1996 was my make or break year in cycling. I was single for the first time in a long time. I had worked the fall and winter and saved up some cash. I had given up on spring racing campaigns in Europe and decided focus on the “Fresca Cup” which was a national race series for riders without pro contracts. My strategy was to race as many of these races as I could, place well in them, and finish somewhere in the top 10 overall. It was an ambitious goal and one that I thought would help me to secure a pro contract.
The Brewer’s Hill Criterium course snaked around the Schlitz Brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We started at dusk. Thursday evening. Early July. Temperature in the low 80’s. The odor of wort, hops and fermentation hung thick and heavy in the humid overcast night. I lined up with 150 other riders, local and national amateurs, top pros from all around the country and some from Europe who hadn’t make their Tour teams.
The pace was fast from the gun and I was struggling to find my legs the first few laps. But as the sun went down, the strength and resilience returned. My heart rate settled into a rhythm. I clicked into a bigger gear. I found the nerve to shoot through the tight inside lines of the tenuous, off-camber corners. I was moving up through the field.
The course was rough, the pavement fractured and pock-marked. Riders were elbowing and leaning on each other. I was getting pissed, especially each time we squeezed through the start/finish where the course bottlenecked by the announcer’s stand. I kept finding myself tangled up with orange traffic cones. Each lap the gap narrowed until I slowed down enough to kick the cones back from the course.
I got to the front of the race, jumped hard on the pedals and put some distance between myself and the field. The again, and again, trying to snap the elastic. But I couldn’t sustain it. I missed the breakaway group that went clear in the final few laps of the race; I was too spent to cover it.
I finished in 35th place, managed not to crash but placed out of the money. I was cotton-mouthed, my head heavy and spinning; felt like I had drunk a six-pack of cheap, domestic beer.
The drive into town on Tuesday had been a chore. I hadn’t even recovered from the Fitchburg-Longsjo Stage Race that I had finished on Sunday, when I got in the car and started driving, all the way from Connecticut. I had just a couple bucks in my pocket, quickly spent on coffee.
I drove across New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. On the Indiana and Illinois Turnpikes I had no money to pay for the tolls. Each time, I had to explain my situation to the toll collector and they had me pull off to the small parking lot and go inside the offices and fill out some forms. In some cases, they would take the a check – except that there was no money left in the checking account. On the Pulaski Skyway in Chicago, I had to sign an IOU promising to pay the toll.
I arrived in Milwaukee in the middle of the night and found my way to a quiet side street and the house where I would by staying with Toni for the next 11 days of racing. Toni was the sister-in-law of my teammate Jim, from Richard Sachs days. I crept into Toni’s house, threw down my sleeping bag on the living room floor and collapsed. I was too tired to even say “Hello.”
I was in Wisconsin for Superweek, a three-week race series. My Kissena teammate, Andrew, would be flying in the next day. At Superweek, you could race everyday if you wanted to, or you could pick and choose based on distance and terrain. It was mostly 100km criteriums through the mid-Western street-grids of Milwaukee, Waukeshau, Kenosha, Whitefish Bay, Madison, Sheboygan, Green Bay…
Andrew was flying in the next day. We were there for the Alpine Valley race, which was the only Fresca Cup of the series, and the last of the few remaining cup races. We planned to do some of the crits to keep our legs sharp and try to make some money, to make the travel out there worthwhile.
That morning Toni and I caught up over coffee. I had met her once, years ago, when she had come east for a visit. She had watched Jim and I race in the cold and pouring rain at Westford. I told her the stories about my races so far. All the travel. The fatigue that was catching up with me. We discussed her running. She was an accomplished distance runner, top of her age group. She was excited to have a few fellow athletes to hang out with her.
She asked about girlfriends, and I told her about Linda. But I was struggling to explain it. Things had soured the month before during my visit to New Mexico for the Tour of the Gila. I was feeling tired and sad just talking about it. I was struggling to write to her – what to say? We had a few painful phone calls. I was starting to lose interest in the whole situation – the long distance, the waiting, her seeming indifference.
