Thursday, August 13, 2009

Playing Catch Up

Hi Gang,

I have been lazy post-crash and Summer has been slipping away. Just because the race updates have not been posted, does not mean that I lost all of my courage and quit racing. I had originally planned on making my comeback at Sherman Park, a great crit a few weeks after Monsters. With rain pouring down, I played the role of DS, mechanic, photographer and general personal assistant for Stephen, who went out and gave a terrific ride, finishing about 8th in soaking wet yellow & blue.

My comeback was a return to an old venue, Cobb Park in Kankakee. I remember racing here 15 years ago and the result was the same … the dreaded 3 letters all riders fear D N F. Ugh. Stephen and I headed down with Kim with the hopes of putting in a good ride in fairly hot weather at the SCW-run crit. My warmup felt ok and I was optimistic that I might be ok. All of us have hit the deck at some point in our racing careers. We know the risks involved in threading a bike around a tight course at better than 25 mph wearing less clothing than an NFL cheerleader and a bit of foam on our heads. While I am not great at this sport, I thought I could shake off the horror of Monsters with a turn of the pedals. I found that charging back into the fire requires more courage than I could muster in my first race.

The race is now run counter to the days of old and it presents a bit of a challenge as the course dog-legs and narrows on the back and the resulting squeeze caused the inevitable accordion. I was already giving up more cushion on the wheels ahead than I should have been giving up and the sprint out to catch a wheel took its toll quickly. Stephen was up front and looking good. That much I could tell. Probably 10 or 15 minutes into the 45 minutes I was shattered. I just couldn't get on a wheel out of the final turn, the party corner where the locals cheered madly, even for me, and I got gapped. While Kim cheered me on, I kept riding hard, figuring I needed the hard training. When the race hit a few to go, I voluntarily withdrew to help coach SJB. He was looking good at the front, about 3-5 wheels back. Near the front not at the front, Stephen! Good! The field got the bell and Stephen was in the drivers seat looking like a repeat of his Top 10 at Sherman Park. Then, it all went pear-shaped. As I could watch the backstretch I watched in pain as Stephen started going backwards, blowing up spectacularly with half a lap to go! While it wasn't a good day for the WFR boys, at least I was back racing. With Superweek but 2 weeks away, could I get back into some kind of form?

A Matteson SCW paint-factory crit helped give me some feeling that all hope was not lost. While I struggled, in an A's race that didn't see much use of the brakes, I started working at getting the courage back, following wheels tightly through the turns and getting up close. It felt good to be going fast and some optimism returned. I did a great long road ride in Door County with Stephen, hit the trails for a bit of mountain biking with Kim, and found myself remembering why being on a bike is so vitally important to me.

ON a beautiful Saturday morning, I drove to Chris Hammer' to meet him and SJB. Chris' SUV was burdened down under 3 bikes, a spare set of wheels for every bike, trainers, tools, pumps, bags, bottles, fig bars, and heaven knows what else. We drove right past the Burr Oak Cemetery getting all the news and headed into Blue Island for Crit #1. Superweek check-in was astonishingly smooth and soon we were on the trainers, Chris' ipod cranking out some music. Who rolls in for a little crit action, but John Mahr! Sweet. With Derek racing 3's, WFR/Bicycles Etc. was up to 5 guys!

We lined up in a large field in the Masters 30+ 4/5 and quickly launched. With the large field racing a similar course to Monsters it was a bit squirrely. I tried to hang on Chris and Stephen took his spot near the front. John was near me. I was feeling ok, it was fast and my heart was going, but ok, maybe I'm ok. A few laps in, a Cat 5 rider doing probably one of his first crits cuts me off in T3 and the rider to my outside is forced onto my hip. Be cool man, be cool. We exit the turn safely, but what the heck? I try and move forward a bit, but can't get away from this guy. He's always shadowing me. Crud. This can't have a happy ending. A few laps more and we're hitting T1 fast and suddenly this guy is sliding across the road solo. I hit the brakes, avoid the body, and I'm gapped. You're kidding me! I catch on with a couple of xXx riders, we pick up JM and the four of us start working together and it is going ok. As we hit the end we get lapped, but we're still going. As we exit T4, it is suddenly carnage, bikes and bodies all over. Oh crud. I thread through the wreckage and an ABD rider is sadly moaning in agony. It was chilling. JM stops to help. I press on, but for what? I finish near the end of official finishers. I find later that Chris narrowly missed the wreck caused by a Beverly/Vee Pack rider jumping out to grab a wheel without looking. Crashes come with the territory, but any time you cut out to follow a wheel you need to know you aren't going to take somebody out. We ride this new Masters category to stay safer than we'd be in a straight Cat 4/5 with teenagers and college kids with no fear, no responsibilities, and so far in 2009 it has not proven to be any safer.

Superweek Crit #2 is a nice neighborhood race in Richton Park on Monday. All of us took off Sunday, chosing not to do the hilly road circuit at Elgin. I opted to switch bikes. Since switching to the Cannondale as my crit bike, I'd crashed and had less than stellar rides at Kankakee and Blue Island, so the Bianchi saw duty, repelete with her Campy crit wheels. The race started off good enough. I was hanging, towards the back, but hanging. I was trying to stay near Hammer again. A move went off the front and got a good gap. Stephen was up working and then Chris looked over at me and let me know he was going to go. Off he went with blazing speed and he put in some monstrous effort and then SJB pitched in and suddenly it was gruppo compato. I was dying, but kept the tongue hanging out and praying for reduction in speed. Then, as so often happens, bodies in the road, Kevin on the brakes, and a gap and it was all she wrote. I found a Team Mack rider and we worked hard, getting lapped towards the end, jumping on the back of the field and riding home, one down, but feeling ok.

