The Sprinter's Margin: 36 years and 18 seconds

The Sprinter’s Margin: 36 years and 18 seconds A recent conversation:

Ray Dybowski: Hey did you hear? Alan Antonuk won that road race by 7 minutes. 

(Me) 7 minutes!? I don’t think the entire margin of victory from every race I’ve won would total to seven minutes!

(Ray) Laughs, thinks I’m kidding. 

As it turns out I completely overestimated my prowess as a bike racer. I truly was disciple of the Walden mantra, “win it at the line.” After this conversation I did a little math, totaling the number of races competed on a bike over the last 36 years and the rough percentage of those that I won and by how much and then estimated the average finish speed to calculate the average total time between my front wheel and second place. Finally I added up those races to calculate the minutes… or seconds that those margins added up to.

So guess… Guess the total margin of victory for a somewhat accomplished cyclist, who won 400* out of about 4000 races over 36 years? Alan Antonuk won one single race by 7 minutes – surely it must add to more than that, right? (*Includes heats, semis, finals etc. in BMX and track racing – perhaps not as impressive a number as it might look.)

Wrong. 18 seconds. Count it out: one one-thousand, two one-thousand… Get to 18 one thousand and you’ve counted the entire impression of my cycling career across multiple formats: road / velodrome / cyclo-cross / criterium / & bmx.

Here’s the math, complements of excel:

Value Metric Description

5280

feet # feet in a mile

3600

seconds # seconds in an hour

37.5

mph average sprint speed

55.00

ft/s average sprint speed  (in ft/s (5280*37.5/3600) )

2.5

feet typical margin of victory: 1/2 bike length = 2.5 feet

0.045

seconds time to travel 1/2 bike length at a sprint speed of 55.0 ft/s

4000

races # of races (including heats, semis & finals) entered over the last 36 years (road, track, crit, cyclocross, bmx)

10%

win ratio percent of races won over the 36 years (used to be much higher…)

400

wins approximate # of career wins over 36 year career at an average span of one-half of a bike length

18.18

seconds total margin of victory for 400 wins with 1/2 bike length lead at 37.5mph (=400*.045)

Really? My entire cycling career boils down to 18 seconds?  ½ second a year?

Yes. This is a fact. So also is the fact that these victories weigh heavier than the chronological time involved in completing them suggests.

I embrace this conundrum – that time is inherently flexible and that, perhaps, “really living” is found at the margins, at the pendulum swings of the hours, days and weeks of suffering condensed to prepare for a race, meeting, or test, and then again in the expansion of that invested time through the seconds those long hours deliver: a dash across the finish line, a flash of insight, or a compelling soundbite at the right moment in a meeting. The math of the mind is logarithmic and paradoxical: investment measured in years often results in outcomes measured in seconds or lesser intervals (sprinters are the “comedians” of the peleton for a reason). Yet, in the timeless continuum of the human psyche they are equals.

What is the value of those 18 seconds? How many hours, days, weeks, even years would I trade for that tiny slice of ever expanding time? Contained within the long yawn this moment comprises is series of unforgettable moments burned into my retinas and into the fibers of my legs and lungs. That first churning, panic-stricken race in the rain at age 8 with Frankie Andreu, Paul Jaqua and Jamie Carney around the Dearborn Towers. Hundreds of perfectly anointed sprints from 5th wheel and 150m to go to win as a junior and then again in the Cat 3’s. My largest margin of victory at Downer’s Grove when a 160+ rider peleton crashed in my wake in the final corner and I coasted across the line alone. The bike throw against Jamie Carney on the track to win a spot to the world championships in North Africa. Flinging across the shiny cobbles in the rain downtown Grand Rapids year before last to finally raise my hands in celebration.

The wins matter little, but there are synapses built in the process that are separate from pedaling: wires bent toward confidence, towards persistence, and inclined to treat the heat of battle as enjoyable. These connections made in the heat and pressure of the race stay melded together long after…

I’m a terrible bike racer in the grand scheme of things. A non-factor surfing the waves of the strong players forever relegated to the vagaries of the field sprint on easy courses. Yet in 18 seconds over 36 years a great deal of my character has been formed. In the early days a quiet standoffish confidence resulted – when asked to predict my results I would say, “I think I’m going to win, but we’ll see.” In more recent days a willing recognition of all my weakness and failures surrounding a tiny little jet engine of a strength – and hope.  “I hope to finish – and if I do, then I have a shot.” Hope, perhaps is the source of all good, all energy, all tenacity. It is irrational, hope. It specifically is designed NOT to meet the facts. Facts represent the past and carry its inertia. Hope represents the eventualities of the future and provides a trajectory that necessarily includes uncertainty and the possibility of humiliation, or glory.

Bill Strickland, editor of bicycling magazine, wrote a compelling book called “Ten Points” that anchored much of his life and his pursuits, failures, and successes to a Wednesday Worlds local bike race.  Bill Strickland was also abused, severely, as a child and the reverberations of this horrible past had begun to creep into his present. Earning “ten points” in the local series for his daughter was less about beating his significantly challenging rivals, and far more about the magic provided by a “point” earned through suffering for a noble cause.

Bill never did earn his ten points.  But he did end up exorcising some of his demons and becoming a good father and the editor of the nation’s largest cycling publication.

I’ll likely never increase the span of my wins from 18 to even 20 seconds much less 7 minutes. But, on the margin… it doesn’t matter. It was worth it.

Harrowing victory? Brilliant, jubilant defeat?

The mind creates a portrait of the past, but memory has a paintbrush, not a camera. As such it is inherently inaccurate.

Is it any wonder that there are few descriptions of “harrowing victory” in the annals of competitive history? In the same way is it any wonder that there are few memories of a “brilliant, jubilant defeat?” The pixels of light and darkness captured in the mind’s eye are filled with the pallet of color of the results – hence the memories of winning somehow pull from the yellows and golds, success and color implying a relatively easier effort, while the losses are inevitably painted with the charcoals of those chiaroscuro efforts – blackened, brutish, pain and disappointment closely linked.

I choose to repaint this race differently. No – I didn’t win - but I did finish. And in so doing what I did accomplish was a unique mastery of the instrument of my body. For over two hours, I played it like the first violinist – drawing out of it with every lash of the straight bow every possible note, every emotion, every tremble of resonance the space of ribs and air and bones was capable of producing.

In the end was it all meaningless? A black deep hole – a fissure to the worst unknowns? Or was there transcendence in the agony I endured? Did I learn something so raw and true about myself that I’ll be describing it for decades? I don’t really know to be honest – more than two months later as I write this and I still feel as though I’m clawing my way out of that black crevasse, that hallowed and horrifying yet blindingly brilliant 2 hours and 10 minutes I spent at the edge of sanity and consciousness.

2008 Race Report #2: Vernon Hills, IL

2008: Race Report #2: Vernon Hills Grand Prix

 

Race Report, Sunday, May 4. Vernon Hills Grand Prix Criterium, Vernon Hills, IL. Category: Masters 30+. Weather: 60 degrees, 15 mph winds. Course: 20 miles, 50 riders, average speed – 25.9mph, average pulse 170 bpm, max pulse 191 bpm. Sprint speed 38mph.

 

Another early season race. I’m determined to follow Walden’s core principles this season as well as his race rules. I’ve documented the race rules in my blog, but have been saving the two core principles for an appropriate writeup. Nonetheless, in short they are, 1) Race Your Strengths, Train Your Weaknesses, and 2) Racing is the Best Training.

 

Since racing is the best training I’ve decided to abandon my ‘long aerobic ride’ focus of last year’s preseason and mix in more early season races. My friend Matt’s energy and enthusiasm is making it easy. He got 10th in the Masters 4/5 race and mixed it up in the sprint – an awesome finish.

 

Another windy day, and on this 4 corner course of about a mile it means 1 straightaway with a headwind, 1 with a tailwind, and 2 with cross winds. It also meant a decent amount of suffering and the implosion of the field as the wind took its toll. After about 5 laps, I suddenly found myself on the wrong side of a split within the field, with 18 riders out front quickly getting a 10, then 15, then 20 second gap on our chase group of 20 (10 riders dropped out in the first few laps.)

 

For the next 5 laps I stayed in my “you are a sprinter John” zone and did nothing but draft and suffer, but eventually the slowing pace and continued visibility of the large breakaway overcame my natural weaknesses and I began to take hard pulls at the front of our field (granted on the tail wind or cross wind sections) and exhorted other riders to pull through and work together.

 

Over the next few laps we closed the gap to about 12 seconds, but meanwhile the lap cards read “3” laps to go. I watched Ken, one of my friend Matt’s Bicycle Heaven teammates make a huge effort on the headwind side to bridge the gap and considered going with him but had just finished a hard pull on the backstretch to pull us within striking distance and wasn’t quite recovered.

 

It took Ken nearly a lap, but I saw him finally catch the lead group. Meanwhile the lead group shelled 3 riders off the back who were struggling to organize and re-catch the lead breakaway. With two laps to go I ascertained that my struggling peleton was not strong or organized enough to close the gap and I decided to make a ‘go-for-broke’ effort to catch the lead group. No sense in sprinting for 19th

 

One benefit was the 3 rider group in between the leaders and my pack…

 

I timed my effort carefully and used the draft to my advantage and just prior to the first corner of the 4 corner course I accelerated up the inside and then shot down the second straightaway at 33 mph amongst blasts of sideways wind, catching the chase group just prior to the backstretch.

 

The fear of this kind of effort is difficult to describe. I can liken it to drowning. The effort to spring from the warm shrouded belly of the peleton into the suddenly roaring air in front of the pack steals the air from your lungs and you begin to panic for breath as your legs and arms burn. The most significant, yet easily forgotten effect is the taste of blood and steel in your mouth as you go well beyond your aerobic threshold to pedal beyond the peleton. Like drowning, as your air runs out, your focus can easily become all about the feeling of oxygen deprivation – but instead you must focus forward on the goal.

 

I coasted the corner on the tail end of the group, catching a tiny bit of rest. I wanted to do nothing else but rest and recover, but I knew that was a recipe for 18th place and I swallowed the panic rising in my lungs and heart and then swung up the inside and cranked it up to 35, 36mph on the tailwind backstretch – a full out sprint – a mouthful of pennies and blood and a roaring in my ears beyond the wind – I was at my max. I kept the momentum going taking corner 3 full out and barely missing the curb. Finally I latched onto the rear of the breakaway group just as we entered the final corner and we headed down the finish stretch and the bell began to ring indicating one lap to go.

 

I continued my momentum right into the top 5 of the lead group, hoping for a few moments to recover from the maximal efforts of the last 2 minutes, but to no avail – the pace accelerated yet again and I found myself barely hanging onto the 5th place wheel down the backstretch. Like hundreds of episodes in my past, my focus narrowed to the tread of the rear wheel in front of me and I followed like a dog on a leash, whimpering with the effort.

 

I still hoped for a small rest prior to the final two stretches, but the pace stayed high, and as we entered the second to last straightaway, my legs, lungs, and heart gave out and I began to drift backward, from 5th to 7th to 10th, eventually crossing the line in 12th place.

 

I was actually super pleased. In 31 seasons of racing I can count the number of breakaway gaps I have bridged on one hand, and the number in the last 10 years on one finger.

 

I have that sense… that particular looming confident feeling that things will align this year and that somewhere, at some point, I’ll be standing on the podium in a significant race.

 

-John

 

Preview for Race Report #3: On Thursday of this week, after some schedule juggling, I finally committed to my second annual European training vacation – this time to Gerona, Spain – home to significant portion of leading tour de France riders – Lance has a house there, as does my remaining friend in professional cycling George Hincappie.

