2008 Short Track World Cup Day 1 (October 18)

Speedskating is an odd sport. Teams travel half the globe in order to compete in the world cup, and, if their first races don't go well, can find themselves finished after the first day and only 1 or 2 races. Hence the the repechage round - a sort of "wildcard berth" opportunity was invented to provide these skaters with a chance to move back into the main event.

It was announcing these heats and qualifiers that we spent our time in the morning - from 10am until nearly 2pm. The good news was twofold: Charles Ryan Leveille was the only American in the rep round (everyone else qualified) and he was one of the elite few to make it through all the rounds and back into the main event.

After lunch with Kori Novak (who leads US Speedskating marketing efforts) and Nick Gismondi (NBC Universal Sports announcer/producer) there was time for a short break and then back to the main events - the men's and women's 1000m and 1500m semi finals and finals.

Women's Races:

Baver skated solidly and moved into the 1500m final where she finished fourth after a last minute pass where Yang from Korea took away her medal spot. Kimberly Derrick followed up with a bronze medal finish in the 1000m after Liu from China was disqualified. Both ladies look fit and lean and well trained and skated up front and aggressively. Both seem to miss that special kick the Koreans and Chinese seem to save for those last ditch efforts - but wisely try to control the races to serve their strengths.

In the rely semifinals, the Chinese women destroyed the world record by almost 3 seconds and team USA finished not far behind the old record but more than a half lap down on the Chinese. Nonetheless, they are in the finals tomorrow with China, Korea, and Canada.

Men's Races:

In a rare event I can't remember ever seeing in my experience, team USA had 3 skaters in the men's 1500 A final. Charles Ryan Leveille clawed his way back up through round after repechage round to regain a medal shot in the final, Travis Jayner put on the turbos in his semi to blast for 5th to 2nd with a magnificent move in the semi finals, and Jeff Simon skated some of the most interesting and turbulent races of the day yet still making the medal round.

It was with some dismay we watched and called a race where 2 of the 3 Americans - with an opportunity to dominate the race - sat in the far back. Leveille and Jayner sat in 6th and 7th and wasted their medal opportunity. Simon hung tough and scratched out a rough and tumble bronze.

And then it was Ohno time. I had heard he was fit, I had heard he was fast, I had seen he was lean - slimmer than the guy we used to call "chunk" has ever been. And he was hot - moving through the quarters and semis with those bursts of power and coordination that few in the sport have ever been able to master. Then, suddenly, with 3 or 4 laps to go in the final event, while potentially setting up one of those 'Apolo moves' he was down hard into the boards - perhaps stepping on a block, and it was a Korea  with a 1-2-3 finish.

The evening ended with the men's 5000 meter relay semi finals -my favorite event in sport - and drama abounded in both semis - but team USA put together a solid relay and finished just behind the Korean team. Apolo looked tentative on his right, Lobello and Jayner were solid if uninspired, and Simon continued to be a lightning rod (similar to the individual competition) for danger. Still, he matched Apolo for big moves in putting team USA into qualifying position and, joining Korea, Canada, and a surprise Russia, will be in the finals tomorrow night.

Its now 2:30am and time to get some sleep - up early to announce the heats and repechage for tomorrows events.

2008: Race Report #11: Superweek Stage 3 – Olympia Fields

2008: Race Report #11: Superweek Stage 3 – Olympia Fields

                                           

Race Report #11: Sunday, July 14. Category: Masters 1/2/3 30+, Weather: 84 degrees, 22 mph winds with gusts to 30mph. Course: 4 corners, .55 miles – super short, with slight uphill finish stretch and slightly downhill backstretch into a sharp corner with a tailwind. Distance 50 laps, ~50 riders. Average speed, 25.3 mph, Avg. pulse 172

 

This was probably the shortest course I’ve ever raced –it was supposed to be longer, but some road repairs to a manhole cover took a few tenths of a mile off the overall course. Actually, if it were not for the brutal wind, this would have been a great course for me – as it was it was still pretty good… It will also represent the single most documented event in my whole career as my friend Matt took over 2000 pictures and some video, and I captured some video from my handlebar cam until the batteries ran out. The sum total of my 32 years in cycling probably has about 50 pictures total until now...

