1996: El Hombre Furioso y Luna

Luna - Penthouse

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 tenth stage the 38th Vuelta a Guatemala, 140 kilometers from Guatemala City to Sololá, went nearly from the gun. There was a brief détente during the ceremonial rollout from the capital city, but once we hit the Interamerican Highway, it was full-bore toward Antigua and the major climb of the day. This early in the race and with no descent to follow, the climb would be decisive.

I was desperate. It was already late October, I had been racing since February and I still needed a solid result to secure a contract for the coming year. This far into the race, I was running out of chances.

The past ten days had been a cluster fuck of tired legs, dehydration, crashes, exploding derailleurs, bike changes and long, lonely chases far behind the race just to make the time cut. Any G.C. hopes were long gone.

Things has started well. On the first day in Avenida de las Americas, a dense, busy shopping district in Guatemala City, I had placed 7th in the prologue criterium and climbed onto the podium in front the crowd.

But then things began to unravel.

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1996: Albuquerque, Mono & The Gipsy Kings

gipsy kings albuquerque 1996

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.

Mono popped open the thermos and poured out the last little bit of espresso for us to share.  We were listening to the Bee Gee’s Saturday Night Fever for our own cabin fever, slowly working our way through our combined collection of tapes and CD’s, waiting for the road to open again and for our drive to New Mexico to resume.

We had already been in the car for hours, driving out of the snowy northeast just days after the biggest blizzard in a hundred years.  And now we were stuck on the turnpike somewhere in Pennsylvania until a combine harvester could clear the ten foot high snow drifts from the highway.

Then we were rolling again and my old VW – 95,000 miles with a broken speedometer, packed full of our bikes and gear – accelerated back up to 3,000 rpm, roughly highway cruising speed.  At least the tachometer worked.  We made the Ohio border by dusk.

In Columbus, we ate chicken fried steak for breakfast at a Bob Evans and drove west on I-70, headlong into another snowstorm.  We drifted and slipped on the VW’s balding tires.  Mono was still learning to drive stick, admittedly nervous as we passed the dozens of cars that had spun out or careened off the side of the road.

“Just keep going straight and keep us out of the ditches,” I told him.

“I’ll try,” he muttered.

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1996: The Stories So Far

A few months ago I started working on a series of stories about my final season racing bicycles at an elite level.  These stories have proven to be a challenge, requiring at times as much endurance to write them as the actions and activities took in the first place.  Each story forces me to go back through my artifacts to reconstruct the past.  There are training logs, race results, journals, newspaper articles, and, of course, the music I listened to at the time.  It’s been fascinating how a few details and some tunes can unlock memories from 15 years ago.  Often, they come in a flood and I remember everything in perfect detail.  But sometimes I need some help from old teammates who remember a story or may remember it a little differently, or who can corroborate facts that I’m not so sure about.

2013 will bring more stories.  I’m currently working on the one about early-season training in the Southwest.

Until then, these are the stories so far:

Stereolab, “Cybele’s Reverie” & Killington

“Loser”, Mad River & Binghampton

Superweek & “The Girl From Ipanema”

Pavement, “Unfair” & the California Cup

1996: Stereolab, “Cybele’s Reverie” & Killington

stereolab emperor tomato ketchep

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.

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1996: “Loser”, Mad River & Binghampton

 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.

On a Friday afternoon in early August, I drive out to Andrew’s in Greenwich to meet up with him before we head to the races for the weekend.  Mad River Glen Road Race on Saturday in Vermont.  Chris Thater Memorial on Sunday in Binghampton, New York.

We’ve raced together nearly every weekend since March.  We’ve spent hours in the car together this year.  We’ve roomed together.  We’ve shared the same bed when we were crammed 3 or 4 racers to a room.

When we weren’t racing, we were training together.  Hanging out watching TV together.  Eating meals together.  I’ve spent more time with Andrew than with any of my girlfriends up to this point.  At times, we’re like an old married couple.  We can start and finish each other’s sentences and sometimes we start to wear on each other.

Before getting into the car, we do an easy spin along the shore, past the town beaches and tidal inlets.

“I’m still having trouble breathing,” I tell him.  “Ever since I came back from Superweek.  That ever happen to you?”

“What do you mean? Like when you ride hard?” he asks.

“Yeah, but it’s all the time, really.  It’s like I can’t get that satisfying lungful of air,” I explain.

“Maybe it’s allergies.  Have you taken anything?” he suggests.

“Nothing seems to work.”

“That sucks.”

We ride some more.

“The other day my mom asked me if I’d ever done drugs,” Andrew tells me.

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1996: Superweek and “The Girl From Ipanema”

getz gilberto album cover

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.

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Pavement, “Unfair” and the California Cup

On a Monday in early March 1996, I left Linda in her bed in Albuquerque to make the long drive to Redlands, California.  I had pushed off the departure again and again.  Another cup of coffee.  Another 15 minutes.  Back to bed for a little longer.  I was hesitant to get on the road. I wasn’t sure when I would make it back to Albuquerque.  But I had a long drive ahead of me that needed starting.

Every time I went on the road, I missed her.  I missed her obscure Indie rock bands.  I missed her ironic Salvation Army dresses.  I even missed how she mocked me for spending so much time on my bike.  She missed me, too.  At least she said she missed me.  She was becoming a distraction from the racing.  Yet after every trip, when I found myself back in New Mexico and with her again, it all made sense.

Eventually, I got my stuff together, loaded up my VW, and got on the road.  I drove out I-40, through the canyons and red rock formations, past Grants and Gallup, into Arizona and across the Painted Desert.  At Holbrook, I turned south, onto state highways.  It was a shortcut.  Off the beaten path. Dry Lake.  Heber-Overgaard.  Payson.  Run down truck stops with names like ‘Gas n’Go’ and stores selling “authentic’ Kachina dolls.  I drove through the rugged terrain and pine forests of the high desert.  Then the long, slow, twisting descents, the earth dropping away at the edge of the road to the valley far below.  Past the rocky outcrops bristling with saguaro, to the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix.  From Phoenix, there was the endless stretch of Sonoran desert, hours upon hours of featureless brown, past promising signs for Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree. The desert eventually gave way to the Coachella Canal, a manmade river flowing absurdly through the barren dryness, then the first signs of civilization in Indio and Palm Springs, and finally the orchards and orange groves of Redlands.

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