Thursday, December 08, 2011

Story - Kind Soul

One of my first "big" races was the Worchester Polytech Institute crit (pronounced "wooster" or, more simply, "WPI"). Like many collegiate crits, it featured a wall of a climb up to the finish.

I was in my lightweight phase, running stupid light stuff, pushing limits even for a barely 112 pound racer (my weight at the end of my UCONN days). For that day I selected my piece de resistance, a delectable 28 hole 17 mm "aero" rim (in the days when a 20mm or so high rim was aero), shod with an equally tiny 17 mm Panaracer tubular.

Those tubulars deserve a post in themselves. They resembled a slightly oversize ball point pen when inflated, rode like one, and, because of its nylon casing, seemed completely bullet proof.

Because the tire's miniscule dimensions scared me, I always inflated them to 140 psi, the most I could get out of my pump, and only with someone else's assistance.

(Because, would you believe this, at about 120 psi I couldn't push down on the pump anymore - instead I was lifting myself off the ground!)

With some just as crazy rear wheel (I'm guessing I'd have run my trusty Ambrosio Crono tubular with a matching Panaracer 19 or 20 mm 200g kevlar belted tubular, my favorite set up for a while), I lined up a bit late, in the last row of something like 125 racers.

Cocky beyond belief, I joked and smirked and hid my anxiety until the race started. I looked at my many watches on my wrists (I wore 2 for a while, 5 towards the end of my collegiate career) and, once the whistle blew starting the race, counted thirteen seconds before the riders around me started to move.

With little reason to scramble into the pedals (toe clips and straps, my trusty Gipiemme half axle pedals), I leisurely clocked the time, clipped in, and started rolling away from the line.

Immediately I changed gears mentally. I knew that on a tight, twisting course, with a monster wall, there'd be massive splits in the group. This meant working as hard as I could to get towards the front of the group, about to where I could literally see the front racers. For me that meant getting into about the top 30, maybe top 25.

With a hundred and twenty odd riders ahead of me, I had a lot of passing to do.

I gritted my teeth, pedaled deep into the turns, jumped just as hard out of them, spun up my uber-light tubulars, thanked heaven to Betsy that I had the 17 mm 140 gram front tire, that I had an equally effective 200 gram rear tire, both shod on stupid light rims. The bike responded beautifully - I'd make it to the front or break my wheels trying.

The hill presented the biggest challenge and, ultimately, the biggest advantage. Halfway up the hill the road had a huge pothole, about three feet wide, maybe a foot deep, and about two or three feet long. On a descent the hole would flip a rider right over his bars. On this climb it presented what amounted to be a "no-ride" zone.

There was a nicely placed pedestrian bridge just over it, giving the lucky two dozen up there a great view of the carnage below.

Racers scrambled up the sides of the pothole each lap, wiggling and balancing to try and keep from falling in.

As they flowed around it, the hole created a natural breakwater, a natural flow of racers around said hole. It started maybe forty feet before the hole, as riders tried to move up until the last second, then ended in the twenty or so feet after, when they riders at the edge thankfully moved back into some sort of spacing and order.

That first lap I scrambled with the best of them, balancing precariously at the edge of the hole, my tires literally an inch from dropping into a guaranteed crash.

The next lap, a bit more tired, I left it late, and ended up faced with a decision: brake hard and try and move over, or try and get some speed up and see if I could ride through the round trench in front of me.

You can guess my choice.

I punched it, tugged hard on the bars, and sailed the front wheel over the hole.

The rear didn't fair as well and it definitely had some terra firma contact as bike and rider passed over the hole.

I accelerated angrily away from the pothole, angry at myself for subjecting the bike to abuse and angry for putting myself in a poor tactical position.

The furious pedal strokes also tested the rear tire's integrity - a pinch flat, however unlikely, would show itself as a softening tire, one easily discerned by an angrily stomping pedal stroke. There were other tests too, but for the first four or five pedal strokes that's what I focused on.

As the racers around me adjusted their trajectory, an unexpected person filling in the reunification of the two peloton halves, I realized that my rear tire was fine.

No lumps indicating a bent rim. No squishiness from a partially deflated tire. No wiggliness from a broken spoke.

I'd just learned my new line up the hill.

Relieved a bit, and, I have to admit, tiring rapidly, I took it easier in the multitude of corners through the course, saving up my energy for another run at the pothole.

The next lap I launched myself at the pothole like there was no tomorrow.

Again, my front wheel cleared, my rear wheel caught.

Again nothing happened.

Again I moved up, a lot, maybe ten, maybe 15 spots.

For a few laps I kept this up, forcing the issue, passing more and more tired racers, defeat on their faces, blasting my bike through this trench of a pothole.

Provoked, motivated, I sensed the end of the opening battle, the time to ease a bit, gather my thoughts, and figure out what to do next.

