8.5.13

On becoming a time-trialist

In 2009, I had the first opportunity to take part in the race against the clock for the Bavarian state title, finishing 24th in Herrieden, almost four minutes off the pace. That year, a former pro had joined my club, and even he failed to make it to the top 10. Naturally, back then I thought that making it into the podium was but a distant dream.

Going under 55 minutes for 2010's 40km course in Karbach resulted in only a small improvement, netting me the 20th place - which again highlighted the depth of the field I was facing. In my breakthrough season of 2011 I went to the championships with hopes of finally making into the top 10, but the technical, hilly course around the Ellertshäuser Lake didn't quite suit me - I finished 15th.

I doubled my efforts last year after joining Magnesium Pur: having a couple of previous winners in both the Elite and U23 categories among its ranks, the team was known for its time trialling pedigree. I gained unique insight observing my teammate Giulio as he prepared for his attempt, which would eventually win him the bronze medal, and managed a notable improvement, finishing 6th, less than a minute behind the winning pace. Almost there.

And then, finally: last Sunday, I managed the second-fastest time in the short 19.2km course in Arnstorf. I was the first to finish, and managed to hold the best time until the very last cyclist came through (former teammate and perennial favourite Fritz Meingast, last man to roll down the start ramp, took the honours, flying his Smart suit 38s faster). I found myself maybe even slightly disappointed: I could certainly have done a little better, if only I had scouted the course beforehand, or hadn't buried myself so deeply in the first few minutes of my run. Only later did it really hit me - I had delivered a podium-level performance in what is arguably one of the most competitive states in all of Germany.

(© Matthias Eberl)
It's been a long, long way from ordering my first aero helmet, to putting together a dedicated time-trial bike, over countless interval sessions and training spreadsheets, until reaching the point where I am now. My five-year-younger self would maybe look up in admiration to where I am now; and indeed, there is a certain feeling of fulfilment in having 'made it' here - but at the same time, 'here' is nowhere, for the destination was and continues to be the journey itself. And there are still miles to go before I sleep...

There are far too many people who made this journey a special one. From my family, friends and former teammates in Brazil, to the colleagues in Herpersdorf and now my new-found home at Team Magnesium Pur, and also the many friends I've made among my fellow competitors - a thank-you note would be at least as lengthy as this post. Chances are, if you are reading this, you have a stake in these accomplishments, and I have a debt of gratitude to you. Thank you all for the pleasure of sharing the way along these roads over the past ten years.
 - - -
Funny thought: 24, 20, 15, 6, 2. There's only one placing left if this sequence is to continue its diminishing trend... Yyhaaa!

- - -
Minor technicality: As most of you know, I hold a dual citizenship. When I first issued a cycling license, I choose to register it with a Brazilian code, thus making myself eligible to race the Brazilian championships or be picked for the Brazilian national team, but excluding myself from the possibility of representing Germany (or ever being crowned German champion). It turns out such choice also prevents me from ever being declared reigning Bavarian champion: in the past five years, I've been allowed to take part with a special 'guest' status, with my time recorded officially, but an asterisk placed next to my name to indicate my ineligibility:

27.3.13

The Joshua Tree Track #2

Twenty-twelve went by without a retrospective. Maybe an unfair fault, given the treatment dispensed to its predecessors, yet, by the time New Year's eve came, 2012 was far from over. See: normal people finish their Ph.D.s, find a job somewhere, then go apartment hunting. And finally, once that all is out of the way, they find a way to slowly bring back their hobbies into the picture. Normal people can also be so boring. For one, cycling (which, I could argue, is not exactly a hobby, but I digress) was never allowed to fade - if anything, my performances progressed steadily along my graduate studies. Now, my doctorate has been asymptotically approaching its end for quite some time now - in fact, I could argue that the main results were obtained almost two years ago, and only a combination of unfortunate events resulted in them not being submitted for publication before this month. Though, eventually, somewhere in November, enough was finally enough (read: funding ran out), and I set out to write my thesis. But as the old year faded into the new one, the thesis was still far from being ready, and the necessary closure to such an important milestone nowhere to be found. Also, somewhere in the final months of the belated year, Agnes and I decided on settling down in Munich. Again, normal people first find an apartment, only then to quit their current lease. But I laugh at the status quo. I first gave my landlord my three-month's notice, and then took to the task of scouting for a new dwelling. For many a week I drove, or rode the train, from Erlangen to the Bavarian capital, until we were accepted to a nice little place south-west of the inner city. However, with the moving-in date two weeks into the new year, I was again unable to check that accomplishment in the yearly retrospective. No thesis, no apartment: in spite of the New Year's Eve celebrations, 2012 was far from over.

