Race report #13, Friday, July 27th, Kenosha, Superweek Stage 15 Pro/Am Criterium, Kenosha, WI: Courage and arrogance
Hands down Kenosha is the best course at Superweek for my limited talents. At exactly a kilometer long with four corners, the course is very short and hence, no acceleration lasts for more than 10 or 20 seconds before you have to brake again for the next corner.
100 laps, 400 corners, 400 hard sprints… Breaking it down this way starts to make it sound hard… and it was… for a while.
We lined up in the late afternoon sun and it was quite warm and humid – just the way I like it. As usual I had only a few minutes of warmup – arriving late with just enough time to dress and register before heading to the line. I had again struggled with the tradeoff between beach-&-Katelina time vs. travel-to-race time and the planned departure from the beach in Sheboygan at 2:30pm quickly became 3:00pm and then 3:30pm. Sure enough I had to drive the RV like a race car just to make it to the course on time.
The chief referee sent us off into the lengthening shadows and bright rays of the afternoon sun, and the huge peleton immediately stretched out over a full straightaway, the long tail of riders flicking around each corner.
I remember looking up after a long period of suffering – breathing heavily after several dozen sprints, hanging desperately on to the wheel in front of me and blasting full throttle down yet another of the long finish stretch straightaways. My eyes finally registered the lap cards.
92 laps to go. 8 down, 92 to go. 92 laps. 92… How is it possible I could ever hope to finish 100 laps? No way. Well, let’s get in at least 10 laps total – just two more - so as to not be too embarrassing to my friends…
And so the lying started up – but only for a little while longer. Eventually I warmed up after about 20 laps and found the course, as always, to my liking. The short straightaways allowed me to leverage my single strength – of going pretty fast for 7 or 8 seconds – and move through the peleton without too much trouble.
After further reflection it is quite clearly my only strength besides strategy. Any hard acceleration longer than 7 or 8 seconds and my strength fades quickly. I have virtually no ability to hammer the pedals for extended periods. But for 3 or 5 or 7 seconds, I can put out tremendous power, without really feeling the effort. As long as it is followed by 10, 15 or preferably 20 seconds of relatively light effort I’m in pretty good shape – THAT is the one thing I can do quite well…
Here’s what it feels like – this tiny little area of strength that I have. Each corner I choose my path and more often than not, find a tiny sliver of an opening that I would predict to become an opening on the far side of the turn. I then center my front tire on that sliver, and lean into the corner just like the other rides.
Exiting the corner, I start pedaling one stroke sooner than the others, making sure my bike is counterbalanced to eliminate the risk of hitting a pedal on the downstroke.
Then – and this is my little private note of pride - of “flow” – of quiet power and strength – I start spinning the pedals and reach a certain RPM where a “hum” of resonance passes through my body, and I watch as my bike and body accelerates forward through the wheels of the fellow riders – many out of their saddles, bodies swaying. This magic resonance happens at 118rpms and above. Every lap I can look down just as I hit my stride and inevitably the bike computer will read “118” climbing quickly to 120, 122, 124 rpms before I shift gears again.
Quietly my little strength carries me forward to fill those gaps and move through or maintain my position near the front the peleton. This is partially how I do it – how I move through the middle of large peletons.
That, and there are a couple other little tricks to allow this to happen. The riders in the peleton are constantly shifting, overlapping, transiting left and right – like multicolored shards of shale set loose down a hillside, the patterns at first seem completely random. However, just as an experienced seaman can read the silent signatures of the waves, so too can some subconscious part of my mind read the Brownian motion of the peleton and anticipate the next gap. If those shards were scrabble pieces being dumped out the box, my mind appears to be capable of recognizing the important letters and creating words on-the-fly with their movement.
Anticipation, timing, movement, perception – even these are not enough – no one can perfectly predict the movements of imperfect humans, so what remains is the reflexive movements on the bike that mitigate disaster and prevent those unrecoverable incidents of wheel touching wheel or, worse, axle touching spokes.
The average racer weighs 160lbs or so, the average bike 16. Despite this fact, bodies can bounce, bash and crush each other without much incident – rather it is the rotational inertia below that presents the greatest danger. By moving the body counterintuitively into the oncoming riders inertia (much like white water rafters moving towards the rock) you can stave off that disastrous conflict of bikes and merely have the rubbery reflection of sweaty forarms and shoulders pressing and then parting.
