War Stories – 2007 Tandem Nationals

"Watch underneath!"

Yelled Ben as I twisted the semi truck of a bike completely out of shape to get from the rail to the pole lane in a split second.  

"Over top!"

As Nelman and Beers came at us at speed to the right

"Full gas!"

81_526693639654_449_nI yelled and we both simultaneously went to an all out standing acceleration (our trademark) as I guided the bike slightly up track to slow down their advance.  It was a long way out, nearly 500m but we had no other choice so flat out it was.  Seated kick through turns 3 and 4, out of the saddle again on the home straight for the last few RPMs we could manage.  Coming down the home straight at nearly 70kph with twice the normal weight and power strapped to the same size tires and wheels as a single bike, I prepared to wrestle the bike round the corner.  I can feel the oscillation of the frame and wheels going the opposite of our every pedal stroke.  This turn usually causes teams to back pedal and slow down in this scenario, but I've got a tandem partner as crazy as I am so we dive head-on into the corner.  We stay flat out and make it through the turns and onto the back straight with a ton of speed.  But the other team taking the longer way around turns 1 and 2 had an easier time staying at speed and now down the back straight they use the downhill out of turn 2 and are starting to advance up our right.  In a few seconds the straight will be over and it's on to turns 3 and 4, just as difficult as 1 and 2 but now we've got to hold the speed up and the bike down, I'm not worried.  The other team is going the longer way around this whole time and here comes their uphill into turn 3.  We bite in and attack the turns.  Nelman and Beers are starting to go backwards, this gives me a 3rd kick and I feel Ben get his too.  Power keeps surging from the back wheel as we come to the home straight.  50m to go now and we're home as national champions. One pedal stroke and now 40m to go.  Another stroke, 30m to go, Nelman and Beers are rolling up our side.  20m to go, 2 more pedal strokes, the legs are screaming. 10m to go, final pedal stroke coming up, I can feel Ben setting up for the bike throw at the same time I do.  Final pedal stroke with a massive bike throw right on the finish line...  Champions!

81_526693734464_4410_nLooking back on the 2007 season that was littered with fantastic memories on and off the bike, the night of Tandem Nationals certainly stands out as the clear favorite.  But it wasn't winning the national title that was the highlight.  It was our record setting flying lap earlier in the night that was my most proud moment.  And to be completely honest it was the way in which we got there that was the real magic behind that night.  In a pre Olympic year season that was ripe with road blocks and obstacles to overcome, 2007 needed some good news fast and the summer race season did not disappoint!

Tandem racing in the 80's and 90's was as hotly contested a discipline as any on the world and Olympic scene.  In many nations it was considered a right of passage for riders moving towards the elite sprint ranks.  T-town had been a part of that tradition hosting an international tandem open challenge each year called "Tandemonium".  One of the fastest and most dangerous night's of the year it was always a crowd favorite.  But after the tandem events were removed from the Olympics and then the world championships, the tandems became more of a side show than a center piece.  The bikes built for two were rare and usually a collaboration of parts and pieces to annually resurrect the bike to racing status.  Now, as anyone who has ever ridden a tandem will tell you, "piecing" together a tandem right before an event is an absolute no-no.  Done right, the bike should get a complete overhaul or tires, chains, bearings, and any other necessary parts once a year.  This is a tremendous investment for one race per year, but absolutely necessary for the safety of the athletes.  This hurdle just added to the lack of interest from the elite riders.

But in the summer of 2006, 2 full seasons out from the Olympics and looking for something fun to do, Ben Barczewski and I decided to hop on a tandem and take a few laps a few days before Tandemonium.  Just for fun.  Having spent a great deal of our junior careers racing against each other and mimicking the styles of the same pro's on Friday nights in the summer, Ben and I were a perfect match for the tandem.  Our very first day out on the bike we had already mastered a standing acceleration on the bike which is typically unheard of even after weeks of practicing.  We had great synchronization and similarly quick thinking and handling styles on the bike so that it actually went where we wanted it to, when we wanted it to go there.  So we could handle the bike quickly and safely, but could we go fast?  Well, this is the part I owe all to Ben.  Ben was the perfect stoker (the rider on the back of the bike).  Meaning he trusted me completely.  When I gave the command to stand and accelerate, Ben had complete confidence to let-it-rip, put his head down, and go like hell.  Sure this sounds like the logical thing to do, but when you're approaching a 180 degree bend at 70kph, you try keeping your eyes closed and trusting the guy up front!  I could never fully commit as the stoker, but lucky for me, Ben just went for it!

tandemWhen Friday night rolled around Ben and I were ready to let it fly.  We put on a "massive" gear for the time (48x13) and went out to deliver our flying lap TT.  Most of the teams before us struggled to get inside the 18 second mark because they were either too scared to go flat out in the approach, or would hit the turn at speed and panic sending the bike back up track fighting to regain control for the entire lap.  Just as a reference point, the track record for the tandem flying lap was a 17.4 set ~14 years before then by the then reigning world champion team from Australia.  Getting close to that time wasn't possible even in our wildest dreams but we were gonna give it our best go anyway.  With only 3 days of tandem training under our belts we wound up and dropped in for the best time of the night at 17.9 seconds!  We were the only team to go sub 18 by a long shot!  We were ecstatic!  We then raced our best the rest of the night and finished where we started: on top.  Winners of Tandemonium!

