"It never gets any easier. You just go faster." ---Greg Lemond
"Don't buy upgrades. Ride up grades." --- Eddy Merckx
"You drive like shit." ---The Car Whisperer



It’s time to take 2009 out of the oven and go to work on it with a knife and fork. It’s well-done and ready to serve.

I write with sadness and a bittersweet taste in my mouth today, as the campaign has ended on the same personal chaos it began with in March, but that is that and I only mention it for the cryptic irony and to backlink one of my favorite compositions.

Yet, based on my goals, my third year racing was a huge success, and I was very happy to be part of XXX’s meteoric rise on the coattails of so many epic performances. Not the least of which was the state road race championship jersey captured Saturday by none other than Seth Elliot Meyer; adding to the impressive pile of skins already accumulated by the team this year.

Looking back

I say goals, but my goal was just one goal, singular…to upgrade to Category 3 by finally putting together some successful finishes, to get up and out there to support the team’s new-found profile. I knew a breakout for me was lurking somewhere out there, I only needed to believe in myself and learn to risk failure.

April and May did not bode well while I grappled with my risk-aversion, and it was frustrating to be passed by newer team members on their way up the ranks. At Hillsboro I seemly had learned nothing and let myself get shelled even earlier than last year. Early season crits at Vernon Hills and at The Midway only enforced my questioning approach to racing, and in late May I sat in a hotel lobby in Muscatine, Iowa questioning whether I even wanted to continue at all.

The very next day I was standing on the podium for 3rd place having led out Seegs for the win. I got another point for 6th place in the second race.

It was a procession of podiums and top-10s for the next two months, at Winfield, Soldier Field - with the equally infamous Pepsi Max girls and my ill-advised sandbagging tirade – and Superweek. By the end of July, I’d gotten my gotten my upgrade and was once again – happily - at the back of the pack.

Racing 11 times over nine days during Superweek took a lot out of me. After finishing July by doubling up in the 3s and Masters 1/2/3 at the Chicago Criterium, I told Coach Randy I needed some time off for just a long mileage weekend. Which then took me into a rest week, after which I felt even worse and I sat out Downers Grove. I ended up not even racing again until this past Saturday’s Tour of Willow Springs, the State Championship Road Race.

Saturday, September 12

We’d all done our homework, reconnoitered the route, and knew full well that Luke was targeting this race before he upgraded to Category 2. We were set to patrol the front, chase down anything threatening, and wait for Luke to try and get off. The uphill finish played well to his established strengths, and in the event of a group finish, my race ended at the foot of the hill, after stringing it out to prevent the late attacks and swarms.

It was a promising course and at the whistle the field seemed itching for knockdown, drag-out battle. The neutral rollout up the long, snaking, 3-tiered climb to the line was anything but, with riders going off the front as others yelled for them to cool it. I couldn’t believe my ears as I actually heard carbon and metal hitting pavement behind me.

Once at the top and the race live, Liam was immediately off on his now trademarked flyer and I waited for fireworks to begin. And waited. And waited.

I sat second wheel for the next two laps as half-chases and his own fatigue reeled Liam in. Up the hill and again no selections were made. On the 2nd and 3rd laps there were a couple of fairly vicious attacks I chased – one of which was strong enough to give me an “oh shit” moment that we might actually get off (I’d promised my 4-man TTT partners I’d save my legs, and I owed them that) – but the effort was over soon enough and the pack was back.

Then things really settled down. Oncoming traffic was heavy and the roads were narrow. The yellow-line rule was zero-tolerance and it was being taken seriously by the pack. There just wasn’t really much room for anyone to get clear, and with large field size and despite the hill, the race just wasn’t that hard enough.

On the final lap in the backstretch I sat midpack chatting with Shane about cyclocross for a while, when he casually asked for some room so he could move up on the widening shoulder as Turn 2 approached. I jumped on his wheel, and with Kirby on mine, I was back, just off the front, where I needed to be for the upcoming group finish.

Burnham increased the pace and was driving it a bit, then the elbow wagged, and when nobody pulled through I took the front and drove it harder. It was a lot earlier than I’d marked it, but I didn’t want to be late for the jump.

Kirby pulled through as we went by the cemetery, when two riders went off, and it looked fairly threatening. Kirby screamed “reel it in! Give me everything you got!” I floored it for about 200 meters and just before the hill I died. The move was back, the pack accelerated, and I was done.

It was all just motions and ritual however. The truth is I could’ve been going 17 mph instead of 27, and nobody would’ve jumped until the hill, or the group at least. The climb itself would neutralize anything that went 100% from the bottom.

I missed it all as I came in behind Kirby in my small ring, lazily winding my way to the line at the top, past another crash. The strategy had fallen apart, perhaps doomed from the start, and no one was near the top-10. A Bloomington rider took the jersey I believe.