 

I leave next Tuesday for a 4 day trip. Like last years amazing experience in the Monferrato Hills, Italy  - link - http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/01/26/race-report-2-a-brief-tour-of-italy/  I will take lots of pictures and maybe even break out the helmet cam.

 

To ‘really living’,

 

-John

 

 

 

 

 

Race report 2008 #1: Beloit.. And why cycling is the greatest sport in the world

2008: Race Report #1: And…why cycling is the single best sport in the world.

 

Race Report, Sunday, April 6, Burnham Racing Criterium Masters 30+, Beloit, WI. Team - 60 degrees, 20 mph winds, 26 miles, 35 riders, average speed – 25.4mph, average pulse 161 bpm, max pulse 190 bpm. Sprint speed 37mph.

 

April. Nearly two months before I usually hit my first race, my friend Matt encouraged me to join him at this little race in Beloit held on a race car track. It was a small pack of riders and it was windy and I was not exactly in racing shape but I decided to race the master’s race on my way to Madison to do some housecleaning and yardwork on my former residence there that is still for sale a year later.

 

The pace moved in fits and starts and the wind came from all angles as we moved through the curvy race car track. I stayed in the back and as the effort increased, coughed the dust of winter out of the crypt of my stagnant lungs, and felt that uncertain burn of untrained legs. Nonetheless I warmed up and approached some level of comfortability surfing the pack.

 

Near the end of the race two small breakaways got away – 5 men in total and the rest of us were sprinting for 6th place. I was pleased to feel that despite my lack of fitness, my sprint had returned after the heavy efforts of last summer and I began to feel that glow of confidence return – I knew I was going to be a contender for the finish line.

 

The final turn was about 450m from the finish – a long way by any standard – but also with a 20mph tailwind.

 

I made my decision midway through the race – I would take that corner on the outside and see if I could hold the advantage all the way to the line.

 

My plans worked out beautifully and I accelerated on the inside of the pack using the protection of their draft prior to the last right turn to the finish, and then swung on the outside of the two lead riders just at the apex of the turn with a full burst of hyperspace speed, seeing some shocked looks from the leaders as I slingshotted into the lead – 450 m to go, maxing out at 37mph.

 

With 300m to go I had about a 100 foot lead on the burgeoning field. With 200m I still had 90 feet. With 100m to go my legs began to lock up and the field began to surge. 10 meters prior to the line, the first rider passed me, and right at the line another rider swung by as well and I ended up 3rd in the sprint, 8th overall.

 

Nonetheless I was pleased with my relative fitness in April and ecstatic to have my sprint back after destroying it last season with overtraining.

 

 

So… why is cycling the single greatest sport in the world?

 

Three ages and three scenarios:

 

One: 35 - 75: Let’s say “you’ve arrived” – after switching jobs and questioning your career, finally, in your 30’s or 40’s or 50’s you have come to that weird and sudden realization that money suddenly is no longer the end goal – that you “have enough” to satisfy your needs – though not necessarily your wants. Meanwhile the questions pile up: “Am I really as old as my age says I am?” (How did that happen?) And then a little more subtly, “yes, where did my energy go? - and my waistline?” or, “How can I stay healthy?”

 

Two: 20 - 35: Instead, maybe you are in your 20’s or 30’s - finally ‘growing up,’ finally got a real job and doing well, thinking about career & family, moving up and moving out, fulfilling your potential - but wanting to stay in shape… how can I do it?

 

Three: 10 - 20: Finally, lets imagine you have a grade school or junior high school kid – band, drama, national honor society, soccer, football, track, baseball – so many choices - what activities should they choose?

 

Let me propose that the activity that the best answer – and I mean “best” in all its objective and subjective senses – is cycling.  Riding your bike is the best sport in the world.

 

I can prove it.

 

“Sure,” you immediately conjecture, “you must be some kind of cycling fanatic, aiming to convert the masses to your biased way of thought. Besides, who wants to cavort around in spandex and risk their lives in traffic?”

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRnxEZJCey4

 

Possibly – possibly true – though I hardly fit the hard core, die hard fanatic persona. Lets instead examine each of the 3 examples above to determine whether there is any truth to my potential fiction.

 

Let’s work backwards from Three: the junior high school kid. Nominally, soccer, track, football, baseball, or academic pursuits are the typical achievement oriented activities for this age group. And rightly so – all of these have a teaming aspect and bring about important developmental opportunities of balancing individual performance against team gain. For most of these activities, true celebration and victory comes about from that of the group rather than the individuals.

 

Team sports are a mainstay of youth development programs the world over and provide many valuable lessons. There is just one huge, glaring problem – team sports for these kids tends to end as soon as high school ends. For some smaller percentage, it ends in college. And for that incredibly rare few it means a few years as a professional.

 

Regardless, the fundamental flaw of these team sports remains the same – they end. Joe Montana isn’t playing adult league football somewhere and for 99% of these talented (or untalented athletes) the result is the same – ‘retirement’. There is no extended ability to create a healthy routine from these kinds of team sports.

 

With the waxing age of the players comes a waning availability for opportunities to play them – the requisite leagues, fields, locker rooms, schedules, referees, coaches are in relatively short supply versus the “golden high school/college years” and the associated infrastructure and funding. So for a majority of team sports players it all just ends… and hence the legions of former football, basketball and baseball players the world over are now become couch potatoes, lounging and snacking - watching the games they used to play.

 

Indeed – what to do if there isn’t a league near you? Run, bike, swim, walk, hike, climb…Several recent studies concluded that grade school and high school participants in individual sports – swimming, running, cycling etc. were considerably more likely to continue their sport – for life – versus these highly acclaimed team sports. Further they discovered that with the corresponding continuance of physical activity comes a correlated decrease in weight, heart disease and other ailments. Indeed for many of the team sport individuals, they find themselves mid-life in need of finding a “new sport” and masses of these sports minded individuals join softball, running, cycling, and triathalon clubs each year.

 

Want to help your junior-high school student have a full, healthy, active life? Consider individual sports… in particular cycling…

 

Now lets consider Two: the twenty/thirty-somethings. Work lunches, late nights, travel and the associated fast foods, Friday night beers and cocktails – all without the physically active lifestyle associated with walking across campus or intramural Frisbee.

 

Witness the arrival of the second ‘freshman 15’ weight gain. Team sports may still be an option – and if you are single – might still be the best option: find a league dominated by the opposite sex and you’ve got a sure fire way to potentially ensure continued health (and the motivation to manage it.)

 

But sooner or later odds are you’ll settle down – and suddenly 4 hour softball games a couple nights a week with single girls in shorts and tight t-shirts, and post game rituals of pitchers of beer after the game may not fly so well with your fiancé – and definitely not with your pregnant wife unless you are both part of the league. And, seriously – is swatting an oversized ball and jogging a few bases really an equal balance to the beer, shots, hamburgers and brats?

 

At this point, running might seem the best option – easy to do anywhere, no equipment other than shoes and shorts, and even city living presents no serious obstacle. That is, until the first injury… Lots of 20/30 somethings decide to train for marathons – often a doubly noble goal of getting fit, accomplishing a difficult task, as well as raising money for charity. However, there is a significant downside. According to several studies running a marathon and similar extraordinary pursuits can create irreparable damage to bones and tendons. Even if an injury isn’t serious, a sidelined ‘occasional’ runner may well lose weeks or months of activity while recovering, and will likely be more cautious in the future.*

 

(*sidenote – in 31 years of cycling I’ve never had an injury that kept me from riding, and indeed, all injuries were from crashing – not from the actual activity of pedaling)

 

Finally, One: the productive 30/40/50+ year old. No longer in the full bloom of youth where muscle pulls are rare and bodies recover quickly, these maturing adults: professionals, teachers and production workers, working mothers and fathers etc. still need exercise. Indeed it is more imperative than ever for success in work, family – in life, to reduce stress and increase productivity, as well as to manage weight and blood pressure – with heart disease being the number one killer of adults in the USA.

 

Running remains a temptation – but becomes more and more fraught with injury perils with the exception of those naturally birdlike lightweight runners whose frames can withstand the pounding.

 

Now those other team sports – softball, racquetball, tennis, football etc. become more and more untenable – either from a schedule standpoint – or from an injury standpoint. In the modern office workplace it seems that a majority of casts and splints are a result of one of these sports – the sudden twists, sideways movements, stops and starts – these begin to push the limits of the aging musculature and thinning bones.

 

So… whats left? Swimming, cross country skiing, walking, and cycling. All of these are low impact sports and tend to be relatively injury free. Each has their limitations – lets start with swimming. For some dedicated few water rats that don’t mind being in a liquid habitrail with no sights and no sounds, swimming may be the perfect addiction – safe, all muscles used, aerobic, no impact – an excellent choice assuming you live near a gym with a pool that has lanes available and you don’t mind all of those other limitations.

 

How about cross country skiing? Potentially the ‘perfect sport’ for winter – scenery, low impact, all muscles, strength, power, speed, and aerobic conditioning – it also requires… snow. Not exactly year round.

 

So we are left with walking and cycling. Walking is amazingly healthful – a long walk burns fat, strengthens muscles, improves coordination, and gets oneself outside (weather permitting) to bring in that other significant contributor to health and reduced stress – nature.

 

That said, walking feels a bit mundane for many – and because it limits output, is necessarily a low aerobic exercise – very difficult to approach aerobic thresholds or test oneself.

 

Finally – we are left with cycling. An interesting sidenote here: guess what, according to a recent poll, is the number one preferred leisure activity for adult Americans? No – it’s not cycling, running, skiing, swimming, baseball, golf, soccer or football.

 

It is ‘going for a drive.’ Americans love their roads and their native invention the automobile.

 

Cycling is low impact – the smooth rotation of the pedals causes few injuries. Cycling is both aerobic, as well as anerobic – the body is naturally stressed to accompany the needs to accelerate, shift gears, climb hills. The fat burning characteristics of low aerobic efforts like walking are enabled during flat steady efforts. But this is complemented by the muscle and bone building strength exercises caused by accelerations, stop signs and hills.

 

So… there you have it – for teens, an individual sport like cycling creates a lifelong skill and interest that will increase their lifespan and happiness. For twenty-somethings it can replace time consuming team sports or injury prone activities like running, and for the rest of us 30+ athletes, provides a low impact sport that burns fat, builds bone and muscle and serves as a surrogate for the #1 US pastime of ‘going for a drive.’

 

But all that is a lot of data – let me end with two stories:

 

Story 1: When I was growing up – as a young teen – there was a guy in my cycling club named TJ Hill that led a lot of the rides where I grew up in Detroit. He was sort of ageless – lean, muscular, and incredibly strong. On club rides he would take the lead for long stretches and we would all draft off his strong legs and amazing endurance.

 

I went to college over 20 years ago and never moved back to Michigan. Nonetheless a couple years back I joined the email newsletter of my old cycling club in Detroit – the “Wolverine Sports Club” and lo and behold, TJ was still leading rides and a key figure in the club.

 

For the last couple of years I continued to read about his exploits without much thought – “that’s TJ” I thought.

 

It never really occurred to me that TJ could have aged in the process.

 

It wasn’t until I read a ‘race result’ from a 100 mile tour/race in Northern Michigan a couple summers ago that it brought home the legacy I had always observed but never comprehended growing up. Those ‘ageless’ guys leading the rides? They weren’t 20 or 30 something athletes – they were 40/50/60 something studs continuing to practice their craft.

 

The race result I read? 1st in the 70 – 75 year old category – TJ Hill. 100 miles: time? 4 hours and 17 minutes.

 

70 something years old and he averaged over 23mph for 100 miles. TJ is now 75 and rode 12,313 miles last year (yes – that’s nearly 40 miles a day, every single day). He just got back from a two month training camp in Alabama where rode 58 days straight and averaged 67 miles every day.