I didn’t want to talk to Toni about it. All I wanted to do was eat and drink coffee. I needed to get out on the bike and spin out the previous day’s drive but struggled to motivate myself to do it. Within a few weeks, the relationship with Linda would have all evaporated, and we would never speak to each other again.
The next race was Bastille Days, part of a giant, citywide celebration with parades and bands and patios filled with beer-drinking spectators. Toni came down to watch the race. She was hanging out by the finish line, tall and thin in a yellow sundress, her long black hair cascading over the dark, tanned skin of her back. It made me think of “The Girl From Ipanema,” especially the way the bike racers would watch her as she walked by.
Tall and tan and young and lovely,
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes
Each one she passes goes ‘ah.’
Years ago, I had discovered “The Girl From Ipanema” on an LP in my parents’ record collection. It was an original release of the 1964 Getz/Gilberto album. I dubbed it onto a cassette tape, crackles and hiss, and took it with me everywhere. I was listening to it a lot on the road, on long drives, or to fall asleep at night when sleep wouldn’t come despite the exhaustion. It was super mellow, easy going music. It made me feel better about being tired all the time.
Listening to Astrud Gilberto sing about the girl on the beach walk past the guy, taking no notice of him, produced in me a longing. I, too, was pursuing something fickle and seemingly unattainable, following a siren’s song.
(Ooh) But I watch her so sadly.
How can I tell her I love her?
Yes I would give my heart gladly.
But each day, when she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead, not at me.
I watched Toni walking towards me, seeming to sway to the rhythm of the song as it played in my head. It didn’t click until then that I had seen her at the Superweek races the year before, in that same yellow dress, with the same recollection of “The Girl from Ipanema.” I had noticed her but had failed to recognize her.
The Bastille Days race course was packed with spectators. The announcers made a big deal of calling everybody to the start line. We stood there for 20 minutes. I had to pee. Badly. And there was nowhere to go. So, finally, I had to go on the start line, which I thought I could do discretely because we were so packed in nobody could see what I was doing. Then, as the riders around realized what was going down, they all pulled back and there I was, taking a leak in the middle of the street in Milwaukee, in front of thousands of people.
It must have motivated me. I had a good day. I finished in the money and pulled in a few primes as well. Later, I would count the cash in a dark bedroom at Toni’s and squirrel away enough of it to pay for tolls and food on the drive back east.
The next day was Waukeshau. I was making decisions whether or not to race on a day-to-day basis. The checking account was empty. I was putting race entries on my credit card – I was only able to make the minimum payments – which caused Chris Horner to look at me sadly and say, “Credit card?! You must be desperate.”
In my training log on the day of the race, I wrote:
“I’ve convinced myself to be more aggressive tonight, that a top-ten finish is what I require and that I have the legs to manage this. At the same time I find myself yearning for a turbo charge, an extra something to make the legs go a little faster. I can see how the riders get pulled into drug use. It starts out slowly, innocently. It’s a road I’m already on, although I’ve not done anything ‘illegal’ or even questionable.”
At Waukeshau, I had a bad day. There was nothing in my legs and no amount of willpower could overcome it. I started thinking about saving myself for Alpine Valley and that was all I needed to make the decision to withdraw. I completed 50km before abandoning, easing up on the backstretch and rolling anonymously off the course and back to Toni’s.
Toni, Andrew and I were all getting along really well. Toni was like a sister and we joked with each other, chasing and squirting each other around the house with water bottles or the garden house. Then, a truce…only for things to reignite when she dumped a pot of ice water on me while I was in the shower. She was hitting on Andrew relentlessly, offering him massages or requesting the same from him. But when he wouldn’t reciprocate, she asked me to investigate.
“What’s the problem?” I asked him.
“I dunno…” he replied. “Her legs. They’re more cut than mine. It’s intimidating.”
