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.

Image

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.

Image

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.”

2011 Race Reports 1, 2, 3 & 4: The End of My Youth…

2011 Race Reports 1, 2, 3 & 4: The End of My Youth… I lived my 50’s in my twenties (thanks to the heavy training for the Olympics that left me so exhausted I constantly craved sleep and avoided stairways.) Then, I lived my 20’s in my thirties (where I had seemingly endless energy and required very, very little sleep.) Last weekend I confirmed I’ve solidly entered my 30’s in my forties…

Why again, do I race? It is a question worth repeating. In full disclosure I hate most of it: the monotony of training, the pre-race gymnastics – loading up, driving, registering and paying, the pinning of numbers, warming up, lining up… I hate all of it. Even worse is my hate for the first half or even ¾’s of the race – an agonizing, lung shredding celebration of all my weaknesses and incredible pain and lethargy against faster, stronger, and younger men than I with their chrome plated legs bulging with muscles…

But time, time is flexible, and for the sprinter, there comes a few moments where light penetrates the gray haze of the mind numbing training days and racing hours. For a few moments a brilliant pulse of energy comes to neurons, blood, bones: muscles align to provide a glimpse of hope and opportunity. Today – today could be the day where I win, despite the odds and the haze of pain. And in those seconds, we the dormant, we the feeble, encased in the shell of the peleton suddenly thrust through the shroud of the chrysalis and life, color and hope returns to feed the unfolding of our flight.

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

The end-of-season races in Grand Rapids included the U.S. Pro Championships and a series of highly competitive categorized races both downtown on the bricks and then in East Grand Rapids in the gentrified “gaslight district.” My plan was to “double up” each day, which would mean racing 4 times in 21 hours.

It was in those 21 hours that the evidence ending my extended youth piled up. It all started with an innocuous phone call “Coyle, want to bunk up for the races in Grand Rapids?” This from Ray Dybowski – the “Godfather” of Michigan cycling and heir apparent to Walden’s coaching legacy. Ray turned 50 today and is still tough as nails often doubling up or even tripling up at races, completing 50 to 60 competitions each summer.

In my mind I pictured a leisurely dinner after the first day of racing, a glass of wine, a luxurious hotel with two queen beds, and a good rest prior to the second day of racing. Then Kroske joined in the group – another Master’s level racer with a strong sprint, great sense of humor, and a ubiquitously available camera. Fantastic I thought – “let’s order a roll-away.”

Then team members “the Rodds” entered the picture – a pair of brothers in their young twenties known for winning races, flashing irresistible smiles to the ladies at every opportunity, a high tolerance for post race libations and little requirement for sleep. This is the beauty of bike racing – age matters nothing, only ability. “I’ll bring my inflatable bed” said Ray. Just like old times…

Saturday:

The day dawned gray-blue and lugubrious and the 4 hour drive to Grand Rapids featured varying speeds of windshield wiper the entire way. Oddly I actually felt a quiver of nerves as I approached the race course, partly due to the inherent danger of racing on wet cobbles, and partly due to built up expectations of delivering results: I had won the last two times racing this event and wanted to do so again.

It was about an hour out from Grand Rapids when the realization that another driver of the empty feeling in my stomach was simple hunger – of course – I would need to eat lunch prior to racing. I swung off the highway and looked at the fast food row dismayed by my options. I tried Wendy’s, pulling through the drive-thru. No, nothing there I can eat. I then followed the signs to McDonalds knowing I could get a yogurt parfait and maybe a grilled chicken salad. The McDonald’s was in a giant Walmart. This Walmart was in the middle of no-where in western Michigan. As I entered the sliding doors to Walmart I had a sudden jolt – everywhere, padding along in flip flops and ill fitting stretchy waistbands were rotund families and individuals who were either eyes down looking into an electronic device, or shoving something unhealthy into their mouths – or both. As I waited in line at the McDonalds it was overwhelming – the sizzle of the fat, the massive sugar laden drinks, the mottled skin, stretchy outfits, and instantaneous entertainment befitting the lifestyles and girths of kings – these were now reserved for those without the money or education to realize what the 24/7 passive entertainment, 2000 calorie, 2000mg of sodium meal was doing to them. I was in an earthbound version of Wall-e and it was no joke.

