It never ceases to amaze me what I have missed while living in the same area for decades. One such instance is the city of Mount Vernon in New York, a short drive from the Connecticut line. Although I've trained thousands and thousands of miles all over western Connecticut and southern New York, in the almost 20 years I'd been living in Connecticut I had never, ever seen Mount Vernon. That changed when I took the exit off of I95 one June day on the way to a new criterium there.
Once we exited the highway and started driving around I got that uncomfortable feeling you get when you drive through a sketchy part of town. I'd gotten the same kind of feeling, but worse, when I drove through Bridgeport, Connecticut. The white car with the bullet hole waiting at the light didn't help much, and it certainly wasn't high on my list of priorities to return there. For a long time a section of Bridgeport had been off limits to EMTs - since they'd get shot at when responding to emergency calls, they had to stop responding to calls from that part of town. Mount Vernon, in a less extreme way, reminded me of Bridgeport.
The city itself was in much better shape than Bridgeport but the big, faded "SALE" banners in the dusty windows, the closed shops, the waxed over windows, and the general dreariness made the area somewhat depressing. A strong wind only added to this feeling, pushing papers and litter around the roads.
Here was a city that had been passed over for bigger and better things. There were some "distressed" people walking about, probably homeless or living in shelters, their slow, shuffling walk depressingly familiar to any big city resident. Another character I noticed was a tiny old woman in mourning - she was all dressed in black. Someone later described her as "the little Italian widow". I think that described her perfectly. She may have been old, little, and wearing black, but she seemed full of life and vigor, her walk resembling an military march. She stomped past me with single minded purpose when I first noticed her.
The race brought a lot of the local residents out, curious about the oddly dressed interlopers in their city. The fancy machinery never fails to intrigue the young, bright eyed kids and they all watched, carefully, from a distance, as the racers took over a parking lot (with a crater big enough for a small house on one end) and prepared for the races.
The course itself was a typical criterium thing in the middle of a small city's downtown. The front and back stretches were wide, perhaps four lanes, and the two shorter stretches were much narrower two lane roads. Totally flat and very windy, the course promised for a strung out, hard, fast race.
It went counterclockwise so it was all left turns. Eddy B said in his book that a racer's heart disrupts the balance of the body and therefore racers fall on their left side more often. I figured racers fall on their left side because they don't make hard lefts on training rides but they will make a lot of hard rights. Except where they drive on the left side of the road. I found the same with right and left turns in cars - I could get my GTech to register much higher G-force numbers (with correspondingly more stress on my part) on right turns than left turns. I think this is because left turns tend to be pretty wide - you turn left from the right lane and you finish 100 or more feet later it in the right lane. In contrast, when you turn right, you start in the right lane and pow! you finish about 10 feet later in the right lane. Whatever the reason, left turns meant a higher chance of a crash according to the guru.
The course had only one potential problem: the third stretch, on a two lane road, was hemmed in by large brick buildings which extended virtually to the street. This created a cool looking artificial valley for the racers (it even echoed a bit) but made it impossible to see around the third and fourth turns. The third turn wasn't a problem - only race spectators ended up walking down the narrow third stretch. The fourth turn dumped the racers out onto the big main straight - and even on this quiet Sunday, a number of city folk scurried back and forth on the sidewalk next to the main street, running errands and such. None of them could see the racers on the third stretch until the racers came barreling onto the main street.
My race ended prematurely - without too much of a warm-up and with virtually no fitness left after a period of non-training, I nevertheless scampered off after a guy who attacked at the gun. The guy is a friend of mine and I actually thought in some delusional state that I could bridge up and we could have a little breakaway for a while.
Me, in a break. Ha!
I went around him pretty hard, pulled like a maniac, and realized half a lap into the race that, well, that was it. No break. No legs. No nothing. I tried to recover a bit as the time the field caught me but I'd inadvertently set the tone of the race with my 35 mph blast off the front. With the field strung out and flying along like a flight of F-111s, I had no chance of integrating into the group.
Off topic - the F-111 bit makes me wonder, why did Phil Liggett use the F-111 to describe Ekimov in the 2003 Paris Roubaix (he uses it when Eki bridges to that big Italian Saeco racer, I forget his name) ? Why not a B-1 or an F-14 - both are swing-wings like the F-111, and the F-14 was immortalized by "Top Gun" and the B-1 is the ultimate Cold War bomber. Why not an F-15 or F-16 - the most versatile of the planes in action at the time? Ach, it doesn't matter. No matter what the field resembled, I dropped right through them and off the back.
My partner in crime, the guy who attacked, said that when I went by him I was going so fast he couldn't go with me. And, knowing me, he also wondered exactly how long I'd go before I totally and completely blew.
