Monday, November 10, 2008

Cycle Smart International Report

The time between changing into street clothes after my race and cheering for my teammate Patrick during his race, those are the magic hours of cyclocross. The pre-race nerves have passed, food can be consumed (the greasier the better) without fear of regurgitation, and it's the warmest part of the day. Sunday was temperate and cloudless, and with a burger in hand, I wandered around the race course.

I joked with Richard Sachs, who runs an eponymous elite team and builds their eponymous bikes. I walked the course and yelled at the Elite Womens with Sheldon, who had warmed up with me. I got a debriefing from Deedee Winfield, who had finished third in the Elite Women's race.

Among these other vignettes of American cyclocross, I spent a little time with the Secret Henry's team at their freaking awesome EuroVan. Jeff is a 15 year old phenom who has yet to lose a B race this year, Lauri had earned my boundless gratitude for loaning me embrocation, and Tom is the director of the Granogue race (which elevates him to deity status as far as I'm concerned). Nice people, and a pleasure to talk to.

When Jeff's dad joined the conversation, Tom introduced me as "the Rutgers recruiter". Now, I hadn't mentioned Rutgers at all, and I certainly hadn't mentioned the stacks of brochures in my trunk... but yes, I suppose I was recruiting Jeff.

I've recruited for a youth group, a fraternity, two Universities, and a cycling team. I've attended and given lectures on the fine art of recruitment. If there's anything I've learned, it's that it's easiest to recruit when you really love the organization. So yes, even though I wasn't recruiting Jeff, I really was.

That's the way the weekend went in the Rutgers camp. As a group, we did everything with such intensity that it oozed out us like an aura of unfiltered awesomeness. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, sure, but not by much. The Rutgers crew, for all of our youthful indiscretions and lengthy conversations about farts, rolls at least as cohesively as possible.

On Friday, for example, we arrived in Northampton well after dark. Patrick, despite being the youngest on the team, has been around the racing block once or twice; he insisted that he was going to go on a leg-opening ride. In the dark. Without any lights.

After a brief deliberation, we came up with the best solution (better than my "do a few thousand laps around the back yard" proposal, anyway): the team would ride on the road, with me and Cristian driving my car behind them. They put on their full uniforms, all Scarlet Red and big R logos. I turned on the hazards and lit the road with high beams, shepherd to a flock of exhilarated young'uns. The uninformed might've mistaken us for a ProTour squad. Cristian took pictures out the passenger window, but none of them turned out well.

It's the most fun I've ever had in a car at 20mph.


Andy, Patrick, Amanda, and I arrived at Look Park on Saturday in time to watch the C race. We ran around the top of the course, screamed at Rich, Joe, Matt, Eric, and Cristian, and got hassled by Richard Fries. Joe clipped the last barrier at broke our hearts... but you'll never hear him complain.
Something is just off about this pic of Matt remounting

Eric loaned me his tubular wheels - expensive, hard to repair tubular wheels. He's my hero. Especially after what would happen Sunday.

Saturday posed its own challenge, of course. Starting in the 8th row, I'd have to be aggressive during the first lap... not my strong suit. When my friend Josh from Colby flew by, I knew his was the wheel to get on, and so get on I did. We passed a handful of riders, took some rather entertaining lines through corners, and I was feeling fine.

Knobby tires make a distinct sound when they rub each other, like combining a two-stroke engine with a zipper. Josh's body wiggled as his front wheel contacted someone's rear wheel. The noise stopped, and he recovered. And then he didn't, and he was on the ground. With nowhere to go, I ran directly into his back, somersaulting into my patented ninja roll. It would've been perfect, if I hadn't caught a handlebar with my ribs.

Of the hundred-plus people in my race, I crashed into one of the two with whom I'm friends. Sweet.

When I got back on my bike, I was in dead last. I got out of the saddle, stomped on the pedals, and nearly ran into some dude who'd dropped his chain and stopped in the middle of the course. After grazing his hip with my knuckles, barely avoiding further calamity, I shouted an apology back to him.

I fought and fought and fought, swapped spots with a few collegiate guys, and ran out of gas a half-lap from the finish. Andy rode brilliantly to take the top D1 spot. A cadet from Army caught me at the line, taking 2nd D1. I'd like to tell you that I don't hate him.
Andy has more fun than any other racer
We should all be so cheerful while suffering

When it was time for Pat's race, I volunteered to stand with his spare bike in the pit. Yes, I volunteered to Pit for Pat.
Poor guy has no idea what's in store

The pit was two-sided, so that the course passed it twice per lap. After Pat passed on one side, I would walk the spare bike to the other side and wait half a lap, as would each of the other 40 pit-guys. With each half-lap, fewer mechanics were migrating before me... so I started to keep count. Pat had moved from 30th to 25th to 20th. He was 18th, looking comfortable and still advancing, when I watched him dismount and start running. He had rolled his tire and needed the spare bike. Oh boy.