 

The pace started fast and the wind raged right through the riders in front of you on the home stretch - no way to hide: the first 100 meters of the finish stretch were like riding into a wind tunnel – facing 30mph winds while riding at 30mph felt like sticking your head out of the window of a car racing down the highway.

 

As usual, I stayed as hidden as possible, though I did ride the first few laps up front to make sure I didn’t miss a pack split.

 

My friend Kent Savit made a solo attempt and almost lapped us, but we eventually caught him. After that the pack never really reformed – we were single file against the wind and the course and seperations formed. Sure – I’m not going to go for breakaways – but I’m not ame for another reverse breakaway either… So with about 10 to go I found myself in a situation of bridging between small groups. At that point the pace, and the wind had broken the peleton into more than a half dozen single file pace lines.

 

(Video – Olympia Fields Mid-Race: In the first segment you can see the pack totally strung out, in the second segment, a tripleX rider in black loses contact, creates a gap, and waves me through. Its a short gap, but its into the 25 mph headwind, so its tough to close - but I found my legs had lots of power and I drift right into the pack. Finally, in the last segment, the pack falls into complete disarray as Chris Black mounts an attack when we are all dog tired and as we head into the backstretch, there's not a single rider on a wheel (except me, of course) Unfortunately my battery died so I don't have the finish - but my friend Matt has photos I'll post when he makes them available)

 

[youtube=http://youtube.com/watch?v=_1OnxP5RstM] 

 

As the field continued to break up, I strung a few bridge attempts together and leapt up to the first chase group of 7, with the “field” of 10 re-forming behind us from smaller sub groups and several other smaller groups chasing. Meanwhile we almost caught the breakaway with about 5 laps to go – but to no avail.

 

I was starting to have that feeling of “I can do what I want” in the peleton like times of old and as we came around with the buckling and swaying of my chase group with 1 lap to go, I set my plan to attack on the backstretch.

 

We rounded the finish stretch and weathered the wind at speed putting a hurt on all of us, and then the pace stayed high around the top two corners, and we headed down the backstretch at over 32mph, going hard.  I was dead tired, but I knew my plan was a solid one - catching a surpise lead on this downhill, combined with taking the turn at the bottom with reckless abandon was bound to set me apart far enough from the chasers to win the field sprint. So I put everything into the pedals there and then – into the tailwind downhill with a hairpin corner at the bottom. I quickly leapt around the lead riders and each faced a choice - go with me and risk that same downhill at the 38mph I had already hit, or consider the real possibility I wouldn't actually pull it off.

 

It was hard to quell the fear of that pending corner given the speed I was carrying - and at the last minute I realized there was no possible way to make it at the 40mph I was now traveling at - so just prior to the turn I hit both brakes and slowed to about 30, shimmied and shook a little, and then shot through the swirling winds buffeting me around the corner safely. Now a mere 200meters to go traveling at 33mph uphill, with a 25mph headwind, and some seriously strong riders on my tail....

 

I layed flat on my top tube and gave everything I had left into the wind and the pavement.

 

The blast furnace of the wind hit me hard and slowed my pace but I kept fighting, my pedals filling my legs with molten lead, my lungs rasping – but I stayed low and never looked back.

 

Eventually I rounded a small bend of the barriers and crossed the line – first in the field sprint by 50 feet, and 7th overall..

