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March 13, 2006

I stopped doing everything else, I trained harder and harder, my body began achieving things I'd no longer thought possible. I was touched by its loyalty ... I worked my way up through the hierarchy of being dropped, of sticking with the bunch, of taking part in a break, taking part in the break, of placing, of winning.

Tim Krabbe, "The Rider"

The gardener buries her bulbs each spring. She mulches, weeds and waters, but mostly she hopes and trusts, hopes and trusts that with enough work, planning and help from above, color and beauty will eventually rise from below.

For four months I've been training for the 2006 cycling season. Movie after movie on the trainer. Weights. Dieting. Group rides through arctic cold. And what have I to show for it? Nothing. In the absence of racing, there's no way to know if I am in fact where I think I am. I can only hope and trust.

My team's winter training camp, then, would be the first test of the year. Six days in California. I've never ridden much with our best riders, but they'd all be there. This would be my chance to show that, yes, I am serious about the cycling. Or, perhaps, to discover I'm not cut out for it after all.

Our first hard ride comes on Day 2. The major climb is 1,600 feet over 11 miles. Our group of 26 thins quickly. After riding the fixie all winter, I'm still reacquainting myself with gears and shifting, but I make it to the top with the lead group of eight. I am giddy to have done so.

We regroup and wait for the others. After a rest, we head even higher. The climbs are not as steep, but they are as long. Soon we are again reduced to eight. Then five. Then three.

Three. I know this only because I am there. Randy, our coach and a current national champion on the track; George, our strongest all-around rider; and me. One of these riders is not like the others.

I stay with them the rest of the way, all 79 miles. I have no choice: I don't know my way around, so I cling to them like a toddler clings to his parents' dangling fingers. They must realize this. They could drop me if they wanted to, but instead they go slow enough to keep up an easy chatter, and when they gap me on the descents, they patiently wait at the bottom.

Printed on the back of our team bibs is the logo of the Chicago Bike Federation, one of our sponsors. When I later close my eyes for sleep, this logo appears. After five hours of sitting on George and Randy's wheels, it is burned into my retinas.

I hear nothing and see nothing, but I sense that, behind me, one rider after the other is being dropped ...

They may have been dropped by the dozen, but I sprinkle my back with the glances of riders behind me. Cool and collected, that Krabbe. Did you see him? Pow-er ... Man for man, all they could do was give up, sick with fatigue, pained to have to let us go, and their final thought was: "Damn, that Krabbe cruises along like it's nothing."

I have destroyed them.

Krabbe, "The Rider"

Day 3. The Wall. It rises 1,600 feet over 7 miles, an ascent that gets steeper as it goes and includes several 20 percent grades.

In the undulating miles leading up to The Wall, George sharply accelerates at the front. It is an unannounced race simulation. Suddenly we are a roller coaster, screaming up, down and through the rollers behind him. He reduces what was a group of 17 to 8. Those who hang on never even have a chance to decide whether to go or not go. Intuition takes over. We just fly and hope.

And then, The Wall. Randy gaps us right away and I surge to catch up. I have his wheel for a moment, but it comes at a cost. For the first time on the trip I red-line. I gasp and bellow a scream that is equal parts pain, frustration and grief. Randy gets away, and there is nothing I can do about it.

I crack. Without even thinking about it I dismount. My bike starts to slide down the steep hill. My cleats slip on the pavement below my weakened legs.

I walk. George and Ed, a new member of the team and until now an unknown quantity, pass me. They aren't riding much faster than I am walking.

Somewhat refreshed, I get back on the bike and start to spin again. I pass George, but Ed is lost to me. I weave from one side of the road to the next and occasionally check behind to see if anyone gains. No one does.

This is my kind of riding. No maneuvering, no wheel sucking, no sprinting. Just settling into a rhythm, turning crank after crank, finding my sweet spot of breathing and pedaling, the entire world reduced to each subsequent stroke.

I am third to the top. It's a minute before George gets there. After 20 minutes another dozen have arrived. We take a group picture and move on.

This was no race, but I consider it to be my best finish yet. Then again, any ground I gain on the climbs I lose on the descents. A combination of nerves, inexperience and inadequate ballast does me in, and one by one my teammates shoot past, too fast for me to make out their faces.

Days 4, 5 and 6. Rain. Cold. Wind. Those more foolhardy than me check the weather back home and morosely confirm that it is in fact sunnier and warmer in Chicago.

Our routes are shorter than we had planned, but still we ride, miserable and dirty. We see a snowman at the peak of Saturday's climb. Hail pelts us on the descent. It stings. We're going 30 to 40 mph. Each stone becomes a needle. We have the choice of putting our heads down and protecting our faces or looking up and avoiding smashing into the rocky cliffs. I keep my head up but mouth clenched shut, lest the hail chip my teeth.

Sapped of all energy, we break camp. On the flight home I re-read Tim Krabbe's "The Rider." This is my third time through but first time in one sitting. With each reading I am more experienced and thus receive him with more clarity. Previously I'd always thought the book was burdened by his recollections of childhood, but in this reading his brilliance is revealed. These scenes aren't meant to advance the novel but to stall it. He's pacing. The book is meant to be read in a single sitting, in real time. The 4.5 hours it takes to read correspond perfectly to the 4.5 hours it would take to race the 137-kilometer Tour de Mont Aigoual. What color, what beauty.

I try to process the trip. If I'm a natural climber, the challege will be to translate that talent into success in the flat races of the Midwest. The climbs in the Wisconsin races are significant, but they are short. They are not the long, drawn-out suffer-fests that make my toes wiggle and my eyes twinkle.

After a series of travel misadventures I get home at 3:30 a.m. I should go to bed but instead I go online, log in to USA Cycling and apply for an upgrade to Category 4 racer. I had planned on doing one last race as a 5, but that now seems inappropriate for someone who is so obviously cut out for this.

At work someone asks if I had a restful vacation. No, I say, laughing at the preposterousness of the question. Rest wasn't the point of this trip. Work is my rest.

Photo taken: March 11, 2006