Five years ago, track racing for me really began. It was my first attempt at the Roger DeLanghe Trophy race and besides my vivid memory of our former teammate Liam Donoghue trying not to crash while coming through the field after taking a lap en route to victory, what I remember was feeling the scale of this race. I hadn't competed yet in some of the really big road events at this point in my racing career, so other than the Little 500, this was the first time I'd been to an event where the stands were full. At the start line, you could sense the added tension on the contenders and a fear of the impending pain from those just looking to finish. Faces that you didn’t recognize came in from tracks around the Midwest. This wasn't your usual Thursday night in Northbrook. This one clearly mattered.
Whether it had been missing out on a State Championship in baseball in high school or being bested in trying to win the Little 500 in college, I seem to for-better-or-worse, put a lot of focus towards a major singular event. I suppose it could be a product of growing up in suburban Indianapolis. Watching IndyCar, all the other races during the year are fine and all, but if you win Indianapolis, that's a career. Each year they post the names of the Top 25 finishers at Roger DeLanghe on the board in the chalet. I didn't make the list that year, but I immediately knew this was it. This was my new focus.
The next year (2014) was affirmation that I might have the ability to win this event. I was fresh off of winning my first State Championship, the Individual Pursuit, days before and felt like I could give this race a good run. I did, finishing a much improved 4th in the event. But my biggest takeaways were two invaluable learning experiences that would shape the next few years of my local track racing life. That race was the first time I experienced the 'Garner Train'. The combination of speed and tactical savvy from the George Garner Cyclery guys: Matt Fox, Robbie Higgins, and Jason Garner to put Jeff Whiteman in the right spot at the right time was simply eye opening. I had gathered three track wins in the month leading up to DeLanghe, so I was racing with confidence, but that confidence was totally naive, built off of replays of success in my mind from winning Cat 3 track sprints the year prior and a few P/1/2 track sprints recently (that clearly the field didn't care as much about). I came in thinking if it came down to it, I could take that sprint.
Not a chance. The chaos and speed of the finale was incredible. You go early in the sprint, you may pull parallel to the front rider, but you're fried on the backstretch. Wait to launch, and Jeff plays his deceptive acceleration game with you on the backstretch that you just can't win. Stay low and in the draft and you get boxed-in from the uptrack rush. Be in the uptrack rush and you're racing twice the distance to the finish line as you ride high around the corner. This became the struggle. Second, that race was my first experience watching an entire field say 'no' to a rider. Liam Donoghue was in the field and at the time was one of the better track racers in the country. He had placed 2nd in the IP at nationals several years in a row and had a ton of endurance. His game plan was always to get off the front given his motor and relative lack of a sprint. All eyes were on him. Every single attack Liam did, and there were many, was marked by the entire field. There was nothing he could do, the field put in a full effort to say 'no' to him that day, and that was that.
The next two years would be blends of those lessons. In 2015, I was a completely new rider. I put a ton of focus on the sport and made significant gains being coached by Randy Warren. I spent the summer traveling around the country racing at the premier races and venues in the United States. Big races (as far as U.S. track is concerned) at TTown, Colorado Springs, Marymoor, and the National Championships in Los Angeles were all under my belt before Roger DeLanghe. No one locally had the fitness I did. I was confident this year that I could get in a move off the front. But this was my first taste of what Liam experienced in a race people care about. I had outed myself as being one of the more fit riders, and in addition, I was very close to the Garner guys in the yearly 'Rider of the Year' standings. Throughout that August of racing, they were resilient on not letting me go off the front simply to secure more points for themselves, and they were generally successful. At Roger DeLanghe, I got off the front several times. Some with out-of-towners that were stronger than anyone else in the field, but we simply couldn't get away. The race came down to a field sprint where I would finish 6th, opting to take the high line over the top of the sprint which felt like the distance of doing another full lap. After 2014, I felt like I would eventually win this race. 2015 made me question that.
