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Sports-Pictorial.com
 

Team Time Trial

By Dana Albert

Introduction

During eleven seasons of bicycle racing, I was on many different teams and, like any cyclist, have built up a vast library of stories, most of them not worth dwelling on. But in 1990, during my second year of collegiate racing at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I was on the team that represented our school at the NCCA Collegiate National Cycling Championships at Stanford. This was the tightest, most effective team—of any kind—I’ve ever been a part of, and I’m going to tell you the story of our Nationals Team Time Trial, and, necessarily, everything else surrounding it.

Crash

The story really begins—my story, anyway—three weeks before Nationals. Ever wonder what it would be like to crash on a really fast descent? I’ll tell you about it. I crashed descending Refugio Road, a wickedly steep road off Highway 101, fifteen miles north of the UCSB campus. Refugio has lots of sharp, off-camber curves, and halfway through one of them my front tire blew out, taking me with it. The road surface wasn’t the relatively cushy asphalt we normally ride on, but rocky macadam, so beyond the road rash—which was itself pretty bad—I was really banged up. It took my roommate, Tesh, two washcloths to clean me up: one to scrub the road rash clean, another to stuff in my mouth. After that, I couldn’t even sit right on the saddle, and was too sore to ride well. And the next weekend were the Conference Championships at Berkeley, where I had two tough jobs to do: 1) help either of the stars of the team win the road race and the criterium, and 2) help the team defend our ranking as the number one TTT squad in the West Coast Cycling Conference.


Road rash. Photo by Teshager Tesfaye.

It wasn’t far-fetched to believe we could make the top of the podium in all three events. Our leader, Trevor Thorpe, was ranked number one in the Conference, with eight victories so far during the short collegiate season. His nickname, Red Five, was one I’d coined myself: after leading him out once for a criterium finish, I pulled off and thought, “You’re all clear, kid!” and he went on to win the race as assuredly as Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star.

Trevor wasn’t our only star. Our number two rider, Eric “Bounce” Cech (pronounced “Check”), was ranked number two in the conference. Eric also had several wins that season, and was astonishingly strong. In his best climbing moments—which were not infrequent—he could ride anybody in the Conference right off his wheel.

My fellow domestiques were also accomplished cyclists. John “Cap’n Pel-Star” Pelster was a completely solid rider, especially in the TTTs. He and I were the tallest riders on the team and theorized that, just like a huge frat boy can absorb more alcohol than a little guy, we could absorb more pain. Matt “Bart” Simpson and Mark “Wickahead” Wicker were the other Category A riders, both great athletes. Trevor, Eric, John and I were all guaranteed a spot on the Nationals team, but Matt and Mark were vying for the last spot with our two fastest Category B riders, Mike “Balls” Baldwin and Dan “AAA-Cell” Wolnick.

Dropout

The Conference Championships were largely successful for the team, which was a huge relief to me because I myself rode terribly. We eked out a victory in the TTT by a scant two seconds over UC Berkeley. I say “we” but it’s more fair to say “they,” as I was dropped not long into the race. This was the first (and last) time I’d ever been dropped in a TTT, and it felt awful. This must have shown on my face; afterward, Trevor said, “You are not allowed to freak out about this!” His message was clear: get my head together. I still had two weeks before Nationals to heal up and get my form back.

I didn’t finish the road race either. Two thirds of the way through, Eric had a problem with his rear wheel, and I gave him mine. By the time neutral support finally got me a new wheel, it was too late for me to get back into the lead group. Eric ended up winning the road race, so my sacrifice wasn’t for naught. But I have a dirty secret, that I’ve never admitted to anyone before: I was actually relieved to have an excuse, because riding like I was, I believed I’d have dropped out anyway. And this relief was sickeningly shameful to me, then and still. Champions don’t make or accept excuses.

The weekend didn’t improve for me, either: I dropped out of the criterium the next day. The good news was, Trevor dominated the crit anyway, winning every single prime and finishing third in the race. I was zero for three, but every event ended with UCSB on the podium.

Trial By Fire

The two weeks between Conferences and Nationals were grueling. As I healed from my injuries, I had to train like a maniac to bring back the fitness I’d had before the crash. Moreover, the team had to choose the fifth rider for Nationals, and we devised a ruthless selection process: Trial By Fire. This meant taking all the candidates out and seeing who was strongest. Sure, we just called it training, but no matter what anybody said, the message was clear: if you get dropped today, you’re not going to Nationals.

