There's no time like the present, and I'm no good at intros, so let's get right to it.
Pan Am Games was on balance a success. We were good enought to win, but came home with a silver medal in the team sprint. A bit dissapointing, but in the end the experience was invaluable. I'd rather not rehash it this far from the event, but if you'd like, you can read my "I'm an angry adolescent" rant at the Project London site.
July is the worst month to work at a bike shop. Scratch that. I love the bike shop. July is the worst time to be employed by someone who wants you to do things other than bike racing and rabble-rousing. Too many events. You've got San Jose, Portland AVC, FSA GP, street sprints, roller races, weddings, patio seating at bars and BBQ's every sunny evening. I managed to get the weekends of AVC and FSA off, but once again the San Jose challenge is the good-natured but unfortunately red-headed stepchild that doesn't get picked for kickball. I'll make it to that race someday, but no dice this time.
I'm fighting off waves of panic every time I think about the future. I'm confident enough in my abilities to know that I can ride 4 world cups, the pan am games, the pan am championships, the world championships and a sixday this winter. Physically tough, but can be done. Mentally tough, but doable. Financially? Uhh. Bueller? Help? I will sell my liver and auction off my cat (don't tell Jenny) to pay my rent this winter, but my cat's a hateful fiend and enough beer and whiskey has passed through my liver that it's probably only worth a five spot at best.
I can deadlift 400 pounds, but I can't walk through the park with my wife without waking up with sore legs the next day. My body is so finely tuned to do one specific movement that it has become hilariously ill-equipped for the rest of the real world. I am not ready for the worst case scenario. I could not survive like Bear Grylls, but I can make a bike go pretty fast for a little while.
37,000 feet over the Atlantic, ripping along at 630 miles per hour in an aluminum can with wings I had a strange thought. This thought was really just my brain confirming something I had suspected for a few weeks. A sort of weird reality sinking in.
I realized that this isn't a fluke. I'm on my way around the world to compete in the World Championships. To do a job. 12 months after I had effectively quit and given up my ambitions at top-level international competition. Last March my world was set to become a much more simple cruise of local races and bike shop routine. One email from an Olympic champion later, I took a hard right down a more difficult road.
All this, it's something I wanted since I was a teenager and it's not a dream anymore. And it is absolutely terrifying.
If you want to know what the World Championships is like from the rider's perspective, I don't know how much I can tell you. Consider a situation with more pressure than you've ever experienced. TV cameras everywhere and that red "record" light is staring you in the face. Millions of people are watching. You're wearing a wife beater and underwear in a room full of black-tie socialites, and your socks don't even match. You're standing under an anvil tied to a rope, and you have to throw a dart into a bullseye for the first time in your life, or the rope lets go. You're robbing a bank with a fake pistol, alarms ringing and cops on the way.
Keith Richards writes in his autobiography about recording Exile on Main Street and although I'd be a fool to consider myself a rock star, I can relate every word of this to the sensation of race day on the world stage:
"You'd be surprised when you're put right on the ball and you've got to do something and everybody's looking at you, going, OK, what's going to happen? You put yourself up there on the firing line - give me a blindfold and a cigarette and let's go. And you'd be surprised how much comes out before you die. Especially when you're fooling the rest of the band, who think you know exactly what you're gonna do, and you know you're blind as a bat and have no idea. But you're gonna trust yourself."
It's over in a flash. Sometimes, like in Manchester, everything comes together and you can feel success before the time flashes on the board. Other times, like in Apeldoorn, everything goes wrong at once, and the disappointment is total and ultimate. To be disappointed with 12th in the world seems out of touch, but success at this level depends on a slightly skewed reality and uncompromising vision. The "normal" world says that "shit happens" but the Swiss timing system and the organization spending thousands of dollars for you to ride a single lap doesn't always see it that way.
All you can do is think about what's next. For me that's Pan Am Championships in Medellin, Columbia. Just about 5 weeks from now. One more big blast to finish off the season. One last chance for Olympic points and hardware for the mantle. One more chance to close your eyes and see what comes out.