Chastened I ordered only a yogurt parfait, (king sized, of course w/ a superfries and 64oz Coke), and headed to the car feeling holier than thou while texting Randy and checking weather.

I managed to arrive in time to see the end of the pro race, register, change, AND warmup. It was weird.

It was pure luck – the pro race had been delayed 45 minutes due to a storm that had rolled in and taken out half the field and a number of the barriers. All the extra time made me nervous. Ray remembered to give me a plaque from a few years prior - we thought about replacing my hood ornament:

Race 1: Elite Cat 1/2/3 Temp 68 – 75 degrees, light winds, average speed 27.2mph, Finish  speed 37.8 mph

It was a good thing I warmed up – 100 riders on a still puddled course with 2 sections of cobbles. The pace was high much of the race and I wandered the peleton looking for a comfortable position, suffering immensely. Mid-race the pace was particularly tough and I moved up 20 or 30 spots. A few laps later and I found myself at the back of the pack again - without dropping position - the pace had dropped a number of riders.

As the miles added up and the laps counted down I began to feel a glow of power in my legs and mastery of the bike in the corners that Csikszentmihalyi would describe as “Flow”. With confidence and control I rotated up through the corners, purposely fell back on the short straightaways, and then hit the afterburners down the long homestretch in order to stay connected to the stretched-thin core of the peleton. Each lap we hit 32, 33mph into the slightly uphill stretch on cobbles against a mild headwind. Each time the effort put me at the edge of my aerobic capacity, but instead of fear of getting dropped I recognized in the open mouths and agonized pedal strokes of those around me that for once I wasn’t the one “on the rivet.”

Three laps to go and it was “my time” and I began that odd dance through the swaying peleton that has come to characterize my racing career over the years. Like a highly choreographed dance routine on a ship experiencing high seas, the peleton tends to be predictably scripted in its patterns, with the occasional lurches flashing changes like shoaling fish when a predator appears.

Six men off the front, I read the patterns and flashed left and right when the signals suggested panic and in the space of 2 laps I found myself in the top ten readying for the sprint with much younger, stronger and faster men than myself.

Things then peeled and surged and I lost position again but notched my way back up against ever rising speeds, never falling below 30. On the backstretch of the final lap I burned a match to position back in the top 7 and then followed the leadout machine around the final corner and into the uphill, upwind finish. The resisting elements caused a fanning of riders up front and I rode the drafts and waited, finally hitting the afterburners directly in the slip stream of super-strong Panther rider and former Wolverine Ryan Cross who surged toward the line. I had the advantage of the draft and timing and had hopes of breaking through and winning the field sprint when a breakaway rider appeared directly in my path hurtling backward. I came across the line coasting, hands on the brakes and finished third in the field sprint, 9th overall. I was happy.

Race 2: Masters 35+: Temp 76– 80 degrees, light winds, average speed 26.0mp, finish speed 36.6mph

The lactic acid burden had reached its climax just as I coasted to a stop at the line w/ the Masters. I was in miasma of pain and could barely speak when I found Kroske and Dybo and they unpinned my old numbers and repinned the new ones as I heaved over my bars, finishing the job only seconds before the officials sent us off for race two.

F-ing Masters racers! Never content to settle smoothly into a race, they hit it hard right from the start and it was everything I had to just stay tacked onto the last wheel of the peleton for the first lap. Same for the second. By lap three I started recovering from the intense effort of the prior race, and then things slowed up and I began to enjoy the dance, trading places with Ray on several occasions as he made bold moves up the inside to try and force a breakaway.

Things moved to their inexorable conclusion and I moved up into the top five with one to go. Surges put me back to 12th so I again used a match on the backstretch to slot into 4th – as it turns out, right onto the race winner’s wheel. As we wound around the snaking final corners, I considered an attack into the final two corners, and then watched it happen to me – Switlowski hitting it hard just prior to the final two back-to-back corners. I tried to match and then found myself taken to the barriers by a racer shooting up the inside. Braking into the final corner, I tried to retrieve my speed but found myself only able to hold onto 5th.

Then, the true test of endurance began….

Saturday night:

Kroske, Ray and I planned a nice dinner at the bistro across from the hotel and for a while the older crew held sway – risotto, paella, shrimp and varied libations at an outside table. But Randy and Ryan brought their own energy to the conversation and moments later Randy had convinced the waitress to spoon feed him his food, sitting on his lap.

