2012 Race Reports 5 - 6: Strategy is Great Until You Get Punched in the Face

2012 Race Reports 5 - 6: Tour Des Villas, Wood Dale State Criterium Championships

Race Five: Tour Des Villas, Masters. Distance ~20 miles. Temp 94 degrees, 67% humidity = 105 degrees “real feel”. Wind = light. Avg pace 25.2mph, Sprint finish max speed 37.2mph

You pass them on the sidewalk, in the supermarket, in the parking lot, at the movies, and even at the race course – some of them even leaning on sleek but untested bikes: non racers. You feel sorry for them. What do they know of suffering in the heat, of penetrating the turbulent airfoils of racers shuttling at 35mph across cracked concrete lined with sticky pits of soft hot tar? Of leaning 4 abreast through the final corner knowing that 1/1000th of a second stands between potential victory and a burning, tumbling, skin-tearing disaster. Poor souls.

What then can they know of freedom, of the liberation from petty worldly concerns boiled and burned away through the crucible of the race? How can they know clarity? 

Walking – that innocuous benign activity known by billions the world over – is a different matter after a bike race. Unlike any other sport of intensity where ligaments are strained, muscles are sore or stiff: after a bike race, the neurons and filaments of the leg structure are alive with light. After a race even the simple walk from the car back to check results is filled with an absurd sense of mastery – every articulation of bone, tendon and synapse sending signals to the brain through channels cleared for instant communication. It is not an overstatement to say that a racer walks with a kind of confidence unique to the world.

--------

“Where has this course been my whole life?” I asked Brian from Enzo’s as we began our first lap around the one mile oval shaped course. With no wind, no corners and no hills, there was little chance for a break and a great setup for a sprinter victory.

“Strategy is great until you are punched in the face” – Mike Tyson.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Two riders managed to gain a 50m, then 100m, then 300m gap. Laziness born of heat perhaps, but we weren’t moving, so I ended up taking a series of pulls on the backstretch (yes, me) to try and close the gap. Each hard pull at the front at about 31mph for 400m left me gasping and would bring us within reach of a bridge to the break – but, of course, I was toast and incapable of bridging at that point. No one took over, though one tall strongman kept the pace going in between efforts. After a few of these yoyos I gave it up and prepared for the sprint. It was going to be easy – I’d sit about 8th and w/ 400m to go I’d light it up on the outside using a slight tailwind to shoot into the homestretch.

Except… on the backstretch the race fragmented with an Enzo’s rider hitting it hard w/ 800m to go and I was suddenly gapped and 60m back from the race leaders. I burned most of my match to close the gap and found myself coming on the lead 5 riders with too much momentum and 500m to go… Too early and already hurting, but I decided to keep it going and lit the rest of my match… jumping into the clear air of the lead, the breakaway suddenly looming ahead and within reach. 400m, 300m, 200m, 100m to go and I’m in the lead but I’m dying, I’m dying, like a fish trying to breathe air I was gasping and struggling and sure enough 5 then 6 riders went sailing by just at the line and I finished 6th in the field, and 8th overall, just within the money.

Race Six: Wooddale State Championships, Masters. Distance ~20 miles. Temp 88 degrees, 80% humidity. Wind = light. Avg pace 26.3mph, Sprint finish max speed 36.1mph.

A massive thunderstorm had rolled through during the Master’s 40+ race and they had to stop and restart. It was cool and when I was warming up but by the time we headed off the start/finish it had warmed up and the road was dry.

The Wooddale course is a great sprinter course – bowl shaped with a small hill and only 2 real corners. I felt good right from the start and was dismayed when a group of 7 moved off the front. Again I put chase along with a couple other riders, but the Bicycle Heaven and Enzo’s team played a smart hand and insinuated themselves in the front immediately & repeatedly slowed things down. I even bridged 100m to a 2 man break and rode a lap in a breakaway (! I didn’t actually pull…). Like Tour Des Villas I tried some hard pulls in front to bring us within striking distance hoping the pack would surge with the break in sight, but to no avail.

With 5 laps to go I retreated to my comfortable spot on the back of the field. Oddly, with 2 to go the pack came to its senses and started to reel in the break, taking a 600m gap down to 300m with 1 to go. I followed my instincts sitting 10th across the start/finish line and then jumping up to 5th on the backstretch, waiting for the surge. It happened right in front of me, a powerful rider in green (one of the chasers as well) lit it up just before the 3rd turn and then hit it hard up the hill. I followed and was impressed – I was geared perfectly and this guy was cranking a monster gear up the hill leaving the pack behind. We entered the final corner 1, 2 and I dared a quick look back – no one had followed. I waited until 250m and then lit the remaining fuse I had left, jumping out of the saddle and suddenly seeing the breakaway within my sights. I shot ahead winning the field sprint with a good margin and picked off one breakaway rider along the way coasting past 3 more just after the line finishing 7th.  

I changed clothes in a burning hot car and then walked to check the results, marveling at how alive my legs felt…

Casablanca 25 years ago Vol. 6: The perfect race Pt. 4

The Perfect race - finale:

Jim Michener was vomiting into a trash bin in the center of the track, his muscular hulk shuddering, rattling the metal against concrete. He stood up and wiped his mouth as I passed by. “Good luck against Jamie – he’s tough, but you can beat him.”

These encouraging words came from my defeated semi-final round competitor at these Junior World trials. Jim had given me a run for my money two races in a row, possessing an uncanny ability to wind it up from 300 meters and keep the acceleration going all the way to the line – a race strategy directly in contrast to my ability to produce surge of speed and then try to sustain. Jim confessed to having thrown-up after each and every race.

Match sprints and short track speedskating have much in common in terms of the waves of lactic acid induced nausea and weakness after each event and the need to recompose in a relatively short interval of 15 minutes for the next round.  Showing back up to the line after a maximal anaerobic effort is parallel to spooning up another plateful of whatever food you just threw up – “as a dog returneth to its own vomit…”

My stomach troubles were further exacerbated by the self induced pressure that had been building for 6 months since the day I hadn’t been selected to the national team training camp. I could hear Ed’s voice in my head, “What are you getting all high and mighty about Coyle?…If you are as good as you say you are… just come back in July and win the trials." Jamie had pulled out of the last sprint and was probably fresh, I was still shaky and breathing from the effort.

Jamie and I lined up at a safe distance 15 minutes later and without theatrics the 4th gun was fired for the potential finale of the Junior World Championship trials. By now, all the Juniors had clustered right down by the line and were on their feet yelling at us from the moment the gun went off. The “cool” kids were cheering for Jamie but I noticed that I had adequate representation in the stands.

I drew pole position and was required to lead the first lap and did so without deliberation, setting a pace of 20mph and following the black pole lane for one lap.

We came around with 2 laps to go and as soon as we crossed the line I swung up and slowed. I had seen Jamie’s face on the line - he’d been bested despite the theatrics and tactics – his guidance would be to take the race on merit. Sure enough as I slowed, he paused and then pulled through on the pole lane and we continued around the backstretch and into the far corner, 1 ¼ laps to go.

We entered the final straightaway with 1 lap to go and the bell began to ring, Jamie moved up the track and began upping the pace such that we were traveling 25mph by the time we hit the start/finish line. I kept about a 3 bike length space between us and I rode high towards the barriers where the juniors were leaning over, screaming almost right in my ear as we streamed by. I kept “slingshot room”

We sped through the corner high up the track, both of us out of the saddle, Jamie ever vigilant, watching me, riding down lower to intersect any early attacks. As headed for the far side of the turn Jamie jumped and dropped down to the pole, accelerating to more than 30mph as we crossed the 200m mark.  I followed, halving the distance between us in order to capture the benefits of the draft. Whether he knew it or not, Jamie was coldly eliminating my strengths of a quick acceleration, short sprint and bike handling. If the race were to become a straight out drag race it would be close.

Then pride interceded: midway down the straightaway, Jamie paused in his constant acceleration and, looking back, dodged up to just above lane two ( about 5 feet above the pole lane) providing a tempting hole to dive through. I was not foolish enough to spring that trap and hovered above waiting. The pace stabilized for a moment - breathing room.

The final corner approached and I started to accelerate laddering up the track out of the saddle to keep the distance between us steady while increasing my potential energy. Jamie bobbed and weaved trying to own all three lanes looking back. As we began the turn in earnest, Jamie committed, turning his head forward and hitting it hard. Back out of the saddle, he scissored down to just above the pole lane and our pace leapt from 30mph to 40mph in 20 meters – it was on.

The even pace on the backstretch had given me a moment to reload my springs and I uncoiled everything I had remaining. The G-forces in the corner pressed me into the saddle and as I leaned far to the left, the cracks in the track rattled through my forearms. I arched over the bars forming a protective shell over the motor of my quads and calves thundering below and that warm hum began as power throbbed through my legs into the pedals. I matched Jamie’s acceleration and more: despite having the outside lane and longer trajectory, I closed the distance and began riding up on his back wheel.

