2013 Race Report: Birmingham Bike Festival

2013 Race Report: Birmingham The drive from Chicago to Detroit began a structure of energy and feeling that emerged like a fractal: it started with the frenzy and stress of the busy suburbs, frequent merges required to traverse the ant trails of the city, my right foot a hummingbird between the nectar of the accelerator and the threat of the brake, bright sunlight from above burning twitching limbs and blinding eyes.

The transition to Indiana began with a ribbed series of long, straight, tarred concrete boulevards surrounded by a parade of ugly billboards pimping everything from hardware to strip clubs and then finally, the curve to the north and the relief of the Michigan border. The transition came quickly its first relief from the afternoon heat found in dappled wood-lined bends, shadows stretching in the late August sun. With the cruise control humming, calm emerged and I grew thoughtful, leaning into the curves.

As usual it was a “race to the race,” but this time merely to join members of my team the Wolverine Sports Club for a simple breaking of bread the night before the actual event. I arrived with ample time to spare and sat in the parking lot of my old grade school / middle school / high school in Southfield marveling at how it was both novel and natural to park the same parking spot of my 17 year old self and gaze upon the bricks that enwombed and entombed me for 13 years as a child, teen and young adult. Egg shells and dripping yolks by the high school entrance reminded me of a series of senior pranks including cementing the doors shut and painting handicapped symbols in every single parking space. Good times.

Pulling into Birmingham I felt the easy embrace of my cycling brethren: the graceful green intellect of Kelly and Jay, the joyful banter of the Rodd brothers and their ladies Chelsey and Sam, Sarah’s competitive curiosity and Kroske with his camera and quick humor. The night was warm then cool, conversation transitioned and groups reformed and I stumbled into Jay and Kelly’s house near midnight, content yet missing my family.

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I slept in the dark basement without setting an alarm never questioning the notion that I’d awaken in time for an 11:20am race. Wine and time zones conspired and I awoke at 10:20am and faced the usual mad scramble to make the race: eat, shower, dress, pack, lockup, drive, get money a the ATM, register for the race, pin the number on the jersey, assemble the bike, pump up the tires, and then, with 7 minutes left, “warmup.”

The race started fast and strung out quickly. For two laps I stayed in 5th position before folding and tucking back behind the draft of the larger peleton. I had forgotten to fill my water bottle and only had ½ bottle for the 50 minute long race and had to ration my sips. The first ten laps were difficult but eventually the pack settled in and I rode the eddies and currents of the rear of the peleton. I felt the newfound power of a clean drivetrain coursing through my veins and into the pedals and determined I would have a shot at the win. I could hear twice that my friend and competitor Paulo Eugeni won two primes in a row. Good for him.

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Then the pace picked up again and the pack slinkied out single file with 10 laps to go as a break of strong riders went clean. I danced inside and outside the turns with Ray Dybowski and had glimpses of fellow Wolverines Jay, John and Kroske for a few laps and then heard from Tim Finkle the announcer that Ray was putting in his signature move of a late break, but to no avail. There was already a break up the road and the peleton was determined to bring it back.

The sun was now heating the pavement and limbs. Families were lining up in advance of the kids race. Tires were grippy and risks could be taken on the tight yet smooth turns and I spent 10 laps enjoying the mastery of efficient pack surfing, gracefully pedaling through corners on cruise control. With 5 to go we gained sight of the breakaway and began to reel it in. The pace was high and the peleton single file – 200 yards from tip to tail. I was sitting 2nd to last and waited for the pack to hit the inevitable lull so that I could move up for the sprint. It never happened.

We caught the break with 2 to go but another surge happened and finally I realized I had to play the hand I had been dealt. On the backstretch with 1 ½ to go I surged up the outside, asking John Sammut for permission to move out. I jumped from 60th to 30th and then followed wheels through the turbulence and then heard the bell for one lap to go. Again on the backstretch I lit a match and jumped up the inside from 30th to 10th before entering the chicane, but now, with only 400m left I realized that my efforts were too late and that my weakness from the accelerations and the single file line ahead of me would not present any opportunity for the win. I skipped a few wheels and finished a reasonable but unsatisfactory 8th – in the money but hardly fulfilled.

