Course changes, cone sprints and carnage at Deer Trail

I had been looking forward to the Deer Trail Road Race for two reasons. It would be the first Front Range road race this year that would be run on 100% asphalt (enter the carbon tubulars, finally) and the longest so far at 44 miles.

Also, this was to be the second stop on my 2012 Tour de Vengeance (now first, since I missed Koppenberg). In last year’s edition of Deer Trail, a high-speed crash close to the front knocked the majority of the field out of contention.

I myself was forced to choose between locking up the bike and barreling into the screaming heap…or veering off into a grassy ditch at 40mph, Lance-style. I chose the latter and was miraculously able to keep it upright. I then had to cyclocross it back up to the road to begin a long chase with a large tumbleweed jammed into my rear derailleur. Although I rode strongly the rest of the race, a mediocre finish was a foregone conclusion as the lead group had long since disappeared up the road.

Amped up by news that my brother Jere has scored a second place that morning in a race back east, teammate Fleetwood and I carpool out to Deer Trail for a 2:30pm start. Once there we meet up with teammates Aaron, Keith (who also got caught behind the crash last year and has similar thoughts of payback) and new teammate, Joshua, a neighbor of mine who has been showing steady progress in the big races. Only while picking up our numbers an hour before the start are we informed that the course has been altered to account for a washed out bridge.

The course is essentially a big ‘L’ with and out-and-back leg to the east, another to the north and then a repeat of the first leg around to the finish. The quirk of such a course is that there are three hard U-turns to be negotiated around cones placed in the middle of the road. Only the first few riders can make the turn cleanly and the rest have to fight their way back into contention after every cone.

What’s worse is that the guys in front know this and will typically attack after the cones, causing a whiplash effect in the extreme. Throw in narrow, incessantly rolling roads and the stiff winds typical of the Eastern Plains of Colorado (AKA Kansas) and you’ve got yourself a mentally taxing (some might say tedious? vexing?) race.

With the bridge out, the officials inform us that the northern leg will be cut in half and tackled first, followed by two successive circuits of the eastern leg. Quick analysis reveals that this will mean five U-turns instead of three. The race has also been necessarily shortened to 37-miles, coincidentally the same distance as both Boulder and Mead. So we won’t get our “longer” road race after all. This has me wondering why I bothered doing all those 3-4 hour rides this past winter (except that I know the answer: tune back here in about three weeks).

The race starts neutral as the motor leads our 60-man field out onto the course. The wind is blowing from the north and we roll along at jogging pace. With the roads being as narrow as they are, the only way to move up is, well…you can’t move up. I’m about 20 back when we hit the first cone and, as predicted, all hell breaks loose.  Large gaps open instantaneously and it’s a full-on track kilo effort to get back up to the leaders.

Sprint and repeat. Sit in, hoping that at some point the pace will pick up enough on the straight to allow for SOME advancement toward the front. A few solo attacks go a short ways up road, including one by Joshua, but the field has too much momentum on the downhills so nothing sticks for very long.

On the final outbound leg guys are starting to twitch. I’m comfortably uncomfortable, tucked in the middle of the field and starting to wish I had skipped this race for a training ride with maybe 8,000 or so feet of climbing.

I think everyone is so used to the wicked attrition caused naturally on a course like Boulder or Mead, that the blade of our tactical initiative is about as dull as a cake knife. Only the U-turn gaps have caused any attrition, but we’re so tightly packed in that I don’t want to take the chance to look back for a head count.

My instincts serve me well. On a fast downhill the magic elixir of one guy letting his guard down and another getting nervous while riding at speed within the group, is blended. Two riders up and to the left spontaneously come together and suplex each other to the ground. If the wreckage spills right, I’m in serious trouble and by reflex I get ready to execute the bunny hop of my life. Lucky for me but unfortunately for others, it spreads backward along the double yellow…

Indulge me now, please, while I step up onto my soapbox. I can abide a great deal of foolery in racing. Stuff happens, we all make sketchy moves once in awhile and crashing is simply a part of the game. What I cannot abide is a rider (or riders) that attack in the wake of a big crash in an attempt to capitalize on chaos and misfortune. While doing so is not against the rules, it is both lame and dishonorable.

Sadly, this happens nearly every time (in the 4’s), as evidenced by both editions of Deer Trail I have done as well as other races. And I have to say that most of the time it is an unattached rider who is the one attacking because, to put it bluntly, they don’t have to worry that it’s one of their friends/teammates left bleeding on the ground. Stepping off the soapbox…

Teammates are on my mind as I bridge up to the surging head of the field. Both Aaron and Fleetwood were back there and I can only hope that they stayed upright with a good roll of the dice. On the last roller before the U-turn Keith takes a dig on the front. It’s the most serious effort yet and attracts a lot of attention as guys scrabble for the wheel, but the status quo remains unchanged.

We soon reach the cone, repeat, and on the way back I see some riders being tended to by paramedics on the side of the road. Sure enough, I spot red stripe of the Sonic Boom jersey and as we approach I see it’s Fleetwood who has taken the spill. He’s sitting in the grass and sees me.

“Are you alright?” I shout as we pass.

He wavers his hand in the universal sign of “50/50” but then yells at me to keep going.

Inbound to the finish with a handful of hard rollers left and the field thinned out to about 20 now, I finally get up to the front intent on playing my card. The wind is blowing hard from the right, so I plant myself astride the double yellow and push the pace on a short uphill. I look back to the field in echelon. They eye me suspiciously and perhaps, my imagination suggests, with a bit of discomfort. But there is no effect.

On the next roller I try again, this time a little harder but still without effect. The climbs are just not long or steep enough or more likely, I am not strong enough to make an impression. Now inside 5K, I drift back into the field and come upon Aaron. He reads my mind when he says that it’s probably best just to finish in one piece.