Fear in the pack is high – most riders, having experienced the long sweaty nights without sleep that roadrash brings are naturally reticent to meet the pavement again. The natural, instinctual association they have is that of the contact of another rider just prior to the accident. Hence, a light touch – of an elbow, or the outside of a hand – brushed lightly against a hip, a shoulder, helps to steer those riders in front of you. The touch must be feather light though – else the body will convulse and the desired behavior of steering the rider in front quickly dissolves into a shudder of the bars and the ultimate sin – braking.
So… how do I move up through the middle of a peleton during the tightest, most tense moments of the race? I anticipate the movements of the pack, accelerate quickly, and gently steer those recalcitrant riders that wander into my path. On good days it feels like magic and a high speed camera would probably catch that sly smile and twinkling focus I have when I feel that I can part the waters of the pack with just my thoughts… The pro peleton, of late though, has proved to be quite stubborn to my Jedi mind tricks.
Once warmed up, the laps went by quickly and with 15 laps to go I decided it was time to move to the very front of the group. Over the next few laps I worked my way through the peleton – sliding neatly into invisible gaps, gently herding other riders, and moving up through over 100 riders and into the top 15 without incident
Then, of course, there is the challenge of the “a%$hole zone.” Every peleton has it, though the size and location differs depending on the nature of the course. If you consider the pack as almost always shaped like an arrow, the a%$hole zone is the rear of the arrowhead and the widest part of the entire pack.
It is only natural for this phenomenon to occur. In the rear of the peleton, the goals of the riders are merely to stay connected, so they organize 2 abreast (most common), 3 abreast, or single file if the pace is very high. There is no incentive to “ride the hip” and add another layer to the width of the pack as there is no clear path to the front and only the disadvantage of the wind when you are farther back in the pack.
Conversely at the very front of the pack, it is almost always a single rider leading, and depending on the pace, it may be single file for several riders, before other riders start layering up and “riding the hip” of the rider ahead in order keep position, forming the triangle or arrowhead leading the pack.
In between these two shapes (rectangle, triangle) we find the flange of the a%$hole zone. It is into this space that the masses of the larger pack behind fling themselves in order to move into the rarified ranks of the top riders ahead.
On longer courses, the arrowhead is fairly long and thin, as the long straightaways allow riders moving up from behind ample opportunities to slot in and ride the hip of someone up front.
Conversely, on short courses like Kenosha, in the 20 or 30 seconds of the long straightaways, and the 10 – 15 seconds of the short ones, there is only so far that riders and swing before needing to slot in for the next corner.
The a%$hole zone in Kenosha is gargantuan – corner after corner of 7, 8, 9 riders abreast trying to enter the corner at the same time.
I always avoid the a%$hole zone by transiting across it quickly and at Kenosha it reigned supreme in about 8th-20th place. Starting lap 15, I tried to stay ahead of it, but on lap 11 a surge caught me unawares on the backstretch, and entering turn 3, I found myself in an 8 abreast situation.
I braked and watched the inevitable unfold – 2 riders going up the inside slamming on their brakes, and then the ripple affect as their abortive entry into the corner caused the entire peleton to shift right.
The riders on the far outside panicked and 2 went down prior to hitting the curb. 4 more behind them flipped over their bikes, and then even as I skidded to a halt, I performed a slow motion endo over the rear triangle of one of the fallen, turning my bars at the last minute to fall to the left and avoid landing on the bike underneath me.
I was up in a flash, but in no hurry – I still had time to get a free lap.
About 10 of us entered the wheel pit and waited for the pack to come around and we received the signal from the referee to rejoin the peleton – unfortunately right back in the tail end of the 150 rider peleton.
Nonetheless, adrenaline served me well and I shot through the pack in a matter of 2 laps or 3 minutes and reappeared back in front – ready for the big sprint to follow.
As we moved into the final two laps, the race dynamic changed in that predictable way. I wrote about it last year so apologies for the repeat for those who read it before:
We cross the finish line, and the lap counter flips to read “2” As the pack passes the crowds at the announcer’s booth it seems as though the vertical metal ribs of the barriers strain with our passing, spectators removing their hands from the rails and cautioning their neighbors to back up even as they cheer, nervous hands in the air.
It is at this point that the nature and feel of a criterium bike race changes: when the pull of repeated breakaway attempts are suddenly replaced by the stagnation, lethargy and swelling tension that the looming yet still-distant finish brings.
For all the preceding laps the race possessed the graceful moves of migrating geese: loosely organized gliding movements with the occasional re-organization within the flock. The leadership provided by the arrowhead up front giving those of us following the ability to see and predict a path through corners, to move up or back, to sprint ahead if so desired.
However, with the end of the race within its grasp, the pack begins to pulse slowly forward like an overfed reptile straining within its skin: slowed and bulging, the formerly tapered profile of the lithe serpent suddenly becomes distended and sluggish. In other words, the entire peleton becomes the a%$hole zone.
