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April 29, 2007

After not racing for a month, I persuaded Ellen to lend me her car so I could go to Milwaukee and do the Whitnall Park criterium, mostly just to stay sharp ahead of next week's target race in Baraboo.

Whitnall Park is a milelong crit course with three small climbs in quick succession. The first comes after after a sharp right turn, the second puts you into a stiff headwind, and the third deposits you at the start/finish line. King of the Mountain points are available on laps 4, 7 and 10.

With the wind as stiff as it was, I didn't expect anything would stay away. Since I was without teammates, I knew my only chance was to sit in and be patient. I knew it would be a waste to burn any matches early. I knew I should stay as anonymous as possible.

Knowing all this, then, it surprised me to be trying to cover anything that moved in the first few laps. What can I say? Sometimes in a race my body has a mind of its own. Why do I chase everything? For the same reason the scorpion strikes the frog: It is our nature, doom us though it may.

About three laps in a Homegrown Racing rider was alone off the front. I hopped onto the wheel of a second Homegrown as he moved to bridge up. Just as we got clear I noticed the first guy was already fading. Great. Another wasted move. Ten minutes in I already felt my race was done. I started to anticipate the ribbing I'd face from racing friends afterward. "What were you thinking? Who let a bonehead like you into Cat 3?"

When we caught Homegrown No. 1, he revived. But even though the three of us worked well together, I didn't expect us to get anywhere, for surely the pack wouldn't let two teammates get off together. Since we were approaching the first King of the Mountain lap, however, I figured I'd help keep the break going for that and score some points, then try to get lucky later on, after we'd been absorbed back into the pack's unsympathetic maw.

I won the KoM, and in the next lap we lost one of the Homegrown riders. He was replaced by four more riders in the pack, including two Get a Grip riders. One of them would be dropped, so we ended up with a group of five: me, Homegrown, Steven from Get a Grip, a Baraboo Shark and an unattached.

It took a while but we got a good paceline going. Our gap rose and fell: 30 seconds one lap, 20 the next, then back up to 30. Each time we headed up the first hill we peeked back to see how close the field was. If they were closer than the previous lap, we went faster. If they were farther away, we let up a bit.

Steven urged us to be neutral for the second KoM lap. Many a break has died when the riders get greedy for primes. But I wanted the points, so Steven arranged for me to take it uncontested. This kept our momentum going and effectively clinched KoM for me.

There's a point in every breakaway where the objective stops being to stay away and starts being to win. There's a point where even I have to stop being nice and go for the throat. In most of my successful breaks -- all four of them -- I am late to realize that this point has arrived. While I'm trying to keep the tempo up and cajoling others into working together, everyone else is smartly skipping pulls and plotting their endgame.

Coming up the hills on the penultimate lap, it finally registered with me that we were away for good and that I should start scheming. I decided to experiment by soft-pedaling and letting a gap open in front of me, thereby letting Steven and the unattached rider float away. Homegrown and the Shark had been conserving their pulls, so I wanted to make them work.

They showed no interest in chasing, so the gap grew. As the bell rang ahead of us, however, the leaders were stalling on the final hill, so I jumped. I got clear and caught them by surprise. With a lap to go, I was on my own. This was a brilliant, brilliant move.

Or it would have been, had it worked. Instead, Steven caught me on the descent. We worked a little bit together, but not well enough to hold off the others.

As we started up the three climbs, the cat-and-mouse game started in earnest. Steven was first, I was second, the three others sat on my wheel. We slowed to a crawl as we hit the wind. In front, Steven kept looking back as though he'd dropped something. Suddenly he jumped. I hesitated and missed my chance to grab his wheel.

At this point I had a choice. Do I chase, or do I sit? I could chase after him, but in this wind, all that would accomplish would be to pull the other opponents to the finish. So I thought: "Well, Steven is a nice guy. He worked hard in the break. I'll let him go. Either he'll stay away, or the others will chase and I can grab their wheels and let them tow me to victory."

Fortunately for Steven but unfortunately for me, the other opponents didn't respond until it was too late. I jumped with them, but I couldn't pass. Steven crossed the line with arms raised. My throw was too late, so I settled for fifth, last in our group.

I could have won, I know it, but I'm not sure exactly how. I'm still trying to unlock that puzzle. (As I've mentioned before, it's puzzles like this one that make cycling so fascinating.) In any case, knowing that it is possible to win is one of the most important steps in a racer's development, and I'm glad I got there so early in the season.

Fifth place earned me $10, and King of the Mountain earned me a $10 gift certificate and a box of Clif bars. After the entry fee and the flowers I'd buy Ellen for giving me the car, I just about broke even for the day.

Photo taken: April 28, 2007