(originally this was part of a longer letter I wrote to a friend, this is a bit overwritten, but hey, I was 21!)
April 20th, 1992
Let me let you in a bit on my life here, let me try to describe to you how I feel, why racing is such an experience that makes me into the vibrant man that I am... listen and let me describe to you the last couple of hours (I just got back from racing at University of Conneticut, I’m fresh from the shower, fed, I’ll be sleepy in an hour but my body is still glowing from the effort of racing so soon ago) let yourself into my mindset and I’ll try to tell you how it feels... you’re a 22 year old man with 25 inch quads and minimal body fat,a cardiovascular system with heart and lungs that rival an elephant’s- you feel very confident but nervous and tired, after all you are quite experienced at this, you know what to expect, it’s another goshdarn bicycle race
as we Warm up Evan and I are psyched about the course, the course has a long 500 meter uphill (where the finishing line is) that at the top turns left into a bizarre acsess road that winds in the most convoluted way possible between Dorms, Dumpsters, painted sitting rocks, parking lots and off camber hills and corners. The road was narrow to begin with but all of the illegally parked student cars make it into a practical alleyway, an alleyway with the odd patch of sand in it, an alleyway with the cars in the corners (and a few of buildings) padded with haybales and matresses waiting for the inevitable. when a tightly packed crowd of testosterone raging bike races, swoop through this at top speed, crashes are inevitable, and people can hurtle airborne for quite a ways, so the haybales and matresses are obligatory. Anyway the twisty road is mostly downhill, it opens up finally onto a wide open huge 4 lane road that is flat as a pancake, about a kilometer long, that leads into another lefthand corner that climbs the final hill to the finish line, the whole course is about a mile around, we are doing 25 laps, and even the one flat road, the one flat part of the course has no mercy to it because it runs along the big Uconn pond and the wind swirls and whips across the pond and across the road at uncomfotable angles that keep changing.....and keeps blowing sand into your eyes
as I said Evan and I like this course, with our extensive mountain biking experience we have (ahem) a little more balls on the messy corners that the avarage road racer, racing at warp speed down a ten foot wide alleyway is no big deal if you are used to foot wide trails with trees on both sides... Evan and I however are far less than psyched about how our bodies feel, we raced at Williams yesterday and we are simply weary, exhausted, and frankly a little emotionally drained from the heroic occurrences there. my heart rate is fine, my recovery is good, but my legs feel like they are filled with a mixture of cement and stiff leather. oh well... we take about a ten mile long warmup ride, do a couple of sprints, shake out the cobwebs, break a sweat (hard to do in 38 degree pissy weather) and start to feel like human beings again...we hear our category called to the line....now we start to get nervous...
only about thirty racers are at the line, a very small pack, we say hello and greeting to the Umass and Boston University riders that we know, hurl a good natured barb at a particular University of Vermont rider who we know is monsterously strong, he returns it with a grin and an insult about our hair. This course is better for Evan than me, the hill is a bit long for my taste, a bit steep, Evan also has been riding very well lately, heck he won yesterday in dominating fashion, The smart money is on Evan or C.J. the UVM rider. The Referee is giving us our instructions, standard shit about free laps in the event of crashes, cautions about the corners, what the midway sprint is for today (a pizza, cool!)... I hear this speech about 45 times a year, so I only half listen, and schmooze with the announcer. “Dick Ring” is his name, honestly! we know each other well, he announced at my win at Fitchburg and Queens, most people think he’s an asshole, but I like him.
The ref says riders ready (all eyes snap to his upraised hand) GO!!!! thirty really good athletes sprint 150% like mad for the first corner, in a race like this, with this many good riders around, on a course this twisty if you fall too far back in the pack you will be dropped like a stone. I’m fourth to the corner, A UCONN rider launches the first attack, through the twisty part of the course. It’s foolish and too early, but it’s his home race, I guess he’s feeling frisky. Ed, a Umass rider and a good friend of mine, takes the front and chases him down, we whip through the backstretch and up the hill. I feel really really good, already I see some people beginning to suffer. It’s going to be a hard race. For the first few laps I’m never out of the top five, I’m happy to be at the front, weaker riders in the back are more likely to crash because they are more tired, taking more risks in the corners to keep up, better to expend the energy and stay at the front, a UNH rider attacks on the hill on lap 3, we see him coming up along the side of the pack, hammering too early and he doesn’t get even a five foot gap on the field, dispite his effort. Evan has had a bad start, it’s taken him a while to work his way through the pack to get to the front, he passes me with a whoosh of tires and breathing and settles into second position behind our friend from UVM who is leading, time to go to work..
