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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


April 26, 2007

One of our destinations in Milwaukee was the Lakefront Brewery. Five dollars gets you a tour and tokens redeemable for 32 ounces of beer. Bartenders casual about taking tokens gets you 32 ounces more.

The tour is about 10 minutes long. About one minute is devoted to learning about hops, wort and the biological miracle that is beermaking. The other nine minutes consist of the tour guide cracking wise about bungholes, making fun of the frat boys just there for the cheap beer (especially those who had already been on the Miller tour that morning), and dancing to the theme song from "Laverne & Shirley."

Her shtick was pretty funny, and the guy standing next to me was in stitches. He had a very distinctive laugh, a resonant, appreciative laugh. His laugh, in fact, sounded a lot like that of Dan, a guy I knew in college. He even bore a passing resemblance. But it couldn't be Dan. Dan was in Ohio.

As we moved on to the next round of taps, I said to Sandy, "Does that guy resemble Dan, or what?"

"Hey, that is Dan!"

And so it was. Of all the breweries, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into ours!

Photo taken: April 21, 2007


April 22, 2007

At the Milwaukee Art Museum

Photo taken: April 21, 2007


April 11, 2007

I woke early this morning for a long ride, checked the weather and returned to bed.

"The good news," I said, "is that it's not raining. The bad news is that there's an inch of snow."

This is supposed to be a high-volume week of training for me, but 30 degrees in April is somehow less endurable than 10 degrees in January. And mentally I can no longer sit through four minutes on the trainer, let alone four hours.

The worst part of this weather is that there's no recourse. Normally when you are inconvenienced or treated unjustly you can write an angry letter or get a refund or ask to talk to the manager. But what can you do when your training plan is shot and you're heading east into a 25 mph wind and the freezing rain is slapping you silly? Pray angry?


April 7, 2007

Three recent moments:



For the second consecutive year I file for a tax refund, once again thanks to sizable capital losses. This is the reward for being a shoddy investor. If it weren't for losing money I'd save no money at all.



Ellen is taking the Blue Line to O'Hare when she realizes she has forgotten the pattern to the baby sweater she is knitting. With an international flight ahead of her, she calls me to lament.

I ask for the name of the book and find it on Amazon. The book has been scanned into Amazon's searchable database, so I am able to locate the pattern. It's blurry but legible, and I take to dictating over the phone.

I squint to read. I'm at work. The last thing I want is for co-workers to hear me giving knitting instructions over the phone. I cup my hand over the phone and furtively look over my shoulder so I can toggle to a spreadsheet should anyone important walk by. I feel like I'm talking to my bookie.

It's jibberish to me. In the beginning I am a kindergartner, stuttering my way through the mysterious code: "Kay one open-bracket kay one pee one close-bracket until end of row. Kay five moss st three parenthesis three colon five colon five parenthesis kay next ..."

But by the time we get to the sleeves -- "Are you sure you need me to read the sleeves? What about a nice sweater vest?" -- I am a pro, translating on the fly. "Now knit three rows. Work nine rows in moss stitch like you did on the back. Knit three rows. OK, now change to your 3mm needles and work 14 rows ...

And this is how I learn to knit.



Ellen and I finally go to the new Hot Doug's (motto: "There are no two finer words in the English language than 'encased meats,' my friend.") We go on what we think will be the last cold Saturday of the year, figuring it's our last chance to beat the summer crowds.

(Hot Doug's, celebrated for its imaginative sausages and its fries cooked in rendered duck fat, has become quite the sensation lately, thanks in part to publicity from owner Doug Sohn defying the city's ban on fois gras. Pilgrims come from all over the Chicago area. Mario Batali was spotted there a few weeks ago. It's the Chicago equivalent of New York's Magnolia Bakery, except unlike the 45-minute wait for a $2 cupcake, Hot Doug's is worth every minute and every penny.)

We are wrong on both counts. Not only is it not the last cold Saturday, but it wouldn't matter anyhow: At 2 in the afternoon the line stretches around the corner.