Nostalgia reigned after the race as voices and faces from my youth emerged as the kids race and then the Pro race were sent from the line. My great friend Kirk had arrived and we meandered the course, I talked with Ray, cheered Randy and Ryan and Ryan and Ray, ate with Kelly and Jay, talked with Kirk, saw TJ and Duane and the Andreau’s and Stechkines. The sun angled early and I got back in the Jag and pointed the smoothly humming V8 west at 80mph for for the ride into the setting sun.

Something, many things stuck with me. Most of all what I recall was Kelly and Jay talking about their exit and return to Michigan. They had moved to Wisconsin, and then faced adversity. They looked for community; they cast hooks and reeled in empty lines. They realized, she realized, that they were lonely. The defined loneliness and I sat and listened in rapt attention. They realized that they missed their friends and the sense of belonging of Detroit’s cycling community. One year later they moved back. Despite the economics, despite the city’s woes, despite the climate they moved back and were once again happy.

I have been a Wolverine since 1976 and in some way part of that community since I was 8 years old. I always look forward to seeing anyone from the club or cycling community including previous members – Ryan Cross, the Rodd Bros, Ray D., Frankie, Jose, Sarah, Brett, TJ, Duane, Jason, John Sammut, Cullen, Duane, Mark, Scott, Kelly, Jay, Danny, Jamie, Tim, and dozens of others. Other than a brief stint with 7-11 I have always had a Wolverine cycling license despite many offers to switch to teams when I lived in Arizona, Wisconsin or Illinois. To be honest I didn’t give it much thought – I liked being part of the “club of champions” and flying my colors in remote regions.

The sun was setting as I turned off the cruise control and crossed the Indiana state line with a line of cars blocking my way as I headed west. I was having an unnamed feeling, one that I had felt on and off for a few years. The sun was lighting up the worn stones in the concrete like gold coins. I tried to thread my way through traffic but lapsed into the single file queue towards the border. The feeling grew stronger and I avoided naming it. I tried the radio, flipped stations but the sun dipped lower and lower and avoided my visor and lit up my retinas with its brilliance and eclipsing descent towards my current home.

A rush of nostalgia for the previous hours returned. Perhaps my feelings had a name. Perhaps I too am “lonely.”

Perhaps I too need to head “home.”

2009 Race Reports #22 & 23: Tour di Via Italia (Erie Street)

2009 Race Report #22 & 23: Tour di Via Italia Another drive to Michigan in the perfection of late August skies: the sun warmed my skin even as the wind cooled it and a ribbon of gray and black highway snaked out ahead of me, shadows of trees left and right. It was 78 degrees, the perfect temperature to drive cross country in a convertible. Mine is a black 22 year old BMW 325i, a finely made, battered German car with a finely made, battered Italian Colnago in back. Buffeted by the winds, my bicycle was headed for the last race of the season, upside down, chain dangling on the worn leather of the back seat.

I had been looking forward to this race all year. Tour di Via Italia, or “Erie Street” is in its 51st year on the same flat rectangular course and is always the Sunday before Labor day. Erie Street is in the Little Italy of Windsor, Ontario and consists of a string of coffee bars, restaurants and night clubs backing to clean, carefully manicured working class neighborhoods. Stroll into any one of the dozen or more bars and cafes and odds are you’ll find a gregarious older male behind the bar or greeting patrons while keeping an eye on inevitably young and attractive female wait-staff, the only thing they appear to have in common is being Italian and frequent trips outside to smoke a cigarette.

I was looking forward to my first trip to Casa-de-Dybowski and hanging with my Wolverine bretheren. I was also looking forward to some tiny coffees on Erie street before the races, and to tipping a few glasses of Chianti (or better yet, Brunello) afterward to accompany some excellent freshly made pasta. In between, of course would be hours of beautiful suffering on the bike.

