August 11 & 12, 2007: Race reports 17 & 18, Elk Grove, Illinois
Somehow this quiet little Chicago suburb has developed cycling fever with major dollars to be won here over this two day series - one of the only races series besides the nationals to separate the pros from Cat 1/2’s, and the highest purse in all of American cycling . For Cat 1/2: $10,000 day one, and $25,000 day two.
Day One: I arrived and used my U. S. Cellular parking passes, complements of Keith Blackmon and our sponsorship there, to park right by the course. As I headed for the registration area, I realized that I had no money. Go figure. Then I passed Frankie Andreu enroute, and, in that instant, childhood bonds worked their magic – I asked him without even a second thought for $60 and he, without blinking gave it to me. I love that about childhood friendships. Of course I paid him back, and of course he didn’t worry about it.
The race got underway. I played it a little safe after last year’s crash, coming around the last corner in second place with 400m to go – and facing a headwind sprint, finally ended up in 7th.
Day two: A $5000 first prize, $25,000 total and a fast pace, and an even scarier pack. When I arrived, I coasted to the course only to stumble upon one of those David Lynch-like scenes:
A rider had just crashed in the Cat 4 race and was face down alone in the middle of the course, the pack long gone, limbs splayed out at awkward angles and blood was slowly puddling in front of his cracked helmet. As police arrived to cordon off the scene, the rider’s son suddenly appeared. As the boy rushed closer, time rippled away and his 18 years become 8 – and he began screaming, his voice cracking, begging with agonizing high pitched broken shrieks like a little boy, his age betrayed only by the hoarse throaty inhales – trying to push through the gauntlet. “DAD!!!!” – intercepted by paramedics, “Leave me alone!” “DAD! DAD! DAD!!!!” Most of the women standing around the scene were crying. I felt sick. What if Katelina… I stopped the thought.
I’m rattled now.
The race is nervous, packed and fast. I hang in the back for safety and then make my moves in the last lap to slot to the front. I could go all the way up and lead the sprint like yesterday – guarantee top 10 finish – but I slot in in about 10th – same place that I crashed in last year – to try and have a shot at the win - it couldn’t happen twice – right?
In the final lap, the oddest crash I’ve ever witnessed happened. I was moving up the right side of the peleton on one of the mild curves in the long straightaways. Ahead the road narrowed again, so I slotted back into the pack, watching with interest another rider trying to use the same section of pavement to clear all the way into the front of the pack.
The subtle turn found his trajectory and that of the lead riders in conflict and predictably, he was forced into the grey metal skeleton of the barriers, with the always surprising loud staccato of handlebars tapping out a rhythm against the ribs, followed by the loud gunshot report of the final catch of a pedal or brake handle and the shrieking of metal on metal and carbon on tarmac as he fell.
All this is quite normal, sadly. But what was uncommon was what his feather-lite bike did next.
I watched him go down, I watched his shoulders bite the pavement, and then I watched in awe as his feet whipped over his head and launched his bike through the air with exactly the same whipping motion that professional soccer players use for “throw-ins” from the sidelines.
His bike knifed through the air sideways like a giant tubular boomerang, traveling at twice our speed, and then even more oddly, scissored onto the seatpost of one of the lead riders – 50 feet in front of the downed rider.
It stopped and stuck – perfectly sideways – like a gigantic mudguard over the rider’s rear wheel. The rider was still able to function perfectly and continued to pedal while carting this large pannier over his rear wheel. I’m not even sure he was immediately aware – but all of us started talking all at once with virtually the same words – “holy sh*# - I’ve never, ever, seen anything like that before!”
The rider eventually reached down and with some insistent tugging, dropped the errant frame from his own to the dismay of several riders behind who then plowed into it. By this time, the entire front half of the field was laughing though gasping for breath.
Meanwhile I moved up…
On the backstretch there was a crosswind and we were all riding in the right-hand gutter. There was a leadout man and it was safe because he wound it up to 40mph and stretched it out: 600m to go and I’m in 10th place in a single file line – perfect. Only 200m until the next and final corner – no chance of it bunching up now – I’m safe…
Then it happens… the rider in 8th suddenly tracks too close to the curb and has to hop up to keep his balance. No big deal – except that he also brakes, just a little, and then swings back down, bouncing back off the lip of the curb clipping the front wheel of the rider in 9th in the process.
At 40mph the physics are virtually instantaneous – rider #9’s front wheel turns from the impact and launches his body like a rocket over the handle bars. My front wheel slams directly into his sideways frame and I repeat the launch – somehow abandoning my bike in the process.