Anyway, I went back to the cratered lot, changed, and after carefully locking up the car, I walked back to the course. I watched some friends/teammates race, taking pics of them - a few did the 4s and my Purple Jersey friend did the Juniors (a combination race with the women I think). My Cat 4 friends did okay, finishing in the top 20 or so. Purple Jersey did better - he won his race, and he did it the hard way. He attacked shortly after the start and time trialed around the course for 20 minutes or so on his own. He looked really smooth but each time he rode by I could see the signs of enormous effort contorting his somewhat pained looking face. I would last maybe a lap at that kind of speed - he lasted virtually the whole race. I guess all that Cat 1-2 work paid off.
We all settled in to watch the big race, the Pro-1-2s. Since we all wanted to watch different parts of the course we split up. I wanted to walk around the course since I didn't remember anything from the two or three laps I did in the race. We walked by some of the guys eating at a deli with a few tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. I passed up an offer to join them - the race seemed pretty exciting and I wanted to focus on that, not on food.
When I got to the fourth turn, the second of the two turns hemmed in by the tall brick buildings, I decided that this would be my spot. I could watch the racers stream into the narrow third straight and, literally only half a dozen seconds later, take the wide, sweeping turn into the final stretch. The echoing magnified the thrumming of the tires and made for an excellent vantage point, visually and aurally.
The little widow came marching down the sidewalk once again and I cautioned her against crossing without checking for the racers. She glared at me and stated emphatically that this was her town and she walks where she wants to. She turned and marched right off the sidewalk and across the narrow road, the end of the walled in third stretch.
I backed off, mindful of the whole bike racing public relations thing, and figured if the field did come streaming into the third turn, I could scoop her up and move her out of the way. Her forceful march and take-no-prisoners attitude got her quickly across the street and the problem, if there even was one, wasn't a problem anymore.
The race went by a few more times. Graeme Miller and Jeff Rutter, both of Scott/BiKyle, were tag teaming the rest of the field, slapping them silly. Miller had spent a long time soloing off the front and Rutter was comfortably sitting second or third wheel in the field, covering all the moves. I'd seen this before at a number of other races - Miller soloing to victory, Rutter beating most or all of the field for second.
A good way to make some money.
Miller, by the way, soloed in for sixth place at the USPro Championships in Philadelphia that year, behind a small break but well ahead of a motivated field. He'd stayed away for something like 15 or 20 minutes on his own. No slouch this guy.
Shortly after the widow marched off, one of the distressed women, carrying two full shopping bags, shuffled by in her pajama like dress shortly after the field passed my spot. I watched as she set off across the wide final stretch with a little concern, but with a full lap, perhaps a minute and change, to cross, she'd be okay. I turned my attention back to the third turn and waited for the race to return to my stretch of the course.
Miller came flying into view, coming off the wide back stretch, his tires barely clearing the outside curb as he straighted out for the two or three pedal strokes it'd take him to cover the short section of road. I watched with admiration as every lap, every guy in the field came within one or two centimeters of the curb at 30 or 35 mph, each one of them confidently sprinting out of the turn and diving into the next one. I'm always impressed when I watch good racers corner, and although I allegedly do similar things, it's much more impressive to watch it done by the pros.
Miller's scruffy face flashed by, his deep section aluminum rims humming (and amplified by the echoes) past me, a contrast to the bright orange kit he wore. I turned back and looked for the field - they had been closing a bit and were about 15 or 20 seconds behind. Sure enough, here came a Bettini like figure in blue, flat out, with Miller's teammate Rutter about a length off his wheel. The blue guy must have attacked on the long back stretch, trying to escape the clutches of the field, trying to bridge up to the superb Miller. Behind Rutter a short gap opened so even as the two flew by me, I turned my head back to the right to see what the field was doing.
That was when I saw a flash of light to my left.
I turned my head and realized the flash was the sun hitting Rutter's rear deep section aluminum rim. Since he was riding directly away from me (I was at the apex of the turn), the flash meant his wheel wasn't parallel to me anymore - in fact, it was sort of perpendicular to me.
In the microsecond it took to register that thought, I realized Rutter was doing an insane power slide at 35 mph, his back wheel hanging out there like a dirt track motorcycle racer, his bike at about a 50 or 60 degree angle to his actual path. As all this registered I realized why he was pulling this insane stunt.
Directly in front of him was the shuffling woman.
Both her arms were at her side, holding onto her bags, and she flinched her shoulders as first the blue guy shot past her on the outside. Immediately after came Rutter who miraculously managed to straighten up in the last ten feet and pass on her inside at something like 30 miles an hour.
The woman stood frozen in the road.