As we exited the corner I had drawn even with his hip and my front tire had come into view. Jamie flicked up and we had momentary contact and then he dropped and locked onto the pole lane. Any movement from there and he would be disqualified. Meanwhile the liability of the outside lane around the corner delivered its double rewards of higher rotational velocity and declining altitude as the corner flattened. I burned the remainder of my reserves and loosed the catapult, now shoulder to shoulder with Jamie, both of us hammering into the pedals.

Pulse hammering in my brain, my head, hands and hamstrings delivered a pulse of speed down the short straightaway, elbow to elbow for a moment, I then surged past Jamie to cross the line with a ¾ length advantage.

Sound returned and a sudden roar filled my ears and I realized I had done it. As I swung high up the track to absorb my speed I realized that I had won the Junior World Championships Trials and the one and only spot to the Worlds in North Africa. I raised my hands… again only to cradle my head – this time in relief – and spun down around the corner, cheers echoing from the far side of the track.

I finished the warm-down lap, slapped high fives with a core group still at the fence and then retreated to the apron. Richie and a few other juniors were there to catch me and hold the bike as I unstrapped, and Richie shared the unofficial 200m time – at 10.96 possibly a new junior record.

I quickly gathered my things, and as I prepared to leave, there he was, the “man” himself, Eddy B., who shook my hand, smiled stiffly and in his thick accent said, “Yes, good racing. Jamie not race well though…  Perhaps we must bring two sprinters to Junior Championships…” and then he was gone.

Disappointed that I would potentially yet have to face the threat of my mortal enemy across continents I was thrilled with the outcome of the most stressful and rewarding races of my career.

I crossed the track into the shadows of the stands and as I re-emerged into the lights, was humbled to find two dozen junior elite athletes waiting to escort me back to the Olympic Training Center. The sun had set yet I could feel the warmth radiating from the stucco buildings and we parted the trees on the sidewalk as we passed through the park for the 10 minute ride back home.

Conversation was mostly hushed but I rode at the arrow of the peleton with honor guard coverage for street crossings. As we entered the parking lot, an arbitrary paceline formed to give me a leadout to the PedXing sign and I took the bait, winning the parking lot prime sprint with a surge towards the line and a bike throw and we all laughed as we headed for the cafeteria.

It was Richie Hincapie who brought a dose of reality back into the ceremonies. “Great race – I hope you get to go – you earned it.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, my voice turning shrill, “I won the trials, of course I’m going.” I paused and thinking said, “but I guess Eddy B. thinks Jamie should go too.”

“No Coyle…, that’s not what I heard. I heard Eddy talking to Campbell about maybe they should bring you too…”

My mind raced back to Eddy’s words, “Perhaps we will have to bring two sprinters to Junior Championships.”  “No,” I said, mind blackening with the darkening sky as realization set in, “they were talking about Jamie – Jamie might get to go – I won…” “I won the trials..”

“Sorry John, but all these trials disguise the reality that it is coach’s discretion – Jamie’s going already. That was decided long ago. But the good news is you still might get to go if you keep beating Jamie at practice…”

Seeing my face he added, “Sorry man, thought you knew…”

Days 2 through 10 of the never ending junior world trials began the next day…

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

(Video – this is the 2007 world championships, final race. This race went down in a classic match sprint pattern almost identical to the race w/ Jamie. If this were us, Jamie would be in blue, and I’d be in orange)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kVb1JteAV4&feature=fvsr]

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

Back to the Diary:

Tuesday – sprint day:

Today I got up at 9:20, ate breakfast, then slept until 12:00pm. My neck was still stiff – yesterday I couldn’t even turn it to the left. I couldn’t see traffic coming. Anyways, after getting up, I got ready for a ride, only to discover my front wheel was missing. I later discovered that Scott had taken it on Craig’s advice when he discovered he had a flat. I was the only one racing today and I couldn’t even go for a ride so I waited.

I decided to go to Azdine’s room and listen to my Brian Adam’s tape I loaned him. I was really shaken by his room. It is about the same size as mine at home. I figured Azdine had a pretty good job and would be reasonably well off for a Moroccan. I was wrong. All that Azdine owns in life can be easily laid in a normal suitcase. He has no furniture other than his bed. He shares this cement floored and cement walled room with another worker. He has no other furniture besides a small table. On it he has all his worldly possessions – a half-full suitcase of clothing, 2 magazines, 7 or 8 copied cassettes, a walkman type tape player (no radio or recording) and two small speakers powered by the walkman. My box of tapes is worth more than all he owns.

His tapes are funny. He has one for the English class he is taking, along with a magazine-like textbook, one store bought tape of “1984 Superstars!” a K-Tel type tape of top-40 music, a couple of Arab music tapes, a couple copies of American music, presumably off the radio, and his second and final store bought tape, “Canary Birdsongs,” for his 3 canaries.

I don’t know what he does with his money – maybe it isn’t much and it all goes to pay rent and for his class or maybe he is saving it.

At the track, I waited while the coaches and Mr. Kirkbride (who, by the way has been staying in my room since Friday) put my bike together. I guess the tread had flaked off my white, light tires, so they put Panaracers on those wheels. I tried warming up on the new tires, but they are narrow profile and slid very easily – I almost fell when I slid from 2 feet above the red line to the pole line, so I switched to my trust old heavy Wolber rims and tires.

My first sprint was a 3-up. I was the 6th ride out of 8. I was up against a Bulgarian and an East German – both big and muscular. The Bulgarian had qualified 11th and the East German 5th – their times 11.6 and 11.5 respectively.

I drew lane 2. The East German led slowly on the pole until the backstretch. He picked up speed and climbed the banking. I was about 10 feet behind him when the fat Bulgarian came underneath me, then hooked sharply and hit my front wheel – trying to knock me down. I made it though, but I didn’t want 3rd, so I dove underneath and was in first by the end of the turn. I led across the finish with 2 laps to go and around the corner and down the backstretch. Then the East German dove to the pole and started leading. I dropped down in second and was sitting comfortably a little below the red line where the German was riding when I was slammed from underneath again! The Bulgarian had slipped underneath me and from the apron he shot up and hit me. I bounced up, and then down a little and still, before I had time to recover my composure he came and hit me again.

At about this point I got mad. I don’t know if he was just trying to intimidate me, if he wanted 2nd position that bad, or if he didn’t like the USA, but I didn’t like him, so at this point – about halfway through the corner, I took a steep angle down the track and chopped that stupid Bulgarian.

He was 5 feet onto the apron after that – there was no doubt about my intent on that move – he knew then that I wasn’t intimidated.

The German steadily picked up speed – apparently thinking that the Bulgarian was the one to worry about – and that the Bulgarian certainly couldn’t come around from third.

The Bulgarian made his move around the second corner. I saw him coming out of the corner of my eye, waited until he overlapped my wheel, then rode him up past the third line before diving back to the East German’s wheel – who was sprinting now. I was just he and I now…

I knew it would be nearly impossible to pass in the uneven corner so I waited. I felt good, so I let a small gap go then made a run at him at the end of the corner. Into the straightaway we came, neck and neck – but the East German had a very strong kick, and the straightaway was short (wide turns, short straightaways) so I missed beating him by 6 inches. Oh well.

Craig was very pleased with my ride and I knew I had ridden well but I didn’t win and if I lost the repechage round I was out – done.

Back at the hotel I talked with Azdine at his house on the roof. There is some garlic up there in a corner – who knows why – aging I guess, or to ward off vampires. Anyways, I showed him how to freak people out by throwing it (the garlic) into the street.

Not about to be outdone, Azdine grabbed one, went to the back part of the hotel roof, leaned over and pointed to a lady seated by the pool of the hotel next door. I laughed because I thought he was joking, but then he threw it – hard.

It shattered on her table. She freaked out screaming and was looking up in all directions. I was on the ground I was laughing so hard. Azdine is a lot of fun. We talked for an hour and then I went to bed.

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

2008 Race Report #16: Superweek Racine Master's Criterium

 

 

 

2008 Superweek Racine Master's Finish Sprint

Race Report #16:

Superweek Stage 14, Racine, WI, Thursday, July 24. Category: Master 40.  Weather: 84 degrees, light winds. Course: nearly flat, very bumpy, 0.8 miles/lap, 4 corners, Average speed ~27mph.

 

 

 

It must be a roadie conspiracy – all my favorite 4 corner flat wide open courses from the past (Sheboygan, De Pere, Manitowoc, Green Bay) have been replaced with courses that have my primary weakness designed right into them: a very long, false flat slightly uphill finish stretch. Blue Island, Shorewood, Waukesha, Evanston, Racine, & Downer Avenue all have this feature and it makes for some intense suffering, and – if I finish – can end in middling sprint results.

 

Nothing too notable occurred during the race – the usual blocks and breakaways, with several riders getting away off the front (these master’s love their breakaways) and as we moved into the final lap it was finally my time and I moved up into position around the turn 2 on the outside, slotting into about 5th position on the backstretch, riding the hip of Chris Black.