After what felt like a few hours, Pat reached the pit and threw the bike at the ground. He'd only lost a half-dozen spots, and the race was only half over. Having procured a spare wheel from Neutral Support, I resumed the semi-lap migration. I shouted encouragement at Pat, but he'd lost his rhythm and wasn't gaining ground.

When he approached the pit a few laps later, pointing at his rear wheel and looking despondent, my heart sank completely. Pat had utterly destroyed a tubular tire - an expensive, hard to repair tubular tire. This time he threw the bike at me and muttered something not fit for print.

Back on his original bike, but floundering in 28th, Pat kept riding, even if no longer racing. He would finish on the lead lap... first in the Collegiate race, too!

I got us quite lost on the way home, which gave him plenty of time to vent. Slowly his tune changed from proclaiming "I quit forever" to sighing "it happens". Back at the house, the guys patted him on the back and we put up a giant pot of water. We had an absolutely classy dinner of pasta, meatballs, and garlic bread. We happily bid farewell to Daylight Savings.


I creaked out of bed on Sunday morning - and by bed, I do mean couch - and took stock of the previous day's carnage. The butcher's bill was lengthy... my left arm and my right butt cheek were the only body parts from the neck down that didn't ache.

There's a difference, though, between aching and hurting. Learning to recognize the subtle, paramount chasm between discomfort and pain is a rite of passage for endurance athletes. Consciously or not, we learn how to silence the discomfort and push through it, and also how to listen to the pain as it signifies some physiological compulsion to stop. Pain protects us from injury, but discomfort only protects us from excellence.

Think about it.

Patrick and I were sitting in the back of Bad Boy, the Rutgers van, an hour before my race started. I rubbed embrocation onto my legs, working the stiffness out of my uncooperative muscles, and Pat pinned numbers to his skinsuit. "You know," I thought out loud, "we rub chili pepper goo into our skin, then ride around in the cold and wet for an hour, knowing that we're going to suffer profoundly and probably not win".

"Yeah, so?" Pat didn't look up from his safety pins.

"I'm just saying, it's a pretty ridiculous sport we have".

The morning races had been even colder. The frost on the ground betrayed the chill in the air, and friction from hundreds of tires had melted it and flung it up at the riders' legs. Their tights were damp, and sand stuck to them like glitter.

Joe, Rich, and Eric were burying themselves, and it was beautiful. Rich was in pain, but he soldiered on. Eric was mired in the middle of the field, where people surged mindlessly, only to fade and impede the others' surges. It was ugly on the hill, the sort of chaos that snowballs as rider after rider dismounts.
Chaos on the first lap of the B Race.
See if you can spot the guys who didn't expect to dismount
and lost a ton of spots!

Lap after lap, a lone figure emerged at the top of the hill from within the cloud of kicked-up dust, riding forcefully between the exhausted-looking walkers. Elbows out, savagely turning over a huge gear, Eric rode like a champ when he could've justifiably wimped out, and it was inspiring. My voice grew hoarser with each lap.
Still my hero

Joe rode his best race yet. Mostly riding alone, in no man's land, he put his head down and worked. Worked. We ran around the top of the course, screaming encouragement, because no man's land is a demotivating vacuum and that's what teammates do. Joe rode across the finish in 9th place, putting the hurt on Army and UVM (10th and 11th) in the process! A thing of beauty.

After a bit of ibuprofen and a solid hour of stretching, I actually felt good during my warmup. Snappy, like. The first lap was calamity-free, and I spotted the Army guy who'd caught me yesterday. Oh yes, Army guy. Today would be my day. Oh yes.

I charged around packs on the pavement, cornered aggressively, attacked the barriers, sprinted like a maniac. It was probably the hardest I've ever pushed during a first lap. Which isn't too fast, but that's beside the point.

So, there I was, scrambling to earn every collegiate spot I could. The first lap had ended, and I was just a few spots behind Army. I dove down the descent, hopped recklessly over the rail road crossing, threw my bike to the left, put my elbow in the course tape, straightened out before catching a stake, sprinted out of the turn, touched the brakes, and made the next turn. And then the problems started.
Andy takes the rail road crossing... with panache!

As I floated over the rail road, the rear wheel got a bit of air, and when it landed, it grabbed at the dirt. It grabbed so hard, in fact, that the glue between the tire and the rim was sheared to oblivion. The tire was no longer attached to the wheel. Fwip, fwip, fwip. I couldn't move anymore.

