1996 was my make or break year in cycling. I 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.
In the late summer of 1996, I was back in southern Vermont for my six or seventh Killington Stage Race. I had lost count of how many times I had done it. Killington was the first multi-day stage race I ever did. In 1988, I raced it as a junior. I finished in fourth place, behind George Hincapie who won it, then went on to do some great things on the bike and some not so great things to get there.
Just a few days before, I had finished the Tour de ‘Toona — four days of racing and 15 hours in the car driving to western Pennsylvania and back – and I was lining up again for another 5-day, 577 km stage race. I had barely recovered. If at all.
I was still sitting in the top-5 in the Fresca Cup series, hoping my position would hold and that it would be enough to ensure next season. Thus far I had gotten no offers nor any interest. ‘Toona had been a good race. I had some top finishes, something to notice, and keeping the momentum at Killington was critical.
29 August 1996: Stage 1, Prologue Time Trial, 5.3 km
The late afternoon start time gave me all day to think about the race while the weather degraded to cold, overcast conditions. I had pinned my number to my skinsuit. I had rubbed embrocation into my legs. I had taken a shot or two of espresso. I was fully kitted up against the cold, wearing leg warmers, long-sleeve jersey, and winter hat. I warmed up on the trainer at the bottom of the hill, in a supermarket parking lot. Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup crackled on my anemic car stereo. I could barely hear it above the hum of my tires, the announcer calling riders to the start house and cars flying by on the road.
During warm-up my legs felt sluggish. I was hoping to God that the rain wouldn’t come before my start time. The espresso hadn’t yet kicked in. Neither any inspiration. My stomach craved something solid, but instead I sucked down an energy gel and more Cytomax. I reached deep inside to find the focus and energy to tackle the race.
The prologue course was blunt, no-nonsense — straight up the Killington Access Road to the ski station at the top of the mountain. I would start on a short, flat section. There would be barely enough time to get rolling before the road kicked up and climbed for 3.5km. The road would curl up the side of the mountain, then level off for 800 or so meters before it spiked for the final distance to the finish.
I knew I would suffer along the way. The point was to go as fast I could, suffer as much as possible without cracking, without blowing up and losing time. Go out too fast and it would all be over. Too slow and I would lose precious time on the road.
In the final minutes before my start time, I popped my bike off the trainer. I swapped over to my race wheels, ran through the gears, made sure the brakes weren’t rubbing. I stripped off all my cold weather kit and squeezed into my skinsuit. I pulled the zipper up and rolled to the start house just as they were calling my name.
I climbed up the stairs to the starting ramp. I got on my bike, clipped one foot into the pedal, made sure the starter was holding me firmly, then clipped the other foot. Balancing on two wheels, supported by the starter, I backpedaled until my right foot was in the 2 o’clock position, ready to apply power the instant the clock turned over.
The time in the start house was always the loneliest for me, lonelier than long solo training rides, lonelier than getting dropped. There was just the task at hand – to ride my fastest. It required utter concentration and total commitment. I always wanted to make small talk with the starter, to turn around, go back down the stairs and ride away.
“Thirty seconds, “ the starter announced.
I was taking long, deep breaths, filling my lungs and blood with oxygen, exhaling slowly to keep calm.
The starter would tell me when there were ten seconds to go. Then he would count down the last five seconds and the clock would beep along with him.
The starter wouldn’t release me before “Go!” In the final two seconds, I pushed hard on the pedals and fought the grip of the guy holding onto my saddle. It was his job to hold me back until the official time. But I kept pushing against him so when the clock beeped and he finally let go, I wouldn’t lose even a fraction of a second getting going.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
I pushed hard. Last thing he said was, “Not yet.”
Then I was off.
I accelerated quickly off the ramp. I clicked down through the gears, out of the saddle, rocking the bike back and forth, then sat down and settled in. When I hit the slope, I clicked back up through the gears, kept my cadence high. The burn started to build in my legs.