The speed slows from 30 to 25, and for the next 2 minutes – an entire lap, the lump goes undigested – except for the scraping of the sides by the corners of the course. Scales of riders - even pacelines of skin - are peeled back by the rough edges of the course and sloughed off for the medics to attend to.
In this new mode, visibility for the racer vanishes - visibility of the road, the corners – visibility of everything but the bodies in front of us. As the riders condense, those visual queues of the road disappear: we can’t see a bump, manhole cover, or corner coming – rather we “read the tea leaves” or more accurately the “Brownian motion” of the suddenly swaying jerseys in front of us that flow suddenly to the left and right. They lean – forcing us to follow – and then just as suddenly we find ourselves straightening back up. Bumps? Potholes? Curbs? All blocked by bodies: the racer “sees” only by reading the Braille of the helmets ahead. It is not unlike Space Mountain at Disneyworld – it is dark, you are strapped into a machine, and you can’t tell where you are going - the only predictor of your uncertain path is the bobbing, waving necks and heads in front of you as they weave left and right, and then disappear screaming….
The feeling of doom is inescapable and even as the compressing mass twitches, the beast regurgitates some unwilling prey - riders shooting out the front of the maw. With a tongue-like chase from the pack these riders are captured and are then quickly re-absorbed. Elbows like whiskers we continue our slow progress, thrusting our angular protrusions wider to “feel” our way and protect our softer parts, senses completely focused for any indications of progress or danger.
These minutes are the “moment of truth” in criterium racing. Riders spend their entire careers, and endless hours at the head of the pack trying to separate themselves from this critical and dangerous circumstance – the brief snapshot in time where you lose control of your bike, can’t steer, can’t see, can’t stop, and can’t pedal your way out. For the next 2 ½ minutes, power, speed, and endurance fail to matter, and courage, skill, and luck are the primary determinants of the race outcome, with courage the single most important. For some extremely talented endurance athletes, these are the moments where they suddenly “give up,” drifting to the back. “Not worth it,” they say.
“I didn’t want to lose all my skin just to mix it up with the crazies up front,” say others.
It makes sense if you have enough of an aerobic motor to get away in breakaways in the 50% of races that have them. However, in my mind the true competitor never lets a finish get away – a Lance Armstrong, a George Hincappie – these guys always race to win and if necessary would put themselves right into the field sprint mix. For me? I have no choice. This is my lot in life. Not to mention, it happens to be something I am usually pretty good at…
I too feel stress in these moments, perhaps less than some though. I do, however, love watching them as a spectator. Like a gigantic ballet with over 100 participants, the racers stack neatly coming into the corners, and then, in syncopated unison, tilt right in liquid slow motion, and then reverse the angle in the same perfectly timed change of alignment coming out of the corner.
That is, until the first shudder of a wheel touching wheel, or u-shaped handlebar looping another, and then suddenly the whole choreographed works falls apart – a sudden bobble - the silent heat and smell of brakes and the sea of riders divides, ripples of the impending catastrophe moving deadly, silent and quicker than road speed - like a tsunami racing outward, the wave of trepidation washes in concentric circles away from the incident, the true effects of its power observed in the wreckage piling on the shores of the road – clattering against the barriers, flipping over curbs, or pinned by the barriers - bodies and bikes stacking on top of each other like so much flotsam and jetsam.
Why else do all the spectators stand by the corners during the race?
The fear during these laps is palpable – the damp hush inside the pack defying and absorbing the crowd’s reverent and escalating exhortations. With 2 laps to go, the peleton squeezes through the finish tunnel, the parabolic lump pressing its outer scales against the barriers and clapping hands of the crowd, while inside, inert and suffocating, we racers stifle in a paralysis of pressure.
With 2 laps to go in Kenosha, I am surrounded, blind. I am bumping and bruising in the center of the “a%$hole zone” during the tensest moments of the race. As we enter turn 1 – a metallic clanging like an ugly xylophone is heard at the barriers as bodies and bikes of the outermost layer stop themselves with a collapsed clavicle or a burning slide of skin across the sandpaper of the pavement.
Turn two and thank god the barriers are gone as a half dozen riders squirt out onto the grass and re-enter the pack going into the backstretch.
And so we continue with repeated touch and go moments of sprinting, locking up the brakes, bumping, overlapping of wheels, hitting the brakes again, and then sprinting again, avoiding each of the entanglements and bodies bumping ahead of me and beside me until I finally re-enter the finish straightaway with 1 lap to go.
