Sunday, April 2, 2017

La Vuelta a Costa Rica '89

After Arriving back in Colorado Springs from La Vuelta a Guatemala at the beginning of November in 1989 (Part One, Part Two) I expected to head back to Central America for the Vuelta a Costa Rica in mid December. I stopped by the coaches' office at the Olympic Training Center and asked Jiri Mainus about it (as he was the one who suggested I would be going). He told me the invitation was held by a club and he couldn't get me on the team. I was mildly disappointed, but it was just as well. I had done a lot of racing that year, close to a third of it internationally. My broken collarbone in East Germany back in May that kept out of racing for about a month and half notwithstanding, I was pretty worn out.

So I drove back down to Albuquerque and began my winter dormancy. I rode the mountain bike a couple of times a week, played some pickup basketball games when my friends could sneak me into the UNM gym, and rolled around with friends on rollerblades at night. I needed things to do that didn't cost money because I was nearly broke. I had been desperately impoverished the whole year because while I was in my first year on the Shaklee team, I wasn't being paid anything. They gave me a bike (no racing tires though), and paid to get me to and in races. Fortunately, I spent a lot of time on Federation trips that year and was able to live cost-free for much of the season. When I was stateside though, I had to depend on the charity of friends and survive on prize money. That I had a place to live by year end was purely by the good graces of Paul Sery, who had just bought a house in the Nob Hill neighborhood in Albuquerque. My rent was a paltry $110 a month, and I could barely afford it. Further, Paul gave me several months leniency until the next March when I would receive my first stipend check from the Shaklee Team for the '90 season.

It was a big surprise when I got a call from a Federation coach who wanted to know if I could fill a spot on the team going to the Vuelta a Costa Rica. The race start was only a week and a half away. Typically for these international trips the rider was expected to pay their own domestic airfare to the departure point, in this case, New Orleans. I wanted to go but there was no way I could afford the ticket to New Orleans. The coach told me to hang on, and he would see what he could do. Meanwhile I called around to check airfare prices. The cheapest was United at around $500.

The next day he called back and said they could cover my airfare, but they couldn't get me the money until I got to New Orleans. They asked me to drive to Colorado Springs and start the flight from there. Since flying from Albuquerque involved a plane change in Denver, this brought the cost down a bit. I hit my friends up for a loan, and Gabe Aragon fronted the cash, with me having to promise a Colombian jersey as an interest payment. I called the coach back and told him it was on. I asked who else was going.

Gabe "Cabbage" Aragon. A good egg if ever there was one.

Front row, left to right: Peter Ilovski, Mechanic Robert Gregario, Paul Peterson. Back row, left to right: The federation coach whose name I can't remember, Me, Dave Brown?, Steve Klasna, and Luis Torres. And some guy photo bombing our picture before that was a thing.


Dave Brown (I don't remember if that's his name actually, but I'm going with it), it turned out, was the one who held the race invitation. His parents lived in Costa Rica and therefore he had a grip on the U.S. invitation through the Costa Rican cycling federation. He was also the president of the Athletes in Action (Christian Athletics organization) cycling program. This then, was why initially Jiri couldn't fulfil his plan to send me to Costa Rica. Athletes in Action, however, didn't have enough guys to fill the roster, so they had to go hunting. Likely the coach called Jiri, and Jiri told them to call me.

The one other member of Athletes in Action here was Paul Peterson, who I knew as a good regional racer from Minnesota, a good sprinter. From Southern California we had Steve Klasna and Luis Torres, both solid guys. The most notable name to me, though, was Peter Ilovski (not sure if I'm spelling that right). A (I think) Czech immigrant who raced primarily on the East Coast. I had never met him before, but I knew he was nicknamed Peter "In-love-ski" as he was a legendary ladies man. He would live up to that reputation by wasting no time charming a woman who worked at the hotel in San Jose. He even stayed an additional week in the country after the race to spend time down on the Pacific coast with her. I was glad to hear that Robert Gregario would be our race mechanic as he was for us in Guatemala.

Before I left, I had to get a bike together since my Shaklee team issue Cyclops had cracked in Guatemala. Fortunately, I had my old Paterek frame that I had last used in the Ronde Van Belgie in '87. It always felt good to get back on that bike.

My cracked Cyclops posing while serving as the team "desperation spare bike" in Guatemala...with some Guatemalan children. Note the crowd control rope. The crack was in the left chain stay. I don't remember why the bottle cage is duct taped on. This picture, incidentally by Bill Woodul.

The race hotel in San Jose was a nice one, and it was very nice that we would be staying there on each return to San Jose. We had two days before the first stage so we got in a few rides and did a stint in front of the TV cameras as pre-race hype. I tried speaking my piece in Spanish, but didn't do so well. I think they edited it out. The night before the first stage, we were all crammed in Robert's room which was filled up with bikes, bags, and tools. One of the Italian team's riders stormed up to the door and said loudly, "Oakleys! For me!". We all stopped whatever we were doing or saying and tried not to bust out laughing. Granted he didn't know English well and couldn't know that he sounded like he was demanding we immediately surrender our Oakley eyewear to him, but it was super funny. I do believe Steve Klasna eventually did sell his to the Italian at an exorbitant price.

We also talked about how we should approach the race. None of us were in sparkling form; it was December after all. Having been the person who most likely last raced; and certainly last raced in a similar venue, I offered that none of us were going to be able to climb with "these guys". We should ride within ourselves on the climbs, and save our energy for opportunities that might arise on stages that weren't so mountainous. Otherwise, the goal was to ride into the race and hopefully finish strong. I also opined that we should look out for one another, help each other through it if we happened upon each other in the scattered bunch across the mountains. This was sound advice, especially since of the six of us, three were on their first significant international race, and this was a pretty rough one. Indeed, Paul and Dave missed the time cut in the first week. Throughout the race I most often saw Steve Klasna, and Luis gained form later on and was more active late in the second week. Peter came in with the best form actually, but as such, was making maybe the third or fourth split in the mountains. He was our GC leader but not in a position worth defending. His form deteriorated in the second week, and I think that was likely frustrating for him.

The first stage of the race was from San Jose over the ominously named Passeo de la Muerte to Limon on the Caribbean coast. The pass was the only climb on the route but it was a big one; 25 km at a steady 6%. It was fortunate that several factors kept the good climbers from really lighting it up, but for me personally, a puncture about halfway up put me into trouble in short order. Robert gave me a great wheel change and a healthy shove forward, and I even caught back on. Alas, it only took a slight acceleration at the front to pitch me off the back. My residual form wasn't enough.

When I got the call to come to this race I had already been a bit under a month in remission. It was too late to do any real training as such for it. I had no illusions of going for the General Classification; I only hoped to ride into enough form to go for a stage win. So it was that I was more than happy to be in the lead group half way up this huge climb. I came to top of the pass on my own, and it started raining. I did a good descent, and caught up to a decent size group that had gotten sawn off somewhere up the climb.

It wasn't until after I'd stopped that I realized how tired I was. I rolled to a stop, got off my bike and sitting down, rested my back against a palm tree. I knew people would crowd around me and give that feeling of claustrophobia, where the air seems more dense and more difficult to breathe. But I was well practiced from Guatemala twice now, and I knew what to expect. Some children were saying something to me, and not listening, I automatically spat back at them with a tired voice, "No habla Espanol". But then I clearly heard one of them say, though heavily accented, "No! Listen". They were speaking English. It turned out that on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, like in Belize, English is their first language. Not that this made this encounter any better. They wanted me to give them something, like a water bottle. I just assumed they would steal them off my bike like so often happened in Guatemala.

We had a few stages based around Limon before turning back towards San Jose. I suffered greatly on the early stages, but I worked with the groups I was in and was indeed coming around. It was on stage six, a 126km loop starting in San Jose with the finish in a suburb, Santa Ana, that I felt a little like I could try something. I didn't think anything would come of it, but I could try.

It was hot and humid at the start, and at the start line I was lined up mid pack, when I hear Davide Bramati (yes, that Davide Bramati),  talking loudly and aggressively at a Costa Rican rider I knew from my two previous Vueltas a Guatemala, Luis Hidalgo. Just as I wondered what the hell was happening, Bramati walked past me to Hidalgo. Bramati was stabbing his finger into Hidalgos chest and shouting at him in Italian. Hidalgo looked kind of stunned and didn't do anything. Bramati walked back over to his bike. I was looking over at Bramati when I see him cast his glance back at Hidalgo, give an expression of surprise and anger, and run back at Hidalgo. Now, Bramati is a big man with some big muscles. Hidalgo is a slight man, a hundred and maybe ten pounds with his clothes on. Bramati lifted Hildalgo off his bike and started wailing on him, landing a bunch of punches.

