Wednesday, January 26, 2011

War Book: The Forgotten Soldier

I recently finished reading Guy Sajer’s account of fighting for the Wehrmacht on the eastern front from 1942 through 1945. I have not read many war stories so I feel somewhat unburdened by the overuse of language to describe the endless suffering and privations of a soldier. The account was enthralling and written in a style that chilled your bones during the Russian winter yet (thankfully) showed some restraint in repainting the full horror of battle.

Sajer’s experience informs me of the tragedy of war. Between the German/Prussian/Polish/Russian towns razed and the slaughter of civilians fleeing before the Russian horde, Forgotten Soldier impresses the obvious fact that war is costly and never bloodless. In what little I’ve read of Ralph Peters’ work, this theme - war is “war” - kept coming to mind from Sajer. Expectations of bloodless conflict and “clean” victory are foolhardy. It causes me to have at once a greater respect and fear (how they are bedfellows!) of armed conflict.

Guy’s character appears neutral to the reader and as a Franco-German he seems helplessly pulled into this conflict. I don’t hate him as a Nazi. I found myself rooting for him and his comrades against the Russians, who appear truly wicked. One has to remind oneself who the original aggressors were despite the brutality of the Russian reprisals. The entire ordeal smacks of the biblical scale of retribution poured out by one nation onto another. The cold irony of the Russian advance is that the people who supported the army/regime which massacred the Jews received similar treatment from the East. The Jews were handed over to the SS and then the Germans, Poles, and Prussians were handed over to Ivan. The entire ordeal is unthinkably horrible.

It is tempting to think of that time as simpler: Axis = bad, Allies = good. Sajer doesn’t allow such simplification. His humanity is magnified in each conflict and “right” and “wrong” are no longer appropriate labels for Germans or Americans. Such is war it seems.

My favorite moment from the book was the lone glimpse of humanity in the Russian soldiers. Sajer and his unit were defending a line against several oncoming enemy tanks. Their minefield had been removed either by artillery or a previous wave of attack. Firing machine guns and anti-tank weapons of every sort Sajer’s unit destroyed 2 tanks while a third was critically damaged. Unable to fight with their armor, the tankers exit and draw pistols. The heroism of the two is rewarded by the Germans not with execution (which was the custom practiced by Ivan) but by capture and a round of Schnapps after such displays of valor. For a moment I felt as if I was reading about some embellished aristocratic bond between fighter pilots of the previous Great War.

The denouement was startling in its emotion and brevity. A return to normal life after his war experience seems impossible. I do hope writing his book was cathartic. It goes without saying that I greatly recommend the book.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cycling - Season End Journal 2010

Well, the 2010 "season" is done and dusted. The 14 road races and 7 cyclocross races made up the busiest racing season of my cycling "career" (ha!) and more than doubled my experience in the sport. It's funny that in some respects I feel I'm a seasoned racer but put in those terms (30 races over 3 years) - I'm still pretty green! I suppose this is the attitude to have: there's more to learn than I already know.

Besides showing myself how much is left to learn, this year has been a good one for accomplishing goals, sort-of. Coming into the season as a strong cat 4 (ha!) I was eager to win the state championship crit and help teammates win at important races like Hillsboro, O'Fallon, or Hermann. Well, I didn't win the cat 4 state crit and my team didn't place better than top 10 at Hillsboro, but I still feel the season was a big success. Why? After a strong string of results in the early spring (nothing outside of top 5) I went to Hillsboro to work for the team.

Hillsboro is always a beast of a race and in a power test at the shop the week before I put out poor numbers (11% drop from my previous test! Yikes!). Hillsboro is not a race to reward anything less than your best effort so 2 other teammates were chosen as the protected riders. I was happy to work for Jason and Tom. The race went according to plan except my counterattack of Luke's 2nd lap move (both intended to soften the field for our teammates) stuck and became the winning break. Sadly, "Papa John" Whipple (Tati) rode me off his wheel in the break, taking Tim Speciale (Psimet) with him to secure the top 2 podium steps. Great stuff: a great victory for John and a hard-earned podium for Tim. For me, it was a bitter pill to self-destruct (multiple times) a few minutes up the road of the pack.

From the disgrace of Hillsboro I took courage for the next weekend of racing down at the Tour of Hermann. After a mediocre timetrial (6th) I finished 2nd in the crit and 2nd in the road race. I had been humbled at Hillsboro but put together a great ride in MO winning the cat 4 omnium! The weekend's racing introduced me to a new teammate in Mike who along with Nick and Kurt have formed the core of 708 Racing presented by Dressel's Public House – my new team for 2011. Their (Nick and Mike's) selfless racing to support me in the omnium was a huge boon and I owe them big-time! It turns out that perhaps my pre-Hillsboro power test was the result of being pretty fatigued and all I needed was some rest and motivation - a good breakaway effort at Hillsboro and a great weekend at Hermann were huge confidence boosters.

Following the elation of winning in Hermann (including 3 bottles of wine!) I applied for my cat 3 upgrade. While I hadn't yet won an individual race in 2010 (3 2nd places at that point!), the omnium result convinced me it was time to race at the next level. USA cycling agreed. With that change my shot at the cat 4 state crit vanished and the competition was only stiffer for the title in the 3's. Before the paperwork went through I hopped in a cat 4 road race in Ohio while in town for a wedding. I finished fourth despite dropping a chain on the first of 7(or was it 9?) laps and covering about every move. Still riding high on confidence.

Both state championship races ended poorly for me however, with mis-timed efforts and/or complete breakdowns. But from these races I take away valuable lessons on when and how to go. Like I said, I have a lot to learn.

Two other setbacks included mechanical issues. A flat tire during the first of three laps at the state RR caused me to burn several matches chasing back on when I should have been conserving in the bunch. A flat tire during the Winfield crit cost me a chance at the win - another occasion when Tim (Psimet) rode away, but this time not due to my fitness. I have since sold the wheelset that produced both flats. It has been banished from the service course!

The road season ended as it began for me: on a high note. After taking July off from racing (not something to repeat!) I ramped up through August regaining form and confidence. A podium finish on the first day of the THF Realty Gateway Cup, followed by 3 more days in the money confirmed that I should be racing in the cat 3's and that I am close to winning at that level. This last result requires I credit my coach Sean. We started working together mid-season and it has been a big help to me as he focuses on my weaknesses. As we continue training, 2011 will only be better.

The cyclocross season was a fun change of pace. After coaching soccer during and following the Gateway Cup I had been off the bike a fair bit and running a lot more. Cyclocross has been something I've been interested in but never really able to dive into and indulge. The wife let me do so for 7 races this year and I'm glad I did. The highlight of the season was winning my second race - the cat 4 B's. I was sandbagging heavily but it was fun to do it once. It seemed like the rest of the time I just plain sucked out there but [insert excuses + whining]. You have to kick back and laugh at yourself with cyclocross though!

That was the 2010 bicycle racing season for me. Lots of highs and lows to remember fondly. For 2011 I'd like to do what I did in 2010: double my annual race starts (and finishes) while taking my racing to a higher level. The foundation is being laid now and I am putting in the work to contribute to the success of my new team: 708 Racing presented by Dressel's Public House. I'm pretty excited about the adventure as we will have a solid team of cat 3's who will all be able to win races. Add to that the pointy end of the organization in the cat 1&2's on the squad and we should have a nice elite team in the next year or two.