Dec. 10, 2007

Randy says to always throw your bike when you practice your sprint. With that advice in mind, I encourage people to throw whenever they cross the finish line, no matter where they finish, because you never know when you're about to get pipped for 27th place. Often it is unnecessary -- I am either last in the break, or I'm well behind the field sprint, or I've been dropped -- but I throw anyhow. For the practice.

And so here I am, throwing to end the cyclocross season. My nearest competitor, a teammate, was at least 5 seconds back after having wiped out on the course's last tricky turn.

I wore antlers and had wanted to find a red nose. That way people would have been compelled to let me go first and guide their way. Instead, sans red nose, I got to my typical bad start and proceeded to spend the rest of the course picking people off. I'd pass one person, sprint to the next, and then spend a quarter-lap waiting for space to pass, space that was scarce on the slushy, muddy course.

I don't think anyone passed me, and I must have climbed from around 20th to my eventual 11th. If the race were an hour longer I might have had time to win.

Seth threw snowballs to motivate me on Cricket Hill. I had expected the snow and slush would make my handling a liability, but it proved not to be so. Nobody was taking these turns very fast, and those who did did so at their peril. I just took the turns nice and easy, sticking a leg out when it seemed prudent, and let the people ahead of me make mistakes, which they obligingly did.

And so ends the 2007 season. Cross was excellent for me, and having done it means I now go three months until my next race instead of what would have been five.

As I browse through this season's photos, it boggles me to be reminded of all that has happened this season, from early-season concussions to mid-season tragedy, from lucky breaks to unlucky breaks. I have to check the time stamps to confirm that the all the photos are indeed from the same season.

I've already booked my flight for spring camp in California. We leave in 89 days. Once again that trip will be the official transition from winter to spring, and as each day of winter passes, I feel like I've chalked another tally on the cell wall.

Photo taken by E. Wight: Dec. 9, 2007


Nov. 19, 2007

I'm not gone, just busy. News you've been breathlessly awaiting:

» We hosted a Halloween party. Ellen was a corked bat, I the Black Sox scandal. Howard Hughes, Bob's Big Boy and disgraced NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak all showed up. (The theme was "Scandal!" It turned out to be harder to dress for than we thought, since most scandals are perpetrated by white men in suits, and it takes a special person to make that fun.) We had way too much food and enjoyed a net gain of 12 beers.

» We bought a tandem. I still haven't taken a picture yet, but it's a 35-year-old Schwinn, canary yellow, made in Chicago. The brakes could use some modernizing but otherwise it runs great. We should all run so well at 35. There are two great things about a tandem: You cannot help but smile when you are riding it. Likewise it is impossible not to smile when you see two fools riding one down the street. It is a smile maker.

Between us we now own 10 bikes: Two mountain bikes, three racing bikes, a track bike, a cyclocross bike, a touring bike, a fixed-gear bike and the tandem.

» I've gotten better at cyclocross. I'm still terrible at the technical aspects, but I'm learning to ration my energies, and several of the courses have been well suited to my inabilities.

I've discovered one more reason why it appeals to me: It's slow. It's an odd confession for a bike racer, the fact that I don't actually enjoy going fast. But it's true: I've always preferred to go up mountains than down them, and motoring across the grass at 15 mph is a much happier time than riding elbow-to-elbow in a criterium at 30 mph. Plus, falling is less traumatic.

» I've taken on the redesign of my team's Web site. It's a difficult job: The site has to be complex enough to meet our needs but simple enough that even a cyclist can use it.

It's been about 12 years since I taught myself Perl and HTML -- back in the days when we bloggers had to write our own darn CMS's, back before we even had the word "blog", back when Pico was my text editor of choice and 28.8 baud felt fast -- and I haven't taught myself much since. I feel a little bit like unfrozen-caveman coder. So much has changed!

The challenges that pop up are great, but the greater a problem, the more satisfying the "Aha!" moment at its resolution. Several times I have leaped from my desk to celebrate a minor victory. I bounce into the living room and try to explain to Ellen why being able to rescue a deleted MySQL table is a big deal for me, if not a minor miracle.

As if this isn't enough to keep me busy, I'm also on a task force to improve safety at races. And I'm part of a four-man team to guide the development of new racers. And I'm trying to keep CBR fresh. And I'm trying to finish my test for my Level 2 coaching license. And I'm trying to get back into serious training-mode.

» I didn't write about it at the time because I didn't want to alarm my mother more than I already had, but I lost a second teammate this summer in a freak racing crash. One of the many cruelties of the loss was discovering what amazing young man he had been. We had hints while he was alive, but few of us were lucky enough to have seen him in full bloom.

Among other things, Pieter was an accomplished photographer, I came to learn, and this week his work went on display at a Michigan Avenue gallery. He was his own subject in many of his photos, so visiting the exhibit was like a reunion with an old friend. And as I rode by on my commute this morning and saw him through the window, I had the urge to wave hello.

Photo taken by E. Wight: Nov. 3, 2007


Sept. 28, 2007

After two years of spectating I finally did my first cyclocross races Sunday. My goals were modest: Don't hurt anyone, finish in the top half.

Everything I knew about cross I'd learned from watching a few online tutorials. While Ellen studied contracts and torts in the living room, I would be studying barriers and "suitcasing" in the dining room.

Amazingly, I had no problems with the obstacles. My mounts and dismounts were clean and quick, and I'm quite proud of my shouldering skills, thank you very much. I fell only once.

What killed me was the bike handling. There were several tight U-turns and chicanes that gave me fits every time, especially as the ground deteriorated and turned to dust.

In the 4's race I got a good position at the beginning of the race and hit the first barriers in the top 10. Each time through the chicanes, however, I would lose a position or two.

On the third lap I dropped my chain and had to get off to fix it. This turned out to be a windfall, because it set me back with the slower riders, and I spent the rest of the race passing people. Turns out that passing people is much more fun than getting passed. I should drop my chain in every race.

I went home not knowing how well I did and not even really caring. That's the great thing about cross: It's fun no matter what. Last place has as much fun as first. Most everyone in the 4's is there for a good workout or to dabble in a different discipline. There's none of the pressure or tension of road racing. It's just go go go, fun fun fun, wheeze wheeze wheeze. I think I'm hooked.

(Two days later I found out I got 13th out of 79.)

It takes a lot to bother me, but some of the reaction to last weekend's road rage incident has left me dispirited. Some have used the attack as an opportunity to launch angry, hateful rants against cyclists, in particular those who don't obey traffic laws with the to-the-letter vigor that drivers do. It's a blame-the-victim mentality that doesn't make a lot of sense. It's like taking a mugging and turning it into a discussion about jaywalking.

I turned off the comments on Chicago Bike Racing after one person wrote a particularly degrading comment, taking issue with the size of my testicles and insulting the two teammates who have died this year.

I responded as any rational person would: I invited him to lunch. On me. I figured if he felt that strongly, he'd welcome the opportunity to insult me and my dead friends in person. We could enjoy a burger and have a civilized conversation about what a humorless idiot I am. I promised him I would not cry.

So far he has not responded, He has declined, which I take to be a white flag vis-a-vis the question of who has the bigger cojones.

Photo taken by E. Wight: Sept. 23, 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


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


Jan. 18, 2007

A year later: a new color in the hallway, better hair and a smile.

Photos taken: Jan. 16, 2003; Jan. 16, 2004; Jan. 16, 2005; Jan. 16, 2006; Jan. 18 2007


Dec. 26, 2006

For several years I have been saving my pennies, emptying my pockets each night before bed. In doing so I have filled a pickle jar, a peanut jar and about 10 percent of a Carlos Rossi wine jug.

For several months Ellen has been asking me to get rid of those silly penny jars. She wanted me to redeem them at the Coinstar and then do something fun with the proceeds.

I was reluctant. I harbored this fantasy that one day my nephew would visit. What if it rained and we couldn't go to the zoo or the park or the bar? We could stay home, count pennies and learn about the rewards of thrift! Because surely nephews love counting pennies, almost as much as uncles love nephews who do chores.

Finally I relented, but stealthily and without Ellen's knowledge.

As I walked to the grocery store, my messenger bag groaned from the weight of the jars. The Coinstar there was defective and counted only one of every five pennies, of which I had thousands. Every few minutes I had to take handfuls of rejects and reload them into the intake hopper. The transaction took about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, the machine shook like an epileptic R2 unit, hemorrhaging pennies into the aisle.

The clatter reverberated through the Jewel. I scrambled to nab coins that had rolled away. I heard clerks and shoppers raising their voices to be heard above the disturbance, and I felt their accusing stares: "Who's that asshole with the pennies?"