 

Sure – he’s a freak – an anomaly of nature to do so much and do it so fast. But do this – go to a century ride or charity cycling event – you’ll be amazed at the number of healthy older individuals out making their mark and helping others.

 

Story 2: This one is simple. Think back to when you were a teen or maybe young twenty something. Remember how you used to skip stairs, or bounce down them? Sometimes you’d take them 3 at a time, and with a good rhythm seek to skip and reach for the 4th stair? Remember sprinting all out to chase the dog or a Frisbee or having the control to leap off a stump or curb? Remember that confidence, quickness and coordination?

 

I am 39. I’ll turn 40 in August. I’ve been a cyclist for 31 seasons. Today I skipped 3 stairs (and considered a reach for the 4th) on my way chasing my 7 year old daughter up the stairs. Sometimes in the winter, when work overwhelms and riding in the gym becomes a bit boring, I’ll start to feel my age, walking heel-toe when barefoot, clearing the cobwebs from my back when bringing things up from the basement – but I’ll tell you this: with the cycling season back in full swing and being back outside riding and enjoying the spring air almost every day – my youth is still here. I pad lightly around the house on the balls of my feet with a spring to my step no different than when I was 19, and when I tense my legs to chase my daughter or my dog out in the lawn – it is still with a burst of furious speed when I pursue her giggles and flailing tresses.

 

Its hard to describe, but after a good hard ride, you’ll never feel more alive. THAT’s why cycling is the single best sport in the world…

 

…because you can experience runner’s high without running.

 

To really living,

 

John

2007 Race Report #5: Changing in a Port-o-Pottie

Race Report #5, Saturday, July7th, Wisconsin State Pro 1/2 Criterium Championships, Elkhorn, WI  On Thursday, July 5th, we picked up our Toyota Landcruiser from the dealership where we had new bearings put in the front right wheel – a result of overtightening of a tech’s wrench when we had the brakes done a couple weeks earlier. We then dropped off our other car (the BMW 740iL of splashing oil fame) at Patrick BMW to have brakes and wipers done as well.

On the way home, my wife Shannon received a bad telephone call – her grandmother in Detroit had gone into the hospital for immediate double bypass surgery, and given her relative age and state of health, the outcome was uncertain. Shannon’s parents picked her up at the house on their way down from Madison a couple hours later and headed on their way to Detroit. The surgery was to take place the next morning (Friday.)

So, it was now Katelina and papa time, and after saying goodbye to mama, a tearful Katelina climbed into the recently fixed Landcruiser and we headed to a park in Elgin on the banks of the Fox River where we could ride the Fox River Trail.

Enroute to the park, and suddenly every dummy light is glowing red on the black plastic Toyota dashboard. Engine Oil, Battery, Transmission oil, AT Temperature, Brakes, Fuel – you name it. I quietly cursed the Toyota dealership and called Shannon to vent – “every damn light is on – its like Christmas on the dashboard – they must have ‘done something’ to it at the dealership.” Otherwise it was running fine…

Upon arrival, I pulled Katelina, my 6 year old daughter, in the Burley trailer for about 90 minutes and then rollerbladed while she rode her little pink bike. We ended up doing about 5 miles down the Fox River Trail. Her lean long little legs turning the white plastic pedals on her little pink bike, her tires weaving and her long blond tresses tossing left and right with each pedal stroke.  Suddenly she skids to a stop – noticing a strange little flower growing by the path. She picks it and hands it to me “for mama” she says, and we continue on our way.

By the time we return to the car, the sky has darkened with only the blazing clouds near the horizon providing a memory of the brilliant hues of sunset. I put Katelina’s bike in the car and remove my rollerblades and we both buckle in to our respective seats. I turn the key and receive the audible cues of the motor turning over - but without a spark. I try again pushing on the pedals. And again. Eventually the starter slows. Another try – and another. Within the space of a few minutes, I’m resolved to the dreaded “click-click-click” when I turn of the key and I sit in stunned silence in the darkening shadows of the car, Katelina sitting oblivious in the back.

I try to sort out what to do. Shannon is hours away, so I try friends on the cell – Mike, Matt – leaving messages. Kevin is out of town. Do I know anyone else? No…

“Katelina – how about a special magical bike ride to town through all these fireflies?” I ask. Elgin is only a mile away… through the dark on an unlit path…

“But Papa… Its dark… I’m scared…”

“Lets try it – just a short trip into the fireflies – I’ll hold your seat if you want.”

And we headed off into the tunnel of blackness under the dark arches of the trees. It had become so dark that the path became a strip of "light black" but… the hundreds and thousands of fireflies created a magical backdrop – it was like swimming into the universe, wading through the stars in the black currents and eddies of the evening.

I kept up conversation with Katelina to reduce her fears and we floated down the path into the evening, kept buoyant with our lighthearted conversation. It was so dark underneath the trees that I had to stop and wade forward, arms in front, feet stepping higher in case of an obstacle, but 5 minutes later the lights of Elgin began to appear. We wended our way through town and shortly thereafter Mike Dienhart returned my call and came to pick us up. Still – I will always remember that journey “through the stars.”

I took Friday off and played with Katelina most of the day – but what to do on Saturday – as Shannon was not back and I really wanted to hit my second race of the season: Wisconsin state championships in Elkhorn, WI.

My friend Matt came to the rescue and I dropped Katelina off in St. Charles at his house where she proceeded to play with his kids -  swimming in their portable pool and bouncing on their trampoline, playing hide-and-seek, and generally doing everything a child should do on a 92 degree July afternoon.

Meanwhile, my own journey to Elkhorn proved daunting. Even as I was trying to hydrate for the 90 minute, 40 mile Pro 1 & 2 State Championships Criterium, I was baking in the sun in our one remaining automobile: the black 20 year old convertible with no air conditioning. A breeze would have helped, but my mapquest route up highway 12 led to an average speed of 33 mph and interminable periods of sitting in traffic baking in the heat and humidity and sun of a hot Midwestern July afternoon.

The drive to the race was only 70 miles, but it took me two hours and due to the traffic delays I only had a little time to warmup and register. I had probably the largest cheering section of the race, with friends Gary Goebel, Monica, his two tow-head boys, and several of their siblings, spouses, and children in attendance.

When I arrived, I registered quickly and then returned to the car shimmering in the heat of the sun. I then began the dreaded ritual cyclists without RV’s the world over face: the snakeskin dance into your skinsuit.

The seats were already hot enough to sting as I sank back into the leather and then looked around. Oblivious to the crowds around, I removed my shorts, pulling my shirt down into my lap and then pulled the legs of my skinsuit over my feet, wriggling against the sticky hot leather in a frustrated fashion trying to help the tight folds of spandex and lycra to allow my sweaty skin to slide through. Further awkward contortions brought my arms into their holes and then, under the merciless sun and heat, I bent and put on my shoes, helmet, and gloves. I then had to do the top part all over again because I realized I had not put on my heart rate monitor.

On days like these, there is no need to warmup.

It was windy.

It was hot.

There were lots of corners.

I hate this – why do I do it?

The starter’s gun sent us off, and within 100m my pulse hit 170bpm. By the middle of the second straightaway it hit 180bpm. And there it stayed. From a brief low of 176, to a high of 195bpm in the final sprint, my overall heart rate averaged 180bpm for the whole 90 minutes: right at or slightly above my aerobic threshold in high heat (it is several beats lower when it is cooler)

Translation:  I was running at or near my maximum. Nonetheless, I never really feared getting dropped and focused only on finding a good rhythm and a good spot in the peleton. Actually, when my heartrate is high without too much suffering, it means I’m properly rested. Superweek would show the effects of multiple races on my average pulse…

I surfed the pack in the six corner, ¾ mile course for the requisite time and then began my preparations for the sprint finish. 7 riders had made it away in a breakaway, so we were sprinting for 8th place but that really was not my concern. I was a little too far back on the last lap and managed only a 4th place sprint finish, coming in 11th overall. Generally I was pleased that my first race of the season at Elm Grove the week prior wasn’t a fluke, and that I could actually finish a pro1/2 race.

And then I began an even more dreaded ritual in the cycling world. When the car is parked in public view, and has been baking for hours in the sun, there is one alternative (other than risking arrest for public indecency) to changing in the car. The pluses are that you can stand up, you have complete privacy, and you do not have to wriggle against hot leather in an exposed area. The downside is that the “Port-o-Let” or "Port-a-Pottie’s" are inevitably placed directly in the sun, and the temperature inside of the blue plastic igloos seems to be exactly the right thermal index to encourage odor causing bacteria to spawn: in the never ending battle of blue vs. brown, brown wins when it is hot… Even as I rotate the large plastic latch into place behind me, the heat, and the raging humidity, active with arguing forces of offal and septic cleansers locked onto my nostrils and the first breath nearly made me swoon and as I swayed in the narrow confines I tried not to touch anything.

In the 130 degree heat and stench, I wriggled out of my skinsuit, and the flush of sweat in the interior helped it to drop limply to the floor and I quickly climbed into my shorts and t-shirt, exploding out of the blue plastic door before requiring my second breath. God I miss the RV…

I returned to the car, neatly dis-assembled my bike into the parts of the small vehicle that would take those parts, and then slid my over-heated, dehydrated body onto the 150 degree leather seats for the 2 hour journey home in the 92 degree heat with no air conditioning, shade or respite. I was reliving my youth all over again…

Time to get the RV out of storage…

2007 Race Report #4: Racing Sick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Til then,

John

Downers Grove Nationals - 2005

Race Report – August 20 – Downers Grove “National Championships”  Race 1 – Category 3, 2:00pm 

Downers’ Grove is a suburb Southwest of Chicago that has a lot in common with other surbuban railway commuter towns in Illinois – a small brick “old town” revised into cafes and shops, with a central garter of the railway anchoring the community. I’ve been coming here on and off since the mid 80’s and have had a long streak of excellent results. I’ve probably raced here 10 times and have finished in the top 5 every time, and have won 3 or 4 times. 

I was traveling for work all 5 days prior to the event, making any training difficult... Nonetheless, despite these drawbacks my confidence was high coming to the race as I had more miles under my belt this year than in the last 10 years. That, and the “superbike” Colnago that I had grown to love and enjoy racing.  

At first glance the Downers Grove course is not exactly my cup of tea… 8 corners on a short course with very little rest in between each, tight, windy, turn. Combine this with a small but reasonably steep hill and you have a challenging circuit for 100+ riders to navigate.. Normally a major detriment to my success, I think the hill on this course is my saving grace as it is brief enough to power over in short order, but short enough to recover from quickly.

8 turns in just over a kilometer makes for a technical course, and indeed, it strings out early, and crashes are not unusual. Over the last decade the race has turned into a Mecca of sorts for Criterium riders, featuring the U.S. Pro championships for the last 8 years or so, and various other category nationals on alternating years. This year was again the nationals for Category 3 (but not Masters 30+) as it was 2 years ago when I won. The difficulty of the course, and timing of the event near the end of the racing season gives it panache in the eyes of the domestic cycling crowd. The shortness of the races (about 15-20 miles for cat 3 and masters 30) adds a special element of panic to the large peletons and the pace is always blisteringly fast. 

Due to my recent successes (top 3 the last 3 years in a row) I actually was a little nervous before the race. It is rare for me in cycling events – in hindsight I think it is a reflection of the fact that the races often last near 2 hours… and since all but the last 10 minutes of a race are essentially “warmup” for me, there really seems to be little cause for nerves.   However, in this case the fact that it was a timed event, with a limit of 30 minutes seemed to have that enervating effect on me that I really don’t enjoy.

