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May 31, 2007

"What do you do with yourself," the orthopedist asked me, "other than riding bikes?"

I sat on the exam table. My legs dangled out of my gown.

"I cook a little," I said. I bit my bottom lip and wondered. I looked toward the ceiling for an answer. "In the winter I lift weights."

It was my first meeting with a specialist since the accident. All week, more experienced cyclists had shared stories of their own broken collarbones and welcomed me to the club. Two told stories of doctors re-breaking the bones to help them set correctly. The tellings made me woozy.

I wasn't very nervous about the prognosis. Indeed, I'd already written off the entire year. I was surprisingly fine with it. And if I could have peace with losing an entire season, losing anything less would be a gift. Thus, the orthopedist could only have good news for me.

Turns out the news was about as good as I could hope for. The fracture was severe but it would not need to be re-broken. Surgery shouldn't be necessary. One of my shoulders would never be quite like the other, but it will soon start healing and feeling better. I can be on the bike in five weeks, and start exercising as soon as I'm comfortable.

Racing by July?

I can sit unharnessed. I should still wear the immobilization truss when I sleep and a sling when I'm walking around, but that's not a problem. I've found them useful for getting seats on crowded buses.

There's still pain, but it's getting better. (In the emergency room the nurse had asked me to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most pain I've ever experienced in my life. "It's a 7," I said, "but I've also had a very charmed life.") This morning I put on a T-shirt with only minimal agony, which is progress.

This was scheduled to be a rest week anyhow.

I've been extremely grateful for all the good wishes and offers of help. Ellen in particular has been an angel, scolding me if I so much as attempt to wash some dishes or dry myself unassisted after a shower.

I'm a little chagrined, however, by all the people who have assumed I crashed on Sunday's Bike the Drive. Are my bike handling skills so suspect that people would think I'd bite it on a charity ride?


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


May 23, 2007

Someone had some time on her hands.

By the next day she'd raided her own library to fill out the entire bookcase from red to purple.

Photo taken: May 20, 2007


May 20, 2007

On our fourth and final approach to the milelong, 700-foot climb of the Denzer road race, riders started saying their farewells and exchanging their final pleasantries, like prisoners on the morning of their trip to the firing squad, or soldiers heading once more into the breach. Many had had to catch back on after being dropped on the prior lap -- I was one of them -- and knew they would not be so fortunate this time.

All eyes were on Seth, Get a Grip's ace climber. It was no secret he'd be attacking on this climb. He advertised as much leading up. Sure enough, he set off early in the climb and the field shattered in his wake.

Ed and I urged each other on. I told him I didn't think I could hold on and thus it was up to him. He told me he didn't think he could hold on and thus it was up to me.

I was standing on the pedals and close to cracking when Ed started fading in earnest. Seth was floating away, but I knew I'd be OK if I just stuck with the lead bunch. I started to pre-emptively organize. "Let's take it easy and stay together," I said. "At the top we can paceline up to Seth and drop all the mopes behind us."

Indeed, a group of six formed at the top and we caught Seth, who'd sat up to wait for us. Ed was not among us. A half-mile down the road, the course took a soft, gravelly right at the bottom of a hill and hit a steep climb. It was here that Seth attacked again. And it was here that my gears misfired, costing me just enough momentum to lose the move.

I ended up alone between Seth's group of three and a group of three chasers. "Seth!" I screamed in desperation, but that just caused his group to accelerate. (I'd given the guy a ride two weeks earlier, and this was the thanks I get?) I made progress but I knew if I pushed any harder I'd risk cracking and lose everything, so I fell back to the chasers.

And that's how we finished. I thought I was doing a good job sucking wheel and being patient for the sprint for fourth place. When I jumped I unleashed a fury I've rarely unleashed in a race before. I felt great. Finally! Finally I was going to beat people in a sprint!

Alas, I unleashed it 2 seconds too early. The fury ran out 10 meters before the line. A rider came around my right. "Damn! Fifth place!" A second rider came around my left. "Damn! Sixth place!"

