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:

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.


"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.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ronde van Belgie: My first Fed Trip

In 1987, things started falling into place for me. I had for the two previous seasons been a part of our Pizza Hut/Pepsi Team Time Trial squad at the National Championships, placing second in '85 at Milwaukee and third in '86 at Boise. Along with a few other results, this got me invited to training camps at the OTC in Colorado Springs. This in turn was a stepping stone to getting "Fed trips", a chance to wear the stars and stripes in international races. The next step was to secure a ride at the Tour of Texas, which I managed in '87, riding for one of many U.S. teams, wearing various generic colored jerseys. At the Tour of Texas, I had a decent prologue, and rode aggressively if not successfully in one of the bigger road stages. For this, I was granted a go at the 'Baby Giro', the amateur Giro d'Italia, in June. This trip, however, ended up getting canceled.

Meanwhile, Frank Scioscia finagled a spot for me on the Paramount C.C. in Southern California for the Redlands Stage Race, held then around Memorial Day. On the Sunset loop I had survived the splits, and with just Dag Otto Lauretzen and Thurlow Rogers up the road, I slipped away at the bottom of the climb and was given some rope. Gervais Rioux and Doug Shapiro bridged up and we were away. I remember feeling great relief that they hadn't dropped me on the last climb of the circuit, and I got 5th in the stage and 5th overall. I went back home to Wisconsin, and the next weekend, helped by collaboration with Bob Mionski, won the Wisconsin Road Championship. Shortly after that, I got a phone call from the coaching staff in Colorado Springs, inviting me to go to the amateur Tour of Belgium the last week in June. Of course I accepted.

It was six rider teams. David Brinton and Darroll Batke had previous European racing experience. Chuck Lawrence from New Hampshire, Scott Moninger from Kansas, Greg Valenzuela from California, and I were getting our first overseas trip. We arrived with one day to get things sorted out, a second day to get out for a ride and then decide whether or not to start the 'Trofee Het Volk" (The amateur Het Volk one-day race, now the Het Nieuwsblad). I elected to ride, eager for every chance to race. 

They got us up early, and fed us big thick steaks with further options for eggs and muesli. We had a couple of hours to digest, and then they drove us out to Zottegem for the start. I think four of us rode, though I don't remember exactly who. The race consisted of three or four roughly ten kilometer laps followed by two large loops, the second of which had us climbing the famed Muur Geraardsbergen. The race then finished off with some number of laps on the shorter circuit. We were told not to finish unless we were in a position to win. 

I recall the race starting normally with a fairly calm roll out, and then after about 500 meters we hit a section of not so rough cobbles, and the attacks began. At first it didn't seem out of the ordinary, but as time went on, it looked to me that if you succeeded in the fight to reach the front, you didn't waste it by trying to hold your position there. Instead you attacked and hoped it would stick. I never got that close to the front early on, and I don't think I would have know what to do if I had gotten there. I was a racer who took things in consideration, patiently waited, and looked for situations to take advantage. That didn't seem to be a winning formula here. After a while I couldn't tell what group I was in, or how many groups were in front or back of me. Groups were constantly reforming and disintegrating from the attacks that would follow upon reforming. It really seemed to me that everyone was trying to go flat out all the time in true do or die fashion in an effort to make the front. I might have tried it if I had had any idea where the front of the race was.

Things finally settled down on the second big loop when I found myself with most of my teammates in a thirty or forty rider group where everyone seemed a bit disheartened. We were just rolling along, maybe at 40kph, went over the Muur at a civil pace, and as we approached the finish area for the final 50km or so, a British rider rolled up alongside me and asked me if we "were climbing off". I certainly didn't feel like I was in with a chance to win. "I'm climbing off, dunno about my teammates" I told him. "No sense going on" he said, and continued with the various reasons it made no sense. And so indeed, as we rolled into the finish area, about half the group pulled over and climbed off.

