On Thursday night I was really tired, three days into my planned two weeks of rest. I was looking forward to the weekend, where I was going to do a lot of nothing and do it exceptionally well and vigorously.
Shortly before lights out I got a text from Daniel Holloway, he of the many U.S. national crit and road championships, and he of the Madison/Omnium portion of the U.S. national track team. “Ride tomorrow with the team at nine? Five hours.”
I wasn’t sure the text was meant for me, so I texted him photos of the new Big Orange 2019 cycling kit and said, “Can I wear this outfit?”
He immediately pinged back. “I don’t care what you wear. But wear your DAMN helmet.”
“Guess it wasn’t sent in error,” I concluded.
You never get in trouble for coming early except when you do
The ride started at nine so I showed up at 8:30. Everyone was sitting around a table by the pool so I pulled up a chair, realizing belatedly that I had just crashed the team pre-ride meeting. But no one said leave, so I stayed.
I got to listen to the riders talk about the team and also eavesdropped on the discussion that their coach Clay had about the concept of initiative. It was intelligent, well thought out, and perfectly articulated. I’ve never thought about teamwork and about how teams come together, not for ten seconds, ever, much less considered how you get a group of world-class, Type A athletes to work towards a common goal. Getting to listen to a world class program preparing for the Olympics, and getting a glimpse into the different theories of the psychology of success was flat out fascinating.
At the end of the meeting Gavin Hoover announced the route. “Going north,” he said, which sounded awesome because it meant a few hours on the PCH rollers and then back home. This made sense because it was a track team and you wouldn’t exactly expect these riders to seek out the hardest climbs in the Santa Monica mountains. Throughout the team discussion the riders and Clay had been mentioning the 2 x 15’s on the menu. I knew what a 2 x 4 was and that in Japan carpenters preferred 2 x 6’s, but I had no idea what a 2 x 15 was or why anyone would get such a serious look on their face when they said it.
Someone asked Gavin about exactly where “north” they were going.
“Latigo, Mulholland, then finish on Piuma,” he said, mentioning two of the hardest climbs in the Santa Monica Mountains, and the hilliest arterial highway.
Did someone say “Olympics”?
The only reason I went is because I was invited and it is rude to turn down invitations. I had zero desire to ride with ten world class cyclists in their 20’s, and one or two “old men” in their early 30’s. Why? Because I knew my time with them would either be brief and painful, or long and painful, after which I would get dropped. And not simply dropped but dropped in a completely shattered state, beyond recovery.
To make matters worse, Daniel had introduced me to the group as a “local legend” (mostly false), and a “good rider” (total bullshit). All I could do now was fail big, and I took comfort in my extensive experience doing that at least.
Riding on PCH was an education in itself. Track racers of this caliber literally ride shoulder to shoulder. The gaps and spaces I created were small, but compared to their disciplined riding style my holes looked big enough to drive a truck through. I’m sure the hairy legs and fourteen blinking lights helped instill confidence.
I also realized that virtually all of the riders, even though they were fully dedicated for 2-3 years to the national track racing training plan and racing schedule, were also accomplished road and crit racers. Whatever happened later in the ride wasn’t going to be pretty. For me.
Those fears ebbed as we got one long flat tire change and made two pit stops on the way to Latigo. How bad could it be? The rider I was next to, Jonathan from South Carolina, asked me “How long is Latigo?”
Someone else chimed in. “About 30 minutes,” he said.
I am not a Strava/time/KOM dude, but I do remember that at the peak of his doping career Levi Leipheimer set the record at right around forty minutes.
Every Olympian an amazing story
Although this was not the full track squad, it comprised a good mix of the team pursuit riders, Madison riders, and omnium riders who were going to compete in two weeks’ time at the World Cup races in Toronto. In short, they were peaking, and this was a big race simply because the selection process for Tokyo puts a lot of emphasis on World Cup results. They aren’t decisive, but good results in these big races matter. This wasn’t an early season “team building” training camp. It was a “finishing touches” or “final sharpening” camp, after which the riders would be at their best for a huge international competition.
I reflected on that, too. Riding with the A Team as it peaked for a major pre-Olympic “qualifier.” WTF was I doing here?
Sublimating that for a moment I focused on my riding partner, Jonathan. Four years ago he weighed 300 pounds and was a party-time football player, wrestler, and college kid working in an Asheville, N.C. bike shop. He took up riding, then moved to South Carolina to be near the velodrome, started racing, upgraded to Cat 1 (it’s that easy), made the national team, and decided to target the Olympics. Um, okay.
