La Sacrée Finale

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From the moment my tires first touched the hallowed cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées in 1991, I knew they were something special. For me, it was the beginning of my career as a bike racer, my first few days in Europe, in Paris, and the fulfillment of a dream to race bicycles in France.
Entering Paris in 2014, watching the survivors roll over my old training routes, brought excitement. Watching them roll onto the Champs brought a tingle and a sense of relief.
The finish line was in sight and the crowds — deafening and abundant — gave that little bit of extra energy to help the most tired of riders across the finish line.
Sure, there was still a race to be won, the “sprinters’ world championships”, some call it. But for most, the palpable
sense of relief at finally finishing this Tour de France was victory enough.
This Tour will perhaps be best remembered for its attrition. Some will try to dismiss Nibbles’ victory because of those who didn’t make it past the opening weeks. But bike racing isn’t just about the angels of the mountains or the panzerwagen. Nibali and his team showed the savoire-faire and tactical sense to race the crosswinds and the cobbles, as well as the mountains. They rode at the front and had the good fortune to survive the disasters thrown their way. While the Sky machine fell part and Saxo was relegated to racing for stage wins, Astana demonstrated the classic bike racing adage: to finish first, first you have to finish.
This was a Tour of adversity and persistence, as embodied by Talansky’s long, lone effort in front of the voiture-balai and Fuglsang’s continuation despite full-body crash rash and nightmares of hitting water bottles on mountain descents.
These guys continued until they could give no more. Not everybody showed that same commitment. Ahem…Cancellara.
My own career topped out well before I could reach Paris in the bosom of the Tour de France peloton. I raced in the golden age of doping so my career was, in many ways, over before it began.
But this race, this spectacle, still defines who I am as a cyclist. I hope for the sake of the sport and its aspiring young riders that it’s cleaner.
I will nurse my withdrawal from daily doses of Le Tour by watching Slaying The Badger and flipping through old Winning magazines.

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New Britain Criterium 2014

new britain criterium 1988
The New Britain Criterium was a mainstay of my cycling youth.  Starting in 1986, I raced the typically cold, wet spring series there nearly every year and, then, the official race in the July heat.  The photo above is from around 1988, when a junior race would have a full field and riders like George Hincapie and Charlie Issendorf would make the trek up from New York City to race the lumpy kidney of a course in Walnut Hill Park.  The last time I did this race was in 1995 or 1996 — I no longer recall — and I rode 25-30 miles each way to the race.

So perhaps I was feeling nostalgic when I signed up for the 2014 edition.

It took less than a lap for those remembrances to evaporate.

That’s because the pack bunched up where the course tapered on the right hand side and, next thing, guys were on the ground and riders were flipping over them.  I could see myself going down, too, and thought, “I didn’t sign up for this.

But I was finding a path through the carnage, threading a clean line as things moved in slow motion, until the rider on my left got in and under my arm, tangling his bars with mine.  I shrugged him off and sent the poor bastard to the tarmac.

If there’s one thing racing a bike for 28 years teaches you, it’s pavement is hard and you don’t lay it down unless you’ve exhausted every option.

The chase back onto the tail end of the peloton nearly cracked me.  I guess I could have taken the free lap…

I was nervous from then on.  The race settled into a choppy rhythm on a tricky course.  There are no real corners, per se, in Walnut Hill Park.  Just wide sweeping turns.  And on this day, there was a stiff, gusty crosswind and too many riders who didn’t know how to ride those conditions.  Riders slamming doors shut and pushing each other off the course.  Riders hopping curbs and riding the grass to move up a spot or two. Riders letting gaps open up in front of themselves, then driving the chase into the gutter because they didn’t know any better. Riders attacking balls out off the front, only to blow up after 10 seconds, and drop like an anchor through the middle of the pack.

It was the no-holds-barred ghetto-style racing from New York City races and racers. I realized I didn’t miss it.  There was a reason I was picking only the higher-level pro-am races to enter, even though I barely stood a chance in them.  I felt far more comfortable in a fast race with riders who followed the etiquette and rode smartly, even if it meant I might not see the finish line.