We were shown to a shower room. We changed, loaded up the cars, and then I saw the remnants of the race starting their final short lap as we were leaving. It was absolutely shattered. The biggest group was about four guys, and the gaps were immense. The winner was Benny Heylen, four seconds ahead of his more fancied teammate Peter De Clercq.

I was a little shocked by the experience of this race. I had expected and was prepared for it to be fast. I had expected and was prepared for it to be hard and the fight for the front to be tough. I did not however expect it to be all those thing to such an extreme degree. The fight to be up front was like nothing I had ever seen before. I simply didn't have the skill or the temperament to get to the front. To do it, you had to ride knuckle to knuckle, and push your wheel into any little crack that appeared in front of you. I was close enough to see that, as I mentioned, once you hit the front, you attacked. And most of those attacks were unsuccessful because just as one guy was attacking, two more would go at the same time, and more following. It was more like a mad scramble to be up front than attacking to form a smooth running front group. It just didn't make sense to me. I felt a little helpless, like we weren't so much looking for results, but being thrown into the lake to see if we could swim.

This also made me nervous for the stage race starting the next day. If we were going to be racing like this every day, I was in trouble. I was assured by those who knew better that not every day would be like this in the stage race. Certain stages would be similar, but on the whole it would be more controlled, with more normal breakaway/chase racing. I was relieved that these guys couldn't go flat out every single day because I knew I couldn't.

For the stage race we got some additional staff. Besides our Fed appointed trip manager, a Belgian ex-pat who lived in Boston (I think his name was Francois in spite of the fact he was Flandrian), we also got a Belgian husband/wife team who remarkably did our laundry every day, a Belgian mechanic, and two Polish guys: a masseur and the legendary Stanley Chozda, the former "Eddy Merckx of the Eastern Block" who acted as a masseur/mechanic/manager.

Our crew: Standing, from left, Polish masseur guy, Belgian host, Scott Moninger, Belgian hostess, David Brinton, Richard McClung, Greg Valenzuela, Darrol Batke, Chuck Lawrence, and our Boston Belgian ex-pat manager. Kneeling, Belgian mechanic at left, the Legendary Stanley Chozda at right.

The prologue for the Ronde van Belgie Internationale Liefhebbers (International Amateur Tour of Belgium) was on Sunday, June 21 at the atomium Park outside of Brussels covering 3.6 kilometers. Besides a host of Belgian regional teams, there were also of course the British, led by Niel Hoban, the Dutch, Brazilians, Hungarians, and the headline Soviets, who sent their World/Olympic champion team pursuit squad, led by Viatcheslav Ekimov, with one other guy, meaning their team was one guy short, plus they were riding with a 51x14 as their largest gear. At that time in Belgium, amateurs in Belgium were limited to a 52x13 gear, but the Russian track guys saw fit to further limit themselves. Here's a good look at Ekimov at the start of his prologue, in which he finished seventh.

The prologue was won by Eamon Rooney of Great Britain. Dave Brinton put in a great effort to finish third and Darroll Batke came up 9th just behind Ekimov and Hoban. Greg Valenzuela also did well to finish 12th. Time Trials were hardly my speciality, especially so when so short, so I was happy to finish as close as I did to the top in 23rd. Here I am below with the manager, having finished my prologue, and the Polish masseuse guy having a cigarette to my right. The Prologue results are to the right, down to 50th place.

Stage one started in the market center of Brugge, and it was beautiful. A Belgian rider saw me looking around at the architecture, and said, in a heavy Germanic accent "It is better than New York City". I ignored him because I knew he was just trying to get a rise from me. I had already noticed that some of the Belgians had already decided we were the Ugly Americans, and so we received a level of harassment from them that included a helping of chauvinism. To these particular Belgians, we were simply "The stupid Americans", and they couldn't imagine or suffer the idea that we might be better or even equal bike racers.
The first two stages were fairly uneventful, no really terrible cobble stretches, no big hills, and the winds were light. There were breakaways, and otherwise a field gallop. Notable, however, was the level of physical harassment we received. For instance if the field was thinning out and you needed to grab a wheel, no Belgian would give us space to take it. We had to wait for a Russian, Dutch, or British rider, and would lose a lot of position in the process. If we tried to force our way in, the Belgians would gang up on us and force us back out, or just grab our jerseys and throw us out. Retaliation was hopeless. We were outnumbered, so we had to lump it. 