Evan is an extremely good bike handler, he won at Williams and took second at Tufts primarilly because of his ability to take the downhills faster than can be believed. he loves the twisty part of the course and wants to break away, that’s our strategy, set up Evan. I see his eyes working, I see him hovering at the front and timing it. The pack is strung out in a long line. Evan launches an attack, leaning his bike over at an insane angle through the most difficult corner, superfast acceleration out of it. He is quickly chased down, the rest of the racers know us, I slingshot around the chasers as they catch him and mash off of the front of the pack, on the last bit of the twisty stuff, I don’t expect to stay away, I’m trying to wear down the pack for Evan, Ed chases me down to settle a friendly grudge, I beat him at Williams yesterday, he didn’t like it at all.
Over the next five laps I launch two more attacks, one on the hill, one on the flat backstretch, I’m in active mode and am completely agressive. At one point that I’m off the front Evan tries to block the pack through the twisty stuff, slow them down like I did at Tufts, ensuring him the second place he got when he was in a breakaway, but the other riders know me and Evan, They have learned to take any Hampshire jersey at the front as a threat, and chase us down fairly promptly. I’m hurting now, my breathing is a little tight, On the hill at one point I chance a glance behind me, to see how my efforts have affected the field, there are only about seventeen of us left from the starting thirty, good, Evan looks relaxed, even better. 16 laps to go, The UVM rider accelerates on the hill, the pack swarms around and past me, my legs are beginning to burn, to slip a bit. Someone answers the acceleration by mashing hard out of the saddle, a UNH guy zips by on the right, resplendent in my favorite wierd team jersey (all black, covered with red pawprints) things are happening now, the race is entering it’s crucial stage. Everyone is head down in their biggest gears, all at max. My attacks have taken their toll on my legs as well as others, I stomp up the climb again 100% out of the saddle, I can’t quite turn the huge gear, how can I explain how it feels, how can I let you know. I have some photos of me during parts of races where I’m suffering like this, it’s not a pretty sight. My mouth hangs open and my face squinches up from the effort, my eyes look really small. how does it feel, well, you simply have to do what you have to do, you ask of your body all it can give, and hope that it will be enough.
it’s not right now, at the top of the climb, I’m on the wheel of a UCONN rider, I look down for a minute at the rushing pavement, look up and see that he is worse off than me, a 20 meter gap has opened between him and the pack...shit!@#$%^&* I curse loudly (we’re past the spectators, you can do that) and sprint around him (where do i find this strength? again and again) and close the gap in the twisty corners, there are only ten of us left, I see an opening and do a desperado move, between a rider and the curb, My tires squelch through the sand, I’m inches from the curb at 30 miles and hour. I hit the climb in third place (is there really still 12 laps to go? oh no) a Stonybrook rider puts in a BIG attack, I mean Attack with a capital A, he must be 6’6” tall. Skinny as a cruise missile. he puts 100 meters on the pack in no time, people start coming by me again, I’m slower and slower, Evan comes by, he’s got his game face on, when he’s suffering his lips and mouth sometimes seem really huge, but he’s turning the pedals smoothly in the saddle. At the top of the climb the pack is 30 meters ahead, I put everything into the descent, the twisty alleyway is a blur, I have total tunnel vision, everyone is in his own agony, there are people strung out all over the road. Out onto the flat and the gap is still 30 meters, I inch it back slowly in the pissing crosswind. I pass someone who has just been dropped, funny, it’s the Stonybrook rider who just Attacked, he looks like he’s about to blow chunks,
I feel like chunks,
only a handful of riders left now, all looking at each other, slowing for a moment, I make contact at again at the base of the climb, Evan’s at the back too, I stand on the pedals, no form left anymore, just an unwound ball of burning muscles, it’s like trying to run up stairs with disconnected knees and super loose ligaments, while on fire. Ed from Umass accelerates hard, (go ed!), Evan jumps from the back to the front and starts an attack, he’s just about to start making some way serious moves. I’m on fire, completely.
