If, during a conversation of eating and drinking while riding far or riding hard, somebody tells you about their favorite food and drink strategy by saying “There’s no way to keep the man with the hammer away like using…” then you can cut them off right there.
Because, if he comes for you, there’s no way to keep the man in the hammer away.
Yesterday, at the Pawling Mountain Road Race, one crucial teammate had to drop out early on with a mechanical, and for a great many miles in the middle of the race I had to do double duty as our team leader’s chaperone and as a break-chaser, attack-sucker, and general mark-the-frontsman. I had a reprieve when another teammate came to the front and counterattacked a move that I reeled in; unfortunately, the large climb came shortly thereafter. I made it up but slipped backwards in the group, got gapped, and had to fight my way back. We descended, I moved up, avoiding the brakes, and made sure to eat and drink. The second climb – long, shallow, and, when fresh, a big ring climb – was considerably harder this time around. We took the left hander after it, and began the Hurtenberg, the Muur de Pain, the steep, rough third climb of the circuit. I was at the back – panting, bobbing from side to side, adrift in a sea of lycra.
At this point, I heard somebody say to me, “Hot enough for you?” I looked over and behind me and saw a rider in a kit that I didn’t recognize. I grunted something and went back to concentrating on my pedal stroke, turning it over, turning it over, praying to the 25-tooth cog. “Hey buddy, I’m talking to you,” the rider said. I looked back again and saw that he wearing an antique three-piece suit. He had a waxed mustache and a salacious grin. He fiddled with a pocketwatch for a moment, eyeing me, watching my cadence, and then he produced a large hammer and, rearing back in his saddle, swung a cruel blow at me.
I watched the riders in front of me pull away. My legs were leaden and there were chills throughout my body. A brick was in my gut. I thought maybe when we crested I could chase back on during the descent, if there was anybody else around. I looked around. The man in the suit – the man with the hammer – had disappeared. Off hunting for his next victim, I suppose.
Some people think that certain bikes with rich histories should only be equipped with certain drivetrains. Some people think that it’s heresy to hang anything but Campagnolo on a Colnago, for example.
Now, of course professionals ride what they’re paid to ride. But Johan Museeuw can do whatever he wants.
The Ronde Van Vlaanderen is on Sunday. As usual, Red Kite Prayer will have the florid prose if you want to wax lyrical about the races this time of year. And with the way that E3 Prijs and Ghent-Wevelgem played out, well, are you excited yet?
Filed under: road racing
On Saturday, I saw one of the most exciting races I’ve ever seen. Sure, professional races are exciting – with lots of hype and a lot on the line – but I’m talking about amateur races, seeing the drama and fun and pain unfold right in front of my eyes. It was a smalltown training crit, and the last race of the day was the best.
Three powerful racers broke away after a several laps of jockeying; a fourth rider responded to the attack but the first three fell into a smooth rotation and in a few laps opened up some road between them and the fourth racer. Unable to bridge up, the fourth racer continued hammering and opened a big gap on the field, but was exposed and alone with nearly 30 laps remaining.
The lead trio, working smoothly, made huge gains on the field, and after about ten laps, caught them. Rather than sit up, they went to the front of the field and continued hammering. The fourth place rider had thirty to forty seconds on the field, but with the lead trio towing the lapped field around, was in danger of being caught by those behind due to the efforts of those in front.
I watched the exertion in the racer’s eyes, under the unseasonably warm sun. The lap cards slowly ticked down and this stubborn racer continued riding a huge pursuit, staying on the opposite side of the course as the leaders and the field. With three laps to go – as the leaders and the field got within fifteen or twenty seconds of the fourth place rider – the field was instructed to sprint for placings, so the top four could finish unimpeded. The fourth place racer had held off the field; the top three rode the laps until they attacked one another and sprinted for their podium places and, a minute later, the fourth place rider finished, exhausted.
The determination to stay out in no-woman’s-land despite missing the break and then being effectively chased by the break is more than commendable: it’s the sort of painful stubbornness, the grit, that makes bike racing – all bike racing, from the most fearful amateur to the most arrogant pro – exciting.