Sometimes, things just don’t work out as you’d planned. That’s racing - the big lesson I’d learned this year. That, and no matter the outcome, you need to smile and count your blessings: that bike racing isn’t your job, and nothing makes a beer taste better than when it’s enjoyed after riding your bike as hard as you can on a beautiful afternoon such as this.

I relaxed with the neighbors that evening in the driveway over wine and grilled salmon and soon went to bed. The 6:30 departure for the 4 person team time trial was early.

Sunday, September 13

Our goal was teamwork, winning was “out-of-scope” as they say. Jeff had only been back outdoors on the bike since the beginning of August after suffering a broken collarbone and a stubborn rib back in May at the track. While the amount of fitness he’d gained back over the short amount of time was admirable, his redline was still far below ours. Keeping the four of us together – with everyone still getting what they wanted out of the race, leaving everything out there in the cornfields of Utica – would be a battle in itself.

A heavy fog blanketed the area, and the start was pushed back 30 minutes, and then an hour, before it finally began to burn off. Our start went from 10:11 to 11:11 and we waited around, drying off the condensation from the bikes, and eating extra food to account for the delay.

As the clock counted down for us, the fog was gone and sunlight shined brilliantly, with a brisk wind in our faces. I was nervous, as I always am before TTs, especially team events. The first time I did this race in 2007 it was traumatic and wonderful and as defining to me as a person than anything I’ve ever experienced. So much of your outcome depends on how you pace yourself at the beginning, you are wracked trying to make sure you start perfectly, and keep your adrenaline in check, but not holstered.

Trying to strike this balance while accounting for Jeff’s fitness proved our undoing as a group of four. We had a good pace going out, doing about 25 mph into the wind, and we made sure he was taking shorter pulls. But into the cross winds, the echelon was trickier, and the work was taking its toll on him. Between turns 2 and 6 we alternated from cross- to tailwind and adrenaline kept pushing us other three at an unsustainable pace for him. Around mile 9 Jeff was gapping in the draft and even pulling through was too much.

As we were trying to reset the rotation so he could sit on the back, at bit of chaos ensued as our 2 minute men caught us and we came apart. Jeff was fatally gapped and at mile 11, he cut himself loose and three of us where on our own for the remaining 26 miles. It was tough seeing him go. Last year he drove the group like a beast on the shortened 50K course; we finished together and averaged over 27 mph.

The speed picked up and back into the wind my pulls shortened considerably; I was feeling yesterday’s efforts. I’d pull through strongly, only to start pedaling boxes 20 seconds in, glutes and calves giving into pain before my heart rate redlined. I didn’t have speed on the bike (no powertap hub on the race wheels) so I was going on feel alone. William was taking equally or slightly longer pulls than I and I imagined the road race yesterday was hitting him hard, too.

Chris on the other hand, pulled forever: up hills and through turns, only to regain the pace immediately after. His pulls seemed 5 minutes long, and our pace never dropped. He was definitely on form having hit the podium in both individual TT events the two previous weekends, and had fresh legs from sitting out the road race.

He was definitely in the driver’s seat from the final two turns.

We never dropped below 30 mph back on the homestretch and I could taste vomit in my throat. Mashing the bottom cogs for as long as I could, I’d pull back and barely make it on. I could hear William screaming to stay in the draft behind me, and there is nothing so interminable as the time from when you first catch a glimpse of the start tent until you finally cross the line.

An hour twenty-five. Ish. Around 26 something miles an hour average speed.

I retched a bit and dropped to the small ring, and took a 10 minute cool down to the far stop sign past the parking lot and back. Back at the car, my glass-bottle-real-sugar Coke had warmed in my bag, so I asked the organizers if they’d mind it in their cooler for a few minutes.

I changed, absent-mindedly picked the salt out of my chin whiskers, and chatted up the other teammates. Randy, Peter, Ed, and Jacques had put in a stellar time of 1.20.ish, despite Randy’s crash at turn 4, from brand-new pavement to a chip-n-seal, almost loose-gravel surface. He was covered in gauze and netting, Charlotte’s handiwork, and his brand-new custom skin suit was covered in blood stains. Jacques reported that immediately after getting up and being asked, “are you ok?!” he replied, “we’ll see when I get back on the bike.”

They won the Elite division with the 5th fastest time overall. Four more stars and stripes pelts to the stash.

This is without a doubt my favorite event of the season, and I hope to do it with these guys again next year. Jeff will be back, and William and I will bring fresher legs, along with the never say die ethos we always have. Chris and his never-ending motor will certainly be welcome.

I walked back to the cooler to retrieve my Coke.

It tasted incredible.

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