None of us in this race are truly committed to taking a big chance, though I secretly hope that some beast of a rider will blow it apart on the last small roller before the drag to the finish. Such a move would offer us the opportunity to scrap it out for a decent placing, rather than have to risk a bunch sprint on a very narrow road.

As it is, the final roller passes without incident and with about 2K to go, the guys on the front start to ramp it up. The wind continues to blow from the right and as our speed increases, I notice guys on that side beginning to drop back. Other guys move over into the gap and so I am able to move easily up the middle, just behind the “sweet spot” near the front of the field.

1K to go flashes and we’re going good now, but I’m hardly pedaling and I think “I’m here so I might as well go for it.” Aaron is just in front of me to the left and as the front begins to surge I egg him on to punch it, hoping we can get out in front for a clean sprint. But he’s in the wind and with another rider right in front me the way is shut. More guys die away on the right and now here comes the jump.

Aaron falls back to my left and the rider in front of me cracks and fades right. 200 meters and now there is daylight. Some riders have a few bike lengths on me but I jump and spin it as fast as I can, outpacing the guys on either flank. We cross the line and I count riders ahead: 1, 2, 3, 4 and me. 5th! No one’s ever made money betting on me to place in a bunch sprint so I am pleasantly shocked by this turn of events.

Aaron comes in at 11th and Keith in 13th. We have managed to soak up our share of the meager Rocky Mountain Road Cup points on offer for this bronze-level event. Anyway, it’s enough to modestly extend our lead in the team classification.

Fleetwood ends up getting transferred by ambulance to University Hospital in Denver. Sketchy reports we get from a passing moto official suggest he’s shaken up with a smashed helmet and bit of road rash but otherwise OK.

With me driving Fleetwood’s truck, Joshua and I caravan to University and encounter Fleetwood sat upright on his ER bed wearing only his bibs and munching furiously on packets of saltines. He’s been diagnosed with a concussion and will obviously have to take some time of the bike. Disappointing to say the least but with any luck, he’ll be back in top form just as hill climb season starts to heat up later this summer.

As for me, a nice dose of confidence with only one week of hard training to go before two of the big goal races of the season: Morgul Superior and my very own annual Waterloo: the Killington Stage Race.

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Moaning about adversity

What I find myself writing this Monday morning is about 180° from what I had hoped I would be writing.

What I hoped I would be writing:

“I’ve been planning revenge at the Koppenberg Circuit Race for the better part of a year. Last year I was in excellent position in the depleted front group of about 15, marking the moves of the strongest riders.  On the third of four laps I ran over what appears to have been, judging by the cross-sectional gash that instantly deflated my brand-new $95 tubular, the blade of a machete.

This year, in good form and having scouted the course on five separate occasions, I survived the early squirreliness, drove the dwindling field over the top of the climb each of the first three laps, dug deep to mark the attacks on the last lap and then sprinted out of the lead group of six for 3rd, or 2nd or…”

But instead of reporting this glorious result, my report is as follows:

“DNS because of illness.”

As I mentioned last week, I woke the morning of Mead up feeling a little rough. That didn’t stop me from a decent performance and although I felt like I had hit by a truck on Monday due to a combination of the affliction and the race, I figured all I would have to do is back off early in the week in order to get healthy again for the big race on Saturday.

Nice idea, but whatever was ailing me got progressively worse as the days went on. I went through the motions of preparing for the race. This included three short rides (took everything I had to get off the couch), prepping all my gear on Friday afternoon and crossing my fingers that maybe if I just took a bunch of Tylenol and sinus meds I might be able to muscle through for a result.

I even went so far as to Google “racing while sick” to see if I could divine some web wisdom that might help see me through. The results of this search revealed two things: 1. It may or may not be a good idea to race while you’re sick and 2. It probably is not a good idea to get medical advice from a mob of amateur athletes on the internet.

By late Friday with no energy, a low-grade fever, a wickedly sore throat and a left tonsil swelling to the size of a golf ball, I pretty much had to accept that Koppenberg would deny me yet again. Disappointing given how much I had prepared for this race, but also because all the guys on the squad had lined up to help me get my revenge result.

So while the first wave of racers tackled the circuit on Saturday morning, I headed to the see the doctor about a mile away. She was impressed by the size of my tonsil and immediately prescribed a course of strong antibiotics, although the exact cause of the illness remains a mystery (Strep tests came back negative). I was slightly amused when when she told me that this particular antibiotic (Clindamycin) works well on infections caused by both aerobic and anaerobic type bacteria.

I was still ambulatory at this point, so after leaving the doctors office I headed over to the course to wish my teammates luck and watch race from a grassy curb near the finish line. They performed well amidst the carnage of the race (two major crashes and a number of race-spoiling hiccups on the climb), with Aaron and Greg putting in their best performances of the season at 7th and 10th.

The rest of Saturday and most of Sunday were pretty rough. I was feverish and laid up on the couch watching a bunch of movies on cable, a stage of the Tour of Romandie and handful of NHL playoff games, the results of I didn’t really care about since my [defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston] Bruins got ignominiously bounced last week.

Anyway, when I started writing this blog I promised myself I would focus on stories and avoid moaning about adversity, roughly defined as any of the numerous physical and psychological setbacks that every endurance athlete has to overcome on a regular basis to keep training and racing. That said, I hate when people talk up some big feat they’re going to tackle and, when it doesn’t work out, they disappear and you never hear what happened.

I missed a big race that I was hoping/primed to do well in and I’ve likely lost some fitness at a critical point in the season. There’s a temptation to become despondent, but It’s taken me most of my adult life to realize that such a reaction is counterproductive. You can’t worry yourself into better fitness, you can only do the training. It’s a long season.

Here’s to turning the corner on this freak illness, regrouping a bit and picking up things at the Deer Trail Road Race this coming weekend. As for Koppenberg, you can expect that I’ll be back next year looking for payback with interest.