In my races, I’m not strong enough to go out on my own and flog my legs with my face in the wind – not for too long. I have to play the highwire walk of careful positioning and shelter, the studious chess of bike race tactics. But there’s something elemental about the solo break; there’s a reason why time trials are called “the race of truth” and there’s a reason that there’s something fundamentally beautiful about riding across the finish line with no other riders in sight. In this case, there was something more beautiful and awe-inspiring about a solo fourth place than a podium position from a break, and it’s because of the grit she displayed, sticking to her move for 28 laps under the hot sun, alone, being chased by the people ahead of her.
Milan San-Remo is tomorrow. Last year, in a odd sprint, Haussler opened a huge gap and Cavendish shut it down, his chin on his stem, his mouth open like a shark.
This year, Cavendish will get beaten. Not just in Milan-San Remo, but throughout the Grand Tours. He’s had problems this year: ‘dental issues,’ a crash and a poor performance in Tirenno-Adriatico. Maybe he’ll be in great shape for Tour de France but without Hincapie and Boasson Hagen to support him, his train is weakened. There are just too many question marks at this point for me to presume he’ll continue to be dominant.
As for Milan-San Remo, I predict that it will be won out of a late break. The riders who have expressed confidence – Pozatto, Gilbert, Cancellara – are the types who can go hard when everyone’s spent. With rain forecast, maybe we’ll see something as exciting as the 1992 Milan-San Remo, with Sean Kelly decending the Poggio suicidally, in the rain, tires slipping out, in an attempt to catch Moreno Argentin before the finish line.
Me? Well. It is the classic struggle of the spring: do I go race or do I stay home and watch important spring races?
Were you outside this weekend? The rain, the wind.
Let’s backtrack. The racing season is started. Training camp opened last weekend with a few pals coming up to my neck of the woods for one day of racing and one day of long, hard riding. The racing went well: we put our boy into the winner’s pants (though, in a headsmack moment, he was DQ’ed for having failed to pin on his number), and honed our team tactics. We went for a long, fitness-building and fatiguing ride. We felt the sun on our skin. And so we came to this past weekend lean, mean, and hungry, knowing our strengths and weaknesses, wavering only when we clicked on weather.com’s forecast. 40 degrees. Rainy. Windy. Stormy. We rode to Grant’s Tomb with spare wheels in our hands, wondering how many people would show in the wet. The wind gusts knocked us from one curb to the next, and looking at each other with wild eyes we took off our race wheels and put our training wheels on. Our plans immediately went from “field sprint” to “survive.” I thought about the importance of flahute training and thought, “Well, the racing might actually be safer and better suited to us.”
After a delayed start during which we tried in vain to warm up and stay dry, the race began. Everyone was already soaked and shivering. The course was shortened. Two long straightaways and two hard 180 degree turns. One downhill into a brutal headwind with an alternating crosswind when we passed 122nd st. One long uphill with a tailwind.
The attacks came immediately. We had to sprint out of the corner to stay with the rapidly dwindling field. After five laps of sprinting painfully out of Turn 1 into the headwind, trying desperately to grab a wheel as riders were flung side to side by the wind, I latched on squarely and watched with glee as a race favorite went backwards fast and was dropped.
We settled in for some difficult racing. The gusting wind slashed across the course. Everyone was wet and quaking. The wind was unpredictable, lashing out. We were in a fifteen rider clump, the front of the race, drilling it in hopes of continuing to shed riders. I tried to talk to a teammate about our plans but all of my words were slurred and incomprehensible. At some point I remember hollering to those around me, “Good racing!”
