Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Walking Down Memory Lane

I've reached the furthest west on my road trip and have placed my feet on the solid ground of Lawrence, KS and the hallowed halls of my alma mater. It's been four years since I was here last. It was early Spring then and I really didn't get the opportunity to get back to and enjoy a lot of the sites that I had enjoyed while I was in college. This time I'm not letting that opportunity go by.

Alot of this road trip has been about retracing steps. Whether I actually thought about this when I came up with the idea or not is question, it's been about looking back at where I came from and maybe, just maybe, looking at where the road heads from this point on out. My path has been a twisted one and required many different roads. Literally it's take me down I-88, I-80, I-35, I-70, I-40, I-20, I-85, I-81, I-66 and I-95. That's the path from Chicago to Kansas to Mississippi and then to DC. However, figuratively, there's a lot of country roads, some made of gravel and some of red dirt, that have helped along the way.

My path hasn't really gone all that far-- from Naperville to the top of Mt. Oread, to the Grove and now to Adams Morgan. A common thread I'm sure can be found somewhere therein. However, I'm not sure what it is but I encourage Mr. Coles to create a testable hypothesis that eventually will come to an answer that none of us can understand but it would make a lot of sense. I've second guessed a lot of my decisions to move to or from various places. I try to play it out in my mind...how each different change would have affected the outcome. Would I be in the same place? Would I be just as good? Or just as bad?

Lawrence does hold a special place in my heart. I have a special affinity for it unlike any other place that I have been. It's the only place where hippies freely mix with trust fund babies and where I could meet so many random but fabulous people. It's a one of a kind town and to be honest I lucked upon it. When I was deciding where to go to college I am sure that Kansas was nowhere on my radar until one day a random coach named Zhawn showed up at a meet in Alabama. Thankfully I actually swam well that day.

Sitting here now, with hindsight on my side, I wonder if I enjoyed my college days to the fullest. If I used that time as well as possibly could have. Could I have done more? Should I have tried harder at doing X? Or less at Y? Should I have dated this girl or that one? If you ask Chad what he thought of my girlfriends during college I'm sure you'd get a couple crazy stories. So basically please don't ask him. After all these thoughts I pause and think to myself, sure I could have done it different but I had so much fun the way I did it, why would I want to change a thing.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rogue Racing 2: Tour of Oak Brook

The cycling world of Illinois descended upon the quaint upper class suburb of Oak Brook. You know your suddenly not in the ghetto cyclist world when the pace car for your race is a Lamborghini or when you get to park your car on the nearby polo fields:
A slightly smaller race than Downers Grove, about 40 guys lined up for a 3.2 mile loop that was to be done a bazillion times. I grossly underestimated this course, the heat and the tenacity of flat land racing in the Midwest. However, that doesn't mean that I went down without a fight. Oh no, I was going to live up to my rap as the Rogue Warrior or as I am known in certain towns in North Carolina-- the Thunderbird.

The first couple laps I sat in as we went around. A pair of small power hills were on the back side of an otherwise flat flat flat road course. With the tailwind we could easily push 30+ mph into the finishing stretch. I followed a couple moves in laps 5-7 but nothing seemed to stick. I'm not sure how I was getting marked by the field, as I'm sure almost no one in Chicago remembers me from my Cat 5 days when I last raced there; but I was definitely marked.
Three guys had gotten off the front, one of whom was a member of the largest squad represented. They were content to let them get a couple hundred meters on the field and not push the pace. However, when I jumped to bridge that gap suddenly the field sprang to life. I crossed the gap in quick time but the field was so animated that they dragged us back in. With 6 laps to go I had had enough of this and was not content to sprint it out at 40 mph. So coming over a little rise into the head wind section I jumped. I got clear and stayed clear-- han solo.

The backstretch of the course was full of little twists and turns through multi-million dollar McMansions (honestly, McDonald's corporate headquarters is in Oak Brook's neighboring suburb aptly named Oak Brook Terrace). So I got out of sight quick. Up the two power climbs and into the long finishing stretch. However, once I got there the field saw me, turned up the pace and dragged me back in. I had been off the front for over 3 miles and had lit most of my matches doing so.

I retired to the field and resigned myself to the field sprint to come. With about half a mile left in the race the pace went to ludicrous. My early moves weighed heavily in my legs and then I exploded. Someone luckily was there to take this picture of the moment:
On a positive note, the stars and bars of NCVC/Inova Health System are distinctive enough that the Illinois boys who I was with remembered seeing them a couple years previous in another race. So I must give mad props to the likes of Greg Abbott for pushing through the jersey change when he did.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Rogue Racing: Downers Grove

For close to two years prior to moving to DC I raced by myself and for myself. No teammates. No support. It's a lonely world when you race without a team; when you race as the rogue warrior in the field. You have to be quick and take risks and fend for yourself. I've come to count on my teammates. A little help now and again chasing down a break or making sure that no one chases you down for a while. My trip back to Illinois is without teammates and I was quite alone in this race. As with the next four races in this season and in the terms of Leon Turner, if I am to win I am going to have to do so "han solo."