This asshole with the pennies ended up $50 to the good. I took it in the form of Amazon credit, which enabled me to afford Ellen's Christmas present: an iPod. I miss my penny jars, and if my nephew ever visits on a rainy day we will have to play poker or fold laundry instead of any penny-related merriment, but it was worth it to see her face light up Monday as she tore through the newspaper in which I had wrapped my gift.

Then it was my turn to open her gift, and my greatest fears were realized: She had sold her entire CD collection -- in order to buy me a coin-sorting machine!

Ho ho! That last part is not true, but a day later my witty reimagining of the "Gift of the Magi" still makes me laugh. (O. Henry? Oh, brother!)

In truth, Ellen and her family spent the weekend burying an undeserving me with chocolates, casseroles and various wrapped delights. The highlight was a scarf made with yarn Ellen and I had selected this August at a rural Arizona truck stop/trading post/yarn emporium, a magic scarf that somehow keeps me warm even when it does not slither around my neck.

Homemade gifts are always the best, of course. I had hoped to make her an MP3 player out of twigs, plastic bottles and other found objects, but I could not find enough lithium ions for the battery and had to abandon the project just as I'd finished soldering the circuit board.

Photo taken: Dec. 23, 2006


Oct. 30, 2006

Ellen has often said that there's nothing wrong with me that $200 in clothes and a proper haircut couldn't fix, a diagnosis that reveals either her charity or her lack of imagination.

A few visits to Banana Republic have addressed the first problem, but the hair ... the hair ...

In the 25 years since I last hopped onto the kitchen stool for a haircut from Mom, I've patronized white man's barbershops exclusively, independent joints with baseball on the radio, ashtrays by the coffee pot and porn under the Newsweeks. I've been seeing the same guy for six years. He isn't interesting or funny or even very good, but he is as close as he is cheap, and the end result is always adequate for me. I don't have to look at it, after all.

But Ellen does, and in six months she has earned the right to veto certain grooming and lifestyle decisions. (See also "beard, off-season" and "whities, tighty.") Thus when I returned from the barber a few months ago with a speck of blood behind my ear -- it was just a nick; didn't even notice it myself -- she promptly vetoed any further visits to my guy, barbers' proud heritage of bloodletting notwithstanding.

Last week, then, I made my first appointment to a salon. Ellen's hairdresser recommended a spot near the Belmont El, a trendy place where one can also get tattoos, dyes and whatever it is that the goth kids inflict upon themselves. It sounded intimidating. (It's true: I'm 31 and am still frightened of the cool kids. Zombies? Mummies? Amway reps? Pish. It's student-body presidents and punk rockers that keep me up at night.)

I was nervous from the first step up the narrow stairway to the second floor. Given a choice, I'd climb the gallows with greater mirth. Entering the salon, it was clear that, as is often the case, I was the square in the room. I fidgeted in the waiting area, as if I were waiting for a dentist or a first date. As I was escorted to my stylist's station, I bumped into someone I knew -- someone who has always had very good hair, it should be noted -- but I was too jittery to make conversation. "Hey! Good to see you! Gotta go!"

My new stylist had a shaved head himself and looked like the type who ate live bats for lunch, but he was jolly enough. He asked what I wanted.

"Short and low maintenance. And my girlfriend says what I need is 'texture.' I assume she's talking about my hair."

"Don't worry," he said, patting my shoulders. "I'll take care of you."

"What kind of product do you usually use?" he asked a few minutes later.

"'Product?' None." I didn't volunteer that I usually shampoo with Suave, don't own a hairdryer and use conditioner only when I am the guest of someone who owns some.

"Don't worry," he repeated. "I'll take care of you."

And so he did. After a while he commented on how quiet I was. "My girlfriend says that, too." But I wasn't sure what commonalities we had to discuss. I could only presume he didn't care to hear about my cycling, and I wasn't all that curious in what he used to wax his eyebrows.

The rest was fine. He even washed my hair, something I like but that my guy doesn't do. All in all the experience wasn't that different from any other haircut. The main difference was that it cost twice as much as my guy. He certainly didn't take twice as long, nor did he cut it twice as short. Is it better? Sure. Probably. Maybe. (I'm not a very good judge of new haircuts.) But is it twice as good?

At least he didn't make me bleed. Now, however, there are ominous rumblings about something called "product." Sounds high maintenance to me.

Photo taken: Oct. 25, 2006


Oct. 10, 2006

The cycling season wrapped up this weekend.

(It occurs to me that I've been saying that for months: first after the last of the road races in July, then after the criteriums of August. But this time I mean it. We are out of races.)

As I rode home on the lakefront last night, a tailwind freshened my legs and made me mournful for the sudden competitive void. "If only," I thought to myself, "there were someone up the road to chase." As I glided up and around the 18th Street bridge, I thought, "If only this were Snake Alley."

The past two weekends comprised the Fall Fling: one time trial, two crits, a road race. I was most excited about the road race, which happened to fall on my birthday. It was a 40-mile race over rolling terrain that I knew would include exposure to heavy winds.

One particular team has been a bane to me all summer. Their etiquette is questionable but their sprinting is not. My hope in the road race, then, was to make sure it was a race of attrition and did not come down to a field scrum.

I was successful, sort of. I attacked several times and rode tempo in the crosswind, hugging either the gutter or the yellow line to maximize the effect. (One time I attacked because one rider from this team was being a jackass near the front. I wasted precious energy but got 45 seconds of peace and quiet.)

The field gradually shattered. At one point we were down to 13 riders, but I was too cooked to look back and realize it. My obliviousness allowed a chase group to catch back on.

Unfortunately, my efforts did not drop any of my targets. Instead, I found on each lap more of my teammates cheering from the sideline in street clothes. Oops. Sorry, fellas.

I ended up 10th. I might have done better had I not had to swerve into the gutter to avoid a crash during the downhill sprint. My criteriums were even more mediocre, 20th and 21st, and I ended up in 10th overall, two spots out of the money.

All weekend I've been replaying the races' finishes. If I'd only chosen a different gear, or taken a different line, or taken one less flier... The next race won't be until March, so I'll have five more months of these reruns.

Ellen is helping me put together an off-season training plan. I'm supposed to ride 300 miles this week, then rest a bit before attacking the weight room. She seems to think I need to develop enough upper-body strength so that I no longer need to press the handicapped button to open heavy doors.

This morning I did two things with 2007 in mind: I applied for an upgrade to Category 3, and I resumed my NetFlix subscription, so as to pass the dozens of trainer hours ahead. As I write this I am noticing the radiators clang and gurgle for the first time. It may snow Thursday.

This will be fun.

Photo taken by E. Wight: Oct. 7, 2006


Sept. 19, 2006

I'm not sure what normal boyfriends get in trouble for. Leaving dirty dishes on the table? Flirting? Emotional unavailability?

The angriest I have seen Ellen was this Sunday.

I had been in a break of eight at the masters criterium at Parkside. Just sitting in put my heart rate at 105 percent of its theoretical maximum. When the attacks started, two others and I were summarily dispensed out the back. It was when I chose to drop off the chase group, thereby abandoning hope, that I looked to the sideline and found heretofore unseen disgust. Clenched jaw, daggers out of eyes, smoke out of ears, the works. You'd think I'd just bogarted her chocolate shake. I could only shrug. I limped in in eighth place, either last of the winners or first of the losers, depending on your outlook on life.

This was the masters open race. The field wasn't stacked in my favor like last time, so even at peak fitness I would have been outclassed, plus I'd taken a week off because of a wedding and some unrelated gastrointestinal issues. My goal was merely to get in the winning break. Better to have made the separation and lost than to have never separated at all, right, baby? Maybe?

I hoped to have recovered by the end of the subsequent 4's race, but I was still too dead to make any move at the end, neither a planned suicide flier nor a sprint. On the bright side, I successfully advised young Jeff toward a fourth-place finish. If only he'd believed me about the headwind. He might have won.

This was the same course we raced this spring when patches of snow still dotted the barren landscape. Then, more than 80 riders rolled up to the line, and in the weeks leading up to each race our online forum was active with excruciatingly detailed tactical chatter. Now, despite Sunday's ideal weather, the fields were only 20 strong, and our boards were eerily silent.

All that remains is the four-race Fall Fling in October. I closed my season with this last year. Most people have wisely ended their seasons with the August crits and moved on to weekend brunches, TV binges and painting projects, or whatever it is normal people do with their lives. But I'm happy to have these bookends to the season. Even though I didn't do well, I was happy with how much I sat in Sunday. It was evident -- to me, at any rate -- that I'm a smarter rider than I was in March. This time it was fitness, not impatience and naivete, that did me in, which in a way is progress.