This was a new situation for me. My ability to race effectively was based on knowing the competition and being able to make an educated guess of the form and flow of the racing. I needed time to observe the techniques and timing needed to hold position and then be able to act on it. It may seem obvious that I simply needed to "go for it" but making it work assumes you are among the strongest.  I knew better than to assume that. It was rare that I was the strongest rider in almost any race, but I was usually strong enough and observant enough to take advantage of situations that presented themselves. When the form and flow of a race are entirely different, however, I have to look, learn, and experiment to see what works and why. Dealing with the chauvinism was just another factor to consider. I eventually learned that the Belgians that were harassing us so much were just mid field pack fodder, and were simply insecure in their abilities. The top Belgians also displayed this chauvinism, but it was applied to everyone, not just the Americans. At least with them, if you proved your right to be there they accepted your place.  

In the meantime, I paid dearly for my patience and lack of knowledge on the third stage. Perhaps we had been warned, though I don't recall it, but this stage was particularly brutal. It contained stretch after stretch of very rough, long, and super narrow cobblestone roads. We raced on smooth, concrete roads for something like 20km when riders started fighting for the front. I tried and actually did make it close to the front at one point, but got chopped and funneled back when suddenly everyone was putting on the brakes and I could see up ahead that we were turning left. The first ten to twenty riders flew onto the cobbles at full speed, everyone else hit them at near zero. Since I was near the back, and almost had to put my foot down (and remember, this was still the days of toe clips and straps), I got onto the cobbles at about 10 mph. Among the things you learn about cobbles is that it is very hard to accelerate. You eventually pick up speed, but it takes an enormous amount of energy to do it. Under the pressure the field blew into pieces with Chuck Lawrence and me in the last group. The road was crested in the middle with tractor wheel ruts on either side of the crest, and the edges of the road were raised and sometimes jagged. Everyone was single file on the crest and the edges. Desperate to move up, I dropped into the left side wheel rut. The cobbles were rougher down there, and it was tough going. A Dutch rider came by on the left side and said to me, "American boy! do not ride down there. It is dangerous. You will puncture." It seemed good, honest advice, and, in any case, I wasn't getting anywhere. I moved back to the crest. The Dutch rider had moved several bike lengths in front of me, he had more advice to give "Russian boy....", the good Samaritan.

When we finished the first cobbled stretch, we got organized and quickly caught the group in front of us. We then in turn caught the next group until the field reformed and we eventually regained the lead group. This, however, was just in time for the next cobbled road and we had no time to even try to reach the front. Moreover, we had been chasing hard while the front bunch had been soft pedaling. The closer to the front you were the more rested you would be, and you could then fly over the cobbles while the rest had to start the cobbles slowly. I was a little better positioned for the second stretch, but I think it was the second to last group instead of the last.

This scenario repeated five or six times, the only difference being that each time we caught back fewer and fewer groups in front of us. Finally, exhausted from chasing and trying to accelerate on the cobbles, Chuck and I were in the last group for the day, destined to lose close to 30 minutes. At one point, as we were riding just to survive, the Russian team car came alongside and handed a water bottle, a pump, and a tire to the one Russian guy in the group (the one not on the team pursuit squad), and drove off. We knew then that we had no hope of catching anything back. I had never felt so sorry for someone as at that moment, I thought for sure it was back to the salt mines for that poor Russian. His bike was ancient, with re-soldered tubes, and a groupo of some indistinguishable brand, that looked as if they would snap apart if put under any pressure. He looked ashamed to be there, just like me.