 

 

I was pleased. I collected my first check of superweek and then drove home for a swim in the pool, and some relaxing in the hot tub…

 

Next stop – Bensenville on Tuesday (Masters 30 again)

 

-John

2008 Race Report #10: Superweek Blue Island Pro/Am

2008: Race Report #10 Superweek Stage 2

                                                         

Race Report #10: Saturday, July 13. Category: Pro 1/2, Weather: 81 degrees, 18 mph winds. Course: 4 corners, 1 mile – mostly flat. Distance 62 miles (I made it 46 out of 62 miles) ~140 riders. Average speed, 30.3 mph, Avg. pulse 176 before getting dropped

 

Unfortunately, sadly, the biggest story here was the ‘race to the race.’ While this is far from uncommon in my experience due to the demands of work, home, and an absent mind, this day was different. With my wife and daughter heading up to visit family early in the day Saturday, I had the remainder of the day to focus on prepping properly for my debut pro race at Superweek. I wanted a ‘no excuses’ kind of race – so I cleaned my bike and cleaned my chain and cassette (discovering as a side product, that my chain was too short and couldn’t even go into my big rings in front and back without destroying my rear derailleur). That chain change at Village Cyclesport has been my bane...

 

I got the car loaded, and made sports drinks for before and after the race, ate pasta at exactly 3 1/2 hours before start time and then headed on my way, hydrating heavily. About an hour and a half before the race I was about to exit the highway – a mere 2 miles from the race course – and I called SRAM mechanic extraordinaire and former Wolverine Jose Alcala – and sure enough he was again working superweek. I was glad as my front wheel with its bent spokes was out of true and I have now lost any trust in any other mechanic. He kidded me about ‘showing up 10 minutes before the race’ and I told him, “this time maybe I’ll surprise you…” Sure enough I saw the sign for my exit off 294 South for Highway 50. I did end up surprising him though…

 

There was a wrinkle though – as always… About 5 miles back, the highway, under ongoing construction, had divided left and right and I had gone left. There was no indication of anything out of the ordinary – for instance, a sign saying,  “take the lanes on the left and you’ll be trapped in a concrete barrier from hell for the next 22 miles unable to exit until you drop out onto highway 80” would have been somewhat useful information.

 

And so I drove and cursed and cursed and drove as I watched each of my potential exits fade on the other side of my impermeable, infinite concrete barrier as the My Navigator application on my U.S. Cellular® phone kept saying “re-calculating route”. Honestly – I was screaming in my car – trapped behind a careful tourist driving 50 mph ahead of me and no way to go back or get out.

 

Finally I dropped down to highway 80 and exited Dixie Highway, following the prompts back to Blue Island – 8 miles or 15 minutes away – still 45 minutes left until race time.

 

Then, only a half mile from the course, I hit the train tracks. An engine was crossing with one car – slowly – but heck it was only one car. 5 minutes later and the gates lifted – but only for about 10 seconds – one car got through, and down they came again. The train now backed up and recrossed and picked up about 1000 other cars and they began trundling across the road at a speed of about zero-point-one. 5 minutes became 10 became 15. Meanwhile I had changed into my full racing regalia in the car – but still it trundled along… I considered parking the car on the side of the road and then running through an opening between cars with my bike and then riding the remaining ½ mile to the course. I actually would have done it – but the train was finally picking up steam – probably 4mph now.

 

So I used Google maps on my U.S. Cellular BlackBerry® Curve and found an alternate route and circled several miles around – putting the four liters of my V8 to full use – like a rental car - only two speeds – floored or braking.

 

I screamed into the parking lot in Blue Island with 5 minutes to go before race time. I dropped my wheel with Jose, registered with Chris who seemed amused and expectant over my mad last minute rush, put my number on in the wheel pit, and just as I was inserting the last pin, Eddy Van Guys announced, “and here, ready to shoot the starter’s pistol is the mayor of Blue Island – mayor?”

 

So much for warmup, though I did have an adrenaline rush to fire the muscles…

 

The race itself? Fast. First few laps were mundane, and then it began to string out. As the pack was stretched from 5 abreast to 3 to 2 abreast, I surfed and rode well, but when it became single file I struggled, and my pulse – holding in the mid 170’s the first 10 laps, began to rise and I was riding in the low 180’s – right at my sustainable max.

