Is this what doping feels like?

I ran into some poison ivy last week. Or poison oak. Either way, it was a nightmare on my arms and legs. Horrible stuff. I tweeted a hilarious joke about it: “Ran into poison ivy while looking for my golf ball in the woods. So that makes me a scratch golfer.”
That tweet got one ‘like’, which is about what all my other tweets get. I’m not much of a writer.

My doctor gave me Prednisone. For the poison oak. Not for my writing.
(Wiki says: a synthetic glucocorticoid drug that is mostly used to suppress the immune system. It is used to treat certain inflammatorydiseases (such as moderate allergic reactions).
I’d been given a prescription for Pred years ago, but a friend said it was “nasty shit” that kept her awake for 4 days straight, so I never filled it. This time, I had to. I was in agony.
I’ve been on it now for 3 of its 7 days. Sleeping fine. Diet is normal. Peeing and pooping without issues. I haven’t grown any body hair in any unusual locations. But today I went out and rode 60 miles as if it were 10.
I’m happy to admit that I am completely naive about the effects of doping. I’ve read books and heard stories, but I had no practical knowledge. I’ve actually never drank coffee. I’ve never had a Red Bull. A caffeinated gel is the only thing I’ve ever used on race day. I once put a de-fizzed Coke in my water bottle because one of the Astellas guys suggested it.

Today’s ride was remarkable. And quite unnerving that these little tiny pills can give that much power and make such a difference. I could just GO all day without worrying about tapping out. My legs were never sore. I never felt stressed. I’m not super fast, and I still climb like crap because I’m 217 pounds and not in great shape. I didn’t set any Strave KOMs, but I had a bunch of PRs and could push really hard on the flat sections for miles.
It would be nice for me to draw a comparison using power data, but I don’t use a meter.

I got a quick sense of invincibility. I could dig deep for 20 minutes and go again immediately after. No recovery needed.  Boundless energy.
I immediately understood why guys who dope feel so superior. It’s a FAKE superiority, of course, and I knew it was fake as it was happening.  But I can see how it could go to one’s head; I felt like a world beater. Especially when I compare it to how I’ve felt on every other 60-mile ride I’ve done in the past 10 years.
I have no worries of ever testing positive. I didn’t take out a racing license this year. I don’t race in non-sanctioned events. This stuff will be through my system long before ski race season, and I’ll never compete with anything but Nuun tablets in my bottles. This was just an unexpected test that produced some eye-popping results.

But finally, my own untested and unscientific theory about why old male bike racers dope got taken for its first test drive today:  I think that one of the hardest things for a competitive athlete to do is to lose a step – to not be able to go as fast as they once could despite training harder, eating better, or buying more bike shit. (What they should be doing is reading my second book, Reading the Race. That’ll help them race better. Just being honest.) And I’ve always suspected that Masters racers (specifically men, because that’s all I can speak to) who choose to dope do so because of diminishing performance caused by aging. And it’s worse in cycling than in other sports because watching a pack of riders – in which you used to be competitive – ride away from you is the most defeating feeling in the world. When you get tired in most other sports (tennis, basketball, soccer, baseball), you sit down, take a rest, go back out, play some more, sit out an inning, go back out.  Maybe you don’t chase after the ball so hard. You learn to pace yourself. But you still play your best.
Unfortunately, in cycling, there is nowhere to hide. You get dropped and beaten and humiliated – in real time – for all to see. It’s harsh, but it’s how the sport works.
And SOME guys simply can not handle that.
So they dope.

 

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Photos of Astellas – 2016 Sunny King

These photos are from the 2016 season when things had already begun to unravel for the team. As I wrote on page 181, Astellas corporate had already indicated that they wouldn’t fund the entire budget. The crit squad – with the help of Aldo Illesic’s connection to Specialized – acquired their own un-branded (or I should say, Specialized-branded) kits for the early seasons races such as Sunny King in Anniston Alabama. (The team was sponsored by Pactimo who – shortly after Sunny King – supplied all the kits.)
I drove down from Detroit and spent the weekend with them. This photos are from that trip.
Below: The team camp a few blocks up Noble St. from the Start/Finish.  from L to R, it’s Eamon, Aldo, Monk, Ian, Clay, and I think that’s Ryan’s hand at the extreme right. No idea who’s sitting on the cooler. Gary Bavolar is standing looking off into space.
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Here’s a better shot of Gary actually working on the Specialized aluminum bikes that got a lot of attention throughout the year. That a pro team would ride a low priced Al frame was kind of unheard of. Yet those things held up really well, and they were surprisingly easy to find in the fast-moving field. That comes in handy when you’re standing along the course trying to find your 6 guys.
Gary was one of our reliable freelancers who worked with the team from time to time, especially after the firing of the full time mechanic… (whose name I omitted so as not to embarrass anyone.) Gary was also with us at Richmond Worlds discussed on page 160.

