Monday, July 11, 2011

"When your luck turns, Sully, it TURNS"

Between races this weekend, I spent a little time talking about my father and the past. I spent a little more time berating myself for bad choices, but I did that only in my head. I even lost track of my humanity just a little bit, and that may have been the worst part.

But then, everything turned; the weather, the roads, the legs, the pedals. My luck. Now that I'm standing on the other side of what seems like a paradigm shift in my Omaha stopover, I'm torn between writing this story as a random convergence of forces or as a culmination of preparation and intent. I tend to blame myself and my decisions when things go poorly and attribute positive developments to luck. That makes living kind of hard, sometimes--especially when I accept blame for crippled mothers, disabled kids, disenchanted friends, lost jobs, unfulfilled potentials. But when my writing goes well or my kids achieve something, I chalk it up to fortune or happenstance. Resolving such negative thinking has been an ongoing challenge of subjective evaluation.

But on the bike, the numbers and the results don't lie. Maybe that's why my "fun' writing focuses on the bike: it's easier to explain.

Or maybe it's not: sometimes the strongest guy doesn't win. Sometimes you find yourself hurled into the abyss on a descent or hit by a car driven by an idiot. Sometimes you launch a heroic attack that doesn't work or suffer a mechanical failure that ruins months of training.

But sometimes, the gods smile on you and offer what Wordsworth calls "abundant recompense." Such was my weekend.

I drove to Clear Lake, Iowa for a weekend of Bikes, Blues, and BBQ with my teammates Leah and Shim. (I learned that Shim really doesn't like being referred to in social media, so I suppose we should call him "He Who Must Not Ne Named." But since that cat's already of the bag, let's just stick with Shim). 

Shim and I both raced the Master's 30+ crit through downtown Clear Lake, which meant that Cat 1/2/3 "youngsters" Ian Robertson and Lee Baumgarner from Flatwater Cycling in Lincoln also toed the line. The course was a semi-technical, eight-turn affair that started and finished next to the town square and ran alongside the ubiquitous lake for two blocks. It featured a block-long power climb and two potholes at the apex of two of the turns.

I failed to get enough intensity in my warm-up, so I hoped to sit in for the first half of the race until my legs opened up. How many times have I made that mistake? If you see me before a crit, remind me that without two five-minute ramp-ups to threshold before a crit, disaster awaits. Disaster.

I felt okay during the first three laps of the race. While Ian and Lee both blazed along at the front, I let the confidence I gained from cornering through Lawrence last weekend help me move up in the corners while drifting back on the little climb. But when I hit a pothole and heard an audible "clunk" at the end of lap three, I started to panic: I couldn't shift into the lowest gears on my rear cassette, and my breathing went to hell. the pedals just wouldn't turn, and my handling felt wiggly and unpredictable. I got gapped off the back twice and then dropped really badly.

When I looked down at my rear derailleur, it hung askew beneath the cassette. I hopped off the bike and realized that the impact of the pothole had jarred loose my derailleur hanger--the same one that fell off just before the start of the Lawrence Crit last weekend. Because we had to order the missing bolts directly from Trek, I had spent the week riding the bike with the hanger held in place by the force of the quick release skewer, but I evidently didn't get it properly aligned when I changed wheels right before the race. The tire was rubbing one of the brake pads, and the derailleur cage was way out of alignment. Race over. I blamed myself, as I should have, for not getting the bolts in time. But I ordered them as soon as I could, and I visited the shop and tried to find a solution. But I failed to properly secure the hanger in place. But Trek made a bike that allowed the bolts to pop out. But they popped loose because I misused my trainer in Lawrence. On and on, ad infinitum. Bad luck or simple negligence?

I threw the bike over my shoulder and did the racer's walk of shame through the backside of the course as the race continued. Wayne's Ski and Cycle had set up a tent in the town center, so I wandered over and told Wayne about my dilemma. He pulled bolts from his personal Trek Speed Concept Tri bike, but they were the wrong diameter. A QBP rep's loaner Cannondale, however, proved a better donor--its bolts worked just fine.  He and Wayne also re-tuned my rear derailleur and got the bike back in fighting form.

