The Last Day of Track Season

I was about to drink cooler water, preparing to scoop the melted ice out of the bottom of my cooler with an empty Poland Springs bottle. The problem was that there was only an inch of water in the cooler, so each scoop would net maybe a half an ounce, which I then would then have to transfer into another Poland Springs bottle. It would be slow going, and I was thirsty. Maybe I should try the water fountain. The cooler was in the back of my jeep, which was sitting on the smooth parking lot macadam of the Lehigh Valley Velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. T'Town, a lot of people call it. It was the last of day of Saturday track racing, 95 degrees and sticky big-time humid.

I started the day with what I thought was plenty of liquid--four 20 ounce bottles of Gatorade and six bottles of water, nestled comfortably among countless little ice cubes in the Coleman cooler. Earlier, I had tried to give Nancy the $5.00 registration fee for the day's racing, but she refused to accept it. I had a credit coming from last week, when we were rained out. Although the skies were threatening all morning, the rain held off until the first lap of the first race. Perfect timing. So refunds were in order. "Use the five dollars to buy something to drink, " Nancy said. "You're going to need it."

"Don't worry" I replied. "I have plenty." Or so I thought. There would be three races for Category 4, my group, at the velodrome that day: a ten-lap final, a nine lap point-a-lap, and a nine lap win-and-out. Plus a twenty-lap feature, which would include all categories. Altogether, it was about 10 miles of racing, not much in terms of pure distance. But on the track, everything happens at a frenzied pace. Every move could be the winning move. There's hardly a letup and you're almost always riding just below your max. Mike Norton said that a track race is like the last lap of a crit. In other words, it's mostly an all out, desperate, headlong attempt to get to the finish line first. It is bike racing on steroids. So it's not entirely unexpected that on a humid 95 degree August day, you might sweat out a few buckets, run out of drinks, and be forced to suck down a little cooler water. No big deal. I think I actually cleaned this particular cooler-and I have several of them-recently.

Our club has an EZ-Up canopy, a staple among bike racers in the summer. On hot days at the velodrome, you'll see a bunch of these square pop-up tents set up on the infield, so riders can relax in the shade between races. Unfortunately, I neglected to bring ours. My teammates and friends John and Brian would not be at the velodrome because the State Criterium Championships were the next day, and they wanted to rest. No sense bringing a tent for one guy, I reasoned. Plus, I had to drag it all the way up from the basement, and the little wheels were broken. So I worked on my tan between races. And sweated.

I drank two bottles of water during my fifty-minute warm-up, but I felt good. I like the heat. It loosens up my joints, like a beneficial salve, and I generally race better on hot days. Just to be on the safe side, I drank a bottle of Gatorade before the first race and ate a Clif bar. I think your body burns extra calories trying to stay cool on a hot day, and I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, so I figured a snack might be a good idea.

I too was racing in the State Crit, as they call it, the next day. Although I wouldn't be in contention for the podium, I might be needed to help out our 45+ team leaders, Kevin and Brian, by chasing down an attack or by going to the front to control the pace. Accordingly, my plan for the velodrome today was to avoid being overly aggressive so as to have something left for tomorrow. How soon we forget.

The first CAT 4 race was called a ten lap final, or scratch race. This is the simplest track format. You ride around the track ten times and the first rider across the line at the end wins. Each lap is three hundred and thirty three meters. Three laps equal one kilometer. A few weeks earlier, I had somehow managed to win a ten lap final in a solo breakaway, attacking from high off the bank with six laps to go and holding on for dear life until the end. I had some help from Brian, who was allowed to sit on the front of the pack for a lap and a half after the initial attack. It was the only bike race I'd ever won and it felt good. But, honestly, it was a little suspect. The forecast that day was for rain, although it never rained, and most of the good riders apparently stayed home.

It was not unlike the only other race I'd won, back in 1986, a two-mile running race on the fourth of July in Freeport, Maine. There was also a 10k that day, and all of the good runners entered that race. The field in the two-miler was therefore essentially just a bunch of high school kids in T-shirts and basketball sneakers-not exactly the stars of the track team--and me. Shortly after the start of the second one-mile lap, I saw Olympic gold medallist Joan Benoit walking along the street. She lives near Freeport, and had just won the 10K. "Hi Joan," I called out, as I ran by with the lead pack of about six scruffy teenagers. Joan turned around, raised her hand high in the air, and waved. She also flashed a huge smile. This tiny interaction with the reigning Olympic marathon champion generated such a huge surge of inspiration that I accelerated with everything I had, passed the police car leading the race, and went on to win in around ten and a half minutes. Okay, so it's not the Tour de France, but it was a W.