Photo taken by E. Wight: Sept. 17, 2006


Aug. 31, 2006

While I was a course marshal during Saturday's race, I let three neighborhood kids play with my camera. They were captivated. It was nerve-wracking to watch as they juggled the telephoto and fought over who got to use it next, but it was an effective way to keep them within reach. It proved less nerve-wracking than watching them run into the street and into the path of the charging peloton.

Photo taken by Maia: Aug. 26, 2006


Aug. 28, 2006

Road racing imitates life, the way it would be without the corruptive influence of civilization. When you see an enemy lying on the ground, what's your first reaction? To help him to his feet.

In road racing, you kick him to death.

Tim Krabbe, "The Rider"

A strange thing happened Saturday. I won a race.

It was fun. I should try to do it again sometime.

It was the masters race at Sherman Park, the criterium my team hosts on the South Side. Because there was a competing race and because most masters riders don't like the idea of bringing their nice bikes from the North Shore into a shady part of the city, the field was small, only 20, and 10 of us were xXx.

I'd just finished the 3/4 race, in which I'd wiped myself out to support teammates in the break and the field sprint. I was just hoping to finish the masters race.

Randy got off in an early break of six. After a few laps, I was feeling recovered and decided to join two teammates in attempting to bridge. We got off hard and clean, dragging no one with us, and by working together it was elementary to get up to Randy's group. By now there was a rider off the front, but xXx now made up four of the eight-man chase group.

Our chase was disorganized as we figured out who wanted to pull. Gaps formed, and the pace rose and fell. It turned out that nobody wanted to pull but us, so we formed a rotating paceline at the front until we got within sight of the leader.

Then Randy attacked. Two others marked him, so I counterattacked immediately. It was the perfect set-up: After surging to catch Randy, nobody was inclined to catch me -- or they didn't take a guy in tube socks seriously; fools! -- and my teammates went into blocking mode.

I caught the leader with about five laps to go. As soon as I did, I was thinking of how satisfying second place would be. "Pull me around," I was about to say, "and I won't sprint it out." Such is my killer instinct. But he beat me to it. "Pull me around," he said, "and I won't sprint it out." Deal!

I pulled for 3/4 of a lap and let him take a turn. Shortly after I took over again, I turned around and he was nowhere to be seen. I had no idea he was so close to the brink.

I rode hard and kept riding hard, trying to not look over my shoulder but failing. It wasn't until the last lap that I felt certain I was going to do it. Coming out of Turn 4, I slowed as much as I could without being obnoxious, trying to savor the moment.

Naturally I did a throw at the line.

This would be Race 54 in my racing log, and it would be my first win.

I like to say that in cycling, victory doesn't go to the fastest. It goes to whoever crosses the finish line first. This race supports that truism. I don't pretend to have been the strongest in this race, or even the strongest on my team. I just caught the lucky break and managed not to blow it, and I know I wouldn't have done nearly as well if xXx hadn't stacked the field.

I raced again Sunday. I raced stupidly and burned too many matches along the way but managed to get fourth.

Assuming all my races qualify, I've now earned 20 points, exactly what I need to upgrade to Category 3. I remain torn.

I've finally become a good Cat 4 rider. It's equivalent to being a B student in the first grade. Who on earth would go to second grade and remain a B or C student if you could repeat first and be an A+++ student?

Photo taken by Cecile Redoble: Aug. 26, 2006


Aug. 22, 2006

So, right. Bicycle racing.

Heading into last week's Elk Grove criterium, a race with an unprecedented $2,500 on the line, I hadn't raced in more than a month. More pressing, I hadn't known success in more than two months.

Success begets confidence. Confidence begets success. Treacly, but true, and in racing confidence may be more of a decisive factor than fitness or tactics.

When you have a good position and a rider steals it from you, there are two reactions. The non-confident rider says, "I guess this guy is faster than me. Maybe next time." And then he floats back to 40th place and stays there. The confident rider, on the other hand, says: "The hell you do. That's my spot, I worked to get it, and I deserve it." And he fights to get it back, more out of rage and entitlement than anything.

I know this because I've been both riders. Sometimes in the same race.

About that rage and entitlement. I'm learning the role these feelings play. I don't have a lot of either, but I'm learning how to fake it during a race. My guess is that great athletes have plenty of both all the time, which is what makes them great but also unpleasant to be around.

Back to success. The goal going into Elk Grove and the other end-of-season crits was to sit in, be patient and salvage some success and confidence to carry me through the off-season, like one last kiss to carry you through a loved one's absence.

Elk Grove criterium: 2.5-mile course with two treacherous 180-degree turns. I tried to sit in, I honestly did, but on a prime lap I found myself off the front and decided to go for it. The prime went three deep. Surely I could hold off all but two of the field, right? Sure enough, I did, winning my first prime ever, a bike fit worth $150.

I had decent position in the last lap, but let myself get swarmed and boxed in. I barely negotiated a crash in the last 400 meters, then could pass only enough people for 21st, one spot out of the money.

This Saturday was the historic Downers Grove criterium. Since it's the same course that the national championship is contested on the following day, it draws the summer's largest and strongest fields and even a few spectators. I watched several of the races last year, and I'd been studying race reports all week. I hadn't visualized a race this precisely since the great road races of May and June.

Category 4: Again I accidentally found myself off the front, despite the plan to sit in the entire time. I had a good breakaway companion, however, and even though we stayed off for only two laps, that was enough for us to exchange two $25 primes.

Alas, same thing on the last lap: Good position, but I allowed myself to get swarmed and boxed in. A massive crash had reduced the field to only 25 riders, and I could do no better than 19.

Masters 4/5: This time I was full of rage, entitlement and Accelerade. We'd gotten to the staging area late, Bob and I did, but we I weaseled a position at the front. (We had a choice: Create a new first row and get yelled at, or go to the last row and start the race in 110th place. We chose the former, knowing how important it was to have good position at the whistle.)

I hit the first corner in the front 10 and spent the entire race there. Any time someone came up the side I pounced and grabbed their wheel. Even after I contested two primes -- losing both of them carelessly -- I fought to retain my positon. Position was crucial. Eight turns meant eight chances to crash. By being at the front, I could pedal through the turns single-file and choose my own lines, rather than riding in the pack and praying someone wouldn't go wide and take me out. Just in case, I let my inside knees hang wide to discourage anyone from bombing past.

This time I succeeded in sitting in and never "found myself" off the front. Ellen was in Mexico, but I could hear her coaching: "Sit in, you silly fool!" The pros should be so lucky to have such dulcet advice piped through their race radios.

There were so many primes that they never announced three or two laps to go. Suddenly we were on the bell lap and I was in the front 10. When I sensed people moving up the side, I moved over to block them, preferring to eat the wind rather than risk losing spots.

With the exception of two Lot riders, it was a jumble of teams at the front. Lot has a reputation for, among other things, having good sprints, so I grabbed their draft. In the confusion of the last turn, however, I lost it, and they executed a perfect leadout for themselves. One of them won, but I held on for fourth.

This was not the best finish of the year, but given the strength of the field and difficulty of the race, it was among the most satisfying. Most satisfying of all may have been the urge to vomit. I felt like I'd just done a time trial, so hard and non-stop had I been working for 35 minutes. After most races I feel I could have gone a little harder. Here I knew I'd given everything I had. Exactly 100 percent of my being had gone into my pedals, and if fourth is as much as my being yields, so be it.

Photo taken by Michael Barran-Stanley: Aug. 19, 2006


July 25, 2006

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

Photo taken: July 22, 2006


July 22, 2006

Family portrait.

Photo taken: July 17, 2006


June 28, 2006

The narrator in "The Rider" starts his career at the age of 29 and races more than 200 times in his first two seasons. I, too, started my career at 29, but in my first two seasons I've raced only 44 times, including alley cats and practice time trials.

Even so, I'm beginning to think I've raced too much.

It's hard not to. The winters here are as hard as they are long. Racers emerge in April desperate for action, hopeful to never ride the trainer indoors again. Skip a race? Ha! We waited five months to race, so once the snow melts, of course we spend each weekend driving across the midwest, springing for hotels and tanks of gas and abandoning our friends and families. (We'll reacquaint ourselves with them in November, unless we do cyclocross instead.)

I raced three times this weekend and despite plenty of hills, spills and chills -- and my first in-race shouting match! -- I lack the energy to write about it here. The minutiae and trivia of every turn and attack don't excite me like they used to. If I'm not burned out, I'm very close.

The state championships are this weekend. Supposedly they're the most important races of the year, but I'm not as excited as I was for the throwaway races of April. My heart doesn't skip when I daydream of the tactics. I haven't even shaved my legs for them yet.

Ironically, all the racing has seriously cut into my training. I used to love leaving the house with pockets full of Clif bars and nowhere to be for six hours. I can't remember the last time I logged more than 50 miles at a time. There are good cycling friends with whom I haven't ridden at all.

