Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Story - Frank McCormack

A long time ago, in a land far, far away...


In Eastern Connecticut, which, to a Western Connecticut kid was about as foreign as, say, New York City (but in the opposite way), I went to a town called Old Lyme to do a new criterium. The course went around the high school and featured, in its 0.4 mile length, two sweeping turns. The first turn, right after the start/finish, was a long right turn - almost a U-turn. For me it was a special turn, straight out of the CBS coverage of pro racing in Europe.

It was paved in cobbles.

The (paved, unfortunately) backstretch bent to the left, then a very hard right turn led you onto the long straight curving to the right.

A kid, a strong kid, was doing my race. Obnoxious little twerp too - he wore aviator sunglasses (at 16 years old!) with a geeky bike mirror mounted on them. I should add that when I say "little", it's all relative - he towered over me. Anyway, you only put such a mirror on for one thing - to check behind to see how far ahead you were of the field.

In other words, if you had the balls to put such a mirror on, you better have the legs to back them up.

This Kid, he had the legs.

But I had something else, a technological edge. We both went into the first turn together on one lap. I pedaled, he pedaled, nothing happened to me, he dug his into the cobbles. He ended up riding on the grass, laughing. We all eased up, smirking and smiling, he got back on, and the Kid didn't pedal in the turn again.

I had Gipiemme pedals - half length axles, insane cornering clearance. I figured out that if I attacked at the start/finish line, I could completely pedal through the first turn, get about a 3 or 4 second gap, carry it to the next hard turn, pedal through that, and launch into the sprint with a 50 meter gap on the next rider.

The obnoxious Kid would have to eat his mirror.

At the bell I launched hard - and the Kid did too. As soon as he jumped, I realized what he was doing - if he got there first, I'd use up a lot of my pedaling advantage simply passing him. This would keep me within shooting distance for the rest of the course. I pedaled desperately but it wasn't enough. He got to the turn first, coasted, and although I passed him in the turn, I only had a 5 or 10 meter gap leaving the turn. I frantically sprinted through the last turn, out of the saddle, tires skittering, but I had all of 20 meters on him. To my utter dismay he came roaring by me to win the race. I sat up, my dream of winning totally deflated - and two more racers went by me, including the kid's less obnoxious teammate (that one had sunglasses but no mirror).

I conferred with my teammates, some of them 3s, and they said I should race the 4s.

The Cat 4s?

I was a Junior. Junior gear limits. 53x15 Kid. 4s were big guys. Adults. 53x12. They had jobs and stuff. They had already gone through puberty.

With some prodding though my teammates succeeded in getting me to register for the Cat 4s. Nervously I lined up. I had no idea what to expect - it was my first Senior race ever. I looked around at the guys - grizzled cheeks (they had to shave), glasses, fancy bikes, serious looks on their faces - not scared like most Juniors. But like all adults, they were missing some of the "coolness" things. I distinctly remember uncool tube socks on one racer.

What I didn't realize until that moment is that the Juniors races were Category 1 through 4. In other words, that obnoxious kid was a Cat 1 or 2. But when I raced the 4s, I'd be racing Cat 4s. Racers like, well, like me. Although I was young, I was a Cat 4 too.

I expected a flurry of attacks as soon as the race left the line - that's how Juniors race. So when we rolled away somewhat leisurely, I wondered what was up. Maybe they were like pros - go easy at the beginning, so easy anyone can keep up, then they drop the hammer at the end.

I nervously patrolled the front, responding to pretty much every attack. And when the bell rang for a prime, I shot out of the field and went pedaling into the first turn. My gap there, I sprinted to the second, pedaled through that, and hit the line well clear of everyone else.

I just beat the Seniors!

Elated, I let the group come back and eased back into the field. At the next prime, I launched again. And like before, I sprinted out of the last turn well clear of my pursuers.

This happened four times that day. Four bells for primes, four relatively easy primes for me.

I started getting nervous. Perhaps the guys were letting me go, letting me cook myself. After all, when I started racing I was told to go for primes before going for places, but once I focused on places, I should back off on the primes. So these guys who had to shave (probably every day!), who had weathered skin and no baby fat, maybe they were letting me cook myself.

It wasn't the case. At the bell I launched a furious attack, sprinting through the first turn. I'd sprint to the next (and final) turn and do the same. By now I could sprint out of the saddle through the tight turn, the tires skittering sideways, the bike chattering across the pavement. A big dip shot my bike across the road as I exited - scary but totally predictable.

I crossed the line, ecstatic. I remembered the tape of Davis Phinney winning the US Pro Championships in Baltimore in the longest sprint I could ever imagine - I felt like that's what I'd just done by sprinting around the whole (short) course. I'd won every prime and I'd won the race. My grin went from Boston to Santa Monica and nothing could wipe it off my face.

I settled down enough to watch the Veterans (as the Masters were known back then). They were racing pretty hard and I wondered how I'd do against the really old guys.

I sensed someone near me and I turned to look.

The Kid.