I was shocked. I was just thinking maybe I should do something when the Bideca (Hidalgo's team) mechanic came running and jumped up on Bramati's back, landing several punches to Bramatti's head. Bramati let off on Hidalgo, and was trying to get the mechanic off his back when several people ran in to break it up. They managed to calm Bramati down a bit and lead him back to his bike and teammates.

After a few tense minutes the Chief Commissar walked up, looked at Bramati, stuck out his thumb and cast his arm back over his shoulder, indicating Bramati was being thrown out of the race. Bramati gave an incredulous look of disbelief, as if to say, "What did I do?". There was then a lot of arguing, Bramati loudly and combatively, the Italian manager more reservedly. The Commissar stuck to his guns though, and Bramati had to leave. The arguing continued, the Italians were insisting Hidalgo be thrown out as well, but that wasn't going anywhere. Their only consolation was the Bideca mechanic got thrown off the tour. Later, Brammati would say that Hidalgo had insulted him gravely by making some crude gesture and making some rude remark concerning Brammati's mother, but that argument didn't help his case at all.

At last we got rolling and a few miles in while the bunch was still rolling along with no urgency, I found myself alongside Hidalgo. I tried asking what hell that was all about, but my espanol wasn't good enough to really get the details. In the end he didn't want to talk about it. Then one of the Italians rode up on my left and starts shouting at Hidalgo over the top of me (another big guy). I didn't pick up what he was saying except I did hear "I'll kill you!". I looked at him and said in English, "Dude, calm down." He glared at me and rode up field.

There were maybe 40km of flat to rolling roads before a huge climb up the mountain to the south of San Jose. There had been a few attacks that had been brought back, so after one of them, I attacked very sharply and got a clean break with one rider on my wheel, Carlos Palacios. Carlos was in the newspaper a lot because he was notably not a climber, but was on a mission to get the highest G.C. placement possible. He wasn't doing too badly in that respect, he was in the top ten. I had nothing to lose, so I pulled all out with him all the way to the base of the climb where he promptly dropped me. I got maybe 5 or so km and to the first premio de la montana, which was maybe a third of the way up the climb, before the field caught me. The leaders were all on the big ring absolutely flying. They were all Costa Ricans and Columbians except for one Ecuadorian and the one real climber the Italians brought with them, Oscar Pellicioti, who looked like he was already on the rivet. Quite a few riders went through me before I settled into a group going at a pace I could deal with.

Steve Klasna was in this group and we just rolled it in to the finish. Once we got back into the lowlands a lot of guys just wanted to sit in and eventually it would just be Klasna and I pulling. I would then sit up and say, in English, with an English accent because I like joking around even if they didn't get the joke, "C'mon lads, let's just make this a nice roll round eh?" It would get a few to come through for a little while before they would fade back leaving Steve and me to haul the laughing group in.

I lead in the laughing group with about 10km to go. You can see Klasna poking his head up 5 guys back.

 The pros have the autobus, we amateurs had the laughing group. The difference is in the autobus, the guys help each other out because they know they have to make the time cut and they also just want to get the day done. In a laughing group, so-called because no one is laughing, most of the guys are despondent, because, well, maybe dreams have been shattered, ambitions dashed, and beatings administered. So they just want to hide in the group and be carried to the finish. Fine. Steve and I would bring them in.

Stages seven and eight were two circuit races in San Jose separated by a rest day. The first circuit, The Circuit La Paz, was 15 laps of a 7.3 km noodle course south of downtown. Basically it was an up and back on a big boulevard with two traffic circles at either end for turnarounds and several traffic circles mid course. The whole thing was rolling big ring hills, with nary a flat spot.

I made the break simply by being on the front pulling. I was just rolling along when I hear a bunch of guys urgently yelling "Vamos! Vamos!". I looked back and, remarkably, we had a gap and the field was spread across the road. It was a big group, somewhere between 15 and 20 riders, so I just kept pulling smoothly and took a few turns out to save energy. The top two Novatos (Young rider) riders were in the group eyeing each other. About mid-race the leader of the Novatos classification crashed, having hit a dog. The teammates of the 2nd place rider went to the front and drilled it. I took this opportunity to sit in and rest.

A distant shot of the break at Circuito La Paz.

There were two Italians in the group, Davide Perona and Dario Nicotelli. As we hit two laps to go, I made sure I was within reach of Perona, who surely would have Nicotelli lead him out. In the last lap I hitched on to Perona's wheel, with the Cuban rider Conrado Cabrera trying to pry me off. I was pretty good at sticking a wheel, and Cabrera wasted a lot of energy trying to supplant me. This was good, because I knew Cabrera was a better sprinter than me, all things equal. Nicotelli wound up the lead out, slightly downhill leading into a slightly uphill final 200 meters. I knew that if I had any chance of winning, I needed to get the jump on Perona, but I was also hesitant because I knew if I went too early in an uphill sprint, I would lose out. I was correct on both counts: Perona started the sprint first and I reacted fast, first trying to come around at 150 meters. At the line I threw my bike just before Perona threw his and I came up half a wheel short, with Cabrera a bike length off in third. Perona was simply much faster than me, but if I had jumped at 200 meters where he did, I could not have held it. Jumping at 150 meters I came close...maybe if I had jumped at 160 meters...probably not.

Second to Davide Perona at the La Paz Circuit. It looks close, but he had me all the way.

After we had rolled to a stop, Perona got off his bike and walked up to me smiling with his hand out saying something in Italian which I took to be "Good sprint" with an intonation of "I can't believe you were that close". I shook his hand and said "Grazie!, I have to try right?" I was pleased with the result and truly I could not believe that indeed I was that close. It gave me confidence that I was coming around and that I really could play for a stage win. The first step towards that was getting back to the hotel to rest up. Immediately in the way of that were hordes of kids looking for autographs. Being second in the stage, and not wanting to make us Gringos look like ungrateful bastards, I did the right thing and stayed to sign the notebooks and little scraps of paper.

Signing autographs after my second place. If I look a little vexed, it's because I'd probably been at it for a good 15 minutes already. I knew it was important, but I also knew that someday these kids would find these slips of paper and say, "Who the hell is this?" and throw it away. And you can see the kid reaching for his pad before I'm finished...he probably sees somone more important like Raul Montero and wants me to hurry up. Paul Peterson is there on the right.


On the rest day we did a short restful ride and reconnoitered the Circuito Presidente, remarkably also a 7.3km circuit we would turn 15 times for 110km. The circuit was different terrain however. It was basically four corners, with the short ends flat, the backstretch slightly downhill, and the start-finish stretch uphill. We hatched our plans.

The morning of the race we rolled from the hotel on nearly car free streets. It was Sunday and the crowds would gather mostly later in the race. I spotted a pink clip-on bow tie in the gutter. I stopped, picked it up, and put it on. "We are going to be on embassy row after all", I said to my teammates. Not only was the circuit in the neighborhood of many embassies, the Presidential estate was on the course. The stage was dedicated to the Costa Rican President, Dr. Oscar Arias Sanchez, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. It was said that he would be there, and would present the trophy to the winner. I saw him at the start, walking through the field with his security detail, shaking hands with the top Costa Rican riders. That was pretty cool.

Listos, con rosa clip-on bow tie. I had also taken advantage of the rest day to get a hair cut. Robert Gregario and Paul Peterson (I think Paul was going to hand up bottles in the feed zone) in the foreground.

Again, making the initial breakaway was easy. The GC riders just wanted to roll steady and spin out their legs. After two laps we had an 18-rider move pulling away from the field. It was remarkable how many people from the prior stage were there again. Dario Nicolleti  and Davide Perona were there, and so was Carlos Palacios. I did the same thing as the prior circuit race, rolling through with no urgency and sitting out turns now and again. Steve Klasna had also made the move, and we talked a bit about punching it up in the latter part of the race. Two of the Canadians were also there, Chris Koberstein and David Spears, who had worked me over earlier in the year at the Tempe Grand Prix, riding together as Canadians rather than for their trade teams. I think Koberstein won that race, because I remember rolling along looking back at Spears sitting mercilessly on my wheel and telling him he should "defend his toothpaste" (he rode for Len Pettyjohn's Crest team)...in any case, I hadn't forgotten.
Mid stage in the high speed corner at the bottom of the course. That's me upper right. Bottom, Canadians Chris Koberstein and David Spears.