I watched Shim take third in our Masters race and saw an unfortunate crash in lap two of the Cat 5 race. I thought I was having a bad day:

No matter bad your luck gets, it can always get worse.
That's a total loss of a 2011 Trek Madone 6.5. Ouch. Even though I watched it happen, I have no idea what caused the crash.

Crashes feature prominently in the history of Clear Lake, a pretty little town with huge lake-front mansions alternating with charming Victorians. It's famous for hosting the last show that Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens played before their plane went down the Day the Music Died.

After a bit of food and some rest, Bryan and I kitted up for the cat 3 race. I was confident in my bike and my legs, but I was wrong. I couldn't recover from even minor surges in speed, and I got pulled after 20 minutes of racing. Bryan stayed in the race and gutted out the heat and humidity until the finish, while I tried to stop coughing and was inexplicably rude to a passer-by who wanted to chat about the racing. I was still in the process of peeling off my jersey when he wandered over to our van, so tried to tell him that I couldn't breathe or think coherently, but I think I bungled it. As a guy who always tries to serve as a positive ambassador for the sport of cycling, I totally blew that exchange. Bad timing-- or negligence?

After decompressing for a bit, I walked the course and tried to give Leah some positive vibes during her Elite Women's race. Look at her, all bad-assed and focused on the startling line:

She was outnumbered by the racers in the blue kits who attacked one by one until the winner got away and won by several seconds. Shim and I watched in horror as Leah eased off the pedals just before the finish line and got pipped for third. She was justifiably upset, but Shim's bellowing "don't stop pedaling!" would prove prophetic the next day. Still, her fourth place in that field and on that course was a great result.

Shim dropped his chain in the Pro 1/2 race, which was won in a solo attack by Nick Frey of Jamis Sutter Home. Fellow professional Gregg Brandt of Kenda / Five-Hour Energy chased valiantly for 5 laps but couldn't close the gap, while Clear Lake native Tom Zirbel controlled the pack and finished fourth. The crowd numbered in the hundreds:

Yeah, we race bikes in the Midwest!
As pleased as I was to see such a great turnout for a crit in Northern Iowa, I was really disappointed by how poorly my racing had gone. All the travel time away from my family, the entry fees, the expense of the new bike, the missed writing time: all of it seemed like a total waste as the day wound down. Shim and Leah and I met some good folks for dinner in Mason City, but I brooded throughout the rest of the evening.

We awoke the next day to rain and awful humidity. All three of us dragged a little as we loaded our stuff from the hotel and drove back to Clear Lake. The road race was staged in the parking lot of the Surf Ballroom, which has been restored to the way it looked the night of the gig that preceded the plane crash. One wall of the lobby is covered by Buddy Holly memorabilia, and on another wall hang pictures from hundreds of bands that played the room during the last 40 years.

My dad loved Buddy Holly. His was the generation that danced to that music and watched in horror as it died.

By the time Shim and I started our Master's 40+ race, the rain had stopped and the roads had started to dry. Temperatures were pretty mild, and Shim commented that we had covered the first 10 miles in what seemed like no time at all. I didn't know the course, but everybody commented on its lack of climbs and constant wind--two factors that usually play into my favor. I won my first race over the Dunnigan Hills in Northern California on a hot, windy day, and last year's Nebraska State Championship road race was run in similar conditions. But the wind was non-existent as we rode through flat corn and soybean fields. It felt like an easy recovery ride, just 30 guys chatting and spinning along.

Besides Shim and I, there were two guys from the Central Iowa Cycling Club, two from Sioux City Velo, two from River Valley Cycling in Minnesota, and three locals from North Iowa Spin, the host club. Assorted singles rounded out the field. I chatted about the course with Scott Wall, a lean, chiseled-legged hard man from Central Iowa CC, and a few guys from North Iowa. All of them said that the wind usually broke up the fields because there just weren't enough hills.