 

In my opinion and experience, this move was precise and absolutely unsurprising nor dangerous – I rode the left hip of Chris for 150 before a small zig zag on the straightaway leading into corner 3. I was well established in my position, and there was ample room for riders to go 2, 3, even 4 abreast on this part of the course.

 

I was slightly exposed to the wind, but the slight downhill made it possible for me to maintain the pace without too much effort – I wanted to be about 5th around that last corner.

 

We made the first slight right bend of the zig zag uneventfully as I allowed the rider on my right some space, and then we headed the 200 feet to the next left zag.

 

It was at this point that the rider to my right apparently decided that I had ‘invaded his space’ and abruptly swung left, hitting me hard and forcing me into a trajectory that had only two possible outcomes: 1) A high speed impact with the curb, or 2) an return impact with that other rider if I forced my way back out to the right to clear the corner. (see video at 1:19)

 

There was no time for anger or quibbling: instincts took over and the long years of track racing came to the fore. I quickly leaned hard right using my shoulder and elbow to move the larger rider to my right out of my way with considerable force. He moved... but I bounced. In the one second of video that covers this entire incident, you can see my bike lean right, bounce left, and then lean right again to fill the void I created by bouncing the other rider out of my path. There was no true danger of anyone going down – handlbars and wheels were kept safely out of the fray – but sounds of dismay erupted from the riders behind us and after a moment fraught with significant bodily contact I broke free.

 

I made it back into a manageable trajectory just in time and now firmly established my ownership of Chris’s wheel. We zoomed around turn 3, and then into the final straightaway. For a period confusion reigned as riders were both zooming forward and fading back at the same time, and the wind and the slight uphill made for a long big effort. I could feel my sprint ebbing from me and finally used what I had left to move up the middle and then left. I found open air and, throwing my bike at the line, missed winning the field sprint by inches, coming in 3rd in the field sprint and 9th overall.

 [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXWV48cipbU]

 

As we coasted around, I suddenly began to get angry as I thought about that collision on the backstretch. As we circled one full lap and headed by the start/finish, suddenly the other rider loomed aggressively at my side yelling at me.

 

With adrenaline pumping and heart-rates sky high, verbal post race clashes are pretty common, and despite a pretty serious competitive streak, I normally manage to keep my cool. But the way this rider came up and cut me off, almost forcing me into the barriers – it shocked me back into adrenaline overload and I suddenly lost my cool.

 

He began shouting at me again, telling me that ‘next time’ I made a move like that he’d take me out. Just as inarticulately, I responded in kind letting him know that HE would be the one on the ground next time if he pulled a stunt like that and then in return for his clipping me toward the barriers, I suddenly accelerated and then cut in front of him nearly clipping his front wheel.

 

It was childish: clearly we were both not exactly on our best behavior – but then it got worse when he accelerated next to me unclipping his foot and asking to “settle it right here!” I had to laugh a little inwardly and I began to regain my perspective.

 

I paused and then said, “Come on – really? We’re going to skitter around on our cleats and fight in the street?”  I think he also realized we were way beyond ourselves and acting like children, so we rode on in silence around the first corner. I then reached out my hand and said, “what’s your name.”

(We've all seen how awkward a cycling fight is - what with the lycra and the slippery shoes and emaciated upper bodies - Thanks to friend Luke Seemann for this link:)

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

 

With a pause he took it, and said simply, “Steve.”

 

I said, “Steve – I have right here on my bars a video camera – how about this: Let’s look at the video -  I’m willing to admit the possibility that I’m in the wrong – I’ve been wrong before…”

 

“So have I,” he said suddenly

 

“So let’s just agree that we both look at the video and then one of us admits he’s wrong.”

 

“Deal.”

 

So we shook hands and then ended up chatting amiably for the rest of the lap. I ended up feeling rather fond of his fiery spirit, and, as for the video… I’ll let it speak for itself – you the reader can decide. (However, if you remain unclear, then read the Downer Avenue race report : ) coming soon)

2008 Race Report #14: Superweek Waukesha Master's Criterium

2008: Race Report #14 Waukesha - The Life of Riley and the Tribulations of Job…

 

Prior to my departure for the annual, and in this case, final RV trip up to Wisconsin for Superweek I experienced a bit of the ‘Life of Riley”. On Tuesday the week before, I was invited to a charitable function for UCAN – a foundation for underprivileged Chicago youth. The guest speaker was none other than Chris Gardner – the budding homeless entrepreneur that Will Smith portrayed in the excellent movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness”. Shannon, my wife, was particularly struck with meeting him in person and after they talked for awhile, he pulled me aside and asked for a business card. I gladly obliged and was super surprised when I received a call from him a few days later – he wanted our address so he could send Shannon a signed copy of his book. Very cool – he had real presence.

 

A few days later I was invited to attend a pretty significant celebration in Millenium Park in downtown Chicago where Mayor Daley, Bart Conner, Cirque de Soleil, the Chicago Symphony orchestra and about 100 other Olympic Alumni and myself along with the crème of Chicago industry gathered to celebrate Chicago’s selection into the final round for the 2016 Olympics. I had the pleasure of catching up with Chuck Brooks – speedskater from the ’58 and ’62 Olympics – and a long time family friend sitting alongside my parents in the timers booth and many a race (and us having no idea he was an Olympian!) and then discovering a cyclist on the program list – a John Van Veld. I introduced myself and we got to talking and shortly thereafter I discovered the spelling error – this was none other than the father of Christian Vandeveld – the prodigy who was still in podium position in the current tour de France. Furthermore I learned that just as Eddy Van Guys played the lead ‘bad guy’ role in “Breaking Away” – it was John who Eddy had brought in to play the second bad guy – the one who shifts all the gears on the protagonist’s bike before Eddy delivers the punchline with the bike pump.

 

Race Report #14: Superweek Stage 11, Waukesha Wisconsin, Saturday, July 19. Category: Masters 40+.  Weather: 82 degrees, light winds. Course: flat, 0.7 miles/lap, 8 corners, Distance, 35 laps, ~25 miles (shortened from 50), average speed ~25mph, Average pulse 172.

 

Tibulations of Job: I really hate this course and don’t know why I keep coming back ‘as a dog returneth to his vomit’. 8 corners over 7/10ths of a mile becomes a single file death march every year. I stayed up front early but eventually stopped fighting for every corner, and, sure enough, as soon as I strayed too far from the front, the pack split… then it split again. By the final lap, 16 riders were away in two separate breakaways of about 8 each, and another single rider was out chasing those. We were sprinting for 18th – the final money spot. (video coming soon)

 

I considered “doing nothing” but decided I’d go for the 18th and final paid position. My motivation was low, but as we headed into the final corner, I slotted into 3rd in the pack, and as we exited the final corner, I hit the afterburners and found that magic – that special strength – and shot out of the pack and just about caught the lone chaser, leaving the pack behind. I guess I should have been happy to be able to use my tiny little super power, but at some point it loses relevance…

2008 Race Report #20: Elk Grove Criterium Elite Cat 1/2 - Day One

I’m working backwards – I drafted many of these as the season progressed… I enjoy writing, but I’m not enthused about editing…)

 

Race Report #20: Elk Grove Stage 1: Saturday, August 2. Category: Elite 1/2. Weather: 84 degrees, light winds. Course: flat, 2.85 miles circuit with two U-turns and two 90 degree corners. Distance, 49 miles, average speed 28.1mph, Max speed 39.1 mph. Average pulse 172, max pulse 192.

 

Over the last few years, Chicagoland has risen as the center of U.S. cycling, with races every weekend, nationals of various disciplines held here seemingly every year, and the most lucrative purses in all of domestic cycling. Topping all of these in terms of $$$ is the 3rd annual Elk Grove Cycling Classic with the single highest prize list of any race in the United States.

 

I must admit I was a little apprehensive registering for the pair of Elite Category 1/2 races after experiencing fairly serious high speed crashes on the final lap each of the last two years racing the event (and to think I have gone 300 races in a row without a crash in the past). Something about the narrow long, snaking course, and the large field full of aspiring 20-something riders looking for a shot at the massive paycheck ($45,000 in total) has repeatedly created a nervous, skittish racing environment fraught with danger.

 

The worst part about the peril during the Elk Grove series is that there is no predictability to these train wrecks. Most races you can pick the dangerous corners or sections of the course to avoid where crashes were likely to occur, but at Elk Grove, the entire circuit tends to feel like “running the gauntlet.” As prior Superweek champion and one of the U.S.’s best criterium racers Andy “the Volcano” Crater shouted to me during the middle of the race after a random explosive crash against the barriers on a straightaway, “Holy F*@! I’ve never seen worse riding or bike handling – this is some scary “sh*#!” 

 

The fact that Andy was even having a conversation with me in the very back of the peleton belied the reality of the situation – the entire front half of the field was a gigantic assh*!# zone – a crush of riders repeatedly trying to find a route outside to the front, only to be confronted with the swirling winds accompanying a peleton traveling upwards of 33, 35 – even 37 mph, and like the fumerole behind a jet engine being sucked backward into the same compression they aimed to escape.

