Monday, September 10, 2007

Story - The Purple Jersey

One of my favorite races was the Tour of Nutley. I suppose I had a somewhat wistful link to it - when I went there to watch my first race (and cheer on a teammate), it was the National Championships. Although my teammate didn't do too well, the racing was, well, as spectacular as it gets. And for a racing novice, it was quite inspirational.

The Junior race was won by a "diamond in the rough" named Roy Knickman ( for what it's worth Davis Phinney won the men's race and Connie Carpenter the women's). Knickman and a second racer formed the winning break. Knickman, not known for his sprint, wasn't favored to win. It didn't help that when he jumped, his rear tire rolled off the rim - flopping around next to the rim, in between the frame and the wheel (try that on your super-aero carbon frame - how much clearance do you have there?). He gamely pedaled to the line, staying surprisingly close to his not-to-handicapped break companion.

In shocking news, the break companion was in fact "aided and abetted" by something else - a 12 tooth cog. Since the Junior limit was a 53x15, and he was running a 53x12, he was immediately disqualified. Knickman was crowned the winner.

I carefully noted the strict gear limit policy and silently thanked the guys who built my bike (one was the one that raced the Juniors) as they had put a 53x15 on the bike.

Nutley was also one of my first good races. One year, somehow, I found myself near the front with less than a lap to go. A few big efforts, a fearful but successful maneuvering around the downhill left, and I found myself slotted about 5 guys back going into the last turn.

Since I'd been jumping far too early in various other races, I waited till I thought it prudent to go. This meant that as soon as someone jumped, I jumped on his wheel. And when he eased up, I jumped around him. I was flying, cranking the pedals, going for history.

Then I looked up.

Ever see a four lane road, completely empty, with a finish line banner strung across it about 200 yards away?

Well, let me tell you, it looks like you're looking down the Champs Elysees. Acres and acres of pavement. Tons of wind. A banner you can see if you have good binoculars. And, well, legs which are about to blow.

I gamely kept my sprint going but my legs started doing random other things. A heel jerk there, a quad twinge there, and suddenly I had exploded, crawling to the line. It seemed like everyone in the field passed me, followed by everyone warming up for the next race.

But, luckily, that was as accurate as my perception of the finishing straight. I ended up 11th, tired, happy, and looking forward to a summer of fun racing.

A race nearby, usually held just before Nutley, was the former Scotch Plains race. An eight corner crit, I did the race a few times, virtually all ending the same way.

The first Scotch Plains I did started out a semi-disaster. Underestimating the travel time along with some traffic jams meant I completely missed the Cat 3 start. Since I'd driven all the way there, I decided to do the Pro/1/2/3 race "for training". I mean, c'mon, an eight corner course with a bunch of rampaging Pro/1/2's? The 3s are there just to help flesh out the prize list.

Seriously.

So I lined up, not too optimistic, but determined to get as far as possible. And when the gun went off, we rocketed away from the line. I spent probably five laps just learning the corners, trying not to wipe out on the melting tar (really melting crack filler, which feels like hot chewing gum when you're cornering on it at 30-35 mph), and trying not to lose contact with the guys in front of me.

There were a whole lotta crashes but luckily I didn't get involved in any of them. Once I got the race pattern down, I went into survival mode - coasting into each turn, not braking too much if at all, and essentially soft pedaling back into the field afterwards

And when the laps started counting down, I realized that I was still in the race.

My conservative racing meant that I had a lot left in the tank. And with about 3 laps to go, I made a few efforts and found myself inside the top 10 at the bell. I could maintain my spot as we were simply flying along in single file - and when we approached the third to last turn, I let myself dream of a good finish. Some Mengoni guy was just in front and there was some other guy going ballistic, leading out the field.

All good.

The last turn was so close to the line that you had to be first going through it to win. This meant you had to be perhaps second or third at the second last turn. This meant I had to make a big effort after this upcoming third last turn.

We approached that third last turn, guys starting to try and move up both inside and outside, but I felt okay where I was. At warp speed there simply wasn't room for more than one racer at a time going through the narrow third last corner.

The guy behind and to my inside insisted otherwise though and he flew through the inside, slammed into the guy in front of me, and we all fell like dominos.

That taught me to dream before the finish.

I went back there to avenge my crash, this time getting there for the 3s. I felt like I was going to destroy the field - I felt good and I knew I was okay for a Pro/1/2/3 race - the 3s had to be a lot easier.

I spent virtually the whole race patrolling the top 20. Incredibly, this kid from my area that started racing a while ago kept getting in my way. When I first met him, he was 11 or 12 years old, rode a 24 inch wheeled road bike, and could barely pedal his bike. He'd grown up a bit but, to me, he was still that "kid". So, in the race, when I'd look up and see his lanky body pedaling furiously, I'd think, "I belong in front of him."

I'd move up, go by him, grit my teeth in satisfaction, and settle into racing again.

And that blasted kid would be in front of me again.

I never made it to the finish that year. Some bozo pulled the same move on the same turn, I ended up high siding off the bike, landed on the side of my head, and earned a trip in an ambulance.

A different year I lacked form, with predictable results. At Nutley (yes, back there again) I spent the day watching the various races (including mine - I was changed and cooled down before they hit 10 to go). I suppose it was windy or something that day as the races seemed pretty strung out, fast, hard, and with the sun beating down, it was hot.

