Team Time Trial
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.
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
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”
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.