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March 30, 2006

The greatest moment in studying a foreign language is the first breakthrough of fluency. Suddenly you no longer sit in a chair but in a Stuhl, you accidentally say "Merci" to the grocery clerk, and your first thought in the morning is, "Ach du lieber, Morgen bereits?"

At least, this is what I would assume. After two years of German and a year of Italian, I crapped out before making it to that breakthrough.

But I feel as though I'm finally fluent with the racing. Last year I struggled -- and more often than not, failed -- to keep up, but now I stay at the front with ease and am in position to make tactical decisions. I'm making the wrong tactical decisions, but I'm asserting myself nonetheless. (Me? Assertive? WTF?)

I did two races Sunday. I hadn't planned on doing the masters race, which went off right before my Cat 4 race, but teammates cajoled me. "It's only Parkside ... It'll be a good warm-up ... It'll be good prep for the longer road races." Ed finally broke me. He was the one who went on the crazy flyer on the second lap last week. Joining him for back-to-back races was the least I could to repay him for his audacious display of chutzpah.

I would give a blow-by-blow account of the races but A) that would be boring B) I don't have a good recollection of the races. I was working too hard to register many details. My mind shut down and my body and intuition took over, which is what's supposed to happen in racing. The point of training, after all, is to strengthen the body and hone the intuition so that they know what to do without the chaperone of the mind.

I remember surging to shut down a lot of attacks, and I remember going off the front in the finish/start area not because I thought it would work -- a tailwind guaranteed that it wouldn't -- but because that's where the spectators were. I don't, however, remember whether this was the masters or the 4's race. And there are some details that I included in my wrap-up for the team that, in retrospect, I clearly misremembered.

That's why my team's post-race debriefings are so valuable. We all have limited vantage points. I'm amazed by the nuances my teammates noticed, and there are some things I saw -- like Robbie Ventura barking out commands to his Vision Quest riders in the masters race -- that they were oblivious to. We are like the blind men poking at the elephant. Only in the sum of our accounts do we approach truth.

My finishes? Around 15th in each race. Fair, but nothing to get excited about yet. I surely could have done better had I done only one race on the day, but I learned much more by being mediocre in two races than I would have by being excellent in one. The races I care most about are more than a month away. Excellence can wait.

Photo taken: March 29, 2006


March 23, 2006

On city streets, trends in scruff have reached new levels of unruliness, a backlash, some beard enthusiasts say, against the heightened grooming expectations that were unleashed with the rise of metrosexuality as a cultural trend. Men both straight and gay, it appears, want to feel rough and manly ... The return of the wild beard carries a certain erotic charge that has been missing from beards since the Furry Freak look of the 1970's.

New York Times, March 23, 2006


Photo taken: March 19, 2006


March 20, 2006

If only I'd come down with a puncture. How often ... have I longed for a flat tire? A puncture, permission from beyond to stop the dying ...

A lot of praying goes on in the peloton, especially to God and to Linda. Please let me get a puncture. But the speed of prayer has its limits, so the rider occasionally resorts to more drastic measures. He pounds his wheels through potholes, through gravel, searches for sharp rocks and, perchance, when he has a race to ride but no morale, he'll even mount a carefully selected tube that's ready to blow ...

At the start of Race 129 ... I was extremely tense. There were a multitude of signs that something terrible was about to happen, but not a single excuse not to start. Criteriums in Holland! Curve, sprint, brake, curve, sprint, brake, curve, sprint, brake, curve, every twenty seconds a curve, a hard-riding house of pain, two-and-a-half hours long, unimaginable if you've never been in it yourself ...

But when no heed is given to your longing for a puncture, there's nothing left but to suffer. Suffering is an art. Like the downhills, it's a non-athletic art in which the great champions nevertheless outstrip all amateurs.

Tim Krabbe, "The Rider"

I didn't get much of a chance to suffer in Sunday's criterium, the long-awaited first race of the year, but I was tense nonetheless.

My front wheel stood on the starting line next to Ansgar's, just as it did at last year's Winfield criterium, where a flat at the line had given the reprieve I longed for. "Quick quick and hush hush!" I wanted to whisper to a teammate on the sideline. "Whip out your shiv and slash my tires! Take care of my spares, too!"