I'm also sad that two of my favorite teammates may be done for the year. One is running out of money. The other is running out of knee. A part of me regrets encouraging them to race so much with me early in the season. (I offered Superweek fees to the first; he declined. I'd offer my knees to the second if I could.)

That said, there aren't many races I regret having done. Each one has at least one moment that makes me smile weeks later. Each one has in some way made me a better rider.

On the other hand, there's not much racing left. I'll do the road race Saturday, and then I'll do four races during Superweek. After that? Maybe a crit here and there, but I'm also due for some non-cycling fun. Summer, my favorite time in Chicago, a time of bare feet and naps in the park, a time of kuchens and fresh basil, a time to sit contented on the back porch and say, "Oh, right, this is why I live here," is speeding by. It's almost July, for heaven's sake, and the hammock remains in the basement.

Photo taken by E. Wight: June 25, 2006


June 12, 2006

I don't believe the rider who ... told me how he had seduced a woman during a criterium. She was standing behind a crush barrier when he discovered her, or she him. (If she'd told me, I would have believed her.) Every hundred seconds he came barreling past, and so their love blossomed as prettily as a flower in one of those time-lapse films. Ten laps long they smiled at each other, for another ten laps she winked, they began running their tongues over their lips, and by the time the race was approaching its decisive phase their gestures had become downright salacious.

He said so, but I don't believe him, because he's a very good racer. It's impossible.

Tim Krabbe, "The Rider"

But nothing is impossible if you are not a very good racer.

My team had four people in last year's Spring Prairie Road Race. Only one finished with the pack, and it wasn't me, not by a long shot. This year would be different.

With a killer hill right before the finish line, it was a course suited to me. As soon as I noticed registration was open and that the field would be limited to 75, I started recruiting. Since it was Wisconsin's state championship, I figured the field would fill up quickly. I wanted as many teammates as possible.

A teammate was the first to register. I was second. Other teammates were third and fourth.

And sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth.

And 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th.

By the time capacity was reached, xXx constituted 23 of the 75-person field.

Alas, my fiendish ploy to hijack Wisconsin's championship was foiled when the promoters created a second field, separating the Wisconsinites from out-of-staters like us. (With our 2006 palmares -- victories at Parkside, Cobb Park and Baraboo, podiums just about everywhere else -- who could blame them?)

Rain fell in buckets Saturday morning. At 6:30 I checked the radar and found a green and orange blob spread across the Midwest. I drew an appropriate shirt, from Ride Across INdiana shirt, out of the drawer.

I'd been obsessing about this race for two weeks, but I hadn't thought to consider weather. There's nothing worse than a crowded race on wet roads.

Miraculously, rain, darkness and sorrow yielded to sunshine, warmth and glee once we crossed the state border.

As I greeted friends in the parking lot, I asked, "Ready to break some legs today?" To a person they answered in the affirmative. I had teammates who could drive the tempo in the flats. I would do the same on the climbs. It was entirely possible that someone could beat us, but we would make sure they earned it.

We would do six laps, ending each one with a steep hill that promised to damage the peloton each time up. It was this hill that would teach me an important lesson this day, that of not getting cocky about one's strengths.

Ever since San Luis Obisbo, I've relished opportunities to show off my climbing abilities, and I spent each of the first three laps showing off my nonchalance.

The first time up I casually glided to the fore and waved to spectators, as if I were a parade marshal leading a caravan of elephants and marching bands.

The second time up I made a show of drinking from my bottle and gargling.

The third time up I planted a kiss on Ellen. (I was going so fast, her head spun. Neck injury was narrowly averted.)

After the frst three laps whittled the field from 60 to 40 to 20, it was time for a selection to be made. A Northwestern rider joined Ed and me in setting a punishing tempo after the fourth climb, and the final group of 12 was established. Five were xXx: Me, Ed, Kevin, Ken and new teammate Pieter, who not having a uniform was riding incognito.

Once this group was established, only a few took pulls. Others moaned about how they were isolated without teammates. They'd just sit in back, thank you very much.

Ed and I spent the last few laps whispering about how we were going to win this race. It was pretty much a continuation of exhaustive discussions we'd been having over e-mail all week. Do we attack? When? Where? Both of us?

That's why I love cycling so much more than running, and it's why I enjoy writing these race reports as much as you enjoy reading them. Each race is a new puzzle waiting to be solved, a Rubik's Cube that continues to shift and change colors just as you think you have it figured out. If you've run one marathon, on the other hand, you've pretty much run them all. Strategy is the same, independent of course or competition: Run hard, run hard some more.

Heading into a stiff wind in the backstretch of Lap 5, the pace settled into a mosey. Naturally I did the same stupid thing I always do when I'm in a pack and I'm bored and impatient: I rolled off the front. And naturally the pack did the same smart thing it always does: It let me go.

I was surprised but pleased with the gap I got. 400 meters? This wasn't anything Ed and I had discussed, but I thought maybe I could expland it over the hill and make it stick for a lap. It was only 6 miles. I had blockers. What could go wrong?

We were starting to lap riders. When I passed a teammate, I yelled, "When they come through, tell Ed I've cramped up real bad!" Then I made a show of shaking out my right leg. I figured if the group thought I was injured it wouldn't chase so hard. Such is lesson No. 1 of cycling tactics: When you can't be fast, be sneaky. (I'd read about this stunt in a book some time ago. It worked in the book, but it didn't here. Nonetheless, I had fun trying. )

Halfway up the hill, I could tell I was going to get caught, but I was startled to see myself get caught in such a blaze of glory: Here was Pieter screaming up the left! He flew up the hill faster than anyone I've ever seen climb. Great! A counterattack! The move was brilliant.

Except it wasn't an attack: Pieter had thought we were on the last lap, and this was his big finish. It was a shame, because nobody could have ever matched his rapid ascent. (Afterward, impressed with his amazing tuck as much as his climbing, I asked him, "Where'd you learn to ride like that?" "Belgium." But of course.)

And then the last lap. Again we moseyed through the finishing flat until Ed moved to the front and set tempo to keep people honest and discourage attacks. He pulled off and other riders started to attack, but none got separation.

I came into the final corner in third. And here's where I blew it.

The first five times up the hill I'd done it by the book. I nailed it each time. Great form, smiling for maximum oxygen intake, spinning in my largest cogs. This time I got cocky and tried to assault the hill in a smaller cog. The gear was too high. I couldn't turn it over fast enough, and I had too much hubris to shift down and get into my proper rhythm.

I tried to grind it out. I had plenty of gas and had been feeling great even after my flyer, but I was sputtering. Meanwhile, the rest of our group started to pass. Ed almost looked upset at me as he went by, upset to be picking up my slack when this was supposed to be my moment. I came close to catching two riders, but I ended up ninth. Normally this would have satisfied, but I couldn't help but think that this had become a 12-man race, and I could claim no better than fourth from last.

Happily, Ed showed his usual excellence. He came in second, finishing behind the rider who had moaned the loudest about his lack of teammates. ("He didn't pull!" I would pout over lunch. "Yes, and he won," Ellen would remind me.)

Afterward Ed and I bowed our heads solemnly and crossed our arms. What happened? How did we not win this? What was the right solution to this puzzle? Sure, we broke some legs, but there's no prize for top leg breaker. There's only a winner and then everyone else.

This was a course and a field tailor-made for us. When do we get a chance to crack it again?

Photo taken by E. Wight: June 10, 2006


June 1, 2006

I wasn't planning to race Sunday. I was just driving to Indiana with Matt so I could rendezvous with Ellen and join her in Monday's road race. But an hour before Sunday afternoon's criterium, only 12 people had registered. That sounded like an active-recovery ride to me. Plus, what kind of rider would let a teammate race alone?

Ultimately about 30 riders entered in temperatures that again topped 90. The course was a basic four-corner downtown race: 1 kilometer long, 45 minutes plus 2.

About 25 minutes in I was near the back and noticed the guy next to me complaining about the heat and appearing like he was about to cry. I figured if he was on the brink, others would be as well, so this would be a good time to accelerate and shake things up.

There I went, gliding off the front. I was foiled, however, by the very clever thing the pack did next: nothing. Instead they let me get a 200 meter lead, and with 30 minutes to go in stifling heat, they were smart enough to let me keep that lead for about four laps. Finally they started to chase, and as soon as my lead started to recede, I stood up so they could put me out of my misery.

Back in the pack, I occasionally let a gap open in front of me, hoping it could cleave the pack, with Matt in the lead group. This didn't work, and racers would scold me for allowing the gap. I feigned fatique. "I did Snake Alley yesterday. What the hell did you do?"