I suddenly felt old and wise, which only made me more anxious because I didn’t have the power to ride away from the more erratic riders.  I didn’t have the timing to make the breakaway or the strength to bridge up to it.  So I spent the better part of the race bumping elbows and crossing wheels, and dodging the odd foul ball from the baseball game that landed right in the middle of the pack, right in front of me.

I was feeling the efforts with  5 laps to go.  The sun had come through the cloud cover and I was feeling the heat.  My left hamstring was getting tight. I held my place toward the front, just to keep safe.  There was no need to partake in the field sprint, not when all the paid places were up the road.  So I sat up coming through the last corner, stayed clear and watched the young schmuck who won the sprint for 15th place throw his arms up in a victory salute.  Back in the day, you would have been disqualified for a move like that.

I know because I was that dumb kid once and pulled the same move.

After the race, I spun out along Shuttle Meadow Reservoir.  I had ridden this route many times with my Richard Sachs’ teammate, Jimmy.  The wind was up again, and blowing across the water, the sun scintillating on the choppy surface.  I was happy to have survived the race without injury. Happy to be cruising past Rogers Orchards — closed for the season.  Happy for so many memories.

And happy for the simple pleasure of the bike.

 

 

Le Tour Hebdo

20140711-220127-79287405.jpgI’m a week into the Tour de France and it’s been rough going so far.

Stage 2 was effectively a classic like LBL. The flatter stages, with the crosswinds and rain, sliced and diced the peloton and the time splits have impacted the GC. And the pavé of Roubaix were just cruel to those skinny climbers.

I’m frankly surprised to hear the riders complain about it. Even Cancellara tried to back-pedal from his cracks about take out some secteurs, take out some climbs. When did bike racers become such pussies?

The crashes seem worse this year.

We’ve lost a lot of favorites and contenders:  Cav, Froomey, Schleck.  And they’ve gone out in horrific fashion — broken bones, ruptured ligaments, head injuries.  When everybody wants it so badly, and nobody is willing to back off, it doesn’t take much to upset the delicate equilibrium of the peloton.  And the challenging parcours only amplifies the impact.

France hasn’t seen this much carnage since World War I.

Gone is the Sky machine.  The OPQS lead out train is in shambles. And the thought of a Sicilian leading rail to rail is making everybody a little nuts.  And that is made this one of the most exciting Tours in years.

 

I hope I can survive two more weeks.

Loooong Sloooooow Ride

summer night hurricane approaching

I ducked out of work a little early to ride before the predicted hurricane.  To ride the calm before the storm. To ride the calm before the holiday.

The skies threatened. Thick clouds. Sprinkles of rain — or perhaps perspiration — a promise of the weather to come.  The air thick and humid.  Deserted roads. I rode for an hour without being passed by a car.  I rode in small gears, retrieving the pleasure of a slow day, little chainring, no rush.  Only the coming night my deadline. Or perhaps the rain, if it were to come and relieve me of the heat and humidity.

I rode out and beyond the familiar routes, connecting past rides together through unknown roads, enervating the capillary network of hills, potholes, wild descents and quite intersections.

In the thick of the trees, it was nearly dark, my anemic and failing blinky lights the only signal of my existence. My dark jersey fading into the darkness.  And I was wanting to fade, too.  Disappear into the coming night and pedal on, anonymous and untroubled.

I rode the fatigue of Tuesday night’s fast ride out of my legs. I rode until my legs felt pure and young, feeling the affect of Sunday’s race and the easy gears.  I rode until the bike disappeared beneath me.  Long enough for all the random thoughts to rot and become ugly, and longer still for them to become clean and good again. At times, I was pleasantly alone, the only rider in the world and, at times, I no longer existed.

With an hour to go, I passed a liquor store and craved a cold beer.  And I rode on, until my jersey was soaked through with sweat and my bottles empty.  My shoulders were tired. My back was getting creaky. My stomach was hollow.  I was ready for home but not willing to stop.

