2008 Race Report #7: Giro de Grafton

2008: Race Report #7: Giro de Grafton, WI

 

Saturday, June 21. Giro de Grafton, WI. Category: Pro 1/2. Weather: 72 degrees, 9 mph winds. Course: 6 corners, 1 mile, small hill. Distance, 75 minutes plus 2 laps, 90 riders Average speed, pulse, distance etc. – none – DNF.

 

My friend Mike Engley joined me for this jaunt up to WI for a 7:30pm start time for a bike race – a ‘twilight criterium’.

 

With a $6500 prize list and no other nearby races of note, this race was bound to draw a strong field of pros and top riders. I was excited to try and reverse my misfortune at Sherman Park the week prior but unsure of the course and my own fitness.

 

Traffic on 294 was horrendous and we arrived only 30 minutes before start time. After registering, I noticed my rear tire was low – another flat – so I spent precious time replacing the tube. By the time I was dressed and had replaced my flat, I only had 10 minutes to warmup – the usual deal for me I guess.

 

I was able to warmup on the course – a long, slightly downhill finish stretch, followed by a mild hill and a zig zag of turns on the backstretch before the course killer – a 120 degree corner back into the long finish stretch. This would have been fine except for the pair of shiny white crosswalk marks exiting the inside corner making a V crossing both sides of that tight turn.

 

After the start, that one turn slowly decided my fate – lap by lap my strengths were unraveled like someone pulling on a thread of a sweater. Slowly, surely, inevitably I failed: each lap someone would slip and on about every third lap someone fell – and that meant a gap to be closed. Not impossible generally, but on very long slightly downhill shot through the finish line those gaps proved extremely debilitating to close.

 

Bicycling is an ever humbling sport, but in this case, I was completely and systematically crushed. Malcolm Gladwell – one of my favorite authors - once talked about failure and toughness. He made the connection that many of the top professional athletes from football or baseball or nearer to home the Winter Olympics’ own Bodie Miller show up untrained or out of shape or party too much as par for the course. Why does this happen? For one reason and one reason only – because when failure comes, the mind has a ready excuse – “I would have won but…” “I didn’t warmup or I didn’t train properly or I missed spring training or work interfered” – all these excuses form a psychological refuge – a way of protecting ourselves from the cold black hole that prepared failure brings: if I show up undertrained and don’t win, then I undertrained. If I show up but miss warmup and don’t keep up, then I didn’t warmup… But if I prepare perfectly and still don’t win…? Then it means I lost – that I wasn’t good enough.

 

This can be death to a competitive athlete’s mentality – if I can maintain the belief that I’m the best and that other mundane excuses have kept me from peak form – that’s a way to weather the storms. But the truly tough – Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, Frankie Andreu, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning – they not only prepare perfectly – but they weather failures without any clear excuse.

 

“I wasn’t good enough.”

 

How often do we hear that from our top athletes?

 

Actually, the best answer is, “I wasn’t good enough… today.”

 

I can still remember it with complete clarity – those moments of asphyxiating apoplexy as I focused on the tire ahead of me and gave everything my heart and legs had to offer and watched it inch away, blood boiling in my ears and lungs rasping with a guttural ugliness – and then suddenly it was over – they were gone – riding away from me. Suddenly it was quiet and I wondered how that parade of bikers could have dropped me and I sat up confused. The mind starts to protect, to rationalize, “I didn’t get enough warmup.” “These guys – the train year round – its early.” “Most of these guys are full time or nearly so…” In reality I got my ass handed to me and there was no way of escaping it…

 

At Grafton, I wasn’t good enough…on that day.  I got dropped – despite using every trick in the book, drafting, pedaling corners, moving up in the slow spots – I got dropped – meaning that the entire peleton that remained (granted about half the riders had dropped out before I got dropped) were considerably stronger than me, and that the lead riders were at least 30% stronger than me given the effects of the draft.

 

 

Mike and I wandered the course, had a cup of quality Wisconsin suds, and then headed back to Wisconsin. In prior days I would have been in a deep funk – a constant deliberation of whether my drubbing was due to some ‘excusable situation” or whether I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Really though it is just a feeling… so while rationalizing might serve as a bridge, the reality is that that feeling always fades – but only time and experience can provide that hope – in the meantime failure looms and feelings sway with the winds.

 

For me, years of concentric circles have been built around that flexible bough of my youth, giving me the strength to weather these storms of doubt. I know now that I’ll ride to fight on another day and perhaps – even probably still do well. Part and parcel with this perspective comes the other side – that if and when I do win, I can no longer just believe that it is “all me” and that part of it – perhaps much of it – will be do to the vagaries of circumstance – and that when and if I do stand on that podium, luck will be one of the biggest strengths I bring with me.

