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Oct. 10, 2005

It was strange last week, as the air turned crisp and an influx of skinny tourists hit downtown, to know that I would not be running the Chicago Marathon come Sunday. It would be the first I haven't run in 5 years.

I'd hoped to watch, maybe even volunteer, but then came the Fall Fling, the last bicycle races of the year. Saturday would be Stage 3, a road race. Sunday would be the fourth and final stage, another criterium. I'd miss the marathon completely.

I miss some things about running, but not the final week of taper. I recall getting irritable and anxious. There's plenty of nervous energy ahead of a bike race, but it's a subdued, happy nervousness. It's the nervous energy of a blind date, not that of one's own wedding. If one doesn't meet his goals in a bike race, no matter. There will be another one soon enough. A marathoner, on the other hand, invests 18 weeks of training in a single event. Cyclists must train harder and longer, but if we have a bad morning, 18 weeks don't go down the drain.

Saturday's road race comprised three 8-mile loops south of Rockford. I'd been warned of "rollers plus one big hill," but I never did figure out which hill was supposed to be the "big" one. They were all small, barely enough for the small chainring, especially compared to the Wisconsin nutcrackers I cut my teeth on earlier this season.

I started the morning tied with a teammate for third in the overall standings. Walking from the port-o-potty before the race, I passed the host team huddled in a strategy session. "We know xXx has a couple of strong riders," one said, "but we don't know if they're here today." I smiled knowingly.

At the start line a guy in a triathlon-club jersey started moaning loudly and seemingly endlessly about all the teams present. "I thought this was a citizens race! What are teams doing here!?" Minutes earlier I'd been giving this guy advice on his first race, including the correct way to pin his number, which he'd pinned sidways, and this abuse was my reward? (Naturally his name was Fred.)

For my teammate and myself, our decisive moments would come with 3 miles to go. The citizens field was mostly intact and had just passed the 50+ field on Turn 3. The masters were nonchalant about moving to the right so we could get by. As a result, two small breakaways formed as our field spurted through the bottleneck.

My teammate bet that he could keep up with the first group. I put my chips with the second group. We both lost, although in different fashions. Afterward we had our regrets -- 48 hours later the TiVo of my mind is still replaying the endgame -- but deep down we both conceded that we had no choice but to go when and with whom we did. We merely proved that it's possible to play your cards right and still come up short.

My teammate was the first to lose position, turning the lead group of five into a group of four. Driving to the race we had decided that we should speak Italian lest any other riders hear our super-secret scheming, so as my chase group of four approached him I yelled, "Va bene!" Go well! It did no good: He wasn't able to hop on.

The 15-year-old overall race leader was in my break. He took good pulls but he and another rider fell off, leaving me alone with none other than the vociferous Fred from the start line. I exhorted him to trade short pulls with me, but although he rode fast, he pulled much longer than he should have. I knew if he popped I'd have little chance on my own. I had to waste energy and jump past him in order to take the load off. "They're gaining!" I said, looking back and seeing the main pack a few hundred meters back. He didn't seem to think it was possible. (Did Chris Horner's fate at Stage 13 of the Tour de France teach him nothing?)

Sure enough, the pack overcame us with 50 meters to go. I salvaged 13th place, my teammate 17th. The results sent my overall standing from 3rd to a precarious fourth.

Sure, we could have sat in and maybe finished better, but I have an entire off-season to be passive and boring (and don't doubt that I'll take advantage of it).

With seven laps to go in Sunday's criterium, the series' third-place rider, a guy in a full Phonak kit, took off on a flyer. (I remember this guy from my first race in April. He's been sandbagging in the 5/citizens class for years.) His result wasn't liable to shake up the overall standings, so the field let him go.

A lap later, an unattached rider couldn't hold his line on Turn 2 and clipped the front wheel of a rider in a Navigators jersey. Navigators was a point behind me in the standings but a bike ahead of me on the road, so when he went down, I followed. Fortunately we were going only around 22 mph, barely fast enough to do harm. As quickly as I went down I bounced back up. I assessed damages -- 1. Bike: check. 2. Team kit: check. 3. Body: bruised but still useful. -- and waited to reunite with the pack when it swung by next.

Phonak's lead grew to 30 seconds over the next six laps. A few people tried to jump off the front. I pursued each one, but none developed into a break. That's the tough thing about the citizens class: Most people sit in, but then when they do attack they don't know how to organize so that it has a chance of sticking. (Not that I'm any great shakes at breaking away myself.)

On the final backstretch I was on my teammate's wheel and getting ready to jump with him. Meanwhile, an acquaintance from another team shot up the right and called for us to let him lead us out. Unfortunately I'd spent too much time in the wind keeping tabs on the so-called attacks and this time I didn't have enough gas to find his wheel. It's a shame I didn't, because he held on to beat Phonak by a few lengths.

I finished 10th, my teammate 11th. Miraculously, that put me in a three-way tie for third overall, fourth after various tiebreakers were employed. Three fewer seconds in the time trial or one more position in any other race and I would have had third outright. (For my birthday, generous friends chipped in to fund a set of aerobars, so next year those 3 seconds should disappear.) Nonetheless, each of these was a better finish than I ever expected to reach this season.

And now my season is over. I met all my goals, and next year I will upgrade to the next category and start the process all over again. It's already a daunting prospect.

Now, though, I'm feeling the same void that I always felt after a marathon. What now? What do I do with myself when I'm not obliged to ride 50 miles every day? On the one hand, this will be an opportunity to restore balance to my life. Cook more, sleep more, see my friends more. On the other hand, there's an elegant simplicity in a daily to-do list with only three things: Ride. Eat. Go to work. I'll miss that.

Photo taken: Oct. 9, 2005