides, but she had a grand time jumping, bumping and sliding until time ran out and we headed for the RV for the 2 hour drive home in the gathering gloom. 

Jeff and I watched the Tour de France as Shannon and Katelina went to bed, and we each headed to sleep after midnight with the plans of doing it again (on Saturday), and again on Sunday. 

As my mind wandered as I headed off to sleep, I was again struck by what a day full of life it had been – a true full day – riding bikes with my daughter, time at the beach one on one, seagulls and wading in the water, more beach time and shell collecting, a downpour, a podium finish, a race for Kat and then playtime with Kat, and watching the Tour de France while  catching up with an old friend – all in one day… What could Saturday bring….?

Amazingly life continued its full pace the next 2 days….

2007 Race Report #13: Courage & Arrogance

Race report #13, Friday, July 27th, Kenosha, Superweek Stage 15 Pro/Am Criterium, Kenosha, WI: Courage and arrogance 

Hands down Kenosha is the best course at Superweek for my limited talents. At exactly a kilometer long with four corners, the course is very short and hence, no acceleration lasts for more than 10 or 20 seconds before you have to brake again for the next corner.

 

100 laps, 400 corners, 400 hard sprints… Breaking it down this way starts to make it sound hard… and it was… for a while.

 

We lined up in the late afternoon sun and it was quite warm and humid – just the way I like it. As usual I had only a few minutes of warmup – arriving late with just enough time to dress and register before heading to the line. I had again struggled with the tradeoff between beach-&-Katelina time vs. travel-to-race time and the planned departure from the beach in Sheboygan at 2:30pm quickly became 3:00pm and then 3:30pm. Sure enough I had to drive the RV like a race car just to make it to the course on time.

 

The chief referee sent us off into the lengthening shadows and bright rays of the afternoon sun, and the huge peleton immediately stretched out over a full straightaway, the long tail of riders flicking around each corner.

 

I remember looking up after a long period of suffering – breathing heavily after several dozen sprints, hanging desperately on to the wheel in front of me and blasting full throttle down yet another of the long finish stretch straightaways. My eyes finally registered the lap cards.

 92 

92 laps to go. 8 down, 92 to go. 92 laps. 92… How is it possible I could ever hope to finish 100 laps? No way. Well, let’s get in at least 10 laps total – just two more - so as to not be too embarrassing to my friends…

 

And so the lying started up – but only for a little while longer. Eventually I warmed up after about 20 laps and found the course, as always, to my liking. The short straightaways allowed me to leverage my single strength – of going pretty fast for 7 or 8 seconds – and move through the peleton without too much trouble.

 

After further reflection it is quite clearly my only strength besides strategy. Any hard acceleration longer than 7 or 8 seconds and my strength fades quickly. I have virtually no ability to hammer the pedals for extended periods. But for 3 or 5 or 7 seconds, I can put out tremendous power, without really feeling the effort. As long as it is followed by 10, 15 or preferably 20 seconds of relatively light effort I’m in pretty good shape – THAT is the one thing I can do quite well…

 

Here’s what it feels like – this tiny little area of strength that I have. Each corner I choose my path and more often than not, find a tiny sliver of an opening that I would predict to become an opening on the far side of the turn. I then center my front tire on that sliver, and lean into the corner just like the other rides.

 

Exiting the corner, I start pedaling one stroke sooner than the others, making sure my bike is counterbalanced to eliminate the risk of hitting a pedal on the downstroke.

 

Then – and this is my little private note of pride - of “flow” – of quiet power and strength – I start spinning the pedals and reach a certain RPM where a “hum” of resonance passes through my body, and I  watch as my bike and body  accelerates forward through the wheels of the fellow riders – many out of their saddles, bodies swaying. This magic resonance happens at 118rpms and above. Every lap I can look down just as I hit my stride and inevitably the bike computer will read “118” climbing quickly to 120, 122, 124 rpms before I shift gears again.

 

Quietly my little strength carries me forward to fill those gaps and move through or maintain my position near the front the peleton. This is partially how I do it – how I move through the middle of large peletons.

 

That, and there are a couple other little tricks to allow this to happen. The riders in the peleton are constantly shifting, overlapping, transiting left and right – like multicolored shards of shale set loose down a hillside, the patterns at first seem completely random. However, just as an experienced seaman can read the silent signatures of the waves, so too can some subconscious part of my mind read the Brownian motion of the peleton and anticipate the next gap. If those shards were scrabble pieces being dumped out the box, my mind appears to be capable of recognizing the important letters and creating words on-the-fly with their movement.