Nothing happened until the 15-mile mark, when I took a race-pace pull at the front to loosen my legs. When I pulled off, Bob Gregg from Sioux City tried an attack that Shim and a Minnesota guy covered pretty easily. I thought that if either Shim or I and one rider each from the other teams got into a break, we'd have a chance to stay away, but each time Shim or I tried to go, the pack would jump really hard. A solo rider escaped for about 5 miles but simply dangled ahead of us, and after we caught him, Scott Wall tried to launch 3-4 times in the next few miles. I tried to bridge up to him with a Minnesota guy on my wheel, but my jump must've scared the pack, because they roared to life and caught us just after we reached Scott.

Two solo guys did a lot of the chasing, which I found odd. Shim and I and the two Central Iowa guys did most of the animating and attacking, but the two solo guys chased while the local host club never appeared at the front. They probably ride these roads enough to know that no breakaway was going to stick on such a calm day.

I focused on scarfing down salted Clif Blocks and caffeinated Gu shots to stave off cramping in the humidity. No back pain ever crossed my mind, and despite heavy sweating in the sultry air, my legs felt supple. I did my best to cover most accelerations so Shim didn't have to, and when the pack converged, I slotted in ahead of him and tried to give him my huge draft.

Shim asked me how I felt with about 8 miles to go, and I told him that if the race ended in a sprint, I had the legs to win. We tried to pick one of the Minnesota guys to start a break with, but we just couldn't get the right combination of guys, so we resigned ourselves to mass finish.

A solo rider tried  to escape with 2k to go, but he came back on his own soon afterward. A few surges failed to string things out, so I side drafted into about fifth position as the group converged at the 1k sign. The referee had told us at the starting line that the route was closed to oncoming traffic only at the 200-meter mark, so I sat on the yellow and watched passing signs that reminded us not to cross the center line. I was chomping at the bit. I told myself over and over to wait, wait, wait.  Patience, patience, patience. Wait, wait, wait.

When I saw the "open road" sign allowing us to use both lanes, I swung out hard to the left and surged with everything I had. I stood up and threw the bike from side to side, flicked through the shifting, and felt my wheels fly beneath me. I passed the head of the group immediately and felt myself gap them off my wheel. I hit my biggest gear in about five seconds and then tried to punch through it. At about 75 meters to the line, my vision started to blur and my heart wanted to explode, but in my head, Shim bellowed at Leah, "Don't stop pedaling!" I crossed the line with my head down, still sprinting as hard as I could, terrified that someone would come around me. No one did.

I'm not sure how much of a gap I had, but I think I probably crossed the line alone. A few dozen people snapped pics and cheered as I won, but I saw none of it--I just tried not to pass out.

I was too wrecked from the sprint to feel anything other than nausea; the next few minutes after the race are still a memory-less haze. Shim picked his way through traffic for fourth place, and we rolled back to the finish line in time to watch Leah take fourth in her race, as well.

The host club fed us some beer and BBQ as they waited for the Pro 1/2 field to finish their 82-mile slog. Leah lamented my failure at race van organization when I haphazardly spread my stuff all over the place like a zombie, and Shim itched to get on the road for home. We left before the podium presentations (family and sponsor-disappointing FAIL on my part), but it felt good to leave town a winner.

Shim's power numbers prove that it was an easy race, but we animated the thing as well as we could. And I learned that I still have my sprint, even if I seldom get to use it.

How in the world did I go from dead-legs awful on Saturday to easy-race winner on Sunday? The different nature of the courses, for one. A good night's sleep, for another. A supportive teammate. A solid eating and drinking plan. Smart tactics in the group. Patience in the final kilometer.

Or was it all blind, stupid luck?
*       *        *

Richard Russo wrote one of my favorite books about an affably charming, Irish-American loser of a sixty year-old man. Sullivan's barely getting by, estranged from his family, allowing his unfulfilled potential to sadden the people who love him. But then an accidental visit from his son offers Sully a shot at redemption and a chance at repentance. All in the name of luck.

Or is it conscious choice?

The bike's a metaphor for many, many things. In my immediately post-race, finish-line hypoxia, I thought of something else Shim said, or asked. About my father.

Perhaps some failures aren't my fault.

But that doesn't mean I can't help rectify them.


  1. Luckily ... sort of ... that Madone is only a 2009 6 Series.

    Nice race on Sunday.

  2. The eponymous scene is found here: