Discussed: Pacelines, potholes, ballet and CTA

In the parking lot next to Winnemac Park, I’m the third rider to show up. I’m ready to ride—always am—especially when it’s cold and the sun hasn’t quite worked its way above the apartment buildings.

But it’s April 20th.

The weather can’t seem to make up its mind and my body isn’t happy about it. I’m reassessing the two layers, arm warmers, jacket, thermal bibs, cap, gloves and boots I’m used to wearing in January. More riders trickle in, each laden head to toe in cold weather gear, further confirmed by the groans and anxiety to get moving. Palmer in particular might as well have a down jacket on, save for his knicker-exposed calves he branded as his “heat exchangers.” We laugh and loosen up.

Today is training today. On tap: pacelines, balance, cornering, and nonverbal communication.

We’re led out to Sheridan Road via Ravenswood, Ridge and Evanston as usual, this time with USAC Coach and fellow rider Eric Blankinship at the helm. For the healthy mix of men and women riders representing categories 3, 4 and 5, today we dial the fundamentals of road riding under his guidance. I consider myself an advanced rider, but I’ve just paid attention to what others did and followed suit without much thought. Eric’s tips imbue the group, I feel, with more confidence in the saddle.

We hold an easy single paceline around 18 mph through Chicago and Evanston, rotating counter clockwise from the advancing curb line to the retreating traffic side line, trying our best to keep tight while nimbly dancing between the blooming potholes that plague the pavement this time of year. The line churns as riders pull and drop, and once we get through the red lights of Evanston, we kick it up a notch to 20 mph. Might as well be pros. We concentrate on the whir of rubber and chatter of jockey wheels, forgetting about the cold. As one pulls off the front, he or she kicks out a right elbow to signal the next rider to advance—little is said beyond, “clear” or “last,” to signal the pack’s front or back.

Then: I get a pinch flat. Swap the tube. Move on. We quickly regroup and settle into the tempo that would get us to Highland Park in no time—but alas, we pull off at Lloyd Park in Winnetka for drills. I’ve never done bike drills before.

Eric gives us a flyover of what we’re doing: balance and cornering. Balance? We all have the basics down when it comes to riding a bike, right? But not necessarily total control when it comes to riding with our centers of gravity in weird places. So, we partner up and, in a sort of delicate cycling ballet, hold hands and ride slowly, deliberately, in a circle. I take care to not yank or pull Tom’s glove off when I’m on the inside, since my turning radius is shorter. We switch it up, do a few loops. Alright, easy enough.

Next, we place one hand on our partner’s shoulder. This is an exercise in team camaraderie, because I look around and everyone appears as though we’re reassuring or congratulating each other. But this time, we have to get comfortable with the near drop-to-drop proximity of our bikes.

The next exercise draws a few laughs: grab one ankle with your hand as you pedal. The idea here is to keep steady while throwing body weight around, whether riding straight or turning. But it turns out to make the transition easy for the next drill, the bottle set down. Here, the goal is to take your water bottle and set it down on the ground without it falling over. On the return, pick it up. It’s equally as difficult because, in effect, we use the same motion and weight shift to lean over and grab it. There are a lot of tipped and rolling bottles at first, but determination prevails and we get the hang of it. Set down, pedal away at near walking pace, dodge teammate, pick bottle up. Repeat until mastered. Some of us straight up drop the bottle across on pavement to make it more challenging—essentially requiring a full lean-over to the ground while remaining clipped in and moving. I’m all legs with a short reach, so I would’ve ended up on the ground. Some of us do.

We practice bunny hops, bringing out the curb-hoppers (me) or cross racers among us, followed by another partner exercise, in which the goal is to lean into my partner. In criterium racing, the common knee-jerk reaction to someone bumping you is to flinch away from the offending bumper. This drill seeks to reverse the reflex, and force us to bump into the bumper. I get this one right away because it’s the same reflex known as the quick-turn. Say you’re riding in traffic, and a car on your left abruptly turns right as upon approaching the same intersection, pinching you into the curb. Your options are to crash, slam on the brakes if you can, or turn with the car. In the latter case, you’d want to juke your body toward the car (unnatural, yes), such that you reflexively overcorrect your induced loss of balance, resulting in an eel-like snap of a right turn. This drill is more partners just bopping into each other like bumper cars while riding in a circle, but it’s the same idea.

Finally, we practice cornering. Personally, I haven’t seen any tight corners yet in crits (I hear Monsters of the Midway has a gnar 180), so I need this drill as much as any other. We ride halfway up the park’s driveway, loop around, and bomb around a particularly sharp corner of the parking lot several times. I successfully try to lean in and cut it tighter each time without skidding or clipping the pavement.

After we finish but before we head back to town, we descend down the park’s marina access road and climb back up, primed for the road. With the wind at our backs, the return paceline holds a brisk 22-23 mph pace punctuated by an unexpected crash. I don’t see it, but I hear it. I go back and see Ross sitting rattled on the curb, but he’s back on his feet after a minute or so. It sounds like a pothole coughed up a loose chunk of road into his fork crown, jamming the wheel. He makes it back OK, I learn later, relieved.

The group splits up to go home, as it’s wont to do when we get close to Chicago proper. But not before my front tire goes Wolf Pack firecracker on me and pops. Michelin Pro 4 Service Courses are thin, I know, but I barely had 150 miles on them. I get the tire off, marvel at the gash by poking my pinky through, and boot it with Amy’s dollar bill and Annie’s tube. The pecuniary patch has worked before, and I make it not two miles before, yes, it bursts again.

With the parked Red Line trains at Howard in sight, I start to walk, glad that I brought my CTA pass with me, and wave adios to the group. Next time I get back on the bike, at least, I’ve got fresh skills to get me through, tire be damned. Until next clinic, see you on the road.

For your viewing pleasure, a short video compilation of this "HAC Training Day ride...":http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GW-vI5ajbBc&feature=youtu.be

 -Nick Wright