If 2015 made me question winning, 2016 made me fully doubt it. The Roger DeLanghe Trophy Race in 2016 may have been the most frustrating event I'd have ever been a part of. The current national scratch race champion Zak Kovalcik showed up and it seemed like it might be a day destined for a strong group to break the field, but that wasn't meant to be. We found ourselves out of sequence with the race. We'd attack and the field would immediately yell 'up', jumping on us like glue. Someone else would attack and the field stayed silent, pulling uptrack, seemingly happy to let that group lap the field several times if they desired. When one of us would try to bridge to the group off the front, the field would mark us. We'd begin to chase and they'd sit up immediately after we pulled. There was simply nothing we could do. Several guys eventually got off the front that we couldn't respond to chasing for nth time and that was the race. The only silver lining was that this was the first time I had actually beaten Jeff in the finishing sprint at DeLanghe, but sprinting for 4th and sprinting for 1st generally are very different things.
A lot of my roadie teammates showed up to watch in the stands that night. One of them, Jake Buescher, decided he wanted to do something about it.
After our road team finished up a fantastic early season of racing, winning six of our local events in the spring, Jake was going to take up track and we both switched focus on it midseason. Jake went all in, buying the fancy Dolan and the fancy wheels, stopping just short of tatting up his arms Wiggo-style. The first night at Northbrook he won his first track race and the season was off in full force. By the time DeLanghe came, between us we had won 34 of the 39 local track events we'd participated in, captured 5 Top 10 placings at the National Championships, won the Bob Pfarr 150 Lap Points race in Kenosha, the Tomasz Pac Memorial 100 Lap Points Race, and the George Garner Memorial Keirin. We were rolling. But Roger DeLanghe is always a different beast. Years of watching what an inspired field can do to some of the best riders in the country combined with knowing how effective the 3-time winner Jeff Whiteman and the rest of the Garner guys can be in a sprint creates plenty of doubt for anyone looking to add their name to the trophy.
But this year I had Jake. And we were ready to blow this race up.
We took to the line. Jeff looked to be our biggest rival today, but in a race like this, anything can happen especially when all eyes are on us to make the race. The race went off and immediately a Psimet rider rolled off, got a little gap on the field, and decided to give it a go. Riders started bridging and all of the sudden Jeff went too. Danger alarms started going off and I started to bridge with one other rider in tow. Just as the bridge attempts were underway, rain. The race had been postponed last week because of rain and now it started to spit on us again. Luckily this time it stopped almost as quickly as it started and we would be back up and racing in 10 minutes, but the race was a cluster. We were simply two laps into the race, and the consensus seemed to be to just restart it, but the officials let the standing gaps of riders go and as sure as the sun rises the next morning, the gaps on the restart would be substantially bigger than they actually were...and now with riders off the front who are rested from the rain delay. The race restarted effectively with a group of 4, including Jeff Whiteman, a little more than quarter lap up on me and one other rider that had what felt like merely 10 meters on the field. The gun sounded and I knew immediately this would have to be one of the digs of the race. Jake bridged up to us and we caught the group of 4 in front, but not without burning some matches way earlier than hoped. Once we got there, the group was very interested in taking a lap, but on my end it mattered very little. The group contained Jeff which meant the lap meant no difference to me if it came down to a field sprint. We tried to break him a little during the chase attempt while we had him isolated from the field, but he was able to manage it just fine. The group uneventfully connected with the back of the peloton with a little over 30 laps left.
The entire race would effectively unfold in the next 15 laps. I knew I wanted to get off the front again. Jeff was probably a little more fried than I after that effort, so there was certainly opportunity to go without him. Nikos and one other rider went up the road and gained some space on the field. And then from what I remember either Jake or I attacked and drew out Jeff so it was just the 3 of us briefly in-between groups. I went again, this time completely solo and bridged up to Nikos's group while Jeff and Jake started to fall back into the peloton. Jake attacked again, this time going solo in-between groups. In what can be the biggest stroke of luck in the race, as I connected with Nikos a prime lap was called. Ideally Nikos would ride as hard as he could for me there and we'd establish a big race-winning gap over the field. And even though he had no idea he was doing exactly what I needed at the moment, cross-eyed, full rosacea and all, he setup the race and went as hard as he could for a lap to take the prime. As Nikos crossed the line for the prime he pulled up. Jake bridged up and quickly it was just the two of us.