I struggled on the first part of the hill. My muscles, stressed, were filling with lactic acid faster than they could clear it. My heart hadn’t yet caught up. I didn’t want to overdo the effort too early, otherwise my muscles would be in a constant deficit and I would never recover.
I backed off just a little.
Let my breathing and my heart rate catch up to the anaerobia in my quads. Felt the burn start to fade. Felt the power return. It only took seconds but out there, on the road, on the hill, it felt like an eternity. It felt like failure. In slow-motion.
But then my legs came back and I was out of the saddle, accelerating again, climbing in the big ring. I sat back down, got small and low on the bike, tucked in my elbows, tried to minimize my exposure to the wind and its resistance.
I raced the first part of the climb like it was the finale. When I hit the flat, I was gulping air. I soft-pedaled a couple of revolutions, caught my breath, then dropped into a bigger gear and cranked on the pedals. I had gone deep to gain time on the uphill, where I had the advantage, so I used the flatter road for recovery before the final uphill and the push to the finish line.
When I hit the last incline, I got scared. I knew I was going fast, despite feeling shitty the whole time. I knew that if I blew up before the finish line, it would all be for nothing. I knew I was going to suffer on that hill — all the way to the line — and it was going hurt for several minutes even after the effort was completed.
I turned myself inside out. I lost my sense of place or time. My eyes crossed. Tunnel vision. I could see the finish banner off in the distance, at the far end of a seemingly impassable ocean of roadway. The daylight faded. My ears were ringing from the effort. My throat was raw.
There was a voice in my head — barely audible above the din of my heart pumping at 194 beats per minute. It was telling me not to go all in. Save just a little bit. Just a little for safety. Just a little for suffering. I can go harder, I argued. But the voice was persuasive. Like a sleepwalker, I listened. I held back. Just a little. I could have gone harder. Just a little harder.
I crossed the line and set the fastest time. The whole thing took less than 10 minutes.
I coasted down the road and into the parking lot. My stomach heaved. My throat tasted like blood. I was coughing and retching. My legs wouldn’t turn. The bike slowed and started to lose balance. The adrenalin of effort faded and suddenly my entire body hurt.
I found my team car. I put on warm clothes. I drank something. My throat hurt when I swallowed. I spun out along the roads that threaded past the condos where we were staying. At first, I pedaled with incredible pain, then, as my muscles loosened up, I spun more easily and started to recover.
My time held up for a while until the fast professionals with late start times finished… and finished faster and faster. I dropped to 20th place. For an uphill time trial, I should have gone better.
30 August 1996: Stage 2, Sunrise Road Race, 174km
It was my 25th birthday. My horoscope in the morning paper said something about not confusing loneliness with being alone. The sun had returned. It was already warm at the start. I had a long day ahead of me.
I rolled out with a peloton of 125 riders, onto the 30 km long circuit. We coasted along the river, made the long, gradual climb, through the feed zone, up to Plymouth Notch and past the reservoir, then screamed down the descent to the start/finish.
The first road stage was a nervous one. Riders were still fresh. The course was suited for non-climbers – the only stage of the race, really. The pace was fast. Nobody wanted to lose time in a crash or from a mechanical, so we jockeyed for position and fought to be near the front to cover the inevitable attacks. As a result, riders got pushed or bumped and went off the road and into the bushes. Wheels overlapped and riders went down hard onto the pavement. Tires punctured. Riders swerved to avoid a suddenly stalled racer and pedals and derailleurs found their way into wheels. Spokes were torn out, wheels locked up and there was even more carnage.
We would do 5 more laps.
I was trying to ride smart. This was not the day to waste energy, not with a big mountain stage coming tomorrow. With 3 laps to go, a series of attacks came in the feed zone. I struggled to grab a bottle, but dropped it instead and went thirsty for another lap so I could cover the move.
But the break went clear without me.
The next time around, the same thing. Another missed feed and another break gone. I begged a bottle of sports drink off of a teammate but all he had was water.
