Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Story - Cornell Stage Race

In 1987 the acme of the collegiate scene, at least on the East Coast, was the Eastern Collegiate Championships. The prior year's winning team typically has the responsibility of holding the next one. Apparently Cornell won it in 1986 because that's where we headed the following year.

We trained hard for this race, doing a day of Team Time Trial work each week, using a relatively flat section of wide road near school as our TTT road. We experimented with aero set ups, cow horns, things like that, but settled on using our regular bikes. I made my bike as light as possible, even putting on these light Aero Gran Compe brakes. Their lack of leverage and bark-like shoes made stopping a bit of a challenge, but, hey, you can't win a race by stopping better, right? When I wasn't training I was putting stickers on my bike, painting components different colors, basically creating a unique machine reflecting the times - music, phrases, people, brands, they all made it onto my bike.

Finally it came time to go to the race. We left late Friday night, four of the team guys packed into a tiny red Ford Festiva. Loaded with two tall rouleurs (each over 6 feet tall), a mid sized all rounder, me, our four bikes on the roof, four extra sets of wheel strewn around everywhere, as well as both our bike gear and street clothing, the car struggled just to get out of the parking lot. We eventually met up with some other guys and set out in a nice convoy of three fully loaded cars.

I curled up in the back seat, leaning on many of the extra sets of wheels, and promptly fell asleep, a few 2 millimeter spokes acting as a soft cushiony pillow.

Some time later I woke up and sat up. We headed up through some pretty desolate upstate New York roads, taking pee stops after a couple tolls. I saw some odd looking fields, shiny under whatever lights were in the dark sky. I finally realized that I was looking at flooded areas, tops of houses or barns or something poking up from the depths of the water. Mile after mile we drove past these sudden reservoirs of water.

At some point we got into the biggest traffic jam possible, an improbable thing way up here. An hour or two into this agonizing inching forward, we finally saw a state trooper keeping an eye on the increasingly frustrated drivers. One of us rolled down our window.

"What happened up there?", we asked.
"Truck accident. Fatalities. Highway's closed. Be open soon."


Flooded areas. Fatal accidents. Could this be a portent of the disasters to come?

We finally got to campus at about 1 or 2 in the morning. I guess people were out drinking, wandering around with plastic cups full of, well, not soda. We stopped to ask a few people where this dorm was, the place we were supposed to stay tonight. Our efforts came to naught, most people just screaming stuff in the window or offering us a drink.

Finally a helpful looking (albeit a bit tipsy) guy waved us down. He had a big grin on his face, but he seemed insistent on helping us.

"Where you guys going?"

Our driver blurted out the dorm.

"Oh, okay. Well you head up there," he looked and pointed - and we all looked too, "and turn right up by there. Then you go this way and that way."

I forget the exact directions but I do remember the back of the car suddenly dropping down about 6 more inches.

His buddy had jumped on the bumper and grabbed onto the rack. More specifically he grabbed onto the bikes on the rack.

Our driver was not amused.

Mustering all of the car's 60 horsepower, he floored it, chirping the tires. Then slammed on the brakes.

The temporary passenger's beer cup went flying as he grabbed on with both hands, his face buried in the bikes.

We hollered at him to get off, but he started bouncing the back bumper up and down instead.

Our driver floored it again.

And kept going.

The driver stopped every now and then but the guy wouldn't jump off. After each stop we went faster and faster. We ended up screeching around a few turns at 30 miles an hour, reaching as much as 40 on one stretch, our passenger swearing the whole time (or maybe just hooting in delight).

Finally, on a sharp curve with some bump in it, at about 30 mph, our passenger went flying, tumbling on the road just like the movies. We stopped, leaned out the windows, swore at him, he swore at us, then he asked us for a ride back.

We took off to his redoubled swearing.

"Stupid drunk college kids."

We started laughing. He must have had a mile walk back to his buddies.

Our assigned dorm was already full of racers so we got stuck sleeping in the lounge area on the first floor. We finally got to sleep at about 2 or 3 AM, our bikes carefully stowed in a corner, our bodies blocking access to them by any drunk or rowdy kids.