 

Anticipation, timing, movement, perception – even these are not enough – no one can perfectly predict the movements of imperfect humans, so what remains is the reflexive movements on the bike that mitigate disaster and prevent those unrecoverable incidents of wheel touching wheel or, worse, axle touching spokes.

 

The average racer weighs 160lbs or so, the average bike 16. Despite this fact, bodies can bounce, bash and crush each other without much incident – rather it is the rotational inertia below that presents the greatest danger. By moving the body counterintuitively into the oncoming riders inertia (much like white water rafters moving towards the rock) you can stave off that disastrous conflict of bikes and merely have the rubbery reflection of sweaty forarms and shoulders pressing and then parting.

 

Fear in the pack is high – most riders, having experienced the long sweaty nights without sleep that roadrash brings are naturally reticent to meet the pavement again. The natural, instinctual association they have is that of the contact of another rider just prior to the accident. Hence, a light touch – of an elbow, or the outside of a hand – brushed lightly against a hip, a shoulder, helps to steer those riders in front of you. The touch must be feather light though – else the body will convulse and the desired behavior of steering the rider in front quickly dissolves into a shudder of the bars and the ultimate sin – braking.

 

So… how do I move up through the middle of a peleton during the tightest, most tense moments of the race? I anticipate the movements of the pack, accelerate quickly, and gently steer those recalcitrant riders that wander into my path. On good days it feels like magic and a high speed camera would probably catch that sly smile and twinkling focus I have when I feel that I can part the waters of the pack with just my thoughts… The pro peleton, of late though, has proved to be quite stubborn to my Jedi mind tricks.

 

Once warmed up, the laps went by quickly and with 15 laps to go I decided it was time to move to the very front of the group. Over the next few laps I worked my way through the peleton – sliding neatly into invisible gaps, gently herding other riders, and moving up through over 100 riders and into the top 15 without incident

 

Then, of course, there is the challenge of the “a%$hole zone.” Every peleton has it, though the size and location differs depending on the nature of the course. If you consider the pack as almost always shaped like an arrow, the a%$hole zone is the rear of the arrowhead and the widest part of the entire pack.

  

It is only natural for this phenomenon to occur. In the rear of the peleton, the goals of the riders are merely to stay connected, so they organize 2 abreast (most common), 3 abreast, or single file if the pace is very high. There is no incentive to “ride the hip” and add another layer to the width of the pack as there is no clear path to the front and only the disadvantage of the wind when you are farther back in the pack.

 

Conversely at the very front of the pack, it is almost always a single rider leading, and depending on the pace, it may be single file for several riders, before other riders start layering up and “riding the hip” of the rider ahead in order keep position, forming the triangle or arrowhead leading the pack.

 

In between these two shapes (rectangle, triangle) we find the flange of the a%$hole zone. It is into this space that the masses of the larger pack behind fling themselves in order to move into the rarified ranks of the top riders ahead.

 

On longer courses, the arrowhead is fairly long and thin, as the long straightaways allow riders moving up from behind ample opportunities to slot in and ride the hip of someone up front.

Conversely, on short courses like Kenosha, in the 20 or 30 seconds of the long straightaways, and the 10 – 15 seconds of the short ones, there is only so far that riders and swing before needing to slot in for the next corner.

  

The a%$hole zone in Kenosha is gargantuan – corner after corner of 7, 8, 9 riders abreast trying to enter the corner at the same time.

 

I always avoid the a%$hole zone by transiting across it quickly and at Kenosha it reigned supreme in about 8th-20th place. Starting lap 15, I tried to stay ahead of it, but on lap 11 a surge caught me unawares on the backstretch, and entering turn 3, I found myself in an 8 abreast situation.

 

I braked and watched the inevitable unfold – 2 riders going up the inside slamming on their brakes, and then the ripple affect as their abortive entry into the corner caused the entire peleton to shift right.

 

The riders on the far outside panicked and 2 went down prior to hitting the curb. 4 more behind them flipped over their bikes, and then even as I skidded to a halt, I performed a slow motion endo over the rear triangle of one of the fallen, turning my bars at the last minute to fall to the left and avoid landing on the bike underneath me.