From there were a series of visits to various Grand Rapids eateries and bars where we watched the younger crew expend their endless social energies.

 At one point we tried to lock Ryan in a Port-o-Pottie but he escaped and tried to force us on to the next stop.

Kroske, Ray and I threw in the towel around midnight and it was only upon returning to the room that I had failed at one of my golden rules – 2 glasses of water for every glass of wine, AND there was a huge inflatable bed between me and the sink to get more water. Chugging some tap water before bed and leaving the 10 oz cup lonely on the bedside table I crashed only to be awakened much later by the returns of Ryan and Randy.

Sunday:

It was a night of awakenings – 5 guys in one room, 2 stragglers returning, and then the need to get up and head to the races.

Dehydration and fatigue are familiar friends – despite feeble attempts to hydrate enroute to my first morning race, I actually felt too tired to drink water. I wondered how I could possibly race feeling hot and dry with a pounding head and queasy stomach, but knew I could – and would.

Cat 3: Temp 74 degrees, light winds, average speed – I forgot to check, finish speed painfully fast.

After arrival at the course came an agonizing tiring string of events – parking, registration, changing, number pinning, and lining up for the first race – sun glaring.  After 3 laps I wanted to quit, not unusual. With 3 laps to go I was chugging the rest of my water and wanted still wanted to quit – highly unusual. Still, as a chessmaster I knew what to do even if my pieces didn’t want to comply and pushed my pawn into position for a checkmate, coming around the final corner in 5th and finishing… 5th. Nothing to give.

 

Masters: Temp 76 degrees, light winds, average speed – I forgot to check, finish speed painfully fast.

The beauty of pre-registration is that it creates a dialectic between laziness and frugality: I had already paid so of course I’d have to start my fourth race in 20 hours. Some additional hydration helped with my motivation as well as energy and despite a faster pace I navigated the laps with little difficulty. In the final sprint I struggled despite a leadout from Kroske and only managed 10th.

After the race I hooked Dybo up with a “5 hour energy” vial and then jumped in the Jaguar for the long drive home.

As always, there was something about the darkening reach of the trees and the end of August light that suggested the closing in of time – that the summer solstice and height of the racing season was well behind me and that try as I might, races to try and win would be far and few. Still, I smiled – what a weekend of intensity, fear, pain, suffering and joy.

I remember reading in one of the many books on “Happiness” about a study on joy. I believe the book was called “Satisfaction”. Specifically, the author entered an experiment where he was subjected to some extended and extensive pain (ice water over his extremities). The interesting outcome was that the neurological response to the end of this programme was exactly identical to that of happiness – and indeed the author experienced a “high” following his ordeal that could only be described as joy.

I guess this is why I race: the extended periods of suffering required for limited periods of joy is a tradeoff I’m willing to make. Corollary: choose your suffering – don’t let it choose you.

 

 

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….

A Lucky Club: "Olympic Alumnus"

Last week I enjoyed another “Life of Riley” moment. As a member of the athlete council for the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid committee (which I earned through doing nothing other than being a former Olympian) I was invited to be a “principal for the day” for a school the Chicago area. At first I balked as it meant taking a full vacation day during a very busy time at work – but eventually Diane Simpson one of the leaders of the athlete council talked me into it.

 

I am glad I made the time.

 

For about 3 hours that morning my feet squeaked through the shiny white tile floors and peeling paint on the cinder block hallways of the Betsy Ross elementary school in the heart of the south side of Chicago at 59th and Wabash.  Christine Kijowski. the P. E. teacher walked me from room to room and was a study in grace.Per their instructions I wore my Olympic warmups, and then covered my bets in order to entertain the kids and brought props – the silver medal from the ’94 games, the shiny gaudy gold Olympic ring, the 18” blade and carbon fiber boot of my speed skate, and best of all (when I was allowed to light it) the still-working torch from the 1996 Atlanta Games torch run.

 

Kids love fire. So do I.

