"Do not give up when you find that you will have to suffer greatly in order to get results. Never forget that the winners are the ones who can suffer the best. It's the no-hopers who cannot suffer. The inability to suffer is almost always the real reason riders do not succeed in our sport. He who can suffer the best has the best chance to get to the top."
--- Charles Ruys
I first heard of the Snake Alley Criterium from fellow xXx-er Bob Willems on my very first team ride back in April. His words, "the single greatest bike race on the amateur midwest circuit" and description of it defied imagination, yet not for wont of my trying: the Mind's Eye could see nothing but the steep brick switchbacks, flanked by chanting, revelrous spectators, one of them placing the famous charitable beer into the outstretched hand of a rider who, moments before, had simply toppled over when his legs were unable to turn his bicycle crank one more time.
It is simply the best bike race you will ever ride, he said. A short course in downtown Burlington, Iowa, the race makes use of - according to the Guinness Book of World Records - the crookedest street in North America. Officially a 248 foot climb, Snake Alley is paved with brick and features 6 switchbacks, in order that the horses of 1894 could walk down it. At first I told him I think I'll wait until next year, since at the time, I had yet to race at all. Yet his words struck a chord with me, and I said I would give it serious thought. While the race seemed far above my current abilities, it also was far enough into the future that who knew where I would be, developmentally-speaking when late May rolled around.
2 weeks later, when Luke Seeman emailed the team that registration was open, I coerced myself into quickly filling out the registration form and check before I could think twice. When I was physically dropping the envelope into the mailbox at work, however, my rational side asked, "What are you getting yourself into? Why are you doing this?" and the answer came immediately: "Because there is nothing worse than regret."
My training for Snake Alley was of course, both physical and mental. Starting two prior to this weekend, I did 3 sets of hill repeats consisting of 8 reps each. First was the Highland Park boat ramp Mother's Day weekend, then the same scheme on Tower Road's ramp after a 50 mile ride with the team, and finally just this past Wednesday on the small hill on the lake front path at 47th Street, with some grinders in the 53 x 12 followed by a rep in the 39 x 23. I also mediated several times this past week, visualizing my race. I climbed, broke away, sprinted, carved tight lines, and most importantly tried to feel, and break through, the pain.
I did find some latent climbing legs in my run up to Snake Alley, but the two things that truly got me through the race were along the course itself and also in myself all along.
We started the day watching the Women's Cat 4 race and teammate Tamara Fraser, and then a quick review of the course before our warm ups. I deliberately avoided going up the hill (the less I knew about that the better), but my concern began to grow as I rode down the descent back into downtown. It was fairly steep with 3 hairpin turn over not very smooth pavement. At the bottom I noticed the bales of hay outside of the last turn, and then it was flat along three more turns to the line. One side-effect of not having hills in Chicago to practice climbing on is that a cyclist is also can't practice descending.
But before I could really think much more about it I was at line, waiting for the starting bell. along with fellow xXx-ers Adam Clark next to me, and Josh Greene, Leonard Hatcher, and Jon Dugas back there as well. I had secured the equivalent of the pole position in the race by getting my registration in for the Category 5 race first. It's a great place to be in this race, crucial in fact. As Luke told me over the past 2 weeks, be sure you take advantage of your starting position to get as far up front as possible on the first lap. The riders up front always open up a gap because any stronger riders can get hung up on a slow wheel the first time up the Snake. "Get clipped in as soon as you can and burn it," he told me. All week I practiced extra on snapping my cleats smoothly into the pedals.
But at the starting bell, my lack of race experience and focus was exposed through Murphy's Law. I, of course, fumbled with my pedals, and in a flash at least 20 riders were ahead of me. After what seemed like minutes, I was finally merged with my bike and I hammered on the crank to get as much speed as possible before shifting to the small ring at the first turn. The front of the pack was already at least 10 seconds ahead as I hit the first "pre-hill" and the pace began to slow. Ahead, Snake Alley loomed like the Death Star.
"That's no hill." I deliberately avoided looking up, and focused only on keeping my speed and spin up as the threshold where pavement turned to brick approached. I had a sudden flashback of Bob Willems first telling me about the race, and suddenly, I was inside the Snake.
Solidly in the middle of the pack, the repercussions of my slow start were wholly apparent as I was stuck behind a slower wheel and also had at least 2 riders on either side. I kept my spin going as fast as I was able and focused on not falling over and staying in the center of the Alley. Luke's words again reverberated in my head like Obi-wan: "Stay in the middle and don't think. Just spin." And empty my brain I did. About the third or fourth switchback the pain began in full, and was almost shocking. I was out of the saddle and standing on the crank, applying power to all 360 degrees, and my wheel slipped a bit at the last turn before the exit of the Alley.
I finally crested back out onto pavement and, completely out of breath, switched to recovery mode on the descent. I lost more ground as more confident riders took the three hairpins with more speed. But I wasn't worried. I had survived the first climb, and felt drained, but certainly not empty. I looked for a good line on the way down, avoiding the rough spots, and knew that I had seven more laps with which to climb back in this race. I knew the Snake would begin to exact it's toll on the field.
