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May 30, 2006

I work with a bike racer who hates watching bike races. For sport, I often ask him how he's enjoying the latest events, just to hear what he'd rather be doing than watching Paris-Nice, or the Giro, or whatever. Mow the lawn. Pluck out his eyeballs. Die.

It surprised me, then, to see him become wistful when I told him I'd be doing the Snake Alley Criterium in Burlington, Iowa. It's a race notorious for a steep brick switchback that brings even professionals to their knees.

"Snake Alley!?" he said. "That race -- That race is the best event to watch."

"In all of sports?"

He thought a moment.

"Yes. In all of sports."

And so it would prove to be, but first I'd do Friday's road race.

I have a tautological rule about bike racing: All races are fun, no matter how well I do. Even if I crash or get dropped, it's bike racing, and bike racing is fun. Ergo, every race is fun.

My rule took a holiday Friday with my first race ever that wasn't fun at all.

It was a flat, 31-mile course from Wapello, Iowa, to Burlington. With no hills to cause separation and no attacks being attempted, there was nothing to break up the field. Just about all 110 of us stayed together, even the dude wearing the Camel Bak.

A tailwind kept us going between 24 and 30 mph. It was the 24 mph that was the killer, because it sent a ripple of "Slowing! Slowing!" through the pack. The air was thick with the smell of burning brake pads.

I never got closer to the front than the 10th or so row. It was too damn congested to do anything. As soon as I moved up a few slots up the side, the middle would surge forward. As soon as I moved up a few slots up the middle, the sides would surge. And then we would slow. It was as frustrating as a traffic jam: nowhere to go, nothing to do. If I could have gotten to the front I would have happily hammered it just to string it out for the sake of the race, but there was no way to get there.

The first crash happened with five miles to go. I don't know what caused it, but I was surprised by how calmly the pack glided around it, perhaps because we had been anticipating it for 20 miles. Crashing was inevitable from the get-go.

The pace picked up with 2 miles to go. With 1 mile to go, I swerved to avoid a chunk of asphalt the size of a shoe. Unfortunately, my teammate Terry wasn't so lucky and hit it square on. He went over his bike, slid across a sidewalk and slammed into a rock face. It sounded like a gunshot. Miraculously he walked away from it with only a bump to the head and a stapled-shut wound on his elbow. He would not only race another day, but would race the very next day with Snake Alley.

With half a mile to go we were dumped into Burlington with a straight descent to the finish line. Finally the course spread out. I was able to make steady advancement, hopping from train to train. My maximum speed was 41 mph, which I think is a PR for my sprint.

Then there was even more crashing. All around me were the sounds of violence being done to bikes and bodies. It was too much. It sucked away my will to race. I had plenty of gas to crank up my sprint even more, but I no longer cared. I just wanted this to be done with.

This was no race. This was no test of endurance or strength or tactics or handling. This was a gumball machine, with victory going to whomever got spit out first.

I think I ended up in the top 15, but I must have been obscured in the official photos. I didn't bother to contest the results. Instead I rolled around to make sure we were all accounted for and doubled back to look for Terry. Somewhere along the way I crossed the finish line a second time, so my official result was 89th. Whatever.

And then the Snake!

I wasn't so worried about the climb. I like climbing. The longer, the harder, the better. I was mostly concerned about the descending. Watching riders warm up and practice their descents, their inside knees splayed as they took turns in excess of 30 mph, I could already feel my tires giving out under me.

In the morning's junior races, several riders keeled over as they tried to ascend. They'd get halfway to the top and then their eyes would roll back and they'd lean over and fall to the grass. It reminded me of the scene in "Empire Strikes Back" when Luke's ton-ton collapses beneath him on the frozen planet of Hoth.

Bob would be my only teammate. Some Snake veterans had given us some excellent advice, chief among it the importance of winning "the race before the race." By having registered early, Bob and I were entitled to start in the first two rows. Getting around Turn 1 and to the Snake first would be crucial. If you get bogged down behind slower riders or crashes, you're done for.

Bob and I both did fine sprinting to the Snake, but he lost momentum behind a crash. I, however, was able to hump it up in good standing and didn't feel too shabby. The field was already spread out over several blocks, which was a blessing because I did not want to be descending in company. My fears receded.

But then I had to do it 11 more times. Each time to the top I wanted to throw up. It topped 90 degrees and even though I'd been hydrating all day, I was overheating. In the interest of shaving weight, I had brought only half a bottle of Accelerade with me. I briefly wondered where the safest point would be to vomit -- the start/finish area sounded good -- and whether I could do it on the go and be able to find water to rinse my mouth out.

Beyond the Snake, it's important to have a routine for getting around the course. My brain was too fried to think -- on the last lap, the rider in front of me lost concentration and took a turn too wide, crashing into hay bales at 30 mph; I myself bounced a pedal on a turn but stayed upright -- so I eliminated the need to think. Instead, I just tried to remember the cues. Shift here, swing wide here, tuck here, drink here.

The leaders were quickly out of sight, but gradually I picked people off. During one climb I actually snarled "Get out of my way!" at a rider who was losing the fight against gravity.

This was a good lesson in what our coach calls "staying within yourself." There was only a short stretch where drafting would have been beneficial, so I didn't kill myself trying to bridge forward. Instead I stayed within my means and let the people ahead of me crack first. Often I'd be able to suck someone's wheel in the flat headwind section, and then as they started to quiver in the homestretch I'd attack around them and ruthlessly leave them behind. (Once I did this just as the announcer was saying, "Look at these two riders working together!")

Spectators played a huge role on the Snake. I could see nothing but brick in my field of vision, but I could mark my progress based on who I was hearing cheer me on. Clif Bar guys at the bottom, Alvarado and Gigi in the middle. As soon as I could hear Phil near the top I knew I was almost home.

A teammate watching at the top tossed some much-needed water on me on Lap 10, just in time. As important as water was information. Around Lap 6 my allies told me I was somewhere around the top 15. Had I not known this, I very easily could have given up. I've broken ribs in races and not given up, but this was too much.

Then another saving grace: The leader lapped me on Lap 10. This meant I had only one lap to go, not two. I pushed as best I could on the descent to pick off one last rider and came very close to picking off a second, but my throw came a half-second too late.

I crossed the finish line in 13th and wanted to die. I found an unattended bottle of water at Turn 1 and helped myself, then crashed to the ground.

Next: Reports for the weekend's other two races, in which we will learn how many crashes I can cause in a single race. (Hint: Less than four!)

Photo taken: May 27, 2006