The Italians were intent on the Metas Volantes, and I feigned interest in these as part of my plan. I would start the sprint early as if I were going for it, but then slip onto their wheels. My hope was that they would work a little harder than they needed. The final Meta Volante sprint was on lap 13. Both the Italians were going for the points, and I made a stronger fake surge to get them to go even harder. They finished one-two in the sprint with me on their wheels. After they let up, I hit them with everything I had, and moved clear. The Italians had gotten us a four- or five-bike length lead to begin with, because of their sprint. My first look back showed the bunch was in pieces, but there were two small groups hard on the chase about 5 and 10 seconds back. I kept my pace and another look back proved that the two groups were gaining, but very slowly. I had made the right turn to the flat top stretch of the course before someone caught my wheel. I pulled for another 10 seconds and pulled over to assess. Chris Koberstein came through and I grabbed his wheel. I didn't want to go up the road with Koberstein because I knew there would be games and he wasn't a half bad sprinter; better him than David Spears though. There were a few Costa Ricans with us and the second group was still chasing. I jumped again. I was clear again, but tiring. Someone caught my wheel and soon came through. It was Carlos Palacios. I looked back and we had a good 20 meters on one rider making a weak chase. We made the corner to the downhill backstretch, and we were away.

Carlos was kind enough to let me recover before pulling off for me take a pull. At first I pulled all out because I wanted to get as big a gap as quickly as possible. The sooner we got too far for anyone to bridge, the sooner the chase would get discouraged. I was drilling it going back uphill when Robert Gregario came up alongside me on the motorcycle and tells me Carlo's manager wanted to make a deal: If I pulled without reservation, Carlos would let me win the stage.
Robert Gregario and his driver. You know being a race mechanic is tough work. Add riding on the back of a motorcycle for 14-days in a fleet of 2-cycle engines to the task, and it becomes life-threatening.


I looked at Carlos and said, "Yeah? Yo trabajo duro (I made a revving motion with my fist) Yo gano?" Carlos nodded his head in assent. Just a short time later I was taking a strong pull when I remembered the pink bow tie. I reached up and tore it off, and dashed it to the ground. It looked pretty funny when they showed the stage on TV that night, if only because I knew what I was doing. The picture quality wasn't good enough to tell just what I threw to the ground. I was pulling pretty close to as hard as I could but not quite. I had learned long ago to never to completely trust anyone in a bike race. No matter how well you held up your end of the bargain, they will find a reason to justify breaking said bargain. Nonetheless we made good time. Coming into the finish, I made sure to pull to 400 meters and pull off, keeping a firm eye on Carlos. Dutifully he pulled through, but not full on. This made me suspicious. Indeed, he dogged it at 300 meters, and when I jumped hard at 210 meters, he reacted with gusto. I wasn't too worried because I was still accelerating the whole way, and I could see him in my peripheral vision not getting any closer. But still, I was glad I left something in the tank. I got my stage win.


We finished 46 seconds ahead of the rest of the break, led in by David Spears nipping Perona. The field rolled in three or four minutes down. I barely had time to high five Robert and Steve, and put the Lee branded jersey over my skinsuit before they whisked me away to the podium.

The podium ceremony at Circuito La Paz, Arrival, Trophy presentation, and "Euro kisses" applied.
They announced me as the winner and then plopped a hat on my head and handed me the ridiculous four foot tall trophy. The Euro kisses were administered by the podium girls and then they whisked me off to doping control. In doping control, drinking Coca-Cola to work up a sample, it occurred to me that Dr. Arias Sanchez was not there to present the trophy. I asked about it later and it was said he couldn't make it because "an important matter of state" had come up. Whether there really was an important matter of state, or if he was disappointed a Yankee had won, I was in turn a bit disappointed. It's not everyday you get to meet a Nobel Peace Prize winner. I don't have the trophy anymore, but I do have the plaque:

The trophy was gaudy, the plaque on it was worth saving.


After I got out of the dope test, a reporter from the newspaper cornered me, and asked in Spanish if I had an interpreter. I looked around but didn't see Robert or Dave, who were our best Spanish speakers. I told him I didn't see anyone. He then asked how my Spanish was. "Malo" I said. He replied his English was equally "Malo". We hacked out an interview...Reading the interview the next day, (getting a fair deal of interpretation) I think maybe he was too kind, or maybe he appreciated my sense of humor...somehow.


This was among my favorite wins. It was one of the very few races where I thought to myself, "I'm going to win this", and then did. I crafted my plan on the fly and executed it. I was especially happy that I had correctly identified that there wouldn't be enough willing workers to chase Carlos and me down. With about 4 laps to go, there were only ten of the eighteen riders in the break pulling regularly. Another two or three contributed occasionally, the rest were just sitting on. I knew then that the numbers of people willing to work would deteriorate as the laps wore on. When the opportunity to attack came, which played out in the Metas Volantes with two laps to go, I counted on the bunch being stretched out, making it more difficult to organize a chase, and once they regrouped, that there would be only five or six guys willing to pull. After pulling around ten guys sitting on, their enthusiasm for this would die, and our gap would increase. This is exactly what happened. I felt like I had cleverly sucker punched the Italians who weren't just any Italians, but guys who were getting serious looks from pro teams. I also felt like I'd gotten back at Koberstein and Spears, even if they didn't realize it. Especially since Spears won the field sprint over Perona, and, status quo, very well might have won had we all rolled to the line together.

 The next day it was back to business, however, a sobering 156km from a suburb of San Jose to Sarapiqui via Cuidad Quesada, over a monstrous mountain pass on the west shoulder of the Poas Volcano.

The Google Earth view of the gnarly climb on the west side of Poas Volcan National Park. It is a beefy one.

I got dropped right on cue when the climbing started, and after over an hour of climbing, went over the top with another Costa Rican I was familiar with, because he had been at the Vuelta a Guatemala, Miguel Badilla. Immediately starting the descent, there was heavy fog limiting vision to about 10 or 20 meters. Miguel was blasting the turns though, and I reasoned that he must know the road well, so I'd better hang on. The road was getting damp from the fog and Miguel kept sweeping the turns, faster and faster. Eventually I had a scary skid in one switchback, and followed that with nearly going off the road on the next. That was enough to make me back off. I had nothing to play for in this stage. I would just take it easy and wait for whatever group came up from behind.

Four or five switchbacks later I saw Miguel Badilla climbing back up to the road from over the edge, his jersey dirty, and a big weed sticking up out of his hairnet helmet. It was pretty comical actually. He didn't have his bike with him which momentarily worried me, but I didn't see it in the road and continued on. Shortly after that, the fog began lifting and I could begin descending with more confidence. I swept through Cuidad Quesada and after turning East towards the finish, picked up a small Colombian rider, who had been dropped and left for dead by the field. He immediately jumped my wheel, and began telling me his story, in rapid fire Spanish.

It should be clear by now that my Espanol was in that terrible place where I could understand enough to know what was going on, but not able to garner details or speak back without sounding like an idiot. Nevertheless, I was able to pick up that he 'knew the Costa Ricans were 'doped to the gills' and '(the Colombians) couldn't do anything because they were tested every day'. He apologized several times for not being able to pull, because he was completely destroyed from chasing on the climb. I told him it was ok. It was about 90km from Cuidad Quesada to the finish, and I was plugging along at a decent clip. The terrain was heavily rolling, with the occasional sustained climb where the Colombian asked me to slow down (I'd never had that happen before...or again).

I was surprised that we hadn't come up on another group, or that one hadn't picked us up. We had been together for an hour or so and the Colombian had been talking at me for almost all of that time. Then a car came up, and the driver pointed up the road, and said, "40 kilometers, puro plano a la meta". This I understood, and it was quite cheering. Soon, if what he said was correct, we would have 40 km of "purely" flat roads to the finish. The Colombian looked relieved.

It wasn't quite that way though. The rollers got bigger, and there were a lot of false flat uphill drags. I was getting tired, and this terrain seemed never-ending. We had been at this for twenty or maybe thirty minutes when Senor "Puro Plano" came up again. The Colombian was quite cross at him. "Donde" he demanded, 'is the 40 km of "Puro Plano"?' Again the driver pointed up the road, and drove off. We went another 10km or so in sharply up and down terrain, and were flying down a steep descent, through a sharp turn when before us we see, straight and covering a good portion of our field of vision, an absolute wall of a road. I sat up, turned and looked at the Columbian. He too was sitting up and looking disbelieving of what he was seeing. I stuck out my arms and circled my wrists back up and double 'flipped off' the 'wall' (Just like Otto in "Repo Man" when he quits the grocery store).