We were so far behind that we were even allowed to complete the finishing circuits because we couldn't have interfered with the race ahead. It was absolutely crushing. I was completely drained and had trouble imagining that I could avoid repeating that same scenario in the coming days. I got my head together though, after eating, getting a massage, and relaxing a bit. I was able to put together what went wrong, and a talk from Stanley Chozda reinforced my thoughts. Unlike many other coach/managers I've dealt with, Stanley Chozda spoke to you about mistakes or your ability to perform individually rather than in front of the whole team. Even with his limited English, he was able to explain what was required to stay up front, sniff out the moves, and to keep improving. It bolstered my confidence, that if I kept trying, I would improve simply by trying and that good things would eventually come from it.

So I remained patient, fought to keep my position better, and targeted the later stages that were hillier and more likely to suit me better. It also bothered us a bit that we as a team lacked cohesion. We were aware of it and talked about how to improve it, but in practical terms we just weren't strong enough to apply it on the road. We would help each other when we could, but team-wide operations seemed out of the question. Still, Dave Brinton had been keeping his nose mostly out of trouble, and while the rest of us had our bad days, we started getting in moves, and into the actual racing.   The Russians meanwhile, being the seasoned veterans that they were, asserted control via a team time trial and Ekimov had the overall lead. The only highlight I can remember from the middle stages were the "Kid's Heads". 

I don't remember which stage this was, what town they were near, and no Internet search helped either. The worst cobbled stretch we encountered were called "Kid's Heads", because the stones were so large, rounded and slick that they were said to resemble the heads of children. They looked more to me like the top quarter of a bowling ball. They were on a finishing circuit and we had to go over them three times. The approach was on a narrow concrete road with swampy land on either side. It was slightly downhill so that you could hit the cobbles at high speed. Once you hit them however, it was like you had weighed anchor. Once on the cobbles, the road begin rising up to an acute right bend and continued over a hump afterwards. After the hump, accelerating was possible only because the road tilted slightly downhill again, continuing through a pine forest before giving way to pavement and the finishing town. We had already gone through a lot of cobbles that day, and I had survived in the first chasing bunch. The first time over the Kid's Heads I was dropped but was determined to get back. I chased on before the finish line with two to go, and made sure to be closer to the front for the cobbles. It cost me dearly in terms of muscle and energy, but I made it through the second pass in the wheels. The sensation was strange, instead of feeling so much like my muscles were losing power, it felt more like I was a battery, my whole body slowly draining with every effort. The third pass was for me almost transcendent. My legs, arms, fingers, back, and stomach muscles felt beyond my control. I was hanging on to the back of the bunch by a thread, and turning my legs solely by pure will. I remember getting to the pavement and feeling very dizzy. I had to concentrate hard to keep my bike riding straight and not drift off the wheel in front of me and get dropped. My hands were cramping and my arms felt like rubber. My abdominals had given out and this in turn made my back terribly sore. I also remember thinking, once I had recovered a bit from the dizzy spell, 'They can't drop me now'.

I had never felt so wasted as after this stage. I was however, riding into the race and recovered decently. A few more stages and I got my chance on the third to last stage, 115km from Torhout to Wakken, including the Kemmelberg. Though there were other hills on the route, the bunch raced as if everyone was waiting for the Kemmelberg. Indeed, I knew it was coming up when the fight for the front ensued. I did a reasonably good job of getting up front, but there were still a lot of riders in front of me as we turned left onto the hill. The Kemmelberg is surprisingly wide and it's cobbles are not so bad. I also had some good luck. The bunch pressed left for some reason, leaving reasonable space for me to thread through riders leaving gaps on the right. Staying in the saddle and pushing on a 42x22, I moved up to the front of the bunch close to the top. A large group of perhaps 30 or so riders had split midway up and I could see them disappearing from view over the cusp of the hill. I kept up the pace and got a gap.
Over the top, the cobbles end and give way to smooth asphalt. I shifted up to the big ring and gave chase, reckoning it was a 20 second gap I had to bridge, with several riders scattered in between who had gotten dropped or failed to bridge. The road rolls for a bit and then begins tilting downward. I was gaining speed when I noticed the lead bunch dropping out of view, the descent getting suddenly steeper. As I approached this spot, I then saw two Belgian riders side by side casually talking. I wondered why they weren't going all out, trying to bridge. As I flew by them and dropped into the steeper part of the descent, I saw that this side was cobbled as well. It was quite alarming.

