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John Lieswyn
Photo: © 7Up/Maxxis

The John Lieswyn Diary

A pro racer who now mostly concentrates on the US domestic scene, John Lieswyn is one of Cyclingnews' most popular and sometimes controversial diarists. He has been racing since 1985 and a Cyclingnews diarist since 1999. John likes both criteriums and longer road races, and seems to particularly like it when the going is hard. He has raced in the Regio Tour, Peace Race, Tour of Poland, Vuelta a Guatemala, Tooheys GP and Commonwealth Bank Classic with success, as well as winning stages in the Sun Tour, Killington and Superweek. In 2003, he is once again riding for 7Up, this year co-sponsored by tyre maker Maxxis.

US Pro Week 2003 Part 2: Wachovia Invitational, Lancaster, June 2

Suffering in the rain

The best I've ridden here was seventh or so back in 2000. After feeling pretty sprightly in the Clarendon Cup, I'm cautiously optimistic for today. Nobody is comfortable racing in the rain, but some guys have the mindset that it's an advantage over those who don't have the fortitude for it. I don't know which group I belong to, especially considering my pre-race jitters. I sit in the van until the last possible minute, well past when the race handlers have made their last insistent calls for all riders to the line. We have arguably the toughest field ever here today, including top teams from Formaggi Pinzolo, Saeco, Mroz, CSC, USPS, and the usual complement of US-based teams. The cold rain has me shaking like a leaf, and I look around to see that I'm the only one on the start line so affected.

Lap 1. With a weak blast from an out-of-fuel airhorn the mayor announces the start, and we roll off at perhaps the most tentative pace I've ever seen in this event. Halfway through the lap I'm sitting second wheel on Klasna (Saturn) and he flies through a treacherous downhill turn. Looking around I see we have a gap, but our 'break' only lasts 2km. Jeff is on the radio chastising me for being too active and trying to get my teammates in the early move role. Through the start/finish I'm amazed again at how many fans have come out on such a miserable afternoon. It's just a sea of umbrellas, people huddling in the unseasonably cold temperatures and waiting for a glimpse through the terrible visibility of a few cyclists every twenty minutes. This feels like racing in Europe.

Lap 2. Nathan O'Neill attacks alone. It's very early; I'm not sure what the Saturn plan is with such a doomed move. A succession of CSC riders alternate between pulls and attacks trying to wind everyone up. I decide against fighting for the front going into the park and paid the price. After the steep feed zone hill, descent, and gingerly taking the 90 degree hard left at the base of the descent, the peloton is s-t-r-u-n-g out single file, gaps everywhere. Quick, stand up and crank the 53x12, get up to speed, stay in the draft. Peek at the speedo: 37mph (60kph). This is too hard back here.

Our Dan Schmatz pulls out of the line ahead of me and pukes. As I pass I know he's wondering what I'm doing 100 guys from the front. Late brake and bomb the right onto the bridge to pass half a dozen guys, cut through the line, splash through the deep puddle on the inside of the next left, and grunt hard over the next hill. Guys are still opening gaps, and I glare at a few of them as I pass. Like my scowl will make them feel any better about getting popped on lap 2 of 13, eh? Hard left, immediate right, concentration must be perfect to avoid the paint stripes and metal manhole covers. Whenever it is 60kph I must stay in the line, but I make huge advances on every hill and corner.

I'm impressing myself in the corners; I'd just been telling my wife Dawn before the race that it has been years since I had enough bravery to charge wet corners. Maybe it's the sticky Maxxis tires, because I'm taking some of these corners as if it's dry out. Everyone else is going so slow! A small voice borne of my experience is saying in the back of my mind that this is one of those rare days, and don't overwork it. By the end of the lap I've clawed my way up to the top thirty. I find Oscar with drool coming out of his mouth but he's hanging tough. I warn him that it's far harder at the back and that the peloton is exploding.

Lap 3. It's very difficult to stay at the front on the wide slightly downhill run in to the park. Go too early and you'll get to the front, but then get swarmed in the last meters before the road narrows, or else burn too much energy essentially giving the whole field a lead out. Go too late, and as the road narrows the field will spread from curb to curb. Trying to pass on the gutter is hit and miss. Sometimes you'll get just enough of a gap to sprint by, get up to 10kph faster than everyone, and have the front of the pack swerve over milliseconds before you cleared the swarm, forcing you to brake hard. In that case you've wasted a huge sprint effort to pass 10 guys instead of going all the way to the front.