The Colombian thought that was pretty funny and he did it too. But we still had to climb up the damn thing. After 10-minutes of struggling, a clear plateau opened up before us, and finally we had our 40km of puro plano. The Colombian's mood significantly improved and so did mine. But then I thought, 'man, there's still 40km to go!' I was down to the wee ring now, going maybe twenty, twenty-three miles an hour. It was all I could do. About half way home the Colombian began contributing a bit, but he was slower (which told me that he was truly cracked). Eventually we saw a 5km to go sign, a 3km to go sign, and then, with the 1km sign just in sight the Colombian lets out a yell of rage. I look back and see a 25 or so rider group, led by none other than the soiled Miguel Badilla rapidly closing on us.

That we could have, say, just sat at the roadside and waited, we could have rolled in relative comfort in this large group. Or, if the group had just been faster, maybe they could have picked us up sooner, But no, they had to catch us just when it wouldn't be any particular comfort or help. I thought it was kind of funny, but the Colombian was despondent, I'm not sure on my behalf, or his, or both, but in any case, he pulled off to the side and let the group pass, without tagging on. Surprised, I did the same in solidarity; whatever that solidarity was. It didn't matter. I'd slogged for two and half to three hours with this guy. I was crossing the line with him, and him alone.

That night we stayed at an Eco-lodge, La Casa Verde, in the depths of a rain forest. In the open-air hallway to our rooms, there was the biggest spider I had ever seen clinging to the wall. Being quite the arachnophobe, I stepped very carefully around that spot, and really had trouble sleeping that night, even though the room was nice, tidy, and clean.

The next stage started in Cuidad Quesada, immediately going up the descent of the same monster climb we had done the day before and then descending down to the Pacific coast to Puntarenas. On the bus trip over, a Costa Rican rider was lining up pills on the seat. He saw me looking at him, and he says, "No es las droogas, es azucar". Whatever, they probably were, but I could see the outlines of  the syringes in his jersey pocket. One thing that had been obvious to me throughout the race, was that these guys were high on amphetamines when it was time to climb. They were doing steep 20km climbs on the big ring, completely inhuman. That the Italian Pelliciolli was 9th overall a mere five and half minutes down and that he was generally able to stay with them to this point was truly incredible, as it wasn't apparent to me he was "on" anything. Costa Ricans occupied the top 6 spots on GC, Raul Montero leading, followed by his teammate Alfredo Zamora at 3 minutes, Luis Morera of Bideca, Carlos Bermudez, Andreas Brenes, and Mario Fallas at about 4 minutes back. The rest of the top ten was occupied by foreigners, Hector Palacios from Colombia, the Ecuadorian Juan Rosero, Pelliciolli, and finally another Colombian of some note, Ruben Marin.

We had gotten to Cuidad Quesada pretty early and I was tired. I wasn't in the mood to warm up, because it didn't matter anyway. I was going to get dropped straight away. and there would be thirty minutes of people going as hard as they could until they settled down and we could get a group together and roll to the finish. It was fairly pleasant out though with the warming sun on a slightly chilly morning. I went to the start line absurdly early and waited soaking in the sun. Eventually the GC contenders and their domestiques started coming to the line. They were intense, focused, and their arms were shaking, some had facial tics. They all looked older than they were, and this made me strangely sad. The start was on a 6% grade and their bikes were all shifted to the big bracket. I was soon surrounded by them and it was clear I didn't belong there. I got off my bike, and in English said, "I'm going to just get out of you guys' way", and in parting "Buena suerte".

Watching the TV coverage that night in Punterenas was unbelievable. They were sailing up the climb like it was flat ground, rotating, even. They were all in the big ring the whole way, and at the back of the lead group were the Colombians, the Italian, and the Ecuadorian. Pelliciolli looked particularly stressed, but he hung on.

There followed a few stages on the Pacific side of the country. One was a flattish stage that I thought perhaps I had a shot at. My hopes dimmed considerably however when four of the five remaining Italians made the break. The break also contained the Novatos leader with two of his teammates, and a few other Costa Ricans. I couldn't sit on because I knew they wouldn't let me. The field wasn't too far behind so some team or teams were chasing, if they wore themselves out a bit, so much the better for later if they ran us down. So I pulled softly at the opposite end of the rotation from the Italians, who were determined to keep the speed up.

Then, shockingly, the Novatos leader crashed, having hit a dog, just like the previous owner of the jersey. Next in line for the Novatos was a young Italian. The Italians really hit the gas. Due to the acceleration I moved up to the Italian's wheels and I had a look back, the Costa Ricans were all going to sit on, even the ones that weren't teammates of the Novatos leader (apparently this young man was quite popular). Nicolleti began pleading with me to work, but I decided to refuse, "Lo siento, no" I told him. I immediately came up with several reasons to not contribute. First, the Costa Ricans would hold me in higher regard for acting this way, and I thought it more likely that I would see them before I would see the Italians again. I could bank some good regional karma. Further, and even more significantly, if I did help the Italians and we held the field off, there were five Costa Ricans sitting on that would overhaul us in the end. If even I were to assume the Costa Ricans weren't a threat, I still had four Italians to contend with. I don't think if even I had helped them, a deal would have been forthcoming.

The Italians pleaded with me several more times to help. I kept telling them "Sorry, but no". They finally gave up, and the field caught us back about 7 minutes later, the team of the bloodied and battered Novatos leader on the front.

The second to last stage was basically a long dragging climb that got progressively steeper to the finish, where the highway from Puntarenas to San Jose crested. I had been feeling better and better on the climbs in the second week, and found myself in the lead group surprisingly far into the stage. When the last pitch began, and the GC leaders started attacking, I went straight out the back as usual, but this time I started picking off the people and groups that had gone too hard and cracked, and halfway up, I could still even see the lead group only three or so minutes up the mountain. I could see them by virtue of their going slower...not so much me going faster, but in any case, that didn't last too long. They soon pulled the gap between us to seven or eight minutes, the closest I was to the leaders in any mountain stage here. A short while later, I picked up another rider, but this time it was Pellicioti, the Italian GC leader; he had finally cracked. I looked over at him. He was straining at the bars and sweating. "Vamos" I said, slowing a bit and letting him catch my wheel. He stayed with my pacing and recovered a bit. Then the Italian DS came up in a car and started yelling at him. Pellicioti just hung his head a stared up the road. I felt really sorry for him, and eventually he fell off even my wheel. I briefly considered waiting for him, but I wanted to get the stage over with and continued on.

As if the stage wasn't hard enough, the accommodations that night were terrible. Cinder block cells with rickety cots and primitive toilets. I don't remember what the shower arrangements were, but I don't recall them being very comforting. Earlier in the year I had been in Italy at the Giro della Regioni, and they put us up at some real dives, but this was really bad. All of the Costa Rican teams drove to San Jose and either stayed at home or a friend's place. All of us foreigners had little choice but to stay. We had a terrible meal, and a cold restive night's sleep in what seemed like a prison camp.

Remarkably, At breakfast the next morning, I felt like I'd had worse nights of sleep before. I woke up feeling quite all right, glad there was only one stage left. It was a rolling, gradually uphill affair to San Jose. It should have been a nice roll 'round to the finish, but there was the stage win to play for, and maybe even a few scores on GC to settle. It was all out war, and the field shattered. I wound up riding with Steve Klasna and Luis Torres, with a few others tagged on. We rode within ourselves and just dragged our tired bodies to the finish, many minutes down on the winner. It was finally done, and I was glad it was over. We were about to ride off to the hotel when Robert came up and told me they were calling me to the presentation stage. I couldn't imagine why. I went up and they again announced me as the winner of the Circuito Presidente, and handed me, courtesy of the Italian Embassy, a gargantuan 7'1" tall trophy. I held it up facing the crowd (with the help of the presenter), raised my other arm and all that, and exited the stage, carrying the trophy with both hands. I set it down to the right of the bottom of the steps and wondered, "How the hell am I going to get this home?" meaning on the plane ride back to the United States. Robert was right there and he took it over to our support truck to haul it to the hotel.