The first ride was over San Marcos pass on Highway 154, where the paced ratcheted up and up until all of us were redlined. The four Nationals hopefuls were hugely motivated, and nobody fell off the pace. The next day we went out on Highway 101 for the TTT “training,” and again the pace just spiraled upward until everybody was dying—and still none of the contenders would let himself get dropped. No matter how fast we went, they stayed together, miserably, like a chain gang. It was a grueling time. We all gave so much to the road that it was hard to function in our regular lives. John and I had a couple of classes together and slept through two weeks of lectures.

Freak Accident

One day, during the last week before Nationals, in dawned on me that I’d regained my form and had recovered from my injuries. I was back! And our training had shown that no matter who our fifth Nationals rider was, we’d have a stellar team. In my tiny apartment, after a great ride, I was positively giddy. The bedroom of this dump was so small that all the beds touched. And in celebration of things finally going well, I began jumping from bed to bed to bed, swinging my arms wildly above my head. Literally jumping for joy. And before I knew it, catastrophe struck again: I put my hand right through the overhead light fixture, one of those square, plate-like concave glass things with the little sparkles. It sliced my right ring finger way open, down to the bone, right across the knuckle, and blood was just spraying out of it. I ran out into the living room and yelled at my roommate Tesh to help me.

Tesh was pretty freaked out—didn’t we just go through this last week?—and while he exhorted me to calm down, he was talking to himself as well. We wrapped my hand in a towel and made it over to the student medical center, where they stitched me up. It took the doctor so long to do it, the Novocain had worn off by the end and I was wincing in pain. He told me I had to wear a splint for at least a week to hold my finger straight, or else the stitches would rip out. So I had this great big foam-lined aluminum splint on my hand for my last week of training. It was really hard to ride with it. On one ride, my lousy grip caused me to screw up hopping a big pothole, and I ruined my rear rim, a brand-new MA-40. As lousy as that was, I didn’t hit rock bottom until a few nights later: in the middle of the night I got up to pee, half-sleepwalked into the bathroom, and—halfway through my business—kerplunk! My splint somehow came off and fell into the toilet.

Selection

The team had its moment of angst as well. The Trial By Fire hadn’t yielded any obvious results, so the four top riders got together to judge which guy would get the last spot. Ultimately we decided on Dan. Not only did he seem the strongest, but he had a killer attitude. During one of our rides, we were doing uphill sprints, and after beating us all in one of them, Dan sat up, threw his arms out to the side, and yelled, “F**K!” I asked him later what he had meant by that, and he said he didn’t know, it just came over him. Sheer exuberance.

The other guys took it hard. Nobody accepted the offer to come with us to Stanford as an alternate. Perhaps their refusal was a simple matter of some big-money races on the local USCF calendar that weekend, but I’ve always suspected it had more to do with wounded pride. And it’s hard to blame these guys. They wouldn’t have been such good riders if they didn’t take their sport so seriously, if they didn’t believe they were championship material.

Once our team was completely defined, though, the political issues were just plain over. Sure, there was always a bit of friction between Trevor and Eric, as there would be any time a team has two top competitors. And you couldn’t imagine two more different cyclists. Trevor was a great athlete physically, but his results transcended what any rider could achieve by strength alone. He was completely savvy, a master of tactics, and—through sheer killer instinct—stuck with the climbers on the climbs and beat the sprinters in the sprints. In short, he embodied all the most beautiful aspects of the craft as it is practiced in Europe. Eric, meanwhile, was the obscenely talented young upstart, a recovering triathlete, and way into the magic potions and herbal concoctions popular among weight lifters. He was irreverent to the extreme and cocky as hell. With fewer years of cycling experience than the rest of us, Eric was no expert on tactical matters and really didn’t know how to handle a sprint; he won through brute strength alone. So it was natural for him and Trevor to clash, but they never let it affect their racing. All season, one or the other had come forward as the obvious leader in any given race, and the other had respected it. Though college racers, they had a professional attitude. And as domestiques, John, Dan, and I were more than happy to support either of them.