I soft pedaled my way through the flat, and there ahead of me, was Josh Green, offering his wheel. I love racing for this team, and that we have experienced, focused riders even in the 5s races who will be thinking "Team" all the way through the pain and the sweat. I am feeling a bit guilty now for not having looked behind to do the same on subsequent laps. I can promise you that in future rides I will have more focus as my experience grows.
I rode in Josh's draft, trying to apply as little power to my momentum as possible, banking my calories for the next lap up. Back at the turn, the draft was no longer needed, and I ramped the prehill again, gaining spin, speed and momentum. The Snake was back, all to soon.
The laps fell one by one. My strength came not only from the voices inside my head, but from the voices in the grass as well. At the base there was Jeff Holland's measured and steady words: "Spin it Brian. Lookin good..." Farther up Luke barked orders to "get that guy! Get up there!" And at the top was Tamara's enthusiastic, "Keep it up, Brian! You're looking strong! Triple X! Triple X!" I never saw their faces, and other voices I didn't recognize. I only looked ahead at the ground, watching the brick pass my wheel, instinctively feeling my way towards the crest. The words of encouragement went into my ears and metabolized into pure power down my legs and out onto the pedals.
I was a panting, sweaty, frothy mess. The pain had become a drug: the worse it felt the faster I pedaled. There was no way I was giving up in front of all those spectators and teammates. And the strategy I'd discussed with Luke over the previous two weeks was playing out. After the first lap, stay within yourself, measure your pace, and pick off the competition on the hill. Do nothing but recover on the descent. On at least 3 middle laps I passed a rider. Others it seemed I was the only one in the race. I crested each time wanting to vomit, and needed to focus hard in order to even go in a straight line as I began my recovery descent.
The wits came back sooner and sooner, and soon on the last half of the race I was carving clean, fast lines, and passed 1 or 2 riders on the descents. I occasionally found a draft, or had someone drafting on my wheel on the flat stretches, but for the most part I was alone coming back to the Start/Finish, and again measured my power to my momentum to save for the next climb.
Approaching the line with one lap to go I was among three other riders. As we turned onto the prehill, I passed two of them, and enter the Snake for the last time with the third, but quickly picked him off as well. Ahead, I saw two other riders, one climbing slowly, and the other giving up. I got angry seeing that. All that pain, only one more lap to go, a recovery descent and a short flat stretch is all you have between you and the finish. At least run the bike up! You're home free! I picked off the last rider on the hill, and crested strong, tongue hanging out, and got up as much speed as I dared taking the turns on. I passed two more riders on the way down to the flat, and from there, I had the final meters to myself. I didn't want to look behind, and only focused on getting to the line as fast as possible with my remaining energy.
I finished 16th out of 40 who started and 33 who finished. The fumble with the pedals and squandering my prime starting position aside, I felt a good-sized sense of accomplishment with my effort because I worked so far back into it, especially on the last lap, just as I had planned. Of the races I have under my belt so far, and will accumulate in the future, this day will last in my memory for a long. I signed up for it when I absolutely zero experience, and on the other end of it all, I not only finished, but finished strongly. The aggressiveness I need will come with time and more races, and the sooner Snake Alley comes around again, the better.
I owe Josh and Leonard an apology however, for not returning the favor of the wheel. My only thoughts on the descent were of recovering and saving for the next climb and I didn't even think somebody would want my decelerating wheel. The next race, if I get the chance, count on it.
We spent the rest of the day watching women's 1-2-3s, the Men's 4s and 3, and the beginning of the the Men's Pro-1-2. Turns we newbies had the best weather of the day. Jen Greenburg's race was absolutely brutal as poured rain the entire time. Her wheel slipped out from under on several of her 12 crests of the Snake, but through it all her dark look of determination never wavered and she finished very strong. The 4s race was inspiring to see, as well. Joe, Jeff, Jason - fighting through mechanical problems, and Pieter - with that smirking grimace of his, all climbed hard.
The only downer of the day was Luke's crash. But even then he still had a smile on his face through what turned out to be a separated shoulder and broken collarbone, and he showed me you never know how far you can go until you push yourself past it.
I won't soon forget this day.
Leonard and I rode back to Chicago, chasing the storm clouds east, and made good time in the rental car on cruise control on the empty highway. We stopped for Steak n' Shake, and were back by 9pm.
My cousin from Milwaukee was waiting for me at the corner bar by time I got home, having taken the Kenosha train down for Bike the Drive. We dropped the rental downtown, and by time I finally set up my lugged steel for him to ride the next day, it was 1am. Turns out Snake Alley turned me into a harder man already, as we were up by 5am, and out the door in the pouring rain, downtown by 6am.
My cousin Rick is a confirmed tortoise on his knobby-tired Puffy Huffy, and my late-80's Cilo and minimal rolling resistance were a bit of a revelation to him. He was quite surprised to find himself easily cruising along at 18 - 20 on the flat stretches of Lake Shore Drive. We missed getting onto the south loop since we stupidly went north first, and missed the no-new-starts door by about 2 minutes. However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We hit the pancake breakfast, caught a bike polo match, and then headed south on the lake front path in the new found sunshine. We cut through Hyde Park on 55th Street to MLK and cruised back north to Albany Park. All told we got in 50 miles before noon.
The day ended in the cool breeze on a rooftop in the west loop, in the sunset's reflection off of the skyline. We drank wine and cocktails, visited with friends, and ate with the appetites that it seems only cyclists can have.