The body is an amazing thing, full of natural instincts like “fight or flight” and “blink” that make all kinds of intuitive and rational sense. Pre-race nerves, however, make no rational sense: explain to me how the sensation of barely molten lead for blood flowing through your legs, mental numbness, and a vague sense of nausea contribute to “survival of the fittest.” If lions readying for the kill felt this way they’d have starved off years ago… of course, maybe I’m the prey… 

Getting there late didn’t help – I only had a 10 minute warmup, and it was a serious act of discipline to get my pulse up to 175 in prep for the suffering ahead. So, if the occasional but predictable feelings like those described above are part of the package (particularly back during my skating days) then why, exactly, do I race? It is a convoluted thought/response really. I race because… well, I train for it.  I train for it (racing) because otherwise training would seem devoid of purpose: each feeds the other. On a deeper level I think I need training because it provides me singular clarity of thought, action, and reward – unlike the relatively complicated worlds of work, and even family.  In the simple cause-and-effect of the sporting world, effort - for the most part - becomes results. No politics, no moods, no clients or customers – just effort, skill, and results. But again – I couldn’t just train… I need a more tangible outlet for my suffering.

That, and the fact that I’ve been competing for 29 years… Who wouldn’t fall in love the with the post race vibe? Maybe the “high” is artificial and temporary, but at the end of the day, there is a strong sense of legitimacy – of “I’ve earned this dead sleep” that the night brings you after the car is parked, bike is unloaded, and the lights are dimmed. As your eyes close, the disjointed tumbling of thoughts leave parting snapshots of the day  – chiaroscuro highlights like the imprint of sunset on the back of your eyelids… 

Here are my prints: the blurred outline of your front tire as your head drops and you roar past the finish line as all sound and motion returns to your senses. The mottled outline of your legs and shins with the flinty road residue streaked with water droplet trails as you coast around the first turn and congratulate fellow riders. Sweat streaked sunglasses glinting against the blue skies and white clouds as your heart-rate returns to earth.   One of my favorite moments in life is finishing the final lap after a race and searching the crowd for family and friends.

For me it generally doesn’t matter the position that I’ve finished. Rare is the race where I’ve not given it everything I’ve had. If I walk across the line with a broken bike and ragged skinsuit, or I rocket through ahead of the pack and raise my hands – the last lap remains remarkably the same. I am sweaty and dripping, flushed but no longer hot, covered with dirt and dust - but yet cleaned out inside. I am -physically stressed to the max - yet emotionally completely relaxed as I return to the normal sense of my body with a sense of pride. 

I love getting back to the finish stretch and finding that friendly face – lately my wife and daughter – seeing her eyes light up and her clapping as I maneuver to the side to stop at her side. And lately at Downer’s the last couple of years my friend Matt – with his camera. I love immediately reliving and relaying the stories of the race. Standing, shiny in the sun, facing the course, with the announcer’s voice in the distance, and the occasional inquisitive face or congratulatory interlude as you relate the final moments, and (hopefully) that secret ingredient that led to success to your “fans”.  

But, back to the race… Lining up at Downer’s Grove I managed to get a second row spot. It looked to be about 85 to 100 riders for the Cat 3 race. After brief introductions we were on our way, and the first time up the hill the leaden legs continued…  But discipline prevailed and I used all my skills to keep in the top 20 or so. With the time limit in the race we probably ended up only doing about 15 laps. The finish stretch was slightly uphill, but sheltered from the cross wind and we managed about 29 mph up that straightaway. A right turn into a short, narrow stretch, and then a left with a nice inner camber into the top part of the figure “8”…  A false flat leading into a reasonably steep uphill with a hard left turn in the middle. Inevitably, the riders would slow right in the middle of the climb…

 If managed properly (i.e. being in the front ahead of the asshole zone, or being behind the asshole zone) you could climb this section at a steady pace in a lower gear and shoot forward without effort to pass several riders through the steeper part and then make the hard left at the top into the downhill. In the asshole zone you would find yourself braking into the first lefthand turn and struggling up the steepest part of the hill, potentially in the wrong gear going slowly, and then have to really max out your power to get back up to speed. 

 In this race I managed to stay in the right places and shoot through the pack nearly every lap on the hill. If I were boasting I would say that I was “powering up the hill” to overtake the weaker riders. To be honest, it was a simple matter of shifting to the right gear… And so the 13 laps went by until the clock ran out (30 minutes) and the lap counter began (2 laps to go). At this point in the race I continued in about 15th and looked for opportunities to move to 8th or so… The sprint in this race can be tricky… with only 150 meters from the final corner to the finish line, one might think that the first one through that corner would win – and indeed that tactic has worked for me in the past. However, more often than not, there is a strong headwind into that last corner, which allows some considerable jockeying through the turn. 

Today the wind was VERY strong – probably 20 mph in that second to last stretch. Testing it throughout the race, and watching the pattern of the peleton in the primes I decided that 5th-8th was the appropriate placing going into the last corner.  I was pleased to note that yet again I had a teammate in the race – Ben from the Wolverines, and we were side by side on the last lap heading into the backstretch. I watched him move up into 3rd or so on the downhill with two turns to go and was tempted to follow as I knew he was a good sprinter, but the blast of wind expected on the second to last stretch kept me grounded in 6th as we headed into the headwind with 300 meters to go. 

As predicted, near the end of that short straightaway, the pace slowed and the pack spread wide in prep for the final sprint even as the headwind hit. Going into the last corner I actually had to hit the brakes before I found a route through – up the outside. I had lost some momentum due to the braking but quickly burst past 5, 4, 3 and 2 and saw only the lone rider in the middle of the road snaking his bike up the slight incline to the finish. I gave it all I had but realized I wasn’t going to reach him, even as a rider slingshotting from behind nipped me at the line and I finished 3rd by inches. 

 

Downer\'s finish sprint - I\'m in the stars and stripes on the left

 I was more disturbed about the catch from behind than not catching Ben – yes it was my teammate who won – and was already fashioning my strategy for the next race as I coasted down the finish stretch and made my way around the course. And so I came back across the finish line and found my wife and daughter who gave me big hugs, and my friend Matt, his son Joey, and another friend Richard with his little ones Jackson and Georgia. We chatted for a little bit and it was funny to hear the note in Matt’s voice – a bit apologetic of the fact that I didn’t win. Sure – I wanted to, and in some sense had a good vibe that I might – but ultimately was happy to enter the fray and come out with a podium spot. 

I had about a half hour until my next race – the Master’s 30+ race, so I wandered back to the RV and entered the refrigerated air of the house on wheels – what an excellent invention. I refilled my bottle and then headed out for a short warmdown/warmup for the next race, and then sped back to town where I found my wife and friends … shopping. We picked out a really cool retro French cycling poster and wine bottle rack and then it was time to head back to the line. On the way I saw Jan – another of my Michigan cohorts I had met a superweek – and we chatted prior to heading to the line. 

I ended up about 5 lines deep in the lineup and it looked to be between 115 – 130 riders in the field. Lots of expensive looking bikes. Given that Masters 30+ is “categoryless” and that the pro/1/2 nationals are always the next day, there is usually a decent Pro contingent. A couple years prior, the last time I doubled up, I finished just behind Frankie Andreu – Lance Armstrong’s Lieutenant, and just ahead of Thurlough Rogers – a former Olympic medalist. Today I only recognized one famous face – that of former U.S. Pro and teammate of Lance’s on US Postal Service team Robbie Ventura. He was armed or rather saddled with a camel back pack with two cameras – one facing forward and one facing rear. They were filming the race for a documentary of sorts. The officials sent us off, and the pace immediately surpassed that of the cat 3 race, with speeds on the uphill false flat of the finish line of 32 mph.

I drifted in the middle for several laps – not in trouble – but suffering enough to not feel any great impetus to move up. I ended up following Jan’s wheel for a half dozen laps, finding some symmetry in his riding to my own – It seemed to me that the efficient pack riding styles beaten into me under my years with Mike Walden still continued to manifest themselves in the Michigan riders…. 

After 30 of the 40 minutes, I did the math and realized that there were only about 6 laps to go including the “+2” laps after the 35 minute time lapse. I started using the hill – again – to move up and found that despite their strength, speed, and relatively greater skill, the Masters 30+ were just as inefficient at shifting properly as the cat 3’s. 

With about 4 to go I made top 25 (I had been surfing in about 60th), and then with 2 to go, I took a hard inside into the finish stretch and coasted neatly into the front to lead the way past the start/finish line and into turn one. After that the race went the way that I usually prefer – a team or two went to the front and strung the pack out. Going into the hill with 1 ½ to go I was sitting about 12th and moved to 8th, then back to 12th on the downhill. Somewhere shortly after the hill, I caught Robbie’s wheel, and figuring that he would stay in the action I followed.  As we headed down the last of the downhill section Robbie moved up to about 8th – right about where I wanted to be. We raced up the finish stretch as the bell rang, and the pace was quite high – but I just followed Robbie. 

Up the hill, and Robbie – like me – downshifted and we swarmed around a few riders to 3rd and 4th. Like me though, he let a few riders sprint past on the downhill and we made the next right in about 7th and 8th.  As we entered the last 500 meters, with two turns to go, Robbie jumped up the inside to about 4th place. Given my experience with the 3’s I was reticent to be so far up with the looming headwind, and at that point I let him go. In hindsight I should have made the move.. 

As we headed down the last downhill stretch and entered the second to last turn, a sudden, dangerous surge up the inside caused the riders in 5th – 8th to swing wide or cause and accident. I had to brake and swung out all the way to the curb to let the dive bombers in, falling to about 12th, but still with some good legs, and a 120 meter stretch into a massive headwind in my favor prior to the final turn… So, I waited a few pedal strokes and then following my plan developed in the last race.

I put the afterburners on straight into the rear of the 11 riders ahead of me, timing it so that as we started entering the corner and facing the worst of the wind gusts I’d be at max speed even as the leaders were slowing dramatically. As a strategy and a prediction of race dynamics it was perfect: the leading few riders did EXACTLY as predicted and slowed dramatically into the last corner, forcing the following riders to spread wide across the road to avoid braking. Meanwhile my kick put me at top speed just as they were all slowing/braking – creating the perfect opportunity to shoot on and through – to gap the field and hit the finish stretch with bells on and no one following. Potentially a decisive victory… 

Alas, there was but one potential flaw in the plan… I needed a gap the width of my handlebars to shoot through… As the front triangle slowed, and the followers spread – my momentum carried me within reach of the leaders and I searched for that space… I was heading toward their back wheels at a pace probably 10 mph faster than the 27 mph they had slowed to.  But the master’s 30 are better and more calculated than the 3’s and the whole lead group spread like a neat accordion and created a garrote for my momentum. The only real estate on the road left to me was wide right towards the barriers and I swung wide and then began leaning in for the corner… 

Well, let me just say that I pride myself on my cornering ability. I can usually get to that flash point where the tires skitter, but no momentum is lost on any given course in any given condition. Even as I entered the corner and shifted from the right lean (to swing wide) and the hard left lean required to make the corner I knew I was at the max of what man and machine and narrow rubber tires could handle. I put my weight inside the bike and began “steering the bike” (an old Walden mainstay) trying to minimize the “lean” that would take too much rubber off the road and that could lead to a washout.  I kept all my momentum…but the worst followed – a rider in the top ten swung wide, closing off the only open space and placing his body directly into my trajectory.

I had nowhere to go. 