"Nice leadout," one of them said to me afterward, about as back-handed a compliment as one can give to someone you just beat in a sprint. I know I can work on my jump and be less stupid, but one needn't rub it in.

Ed said later that this was the first time he'd been dropped since our first ride at camp last year, when Randy, George and I rode away from him. He also said that that experience motivated his training for the next 12 months. I can only speculate how getting dropped in a race will motivate him.

Photo taken by Newt Cole: May 19, 2007


May 16, 2007

"Everybody hates for a crash to happen," everybody says after a crash has happened, but it's not completely true.

Within a race, for example, there's no sweeter sound than that of mangled components -- if the sound comes from behind you. The surviving riders feel a small euphoria, for each crash means fewer people trying to take your prize.

Opportunistic riders accelerate at the sound of metal scraping against pavement. Part if it is the survival instinct, to get as far from danger as possible. But it's also a natural point of attack, to drive the stake deeper into the unfortunate.

The unscathed rider doesn't look back but secretly imagines the entire balance of the field writhing in a heap. He counts n riders ahead of him and fancies that the race has been reduced to n+1. Alas, even the worst-sounding crashes typically take out only one or two riders.

And photographers love crashes. We train our long lenses on each sprint, secretly hoping this will be the one that provides the perfect shot. The image of the unfortunate rider floating helplessly away from his bike is a decisive moment that carries as much portent and energy as Henri Cartier-Bresson's classic shot of the man leaping across the puddle. The proper crash photo, in which a hovering rider has not yet hit the ground but is about to, is a piece of kitsch that every cycling photographer dreams of adding to his collection.

In this case the unfortunate rider is Ansgar, one of the area's best sprinters but one who sometimes underestimates his own strength.

Ansgar was one of the first friends I made in racing. I confess that I enjoy crash porn such as this, but I do so only by knowing he walked away unscathed.

According to the time stamps on my photos, it took only 20 seconds from the time he started going down to when he was upright on the curb and beginning to laugh it off. In those 20 seconds his skipped across the ground like a plane ditching into a field. He must have gone 15 meters. If he'd gone 5 meters more, he might have salvaged a top-10 finish, but he ground to a halt just short of the line.

Something I enjoy about this series is the reaction of the spectators. Some recoil in horror. Others stand agape in disbelief. Some don't react at all. A father shields his children.

Speaking of wrecks, my body is a bit of one at the moment. At my team's practice time trial this morning, I had one of my worst times ever, 10 percent slower than this time last year. My head wasn't in it, and neither were my legs. I'm not sure what's going on. Perhaps staying up until 2 a.m. editing race photos wasn't a good idea?

Photo taken: May 13, 2007


May 14, 2007

Mind your safety pins, please.

Sunday's pro/1/2 race was my third of this years Monsters of the Midway, a popular criterium at the University of Chicago. My goal was simply to hang on as long as I could.

By the third lap I was lagging and having to get out of the saddle to close gaps I'd let form. Suddenly a loud clicking sound started coming from one of my wheels. It sounded like a baseball card slapping against the spokes. I figured one of my zip ties had come loose.

While I fussed with the noise, a gap grew to 10 meters, then 20 meters, and soon it was out of reach. Even if I could catch back on, the racket my bike made would make me an unwelcome guest.

I swung into the wheel pit. I checked my tires. If the problem was a flat, maybe I could steal someone's wheel (I hadn't put in any of my own) and jump back in. But both tires had full pressure, so no free lap for me. I walked over to the officials and drew a finger across my throat. I was done.

My first voluntary DNF.

When I got to my team's tent I examined my wheels more closely and found the source of the problem: a safety pin in the rear. Five minutes later the tire was completely flat.

I didn't have much to show for the other two races of the day, but they were still fun and productive for my team.

As we staged for the 30+ race, I saw a familiar face in a Delta Faucet kit. "Hey, wow, it's the Druber!" As in Mark Swartzendruber, national caliber time trialist and entertaining True Sport columnist. I'd been a fan of his ever since I got into this sport. His rants against "feckless weenies" were influential in my early development as a racer.