When I finally skid to a stop, I’m over 100 feet from our interlocked bikes and in a state of absolute adrenaline overload from the preceding moments in between.
The in-between is the worst kind of torture. You might imagine that the meat of your limbs, grinding against the sandpaper of concrete at 40mph might be a nerve jangling grating experience, but its nothing like that at all.
Imagine pressing your hand to a smoking hot iron griddle left too long on the burner in the kitchen – that’s the initial feeling – that incredible overwhelming desire to pull it away from that searing, smoking pain. But… this is where it really gets worse – now imagine as you try to pull away, that someone clamps down on your hand, and presses your palm 2, and 3 times as hard into the pan, flattening the flesh, burning quickly into those softer recesses – those most sensitive areas.
THAT’s what it feels like when your naked flesh skids across yards of pavement at 40mph – first it was my shoulder held to the burning crucible, harder, harder, smoldering as I shriek internally, and then a sudden tumble, legs flailing, shoes clipping the pavement and then my hip – smoldering, flaming, and then my leg, my other shoulder, my knee, my elbow – and so on like the spasmodic turnings of a hellish human rotisserie.
When all is done, the concrete has burned holes through my skinsuit in a half dozen spots, and burned raw deep flaying wounds in both shoulders, both elbows, both knees, both shins, and worst of all, two red pancake sized rib-eyes into both sides of my gluteus maximus.
I retrieve my bike. I mount. I sit. I ride. “You gotta get back on the bike Coyle!” Walden’s voice plain as day in my head.
I laugh my way through the eternal cleaning, scrubbing, and bandaging process in the medical tent, marveling at my own progress in compartmentalizing the pain. But I know the worst is to come. Always before the road rash has had a “side” to it – front, left, right, or back. But this time – no place to hide, and no place to sit down. No place to sleep.
Walking back to the car I find myself suddenly shrinking with embarrassment – like a kid in junior high who has thrown up in the hallway. Pausing for the janitor to scrub it up, and now suddenly I can’t wait to not be seen… why?
Sitting down in the bed on the day after the crash takes over a full minute, and relaxing each abdominal contraction creates a new swollen compressing burning agony. Waking past midnight, I realize I am stuck to the sheets, wanting to turn, but I can’t without massive tearing agony.
I’m frozen. Claustrophobic.
I stare at the ceiling and feel the fibers of the gauze slowly but inevitably cleave to my flesh in an itchy ratcheting progression – each requiring an agonizing bloody separation the next morning with the change of bandages. What, exactly, is it in the body that provides the yellow color to the gauze?
Back at work the next day, it requires 20 seconds to sit down on all the gauze between me and the seat, and nearly as long to stand up – feeling the seepage, seeing the small stains on my dress pants – back to the restrooms for 2, now 3 gauze pad changes. Why do I do this again?
A few days later and I’m out on a post- superweek training ride. I have always loved training rides at this time of the season. Gone are the muscular aches and pains. Gone is the guilt for not putting in more hours, gone is the need to put in massive efforts. If in April the same level of effort and discomfort was 14 mph, in August it was 22mph – gained in the passing months was fitness, confidence, speed, the wind, and that August air – heat and light and that special warm blue…
Usually, when I’m feeling good on a training ride and don’t have a particular agenda, I’ll suddenly sprint – warm up the legs, get a good bit of speed going, feel the wind of 25, 30, 34mph stream past my face. This all usually takes about 10 seconds – from concept to fulfillment.
Today was different. Suddenly I felt no real spring when I started up out of the saddle. But instead of sitting down I continued on, ‘winding it up’ – something I usually hated to do. But I was loving it – this gradual inertia, faster, longer on the pedals, breathing – breathing – what a novel concept in a sprint – and ever faster.
The hum began and extended – what a pleasure to be able to “sprint” for more than a few seconds. I finally started to have a vague concept of what some athletes felt or meant when they said “I attacked and then kept going” – it was a feeling of extended power, confidence, tenacity.
30 seconds in, my speed was at 30mph. 45 seconds and I was at 31mph. One minute and I was at 32mph… This was an eternity at this speed and I was proud, confident. I used my reserves to push beyond my usual limits …. Looking down with expectation was deflated by the 33mph I saw there. Even out of shape I could usually hit 34 mph – lost… lost… lost…lost was the ‘magic.’
My sprint was gone.
I had become a “roadie.”