The Sands of Mead Roubaix

AKA the Mead Roubaix Festival Road Race. Mead is a small town about 30 miles to the northeast of Boulder in wide-open rolling ranchland prairie country.

The first incarnation of this race, held last year in lieu of the Boulder Roubaix, generated a certain amount of controversy amongst the local racing population. It is yet another race with a number of dirt sections, as the Roubaix moniker would suggest. The course in 2011 included three sections of dune-deep sand, which caused all kinds of physical and psychological trauma.

Despite the fact that I had beached it on the final hill each of the last two (of three) laps and had to hoof it over the top, I would fall squarely in the “epic race” camp. Not that I would want to do a race like that every weekend, mind you. The opposite camp bristled with moral outrage an uttered angry oaths at the promoter for including those sections on the course, saying in effect that the race was akin to an episode of Fear Factor for unassuming roadies.

Although I’m not sure of the details (perhaps these slings and arrows were too much to withstand?) the promoter of the 2011 Mead decided to give up the race and a new coalition stepped in this year. The big change for 2012 would be the elimination of the entire northern section of the course and with it, all the sandpits and most of the hills. What remained was a 12.5-mile circuit with two dirt sections, which represented about half of the total mileage. We 4’s would be doing three laps for just under 38 miles (coincidentally, almost exactly the same distance as Boulder).

Reports from people scouting the course began to filter in last week and the word was that the new sections of dirt road that had been added to complete the shorter loop were “not as bad as the sandpits, but pretty loose.” Uh oh. Suffice it to say that anyone expecting this race to be like Boulder with it’s short-ish hard pack sections, or to be a lot easier than last year’s Mead, would be in for a shock.

On Saturday, the day before the race, I head out and ride a few local dirt trails and a couple reps of the Koppenberg climb and honestly, I feel super. There are pros and cons about a Sunday race: the con is that you’re advised to go short and easy on Saturday if you want to have fresh legs. This squanders a beautifully sunny, 70° Spring day on which you might otherwise be out doing four hours in the hills. The pro is that you can train hard on Tuesday and Thursday and still do a “micro peak” for the race by resting on Friday.

Having gotten 11th at Boulder, the sensations in my legs (Euro term) have me hoping for a Top 10 with perhaps a shot at the elusive upgrade points, which with our expected field of about 40, will kick in at 7th place. As it is, you never know who’s going to show up, or what kind of luck you’ll have, so it’s best to focus on what you can control: show up ready to suffer, battle and ride smart. Results will take care of themselves, or not.

After a night of fitful sleep, I wake up with body aches and a sore throat. No! I must have caught a bit of the infection from my 3-year-old who had a fever earlier in the week. No way I’m going to miss this race, but I’m slow getting going and the idea that I might ride home from Mead after the race for some extra miles is now summarily rejected. Luckily, the race starts at the luxurious time of 11:58am and I have plenty of time to drink several mugs of tea and allow the Tylenol to take effect before my teammate Greg swings by to pick me up.

At the start for Sonic Boom Racing are myself, Greg and Cris, the three of us veterans of many an ill-fated Sunday training ride this winter. Our strategy is the same as Boulder: stay up front and out of trouble and play it by ear.

The pace is modest on the first few miles of asphalt, with the obligatory young guns pulling hard tempo on the front “just because.” The speed picks up as we approach the first section of dirt when suddenly one of the young guns takes a right turn where we’re supposed to go straight. There is a burst of shouting from the pack and realizing his mistake, he overcorrects on the gravel and piles it up, taking a few other riders with him. Welcome to Mead.

We clear a few gentle turns and once on the straightaway, several flahutes power to the front and drill it. Instantly I realize that reports of the course’s demise are not exaggerated as I struggle to keep the bike moving forward at the necessary speed and in a consistently straight direction. It’s a long drag of a false flat and there is no clean line, or if there is I can’t see it as I am tucked in behind a line of riders in the middle of the field.

I see Greg riding strongly a few riders ahead and Cris comes past me in a line of guys moving up in line to our left. We uncomfortably negotiate alternating sections of loose sand and washboard. I’m redlining it when the gradient finally relents and we barrel down into a right turn and back onto pavement.

Just time enough now for a breath and sip or two before we swing right back onto dirt and the process repeats itself. This time, we bottom out on a right-hander and I power slide on loose gravel over hardpack. Up ahead is the only significant hill of the day and as was the case at Boulder, I am able to use it to regain some position near the front.

We swing left onto a straight of several miles of continued dirt. This is the crux of the course: basically a longer and harder version of the first section with it’s false flat of sand, washboard and now a light but noticeable diagonal crosswind. Guys dodge right and left trying to find a clean line and eventually two competing trains form on either side of the road with me on the left.

As if the pace and terrain aren’t challenging enough, several times my front wheel starts to wash out and I have to stop pedaling in order to keep the bike tracking straight. Following each of these washouts is an agonizing few moments of anaerobic effort to close down the gap that has necessarily opened. On this stretch I have the depressing epiphany that powering over several miles of sandy false flat is simply not a strength. I feel like the obscure Spanish climber, tortured in his crossing of the forêt.

As we approach the mercy that is the right turn onto the paved finishing stretch, the train on the right has gained an advantage and clears the corner with a gap of several seconds. I quickly count their number as six and as our train clears the turn with myself in fourth position, I look behind to see no one. That’s a problem.

Greg is with me and we try to organize our little group for the chase, but it’s haphazard and the leaders begin to pull away. As we near the end of lap one, a larger group catches us from behind. Thankful for the help, I let everyone know that if we’re going to chase back on, now is the time. We drive for the next half of a lap but lack the necessary firepower, organization and will.