I faced haybales or rapidly expanding slanted rearwheel…. both options having a guarantee of a crash… So I did the normally unthinkable – I tried my brakes – both front and rear, with a slight emphasis on the front… in the middle of a corner at full speed. For a moment, the rotational inertia of my wheels kept the bike vertical even as both wheels started slipping… then the rear gained a little momentum and a millisecond later my orientation was like a rally car driver on a muddy turn – my rear wheel headed at right angles to my momentum. My body position still kept me vertical, and for a few seconds I slid completely sideways. To stop the rotation I momentarily let off both brakes. Immediately the rear wheel chattered and caught, my weight shifted right with the misplaced momentum, and within another millisecond, I was now barreling DIRECTLY at the haybales – albeit with slightly less momentum than the 37+ mph I was carrying prior.  Until this moment, panic had not quite set in, but at this point with 25+ mph and only 20 feet between me and the barrier I KNEW there was no return. Nonetheless I leaned left as hard as I could to try to pull out of the gravitational pull of the barrier and for a second I  thought I just might make it…I entered another hard lean and my wheels started slipping again.

The barriers shifted back more parallel, but I was closing too fast.  At the last second I lifted up just as my front wheel hit the barrier – probably at an angle of 20 degrees and a speed of 25mph.  Rubber and spokes and lightweight carbon fiber bikes don’t have enough mass to bounce off the barriers and keep their 185 lb riders upright… instead, in this case, the wheel grabs the barrier, bites in, pretzels neatly into an oblong shape and then stops completely. The front fork takes the blow next. In this case, due to the shallow angle of the entry, the speed, and the weight behind it, the right front fork took a massive torsional force and decided to give up the ghost and snap cleanly in half.  With my bike effectively stopped – all 16 lbs of it, my mass still had a little inertia…  I’m not really sure what happened at this point. I remember rising upward and abandoning the bars (probably a bit of an endo), striking the haybale, and flywheeling my arms upward as I rode the plastic surface of the advertising covering the haybale. At some point my inertia rebounded and I remember landing hard on my left side, rolling quickly and then being back on my feet sans bike. 

Fortunately there was a little gap between the lead group and the rest of the peleton, and I was able to jump out of the way as the next 100 riders came screaming through the corner… However my broken bike presented a bit of a barrier and one rider following an outside path found it a distracting obstacle. He careened and hit the barrier right in front of where I was standing, flopping back down into the road. 

After the rest of the riders had gone by, the story gets interesting. Full of adrenaline, and echoes of coaches gone by telling me to “finish the race, and do another lap too” to get over the fear of crashing, I immediately went for my bike only to be dismayed to find it in pieces. As I stood there surveying the carnage of the first bike that I ever paid good money for, the other rider that had gone down suddenly materialized behind me and I heard his voice even as he entered my peripheral vision.  

“Fucking dumbshit! – what the fuck you have to go and crash for in the last corner!?”  He yelled politely as I continued to survey the dangling piece of fork connected by my cyclometer as the insistent voice continued to invade my assessment of the damage… “Stupid fuck – what you can’t hear me? Was it worth it? Was it worth it crashing for 10th place? What the HELLLLLLLLL!!!!????” He was screaming now…. Some part of his histrionics touched me enough to make me to swing and face him, or maybe it was just the volume had grown. Sure enough, he was now bearing down on my with both fists raised, shoulders squared, some blood streaming down his forearms, and his cleats skittering just a bit as he tried to walk aggressively toward me… 

“Click click click” said his cleats and I watched him with detachment as he re-entered the sphere of my inner turmoil… (How much for a fork? a Colnago fork for God’s sake? Can I get one in time for the Windsor/Detroit races? click click click... WHAT DOES HE WANT!?!) 

I thought he was actually going to swing his fist at me as I watched somewhat dispassionately, but I think due to the difficult footing on the asphalt with cleats he settled for a very aggressive pass through swing of his shoulder – he connected cleanly with mine which caused me to stagger back a bit as he passed by. I assumed he was done and turned back to my bike and began to lift my front wheel as I heard his “clicks” turn to more of a “skitter” and then watched in disbelief as he at first made his way back to me in an off balance sort of way. However before reaching me he suddenly sank down on his heels holding his upper arm even as the referees intercepted his progress.  

Thankful for the cessation of noise I turned back to my bike and lifted it up, even as the referee who had stopped the progress of the other racer's aggressive antics picked up my wheel from behind the moaning rider and lifted it over his huddled body to hand it to me. It was at this point that the first of two funny things happened. The tire blew like a gunshot and caused the ref to nearly drop the wheel and my antagonist to duck and wince. Very amusing.

Even as I received the broken wheel and gathered up the remnants of my bike, the injustice of the situation finally intruded on my thoughts and my adrenaline began to focus itself back on the rider behind me.  Not one for ready quips, I did muster a decent comment in this case. I swung around, broken fork ticking against the frame, and said, “Two things guy:  one – shit happens – this is a bike race…. two, if you have a problem with the way I race you shouldn’t have been behind me…” finishing loudly.

I heard some appreciative murmurs from the crowd who had gathered at the scene…. And I turned and walked off – walked all the way to the finish line and lunged playfully across the line as the announcer gave me a few kudos and the spectators gave that polite applause reserved for the injured but walking. I maneuvered all the way up to the wheel pit where they announced the front wheel dead on arrival, but the rear “retrievable”.

I then walked (with my wife and daughter now with me) back through the heat and afternoon sun to the medical area to get my left elbow and left hip cleaned up.  As I neared the medical tent, I saw some familiar red jerseys – those of the team of the rider who had the unfortunate collision with my bike. Seeing only one medic and the ailing figure of annoyance from the race spread-eagled  on the table I turned and carried my clacking bike toward the RV determined to do my own cleanup. However, even as I turned the guy on the table piped up and said, “serves you right asshole – glad you broke your fucking bike!”. 

I continued on not really caring, but what I didn’t realize is that these words really began to burn in my wife Shannon’s mind. I had already briefed her on the altercation at the corner, and now she had received ample support for the bizarre behavior of my fellow crash victim. Even as we entered the RV, she was announcing, “I… I uh… forget to pay for that poster we were looking at – I’m going to run back and get it – are you OK here by yourself?” I replied that I’d be fine – the air conditioned RV had already begun to work its charms on my tired aches and I began prepping mentally for the scrubbing of open wounds required ahead in order to avoid infection and heal properly. 

Little did I know – as she headed off and I washed my hands-  that she was on a mission – a mission to intercept the gentlemen on the medical table and to give him a LARGE piece of her mind. To Shannon, my new bike was a long time in coming – a piece of equipment that I had continually avoided purchasing due to various family obligations. So, to hear someone say that they were happy that something so nice and obtained at such cost was broken struck a note deep down in her.

I can picture the set in her face and her forceful stride back toward that medical tent. And I can only think that the guy previously lying there was lucky that he had left by the time she arrived… 

And so – the second funny thing that happened that day… To hear my wife tell it, she basically marched right back to the tent to give the guy and earful – of what exactly – I’m not even sure she knows. But, when she arrived back, she found the lone medic standing in the tent.

When asked about the whereabouts of the recumbent cyclist, she was told matter of factly, “oh – we had to send him to the hospital…” “His road rash was minor, but he managed to separate his shoulder in the accident.” Upon retelling the story to me, I began to laugh…. and laugh and laugh.

I reminded Shannon of the way the guy was bearing down on me – both fists held high, and how after hitting me he sank down in pain… At the time I assumed his crash injuries had finally come to the fore, but in hindsight it seems quite clear that his sole injury in the crash was from swinging his shoulder at me.   

Still gives me a chuckle…

 -John

2007 Race Report #3 - Giro De Grafton

Race report #3, June 2007: Giro de Grafton…

 (OK perhaps this is more accurately just “report #3” as the other two were not races.. but then again – does this one count?”) 

I realized tonight that I’m a practitioner of a dieing art – like homespun, cursive, and a hundred languages like Latin, Romansch and Frieslander, I’m likely one of the last of a generation that will understand the rational and intuitive aspects of a previously important activity.

Tonight I glued on a pair of tubular tires to their respective rims. For the uninitiated this means very little – and by the way, “why would you ‘glue’ tires on anyway?” For cyclists the world over until the mid-to-late 80’s this was an art – an activity that required experience, strength, and finesse.

It was sad, really, how much I remembered – and at the same time how much I forgot. I remembered exactly how much glue to press out of heavy metal foil of the tube onto the shallow concave receptacle of the rim. I rotated the wheels slowly, carefully in my lap and laid down beads of the world’s stickiest glue onto the thin aluminum shell lining the rim.

Tubular cement (tire glue) has the consistency of melted hot tar on the road right after application – viscous and extremely sticky - any touch of it tends to leave long glistening trails drooping with gathering glistening droplets like tiny spiders climbing down the shiny webs. It is quite easy to quickly find yourself covered with these webs on all sides and with multiple strands if you are not careful…

I remembered with perfection how to slide my fingertip around the finger-shaped concavity until the glue was perfectly spread from edge to center to edge, stopping just shy of each of the circular punches where the spokes connect. I remembered to let it slightly congeal for about 10 minutes.  I even remembered to put down newspaper to capture the stray drops of glue.

However, I forgot, at first, to put a slight amount of air into the tube/tire combo before attempting to stretch it over the rim. I also forgot to “pre-stretch” the tires onto that old glue covered rim I’ve carried around with me for the last 20 year for exactly that purpose. “Tell me again John, why do you carry around that nasty old rim?” my wife has asked on more than one occasion…

The hard part about gluing on a tubular is getting the tire on without getting the glue everywhere.  “Tubasti Cement” or variations thereof do not, actually, ever dry – they remain tacky for years and years. Without reading up on the physics of it, my guess is that the material in the glue resists sheer forces (i.e. sideways sliding of the tire off the “rimless rim” while remaining somewhat tacky keeps them relatively weak in bonding (i.e. the tires on not welded to the rim – hence you can remove them by pulling straight up and actually change flats).

Back in the day, you could spot a rookie “tubular” tire mount from a distance – strings of glue in the spokes, glops of the stuff oozing out from the tight intersection of the tire and the rim, and, inevitably, streaks of it on the sidewalls of the rim – right where the brake pads make contact (on road bikes). The days of squealing brakes due to glue residue are now a distant memory and even the thought of it now makes me feel like a relic. In the same way that I have very clear tactile memories of the quick finger-flicking motion and slow rasping hydraulic return of that clear plastic disk on the old rotary phones, these clichés are lost on the new generation of riders.

I managed to recover before getting glue everywhere, stretching the tube physically by putting a foot inside of it and then pulling upward with all my might, feeling the material give just a little. Then, after pumping in a small amount of air, I mounted the tire, very carefully stretching, pulling and wrapping the rim in its new rubber and silk shawl. Miraculously, both tires went on pretty straight.

So, WHY was I gluing on tires in an age of “clinchers?” (Clinchers: tires with tubes and the requisite rims that have tall sidewalls and a lip to catch the rim of the tires – i.e. “normal tires”).

I was preparing to return to race on the velodrome. My move to Chicago put me within striking distance of one of the few banked cycling tracks in the country. Velodrome or “track” cycling has some strong retro tendencies – not the least because the bikes used on the tracks are severely stripped down: no brakes, no gears, and – most importantly – no coasting. The chain is fixed to the gears and there is no ratcheting mechanism to allow you to coast.

Trying to coast on a track bike or “fixed gear” bike results in the “track bike rodeo” – your bike throws you – it bucks you right off. When your legs try to stop, the inertia of your weight and the grip of the tires on the pavement cause the “fixed gears” of the chain to redistribute that force in other directions and inevitably the rear wheel rises and the next thing you know, such a rider is upside down, bike wheels still spinning along with the legs attached in some sort of bizarre miniature carousel.

On Thursday, July 12th, I will return to the velodrome after 10 years away – we’ll see how that works out.

I weighed in again today. Last week I managed to catch one of those minor cold/flu things going around – though with less severe symptoms than most. It’s probably helping me lose weight  181.8lbs – only 6.8 lbs to go to my goal weight.