Somewhere in there, in the frantic movement to the front, accelerating out of yet another hard turn, the UCONN cycling team coach (a Cat 3 but a very savvy one - I hear he's a 2 out in SoCal now), went by the wrong way, backwards, fading hard after staying at the front for a while.

He yelled at me.

"Stay up there! Don't get dropped!"

I looked at him sideways. Don't get dropped? I can see the front, there were maybe 25 guys in front of me, a good hundred behind.

Don't get dropped?

I looked down, looking for the wheel behind me.


I looked back.

Open road.

Okay, my coach was back there, so were a few other riders, but all had the same look on their faces.

This was it. I'd made the front selection.

In one of the first Winning Magazines ever, there's a beautiful picture of a field blown apart by severe crosswinds, the picture taken from one of the first following vehicles. You can see the progression of the groups to the front, smaller and smaller, and, imaginably, faster and faster.

The caption read something unfriendly, like "A peloton of losers that will never see the front."

I hated reading that because it stung. It stung because, for those guys, those pros, it was true. The race was over for them and nothing short of time travel would make it better. It stung because it often applied to me.

Not today.

Today I was in the peloton at the front.

I wasn't a loser.

The group attacked itself over and over again, always on the hill, usually towards the top. The best time to attack is at the top of the hill, when everyone mentally eased up, when everyone's legs are fried from sprinting up the stupid hill.

I cursed under my breath each time but found somewhere the energy to keep going.

Our group shrank. 25 became 20. 20 became 15. And 15 became 13.

I started thinking of the win.

I knew I could sprint okay - I'd just learned that in the last few races, where I'd won two (the prior fall) and got second a couple times.

I knew the course now, even though I saw it mainly from an eye-at-stem-level viewpoint.

And I knew I could get up that hill pretty quickly.

The bell rang for a prime. Here was a chance to test my tactics for the finish. I didn't want to be quite first through the turn but I wanted to close to the front.

I don't remember the lap but I jumped out of the last turn about third, sprinting against just one guy, the other guy, the leadout one, dropping away quickly.

Now, I should point out that cash prizes had just been outlawed at collegiate races. The powers that be decided that money on the line was uncollegiate-like (think of football and such) and therefore illegal. Primes were a different matter - cash, money, dollars, it was all okay.

So when they rang the bell for a prime, at least that collegiate season, the racers perked up.

Sprinting up the hill I'd taken the front, knew I had the front, but had started going deep into the red.

Another guy sprinted next to me, thrashing, looking not so great, but gaining on me.

I looked at him. Looked down.

If I didn't finish off the sprint, I'd lose whatever money, ten bucks or something, a pizza and then some. If I did finish off the sprint, I'd be really vulnerable to a counterattack for a good lap or so.

I looked over.

I punched the pedals again.

Won the sprint.

A guy who had introduced himself to me at the line rolled up next to me. In fact I believe he led us out.

"You win the prime?" he asked, eyes wide with excitement.
"Yeah," I muttered, blown to pieces and hoping for a reprieve.
"That's so cool!"

And then bam, he took off.

I looked up like "Wtf is he doing?"

I still remember the sight. Him red faced with effort, looking like he was about to explode, but then launching up the right side, his skinny legs putting down an unbelievable amount of power, like he hadn't turned a pedal all day.

The others raced after him.

The prime loser and me looked at each other, both giving up, both having burnt all our matches for the now-stupid prime.

We joined the peloton of losers. I'm pretty sure he dropped me, but I caught someone that had a flat or crashed or both.

I don't remember much of the race after that, just time trialing on my own, descending well, trying to sprint up the climb, and getting lapped by the solo leader.

I ended up 12th or 13th.

The guy who won was the guy that was so psyched for my prime win. He didn't attack me on purpose; he attacked because he was so psyched for me he had to release that energy somehow.

He had just become a Cat 3, like me, and shortly thereafter a Cat 2, not like me.

He was a Kind Soul, a solid, solid Cat 2, old school, always worked hard, tried to go for the big wins, never let the success go to his head.

At races he always greeted me with his wry grin, cheerful, asking how I was, how my season was going, stuff like that. He never seemed dour, never upset, always happy to be there.

Yet, on the bike, he could destroy fields with his legs.

I remembered one of the last July 4th Middletown Crits, the one down Main Street, the epitome of what a crit should be - major holiday, big wide main street closed down, and a field of good racers hacking away at each other.

At some point he launched a bit move. The others looked at him, hoping he'd blow himself up. But he trundled on, power from his tall lanky legs, bike pounding relentlessly on the rough tarmac.

Lap after lap, under a hot sun, he stretched out his lead, this in the days before EPO, before HGH, before the internet. Honest racing, strong racing, where talent and training determined your place.

And he thundered on. You could hear the tires thrumming on the pavement as he screamed by us. I remember thinking, "How can he put out so much power, lap after lap? I could do that for maybe half a lap, then I'd be done."

He soloed in for a grand win, the best way to win, a spectacular ride on a spectacular day out of a spectacular field.