I’ve been at the limit for the better part of a lap now and when Greg drifts back, still looking strong, I admit to him that I can’t keep up this pace for the rest of the race. On the sand it’s all I can do to hang with the bigger riders. I try to make up for this weak effort by taking a few pulls on the intervening paved sections, but it’s all to no avail as the leaders disappear up the road for good.

Onto lap three we go. The pace has slackened and a plan is afoot. With six up the road and eight in our group, we are only one dropped rider shy of guaranteeing Greg and I the meager consolation of a handful of points in the local association’s Rocky Mountain Road Cup competition. Mead is a “bronze” event in the Cup, which means that points go 13 deep. Not to mention there are still four places in the Top 10 to sort out.

I tell Greg that the next time we hit the climb I’m going to attack and suggest that he follow whatever wheels come after me. I’m thinking that with a couple miles of sand between the top of the climb and the finish I’ve got little chance to stay away. Best case scenario, Greg can sit on with the big guys forced to chase and then take them out in the final.

Right before the base of the climb I entreat the aid of a strong racer, Brendan from Natural Grocers, to help me in this scheme. He agrees and we make our move, taking one other rider with us.

Up to the top where we swing left. I’m not looking back, but Brendan tells me we’ve got our gap. The three of us trade pulls on the dirt but it’s impossible to keep a tight formation in the sand and we end up all over the road. At one point Brendan is ten feet in front going strongly and I have to claw back up to his wheel.

I look back and can see the remnant of the chase formed up and coming for us, but as we hit the turn onto the finishing stretch I see that they’re busted up all over the shop. We’ve got our Top 10.

We paceline smoothly for about a mile and then start to look at each other a bit. While not in at the kill, there is a whole upgrade point on the line here. The finish line comes into view up ahead, and I start to think about positioning myself for a smart sprint. I come through behind the third rider, who has taken a tentative pull and before my brain even knows what’s happening, I’m launching it.

I pass the 1K to go sign and there’s a brief moment of doubt, having not thought it out that maybe I was attacking too early. I look back and though the two are in pursuit, a sense of confidence comes over me as I think “no worries, this will be just like cherrypicking a Strava segment back home.”

I am able to hold my gap to the line and cross over relishing my first Top 10 of the comeback. I turn into town and see Cris standing on the sidewalk, having suffered a puncture on the first lap. Greg comes in a minute or so later having pulled off his best road result yet at 11th.

Checking the results afterward, I am surprised to see that I’ve gotten the bonus of 6th place—either I miscounted the lead group or one of its riders foundered. Anyway, it’s good enough for two coveted upgrade points and an excellent shot for the morale as we head into the wheelhouse of the early racing season. Koppenberg is next…more dirt!

In the meantime, thanks to RallySport Racing, cyclingevents.com and the town of Mead for putting on a tough race.

2012 Boulder Roubaix

I had intended to do a report on last week’s season opener at the Louisville Criterium but two things foiled the plan.

The first was I’ve known from way out that this past week was going to be insane. I would not only be finally in the midst of the racing schedule, but also my wife was turning 40 and we were having a party on the same day as Boulder Roubaix. While that day in and of itself would be challenging—hard race followed by sorta hard partying–it was not nearly as difficult as the preparation and amount cleaning that would be required to get the house and yard in shape by Saturday. I wanted to be off my feet as much as possible on Friday, so on Thursday I woke up at 6:30 am and pretty much didn’t stop cleaning until 10:30 at night.

The second was that, for me personally, Louisville didn’t offer up a hugely dramatic story line. The highlight of the day was my [very strong] teammate Walter soloing off the front for the majority of the race while I worked to keep position up near the front of the field. With seven laps to go, the strong riders left in the group laid down the law for several painful laps and finally caught Walt with about four to go. The unexpected twist here was that by the time the depleted field caught him, we were all so blown that he was able to sit in for a couple laps, recover, and then uncork the winning sprint.

For myself, satisfaction would rest in the fact that I finished in the lead group of the two races I did that day. This is not bad considering about 2/3d’s of the field was left behind in each race and a 50% improvement over last year when I got sawed off 20 minutes into the first race. With almost no race-effort training in the legs, Louisville is a tough course. And with the hyped-up and technical Boulder following a week later, the start of the season would continue to be a baptism by fire.

On Walt's wheel at the Louisville Crit. Photo: Mountain Moon Photography.

It’s a cool but sunny spring day as the Sonic Boom 4’s get to the front of the line with seven riders in the race. The plan is, in the midst of this chaotic spectacle, to do what we can to help our two strongest riders, Walt and Kyle. On form but with the birth of his first child imminent, this might be Kyle’s last shot at racing glory for a while. For the rest of us, the idea is to survive first, then scrap for a top 30. Boulder-Roubaix is the first “gold” level event in the local association’s Rocky Mountain Road Cup, a season-long points series to reward the best all-around riders in each category. A top 30 gets you in the points and so that was my personal goal in this field of 84 riders: finish in the top 30 and revel in the minor points.

We will be doing two laps of the 19-mile course, which is a series of north and then southbound dirt sections (70% of the total course is on dirt) connected by number of east and westbound paved sections. Based on the few scouting rides I had done during the winter, as well as talking to people who had done the last edition of the race two years prior, the crux of the course seems like it will be the last five miles of each lap. Here, a short but sharp climb ushers us off the final paved section onto the longest section of dirt, which features a series of rollers, a twisting decent into the loose final corner and onto the finishing straight with about a mile to go.

As we are the first category to start and there are apparently some glitches to be worked out amongst the officials. After being told “30 seconds” three times in the span of what seems like 10 minutes, the lead official finally shrugs his shoulders and says “uhhh, go.” This has to be the most anticlimactic start to a big race I’ve ever had and I have barely time to chuckle before I am fighting for position as we approach the first turn.

The first section is mostly uneventful. I ebb to the middle of the field as if in the slow lane of a busy freeway until we hit the pavement where I am able to hug the double yellow and move up to the front.