We started out doing the Team Time Trial, a total disaster for us on the B team (me and three Cat 4s). All our training and practice did nothing as we collectively blew up. We did horribly. The A team did terrible, a bunch of strong 3s and a couple weak 2s (technically they'd downgraded to 3s) no match for the National level riders on other teams. Thinking about it now, we should have fielded all the big ego 3s in the B race and moved any iffy 4s into the Cs. We would have had more fun, a better chance, and I think it would have worked out better.

The crit was in the afternoon on that first day. We got lost on the way there, and, after a bit of panicked "race day navigation" (i.e. follow any car that has bikes on the roof), we got to this expansive parking lot. Laid out over some slightly tilted terrain, the course had a slight uphill finish stretch and an opposing slight downhill "back" stretch.

I lined up so far back that I couldn't hear the instructions. I killed myself to move up, took me like 4 laps to get into the top 20 or so (130 starters give or take), and I had no idea what was going on. The course (you could see all of it because of the way the parking lot was laid out) was looking mighty sparse so I knew they were pulling riders left and right.

I jumped a couple times, the officials furiously blowing their whistles, so I kept going as hard as I could, over and over, catching guys, recovering a bit, then jumping past them as soon as they slowed. I didn't want to get pulled, I'd gone through so much to get to the race. In the past, when I'm about to get lapped, I'll ignore a whistle blowing official so I could do just one more lap. I'd pull out only when they step in front of me, waving their hands. They weren't doing that so I kept going.

I ended up dumping a full bottle of Coke on my head because I was totally dehydrated and overheating, I had no idea what was going on around me, just tried to get up to and in front of the guy in front of me. I just didn't want to get pulled. The officials kept blowing the whistle but I never got pulled, I never got waved off, so I figured they'd let me go one more lap.

After the race a bunch of racers came up to me and called me all sorts of names, really really pissed off, extremely mean. I went from being relieved I finished to almost crying because they were so mean. I had no idea what happened. I got some normal place, like 12th or 13th or something, nothing impressive. Couldn't sprint, dead, whatever.

Then I got called over to the officials. Great, I thought, now I'll find out why they were blowing the whistle at me. I hope they don't DQ me for something, I mean they were blowing whistles till their faces were bright red.

I walk up to the clump of officials and the promoter. Promoter holds out his hand. Wad of cash.

"Congrats, you took all the primes! Great job out there!"
"Yeah, good job. And good job with the finish too."

I took the money, walked away. Lots of dirty looks from mean racers. Asked my teammates what exactly was happening.

Apparently the officials forgot their bell. So they announced they'd blow whistles for primes. I didn't know this. Since every time I heard the whistle I thought we were about to get pulled, I'd jump after the inevitable solo suicide prime attacker, sit on his wheel for 3/4 of a lap, then go when he started getting frustrated with me. I'd motor past the start finish, desperate not to get pulled, and finally blow up and a few guys would come back to me. Then they'd blow the whistle again, again I'd go after whoever was up the road, trying to use them to leapfrog into "Not Being Pulled".

So I won all the cash primes. And, man, were the other students livid. One one prime I rode by the guy right before the line - I probably went about 50 feet before the line. He thought I was giving it to him so he eased, I thought he was blowing so I jumped past him. I distinctly remember that because he swore, so I eased up so he could "catch my wheel". He sat up though, swearing. He must have thought I was the ultimate a**hole.

After another restless night in the dorm lounge, we headed out for the road race. I felt some anxiety, my performance in the crit indicative that maybe, just maybe, I could do something in the road race.

We lined up in the staging area, a long one lane dirt driveway. The As took off first, our guys in there fine. We were up next. We took off, a big clump of guys at the front, followed by the rest of the less-tightly-packed field. I was in the second part, not worried about maintaining a front position on a mainly downhill start.

Shortly after the start we rode past a few riders on the road, an ambulance parked on the shoulder, but I didn't see anything else. Then we hit the first long descent. I eased back a bit, my Aero Grand Compe brakes not ideal for this situation. We maintained a steady 45 mph, nothing unusual, not too fast.