That’s it. That’s it for me, the pack, (if you can call it that) is a long way ahead at the top of the climb, I count how many are left. Six, this is a completely ruthless sport sometimes, the Stonybrook rider comes by me, his long spindly legs turning the pedals like a skimpy marionette, I try to latch onto his wheel, no dice, he drops me on the descent, that’s how tired I am. I cannot turn any kind of a gear, no snap to the pedals, out of the saddle using every ounce of my bodyweight to force out some bit of power, every scrap of acceleration possible, ---nothing . Stonybrook inches away on the flats, okay, seven ahead of me. I catch a glimpse up the course and see Evan Hammering around a corner on the strong UVM rider’s wheel. Good. I’ve done my job. My mind is a little broken too, it always is when you are dropped, I come up the climb is my easyest gear, nothing else will do. My mouth is hanging open, it feels like my beard is brushing the handlebars. My head and shoulders are bobbing. Dick Ring for once is mercifully silent as I cross in front of the reviewing stand alone, his constantly ringing orations have serenaded us every time on the climb. He knows how I feel, he has raced for many years. he used to be an olympic class speed skater, I look at the lap card, still 10 laps to go.....
A lap later a group of four catches me, a different UVM rider, the strong UNH rider who was attacking earlier and two UCONN riders, one of whom was the one I was stuck behind on the hill, he has absolutely huge legs, but no speed. He obviously equates leg size with strength, and does much too much weight room work.
I sit in for a while, we aren’t going that fast, all of us having been dropped, all of us trying to recover. My legs are still burning, tingling, muscles really tired. my chest hurts from breathing. My heart recovers alright luckily, and I get my wits about me, start efficiently pedaling and taking the corners smoothly again. Start watching, seizing up the other guys. The UNH rider is still strong, he is doing most of the work at the front, he still has some snap to his legs, breaking the wind as we sit in the draft behind his wheel. The UVM rider is decent, but tired like me, he has an odd grin on his face, maybe it’s his race grimace, maybe he’s suffering and bluffing, he sure looks pleasant though. The two UCONN riders don’t worry me. On the climb I seem to be the strongest in the group, I set a good tempo (7 laps to go) and stand out of the saddle in a big gear to test everyone else, I see the UCONN riders strain, the big legged one is even dropped briefly but catches back on on the descent. I don’t do a lot of work on the flats, the UNH and UVM rider do that, I lead on the hills. Dick Ring starts talking about us to the crowd (“strong Hampshire rider Andy Love is leading this 5 man group up the climb these riders are facing a 3 minute gap on the leaders..blah blah blah etc blah etc blah nausium ad infinatum”)
3 laps to go. I want eighth place. I feel pretty good now, my legs have stopped tingling. I don’t want to leave this to a sprint, the UNH guy looks too fresh. I start planning, start testing my legs in the corners, stretching a bit, conserving energy for an attack, I keep a close eye on the other riders, they all are as experienced as me and we all know how to race, we all put in the miles..... coming up the climb we hear the bell for the final lap, 1 to go.... the small crowd is making some noise. I’m getting antsy, I slink up to second place, UNH is in the lead, he tries to shift and misses it completely, his bike makes an awful crunching noise, he is looking down, fiddling with the shift lever, Now! Now! NOW! I stand up and put everything into an attack, I fly up the climb like it’s a flat road. at 24 mph, I feel the UVM rider trying to catch my wheel briefly, but the feeling melts away as his legs do. I crest the climb, alone, dump it into my biggest gear and plummet down through the twisty stuff without touching the brakes, now is the time for risks!, I hang everything out on every corner. My heart is jumping but my legs are holding out fine, I scruff of little bits of speed wherever possible, wherever I dare. I dare!!!. I hit the final flat and look behind, I have a good gap, 50 meters or so on the 4 guys behind me, big, but not big enough to be comfortable. The side wind whips in off of the pond and slamms me like a fist, I slow noticeably, ugh!, a kilometer from the finish, this is where one proves what one is made of, this is what separates the men from the men, this is what makes a good racer, where you find your Panache, as the french racers say
I don’t even think about what It feels like at this point, as I stand on my pedals and crank out a higher notch of speed, looking behind I am amazed see the big nasty UCONN rider has dropped the other guys and is closing like a mack truck, but the finish is too close.