  Sunday, June 17th, Giro de Grafton: 

I was resolute in trying to get to my first race of the season on time, to NOT having a vehicle breakdown, to having my bike in good order, to getting in a good warmup, and hoping against all odds, to actually finish the race in my relatively new category of Pro I/II without getting dropped. Ideas of placing “in the money” or of a podium finish did not cross my mind.

The race was in the afternoon, and we actually left, more or less, with enough time to spare to allow a warmup. As it was father’s day, I convinced my wife to come along and bring my daughter. She even drove, and two hours later as I snacked on a Mojo bar, and drank Accelerade and water on the way over, we pulled into the small town of Grafton, Wisconsin – about 20 miles north of Milwaukee.

I had already changed into my racing skinsuit enroute, had my license ready and cash to pay the entry fees, and shortly after entering town we saw the barriers found marking bike races around the world for re-routing traffic – those orange and white diagonal stripes briefly igniting with the reflection of the sun.

I was about to suggest some shaded parking opportunities when I noticed that these particular barriers were actually pulled aside and were propped up on the sidewalk – the way was still clear. So we pulled forward, and at the next corner we found the same thing – barriers stacked neatly against a lightpost on the corner – but off the road.

We made a left turn, and it was about then that I had a dose of very cold blood run through my heart and lift a cold sweat to my skin… Where were the cars? The cyclists? The people? The loudspeaker announcements? The town was a ghost town – just carefully stacked barriers and empty streets.

 We were just about to ask someone when I noticed a flyer in the window indicating the 2007 Giro de Grafton – on Saturday, June 16th.   

Yesterday.

 Thank God it was father’s day. The look Shannon gave me said it all… but then again it was father’s day and all she said was, “Its father’s day, so I’m not going to say anything else – nothing else at all… except, I’m in charge of the schedule from now on…” 

And we drove the 2 hours home…

Race Report #3, Waukesha

Race Report, Saturday, July 15, 2006 – Waukesha Wisconsin. 40 miles, 92 degrees.  Weather predictions were calling for a high temperature of 95 degrees, with a “real feel” of 103. I was pleased that the my race was early in the day… that is, until I walked out into the breaking sunlight over the rooftops to start loading the car at 7:45 am and realized it was already 82 degrees and dripping with humidity. 

The Cadillac seemed to be running a little rough when I headed out, so I stopped and checked the oil (and bought a banana and Gatorade for the ride). Sure enough I was at least a quart of oil down. Dejavu was the feeling I had as I hit the road, remembering the trials of last week.  

I headed off the 75 miles to Waukesha having lost a little time, but feeling pretty good. I arrived, checked in and warmed up reasonably well: a 30 minute warmup of 15 minutes, easy, 5 minutes at my aerobic threshold and a 90 second acceleration. I arrived at the line with 2 or 3 minutes to spare prior to race time only to find that the previous race still had 16 laps to go – about 45 minutes. 

The heat was already oppressive – I drank a large Gatorade and two 1 liter bottles of water on the way to the race, and then drank one full water bottle warming up. Now I had too much time on my hands.  I traced the course and discovered that the usual 6 turn snaking course of ¾ miles had gotten even more difficult. 8 turns – with 7 of 8 straightaways being approximately 50 meters long.

The course looked like a saw blade – one long straightaway, with saw-toothed turns comprising the remainder of the course. As I watched the preceding race, I was daunted by the splintering effect of the turns and the heat. Several small, single file groups remained, all with hollow flushed cheeks, mouths wide open gasping for air – suffering. 

We took to the line and I could feel the sun on my head and limbs. After they sent us off we began what became, ultimately, a 40 mile, single file death march under the sun. The turns, and the pace of the race, combined with 8 primes, created a time trialist’s dream, and a sprinters nightmare – no pack, no coasting, just hammering short straightaway after short straightaway, braking as little as possible to keep the momentum going.  I stayed up front for the first 15 of 45 laps, but started caring less about breakaways, and more about finishing at all.

For the next 15 laps I sat in the middle of the string of riders, in sight of the front and the repeated one-off breakaways, but getting as much draft as a single file line can give you in the swirling winds of a downtown course. For the next 10 laps I was at the end of the pack. I’m not certain if I moved back, or if the end of the pack got a lot shorter (we lost over half the riders during the event). 

With 6 to go, I began my one-by-one move up the long string of riders, from 30th to 29th. From 29th to 27th and so on. With 3 laps to go I was about 15th. With 2 laps to go I had moved up to about 8th. Normally I would have been happy with this position, but with all the corners, and yo-yo-ing occurring, I wanted to be farther up. But the pace, with 2 to go, was a full sprint.  I barely made it down the finish stretch attached to the rider in front of me and for the next two laps, I held onto the wheel in front of me with a graying tunnel vision and a hopeless detached focus on the tire in front of me – just follow the wheel – left, right, turn, sprint, turn, sprint, turn, accelerate… 

With one lap to go… I was still in 8th, huddled down behind the same wheel I followed one lap earlier. Through the zig-zag of the saw-toothed turns, mouth wide open, every effort to just hold the wheel, we headed down the short downhill into the final turn and long straightaway into the finish… and I was still…. in 8th. As we pulled through the final turn, the rider in front of me lost connection with the first 6 riders. I continued my full out effort with the remains of my strength and pulled by him, trying to regain the 6 riders in front of him. Then rider in 6th suddenly sat up and shot backward, but I still had 4 bike lengths to go to reach the top 5. They fanned out as we approached the finish line, and I could hear the roar of the crowd and I finally started to feel the suction of the draft, but it was too late – my front wheel caught #5’s rear just as we crossed  the line and I came across in 6th. 

We averaged 25.9 miles/hour for these 40 miles in the heat – despite each turn putting us below 20 mph. Each finish stretch we would hit 33 to 35 mph. I was actually quite pleased that I finished the race.  Ed Perez and his two oldest children were there cheering and I shakily sat down with them and learned about their amazing athletics feats (gymnastics and running) before finally going to collect my winnings and heading home.  News reports about a heat wave for the following day filled my head as we loaded up the boat and headed out to the lake. Bensenville, the next day, was predicting temperatures in the upper 90’s, with a “real feel” of 105… 

Race Report #2, Manitowoc

Race Report, Sunday July 9, Superweek Stage 2, Manitowoc, WI 35 miles, 86 degrees.   Lining up in the July sun, I had a sense of optimism as I viewed my other racers. Surely today would be my first win at this perfect sprinters course. 4 corners, wide, and flat, Manitowoc was fast and safe.   I started up front, but quickly moved to my comfortable position near the rear of the pack “surfing” the slinky, avoiding the compression into the corners, and coasting into the rear of the group on the way out. Midway through the race I moved to the front and was surprised to find myself in a short breakaway for one lap with one other rider. My confidence increased… 

The pace was high – ranging between 26 on the corners, to 33mph on the straightaways, but the effort in the pack was light – my pulse settled into the mid 150’s and stayed there. Coming into the final lap I knew I wanted to be between 4th and 7th coming out of the last corner.

The last 200 meters had a headwind so I needed some protection. I moved into 7th with one lap to go, and to 5th on the backstretch, jumping into 4th coming into the final corner. I was fresh, strong and not at all suffering, and set up wide to put on the afterburners coming into the final stretch… That’s just when the #3 rider decided to get out of his saddle too early coming out of the corner and completely lost control of his bike, skittering sideways on the asphalt and creating a perfect obstacle to my progress. I locked up my front and rear brakes and was immediately buffeted from behind by the mass of bodies coming by me – left and right, shoulders hitting my hips and elbows.  

I maintained control and got out of my saddle, and shifted back up to a big gear, and accelerated, passing back about 8 of the 10 riders that had passed me. Heading toward the line, the riders fanned across the road and I headed straight through a hole on the left… 50 feet after the line I was well out in front, but at the line I had only made 7th (or so the judges put me with 3 question marks “???” on the unofficial results for 5th, 6th and 7th.)  I thought I was 5th as did my wife – but we didn’t stick around to argue the facts – (apparently the videocamera had quit). Instead we hopped back in the RV and headed home to pick up our new puppy pug who had turned 7 weeks that day and was ready to be adopted to his new home.  

2007 Race Report #2: A brief tour of Italy

Tuesday, May 15, 2007: -------------------

Row 48, seat A, Air France flight 051 to Paris, France with a connection to Milan Italy.  Staring out the tiny etched plexiglass window, tiny droplets of condensation navigate randomly upward, backward as we streak through the sky. I watch another jet and its corresponding trail of tiny icicles disappear to my left through the oval porthole.

“What the hell am I doing here?” I think as I watch the navy blue suited airline attendants move briskly up and down the aisles bringing out champagne and freshly baked bread and a plastic tray containing dinner. “Who goes to Italy  for 3 ½ days to ride their bike?” someone asked.

I guess now the answer is, “I do.”

I leaned back and thought about the last 24 hours. “What a nightmare – why can’t I go to a cycling event without having a major logistical snafu?” Last year it was the RV, yesterday it was the BMW…

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

Monday morning – the day before my flight, and I was preparing to head to Chicago for work – and also bringing all the accoutrements needed for the trip to Italy. Given my track record of vehicle problems when heading to bike races, I decided to check the oil in the BMW, and found it a touch low. I put in a little extra oil just “to make sure,” capped it off, closed the hood and headed off out of Stoughton, Wisconsin at 6:15am passing through town, heading out to highway 90 and making good time toward Rockford, settling in at 85mph in the early parts of the 130 mile trip to Chicago.

It was only a quarter of an hour after my departure that I first began to notice the grey/blue shadowy haze trailing my vehicle. Sure enough, the car was burning oil like an old jalopy. I assumed that the slight overfill I had put in the oil reservoir the night before was burning off, so I continued on my way, and the car seemed to be responding normally and not overheating. However the smoke continued to cast a darkened haze onto my rear view mirror and did not quickly abate as I expected…

As I entered the usual constrictions at Randall Rd. near Elgin, my worries grew as the oil pressure light began fluttering on and off, and the smoke began drifting all around the car. Stopped dead for minutes at a time in the worst traffic of the year, I began to watch the temperature gauge climb… Visions of a car fire, or just being stranded, blocking traffic, hitchhiking or walking to the next exit, taxis, tow trucks, dealerships – all of this flashed through my head even as I realized I was leaving the country the next day… My stress levels rose further…

But, I couldn’t actually do anything about it… so I continued on, inching my way forward through traffic and 3 hours after starting my “regular” Monday morning commute I made it into the office, swirling into the parking garage like Pig Pen with wheels. When I stopped the car and took a look underneath, I was rather astonished to discover that oil wasn’t dripping out of the engine block…It was actually raining from two dozen spots – from the struts, chassis, drivetrain – everywhere.

Late now for a meeting, I didn’t have time to check the oil and it wasn’t until that evening, when I pulled the dipstick and found it bone dry that I realized I had lost almost 6 quarts of oil on the road to Chicago. Even worse, and more embarrassing, was how...

No, no major engine malfunction here. I had lost all that oil through the same hole it had entered the engine – right out of the top of the block. When I lifted the hood, I found the oil cap conveniently wedged between the block and some cables and in the yawning circular mouth just in front of it I could see the shiny mechanical bowels of the engine. And there, angled above it, I could see the deftly curved splashguard the hood had become – distributing those quarts of oil liberally over the entire engine compartment.

I had failed to properly seal the oil cap back onto the engine block… and apparently that little disk of black plastic serves an important purpose.

So I put in two quarts, and then two more, and then two more and finally the oil level registered on the dipstick and I roared away back to hotel to begin packing for the trip the next morning. If I had thought, at the time, that my troubles were behind me, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

I wheeled my bike, bike box, tools, and clothing for my trip up to my hotel room and proceeded to dismantle my bike for international shipping in the hard plastic case I had rented for the trip. Nominally the operation was quite simple – remove the seat and seatpost, remove the wheels, remove the pedals and “voila” into the box it goes.