- - -

I just came back from a fortnight in Italy, courtesy of my team's spring training camp. The first ten days were an epitome of a cyclist's lifestyle: hundreds of kilometres across the rolling Tuscan landscape interweaved by kilos of pasta and pizza and cups and cups of cappuccinos and espressos. Ride, eat, sleep, repeat. Training rides in the second week were somewhat hampered by the weather and an inflamed knee - which reminded me, however unpleasantly, just how fragile our bodies can be when performing at their almost absolute limit.

Thanks to the precarious internet connection afforded by our remotely-located house almost ten kilometres away from the nearest sign of civilization, these maladies gave me the first opportunity in years of spending time in almost uttermost isolation, with nothing but a book and a view of the Metallifere cols. Unfortunately, I couldn't find Ulysses - my bedside book of choice for this trip - to be such a worthwhile companion. A 1984 guide to Italian wines was somehow more amusing...


- - -

The day before Christmas' Eve, I drove the third and final instalment of my belongings to a storage unit in Munich. Benjamin and Ana had helped me empty the apartment and load the car (YG have my eternal gratitude!), and I cried my heart out as I waved them goodbye: leaving Erlangen behind signalized the beginning of the end, uncertainties abounded. And yet, somewhere along highway 9, I caught a glimpse of the Alps, illuminated by the late afternoon sun which shone through the broken clouds, and smiled - for in each beginning dwells a special magic...

My first homeless night was spent in a friend's couch (danke, Giulio+Ju!), before picking Agnes up at the airport the next morning, and driving on to Basel, where we were hosted for a few weeks in her parent's guest room until our apartment in Munich was ready for moving in. During our stay in Switzerland, besides working in the final chapters of my thesis, I was able to put down a significant block of training - riding the trainer in the balcony, admiring the view of the Jura as I pounded interval after interval.

Eventually, it was time to drive back and put our names in the mailbox and at the door of our new home. The first few weeks featured many a trip to Ikea, nearby supermarkets and hardware stores. Eventually set-up, we settled on a routine akin to our Swiss stay - training (countless intervals in the trainer for me, runs in the snow and swims in the nearby pool for Agnes), and the the final rush to the line before submitting the theses to our respective advisors. With that now out of the way, we can now focus on preparing slides and reviewing the field thoroughly ahead of the dreaded defence dates. And applying to jobs in earnest.

- - -

Driving back from Tuscany (coincidentally, almost equally cramped, but this time in a teammate's fully loaded SUV), I was somehow reminded of that late December perspective. Different conditions, of course - my thesis is handed in; the apartment is furnished; and the foundations for the upcoming racing season, all but set - but it's again a new beginning: new races; hopefully soon, a new job; and springtime right around the corner. Ready to start?

- - -

I miss the future.

1.12.12

With apologies to Carl Zeiss

There's fresh snow outside. The roads, wet, are empty but for a lonely old man walking his dog.

You finish the second 20' interval on an upward slope. Your pulse, which has been wandering around 180 beats for the last several minutes, finally starts to drop as you begin the cool down.

As the endorphins hit you, you smile, realizing - almost half a year ahead of time - that it's going to be a good one.

This is the moment I work for.

6.10.12

For evil to prevail

As an once aspiring offspring of Academia realizes the pursuit of his long dreamed career to be a life-long rotten competition for positions and results of dubious relevance, and thus, making use of all his supposed brilliance, walks away, he commits the system even further into its downward spiral towards oblivious greed.

When an honest and hard-working amateur chooses not to pursue a career in professional cycling, justifiably avoiding risking his health and moral integrity in dubious practices of doping and sporting misconduct, he thus further sentences the sport to remain faded to a rancid condition where precisely those athletes, officials and doctors responsible for his leaving continue to deal the cards.
 
Every time an idealist forsakes his goals and settles for the bitter world imposed by those who fail to realize dreams and reality can in fact become synonyms - he pushes Utopia further and further away.