As we approach a hard left onto the second dirt section, the apex of the turn is coned off. The course is open to traffic and thus the organizers are attempting to discourage head-on collisions by the respective fields into the grill of any potential oncoming monster pick up. Such a collision is avoided, but unfortunately the cones are not as from just behind comes the familiar yelps of panic followed by the clatter of bikes and thud of bodies hitting the pavement. Our first victims of the day. I have only enough time to hope that none of our guys were the ones making the thudding sound before the pace heats up on the dirt and I am sprinting to stay in contact.

For the rest of the lap, our guys are spread out as a couple strong teams dominate the front, riding tempo on the paved sections and dropping the hammer on each dirt section. I am near the front and a few carefully-timed glances back reveal the field to be largely in tact and as we hammer up and over the final rollers and come through the finish for the first time. I find myself oddly disappointed that the wind isn’t worse or the course a bit more selective.

We take the turn back onto the starting straight where Kyle makes his first jump of the day, keeping the hammer down for a minute or two before sitting up. I find myself on the wheel of a rider I recognize from the week before. I generally recognize riders for two reasons: they’re strong or they’re sketchy. Unfortunately, this rider is the latter and before I even have a chance to think “uh oh” he panics at some approaching chop and grabs a handful of brake. My heart stops as I instinctively yank left to barely avoid a collision with his rear wheel.

Not a mile up the road another rider to my right suddenly pulls out of his pedal and swerves at me. Somehow, he recovers and carnage is avoided. Although the pace is high, I commit to getting to the front at all costs to avoid this madness. Before I do I take a glance back and am shocked to see only a few riders behind, with absolutely no sign of the rest of the field down the long straightaway. Kyle’s acceleration has done some damage, but with 40 or so riders left and me starting to feel twinges of fatigue, I begin to think that a top 30 is going to take some work.

We take a tight corner at the bottom of a steep dirt descent and Kyle jumps again. With Walt just in front of me, I have to sprint all out to squeeze the accordion shut. I notice Walt dangling off the wheels a bit. I consider asking him if he is OK, but decide that I don’t want to put that into his head. Kyle is forced to sit up again as the field is content to simply mark the attack. The war of attrition is officially on.

We sprint up and over the scenic Crane Hollow grade and swing left as we rapidly approach the back of a red minivan, probably headed out on a grocery run. Chaos ensues as we overtake the minivan at the hard right-hander back onto the pavement. Most riders take the correct inside line to avoid the van, but I watch as at least one rider gets boxed out by the minivan and has to stop, turn around 180° and sprint to catch back up to the accelerating field.

It never fails to strike me how important it is in a race like this to keep fighting to stay near the front and constantly keep your head up to avoid trouble. Every acceleration, every technical section, every mishap, crash, flying bottle or other calamity big or small and one or two more riders are left behind. By the time we are through the halfway mark of the second lap, the field has dwindled to less than 30 riders. The same handful of riders have been driving at the front for some time now and they ease up for a breather as we approach the final five-mile section.

As we take on final paved climb, a few riders try their hand at pushing the pace but quickly fade back. I drop into the small chainring and feel pretty good spinning up the climb. We swing onto the final, long dirt section and descend gradually as the sledgehammer comes down. Most everything from this point on is a blur. I’m on the rivet on the downhills and it’s everything I can do to grab and hold onto a passing wheel.

A few minutes of this and the mind games begin. With 20 or so riders ahead I must have earned my top 30. “That’s good enough, right? You don’t need to keep suffering like this. Just ease off a little, it’s totally OK.”

Nope. I listened to that sh*t a few times last year and always ended up regretting it later. This year, this time, I will fight.

We hit the series of sharp rollers and I jump past several struggling riders. Cresting the top I latch onto the field, now strung out single file on the twisting descent. One rider in front me gaps and I skitter through a tight, inside line of a loose corner to pass and rejoin. Another rider gaps and I tuck on a fast downhill straight to come around and regain the line as we approach the final turn.

With only a small group of riders in front of me as we slow and safely corner, I suddenly realize that I’m in at the kill with a mile to go. So is Walt, which is good to see, but again he seems to be dangling off the wheels. I’m redlining now and feel bad that I am unable to help him out, other than to gulp some weak words of encouragement as we sprint hard up the final roller to reveal the finish line, a long 800 meters away.

There is a brief pause as riders start to set up for the inevitable group sprint. I have just enough time to self-flagellate and implore myself to maybe attack and set Walt up for the counter. Or to claw my way to the front and offer some kind of weak leadout. But I’m already maxed out and just as I  shamefully resign myself to merely hang on for grim death, I glance up and cannot believe my eyes. With joyful astonishment I realize that the decision has been made for me.

Walt is 100 meters up the road and on his way to the victory.

There is a panicked surge as the riders ahead suddenly comprehend what has just happened. Two guys pass me on the left and I have to shake myself from a moment of dumbfounded satisfaction and remind myself to keep racing. I press but speed is hard to come by. I glance behind and see a large group kicking up dust and coming on like stampede.

My powerless legs cede ground over the next 500 or so meters, but I finally cross the line in 11th place, several seconds in front of the chasing group.

I chase down Walt after the finish and offer up big kudos. I ask him what was going on with all the dangling and he tells me he wasn’t feeling that good. This is a testament to both his mental and physical strength as on a off day he can catapult out of charging lead group to ride away for the win.

I’ll have to come close to that level if I want to break through the glass ceiling that is the elusive placings for upgrade points. As for today, I’m pretty happy with the result and the progress it represents.