It was too late to put on the brakes, so I had to just hold on. I was getting absolutely pummelled by the shaking, and thought for certain I would either crash and or puncture, but miraculously I did not. The final challenge was making the right turn at the bottom. My speed was checked only by the cobbles, as grabbing the brake levers was not only impossible, but probably useless anyway. I leaned in, and, having to have faith in my tires, made it. The road changed to asphalt again, and the bunch, with about thirty riders, was right there in front of me. Ten more seconds of chasing, and I was there.

I moved up in the bunch to see what was going on, and saw that what looked to be a 10 or so rider group had a sizable gap. Dave Brinton was in the group, and rode up to me and said, "Rich, I've got to get up there." I knew what this meant I had to do, and this was, after all, my speciality; making the bridge that everyone else saw as unlikely. You can't just immediately jump and expect to get away. The situation has to be right. With Dave on my wheel, I moved up the right side of the group and waited for an opportunity. there were a few weak attacks and then I saw that up ahead was small knoll, and there was a slight headwind. I jumped hard in advance of the knoll and rolling over it with good speed, we were clear. I closed about three quarters of the gap in about a minute and a half, and in this time, much to my surprise, flew right past Ekimov. My guess is that he tried to bridge but couldn't make it. Shortly after this, I was still chasing with some speed, but now having to grit my teeth. I closed to within about a ten seconds gap and began to feel that I couldn't keep up the pace anymore, "Dave, you're going to have to come through!" I shouted. Much more to my surprise, it wasn't Dave that came through, but Ekimov, with Dave on his wheel. I could not match the speed.

Few things amazed me more than that Ekimov was able to latch on to us. We went by him a good five mph faster than he was going. I know that when I've tried a bridge but failed, I'm blown, and could not have done the same. He must have been soft pedaling enough to have recovered, and caught our wheels seeing it as a second chance. It was a chance he didn't wast. Ekimov closed the final ten second gap with ease, Dave getting the free ride.

I was still back at ten seconds, struggling in the wind. I was once again lucky because when Ekimov gained the front group, they slowed, trying to decide what to do since Ekimov had bridged. When I saw that they had slowed I rallied a bit and closed the gap just as they decided to get on with business anyway. We rolled fast and smoothly. The smoothness was good for me because I was wrecked from what was essentially a three mile long tough bridging effort over difficult terrain. The speed was draining. Our lead hovered around a minute and no one was playing games, so it was clear we would stay away. The only obstacle remaining was a rough cobble stretch on the finishing circuit. We had to pass over it three times, and each time I again felt like a weak battery, slowly having the power drained away, just as on the Kid's Heads.

Our break coming into the finish area, one lap to go. I'm 2nd from left, Dave Brinton in front of me, Viatcheslav Ekimov behind. If I look destroyed, it's because I least Ekimov looks winded...and note I'm the only one without a cap over or under my hairnet. Maybe that was my problem.
 The cobbled stretch ended about three kilometers from the finish. Dave rode up and asked me to be ready to give him a lead out. He got on my wheel, and quite uncharacteristically the road was wide and straight all the way to the finish. We could see the finish banner from a very long way out. I was completely shattered already and felt like I was hanging on by a thread. I think I was near delirious because even though we had seen the finish twice already, I started the lead out way too early and ended up cracking a good 400 meters to the line, leaving Dave high and dry. A move went on the right and I fell away. The stage was won in a close sprint by Koen Vekemans, with Dave in sixth. I trailed in at 11th, 12 seconds back. The next group of 33 came in at 1:02. The next group, the one from which I started my bridging effort, was nearly eight minutes back.

