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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


May 28, 2006

Abbreviated race reports from Iowa:

Friday, Wapello-to-Burlington Road Race: I've never had to work less in a race. I was miserable!

Saturday, Snake Alley Criterium: I've never suffered more in a race. It was great!

Photo taken: May 27, 2006


May 26, 2006

Junior national team and xXx member Sean Hopkins.

This was my first time onto the velodrome. I had fun, but I can't say I was seduced. It didn't help that I was on my street fixie and not a proper track bike, and some allege that Northbrook isn't a proper track.

Photo taken: May 21, 2006

May 22, 2006

Put your index fingers between a rubber band. Spread your fingers as far as they can go. You have just created a model of the Monsters of the Midway criterium course.

I'm slowly coming to appreciate crits (slowly being the operative word) but with its long straightaways and tight spaces between turns, I knew Monsters would be fast and dangerous. Sprints would be inevitable. My only hope, the break, would be a longshot.

As we ate cookies on the curb after the races, Ed asked me a question about the masters race we had done. I drew a blank. What masters race?

Oh, right. That one.

I raced twice: masters in the morning, Cat 4 in the afternoon. Both were harder and faster than any others I've done, but for as much of an impression as they left, I have almost zero recollection. There were some attacks, some chases, some sprints. I was too preoccupied with keeping up and moving up, however, to transfer any details into long-term storage, let alone enough details to contribute to the debriefing.

Perhaps I should take notes during races. A peloton, after all, is a complex system, too complex and too fluid to record unassisted.

Krabbe calls it "the continuosly shifting braid," a rope of a hundred kinetic strands that is woven and rewoven. When a race is as fast and as hard as these were, it's impossible to save enough data to process later. It's like staring at a ceiling fan and trying to count the individual revolutions. One can isolate one or two passes, but then it all becomes a blur again.

That may be what I like best about the breaks. Suddenly the system is simple enough for even me to comprehend. Suck, suck, pull. Suck, suck pull. Suck, suck pull. Smile for cameras. Suck, suck pull.

I know at one point -- I think it was the Cat 4 race -- I was in third wheel and didn't feel the first two wheels were working hard enough to bring back a dangerous break. "Pull hard or pull off," I growled before moving moving forward to do it myself. Then I counterattacked.

I remember being terrified heading into each corner and having a "phew" moment each time I left one upright. I got the jitters any time I rode more than two abreast, which may have been why I worked so hard to string out the front. This was a welcome difference in the masters race: They knew how to ride. With the inexperienced riders in the 4's, each corner would be accompanied by a panicky chorus of "Inside! Inside!" and "Hold your line!" Miraculously, there were no crashes.

In both races I had nothing left at the end and lumbered across the line around 25th place. Teammates later told me I was smiling less than usual and working too hard. I can deny neither accusation. I'm still not smart or patient enough to hang out in the back where it's easier.

I wouldn't have minded if the work had contributed to team results. In the masters race Randy got into the winning break, but it was another team's blocking that made that possible. In the Cat 4 race, I rode tempo near the end, but at a very indecisive moment, and we didn't assemble a good enough train to get the victory. Instead we settled for second and third.

Is second and third a better team result than first and tenth? I say yes, but I bet sprinters would disagree. My co-worker the track sprinter likes to say that second place is merely "first loser."

And that, dear reader, is as close as I'll get to sulking. I see no use in dwelling over missed opportunities or poor performances. I get enough of that at work.

It was a beautiful day not only to race but also to watch racing, from the juniors in the morning to the Cat 5's late in the afternoon.

As I was photographing the Cat 3 race, two Northwestern riders came up to me.

"Are you Luke?"

Urr, yes.

"We read your blog!"

Blush. They'd apparently seen somebody taking pictures when he should have been warming up for his own race and naturally concluded it was me.

One was a Cat 2 racer who looked not much older than my nephew. Once again I cursed myself for not getting into this 10 years sooner. What the hell was I doing in my 20s that was so important?