My introduction to bike racing: The 1994 Tour Dupont, Finale

To Possibly Transcend

The stage into Lynchburg, Virginia featured several long finishing circuits. Jeff Roake kept the crowd informed and entertained as I worked my way to a spot atop the bleachers to get a good view of the finish area. As the riders arrived onto the circuit the race DJ began to play the 1812 Overture, music that would seem totally out of place at a bike race except that somehow he managed to time it perfectly so that the finale (the part when they fire off the canons on the 4th of July) erupted just as the riders began to surge to the line for the stage win.

In that moment–here in deepest Virginia watching pro bike racers attack for the win while listening to a piece of classical music written in the 1800’s to commemorate a battle between France and Russia—something clicked. It was at that moment that I first thought “this is an awesome sport and I would love to try it.” But that thought was quickly naysayed with “nah I can’t do that—looks way too hard.”

After several stages through the Smokies and through many cases of All Sport, the race arrived in Boone, North Carolina for a classic stage finish atop Beech Mountain. At this point the general classification was tight between Lance Armstrong, currently in second, and an unassuming Russian riding for the Wordperfect team named Viatcheslav Ekimov. The race’s only mountain-top finish was much anticipated and Mike and Gary informed me that I would be responsible for the action shot of the finish as they would be shooting the battle on the climb itself.

To date, I had only performed the relatively easy task of shooting the wide context shot of the finish. Today’s shot would be tight action of the winner of the queen stage, meant to be transmitted to news outlets literally worldwide. And this was before Nikon had autofocus good enough to shoot anything other than a bowl of apples on a table. The pressure was on!

It was over before I really realized what was going on. I saw the helicopter, heard Jeff Roake’s excited commentary, saw a bunch of state police cars and commissar’s vehicles plow over the line and tried desperately to pull focus on the murky silhouette of a rider raising his arms in a thick cloud of dust.

Lance had won the stage, going toe-to-toe with Ekimov on the final climb. Rumor would later have it that Ekimov, who finished a few seconds back, had mis-shifted in the sprint and thus ceded the stage. This was all incidental to my bigger concern: Mike was looking through my negatives with a loupe trying to find the finish shot. I watched him frown as he squinted into the loupe and thought “I blew it, this is not good…” I began to explain to him the chaos of the finish, about the cars and dust… The tension became unbearable as he looked up at me, was silent for a moment and then finally spoke.

“Well, then you got lucky, mate. You barely pulled it out,” he said, handing me the loupe and negatives.

The shot was there, underexposed by about three stops but in focus and salvageable thanks to Photoshop (v2.5!): Lance in his rainbow stripes, eyes downcast, both arms in the air and fingers spread to the sky.

That night we had dinner and drinks at a small restaurant on top of Beech Mountain. Joining us was someone I had just met that day, a super-nice English guy named Phil. Apparently he was doing TV commentary for the race, or something.

A few days later we finished up the days work after covering the fast sprint finish into Charlotte, North Carolina, ate a quick southern barbeque dinner and headed to the hotel bar. The race was nearly over and hanging out in the bar with several of his Motorola teammates was Lance. As I mentioned, both photographers I was working with had known him for some time and I suddenly found myself in a small group having a conversation with the riders.

Sadly, I don’t remember many of the details and I don’t think it was because I drank too many beers. The fact that Lance was a world champion at 21, only two years younger than myself, didn’t overly impress me at the time because I had no frame of reference. He might as well have been world champion of sculling or biathlon or some such–cycling was that obscure to me.

I do remember him as being an intense guy, even just hanging out in the bar as he assertively made the case that cycling in Europe was like basketball in the US or hockey in Canada: a way for working-class kids to possibly transcend their meager backgrounds and avoid a life spent working on the farm or in the coal mines.

Lance would never overtake Ekimov on the GC as the race wrapped up in High Point, North Carolina, AKA “the furniture capital of the world.” The night after the final stage the promoters held a big party which began with a trophy ceremony for the winner, Ekimov. As the presentation wore on I found myself standing next to him so I offered him congratulations and we exchanged a few words in awkward English.

Although there are no more than just tidbits of evidence on the web that this edition of the Tour Dupont ever existed, I did happen to dig up this Ekimov quote from an article in the Phildelphia Inquirer:

“’I’m very happy today,” Ekimov said. ‘This is my first victory in a time trial. Now if I can control the mountain stages, I can win the race. I can make good climbing in this race.’”

It would be funny to hear Slava interviewed on television in subsequent years, having since become very fluent.

My final memory of that night is, with the party well underway, stumbling past the stage that had been set up for dancing and looking up to see George Hincapie posing for photos with an All Sport babe on each arm. “Heyyyy man!” he shouted and smiled as he pointed to me.

“Hey!” I pointed back. The dude was a rock star! I gotta get me some of that.

Epilogue

Though it would take a little while, the seed was firmly planted.

A year later I would be flipping through channels when I came upon ESPN’s coverage of the Tour de France. I was instantly transfixed as I watched Miguel Indurain drop all his rivals on La Plagne and claw back enough time on the lone break away, Alex Zülle, to save his yellow jersey. I started riding my roommate’s mountain bike that day and began picking up Velonews and Cycle Sport at the newsstand.

Not much came of it until 1997 when, completely burned out on the travel, low pay and long hours, I was mercifully laid off. Within a year I was racing and would go from a pudgy and weak 170+ lbs to a lean and strong 144.

I had been right when I had said to myself a few years before that it looked hard. It is. Despite having run cross county for three years in high school, bike racing would introduce me to a whole new level of pain and suffering. Forget the pro level, this is true even at the weekend warrior level if you don’t train consistently or are not a natural athlete.

But, as I first got a sense of as a spectator in 1994 and have personally experienced many times since, the sacrifice and the hours, day, weeks and months of effort are worth it when you get even the smallest taste of glory–all the little victories in pursuit of The Victory–that the sport can provide when it clicks.

That’s what has been on my mind with the season beginning on Saturday. Now somebody cue the overture.