I remember having the very distinct thought as I sped through the final corner into the last 500 meter hill that all I need to do is sprint as hard as I can and there is no way in hell UCONN can catch me, all I need to do is do what i know how to do. What I’m sure I can do. what I have trained so hard to do. I have chosen this and I can accomplish it, such small victories in this suffering, but they are victories, they are my victories, all mine!. So I stand up on the pedals, raise out of the saddle and pull on the handlebars one last time, mash in the big ring up the final hill, totally running on fumes, my legs don’t really feel it anymore, and I hear Dick Ring’s ecstatic voice floating through my pain. It’s all I hear and feel as the searing white line in the pavement whips closer and Dick says it all in one long super inflated breath “ and-here-
Eighth place. Eighth place of 30. Crossing the line, it’s so suddenly over, I have to close my eyes for a second or two, my face screws up in pain and a big grin all at once. Some kind of noise comes out of my throat, I don’t know how to describe it, except kind of a grunt of joy and pain using absolutely no breath, since I have none available. I am damm proud of myself, 8th of 30, I spin around the course for a while, really really really slow, talking to the 4 guys that I had been riding with, I apoligise to the UNH rider for attacking him while he was having shifting trouble, my sense of honor feels like I committed some slightly dirty pool. He laughs and say “Hey don’t worry about it, that’s bike racing, besides, you rode that last lap damm damm fast!”
I still don’t know who won, I am hoping for Evan, I drift back to the start-finish area, he’s waiting for me there with a smug grin on his face, has he won again? We grasp each others hand in a firm grip that is always so much more between us, “how’d it go Ev?” “Fourth, UVM won” “I took eighth” “great, awesome! you were riding hard” Such simple words Evan and I use, but we know. We spin around the course once, slow, talking about the race in excited tones. At least it wasn’t raining today like it was yesterday (we had to clean the sand out of our ears after the Williams race, our legs looked like a turf samples, we scrubbed and scrubbed) . After the tufts race, where Evan took second and I took eighth, we rode around the course for half an hour, we were so proud of ourselves that we almost didn’t want it to end, we didn’t want to go back to the van and change, we just wanted to keep riding, to keep and bottle that incredibly proud feeling that wells up inside yourself after a good race, where you know that you pushed yourself, that you succeeded against both the pain in you and the other riders, that you are satisfied.....
We talk in the van, while changing, I chastise myself for attacking so hard at the beginning, for wearing myself out so much that I couldn’t follow the final move, although I am proud about my last lap attack. Evan in his usual laconic way is going on about how it really wasn’t that hard, how he had a good rhythm, how he felt good out of the saddle and he could feel his legs recover every time he sat back down, How strong the UVM guy is and that he didn’t really quite sprint like he wanted to but he’s happy anyway after winning Williams. When I tell him that the top three spots get these awfully wonderful ugly tall blue trophies, and that he just missed, he gets pissed for not a least taking third. He’s a tremendously talented rider, he has won medal after medal, placed in race after race, but he only has two trophies, all I seem to win are these tall trophies and plaques. He wants some trophies, I’m looking for medals. But that’s not the reasons that we race, just fun ones to point out, as we change and kibbutz with the UVM team van and riders that are parked next to us (all 20 of them and 2 of us). Why do we do it? Our legs, now happily inside jeans, ache as we walk, we woke up at 5:45am this morning to drive here and get ready, my chest hurts from breathing so hard for so long, why do we do it? Ed from the UMASS team walks by, he took second today, proud as a peacock, I’m happy for him, Evan and I are fairly puffed out ourselves, but we are a little more used to doing well, Ed has suffered and dropped out a lot this year, (he wiled the winter away in the grasp of the flu instead of training), this second place must really mean something to him. Ed has a really bad stutter, he looks like tom cruise with a funny nose. I wonder how long it’s going to take for him to tell the story of this race to his girlfriend, hell, ed will be so excited that the 1st syllable will probably take at least an hour.
Why do we do it? do you read and understand at least a little bit? do you catch the feeling and emotion that goes on behind our eyes when we talk about racing? when we show this very physical expression of who we are. Why we are here, every weekend. Why we do it, Why we love it!
I hope so.