I chased hard at the front of the field. The lead riders had been up by 6 minutes. On the open road by the reservoir, the peloton started to stretch out. It could shatter at any moment, but I wasn’t going to get caught out. I was still hoping that we would bring them back. And when we did, I would be ready for the counter-attack.
We never pulled them back. But we did manage to cut their lead in half.
I held my position on the long downhill into the field sprint. There were 8 riders away and we were sprinting for scraps but I didn’t want to get stuck behind any crashes and lose more time. I was taking risks to stay there in the front. A simple touch of wheels, a flat tire or a crash nearby would mean disaster. The sprint was lightning fast. I was spun out in my 53×12, going over 80 km an hour. I passed a few riders on the run to the line and finished in the top 25 for the stage. I was still down the leaders by more than 3 minutes, which put all the more pressure for the next day.
At the team dinner, Andrew hassled Zach about the piece of pie he was eating for dessert. “Imagine that on a little wagon behind you,” he cajoled. “And you’re dragging it all the way up Brandon Gap tomorrow.”
We had all been together so much, on the road, in races, in hotels. This was the last big race we would do together. After this, we would go our separate ways until next season. Andrew would go back to school. We might all be teammates again or racing against each other. I still had no plan for next year. I ate my pasta in silence, staring at my plate.
That night, I lay awake in bed, listening to Andrew’s heavy, regular breathing across the room, unable to sleep despite being so tired. The season was winding down. I would have to make decisions about where to go next. Maybe back to Albuquerque to be ready for the off-season, to find a job and make some money, to excavate the extinct relationship with Linda. Or maybe go somewhere else because that relationship was over.
I didn’t know what else to do so I put on my headphones and listened to Cybele’s Reverie:
What to do when you’ve done it all,
Read it all, drank it all, ate it all,
Given all in disorder and in detail
31 August 1996: Stage 3, Brandon Gap Road Race, 173km
Overnight, the weather turned and the day started cold and damp, hinting of fall and winter to come. The wind was blowing and clouds hung over the mountains, threatening rain on the climb or later in the day. And still I had no team for next season.
I started the race wearing arm and leg warmers. I felt slow and tight from the cold, damp weather. We raced the first 50 km over rolling hills and open farmlands, the sun peaking out from time to time. The wind was blowing across the fields, intermittently spitting rain, carrying with it the stink of manure.
When we hit the opens roads, when we were hit with the crosswinds, the teams at the front attacked and split the pack into echelons. I stayed near the front. I fought for wheels. I pushed guys into the gutter. I got elbowed and knocked around. While racing in France, I had learned these lessons the hard way. You could lose huge chunks of time if you got bumped out of a splinter group. You could kill yourself just trying to limit your losses.
There were no decisive splits.
It was all an appetizer for the first major climb, Brandon Gap, an ascent of 8 km. We hit the base of the climb carrying all the speed of the day and maintained it as the road tilted up. The pack started to stretch out as riders slowed and fell behind. I held my position in the top twenty. I was working for it, but I wasn’t in any danger. Not yet, at least.
I wasn’t expecting a major split. There might be a break attempt. Or a few riders going for Mountain points. From the summit, there was still another 110 km to the finish. It would be crazy to attack from that far out. I certainly wasn’t considering any such move. I knew what lay ahead.
The last kilometer of the climb kicked up to 10 percent. When we hit the final section, things got tough for me. I didn’t have the legs to go deep and I could feel the panic start to rise. A small group of a dozen or so started to pull away. I watched them go. I waited for the surge that would follow. I fought the instinct to chase, to bridge up to them. I calculated that there wasn’t enough of the climb left for them build a dangerous lead. I wagered that we would catch them on the long, fast descent. Or on the flatter roads of Route 100. It was a calculated risk. I summited with the second group, saved some energy and spared myself some needless suffering. On the descent that followed, we all came back together.
