Race Report 2007 #20: Tour De Villa Italia - Failure

September 2, 2007: Race report #20, Tour de Villa Italia, Canada. Failure.

The last race of the season – and my favorite. 

 

I drove the RV pell-mell from Chicago to Detroit Saturday night, arriving in Canada at nearly 1am for the race the following afternoon. All the sights and sounds of Erie Street or “little Italy” in Windsor, Ontario, Canada were the same as I remembered them since childhood. The little cafés with the weathered looking men smoking cigarettes and drinking tiny coffees in the early morning sun, the traffic barriers being set up and the towing of vehicles on the course, the construction of the announcer’s booth, the arrival of the riders.

 

I spent the morning and early afternoon in the company of two best friends since grade school, sipping espresso, sampling morning pasta and then a cheese pizza before heading out for warmup. I warmed up hard by the river, slinging through the gears and establishing a strong rhythm at 25mph humming down the path across from the skyline of Detroit.

 

I was ready.

 

I lined up with over 100 other riders as the sun angled behind the shops and restaurants lining Erie St. and Tom Demerling the announcer and the referee sent us on our way. The race was fast, really fast, though I didn’t know it as my cycling computer had decided to die on the start line, so I had no real sense of the speed of the race. To me it seemed “mild.” Later Ray Dybowski was to indicate that it was the fastest race he’d been in in over a decade – average speed was over 30mph.

 

I was determined to be in a breakaway if there was one. I was determined to be a factor for the win, not just the winner of the losers like last year when I won the field sprint for 19th place.

 

I raced up front.

 

I danced in breakaways, spent a lap or two off the front, and generally stayed in the top ten for the first hour or 30 miles. I was happy, I was strong, I was proud, and I remember thinking, “so this is what it is like to be ‘one of them’…” A roadie.

 

With about 30 miles down and 32 miles to go I began to have trouble with the light of the setting sun – like it was too bright when we were moving into it, and too dark in the shadows. I felt like I couldn’t see the road surface, or that the jerseys around me were so brilliant in the sun that I wanted to block my eyes.

 

I removed my glasses thinking it was the reflective surface. It didn’t help.

 

I dropped back in the pack suddenly lethargic. I kept shaking my head, trying to clear my eyes. I returned my sunglasses to my face in the brilliance of the backstretch. Nothing helped. I was numb, swimming through the course now, faces slowed, claps become gunshots.

 

I was bonking.

 

How the hell was I bonking? I had eaten more than enough, I had consumed plenty of fluids, I had eaten 2 of my 3 gels at the 40 and now 80 minute marks… ohhh… Then I remembered…

 

I’d had a bit of a stomach bug over the preceding few days. Shannon and I had eaten some carryout on Thursday, 3 days before, and within an hour we were both retching and emptying our stomachs and intestines. I’d had only diarrhea since… but… my body wasn’t really processing all the energy I had so planfully provided.

 

I assumed my old position at the rear of the pack, and saved my last gel – perhaps I could squeeze enough energy out of it with a few laps left to go for the win?

 

The laps drifted by and finally with 5 laps to go I squeezed the viscous chocolate liquid into my mouth and then made my way through the pack. With 2 laps to go I was back in the top 8, and stayed there. With one to go I found the wheel of sprinter extraordinare Ben Renkema, and followed him all the way to the last corner….

 

Sun sideways, shadows black, bikes and bodies white I entered the last 400meter straightaway in 8th place, got out of my saddle, pressed sinews and muscle to pedal, and…

 

…nothing happened.

 

The race went on around me, and I sprinted all out going backward, watching rider after rider pass me. Ben shot through to finish second at the line.

 

By the time I hit the line I was in 16th place.

 

I hated this last 20 seconds – more than anything I can remember I hated the feeling of going backward in the sprint – the one thing that I am good at…

 

…That I used to be good at.

 

This failure wasn’t born of pain. It wasn’t a result of injury or illness. It was one of getting beat – of seeing talent, youth or ability overcome experience. Or so I thought at the time.

 

I pondered these questions as I had dinner in one of the fantastic restaurants lining little Italy, and as I drove home the next morning.

 

It was more than a month later before I put all the data together and had my middle of the night epiphany about trading fast twitch for slow twitch. The overload of training and racing had once again made me into someone else. Capable – sure. Strong – sure. But incapable of winning races.  I was now racing my weaknesses…

 

2007 was notable for several reasons: 1) I was in better aerobic shape in 2007 than EVER in my whole life.  2) It is the first and only year since 1977 that I didn’t stand on a podium – despite competing in 26 races over the summer.

 

Sometimes I blame Walden for the paucity of his observations. “Finish at the line Coyle, finish at the line!” That was always his advice and coaching to me. In contrast, it becomes obvious that he never said, “Get in the break Coyle, get in the break.” But common perceptions, pressures – this is what those voices say. For me to be in a breakaway – that would very clearly be me “racing my weaknesses”…

 

2 years ago I had returned back to Detroit for these same races for the first time in decades. With only minimal training, on that fateful Monday after the Tour de Villa Italia, I raced the Cat 3 race, the Masters 30+ race, and the Pro 1/2/3 race, and placed in the top 6 in all 3. The “trifecta” was born.

 

However much I wish it, I can never truly be a roadie. I am who I am.

 

I am a sprinter.

 

Maybe next year I’ll do it right.

 

-John

2007 Race Report #4: Racing Sick

Saturday June 30th, 2007:  Race report #4: Elm Grove Criterium – 35 miles, 82 degrees

In typical “too many things going on” fashion I arrived to the course with very little time to warmup for this 60 minute + two lap race in a suburb of Milwaukee.