My introduction to bike racing: The 1994 Tour Dupont, Part II

A Furious Rush of Sound and Color

The next day would dawn sunny and warm as we made our way down for the start of Stage 1 in Dover, Delaware. There would be four starting circuits around a short course, culminating in a prime sprint for a generous prize of $10,000, before heading out on the open road to finish again in Wilmington. It was in Dover that I would have my first exposure to the overt dangers of bike racing.

The start/prime line for the Dover circuits was on a wide straightaway about 400 meters after a left-hand turn with barriers on either side. At the pistol shot the riders rolled slowly out. I found a shooting position inside the barriers to the right of the prime line, dropped my camera bag and sat down to examine the angles. My hope was to get a wide shot of the riders sprinting across the line, sponsor banners flying high in all their glory against the azure blue spring sky. To my right and further up the road past the start line, another photographer was also checking the angles, contorting himself into several awkward positions—on his knees, prone, upside down on his back—apparently really trying to figure out THE perfect angle.

Many minutes later the field casually rounded the corner, seemingly on a parade lap. I squatted and snapped a few frames as they rolled across the finish line and passed in front of me by several feet. As they disappeared out of sight once more, I sat down again and listened to the race announcer, Jeff Roake, detail the exploits of various guys in the bunch. One of the Italian riders had recently done well in this race I had never heard of but was apparently so hard they called it “The Hell of the North.”

The riders came around for the second lap a little faster and the process repeated itself uneventfully, although this time they passed a little closer and I felt a strong breeze as they glided by. Shortly after they came through for the third time, the bell lap for the prime, and they had noticeably picked up speed. A little alarm bell went off in my head and I shuffled backward toward the barrier to allow for a wider birth. After they flew past, I walked back to where I had dropped my camera bag and moved it against the barrier, just in case.

When they rounded the corner for the prime sprint they were going like the TGV at full speed, right up against the barriers. “Uh oh,” I gulped as shock of panic adrenaline coursed through my body. This could get messy.

I jumped backward and crouched tightly into the barrier, then looked up to see the riders spread completely across the road, pumping wildly and surging toward the line.

Holding my breath, I had the presence of mind to raise my camera and snap a single frame as the field roared though, shaving past me in a furious rush of sound and color. I had barely enough time to exhale a nervous sigh of relief when above the wind I heard a shout and the violent clattering of steel on pavement. Someone began to scream and I thought “Oh no—my camera bag!” fearing that a rider had collided with it at top speed. But as I turned and looked I saw the other photographer sitting on the road a few feet away, stunned and motionless, his eyes wide open. I ran over to him.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

No response. I knelt down in front of him.

“Are you alright?” I repeated loudly, getting right in his face.

Again, no response. It was then that I noticed a huge, oddly bloodless gash on his forehead.

But the screaming continued. Just a little further up the road a rider was on the ground several feet past his mangled bike. Race officials and medical personnel were jumping the barriers and running over to the two victims.  I left the dazed photographer well attended and began to walk away from the finish line and past the downed rider who’s screaming had subdued somewhat now that he was being worked on by EMT’s.

I had never seen so much blood. It flowed like a thick, dark-red stream from somewhere on the rider’s body to the street gutter and I literally had to hop over it to get past. The rider was a member of Team Latvia, one of a handful of amateur national teams competing in the race. He had been well positioned for the prime but apparently either didn’t see the photographer, who had been lying in the road, until too late, or saw him and simply couldn’t avoid him. Either way, he clipped the prone photographer and went over the bars at full speed.

I would hear the next day that the rider had suffered a large laceration and some road rash but was going to be ok. And despite his injury, the unidentified photographer had never made it to the hospital and had actually gone missing. It was determined that he had been lacking an official credential and thus had no business being inside the barriers in the first place.

An unfortunate and completely avoidable incident and I had to wonder what the photographer had been thinking, or not thinking as the case may be, and what level of risk was worth getting a picture of a sporting event. Not much, it turns out. Later on I was going through my processed film and saw the single frame I had gotten from that chaotic moment: a blurred silver wheel rim not four inches from my lens. So maybe we both learned something that day.

The Grout of Champions

Subsequent days saw the race heading into Maryland and Virginia and from there on out we were in a different city every night. On each stage I had the task of shooting around the start line until after the race departed. I would then jump into our van and drive the “non-caravan” route, AKA the freeway, to the finishing venue. Once there I would set up the gear to process (actual film with actual chemicals) and transmit the day’s live images shot by Mike and Gary out on the motorcycles, before heading out to the finish area to catch the race coming in.

One unfortunate coincidence was that one of the other sponsors of the race was All Sport, as in, the sports drink company created by Pepsi. As such, when people asked me who I worked for and I told them “Allsport” they would look at me quizzically and ask “All Sport, you mean the drink? I didn’t know they had photographers…” But a nice side effect of All Sport (the drink) being a sponsor was the unlimited free sports drinks in the sponsor booth, set up in the finish area of every stage, that just happened to be staffed by two very attractive young women. Needless to say, I was well hydrated throughout the 10-day event.

At the start in Fredericksburg, Virginia, I got a close tight of a pensive Lance Armstrong waiting for the stage to get underway, resplendent in a rain cape that covered the rainbow stripes of his World Champion jersey. Looking at unaffected faces of the European riders, silently astride their bikes and wearing rain capes in the misty conditions, I couldn’t help but imagine them as something like World War I fighter aces or old-time race car drivers.

I had only just begun to understand that cycling operated under a very different financial structure than team sports in the US, in that the teams bore the names and colors of a title sponsor. These names, like Banesto, Collstrop, Gan and Mapei-Clas, were completely foreign to my American ears and just sounded a whole lot cooler than say…the Cardinals.

The apparent incongruity that the best cycling team in the world at the time was sponsored by an Italian flooring supply company did not diminish this cool factor for me in the least. To this day I get a cheap thrill when I walking through the isles at Home Depot and see the colorful blocks of Mapei lining the shelves.