What else could I do? I shouldered the bike and started running for the pit. Racer after racer passed me, and I was powerless to respond. Goodbye, bike race. I got to the pit, maybe 30 seconds after the back of the pack. My heart pounding, I hunted for my spare wheel. Shift into the proper gear for a wheel change, unfasten the brake - augh, the tire is stuck and I can't dislodge the brake! - neutral support comes over and helps me change wheels. Another minute passed before the bike was rideable. A solid shove on the small of my back from the neutral support guy, and at last I was on the course once again.

The guy one spot ahead of me rolled by on the pavement. Geographically, he was close to me, but he was at least 90 seconds ahead on the course. I was alone in my suffering. And to make matters worse, the drive-train was tuned for the tubular wheel, and my spare wheel was causing it to skip. Every pedal stroke, I was in a new gear. Misery.

I changed bikes a few times. Remember how I said that Eric is my hero? Here's why. He ran to the van, got me Joe's bike, hustled to the pit, and exchanged bikes with me. Then, while I floundered on an ill-fitting, mis-shifting bike (seriously, Joe got a top-10 on a bike that was horribly mis-tuned), he fixed the drive-train and called me back in to the pits. A more selfless teammate you will not find.

By two laps to go, I was asking the judges what their lapped-rider policy was. Basically begging to be pulled out of the race. When I finally finished, I grabbed my jacket and rolled back to the car. Some non-cyclist passers-by shot a quizzical look. "Dumbest. Sport. Ever" I replied, only half-joking.

I washed the chili pepper goo from my legs. I'd ridden around in the cold and wet for an hour, suffering profoundly. I did not win.

Time, though, heals all wounds. In my case, 5 minutes of spinning my legs out, followed by 1 minute of changing clothes, followed by 30 seconds of cheeseburger consumption. Cheeseburgers, in fact, heal all wounds.

As great as hamburgers are, Taco Bell showed its virtue that night. One of the guys, I don't recall whom, announced that he was craving some Bell, and the idea spread like a virus or a wildfire or some other metaphorical spreading-thing. We would spend nearly an hour wandering southern Massachusetts that night, pulling U-turn after U-turn, exploring the dark recesses of the Mass Pike. Because by God, we needed that Taco Bell, and damned if we would be denied its spicy, greasy flavor. Burgers are dandy, but Taco Bell, especially as part of a team adventure, is earth-shaking.

Mega was racing once I'd inhaled my cheeseburger, so I took my trusty noisemaker and wandered the course. She may not be my teammate, but she is worth every ounce of encouragement. Nobody outside of the Rutgers team is so vocal a supporter of the Rutgers racers. So I made noise and screamed "faster" and tried not to be scared of Meg's INTENSE game face.

The Elite Men's race started, and I stood at the bottom of the descent, pan and ladle at the ready. The field streaked by, and I tried to pick Pat out. Perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention? Two corners later, they came by again. Still no Pat.

Eric, who was standing in the pit (it was his turn to Pit for Pat, which is such a fun phrase), called me and asked if I knew what the story was. "The official said that EMTs had been called to the start line." Upon hearing this, I took off in a dead sprint, faster even than I'd run during my race. The pavement at the start was empty. I started running along the course, until JD pointed me to a corner where there was a small swarm of people.

Pat had suffered a freak accident, bumped while remounting so that his knee was wrenched awkwardly. His race had ended after 30 seconds.

Eventually we all found Patrick. Joe took his bike, Rich found his jacket, Eric brought the spare bike. The EMT wrapped his knee with ice and sent him on his way. We walked slowly back to the parking lot. Mega and the DCCoD guys stopped us en route to the van, a gesture we won't soon forget.
Pat manages a post-injury smile

Over decadent Taco Bell that night, I realized something important. I could've talked to Jeff, the super-fast DCCoD junior - or any other prospective student, for that matter - about the merits of Rutgers until I was blue in the face. Maybe that would've convinced him, probably not. Pontificating only goes so far. However, if he saw the team walking back to the car, he saw something unique, and more poignant than any sales pitch.

People get injured in racing all the time. How often, though, do you see an entire team rush to the crash? Not even knowing if anything can be done to help, just knowing that we had to be there for our guy? It happened at Hillbilly Hustle, when C-Money fractured his collarbone, and it happened at Northampton for Pat. It's not a fluke, but a mindset. For all our petty squabbles, we are a team.

The entire team helped Pat back to the van. Professionals don't have that many support staffers.
Also, Hooray for Taco Bell!

Behind the scenes, the "old guys" of the team spend a lot of time wondering how to develop the organization into an elite cadre of racers. Yes, we're always looking to recruit the fast juniors, as should any ambitious team. If any junior racers stumble across this post, though, there's only one message I want them to read:

No matter how fast you ride, how many races you've won, who you think you are... if you're with Rutgers, you run to your teammate's side.