 

The long straight sections of the course at Elk Grove allowed for some extremely high speeds – particularly on the return half of the course. On laps 2 – 9 of the 18 lap race I consistently hit and held 36 and 37 mph down the mile long finish stretch. Each of these single file sprints had me in that unfortunately familiar state of acid-for-blood agony I’d experienced during Superweek. At one point as we hit the halfway point I looked over to see Michigan sprinter Ben Renkema suffering near me at the back of the field and I said, “I think I may get dropped.” He didn’t reply - instead he sprinted forward a few spots – perhaps realizing that being near me quite possibly meant being too far back. Ben remains my litmus test of a race – young and talented, and gifted/cursed with a similar set of fast twitch muscles, my basic sense of a race is that “If Ben gets dropped, then I’m OK – there is no chance in hell I could have stayed in.”

 

Given my tenuous position in the single file train near the back of the field I decided to trade my risk of getting dropped for the risk of crashing and slotted up about 60 spots on the backstretch right into the danger zone – or rather, where the danger zone had been on earlier laps.

 

Fortunately, the field had settled into the course a bit and it had become much safer in the front of the field. As we headed down the homestretch I was quite surprised to discover that instead of the 37 mph single file sprints I had been experiencing as the slinky re-compacted, there was a relatively sedate steady state of 32 mph two rider abreast situations that were completely manageable. I began to recover a little bit from the massive efforts of the first 25 miles.

 

As we entered the last two laps, I was physically drained and despite the relatively easier laps for the latter half of the race, I could tell that I had frayed my lungs and legs in that first 25 miles. But I set my jaw and determined to follow a certain discipline I knew: “Get in position to win.”

 

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

 

Walden Race Rule #4: Get into Position to Win.

 

This principle is really the predecessor to Race Rule #3 – “Win it at the Line”.  You can’t ‘win it at the line’ from 60th place. For a ‘roadie’, “get into position to win” may also imply “Make the breakaway” – I’m not exactly sure, nonetheless, let me make the attempt and share those elusive and counterintuitive elements of the breakaway art as I have witnessed through my experience watching them take place.

 

First – hang on for dear life during one of the hardest accelerations of the race where you are just about to get dropped. Then, just as you are about to get dropped…

 

Second - invent a new pair of legs and lungs and accelerate through the group and double your output as you now face the wind at the front of the peleton at over 30mph unsheltered from the draft.

 

Third - continue and accelerate as required to break completely off the front of the pack.

 

Fourth - now, make contact with the breakaway riders and enter the echelon rotation of the paceline facing that same wind for long periods each lap until the end of the race.

 

Honestly there can hardly be anything further from my experience.

 

Instead, let me tell you of the sprinter’s approach to placement in the peleton during the field sprint. For the roadie reader this is still relevant info: if you are not strong enough or lucky enough to make the breakaway, then you are stuck with the field sprint, and at this point you have to make the best of the cards you’ve been dealt.

 

Welcome to my world.

 

I have a very limited retinue of strengths. Interestingly, since my study of ‘strengths’ began about 3 years ago, there has been a pattern to my discovery – my list of weaknesses has grown by leaps and bounds, and my strengths have gotten ever more specific, isolated, and limited. Here’s a short list:

 

­       Wheelsucking: I’m definitely in the top 2 percentile when it comes to drafting.

­       Coasting: well, I suppose everyone is good at that.

­       Cornering: I’m probably in the top decile (10%) when it comes to cornering.

­       Short Intervals: I can produce a 1 - 3 second “pseudo-sprint” which, followed by a short rest, can be reproduced virtually ad infinitum without serious consequences. This also features into my ability to move up during and at the end of the race.

­       Max Power – <10 seconds: as indicated in other writings, as a sprinter, I can produce a significant amount of watts for 5 - 8 seconds – but one time only without significant rest.

 

My weaknesses would take a book to compile – basically I suck at anything not included in the list above, including, but not limited to: aerobic endurance, hill climbing, time trialing, long intervals, medium intervals, steady efforts, multiple sprints, fighting the wind, leading…

 

I do have one other strength that may actually be the single strongest tool in my arsenal: I can often predict where to be – in another man’s words, how to “get into position to win.”

 

Now, given my list of weaknesses above, ‘get into position to win’ guarantees me very little, but my short list of strengths above does help to deliver this Walden rule.

 

Back to Elk Grove: As probably the single most consistently skittish and dangerous peleton I’ve ridden, this circuit serves as a singularly great case study on “get into position to win.”

 

With one lap to go at Elk Grove I was in the rear guard of a dozen riders backing a compressed peleton ahead of 85+ riders twitching and convulsing through the long narrow course. As we crossed the line with one lap and 2.85 miles to go, suddenly the residue of the preceding 46 miles, the brutal long sprint efforts to hang on to the field on the homestretch, the wheezing in my lungs and hot goosebumps in my legs were forgotten. For the next 2/3’s of a lap what I faced was an effort of a different sort – like a game of Frogger or Tetris, my mission for the coming 2 miles remaining in the circuit was a combination of analytics and anerobics: to anticipate openings and find the energy to slot my body into those spaces.

 

This will probably sound odd to a roadie as this is probably the part of the race they hate the most, but for me it was like suddenly coming off life support – for the preceding miles I was just suffering, hanging on, desperately trying not to get dropped – and then the masochistic exercise in suffering for suffering’s sake was over and now it was time to use a different discipline: to answer the looming question of how, exactly to move safely through 80 riders compacted into a tight, dangerous mass – and do so safely.

 

One of the luxuries or perhaps a penance of being a sprinter is our relegation to the mid-peleton position. Without any need to focus on or consider breaking away, or the conditioning of rivals (everyone is stronger), or any real need to hover at the front, we are provided with ample time to scour and evaluate the course and actions of the peleton for weaknesses.

 

If it looks easy, sometimes, when I move up, that’s because it usually is – on a relative scale – I never move up on the “hard parts” unless out of desperation or it is the final sprint. For me, the dozens of laps preceding the finish are like a giant science project – how does the peleton move? What are its weaknesses? Where does it consistently slow? Most courses have their Achilles heels – places where the dynamics of the race create opportunities. Elk Grove had no Achilles heel – the whole thing was scary, fast, and dangerous. I had to use other opportunities.

 

The video to follow shows the sort of ‘slo mo’ version of the high speed nervous exercise that I went through on that last lap. The slow frame rate fails to capture virtually any of the relevant frenetic action in the peleton as we vibrated through those final two miles - coasting, sprinting, braking, bumping, crashing and sweating through those narrow boulevards at over 30 mph – sudden sways echoing through the field, the sudden hiss and burning smell of brakes, and rapid swings to avoid wheels and limbs. Nonetheless, what the video does capture is the suffocating closeness of the field preparing for the final sprint, the closed road ahead when it comes to moving up, the proximity of other riders, and the press of bodies blocking any forward progress.

 

The video starts about ½ mile past the start finish as we are about to enter the first of two U-turns on the course. Just to my right a couple riders cross wheels and almost go down – bodies bumping all around and then suddenly we are all leaning left and finding a path around the U-turn at about 8 mph. We then immediately sprint back up to 31, 32, 33 mph and I shift around in the back for a few moments trying to find a line forward through the pack. I don’t see much but decide to slot up the right – only to be shut down moments later against the curb. 

 

I then resolve to the only recourse left available to me (no Achilles heel) – to move right through the middle of the field. For the next 90 seconds I wade right into and through the mashing mesh of bodies comprising the 85 rider ass*#@ zone the entire front of the field had become. What is hard to ascertain is when I’m accelerating quickly or when the field of riders and slowing - to the hiss and stink of burning brake pads.

 

So, what are the key mechanisms that enable the Walden rule of “Get into position to win?”

 

1)      Shift down. This is the single most important part of moving through a crowded peleton. Tired limbs and ragged lungs prefer slower RPM’s, but, having the discipline to pedal rapid circles and taking on the additional aerobic burden it carries it provides the reward of being able to take advantage of opportunities before that of your fellow riders. When riders suddenly divide in front of you creating a Tetris-like body space – only the swiftest acceleration will garner that spot. Be that rider that fills in the gap…Do it 20 times and you can move through an entire peleton without feeling the wind…

 

2)      Get a better view: ride on the hoods (upper part of the handlebars) with your head up. I never even realized I did this until someone gave me a hard time about it a few years ago. Riding head down makes perfect sense when in the front of the field or on a breakaway, but when trapped in the compression of the peleton, use the draft to get a good look around. This is probably the single easiest thing to do to aid you during this critical portion of the race. Visibility of the swaying patterns of the peleton is critical to being able to ‘read the tea leaves’ of the race and find a space to move up.

 

3)      Broadcast your intended movements – herd the cats. Oddly most riders seem intent on maintaining their position – and if you, through your body language and the occasional hand gesture or touch on the hip – indicate a direction you wish to go, more often than not they’ll accommodate. For myself I use a combination of the “slow drift”, the flip of the hand, and the touch on the hip to try and create my path. Sometimes you’ll encounter the cycling equivalent of the ‘Chicago driver’ who actually goes counter to your intended movement and shuts you down – but they too are creating space and sometimes you can anticipate this reaction and quickly swing around them on the other side.