The course was rectangular, but bowl shaped topographically, with the finish line and backstretch falling into the bottom of the bowl, and the two turns at either end of the rectangle rising up from the valley of the straightaways.

I hurriedly put in 15 minutes of warm-up and then arrived at the start line. I was surprised to find a couple of pro teams represented including team Hyundi. Also represented were about 50 or so Category 1 and 2 racers – all of whom looked much leaner and fitter than me.

The race referee sent us off with verbal commands and up the first small climb we sprinted. In 30 seconds my pulse was up over 170 beats/minute and for the next 4 or 5 laps I was hanging on for dear life…

I was reminded during the drive over this day that sometimes the hardest part about racing is showing up. Some days I can’t wait to race – particularly when the sun is shining, when there is low wind, and when it is not too incredibly hot or cold. This day – despite the sunny skies and relatively mild weather, I just… really didn’t want to go.

As a competitive athlete most of my life, one of the big surprises when I retired from full time competition back in 1998 was how much energy I felt – quite the opposite of what I expected. I can remember for years of my life dreading staircases of any sort, and how I would often have a headrush at the top of a short set of stairs. Little did I know then, that I was generally overtrained most of my career.

On this particular morning I remember using the stairs on the back deck after watering my little garden, and stopping at the top with that same feeling of exhausted vertigo. I just felt a bit tired and lugubrious.

I had some of that same feeling in the race – just a feeling of not being entirely present – like I was watching the race from a distance – and of being just a bit tired and slightly unmotivated. Also my stomach was turbulent and felt full even though it wasn’t. I just didn’t feel great…

Nonetheless discipline won out and I followed wheels, maintained my position, used the downhills and short climbs to my advantage and generally conserved as best I could.

When a breakaway of 4 got away mid-race, I found myself unable to care. I soldiered on, but did not spend as much time assessing the race motions as I probably would have normally.

With 5 to go I was dead last. 4 to go and 7 more guys went off the front – one group of 3 and another of 4 - but I was still dead last. 3 to go and I moved up just a little – maybe 35th. Two laps to go and I was cradled in the middle of the pack – shielded from the wind and watching, but I found myself finally waking up a bit. With one to go I was still in 25th, but now all senses were on full alert and as we accelerated up the small hill into turn one, I followed a surge up the left and entered the second straightaway in about 15th.

Making the turn into the backstretch and traveling back down into the small valley, another surge moved up the left and I followed in 3rd position and we peeled clear of the pack and moved within striking distance of the two breakaways.

Even though I was still not overly motivated, I did know what to do and even as we reached the back of the first of the two small breakaways, I made my move and accelerated left of their draft and shot forward to the second small breakaway, reaching their draft just shy of turn 3 and swinging wide, still accelerating…

We entered the fairly wide, downhill corner at probably 40mph, and they didn’t know I was coming. I remember clearly the sudden startled looks and shuddering of brakes and bikes as they realized I was taking them on the outside and that they wouldn’t be able to swing wide coming out of the corner without intersecting my launch path.

My acceleration took my clear of them by the end of the corner and I entered the 4th corner – still slightly downhill at a full sprint and screamed through it at probably 45mph.

The 200 meters left to the finish line had a small rise and then another downhill and I used the last of my reserves to maintain my speed over the rise and I slingshotted down the hill and to the finish line without even a vague sense of the pack behind me.

As it turns out, I did win the field sprint by several bike lengths and came in 6th overall – as there were 5 riders up on the breakaway.

I should have been pleased – really pleased with the result, and while I was happy intellectually… emotionally I just felt flat.

My friend Matt and his son Willie were there and seemed genuinely impressed with my sudden emergence from the bowels of the pack to the strong field sprint finish, and the photos Matt took – by failing to show the breakaway off-camera – almost look like a victory.

I thanked them for being there and then piled back into the car to drive back to Madison and then on again to Streamwood (Chicago). I felt tired and lightheaded and what I didn’t know then was that my physical challenges for the day were just beginning.

When I arrived in Madison, I picked up some Chinese food ready to go from a local carryout and I mistook my stomach’s rumblings for hunger and scarfed down several piles of noodles and rice.

It was only then that the inevitable began. My daughter had had it, and now it was my turn. Spasms and cramps gripped my stomach, and waves of nausea begin flowing through my body on the drive back to in Streamwood.

My hands were sweating on the wheel when we left Stoughton, but by the time I hit Rockford, I was shivering and freezing so badly that the car was vibrating with my shudders. I thought about pulling over, but I figured that driving was the only thing keeping me from decorating the car with the contents of my stomach and when I made it home I was beyond exhaustion.

The flu or more accurately the gastrointestinal illness I had contracted had another lovely feature – my back and shoulders felt exactly as though someone had driven a screw through them all the way to my hips, and then tighten a nut on my shoulders, creating an incredible amount of ache and thudding pain in my neck and shoulders and back. After a 20 minute scaldingly hot shower, I shivered my way to bed, hunched my shoulders, and proceeded to spend most of the night in the bathroom before finally falling asleep around 5am.

At some point in the night as my thoughts tumbled and repeated and some mundane sequence repeated itself over and over in my head, I remember thinking, “My God – can’t I just go to a bike race without event LIKE A NORMAL PERSON!?”

Next: Report #5: Wisconsin State Criterium Championships in Elkhorn, Wisconsin,

Til then,

John