 

(Video 1 - joins the action a few laps into the race when it is still 5 abreast and the peleton is a still a crowd. By a 1:30 into the video things began to stretch out, and at 2:10 we begin a long painful hammer session down  the home stretch. At 2:40 you can see that the pack has now stretched 200 yards from tip to tail. By the end of this clip (video is 3:20) we are mostly single file...)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dc_3i1pHiiU]

 

Meanwhile the front wheel I had borrowed from Jose was a bit misaligned with my brake pads, and they began to make more and more noise as the pad was starting to bite into the tire. After about 15 laps it began to make me nervous (it was the front) and as the pace continued to lift and I was forced to dive into corners and brake hard, I was using my front break more than ever. Finally I decided to risk a free lap (would it count?) and coasted into the pits where Jose put on my newly trued wheel and let Carl the referee know that it was a legitimate stop – “failure of critical mechanical part”.

 

The one lap rest was incredibly welcome and I swung back out into the field with 45 laps to go already very tired. But my legs performed and I rode the pack as best as I could despite finish stretch speeds in excess of 35 mph, and an average speed (when I dropped) of 30.3 mph. (this did not include the first 16 laps – when I had the wheel pit wheel on my bike without the magnet for my bike computer)

 

(Video 2 – Here I turn on the camera while I'm waiting in the wheel pit after my free lap - note the breakaway rider fly by at over 30mph by himself. I continually ask myself how that is possible. For the next couple of laps I ride behind or near Ken and another rider from bicycle heaven in the blue jersey and blue shoe covers. At about 5:15, I hit a manhole cover and the camera tilts up. Over the next lap, the pace picks up and more and more I'm riding a single file or two abreast line on a wheel where all you can see is the guy's butt ahead of me - pretty boring really. The rest of the video, unfortunately goes off the frame as the camera tilts even farther - nothing much to see anyway)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta079Nxk2ho]

 

The Columbian team continued to push breakaways and the field was unwilling to let them go, so the peleton resumed the strung out 2 abreast or single file structure for dozens of laps and I began to tire. I had fallen to the rear of the peleton and after passing the halfway mark at 31 miles, I was hopeful that I was going to finish, but the pace stayed high and riders were dropping out ahead of me forcing me to bridge gaps. Several of these were full out efforts pushing my pulse to 187 and 188 for several laps, and with 16 laps to go, after completing 46 miles or 90 minutes at an average heartrate of 176 bpm, another gap opened that I couldn’t close and I drifted away off the back down the backstretch.

 

It’s a terrible feeling – this. Pulse at 188 bpm and watching 100 riders pedal away from you as though it were easy. For a few moments, that deep morose funk hit me – “not good enough”, “couldn’t hack it,” “loser.”

 

But as I made my way back to Jose in the wheel pit, I was able to remember those good moments in the race – those hard accels from the corners where I neatly moved up 10 spots easily, the tight balance of my body over the wheels in the corners where I could swing up several spots by pedaling earlier and later than everyone. I also considered that, unlike last year, I knew, absolutely knew, that I had not killed my sprint by overtraining.

 

So I reframed this ‘loss’ as an, “I almost made it…”

 

When Jose asked me about my fitness, I waxed philosophical… “I think its about right – if I was able to hang easily in a race this fast, then odds are good I’d have overtrained…” and then, “I think, honestly, that all of my best, big races have had two things in common: 1) I was barely, barely hanging on for a majority of the race, and 2) Due to that, at the end I was one of the few with a sprint motor left…”

 

We’ll see if my ‘half full’ approach proves to be accurate.  After the race I was able to chat with the Garrison brothers, and Eddy Van Guys. I was particularly humbled when Eddy, out of the blue, said, “You are a great writer – I’ve been following your blog…”

 

That means a lot Eddy – thanks,

 

-John

 

PS: Coming soon - videos  and picutures from the Olympia Fields Master's Criterium - my friend Matt brought his camera.