 

4)      Use EVERYTHING to get into position: finally, and most importantly, be willing to use everything you have to get into position. As your body moves beyond its VO2 max and enters oxygen debt, it is easy to give into the physical and mental malaise that accompanies this searing agony and ‘settle in’ and hope that somehow, somewhere, an opportunity to get into position will emerge.

 

The single greatest lesson to be learned from this Walden rule is that you have to make it happen – and if necessary use every single ounce of energy at your disposal, sacrificing your actual sprint to get into position. Said differently, a ‘non-sprint’ from 3rd position as you blow up and drift backward is 99% more likely to land you a top ten position than a somewhat rested move from 25th. 

 

Let me say this again with more urgency: there is NO POINT to sprinting from 30th… (unless you have just moved up from 60th with every ounce of your power.) The first priority for every single available ounce of your energy is to get into striking distance of the win – after that the subtleties of 10th vs. 5th vs. 1st around the final corner is a luxury to be considered for Walden Race Rule #3 (Win it at the Line!)

 

At Elk Grove, with thousands of dollars on the line on a dangerous course against hungry men 15 years my junior, we entered that desperate last lap and the peleton was erratic, frenzied. I moved from 80th to 70th , from 50th to 30th to 20th and then 90 seconds later swung all the way to the front before the set of corners that would determine the race outcome. I lit half of my match to get into position, and the other half to maintain it into the final corner. I had absolutely nothing left when we entered the sprint with 600 meters to go.

 

That is a simple statement, but let me paint it differently. With 600 meters to go in a huge money race I was sitting in a top 6 position – a race winning position – in the biggest amateur money race in the United States – sounds great – right? The other view is that with 600m to go in this huge race I was in an anaerobic oxygen debt filled chasm of fear – palapable fear – unlike anything we face in regular life.

 

Think of those moments as a kid where you tried to stay underwater to swim a distance or find an object at the bottom – and then of that last burst of frantic, lung burning energy as you exploded to the surface and finally breathed the fresh air of recovery.

 

Now imagine the same maneuver - doing that same impulsive set of thrumming kicks to break you back to the surface just as you are running out of air – but now knowingly doing them into a closed long tunnel between pools with nowhere to breathe – your lungs are on fire, your legs become molten lead and every evolutionary fiber in your body tells you to dart for the surface – but instead you duck lower and now you have another 50 feet of tunnel in front of you before you can rise to the surface.

 

This is asphyxiating fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – and deep inside panic starts to simmer and boil over – to pervade everything – it tells you to find a way to surface, to escape this intentional drowning. But there is no short cut and those that try to find one – by diving into corners or by taking them too fast – find disaster and wash up on the shores of the barriers. It is through exactly those kinds of panic attacks that I’ve ended up burning through my own skin on the tarmac at Elk Grove – not my panic, rather the dying gropings of another drowning swimmer pulling me under.

 

It is this element of fear that makes this probably the hardest of all the Walden rules to follow...

The video starts after 1 to go, just before the first U turn - with a near crash. I’m in the back about 80th place and after the corner manage to move to first over the next mile - directly through the innards of the pack for the most part. 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0y2kX6z_Lg]

At 2:13, near the front, I finally sprint clear and find my way to Cat 1 extraordinaire Andy Crater’s wheel – (grey Menasha shorts) and use the first half of my one match that I have to burn. Andy Sprints up again at 3:17 (the second half of my match), and at 3:37 the pace picks up again (my final oxygen starved kick). We slow after that and then the final acceleration to the line begins at 4:12. By then I’m drowning and can barely see, much less respond.

Nonetheless this was a near perfect race in terms of positioning: I can hear Walden say it, “you have to get in position to win!” I end up 17th – getting passed by about 10 riders in the final 50 meters. Still – I picked up $150 – and while not ‘happy’ I was satisfied.

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 Race Reports 8 & 9: Wood Dale ABR State Criterium Championships

2008: Race Report #8 & 9: Wood Dale, IL ABR State Criterium Championships
 
Race Report #8: Sunday, July 6. Category: Master’s 40+, Weather: 84 degrees, 9 mph winds. Course: 4 corners, 1 mile, small hill. Distance, 45 minutes plus 2 laps, ~70 riders Average speed, 26.1 mph, Avg. pulse 164

As I tell my friend and new racer Matt on some interval, “You can never judge your future performance in a race by how you feel when you line up: some of my best races ever were begun with overwhelming feelings of tiredness, weakness or even sickness.”

This was a bit of my mantra as I rolled to the line for the first of two or three races that day. I was hoping to complete the Dybowski ‘trifecta’ and race and place in 3 races: the master’s 40, master’s 30, and Pro ½ races. As it turned out I only ended up starting the first two. My friend Matt also started both and as the pictures will show, was having a good series before disaster struck.

Masters 40+ start

For myself it didn’t help that the day before was comprised of a pool party at my house:  I blame Mike Dienhart for any wine consumption that occurred that evening. The fireworks I provided myself and we knew it was a good party when the police arrived to politely shut down the 2” mortar display I was in the middle of shooting off over the pond beyond our house.

 masters 40 field

My legs didn’t feel good at first and that, for whatever reason, is typical of any ride following a swim in the pool – it is as though all that freedom to kick and use all the unused muscles in the legs in all directions causes those straight and narrow cycling muscles to get distracted and I ‘pedaled squares’ for the first half of the race. The pace was fairly consistent – not brutal – but never slow. These Master’s 40’s clearly proved their dominance at Winfield nationals over their younger bretheren.

My favorite spot - the back

I didn’t bother even thinking about chasing breakaways considering that I was planning on racing 3 times and over 100 miles. Eventually, a 6 man breakway did get away – I considered attempting a bridge when the gap was within my range, but decided to save that energy for later races.

With two laps to go, Chris Black – a very strong Master’s racer – pulled his signature move and broke away off the front of the field. I watched him go from the middle of the pack and symbolically tipped my helmet with respect - as I decided at the end of last year my job is the last lap – everything else is merely preparation. Luck will have to decide the one-lap-to-go situation – from there I’ll take the reins if I can..

So suddenly it was 1 lap to go and in fits and starts we passed the start/finish line. I surfed the peleton near the middle. My plan was a little different than normal – rather than ‘finding the perfect wheel’ to the line, I intended to lead out the sprint with about 500m to go – due to the proximity of two back-to-back corners with a short uphill in between shortly before the finish.

 

I figured I could get a gap before the corner to the uphill, put all my horsepower out up the hill, and then try to hold it to the line.

 

However, in between, several riders had strung themselves out in front of the peleton in pursuit of Mr. Black. If you watch the video, I stay safely in the bowels of the peleton until about 50 seconds into the video, and then the camera starts shaking as I get out of my saddle and kick off my sprint. In the video it looks odd – there’s no where to go – but what I’m shooting for is a sudden opening up the right side. Meanwhile you can also see the distances to the lead riders…

 

After my accel I swing all the way right with some momentum and then ride the wind shadows of the riders, following the “string of pearls” of the leading riders, passing each in turn, saving the last two for the uphill stretch. The beauty of this approach was that I never really had to face the wind on my own and could instead put in short sprints (my strength) before putting my head down on the final stretch trying to close in on Chris Black.

 

These are the moments of racing I love – that sudden knowledge that there is gas in the tanks and that despite my heart rate being above 190, that the legs and pedals and bike are willing. Its hard to tell from the video, but my full on sprint only started just as the lead rider looked back on the uphill – that’s when I kicked in the turbo and passed him on the inside setting up the final turn. I actually thought I might catch Chris – but he accelerated yet again and I didn’t catch him – what a stud.

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

Race Report #9: Sunday, July 6. Category: Master’s 30+, Weather: 86 degrees, 9 mph winds. Course: 4 corners, 1 mile, small hill. Distance, 45 minutes plus 2 laps, ~45 riders Average speed, 26.3 mph, Avg. pulse 165

Clearly a pattern is developing: there are more 40+ racers in Illinois than 30+, and quite possibly they are stronger as well. Overall the pace was only slightly higher – and that was only from a significant organized chase of a breakway. Otherwise the race was relatively mild.

My friend Matt and I

The first half of the race went quickly and Matt and I rode together quite a bit – switching wheels, sometimes following, sometimes leading. As a breakaway got away, I began to feel guilty for my mentoring of Matt. Yes, for me, a breakaway is a distant target and not something to concern myself with. But Matt’s got an aerobic motor – shouldn’t he be up there?

Matt in the forground of an early crash

As the pace picked up and things began to string out, I swung up the outside on the downhill and said, “we have to get up there” to Matt – and sure enough his motor kicked in and he actually took one of the hardest pulls of the race after a series of hard laps.

 

Ultimately we closed on the leaders and caught them, but in between things went a little haywire. After Matt’s hard pull, we entered the 3rd corner at high speeds and behind me I heard the train wreck explosions that are unfortunately all too common in cycling. I wouldn’t have given it much thought except that Matt had just swung off the lead and was just behind me in the general vicinity of the noise.