The fastest race each year is, of course, the Pro/1/2 race. There were a few strong riders who immediately took off - a strong break, it contained multiple national level racers. Within a few laps they were motoring along, a little less than a minute in front of the field. One local team (I could tell because they wore somewhat generic purple jerseys with virtually no printing on them) missed the break and set about bringing them back. Within a few laps several of them were at the front, screaming along, stretching the somewhat complacent field into a long, stretched out row of suffering racers.

I figured the Purples were trying to "fly the colors" at this important local race and waited for the "real" moves to happen. The Purples seemed willing to work, they didn't blow up right away, so the field grimly hung on while the Purples and the break did their own private pursuit around the streets of Nutley.

Now mind you, in this era of racing, such teamwork was simply unheard of. Yes, some of the big teams occasionally got a little train going, but to have 7 or 8 or 9 racers at the front, well, that was pro stuff. Panasonic stuff. TI Raleigh stuff. Impressive.

For some reason the break insisted on trying to win and they never let up. This left the poor Purples to have to drag the field around for about 40 of the 50 lap race. I have to say that it was a most spectacular race. The break made up half of it, losing a couple seconds every few laps but never giving up, their effort clearly etched into their grimacing faces. The Purples made the other half of the race, impressively leading with these local Cat 1s and 2s, who, for all their effort, never blew. They kept the pace so high that the field remained single file for virtually the whole race.

Finally, with the laps counting down to the finish, the Purples, through sheer brute force, finally started wearing down the escape. A couple of the racers in the break faded, reducing the available horsepower up front. Others were probably thinking of the win and started taking the edge off their pulls.

The Purples, in the meantime, smelled blood. When others in the field launched some tentative attacks, the Purples responded, incredibly, by increasing the pace.

They started seriously dishing out the hurt.

And with about five laps to go, the field knew the break was done and started launching counter after counter.

Ultimately two guys would get away and finish on their own. One was one of the Carney brothers. The other, if I remember correctly, would end up the USPro Crit champion (and podiumed three times as an amateur). The non-Carney won, with the places reversed a couple days later at the Tour of Sommerville.

The Purples, as far as I remember, didn't have anyone in the top 10 or so. It was too bad, but really, when you think of it, they had an impressive race.

I walked back to my car. There were still a few races scheduled but watching that Pro/1/2 race was enough for me. Plus the upcoming races were the lower category ones - it wasn't like they'd have the same kind of spectacular show as the Pros put on.

I saw that kid from Scotch Plains getting ready for his race - 16 years old, just started to grow into his bike. His gear was strewn around the back of his car, his (now taller than mine) bike leaned on one side of it, and he was dressed in street clothes.

I figured that if he was running late I could help him get ready. Pump up some tires, maybe pin a number, things like that. Kid, right? Usually disorganized, late, they can use all the help they can get.

I walked up to him, said hi, asked him if he was racing soon.

No, he told me, he already raced.

I puzzled over this for a second. He wasn't in my race. But he's a 3 or a 4. And the 4s, I thought, were up shortly. The Juniors raced a while ago.

Wait, what category are you, I asked.

I got upgraded to a 2.

Oooh, I replied.

Wait a minute, I added. You just raced?

Yeah.

I thought about the break. Of the guys you read about in Velonews, pounding the living daylights out of the rest of the field. Of the Purples, killing themselves to bring back the top notch break, annihilating themselves in the process. I wondered how long I would have lasted in that field. Not long, I realized, even in really good shape.

Wow, I said, that must have been a hard race.

Yeah.

The kid, to his benefit, was sort of quiet. I could understand, he just did an insanely hard 50 mile race.

I thought about watching the race. I realized I never noticed him in his white and blue jersey (the Scotch Plains one).

He was putting some more of his gear away, revealing what lay underneath.

I saw a purple jersey.

A dark purple jersey. Some white letters on it, really generic looking. "Jeep", I could read, and some Cyclery place. For some reason I reached out and touched it.

Soaking wet.

I looked at the kid, still busy putting stuff away.

"Is that your jersey?"
"Yeah, sorry, it's gross, it's wet."
"Waitaminute... are you part of that Purple team that pulled the Pro/1/2s for the whole race?"
"Yeah," he admitted glumly, "we missed the break and the director made us chase."

I couldn't believe it.

"Wait... you mean you're part of that Purple team?"
"Yep..."

You know when your mind refuses to process something?

"No way. That team that was at the front of the race?"
"Yep..."

I tried a different tact.

"I thought you were a Junior."
"Yep," he looked at me. "Can you believe a bunch of 15 and 16 year olds worked over a Pro/1/2 field over for the whole race?"

He grinned.

I couldn't help but grin back.

4 comments:

hobgoblin said...

Great story, Aki. You've got the old Maynard touch in your bike stories.

josh said...

great story...as per usual.

Aki said...

As a cowboy might say, "I cut my teeth on Maynard stories". Thanks, both of you.

I didn't mention it but the "kid" is the kid who owned my red Honda before me, from the Karma post.

suitcaseofcourage said...

Fantastic story - amazing it's not fiction, it's so good. "Per usual" as josh said...