As I lined up, holding onto the rail, for the start of the 10 lap final on the last day of track racing season, I couldn't help but thinking about that win I had stolen a few weeks ago. Dave Russell said it was a crime the way the pack failed to chase my attack. I just grinned happily. Maybe, I thought, there were a few more crimes in my future.

Today, Steve Chiselko attacked at the opening gun. He was caught halfway through the second lap. The attack, as well as the chase, seemed almost to be in slow motion. Maybe it's the heat, I speculated. As we passed the start/finish line with eight laps to go, the pace still seemed slow. Entering the first turn, I drifted up toward the rail and the pack stayed low. I am new to track racing and there is much that I don't know. But one thing I have learned is that the 28-degree banking in the turns of the Lehigh Valley Velodrome can be used as a kind of launching ramp for attacks. Look at it this way: if two riders are side by side, one down low and the other up high, and they both begin to accelerate with the same amount of power, the one who started up high is going to get way ahead of the other. Why? Because he had the benefit of accelerating downhill. A no brainer. Add a little surprise to the mix, and you can end up with a pretty successful breakaway.

So here I am, up high on the bank, while the pack is low and slow. With eight laps to go, I doubt my ability to stay away to the end if I attack. Tomorrow is the state crit, and I'd like to avoid the profound fatigue that would surely follow an eight lap all out effort. So I grit my teeth and continue to cruise along, above and to the rear of the pack. As we pass the lap cards showing seven to go, the pace is still mellow. Sometimes this happens in scratch races, I've noticed. The sprinters would like to take it easy for a few more laps, and then start cranking it up with three or four laps to go. On the other hand, guys like me, who can't out sprint an aging grandmother, can only hope to get a jump earlier in the race and create a gap that can't be closed in the remaining distance.

So again, we enter the first turn at a pretty easy pace, the pack down low, me on the rail. This time I can't control myself. Getting out of the saddle, pulling up on the handlebars, I start sprinting around the short end of the oval, a foot from the rail. As I come out of turn four, I'm at a full sprint, passing the front of the pack. Guys are yelling "up high" and "on the right." I wonder if the noisy old Zipp disc wheel I have on the back has taken away the element of surprise. Staying out of the saddle, I dive down the bank, furiously turning the pedals. I aim my bike toward the black line on the inside of the next corner, so that I will travel at full tilt across the track on a long diagonal. And by the way, it's all down hill.

Just before I hit the inside tangent of turn three, I sit down. My front wheel holds the black line in a steady caress through the 180 degrees of turns three and four. Holding the line has been difficult for me. I have a natural, God-given wobbliness that can cost you precious time on the track, but I've spent a fair amount of time practicing being nailed to the line. On this day, there are no wobblies, thankfully. I keep spinning my pedals. There's no pushing down here. You just feel your feet going around and around in tight smooth circles. The bike is, of course, a fixed gear. You can't shift. There's no coasting, no braking. It's strictly spin or die.

I go through turns one and two, still hugging the black line, then hurry down the backstretch. I've been riding just about all out for a lap, but I sense a bike behind me. Not sure whether I've heard a small sound, or am imagining things, I sneak a little glance under my right arm. The backstretch basically runs in a north-south direction and I was heading north, with the afternoon sun at my back. As I peek under my arm, I see the shadow of a bike. Caught, I think. Must be the freaking disc wheel. They heard me revving up. Curses.

As the black line starts to curve to the left entering turn three, I go straight and look to my left. A Tri-State Velo guy passes me on the inside. Behind him, there's nobody as far as my aging eyes can see. Not bad, I think. A two-man break with a Tri-State Velo guy. That might actually be better. Tri-State is a big and powerful Pennsylvania-based club, with lots of strong riders and at least a couple national champions that I know of. As the other guy pulls ahead, he looks over and asks "half-lap pulls?" Fine with me. I nod in approval. If he only knew how much at his mercy I was. Maybe he won't notice my gray hair.

As we pass the start finish line, I look back and across the track. The pack is entering turn three. We are about to enter turn one. A half-lap lead. It's my turn to pull. I feel pretty good. "Okay," the Tri State Velo guy says, looking back also. "We got it." Life is good.

We continue around the track, taking half-lap pulls. Working well together, each at the front for half a lap, each in the other's restful draft for half a lap, we peel off the front at turns one and three by going straight up the bank when the track starts to curve, then swooping back down behind the other rider. After a couple laps of this, the Tri-State guy asks "are you still okay?" I like the phrasing of this question, suggesting that maybe, at least for a little while, I have been pulling my weight. Nice guy.

