28.6.17

Running to stand still

I did my first race in the entry-level "debutantes" class in February 2002. I finished fifth and stuck around, waiting for the awards ceremony, which was to take place after the main Elite race. A certain lad from an orange-clad team made a daring attack and won solo - Gean Oliveira was his name, and he was quickly my new hero.

In January 2003, after moving my way up in the ranks over the course of the previous year, I got an invitation to join the Sapiranga Cycling Association's cycling team - and would get to wear that same orange jersey. Being located in a small city maybe an hour away from Porto Alegre, the team invited me to spend the weekend there for us to ride together and get to know each other better. At the last moment there was a change of plans and my host could no longer offer me the spot on the couch, so I ended up on Gean's room, sleeping on a guest mattress on the floor. I remember telling him just how surreal this all was - here I was, one year later, having dinner and sleeping at the house of a former medallist at the Brazilian Championships.

I raced for the Sapiranga-based clockwork orange "Last Sprint Team" throughout my days in Brazil. I progressed within the team, eventually sharing the team's leadership role with Gean before moving to Germany almost ten years ago.

- - -

March this year, after my best off-season preparation to date, I fell ill with an infection around the saddle area on the second day of our spring training camp. The plum-sized lump was not testicular cancer, but it was still scary enough having flesh-eating bacteria suddenly growing out of nowhere; the associated fever and risk of further spread meant it should be attended to with no delay. The surgeons' words informing me of the risks involved still echo to this day, but it was a matter of risking it with a surgery, or facing certainty in no time - and so after five minutes' time to call my parents and my sister and sign disclaimers, I was put to sleep and wheeled off to the surgery room.

All went extremely well: the exams the days following indicated all matter had been removed, my body was responding well to the antibiotics, and there was no damage to any of the organs in the surrounding area, so within a week I was allowed to go home. It would be another couple of weeks until I was allowed to exercise even moderately, and yet another month until I could bear weight on the saddle again. However, after an initial week of leisurely spinning the pedals, just as I attempted ramping up my training back to a normal training schedule, my still weakened immune system threw another curve ball: I fell ill a second time, with a cold giving way to tonsillitis and another round of antibiotics. It wasn't until the end of May that I could finally throw a leg over the bike without ensuing complications.

- - -

The national championships were and are always the highlight of any season. In 2013 I transferred my license to Germany, meaning that, instead of fighting for a podium spot in Brazil, I now had the chance of finishing on the second page of the results list against some of the best names in the time-trialling discipline in, well, the whole world (my German countrymen have won 7 World titles and have a total of 17 medals since the discipline was introduced 23 years ago, twice as many as the second-placed nation). On the start line last Friday, there were no less than 6 Worlds' medallists. Against such firepower, the few amateurs who manage to qualify, by winning state championships or having enough rank list points to warrant a start - and are brave enough to show up - form a small, tightly-knit circle, who keeps in touch during the year racing on different events, but will gather on Nationals' weekend to celebrate - and maybe this is part of what I only recently realised - what the sport is all about.

Away from the spotlight, with the cameras filming the world champion and the other Tour de France contenders and many a photographer on the course not even bothering to shoot the amateurs, we all have little to no chance of ever landing on the podium, and yet we train with utmost dedication for an entire year to meet on that day and have a go at the best race possible.

- - -

In years past, I prepared meticulously, with training camps at altitude, special diets and workouts; and I was always pleased with landing somewhere in the middle of the results table. Obviously, this year my expectations had to be reassessed. The initial registration listed 49 names, on race day, only 24 turned up, indeed the smallest field of the last years. As we chatted on the warm-up area, one fellow competitor remarked that, even with only those few, simply making it into the top 20 would already be a remarkable act, and we all nodded in agreement. I had been training properly for barely a month, and if in a more typical setting of 50 or 60 starters a top 30 would well be in reach, here I knew better. Still, I had decided to take part: as a celebration for being healthy, to honour the fact that I had qualified, to meet my friends, to prove a point.