The three of us drove out to Alpine Valley for the Fresca Cup race. In the parking lot, sitting on the tailgate of a red Volvo wagon were Lance Armstrong and Kevin Livingston, kitting up in their Motorola jerseys. Armstrong had dropped out of the Tour de France the week before. It was anyone’s guess why he was here, but it immediately cast a pall over the race.
I had seen Armstrong over the years at one race or another, but he looked different this time. His chin and brow were more pronounced. Overall, he seemed more muscular, especially in the neck and shoulders. His skin was an ashen color. Perhaps it was the cancer lurking there waiting to be discovered only a few months later that year. However, the rumor at the time was human growth hormone. Andrew and I joked about how Armstrong looked like Frankenstein. You could almost see the bolts coming out of his neck.
All joking ended when the race started. I didn’t feel well from the start. I was just trying to get through the early miles. The conditions weren’t making it easier. It was cold, wet and windy. My throat hurt. My glands were swollen. My legs felt deflated. My joints and tendons were sore.
I was waiting for my legs to wake up but there was nothing. Andrew rode close by and checked up on me. We had agreed to look after each other the first half of the 160km race, to cover moves and make sure that at least one of us were in any major attack. But each time he asked me how I was doing, I responded with a shake of the head.
Armstrong’s presence completely changed the dynamic of the race. Most riders were watching and waiting to see what he would do. Any attacks were immediately marked by one of the Motorola riders. When the peloton saw them on the move, there was an immediate surge to follow them. Then they would sit up, look around with feigned surprise, and the race would come back together again.
Toni had gone out for a run along the course, going the opposite direction. Near the end of the first lap, we could see her coming along the side of the road, all thin and lithe in a sports bra and short running shorts. The whole of the peloton watched her go by. It was a small miracle there weren’t more crashes and guys going off the road.
I nudged Andrew, “See what you’re passing up?” That’s the last time we would speak during the race.
The rain started, and then the wind. It sliced and diced the pack into echelons along the exposed farm roads. Armstrong kept surging and with each of his efforts, more and more riders came off. Out of the wind, it briefly all came back together. Then it would start all over again. I was able to cover the early splits, but as the race wore on, I was in trouble.
Armstrong toyed with us. He could have ridden clear on his own or with Livingston. Unlikely that anybody would have kept with him. Instead, he seemed intent to destroy the field in size and morale, to leave nothing but isolated clumps of dejected riders. Eventually, the race blew apart. Years later, when the rumors of Armstrong’s doping were confirmed, it would become a brutal example of how a cheating rider did more than just improve his own results. It changed the entire outcome of the race. It took results away from clean riders.
By 80 km, it was clear that my day was over and with it, the chance for any Fresca Cup points. Just the month before, I had been ranked second overall and I could feel it slipping away. I rolled up to the car, exhausted, and started eating whatever I could get my hands on. I was too tired to take off my gear. And I wasn’t alone. The parking was filled with riders in similar situations, mostly guys I had raced with all season long in one location or another, all ejected from a race that had suddenly become unbearable. I had done Alpine Valley the year before, finishing in the top-20 after an epic war of attrition through thunderstorms, driving rain and hail. This year, I could barely make it half-way.
Coming out of the implosion at Alpine Valley, I reassessed my situation.
I had been racing since February. I had more than 15,000 km in my legs. I had done over 50 races. I was tired. Beyond tired. On the road and competing for over 6 months, I was vigilant for signs of overtraining. I tracked my morning heart rate. I compared workout values, heart rate zone and race results week-to-week. But by mid-July I had reached a point where the numbers were no longer making sense.
My morning heart rate was in the low 40’s. That was usually a sign of fitness and recovery. But I was unable to sustain high efforts. During an effort, my heart rate would top out well below my anaerobic threshold of 187. I was craving carbs in a ridiculous way. Despite all the training and exhaustion, I had a hard time falling asleep. I would wake up in the middle of night, sweaty and achy, unable to fall back to sleep. I would put on headphones to listen to music and to try to relax. One day I felt good. The next, I was exhausted and didn’t even want to touch the bike. The relationship with Linda screwed up my head. My equipment was wearing out. I was broke.