It was a job packing everything up, as I had to dissemble the two trophies. To keep the pieces straight, I stuffed one in my bike box, and the other in my duffel bag. We were up early the next morning for the airport, but could have slept in. It was hurricane season back in New Orleans and so our flight back was delayed several hours. We spent the time hanging around waiting outside the terminal with the Canadians. There was some drama around one of the Canadians having skipped out on a telephone bill at the hotel, but nothing came of that immediately. I imagine the Canadian Cycling Federation was none too pleased, eventually.



Waiting outside the San Jose terminal. From left Luis Torres, the coach, me and my stylin' Adidas. No Canadians in sight as yet.

Our plane was finally cleared to take off and we knew we would be spending the night in the New Orleans airport. However, that wasn't the only trauma remaining. It was very foggy on the approach to New Orleans, and as I was watching through the window, breaking through the fog I saw that we were close to touch down, and we weren't centered on the runway. It looked as if the left wheels would land off tarmac. The plane banked hard right and left again and the plane set down hard on the runway. The oxygen masks all popped out their compartments with the impact. It was, I suppose, a nifty bit of flying.
We took the spot behind the Chrysler display, the Canucks were up off on the left side.

We camped out by a Chrysler display and had yet another terrible night's sleep. Eventually I make it back to Colorado Springs, checked in at the coach's office and gave Jiri my story while I unpacked my bike. He asked if the office could have my 7-foot tall trophy and I gladly gave it over. It sat in their trophy room for a while, and eventually disappeared. I heard some rumors about where it ended up, but I can't substantiate any of them.

I drove back down to Albuquerque in my thoroughly rusted Mazda 808, resumed my winter dormancy for another couple of weeks, and then resumed training for the next season. It would come sooner than I expected.













Monday, March 2, 2015

That first big win...

In 1985 I joined the Twin Cites Cycling Club sponsored by Pizza Hut, Pepsi, and Penn Cycle. Ed Pepke convinced me to join by telling me that if any team in Minnesota had a chance of going national, this was it. The national championships were in Milwaukee that year, and our club put a big focus on the team time trial. Dan Casebeer agreed to ride with us and teach us how to do it right. For two months, twice a week, we did drills and motorpacing. Our big competition would be Ten Speed Drive. I don't remember exactly who they had riding, but certainly there was Kent Bostick, Andy Paulin, and probably Todd Gogulski. They also had the latest TT bikes and disc wheels. Our most celebrated rider was  Dan Casebeer, one of the nation's best time trialists in the late '70s and early '80s, and a former U.S. hour record holder. Ed Pepke, Pat Dalton, and myself  rounded out the squad.  We had  road bikes with low spoke count wheels and Monarch hang glider helmets. Dan was optimistic about our chances but we were up against some of the best individual time trialists in the country and four solid strong riders in any situation.

In short, they slaughtered us and everyone else. We did, however, take second place rather convincingly, and it stoked Dan's resolve to redouble our efforts and try again the next year.

We started the specific TTT training earlier and with even more specificity. We had a very dedicated manager in Donny Douglas, who drove the motor pacing sessions and coordinated everything. In the last few weeks we were given the TT bikes we would use at nationals. The Minnesota racing community came together to arm us to the teeth. I got to use a beautiful Chris Kvale TT bike with narrow cow horn bars (this is before tri-bars, mind you), the latest Hed disc wheel, with a 26 inch,18 spoke front wheel (way low spoke count for back then). Someone had a connection at Giro, and we were the first in the area to get the new all foam helmets with the lycra covers. They were by far the lightest and most ventilated helmets at the time.

We were all coming to form spectacularly at the same time. The plan was to go with the same crew as the previous year, but we also had Doug Cusack training with us as back up. With the training, I had never been so strong and fast. At this point I was in my sixth year of racing, and I was just turning 21 years old. I was eager to use this form and got a chance at the PAC Grand Prix at Milwaukee Superweek. It was a mid week race between our TTT workouts, so I woke up early, did the five and a half hour drive to Milwaukee and lined up for the 100km race on a 9/10 mile loop. The course went around the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center downtown, including two metal "skin grater" bridges and a small rise at the top end. It was an oppressively hot and humid day, and by the time I reached the front of the bunch, Tom Shuler had gotten away with two other riders and they were close to lapping the field.

I started to make some probing attacks and finally got away with Peter Vollers. We got a good gap and were both taking big, fast pulls. Pete didn't contest the finish and so I got fourth in a pretty stacked field. I collected my prize money, and drove back home to the farm outside Ellsworth, Wisconsin. The next day I was back for the last motor pacing session in St. Paul. Donny reminded us we all had to show up on Sunday for a final dress rehearsal, with all the race day equipment. Donny emphasized how important this was.

Donny was stressing this so much because I had earlier protested that on that same day was the Lake Front Road Race at Super Week. I really wanted to be in that race because my form was spectacular, and for any upper Mid Westerner winning the Lake Front is one of the big ones. This course had been used many times for the National Championships RR, including the prior year when Wayne Stetina won his last National road title. This was also where Greg Demgen of LaCrosse won with an amazing 50 mile long solo effort in '82. Steve Wood from Albuquerque became the youngest ever National Road champ at age 18 on this course in '79.

Risking my spot on the TTT squad, I decided to blow off the final dress rehearsal and go down to race the Lake Front. I knew it was short-sighted, and even selfish, but of course I was young, impetuous, and as I convinced myself in my head, I was a bike racer, not a bike trainer. I also assumed with more than a dash of hubris that I was too strong and too important to the team to leave at home. It was true that without the specific training for the TTT my form would not be anywhere close to what it was, and I owed it to the team to stay on program; but I ignored that.

I again woke up early and drove down to Milwaukee. I arrived two hours before the start and felt awful. I registered and went back to the car to pin on my numbers. It was another miserably hot and humid day, and at that point there was no wind. I felt nauseous and had a headache. I fell asleep in the driver's seat and woke up drenched in oily sweat about 45 minutes before the start. I felt weak and shaky. I thought about not starting, but convinced myself to at least start. I'd been racing long enough to know that maybe I would come around.

The Lake Front course starts going South along the Lake Michigan beach front boulevard, turning inland at the south end of the loop to go up a small rise, continuing false flat as it turns back north to a curvy descent back to down to the Lake Front boulevard. This is typically the critical part of the race. If the pace is fast going into the prior climb, it can be difficult to move up on the false flat, and it's always single file on the descent, double file at best. At the bottom there is usually a cross wind, head or tail depending on the day. If the pace keeps on, it will be single file hard riding into the left hand turn onto another hill, a bit bigger than the first, but still nothing terrible on its own. At the top, it turns right onto a dead end street where it funnels down onto a bike path. This dumps out onto the Lake Front boulevard descending down to the Lake shore turning back south. It is then about one and a half miles to the finish line, with, again, usually either a head or tail crosswind.

The Lake Front Course. Despite my in map label there, the course was always said to be 4.4 miles around.
If you prefer the look from Strava, you can see a profile and if you zoom out, a sense of where it is in the city:https://www.strava.com/routes/1503767

The key to this race, I had observed the couple of times I had done it, is groups of ten. When the pressure is on, inevitably, groups of ten form after the top of the hill and the bike path. This is because after suffering in the cross wind between the curvy descent and the second hill, accelerations after the hill really hurt a lot of riders. After several laps of splitting, the gaps begin to stick. You have to keep up front if you want to make the final front split.

On this day the wind finally kicked up out of the southeast. At roughly 80 miles this meant 18-laps of hitting that cross wind into the second hill. That makes for some tough racing, and I was nervous because I felt so lousy. Fortunately for me, my condition improved. As the wind rose, the humidity backed off a bit, and a few laps into the race I began feeling better. I started fighting for the front and was having little trouble staying there.

The action began a bit before half way through and gaps began to form. I kept myself in the first or second splits every time even though it would be much later in the race before it would break open. As the laps wound down, I made sure I was in the front split because now there was no telling when the move would stick. Despite my vigilance, on the fourth or third to last lap I found myself a bit too far back on the false flat section, and I had to go very fast up the second hill to make up ground. I was near the head of the third split at the top, so I jumped hard over the road to the bike path to bridge to the second group by time we reached the boulevard descent. Our second group caught the first group before the finish line and we were away. The group was about 20 or 25 guys, and that's the way it stayed for the finish. Nothing was coming up behind us, and since no one was able to sneak away, the hiding began.

