« June 2007 || HOME || Aug. 2007 »

July 25, 2007

I told Sandy and Sarah that if they wanted to see me in Sunday's criterium in Evanson, they'd better be there in the first 20 minutes of the 40-mile race. I didn't expect to last much longer than that. By then I'd have either run out of fitness or have crashed on the course's technical turns.

Happily I stayed upright despite a few close calls, and happily I lasted a full hour, much longer than expected. Looking at the photos that Ellen took, however, it was obvious I was in over my head. My mouth was agape the entire time, and I lurched precariously from the tip of my seat in a desperate effort to grind every extra watt out of my body. Even if I could have lasted, I would have been useless to help set up the sprint.

With 10 laps to go I was able to make my way to the front and pulled for a block to help chase a break. By the next lap, however, I was back in the rear and when I took a tricky corner extra conservatively, a gap opened. Teammate Chris was also on the back and gave me a push, but it wasn't enough. I was done. I took a few laps of shame, then pulled out in time to get the camera to shoot Ed's victorious sprint.

It was fantastic to be able to race so close to home. I cheated and used Ellen's car, but I easily could have ridden or even walked to the course. All day long, curious and enthusiastic spectators watched the races, something we amateurs are not accustomed to. Technical crits aren't my bag, but I can't wait to return next year.

The next day was more up my alley: a 70-mile road race through the rolling hills of Wisconsin. The sole objective was to support Ed and defend his lead in the overall. Unfortunately there were only two of us to do so, and we lost Matt around the 50th mile. I didn't race smart at all. I drilled it at all the wrong spots, and when it came time to chase a break, I didn't do it smoothly or cooperatively. Instead I twice found myself off the front by accident, where I would be useless. Meanwhile, other riders counted on the vast army of XXX riders -- both of us -- to be doing all the work.

There was a tricky, milelong stretch of chip seal where the road was covered with loose, sticky gravel. It began with an off-camber turn that hit us immediately with steep climb. Then came a long, straight descent that we took single-file at close to 40 mph. Gravel flew up in our wakes, requiring us to close our mouths lest we lose a tooth. I took several off the bridge of my nose. Someone remarked that the gravel bouncing off bikes sounded like storming a beach at D-Day: Ping! Ping! Ping!

Each time I had trouble turning into the hill. I'd always find a bad line and end up climbing up last, then scrambling to regain contact on the descent. The 7th time up, after 60 miles of racing, the gap was too big and I couldn't reintegrate. I rode the last lap alone and at times with another dropped rider before rolling in for 23rd place. (About 45 had started.)

The breakaway was never caught, and Ed had to settle for 8th place. It's a shame I didn't quite have the tactical know-how or fitness to make this work. I love races of attrition like this, and in many respects it wasn't all that different from April's great Hillsboro Roubaix. Oh well. Maybe next year.

Photo taken by E. Wight: July 22, 2007


July 19, 2007

Were I in proper fitness, Tuesday's race through the rolling roads of the Whitnall Park botanical gardens is another one that should have been up my alley. (I got fifth here in April.) Happily, early on I could tell that I was feeling better than the previous day. I was lingering at the back, sure, but I was able to make up dozens of positions on each climb.

But 4 miles in, I felt a strange wobble in my rear wheel. I might have been bumped. I might have slipped on a groove in the road. It might have been pyschosomatic. Regardless, I didn't feel right, and I didn't feel confident taking turns at speed. I didn't want to risk falling on my glass shoulder, let alone take anyone else out with me.

"Brian," I yelled to a teammate. "Is my rear wheel shaky?"

"Yes!" he said emphatically.

So I pulled off and tightened my skewer. I chased for a bit, but even with motopacing from the support vehicle, there was no hope of catching. I rode on for the training. Friends and teammates encouraged me on, but others merely averted their eyes as I rolled past in shame. After five laps I called it a day.

Brian, an honest man and a chaplain by trade, later told me he had lied. My wheel didn't look shaky at all, but he knew an emphatic "Yes" was the answer I needed at that moment. Sometimes there is greater truth in the lie.

Nonetheless, I spent the rest of the day in a dark place mentally. Watching the pros, with their lean legs and their Zipp wheels and their dexterous turns, I didn't feel like a cyclist myself. I felt like a guy with an expensive bike and better things to be doing.

I wanted to imagine this being fun again. I wanted to imagine having confidence.

Wednesday was more fun. Wednesday I was more confident. Wednesday I had fewer things I'd rather be doing.