In the west, the sun finally dropped beneath the heavy ceiling of clouds and fired up the skies.  I floated like a phantom through the quiet neighborhoods, lost in the shadows cast by street lights and headlamps.

It would be dark by the time I reached my doorstep.

Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic 2014

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My first bicycle race of 2014 was the 50-mile pro-am Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic. It was a last minute decision to enter, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it past half-way. Especially with the afternoon start and the heat climbing steadily throughout the day.  I guess could have done the 40+ masters race…

Fitchburg-Longsjo was the first pro-am race I ever did in 1990.  I was a first-year senior, racing for Richard Sachs.  I had pinned my number on upside down, causing the announcer, Dick Ring, to comment, “what a good Polish boy,” when I won a prime.  It was a hot day and I was suffering until the skies opened up and the rain cooled things down.

This year, there would be no rain.

The first 10 laps were brutal as a large break went clear. At first, my legs weren’t used to the speed, but then they adapted.  My goal was to get to half-way:  25-laps.   With 30 laps to go, they opened the course to feeding — but I had nobody to hand me up bottles. Instead, I watched all the wives and girlfriends and soigneurs handing up cold bottles dripping with condensation.  The women looked younger than I remembered…but I remembered because there was alway one or two that would catch my eye during a criterium, lap after lap, and then disappear into anonymity.

I remembered every nook and cranny of this course. I had raced it every year from 1990 to 1996, through its various iterations as a stage race, 50 miles each time, more than 350 laps in all those years.  The horseshoe at the top of the course. The dog leg. The high-speed brakes burning left hander where I crashed in 1992 in the rain. (I was going for a prime and I was so far in front of the field that I was able to get back up, sort out my bike and jump back into the race before they passed me.) The left-hander onto the finishing straight, then the long long drag up to the finish.  I swear that they didn’t fix a single pothole or manhole cover  since that last time I did this race in 1996!

At half-way — 25 laps to go — I started to believe I could finish. If I could make to 20 to go. And if I could make it 20 to go, I could probably make it 10 to go…  The pace peaked for several laps while we pulled the breakaway back.  I was only in difficult once or twice when the chase stretched the peloton out along the finishing stretch and fissures started to open up.  But it always came back together.  And when it did, it bunched up and riders bumped and jostled for position.

The first year I did this race, going through the horseshoe turn at the top of the course, I tapped Coors Light rider, Roberto Gaggioli, on the hip to let him know I was there. He turned around and smacked me right in the face. Then he rode up to Davis Phinney and said, “I justa slapp-ed som-ah little-ah boy!”  I called him ‘Gag-my-ravioli’ from that point on.

With 1o laps to go, I was pretty confident of finishing.

I was dousing myself with water. I had been nursing my drinks so I was still fluid. And I had kept my stomach from getting over-full and bloated.  My left buttock was tightening up. The left hand was going numb.

Then there were just 5 laps to.

I told myself I could make it to the last lap…and if I could make it to the last lap, I might just be able to sprint into the finish.

I had terrible position going into the finish…maybe 40 riders back.  I stood up to sprint…and felt like I just went backwards. But I was gaining ground and going over the riders around me.  The finish line couldn’t come soon enough and when it did, I was in 30th position.

But I was happy with it.

I race for nostalgia as much as anything else at this point, and it was a joy to be back at Fitchburg.

 

fitchburg longsjo 2014 team romeo

These Guys

team romeo

I’ve been riding with these guys for 28 years now.

We meet every year or two, now that we live hundreds of miles away from each other.

This year, we met in early June to ride 4 plus hours in the wet along the Connecticut coast.  All the old training roads we used to ride.  All the old stories.  All the old jokes — and some new ones.  I never get tired of them.

We rode from New Haven, through Branford and Guildford along route 146, sprinting for all the town lines, all the way out to Madison, where I grew up. We rode past the beaches, the high school, and the field where one of us lost his virginity. I never get tired of that story.

Then we rode back through the clearing afternoon, outrunning school buses and finally feeling all that time in the saddle.

It was a beautiful day.