 

I was up in a flash, but in no hurry – I still had time to get a free lap.

 

About 10 of us entered the wheel pit and waited for the pack to come around and we received the signal from the referee to rejoin the peleton – unfortunately right back in the tail end of the 150 rider peleton.

 

Nonetheless, adrenaline served me well and I shot through the pack in a matter of 2 laps or 3 minutes and reappeared back in front – ready for the big sprint to follow.

 

As we moved into the final two laps, the race dynamic changed in that predictable way. I wrote about it last year so apologies for the repeat for those who read it before:

 

We cross the finish line, and the lap counter flips to read “2” As the pack passes the crowds at the announcer’s booth it seems as though the vertical metal ribs of the barriers strain with our passing, spectators removing their hands from the rails and cautioning their neighbors to back up even as they cheer, nervous hands in the air.

 

It is at this point that the nature and feel of a criterium bike race changes: when the pull of repeated breakaway attempts are suddenly replaced by the stagnation, lethargy and swelling tension that the looming yet still-distant finish brings.

 

For all the preceding laps the race possessed the graceful moves of migrating geese: loosely organized gliding movements with the occasional re-organization within the flock. The leadership provided by the arrowhead up front giving those of us following the ability to see and predict a path through corners, to move up or back, to sprint ahead if so desired.

 

However, with the end of the race within its grasp, the pack begins to pulse slowly forward like an overfed reptile straining within its skin: slowed and bulging, the formerly tapered profile of the lithe serpent suddenly becomes distended and sluggish. In other words, the entire peleton becomes the a%$hole zone.

 

The speed slows from 30 to 25, and for the next 2 minutes – an entire lap, the lump goes undigested – except for the scraping of the sides by the corners of the course. Scales of riders - even pacelines of skin - are peeled back by the rough edges of the course and sloughed off for the medics to attend to.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I didn’t want to lose all my skin just to mix it up with the crazies up front,” say others.

 

It makes sense if you have enough of an aerobic motor to get away in breakaways in the 50% of races that have them. However, in my mind the true competitor never lets a finish get away – a Lance Armstrong, a George Hincappie – these guys always race to win and if necessary would put themselves right into the field sprint mix. For me? I have no choice. This is my lot in life. Not to mention, it happens to be something I am usually pretty good at…

 

I too feel stress in these moments, perhaps less than some though. I do, however, love watching them as a spectator. Like a gigantic ballet with over 100 participants, the racers stack neatly coming into the corners, and then, in syncopated unison, tilt right in liquid slow motion, and then reverse the angle in the same perfectly timed change of alignment coming out of the corner.

 

That is, until the first shudder of a wheel touching wheel, or u-shaped handlebar looping another, and then suddenly the whole choreographed works falls apart – a sudden bobble -  the silent heat and smell of brakes and  the sea of riders divides, ripples of the impending catastrophe moving deadly, silent and quicker than road speed - like a tsunami racing outward, the wave of trepidation washes in concentric circles away from the incident, the true effects of its power observed in the wreckage piling on the shores of the road – clattering against the barriers,  flipping over curbs, or pinned by the barriers -  bodies and bikes stacking on top of each other like so much flotsam and jetsam.

 

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

 

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

 

With 2 laps to go in Kenosha, I am surrounded, blind. I am bumping and bruising in the center of the “a%$hole zone” during the tensest moments of the race. As we enter turn 1 – a metallic clanging like an ugly xylophone is heard at the barriers as bodies and bikes of the outermost layer stop themselves with a collapsed clavicle or a burning slide of skin across the sandpaper of the pavement.

 

Turn two and thank god the barriers are gone as a half dozen riders squirt out onto the grass and re-enter the pack going into the backstretch.

 

And so we continue with repeated touch and go moments of sprinting, locking up the brakes, bumping, overlapping of wheels, hitting the brakes again, and then sprinting again, avoiding each of the entanglements and bodies bumping ahead of me and beside me until I finally re-enter the finish straightaway with 1 lap to go.

 With one lap to go - digestion begins and the constriction holding back the smooth passage of the serpent begins to give way. Despite the near certain death faced by leading the pack with one lap to go, the pressure of the crowd and the noise and the barriers gets into the heads of certain riders, and with a last skeletal crack, they shoot out the mouth of the peleton like so much jelly…  I’ve never understood this lemming-like rush to the front with one to go, but I’m always grateful, as it breaks the spine of the pack and shortly thereafter the riders re-align into a more traditional paceline, allowing passing, and the proper positioning for the final sprint to the line. 