After reeling off two consecutive second-place finishes, Ed woke up in first place overall. Nico and I would be riding in his defense at the proving grounds, the course where I cracked a rib two years ago.

It's not something I've had much chance to do, but this kind of riding is an aspect of the 3's I was looking forward to. In some respects, playing a role and riding for someone else is more fun and more satisfying than riding for yourself. It's just as hard -- harder? -- but there's less pressure and tactically it can be more interesting, and I've enjoyed watching the more experienced Nico selflessly and expertly thread Ed through crowded packs.

In the second of six 10-mile laps, I was sitting near the front and feeling good. The pack had just reeled in a two-man break, but I rode tempo to make ground on a solo rider who remained away. The guy who'd won the previous day on a long flier was off the front and out of sight.

"Take it easy," Ed said.

"No, that time trial dude is off the front. We gotta bring him back before he gets too far."

"No he's not," he said. "Look, the pace car is here. The pace car stays with the leaders. That means there's nobody off."

"The pace car could be wrong," I said. I was certain I'd seen this guy's bright yellow jersey slip away. "Look, you stay here. I'm going to float back and try to find him."

As the pack strung out on a descent, I coasted back, back and further back. Sure enough, riding last was my yellow jersey, and as I floated back one more position, it became me who rode last.

I spent the next three laps weaseling my way back up to the front. It was hard on the congested roads, and I can't deny I crossed the centerline, mostly out of necessity, occasionally out of greed, all the while knowing full well the danger, knowing full well the hypocrite it made me.

Finally I was near the front again, keeping an eye out for any last-lap attacks. I motored up to a few, but the one time I made a sudden acceleration, I cracked hard after a mere 5 seconds of hard effort.

Eventually a rider in green got away by himself. A handful of people traded pulls at the front, including Ed. I went up to relieve him. "That was your last pull," I said as he coasted by me. I wanted him to save himself for the finish.

When it was my turn, I slowly accelerated. Next thing I knew, I looked back and nobody was with me. I didn't mean to attack, I swear, but there I was in no man's land. This would be my last chance to be useful, so I plowed ahead toward the green beacon on the horizon.

I got about halfway across the gap when a Brone's rider I knew to be strong bridged to me. "I'm happy with third," I quickly conceded in order to keep him motivated, but it was wishful thinking. We were soon joined by a third, and after a single rotation we were swallowed by the peloton.

The effort cooked me, but I'd like to think it contributed to catching the escapee a few miles down the road. I stayed with the group until the final mile, where two tricky turns led us back into a racetrack for the finish. As expected, several riders tangled up on the first of these turns, and the gap it created was just the excuse I needed to soft-pedal the rest of the way.

As I crossed the finish line, I heard the announcer say "Oak Park," and I knew that Ed had won.

Photo taken: July 17, 2006


July 17, 2007

I'm back, sort of.

Ordinarily today's road race at Alpine Valley would have been my favorite of Superweek. But after two uncharacteristically challenging group rides last week -- getting dropped when I ought not to have gotten dropped, wheezing when I ought not to have be been wheezing -- I knew that I'd lost quite a bit of fitness since the Snake Alley crash in May. I'd be lucky to be pack fodder.

Within the first 5 of 60 miles I was on the brink. My heart rate soared to 193 in the flats. One single hard effort sent me floating to the back, where I clung to keep contact. I had mechanical worries, too. I got a bad case of speed wobbles on the first descent, and the bumpy second descent loosened the screws of my bottle cage.

Just as I was contemplating how to safely secure my cage, I heard a loud "Pisssssh" and felt pressure give away behind me. "It's me," I said and raised my hand for a new rear wheel from the support truck. Unfortunately I hadn't put a wheel in and there were no compatible wheels available. I wouldn't have been able to get back in the race anyhow, but it would have been nice to get a training ride in.

A rider from Austin, Texas, stopped to give me a lift back to the start/finish. I had a nice chat with him, then balanced the karma by taking Ed's car and giving an Australian rider a lift up the feed zone.

Maybe there's a good race in my future, but I doubt I'm going to get the fitness back this year. I haven't had any quality intensity in six weeks, just spotty endurance rides. I don't feel that taut invincibility that comes with being in shape. Maybe I'll be fine by August, but those are all short crits, and even at my peak I'd have trouble.

The good news is that the shoulder is fine. It didn't even cross my mind during the race, and it is now rare when it twinges or throbs.

And that's all fine. What I have lost in fitness I have gained in perspective. I felt happy out there, and I felt safe and protected in the fold. Maybe next year.