- - -

Suddenly he's sixteen again. Naively contemplating a life where he's capable of inducing the changes necessary to make a difference, he's unwilling to compromise, however immersed in a society used to expect such as he may be.

It matters not. He's obnoxiously cocky, and stubbornly willing to gamble entire careers for the sake of proving his point.

And, for good men should not abandon their hopes and forsake their struggle, lest evil prevails, fight he will.

Part-time only.

17.7.12

Another conspiracy-supporting data point

Last Saturday, I drove almost 300km west to take part in the "Great Prize of the Göllheim Community", a 28km time-trial in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz. While the gusting winds were, most likely, equally strong for all starters, I know my lack of confidence in my handling skills put me automatically in a disadvantageous position. I finished my run feeling it had been disastrous: my computer indicated almost 10% lower power than my ride in the Brazilian championships three weeks ago; I was unable to keep my aero tuck for significant stretches, as I fought to keep the bike upright against the strong side winds; and, finally, I was handed a time penalty for taking the wrong line in a turn, missing one cone and thus shortening my ride by a few meters. I went for a lacklustre cool-down and then left to shower ahead of the long drive back, convinced that I'd easily miss the top 10 and thus finish outside the money for the event.


But, coming out of the locker room, I was fairly surprised - so much, in fact, that I even missed the awards ceremony - to find myself ranked 3rd, just over a minute and twenty seconds behind former southwest German champion Kai Hliza (Möbel Ehrmann), and still ahead of many other names I had weighted as candidates for a podium placing, such as Rheinland's reigining state champion, Alexandre Boos (Bianchi-meinradshop.de).

Somewhat embarrassingly (?), the U23 lads which started after the Elites posted the fastest times of the day; if we were put together in the same classification, I would have finished exactly two minutes behind the Team Bergstrasse trio of Christopher Hatz, Harry Kraft and Hans Benning, the latter two, respectively, 2nd and 6th placed in the German U23 championships. The U23 vice-champion, furthermore, is (or was, at least) leading the Bundesliga, the prestigious national series. Definitively no slouch.

Doing the math: 3 seconds per kilometre behind Kai, 4.2s per kilometre behind Harry. On a bad day.

(At those speeds, the missing 10% power - which again suggests my run in Brazil was indeed not too shabby - would have yielded me speeds around 3 or 4% faster, translating into almost 90s time savings - enough to take home the Elite title, and probably only a handful of seconds behind the speedy U23s.)

My kingdom for some anti-doping tests.

11.7.12

Something rotten in Rio das Ostras

(An English translation of a post which originally appeared two weeks ago.)

The number 13 could imply that there was some kind of bad luck, but this would be an erroneous conclusion. I won't hold it as the best time trial of my life (a title shared between the 500 Millas prologue in 2008, or the Hirschbachtal time trial last year), but surely it was not the worst. I could say I was proud not only of my ability to keep the bike upright, but to do so while maintaining a relaxed, aerodynamic position. I couldn't keep my intended pace over one of the long stretches against the wind, however I was just a few watts below my target. At the same time, I think I managed to dose my effort pretty well between climbs and descents, overtaking four riders along the way. Upon finishing, I had the pleasant (?!) feeling of having completely emptied the tank - confirmed by the fact that, several hours after the race, the legs still felt the consequences of the effort.

It was then to my great astonishment that, when crossing the line, I found out I had not set the best time. Nor was I in a position to compete for the podium - I had but the seventh place, with just under half of the competitors still to complete the course. With the later arrivals including most of the most favourites, my name dropped a few more positions in the timetable. In the end, 13th. For someone who intended to fight for the podium, quite frustrating indeed.

Had I so severely miscalculated my own ability, or grossly underestimated my opponents? I still hold that, as I flew to Brazil, my form was certainly among the best I've ever attained. Unlike previous appearances, this year I had an enviable consistency - no colds, accidents or business trips that could have compromised my training, which was, since the first rides this year, directed specifically towards this time trial. I had at my disposal one of the best equipments available, and certainly the greatest attention to the smallest details - such as my positioning on the bike, or small changes we made in our uniforms to further reduce aerodynamic drag. In other races in Germany, I had the opportunity to compare my performance with other athletes who have shared their data - one of the advantages of a power meter installed on the bike is, precisely, the ability to objectively analyse these differences in performance - and we calculated that the sum of those small gains could provide me with almost 10% energy savings, when compared to other athletes who also have access to good equipment and reasonably well positioned in their bikes. Noting the position of other athletes in Rio das Ostras, as well as their equipment configurations, I was certain that alone in this regard I already had a small, but significant head start over my competitors.