Coming off the hill towards the finish, we slowed as no one wanted to pull, even with the strong cross tail wind. I kept myself near the front, about five riders back. There were no attacks, everyone playing the textbook reasoning that trying to go away in a tailwind would bear no fruit. Finally Matt Gibble started riding, with Pete Vollers on his wheel. He kept the pace up, accelerating as the finish banner came distantly into view. Having misjudged the distance, Matt dropped Vollers off much too early, and Pete jumped a little, but then backed off. We rolled for a bit at a high speed, and the group swung left a little and slowed. There were about 400 meters to go and I jumped up the right gutter as hard as I could. Being a cross tailwind and slightly downhill, going early was not a bad move if everyone behind hesitated.

Indeed, they hesitated enough for me to forge out a decent enough gap for me to win. I could hardly believe it. Mark Frise and Bob Mionske came up just short in second and third. With Mionski by far the best sprinter among us, I assume that Frise started after me a touch too late, and that Mionski waited for the actual sprint to open up, given that he was far out to the left, in the wind. Although I never confirmed those suspicions.

There is always a decent size crowd at this race because its the weekend at the beach. When the race is coming near the end, beach goers come up to see the finish. It was a Wisconsin top three with me, Frise, and Mionske, which drew big cheers. I won $250 and a lot confidence. I loaded up the car, and drove home.

The next morning I called up Donny to take my upbraiding. "Where the hell were you?" he demanded, "You're off the team!" he pronounced. He was just getting to the part of shaming me because it was going to cost money to cancel my ticket to Boise, when I tried interrupting, "Donny?", he didn't even pause.

"Donny?" I tried again.

"Yeah?"

"I won the Lake Front."

The response was silence, but then,

"You won the Lake Front?"

"Yeah", and I choked back a little laugh. I was pretty pleased with myself. Donny was a little unsure what to say, but congratulated me, and said goodbye. I knew I was going to Boise.


Front page of the Milwaukee Journal sports section...I was overjoyed. Mark Frise is there in white just behind me.

It got even better when I found out from a friend that the above picture was the front page of the sports section of the Milwaukee Journal on Monday. Penn Cycle got a print and put up in their shop. Of course I was still on the TTT squad for nationals. Winning the Lake Front proved I was too strong to leave home.

*********************

Prior to the national championship team time trial was the 40km individual time trial. I had a good ride finishing in 14th place, at about 54 minutes. I owed a lot of that to getting an early start time when the wind wasn't as high. The wind didn't stop Karl Maxon, who won convincingly in the neighborhood of 51 minutes.

A few days later was our big event, the 100km team time trial. The course was dead flat on U.S. Highway 20 west of town. Four 25km laps of an out and back course with the S/F in the middle. I can't remember how many teams were entered but it was a good number, more than the prior year in Milwaukee. Due to our 2nd place last year we would start 3 minutes behind Len Pettyjohn's Lowenbrau/McDonald's team, and 3 minutes ahead of the defending champs Ten Speed Drive with Kent Bostick, Andy Paulin, Karl Maxon, and Todd Gogulski.

We started off well with fast smooth pulls and everyone was feeling comfortable. After one lap we were on schedule and hitting our turnarounds perfectly. Nevertheless, we were caught by Ten Speed Drive just after half way, and steadily leaking time to Lowenbrau. After being passed, Dan rallied us to dig in. We passed them back and held on for a couple of miles, but we started getting ragged. We had to slow down and got passed back again. We still had 40 km to go and we were getting in the hard part of the ride. In a four man 100km team time trial, you know you're going as fast as possible if after taking your pull, its all you can do to latch on the back of the line, and you don't recover until it's time for your next pull. It is absolute torture, and we had roughly 50 more minutes of it ahead, knowing we were at best going to get second again.

We ended up third, having gone 2 hours and 6 minutes. Ten Speed Drive got us by a full 4 minutes, and Lowenbrau took 2 minutes out of us. It was disappointing, but we had gone as fast as we could have, and probably a little faster than we expected.

*******

Before too long I came to realize what a foolish risk it had been to go to the Lake Front race. The only scenario in which it would pay off was the one in which I won. That I did was extraordinarily lucky in the whole scheme of things. Further, winning that race only helped my personal development as a bike racer as opposed to my standing in the national level of bike racing. While that personal development was important, no big team was going to be knocking on my door because I won that race. A medal at the Nationals Team Time Trial would give me much more notoriety, especially since I was the one guy on our TTT squad under 30. It was an important lesson for me. That I was very lucky was not lost on me

It was also important, of course, to keep my win at the Lakefront in perspective. The field was strong but not supremely strong. No one in the bunch was a current day superstar, rather composed of regional talents from all across the nation. I rode a good race and displayed about every aspect of what it takes to win: patience, fitness, timing and luck. It was nothing to rest my laurels upon though, because of course you have to prove you can do the same thing at the next level. What was immediately more important was how I would handle what came next, which was being watched and hounded at every race hence.

After the nationals TTT, I had to return home, as I had been crashed out of the state championship road race and therefore did not qualify for the nationals road race (that year won by Doug Smith). I lodged an appeal, but was denied, so instead I had to fly home and race a local crit in Minneapolis. It was a race around Lake Calhoun (where, incidentally, the house from the Mary Tyler Moore show is located). It was an ordinary local field with the addition of Tom Schuler, who was living in the Twin Cities at the time.

I still had outstanding form, but despite trying to get a break going, few were willing to work with me. Going alone was out of the question on this flat oval course, as every time I even flinched someone was on me, and would either refuse to pull, or would pull weakly, and I wasn't going to play the fool. I was strong, but not that strong. Everyone was watching me, and with only my attacks making it all 'hard', it inevitably came down to a field sprint, which I wasn't very good at, no matter how strong I was.

Any rider in this situation has two paths to follow: succumb to the frustration or find a way to break the shackles of the bunch. Succumbing of course means a regression in an upward trajectory, and many fall into this trap. To break out of it, a rider needs to find ways, either tactically, physically, or better yet both, to win, or at least to play a defining role in the race. For me, this meant ignoring a common piece of advice, namely, to work on your weaknesses, and instead work on my strengths.

I was already known for bridging gaps that few others would try. My aim was to get even better at that particular skill. In the local and regional races after my Lake Front win, I was being watched and hounded so much that I could at best be foils for my teammates. I didn't mind my teammates doing well, but I still wanted to be at the front of things. I began working on attaining a sudden, sharp acceleration followed by a two to three minute period of a very high effort. The ultimate aim of this was to be able to accelerate sharply enough that it would first give me the element of surprise, and second make it difficult for anyone to match my effort. Continuing at the very high pace was aimed at quickly crossing large gaps. The tactic was to watch a break that was likely to work go away, and give it enough rope to make everyone in the bunch feel the gap was too big to cross. When I would judge that a bridging effort might take 2-3 minutes, I would attack, and bridge to the break clean when most didn't suspect anyone would even try. I hoped that those in the bunch would think either that I wouldn't make it, or that no one was either able to cover my move or not in position to be able.

People began to get wise to this as well, and started watching for me, looking to catch a free ride to the break. I had to make my signature move more versatile, to judge how much effort to put in when I might have to duplicate it two or three times in succession to break free. I had to be more active in constantly changing my position in the bunch so it was difficult for certain people to follow me, and be in position to follow my move(s). Later I had to become proficient at judging when other riders made mistakes that gave opportunities to attack. These attacks didn't always work, as sometimes conditions were such that others weren't tired enough, or my form wasn't good enough, or others' form too good, or any other number of factors. They worked often enough, however, that it improved my racing.

Pushing myself in this way rapidly increased my tactical sense while gradually increasing my physical ability to back up the tactical sense. It served me well as I started going to bigger and more demanding races where I didn't have necessarily the physical ability to win, but I had the tactical sense to try. Being in or near the action gave me the opportunity to see how things worked while at the same time again raising my physical abilities.

As bad as it was to ignore my team and miss the final TTT workout, winning the Lake Front Road Race was nonetheless very important to my development as a bike racer. Had I not won that race, or something similar, I likely would not have been prodded to work as hard as I needed to be able to race the way I wanted. Of course this is one of the things that make bike racing so unique. The reactions of others with their varying tactical senses and physical strengths affects your own decisions as to how to respond with countless possibilities. It is up to every rider to figure out how their relative strengths, both physical and tactical, to take advantage of those possibilities.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

How Blood Manipulation Really Ruined the Sport

Now that the dust has settled a bit on the doping scandals in cycling, it seems to me that while much blame has been cast, and there's been a lot of 'lets move forward' talk, there has been very little said about the actual effect blood manipulation or, "blood doping", has had on how bike racing works. Enough has been said about every angle of the morality side of the affair. I won't say anything concerning that except to say that indeed, I disapprove. I will also say that the change that blood manipulation has on bike racing is the answer to those who would say that doping should be legalized. To open the floodgates would ruin everything that I think makes bike racing a fantastic sport, because of the change it effects.