"Who's that?" someone asked.

"That's who's going to win this race," I said. "Hold his wheel and you might have a shot at second."

Sure enough, the 30+ race quickly established itself as a game of Follow the Druber. He led the field around the Midway like the Pied Piper leading so many rats.

With about 5 laps to go, Druber was off the front with three other riders. They seemed just the right distance away: far enough to be viable, but close enough to be reached. I got away from the peloton in the headwind and a lap later had successfully bridged. Phew! I had it made! My most triumphant, gutsiest move of the season!

But Druber was already pulling back the throttle. He was taking an unusually long pull but wasn't going terribly fast (I had caught on, after all), and the other riders in the break, myself included, weren't doing enough to encourage a faster pace. Sure enough, the pack caught us a lap later, with 2 to go.

As soon as we were caught, Druber instantly unleashed his real attack and solo'd the rest of the way. I and many others tried to catch his wheel as he departed but it was like catching a rocket with a butterfly net. I then tried a flyer with 1 to go but it went nowhere, and I rolled in at the back of the pack, not even bothering to get out of the saddle in the sprint.

There's not much to say about the 3's race. My job was to cover breaks, but none threatened to stay away. In the final laps I'd hoped to help string it out to give our sprinters room to work, but I didn't have enough leg left to even get to the front, much less get there and drill it, so I was pretty much useless. The team, however, got second, fourth and seventh, the best collective result of the season.

Next week: Another crack at Baraboo.

Photo taken: May 13, 2007


May 6, 2007

You come in fifth in some, you lose some.

After last week's good finish, it didn't take long to find out whether it was a matter of luck or of talent.

The Baraboo road race was my first road race two years ago. I didn't stand a chance, but since then I'm persuaded my team to make a big deal out of this event, and both I and my teammates have done better each year.

Nominally Saturday's edition of Baraboo was my target race for the year, but I knew that even after tailoring my training toward it, Ed would be the stronger of the two of us and would have the best shot. That's what I expect the case will be all year, and I'm more than comfortable with. That's the nice thing about the 3's. Compared to the 4's, races are much more about team success than individual.

Coming down with a cold on Thursday didn't help.

Sure enough, I struggled as soon as we got over the first major climb. The climb had reduced the field of 32 to about 20. People started to attack. Once three were off, I told Ed, "Next person who goes, you go with him." He obeyed. Soon enough there were two discreet groups, Ed in the lead group, me in the chase. One by one, riders bridged from my group to his as some collegiate hotshots drilled it in a heavy crosswind. Finally the "chase" was a chase of one: me. I was dropped.

I spent the rest of the race in no-man's land, occasionally riding with others, getting dropped a few times, dropping others a few times.

For the last 10 miles I cooperated with a Brazen Dropout. I attacked on the final climb, 2 miles from the finish, but he covered it. I proceeded to suck his wheel, declining his invitation to let me pull. It was a meaningless maneuver -- we were battling for something-teenth place -- but I felt I needed the practice of actually coming across someone at the finish line. I sucked wheel, I sucked some more ... and then I sucked. He continued to ramp up the pace and I somehow lacked the legs to come around.

The good news is that Ed had both the legs and the experience to win the race. The day had a silver lining, and I found some solace in Seth's assessment that this was one of the hardest Cat 3 races he'd ever seen.

Afterward Ed tried to thrust $20 of his winnings into my hand. It's common for a winner to share his windfall with teammates who helped him win.

"What the hell's this?"

"Your share."

"Screw you. I didn't do anything for you."

"You were there."

"I was there for 20 minutes."

"Take it."

"No. You can't give me cash. You buy me lunch or get me a beer."

"Take it."

"No. This is like leaving $20 on your girlfriend's nightstand. You don't do that. You buy her flowers or chocolates. Would you give your wife $20?"

"Take it."

And in the end I took it, just to shut him up, but it sure was annoying. He'd better not make a habit of winning.

Photo taken: May 5, 2007