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Jan. 10, 2005

In interviews with riders that I've read and in conversations I've had with them, the same thing always comes up: The best part was the suffering ...

After the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is Nature's payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering. Velvet pillows, safari parks, sunglasses: People have become woolly mice ... Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.

That's why there are riders.

Suffering you need; literature is baloney.

Tim Krabbe, "The Rider"

Upon reading "The Rider" this fall I decided that 2005 would be the year I started racing. In the book, the narrator starts his career at 29 and finds it isn't too late to have success. Having just turned 29, I took this as a sign.

My racing career started sooner than I expected when Bob invited me to the prologue to the 7th Annual Tour da Chicago, a multistage alley cat race.

The first heat was an 11-mile out-and-back from Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square to Kopi Cafe in Andersonville. Of 51 riders, 26 would advance. I was riding Faith, my mountain bike -- I don't allow Charity, my road bike, out in winter -- and didn't expect to advance past the first heat. Indeed, I got dropped immediately. A half-mile from the checkpoint I passed a 12-strong paceline going the opposite way on Foster, meaning that after only five miles, I was a mile behind the leaders.

Just about everyone had a better bike and more experience, but knowledge of far-north geography -- stoplight patterns, which streets were likely to be plowed, which streets were one-way and in which direction -- was an advantage unique to me. It probably earned me two or three spots in the results.

There was a moderate headwind on the return trip. Four of us drafted together down Damen and Diversey, though it wasn't nearly as organized as a proper paceline. By the time we got to Logan we were down to three. A sprint -- not my strength -- appeared imminent. On the final turn to Kedzie, however, we found ourselves looking into the business end of an Econoline van. We halted at the curb. I got to a slower restart than the other two, but after they both wiped out in the slush I was able to be first to the finish line.

In the picture the race coordinator is reading off the names of the 26 riders who would advance to the second heat. My name would not be called, sending me flashbacks of various game-show and middle-school basketball team tryouts.

I recognized a reporter and photographer from a local newspaper. Bob lamented their presence. "They did nothing to build this, yet they seek to benefit." His position is at once correct and untenable. The media did nothing to build the Tour de France or the Super Bowl, either.

Still, he's right: There is the danger that once the newspaper validates the coolness of an alley cat race, the next stage will attract the city's squares, trendoids or, worse, cops. I myself would not have been there had I not read about it in the Reader last year, and I was well aware that surrounded by messengers and mechanics I was The Square in the Room. (If I were ever not TSitR I might have been uncomfortable.) But at the next stage I will be there not because I'd read about it, but because I was at the last stage and it kicked ass.

Photo taken: Jan. 9, 2005