 

2008 Short Track Nationals: apparently I don't suck THAT much as an announcer...

I was invited to announce the national short track championships over the weekend at the Petit Center in Milwaukee, WI. My co-announcer, Jeff Brand, let it slip shortly before I headed up that he has announced over 100 meets and I was forced to confess I've announced only 1 - granted it was a biggie. The days were long and the rink was cold. Something about the Petit Center I can't figure out. Now matter how you dress, the longer you are inside, the more the chill creeps into your bones. Then, even when you leave, it oozes outward - leaving you shivering despite the hot shower, or heat on high in the car. This and it is probably 50 degrees in there - perhaps it is the humidity?

Some of the top skaters not at the world championships were present - Ryan Bedford, Travis Jayner, Alex Izychowski to name a few, and the races were impressive - 16 national records set on not the world's fastest ice. I did my best to try and spice of the announcing and get some audience participation with only mixed results. Its easier with a few thousand spectators than a couple hundred parents involved in getting their skaters ready. My favorite intros were the midget and pony categories as they tended to showboat a bit on the "big stage" of the nationals.

Meanwhile, Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis continued their winning ways - with Apolo winning the overall world title, and Shani winning yet another 1000 meter individual distance world championship. Jeff Simon - still healing from his broken collar bone - managed a 4th place finish in the 500m as well.

One of the highlights of the weekend for me was also one that at least one of the officials found upsetting. I had gotten wind 'whispers' in the locker room from the American Cup men's finalists - and sure enough on one of the last finals of the meet, the American Cup 1500 A super final, the 6 boys on the line decided to pull a little stunt.

Fred Benjamin called them to the start, and as J.R. Celski, Kyle Carr, Kyle Uyehara, Chris Creveling, Kyle Carr, and Travis Jayner crouched over, poised in perfect racing stance, he shot the gun and... nothing happened. No one moved a muscle.

 It was dead silent for a good 3 or 4 seconds before everyone got the joke. They stood for a good 10 seconds before skating forward and thats when an angry Benjamin shot the gun again and called them back, chastizing them and giving them all a false start. It was surprising though - for 25 years of racing - the gun goes off, and the skaters skate - to not see them go - it was, well... I think everyone was just confused for a moment - "did my ears deceive me?"  It was hilarious...

 Chastened - only a few of them put on a superhero pose at the line for the second start - clearly there were more plans in the works... but they eventually began racing.

 Other highlights were catching up with old friends Jen Butterfield (and husband Tim), Olu and Brenda, Paul Marchese and Pieter Dykstra, Goskowicz, Kooreman, Wilma Boomstra, Amy Peterson, John Diemont, Haj Sano and many others. It just goes to prove - the best way to get a group of diverse people to bond is through mutual suffering - between the long days and chilly temperatures, travel, and noise there was a sense of belonging in the group of officials, judges, parents, and athletes. As usual, sleep was in short supply as several of us decided to go watch Olu Sijuwade play his father's 45 year old sax in a stirring performance of soul, jazz and poetry along with other artists and poets.

The fact that we would lose an hour that night to daylight savings, and that the races started early was not lost on any of us - yet we went anyway, settling for a couple hours of sleep in return for a night of great music in an intimate venue.

 During the long weekend I also announced the masters national championships. Was it just coincidence that just days earlier I had skated (in my work clothes) some fast laps with Denton Frederick "to help him train?" I haven't sharpened my skates since the 1998 Olympic trials 10 years ago - but putting in a 10.1 second lap wasn't that hard... I'm reasonably certain I could still skate a couple low 9's....

Having read Andrew Love's blog... and met world masters's champion Marty Ohaire - is there at least one more speedskating competition in my future? Only time will tell...

 -John