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Here are some more shots from that weekend. The Specialized kits were NOT as easy to spot in the peloton, but they were only temporary, so who cares? It was better than riding naked.

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Here’s Clay getting a call-up to the starting line. Notice Mac Brennan (Holowesko-Citadel) wearing arm and leg warmers. Yes, Alabama gets chilly at night in April. Go figure. Also notice that Clay’s riding FFWD sew-ups. Those wheels were fast and durable. The team loved them.

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Here’s Monk and Ryan riding in numerical order through the final corner onto 11th St.

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I didn’t include a recap of this particular race in American Pro because it was a pretty standard affair. (I talk about it during some of the earlier seasons, but not 2016). The team did OK, but the race was dominated by Holowesko and UHC. I don’t remember who won. I could look it up, but that requires more research.
Researching these races – and deciding which ones to use in the book – was an onerous task. The team raced a LOT in its 5 years, and I had to figure out which races to include in the book and which ones to skip. When you’re limited to 60,000 words, you can’t include everything, nor can you write about every rider. I had to pick and choose the races according to the Big Picture of what I was trying to say. Consequently, some riders receive a short shrift.  For example, this guy…

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Ian Keough, comes from a long line of racing brothers, the famous Keough family from Massachusetts. Great rider. Good kid. He was on the crit squad for most of 2016, yet he hardly appears in the book. NOT because he was invisible, but because the races that he raced didn’t make the cut. Sorry, Ian!

I’ll have more from this weekend trip to Sunny King along with other stories/photos of the Astellas experience. Stay tuned.

American Pro – The story behind the stories

I’m very proud to announce the release of American Pro, my third book from VeloPress.

It’s actually two stories interwoven. The first is of the rise and fall of the Astellas Pro Cycling Team which raced at the Domestic Elite and UCI Continental levels from 2012-2016. The second is of American cycling and the sponsorship model that fails so often.

Plenty of books exist telling of an individual rider’s experiences at the pro level. Bob Roll, Joe Parkin, Phil Gaimon, Michael Berry and others have told that story. VeloPress and I felt that the same sort of story should be present from the team’s perspective. American Pro follows the path from the very first thought to the last good byes, and a little beyond.

The main theme of the book is that bike racing is run from the bottom up. Grass roots. Ordinary people stepping up to  make it happen, whether it’s the notion of starting a team or a club or the act of putting on a bike race. There is no overlord sitting on high waving a magic hand to make things appear or disappear; it’s up to us. And the model that we use to fund our dreams is broken. Or perhaps it never really worked. Maybe we just kind of made it work against it’s own will. And that needs to change.

So now I have three books available for you to read. And they kind of follow an order. It’s almost like I planned for them to be a trilogy. I didn’t. It just kind of happened that way.

1. Roadie – The Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer
This is a book for new riders. It’s also written for your friends, family, and co-workers who have no idea why you race bikes. It’s a fun read made even more fun by the illustrations of Jef Mallett, the creator of Frazz, one of my favorite comic strips.

2. Reading the Race
Now that you’re hooked on bike racing, you need a deeper dive into the strategies and techniques of actually riding. I avoid power numbers and training stuff. That’s Joe Freel’s realm. Reading the Race is more hands on.

3. American Pro
Deeper into the sport we go. This one explains more about the bike racing world and the struggles of team management.