I was quite pleased to have made the break but it was disappointing to have been so helpless to do anything than just survive upon bridging. Still, it gave me more confidence and felt like I had earned place in the bunch now. We stayed in Kortrijk that night, and the weather was nice. A few of us were going to have a walk 'round the town and we saw Ekimov who spoke some English. We invited him along and bought him some ice cream. We had a few laughs and I got back the room feeling refreshed. The next day was the so-called queen stage, 133km from Wakken to Geraardsbergen. The route included the Kluisberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Kruisberg, and finally, the Muur Geraardsbergen, after which there would be 5km to ride to the first passage of the finish and then two 14km circuits.

I suddenly now found it easier to move around the bunch due both to greater confidence and having gained some amount of respect. While I was still getting flack from some of the Belgians, I could now assert myself better and usually get what I wanted. Now I could ride closer to the front and was able to fight my way to the front of the bunch over the Kwaremont, where the pace was fast but no one tried to attack. Like the day before, the bunch seemed to be waiting for the principal difficulty of the day, the Muur.

We arrived in Geraardsbergen largely together and I was able to get myself in good position for the start of the Muur. The route used the traditional Tour of Flanders approach. We crossed the bridge into town and took a left up a very steep paved street. The road then bends gradually uphill on cobbles across the town square before curving back left up to the steep part of the hill up to the church. I used the steep paved bit to get closer to front and powered my way to fifth spot or so after the town square. Scott Moninger was also up front along with Ekimov, the Russian Khemelinin, and all the top Belgians. We went fast but steady up the steep bit.

As we reached the top I recall being alongside Ekimov and on Moninger's wheel. We dove left to get on a strip of pavement before the cobbles ended. My eyes were glued to Moninger's wheel, and when I looked up again Ekimov was gone. He had attacked when we went to the left and no one had even tried to follow. After the cobbles stop, the road crests and the route can either go straight ahead back down the other side of the hill, or turn right on more cobbles to climb another 25m. They turned us to the right, and Ekimov had reached that turn before I had a chance to look up. It was like he beamed (a la Star Trek) up the road.

On the circuits the chase was flat out, but made little impression on Ekimov's lead. He won the stage with a 1:14 over the first bunch. The field sprint was won by his teammate, Alexander Krasnov, with Greg Valenzuela giving it a dig at 6th for the stage. Most of our team made the front split, so we at least we were finishing on a bit of a high note.

Ekimov takes the stage into Geraardsbergen, and puts his stamp on the overall...A whole nation of Belgians couldn't hold him back.

Top 30 of the stage into Geraardsbergen.

As in most stage races, the final stage was largely ceremonial. I had to make one more big mistake though. We were in a rolling area on normal asphalt roads, when guys fighting a bit for the front. Concerned that something was coming up, I was looking for every chance to get up front. I jumped up on the sidewalk and was flying by guys, but noticed too late that as we came to the end of this particular very small town, that the sidewalk ended, and a large raised cement curb now separated me from the bunch. There were houses to my left, and I was blazing down a dirt path looking for a way back on the road. A telephone pole ahead looked to narrow my path, but the real problem was the large orange traffic cone sitting right in between the pole and the building's wall. It came up pretty suddenly, and I hit it with great speed, sailing over the bars, and rolling down the dirt path. I jumped straight up again, ran back to my bike, straightened the bars, got myself back on the road, and commenced chasing back through the caravan.

It was about this same time that a group of 20 or so riders separated from the bunch. So my chase back took some amount of time even though I was in the cars. I did manage to get back though, and just rode wheels to the finish. The only thing left to survive was the all the cigarette smoke at the awards ceremony, held in a huge tent with a lot of really fantastic beer. After a while I couldn't survive the smoke and had to go outside, good beer or not.
Final Results, G.C. and classifications. The Soviets crushed.