I unpacked my pedal wrench for the pedals, allen wrenches for the seatpost, and at around 10pm, after some room service, began the process. It was then that I realized that my new pedals didn’t use a pedal wrench – instead they required a gigantic allen wrench the size of a hammer. 10pm – no bike shops are open, and I have meetings all day tomorrow. Damn! I’m going to have to cancel a meeting and travel to a bike shop prior to leaving for the airport at 3pm. Wait – I call hotel maintenance, and Ignacio just happens to have a full set of allen keys and at 11pm I have the pedals off.

Next step – remove the seat and seatpost. Easy enough – loosen the seatpost clamp, twist the seat a bit, and off it comes – right?

No.

My Colnago C40 frame is carbon fiber. My seatpost is carbon fiber. I have raced in the rain, and all kinds of silt and sand have apparently made their way into those tiny gaps between these two composite surfaces. Net result? Friction - significant friction.

The next full hour I spent straddling my rear wheel, knees gripping the frame and rear triangle, as I wrenched the seat back and forth with a twisting motion in attempts to remove the seat and seatpost from the frame. Each twist and pull required my knees to dig into the frame, my forearms and hands, shoulders and biceps to strain to their max, and all of this was accompanied not only by my grunts and profanities, but by a hair raising squeal of carbon on carbon as I tried to un-mate two surfaces welded by thousands of tiny particles of grit. “Eeee-er! Eeee-er!” – shrieked the carbon. It was so loud my ears rang and I really expected hotel security at any second.

After a half hour I had moved the seat up about 2 inches, 45 minutes got me 2 ½. And hour got me 2 ¾ inches. It was then that I felt the heat rising from the frame below – all my efforts twisting and creating sheer forces were heating up the carbon fiber potentially making matters worse. It really was this factor that ultimately led to the solution. But meanwhile I was physically and mentally exhausted – It was now after midnight and there was no way to get my bike into the box it needed to be in. A quick internet search worsened my mood as it began to mention hack saws and milling machines.

I sat on the bed quivering and sweating from the exertion and started thinking about the basic physical properties of materials – heat expands them, cold shrinks them. I grabbed a towel and walked, shirtless and dripping sweat out into the hotel hallway, passing two guys in suits and ties without a second glance and walked to the ice machine and proceeded to fill the towel with ice. I then returned to the room, past the same two guys, trailing a few runaway ice cubes as they stared, and then put the bulging bundle under cold water for a second. I then tied the whole works around my seatpost. I proceeded to pack other essentials and 15 minutes later began to tug at the seat again.

It moved quite easily up another couple of inches, but wedged again. Trying a different tack I was able to make it go down quite easily, so I moved the seatpost all the way down, and then removed the seat, leaving only ½ inch of seatpost sticking above the carbon frame. Sure enough, the frame and fork and seatpost now barely fit into the bike box, and by 1am I had managed to complete packing all my materials for the trip.

I set my alarm for 6:30 am and then, on Tuesday attended my usual, but never-ending series of meetings before rushing to the airport in the rain at 3pm for my 5:30pm overnight flight to Paris…

 Why did I do it? Why did I go? I was in a critical phase of a major project at work. I was moving in less than a month. I was behind on a dozen things.

To be honest it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. “How could it be hard to decide to take a vacation to Italy?” one might ask… 

We are all driven to achieve, to meet expectations, to cover all our bases, to only feed our souls when all of life’s mundane demands are met. Every intuitive bone in my body was screaming “cancel!” “You can’t go right now!”, “There’s so much to do!” But in reality all those things stacking up were stacking up because I had lost my perspective. What did it all mean? What was truly important? Why was I working 14, 16, sometimes 18 hours a day?

I was (as usual) overestimating my importance in the grand scheme of things at work, and under-delivering against some of life’s basics such as sleep, exercise, nutrition & relationships. It felt noble to rob myself of some of these elements – I was “sacrificing” – but really, was it effective? No. 

I have some history of overworking and overtraining, though not nearly as bad as some... In some sense it is easy to do – because you can clearly show how you “did all you could.” It provides a safe layer of CYA.  But as I agonized over and over about it, I finally decided to ignore all my natural alarm systems and to listen to my rational mind that said, “John – you need a break – you need to just get away and think of nothing other than turning the pedals.” 

I’m glad I listened…

 ------------------------- 

Wed, May 16, 2007: Monferrato Hills, Italy

How can I describe the pastoral setting in which I, by luck, found myself? Bordered on the North by the river Po, the Monferrato hills are a relatively unknown slice of northern Italy. Characterized by rolling hills filled with open expanses of vineyards and orchards, the region is laced with single lane paved country roads, these delicate iron gray balustrades framing the intricate leafwork of the vineyards and sprinkled with small villages cresting each significant hill, each of these ancient stone and tile layer cakes having at its apex the requisite castle and cathedral as decorations.

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Even as I arrived to my farmhouse-come-bed-&-breakfast, my senses were awakening. Instead of bumper to bumper traffic and tollways, I found myself zipping up switchbacks in my tiny rental car eagerly anticipating the next vista. This pattern – of climbing, followed by an extravagant view, characterized the next 3 ½ days of my visit.

I could describe each day in detail – how I overslept the first day, how I rode until sunset each day because I woke so late, how I rode a total of 19 hours, and climbed over 10,000 feet, but I won’t bother. The statistics are meaningless compared to the experience.

The region is really quite sparsely populated – so I really had the tiny bike path width roads to myself.

 narrow-road.jpg

Getting lost – originally a major concern – went out the window once I realized the nature of the territory: each village is on top of a hill. The hills are about 2 – 5 miles apart. There is only 1 road between each village. From each village, at the cathedral and castle at its summit, you can see 360 degrees to all the neighboring villages.

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Using that simple logic, it became quite simple to navigate my way, village by village through the landscape. But roads, villages, cathedrals, castles – this is all still logistics. What was it really like?

Like always, I sat on my narrow seat and my legs and feet turned the pedals. Like always, I drank water from my water bottle, ate energy foods from my back pocket, and listened to music on my ipod. I created a 6 hour long playlist on the flight over that seemed to perfectly catch the moods of the day. I started slow and just followed the flowing hilltops and rows of the vineyards. I suffered a lot, climbing steep switchbacks up into the golden heights and was rewarded with the next vista flowing to my eyes even as the sun heated the cobbles and stones behind me. I descended each hill in a manic streak of speed into the cool gray greenery of the next valley, drinking in the sudden humidity.

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Unlike always it was like being in love.

Jasmine, jasmine and more jasmine – the scent hung heavy in the air, and as the sinking sun veined the green vistas with gold, I could see the golden pollen of its scent and others floating above the fields in the brilliant chiaroscuro light of the evening.

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I navigated the curving valleys, listening to that hollow thrumming of my tires – that sound they only make when there is no wind, and then the tune would change as decline became incline and I would hear the gentle tinkling of the mechanicals: the ratcheting chain on well oiled gears and I would climb to the next dusty heights of stone and cobbles. The repetition of the smells had a pattern too – damp rich earthy loam in the valleys, and then the aristocratic and dry herbs at the heights. And always, jasmine.

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 Right outside my apartment was a huge climbing vine of jasmine and every evening I collected a dozen sprigs of the tiny white perfumed flowers and placed them in a cup of water next to the bed.

The climbs, for me, were hard. Averaging between 300 and 1000 feet vertical to reach the crest of the next town, I had to try to find a rhythm to climbing – something I’ve never been good at. For 10 or 15 minutes I would be out of the saddle, with relatively low rpms making my way up the next set of switchbacks, passing through vineyards and orchards, then the stone fences marking the village boundaries, and finally with washes of radiant heat even in the shadow, entering the echoing stone surrounds of the narrow village streets – mostly unchanged for 100’s of years.

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Throughout the day I would stop sometimes at the top – for a Panini, an espresso, or just to take pictures or let the light of the surrounds enter my corneas. Gold, copper, yellow and a millions shades in between – these colors somehow quickly breathed life into my graying mindset. Few people were around – after all it was a weekday – but I was happy to have the villages to myself and rode without a care for cars or people, taking corners at breakneak speed.

My 2nd day, and each day thereafter, I managed my route to land me at the small village of Oliveria around 7pm. Bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, the tiny village centered evenly on a relatively small hill, allowing 360 degree views of the area. In the small square at the top of the hill, next to the Cathedral there was a small café and wine bar.

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The first time I arrived, I allowed myself my first glass of Barolo and found it accompanied by a large wooden cutting board platter with an assortment of local cheeses, sausages, grapes, walnuts, olives and chunks of homemade breads, all drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a bit of honey.

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It was heaven. All fresh, all locally made. Seemingly heavy, these foods never once gave me a single physical discomfort.  I returned every day thereafter.

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Each evening I seemed to have a pinnacle moment – where the scents and the sights, the mood, and the colors, the music, and my own efforts brought about a renewed sense of clarity – of hope, and of happiness. It recurred always as the sun was starting to set and the fields were set ablaze and I was beginning yet another curvy descent to the next valley.

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The superlight but stable carbon fiber of the Italian made Colnago between my knees, the still, but perfumed air of the Italian countryside filling my lungs, the smooth narrow roads filling my sights, I would inevitably raise my arms exactly perpendicular and float down the side of the hill, wheels whispering as my speed built, flying down the mountain.

Was this it? I wondered… What speed did the Wright brothers require for flight at Kittyhawk? With my arms wide and my bike traveling 35+ mph leaning down the curving roads it felt exactly like flight. I would grip the bars and inevitably put in a sprint to take the speed up to 40, 50. Wide bends arcing through the fields and with utmost confidence my bicycle and body would lean in, rubber gripping the asphalt, and then smoothly rotate up and over the other way for the next curve…

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Each night I pulled in just as it was getting too dark to ride safely, and I would plunge quickly into the cool waters of the pool before heading back to my room to change, shower and head to town for dinner.  I was inevitably so exhausted that I had very few thoughts other than a complete present tense focus on my current activity. I had to actually coach myself through basic activities – “lift arms, now slide t-shirt down over head”. “Put on shoes.” “Don’t forget the keys.”

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This same present focus really lent itself to my dinners and I savored my salmon rigatoni in vodka sauce, my veal and “tartufo” raviolis, my bread and oil and sausages and cheeses and wine with a single minded discipline.

As I would climb into the old four poster bed each night, the cool evening air pouring slowly into the room and chilling the stone floor, I was lulled to sleep with thoughts of nothingness and the scent of jasmine.

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Next issue: the first race report – the exciting Giro d’Grafton

Race Report #1: Menasha

Race Report, Saturday, July 8, 2006 – Superweek Stage 1 – Menasha, WI. 50 miles, 84 degrees  On our way to this first stage of Superweek in the RV, my excitement for racing was soon replaced by frustration as we had the first of many vehicle mishaps. As I passed Sun Prairie and headed toward Columbus on Highway 151, a very loud thumping began on the left rear of the RV and the vibration forced me to pull over quickly. Sure enough one of the inner tires of the dual rear wheels was flat and throwing tread. 

Without any real idea of what to do, I pulled out the jack, and the crowbar, and wriggling far underneath the 30ft vehicle I proceeded, on the hot tarmac, nose inches from the radiating heat of the transmission and exhaust, to jack up the 11,000lb vehicle, bashing my knuckles on the oil transmission, and burning my forearms on the rusty hot exhaust pipes, and blinking away years of rust flakes that were coming down like a July blizzard directly into my eyes. I had a strong feeling of claustrophobia so far underneath such a massive structure balanced so precariously on a 1 inch round jack. 

