One of the problems with racing in the US is that the races are so far away. It's not like a county wide thing where the furthest you drive is a few towns over. It's a regional thing with regional driving distances. As a racer you have to decide how far is too far. In the Northeast I'd say that about 2 hours is most racer's idea of a max drive for a race unless it was a stage race (Killington SR) or a special event (USPro at Philly for example). I know that in California that might be someone's idea of a commute to work, but here, well, it's about as far as I'll go.
Of course if I have legs it's a bit different. When I was flying on the bike, my "acceptable driving radius" extended out to 5 or 6 hours each way.
Think about that.
10 or 12 hours of driving to race about an hour. A whole day shot. Not environmentally friendly, I admit, but back then gas was still in the "cents". As in not "dollar and cents". And "emission control" meant not having a smoke bomb for exhaust, but everything else was okay.
I did some Thanksgiving race in Baltimore (they gave away a lot of turkeys). And one weekend a teammate and I drove out to Bethlehem, PA. I remember it was pretty far, at least 3 hours each way, just for a 20 or so mile crit that I'd never done before in my life.
We did the drive in my teammate's Saab 900, listening to Metallica (my teammate's tape) the whole way. That's not a bad thing necessarily - after a few hours of repetitious Metallica I decided I started liking them. I suppose the alternative was to go stark raving mad so I decided I'd like the music. I think it didn't help that the music only came out of one speaker... or was that the other car that I drove in for hours and hours? Whatever.
Other than that the drive was pretty uneventful. Well, as a car enthusiast it's worth mentioning that the car had no second gear due to a long ago misshift. Every time we got going, he'd have to virtually redline the engine in first so the car wouldn't hiccup when he shifted into third.
And at that time the only thing I knew about Bethlehem was that there were outdated steel mills there. I didn't know what to expect. Four hours is a long way to go to somewhere you don't know.
We got there and the area seemed distinctly, well, un-urban. No sky scrapers, no busy city-like things. More bucolic than, say, New York City.
One of the things that I didn't realize would be the case (until I got there) was that I didn't know anyone from the area. I had no prior races with them. I had no idea who to mark, who was strong, who wasn't. I ran into the same problem in Baltimore, Michigan, and any other far off race courses, as well as some of the collegiate races I'd done earlier in my life.
I did the only thing I could in this situation. I looked at the other racers to see what they looked like. I figured that I could check out what the guys look like, I can get an idea of the general fitness of the racers in the area.
One guy in particular popped out. It was hard to miss him because his belly was so big he had to move his knees to the side to pedal. I figured he'd be a Citizen racer (this was before Cat 5s existed, and back then, a non-licensed racer could race the "Citizen" race). No one else particularly stood out, they looked like normal racers. My teammate and I did a decent warm up as we'd gotten to the venue with plenty of time before our race. I needed this time as I felt pretty tired from the long drive down, and I certainly wasn't looking forward to the drive back.
When I lined up I put my head down to wheel level and looked around. I did this before my first ever win - I saw there were only a few sets of shaved legs in the field that day. I marked them, made sure they didn't get away, and then launched a savage sprint to take the win.
That day in Bethlehem I was a bit disappointed to see mainly shaven legs. I guess even out here in Bethlehem they know about racing. What I didn't realize we were just around the corner from the best track on the East Coast, but then again, back then I didn't know much. It wouldn't be quite so easy to pick out the strong racers.
I did notice Mister Belly had lined up.
Now, although the rest of the 3s looked normal, if Mr Belly was indicative of the pace around here, then I'd be okay. If someone like him could hang, so could I, and if it came down to a sprint, well, I was pretty confident of my sprint.
Trying to get rid of the last cobwebs in my head from the long drive over, I psyched myself up. Metallica's "One" was echoing through my head - it would be the song that popped into my head whenever I raced literally for years to come. With the announcer talking in the background I got into race mode. And with a whistle or a gun (I forget) we were off. Now that I think of it, we might have doffed our helmets for the national anthem. It was that foreign relative to the NY/NJ/CT area.
The course was pretty straight forward. Four corners, right turns, a dip in the longer front and back stretches. The two connecting straights were pretty short so the first two turns were close together, ditto the last two. The longer straights were pretty long - at least 300 meters, maybe more like 400 or more. The main straight started with a slight downhill, then after 100 or 150 meters is started to ease up in angle a bit. No major grade, just a touch more of a difference than the Champs Elysee.
The first lap went well, the guys seemed to know how to race bikes, and the course seemed doable. The long straights hurt me since speeds continually rise in crit straights (so shorter ones are better for me) but I thought the two sets of turns would favor my handling skills. And a slight uphill finish is my forte.
That was before the second lap - at the first turn of the second lap, my bike wiggled a bit weird. Then the front rim hit the ground. I looked down - I'd flatted.
No wheel pit so no free lap. My race was over in a couple minutes.
I rolled to the curb, my hand in the air, yelled to my teammate that I'd flatted.
I couldn't believe this. All the driving, all the time, down the tubes. My teammate, an ever loyal leadout guy, was still in the race so I stood by the course and yelled encouragement.
Nothing memorable happened during the race except Mr Belly managed to hang on, his knees splayed out to the sides to clear his torso. I shook my head in amazement. If only I'd still been in the race. My teammate gamely hung on, a bum knee (skiing accidents) limiting his finishing kick. I didn't know what he would do but I was hoping that he could pull a good ride out of his legs.
As the laps wound down I parked myself on the finish stretch, a little bit - 50-75 meters - before the line. I figured if my teammate needed any encouragement, that would be the place for it. If he needed it before that point he was toast anyway.
Bell lap and the field was all together, curb to curb, everyone looking at one another. I'd have killed to be in that field at that moment, it looked like prime hunting ground for a sprinter. I waited anxiously for the field to round the final corner - we all were. Everyone strained to pick out a hint of the racers, to see who'd round the turn, pedals churning, legs a blazin'.
A lone rider came rocketing through the turn, moving visibly faster than the race had been taking the turn on previous laps. He was flying. He looked familiar somehow and I squinted to verify the racer's identity.
It couldn't be.
But it was.
Not only did he rocket through the turn, he was probably 20 or 30 meters in front of the field.
He lifted his ungainly mass out of the seat and started sprinting, his belly flopping side to side with his bike. I was waiting for this Cat 3 poser to explode but he somehow kept the power going, held his speed, and actually outdistanced the desperately sprinting field to the line. Gleefully he raised his hands, the improbable winner, a triumph of effort, of will, of something over the honed and fit legs of his rivals.
The announcer was yelling in the PA system.
I did another double take.
"Gibby Hatton wins! Gibby Hatton wins!"
I remember reading about him - a pro track racer, a National team member with the likes of Tom Ritchey (yeah, the WCS guy whose bars and stems everyone seems to be using) and Harvey Nitz, bronze in the 1983 Keirin Worlds (albeit helped by a massive crash), a top notch track racer. Gibby Hatton?
I couldn't believe it. He was in Winning Magazine and here he was, in some rinky dink Cat 3 race. And winning it no less.
I learned later that he'd stopped racing for a while and he was just getting back into it. From the looks of the results I found on the internet, he's doing pretty well.
Speed, I realized, doesn't go away.
Amen to that.
(Note: All due respect to Gibby Hatton who based on the results I found can still give out some serious whoop a**. I have never met him and now probably never will but man oh man did he surprise me that day.)