“I went all in,” he said. “Just threw the whole bowl of spaghetti on the wall and waited to see what stuck.” Apparently it was the most glutinous bowl of spaghetti since Marco Polo came back from China, because from the look of things the whole thing was still on the wall.
“Yeah,” I thought. “Just woke up and now I’m trying to make the Olympics four years later. Happens all the time.”
My other riding partner was Adrian, an accomplished road rider who raced for UHC until they folded last year, then moved on to the track. Adrian juggled a full-time professional racing schedule with … law school.
“Took seven years because I had to do it part-time,” he said. “But doing it part-time was way more affordable, so I got out without any debt.”
“Are you licensed?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I was injured and had a couple of months’ down time so I studied for the D.C. bar and passed.”
“Ah, of course,” I thought. “Just had some down time so I took a bar exam. Why not?”
The focus and caliber of the riders was as evident off the bike as it was on, and that was disconcerting as we approached the “30 minute” Latigo climb.
2 x 15 is not a cut of lumber
“You doing these with us?” Adrian asked.
“The 2 x 15’s.”
“I guess so. I’m here. What are they?”
“We ride for 15 minutes at a prescribed wattage, rest five minutes, then do it again.”
“Is that all?”
He looked at me and smiled. “Yep. That’s all.”
“I mean, that’s all the workout for the whole day?”
“For the whole day.”
“I guess I’ll try. Can I sit on your wheel?”
“What wattage will you holding?”
“Oh,” I said in a very small voice. “I guess I won’t be sitting on for long.”
We started up the climb and I couldn’t believe how easy it was. “Man,” I thought as I pressed down on the pedals, “I am crazy strong, hanging with the pros at 340 watts!”
The first five minutes breezed by, hard but totally doable. “Old Man Power,” I told myself.
The second five minutes were exponentially harder, suddenly. Adrian’s cadence had never varied, whereas I was hunkering, upshifting, downshifting, and doing all kinds of research to find the absolute best draft.
“Is my gasping fucking up your workout?” I gasped. “I can tail off if it is.”
He laughed. “You’re fine, pal.”
I wasn’t fine. In fact, the final five minutes were a gore-soaked horror show and all I was doing was sitting in. The interval was finished, and so was I. All I could think was, “OMFG, he’s going to do another one in five minutes.”
As Daniel explained to me later, “Yeah, these are hard because the first one you’re fresh and so the first five minutes are free as your heart rate is climbing; it’s really only the last seven minutes or so that are bad. But the second one starts with your heart rate already up. You get a one-minute breather and fourteen minutes of pain.”
The second one started and incredibly I hung on. The pain started immediately. I couldn’t believe I was able to hold Adrian’s wheel. I didn’t look at my watch but we were at least halfway through. The pain was unbearable and giant black octopuses were swimming in front of my head. My peripheral vision vanished, and Adrian’s rear wheel swelled up in my field of vision like a truck tire.
“That’s enough,” I thought. “I can quit now. With honor.” I sat up and looked at my watch. I had completed just sixty seconds of the interval.
From bad to worse
Their workout for the day completed, everyone was chatty and relaxed. Except me. I was silent and wasted. Mulholland was horrible beyond any words and took forever. The riders were feeling super happy and I got to witness some of the insane bike skills that make THEM different from US.
Holloway took the entire Latigo descent with one foot unclipped, throwing out his leg at 30 mph into the hairpins as if he were going to drag it.
Adrian did a downhill bunny hop about two feet into the air on Mulholland for no reason at all.
I lizard-gripped the bars on the Rock Store descent as the group bombed it, and I knew they weren’t even bombing it.
“We’re really going up Piuma, aren’t we?” I asked Daniel.
“I think so,” he said.
At Piuma, Gavin, who looked just as fresh as when we’d rolled out of El Segundo almost four hours prior, motioned for the left-hander. At the very bottom of the climb, before it was even a climb, I came off. “Don’t wait for me,” I told Daniel. “I know the way home.”
The first part of that was superfluous, of course.
The group vanished, I flipped a u-turn and got to PCH via Malibu Canyon Road. At Cross Creek I called my wife. I could barely stand. “Can you pick me up at CotKU in an hour?” I begged.
“Sure!” she said. “Hard day?”
I mumbled, put my head down, and pushed the pedals homeward.
An unforgettably horrible day with Team USA! Please consider subscribing … Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!