In an earlier post I allude to the Paul Ruhlman Memorial Criterium in Meriden, CT. This was a classic downtown criterium course, around an odd shaped block containing a shopping center. The course started on a wide road which curved to the left. A right turn took the field onto a narrower two lane road, nothing bad, which led to the second right turn. This dumped the field out onto a massive road resembling an aircraft runway. A firehouse halfway down the straight meant that, every now and then, a race would be neutralized for a lap while the firemen responded to an emergency call. The race left the wide backstretch by turning right onto another narrower, two lane road. A short time later they'd take another right, this time into a very narrow turning lane, only one lane wide. With curbs on both sides, this was the trickiest part of the course.
The wide, left curving mainstraight hinted at massive field sprints but this rarely happened. Instead, due to the bottleneck in the fourth and last turn, the sprints were typically strung out affairs contested by half a dozen racers.
Many of the racers were actually won by breakaways, that fourth turn making it harder for a field to keep a head of steam.
On probably the last day I raced there I showed up fresh from my first true team races. I had my first leadout man and we'd worked well together in both training and in a couple races. Mike and I seemed to mesh well together, his very astute pack riding skills much better than mine. After doing some training at SUNY Purchase he gave up going for field sprints and instead set about imitating the best leadout men of the current professional sprint team of Panasonic.
At our first race where we actually showed up with a plan, we did some really good racing, controlling the tempo of the race from 5 laps till the finish. We didn't do any sort of massive 5 mile leadout train - we weren't that strong. Instead, we sent off team members on breaks, knew they'd get caught, and used the chasing field as a massive substitute team.
Prior to the final laps we also practiced our leadout on a prime. I won the prime by about 50 meters - the field apparently gave up after my 40 mph leadout - and we felt like we could win.
We literally dominated the last five laps of the race - if one of our guys wasn't off the front, we were either attacking the field or sprinting for the finish. As the designated sprinter, I frantically followed my leadout man through holes I didn't even know existed. I brushed more than a few riders in the last couple laps as Mike squeezed through holes barely there, trusting me to somehow get through before the tiny holes closed.
Someone tried to get Mike's wheel at about one to go, his skewer ripping spokes from my front wheel, pulling one spoke clear through the hub. I thought the wheel might collapse but since it didn't I sprinted. My legs were blown though and I couldn't repeat my dominating prime sprint.
All I could manage was a third or fifth or something. I don't remember the place but it wasn't first. Any other place, that day, was a crushing disappointment.
We left the race with mixed emotions. The hard work by the team worked wonders but we didn't win. We felt that it was possible to win though and that was inspiring.
With this race in mind we came to Meriden. We didn't have the same full team but we had a lot of the key players. Mike and I were the 2 lap to go crew, we had a guy for 4 or 5 to go, and a couple to do work during the race.
Apparently our teamwork at the earlier races had started to garner some interest. Now, when racers came up to me during the warm-up, they weren't asking if I'd been training or if I was feeling good. Instead they asked a simple question.
"So who's here with you today?"
The weather wasn't very cooperative - a sudden downpour soaked everyone a couple races earlier and created two big puddles, each about 4 or 5 inches deep - one on the inside of Turn 1, the other on the inside of Turn 4. When the 3s started racing the puddles were still there. Initially everyone avoided them but as the race went on, we rode through them, the water a welcome distraction from the heat and the hot pace.
We lost all our team guys - I simply remember everyone was either out or hanging on for dear life. Only Mike, myself, and a third guy remained. The third guy chased things, tried to string things out at 5 to go, but the field was too anxious and he ended up pulling out, blown, and disappointed for not being able to do any more.
This forced Mike to the front a lap earlier than we wanted. With two to go he had to make a big effort to keep things together. We hit the bell with Mike stomping the pedals at the front, me on his wheel, and a whole field of hungry racers strung out behind me.
We flew through the first turn, then the second. Then Mike, his elbows out, his head hanging, suddenly pulled off.
"Sorry Aki I'm dead"
He was totally fried, his face red, his worried look indicative of what lay behind me. I struggled to comprehend how Mike, an all conquering super powerful leadout guy, could blow up. But he did. And I had to deal with it.