For my first trip racing in Europe, this was a tough one. A few weeks later I thought that I would like another tilt at Belgium, as I would have known how to handle it better. I would in later years get to race international events in Italy, the Eastern Bloc, Great Britain, Mexico, Central and South America, but none were as downright hard as Belgium. Most of the field was made up of Belgian regional teams, unlike many of the other international races I would do. The "home court" advantage was a very real thing there, and the quality of rider and their desperation to prove themselves made racing there a genuine contest of wills almost every step of the way. It is arguable that I found later international races 'easier' because I came to them with experience. This is certainly true, but still the racing was in other countries with more international riders than regional riders.  It seemed to me to be much more 'normal', and rewarded the more 'wait and pounce' style racing that I favored.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

'89 Vuelta a Guatemala - Continued

To wrap up the '89 Vuelta a Guatemala story, I'm also going to include a bit of a tribute to Chris Petty, seen below explaining the difficulties of the day after I lost the leader's jersey. I believe Chris to be among the class of great American bike racers most people have never heard of.  I regret that I have no other pictures of Chris other than grainy newspaper pictures.  They will have to do.

At this point, we needed an alternative plan of attack as I was pretty much used up as a force in the race. The loss of Clark Sheehan was a major blow, as he was an outstanding climber and doubtless could have represented us well in the mountain-heavy later stages. We were left with Chris, Chann McRea, and me. As mentioned, I needed to ride wheels for a few days, and Chann, yet a junior at this time, wasn't quite ready for an assault on the bunch. Petty, however, was more than up to the task, and indeed, the day after my drubbing at the hands of los Colombianos, this was the result:
The stage was the longest of the Vuelta-- 160 km from Guatemala City to Mazatenango. As with most stages out of the capitol city, it started downhill, and this one continued on very rough, flat roads to Mazatenango. Chris attacked several times and was finally given some rope along with the Swiss rider Adrian Baettig with about 100 km remaining. The Colombians went straight into chase mode, but with no one lending any help, they simply lost time every step of the way, eventually losing over nine minutes. Chris and the Swiss rider bargained out the classic arrangement: both riders give everything, no games, and one gets the overall lead, and the other gets the stage win. In this case, Adrian had the better GC position and took the race lead, while Chris took the stage. This was doubly nice since we had won the same stage the prior year with Erik Schmidt.
Chris Petty gano en Mazatenango

From the picture you can see that they rode all the way to the line, not giving up any time. For his efforts Chris moved to second overall, a minute and a half behind Baettig, and a bit over a minute ahead of the now former leader, Dinael Vargas. Positions held in the seventh stage won by Costa Rican Luis Hildalgo, 106 km from Mazatenango, climbing lightly to Coatepeque and finishing in Retalhuleu. The next stage was a tough one. While only 60 km, it was all uphill (or so it seemed) from the tropical lowlands of Retalhuleu to the chilly mountainous heights of Quetzaltenango. Coming only two days after their big escape to Mazatenango, neither Chris nor Baettig could stay with the Colombians to Quetzaltenango. While top Guatemalan Edin Roberto Nova won the stage, Dinael Vargas regained the overall lead.

Not to be outdone, Chris roared back on the ninth stage, a 60 km circuit race in Quetzaltenango. He ripped off the front with two Ukrainians, Oleg Chuzda and Vladimir Prokinsis.

Chris gives some stick to Oleg and Vlad

Even though the Colombians had help in the chase and the pace was fast, Chris, Vlad, and Oleg finished a minute clear. In the end, the Ukrainians ceded the stage to Chris, reportedly because they so respected his strength. They even backed off enough to give Chris a clear buffer.  

