Channeling the spirit of one of the great bike racers into the journey of medium to mediocrity of a cat 4 rider - with an emphasis on cyclocross.
Monday, April 25, 2011
Leland - FTW!
The short version
I got out of bed.
He had a 12 tooth, I had an 11. I could spin faster.
In the final tailwind kilometer I rode one of the strongest riders in Chicago off my wheel for the win.
The long and involved version - read at your own risk
I got out of bed...
Ok, backtrack a bit...
Leland Kermesse. In the same way that Paris Roubaix represents the gritty, blue collar-hardscrabble attitude of the North of France so does Leland represent Illinois - Pancake flat and featureless prairie, bowl-you-over windy, crappy dirt-with-aggregate roads. Toss in April weather, showers for two days previous, temp 40F and falling, and you’ve got a race just as hard in its own right as Paris-Roubaix, but different. This is becoming a classic
This race is Illinois. This race is not for namby-pambys. That's a contradiction.
Most of you will know Kevin's favorite Phil&Paul quote "and Sean Kelly wins bike races in weather you wouldn't send your dog out in!". Step that down five categories and about 200 watts, keep the weather, stick the finish to 1984 Paris-Roubaix on YouTube and enjoy the vicarious ride.
It began with the usual abysmal preparation. Decided to unmount my cross tubulars on Thursday night and glue up a pair of 25mm Vittoria tubies, never having ridden tubulars before. With the weather on Friday night I didn't get a chance to ride them. Also stuck on an 11-23 cassette to replace the 12-26. So no openers, no practice riding on a completely new tire system, derailleur not adjusted to new wheel and cassette. Bad idea.
Top that with not getting to sleep till 2 am, getting up at 6 in dog-awful weather, the usual late start, getting to the race just before registration ends and rolling up to the line with no warm up, a wild guess at tire pressure and having forgotten my booties - the omens were not good. But I got out of bed.. Many didn't.
Sometimes you're the hammer, sometimes you're the nail and sometimes you're the creaky floorboard that can't be fixed.
It's not a strong field. Plenty of solid riders but no stars. Bar Mike from Half Acre. Everyone knows that he's got a threshold about 20% higher than anyone else here. He lapped me at our last cross race. When he rolls up there's an amount of nudging and whispers of "that's the guy". We're racing for second today.
"Race in such a way as to win the prize” .. that's what I intend to do and what I always try to do.
45 starters get their instructions and off we go. Neutral rollout for a mile and then straight into a 20 mph headwind. The race strings out, riders are able to move up and back a bit. Nothing much happens. Good for me, I'm getting my warmup in.
The big guys go to the front. Mike is huge and muscular, there's the guy from Lamb Little, over 200 lbs, and a new guy from WDT, bigger than any racer I've ever seen, bigger than Magnus Backstedt even. A good choice of wheels to draft, at least.
Five miles in we turn into a crosswind, then a tailwind and the race ramps up. Two TT guys take off, get a small gap. Pace hots up, gaps are forming, riders get shelled and a lead group of 14 hit the first 3 mile gravel section into a brutal crosswind, me at the back.
The gravel has turned into soupy mud, no well-defined lines except for don’t ride near the verges or in the middle. The parts where the car tires roll is somewhat more defined, but not much. I’m slipping and fishtailing all over the place and not making much progress. But others are suffering more. It’s a matter of avoiding them, keeping the power down and jumping from left side to right side so as not to lose momentum. After a mile of this I find myself in about 5th wheel. There are two guys well off the front and two more vainly chasing, spaced out about 100 yards apart.
The road turns into a screaming headwind and the ground is slightly more firm. I jump past the first guy and punch it for a minute to hug the wheel of the next. It’s Magnus, all 250 lbs of him, someone turned off the wind. This is comfy. I peer around his massive torso into the wind and see that the gap to the two leaders has increased. Nothing for it but to bite the bullet. I jump into the wind, fishtail on some mush, lose speed and find myself in the draft again. Breathe deep, concentrate, and jump around. This time I find a firmer footing, and get by him. We’re side by side for a bit, I shift down one sprocket and pound the pedals. It takes me a mile and an all out max effort for 3 minutes but I close the gap to the front two and make the bridge just before we turn again into the crosswind and the last mile of this gravel section.