2 hours of sweating and straining later, blackened with grease and exhaust, and covered with rust chips, I had removed both wheels, swapped the spare tire, replaced both wheels and stowed the flat on the rear of the vehicle. Finally, as night fell we were ready to hit the road, with 2 ½ hours of driving still left to our destination – High Cliff State Park. 

We pulled into the campsite at high cliff state park at 11pm. Instead of taking the time to back in, I just pulled in straight because it was so dark and so late. I turned on the internal fans, but didn’t run the generator as I didn’t want to be rude to our camping neighbors.  

After a restless and sticky night we decided to head to the bottom of the hill by the beach to cook breakfast and run the AC. Only then did I turn the key to start the RV so we could head off. But of course – there was no power. The fans had pulled too much juice from the battery. And, of course by pulling straight into the campsite, there was no way to get anywhere near the battery in order to jump start the RV.  

An hour of walking around like a derelict later, I had borrowed two sets of jumper cables and found a camper willing to drive over the small trees near the vehicle to get close enough to jump start us.  

We headed on our way, stopping at the bottom of the hill to cook breakfast, only to suddenly hear the generator get 4 times louder. Sure enough, the muffler had fallen off the generator.  

So I spent another hour in my now usual spot underneath the RV, crimping the C-clamp of the muffler to an even higher section of rusted pipe coming out of the generator.  By the time we made it to Menasha I was mentally exhausted by all the tribulations, and had almost no time to warm up.

With clouds obscuring the heat of the sun, the temperature was pretty manageable and 70 laps and 50 miles later, I came in second in the field sprint (3 guys got away) to finish 5th. An auspicious start to the racing, if not for the general logistics of travel…  

2007 Race Report #1, The Country Sprint

June 5, 2007 So it begins – my first entry into my annual race journal. It is already June and I have not raced yet this season – though I have selected my first race – the “Giro de Grafton” in Wisconsin on June 16th. Meanwhile, my family are in the middle of preparations to move to Chicagoland as we close on our new house in Streamwood this Friday, and - we are also still selling our old house, as well as 2 cars and a boat. It is a busy time… Nonetheless I’m still getting in a decent amount of hours on the bike.

Flashback: Mid March, 2007

Scene: standing undressed in front of a brand new scale (our old one died a couple years ago and we never replaced it). I inched forward, my toes wriggling across the slate floor in our bathroom and I gingerly stepped onto the textured white plastic surface of the digital scale. As the LED lights began to whirl, I reflected on the preceding months leading to this moment.

Great weather in November and December and early January (for winter in the Midwest anyway) led to a pretty consistent set of weekend training rides, with the occasional spinning session during the week and I was still feeling reasonably fit going into the new year. Then… work, and weather happened and I found myself spending up to 10 days at a time off the bike, without even the semblance of another workout to take its place.  Long commutes to Chicago, McDonalds several times a week - it all started to add up...

I’m lucky enough to add weight evenly across my body – with the result that, when I’m fat, I’ll be oddly accused for “working out” as my shoulders, chest, even my neck will grow along with my waist. Sure enough, just earlier in the week someone had slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Coyle – you’ve been working out!” – a sure sign that the LED’s  on the scale were going to tell an ugly story.

Sure enough, the lights finished blinking, and the scale read “197”. Nearly 200 lbs. on a frame that at its best carried 164 lbs of muscle. I had gained 15 lbs since September, and probably lost muscle as well. A long hard road ahead indeed.

 One of the big realizations I had going in to this season was that it was likely to be my last semi-serious cycling season. With a daughter in kindergarten, almost old enough for organized sports, the window for traveling almost every weekend to bike races was quickly closing. Once she’s in ballet, or soccer, or gymnastics or… whatever sport or hobby becomes her focus, our orbits will change and my life will necessarily revolve around hers. That, and the fact that at the age of 38, even the great Mario Cipollini finally threw in the towel – but not without winning a significant victory in one of his last stage races ever...

For the 2007 season I had set some rather aggressive goals… to win a Pro Race stage at my favorite annual Wisconsin/Illinois sporting event in July – “Superweek”, and then to win the nationals in Downer’s Grove in August, and then, finally to win the Pro I/II race in little Italy, Windsor, Canada over Labor day in September. I estimated that I would need a body weight of approximately 175lbs in order to compete at this level. Odds of any of this happening were…. Slight.

To this end, and partially to escape the stresses of work, I made a rather last minute trip to Italy in late May, and in the period of 3 ½ days I spent over 19 hours just riding, riding riding… I’ll give a bit of detail of that trip in my next update.

Meanwhile, back at home, May 20th, after some incredible riding viewing the vistas of the vineyards of Italy, and my naked toes are lined up on the slate in front of the scale again. With a mixture of trepidation and pride I line up my white feet and tanned calves on the pebbled plastic and watch the numbers flash. “184.8 lbs” – 12 lbs gone, 10lbs to go.

Flashback: Saturday, April 21st. My first long ride of the year – way overdue as it was already late April. But the weather in February and March was awful. I actually rode more in December and January than I did in February. Crisp and cold can be quite rideable, sleet or cold rain becomes more of a challenge.

I had ridden about 2 ½ hours of the 3 hour ride, and was struggling on my way back home against a 20+ mile/hour headwind. I was tiring quickly and was out of food, and running low on water.

I passed some typical milestones on the route home – the forested dip into the Yahara river valley, and the high speed ride over its swollen waters, followed by a short climb to an open plateau of corn fields. This was followed by a stop sign at Highway M, and then a “ false flat” (a steady hill disguised as flat road) leading for over a mile across a still-desolate plain of shredded gray corn stalks and crenellated earth before a "T" in the road and a left turn leading back down to the river valley once again.

As I crossed Highway M and began the mile long exposed stretch of slightly uphill country road, I noticed my speed hovering around 9mph against the headwind and incline – even with considerable effort. Head down, thinking of nothing but turning the pedals, getting home, and Coca-Cola, I continued to plow slowly forward, body imperceptibly weakening.

Then I sensed it – that scratch in my sunglasses suddenly taking action, that shadowy form gathering at the edges of my awareness and streaking inward even as the first sharp staccato barks thudded against my ears.

Farm dogs are a reality of rural riding the world over, and their actions are relatively predictable. There must be something about the gentle perambulations of a bicycle, the circular motion of those sweaty, meaty limbs spiraling so delectably that, combined with the lure of open greenspace and the ability satisfy their predatory instincts, completely outweighs the farm dog’s natural reticence for the open road and associated hurtling metal cars: in a snap of instincts overriding discipline, their bodies respond.

The “country sprint” as it oft becomes can be quite motivating – just like the dog, as that blotch on the sunglasses takes form, instincts take over and the human body responds. Something about the snapping jaws, bared teeth, and guttural growls of the enraged animal bypasses conscious thought and stirs the more primal responses of our modern bodies and minds and without a moments thought or hesitation, I’m up, out of the saddle, sprinting, with seemingly considerable reserves of power despite my fatigue.

Even as I accelerate forward, the parts of my brain that calculate spacial relationships, velocity, direction and trajectory began to do the math… This animal, unlike most, did not appear to aiming for where I WAS, it was aiming for where I was GOING

There is something about the predatory motion of dog on the attack that is compelling in the same way as a car crash or horror movie. Something of their motion that reminds me of a tick – tiny in the distance but looming larger, hooked forelimbs and claws curving underneath their flattened shiny swollen bodies as they move smoothly and swiftly across uneven ground, clinging tightly to the clipped grass and curves of the surface. This particular animal had a manic glint in its eyes, and even as it reached top speed and headed for and disappeared behind the berm and ditch separating the farmhouse lawn from the road, I knew intuitively that when I next saw him, he would be coming directly at me like the bolt from a cross bow.

This was no small rat-hound – rather a meaty, 110 lab/pit bull/mastiff mix that seemed first intent on knocking me into oblivion before gnawing my bones. Even as the dog disappeared behind the berm and into the ditch, additional power previously unavailable suddenly coursed through my body, and I shifted up and hit the pedals with every ounce of energy and power available to my tired and out-of-shape legs.

When the sleek mass of canine muscle reappeared, my acceleration was just enough to foil his attempt to T-bone me and take me down, and he went winging past my rear wheel by only inches, the ticks of his claws changing to scrapes as he course-corrected and began to bear down on me from behind, legs in full horizontal stretch, muzzle snarling, the growls echoing off the damp pavement.

At this point, only 7 or 8 seconds had gone by – a seemingly interminable time where sound and sight, adrenaline and scent, instinct and response had played out the first round of moves of a chess game played the world over by predator and prey. 7 or 8 seconds just also happens to be the extremely limited scope of my strengths on the bike. And as 9, 10, and 11 seconds ticked by my advantages diminished, even as the enraged growls and howls from the dog began to amplify.

12 seconds of sprinting uphill, into a 20mph headwind began to take a very serious toll on my legs and lungs, and I found myself slowing, thighs like pink balloons, knuckles white on the bars even as my pursuing predator pulled even with my left leg and began to turn his snapping maw to latch on. I could feel strings of saliva touch my legs as his jowls touched my ankle and calf… I swung the bike left and my rear wheel and flashing bladed spokes briefly touched the muzzle of the animal before it slowed slightly and then began bounding up the right side, accelerating quickly to try and gnaw on me on that side.

16, 17, 18 seconds into a maximal effort, and even with the full aid of adrenaline, my system is beginning to shut down. My fear subsides to resignation as my physical ability to separate myself from the predator decreases, and I swing the bike to the right and again bring spinning rubber and metal to bear on the rabid chops of the dog who again backs off.

19, 20, 21, 22 seconds – and the game repeats back on the left side, and then 23, 24, 25, 26 seconds, back on the right. My speed has considerably slowed now, and I’m laboring out of the saddle gasping for air to try and keep some semblance of speed as my oxygen starved muscles and brain try to protect me. 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 seconds and the dog is back on the left, and then finally, FINALLY, pulling up, panting heavily, tongue dangling, and peeling off back onto the shoulder of the road staring emotionless at the havoc he has caused, then pausing to trot back to its farmhouse – another day, another prey.

I begin coasting and my speed dwindles almost immediately from 20+ mph to 3 or 4 mph, and I start having trouble steering the bike as my inertia almost stops from the wind and incline.

I force my legs to move and surprise myself with the volume and ugliness of the rattling wheezing breaths that come out of my lungs and into the cool spring air. I taste blood and acid as my heartrate reaches its climax and the blood pounds in my ears. I wonder if I have ever felt pain this excruciating. I can barely turn the pedals, and my breathing speeds up again as my feeble efforts force my bloodstream and system to begin clearing out the toxic by-products of a significant anaerobic effort. For the next 20 minutes I average little over 5mph against the wind and then only 7 or 8 when I make the turn and begin heading home against the crosswind, head hanging, lungs still gasping, legs dangling awkwardly in the pedals.

Moments later, when another, much smaller farm dog suddenly appears nipping at my heels I do respond with a short sprint, but sit down quickly and break out my water bottle – hoping to remove the menace with the placement of a few quick wet spurts to the eyes of the small predator.  20mph crosswinds dice the water into millions of flashing droplets and I'm forced to extend my sprint to 8 or 10 seconds to outrun this tiny predator before I subside to an even deeper funk on the bike.

By the time I reach home I'm beyond hope or despair and merely churn small circles with my feet in the vain belief that the circular motion below me will somehow summon up food if I persist in the motions. I unclip in the driveway and abandon my bike with a thump to the lawn, wheels still spinning and proceed to eat anything with sugar, protein or fat that I can find for the next 20 minutes.

And so begins my professional preparation for the 2007 cycling season. Coming in Pre-season race report #2 - "A 3 1/2 day journey to Italy - the hills of Monferrato". Til then,

-John