We wait outside for 30 minutes. Ellen knits. I read. We take turns waiting in the car. Then we get into a vestibule, where we thaw for five minutes. We move into a second vestibule, where we wait another five minutes. Finally we get into the actual restaurant and can study the vast menu on the wall. The "game of the week" is a combination of elk and venison.

We split four sausages and an order of duck-fat fries. It's all outstanding. One of our sausages is a plain Chicago-style hot dog for control purposes. It may be the finest hot dog I've ever had. At $1.50, it's a steal. (This is the real gift of Doug Sohn: He doesn't rush his customers, and he doesn't try to squeeze every last dime out of them, as lesser men would be tempted to do. He may be a poor capitalist but he is a great American.)

As we leave, the line is as long as it was when we'd arrived. In the first vestibule, I say in a whisper loud enough to be heard by all, "I can't believe he ran out of hot dogs!"

It may be the first time people have their coronaries before stuffing their faces with sausage.


April 2, 2007

Upon returning to the city from Saturday's race, sweat salt still caked on our brows, Mike and I headed to Logan Square's Mutiny, a dive bar renowned for having a urinal the size of a phone booth, for the debut of IRO Sprints, an event put on by the local messenger/hipster/fixed-gear scene.

We were both out of our element -- our element being considerably quieter, squarer and less smoky -- but it felt like an important cultural exchange, like America shipping teenagers to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Our team is trying to help messengers get involved in sanctioned racing, and the messengers no doubt feel out of their element whenever they're surrounded by gratuitous Lycra and carbon fiber. Participating in one of their events was the least we could do in return.

The format was simple: Two track bikes are positioned on rollers, their forks mounted to a stationary stand, their rear wheels wired into a laptop. The rollers offer zero resistance, so the contest is to see who can most quickly spin 36 times, the equivalent of a 250-meter sprint at the velodrome. The spins get ridiculously fast and violent. Progress is projected onto a wall. Winners advance to the next round; losers go drink some PBR. Meanwhile, a rowdy, inebriated crowd is screaming at the riders to go faster.

The set-up was very impressive, as was the stone-soup way in which it came to be. As I understand it, one person wrote the computer code from scratch, someone else designed a GUI, someone else got the frames donated from manufacturer IRO, and various others cobbled together the necessary parts and know-how and put it all together, all in less time than it takes an Amish village to raise a barn.

The bar was crowded and hot, the punk music was deafening, and two days later my jeans still reek from the cigarette smoke, but it was the most fun I've ever had on one wheel.

I didn't even do that well. What do you expect from a climber? I squeaked by the first round, then got crushed in the second. (Between heats I sneaked to Ellen's car to wolf down a Clif Bar, which I think violated IRO Sprints etiquette on multiple levels.) Mike got into the quarterfinals, but after he got beat at 2 a.m., we were both too exhausted to see things to their end.

Photo taken: March 31, 2007


April 1, 2007

The Hillsboro Roubaix is one of most anticipated road races in the Midwest. It fills up fast and draws riders from Missouri to Wisconsin.

Its inspiration is Paris-Roubaix, perhaps the most legendary one-day race in the world, otherwise known as "Hell of the North" or "Queen of the Classics."

Like Paris-Roubaix, Hillsboro's principle feature is a long stretch of brick, unmaintained brick littered with ruts and potholes and gravel.

Riding over the brick is bad enough, but you also enter it coming out of a long descent and, on this particular day, aided by a 20 mph tailwind. One second you're screaming down a hill at 40 mph and then you hit the "pavé" and suddenly your bike is bucking you like a mechanical bull at a Texas honky-tonk.

Between the bricks, the hills and the ridiculous crosswinds, I knew this race, a combined 3/4 field, would be a brutal affair. It would also be my first serious race as a Cat 3 and at 66 miles my longest.

I couldn't help but think of a training ride I went on with a local Cat 3 team last fall. They dropped me in the first 10 miles. That was a casual training ride. How on earth could I fare any better in competition?