Downers Grove is a quick race. It makes the shape of a figure eight with four corners uphill and four corners downhill. There were close to 90 guys in the race at the time the whistle was blown. As is my tendency I started at the back of the field and would have to work my way to the front. With that many corners and only .8 of a mile worth of a course there wouldn't be much time to pass on any straight aways.

I started picking my way through the field in the corners and found it pretty easy to move up. The pace was moderate and quite unlike any crit I've ever been in because the speed was even. Normally, the accelerations make a crit a competition in whose heart rate can peak and come back to normal the fastest. By normal of course I mean something like 120-140 bpm.

The first downhill corner started on a wide open four lane road and fed into a three lane road. It was 90 degrees and perfect for carrying speed and moving up in the field. At about the half way point I came to realize that this race was going to come down to a field sprint. A couple guys tried to go early but the field was so big and no team was willing to take control so every break got run down quickly.

I road in the top 20 most of the race and my plan was to use that wide open corner to move up in the final lap into the top 10 and then up into the top 5 by the final corner and sprint it from there. The plan was working perfectly until I ran smack into the slowest moving object in the entire field just as I passed through that first downhill corner. I had to scrub a lot of speed and then move back into the field. Instead of being in the top 10 I was in the top 30. I was a little angry and suddenly put into a defensive mode. There was a quarter mile left to go and I was nowhere near where I wanted to be.

Two more corners followed and I moved up a little and I could still sprint for the top 15 which is how deep the field was paid. I was still in contention. All the way up to the final corner when two guys got tired of racing their bikes and decided to lay them down right in front of me. I rode between them and reaccelerated but by the time I got up to speed it was too late and the field had rode by my. It was a disappointing finish for such an incredible race.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Homecoming

I left the comfort of the mid-Atlantic and the lush valleys of Virginia for the vast plains of the Midwest. I followed through on a plan I dreamt up several months ago which in and of itself is quite amazing. I've been in Chicago for about 4 days (minus a one day trip to Houston) and raced a hard race on Sunday (which I'll write about when I get the pictures downloaded). I normally don't bring a bike with me to Chicago because most of my trips are short and involve some bizarre legal battle.

Today I went out in search of an old route. I knew that the powers that be have been building a lot along the route I intended to ride but I didn't know that the old roads that I used are now just gone. Not blocked off or fallen in to disrepair but literally gone. The pavement has vanished and has been replaced by either housing or wild grass. What was once beautiful open fields and farms have been replaced by endless subdivisions with computer generated names which inspire "happiness" or "upper-middle-class ambition."

My least favorite such subdivision is Shenandoah. The subtitle was "the beautiful meadow." I've searched quite a bit to find that meaning for the word Shenandoah and have never found that meaning. Rather most agree that the word Shenandoah is derived from a Native American phrase which means "Beautiful Daughter of the Stars." I find it ironic that the word for a beautiful mountainous valley in VA has been applied to a disgusting aluminium siding filled subdivision which borders a railroad track in the vast emptiness of former sod farm country. Granted the soils maybe equal in fertility, the views are definitely different.

In the world of $4.00 or more per gallon gas prices, I am utterly dumbfounded by the fact that the exurbs of Chicago continue to grow so radically. You would think that economic natural selection would drive these people back into the hubs of local cities or at least off my bike routes. Of course my greatest concern is not the pocket books of the idiots who populate these areas, but the fact that it makes it just that much more difficult for me to find open roads to ride on. Of course, no one consults the cycling community when they launch these less than ambitious building projects.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Roadside Distractions

Six races left to go on the season. It's that time of the year where I start to think about the next season. I think about things that I did well this year and things that I can improve on. However, I cannot let those thoughts get to me because the races to come are pretty tough and my chances are good. Tomorrow is my last day of work before my vacation begins. I've been looking forward to these two weeks off since I went to North Carolina back in what seems like another lifetime.

There is a racing website that talks about daily distractions. Basically it's about cycling and hot chicks that either race or find themselves along our race courses. The best/worst that I've been personally witness to were the "townies" oiled up and in bikinis at the Hagerstown crit this summer. Their "site" on the side of the road made it easier to throw down 600-700 watts through the corner away from those "beauties."

Yesterday I was out on my daily constitutional a/k/a/ my training ride. I was putting in a pretty good steady state workout where I ride at a wattage in a decently elevated range and hold it for a while. Yesterday my workout was a pair of 25 minute intervals. About halfway into the second one I found myself going up a steady incline and passed a bus stop. This particular time a girl was standing there who flagged me down as I passed. As a good American I stopped to help.

She was lost, really lost. The strangest thing about this situation was that she really didn't know where she wanted to go. She gave me three different locations that she "needed" to go to and was terribly unsatisfied by any of my suggestions, which typically ended with "well you can walk there in about 30 minutes or you can stay here and wait for a bus that probably won't come for an hour."

I really think she wanted to hitch a ride on my handlebars. Honestly, she was just big enough that she could probably have done so without adding 60 lbs. Fully grown she wasn't as tall as me when I was sitting on my top tube. I left her on the side of the road to head off to the Giant which was about 7 blocks away. I had grown so frustrated with her indecision that I thought maybe someone there could figure it out. I gave her directions, let her make two phone calls on my cell and offered to wave down a cab. None of these made her happy.

