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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same old deja-vu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maturity tells me I need the rest anyway…

-John Coyle, October, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2007 Race Report #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.”  

2007 Race Report #7: Humility

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

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

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

 The first few laps… 

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

I wanted to quit after two laps…

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

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

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

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

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

 The first quarter of the race… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Halfway… 

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

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

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

 The final quarter 

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

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

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

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

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

Then it got ugly.

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

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

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

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

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