With one lap to go - digestion begins and the constriction holding back the smooth passage of the serpent begins to give way. Despite the near certain death faced by leading the pack with one lap to go, the pressure of the crowd and the noise and the barriers gets into the heads of certain riders, and with a last skeletal crack, they shoot out the mouth of the peleton like so much jelly… I’ve never understood this lemming-like rush to the front with one to go, but I’m always grateful, as it breaks the spine of the pack and shortly thereafter the riders re-align into a more traditional paceline, allowing passing, and the proper positioning for the final sprint to the line.
As we pass the announcer’s booth the noise and roaring of the crowd, the ringing of the bell, and the shouting of the announcer combine to break the will of the animal and a jet of riders flies zinging out the front of the pack. In Kenosha, I’m sitting just right in about 8th place, and I pause and then follow in about 15th place, knowing that the leadout men will churn on the backstretch.
I jump up a few spots on the short second straightaway, and then prepare for my annual signature Kenosha move – an attack just before turn 3 to lead out the sprint. It has never worked for a win, but it has been good for a 4 or 5 year string of consecutive podium finishes over the years – including a 3rd place last year – granted it took place in the less competitive Cat III race.
We drop through the dip in turn two and then head down the longer backstretch. I bide my time for a few seconds and then begin my acceleration. I watch the leadout men take us up to 37mph and then pick the side for my attack.
Normally I’ve used the gutter on the right side to make my move, but it was thick with the leaders, so I was forced to the left side. The other benefit of the left side is that the curb gives way half way down the backstretch, and suddenly more room becomes available. I used the draft and put my full effort into the pedals and slingshotted up the left side, aiming for that last rounded section of curb as it bends away to make my break from the field.
As expected the leaders fanned out and filled most of the road, but my sliver of daylight remained up the left as I headed toward the open space. For just a moment my path was clear and in that interval my mind jumped forward to what would happen next: I would enter turn 3 in first place, I would hold it through turn 4…
I would enter the pandemonium of the screaming crowds on the finish stretch in first place in one of the great pro races of the year, and as we screamed toward the finish I might, or might not, get caught coming into the last 100 meters… and 0? 1? 2? 3? riders would pass me before the line… The potential of a podium finish gave me that extra shot of adrenaline and I gave my kick everything I had heading for a sliver of light on the left side. Arrogance at its finest. I moved nearly abreast of the lead two riders in about 3rd place, still accelerating…
A half second before the road widened, the first place leadout man on the left sat up and swung abruptly left – and our handlebars locked like light-sabers in a Star Wars movie.
My forward progress caused his bars to turn right, and then his rear wheel endoed slightly up and then hit my rear skewer and his bike bucked as spokes twanged and carbon wheels skittered making awful crackling electrical sounds.
He returned to earth, but now righted at an angle taking him directly into my path. I locked up both brakes, but ran right back into his side. Now my bike bucked and endoed and for a second I remember leaning out way over his bike, leaning on his forearms and pushing back with my own trying to get my bike back under me even as he veered back right trying to hold onto it.
I bucked and skittered and then suddenly found the open space past the curb available to me. Despite both of us traveling 40 mph and having both bikes turn sideways and skip and skitter on the rough pavement while our bodies nearly took orbit, we amazingly both stayed on our bikes and neither of us went down. Whoever he was (I only saw his sweaty forearms and multi-colored gloves) he was an experienced rider. There was no panic, no shouting, no anger – nothing but the cold clinical re-balancing efforts to separate our bodies and bikes.
Alive and rolling, but we had slowed from 40 mph to 25mph, and the pack was streaming past us to the right. I accelerated and rejoined the group, but instead of entering turn 3 in first place with some afterburners to enter hyperspace as I had just fantasized, I entered in 20th, engines depleted from the second acceleration.
Leaning hard into the final straightaway, I had nothing left and lost a couple of places in the sprint, latching onto a larger asteroid to finish 24th (again) - still in the money, still surrounded by the same full time professionals I’d been racing, yet disappointed. This was probably my best chance to achieve my goal of winning a Superweek race. Downer Avenue in Milwaukee – to follow the next day – was notorious as one of the hardest races in American cycling, and rumors of a $5000 prime sprint during the race was anticipated to draw additional professionals from all around the country…
After collecting my winnings, I retired to the RV with, Jose & Todd from the wheel pit, Gary and Monica Goebel and their two boys and we laughed and talked and ate. But all the while the little thought remained… “almost… almost…”
Accompanying that was another note – a shrill warning reminding me that one of the toughest challenges in cycling was the following day… “just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped, just don’t get dropped.” And then… “Mochi-dado.”