Hovering over all this uncertainty was the threat of thunderstorms, the chance of which hit as high as 60 percent. The only thing I knew for sure was that his would be a race of attrition that would spit people out the back from start to finish. I just wanted to be spit out last. My strategy would be to sit in, hang on and hope for the best.

I spent most of the first lap near the back. The roads were narrow and the field was large. It was impossible to move up through the congestion. At the back we felt the brunt of the frequent braking and surging, and we had to fight the hardest to not get gapped in the crosswinds.

I touched base with Seth from Get a Grip. We shared the same frustration over the braking. "Are all Cat 3 races like this," I asked, "or is this just because there are so many Cat 4's in the field?" He could only shrug. Fortunately Seth is a smart, agile rider. As we approached the two hills that led into town at the end of the first lap, I followed his wheel as he navigated his way up to the front. I suddenly had breathing room.

Approaching the same two hills at the end of the second lap, I predicted to Ed that Seth, an excellent climber, would attack. Sure enough, he did. I scrambled up the second hill to catch him, as did Ed and a few others. We rattled our way across the bricks with no regard for bike, limb or dental fillings and soon enough were with Seth and tried to get a paceline together. As soon as it had begun, however, Seth saw that the field was right on our heels and smartly called off the effort. The good news was that the pack exiting town was a little bit smaller than the pack that had entered it.

It was on this trip through town that I learned that there was someone well off the front. I had no idea.

Starting the third lap I rode some tempo and attacked once. At one point we had a very viable group of a dozen, including myself and two teammates, but none of the others wanted to work, and the field caught us. By this time, however, the field was down to about 30. Mark, Ed and I were the only ones from our team.

Two and a half hours into the race, I kept up the pressure into the headwind, figuring that there were some dangerous riders that could catch back on if the pack relaxed. But 20 seconds into any hard effort my left hamstring and quads would cramp up. I would make do with those 20-second bursts: I'd go to the front, drive the tempo, cramp up and retreat back into the sanctuary of the draft ... and then I would do it all over again.

During one such effort someone asked, "Are you attacking, or are you just going faster?" I think he was making fun, and indeed it's one of my weaknesses: It is sometimes hard to tell whether I'm attacking or "just going faster."

Riders started to slip off the front. I was in no condition to chase or bridge. When Seth and a Mesa rider got a good gap together, I asked Ed whether he wanted to be up there with them. I figured I could jump and get him halfway there. But he declined. Sure enough, they would stay off, thanks to some solid blocking from their teammates, and I think both Ed and I would regret his decision.

Normally I would think about trying to wait to lead Ed out at the end, but with my cramping I didn't think I would be useful in a sprint. So I reported my condition to Ed and went back to driving the tempo as well as I could, hoping to pop more and more riders off the back.

Finally we neared town. Quietly Ed sneaked off the front and started to drift away as we hit the hills. Mark and I went up front to soft pedal, the only job a guy with cramped quads can perform, thus vexing the chase. Few had the energy to come around, and I moved into the path of any that did. Ed's lead grew. "Go, Ed!" I screamed into the wind. "Go!"

Finally people surged past us as we hit the bricks. I mentally urged Ed on. Mark and I were sacrificing our results and we were happy to do so, but it would only be worth it if Ed could hold people off.

Which he did, of course, finishing a few seconds ahead of everyone else to get sixth place. I held my own in the sprint and despite getting boxed and not knowing where the finish line was got 11th.

Given the situation it was textbook teamwork. What impresses me most is how it came to be almost telepathically. We never talked about what we would do in such a scenario. Nonetheless, Ed knew exactly when to go, and Mark and I knew exactly what to do in response. It's only a shame that five people had already gotten away.

So, a successful start to the season. This was one of the hardest races I've ever done, but the Hillsboro Roubaix earns its designation as "spring classic" and joins Snake Alley and the Circuit of Sauk in my list of favorites. I need to figure out why I cramped up, but I think I can stop worrying about getting dropped.

Photo taken: March 31, 2007