A last chance

USPRO Criterium Championships, Chicago, USA, August 21, 2005

Tuesday before the US PRO Criterium Championship, I did the local TNW (Tuesday Night Worlds, an institution in any good size town) and opened the throttles to 100 percent for the first time since the fateful crash at Nature Valley GP Minnesota. The result wasn't encouraging. Throughout Altoona and Charlotte I had to play the worker role, knowing that the torn adductor muscle simply wasn't up to maximum acceleration yet my fitness was high enough to do large amounts of work. This test showed me that I wasn't going to be swinging the big ol' Lieswyn wrecking ball at this weekend's Downers Grove crit champs. If I was to finally bring home an individual national championship, I was going to have to do it through steady riding, cunning, and luck.

Saturday night warmup

Tonight was like racing underwater in a swimming pool. High humidity made for difficulty breathing. Going into the finale, Sayers and I surfed a variety of panicky teams, hanging out between fourth and seventh place. Wherry was looking after our on-fire Dominguez just a couple guys back. At three laps to go the biggest cash lap prize of the night was announced, and Mitchell railed it for his Kodak/Sierra Nevada teammates. Into the last turn and just 150 meters to the money, I overheard one KSN rider shout at the leading teammate to "GO!" as the first guy let off the pedals and opened a gap to his teammate. Oh, the old "Saturn Sit-Up", eh? I know that one! Instantly I dove inside around Sayers and pounced on the confused KSN leadout man, easily sweeping the money. Sayers picked me up 200 meters later, belting out an encouraging "get it rolling, John". He took us to the last half lap, and I did a short turn before Wherry flew through the last quarter lap. Ivan won convincingly over Siro Campognara (Navigators). Now on many teams a performance like this would shift the bullseye onto their backs, but for Health Net pb Maxxis the target is already on us in permanent ink.

Sunday - the championship

I knew I could count on the flying Kiwi to help me win the championship today, but it was odd to not see him at all until three laps to go. But I'm getting ahead of myself…

Scott and Mike Jones took care of business for us for the first half of the race, policing breakaway attempts and towing the constantly shifting waves of the peloton back together again. Ivan mopped up primes. I basically tried to spin over the hill with as little energy expenditure as possible, waiting until 20 laps (one-third of the race remaining) to play my cards. Sayers slipped into a dangerous group of a half dozen or so, gaining at one point as much as 25 seconds on us before the missing Jelly Belly team put together a big chase and nailed it back.

As soon as he was caught, I knew it was time for me to make my bid. Kirk O'Bee (Navigators), a previous winner of this race and an American favorite to win again, popped out to a three second lead and I blasted across to him in one straightaway. Hmm, that didn't feel easy at all… Soon we were joined by KSN rider Ben-Jacques Maynes (BJM) and our threesome began to slowly eke out a sizable lead that hit a maximum of 45 seconds. Here's my dilemma: were I on a small team I could give this break 100 percent effort and just hope for the best at the end against O'Bee. However, on Health Net pb Maxxis I've got a whole stable of top sprinters not to mention the young American Tyler Farrar. I can't go to the line with O'Bee unless I'm crushing him in the pulls. So I ride 80 percent or so, hoping either he'll start to crack or I'll magically start feeling stronger thanks to my "faking it". I'm surprised that Kirk doesn't just sit up and try to reshuffle because he's pulling twice as long and a third faster than I each rotation. He must know I'm saving something.

After ten laps of effort, our gap is stabilizing at about 30 seconds (which is "out of sight" on this course) and the words "the chase is disintegrating" are coming over my earpiece. It's seven laps to go, about seven miles, and I've got to do something soon to see whether I'm going to be able to beat these guys or whether I need to go to full "sit on" mode and allow the break to lose serious time. My weaker pulls have taken the average speed down… I know that were I to go 100 percent we'd be gone, uncatchable. But the tactic is decided. I jump a couple times and encourage BJM to do the same… all three of us know who is strongest here, and the two of us at a disadvantage must not chase one another but make O'Bee do it all. The cat and mouse tactics do not offer us a resolution of any sort, rather they put the nail in the coffin on our break and we are swept up with 3.5 laps to go. I see all my teammates at the front, waiting to pounce, and am confident that they'll deliver where I failed today. And at least I know that my break took serious power out of our Colavita, Jelly Belly, TIAA-CREF, Advantage Benefits/Endeavor, and other opponents.

It's pretty hard to hold position at the front of a charging bunch after you've left a lot of power out there in a break. It's too late to recover and get back to the front to help with so few laps remaining, but I ride around anyway. I may not have won in my last chance to score the jersey, but I'm at least going to finish.

Hendy tells me later he made one big try to get across to me (a move that had it worked would have vastly improved my odds of winning the jersey!) but couldn't get away "clean". So he sets to work delivering Tyler to the line, which he does beautifully. Wily and crazy veteran David McCook (Jelly Belly), an old friend of mine, pulls even with our youngster on the line and it's declared to be a photo-finish. A tiny part of me wonders how cool it would be for someone who last won this race in 1994 or so to win again 11 years later. But it's all whoops, hollers and smiles as the words come across from Jeff, over at the officials stand, that Tyler has done it.

For the third consecutive time, the criterium jersey is won by someone who will not be racing in America to show it off the following season. First Kevin Monahan, who retired, then Jonas Carney, same thing, and now Tyler. He will be racing for a European team next season, on a continent where the only criteriums they have are fixed-result exhibition races.

Before today's race I swore to myself I didn't want to relive the all-too familiar feelings of losing. But I'll simply have to revel in the team's victory, and the knowledge that my sacrifice by riding at less than 100 percent in a less than ideal breakaway contributed greatly to the team's result.

I'm obviously not Lance. I didn't accomplish an unheard of feat in the sport, or make so many millions that I'll never need to work again. I may race as a hobby for many more years, unlike those colleagues who win the jersey (Kevin, Jonas, Lance) and will likely never race again.

My professional cycling career is drawing to a close, and it is insanely hard to handle. I keep trying to focus on the future, knowing I'm getting older and there must be a closure point sometime, reminding myself about my wonderful planned life together with DD and all the nebulous opportunities that are opening before me. But when I'm riding back to the hotel with my teammates, the sky lit up in fiery oranges and reds as the sun sets, I can't imagine another job as cool as this.

Thanks for reading,

Email John at jlieswyn@cyclingnews.com

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John Lieswyn is one of Cyclingnews' most popular and sometimes controversial diarists. John started road racing in Florida in 1985. After college graduation in 1990, he raced three seasons for the US National team in Germany, France and Italy, turning professional in 1993 for Coors Light. In 1995 he returned to Europe, scoring numerous top ten results and winning the Delemont (Switzerland) mountain stage of the Regio Tour. After taking a hiatus in 1996, he focused on the US domestic scene with over 40 major wins. In the pre and post season (US) he competes in South America, Australia and New Zealand, notably taking three stage wins in the Herald-Sun Tour (Australia), and overall victory at the Southland Tour (NZ) and Tour de Beauce (Canada). He has written for Cyclingnews.com since 1999 and continues this season with Team Health Net presented by Maxxis.