 Matt taking the lead

As the next laps unwound, I found no trace of Matt – but neither did I see him on the sidelines, and his 11 year old daughter Rose continued to take pictures – so assumed he was at the tail of the peleton or safely on the sidelines. As it turned either – neither was true.

 Getting busy...

And for a second time it was one lap to go…

 

I had the same general intention of the previous race – to lead out the sprint from the backstretch, but given the smaller size of the field I didn’t move up as aggressively and suddenly found myself boxed in. In the video you can see my switching left to right looking for a hole – I was still intending to lead it out – but when I finally squeezed through a 1 inch hole, I found myself neatly tacked right onto the leadout move - I timed it right and found a hole 58 seconds into the video to follow the leadout, taking the second to last corner at 35mph in 5th, with a lot of power to spare having never seen the wind.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLM94sE1fEc]

Shrouded by the field I still had not used any real juice and anticipated on using my full sprint on the uphill. As always, plans need to be adjusted – as you can see on the video, just as I began to exit the 3rd corner for my big sprint, the rider in 3rd position clipped a pedal, lost both feet, bounced off rider #4, and then careened into me – feet flapping wide, sending me towards the curb, as I locked both brakes up.

Due to the slow frame rate, what is missing from this scene is the absolute terror of that half second…

In those milleseconds I went from an adrenaline soaked anticipation of a sprint to a two handed skid toward the curb, slowing to 20mph from the 35mph sprint speed around the corner.

My saving grace was the parking lot entrance that allowed me to just miss the curb and then immediately get out of my saddle (camera shaking) to attempt to regain all that lost momentum as my 3 leadout men disappear into the distance. So much happens so fast that the camera misses much – meanwhile as they recede, two new riders winging around me as I try to undo the damage and I find myself in 6th with a big gap to 4th

But I had some horsepower to spare, and I furiously put on the afterburners and re-accelerated uphill back to 35mph and entered the 4th and final corner in 6th, swinging wide with a visual lock on 3rd place coming out of the corner.

This is where the camera really misses the most terrifying moment of the whole race for me. As I accelerate up the outside from 6th position, the the rider in 5th suddenly gets out of his saddle and swings 3 feet to the left, hitting my front wheel, to the sound of angry xylophone, and bending several of my spokes in the process. I lock up both brakes again and swing left and manage to hold onto my bucking and endoing bike.

I screamed an epithet at this point and then coasted to the line. (Virtually all this happens between frames or mostly out of view – all you can see is the sudden appearance of the rider to my right and then the sudden ‘backward’ movement of my sprint). 

At this point I coast in for 5th… feeling lucky.. and scared.

I coasted around and found Matt sitting in the grass in turn 3 - right where I almost went down. His seat was destroyed, and his helmet cracked nearly all the way through. With just a couple key questions I realized he had a concussion - "Matt, what city are we in?"  "Ummm  I don't know - how did I crash? I don't remember..."

Matt's road rash was mild, but his hand started to swell up pretty good. In his short term memory state he reminded me and others several times, “I don’t think it’s broken – just some ligaments – see I can move everything”. But even as his memory returned, “Oh yeah – I had a flat – that’s how I crashed!” the swelling in his hand continued. Eventually he had all his memory back as we sat in the shade near the cars after I was able to obtain ice and water from the very helpful promoter Vince.

Even as he recounted the flat, the skidding, and the eventual contact with the pavement I was reminded of my two close calls in my race and considered myself lucky. A day later and he got his X-ray back – and the base of his thumb joint had basically crumbled (see picture)and was impacted into the other joint, requiring the surgical imposition of metal pins and 6 weeks recovery off the bike minimum. Damn. At least it was his left hand.

Matts thumb Xray

Perhaps I’m a bad friend, but I did remind Matt that time trial handlebars use only forearms and that they might provide him a new, safer outlet while he mends. It is amazing that after 32 years of racing I've never actually had any kind of serious injury - I'm thankful for my luck...

Tomorrow begins the 2008 Superweek series – see my 2008 Race Report 2 ½ for the schedule I’ll be attending, I’m both nervous and excited for the races. I’m nervous because of getting dropped at Grafton… I’m excited because I clearly still have my sprint and if I ever get a chance to actually use it I’m reasonably certain it might bring me results.

Til then,

-John

2006 Race Report #10: Elk Grove Cat II Challenge

Race Report Elk Grove Category II Challenge, August 12, 2006. 80 degrees, 55 minutes timed.  Flashback: August of 1977.

I am 8 years old and my father and I are pulling our GM Beauville van into the parking lot of the Dearborn Twin Towers office buildings where I was to participate in my first ever bike race. It was pouring outside and I remember not wanting to get out of the van into the cold rain. I dressed in the van into my wool jersey and black cotton and wool shorts (with a real leather chamois), my leather helmet and gloves, and then, with my father holding the umbrella, I climbed outside the sliding door and onto my bike, goosebumps standing out on my shiny forearms. 

He suggested that I “warm up” by riding around the parking lot a few times, and I did but I was immediately back under the umbrella and back into the van, shivering from the cold and wet. We waited until almost race time before heading toward the start/finish area. With his plastic raincoat on, and holding the umbrella, my father walked and I coasted on my bike over to the start finish line where a stocky, bald, grumpy older man with glasses and a mustache was yelling instructions to the parents, “Midgets! – midgets – you have to roll out your bikes before the race! – bring them over to Clair…C’mon Andreu – you know the drill!” 

His name was Mike Walden and I disliked him immediately. Clair, however, I recognized. Clair Young, wearing his referee uniform, was the reason I was there in the first place. During the summer, as I began to join my father on these long tours or “century rides” as these 100 mile bike tours were called, we were passed at one point by a fit couple in their 50's on a tandem who marveled at my tiny legs pushing the pedals in circles on this 100 mile circuit. When my father indicated that this was the 13th Century ride I had completed that summer – at age 8 – they expressed their admiration and then encouraged my father to get me racing. The couple was none other than Clair and Dorothy Young, parents of national and world champion cyclists and speedskaters Roger and Sheila Young.  

A few phone calls later, and there I was at the Dearborn Twin Towers just outside Detroit in the pouring rain, checking out my gears (12 and under or “midget category” racers were limited in their gears so as to not injure their knees) by “rolling out” my bike backwards for a full revolution of the pedals between two tape marks to ensure that my tenth gear was not too big (this was in the time where bikes still only had “ten speeds”)  10 minutes, and an eternity in the rain later, they lined up the boys, and then the girls behind us on the line.

There were about 12 of us boys, to the right of me was the tallest of the group, with dark hair and a fixed expression, seemingly unphazed by the rain. Next to him was a hyperactive boy who was badgering his father, “This rain is freezing me – why can’t we start? What are they waiting for? Frankie’s going to win anyway – why did we come?” Next to him was a pale, hollow cheeked boy of 10, whose father, like mine, hovered over him with the umbrella, guarding him as best he could. 

And so we lined up, myself – a few days before my 9th birthday: the tall one - Frankie Andreu – age 11 (eventual 9 time tour de France finisher and 4th in the Olympic games), the hyper one: Jamie Carney – age 9 (3 time Olympic team member, my arch-rival for decades to come,) the pale englishman: longtime friend Paul Jacqua – age 10, and a number of other boys, readying for a short 3 lap, 3 mile race. 

In the old Italian tradition Mike, (or was it Clair?) announced, “Torreador, Attencione, Go!” and within seconds Frankie had disappeared into the mist while I was still trying to get my foot in the toeclips. Once I finally did, I could see the outline of two riders ahead of me in the rain, roostertails kicking up high with the water flying off their rear wheels. Frankie was nowhere to be seen and I was left strugging through the downpour with Jamie and Paul and we headed through the darkened corners of the course, wheels whizzing with water and rain, pain and breathing only matched by wonderment of “where did he go?”  

I was not used to being beat – the fastest kid on my block during tag, and the fastest kid at school during recess, I felt a frantic, almost asphyxiating rhythm take over my pedaling and breathing. There was pain in every pore of my skin and my lungs were on fire but I was fixated on the mysterious disappearance of the rider ahead.  Jamie and Paul shortly established the pattern known to racers the world over as a “paceline” pulling into the wind for a short distance and then moving aside for the rider behind to pedal through, blocking the wind for the riders behind.

For perhaps the only time in my career, I took the role of a “roadie” and would pull through faster, chasing the elusive Frankie, or even making attacks to the side of our little peleton.  2 laps into the race and suddenly a dark figure appeared and quickly disappeared outside our little group. It was Celeste Andreu – Frankie’s sister, and she had already made up the 1 minute start gap provided between the boys and girls, and passed us. We made a fruitless effort to chase, but resolved back into the loosely formed paceline we had formed after the start, Paul doing most of the consistent work, and Jamie and I occasionally trying to sneak away off the front. 