Fast forward 12 months and here we are again at Tandemonium time.  Only in 2007 USA Cycling decided to make Tandemonium a national championship event!  After the start of 2007 that we had experienced (see my post "War Stories - The Start of 2007" for the full story), we were ready to turn some heads.  Our objectives were clear to both of us, win the national title and break the track record.  We didn't have much time in our training schedule to do Tandem specific work so we were going to have to rely on our skills from the previous year.  I spent 2 weeks going over the bike we would use and making sure it was in tip top shape and then it was on track from some testing.  We only had a few workouts, 3-4 I think it was, so we had to select a gear and approach technique quickly.  We tested 49x13, which we still thought was huge because most of our individual racing was on 49x14 and MAYBE 50x14 for a keirin.  Which is laughable now because a 51x13 on a single bike is considered small on the international circuit.  Then we tried 50x13, but it just felt too heavy in Ben's opinion as he wasn't a fan of the extra load for the jump in the approach.  But I knew how tight it would be to get the record and tried to convince Ben otherwise.

When race night rolled around the scene was set for a perfect night of racing.  The weather had been hotter than hell all week and the sun had baked the track with so much heat I actually think you could have fried an egg on it.  This didn't help much during the day, but at night just as the sun begins to set and the air cools just slightly, the heat then begins to radiate out of the track surface and T-town becomes lighting fast.  And tonight, was one of those perfect dream kinda nights.  I knew it was going to be fast and I knew we had to do everything possible to break the record so I took a chance.  Ben trusted me to do everything when it came to the bike and I had all identical matching Zen chainrings with the size number hidden on the back of the ring.  So without telling Ben I put on the 50x13 and just left it.  As the TT's started we watched the teams before us get quicker and quicker with a handful of them going safely under the 18 second barrier.  So when we rolled off to do our flying lap, we knew what had to be done.  

The track was packed to full capacity for the night and we were the hometown boys racing for the home team, the T-town Express.  The announcer gave us our intro as we took to the track and the crowd immediately got behind us with cheers and rumbling on the boards as we rounded the track starting our wind up.  Down the home stretch, 2 to go, this was it, go time.  We pushed up turn 1 and kept the pressure on, building momentum as we neared the end of turn 2.  My heart was racing in nervous anticipation of what I knew was coming next.  Down we dropped into the back stretch and POW came the seated kick from Ben and then from me.  We blasted past the back stretch stands and punched over the top of turn 3 as the crowd's road became louder and louder.  Now at the rail kicking in the saddle as hard as we could the bike began to flex and twist all over the place.  We were almost out of control but I knew we needed more to get the record.  Next was the jump out of the saddle and I knew this had to be a full gas committed move from both of us or we would crash or miss the record. Just as I was about to say "UP" Ben must have read my mind and we both stood simultaneously and ripped with everything we had on the pedals.  The bike took off as we pushed all in and I was left to try and make a dragster corner like a sports car.  We launched off the rail, out of the saddle, blazing down the home straight, transitioning back to the saddle as we crossed the finish line and starting the clock.  Now came the really hard part, keeping the bike low.  Twice the weight, twice the power and with more speed than we'd ever had before, I was going to have to fight more than ever to pin the black line.  Ben trusted me, this was good.  He wasn't looking, this was better.  I had a perfect entry line, BAM right on the black line I pinned the front wheel.  I was wrestling the bike but needed to stay full gas or else we'll lose speed.  We blasted onto the back straight and I held the bike low still in the pole (we were the only team to manage this that night).  We weren't free yet though, turns 3 and 4 were still set to try and derail us.  But I wasn't going down without a fight.  The crowd roared on because they knew what could potentially happen, I dug in and threw caution to the wind, please let the bike stay rubber side down.  We're on the black line in turn 3, now at the apex, turn 4, still on the black line!  The roar of the crowd is growing as we enter the home straight, this is it, we're almost home, it's now or never!  Ben sets up for the bike throw and so do I.  We THROW!...

81_526682536904_1956_nNow there is a moment where everything goes silent in my mind.  I've repeated every step of what I need to do as the driver on every inch all the way around the track.  Now my job is done.  I breath out.  I can think freely again.  "WHAT'S THE TIME?!?" I think urgently.  The timing board is behind us, it's in turns 3 and 4.  "I gotta get around to see this" I think.  Then just as we enter turn 1, the crowd ERUPTS louder than any time I have ever heard at the track in my entire life.  This noise has to be louder than any space shuttle launch.  I see every person along the rail with their arms in the air, yelling, cheering, clapping.  Before I can even turn around, I know we got it.  We make it to the middle of turns 1 and 2, I can see the board:  17.33  We broke the record by a full tenth!  A 14 year old track record by world champions, smashed by the hometown boys.  We did it.  The track and national record is ours.  We celebrate and take our victory laps.  Winning the national title will be a bonus at the end of the night.  This is the moment we really wanted.  We make our way to the infield and dismount, still exhausted from the effort.  Out of breath I slap Ben on the back and inform him we rode the 50x13, not the 49x13.  "WHAT?!?" he exclaims, almost in anger but so out of breath I honestly can't tell.  "It was the only way we'd get the record" I blurt out, barely able to speak myself.  "I'm gonna kill you!" he responds, yup, he's mad.  But a painful half smile comes across his face and I know we will laugh and reminisce about this for years to come.  Training partners, team mates, friends and now record holders.81_526693644644_656_n