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Tales from the peloton

Tuesday March 18, 2003

From hope to tragedy

A diary of the 18th Annual Tucson Bicycle Classic

Tucson, Arizona Cat 2 racer John Nowak was one of the 660 participants in the Tucson Bicycle Classic that was struck by the tragic death of Garrett Lemire at the weekend. John was keeping a race diary for publication on the race website and for the newspaper where he works and has asked that we publish his diary in tribute to Garrett. We are happy to oblige.

In an email accompanying the diary, John told us, "I was behind that terrible crash, and I still am in great turmoil because of it. It was a day that no one would ever want to happen, and Garrett's memory and legacy will always be with us as cyclists and friends. Thank you for your time and ride safe always."

The Build Up

The Tucson Bicycle Classic is now finally here. Eighteen years and running it is one of the most challenging stage races I have ever participated in. It's three days with three hard stages. Sitting here on a Thursday night I felt compelled to write a pre-race diary and gather my thoughts together before a thoroughly exhausting weekend. I've been here before. I'm nervous, scared, and excited all at the same time. These emotions seemingly permeate throughout a racer's day. I actually had a teammate call me tonight after dinner and asked me how I was feeling. Even at the newspaper I'm at asked me how I feel prior to such a large event. I can't say how painful it is, because words do the experience only partial justice. I can only document the entire weekend as fair and partial as possible as a writer and as a rider. So here we go. Fasten your seat belt folks, its going to be one exhilarating ride!

I participated in the Tucson Bicycle Classic last year for the first time and it was tough. The time trial, an event over a set distance used to seed the fastest riders first, was tough, even though it was only three miles long. My mouth felt like someone was stuffing cotton balls in it every minute. Saturday's road race was brutal because of the ferocious winds, and Sunday's circuit race was more than just any other cruise in the mountains. Even with the equipment and plenty of food and water, I was exhausted beyond words after the smoke had cleared. That was last year. This is now, and it's time to hit the hay and get some shut eye. Rest and recovery is a wonderful thing. I'll pack up the car tomorrow before work and stop over at my sponsor's shop to get the necessaries (energy bars, extra bottles, energy gels and maybe some tires).

Like Lance Armstrong says on his website: "It's time to ride."

It sure is.

The Time Trial

I always look forward to the start of a good, competitive weekend of racing. Granted I'm in different condition compared to last year, I knew that today's time trial was going to be difficult. A time trial is a pure, all-out race against the clock seeding the fastest riders against the competition over a set distance, in this case, three miles. Three miles is more or less a sprint, and I'm used to going 15 to 20 miles for a time trial. My warm up was very good, and I spent about 40 minutes on the trainer, sharing a joke or two with my teammates and talking about tomorrow's 105 mile road race stage. From my experience it isn't a big deal throwing the hammer down over a time trial, because there are more miles to come.

Out of the start gate I flew, hitting speeds of up to 38 mph and cruising along comfortably on my machine. It's a pretty little bike, and coming from Italy, it's just perfect. Carbon wheels, carbon frame and pure speed. Regardless of the weight though, my legs were burning and were begging to stop after the first mile and a half. A lot of the guys complained about the ferocious headwind and they were absolutely right. I mustered every last ounce of strength I could up the final hill to finish in about nine minutes. That's not incredibly fast, but the key to successful cycling is to conserve as much energy as possible.

After a nice dinner and a shower I'm feeling fine and ready for tomorrow. Hopefully the legs will appreciate our great weather here in Arizona and some great teamwork. We're having a team meeting tomorrow to designate the roles of each team member. Though I wasn't the fastest guy on the team, I'm sure that my role as a team helper or domestique will be greatly appreciated. Until then, good night for now.

The Road Race - Stage Neutralized

Today, March 15, 2003, will be a day forever remembered in the cycling community's memory. I can not say enough how truly hard it is to write this race diary entry. While descending down Gate's Pass on the way back into town, one of our riders lost control, and crashed. His injuries proved to be fatal, and because of this tragic turn of events, our stage was neutralized, or stopped immediately after we came to the start/finish area. Stunned spectators and officials had not yet heard about the tragedy and our decision to stop racing was well understood after we protested a continuance to race. This is the first time that a fatal accident had taken place to my memory, and because of this terrible, tragic event, the race will pay homage to this young man and his family on tomorrow's final stage.

So for now, out of respect for the family of this young man and for our organizers, I will cut short this journal entry and finish this race diary tomorrow after the third and final stage.

My hope and prayer is that all realize how precious life truly is and how fragile it can be.

Sunday's Stage Race - Remembering Garrett Lemire

Yesterday was by far one of the most tragic days a person could ever endure. For all of us cyclists, quiet time at home and with family and friends is just completely unfathomable. I cannot write enough how hard it was today but I know that with Garrett's family's blessing, our day went even better than expected. Last night when I finally got home, I went online to the Tucson Bicycle Classic website to see what the officials and organizers were going to do. There were some really hard decisions to make and knowing Steve Bohn, the race organizer, the decisions made would greatly affect the outcome of the race. Steve wants us to show up and to come back despite the tragedy, and because of this determination all of us were given an option to ride a lap in memory of Garrett.

Rolling to the front with my teammates, we all observed a moment of silence for Garrett and removed our helmets. Scott Blanchard, the current stage race leader and Team Eclipse Captain made it known that he and his team would ride one lap and then pull out and discontinue racing. All of us agreed and spent the next five miles sharing a few smiles and tears with each other. It was the longest five miles of my life, and granted I ride about 300 miles a week, this was in no way even close in comparison. I cried at the start in the moment of silence. I know these hardships well. I've lost family before, and friends. I've been hit by a motorist and had a season ruined by insensitivity on part of people's negligence. Yet I'm guilty as well as I keep hoping for hope and I put a lot of stock in false senses of security. When a tragedy like this happens, choices need to be made. I've even been asked to rethink my cycling career and what I will write about. The horrible part about this is that we all have families, too. Some of us are sons, husbands, boyfriends and fathers.

Garrett was indeed one of us.

We all have traveled near and far, and maybe we may know each other by name or team jersey only, we are all one big traveling family. That is perhaps the one unique thing about the cycling community…we are all bonded together by a few scant pounds of rubber, steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber and plastic. Yet it's the friendships and miles that bond us clearly together. For that I am grateful for the gifts I've been given and for this great family of cyclists I've been blessed with.

Steve Bohn spoke with great emotion today at the start and at the awards ceremony and helped us remember how precious life truly is. None of us will ever be the same, but we can all grow and learn from this and each other. That is the great thing that Garrett and many others have passed onto us. Thank you all for your time and please be safe out there always and forever.

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