I just finished watching the Tour de France team time trial. What an awesome event. As a tribute to this underrated cycling discipline, I offer this story from my archives.
(I originally wrote this back in 2003 for dailypeloton.com, which has evidently gone under. I did a dozen or so stories for that magazine and over time I’ll post them all to albertnet. The first such story I rescued is here.)
In 1990, I helped represent the UC Santa Barbara team at the NCCA Collegiate National Cycling Championships at Stanford. We went in as favorites for the team time trial, having dominated in this discipline all season long. Here is the full story of our Nationals attempt.
Collegiate Nationals Team Time Trial – September 30, 2003 (race was on May 19, 1990)
My story begins earlier in the season. I stacked hard descending Refugio Road, north of campus off US 101. I was pretty banged up and missed the next week or so of training before the Conference Championships.
At Conferences, I had terrible form and dropped out of all three races: the road race, the criterium, and even the team time trial (fortunately, the team still managed to win). Despite this piss-poor performance, I had an automatic spot on the Nationals team, along with our team captain, Trevor Thorpe; the Conference road race champion, Eric Cech; and John Pelster, another of our most solid TTT riders. We had four other riders vying for the final spot; we’d make our selection based on how fast they went in training over the next week. Naturally, I was an emotional wreck after Conferences, but Trevor snapped me out of it, saying, “You are not allowed to freak out about this!” I still had two weeks before Nationals to get my act together.
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. The University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) team were the reigning overall champions. But I was especially worried by the UC Berkeley 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.
One advantage we had over everybody was our fleet of “funny bikes,” designed especially for TTTs. Oddly, it wasn’t until the night before that we finally equipped them with the “clip-on” aero bars. (At Conferences, their maiden voyage, we’d ridden on the cow-horns.) We installed the clip-ons the day before the race and tried them out for the first time that night, riding through downtown Palo Alto after dark.
Back at the hotel, our fifth rider, Dan Wolnick, had bad news: he’d come down with a virus. But he’d have to race anyway; our alternate rider was so bitter about not making the team, he’d decided to stay home.
The next day we had the road race in the morning and the TTT in the evening. The road race was a mixed bag. My fork broke and I had to withdraw, as I couldn’t get a spare bike from neutral support. (I was still riding toe-clips and they only had bikes with clipless.) Eric had back problems so he DNF’d too. Dan was too sick to finish. But Trevor—though he’d been dropped by the breakaway early in the race—managed to claw his way back, reconnect in the final kilometer, and solo to victory. He now had the opportunity to win two national titles in one day—but of course he wouldn’t have much left in the tank. The rest of us would have to have the race of our lives.
I was feeling some pretty serious pressure. After all, I’d finished exactly zero of my last four races. Also, I couldn’t stop thinking about the taunting from the Berkeley riders—“two seconds!”
More than anything, I didn’t want to let the team down. A good TTT team is much more than a bunch of strong riders in a paceline; it’s a highly temperamental thing. If a rider accelerates even slightly when he takes the lead, he makes it really hard for the previous leader to latch on to the back, and any disruption to the pace costs the group time. Every rider must be acutely aware of how every other rider is doing and fine-tune the line (e.g., leaving a tired rider on the back for a rotation, or switching up who is drafting whom). If a rider senses he’s feeling better than the others, he should take a longer turn at the front.
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. 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.
The TTT is arguably a shame-based event. Say you ride poorly in an individual time trial: okay, you cost yourself some time, placed poorly, 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 race organizers ought to provide seppuku knives at the finish line.
We set off, and fell right into formation. From the start, we were just flying. If Trevor was blown from his road race victory, he didn’t show it. Eric seemed his normal animal self. Dan didn’t ride like a sick man. JP was laying down a brilliant pace. 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 in just the right way. It was like riding right out of all of life’s frustrations.
The bike felt amazing. While in the draft, I felt like I was being sucked along. Generally, you ride the cow-horns while drafting, and switch to the clip-ons only when you’re breaking the wind, but soon we felt comfortable enough to stay on the clip-ons the whole time. JP 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 ride of his life.
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!”
At the first of three turnarounds, 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 10+. 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 and 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 rear 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. Without it in place, the cup could rattle loose, then looser, until his cranks would begin to rock back and forth and eventually his bike would be unrideable. 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. As precise as our riding was, this possible sloppiness might carry the day.
At our second turnaround, JP and I didn’t switch positions like we normally do. We didn’t discuss this—we just instinctively maintained our original lineup. JP 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, 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, fortifying your efforts. In a TTT, you may sense that you’re going fast, but anything that goes wrong can shake your faith in your team’s ability to win. We’d lost Dan, and now 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, he wasn’t. And he wasn’t calling out—he was either in denial, or felt 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 JP’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 or six 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 pinging of Trevor’s bike’s lock-ring 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. 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 bike computer, 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 after 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 pull off.
But going to the back didn’t give immediate relief. This is because slowing down, even the minimum amount necessary to drift back, means you have to speed back up to latch on. 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 a sprint. In fact, after a while I had to switch to the cow-horns 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.
JP 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 (given the bad day he was having) he was the rider least likely to accidentally speed up. The final benefit was that JP, 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. But I yearned to improve my efficiency in the transitions. Because I had to stand up to sprint onto JP’s wheel, I had to switch to the cow-horns 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 JP’s wheel. Now I was good and pissed off. No more screw-ups. Nothing was going to stop me. No crash, no self-doubt, no despair. 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 wanting to falter. 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 toddler hanging on the edge of the swimming pool watching his beach ball slowly float 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.
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?
My brother Geoff, the team mechanic for Cal Poly, ran over and said we’d taken six seconds out of them. This was disconcerting: though Poly had won the Nationals TTT the previous year, we’d beaten them all season by a larger margin than this. We could see the Berkeley team in the distance in their final approach, and they were going faster than we had, but it didn’t look like they would make it. We crowded around the big digital clock, and when our time was reached, they were still out on the course. We’d beaten them—and by the time they got in, we’d taken over half a minute out of them. They could see us jumping up and down and cheering, and they looked like they were about to cry, having to eat their words. Of course, we hadn’t won yet: CU was still out there. Again, the suspense was agonizing, but unnecessarily so. They lost by around forty seconds, and we became national champions.
We were celebrating before most teams even knew we’d won. But the full impact of what we’d accomplished was hard to grasp all at once. It dawned on us gradually and wonderfully all evening.
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. JP 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 high at the awards ceremony 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.
A final note
This version of my story isn’t exactly what appeared in dailypeloton.com. The original version ran almost 7,000 words so I trimmed it down. I also revised the ending, where we waited for the final teams to finish, because my original version was inaccurate. I based it on the recollections of three of my teammates, all of which matched one another but were nevertheless wrong. For an examination of this unintentional fiction (and my original account of the finish), click here and scroll down to “Gauchos win national TTT championship.”
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