Chris wins in Quetzaltenango
After this Chris was in 4th overall, about three minutes in arrears of Colombian Jahir Bernal in 3rd place, and only a handful of seconds ahead of Adrian Baettig. I was well back, almost eleven minutes down at 11th. The remaining stages were mountainous and gave us little chance to improve our lots. A never flat 90 km to Huehuetenango, the massive climb of 'Alaska' (so called because it's so cold up there) on the way to Solola, and 136 lumpy kilometers back to Guatemala City. Chris slipped one place to 5th as Colombian Duban Ramirez soared into Solola; while I gained a spot to 10th as Adrian Baettig cracked a bit on the way to Solola. You can see the final results in black and white just below.

I promised a little tribute to Chris Petty:

I'm not entirely sure where Chris Petty was from, but when I first met him through racing in the midwest and then at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, he was living in Champaign, Illinois, and rode for the Spirits of St. Louis club sponsored by Maplewood Bike Shop. Shunned by many because they thought him of poor personal habits or believed him to be a fool, I got to know Chris from several international trips with him, and know these things not to be true. Possessed of a tremendous work ethic and no lack of talent, Chris was a tower of strength whose only obstacles in the sport were opportunity and perhaps his own head.

In 1989, the federation tried to field its own trade team, Team USA, because they didn't want to have to depend on trade teams to provide riders. As a part of this, the federation held a training camp in the winter to select the members (in fact, it was clear they had already chosen them...they were already in permanent residence in the OTC). The camp was brutal, we were woken at 7:00 am, and immediately outside for light exercise followed by breakfast and a ride (cyclocross if it was snowing too much). After lunch we had gym work consisting of some sort of calisthenics along with a court game (volleyball, basketball). Then it was an hour or two of free time before the evening workout, sometimes running, sometimes water polo. By then it would be 7 pm. We would have dinner and then free time before going to sleep. While all that may sound fun, day after day for almost three months, people were dropping like flies due to exhaustion and injury. Chris Petty, by a wide margin, was the only one who completed every workout.

As if stunned that anyone had actually completed their insane program (said to mimic the Soviet training system, which no one believed), they actually gave Chris a spot on Team USA, the only person granted a spot via the camp (not pre-selected). This may have seemed a great opportunity, but it actually wrecked poor Chris because while it guaranteed him access to top races and eliminated the problem of money, it also robbed him of his freedom.

When someone pays you just enough to make you comfortable to race bikes, you end up feeling beholden to them.  The riders housed at the OTC were under the microscope. They tell you that little things, little habits that don't really matter all add up and sabotage your efforts to be the best athlete you can.  They try to teach you to act differently. I think for Chris the scrutiny was too much, and it it killed his desire to race because it took away the fun of it when people kept telling him he was doing things wrong, or that he had to act or behave in certain ways. Not that Chris was inclined to act or behave badly normally, just that he was being required to act and behave unnaturally. In domestic racing Chris seemed to struggle uncharacteristically that year, but he had some bright spots internationally. He seemed a bit subdued on the month-long Italy/Peace Race trip, but then he won the prologue of the Giro Della Regioni. He seemed a lot more his old self on the trip to Guatemala where he had more freedom and our team manager on that trip, Bill Woodul, encouraged that sort of thing.

The Team USA project lasted only one year, really. It continued in a fashion with a track program, but for the road it was over. I can't remember where Chris wound up riding after that, but he disappeared after a couple more years, in the end a victim, no doubt, of the cruelty of the sport along with the grinding poverty. Those in command of the sport at the time were loathe to give him another chance when they had the Team USA example as evidence. I can only guess where he could have gone if given opportunity with fewer strings attached. 

The fall season prior to gaining the spot on Team USA, Chris entered the Spenco 500, a continuous 500 mile race which I believe served as a qualifier for the Race Across America. I don't know that Chris had any interest in ultramarathon races, but I think he was simply after the big paycheck for winning. His rear derailleur cable snapped about half way through, but he kept on with only a 53 or 42x12 for gear choices. He won by a commanding margin. His toughness and ability were remarkable. The results he gained on Team USA belied his true potential that was evident when he was on his own. The failure to recognize how to groom the talent properly was simply another lost opportunity for the sport in the United States.