A couple of notes about American Pro:
–  I couldn’t possibly write about every single rider on the team. There were >40 riders who wore the Astellas kit. To include details about every one would confuse the daylights out of the reader. I had to choose stories that best told the story of THE TEAM. Sifting through hundreds of race results and stories meant finding the ones with the most bite to them. While I would have loved to have given each rider more space, it would have made the book too difficult to follow.
– I tend to inject some humor into my writing. My favorite authors are Douglass Adams and Bill Bryson who are both truly brilliant and funny. I’m definitely neither of them. I’m also not Chaucer. And I’m not Encyclopedia Brittanica. And it’s bike racing. Lighten up.
– I omitted an Acknowledgments page in American Pro. I did this because I knew I’d forget someone. I’ve forgotten people in the past, and I feel horrible about it. So this way, I neglect everyone and no one at all.
– My next book will be fiction. The amount of research required for a non-fiction book, even if the topic is one that I profess to know, is ridiculous. My head still hurts from this effort. I hope you enjoy it.

Cycling really hasn’t changed much in 26 years.

Here are two photos taken 26 years apart just moments before the start of a race. Note the similarities:

The most obvious is Ray, the subject of the photos. He’s still on the same team, and he’s still racing the Pro-1-2. And still starting near the back despite his own advice to start on the front line.

(He’s the guy I reference on p.161 of Reading the Race. Go read it now.)

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The scary-weird not-so-obvious similarities in this photo:
1. Someone’s helmet near Ray’s right ear.
2. The rider standing in the same pose with his right leg up and his right hand on his saddle.
3. The rider just to the right of Ray with his right arm extended.
4. The back of a rider on the far right.

Yeah, it’s not the most groundbreaking blog post, but curious nonetheless.

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:

VeloPress.com
Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Chapters/Indigo
your local bookstore

 

Old School meets New School. Old school wins.

I said I had more to say about the Herman Miller Brickyard Criterium in Grand Rapids, and here it is. Make of it what you will.

As you should have read in the previous post, Bissell-ABG had a rider ‘up the road’ with a good-sized lead. They also had a posse at the front of the field mucking up any chase efforts.

At one point, the other teams got their collective shit together, went to the front, took over the first seven spots, and began a concerted and organized chase effort. The gap started to fall.

So now, at this point, if you’re on the Bissell-ABG team, what do you do? Do you…
A. go up to the front and actively/forcibly get in their way? Or…
B. sit in and allow the other teams to work without interruption?

And if you choose Option A, how active/forced do you get?

Opinions vary. I think the answer comes down to which school you come from: Old School or New School.

Classic old school tactics would have Bissell-ABG riders going to the front throwing elbows and jabbing their brakes to intimidate the other teams. They would pinch riders into the curb to slow them down. They would get verbally abusive. They would take scary lines through the turns to discourage other riders from overtaking them.

That’s what Eddie B. taught us. That’s what everyone did back in the day. It was considered normal. Ask Jonas. Ask Thurlow. Ask Frankie.

(I remember a time when the rider next to me reached over and squeezed my brake lever to slow me down. I won’t name names.)
(I remember a time when a rider grabbed my jersey as I started to accelerate to chase his teammate.)
(I remember having a rider stick his shoulder into my ribs and push me off the road when I tried to pass.)

More modern tactics (not necessarily New School) would see Bissell-ABG mixing things up at the front of the pack. Not in a physical way, but in a passive “get-in-the-way” way, which is what B-ABG was doing until the other teams took over control of the front.

But something changed about the time that Lance Armstrong was “winning” his 7 Tours de France. In a nutshell, more people watched the Tour on TV, got interested in racing, took notes while watching the Tour, and then brought those tactics to an American bike race.

Today’s generation of bike racers thinks Eddie B is just a lame store at the outlet mall.

In the TdF, there is no ‘blocking’ to speak of. When it’s time to reel in the breakaway, the sprinters’ teams go to the front and bring back the breakaway unimpeded by blocking tactics. The breakaway riders’ teams get out of the way and give the chasers a free reign at the front.

That’s what these New School cretins have brought to American criteriums: the lameness of Eddie Bauer.

Well, it became an issue in Grand Rapids when Bissell-ABG decided to get a little more assertive in their blocking efforts. They moved to the front, barged into the line, bumped a few elbows, and made a lot of riders angry.

The other teams felt that since they had control of the front, Bissell-ABG should back off. (This was actually verbalized by a rider later.)

Things got argy bargy after that. Riders began chopping each other and brake checking each other. It was awesome. Even the spectators noticed what was going on. It was old school.