The Competition

Above all other considerations, John, Dan, and I were mainly obsessing about the TTT. After all, either of our leaders was capable of winning without great team support—we’d seen them do it. But without everybody riding well in the TTT, we’d certainly be slaughtered at Nationals. Though the time of the third rider counts for the whole team, all five are needed to share the workload. Three teams in particular we worried about. The California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) team from San Luis Obispo had won the TTT at Nationals the previous year, in Colorado. And the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) team would surely be extremely fast; they’d won the overall team title at the National Championships that year. But I was especially worried by the UC Berkeley (Cal) team, because they’d lost to us by only two seconds at the Conference TTT. And they wouldn’t let us forget it. The way they went on about our paltry two seconds, you’d think they won the race.

Something for the Gearheads

One advantage we had over everybody was our fleet of “funny bikes,” designed specially for TTTs with downsloping top tubes, 26-inch front wheels, and upturned “cowhorn” style handlebars, designed to accommodate the hoop-shaped “clip-on” bar that puts the riders hands out in front of him like a ski racer’s. The bike frames had been donated by a local builder, and we got some cheap components from another sponsor. Most of us had scrounged up better parts where we could. My frame was built crooked. I’m not obsessive about such things—it’s not like I put the frame on a marble slab and measured everything with a micrometer—but on the bike’s maiden voyage my foot hit the rear derailleur with every pedal stroke. We had to cold-set the frame by a full two centimeters. It was such a radical “adjustment” that the paint cracked along the tubes.

But the bikes looked great—they were totally rad, and they matched our uniforms. We decided that for Nationals, we would turn up the chutzpah even further, and bought a bunch of decals to spell out “PUBLIC ENEMY #1,” “PUBLIC ENEMY #2,” and so forth, on each of the top tubes. Certainly an arrogant move—which was the whole point. The thought of losing on these machines, and having our noses rubbed in “PUBLIC ENEMY” for the rest of our college lives, was yet more incentive to pull off the big win. This also had a side benefit: as I loaded Eric’s funny bike on the back of his car before leaving for the race weekend, I lied and said, “Oh my God, Eric, your top tube says PUBIC ENEMY #4!” He about freaked.

We spent a day up in Berkeley, where Trevor lived, going from shop to shop in search of clip-on handlebars. We didn’t finally get them installed until we were at the hotel in Palo Alto, on Friday, the night before the race. This was a bit of a problem. We’d only ridden the bikes once, at the Conference TTT, and we’d never ridden with clip-on bars. We rode up and down in the hallway of the hotel, but this just wasn’t enough to get us comfortable. So we rode out into the busy streets of downtown Palo Alto, after dark, and practiced our formation. It was a thrilling experience. We felt super-fast.

More Afflictions

Back at the hotel, Dan had a grave announcement: he was sick. He hadn’t felt bad in Santa Barbara, but in the day or two we spent driving up and hanging around in Berkeley, he’d felt progressively worse. Normally, we’d have a difficult decision to make: is he feeling bad enough to warrant substituting in our alternate? (Once the first race has started, you aren’t allowed to exchange riders.) But of course, we had no alternate: no one had come. Too bad. Any one of them could have raced Nationals. As it was, Dan would just have to do the best he could.

Of course, before the TTT there was the little business of the road race. It was early the next morning, and I was good and nervous contemplating it the night before. The course was a 3-mile loop on the side of a hill: 1.5 miles grueling miles up, then 1.5 dangerous miles down. There was no way I could ride that course with my splint (which now was less comfortable than ever; after the toilet incident, I’d had to replace the foam with cloth handlebar tape). I ditched the splint, but my finger had been straight for so long, I couldn’t get it to bend. It was completely frozen. I finally bent it manually, with my other hand, fearing the stitches would all rip out. They held, but it was excruciating. I gradually worked the finger back and forth and got it back in shape. I could work the rear brake again; I’d be fine.

Breakdowns

May 19, 1990: The road race was a mess from the very beginning. The field was huge—well over a hundred riders, maybe 150. On the first descent, at over forty miles per hour, a guy just ahead of me had a mechanical problem. What started as a minor shimmy became a major shaking of his bike. There was no room to maneuver in the pack—we were gutter-to-gutter—so all I could do was hope I’ll roll past him before he lost it. This seemed to take forever. Just as he left my peripheral vision, I heard him crash. It sounded like at least half a dozen others went with him.

As we approached the top of the next climb, I punctured—my front tire, no less. I wasn’t really too worried; Mitch, the crackerjack Mavic technical support guy, was on the course and would get me going quickly. I pulled over to the side, holding up my left arm to indicate front wheel. Then I felt the tire and discovered that it wasn’t flat at all. What was the problem then? I realized it was a broken axle. How random can you get? I popped the wheel out, and for some reason the cyclocomputer wire got yanked straight. What the hell? The right dropout had stayed with the wheel. The axle was fine—I’d broken my fork!