I think it bears saying that those of us who watched it happen (the effects of blood manipulation, not the actual administration of blood manipulation), should feel ashamed for not having recognized it happening. I will admit that I fooled. For example, lead-out trains starting from 50 kilometers out, going over 50 kph, and keeping it going, faster and faster, leading all the way to 200 meters delivering their sprinter to a certain win. I should have known that in reality when a team tries to take up a chase like that from so far out, and begins the actual lead-out from too far out, that other teams should have been easily able to overhaul them. Sprinting is as much positioning as it is actual sprinting ability, and what blood manipulation allowed for was the team to raise the speed so high that once they hit the front, no one could come around.
Similarly, it should have been obvious to us that Lance Armstrong should never have been able to win the Tour de France. Stupidly, I along with many others, went along with the many rationalizations of how he was able to do it. Only after many years I began realizing it was all a sham. To see the whole US Postal team drilling at the front, for days upon days, over hill and dale, strangling the whole race was too much to believe. Racing became incredibly formulaic; the normal unpredictability of racing had disappeared. Riders were coming back from injury and sickness with no penalty to form; or often just racing through injury or illness.

Even with all that evidence, I still had trouble believing that Lance could have a doping program that worked best for him that wasn't available to others. Much has been said about this as well, and I haven't found most explanations of this entirely satisfactory. Clues from what people have said concerning the effects of having taken EPO and/or blood transfusions along with other performance enhancing drugs tell us how it worked.

Again, bike racing in the blood manipulated years looked nothing like racing before. Certainly, there was drug abuse before blood doping and EPO, but the dopers were manageable. While the testosterone, steroids, amphetamines, and other mild stimulants in use at the time gave an advantage, it wasn't anything a clean rider could overcome with wise racing. Clean riders could win against 'conventional doping' and I know this because I and many other clean riders have beaten riders who have admitted to or were caught engaging in this form of doping.

Blood manipulation, however, changed all this, as I see it, by removing doubt. Tyler Hamilton described his first experiences using EPO as the feeling of suffering being the same, but that he could just "keep going". In short, I think what happens with blood manipulation, then, is that it allows the cardiovascular system to far outstrip the muscular system. In other words, the supply of oxygen carried by the blood is able to continue to feed the muscles long after these supplies would normally be exhausted. Obviously, then the next step is to try and bring the muscles up to closer match the capabilities of the cardiovascular. Add steroids and testosterone to the mix and you end up with a machine more than an athelete.

The real crime isn't so much that it makes someone faster simply by taking the drugs. The major advantage is to recognize that what this allows is for a rider to train far beyond any natural capability. This is why in the height of the EPO era riders began to race less and go off training more. This flew in the face of the long held (and still correct, I think) idea that in road racing, racing is the best training. Once a rider has trained well it is only through racing that he can push up to further levels in training and racing. Basically, you cannot possibly fully imitate the full benefits of hard racing in training. The higher the level of racing, the more you need racing to keep the fitness sharp. With blood manipulation this changed and suddenly training was more beneficial than racing.

Ironically it was not the lazy or the untalented that the stereotypes would have us believe take the shortcuts of performance enhancing drugs, but it was instead those who were the most talented in the raw physical sense, and those who had the work ethic to match, that got the biggest boost from blood manipulation.

This might seem to some that this would make the 'playing field level' if everyone is 'doing it', and in a sense it does. The most talented with the greatest capacity to work and suffer will rise to the top. In road racing the playing field should not be leveled and blood manipulation instead 'distorts the field'. Bike racing in a clean environment relies on doubt to make the tactics dynamic. The draft is what effectively levels the playing field in any bike race. If you are weaker than another, you can pull less, or not pull at all. If you can correctly judge the amount you should pull against the greater strength of your opponent, the weaker can defeat the stronger. Where there is little draft, as in climbing, a poor climber can elect to hide in the draft before the climb and save his strength for the climb. These possibilities create doubt in all racers. No one can know entirely the fitness or strength of all his opponents. There are of course, general assumptions one can make based on experience, but in the end you cannot know and the wise racer never underestimates his opponents. This creates the need for any racer to conserve his energy, to hold his cards close to his chest.

Blood manipulation eliminates this doubt. If you know you can put out a maximal effort one day and recover for the next, then you will do it. If you can't be sure how you will recover from a huge effort you will temper your effort. The blood doped stars can wait in the shelter of their blood doped teammates who will never tire, day after day, and dash off on the big climbs, in a contest that is purely about who is strongest. This is not what bike racing is about. Bike racing is a balance of physical capability, psychology, experience, luck, and risk taking. It is normally impossible to win simply by being strongest. The best riders always are the ones who 'get it'. The ones who learn to take advantage of the weaknesses of the their opponents, and strike when they see mistakes. It is never certain, and you have to stick out your neck to have a chance. As Stanley Chozda once told me, to win, you must risk losing.

Most people are aware of the 'matches' explanation of racing. Everyone starts a race with so many matches, but no knows exactly how many they have, and certainly no one knows how many their opponents have. Every effort you make, you light a match, it burns out, and it is gone. If you've burned all your matches and you are not alone in the lead, then you will not win. In a long stage race, the matches you have vary from day to day, depending on how well you recover. With blood manipulation, you instead start with more than enough matches to supply you for the day. The difference now is that some people's matches are bigger matches, and you know who they are. In a stage race, you begin each day with the same inexhaustible supply of matches.

Why is it then, that Armstrong and his team rose to the top in this environment? Much has been said about this as well.  I think in the case of Armstrong it was as I described above. He was simply the one who benefited the most from blood manipulation and had the best doctors in his employment. I know people who maintain that Armstrong was, without drugs, a completely ordinary rider. I'm certain this is not true. I saw the rise of Lance Armstrong myself, and even if he was on the 'ordinary' drugs on his rise through U.S. amateur racing in the early '90's, he was obviously extremely talented and possessed of a fantastic work ethic. He was too heavy in general to be a climber, not concentrated enough in his head to be a time trialist, but entirely cut out for one day road races. As soon as he learned to not lay all his cards on the table every race he became very difficult to beat. His will to win was formidable. It was his exceptional raw talent and undeniable work ethic that made him a Tour de France winner in the era of blood manipulated racing. Jan Ulrich was by all accounts equally talented, but not possessed of the work ethic Lance had. This limited Ulrich's chances. Everyone else, simply weren't as talented with a comparable work ethic.

It baffles me that anyone would think that Lance would have won the Tour de France in a clean racing environment. He quite simply wasn't that kind of rider. Without the EPO, without the steroids, testosterone, HGH, and who knows what else, he simply could never have climbed or time trialed well enough or consistently enough to win a grand tour. Surely he could have been a great classics rider in a clean environment and he would have been a stage winner in grand tours; of that I have no doubt. The thought of Lance winning a grand tour in his completely natural state is laughable.

Additionally, I think that blood manipulation also plays a role in an athlete's ability to keep extremely skinny. To play with your personal limits of low weight is to play with your very health. When you make yourself extremely skinny, it becomes difficult to recover, to maintain power, and to stay healthy. I know this from personal experience. Certainly everyone is different, but not so different that any one person can avoid this certainty.

One of the rationalizations used for Lance's remarkable transformation was that all the weight he lost during his cancer convalescence made him light enough to become a climber. The flaw in this rationalization is that if he lost all that weight, he could not have retained or regained the power he once had. Coming back from illness, let alone from a life threatening one, is extremely taxing to the body. I can accept that he 'beat' cancer. I can accept that he could get himself back to racing shape. I cannot accept that he could remain at a lesser weight while having all the power and even more than he had before cancer. The only answer is that he could keep his weight down and maintain the power through the drug regime.