I was in the trough of my season. All my plans were unraveling. I really needed to back off, way off. Take a break. Let my body recover. But I suspected if I were to do this, my body would shut down entirely. I was already showing signs of this. As an elite athlete, I understood the equilibrium between effort, fatigue and super-compensation. But I had screwed it all up. Too much racing. Too much travelling. Not enough recovery. I didn’t want to accept it. So I kept pushing my body, like the finale of a race, when I had to dig deep, past the reserves, past the limits that had already been defined.
I spent a few hours looking through Toni’s textbooks on physiology and found an explanation: sympathetic overtraining. The symptoms were obvious: lowered resting heart rate (contrary to the typical elevated heart rate), early onset of fatigue, insomnia, depression. These were the signs to stop — not in order to save the current season but to preserve the next one. I had no health insurance. No access to sports medicine doctors who could confirm the extent of the overtraining or prescribe the right treatment. No money to pay for it if I did. So I took a few days easy, hoping I would bounce back, and trying to borrow time for the remainder of my season.
I took the next three days easy. I took Andrew to the airport and he flew back east. I slept in. I took a leisurely breakfast each morning. I drank lots of coffee. I did easy spinouts along the Lakefront. I took time for a good lunch and a nap before going out for another easy spin. I was trying to accelerate my recovery through double-workouts.
The races that followed – Kenosha and Whitefish Bay – further confirmed evidence of my overtraining.
At Kenosha, at the half-way mark, I broke away with a Dutch rider from the Baby Dump team. I took the $25 prime. He came up alongside me and said, “Next time, my turn,” and thumbed his chest.
“I don’t think so,” I replied and pointed back to the peloton.
Armstrong was at the front, chasing us down, the pack in a long single-file line behind him. Typically, in a race like this, a small group would bridge to the breakaway, and we would go clear to the end of the race. Instead, Armstrong towed the field right up onto my wheel. He didn’t even bother to come around me. I swerved across the road to let him come by; he stayed put. I slowed down; he did the same. Eventually, I took him all the way to the curb so that he had to come past me, otherwise he would have been in the fences. I felt much better than Alpine Valley, but I was still not 100%, and could only manage a pack finish.
The next day, I raced Whitefish Bay. This would be my final Superweek race. I had started the day with hopes of ending the trip on a high note, with a good result and a chunk of cash to go with it. But I was cooked. My legs felt atrocious. The course was sketchy. I couldn’t shake the vision of crashing. So I called it a day and abandoned after 50 km.
That night, Toni and I went out for beers with some other racers. She had moved on since Andrew. We stayed out too late, surrounded by smokers and loud music on a damp patio in Milwaukee. My throat hurt. Too much to talk.
Instead of taking the time to recover, I got in the car early the next morning and started driving away from Milwaukee, rather to a particular destination. I had toyed with the idea of heading down to New Mexico, but couldn’t stomach another 20 hours in the car, going in the wrong direction. The National Championships were in Ohio in a few weeks.
I crept quietly out of town in the gray Sunday dawn, pulling onto I-94, heading south to Chicago, then turning east and toward New England. I was listening to Getz/Gilberto on my car stereo, soaking up the jazz-bossa nova, sipping on a coffee, 15 hours of driving ahead of me. The whole Superweek trip was a failure. I’d dug myself into a hole physically and psychologically. I’d been giving myself to this sport every day. And the sport was passing me by.
7/10 Drive: Connecticut to Wisconsin, 15 hours
7/11 Brewer’s Hill
7/12 Bastille Days
7/15 Alpine Valley
7/20 Whitefish Bay
7/21 Drive: Wisconsin to Connecticut, 15 ½ hours