Mitch arrived with a wheel. I shook my head. “Broken fork.” He grinned. “No problem! What size bike, 62 cm? Look pedals, or Time?” There were ten bikes on his van, but none for me: I was still on toe-clips. Four miles into the National Championship Road Race, I was kaput.

Lugging my bike back to the Start/Finish line, I encountered my brother Geoff, who was at the race as Cal Poly’s mechanic. To spare my legs (it’s no good to walk a mile in cleats), Geoff picked me up and threw me over his shoulder—the “fireman’s carry.” Carrying my bike in his other hand, he brought me all the way to the car so I could change. By the time I got back to the Start/Finish area my spirits had improved a bit. It was such a hard course, I figured, Eric could win anyway, and my legs would be that much fresher for the TTT later that day.

The rest of the road race couldn’t have been less predictable. Eric had a terrible day. His back was messed up, and he dropped out. Throughout the race, riders who realized they weren’t in contention had been abandoning, to save their strength. Dan and John were among them. Trevor didn’t seem to be having a great day, either. Dropped by the leaders, he seemed to have no chance of winning.

Win

But every lap, Trevor looked stronger and stronger, and was closer to the lead group. A long solo breakaway by David Anthes, solo winner of the previous year’s Nationals road race, petered out toward the end of the race, right about the time Trevor made it to the front. And when the group came in for the final sprint, Trevor went early and hard and shelled everyone. He opened the gap so wide, his sprint was almost a solo breakaway. It was a brilliant victory.

Lunch was provided by John Dough’s Pizza, who had also supplied breakfast and the previous night’s dinner. (It was, in fact, the only restaurant sponsor for the whole weekend.) To make matters worse, Eric wasn’t letting us eat the cheese or any of the toppings, because they were too greasy this close to the TTT. We complained bitterly, but he said, “You want to win, don’t you?”

Black Magic

After lunch we went back to the hotel to rest up and try to resurrect Eric. His back was totally fouled up and if he couldn’t sit right on his regular road bike, there was no way he could ride the funny bike. He self-prescribed dimethylsulfoxide, or DMSO, an industrial solvent that the grooms of racehorses, and the occasional football team doctor, use to chase a drug, like crushed aspirin, right through the skin and into the bloodstream. The bottle had warnings all over it not to get it on your skin, saying “not for human use," even though Eric bought it at a health store. Seconds after I put it on his back he said he could taste it in his mouth. A drip ran down the bottle and took all the ink in its path right off the label. I worked Eric’s back over, following his precise instructions, and then we all kicked back awhile. Later, the washcloth I used for the DMSO was lying on the sink, and after mixing up some Gatorade I wiped my hands on it. Instantly, I could taste the Gatorade in my mouth. Gnarly stuff, DMSO, but it seemed to do the job. By the time we arrived at the race course, Eric said his back was okay.

I was so glad for the funny bikes. Obviously, I’d have been in a real bind without mine, as my regular bike was broken. But beyond that, the bikes just felt so fast, and the whump-whump-whump of the disk wheel gave a guy shivers. We had to be an intimidating sight as we warmed up, good and fast, calm, confident, self-possessed.


Funny bikes. Photo by Geoff Albert.

Zero for Four

I was feeling some pretty serious pressure. After all, I’d finished exactly zero of my last four races. Given my brief run at the road race, I had no idea whether my legs were good, and still had fitness doubts after my interrupted training. Meanwhile, everything was expected of me, since I’d done the least work in the road race. I couldn’t stop thinking about the taunting from the Berkeley riders—“two seconds!”—and wanted to prove that our earlier victories weren’t flukes. And I’d been feeling downright cursed that year—the late-season crash, the sliced finger, the botched wheel-change, the broken fork—and badly needed a sign that I wasn’t just doomed.

More than anything, I didn’t want to let the team down. With Trevor completely fried from the road race, Eric inexplicably hobbled, and Dan sick, the team was counting on John and me to carry the race. Normally, of course, Trevor and Eric were the main powerhouses; could we win today without them riding at one hundred percent? John and I would have to ride the race of our lives, and we knew it.