I even had the occasion to buy some sand-colored Mapei grout last year and I was giddy. I mean, why wouldn’t I be? This is the grout of Museeuw, Ballerini & Tafi. It’s the grout of Rominger, Bettini and my all-time favorite Michele Bartoli.

In short, this is the grout of champions.

Part III

My introduction to bike racing: The 1994 Tour Dupont

Prologue

Last year I was facing the beginning of my first racing season in six years and, struggling to come up with interesting material for my own rider bio for the Sonic Boom Racing team website, I had a chance to reflect on something I had long ago forgotten: my introduction to road bike racing.

It was not a subtle introduction.

I was 22 in 1993 when I moved from the east coast to Los Angeles to take a job as a picture editor/photographer at a company called Allsport, which at the time laid claim to the title of “world’s largest sports picture agency”.  The company had been founded by British photographer Tony Duffy back in the 60’s and as such had a very euro point of view, which is to say that it covered a variety of sports well beyond the provincial US staples of Baseball, Football, Basketball, Nascar, etc.

Sitting in front of a computer all day was still a new concept back then but that is largely what my job entailed. I monitored and redistributed incoming picture feeds from obscure sporting events around the world. I also scanned hard transparencies and negatives into the computer for outbound file-by-file transmission at a painfully slow 14.4 kbps. As one colleague told me when he left for another job: “I’m hoping to do more with my life than sit and watch progress bars.”

Needless to say I took every opportunity I could to get out into the field to shoot–or process, edit and transmit the “live” images taken by the more senior photographers from–an actual event. So it was in April of 1994 I was assigned to cover an event that was completely unknown to me: the Tour Dupont.

Smells like…

Looking back, it is amazing how apathetic I was about covering an event that would end up dramatically influencing my life to come. I knew nothing about bike racing other than that Greg Lemond had won the Tour de France once or twice, that there was this movie I had caught on cable a few times called Breaking Away and that one of the senior photographers I was to be working under at the event, the very talented Mike Powell, was personally acquainted with this young racer who was supposed to be the “next Greg Lemond.” In fact Mike used to say the name of this cyclist—which instantly struck me as funny ‘cause it sounded like the dude was a Viking or some such–drawing it out with his English accent in faux-dramatic style: “Laaaaaaahhhhhnce!”

The Tour Dupont is arguably still the best ever attempt in the US to pull off a big-scale professional stage race with its 10 days of racing through the mid-Atlantic states. Starting in Wilmington, Delaware (headquarters of the title sponsor) and finishing just outside of Greensboro, North Carolina, the race would include sprint finishes in cities like Richmond, Virginia and Charlotte, NC, a time trial in Raleigh, NC, epic mountain stages through the Great Smokies ending in Blacksburg, VA and Asheville, NC, as well as queen stage: an uphill finish on Beech Mountain in Boone, NC.

Of course I knew none of this when we arrived in Wilmington the day before the event began. I was the junior lackey on a team of three Allsport photographers hired by the promoter to be the official photographers of the event.

Sitting in the press room the day before the start of the race Mike and the other senior photographer staffing the event, Gary Newkirk, sat me down with a round of Frescas (one of the race sponsors, unfortunately so if you’ve ever tasted the stuff) and explained to me the dynamics of road racing in general and stage racing in particular. The difference between mass starts and the time trials; the huge effect drafting has on the tactics of the sport; that the only real way to differentiate yourself from the bunch and thus get the lowest cumulative time to win the race was in the time trails and mountain stages, when drafting was not a factor; and the fact that all riders arriving to the finish in a bunch are given the same time.

“Huh?,” I asked, not really understanding the logic of that last part. “That seems unfair to the guys who finish up front, why do they do that?”

“Because if everybody was trying to scrap for a second or two at the finish, well…there would be carnage, mate,” came deadpan Mike’s answer.

Over the course of the hour or so that we sat in the press room a variety of people would stop by to say hello to the senior photographers, or sit down for a Fresca. As a humble, un-introduced junior photographer I would politely listen or daydream as these conversations rolled on only to be told after the person left  “that [big guy with the cowboy hat] was Nelson Vails, he won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics” or “that was Paul Sherwen, he’s the PR guy for Motorola” or “that was Davis Phinney, he used to ride for 7-Eleven and won a bunch of Tour de France stages.”

One guy who didn’t need an introduction was Greg Lemond. In the twilight of his racing career, Lemond was the big draw at the pre-race press conference, which we covered that afternoon. I specifically remember him answering the question “How has the perception of road racing in the US changed over the course of your career?” with “Well, you guys don’t ask me why we shave our legs anymore.”

There were other American names in the race, young guys who were much less well known but even to my untrained eye would appear to show promise over the course of the race, names like Bobby Julich, Tyler Hamilton, Jonathan Vaughters and George Hincapie.

The only thing I remember about the prologue through Wilmington is that I spent most of the time trying to keep my cameras dry as it rained the whole time. My job was to stick around the start/finish area and try to get pictures that would put the race and its sponsors “in context” with the crowd and the city itself. It was a pretty dreary and mellow way to start the event but even so I was surprised by my own reaction to it.

Having been raised as a typical American sports fan on heavy doses of Boston pro sports as well as tennis and collegiate hockey, I found myself intrigued by the racing and these guys in their slick and colorful spandex: the determined way they powered and suffered up the lone, cobbled climb of the prologue and their polished and shiny steel bikes (especially those one’s with the kick-ass paint job and the clover on the front). And of all the weird things, I was intrigued by the acrid smell of the stuff that the…what did you call them? So-on…swan…soig…errrrr massage dudes rubbed on the riders’ legs. To this day I love the smell of embrocation in the morning. That smell, that hot piney smell. Smells like…racing.

To be continued.