I didn't know what to do so kept some pace - I remember keeping the pace below 28 mph as I didn't want to go too fast and burn myself out. At the same time I didn't want to slow below 25 mph and invite swarms of racers to fly around me.
I could feel two racers by my side, my arch rivals during the early training series races, friendly competitors during the bigger summer races. Tom and Brian. Both dwarfed me as they were over six feet tall. They had more a Cipollini sprint - go from far out and go really fast. Mine was more an Abdu sprint - short, viscious. The three of us respected each others' finishing speed and they knew I was antsy to do well at this race. They didn't want to pass me so they'd sort of flared out next to me to try and make the front as wide as possible. I guess others were doing the same thing because no one wanted to pass me riding up the long backstretch to the third turn.
You ever go by a cop on the highway and you're doing 67 in a 55? You slow a bit (not too much else the cop will get suspicious), act innocent, and pray that the cop doesn't move.
I was in that "pray" stage during the 200 meters leading to the third turn. I was just praying that the field wouldn't swarm around me. A rider or two attacking was fine - that would be my new leadout - but 30 guys going up the outside would be bad.
My nerves wouldn't allow me to stay below 28 mph so I started to accelerate as I approached that third turn. I was sitting farther and farther forward on my saddle, ready to respond to any attack, to any jump. I was hyper-aware of the tires thrumming just to my sides, painfully aware that I was the point man, the sacrificial racer, the one that would lead but not win.
With my adrenaline building I cruised through the third turn, only the short straight before the last turn. I was out of the saddle, rocking the bike, trying to make it even wider than its 41 cm bars. Brian and Tom obliged and moved out just a touch - the three of us probably took 10 feet of road.
I remember looking down to see if any of the wheels looked like they were about to attack. It seemed okay.
We approached the last turn, a puddle still covering half of the one lane. I knew that someone would make a suicidal bid by sprinting into the turn, hoping to catch everyone off guard, and fly out of the turn for a spectacular win.
On the other hand, I preferred a sprint which starts with a big jump. If I'm not being led out at 40 mph, I want to start sprinting at 18 mph. My jump, my acceleration, is my strength. A jump doesn't help if you're already going sprint speed.
My internal alarm bells, already ringing since the backstretch, were now doubling in strength. I felt numb with adrenaline.
Something had to happen.
I debated within myself on the best tactics for this moment. Scenarios went roaring through my head and I thought of each new idea quickly, discarding them as quickly as I thought about them. I literally had only seconds to think, I was getting scared that we'd be swarmed, but my frantic mind always came back to one tactic. It was the only thing to do. So I did it.
I actually slowed to about 18 or 20 mph. I coasted first, then lightly touched the brakes. Sort of a pretend "I'm afraid of the deep water in the corner" kind of slow.
As I slowed I could hear somewhere sort of far behind me tires swooshing on the pavement. That someone was out of the saddle and sprinting like mad.
I quickly looked left and right - no gaps to the curbs, Tom and Brian and a couple others effectively took up all the room now. No one could get through.
I kept my pedestrian pace.
Suddenly brakes. Yelling. Metal crashing. And a huge stack up behind me somewhere. That sprinting racer, the suicidal attacker, just detonated into the back of a whole lot of racers.
I jumped like my life depended on it.
I had to get a gap so that I could use my multi-jump sprint. I knew I could jump, draw out a couple guys, and then jump again. But if the whole field was on my wheel it might be hard to pull it off. I had to isolate perhaps 10 or so racers. I got up to speed pretty quickly, shifting a couple times to my 14, and looked down. Two front wheels there. I sprinted while still looking down, knowing that if I eased a hair they'd start to come around.
I eased a hair, keeping it in the 14. My trusty bar end shifter allowed me to shift when everyone else had to sit to shift. My slowdown tactic was a direct result of this knowledge and I hoped that it would make a difference.
They started to come around.
I jumped again. Hard. Popped it into the 13.
The wheels moved back behind me.
I eased a hair, still going hard, moving back to the 14, my favorite "from speed" jump gear.
They started to come around.