Then I heard a loud "Ka-Pow!".

Crap. Someone flatted.

A hand way at the front of the field went up. Left hand.

Hey, I thought, they know how to signal a flat. A front flat no less.

Then the hand got sucked down and I started hearing metal screeching on the ground. Some screams, some yells.

Someone in front of me yelled, "Crash up!"

I grabbed a handful of brake and tried to slow the bike down. The bark brakes didn't do much and I watched as I got closer and closer to the guy in front of me. Suddenly he flipped over the bars. He'd just run into a pile of guys literally 5 or 6 feet tall, stretching from one side of the pavement to the other. He ended up on his back and looked up just in time to see me running into him at some semi-reduced speed. His eyes opened wide just as I hit him, then suddenly I was tumbling up the pile of riders.

I tumbled back down, ended up on my feet, and everyone else was crashing into the ditches on either side of the road. I grabbed my bike, yanked it off of the pile, and ran around the stack of riders on the road and in the ditch. I saw the front of the field taking a right at the bottom of the descent, maybe 30 or so riders still together.

A chance, I thought, a slim chance.

I jumped on the bike, swore as I realized the chain was off, jumped off, got the chain on (dirtying my best gloves and my new tape in the process), and jumped back on again. I sprinted down the hill, took the turn way too fast, and started doing a mad pursuit down the next road. I was doing some insane speed, 32-33 mph, something completely unsustainable for any length of time.

And, as expected, after a minute or so of chasing, with the field somewhere in sight, I totally exploded. After a few guys rode by I sat up, completely demoralized. I don't remember how the rest of my "race" went, but I do remember finishing and learning that one of the A team riders had fallen in that early crash, breaking his wrist.

He'd fallen with a few other guys but he was the only one really hurt. The EMT was working on his wrist when suddenly he radio crackled to life. Something about "Everyone just crashed!". The EMT looked at his ambulance, then at my friend, and said, "Look, you're stable. Do you mind just waiting while I check out the crash?"

My friend laughed. "No problem. I'm not going anywhere." The EMT took off down the road.

I guess 30 or 40 B riders went down hard enough that they weren't trying to chase, but I'm pretty sure that ultimately no one was seriously hurt.

Tired, battered, and bruised, we packed up the cars for the long drive home.

I went to Cornell and suffered over three days and all I got was this stupid t-shirt.


josh said...

Aki - great story as always.

Holds some special significance to me as I was born in 1987 and was but 4 months old or so when you were at Cornell. Anyways, this weekend is the eastern conference championships, at Dartmouth.

I think they changed things a bit, as I am pretty sure Dartmouth did not win last year...the qualifications for holding eastern's as best I can tell are having an insanely hard road race...Vassar last year, Cornell the year before that.

Anyways, you got more than a t-shirt, you learned a lesson and you got a great story out of's to hoping I can get more than a T-shirt out of my trip.

Aki said...

I'm actually proud of that t-shirt, hence I saved it. And yes, it was quite an experience. I had guys coming up to me literally 5-7 years later saying "Yeah, I was in a crit with you at Cornell. I remember the bike" (and probably me taking all the primes). The Sticker Bike (those who've seen it will know what I'm talking about) - I hope to restore it and post some pics.

Anonymous said...

Great closing LOL! And the story of the "whistle primes" was hilarious! I could just imagine it! Fun story!

Il Bruce said...

Hey wait. I was in that race.

We (URI) did well in the TTT. We lost two guys at the start leaving me as the week link. Our best rider was Michael Hutchinson (CT boy and multiple Masters Nat Champ) but Fred Croy and JIm Peters we all much stronger than me. I cooked myself so badly in the TTT that I only lasted a handful of laps in the crit.

Fred & Mike lapped the field I think.

We celebrated too hard Saturday night and after getting caught in an early crash I spent the rest on the morning (Easter morning I think) sleeping on the roof of the van. Only heard about the big crash.

I think Mike won the B overall and Fred was third.

T-shirt is long gone.

Anonymous said...

Great story. "Race day navigation"..too funny!