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May 8, 2006

A year ago I rode my first road race, in Baraboo, Wis. I didn't do very well. I darn near fell off my bicycle in the warm-up. But I knew I could do better, and I couldn't wait to return to find out for sure. Planning out my 2006 season, I made Baraboo one of my top priorities.

Then I learned that Baraboo is where Eric Sprattling passed away, and my commitment doubled.

My team wears two hearts on its sleeves. One is for Eric. He was a member who in 1999 suffered a fatal aneurysm during a race. I never met him, but this memorial spells out the great loss to Chicago and to cycling.

I read the memorial often. I'm always touched by how Marcus put it: "He went out doing the thing." I love that. Doing the thing. The racing, the training, the camaraderie, the thing that possesses us to overcome every difficulty, to make every sacrifice. Whether my time is this year or in a hundred years, I'm proud of the fact that I will go out having done the thing.

I decided to make Baraboo an important race not just for me but for the team as well. We are extremely fortunate to have this team, and I felt doing well at Baraboo would be a good way to honor the pioneers who made it possible. I talked it up for months, reminding everyone of our history there but also what a fun and challenging course it was.

It worked. Even though the race was at 9 a.m., we had 14 men drive four hours and stay overnight, some in a nearby campground. This was by far the most teammates I've had in a road race. Usually I'm lucky to have four or five. I especially appreciated the rookies, the ones who knew that, as I did last year, they would probably fail to stay with the pack over the first climb, but who came out anyhow.

The course had two significant climbs. We'd do two laps. When I made it over the first climb not only with the pack but at the front of it, I felt victory, having tangible evidence of how much I'd improved since last year.

Even with our numbers, I didn't think we would want to attack much. I figured we should let the hills do the work for us. Surprisingly, though, the pack didn't shatter nearly as much as I thought it would. After each climb I goosed the tempo a bit, but let up once I saw it wasn't having much effect. In retrospect, I wonder whether I underestimated how much everyone else was suffering, and whether one or two more hard pedal strokes would have broken things up. That's something Tim Krabbe writes about: "Shift, when you're really, truly at the end of your rope, to a higher gear."

With 4 miles to go, the field was about 25 strong. Once again it would come to a bunch sprint. I'd spent most of the race near the front and didn't have a good read of our composition. Word got passed from the back: We didn't have our ace sprinter with us. It was time to improvise.

I saw Ed up ahead. I scooted forward and checked in.

"Ansgar's not with us."

"Oh, shit. You're kidding."

"That's the memo from Tim. So you're our guy, Ed."

"OK. I still have some leg left."

"Good. More than I can say for myself."

Ed let me in ahead of him. I'd moved up just in time. The pace turned extremely hot as the course descended into the final milelong flat. We leapfrogged a bit, but I focused on staying ahead of him, glancing back often to make sure he was still on my wheel.

With 800 meters to go, someone jumped on the left. This was way too early, and once he got into the wind he slowed, creating a brief bottleneck. Ed capitalized, squeaking past on my right.

Suddenly I lost the wheel I was on and couldn't find a new one. Oh, familiarity; oh, contempt. It's always so crushing to have people pass in the sprint. They don't even go that much faster. It's like falling down a hole in slow motion, clutching blindly for a handhold. With each wheel that passes, I sink further in the standings, and all the hard work sinks deeper into the realm of all-for-naught.

I got 10th place. Crossing the line I saw fatigued and beaten riders congratulating Ed. He'd done it. He had won. The team had what it had come for.

I know it sounds like a platitude every time I say it -- and I've now had the fortune to have said it twice -- but seeing a teammate win is just as sweet as winning myself. It means the race wasn't for naught after all.

And then the masters race.

Since the races were only 27 miles this year, I decided to do the masters 4/5 race that started immediately after. I knew I'd be gassed, but I actually looked forward to getting dropped. I haven't gotten dropped since Superweek last July. I needed to be reminded of the terror and despair of fading from the pack. I needed to be reminded that the pain of gutting it out was nothing compared to the pain of being alone.

The masters race was more intense than the earlier race. Ed and I struggled just to hang on, but we managed to keep good position and even shut down a break or two. We were encouraged by the younger riders who stuck around to cheer and heckle. I was sure to flash Tim a cowboy, ninja or bear every time I passed.

The nice thing about masters racing is that there's not the surging and slowing that you get with the youngsters. Often in the elite fields, kids fly to the front and then grind to a halt once they remember: "Oh, yeah. Pulling is hard!"

Ed flatted after the first lap, leaving me alone when we returned to the big climb. This time the pack would shatter.

An exploding field is about the most beautiful thing to see in cycling, even better than a well-timed leadout train. Naturally it depends on your perspective. For me, the view was pretty sweet. I started the climb in the middle of the pack, but soon I was doing slalom around popped riders. The chaos was rapturous.

The first five riders up the hill quickly organized into a paceline. I spent a half-mile chasing them alone. I was so beyond my limits that my navigation system shut down and I drifted into the gutter. I recovered, but this was my cue to sit up. It wasn't long before I heard two riders behind me. I accelerated and joined their chase.

It was me, an Atkins rider and a Brazen Dropout. The leaders dangled a tantalizing 40 meters ahead of us. The Dropout refused to pull, as he had a teammate up the road. Talk about brazen, but, hey, that's racing. Negative racing, but racing nonetheless and better than just riding in circles.

Atkins and I worked well together, yet the gap grew. After a few miles I tried to persuade the Dropout to help.

"So you've got one of the five up there, huh?"

(Head nod.)

"Wouldn't you rather have two of eight?"

"I'll have to think about that."

"Well, don't think too long, because we're dying here."

Finally the Dropout decided to take some pulls, but it was far too late. I tried to break away on the last climb, and when that didn't work I tried to set Atkins free. That didn't work either, and in the sprint the fresh-legged Dropout dusted us both for sixth place.

My fixie has had funny noises (funny strange, not funny ha-ha) coming from its bottom bracket, so I took it into the shop last night. My racing bike needs some repairs, too, though with all the shops experiencing the annual fair-weather rush, I don't know when I'll get it done without missing anything important.

And this body of mine. It could use a tune-up itself, if not a complete overhaul. Next week's rest week can't come soon enough.

Photo taken by L. Alton: May 6, 2006