Tyler Hamilton was incredibly skinny when he won Liege Bastogne Liege, Romandy, and was fighting for the win the Giro d'Italia. He looked like a skeleton.  It was really frightening to envision. Someone with the willpower to eat the bare minimum  and given the effect of EPO and blood transfusions, would have the confidence that they could starve themselves, lose weight, and still maintain, or even continue to increase their power levels. If any clean rider starved himself in order to lose considerable weight during the racing season, it would come at a considerable cost. Your power would go down, your energy would be diminished. You would be very susceptible to sickness. For Lance to make a complete, natural recovery from cancer, his body would have to have returned to the way it was before. Without the doping regime he could never have won a grand tour.

What of today then? Have the sins of the past been washed away? Is everyone scared straight? It seems to me that racing has gotten much more realistic looking. People you've never heard of are winning races. Almost all the pros are returning to racing more to hone their form instead of training. Even Contador is putting more races on his calendar and discovering that he can't go for the win every time (as he could when doped). Leadout trains are less able to maintain total control of field sprints. No single team chases the break and still gives its sprinter the leadout. Races are making more sense. Still, the amount of control that Sky has in stage races is suspicious. Every mountainous day the script is the same. The whole team should be able to do what they do for one day, possibly two; but three and four days or more in a row is too much to swallow. Additionally, the Sky stars are still using the 'race less and train/reconnoiter more' model, which is suspicious.

Further, they use unsatisfactory rationalizations to explain their dominance. Their argument is that if they are setting the pace at a certain level of wattage, no one can possibly produce more than that to escape (for long anyway). The question could well be put back to them. How is it possible that they can produce a level of wattage every day that no one else can surpass on at least one day? They could do it one, maybe two days in a row, but after that, cracks would necessarily appear. Gradually, members of their team have to have bad days. What we've seen in stage race after stage race is the Sky squad never cracks. They always come through. I find that much too hard to believe. Have they come up with a new way to train to always be at their best? I don't believe that for a second. In training, there's not much new under the sun; not that dramatically different or better anyway. Statistically alone, it is impossible.

Nonetheless, recent doping positives and a few other examples aside, there are signs that the level of doping is coming down. Injured and sick riders drop out of races and don't come back immediately to winning form. 'Star' riders crack and have bad days now; race-losing bad days. Teams have holes in them now because not everyone can be 'on song' everyday. Breakaways aren't being chased down every single time. Time trialists aren't winning on climbs; climbers aren't winning time trials (mostly). Racing becomes more unpredictable, like it really is. I think pro racing has a ways to go yet to be entirely believable, but it is getting pretty close.

*     *     *
I started racing in 1981 as a junior. I got my first taste of national level competition in 1983 at the Pepsi/Lowenbrau series (previously know as the Wisconsin Milk Race). That year, Gordy Holterman (sp?) won every single race of the series. I put that down to him being far more physically mature than the rest of us. Indeed, his 5 o'clock shadow was impressive at age 16. Nonetheless, whether there was anything fishy there or not I heard for the first time accusations of doping. Thereafter I heard stories about of petty dabbling in mild stimulants, overdosing on caffeine, using albuterol, cocaine, and amphetamines. Talk of steroids was rare and mostly rumored on the track side, particularly in Southern California, because, as the rumors went, it was close to easily obtained supplies in Mexico. Dopers never struck me as a problem in U.S. racing  until 1991 and then really only in retrospect. It became a more obvious problem some time in the mid 2000's when modern blood manipulation came to North America.

In 1991 a lot of American riders who had raced pro in Europe came back to race in the U.S. I could speculate as to the level of doping in the American circuit in the '90's, but I will limit myself here to what I can be reasonably certain. In '91 I was invited to a national team training camp in Texas Hill Country, southwest of Austin at a place called the Heart of the Hills Inn. I had been at training camps before, but here they did something I had never seen done before.

There was a definite separation of groups. The 'A' group went on separate rides from the 'B' group, and stayed in a different part of the complex. The 'A' group was very small and included only those that were in consideration for the '92 Olympics. The only time we in the 'B' group saw the 'A' was during 'free time' and at meals. What we know as fact now is that Greg Strock and Erich Kaiter sued USA Cycling on grounds that the coaching staff had given them performance enhancing drugs starting in 1990 "in the United States and in Europe", which in turn gave them chronic health problems. Attorneys for the defense chose to argue in terms of causality and the statute of limitations, not arguing at all that drugs had not been administered. This, along with the eventual settlement out of court by every one of the accused, leaves little doubt that the administration of performance enhancing drugs did indeed happen. It is not a stretch to conclude that if they were doping the juniors, they were certainly doping the Olympic prospects at this training camp.

Of those I can positively identify or make a guess, from top down, left to right: The late John Stenner, Bobby Julich, Linda Brenneman?, Dave Nicholson?, Maureen Manley?, next two: don't know. 2nd row: Don't know, Jim Pollack?, next three, don't know. 3rd row: (starting with the purple shoulders w/glasses) don't know the first two, Erich Kaiter?, me, John Frey. Next, it gets a bit confused. Don't know the 3 staggered on the left, but that's Greg Strock partially obscuring someone., Kendra Wenzel (nee Kneeland), Jame Carney, Sally Zack, Nate Sheafor. Fifth row: Darren Baker (in yellow w/headband), Carl Sundquist?, Dede Barry (nee Demet), Jan Tanner-Bolland, Obscured may be Tammy Jacques. Sixth row: Lance Armstrong, don't know, Pete Stuebenrach (sp?) don't know the next 3. 7th Row: Don't know, Bob Mionski, dont' know obscured, Chann McRae, Ruthie Matthes. At left down the stairs: Can't recall the two women, but in front: the late Steve Larsen.

The above picture is most of the crew at the '91 camp, scanned from a cover of the USA Cycling print publication at the time. I would guess that only the top Juniors and 3 or 4 of the Olympic hopefuls were given/offered drugs, most certainly the younger ones. I don't think the women were offered anything, probably, ironically and sadly, because they weren't considered important enough. In this group though, are the beginnings of the Armstrong era of American cycling domination. The win at all costs mentality may not have begun here, but was in motion. In races on the national team in '89 through '90, I can think of several moments when things said to me seemed, again in retrospect, to suggest something fishy was going on, but I also can't say at any moment I was directly offered drugs. Whether it was that I simply wasn't important enough, too old (at 25) when it began, or I was too clueless to see the signs; I don't know. One story that at the time I found odd, but only in retrospect made me certain of a doping program. Admittedly, I have to make some assumptions here, but it seems to me not much of a stretch.

After the camp was over, there were a few races to attend. One of these was the Stockyards Criterium in Fort Worth. The course had two bricked (bricked is not the same as cobbled, but was bumpy nonetheless) long straights with short ends all framed by four 90 degree corners. There was a head wind up the start/finish stretch. About halfway through I got a gap with Bobby Julich. We forged out a comfortable lead, mainly thanks to Bobby as he always pulled the headwind stretch, and both short sides. I merely took the tailwind pull. I was amazed that he was letting me get away with this. As we got to the last few laps, I was completely fresh. On the final lap, Bobby continued pulling hard up the headwind stretch, and even took the tailwind pull. It wasn't until just before corner three that he slowed up a bit, and looked back at me to assess tactics. That was when he saw my teammate John Frey coming fast up on us, having just attacked and dropped Bobby's teammate Chann McRea. Bobby reacted by reaccelerating with me attached right to his wheel. He then took the final corner too fast, braked, and I swept past him to win.


I was going for the 'disbelief' victory salute. Maybe I really should have been in disbelief.
A few weeks later I saw Bobby at the Natural State Stage Race in Little Rock Arkansas. He asked me, in all earnestness, "How did you beat me?" meaning in Fort Worth. I was amazed. It seemed glaringly obvious how I beat him. Further, it should not (even to him) have been a forgone conclusion at the time that he should win in a situation of him vs. me. He knew who I was and the quality of rider that I was. I had beaten him before. Like I said, he seemed to be in earnest. I explained to him that he not only did a majority of the pulling, but also the toughest stretches. I was fresher, and furthermore, he had to lead out the sprint because I had a teammate coming up on us. "How could I have lost?" was my conclusion.

He didn't seem satisfied with my explanation even though it seemed exceptionally obvious to me, and he just walked away. I found this conversation very odd, but brushed it off. In retrospect it led me to believe that he was on a doping program, and that the answer he was looking for from me was that I was doping as well. While I never took Bobby to be the most tactically astute rider out there, I knew he was smart enough not to give me a free ride to a win. He had to have been so supremely confident he would beat me, I presume, because he was doped, and assumed (correctly) that I was not, and that he could then throw around his strength and still win. Alas for him, it was not so. It would have taken blood manipulation to make it so.