For a minute there, I thought I caught a whiff of wool.

Things finally settled down. No one got hurt in the exchanges. But there was a decided rift between the two styles of riding and which one was thought to be more acceptable.

And of course, we can blame Lance. For making cycling popular and therefore influencing the modern bike racer with a kinder and gentler set of tactics. Or maybe we can just blame society, come to think of it.

My advice to new riders is to go find a quiet grassy area in a shady park somewhere, ride back and forth together, and beat the hell out of each other until you are completely unfazed by bodily contact.

It’s going to happen; there are a lot of Old School guys still racing their bikes.

To learn more drills and skills, there’s a book I want you to read…

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:

VeloPress.com
Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Chapters/Indigo
your local bookstore

When it’s your turn to attack.

Bissell-ABG brought numbers to the Herman Miller Brickyard Criterium in Grand Rapids, Michigan last week. It’s the hometown of their title sponsor, and they wanted to win one for the gipper. OK, no problem. You’ll still need a plan.

Their plan was to launch one attack after the next and force the other teams to respond to each one. By doing so enough times, they would soften up the field sufficiently to launch a winning move later in the race. Classic team maneuver.

The attacks began on the first lap. Two Bissell-ABG riders went clear. All the other teams chased like hell. When those two Bissell riders got reeled in, another Bissell rider attacked. Nate Williams, who had spent the morning on his feet as the volunteer coordinator for this event, didn’t really intend to stay away. He only wanted to make life hard for the other teams. And that’s what happened. He stayed away for about 4 laps before getting reeled in.

Mac Brennan was the next to attack. Same plan: just go out there and ride tempo for as long as you can and make the other teams do the work to bring you back. With 54 laps to go, no one expects you to stay out there all day, Mac.

Ha.

With his Bissell-ABG teammates stationed at the front of the pack, his lead grew steadily.

The Herman Miller Brickyard course is, for the most part, a wide and flat 4-corner loop with a good long stretch of cobbles between turns 1 and 2. But there was a challenging chicane located between turns 3 and 4 that forced riders to handle their bikes.

That chicane was challenging enough to create solo winners in three of the previous races that day. It wasn’t as bad as the “Ann Arbor Meat Grinder” that I wrote about in Reading the Race, the greatest book ever written (on bike racing strategy). But this one did have an effect. A solo rider could fly through it, but a field could get clogged up in it.

Mac languished out in front for several laps. Other teams tried to mount a counter offensive, but Bissell-ABG had the numbers to really control the effort. The word ‘throttle’ can be used as a replacement for accelerator or to choke.

In this story, it means choke. The field was throttled.

So let’s think of Mac’s effort for a minute. He attacked with the idea that either a few riders would bridge across to him, or that he would wear down the other teams until he was caught. He never intended to stay clear for 54 laps. Solo.

At some point, his solo breakaway reached a turning point. He had to decide whether to let himself get caught or commit to going the distance. And if he commits, the pressure to succeed is immense. The weight of his entire team and sponsor rides on his shoulders. And if he does fail, he knows it would be disaster to get caught too late. If he gets caught within the last ten laps, his team won’t have time to get another breakaway started. They’ll have to sprint against everyone else, and there were some notoriously fast sprinters in the field who were not wearing Bissell jerseys.

Well, it ended up being a monumental effort. He stayed away for 54 laps. By himself. He won the race. It all worked out in the end. (I have more to say about this race, but I’ll save it for another time.)

But I want you to know that this is what you sign up for when you attack in a bike race. If you find yourself in this position, whether you’re on a solo breakaway or in a small group, you have to know that your teammates are now betting all their money on your horse. And that your game plan that you agreed to in the pre-race meeting can get tossed out the window when the race starts.

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:

VeloPress.com
Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Chapters/Indigo
your local bookstore

 

The Most Exciting Race (that nobody saw)

West Branch Road Race, West Branch, Michigan  June 15th

You know those volunteers who drive the wheel truck at small road races? They ride behind the main pack all day waiting for someone to get a flat tire so that they can dig through the tangle of wheels in the bed of their truck to hopefully find the right one. Well, I was that driver for this race because I’m trying to see the sport from as many angles as possible. And that means doing some of the thankless jobs that we leave to unknown volunteers who never get thanked but without them we’d have no races.