As we pass the announcer’s booth the noise and roaring of the crowd, the ringing of the bell, and the shouting of the announcer combine to break the will of the animal and a jet of riders flies zinging out the front of the pack. In Kenosha, I’m sitting just right in about 8th place, and I pause and then follow in about 15th place, knowing that the leadout men will churn on the backstretch.

 

I jump up a few spots on the short second straightaway, and then prepare for my annual signature Kenosha move – an attack just before turn 3 to lead out the sprint. It has never worked for a win, but it has been good for a 4 or 5 year string of consecutive podium finishes over the years – including a 3rd place last year – granted it took place in the less competitive Cat III race.

 

We drop through the dip in turn two and then head down the longer backstretch. I bide my time for a few seconds and then begin my acceleration. I watch the leadout men take us up to 37mph and then pick the side for my attack.

 

Normally I’ve used the gutter on the right side to make my move, but it was thick with the leaders, so I was forced to the left side. The other benefit of the left side is that the curb gives way half way down the backstretch, and suddenly more room becomes available. I used the draft and put my full effort into the pedals and slingshotted up the left side, aiming for that last rounded section of curb as it bends away to make my break from the field.

 

As expected the leaders fanned out and filled most of the road, but my sliver of daylight remained up the left as I headed toward the open space. For just a moment my path was clear and in that interval my mind jumped forward to what would happen next: I would enter turn 3 in first place, I would hold it through turn 4…

 

I would enter the pandemonium of the screaming crowds on the finish stretch in first place in one of the great pro races of the year, and as we screamed toward the finish I might, or might not, get caught coming into the last 100 meters… and 0? 1? 2? 3? riders would pass me before the line… The potential of a podium finish gave me that extra shot of adrenaline and I gave my kick everything I had heading for a sliver of light on the left side. Arrogance at its finest. I moved nearly abreast of the lead two riders in about 3rd place, still accelerating…

 

A half second before the road widened, the first place leadout man on the left sat up and swung abruptly left – and our handlebars locked like light-sabers in a Star Wars movie.

 

My forward progress caused his bars to turn right, and then his rear wheel endoed slightly up and then hit my rear skewer and his bike bucked as spokes twanged and carbon wheels skittered making awful crackling electrical sounds.

 

He returned to earth, but now righted at an angle taking him directly into my path. I locked up both brakes, but ran right back into his side. Now my bike bucked and endoed and for a second I remember leaning out way over his bike, leaning on his forearms and pushing back with my own trying to get my bike back under me even as he veered back right trying to hold onto it.

 

I bucked and skittered and then suddenly found the open space past the curb available to me. Despite both of us traveling 40 mph and having both bikes turn sideways and skip and skitter on the rough pavement while our bodies nearly took orbit, we amazingly both stayed on our bikes and neither of us went down. Whoever he was (I only saw his sweaty forearms and multi-colored gloves) he was an experienced rider. There was no panic, no shouting, no anger – nothing but the cold clinical re-balancing efforts to separate our bodies and bikes.

 

Alive and rolling, but we had slowed from 40 mph to 25mph, and the pack was streaming past us to the right. I accelerated and rejoined the group, but instead of entering turn 3 in first place with some afterburners to enter hyperspace as I had just fantasized, I entered in 20th, engines depleted from the second acceleration.  

 

Leaning hard into the final straightaway, I had nothing left and lost a couple of places in the sprint, latching onto a larger asteroid to finish 24th (again) - still in the money, still surrounded by the same full time professionals I’d been racing, yet disappointed. This was probably my best chance to achieve my goal of winning a Superweek race. Downer Avenue in Milwaukee – to follow the next day – was notorious as one of the hardest races in American cycling, and rumors of a $5000 prime sprint during the race was anticipated to draw additional professionals from all around the country…

 

After collecting my winnings, I retired to the RV with, Jose & Todd from the wheel pit, Gary and Monica Goebel and their two boys and we laughed and talked and ate. But all the while the little thought remained… “almost… almost…”

 Accompanying that was another note – a shrill warning reminding me that one of the toughest challenges in cycling was the following day… “just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped.” And then… “Mochi-dado.”