These past few months have been busy to say the least, so let's jump right into the fray with no protection and little concern for our own well-being. Let's pick up the action in the city of Cali, en route to the plush Four Points hotel in a bus filled with World Cup riders and surrounded by assault-rifle equipped Colombian soldiers.
I'm not convinced that this bus will survive this descent. Rolling over these hills in a broke down 80's tourist bus, two first-time world cup competitors are gripped with a kind of wild-eyed mania. This is Colombia. These hills are packed with danger and the city seems uncontrollable. A massive glittering city, that for all we know could be the largest place on the planet. Our bus driver isn't helping anyone's nerves, he's taking these curves at speeds few would attempt in a European sports car.
I was flown to Columbia at great expense to ride 250 meters from a dead stop as fast as possible. One lap of a purpose built track. That is my destiny. Density? That is a quarter of this year in the books for me, that one lap. My friend in the seat behind me, laughing hysterically at the dirty madness of Cali is an endurance rider of a different breed but at this point, we're practically indistinguishable. Jaws on the floor, eyes bigger than the moon. Drinking in this thing, this absurd experience, this incredible place. Everything all at once.
The Colombian people are incredible sports fans. Viciously nationalistic, but sports fans of the finest type. 5,000 Colombians are three times louder than 10,000 Europeans, and 5 minutes before our race I can hear every single one of them. Our third man is missing. The National Team coach is searching the catacombs of the velodrome's basement and I know that at the very least he will drag the poor bastard out by his hair and throw him on the track in a vomiting heap, somehow strapped to a bicycle. I remember a countdown, a false start and a reset. I remember a TV camera in my face and incredible fear. I remember the second half of my lap, but not the first. I remember disappointment seeing our final time.
2 Days after my return from Colombia I'm running a fever of 102.8. Locked on the couch in a sweating, hungry mess. I recover in time for my good friend Aaron Kacala to visit from Colorado for New Years. We show him and his wonderful ladyfriend Leilani our favorite parts of the greatest city on the planet and I finally start to feel better, which gives me enough time for one workout before I catch a direct flight to Amsterdam for the Sixday of Rotterdam.
Will he, Won't he?
Sweet mother it's cold here in Holland.
I feel simultaneously comfortable and waaay over my head. Being an American at a European sixday is a lonely thing. Without friends here I'd never be able to come back. There is a hierarchy, and I am very near the bottom.
Night 1. Lots of noise about Kiesse tonight. Will he ride? Won't he? Will he be allowed? Who will Sercu pair him with at such a late hour? Iljo Kiesse's legal troubles after his positive test a few years ago are never-ending, but somehow in the 11th hour he's been cleared to ride here in Rotterdam. The riders are happy to see him, the crowds are nothing less than ecstatic. Kiesse rides with the flair that the public devours and he lives with the midnight hubris that the riders appreciate. The UCI will make trouble about this, but for now in the insular world of the Six, everything is good.
Night 2. I am worried that I won't make it through this one. The overstimulation is already getting to me, with 4 nights to go after I survive this one. My two weeks suffering on the couch are not reflecting well on the legs. I'm covering it up well the only way I can here. Crowd-pleasing violence. Things I couldn't get away with at a race that's officiated by the books.
Night 3 and 4.
Blurs and flashes. The crowds roar, my legs are smashed and I can't remember anything but Cozy Shack and rough sprint rounds.
There is nothing more satisfying after another night of sixday shenanigans than an ice cold Amstel beer in a hot shower. Nothing in the world. It's like a delicious Icy Hot for your churning guts.
Tonight I profited from mass confusion in the kierin and ran away with a big win. I was so suprised I nearly forgot to celebrate. As you can see here...
Everyone in the circus is tired. The soigneurs are tired of dealing with tired/hungover riders, the mechanics are spun out on tire glue vapors and too many Amstels, the runners are tired of indentured servitude and the riders feel exactly how you'd expect after 6 nights of nonstop everything. Bloodshot eyes above satisfied smiles. Gentlemen, we're done. The final laps are run, the confetti falls, envelopes full of Euros are exchanged, and we all say our goodbyes to what are becoming very familiar faces. Until next time.