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, was the race. I knew it, the pace car knew it, the other two in the break knew it and the guys chasing knew it. Two riders in the wind will find it difficult to maintain a gap. Three riders working well together, in a crosswind with a disjointed chase group, will not be caught. Seven miles in and fifty-three to go. Bridge completed. The podium has been decided.
The rest of the lap is a tailwind mile of road, crosswind mile of gravel, another mile of tailwind road and a third crosswind gravel mile before we start the lap again for the headwind death march.
Coming into gravel 2 I’ve had enough of a breather to start taking pulls. You couldn’t ask for two better breakmates. Mike is there driving the pace, of course, on his steel Courage with standard tires. Mike is ploughing and powering, I'm pounding and finessing. Matt from Verdigris is on a Ti moots, ultra expensive EDGE hoops and 32mm cross tubulars. He’s floating over the rough stuff but having difficulty on the tarmac. We quickly agree that he should take his pulls on the gravel and try to sit in a bit more on the road. We rotate smoothly and figure out a good formula. Punch it on the gravel and spin fast on the road. We cooperate well and midway through lap 2 all chasers are out of sight. At this stage Matt wants to drop off, his quads are cramping. We’re having none of it. Tell him to do what he can and not worry. He still wants to drop off. The holy name of Conant is invoked. That seems to work. What he doesn’t know is that we other two are also hurting and we need him for shelter. No way do we want to face five miles of headwind as just two riders. Hurts too much.
I notice that I’m riding gravel 3 a bit better than the others. It’s slightly uphill and a bit more firm. Seems to suit my tires and weight better than the others. This would be a good place to make a move. I’m gapping the others slightly in the tailwind sections as well. The tubular ride is superlative, I can never go back to clinchers after this.
Gravel riding - to each his own style: Mike's a Kayak. ploughing through the waves of mud and gravel. Telling all obstacles to get out of his way. Cutting through the mush to the more firm ground beneath. Matt's a catamaran. With his 32 mm cx tubies he's floating. I'm a canoe, doing my best to keep my weight back and keeping power constant, but having to finesse my way around and over the rougher and mushier spots, occasionally losing power and traction as I do.
Lap 1: Get in break
Lap 2: Establish
Lap 3: Maintain
Lap 4: Gloves off
And so it goes. Rotating well, riding smoothly and smartly. Nobody shirking pulls, nobody trying to outpull the other. Both riders are taller than me and give good drafts. No Dan Hills here. The temperature is still a reasonable 40F, we’re all overheating. The wind increases by 10 mph or so, which serves to dry out the worst parts, making the gravel much more rideable and further driving the nails in the coffin of any pursuers.
We hit lap 4. The temperature starts to plummet, wind increases some more, and sleet makes a furtive appearance. It’s understood that we’ll work together for the first half; when we exit gravel 1, with 7 miles of tailwind to home then all bets are off.
My glasses were so covered with gunk that I’ve had to throw them to a marshal on lap 2. From then on, I’m getting immense amounts of muck in my eyes, stinging like hell and dissolving into a brown paste. I’m seeing everything in sepia tones. The wind is freezing and drying my eyeballs. I can’t produce any tears to flush the gunk. The last two laps are an unfocused, brownish, painful blur. Very unpleasant.
We finish with gravel 1. From lap 2 my chain sounds like it’s going to give up the ghost anytime, with all the gunk piled on it. I ride through every puddle I can in order to splash as much water on the drivetrain as possible. I’ve also been practising working the full range of gears, just to make sure everything’s working. It’s not. 13 tooth or smaller are random to drop into. I ride the full race in the big ring, scared that if I ever drop it into the small chainring it may get stuck there. Lots of cross chaining involved. So be it.
Race so as to win the race. I can sit and wait for Mike to drop the hammer and watch him motor away, or I can do something about it. It’s early in the season. I’ve got lots of long rides in my legs already. My endurance is great. What about Mike’s? Him cramping up is probably my best chance. Time to mess with the tempo.
Finish of Gravel 1. Tailwind. I turn it on. No jump, just get low and spin. I build up a 50 yard gap into gravel 2. But Mike catches me quickly. We’ve dropped Matt though. No worries, he’s a lock for third place. He’s happy.
Recuperate a bit and jump for real this time. Get a small gap, but once you try to go above a certain speed it just gets extremely hard to go any faster. Mike closes with ease.
Shot my bolt and Mike has countered easily. Last road section before final gravel and we declare a truce. Empty our bottles, take a few breaths, do a Barack-Michelle terrorist fist bump. Nearly home.