Niceness pervades the Lehigh Valley Velodrome. It is an incredibly friendly and supportive environment. I recall the first time I raced here, just about a year ago. As I nervously walked my bike from the athlete's parking lot to the track, a distance of about a hundred meters, I passed at least three people who smiled and said hi. I wondered at the time if I looked like someone else. But no, that's just the way they are around here. It's a comfort zone a mile wide.

I study the lap cards every time we pass the start/finish line. Five to go, four to go, three to go. These are not the hand scribbled-on-notebook-paper lap cards you sometimes see at road races in Jersey. These are professionally made, on a stand, so they are at eye level, and the number is changed by turning a wheel. Velodrome slick. World class.

I have been known on occasion to completely lose track of the number of laps remaining in a race. At the ISU Masters championships in Cuba last October, we raced one day around a one-kilometer asphalt motorcycle track. A guy stood near the start/ finish line holding the lap cards in his hands. As I rounded the circuit, I saw him holding a two. I stayed near the front, went around one more time, and with half a kilometer to go, starting riding as hard as I could. I headed for the finish line, saliva flying, snorting like a stuck hog, waiting for someone to go by me. No one did. I gleefully crossed the line and sat up. As I did, the peloton whizzed by. I was not the winner. Rather I was dropped with ten laps to go. Turns out that when I saw the guy holding up the two, I failed to see the one in his other hand.

So I'm staring at the lap cards intently as we pass them. Two to go. The other guy noses his bike up the bank and I take the front. As we come out of turn two and start down the backstretch, the other guy passes me. He gets out of the saddle, pumps a few strokes, and our partnership is quickly history. He's gone. This happens all the time in bike racing-riders off the front work together to establish a lead, but when they get close to the finish, it's strictly dog-eat-dog. No surprises here. I suspected he was a lot stronger than me because I actually had to work harder to stay in his draft than when I was pulling. A dead giveaway.

I continue around the track, trying to hold the line, wobbling a little with fatigue now and then. Shooting down the homestretch, I hear the bell start to ring. Sweet, glorious chimes, echoing like the holiest of church bells. One lap to go. I sneak a peek across the track and see the pack going through turn three. I relax a little and savor the sound of the bell as I cross the start/finish line. I'll just float the last lap, save something for the State Crit tomorrow. Second place is going to be mine.

The moral of this story is that you have to keep going hard until the end. It ain't over till it's over. A few second later, I'm floating down the homestretch, watching contentedly as the line gets closer and closer, when a guy sails by on my right. Another bike pulls up along side me. I pedal furiously, trying to hold onto third. No dice. He nips me at the line and I'm fourth. No upgrade points. Oh well, at least I'll get my name posted on the Internet.

Between races, riders slowly circle around the blacktop in the south end of the infield to cool down or stay warm. It strikes me as a poor method, because the cadence is so low. Some guys ride road bikes between races, or ride their track bikes on rollers, to get a better spin. At the New Jersey State Track Championships last week, I brought rollers for an optimal warm-up before the timed events. As I spun tenuously in the Lehigh Valley night, many time national masters champion Joe Saling was standing to my right. Another national masters champ, Patrick Gellineau, was on my left. Joe reached across to shake Patrick's hand and accidentally hit my pursuit bars, nudging the bike off the rollers. Yikes. I'm just happy to be around these heavy hitters, struggling to breath the rarified air. I manage to keep my bike up right as it hops off the rollers onto the pavement.

Today, I have no rollers and I slowly circle with the others. A couple of guys ask me if I got second. Nope, I say, fourth. Two guys nipped me at the line. Actually, one guy nipped me at the line and the other flew by like I was standing still, but I want to keep it simple. I cut my cool down short to get a drink. I am drenched with sweat, and thirsty. It is often said that to stay properly hydrated, you should drink before you get thirsty, but it sure tastes better if you wait until you're thirsty.

I sit down on the hot green bench in my sun-drenched cubicle and reach for my cooler. The bench burns the back of my bare legs. I grab a bottle of Gatorade and a bottle of water. Standing to relieve the burning from the bench, I guzzle both bottles with hardly a pause. I think that the rapid infusion of 32 ounces of ice-cold liquid will somehow cool the body a little. Brushing spilled liquid from my skinsuit, I walk over a couple of cubicles to chat with my friend Dr. Bob.