Tuesday took us to Arlington Heights. I was starting to get into a rhythm getting the bottles ready, taking care of the bike, feeling like a bike racer again. Yeah, the results weren't there, but I was riding as well as I could and I was pragmatic enough to be happy with that. The course was a crazy 8 with a tight square to navigate and then some long straights to keep the speed high. It was insanity. Stephen and Chris were once again looking pretty good, I was hanging the tongue out and trying to avoid trouble. The pavement was brutal which presented some tough choices at high speed. Probably 10 miles into the race, I found myself in familiar territory, piecing together a group to chase. 4 of us started trading turns and then I saw the safety-truck roll and I knew we'd be coming on a crash in the tough section – I yelled out for the guys to stay sharp as we'd be hitting some wreckage. Then, to my horror I saw my worst fear – yellow & blue on the road. Two bodies. Two friends. Oh my gosh. They were moving and looked ok. I kept going with my group. As we came through again, Chris was gone and I yelled at SJB who replied that he was so-so. Ok. He's not too bad – he's up and mobile – if he were really in bad shape, he'd tell me. He describes it all in his report. I chased back to my group. Chris slotted back in after his free lap. We got lapped probably with 4 to go and I hung at the back, happy with a free ride to the finish. The motorcycle was yelling at the other lapped riders to get to the back and not disrupt the sprint. Fair enough. I rolled home. Another crit. Another finish. A veritable Lanterne Rouge of Superweek. Stephen was banged up with some good road-rash, but his bike and wheels ok. Chris was the same, less road-rash, but more importantly, the bike and wheels unscathed by their plummet to the ground.

As we pieced things together, it went down about like this: suddenly Stephen was on his way to the deck, Chris didn't know what happened and figured Stephen to have tapped a brake, Stephen was apologizing to Chris even before impact, along with probably a tirade of naughty words. Chris after a few more laps realized what happened, there was a lip in the pavement on the outside of the turn. Stephen caught his wheel on it and lost his front end, resulting in the wreck. Tight on his usually safe wheel, Chris followed him to the ground. As we cooled down, a police officer pointed out that she'd asked for that spot to be marked and was assured it wasn't a problem, but she'd already seen several wrecks caused by it. Ugh.

Rain was threatening Wednesday morning for Bensenville. Stephen called to let me know he was just too sore to go and so I met Chris for our final Superweek Crit. We warmed up. A Team Mack rider chatted with us briefly, a bit puzzled about the wreck from the day before as he nearly went to, but was assuaged by the explanation of how the wreck went down. He heard SJB's apologies as it all occurred and found that amusing.

A smaller field contested this odd course through a park on some narrow paths and a street or two. It wasn't a bad course, just odd. I glued myself to Chris once more, hoping that I'd find some luck on this final race for me. Tongue hanging out, we zipped around and around and I was hanging. Then, as we came into the park onto the “path” Chris told me he had a flat. Crud. Losing my wingman, I tried to find wheels, but the magnetic pull of the yellow & blue was gone. I came unglued. I soldiered on, picked up another rider, picked up the pack and rolled in for another finish. Definitely the Lanterne Rouge. I'll hold the red lantern at the end of a fast Superweek train. I'm racing. I'm doing what I love. It is ok.

A few more Matteson crits found my fitness coming around after the boot-camp that Superweek had provided. I had a strong night with Stephen and Chris, once again feeling like a bike racer again. The Cherry was seeing duty for these races so all three road bikes had seen their pedals turned in anger, to steal from Phil Ligget.

Grayslake was a great little crit that I'd definitely do again. It rained the entire drive up, but I was pre-registered and it occurred to me that this is what separates us from our golfing and softball playing adult-sports bretheren. When the weather turns foul, we just see the muddy farm roads of Belgium, our mad-spattered heroes fighting in bloody awful conditions, we don our rain gear and we race. I've raced in snow, in rain so hard that it stung, in conditions so cold water would freeze in bottles and fingers couldn't operate the shifters, in races where due to real concerns of hyptothermia the race shortened, I've been so covered in mud that the sponsor logos are gone, and I love it. Oh maybe not in the heat of the battle, but as a bike racer, survial is part of the draw. The rain stopped as we rolled to the line, but the roads were soaked and we would be quickly enough from road-spray. About 35 of us set out in the Masters 4/5 crit. In foul conditions I found that my courage was a bit lacking and I was nervous. I couldn't stay glued on wheels and was having to power hard out of the turns to stay on. Then a loose dog rattled me a bit. I was alone. A 2CC rider came up and he pulled us to two xXx racing riders burying himself with the effort and soon our group was 5 and we tried to organize a chase. If you race a bike, you should know how to pull through a paceline, but this group was like herding cats. It took forever before things started to click and still it wasn't smooth. I'd come off the front to see a gap a few riders back and have to slot in, fill the gap, and was back on point faster than I'd like, but that was the job on Saturday. It wasn't until the bell that we got lapped. So we had a bit of a sprint, but I think the group was largely happy to have finished the race upright.

So Downers Grove is in a few days. I'm hoping that all of this racing has provided me 30 minutes of fitness. I put in another Matteson crit that went poorly, but I'm hoping that was just because there were more 2's and 3's putting the screws to us. It will be good to have friends and family cheering me on, good to be racing with Stephen and Chris, and good to be racing on my home streets again. Since 1991 this has been a high point of my summers. I can't believe that for 19 years that has been a part of my life. I've had highs and lows on this course. I can still remember Bryn and I being the last official finishers in 1995, finishing hand in hand, and scoring 12th a few years ago. Wish me luck, and I'll give the update soon.