I had fun watching the Cat 5 race. I'm fond of our new riders. They're almost as adorable as our juniors. In their first few races they are as overenthusiastic as I was -- am? -- and I'm excited to watch as they find their legs. I trust they won't get discouraged when they, as was my fate last year, get lapped and yelled at. This year it was me doing the lapping and the yelling and a little bit of the swearing. Their turn will come.

Photo taken by Sandy Weisz: May 20, 2006


May 14, 2006

Photo taken: May 13, 2006


May 12, 2006

Three recent moments:



"You hate oatmeal, but you like oatmeal-flavored Clif bars."

"And oatmeal cookies. Hey, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

"Oh, please."

"And oatmeal happens to be one such foolish consistency. It's so mushy -- blech!"



"Only 28 days until World Cup!"

"How time flies. Seems like only yesterday it was 29."



My new favorite sign of spring: The reappearance of the tai chi school that holds sessions in my alley. Sometimes they exercise using swords. Making my way through their ranks, bags of groceries in each of my hands, I feel like Neo from "The Matrix," operating in bullet time.


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


May 2, 2006

We were pretty deflated after Saturday's road race, the first of three stages in the Anderson Mayors Cup. There had been no challenging climbs to separate the field -- on the course's modest hills I amused myself by heckling those who struggled: "Why are we slowing? Is there an obstruction ahead? Are those gears I hear being changed? For this?" -- so after 43 miles the race came down to a bunch sprint. Since I was still recovering from an aborted break, I volunteered to lead Tim out. We had great position, me in fourth and him in fifth, but we got anxious and jumped way too soon. Riders zipped around me like two sides of a zipper zipping around something that ought not be stuck in a zipper. Tim got a disappointing 10th. I settled for 17th.

Then a funny thing happened: Tim killed the time trial. Must have been his skinsuit. He would enter Sunday's criterium in fourth place in the general classification.

Waking up Sunday, however, I wasn't even sure I'd race. Rain was forecast for the entire day. Crits are dicey enough when it's dry. A wet surface was a prescription for road rash, busted heads and, worse, dirty components.

The rain worked to our favor, however. It kept our field small, around 25, scaring away even the riders in contention for the overall prize, including second and third place. First place had a prohibitive lead, but if we could keep anyone from scoring points on Tim, he'd finish the weekend in second place.

Four of us stuck around for the crit. At the starting line we did a head count. One. Two. Three. Three?

Where was Tim, our great GC hope?

The promoter was ready to start the race. "Second place had a mechanical," I said, making something up, "but he'll be here soon!"

The promoter shrugged. We tried to stall.

"Is there a wheel pit?"

"Where is the feed zone?"

"Can you tell us more about the wheel pit?"

Apparently Tim had taken an extra warm-up lap and gotten stuck behind some pokey masters riders. Finally we saw him come around Turn 4, trying to catch up to us as if he were, as he'd put it later, the neighborhood fat kid. He was still about 50 meters away when the whistle blew, just in time for him to help himself to a flying start.

My job during the race was to chase down any moves by rider nos. 459, 460 and 485. Those were the threats to Tim's standing. Whenever someone attacked, I could count on hearing Tim behind me, saying either "Let him go" or "We need to shut that down," and I reacted accordingly. (Racing is much easier when I don't have to think for myself.)

The course proved not nearly as treacherous as I'd feared. We let the overall leader escape on a solo breakaway, and then a few attacks and counterattacks broke the lead group into a pack of nine. We took the corners single file, nice and easy.

With three laps to go, Tim and I settled into fourth and fifth wheels again. We spent the entire last lap discussing our leadout so that we wouldn't make the same blunder as in the road race.

It turned out to be moot: I led him hot out of Turn 4, but then another rider jumped way too early. Tim hopped onto that wheel and sprinted around it for the win, claiming second in the race and locking up second in the GC. After topping 35 mph in the homestretch, I threw for seventh, squeezing into 8th overall and into the money, insofar as winning $25 for a race that cost $65 to enter and $60 to drive to is "in the money."

Afterward, two different riders told us how mad they were that they had heard us blabbing about our plans but still weren't able to beat Tim. (Note to selves: Stop blabbing so much!)

Photo taken by E. Wight: April 30, 2006