Off the front of Roger DeLanghe.
One lap up with a half-lap lead on the field. Catch the field and we win.
This was an all-or-nothing move. If the field brings us back, we're fried for the sprint. It was a dream scenario, but there was no backing off. Staring down 22 laps to go, we knew we might be in for an all-out two man double team pursuit effort sans aero bars. Each lap went by and we'd close another ten meters, gaining confidence that we could take it, until eventually, we connected. And that was the race. For the numbers junkies out there it took Jake 700w for a lap to bridge and then we settled into half lap pulls at 440w until we got within arm’s length of catching where we eased off a touch. From that point on, the gameplan was simple: try to make the race as fast as we could. Not only does this discourage attacks, but it keeps us both safer from incidents and also potentially helps us finish the race earlier as we kept feeling stray sprinkles as the race went on. With 5 laps to go Jake and the Garner train got to the front and continued to string it out. Entering the final lap Jeff found himself right on Jake's wheel waiting to go. I decided to start my sprint early just to make sure I had clear space and avoid any possible scrum. As I exited the last turn I knew no one was coming around me.
Ventura, Labbe, Senn, Carter, Donoghue, Crater, Lesniakowski, Whiteman, Mosk, Mosora, Wieseler, Fox, Garner...George.
We did it.
We conquered DeLanghe and did the double with Jake taking Bob Pfarr earlier in the week. It was a dream finish to the season for us. It's hard to understate the importance of teammates on and off the bike. xXx Racing has consistently produced high quality people and riders that have helped me throughout these past five years at the track. In my early years, Tom Briney and Randy Warren were staples in simply observing what you should and shouldn't do on and off the bike at the velodrome. Add in Michael Kirby and you seemingly had libraries of knowledge sitting in the infield in-between races with which to ask questions. Racing with Nikos or Johnny from the Madison in Chicago to Nationals in LA, chatting with Jared Rogers at 5:00 in the morning during a weight lifting session, or watching Erik Didriksen pin a competitor on the high side of the track while I attacked underneath years ago in entry level categories, there are so many faces and names that have helped me not only enjoy my time racing and training locally on the track, but have helped get me to the point where I could finally win this race and find 'my success' in the sport. With that said, I can't thank Jake Buescher enough for taking the risk of diving head first into track this year. I know the 2016 RDL race was inspiration for him entering the sport, which makes this result all the better and myself almost unspeakably thankful to him. But moreover, I'm hopeful that he's found a new avenue with which to find 'his success' on the bike. Nothing can replace road, the teamwork and camaraderie among our guys is simply the most fun I'll probably ever find riding on two wheels, period. But if you're not in the top 1% of the top 1% of those with physical gifts, you'll find yourself eventually hitting a brick wall with the sport at very high level racing. Most of us who have gone through it have felt it. I think track has given not only Jake, but myself more purpose on the bike. In Jake's first year he's already won multiple state titles locally, placed in the Top 10 at the scratch race at nationals, and took down the Bob Pfarr points race in Kenosha, each things that can take massive amounts of time for someone in shape to accomplish, if they can at all. That promise can fuel a rider for years to come in the offseason, knowing the potential that can come from that. But in any event, the common thread from the time I've been on the team to now has been the consistency with which our team produces high caliber people and cyclists across the spectrum of disciplines and categories of our sport. People that have a willingness to be good teammates on the bike and friends off it. And because of all that, I just accomplished a goal I wasn't sure possible. I couldn't be more thankful.