We were down to 20 in the sprint. Nothing special. Matt took 7th. I was near the back in 13th. One of these days I'll learn to sprint, or learn not to attack so early.

By the next morning I had still not learned not to attack too early.

Ten miles into the 44-mile road race -- and in the same 90 degree heat -- I rolled off the front and the pack let me go. I maintained a 20-second gap for about five miles. The question is, Why? Did I really think I could hold off the pack for 34 miles? Who do I think I am? Will I ever learn?

If I never learn not to attack so early, maybe I can at least learn to abandon the effort once it's obvious nobody is going to join and help. Instead I dangled. The only joy was passing Amish women on their bicycles. I tipped my helmet and bid them a guten Morgen.

With 10 miles to go an unattached rider was off the front. He looked strong, so on a hill I attacked to bridge. I caught him easily and we started trading pulls. A minute later we were joined by another unattached rider, a guy I recognized from April's McCormick's Creek race. He had came in third, so I knew he was strong and, just as important, friendly and cooperative. It took a few cycles, but soon we had a great rhythm and a huge gap. I had two teammates blocking in the pack, and the first unattached rider said he had two confederates as well. There would be no stopping us.

And then I made the biggest blunder of my young cycling career.

There was a spot about 8 miles from the finish where the course turned right at a dead end. There was too much gravel on the right side, so riders had to turn left, then slow and make a 180-degree turn.

As fate would have it, there was a very similar intersection about a quarter-mile prior. When we got to it, I had just come to the front and thought we had arrived at the second, more complicated turn. Indeed, a marshal waved his flag from left to right, which I took to mean, "This is where you turn left, then right." I alerted my break partners: "Here comes that U-ey!"

I was wrong. This was in fact a normal left turn, but when I slowed and veered right, the two behind me collided and crashed to the ground. Our break -- and my first real shot at a victory -- was done for.

That was crash No. 1.

The orginal attacker was hurt and couldn't continue. I stopped to express my horror and remorse, but when the pack came by 30 seconds later, the third rider and I hopped back in.

Climbing with 1.5 miles to go, I attacked yet again and got a small gap. I don't know whether I could have held my lead, but it became moot when I took a bumpy downhill turn too wide and rolled onto the grassy shoulder. I stayed upright, but by the time I got back on the pavement, the pack of 20 was several bike lengths away.

That was crash No. 2.

The pack drifted away. I was certain I was out of it. Then, my salvation: another hill. I scrambled up in time to reintegrate with the pack.

The course was windy and undulating, so nobody was sure where the finish line was and started jumping way too early. I, however, had noticed on the second lap that there was a Prudential "For Sale" sign about 600 meters from the finish line, then cones at 200 meters, so I waited until the Prudential sign before I became aggressive about position. By this time people who had jumped were losing steam. I was able to hop from rider to rider and took fifth place with a throw.

Oh, to think what could have been ... if I hadn't attacked so early ... if I hadn't crashed out my break partners ... if I hadn't ridden into the ditch ... if I hadn't raced four days in a row ...

Rolling through the cool-down area, I abruptly turned around to catch the finish of the women's race. Naturally I did this without looking to see whether anyone was behind me. There was. He was going slow enough that neither of us fell over, but there you go: Crash No. 3.

After 11 races in 30 days, maybe it's time to take a few weekends off?

Photo taken: May 29, 2006


May 22, 2006

Put your index fingers between a rubber band. Spread your fingers as far as they can go. You have just created a model of the Monsters of the Midway criterium course.

I'm slowly coming to appreciate crits (slowly being the operative word) but with its long straightaways and tight spaces between turns, I knew Monsters would be fast and dangerous. Sprints would be inevitable. My only hope, the break, would be a longshot.

As we ate cookies on the curb after the races, Ed asked me a question about the masters race we had done. I drew a blank. What masters race?

Oh, right. That one.

I raced twice: masters in the morning, Cat 4 in the afternoon. Both were harder and faster than any others I've done, but for as much of an impression as they left, I have almost zero recollection. There were some attacks, some chases, some sprints. I was too preoccupied with keeping up and moving up, however, to transfer any details into long-term storage, let alone enough details to contribute to the debriefing.

Perhaps I should take notes during races. A peloton, after all, is a complex system, too complex and too fluid to record unassisted.

Krabbe calls it "the continuosly shifting braid," a rope of a hundred kinetic strands that is woven and rewoven. When a race is as fast and as hard as these were, it's impossible to save enough data to process later. It's like staring at a ceiling fan and trying to count the individual revolutions. One can isolate one or two passes, but then it all becomes a blur again.

That may be what I like best about the breaks. Suddenly the system is simple enough for even me to comprehend. Suck, suck, pull. Suck, suck pull. Suck, suck pull. Smile for cameras. Suck, suck pull.

I know at one point -- I think it was the Cat 4 race -- I was in third wheel and didn't feel the first two wheels were working hard enough to bring back a dangerous break. "Pull hard or pull off," I growled before moving moving forward to do it myself. Then I counterattacked.

I remember being terrified heading into each corner and having a "phew" moment each time I left one upright. I got the jitters any time I rode more than two abreast, which may have been why I worked so hard to string out the front. This was a welcome difference in the masters race: They knew how to ride. With the inexperienced riders in the 4's, each corner would be accompanied by a panicky chorus of "Inside! Inside!" and "Hold your line!" Miraculously, there were no crashes.

In both races I had nothing left at the end and lumbered across the line around 25th place. Teammates later told me I was smiling less than usual and working too hard. I can deny neither accusation. I'm still not smart or patient enough to hang out in the back where it's easier.

I wouldn't have minded if the work had contributed to team results. In the masters race Randy got into the winning break, but it was another team's blocking that made that possible. In the Cat 4 race, I rode tempo near the end, but at a very indecisive moment, and we didn't assemble a good enough train to get the victory. Instead we settled for second and third.

Is second and third a better team result than first and tenth? I say yes, but I bet sprinters would disagree. My co-worker the track sprinter likes to say that second place is merely "first loser."

And that, dear reader, is as close as I'll get to sulking. I see no use in dwelling over missed opportunities or poor performances. I get enough of that at work.

It was a beautiful day not only to race but also to watch racing, from the juniors in the morning to the Cat 5's late in the afternoon.

As I was photographing the Cat 3 race, two Northwestern riders came up to me.

"Are you Luke?"

Urr, yes.

"We read your blog!"

Blush. They'd apparently seen somebody taking pictures when he should have been warming up for his own race and naturally concluded it was me.

One was a Cat 2 racer who looked not much older than my nephew. Once again I cursed myself for not getting into this 10 years sooner. What the hell was I doing in my 20s that was so important?

I had fun watching the Cat 5 race. I'm fond of our new riders. They're almost as adorable as our juniors. In their first few races they are as overenthusiastic as I was -- am? -- and I'm excited to watch as they find their legs. I trust they won't get discouraged when they, as was my fate last year, get lapped and yelled at. This year it was me doing the lapping and the yelling and a little bit of the swearing. Their turn will come.

Photo taken by Sandy Weisz: May 20, 2006


May 8, 2006

A year ago I rode my first road race, in Baraboo, Wis. I didn't do very well. I darn near fell off my bicycle in the warm-up. But I knew I could do better, and I couldn't wait to return to find out for sure. Planning out my 2006 season, I made Baraboo one of my top priorities.

Then I learned that Baraboo is where Eric Sprattling passed away, and my commitment doubled.

My team wears two hearts on its sleeves. One is for Eric. He was a member who in 1999 suffered a fatal aneurysm during a race. I never met him, but this memorial spells out the great loss to Chicago and to cycling.

I read the memorial often. I'm always touched by how Marcus put it: "He went out doing the thing." I love that. Doing the thing. The racing, the training, the camaraderie, the thing that possesses us to overcome every difficulty, to make every sacrifice. Whether my time is this year or in a hundred years, I'm proud of the fact that I will go out having done the thing.

I decided to make Baraboo an important race not just for me but for the team as well. We are extremely fortunate to have this team, and I felt doing well at Baraboo would be a good way to honor the pioneers who made it possible. I talked it up for months, reminding everyone of our history there but also what a fun and challenging course it was.

It worked. Even though the race was at 9 a.m., we had 14 men drive four hours and stay overnight, some in a nearby campground. This was by far the most teammates I've had in a road race. Usually I'm lucky to have four or five. I especially appreciated the rookies, the ones who knew that, as I did last year, they would probably fail to stay with the pack over the first climb, but who came out anyhow.

The course had two significant climbs. We'd do two laps. When I made it over the first climb not only with the pack but at the front of it, I felt victory, having tangible evidence of how much I'd improved since last year.