Chemnitz was bustling with a few thousand spectators gathering on the main square that sunny Friday afternoon. One by one, after a final equipment inspection, we lined up the starting ramp, awaiting the final countdown ahead of an hour in hell. I had driven the course in the support car as one of my teammates in the Under-23 category did his run a few hours earlier and had an idea of what to expect, but clearly the crowds had more than doubled as the contenders for the main race were about the start. I had set a conservative target power output given what I had managed on the last few training sessions, and knew from experience not to let the loud roar trick me into overdrive already in the first few minutes, but as I left the city behind and entered the main stretch of road, my legs still felt like they could give a bit more. Nothing to lose, so why not? Every couple of miles, through every small village or intersection, small groups of spectators would be yelling and honking and throwing a small road-side party, and I couldn't help but smile - and keep pushing. Fifteen kilometres into the ride, Lars Bartlau, the Bremen state champion, who had started a minute after me, was about to overtake me, and yet that fazed me not the smallest bit. Ten kilometres later, as we reached the turnaround point atop a small plateau, I had not only drawn even but even managed to again gain a few hundred meters. I struggled on the technical descent, the side wind likely affecting me more than heavier-built riders and was overtaken again, but once more, I just soaked it all in and made my way down at my pace. I would still be overtaken by a further rider on my run-in back to town, and yet I would still be radiant every time I checked my numbers and saw 3, 5, 10 Watts above my intended mark. Entering Chemnitz and seeing the marks for the last 3000 meters, I was completely empty, but somehow the crowds managed to push one to find that final ounce of glycogen to get to the finish.


(C) Denis Günther / DG Design

I crossed the line in 1 hour, 3 minutes and 15 seconds, a 28.3 mph average over the 48 kilometre course. Tony Martin, reigning world champion, won in a time of 54'16", or 32.9 mph. Justin Wolf from Nordrhine-Westfalia was the sole amateur to make it into the top 10, his 58'31 netting him the 8th place, one place and six seconds ahead of Domenic Weinstein, 5th at the Rio Olympics on the track. Lars, my minute man, would end up 19th, with 1h01'19". My teammate Richard Stockhausen, who made himself a name with a 4th place in 2011, would finish 14th as 4th best amateur, just barely beating the hour with a 59'49'.

Upon finishing my run, however, not only was I completely unaware of the numbers or the placings above, but these were utterly irrelevant. I hugged my teammates and supporters who had been driving our follow-up cars, and if someone had reached me a bottle of champagne, I would have celebrated on the spot as if we had won. The exact meaning of what had just taken place was lost on me at that moment, but there was a sense of fulfilment unlike any previous run. I came, I did what I do best to the best of my abilities at that point in time, and had tremendous fun while doing it.

After a quick shower and change of clothes, Paulus, the team owner, drove with me back to Munich; the rest of the team would also do the road race on Sunday, which I had decided against, giving my spot to one of the newer kids in the team for his first time at the Nationals. We got home just before midnight and I still wrote a couple of messages, tried to find photos and reports, and caught up with the results from national championships across other countries before collapsing in bed for a well-earned night of sleep.

- - -

The following day, there was a message on voice mail. It was Gean, in his unmistakable style and voice: 
"Man. The fastest time trial of my life, at (a race in Uruguay), I had a 29 average. That was over 15 kilometres and it was completely flat. I just heard of what you did over three times the distance with all those hills. Twenty-f*cking-eight. With one month of training on your legs. Seriously, f*ck you. That was the most awesome ride and time. First or second-last doesn't matter. Hats off for your guts to go and face these guys. If you were still racing here, you'd be on the podium today. Don't forget that."

- - -

This post is not complete without some acknowledgments. To those that took care and helped me stay the course over turbulent waters. To those that, in good times as well as hard times, wrote, called and kept me in their prayers. To those that inspired me and those that drew inspiration, and in doing so motivated me to attempt to go further. 

From the bottom of my heart: thank you.

Repeating what I wrote almost five years ago,
"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 fifteen years."

2 comments:

Rafael von gehlen said...

Stunning performance! Congrats!

Carlos Alberto Rocca said...

Still reading, cheering, and awaiting the day when the storytellers of ESPN will speak about the Brazilian rider participating in the most famous races over Europe. :)