The tension wasn't solely because I fear and loathe criterium racing. Mostly it was performance anxiety. I looked around, admiring rival bodies and the bikes they were clipped in to. I expected to not only keep up with these guys, but lay on some attacks? Get it up? Keep it up? Ha!

All winter I've been a chatty Cathy on my team's message board, giving wise counsel to rookies and discussing graduate-level tactics with the veterans. What I declined to mention was that I've never actually finished a Cat 4 race with the pack. I got dropped from all eight Cat 4 races I did last year, including in the first lap of the only 4/5 crit I braved. Now, I feared, I was about to be exposed as a hack and a fake.

Suddenly there was no more time to cringe. We were off.

The jitters receded quickly. Racing's rhythms came back to me. I saw my lines and took them, feeling comfortable navigating the pack. Sitting around 40th wheel at one point, Matt asked how I was feeling. "Pretty good," I said, "except I wish I were further up." Soon I found a hole on the left. Matt found a hole up the right. Seconds later we rendezvoused at the front.

My teammates put on some impressive attacks, including several by riders competing in their first races. An attack on Lap 2 by Ed, who as of two weeks ago was determined not to race at all this year, was particularly inspiring. My heart swelled with pride. Ever since I saw him outclimb me in California I'd been badgering him to give racing a go. He would get reeled in, as would all our attacks and breaks, but at least we kept the race interesting, and I imagine it will take dozens of more attacks before we get the knack for making them stick.

Hurting my chances in the breaks was my inability to discern real opportunities from mirages. Twice in this race I bridged to what looked like viable breaks -- the riders had nice legs, they seemed to beckon, and it looked like we would get along -- only to have them fizzle as soon as I made contact. Whether the unions were destined to fail without me or whether they failed because of me, I don't yet have the expertise to say.

This is something to work on: knowing when to be assertive and be off with another rider, and knowing when it's better to be safe and mousy in the pack. God grant me the patience to sit in when I cannot affect a race, the power to attack when I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I thought I'd have one more chance to get away but the officials started flipping the lap cards early. Before I knew it we had three to go, and now my job was to get to the front to help lead out Ansgar in the sprint. This was our plan: Attack, attack some more, and then get a three- to four-man train ahead of our strongest sprinter.

It wasn't to be, however. The pack slowed considerably and spread across the entire road, blocking any lanes I could have used to move forward. The 10 or so riders between me and Ansgar proved impassable. Happily, it didn't matter. Even without anyone's help, Ansgar was able to sprint his way to victory. When I came out of my own sprint -- for 17th -- the first things I saw were his arms raised high.

This was the first time I'd been on the road and witnessed a teammate win a race, and it felt great. I found one last attack in me and surged forward to pat him on the back.

The first thing I did when I got home was shave my so-called beard. I'd had it for the 160 long days that had passed since my last race, a whimsical way to mourn the passing of the 2005 cycling season. But it's now a whole new season, the mourning period is over, and I urgently need to be as aero as possible.

We return to the same course next week. Nominally these are "practice" criteriums, in that there are no cash prizes, but nobody at this level races for anything but love anyhow. Race, learn, race again. And, it is hoped, win again.

Photo taken: March 19, 2006


March 18, 2006

Three recent moments:



My teammates and I stand in a long security line at the airport. We're cranky because A) we've had nothing to eat but trail mix and Clif bars for the past six hours B) we just endured a harrowing rigmarole with United customer service and C) we're in a long security line at the airport.

Suddenly, a woman shrieks. She's about 30 feet behind us.

Woman (shrieking): Oh my god! You're Richard Simmons!

Man (shrieking): I know!

Woman: Oh my god!

Man (shrieking): Where are you going!

Woman: Chicago!

Man (shrieking): So am I! I'm going to lead a workout on the plane!

At which point we turn with glares that say, "The hell you are, little man."

And we are no longer jealous of the people in first class.



I like to use my keys as a poor-man's utility knife. They open not only doors and bicycle locks but also boxes, packages and bananas.

Yes, bananas. I don't like the way the tops get mushed when I open them with my hands. Plus, feeble cyclist that I am, I lack the upper-body strength to peel them unassisted. So whenever I have a banana I reach for my keys and use one to perforate the stem.