Even with our numbers, I didn't think we would want to attack much. I figured we should let the hills do the work for us. Surprisingly, though, the pack didn't shatter nearly as much as I thought it would. After each climb I goosed the tempo a bit, but let up once I saw it wasn't having much effect. In retrospect, I wonder whether I underestimated how much everyone else was suffering, and whether one or two more hard pedal strokes would have broken things up. That's something Tim Krabbe writes about: "Shift, when you're really, truly at the end of your rope, to a higher gear."

With 4 miles to go, the field was about 25 strong. Once again it would come to a bunch sprint. I'd spent most of the race near the front and didn't have a good read of our composition. Word got passed from the back: We didn't have our ace sprinter with us. It was time to improvise.

I saw Ed up ahead. I scooted forward and checked in.

"Ansgar's not with us."

"Oh, shit. You're kidding."

"That's the memo from Tim. So you're our guy, Ed."

"OK. I still have some leg left."

"Good. More than I can say for myself."

Ed let me in ahead of him. I'd moved up just in time. The pace turned extremely hot as the course descended into the final milelong flat. We leapfrogged a bit, but I focused on staying ahead of him, glancing back often to make sure he was still on my wheel.

With 800 meters to go, someone jumped on the left. This was way too early, and once he got into the wind he slowed, creating a brief bottleneck. Ed capitalized, squeaking past on my right.

Suddenly I lost the wheel I was on and couldn't find a new one. Oh, familiarity; oh, contempt. It's always so crushing to have people pass in the sprint. They don't even go that much faster. It's like falling down a hole in slow motion, clutching blindly for a handhold. With each wheel that passes, I sink further in the standings, and all the hard work sinks deeper into the realm of all-for-naught.

I got 10th place. Crossing the line I saw fatigued and beaten riders congratulating Ed. He'd done it. He had won. The team had what it had come for.

I know it sounds like a platitude every time I say it -- and I've now had the fortune to have said it twice -- but seeing a teammate win is just as sweet as winning myself. It means the race wasn't for naught after all.

And then the masters race.

Since the races were only 27 miles this year, I decided to do the masters 4/5 race that started immediately after. I knew I'd be gassed, but I actually looked forward to getting dropped. I haven't gotten dropped since Superweek last July. I needed to be reminded of the terror and despair of fading from the pack. I needed to be reminded that the pain of gutting it out was nothing compared to the pain of being alone.

The masters race was more intense than the earlier race. Ed and I struggled just to hang on, but we managed to keep good position and even shut down a break or two. We were encouraged by the younger riders who stuck around to cheer and heckle. I was sure to flash Tim a cowboy, ninja or bear every time I passed.

The nice thing about masters racing is that there's not the surging and slowing that you get with the youngsters. Often in the elite fields, kids fly to the front and then grind to a halt once they remember: "Oh, yeah. Pulling is hard!"

Ed flatted after the first lap, leaving me alone when we returned to the big climb. This time the pack would shatter.

An exploding field is about the most beautiful thing to see in cycling, even better than a well-timed leadout train. Naturally it depends on your perspective. For me, the view was pretty sweet. I started the climb in the middle of the pack, but soon I was doing slalom around popped riders. The chaos was rapturous.

The first five riders up the hill quickly organized into a paceline. I spent a half-mile chasing them alone. I was so beyond my limits that my navigation system shut down and I drifted into the gutter. I recovered, but this was my cue to sit up. It wasn't long before I heard two riders behind me. I accelerated and joined their chase.

It was me, an Atkins rider and a Brazen Dropout. The leaders dangled a tantalizing 40 meters ahead of us. The Dropout refused to pull, as he had a teammate up the road. Talk about brazen, but, hey, that's racing. Negative racing, but racing nonetheless and better than just riding in circles.

Atkins and I worked well together, yet the gap grew. After a few miles I tried to persuade the Dropout to help.

"So you've got one of the five up there, huh?"

(Head nod.)

"Wouldn't you rather have two of eight?"

"I'll have to think about that."

"Well, don't think too long, because we're dying here."

Finally the Dropout decided to take some pulls, but it was far too late. I tried to break away on the last climb, and when that didn't work I tried to set Atkins free. That didn't work either, and in the sprint the fresh-legged Dropout dusted us both for sixth place.

My fixie has had funny noises (funny strange, not funny ha-ha) coming from its bottom bracket, so I took it into the shop last night. My racing bike needs some repairs, too, though with all the shops experiencing the annual fair-weather rush, I don't know when I'll get it done without missing anything important.

And this body of mine. It could use a tune-up itself, if not a complete overhaul. Next week's rest week can't come soon enough.

Photo taken by L. Alton: May 6, 2006


May 2, 2006

We were pretty deflated after Saturday's road race, the first of three stages in the Anderson Mayors Cup. There had been no challenging climbs to separate the field -- on the course's modest hills I amused myself by heckling those who struggled: "Why are we slowing? Is there an obstruction ahead? Are those gears I hear being changed? For this?" -- so after 43 miles the race came down to a bunch sprint. Since I was still recovering from an aborted break, I volunteered to lead Tim out. We had great position, me in fourth and him in fifth, but we got anxious and jumped way too soon. Riders zipped around me like two sides of a zipper zipping around something that ought not be stuck in a zipper. Tim got a disappointing 10th. I settled for 17th.

Then a funny thing happened: Tim killed the time trial. Must have been his skinsuit. He would enter Sunday's criterium in fourth place in the general classification.

Waking up Sunday, however, I wasn't even sure I'd race. Rain was forecast for the entire day. Crits are dicey enough when it's dry. A wet surface was a prescription for road rash, busted heads and, worse, dirty components.

The rain worked to our favor, however. It kept our field small, around 25, scaring away even the riders in contention for the overall prize, including second and third place. First place had a prohibitive lead, but if we could keep anyone from scoring points on Tim, he'd finish the weekend in second place.

Four of us stuck around for the crit. At the starting line we did a head count. One. Two. Three. Three?

Where was Tim, our great GC hope?

The promoter was ready to start the race. "Second place had a mechanical," I said, making something up, "but he'll be here soon!"

The promoter shrugged. We tried to stall.

"Is there a wheel pit?"

"Where is the feed zone?"

"Can you tell us more about the wheel pit?"

Apparently Tim had taken an extra warm-up lap and gotten stuck behind some pokey masters riders. Finally we saw him come around Turn 4, trying to catch up to us as if he were, as he'd put it later, the neighborhood fat kid. He was still about 50 meters away when the whistle blew, just in time for him to help himself to a flying start.

My job during the race was to chase down any moves by rider nos. 459, 460 and 485. Those were the threats to Tim's standing. Whenever someone attacked, I could count on hearing Tim behind me, saying either "Let him go" or "We need to shut that down," and I reacted accordingly. (Racing is much easier when I don't have to think for myself.)

The course proved not nearly as treacherous as I'd feared. We let the overall leader escape on a solo breakaway, and then a few attacks and counterattacks broke the lead group into a pack of nine. We took the corners single file, nice and easy.

With three laps to go, Tim and I settled into fourth and fifth wheels again. We spent the entire last lap discussing our leadout so that we wouldn't make the same blunder as in the road race.

It turned out to be moot: I led him hot out of Turn 4, but then another rider jumped way too early. Tim hopped onto that wheel and sprinted around it for the win, claiming second in the race and locking up second in the GC. After topping 35 mph in the homestretch, I threw for seventh, squeezing into 8th overall and into the money, insofar as winning $25 for a race that cost $65 to enter and $60 to drive to is "in the money."

Afterward, two different riders told us how mad they were that they had heard us blabbing about our plans but still weren't able to beat Tim. (Note to selves: Stop blabbing so much!)

Photo taken by E. Wight: April 30, 2006


March 23, 2006

On city streets, trends in scruff have reached new levels of unruliness, a backlash, some beard enthusiasts say, against the heightened grooming expectations that were unleashed with the rise of metrosexuality as a cultural trend. Men both straight and gay, it appears, want to feel rough and manly ... The return of the wild beard carries a certain erotic charge that has been missing from beards since the Furry Freak look of the 1970's.

New York Times, March 23, 2006


Photo taken: March 19, 2006


Feb. 26, 2006

Breaking in my new remote.

Photo taken: Feb. 25, 2006


Jan. 16, 2006

For the record: I'm not so sure about the beard either.

Nor, for that matter, my ability to comb moisten and tamp my hair.