A good TTT team is much more than a bunch of strong riders in a paceline; it’s a highly temperamental thing, like a Swiss watch. Every rider must be acutely aware of how every other rider is doing. If a rider takes a bad turn at the front before dropping back to the end of the line, the next rider who drops back pulls in ahead of him, leaving him on the back, so that the tired rider gets a longer rest. If a rider senses he’s feeling better than the others, he takes a longer turn at the front. And the team must fine-tune itself during a race. For example, we often used the turnaround point of the course to adjust our lineup such that if I was ahead of Cap’n Pel-Star going out, he’d be ahead of me coming back. This was because we were the biggest guys on the team, and got a better draft from each other than from the other guys.

The Rules

There are rules in a TTT. I’m not referring to the kind of rules that get you disqualified, but rather the rules of thumb that, if broken, can cost your team the race:

  • No matter how bad you’re suffering, you must never take a slow pull. Make your pull shorter, sit out a few pulls on the back if you have to, but don’t slow down the group.

  • Don’t ever let yourself fall off the back, unless you’re throwing in the towel and don’t want the team to wait. If you’re quitting, let them know.

  • If you do screw up and let a gap open up, swallow your pride and speak up instantly. If the group has to wait for a second, that’s bad, but if it has to wait for several seconds, that’s devastating.

  • If you’re calling out a screw-up, yell loudly: the guy on the front has to hear you.

  • If somebody has lost contact but isn’t saying anything, you have to notice this and act immediately. As hard as riders try, they can’t always obey all the rules.

  • No matter how bad you’re suffering, try to stay as poised as possible to maintain morale. If you take shorter pulls or sit out a few, but are otherwise smooth and strong, your teammates will know that at least you’ve got your head together and may feel better later.

It was a strange feeling lining up with these guys. To say I respected them would be an absurd understatement. In fact, I was almost in awe of them. I knew full well just how blazingly fast each one of them was, and just how hard each was going to go. In fact, awe doesn’t even cover it: I was almost afraid of them. Afraid of just how much I myself would suffer in matching up to the example I knew they were going to set with every pull. Say you ride poorly in an individual time trial: okay, you cost yourself some time, lost some placings, scored fewer points for the team. But if you screw up in a TTT, you just ruined everybody else’s race too. Your teammates could be on fire, it could be the best race of their lives, and you could ruin the whole thing.


The lineup. Photo by Geoff Albert.

The pressure of a TTT is always incredible, but this was the National Championship, and we were serious contenders! Sure, Trevor already had his Nationals gold medal, and Eric would certainly have plenty of opportunities to win his own. But John, and Dan, and me? We’d never be on a team like this again. Dan was graduating that year, and I’d been accepted at Berkeley as a transfer student in the fall. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With plenty of cards already against us, each guy had to be absolutely brilliant.

Team Time Trial

We set off, and immediately fell into formation. From the start, we were just flying. Trevor sure didn’t seem like a guy who’d given his all just hours before. Eric seemed his normal animal self. Dan didn’t ride like a sick man. John was setting a pace unlike any he’d ever set before. And I felt unbelievably strong. It didn’t even feel like my body; it felt like a much better one on loan from a born athlete. With all of my setbacks behind me, I found an incredible focus. Oh, it hurt, I was suffering hard, but pain is different when it comes from your own will instead of from a rock road or a shard of glass. It was like riding right out of all of life’s frustrations.


Left to right: Trevor, Eric, John, Dana. Photo by Steve Woo.

The bike felt amazing. While in the draft, I felt like I was being sucked along, effortlessly. Generally, you ride the cowhorns while drafting, and switch to the clip-ons only when you’re breaking the wind, but soon I felt comfortable enough to stay on the clip-ons the whole time. The whole team had adapted quickly to the new position. John was riding behind me, which meant his pull began just as I latched onto the back. Seeing him churn away up there, I could tell he was having the best ride of his life. And I was too: today, we were the big guns.


John hammers the pace. Photo by Steve Woo.

My main strength in cycling is recovery, which is why the TTT was always my best event. After a long pull at the front, I would be on the verge of blowing up, legs burning, almost anaerobic, but a short rest in the line brought me right back into a comfortable zone. Today I felt so good, so fresh, that I practically wanted to yell at the front rider, “Okay, that’s enough, get out of the way!”