 

Let’s be clear. I’m a white guy. I sometimes forget this as I don’t really think about race or ethnicity very much, but in the 6 classrooms I visited there were only African American children – not a single other ethnicity represented. Whatever I was supposed to think about that I failed, as usual, to do so. They were just kids, sitting at the same uncomfortable wooden desks as I did at their age with remarkable discipline that dissolved and reformed quickly with a teacher’s voice. So I spoke loud to cut through the chatter, asked names, and mostly handed them stuff to look at – they liked to see and handle stuff. Were they any different than kids in any other school? No.

 

And it was fun – they asked lots of questions, some of which I couldn’t answer, and politely handed around and returned my ring, medal, skate, and torch. The most rewarding moment of the whole morning was when I spoke to the entire preschool of about 80 kids sitting in a circle (after they read me poetry and sang songs in honor of my visit) and they then swarmed me to give me group and individual hugs, hugs and more hugs. Damn little knee biters nearly took me down – I loved it.

 

I then proceeded into the city up Indiana and then Michigan Avenue to the Hilton Towers where a “Principal for the Day” luncheon was held for all the other volunteers and athletes. Special guests were Mayor Daley and Brian Clay – the Olympic gold medalist in decathalon from the Beijing games just a few months back.

 

I wandered into the huge ballroom and had no idea where to sit. Just then Diane intercepted me and ushered me to one of the athlete’s tables. I sat down and recognized a face across from me – none other than John Vandevelde – the father of this year’s 4th place finisher in the Tour de France. We had met earlier this summer. I said hello and shook hands and then let my eyes drift to the person in between us. I stopped cold.  You’re… You’re Christian. (Christian Vandevelde his son – 4th in the tour de France this year – another super-stud.) I smoothed out my words and held out my hand. He was funny and gracious and we talked quite a bit over the next hour before he left to get ready for the AC/DC concert to be held that night.

Christian Vandevelde & his dad

 

We also talked about my former nemesis Jamie Carney – I described some of our old antics and a recent event where I had seen Jamie after 20 years this summer at Downer’s Grove. I laughed and recalled how the old tension still seemed to be there. Christian laughed too and said – yeah, that’s Jamie – he’s never going to change. He then referenced Jaime's name change a while back to "J-Me" but referred to him as "Jay-dash-me" and I howled in laughter. He then said, "my Dad can’t stand him." I understood.

Chicago Mayor Daley

 

Rewind: a while back I had received this email. It was regarding a different event than the one described above, but it does capture the lucky club I’ve found myself a member of. It is from the "Godfather of Michigan Cycling" Ray Dybowski - a friend, Wolverine teammate, and fellow disciple of the Walden school. More accurately Ray is the heir apparent to the Walden coaching legacy:

 

From: rd311@chrysler.com [mailto:rd311@chrysler.com] Sent: Monday, September 15, 2008 1:17 PM To: Coyle, John Subject: [WSCRacing] TBAM: Week of 09/08/2008

 

John,

  

In my searches of your blog, I found an article about you being invited to a gathering and were told "there would be other fellow Olympians there." This line stuck in my thoughts.

 

Of course there is the fact that even though I spent time at the OTC (Olympic Training Center), I am not a fellow Olympian. It made me think of all the people that go to the Olympics and miss a medal by the greatest and smallest of margins but are still fellow Olympians and the few that rise to achieve a medal and the incredible odds of it happening.

 

I think about Lance and his great abilities never accomplishing that goal and Michael Phillips almost making it look easy. The athletes with confidence that show up expecting to and do win and the underdogs unexpectedly standing on the podium and better yet to listen to their National Anthem.

 

I think about Mike Walden and his almost 'shoot from the hip' style and the successes a number of his athletes enjoyed, and those that dreamed and strived for it........ All those great athletes around the world with talents and abilities but would'a, should'a, could'a and never made it and wonder why. And the Kacey’s and Luke’s that have a chance and are trying to learn how to get there.

 

Also, the fact that being a part of this (Olympic) club, that has probably close to the same chances of as winning the lottery, yet does happen to people from all social structures around the world.  

 

So the question is; What does it take for an athlete to become a fellow Olympian?

 

Kindest Regards,

 

Ray Dybowski

 

 

Well Ray, that’s quite a question. One deserving of a rich response, so I'll post the long answer of what I think it takes – it will probably take me 4 or maybe 5 posts… starting next week. My honest belief is that Walden Principle #1 is the reason that some join "the club" and others don’t – "Race Your Strengths, Train Your Weaknesses."

More to come next week,

-John