Photos taken: Jan. 16, 2003; Jan. 16, 2004; Jan. 16, 2005; Jan. 16, 2006


Nov. 20, 2005

The contents of my wallet as of 3:30 a.m., which is when I believe it fell out of my pocket somewhere on my ride up Clark Street after work:

  • $114
  • Two blank checks
  • Two credit cards
  • ATM card
  • Illinois driver's license
  • California driver's license (expired)
  • Jewel loyalty card
  • Metropolis Coffee loyalty card (one purchase from free pound of coffee)
  • Work gym pass
  • Cheetah Gym 10-workout card (two workouts remaining)
  • Blood donor card
  • USCF racing license
  • CBF membership card
  • CTA card (magnetic)
  • CTA card (Chicago Card)
  • Business card for Tony Becker (professional)
  • Business card for Tony Becker (novelty)
  • Business card for guy at the lighting store who in September received the fluorescent fixture I brought for repair, but who never called me back and with whom I never followed up
  • Baby photo of nephew

Oct. 7, 2005

I'd thought about making a list of 30 things I know at 30 that I wish I had known at 20. 3. Time is too valuable to ever be "killed" ... 5. Always check for toilet paper, or always carry small bills ... 8. Don't assume everyone else is any less baffled than you are ...

But then I got to 11 or 12 and realized: Here I am, 30, almost an adult, and after all my travels and adventures, after all my education and work, after all the hearts I've broken and all the hearts I've had broke, all I'm really, really certain of is this: 1. When I was 20 I thought I knew everything, and I still don't know shit.

Photo taken: Oct. 6, 2005


Sept. 7, 2005

When I compared poker to cycling last week, I mentioned that luck has a role. In Saturday's criterium at Sherman Park I got a first-hand lesson.

My Cat 5 race was the first of the day. I was executing my plan, trying to keep the race safe from the feckless weenies who just sit-in until the final sprint. I got off a few flyers, usually on the heels of a prime, but unfortunately I couldn't get any takers, and I couldn't create a gap big enough to sustain on my own.

With four laps to go I was considering one last jump when I found myself tight on a teammate's wheel heading up the inside. Suddenly I went in and out of a giant pothole. I swore loudly and a few seconds later heard the dreaded hiss of a pinched tube. My race was done. Walking back to the start area I passed a second teammate who had flatted in the same hole.

I would be damned, however, if this was going to be how my UCSF season would end (there are still a few ABR races in October) so on a whim I ante'd up for the 30+ race. I'd never done a masters race. All I knew is that they were F-A-S-T fast, full of riders who've been racing for decades and the occasional national champion. I briefly worried that I could even be a safety hazard among such seasoned riders, but what the heck. I tossed caution to the 10 mph breeze out of the east.

It turned out to be a small field, only 12, and although the pace was indeed high I was feeling comfortable keeping up.

There was a prime lap about 20 minutes in and I found myself at the front of the line. I wanted to get out of the wind but I couldn't get anyone to pull through. Halfway through the lap I slowed dramatically to see if someone would pass, and pass me they did: All 11 of them in a sudden surge, and just like that I was dropped.

So there I was, dropped in yet another race, and feeling pretty sorry for myself. All that work all summer and this is how I fare. Maybe this just isn't for me. Maybe I need to go back to running, which I now find fantastically boring, but at least a guy can suck in relative anonymity.

I was at my nadir, then, when I saw a friendly uniform just up the road. I bore down to his wheel and we quickly scooped up two other riders who'd been dropped. When a prime was announced for the four of us, I jumped without much thought and didn't look back. And by "didn't look back" I mean to say, "I looked back every 10 seconds to see how my gap was holding." Miraculously, it was growing.

And I have my teammate to thank for growth. He was blocking on my behalf, meaning that when he saw me jump he slowed right behind me, creating an obstacle for the other two riders. Granted, he'd later tell me that the other two were in a generous mood and didn't put up much fight, but escaping them gave me the boost of confidence I needed.

I hammered down and caught the next racer, a UofC rider in yellow. I rode with him a lap or two before I was able to ride him off my wheel. I pushed on and quietly passed the next racer before he even noticed I was coming. I caught up to one more rider but couldn't sneak past, and he beat me on the sprint. Still, I felt good about coming in 7th. It my not have come the way I'd expected it, but I had the top 10 finish I was shooting for.

And that's the subtle teamwork that makes cycling such an elegant sport. My mate's block turned my second DNF of the day into a 9th place and then into a 7th. I owe him one and look forward to when he can cash in.

Photo taken by Sandy Weisz: Sept. 3, 2005


Aug. 29, 2005

At the Portland World Trade Center, where two college friends had just gotten married.

Photo taken: Aug. 27, 2005


July 12, 2005

A steady rain began just as we hit the starting line. Water, falling from above and spraying up from below, took its toll on visibility as the crowded field made its way down the narrow, winding road. Traction was but a pleasant memory.

We safely navigated the first few turns but on the rolling hills there was an unsettling amount of braking. Each time someone tapped their brakes up front it would cascade treacherously through the line.

It was in a flat around Mile 4 that disaster finally struck. I was about halfway back in the pack when someone close to the front went down. Like dominoes -- 6 foot, 150 pound, 25 mph dominoes -- the rest of us went down with them.

I now know the sensation of driving off a cliff. When the riders ahead of me took their turn, I had less than a second to ponder the inevitability of it all and hope for the best before I toppled over their bikes and went down myself. My helmet bounced off the pavement and I rolled into the ditch, where immediately two riders landed on top of me.

I crawled out. My water bottles had flown off my bike. I replaced them and started walking down the road. While the sound of bikes colliding and riders swearing still filled the air, I took a quick inventory.

Body: I had minor road rash on my shoulder and had done something unnatural to my ribs, but they only caused me to wither in pain when I took a deep breath, so I made a quick mental note: Don't breathe hard!

Bike: A co-worker who also went down had to help me adjust the front brakes. The handlebars were askew and the hoods were banged up, but it was mostly cosmetic. Everything else appeared functional.

Uniform: One side was covered in mud and later when I reached into a pocket for some gel I pulled out a wad of grass, but there was no new ventilation. Phew. I didn't want to have to buy a new kit.

And that was that: My first race crash.

When a good friend had her first crash this weekend, I reminded her that there are only two kinds of cyclists: Those who have crashed and those who are about to crash. It's been three years and 12,000 miles since my last one, so I suppose I was due for this.

Soon after I was upright I got in a rolling paceline with four other riders: two teammates, the co-worker and an unknown rider. We got a good rhythm going. The unknown chirped, "Keep riding like this and we'll bridge in an hour!" I think we all recognized him for a fantasist. I fell off the paceline soon thereafter -- I could go only so fast without breathing hard -- and the other three would eventually drop out altogether.

I am not very ambitious about starting things, but what I start I like to finish, so I stubbornly rode on. If Dave Zabriskie could ride four stages of the Tour after breaking his ribs, I could certainly ride 30 more miles after breaking mine.

Later I was watching the pros ride their race through the rain. Nearby, two sheriff's cadets controlling traffic huddled under golf umbrellas. "Great day for a bike race, huh?" I said.

"Is it really?"

"No. Actually it's a big pile of suck."

"Oh. I don't really follow this stuff, so I didn't know."

But what he probably also doesn't know is that it's the big piles of suck that make this sport so great.


June 25, 2005

You see things vacationing on a [cycle] in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it's right there, so blurred you can't focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

Robert Pirsig, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"

Two summers ago I took a camping and cycling trip that stopped in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The best roads I found were along the Mississippi north of Lacrosse, Wis., so after a few days camping with friends at Devil's Lake, western Wisconsin is where I returned this week to spend my vacation time.

Once again the riding was sublime. The shaded hills were mean but beautiful -- conversely, the locals were homely but very friendly -- and for every car there were a hundred cows, for every cow a thousand cornstalks. It's here, in the valleys along County Road G, that I will build my training facility once I win my lottery or marry my heiress. (Candidates for the live-in masseuse(s) may submit applications and schedule interviews now.)

Base camp was at Perrot State Park in Trempealeau, Wis. A train parallels the river every thirty minutes. At the Wildflower Cafe, where the French toast is as thick as a bible, the old-timers crowd the counter each morning to, as they were doing two years ago, complain about local government and wonder how bad this drought is going to get.

When I wasn't riding I was reading, watching amateur baseball and enjoying the light of solstice. (Also: swatting mosquitoes. Shaving my legs yesterday was like running a slalom course.)

Even on the most perfect vacation, however, I get solemn. For years I've had a Kundera-like aversion to kitsch, but it gets exaggerated on a trip once I remember that the freedom and relaxation are temporary, that the hours that seem so endless are indeed running out. On a vacation I become sad not only because I cannot forever live this life -- napping with aplomb, riding without a destination, dining without a budget -- but because nobody can. While functional people are enjoying a sunset, vista or other supposedly fun thing, I am quietly exhaling sighs of regret and nostalgia. I know, it's sick, but If ever I seem like I'm not having enough fun, know that it's likely because I'm in fact having too much.

