2007 was the year the national team residency program was disbanded, our "professional" team from 2006 pulled the pin and disappeared from under us and our national team coach from Australia was relieved of his duties thus leaving the sprint "program" high and dry. Left with nowhere else to turn, a few of us packed up and headed back to the place we knew worked, T-town. Giddeon Massie, Ryan Nelman, Ben Barczewski and myself had forged our junior cycling careers on the concrete banks of T-town in the summers and had learned the definition of "hard" being stuck indoors during the winter months. With no program, no budget, no team and no coaching we turned to the then velodrome directors and former Olympic medalists, Erin Hartwell and Marty Nothstien. Erin and Marty had the good fortune of being track cyclists during the US's glory days of EDS support in the 90's. Understanding the talent and fire we all possessed for track cycling, Erin and Marty got on our side to provide coaching for us, a team to ride on and elite international racing all at our home track. While the process of creating all those things was anything but smooth and pretty, we had what we needed. A gym to lift at, a colder than hell frozen over cinderblock training room for our ergo sessions and a group of athletes determined to show the world what we could do.
We banded together in January which quickly proved to be the make it or break it moment for all of us. We had a winter full of snow that extinguished any hopes we might have had for getting on the road let alone the track. 4 days a week in the gym, 5 days a week on the ergo and if you were "lucky" you got to freeze your toes and fingers off riding outside for 2 hours. I personally would spend all morning and afternoon training, then shower and drive immediately to my job as a server waiting tables in nearby fine dining restaurants. Daylight hours were short and the weather seemed to always be cloudy. Every day, week, month even, seemed to blend together in an endless cycle of wake, eat, lift, eat, ride, eat, work, sleep, repeat. Our daily objective was one more rep, 5 more pounds on the weight bar, 20 more watts on the ergo, 2 more RPM's on the rollers. It really was enough to drive someone mad and if the walls of the ergo room could talk they'd tell you of the countless profanities and ego collisions that happened amongst the fumes of a kerosene heater that probably made all of us a little extra crazy at times. But boys will be boys and it was certainly an environment that we all thrived in and grew to our best from. Much like diamonds are formed from coal under extreme amounts of pressure, so were we. Locked away from the world and even from the locals, we were certainly under pressure.
When the weather finally broke in the spring we were like caged animals ready to run free on the track. Only problem was the boards had been removed from the track to be refurbished so there was no outer railing to stop us from potentially ejecting out of the track! Because of this we had to move our first outdoor sprints to a nearby road on the track bikes. This seemed very logical and normal for us but after not doing a max speed effort on a non stationary bike in months, strapped to a bike with 1 gear and no brakes, out on the road amongst cars and trucks, with 4 egos ready to establish a pecking order amongst the group... Yeah I guess we should have thought this one through. We took turns leading out the entire group for full speed downhill lead outs. The purpose of the effort was for the lead rider to block the wind for the chasing riders and get them up to the highest max speed possible. Being the ultra competitive athletes that we all were though, this was as much of a race as it was a lead out and no one was more competitive than Ben and I.
I don't remember who lead which effort first, but we were all handing out some hooks and chops to our training partners to each try and "win" every sprint. Each round got a little more aggressive than the one before and by the time it was Ben's turn to lead out it was full on, game on, winner take all. As we kicked into full speed for the effort I began my early run on Ben to get by him early and run from Giddeon and Nelman for as long as possible. Ben knew what my plan would be and was ready. As I rushed up on his back wheel and slid to the left to pass Ben gave a large swift hook with his rear wheel colliding with my front to the sound of spokes clanging against hub axels synchronized with a perfectly timed "ha HA!" from Ben. Backing off for a half pedal stroke to make sure I wouldn't dump it and that my wheel was still in one piece, it was back to game on and I re-started my rush at his wheel. I only barely caught up to him as we crossed our makeshift finish line and right as we did I gave Ben a shove with my shoulder in payback for his hook. Had Ben known I was going to be there, this would have gone by as typical sprinter shenanigans. However, Ben did not even know I was there so when we connected it threw him off balance and all saw in my peripheral vision was Ben disappearing like Wiley Coyote getting pulled off screen by a runaway rocket.
"Damn it", was the general thought in my mind as I was pissed about his hook nearly causing a crash but the last thing I possibly wanted to do was crash him out. When I slowed down enough to turn around and go back to check on Ben and Ryan (who had no where to go when Ben fell in front of him, except up and over) I discovered that Ben had broken his (other) collar bone and was going to need surgery. Thankfully there are many great orthopedic surgeons in the Lehigh Valley area and Ben was having the bone repaired in a matter of hours. After flinging a few "what were you thinking!?" comments back and forth we came to the agreement that we were both mutually at fault and a round of apologies later, we were back to best friends with a new understanding of how to conduct ourselves on the bike. Ben healed exceedingly quick and now proudly refers to himself as the bionic man, having plates and screws in each of his collar bones. We never had any other even close calls during our time training together and that year we went on to win Tandem Nationals and even medal at the Pan Am Games in Rio de Janeiro. But more on that coming up soon!