But then, a major setback: at the first of three turnarounds—the course was out and back, then out and back again, for a total of 13.5 miles—Dan burned up in the atmosphere. Every one of his pulls had been perfect, but he could only keep his illness at bay for so long. Dropping out was appropriate: far better to drive well for only three miles than to screw up the team’s rhythm for the next ten. Still, this didn’t bode well. It’s like losing twenty percent of your engine.

During the second leg of the race, as we flew along in our reduced formation, I become aware of this faint ringing sound. There’s not much noise in a TTT—just the light whir of gears, the whump-whump-whump of the disks—and once I heard the ringing, I couldn’t ignore it. I realized it was the sound of a bike part doing something it’s not supposed to do. But where? I slowly took my eye off of Trevor’s wheel and looked down at my bike. Nothing wrong there. I shifted my attention to Trevor’s bike, and eventually spotted the problem: the lock-ring had come completely off of the adjustable cup of his bottom bracket and was rotating around the spindle. Without it in place, the cup could easily rattle loose, then looser, until his cranks would begin to rock back and forth and eventually his bike would cease to function. All I could hope for was that Trevor didn’t use much grease when he installed the BB, and that the threads weren’t “chased” properly—that is, that there was brazing debris in there making the cup not want to turn.

At our second turnaround, JP and I didn’t switch positions like we normally do. We didn’t discuss the matter—we just instinctively maintained our original lineup. Maybe we didn’t want to do anything to mess up a line that seemed to be working. John and I were still taking the monster pulls, and Eric and Trevor still seemed plenty strong, so I was stunned when, early in the third leg of the race, shortly after Trevor finished his pull and I’d begun mine, Trevor yelled out that he was gapped. I held back for just a few seconds before he latched back on and everybody yelled to go. Now I was thoroughly rattled.

A harrowing aspect of TTTs is that you don’t have any relative sense of how you’re doing. If you’re in a breakaway in a criterium or circuit race, you can get your splits, and you know your teammates in the peloton are working to shut down the chase, and you have the sense of being ahead. This really fires the adrenaline, fueling your efforts. In a TTT, you generally know if you’re going fast, but anything that goes wrong can shake your faith in your team’s ability to win. We’d lost Dan; Trevor suddenly seemed shaky; and we’d lost precious seconds regrouping. But I wasn’t deterred. After all, a rider like Trevor wouldn’t have lost contact if we weren’t absolutely flying. This thing was still winnable.

At the end of the third leg, before the final turnaround, was a small hill. Trevor was in the lead, and Eric was on the back—and then, suddenly, off the back. And he wasn’t yelling—he was in great difficulty, obviously tempted to cash it in. I was frozen, and then Trevor yelled, all the way from the front, “COME ON, ERIC, GET BACK HERE!” It was shockingly emphatic, and seemed to put the fear of God into Eric. He fought his way back to John’s wheel, and we were together again. But how much had it cost? It seemed like forever, but couldn’t have been more than five, maybe ten seconds. Of course, such handfuls are the difference between winning and losing….

After the turnaround, we were on the home stretch—but it was a long home stretch. The ringing of Trevor’s bike was like the ticking of a bomb. It looked like our race could go in almost any direction, and only one of them good. I was ready for this thing to be over. And about two miles from the end, I really hit the wall. I had never suffered so badly in my life (and though I didn’t know this at the time, it would be thirteen years before I would suffer so badly again). I was merely miserable while in the draft, but once at the front I was in full crisis mode. Our group was like a prison cell: there was nowhere to go for respite, no early parole, no escape until I’d served my full sentence. I stared at the cyclocomputer, making sure the speed didn’t drop, willing the number to stay frozen, forcing my body to keep up the necessary effort. I kept promising myself that if I could make it five more seconds, I’d pull off and go to the back, but then—reminding myself that my teammates weren’t feeling any better—I’d renege on my promise and commit to another five seconds. When I finally couldn’t take it anymore, and it felt like my legs were going to shear off from the effort, I’d finally drop to the back.

But dropping to the back didn’t give immediate relief. This is because slowing down, even the minimum amount necessary to drift to the back, means you have to speed back up to catch the draft of the group. That little acceleration was almost more than I could do. This is why people fall off the back of TTTs. Every latching on felt like an all-out sprint. In fact, after awhile I had to switch to the cowhorns and actually get out of the saddle to catch Trevor’s wheel. Every time, it felt like falling off a cliff and trying to catch myself by grabbing a clump of grass as it flew by.