He was hanging out, trying to be cool. He had his team Fuji skinsuit on, sat on his saddle, one long leg stretched out to the ground, his toes keeping him upright. He appeared to notice that I was there.

"So, you won the 4 race?" he asked.
"Yeah," my face still glowing.
"You won all the primes too, didn't you?"
"Yeah." The Kid was asking me!
"You doing the 3s?"
"No, I can't, I'm just a 4."

He contemplated what I just said. Then he said a magical word.


And he rolled away.

I didn't see him again until July 4th that year, the big criterium in Middletown. The wide roads made the small Junior field seem even smaller but this had been my first race two years ago and I was looking to do something in the race. I had to - my first race had been a total fiasco and I got dropped two turns into the race. Now as one of the older Juniors I felt like I should be in a position to do something.


The Kid lined up, his Fuji skinsuit and confident swagger different from the rest of the nervous Juniors. The gun went off and we all shot into the first turn. The Junior gear limit was a 53x15 and it seemed like we might as well have had single speeds because we were just flying around the course, the hill a simple five or six pedal strokes in our 15T.

The pace increased rapidly until one racer snapped the elastic and shot away from the field.

The Kid.

He motored away, checking, I'm sure, his obnoxious mirror.

He disappeared around the corners, out of sight. The remaining Juniors chased, at least those that could, but it was hopeless. He won by half a lap, averaging, apparently something like 30 mph for the last lap or two.

If that wasn't enough, he lined up for the Cat 1-2 race. At the time this was probably one of the biggest crits out there - and he was in there with all the big boys. His older teammates were favorites so he spent 50 laps patrolling the front of the race, chasing down rivals, keeping the pace high when things were together. His work is immortalized in the 1988 Cannondale Catalog - pages 4 and 5, a two page spread, shows a skinny kid in grey, aviator glasses, obnoxious mirror, leading one of the strongest fields New England could field that year.

He was 16 years old.

Fast forward to Central Park, maybe six or seven years later.

I was sitting in the field, a Cat 3 now, lost in the sea of Pros, 1s, and 2s in this Pro throough 3 race. Cruising along at the back I realized I was next to a star IME rider, Frank McCormack.

I knew who he was because I'd followed his career in VeloNews and Winning ever since I watched him demolish the Junior field and control the Cat 1s and 2s at Middletown back in 1985, all while wearing an obnoxious mirror on his sunglasses. He'd lost the mirror, gained a ton of power, and now defined how a top domestic pro rode in the US.

We approached the hill on the course - at this relatively easy pace we'd need to be in the small ring. At the time we were both spinning in the big ring, a big cog, probably a 53x19. We'd need to be in the 39x15.

I happened to look over when he shifted his STI levers. "Click" on his left lever while his right went "Click, click, click, click." It took perhaps a half second, maybe a bit more. How fast can you click a single-click-at-a-time STI lever? I watched him settle into his new gear, the double shift accurate. Of course, right? He'd ridden tens of thousands of miles that year on that bike.

He turned and looked at me watching him. I turned my face from him and looked down at my brand new, just installed, barely available Ergo levers.

"Click" went the left side. The right made a whirr noise "Clikliklick" as I shoved the thumb button down. I was instantly in the right gear - perhaps a tenth of a second, about the same time it takes for a downtube setup to do the same shift.

I looked back up at him. He paused, digesting what he just saw. He looked up at me, no emotion, just a racer looking at pack fodder, and turned to look up the road. He had more important things to do.

He was the demi-god in the field, the "Pro", "IME", mentored by the Irish McCormack brothers Frank and Alan (no relation, at least not immediate). He wasn't a punk 16 year old kid anymore. He had responsibilities.

He had a race to annihilate.


Colin R said...

You have some awesome stories.

I clicked through that whole cannondale catalog you linked, but no pictures on pages 4-5. Did I misread that sentence?

Aki said...

No, my bad, I mis-linked. It's in the 1988 catalog and I've corrected the post.

Thanks for the note and the question.

Looking at the 1986 catalog though the guy on the SR800 page stands out. The "messenger" (not really) is Tom Saccone (not sure of spelling), the craziest most hard core racer I've known. I'll have to do some posts on him, he was an inspiration to us all.

The cover shot of that 1986 catalog was taken at Lime Rock - I might have been there, it was a 1-2-3 race. The races there ended when a huge crash on the downhill took out something like 50 guys at 50 mph. One Cat 1 quit after seeing the carnage, his "for sale" ad in velonews for a couple years after.

Fred Blasdel said...

I have a pair of those lovely pedals, the Gipiemme Crono Special 300AX.

They're pretty awesome, though the clearance is negative when your foot isn't in them and they're upside-down :/

Did yours come with cleats?

Aki said...

No, no cleats. Back then you didn't get cleats with pedals because all pedals had some version of a slotted rear cage. Virtually all shoes came with their own cleats and they all worked with a slotted rear cage. It was when a unique pedal system showed up (like the Look pedal, and before that the Cinelli) that the cleats started showing up with the pedals.