Also part of the argument is a comparison of my race performances against those of two other friends: Fritz Meingast, a former teammate in Herpersdorf, and Giulio Focardi, my colleague in Magnesium Pur. In the German Time Trial Championships, held the same weekend as the Brazilian Championship I was taking part, Fritz was sixth, and Giulio, 9th. Leaving aside the winner - the phenomenal Tony Martin, reigning world champion and highly rated for Olympic gold - we can compare the times of my colleagues with second-placed Bert Grabsch - world champion in 2008, and together with his countryman Martin, considered one of the best in the discipline. Over a distance of 40.6km, Fritz and Giulio were, respectively, 2m11 and 3m07s behind the former world champion - or 3.2 and 4.6 seconds per kilometer. Giulio, whom I had managed to beat by 17s in a 22km simulated time-trial the week before my departure, said he had not delivered his absolute best. Making use of an extrapolation based on those races and training rides we did together, I could estimate that, had I had the opportunity to compete for the title of the Sauerkraut Republic, I would have lost between 4 and 5 seconds per kilometer. But, due to higher circumstances, I found myself racing, some six thousand miles southwest, in the Brazilian championships. There, at a distance of 29km, I was 2m28s behind the winner - or 5.1 seconds per kilometer. It would have been a perfectly appropriate deficit against some of the top European athletes - but, to my knowledge, none of the South-American medallists have ever figured significantly in any international competition.

I do not intend to exorcise any of my fellow competitors - particularly not without proper evidence. Still, there are facts - someone who has already returned a positive doping test was crowned champion, and at least three other athletes who made it to the top 15 have been cited, if not suspended, for violations related to controlled substances. It is a tremendous pity that no anti-doping controls took place in a race as important as a national championship - controls which could help our sport, unfortunately marred by so many negative occurrences, win back some credibility. If I am upset with this result, it is only because I didn't want my participation - which, as I put in previous posts, was only the celebration of a much larger process - to end up tainted by the sour taste of suspected widespread cheating. But for now, flying back home with most of the German season still to unfold, I am glad to leave behind my disagreements with Brazilian cycling. It's time to move on. Kette rechts!

7.7.12

The Greatest Fight

There comes a time one has to face a life-defining battle. And this struggle may come right in the maelstrom of a perfect storm: I've recently failed to accomplish one of the highest sporting goals I had set for myself, and find myself having to redefine what my next objectives will be, and how will they fit with my long(er) term plans. I'm rushing through the end of my Ph.D. , trying desperately to set my results straight and iron out deficiencies in the formalism I've been excruciatingly working on for the past three and a half years. Concomitantly, I'm sketching the early draft of what may be my second venture into Academia, perhaps a second Ph.D., attempting to combine my Physics knowledge with my passion for cycling. And also contemplating an investment here or a side business there, looking for other ways to make ends meet once my scholarship runs out by the end of the year. All while still trying to be a good friend, son, and lover, even if time seems often to run extremely short.

But right now, I have to face a much greater challenge - this very evening, and the next one, and the one following it. I have to ... sleep.

Last week, in an evening I went to bed expecting to sleep like a log, I was somehow caught off-guard and spent the whole night looking at the ceiling, painfully conscious of my own vigilant state, as I forgot how to do the one thing I've been doing effortlessly since my very first day in this planet. I did manage to catch some ZzZz's in the days afterwards, but only after bringing myself to the edge of exhaustion - and only to find myself, the following night, again unable to disconnect, as I was too aware of not being asleep. Flying back home with a five-hour time difference in the midst of this surely didn't help. With my terminal refusal to consider any sort of medication - I can't fathom the idea of having exogenous chemicals of the synthetic kind affecting how my brain reacts - I sought refuge in chamomile tea and the odd herbal medicine. It was perhaps only in the past evening that I could feel like I've fallen asleep in a somehow more regular fashion - still, not without a few interminable moments turning in bed.

I eagerly await the day - hopefully, not too distant - when I'll wake up and realize I've slept eight or nine hours straight. If anyone cares to join me in celebrating - there'll be mugs of strong, black coffee for everyone :)