We came by the start finish with one to go and the few parents remaining in the rain cheered and then disappeared and we continued our route around this urban maze. As we headed out of the last corner, Paul sprang out into the lead and as I started to follow, Jamie slingshotted past him. But I had grabbed his wheel (i.e. gotten into his draft), and as our tiny gears spun, and out little feet rotated at over 200 rpms, I passed Jamie just before the line to win the “field sprint” and come in 2nd establishing in that 3 mile microcosm a pattern in the world that would be significant in my life for the following 30+ years. 

After drying off (and the rain stopped) there was a medals ceremony followed by a trip to a tent where the sponsor of the race from the local bike shop provided me with my prize – a heavy, chrome plated bottom bracket tool kit.  I didn’t know what a bottom bracket was, but I could tell that this was a significant prize by its weight and shininess and I resolved to really like bike racing. I still have this bottom bracket tool kit, now 29 years later, and it has never been used as far as I know. But it is still shiny… 

August 12: Elk Grove is an unusual setting for a bike race. Instead of a criterium race run on a squared of circuit set in a downtown setting, or a traditional road race course with a long circuit and hills (the kind I avoid for obvious reasons) set out in the country where traffic would not be an issue, the Elk Grove challenge course was a mid length flat circuit of 2.3 miles set on and “out and back” pair of divided lane roads set in a quiet suburban neighborhood.  The course was essentially the shape of a sans serif “L” if you outlined it going counterclockwise: starting from the bottom: a left U turn, a right 90 degree turn, a left U turn, a left 90 degree turn.  

The course was quite narrow for the most part, and that, combined with the large field of Category 2 riders (approximately 120) made for a high degree of tension and nervousness in the pack after the start – elbows hitting elbows, and the occasional bumping of handlebars leading to tires locking up and panic around the fringes. This was a rare race where category 2 riders were separated from the Pro’s and Elite’s (Category 1 amateurs) who had their own race later in the day with a $125,000 prize list. First place in that event was $25,000. Next year…. Next year… 

I lined up on the front line and sprinted to the front after the start in order to have a good position into the first U-turn. I then found myself oddly off the front of the pack by 100 feet into the second stretch. I paused and waited for some riders to catch up and throttled up into 3rd as we headed down the long straightaway. I marveled that I was still up front in this new category of racing and wondered why the race was so slow, checking my cycling computer for the first time only to discover we were moving 33mph, and that my pulse was 180 bpm. Yet I was not suffering – wow – what gives?  

Backing up – August 10th, 2006, our Thursday Night “fast ride” training ride with the Stoton Velo Club. This is a weekly ‘suffer fest’ training ride attended by generally sick individuals that get a weird lift out of pain. I attend solely to improve my racing, but I’m thankful for the twisted individuals that show up to this weekly extravaganza.  We generally do 30 – 40 miles and use the “stop ahead” signs that signal crossroads as interim sprints, and use the tops of the hills as “King of the mountain” challenges. It is all for pride, but the competition is intense: last week we did 18 sprints, the first 10 of which came in the first 10 miles.

Several of us were about to vomit, but we kept going. Here are some of the usual players:

 Glen Gernert: “False Flat Glen” – haven’t seen much of him this year, but Glen holds a special spot on my pain-o-meter for a very unique ability to lift the pace at just the absolutely worst times. Picture this:  I am just barely hanging on to the wheel in front of me up yet another hill, and just as we hit the crest, I see yet another, slightly less steep rise following it. It is just at this point, when I’m absolutely beyond my threshold, when I need to rest, that the notorious site of Glen G’s steel bike will come slicing up the outside requiring the taste of blood, and acid in your veins in order to not get dropped. I hate Glen.  

Andy Nowlan – Andy N. is the reason I’ve even come out on these rides. A sprinter by genetics like me, he and I have spent a bit of time together getting shelled off the back, and struggling to regain the group. Andy suffers quietly along side me when the going is rough and then when we have a moment to actually breathe finds just the right way to describe exactly what I’m feeling, generally with a few f-bombs mixed in. From a pure speed standpoint, Andy’s probably the fastest of the group, but fortunately we (OK, the others) make him hurt just enough that he only occasionally gets to use it. 

Travis – Travis is just a motor – pure and simple. He gets the machinery turning and can keep it going indefinitely. I’m just barely fit enough to hang Travis’ wheel when he cranks it up, which basically makes him 30% stronger than me (after accounting for the benefits of drafting). Travis was Wisconsin state champion in the time trial. 

Glenn J. (or Glenn2) has the most massive calves in the universe. Glenn specializes in all kinds of hurts, but I think his strongest suit is cranking up the steeper hills at an insane rate of speed that leaves you racked for breath and (in my case) recovering for miles. 

Matt E. (or fast Matt) is a pro rider waiting to happen. He’s got a motor like Travis, a sprint like Andy, and the middle pain power of the two Glenns. He’s the triple threat and often gets away for miles at end by using his jump to get the gap, his extended sprint to put on distance, and then the motor to just tick away the miles. Matt is my primary trainer as I use him to gauge my fitness, sprint and “sticking power”. Matt is stronger, faster, and more powerful than me. I’m craftier than Matt. On the occasions where I beat Matt to “stop ahead” sign sprints, it is only through a careful combination of wheel sucking and sheer sneakiness. Hey – if it is worth winning, its worth cheating for… 

On this particular Thursday, the sign sprints are few and far between, but as we enter the “home stretch” toward the final sprint of the evening, I sense another evolution within my body – a change that only seems to respond to severe physical conditions...  I’ve read before about body builders, who, despite visible, incremental muscle increases, don’t see increases in strength correlating to the additional muscle. But then, days, or weeks later, suddenly, significantly, the increase in strength occurs. Physiologists hypothesize that the mass gain in muscle does not necessarily correspond to the electrochemical “turning on” of those same fibers, and that the two events are separate, discrete activities. So the lesson is that physical (and I would argue also mental and even spiritual) development is not so much a gradual curve rather than a set of discrete “jumps”. 

As we headed into the last set of small rolling hills and curves prior to the long stretch to the big finale sign sprint, I took off - creating my own little breakaway with Matt and another racer (Mark D.)  chasing. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay away, but what I did do was absolutely maximize the power through the pedals up each of the small hills, coasting and recovering down the other side. In this way I was able to stay away for a couple miles before being caught. As we wended our way toward the final sign sprint, a series of moves occurred, with fast Matt initiating the ‘shake and bake’ movements that can often prove my undoing.

However, in this case, his effort was matched by Phil, and then Mark leapfrogged Phil with about 400m to go and gained a significant gap quickly. But as always, I followed Matt’s wheel. However, Matt has gotten a little wise and was determined to not lead me out such a distance and we waited and hovered and coasted, watching as Phil pulled away and Mark’s gap widened significantly.  With 250m to go I shifted up and got out of the saddle and rocketed up the right side. As I hit 35mph, I shifted again and I hit 37mph, slingshotting by Phil and heading for Mark’s rear wheel.

Just then a large deer loomed by the side of the road with a full set of antlers even as I swung past Mark to the stop ahead sign. Mark was certainly distracted by the deer and may have been able to counter my move, but what was significant to me was the ability to shift up during a sprint - not sure I’ve ever done that, and hit and extend 37 mph by myself was also pretty significant. As we coasted towards the short hill to the highway home, I considered myself “well trained” for my next race. 

Return to Elk Grove, August 12, 2006: And so the race progressed – I stayed in the top ten riders, generally single file off the front of the pack, spending only a few moments in the tense anxiousness of the wider pack behind us that were raggedly wending the corners and tensely hovering on the narrow straightaways, trying to get out of the soup. With one to go I stayed in excellent position and watched three riders sneak off the front of the pack. As we headed into the last mile of the race, the pace picked up substantially – 34, 35, 36 mph into the last corner, and we closed on the breakaway. Into the last half mile – a narrow, slightly winding stretch to the finish and the pace remained high – 36, 37, 38 mph and I huddled behind my protection of the 2 leadout men. As we entered the last 300 meters, a move up the inside and I jumped on it, and then I made my bid for the win up the inside, chasing down the breakaway men into the last 150m. I followed the inside line accelerating hard to 40mph and found myself suddenly blocked by the rearward trajectory of 1 of the 3 breakaway men who tried to put himself out of harms way and swung to the inside.

AGAIN I had to brake and then try to re-accelerate. There was a substantial muddle near the finish and I had no-where to go and I crossed the line 9th, frustrated with the finish – but excited about the pending Pro/Am race coming the next day – a chance again for a “W” or win. Hoping it wasn’t going to rain…  

Backflash – July, 1980.  It was 2am when my father woke me up. Numbly grasping my pillow, I tumbled down the stairs of the house and headed into the damp black air of our dimly lit driveway to sprawl into the back seat of our Chevy Chevette and immediately fall asleep again. My father pulled gently out of our subdivision and headed out of our Detroit suburb to head west across the state of Michigan on highway 94 toward our final destination of Milwaukee, Wisconsin for to my first “Superweek” series of bike races across Wisconsin.