And I jumped again. As hard as I could. Bam. 13. Bam. 12.
Kept sprinting, kept accelerating. I was starting to fade hard, my whole body rigid with effort, flinging my bike side to side a la Abdujaporov, the line was coming up quickly.
I threw my bike, the two guys next to me doing the same. I'd beaten one by a half wheel, the other by perhaps a wheel.
An incredible victory.
Both Tom and Brian, good guys to a fault, congratulated me on the sprint, patting me on the back, rounding the first turn. I tried to respond but could barely breathe and just nodded. They were actually going faster than I was at the line but I happened to be in front of them.
A perfectly timed sprint.
Then someone yelled out, "Great second place!"
Apparently some joker had almost lapped the field. I remembered him attacking but thought he came back. I guess not.
My smile crumbled.
Well at least I got second. And man was it an awesome sprint.
We waited for the results and after a few minutes the announcer's voice came over the PA.
"Second place is Tom... Third place is Brian..."
"... and fourth is Aki..."
I went to the officials.
Apparently there were three finish lines from the three different years they used the road. The bright finish line wasn't the finish line. It was a more faded one about 20 feet away.
I'd sprinted to the wrong line.
But with a jumble of city type road markings (the finish line was in the middle of an intersection with crosswalks, stop lines, and various utility work markings), inconsistent pavement patches (some dark, some light, and cracks everywhere), and wet and dry bits coloring even identical patches of pavement differently, I didn't see it.
The announcer, a Cat 2 racer, actually argued with the officials.
He yelled across the street at them, "If you ask me, he won the sprint!"
But rules are rules, right? Sometimes the rules really bite. This time was one of them. If they scored on one finish line and I sprinted to a different one, well, I lose.
I was so frustrated I didn't know what to do. I actually sat down and cried. I shoved my bike across the parking lot, the poor thing bouncing off a curb and crashing onto the pavement.
Tom looked like he didn't know what to do. I could see him, his eyes sympathetic, but really, there was nothing to do. He came over and told me he thought I won the sprint, that in his mind I did.
Brian came over too. Obviously I was distraught but he also told me that he considered me the winner of the field sprint. He generously offered to exchange prize money but I said it was okay, it wasn't necessary.
After I gathered myself I went to the announcer to pick up my prize money. I figured I might as well collect it and get out of there. The annoucer's a good guy, a good sprinter, and we had some terrific battles at SUNY Purchase. My fastest sprints were against him or another guy and we'd always be so close we'd have to throw our bikes and then argue who won.
"No, you won."
"No, I really think you won."
A good guy.
He gave me an envelope and told me quietly that he thought I won and that I'd done a great sprint to beat the whole field after leading them out.
I looked in the envelope. I think there was $40, maybe $45 in it. I looked at him and asked him if there really was a Paul Ruhlman Fund. He replied there was.
"Here, put this money to that fund." I held out the envelope.
"Are you sure? You earned this."
"It's okay. Paul helped me when I started racing."
I walked away.
I had no idea if he'd just pocket the money. But at some level I didn't care. I knew, deep down inside, that I'd ridden one of my best sprints ever.
I was back at my car, sat inside, sullen, moping.
An older couple walked up to the car. They didn't look like bike racers. I wondered briefly if they were lost.
They asked if I was the one that gave the prize money to the Paul Ruhlman Fund.
I replied that I did.
They introduced themselves.
"You don't know who we are but we are Paul's parents."
I stood up. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I didn't know what to say.
"(The announcer) told us where you were. We really appreciate your donation. It's a wonderful thing you did."
I guess there really was a Fund. And the announcer guy really did give it to them.
They asked me how I knew him and I told them that I really didn't, that he just helped me a few times. And that when I heard about the accident I was shocked. I didn't understand death back then, and in some ways, I still don't. All I knew at that time was that it was permanent. In some way that I hope never to understand, it wasn't a good permanent for these parents.
I think the mother was crying a bit. That's understandable. I don't remember if the father did, and I don't remember if I was. But after they left I felt a lot better about my sprint.
It still ranks as one of my best ever race sprints.
But now it meant just that much more.