The next race is a nine lap point-a-lap. In this format, the first rider over the line on each lap gets a point. There are no points for second or third, except on the last lap, when the first three riders across the line get three points, two points and one point respectively. The rider with the most points at the end wins. Many of the riders feel that the point-a-lap is the fastest and most brutal of the races, usually filled with helter-skelter sprinting, attacking, chasing and counterattacking from start to finish. I've clung to the back, holding on for dear life, in most of these races, but a few weeks ago, I made a startling discovery. If I attacked with everything I had at the starting gun, I could actually stay away long enough to grab a few points and be in contention.

Mass start track races begin with the riders lined up holding onto the rail, sitting on their bikes, clipped into their pedals. The first lap is neutral-everyone has to stay together. They fire the starting gun when you are somewhere around turn four in the neutral lap, rolling along at a slow pace. That's when the racing begins. If you are positioned toward the back of the group, high on the rail, and gradually speed up as you move toward the front, with a little anticipation you can hit the front of the pack, accelerating just as the gun goes off, with nothing but downhill ahead of you. This, as I've said, is the one thing I've learned about track racing in my first year. I'm kind of a one-trick neophyte pony.

When I first tried this move in a point-a-lap a few weeks ago, I thought for sure I had the first point, but a fifteen-year-old kid nipped me at the line. There are a lot of good young riders working their way up through the developmental categories at T'town, and this one, I later learned, did pretty well at the nationals in his age group. On this day, he easily out sprinted me for the first point. When we went into turn one, he swung high to let me pass. As I pulled through, he said, "you take the next one." So we alternated, taking the standard half-lap pulls as we sped around the track, taking turns crossing the finish line first. We stayed away for four laps, each getting two points before the pack finally caught us. Good enough for third place, and one upgrade point, for me.

The sprinters don't like this attack-at-the gun strategy. It makes the race a little too fast and tires out their sprinter's fast-twitch muscle fibers. The next week, my friend big John, a burly 200+ pound sprinter, figured out a pretty good defensive tactic. During the neutral lap, he took a position in the front of the pack, high on the rail. I was riding along the rail behind him, but I had no way out and he knew it. His buddy Jon Chambers, another big sprinter, was to his left, also at the front. "Hey John, I yelled. "Move over." He just grinned that hee-haw grin. I later surmised that I might have drifted to the rear and attacked down the bank to the inside of the group. That would make me a two trick pony.

On this last day of track season, big John is not here. He's resting for the state crit. But Jon Chambers takes the front rail position, and I sit behind him in the neutral lap of the point-a-lap. There's about a three-foot space to Jon's right; he's not that close to the rail. I contemplate shooting through this space, something a more experienced track racer could easily do. They fire the gun relatively early, when we are halfway between turns three and four. That would be perfect, were Jon not in my way. A voice in my head says, "Go. You can get through." Another voice tells me to be careful. Jon could drift to his right as I sprint by, or I could wobble a little, and disaster would surely ensue. So I hang back.

After we go through turn four and start down the homestretch, Jon gets out of the saddle and starts sprinting. I wish he would have done this about forty meters earlier, I think, as I get out of the saddle and jump on his wheel. We speed past the start/finish line and into the first turn. This guy has a lot of power, and he's big, so he's a good draft. When we go into turn three, it seems like Jon is slowing down a little. I think maybe he is tiring; maybe I should go around him. But I wait, figuring if he is tired now, he'll be even more tired when we hit the home stretch. When we come out of turn four, I move over and start to accelerate, trying to pass. Jon is clearly rejuvenated by the sight of the line, and speeds up as well. I am in a drag race with a guy who is twenty-five years younger than me, and a whole lot more powerful, for the first point of a nine lap point-a-lap. Better to live to fight another day, I conclude, and Jon gets the point.

Going into the first turn, two guys whiz by us. We're both spent and can't respond. This is one of the tactics that tend to make the point-a-lap so fast. There's usually a counterattack after each sprint. No more points that day for either Jon or me. I later tell Jon, "Dude, if you took off when they fired the gun, you would have had such a big gap it would have taken three laps to catch you." He just smiles. I suspect he is thinking I'm probably the last guy to be giving anyone advice.

The final CAT 4 race that day is a win-and-out. This format is not to be confused with the miss-and-out, where the last rider across the line every lap is eliminated until three riders remain. The survivors then fight it out for the top three places. In the win-and-out, the first rider to cross the line after three laps wins, and leaves the race. The first rider across the line after six laps takes second, and he leaves the race. After nine laps, the remaining order of finish is determined. I've tried contesting these win-and-outs before, but honestly, it's kind of hopeless for me. There's always someone who can out sprint me, so I end up working like a dog and getting nothing. So I just cruise through the win-and-out, always staying in someone's draft, hoping to have a little something left for the feature.