John noted this and the next time he dropped back, he eased in between Trevor and me, changing the lineup to give me the benefit of his larger draft. An added benefit: whenever I was latching on the back, Eric was beginning his pull, and he was the rider least likely to unintentionally increase the speed at that moment. The final benefit was that John, who had more juice left than the rest of us, started taking incredibly long and fast pulls, which inspired me to fight harder when it was my turn at the front. He really kept the group together.

With the lineup change my sprits improved. Sure, I was maxed out, but nobody ever won anything without paying the price. And the time I spent drafting continued to have a rejuvenating effect. But I yearned to improve my efficiency in the transitions. Because I had to stand up to sprint onto John’s wheel, I had to switch to the cowhorns every time I dropped back. I could feel the difference this made in wind drag. So I tried something new: getting out of the saddle while still on the clip-ons. Mistake. To my horror, I completely lost control and swerved so hard that the saddle clubbed me in the butt, almost knocking me off the bike. Then I overcorrected and swerved in the other direction. I was going down. Our Nationals dream was over.

But then, somehow, I regained control, and—with a fresh jolt of adrenaline—was able to get John’s wheel. Now I was good and pissed off. These crises had to stop, now. Nothing was going to stop me. No fatigue, no crashing, no doubting myself. I wanted to die, but I didn’t want to quit. It’s hard to describe how this resolution worked. Every so often you hear some fool saying, “I’m a great athlete because I can just turn off pain.” That’s a load of crap. A great athlete turns on the pain, and leaves it on. I kept forcing the pedals around to increase the agony, to punish my body for its weakness. And gradually the finish line came into view.

The last two hundred meters of the race were completely unreal. Time slowed down. We slowed down. It was a slight uphill, and into the wind, and we were just human, after all. There was no way to keep up the speed anymore. It was like riding underwater. The finish line seemed to be receding. I felt like a kid at the edge of the swimming pool whose beach ball is slowly drifting away. We were all out of the saddle in a full sprint, but minus the speed. Finally we oozed over the line and fell completely apart.


Underwater. Photo by Geoff Albert.

You’ve never seen such a sorry-looking bunch. We were moaning, whimpering, all our legs had seized up. We were weaving like drunks. Somebody caught me or I would have gone right over. But in a sense our race wasn’t finished yet. We had to know: was it all in vain? What exactly had we done out there, anyway? Word came down: we’d beaten UC Berkeley by over thirty seconds, CU Boulder by almost forty. But there was still one thing standing between UCSB and first place in the 1990 National Team Time Trial Championship, and that was the Cal Poly team, still out on the road.

There was a giant digital clock set up at the finish line, and we crowded around it to watch the minutes and seconds gradually increment. Steve Woo, a member of the USCB team who’d come to support us, was there with a clipboard and had calculated what time Cal Poly needed to win the race. Soon we could see them approaching, but it was impossible to judge their progress against the slow procession of the clock’s digits. The closer Cal Poly came to the line, the more we realized how close this race would be.

Ah, the torment! Cal Poly still had four riders together, and they looked a lot faster than we’d felt coming up the home stretch. We looked at the clock. Then at Cal Poly. Clock. Poly. Clock. And then a shocking thing happened: their paceline broke in two. Several seconds went by before the front two noticed. A huge gap opened, fifty meters. The gap never closed. Their third guy finally crossed the line but was six seconds too late. Such a close margin—and suddenly, doubt set in. Could Steve’s number have been inaccurate? Or approximate? Trevor grilled him. Are you absolutely positively sure? Steve was. No doubt whatsoever. We’d won. Gold.

Epilogue

We were celebrating before anybody else even knew we’d won. But the full impact of what we’d accomplished was hard to grasp all at once. It dawned gradually and wonderfully on us all evening. Even the John Dough’s pizza tasted great that night, for the fourth meal in a row.

During the criterium the next day, fate returned to its normal bastard self. The bottom bracket in my loaner bike fell out, as if carrying out the threat that Trevor’s bike had made in the TTT, and my races-finished record went to 1-and-5. Eric abandoned due to some random mechanical. John got stuck in the back, and with no support Trevor was out-gunned, losing what should have been a certain victory in the Omnium. And yet our spirits were nonetheless high at the awards ceremony at John Dough’s that night, as we donned our stars-and-stripes jerseys and gold medals. You can’t win them all, but we had won a very big one indeed.


The Awards. Left to right: Dan, Trevor, Dana, Eric, John.

 


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