I looked back - the rest of the field was coming! And here they came, strung out, sprinting desperately down the third stretch, responding to the attacks at the end of the back stretch. They couldn't see the woman and had no idea she was there. I screamed a warning but I think they probably thought it was for a spectator, not for the racers. I saw some faces hesitate but others bore down on the turn like the finish was 200 meters down the road.
I cringed as I watched the field burst out of the valley'ed road, the riders registering this sudden and new obstacle in their path. Tires zinged as riders locked them up and the field disintegrated around the poor woman. I thought for an instant that she might make it but then I saw it happen. One guy was practically glued to the next guy's wheel and had no idea what was in front of them both. The lead guy saw the woman and swerved out of the way and the second guy looked up and, well, he saw her.
He hit her at full speed.
Her bags went flying, scattering their contents all over the road. The woman herself got flung perhaps 10 feet, her ragged dress billowing and then settling down onto her and the pavement around her. The rider went flipping over her and landed hard on the pavement, his bike breaking into pieces on impact with the woman. She lay motionless on the road.
Yet the field was still streaming around the turn.
Rider after rider swerved, skidded, and somehow avoided her. But a guy deep in the field came sprinting around the turn. He might have been just off the back and bridging while he could, I don't know. Whatever he was thinking, he was sprinting into a turn with people already running into the street. He came flying around the turn and bam there was a woman laying across the road right in front of him. He slammed his brakes on but there was no way he'd stop, and as he skidded he lost any chance of maneuvering around the woman. Then tensed his body, his pedals level, his butt coming off the saddle. I knew what that meant.
He bunny hopped over her legs, but without enough air, he made pretty solid contact on her legs with his tires. The woman's legs bounced up and down about an inch as each tire bounced off of her her, a nice rhythmic bounce, kind of like two piano keys each played twice in a row.
The racer slowed and looked back with a shocked look on his face. I don't think he thought he was going to make the bunnyhop but after he did his next thought must have been something like "Did I just run over a dead woman??"
The scene resembled something out of a wild west movie. A wide, deserted road, albeit with racers rolling away or turning around and coming back. A couple bodies laying in the middle of it. Wind blowing stuff around (clothing, not tumbleweeds, but still). A shocked silence blanketing the scene.
In the tense second or two of this surreal pause in life, I noticed something on the road, about ten feet away from the downed woman.
The woman's shoes lay on the road, side by side. They looked like someone had carefully placed them there, pointing the way across the street. She'd literally been knocked out of her shoes.
Then, suddenly, everyone sprang into action.
The marshals at the corner - volunteers from a local charity - suddenly came to life. The six or seven of them on the turn started blowing whistles, the EMTs came rushing over, cops ran over, and the race was neutralized.
I stood there in semi-shock - I thought for sure she was dead. But after a few minutes the EMTs, having checked her, pronounced her relatively okay. Bumped and bruised but no serious damage. Her bags had mostly clothing or at least fabric type stuff, and people ran around picking up everything and bringing it back to the woman's general area. As a precaution they loaded her onto a stretcher and ambulanced her to the hospital. Apparently she'd started to cross but couldn't decide where she wanted to go - and ended up wandering around the road for the minute and change it took for the field to come around the course.
The racer was hurt bad. He'd broken something, a collarbone, maybe a shoulder, and possibly some other stuff - an arm or a leg. He'd been peaking for Fitchburg, the biggest stage race in the area. It was next weekend and there was one guaranteed non-starter - him. His bike was broken into two, cables holding the two halves of the bike together. The front rim was broken into a couple pieces - he hit her really hard. His day was over and it wasn't going to get any better any time soon.
The marshals, seeing the consequences of their relaxed attitude towards marshaling the course, adjusted to the other extreme. No one else was hurt that day, save a bruised ego or two for a few pedestrians forcibly held back by excited and fervent marshals.
The race at Mount Vernon didn't last very long, maybe another year or two. But that first race there will always stick in my memory. I spotted the finishing straight many years later while commuting on the train to the City. I was gazing out the window absentmindedly when I saw a parking lot with a crater at one end. I sat up, suddenly alert, and looked carefully as we streamed past the lot - the big, faded SALE posters in the windows, the uneven and broken up parking lot. There was the little bridge that people sat on to watch the race. And finally I could see the finishing stretch flash past, the walkway over it, connecting the two sides of the street. And then it was gone.
I looked for it whenever I sat on the north side of the train and it became one of the many landmarks by which I measured my progress either to work or back home. When I stopped commuting, I stopped seeing the updates to that sad, dreary lot. The race succeeded in putting Mount Vernon on my map of New York State.
All because of the woman who got knocked out of her shoes.