On Saturdays at the velodrome, there are races for CAT 5, CAT 4, masters, women and juniors. Each group has three races. There is then a short intermission, and two feature races, the A feature and the B feature. The features are longer than the other races, usually 25 and 20 laps. Masters racers can participate in either feature; everyone else has to qualify. The first three finishers in the CAT 4 races qualify for the A feature, while four through six qualify for the B. The top three women and CAT 5 riders in each race qualify for the B feature. I qualify for the B feature, although since I'm over thirty, I could do the A if I wanted. No thanks.

The B feature is a 20 lap final, a scratch race. I contemplate my options. It is hot, everyone is pretty tired with three races under their belts, and what I plainly lack in speed, I like to think I make up for in endurance and heat-tolerance. There will be opportunities for early attacks, no doubt, but staying away for fifteen or sixteen laps is quite beyond my limited abilities. Better to try and escape with six or less to go, something more manageable. On the other hand, this is likely to be a race of attrition, and the final few laps will probably boil down to a handful of tired, hot riders in contention, a group of which I think I could be a member.

I sit in for the first ten laps. There are a few attacks, all easily caught. I try to always stay on a wheel, working a little as possible. Even though the pace is not blistering, the pack is strung out along the track, a sure sign of tired riders. People are dropping out of contention. I stay near the front, but avoid pulling, peeling off instead with the rider in front of me when it's my turn. There's a young guy riding for Vortex who's been doing a lot of the work. I think he is a CAT 2 on the road. At some point, my wheel sucking gets on his nerves. As he peels off the front, with me on his wheel, the Vortex kid looks back at me. "Come on" he says. "Take a pull." You don't have to ask me twice, I think, with some pride. Conserving energy is really not my style anyway. I pull through and accelerate a little down the backstretch. Peeling off at turn three, I look back and see that I've opened a two-bike length gap on the Vortex guy. I guess I accelerated a little too much. Serves him right, I think, asking a guy more than twice his age to take a pull.

We are down to six laps to go, and I'm looking for opportunities to attack. There are plenty, but I pass them by. As I'd hoped, there are only about five or six guys riding with any kind of enthusiasm. This heat really is brutal. As we pass three laps to go, the Vortex kid, who is in front of me and slightly to my right, stands up on his pedals for a few strokes and takes off. There's a guy to my left and I look at him. He looks at me. Nobody chases, and Vortex is gone, destined to win the B feature that day. As we round the track, I think about this move. He attacked down low and from the front, just riding away from an obviously pooped bunch of riders.

We come down the homestretch and the bell starts to ring-one lap to go. I'm at the front now, low in the sprinter's lane, and I'm thinking it's now or never. Three hundred and thirty three meters from the end of the race, I get out of the saddle and start sprinting for all I'm worth, which by this point, is not too much. My hope is a simple one--that everyone else is as tired, or even more tired, than I am. I crank down the backstretch and through turns three and four. Nobody is passing me, but I'm probably giving somebody one hell of a leadout. I don't dare look around. Looking back costs precious speed in a sport where results are often dictated by nanoseconds. Don't look back, like Satchel Paige said, somebody might be gaining on you.

I pedal furiously for the line, hoping against hope for second place. In the B feature, that would absolutely be a feather in my cap, not to mention two upgrade points. About 10 meters from the line, a rider in a red skinsuit flies by, an older guy. Oh, boy, I think, here it comes. I ride hard, but wait anxiously for the rest of the pack to sail by. No one comes, and I cross the line in third place. One upgrade point, of the eighteen needed to advance to CAT 3. You can only carry half of your accumulated points over to the next season, and we joked earlier that today, on the last day of track season, every point would be worth half a point. I've got six, and I'll start next year with three. Tom Mains went from CAT 4 to CAT 3 in two weekends. If I can do it in two years, I'll be more than happy.

I go back to my cubicle and suck down the last bottle of ice-cold water. It is delicious, icy, refreshing, but I need more. Sweat pours from my helmet. My arms and legs gleam, as if coated with oil like some competitive weight lifter, as I unzip my soaking wet skinsuit to the waist. I know that if I am going to recover for the state crit tomorrow, I have to replenish my fluids. It is reassuring to know I can always drink some cooler water. It should taste good with a couple of power bars.

BC September 1, 2004