I started feeling better on the rolling roads that followed. The temperature came up. I stripped off my arm and leg warmers and stuffed them into my pockets. I ate PowerBars and energy gels. I drank Cytomax. I started to think about the final climb and the summit finish at Bear Mountain. But we still had hours in the saddle before the finale. I focused on the wheels in front of me, vigilant for the wobble or overlap of wheels that would warn of a coming crash, but trying to relax for what lay ahead.
My mind wandered. I was thinking about fall in New England and how it might be nice to stay through it. Then thinking again about Linda, even though it had been weeks since we had last spoken, since she had stopped returning phone calls or letters. Thinking about where I would live in New Mexico. If I went back at all. I looked at the jerseys on the backs of the pro team riders. Wondered what it would be like to race for their team… Wondered what they had that I didn’t… What more would I have to do?
We hit the climb with 7 km to go, carrying all our speed from the highway through the chicane past the gondola station and onto the access road. I was in the big ring, in the top fifteen. The initial slopes were wicked. I found the right gear, started to settle into my tempo. The front-end of the pack mushroomed as we hit the wall.
Then there were riders were stopping in front of me. A dropped chain. A touch of wheels. Two riders went down. Two more stopped short. I didn’t go down, but I had to unclip my foot. I had to stop.
The hill was too steep to get going again. I had to stand beside the bike, hold up the back wheel and turn the pedals by hand, to shift into an easier gear. The gap had already opened up by the time I got rolling.
I was pissed but I had to stay calm. Stay focused. Not panic. I picked up speed, found my rhythm. I had the legs. I was climbing well and making up ground, trying not to panic, not to blow up. But the results were going up the road.
I climbed my way back to the tail end of lead group. I felt brilliant. I had come back so easily. I couldn’t tell how many riders were up the road but I pushed my way to the front to continue to take back time or even to attack on my own. With 3 km to go, the road turned to dirt and I punctured. I was stuck, with the team car far behind, no neutral support, and no spare wheels. I was fucked.
I rode the flat back tire to the finish, struggling to keep the bike from going sideways on the scrabbly dirt road. I was just trying to survive at this point. Other racers flew by me. There was nothing I could do.
I crossed the finish line, several minutes down in 36th place, dejected, with some nasty words for the race officials about running us over shitty roads with a lack of spare wheels and technical support.
At dinner that night, the team director chastised me for swearing at the race officials, said I was lucky I didn’t get fined or ejected from the race. I kept my mouth shut this time.
1 September 1996: Stage 4, Rutland Criterium, 70km
We would start the criterium stage later in the day. We all slept in. We ate a big breakfast in the condo: pancakes, eggs, muesli, yogurt, coffee. After Bear Mountain, there were a lot of calories to replace and plenty of time to digest. Andrew loaded the dishwasher and filled it with Palmolive liquid, the kind you use for handwashing dishes. After about 20 minutes, I noticed suds were pouring out of the dishwasher. They had already covered the kitchen floor. It was an absolute mess. So instead of relaxing or taking a short nap, I helped clean up the kitchen.
I decided to ride from the condo to the race venue in Rutland. My teammates questioned it, but didn’t offer to ride along with nor try to dissuade me. After all this racing, I needed a slow, easy spin to get my legs going again. I didn’t want the pressure of a warm-up on the race course. I didn’t want more time in the car. So I rode the 20 km alone to the start, on the wide shoulder of Route 4, taking my time.
The pace of the race was fast. I was tired. I sat in and rested for tomorrow. The year before, I had finished 10th in the Rutland stage, mixing it up among the sprinters and delivering a break through result. This year, I never even saw the front of the race.
I rode back home, too. On the ride back to the condo, one team car after another passed me. One or two honked but most went flying by as if I didn’t exist. I was thinking again about heading back to New Mexico. Or maybe going back to Europe if I could connect with a team over there. I was thinking about stage 5, the final day of the race, and what I had to do.
2 September 2012: Stage 5, Saab Road Race, 155km
On the drive over to the start of the final race, I put the previous misfortunes behind me. I still had a chance to pull off a good result. Maybe a top finish on the stage. Under the right circumstances, I could even make the top 15 overall.
