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May 27, 2007

"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

WOPR, "War Games"

Snake Alley. Probably my favorite race of the year.

It takes a big man to win Snake Alley.

It takes a stronger man to sit it out for the sake of torrential rain.

I'm neither of those men.

I had a bad feeling about the race, not to mention a nightmare or two during the week, but I hadn't driven four hours to stand under an umbrella.

The rain stopped right before my race, but the roads were still soaked, and it disrupted my pre-race routine.

I'd been sulking over the weather ever since I left the house before dawn. I wasn't visualizing the climb or going over the mechanics of descending. It didn't even dawn on me to under-inflate my tires because of the rain, and I passed on Pieter's suggestion to use vinegar to keep the oil off my tires. (I don't know if this would improve grip, but he's Belgian, so he should know.)

My head was so unscrewed that I couldn't even clip in properly at the start. What was more troublesome, however, was how unbothered I seemed to be by it. A cyclist depends on urgency and lust, and I had neither.

I found the Snake impossible to climb, mentally so more than physically. My legs were fine. It was my head that couldn't work fast enough, and it frustrated me to not be able to pour my everything into my pedals.

Normally I would get out of the saddle, yank on the handlebars and bound like a gazelle. The bricks yielded too little traction, however. Too much force in any direction sent a rider sliding. Even sitting I had fits, and yanking on the handlebars would pull my front off the ground. Damn my new light bike! A pox on my 680-gram wheels!

Obviously other people were figuring it out because they were passing me. I lost even more ground on the turns of the descent, worthless, tentative descender that I am. On the second lap I braked heading into one turn and sent a spray of water into the rider behind me, who scolded me accordingly.

On the third lap I was gapped so badly by the bottom that I had nobody to follow and had to make my own line on the last corner. The turn worried me so much that I spent one second too many worrying about it and one second too few actually executing it. This was a physics test and by hesitating, I was failing.

I tried to lean to save the turn, but given the speed and slickness I lacked the nerve to lean far enough. My caution would be my downfall, literally.

As soon as I knew I wouldn't make it, I had two choices: Try to continue the turn and skid out at 35 mph? Or do I jam on the brakes and continue going straight?

I continued straight, straight into a hay bale. The bale saved my bike but I tumbled over, landing squarely on my left shoulder.

As I limped to the first-aid station, a second rider plowed into the exact same bale. But he was lucky: He shredded his skinsuit, but other than road rash he was fine. I would be another story.

An hour later I walked out of the hospital with my left arm immobilized. In my good hand I held a prescription for Vicodin and a diagnosis of a broken clavicle and separated joint.

(The immobilization device included a large foam strap around my waist. Two of me could fit in it, and the nurse struggled to fit it to my 150-pound frame. "It's not designed for cyclists," she said, part apology, part compliment. "It's for us corn-fed people of Iowa.")

I'll see an orthopedist this week, but the ER doctor said to expect to be out 5-8 weeks, plus 5-8 weeks more if surgery is required.

People will say, "It's a shame for things like this to happen to the nice guys." And they're right! It is a shame, and on behalf of nice guys everywhere, I'll note that it's really starting to piss me off.

And so now I spend Sunday morning listening to the Adagio in G minor, reading the Giro d'Italia ticker and generally feeling sorry for myself. I'm going through photos of people cycling and thinking, "That looks like it might be fun." I see a picture of someone raising both arms in the air and think, "That looks like it might be fun."

I'm trying to think of a worse time for this to have happened. In September, this would be a get-out-of-painting-free card and a welcome excuse to be lazy. But now, after hundreds of hours of winter training and spring preparation, I'm close to being on form. The season is coming into bloom. The weather is almost pleasant. I feel like a groom left standing at the altar.

Somewhat on a lark last week, I ordered the correspondence course to become a licensed cycling coach. I have no desire to coach, but I thought it might help me as a rider, and since I'm always doling out advice to newer riders, it might make sense to know what the hell I was talking about.

Suddenly I'll have plenty of time to study, as well as work on this other new project of mine, and do all the fun summer things that normal people do. And just think of all the entry-fee money I'll save. Yay.

Photo taken: May 26, 2007