With four to go I launched an attack. I rolled to the front, rolled off of it, and started pounding the beef. I turned into the headwind and slowed to a crawl, trying to claw out a second or two. I had a nice gap. Somebody yelled encouragement from the curb – “Make it to the corner and you’ll have a headwind.” I would, and I did, and stayed away for another lap until I was caught. I summoned the energy to go with the counter. Ridiculous but at least my quads weren’t cramping. We were dragged in. A teammate attacked, a big power-pedal-stomp acceleration up the inside. He was caught and a counter rolled off the front. One to go. They had a few seconds but looked weak. It would be a field sprint. A wrecked, disheveled field sprint. I was near the front and according to plan I turned up the pace as best as I could. Two people sprinted – a favorite and my teammate. They took first and second and the rest of us rolled across the line.
What followed fascinated me.
The breakaway and accelerations, followed by my attempt to sprint, had hurt me. But the weather had hurt me more. I was aware that I was uncomfortable, but my awareness was far curled up inside my body; the inside and the outside were well separated. I stepped off the bike and found myself sobbing. I threw my bike down and dryheaved on the church steps. My sweetheart came running, her face a mask of worry, but I staggered away to hug my close friend for his second place finish. I was shivvering, sobbing, confused, stumbling. A teammate tried to find my jacket but I was too confused to answer him. I knew that my jacket was further in the bag through which he rummaged, but didn’t know how to say it. I looked to my sweetheart for help. She found mine and helped me through my sleeves. Later, at the house – thankfully only five minutes away – I crawled into the shower with my socks still on and started laughing hysterically as she looked on with concern.
The next day, in Central Park, an organizational snafu (only one of four required motorcycles showed up) caused the fields to be mixed but to finish on separate laps. After some fun wet racing, it came down to a sprint with one person from the 3/4 field off the front. Our teammate was beaten by the same guy who powered away from him the previous day – good enough for third in the morning – and we had two others in the top ten.
And unlike the previous day there was no hypothermic incoherence – just the need to take off wet clothes and get into the shower, with much less emergency.
We ended the weekend confident in our emerging fitness and growing team cohesion. And I ended it knowing that I’m a lot less scared of bad conditions than I have been in the past. I know more about how my brakes, tires, and whole body respond to the conditions, and I know that I can relish conditions where I can step to the line and think, “Okay – most of these guys have already given up.”
Here in Massachusetts, we’ve been snowed in since early last week. Not snow-piled-up-to-the-windows snowed in, but rather, a cold wetness and steady precipitation that’s a pretty good argument against going outside for any kind of serious training. It’s alternated between snow and rain, and it looks like we might have another several days of similar conditions in the hopper.
No matter – there are other ways to work the legs. Rollers, plyometrics, and a bit of time in the gym suffice for a little while. On Friday, though, I got antsy, and with stiff legs needing an honest spin to loosen them up, I took my fendered all-arounder cyclocross hybrid out for a spin. The town was wet and snow was falling hard, but not accumulating. I bundled up. My glasses got covered in big wet flakes; my legwarmers were soon wet. Snow collected at the seams.
On Saturday morning I headed out to a breakfast engagement several towns over (and a happy birthday to you!). The world was white, the trees covered with wet snow, the mountains obscured by the clouds. Cold and wet, yes, but a beautiful morning for riding.
Those days of flahute training, though, pale in comparison to the conditions at Kurne-Brussels-Kurne yesterday. One report was that the lead group of three were crawling into a 90kph headwind at only 26kph – that’s about 17mph. A snail’s pace in the world of professional cycling. One rider, Hunt of Cervelo, in a three-person chase-group (looking at, at worst, a sixth place finish if the chase stayed away; better if it caught the leaders) simply abandoned. Sat up, stopped, and got into his team car, apparently too wrecked from the wind, rain, cold, and distance to continue.
Our opening weekend calls for 40 degrees and sunny, racing around an industrial park. I’ll take it.
Theirs saw a “relative unknown” take the podium in a race that had an 85% rate of attrition, and Bobby Traksel, the victor, seemed too pleased to win to care about the weather.
Call it a classic case that calls for thanking your teammates profusely by sharing prize money. Andy Hampsten’s one-second lead in the 1987 Tour of Switzerland is threatened by a ten-second time bonus for an intermediate sprint.