 

Oddly this doesn’t bother me at all. Next weekend I’ll show up. I’ll suffer. I’ll fail or succeed or more likely have some middling result – an “almost” that keeps me inspired. Every time I stand on the podium I sheepishly just can’t wait to get down… so clearly that’s really never been the goal. Til then…

 

-John

 

 

 

 

 

Walden Race Rule #1: Get on a wheel!

Race Rule #1: Walden says: “Get on a wheel!”  A variation: "Close the gap!"

Translation: Always, (always!) “Be in the draft.” (unless trying to break away, or trying to win the final few meters of the sprint).

Like all of Walden’s pithy phrases, there can be an entire art and science to discover the full meaning behind the words.  

The Science: In this case, the physics of the equation are cut and dry – proper drafting saves up to 30% of the energy expended by another rider pedaling the same speed without drafting. This scientific fact succinctly explains the sole reason I am able to be a bike racer. If I can get my aerobic capacity to be only as much as 70% of the strongest riders, then I can finish the race… and if I can finish the race – get within 7 seconds of the finish line -  then I have a good shot at winning – it is simple as that.  

Turning the phrase differently, one might say that virtually every person in the race is better than me – by the conventional athletic standard of endurance anyway. 

The Art: The science ends with the math, and the art begins with questions like “paint me a picture of the draft – where is it? How can you conserve the most energy? Does that require physical danger due to proximity?” Due to my weak aerobic capacity (my parents blame it on my Cesaerian birth – no squeeze of life to fully expand my lungs) I’ve been focused on finding the draft - or “wheelsucking” as it is commonly referred to by those with the luxury of not requiring this aid -  for 30 years now. 

Of my limited strengths, wheelsucking is my strongest. I intuitively know where the draft is – to the point where, on a training ride with a friend, if I “tune out” for a few seconds, I will often find myself suddenly “riding the hip” in a cross wind, and find my friend staring at me crossly as I absorb the energy that they have transferred to the air. 

Getting on a wheel is the first step to finding the draft. However, depending on the shape of the rider, the angle of the wind, and the relationship of other riders, the most efficient draft may well be found to the left, right, or even somewhat back from the wheel in front of you.  I don’t know the physics behind it, but some winds allow for efficient drafting and in a paceline or “peleton” of riders you may find rest periods of “riding the wheel” that are a true respite from the efforts of the race, where heart rates can drop 25 beats per minute.  Other “airs” seem to suggest a more agile wind that resists the rider’s impetus in front of you and still manages to block your path. In these cases, you may only find a 10 beat per minute savings while drafting in a straight line pace line. I hate air like this… 

Then there is “pack drafting” which has its own dynamics – especially on a criterium course, and especially on one in town where the wind can swirl and eddy from different directions between each cross street, with tall buildings deflecting the overall currents.  Over the last season, I’ve tried to retrieve my intuitive and instinctual (blink) reactions to drafting into logical understanding with some limited success. What I’ve been able to observe:  

1)       Generally speaking “turbulence” or “buffeting” against your chest and arms is an explicit sign that you are in the draft – try to center that visceral feel on your sternum.

2)       In large packs, the single best draft is in the “rear triangle” – near the back, but still connected to the 3 or 4 abreast portion of the pack. Sometimes I’ll find the perfect position: 3 riders in front, then two slightly forward left and right, and then I anchor between them with my front wheel parallel with their rear wheels. This is the ultimate wind shade and has allowed me to pass through 30, 40, even 50 miles of a criterium conserving energy the whole way. (See chart below – “perfect drafting”) “perfect drafting” in blue.. 3)       The draft changes in the corners –  in dead still air, the draft will be slightly outside the wheel in front of you, as the instantaneous velocity of the riders in front of you is in a vector toward the outside of the turn – e.g. ride outside the rider in front of you on corners when the air is still.

4)       Learn to ride close to the wheel. (particularly when the pack is strung out) I tend to ride about 6 – 8 inches from the wheel when I’m not miserably suffering, and half that distance when I am suffering. Each inch closer gives another percentage of energy savings (and some increased risk.) Practices at the track with Walden were invaluable in learning this skill – riding 2 inches from the wheel in front of you traveling 25 mph on a bike with no brakes helps you to learn spacial relationships on the bike quickly. 

5)       Learn to estimate proximity without looking at the wheel in front of you. Walden would yell “Don’t look at the tire in front of you – Look Ahead!” as, ultimately, the reactions of the rider in front of you were largely dependent, and amplified by the motions 2, 3 or more riders ahead.  

Sure - you can work on your strength and aerobic base and improve them by 10% if you are out of shape or 5% if you are in shape, or 1% if you are world class... or you can, with a bit of focus and practice, save 1% or 2% or 5% by adjusting your 'wind shade'. I'm constantly amazed (and perplexed) by scene after scene of Tour De France riders cruising along off a wheel. Sure - they are strong enough to do it (which is probably why they never learned it really well) but imagine the energy they are squandering that could be better saved to help a teammate, make a breakaway, or climb a hill...