Photo taken: June 22, 2005


June 24, 2005

I'm back. Trip report TK.

Photo taken: June 21, 2005


June 5, 2005

Photo taken: June 4, 2005


May 18, 2005

The only good meme, I always say, is a meme deleted with a mournful sigh.

But Matt asked nicely, so I'll play along.


Total volume of music on my computer:

22.33 GB (5,980 songs)


The last CD I bought:

Andrew Bird, "The Mysterious Production of Eggs"


Song playing right now:

Lambchop, "Life's Little Tragedy"


Five songs I listen to a lot, or that mean a lot to me:

  1. "Fanfare for the Common Man," performed by Woody Herman. My father is not a music lover, but he would put this on whenever he was entertaining students. I regard it as the family anthem. When I am dead and the bicycle parade is sprinkling my ashes through the streets of Chicago, this had better be playing on the loudspeakers.
  2. "Gonna Fly Now," either the original Bill Conti or as performed by Maynard Ferguson. I rely on this when I am at the end of a hard run. After 20 miles I neither mind nor notice how corny it is.
  3. "Thank You," by Led Zeppelin. Long story.
  4. "Lilac Wine," by Nina Simone.
  5. "It Never Entered My Mind," performed by Miles Davis.

Five people to whom I’m passing the baton:

Let's see -- five people who are aware of my wee blog here.

Fingers tapping ...

Crickets chirping ...

Ghosts moaning ...

How about:

  1. Sandy and/or Sarah
  2. Jim
  3. Mikal
  4. Ted
  5. Darth Vader

April 23, 2005

Boy, what a hassle. So many strange bumps and corners. I'm compelled to salute and thank any woman who has ever shaved her legs on my behalf.

There is schism in the cycling community about whether a rider should shave his legs. The principal argument is that smooth legs make life easier after a crash. (The counterargument is, If you're crashing that much, perhaps racing isn't your destiny.) Most riders, however, would probably concede that shaving is mostly about showing that you're in the club. It's about showing your hairy rivals that you're more serious than they are and that they needn't bother chasing after your attack. One cyclist put it to me in Kesey-ian terms: "You're either on the bus or off the bus. Shaved legs says you're on."

Plus, we work really, really hard to achieve OED-quality definition on our leg muscles. Why hide them behind foliage? It's like hiding a nose job behind a burqa.

In an odd twist, I have in the past year shaved my mother's head and now my own legs. I didn't pay attention enough during college to know what Freud would think of that, nor what he would think about how much I've enjoyed fondling my smooth legs. (Steve Martin said he could never handle being a woman because he "would stay home all day and play with my breasts." My guess is that he could never handle being a cyclist for the same reason.)

I'm sure my co-workers will heckle me next time I wear shorts into the building, but I just shaved my legs for my passions and desires. What the hell have they done for theirs?

Photos taken: April 22, 2005


April 12, 2005

I have a routine for my lakefront runs. I carry with me the bare minimum of keys I'll need (four). I put my iPod in one pocket and energy gels in the other. If it's cool I'll throw a T-shirt over my running singlet. Then I bicycle the .75 mile to the running path, where I lock my bike to the Mile 0 signpost and tie the T-shirt to my top tube. I take a minute to pick an album and set my watch, and off I go.

And usually I have remembered to put on sunscreen. Yesterday I did not. Thus, the annual first bad burn of spring.

My next marathon is in seven weeks. Training has not gone so well. I've been sick, busy with cycling and nagged by a blister. I've skipped more runs than I would have liked, including last week's 19-miler.

Yesterday's 20 miles was the year's first run on the path, 10 miles down to Soldier Field and back. It was nice getting reacquainted with the path's characters -- the smelt fishermen, the chess players, the nannies with their strollers -- and my favorite vistas, turns and places to pee.

One good thing about being outside rather than on the treadmill is that it's impractical to quit. Once you're at Soldier Field, the only way home is to run home, especially if like me you lack the prudence to have brought CTA fare with you.

With much consternation I found that not all the water fountains have been turned on, but I still made my time, even with slight cramps around Mile 18. I hope this bodes well for when I'm properly hydrated.

Long runs are good for discoveries and decisions, and on this one I decided that I probably will not run Chicago this October. I'll be missing it for the first time in five years. Instead I'll focus on cycling all summer. It's a tough call: It's my hometown race, and it's the event that first got me into serious running. I know its turns and characters almost as well as I know those of the lakefront. I'd contemplated taking it on as a fun run and not worrying about time, but as my father said to me once or twice growing up -- and by "once or twice" I mean "once or twice a week" -- if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. I'll wait until I have the time and focus to do it right again.

Photo taken: April 11, 2005


March 18, 2005

To protest a disagreeable work assignment, I went on a grooming boycott for five weeks. I still showered, usually, but went without shaving.

Granted, this was about as mature as the time in college when I "protested" a particularly boring professor by not studying for his final. This will teach him! But this time it worked. Awareness was raised. Concessions were made.

To celebrate a return to my old schedule, I indulged in a professional shave, my first.

My barber is a throwback, the classic white man's barber. He is not a stylist. He runs a barbershop, not a salon, and for $13 you get exactly what you came for: a straight eye for the straight guy. Bad jokes are told, baseball wisdom is exchanged, the weather is bemoaned.

There are Maxims and Stuffs among the magazines, and I'm sure a guy could get something racier if he asked for it, but there's never any need: There are never more than two customers there, and the wait is never long. Usually when I arrive my barber is waiting in the chair smoking a cigarette, or there is a note on the door saying he's out to lunch and will be back by 3.

As I sat with a hot towel wrapped around my face, my nose sticking out like a periscope, I wondered how much longer this place would last. It can't be much longer, and I file it and other white-man barbershops with the many civic institutions -- bowling alleys, corner hardware stores, hot dog stands -- that are fading away as my city changes. Surely this location will soon be a bank or gourmet grocery or -- deep, mournful sigh -- a salon.

For the record: A shave and haircut? 232 bits, plus a 32-bit tip.

Photos taken: March 17-18, 2005


Feb. 7, 2005

Based almost entirely on Matt's advice I invested in a 50mm f/1.8 lens. I couldn't wait for the sun to come up in the morning so I could play with it. Here's one of the first test shots. Dig that shallowness!

The depth of field is impressive, too.

Photo taken: Feb. 3, 2005


Jan. 27, 2005

More on why it's important to bike to work during winter, which I try to do at least three times a week: On the off chance that people see me and do not say, "Look at that bad-ass who rode in during a blizzard," I can at least hope they say: "Look at that pansy Luke. If he can ride to work in the middle of winter, what excuse will I have not to ride come June when it's pleasant out?"

Photo taken: Jan. 9, 2005


Jan. 21, 2005

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,

Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,

I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,

But is there because he's a victim of the times.

And I wear it for the thousands who have died,

Believin' that the Lord was on their side,

I wear it for another hundred-thousand who have died,

Believin' that we all were on their side.

Johnny Cash

To show my enthusiasm for the inauguration, I wore black to work. The get-up got scores of double-takes, though probably more for the tie than for the black. Since my interview I've worn a tie inside the building fewer than a dozen times, usually on Election Day.

By the end of the night I conceded that I looked less like "subtle political statement" than "gangster intern."

Photo taken: Jan. 20, 2005


Jan. 17, 2005

Three recent moments:



A young office assistant reads the Bible during his down time. Propped open on the desk is a paperback novelization of the "Doom" video game. I speculate he is writing a book report. "The Bible. 'Doom.' Compare and contrast. Attach Venn diagram(s)."



Sandy tells us the handles his mother uses to keep track of his friends. One is "the handsome one," another is "the reader," a third is "the one who smiles."

I am "the quiet farmer."

Which is fine -- I've been called worse -- but couldn't I be known as "all of the above"? Don't I smile enough?



The coffeeshop is playing Creedence Clearwater Revival. It's not popular behind the counter. "At least it's not Kansas," one employee says.

"Right," says a colleague. "You want to avoid those bands named after states. Y'know, Boston, Chicago ..."


Jan. 16, 2005

I started taking annual pictures when I moved into my place two years ago. In retrospect I should have chosen a spot that gets better light.

Photos taken: Jan. 16, 2003; Jan. 16, 2004; Jan. 16, 2005


Jan. 3, 2005

I started making resolutions and sealing them in envelopes in 1999. There are 13 for 2005.

My record so far:

1999: 3 for 22

2000: 11 for 24

2001: 13 for 31

2002: 3 for 17

2003: 9 for 20

2004: 3 for 20

Total: 42 for 134

.313. Sammy Sosa should be so productive. Then again, I've always been more about average than hitting home runs.

Photo taken: Jan. 2, 2005