It was July of 1980, I was 11 years old, and I had just won my second straight Michigan state cycling championship and was prepping for my first national championships. Midway through our trip I woke and sat bolt upright, sweating with fright, the quiet movements of the air and the unheard decibels of powerfully low apocalyptic rumbling signifying the portents of the moment, my body shaking, my stomach turning inside out. I ached with fear even as I turned with paranormal foreboding, knowing the inevitable outcome even before my eyes registered upon the looming shape in the rearview mirror… 

Even though we were moving, it was as though in a liquid fog – a slow-moving soup barring our progress even as the huge truck was bearing down on us from behind with an approach velocity of 50 mph over our own. I heard my screams even before I felt my lungs fill and they pierced the quiet gathering of forces like lightening through the black of night even as the headlights filled the moist rear window with the brilliance of the a million tiny lights signifying the imminent collision. The feeling was like that of being split in half as the world exploded around me and… I saw the headlights gathering, and the truck fast approaching, and the car and the truck revolved and we were in front of it, on top of it, underneath it and a world of sparks erupted even as the gas tank exploded and…. I watched the maniacal driver bearing down on us and could see the gleam from his menacing glare even as the rain drops in the rear view mirror glinted with the reflections of the huge semi about to strike us mercilessly from behind and I uttered a guttural stream of screams and a roar that broke the silence with fear and evil and longing…. And… 

I woke up, sweating, on the side of the road, my father’s arms awkwardly cradling my sweaty head and clammy cold and damp limbs in the backseat of the Chevette, as a husky rattle of the final scream trailed off and I found myself gasping to replace the air my lungs had expelled. I looked around and the glint of the grey morning light exposed the contours of the landscape hidden in the former blackness and despair of the fever-induced “night terrors” or hallucinations the onset of the flu had brought. My body and our car were all intact and the only remnant of reality matching that of my recurring dreams was the headlights flashing past our emergency parking spot on the apron of highway 94. I was trembling and sweating and then suddenly freezing and I shuddered violently in the backseat as I tried to tell my father what I had seen.

Even as I described the oddly mundane artificiality of a simple car crash the graying shroud of fear lingering over my thoughts and eyes lifted and I found myself fully awake, alive, and very sick in the backseat of a tiny yellow car somewhere in southwestern Michigan. He tried to talk me into turning around to head home, but I was having none of it. “I’m feeling better” I declared, and by drinking lots of water I was able to reduce some of the symptoms, and though I alternately froze and sweated all the way to Milwaukee, we made it there prior to the race, arriving at 7am local time – to find the lakefront shrouded in mist, unseasonably cold temperatures, and a steady downpour of rain. My race was a 8:30am and I remember putting on my shorts and jersey, still clammy with sweat, and pulling on the flimsy rainjacket we had brought along to attempt to go “warmup”. 

I immediately began trembling horrifically and my father could see my handlebars jerking as I tried to get my foot in the toeclips as I headed away from the car. Only minutes later and I was back shivering violently and nearly falling as I dismounted my little blue Romic bike which I left leaning against the car as I climbed back in and demanded that he rev the engine and crank the heat. We sat and watched as the other racers filed out of their vehicles and lined up to race the first stage of Superweek, in the rain and cold, without me, - without me! -  even as my father sweated in front and I shivered in the backseat. 

Still the grip of the competition pulled at me and I started arguing halfheartedly about going out to race, but my father was having none of it and I guiltily agreed with a sigh of relief to stay in the warm car, still feeling as though I should have argued better or pushed harder.  

I can still remember very clearly my feelings pulling out of that lot at the lakefront in Milwaukee that day, watching my rivals speeding away into the rain, disappearing, their fading colors yet remaining fixed in my head and leaving a streak across my psyche.  Quitter.

2007 Race Report #6: Wading through the stars

Race Report #6, Saturday, July14th, Superweek Stage 2 Pro/Am Criterium, Blue Island, IL, 100K.   

The rest of week passed by and Saturday came and it was time to try my first Superweek (International Cycling Classic) race, and my second Superweek stage ever racing as a Pro 1/2 since my inaugural journey last year during the final stage in Whitefish Bay, WI. Our trip in the new car over to Blue Island, IL was uneventful (for once), though I did have some bike issues that Jose Alcala and Todd Downes – again the official SRAM pit crew and mechanics extraordinaire – sorted out before I lined up for my second time ever as a Pro/am participant at Superweek. As I coasted to the start finish line, I again marveled at all of the pageantry associated with racing at this level.

 

I’m certain that most of the other pros and probably even the remaining amateurs in the ranks are quite habituated to the preliminaries that the promoters and announcers use to warm up the crowd and thank the sponsors, but for me – I was eating it up – looking around at the expectant faces in the crowds, watching the various teams in their whispered huddles, admiring the latest greatest technology in the team bikes all around, and just soaking in the atmosphere radiating from the eyes and hands lining the barriers  – one of expectancy and pride.

 

I wondered, as I always do, if I would finish the race or if I would get dropped. But I didn’t worry much – I was just happy to participate, and after a round of introductions and the national anthem, the chief official, Heidi Mingus sent us off.

 

The race was fast – averaging over 28mph, with typical finish stretch speeds of 33 and 34mph. I pedaled circles, followed wheels, and for the first 20 of 60 laps hung on for dear life wondering if I was going to be dropped. A breakaway got away at about this point, and for a couple of laps, the pace became more manageable and I recovered a bit. It was about at this time I saw my friend Mike Dienhart near the finish stretch, along with his son Kevin, cheering along with Shannon and Katelina.

 

40 to go, 30 to go, 20 to go, 10 to go – the laps counted down as I bided my time about ¾’s of the way back in the pack. Then we caught the breakaway...

 

5 to go – my time – and I immersed myself in the pack, riding those eddies and currents formed by the bodies and bikes of those pros surrounding me and waded through the stars on my way through the center of the peleton. Without once feeling the wind, or even seeing the sidelines, the faces in the crowd, or my family, suddenly, with one lap to go I found myself on Andy Crater’s wheel (winner of stage 1) and sitting in about 7th place heading down the finish stretch.

 

Perfect position… again.

 

Again I marvel at this – how is it possible?  I’ll consider this question further at a future writing.

 

Making the first turn onto the short stretch before the backstretch and Crater looks back at me and gives a flick of his wrist down by his hip “C’mon Wolverine” he says, and shoots up the inside into turn 2 and the short straightaway before the long backstretch. I hate leadouts - they never work out… but...

 

Instincts war with the invite and for just a second I waver and then follow the wheel and I find myself entering the backstretch in second place on the wheel of the previous day’s stage winner. But… we are traveling at 37 mph and the wind is beginning to take its toll. I follow Crater and desperately hope for a surge to allow me a shield of riders to hide behind.

 

It comes on both sides and with a flick of his elbow, Crater drops into 3rd spot on the right side surge. Again I hesitate – suffering from the last move – and part ways with him and follow the slightly slower surge to the left – which almost immediately peters out, leaving me waffling in the wind on the left side of the surging peleton.

 

“Get in position to win!” Walden would say, so I give almost all of my remaining energy to keep pace riding the hips of the surge up the right, exposed to the wind at 40mph and only find a wheel as we enter turn 3 in about 12th place, side by side with another rider on my inside hip.

 

No one brakes and neither do I (usually someone does and you can find a perfect line into the corner) and with a sudden terror I feel the presences of another rider close by me on the outside and now both riders are touching me – one on my left hip and right hip as we all lean in to take the corner full speed at 40 mph – manhole covers and all. Miraculously we escape certain death by roadrash and we straighten up and head down the short stretch for the final turn and finish.

 

As always, I geared down prior to the corner, and I used the immediate RPM’s to jump up the inside 5 or 6 spots and entered the final corner in 6th place – 400 meters to go and in perfect position in my second big pro/am race in more than 15 years.

 

I came out of the corner and the pace accelerated again and I stayed with it, passing the two leadout men who came backwards like stones hurtling end over end into a well, but that brief glimpse of the lead lasted only for150 meters or 8 seconds. Then, the legs began to give out and by 250 meters I was falling backwards much as the leadout men did, from 4th to 6th to 8th and so on. Heading towards the banners in about 10th place, 2 more guys came around me and I finally was able to sit up – only to realize the finish line was another 20 meters away and even as I tried to start turn the pedals again, another 4 guys swarmed by on the inside and I crossed the line 16th.

 

I listened to the announcer’s voice recede as we re-traced the course and as the echoes faded a small, still note of pride began to surface…. I finished… in the money - in a Pro Race at Superweek. Then I checked my computer – max speed, 45.0 mph – the finish speed. Never sprinted that fast before – that’s 72kph – never heard of a sprint at the Tour De France that fast…

 

I chatted with Mike and Kevin and Katelina for awhile near the stage as the famed announcer Eddy Van Guyse interviewed the top 3 riders, and then, after a quick change in the air-conditioned new car, I hoisted Kat on my shoulders, and waded and waited - surrounded by 2 dozen professional riders from around the world - to pick up my check for 16th place - $65.00 – and headed home.