Mike is probably the best-known crosser in Chicago. As much for his unmistakeable pain face as his cross prowess. The first sight of his pain face indicates the start of cross season. Known universally as "The Hemme" it's a combination of hanging jutted jaw, with a plastically molded doleful jowls and wild panicky eyes. It tends to creep in about lap 2 of a race. Once seen, never forgotten. A curious mixture of hang-dog and wild-horse, It's an expression for which the word lugubrious could have been invented.
I study Mike's face as we ride. No signs of "The Hemme". This is bad news! I’m getting depressed. It’s terrible riding next to someone who you know is just about to turn on the afterburners and leave you in their dust.
But it never came. Dunno why. Mike gets a big gap into gravel 3. I dig deep and grab his wheel after a tough minute. I intended to attack here but we’re going so fast that the extra effort is just too much. We ride side by side on the last section. I’m not going to show him any weakness. I start contemplating my last attack when the end of the gravel comes sooner than I expected. We make the turn for home.
Uh,oh! This is the finish. I haven’t tested my gears. Don’t know what to do. Think fast!
Mighty tailwind. Better drop it down a sprocket. She drops into the 13T. Do I just follow Mike’s wheel and hope he runs out of gas? Maybe he’ll be kidnapped by aliens? I drop behind Mike. We’re going a bit too slow for my liking. Better up the pace. That way he won’t be able to get the jump on me and I can grab his wheel when he blows by. One thing I’ve learned is, at the end of a hard race, don’t be shy about leading it out. You control the tempo to suit yourself. The others are probably hurting more than you anyway.
I take the lead, hug the white line to give minimum drafting advantage and up the speed. After a bit of jostling she drops into the 12 tooth. Up the speed some more. Now the vital part. Drop her down one more sprocket. Nothing doing. I jump on the pedals. Hop the bike slightly. Release the pressure. Click! Into the 11 tooth! Way-hey! Up the speed some more. Race to win the race - I’m not racing for second. I jump. Get a ten-meter gap. Put the head down and spin as fast as I can. Waiting for him to come by.
“He’s gonna blow by me! He’s gonna blow by me! He’s gonna blow by me!” Look around. I’ve got a gap of fifty meters. “He’s not going to blow by me! What’s going on? OK, where’s the finish line?” It hadn’t been marked when we started. I can see the Leland water tower in the distance so it must be somewhere before that. I don’t know if I can keep this up. Through the gloom and the brown haze I can see the unmistakable silhouette of Chief Ref Dave Fowkes’ shoulders and crewcut. I’ll guess that’s the finish. 300 meters or so to go. Look behind again. The gap is still the same. “Wholly Carp! I’m gonna win this thing!” Just put the head down and keep spinning. The gap increases....
Winning a masters 4/5 race is nothing to crow about. It officially makes you the king of the dipsticks. Today I will be King Dipstick; for the first time. No hooting and hollering, no chest-beating or fancy post-up as I cross the line. Just enough time to sit up and coast, acknowledging my audience of one by raising my hand, index finger erect to indicate my placing.
Relief. I expected it to be harder. Three seasons. No upgrade points. Best previous placing: eighth. Race to win the race.
5th hardest part of the race: Getting out of bed
4th hardest part: Making the bridge up to the lead two riders on the first gravel section. The only 'Vollgas' section of the race. Three minutes of pain followed by 3 hours of hard tempo. Solo chasers had it far worse.
3rd hardest part: Dealing with Belgian toothpaste in the eyes. Despite rinsing copiously I was seeing everything through a brown dirt fog for several hours afterwards. That hurt.
2nd hardest part: Getting the chain to drop into the 11 tooth for the finish.
1st hardest part: Trying to pee afterwards.
Amazing the effect that stress and adrenaline can have on the body. I crossed the finish ready for another lap and full of vigour. The next day I went out for an easy endurance ride and bonked within an hour. I got dropped on every ride that week. Recovery-schmovery, I guess I had dug deeper than I thought.
Remember the Phil&Paul quote? Here’s the corollary - "whenever a rider DNFs Sean Kelly cries"
I'd like to think that Sean is sitting in a smoky Belgian cafe right now, preparing to commentate on Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It’s pouring cats and dogs outside. He’s drinking a glass of Jupiler and he’s smiling.