I don't often eat bananas or need my keys at work, so naturally when I have one this week I leave my keys on my desk. I realize this when I am about a block from home. I curse my banana-eating ways.

Fortunately, Bob has a spare set and is at home. Even more fortunate, when I get to his place he is in the middle of mixing Manhattans. He serves me one in a small jelly jar and we catch up. It is my first one. Not bad, but I'm not sure it's a drink special enough to have an island named after it.

When I get home a second time I realize I have a second problem. Because of burglaries in the neighborhood, the locks on our outside gate have been changed, and Bob's set doesn't have the new key. It's 11 p.m. Nobody's lights are on. My only option is to scale the gate and leap into the back patio. As I'm balancing on wrought-iron spikes, I realize that in my black coat and black watch cap I am a burglar from central casting. All I'm missing is a eye mask and a pillowcase of baubles.

If this were a better story, the police would be hailed and would arrest me for breaking into my own building, but this is not a better story, and my gymnastics go unnoticed.



A 4-year-old boy and his mother roll toy trains across the bus seats on the 147. The boy has a cold and coughs. His mother reaches around and pats him on the back. He reaches around and pats her back in return, as if he feels bad that she feels bad that he feels bad. It is sympathy squared.


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


March 4, 2006

Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.

Tim Krabbe, "The Rider"

I should have worn my booties this morning. They're uncomfortable and my teammates complain about how they squeak against my cranks, so I leave them behind when it's above 30, but by the end of today's ride my feet had lost all sensation. My toes were no more than rumors. I pedaled by faith, trusting that my feet were in fact down there and still connected to their pedals.

It's supposed to snow tomorrow.

On the bright side, Tim brought $35 of Yojimbo's gift certificates, my prizes for placing at the two Tour da Chicago stages I did. My first purse! Like the fisherman who buys a $10,000 boat to catch $20 worth of walleye, I've now recouped about 1 percent of my cycling investment. Obviously only one course of action can follow: race 99 more times this year.

It may sound like I've spent an outrageous amount of money on cyclng. That's because I have. Bikes. Wheels. Maintenance. Entry fees. Travel. Food. Coaching. Uniforms. Tylenol. But just as long is the list of things I don't spend money on. Cable. Car expenses. Fashionable clothes. Children. Pets. Decent coffee. Name-brand groceries. Interior decorating. Furniture. Dames. It all nets out, and in fact the non-racer's lifestyle may be more expensive to maintain than the racer's. Life is cheap when you haven't one.

This week I saw a colleague with a bottle of Gatorade Rain, whatever that is. "I don't know," he said. "They all taste the same to me."

The bottle caught my eye because I thought the label said "Pain" and it got me thinking about how fantastic that would be. Liquid pain. Lemon-lime liquid pain. It would be a great time saver for cyclists. Instead of riding for hours to achieve the exhaustion and muscle depletion we need to become stronger, we could just drink a glass of pain and go watch TV like normal people.

Until potable lactic acid becomes a reality, I'll have to settle for the real thing. Tuesday I leave for San Luis Obispo, Calif., where my team holds its annual winter training camp. Over six days we'll ride more than 350 miles and climb untold thousands of feet. It's liable to be the hardest riding I've ever done. But it will be warm, and it will be great.

The Sunday after I get back will be the first sanctioned race of the year, a criterium in Kenosha. Some are reluctant to race this early -- "It's too cold!" "The riders'll be squirrelly!" "I'm in base!" -- but my engines are revvin' too hot to pass up a race. Besides, we're racers. This is what we do. Let's ride.

And then, only 98 to go.


March 1, 2006

Like his predecessors who sojourned in the villages of Africa and the remote islands of the Pacific, a missionary drops into Uptown and uses watercolors to gain entree to the natives' souls. He is met with a combination of gaping and ambivalence, which surprisingly prove to not be mutually exclusive.

Upon seeing this photo Levi writes in to wonder about the status of the Red Rooster, a dive bar that, Levi says, shows signs of being closed. Granted, the best dive bars show nary a sign of being open in the first place, but if it is indeed closed, it would be a great loss for Uptown. Such 7 a.m. bars are like proctologists and lawyers: I hope to God that I never need one, but I sleep better knowing they exist.

Photo taken: Feb. 25, 2006