The course is, in a word, national caliber. OK, that’s two words. Here are a couple more: Hard. Brutal. And somewhat scenic. Hills and wind that would grind the pack down to a nub.  We’re doing 4 laps of this meat-grinder 22-mile loop.

The Pro-1-2- field was small. Only 18 riders signed up for this race, so the odds of me seeing any wheel-changing action was pretty small. As it turns out, I didn’t change one wheel all day. Instead, I sat alone in the truck playing Maynard Ferguson really loudly. But I saw awesome racing.

I’ll try to keep this from rambling, but there’s a lot of nuance in what I saw:

We lost a handful of riders on the first lap, so the field was down to about 14. On the second lap, five more riders fell off the pace on one hard climb (Campbell Road). When they lost enough ground, I passed them and continued to stay with the leaders. The rule in driving follow vehicles like this is “Follow the money”, so because today’s prize list pays to 10 places, I needed to stay with the riders who are in contention for prizes. I watched in my rearview mirror as the small group fell further and further behind. I could feel their pain. With fewer numbers they would be fighting a losing battle in this wind on these hills.

Meanwhile, the racing continue at the front of the field. Two riders broke away. Two more riders were chasing. The field was struggling in the wind, but they were still fighting. So you have a picture of this, we have a lead group of two, a chase group of two, and the main field is now five riders. 9/10s of the prize money are in front of me. Far behind me, the chasers were fighting for 10th place.

Looking in my rearview mirror, I could occasionally catch a glimpse of the small group behind. Amazingly, they were hanging on at the same distance to the rear: roughly a minute. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. For the entire 3rd lap, they were still within sight.

Nuance: Every now and then, out of curiosity, some of the riders in the main field took a look over their shoulder to see if anyone was catching back up. This is an interesting sign of respect. They aren’t counting out those who got dropped. Mainly because one is Adam McClounie, a very strong Canadian rider, and Ben Whitehead, a very strong Grand Rapids rider. It was strange to see them get dropped.

But whenever a rider looked over their shoulder, they did it at a time when trees or terrain hid the chasers from sight. Because of the hilly terrain, there were places where you could look behind and see 3 miles of empty roadway. But not ALL of the roadway.  It was a game of peek-a-boo taking place for the entire 3rd lap. Eventually, the riders in the main field forgot about it and stopped looking over their shoulder. Bad idea.

The chasers were gaining.

With less than a lap to go, the main field was slowing down. Almost imperceivably, but it was obvious that they were pooped. And the chasers kept coming. They had been languishing at more than a minute behind as mere specks in the distance, but they had never quit. When we made the turn onto Campbell Road for the last time, the gap was down to 30 seconds. Campbell Road was into a fierce headwind. Campbell Road is hilly. We were going 12mph.

With about 8 miles to go, the chase group of four had been whittled down to just two riders: Adam and Ben. They had been chasing for almost 50 miles. For what? 9th place? Yep. 9th freakin’ place. Don’t you love that?

15 seconds.

10 seconds.

Oh man, I thought, are these guys going to be totally shocked when they get caught. They haven’t looked over their shoulder in more than an hour.

I pulled off to the side of the road to let Adam and Ben pass me. Adam smiled as they rolled by.

The reaction was priceless among the main field. It was Double-take City, and these guys were running for Mayor.

Now we have seven riders in contention for six remaining ‘paying’ places. I could see that every one of the riders in this group was fighting off cramps. When they rotated to the back of the group, I watched as they each shook, rubbed, stretched, and coaxed their legs out of sight from the others. On the final brutal climb, they sorted everything out. The fresher guys went to the fore. The dead guys struggled.

The two riders who chased for more than half the race finished in 9th and 10th place. I don’t know how much money they won for that gargantuan effort. But that’s clearly not the point. They could have easily ridden out the last half of that race at an easy pace, but they raced the whole damn race. If I were them, I would frame the check and hang it somewhere in their house. The reminder is more important than the gas they could buy with it.

I’m sorry you didn’t get to see that epic battle taking place in the back of the Pro-1-2 field.

Maybe you should volunteer to drive the wheel truck sometime.

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:

Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Chapters/Indigo
your local bookstore
TriSports
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