I remember it was sunny, but late April in Madison is always a bit brisk, and as usual it was windy. Nasty windy.
We were racing counter-clockwise that day, which meant left-hand turns, with the climb on the backside of the course and an uphill finish. I wasn't at my best; my legs just felt heavy, but I was there for a double race day, just getting the intensity that only Midwest industrial park crit racing can get you. I hid out early on, holding my place as best I could over the hill and through the tight turns that took us back to the start/finish.
Lap after lap we trudged, and by mid-race, I was cooked. Overcooked, actually -- my legs had nothing. But as my teammates launched attacks and I marked the chasers, something magical happened: I drove through the pain. I latched onto a move, and three of us got away. My teammates started blocking, and I started to focus: I was outgunned, but my legs had come around. I had a chance. I just needed to make it happen.
I hid in the wind, I let the others do the work. The laps counted down. Six to go. Five. Four. We started testing each other up the small hill. I struggled to keep on. But it happened: Four seconds became ten became 30, enough to hold off the pack. And as we came off the hill for the final time, into the long straight, I lined it up and I launched, a 400 meter suicide mission, into a turn and up a hill, sprinting myself blind in a bid to be first across the line.
And I won.
And it felt awesome.
I still have the pair of Trek socks that were my prize that day, my second time winning a race on that course. The trip to Madison for the Great Dane Velo Club crits was a spring rite of passage for us when I was full-time road racing -- the course was fairly tame, and they were a good chance to test the legs following a long Midwest winter. That day in 2006 was my last hurrah -- by summer I had been bitten by mountain biking, and by the following year I hung up my road bike after a series of deaths in the Chicago cycling scene. Maybe that's why this sticks out so much in my mind -- everything came together, and I was able to pull it off. I'll never forget that feeling, that day.
Just behind me, the two other breakaways came across, and then the peloton. My teammates were in there, as were members of the host club, GDVC. As I came up through the ranks, these guys had become my friends -- they were rivals on the bike, sure, but they were also stand-up guys whom you could trust to share the work when the going got tough. They wouldn't give you an inch, but darned if they didn't help make great bike race.
Finishing 14th that day was a guy from Wausau racing for GDVC, Gregg Bednorski. When I look at the results, I see he finished side-by-side with his teammate Paul, who was the guy I knew best on their team. In fact, and I can't remember if it was that day or at the race earlier in the month, I spent a few minutes warming up with Paul and another GDVC racer -- I can only guess that it was Gregg -- as we rode around that part of Madison, testing our legs before the races.
The Midwest racing community is pretty tight, and as it turned out, Gregg raced mountain bikes too. In fact, when I look at his USA Cycling results, I see that he and I raced side-by-side at a handful of WORS events in the following years.
Until he was killed, while riding his bike on a rural Marathon County road, on the edge of my beloved Nine Mile Forest, on September 18, 2008.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I was too preoccupied with my own life at the time to acknowledge Gregg's death. I'm certain I heard about it, but I never made the connection between the story on the interwebs and the guy I'd ridden with. Now, as I look at his photo, it haunts me: I raced him. I rode with him. I knew him.
The reason I bring this up is this: What Can We Do When a Cyclist is Killed? Two weeks ago, Gregg's widow, Tammy, died. She was killed, while riding her bike in rural Marathon County, on the edge of Nine Mile Forest.
On the same stretch of road.
I'm sitting here, sick to my stomach. I am very happy that Tammy was able to find love again. It would seem to me that her remarriage to Tim Gass probably helped them both heal some very deep wounds -- but man, they only just got married in January. And five months later, she's gone.
I searched Tammy's name when I first read the BikeFed blog entry, and another name jumped out: Jeff Littman, another Wisconsin rider who was also killed by a car, in October 2010. I knew Jeff -- we all did -- and to be honest, I would have bet his name would be in the results from that long-ago crit. He always seemed to be around, and like the GDVC guys, he wouldn't give an inch -- but dang it was always good to go head-to-head with him. When I found out about his crash, I spent a long morning alone in my office, remembering good times and tough races.
I was surprised when I saw Jeff's name come up in the Google results, so I clicked on the link: Jeff Littman changed my life. I remember reading Jason's blog entry back then; it so perfectly captures the guy Jeff was. Still puzzled, I read through it again, and scrolled down to the comments:
It's not supposed to be like this.
Some day, a long time from now, Kate and Daniel will come to understand all the nights I'm not home for dinner, all the volunteer meetings I go to and the advocacy efforts I support. For all the work that has come before, there is still so much to do -- if senselessness like this can happen in Wisconsin, where it's not perfect but bicycling is a part of life, it will continue to happen everywhere. It's in my nature to do something about it -- for Gregg, for Jeff, for Tammy. For Kate. For Daniel. My memory of that late April day in Madison will forever serve as a reminder of how important it is, because at any moment, the person on the bike next to me in the pack could be gone.
Godspeed, Tammy. Say hi to Gregg and Jeff for us. We promise not to give up the fight.
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