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.