In the parking lot, I got dressed for the race. I inspected my bike: the worn brake hoods, the dirty bar tape, the frame nicked and dinged. It had been a long season. I checked the tire pressure and looked for cuts and debris that might cause another flat. I adjusted the gears. Then, I packed my pockets with food. I made one final run to the bathroom, leaving my cycling shoes in the car, because I always put them on last.
When I got back to the car, it was locked. With my shoes in it. I looked around for the team’s assistant director but couldn’t find him. There is an unwritten rule that you never lock the car before the start of the race. There’s always a chance that a rider will need a last minute fix: extra clothing, energy gel or something. Like shoes.
It was five minutes to go before the start. The announcers were calling us to the line. I looked down at my feet. Shit, I thought. Now I’m really screwed. I was wearing my beat up pair of Doc Martins. There’s no way I can do this, I thought. There was a point in time where I would have given up at this point. But I climbed on my bike instead and rolled to the start. The soles of my shoes were wet and slippery on the pedals.
The race went off, still with no sign of the assistant director or my shoes. I rode along at the back of the field, uncertain, knowing once the pace picked up, I was through. A few riders noticed and made wry remarks like, “Nice shoes.” They all understood because it had probably happened to them at one point or another.
After 5 km, the team car pulled along side the pack of racers. The assistant director hung out the window, yelled frantically, “I have your shoes!”
He pulled off the road. I stopped, took off my Doc Martins, tossed them into the car while the guy apologized repeatedly. I was freaking out but staying composed. I pulled on my cycling shoes. I tightened down the buckles. The pack rolled away, up the road, nearly out of site. I didn’t get flustered. I hopped back on my bike, clipped into the pedals and rode off in pursuit.
Maybe it was all the adrenalin and nerves from the shoes incident. I chased, caught back on, then went and rode my hardest race of the season.
I pushed myself most of the time. I made the first split 35 km in, killed myself through the attacks and surges, in small group, a dozen riders, no more. We were clear and the move was decisive. When I raced this as a junior, Hincapie had attacked at the same spot. I had seen him go and marked him, joined the attack with two other riders and we stayed away the rest of the day.
But not today. The lead car and breakaway were directed off course by a confused road marshal. We lost all our advantage. It was hard to be motivated after that. But I continued.
Up the brutal Tyson-Reading Road, I climbed with ease, riding at the front of the race as one rider after another peeled off. Until 2km to go. I started to struggle, then finally detached 800 meters from the top.
The riders up the road were a blur. The sun spilled through the trees, leaving bright puddles on the road and phosphenes in my eyes. The tarmac gave way to dirt. The vibration from the rough road worked its way up through the wheels and fork, through the handlebars and into my hands which became numb. I was disconnected, floating above my own body, gazing down at how I was struggling, fighting the pedals, getting bumped and jostled by the road.
I could have eased up. I could have saved myself the suffering. But this time, the voice in my head told me to go harder, go deeper. Spare nothing. And once again, I listened.
I dug in. I had gone past simply suffering. I was flaying myself. Stripping away skin and fascia, muscle and sinew, capillaries and cells…all the way down to bone and marrow. Over the top of the climb I had them within reach. I pushed my legs harder than I ever had before…but there was nothing left in them. I couldn’t catch back on. I was left there all alone.
I had given it all. I had tried everything. I had spent it all. I had nothing left. And 30 km still to go.
So I kept riding. Even though I was out of contention. Even though there remained nothing for me that day save but to finish. I kept riding because that’s what I had done nearly every day since January. It’s what I would tomorrow. And the day after that. It was all I knew to do. Stopping was never an option.
Que faire quand on a tout fait
tout lu tout bu tout mangé
tout donné en vrac et en détail
quand on a crié sur tous les toits
pleuré et ri dans les villes et en campagne
What to do when you’ve done it all,
Read it all, drank it all, ate it all,
Given all in disorder and in detail,
When you’ve shouted from the rooftops,
Cried and laughed in the towns and in the countryside.