Photo taken: July 16, 2007


July 11, 2007

Waiting for Floyd

Photo taken: July 10, 2007


July 3, 2007

And still I ride. I give in to the thrill and to the fun, risks to myself and others notwithstanding. After all, if I wanted a life without risk I'd live in Naperville. I'd order my meat well-done and use paper towels to open restroom doors.

Me, Jan. 24, 2006

Bike racing has been my life for three years, and I've made it my calling to spread its joys, by writing on this blog, by rallying my team, by creating a Web site to recruit people into the sport.

How do I now square that with the risks that Saturday's tragedy reminds us of? How do I tell a family that their father should join me?

At this moment I can't.

Racing is no less safe now than it was a week ago -- with new awareness it may even be safer -- but at this moment I'm not sure how to go on.

At this moment my thoughts have not reached conclusion, but here is a start. I expect these thoughts to evolve and reverse and reverse again. They are what they are.

All life's decisions balance risk and reward -- the reward of jaywalking vs. the risk of getting hit by a bus, the reward of a hamburger vs. the risk of heart disease -- but right now my inner scales are out of calibration.

I know I want to race again, but the desire is not yet back. I can't imagine bearing down on a finish line, surging out of a pack or wanting a wheel enough to elbow someone off it.

And I can't imagine riding on the outside. As I drove to and from Wisconsin this weekend for a visit with family, my insides quivered every time I found myself staring at the centerline.

I mourn Beth, but separately and selfishly, I also mourn that my sport is in fact full of danger. It seems so unfair. Cycling would be just so perfect if it were not so risky, if it did not exact such a toll.

I've already sent myself to the emergency room twice this year. Ellen doesn't want me to race anymore. Mom says she understands this is what I love and that there are risks with anything, but I don't think she means it.

I could always ride without racing, but I can't fathom it. Cycling without racing would be like golfing without a green, or sewing without fabric.

In all seriousness, I would need professional therapy to switch to a new life without racing.

This is not to suggest that such a life couldn't be as fulfilling, with more free time and money for loved ones and other pursuits. I'm just saying I'm not ready for it yet.

Ten years ago I was 40 pounds heavier and content to idle in front of the television. A lot has changed. Cycling is now who I am. I like who I am.

I like the dedication it has taught me. I like the health it has brought me. I like smugly looking around a room and knowing I'm the only bike racer. In short, I like the person that racing has made me, to say nothing of the relationships it has found for me. Could I still be that person without it?

Would it be too much to say that cycling has saved my life?

If lightning were to strike me now, it could not be said that fate stopped me before I could live a full life, that I did not find all the joys and experiences I was looking for. Ten years ago, that would not have been the case.

Again with the inner scales, as we wrestle with what is worth the risk. For every 50,000 people who complete a marathon, one will die. For a big race like October's Chicago Marathon, that statistic almost makes tragedy a matter of course. But how many lives has marathon training saved? How many thousands of people will now live to be 80 and see their great-grandchildren?

What if my father had been 40 pounds lighter and rode a bicycle instead of idling his time in front of the TV?

When someone like Beth is robbed of the chance to experience a full life's joys, it falls to the rest of us to experience them on their behalf. This is our charge, whether those joys come from racing or not.

It's a natural reaction to want to continue this sport "for Beth," to do an extra 50 miles "for her." But I don't think it's necessary to continue racing on her behalf, and it's a little presumptuous to say what she would have wanted us to do. Anyone who quit this sport would not be doing her disservice. All that's important is that we do something on her behalf, that in whatever we do, we touch others, we create and we love.

For those who do decide to continue racing, there is a new duty: to keep the rewards worth the risk. There has to be a point to what we do. We must keep this sport fun, safe and positive, and we must let the haters, the intimidators and the cynics know that they are not welcome.

Even if it is not always requited and even if most teammates don't yet know me from Adam, I have in three short months developed an intense love for my team, not just for its riders but even for its uniform and what it represents. (Yes, I'm crushing on laundry.) When I see a teammate, any teammate, I swell with admiration and a desire to put their needs above my own -- true love, in my book.

Me, June 29, 2005

The team has long felt like family. I felt it last spring, when my father passed away. There is something that binds us, something more than that we pay dues to the same treasurer. Like family, we share goals and values. Like family, we did not choose to be together -- we just are.

Last night we met to hug, cry and tell stories.

Just as I can't imagine not doing this, I can't imagine doing this without them.