I knew the drive to Michigan would drag on forever, yet would disappear the instant I arrived, just as I knew the weekend would be over in a flash, yet would leave its imprint on my memories forever. This inversion of time experienced vs. time remembered is something that I have pondered for quite some time. I have concluded that despite intuition and what we have been taught, time is flexible – and that time, as tracked and measured by our brains, can be created and expanded or condensed and squandered. More on this in the nest post.

Hanging with Ray, Melissa and family along with Ben Renkema and Randy Rodd eating some fantastic freshly made pasta in heaping quantities and a few glasses of wine, we then felt the need to educate Ben on an important American cultural icon, “Caddyshack” and whiled away the hours chatting in the living room – a scene that would repeat itself the next night as well.

Neither of my races at the Tour di Via Italia worked out as planned, yet the possibility of victory filled my thoughts filled my mind with the anticipation of raising my hands in victory. No, I didn’t win – I was fourth in the Master’s race after a long headwind shot to the line that fell short (VIDEO below)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNjnmK-_iXI]

Meanwhile, after a freshly made cheese pizza, a couple shots of espresso, and a gallon of water later, I found myself on the line for the 100 kilometer Pro Race. The race rotated in fits and starts, fading into the evening as a breakaway of 8 got away, only to be brilliantly in the final laps by the lit by the sideways sun and the surging hope for a field sprint win. I hydrated carefully and conserved to the end. Finally it was my time – 2 to go. Never mind the 8 man breakaway that the lazy peleton had failed to chase – my eyes were on Renkema, Cavendar, Eugeni, Candless and a surprise bid for the sprint from Mr. Finkelstein.

Power was available for my command and as we entered the final two laps, I was full of life and energy noticing everything, every movement, even the color of the tires of the competitors before coming around the final corner about 10th. I knew it would require a miraculous hole in the lead group to find a path to the finish for the field sprint win, but I was prepared to exploit whatever came my way and loved that I was feeling capable of delivering all out power after 2 races and 90+ miles of racing in the heat.

The video misses much, but if you watch closely, just after the corner, in just a few frames, I leap forward, and then you a flash of Luke Cavendar’s hip, and then I stall and fade.

What takes place in those two seconds is a lot of activity: coming off the wheel in front of me, I put power and energy into the carbon fiber of the bike and it leaps forward and I start to have visions of a field sprint victory. Then a movement to the left – Luke avoids an erratic move and sweeps right and I hit his rear wheel hard with my momentum.

I slide forward in my seat while hitting both brakes hard – I saw it coming and was ready. Still, afterward, ¾’s of my front tire had a black mark from Luke’s rear wheel. I rocked forward and almost endoed over my front wheel, but Luke regained his trajectory and so did I.

Just as I let my hands off the brake hoods, my chain fell off – thank God I was in the saddle – and I almost fell off my seat as my legs rotated fiercely forward. I tried in vain to shift it back onto the big ring, but it would only re-connect with the little ring even as I pedaled softer and softer, but to no avail.

All this took place in a few frames of the camera… (See VIDEO below)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6ZHYEOcjCI]

Left index fingers still throttling the shifter, I windmilled my legs to the line on the small ring, settling for 8th in the sprint, losing ground.

Afterward, I meandered to a street side cafe' where Randy was busy entertaining three older women. "I may have gotten dropped, but I got voted the 'best looking' cyclist by these ladies here," Randy said. The 20 year old Randy promptly received the phone number of a pretty, but 46 year old woman (using Cory Dubrish's phone,)then we took a team photo in the street (below) and then headed across the street for a real dinner, swapping true stories and tall tales as a team.  It was all worth doing and all worth remembering, so we took pictures.

Erie Street at night and the WSC

WSC elite team

I crashed that night late at Randy Rodd’s lake house, completely exhausted, but fully alive. What a full day it had been… As I drifted off to sleep with the windows open, I could smell the fragrance of fall creeping into the room, and the chirping of the  optimistic frogs was no foil to the sense of the coming winter.

Now what?

To “really living…”

-John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It felt good, really good.

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