His races weren't always so nice.

On a different day, an industrial park race, one no longer held, he was away with one other guy. They worked hard together but the other guy, he had the favor of the announcer. He had been a hotshot Junior, he'd been at all the camps, he had what it took in the area. Kind Soul, as good as he was, raced for a rival team, a rival sponsor, and, well, frankly, he had a poor sprint.

It didn't look good for Kind Soul, but we were all rooting for him, me and all of my friends. We respected the other guy, sure, but we desperately wanted Kind Soul to win.

The last lap came; one of the two would win. The other guy was always a bit iffy but always really, really strong, one of the strongest in the area, and we waited for the fireworks.

The two rounded the first bend, disappearing from view. We all turned to look down to the other end of the straight, even though it'd take them a good minute to appear.

We all waited, me and my friends rooting for the Kind Soul.

"He has to attack out of a turn."
"No, the other guy can jump harder."
"Maybe he can double jump him, a fake then a real one."
"I dunno, maybe after a long break he's strong enough to sprint."

We talked a race worth of "what ifs" and then we saw a rider appear.

It was the other guy. He rolled into view, not really pedaling hard, rolled up to the line, winner, arms in the air, kind of casual about it.

We all looked in puzzlement.

Then our friend Kind Soul rolled around, obviously scraped up from a crash, poorly hidden tears streaking his face.

The winner was laughing, said that the other guy just fell over.

There were some angry words spoken but nothing came of it. The race results stood.

I asked Kind Soul much, much later, years later, what happened.

He told me that on the backstretch the winner guy jerked his bike sideways, slamming the winner guy's rear wheel basically through Kind Soul's front wheel.

Kind Soul hit the deck hard.

Winner guy looked back and made some comment about learning to ride the bike (or some such nonsense), then scampered off happily to take his win.

Kind Soul managed to remount his bike and take second; the two had that much of a lead over the field.

I asked him why he didn't protest. Apparently he did, but the officials and announcer were sort of like teammates and coach of the winner guy, and there were no witnesses that weren't in their camp.

Therefore there was no incident, there was no contact.

The winner guy is now a respected coach in the area. He still races. He's way stronger than me but I always keep an eye out on him when he's in the same field as me. You never know when a person reverts to their old self.

As for Kind Soul, he moved back to the Midwest, where he apparently lived before his time on the East Coast. I found him when he found my blog. He blogs too, infrequently, but mainly about his son and his son's racing. I'm glad to say that they seem to be doing fine.

(I won't link to his blog unless he okays it; I still have to ask him.)


Echelon Health Coaching said...

Thanks great story, gets me amped to race bethel in the spring!

WPI Cycling said...

Love the stories - I've actually searched the blog for them at times, they're such good reading.

Also, I was curious if you had any information (year,course location) of the WPI crit. I'm an avid follower of the blog but also the WPI cycling team president, and didn't realize we hosted a race. Can't think of any roads nearby with a giant pothole AND flyover bridge.

Thanks again for all you do; race video, honest opinions about the state of cycling, etc; for someone relatively new to the sport (a few year), hearing it from someone who has seen the sport transform, evolve and progress reminds you of the big picture as well as the subtleties of racing.

Aki said...

WPI - Thanks much for the kind words. Part of my motivation in writing these bits is to remind myself (and others) that people have pasts, some good, some bad, and we should take into account everything when we form opinions on people. I didn't want the dirty riding to be forgotten but I didn't want to make that a focal point of the story.

I can't find anything on the map but the hill up West and similar look about right. Keep in mind that my WPI race took place in 1986 - based on my experience visiting UCONN once again after 1989 (my regular bike roads had buildings in the middle of them!), I'm sure WPI is pretty different now too. It seems that West St used to head straight - is it possible that used to have a walkway over it near the top?

I do remember dark buildings on either side (brick and such) and it being tree lined with branches overhanging, the walkway over the road. We went straight after the hill, no turns, and headed downhill then turned right. I think we ended up on Salisbury St, made a few weird turns (it was maybe a 7 or 8 turn course if you counted an odd bend that I seem to remember), then turned right to go back up the hill. I think we went a very short bit before the turn up the hill. We mainly made right turns, one or two lefts.

I'm guessing West, Salisbury, Dean or Wachusett or something, Institute, Boynton, Eldbridge, West. I didn't map it but I think the lap was 1 mi or so.

WPI Cycling said...

Wow - that's defiantly the course. It was west street - WPI was sick of having students play Frogger with West St. traffic, so they traded nearby Elm Park for rights to the street, and subsequently made it into the nice brick walkway it is today.. That was mid-80's. Between my father (class of '67) and myself (undergrad '10, M.S '12), we know a bit of history, but it's really surprising how much is lost between the cracks.

Take care!

Aki said...

I wonder if that's why there was no race after that. I was looking forward to "avenging" my getting shelled out of the break but the race never happened again. Pity, it was a fun race.