Thursday, July 3, 2008

Stormy Day Bike Race

Below is a recounting of my experience and events I had the pleasure of watching recently. It is a vast diversion from the usual content. Enjoy.

The hum and click of a single bicycles motion can be nearly silent, startling even the most alert at the sudden passage of a rider. At 2 feet, the ticks and clicks of chains passing over cogs, through jockey pulleys and round chainrings of over eighty of them is startling in its loudness. Add to this deafening sound the hum of tires and the pressure wave caused by their passage, and you've experienced one of the most exhilarating moments of watching my bicycle race.

The prior night had brought a vicious storm, easily soaking anyone caught outside in minutes. However, with only light sprinkles in the morning and a late afternoon start, the course in Pittsburgh's downtown was completely dry as I arrived at my assigned position on the race course. Stage 6 of the 1st Tour of Pennsylvania, the largest race of its kind in the US would begin at 5pm, under threat of scattered thunderstorms that had deterred some volunteers from making the trip into the city.

Eighty or so volunteers received their instructions and assignments at 3:30, arriving on course before 4pm to assist police officers in street closings and traffic direction as athletes began to do laps around the course. Some of the local pedestrians grumbled that the city was closing streets for out of town guests and not doing anything for locals, but no one took umbrage or complained at having to wait for bicyclists to pass.

Several people in the small crowd near my position recalled the glory days of Pittsburgh road bike racing. They remembered that Lance Armstrong used to race in the Thrift Drug Classic. This annual race featured one of the most famous, though not the most brutal, climb in the city, the steep and switchback bedecked Sycamore Street.

Positioned just after the starting gate, the first few laps were still mostly a warm up for the riders, as they passed on the far side of the wide street, escorted in style by leading and trailing motorcycles. On the next several laps, standing on the curb of the street was a daunting experience as 87 riders blew by at over 30 mph, creating a pressure wave not unlike a truck on the highway. A child sitting on the curb with his feet on the television cables in the gutter probably had the best seat in the house on this first lap and barely flinched as the bike wheels came within inches of his feet. The next two laps saw the riders repeat their close pull to my location and some aggression on the outside edge could be seen as riders shouldered each other for position and advantage with wheels within inches of the cables and curb.

A thunderstorm moved into the area after about 15 laps had been run, darkening the sky to the point that at times it was as if the race was being held at night, especially when looking down course to the headlights of the race vehicles escorting the unlit peloton on its mission. Unfortunately for the racers and the spectators, the weather worsened and the rain didn't bypass the course, causing one of the streets to become extremely slick, resulting in at least two crashes, one of which was reported to have involved forty to fifty of the riders down. A tornado warning soon followed, with conflicting reports of the racing being temporarily halted, cyclists riding the wrong way on the course, and many still riding the course, albeit at less than top speed. With the race stopped, everyone took shelter under awnings, in a paramedic station and the corner convenience storm. After a 20 minute pause, the race was restarted, but shortened to account for the time lost during the stop, and the race rules changed. This criterium no longer counted towards the overall standings of the tour

With the race restarted, and the roads wet, the remaining racers (only 57 finished the day) completed the final ten laps more cautiously and with no further mishaps. Some riders took it easy and even detoured onto streets that were not part of the course. The return of rain held off until after the awards ceremony with easily 2000 people crowding the area in front of the stage for the presentations.

Watching a bike race on television is great because you can always see the best action and see cyclists, especially on the most interesting and grueling days. Watching a bike race live I can see as being best experienced on a loop course where jockeying, strategy and gallantry can be seen on every lap. And cyclists go by really fast at close range.