This lap O'Neill has just 25 seconds on us and we decide to try and launch McCartney across. Hayden does a kilo effort at over 70kph with Jason and then me sitting third. Klasna ridicules us for something or other. Perhaps we aren't a big enough team to be allowed bridge up to his guy. Whatever. In the park Jason gets away and starts to bridge up. Unfortunately CSC didn't want to send a guy with him and instead they bring the field up to Jason.

The mid part of the race is a blur. Usually the mechanics of handling your bike occupy a very small part of your consciousness but here if you have a lapse the results are disastrous. Should you crash, it's going to be a very hard, short chase back on. Short because if you can't catch on in 2km you never will.

Soon I'm on the only 7UP/Maxxis representative in a group numbering over 25. In the twilight, the headlights of the commissaires and neutral support reflect on the wet legs and bikes in the line ahead of me, and the street lights are on. I'm in a zone now, what I often refer to as autopilot. I know where the rough pavement is, when to turn, and so on. During one break attempt I'm on Clinger's wheel when he leads me right over a massive pothole. He didn't see it, he says. I'm just waiting for the rear tire to go soft after a hit that hard; it was so hard that the rim is severely dented and going thump, thump, thump. Piil tells me it's okay; keep going.

I can't drift further back than about eighth in the line without running the risk of being trailed off the back by those who have teammates riding away from us. It's energy consuming but I have to respond without hesitation. There are only nine of us now, with three CSC guys. Two to go at the start/finish line, and I'm near the front and we have unfortunately left an open alley of road on our left, which Jacob Piil (CSC, former winner of this race and Philly, as well as the 2002 Paris-Tours) exploits as he jumps clear in a perfectly-timed move. There is only a second's hesitation on the part of the rest of us. We all know that should one of us jump after him, he'll have the rest of the group in tow (now that the element of surprise is lost). If someone brought Piil back, another CSC would go immediately. We're all in a lose-lose situation and without words everyone is already thinking of how to salvage second place.

My legs had been generating great power without having to suffer until now, but every hill is becoming a grunting challenge. I try a couple unsuccessful moves but I've shown my cards, and it feels like the other seven are just watching me.

5km to go. Matt White attacks while we are fanned out across the road on a long uphill drag. There is no response from anyone else so I jump with everything I've got in the hopes of cementing a top three finish here. Recruiting different muscles that aren't on the verge of cramping changes my balance dynamics and my rear wheel swings wildly left. I just manage to save it and I can hear Jeff breathing a sigh of relief in my earpiece. Jump lost, I go after White with the rest of the break on my wheel.

4km to go. Back together. Nobody will pull, but we've got over three minutes on tenth place. I'm confident I can beat these guys in an uphill sprint.

3km to go. Last hill before the city proper, and Julian Dean accelerates hard. I struggle into his draft. A quick look back, through fogged glasses, low light and driving rain, and I can see another figure a couple bike lengths back. We didn't get clear.

1500m to go. A series of turns. I'm trying for third wheel. McCormack beats me to it and puts me into a metal grate in a turn. I realize you can't get on the podium when your ass is on the wet pavement, so I back out and miss the metal by centimeters. Fourth wheel will have to do.

350m and around the statue roundabout. Metal grates to the left prevent an all-out jump there. Hesitation. Now? Now? Ughh! Too late, McCormack and Dean have a couple bike lengths and my legs are giving out rather suddenly. On my right the Formaggi Slovak is fading, but USPS's White is coming up on my left. They're both squeezing me and I'm so busy trying to stay clear of handlebars I can't concentrate on the guys ahead. Clack clack ting! McCormack and Dean have tangled, and they're both pausing in their pedal strokes. Is it a blessing? No, it's just 150m to go and they've resumed sprinting. I've got the Slovak beat but White throws his bars ahead of me in the last 10m to relegate me to fifth.

It's virtually dark out now. I strip down outside the door of the van and answer questions to the media. There is a thick coating of black grime over my entire body, especially in my nose and ears. The urban street grime goes right through Lycra, and won't come off skin with plain water and rags. I'm pleased with my gritting it out today to finish with the first group but the hindsight second guessing starts now. It's another missed opportunity. When will the day come, if ever, that I don't hesitate and jump with Clinger (Housatonic) or DeCanio (Sea Otter) or Piil (today)? Their solo wins were superbly timed but it all comes down to whether I have the mental strength to hurt that bad. Back at the Markhams I end up doubled over most of the night with bad stomach cramps. It's 2:30am before the pain subsides and I can sleep soundly. We have a short drive to Philly tomorrow and a recovery ride (30km or so to Manayunk and back; it's still raining) is on the plan.


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