I headed off to finish my interval after about ten minutes. I hope for her sake that she found what she was looking for. Any cyclist will tell you that there are a lot of fun things on the side of the road. You'd be amazed by the random articles of clothing, magazines, furniture and in a couple cases (back in Mississippi) appliances. Once in Texas I ran across a great new baseball hat. Jed, of course has the best road side find--a wrapped porn DVD. However, the one thing that amazes me is the number of times I run across a single shoe on the side of the road. I mean you would imagine that unlike a glove or a t-shirt that you would probably miss a shoe if it fell off while you were driving, right?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

An Ode To the Master

My cycling career began one day sitting on the porch in front of an aged loft in Topeka, KS. I swam throughout college and when my eligibility expired I was left in the midst of a quarter life crisis. I had swum for close to 20 years by that point. I was even thinking about going beyond college to try for a spot on a national team. I was a much better long course swimmer than I ever was in short course and I had found a great home in Ft. Lauderdale with an excellent coach.

When everything went sideways in my life in the Spring of 2001 I was lost. The athletic department at Kansas decided to cut both the men's swimming and tennis programs at the same time. I was devastated. I mounted a campaign to right the wrong and invested all my time and energy into undoing the injustice that I felt had occurred. When it was all said and done I was burned out of the idea of swimming and was out of shape and there was no coming back in time to compete that Summer.

So I bought a bike. No real good reason why I bought a bike. However, I went out the very first day on my new bike in a black pair of shorts and a white t-shirt. I spent that Summer getting my legs into shape and learning all about bike racing. I was obsessed. I read every magazine I could and watched every movie ever made about cycling...all three. I signed up for Downers Grove as a Cat 5. Downers Grove is the national championship crit...not at the Cat 5 level but it's a big race none the less. So all of the area Cat 5s were gunning for it and this was my first race.

It rained that morning and the course is terrible in the rain. A set of concrete brick crosswalks in the middle of corners otherwise made of asphalt which turns the course into ice when wet. I went down twice in a 20 minute race. Once in the final corner in which I sled out and landed head first into a hay bale. Amazingly I got back up on a bike two days later.

In the process of crashing my bike that day I put a nasty dent into my wheel set. I needed to get that fixed but I knew nothing of bike shops in Kansas which was where I was heading. I somehow got in touch with the KU Cycling Club and a man named Jed got back to me. The next thing I knew this monster of a mountain man from New Mexico by way of Montana and Topeka was showing me the roads around Topeka and dropping me like nobody's business on an easy training ride.

So there we sat, Jed and I, on his porch talking about bike racing. It was from that day that I knew bike racing was something a world apart. The rest is somewhat a short history. I feel that it's ironic that on many of my training rides I pass this site:

I once tried to send Jed a pix of a stuffed moose and he responded to me saying: "My name is Jed. I live in South Carolina. I have a hound dog named Red. What makes you think my phone can receive pictures?"

So, as I get ready to go and race at Downers Grove for the first time since meeting this mountain man I reflect on how much we all need him back in the sport...come back Jed we need you.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Mane 'n Tail

A rather large supporter of mine gave me a gift recently. My workouts are whooping my butt and have left me with some pretty tired and sore legs. In fact sometimes it's been a little rough getting into and out of my car. However that's bike racing, right? Riding until your legs are about ready to blow up?

I remember one particularly windy Sunday morning back in Lawrence. The group was coming back into town from Tonganoxie on a flat stretch of road. I've always fancied myself a break-away rider. I'm not really the best in the field sprint and thought, in fact still think, that if I can get up the rode I can hold off the field just long enough to stick it for a win. I drove Adam and Ben nuts with theories and strategies of how to create a successful breakaway. They might have even thought I could do it someday. Then I would do something stupid like crash on a group ride and all my street cred was gone.

This grey early spring day in Kansas was no exception. The group kept ramping the pace up little bits at a time. Adam was in the pace line with me along with most of the big guys in town. One at a time the field got smaller as guys popped off the back. My head was down and my vision was definitely getting a little redder as I went into oxygen debt. Just when I thought I was going to blow up, Adam jumped the field for the city limit sprint. From somewhere deep down inside I found the last bit of effort to cover the jump and found his wheel.

A minute or two later he looked back at me and shouted, "Rob, look back...that's how you make a successful breakaway." I looked back and we were free and clear from the field and they were nowhere in sight. I learned my lesson that day. If you're going to go out on your own to win a race you're going to need to put yourself through serious hell.

I've been putting myself through the ringer these last couple of months to get to where I need to be and my legs have suffered. Needless to say I've woken up many mornings lately in a bit of pain, which brings me back to my gift. When given to me I was told that it wasn't made for cyclists but it really works on tired legs...well tired horse legs. I was given a jar of Mane 'n Tail which is Icy Hot for horses. So I tried a little tonight for the first time. I put it on my legs about two hours ago. It took a little while to feel it but my legs have been on fire now for two hours. Seriously thinking of just sticking them in the freezer right now.

I mean the stuff has to be working right? At least I don't feel the soreness any more.