Friday, May 30, 2008

Story - Harlem Skyscraper Criterium

So I read that Rock Racing is going to be at the Harlem Skyscraper Crit. If you're ever in the New York City area, it's Father's Day, and you don't know what to do, go up to some park off of Martin Luther King Jr Blvd at about the 125th Street range and look for signs of a bike race - closed roads, police cars, and riders warming up.

Actually, this is Harlem. The racers don't ride around to warm up - they just sit on trainers next to their car.

I did this race a few times, none very successfully.

For one thing the fields are just enormous. I was on a wait list one year - about 100 riders down the list, with the 150 rider field completely full. I decided that even if I got in, I didn't want to race in that kind of mayhem.

With a field that size, lining up at the front, normally not a priority for me, is critical. Some riders (former winners and such) get called up. But the rest of us have to scramble for position. The second Harlem I did, I warmed up for a bit and sat down on the curb exactly at the start/finish line before the Women's race. I waited the whole Women's race, guarding my spot on the curb, my feet on the white finish line, my bike next to me. No matter who pushed and shoved I didn't move.

Then they called the Cat 3s to the line. I stood up, turned my bike 90 degrees to the left (to point down the course) and found myself...

on the THIRD row of racers.

I've since learned that holding a forward position in the field is next to impossible unless I'm riding brilliantly. It's so hard, so nerve wracking, I've since decided it's better to sit at the back, avoid crashes, and move up when the opportunity arises (usually in the last 10 laps, but before 5 to go).

A 150 rider field, on a 0.75 mile course, is something to behold. The field looks like a big comet, the incredibly packed main body followed by a much less dense tail. Curb to curb for the first 50 guys, then 100 guys sort of waiting for the inevitable crash to happen. And man, the crashes would happen. Almost every lap someone would tag the wooden barricades coming out of a turn. Look, if you think about it, when you turn hard when the field is spread curb to curb, the inside guys get cut off and the outside guys get run into the barriers - but they race like that anyway, at 28-30 mph. I've been sitting in the field going 35 mph, wondering who the heck was pushing the pace at the front.

The field would take up the whole straight on a long part of the course. I remember sitting at the back (it's not curb to curb there), looking up, and exiting Turn One I'd see the lead guys leaning as they entered Turn Two. It took a good 20 or so seconds to get to that next turn, and I realized that it'd take something special to move up.

After doing the race once, I returned with kevlar belted 200 gram Panaracer tubulars and a "no equipment is sacred" attitude. I moved up by riding up the shoulders, covered with tons of broken glass and interrupted by heavily dipped sewer grates and sunken manhole covers. Back wheel bouncing off the whoop-de-doops, I managed to work myself into a top 30 position in the last lap of the race in a pouring rain Harlem. That year, the one year I had a chance at doing well, I ended up bumping my hip and arm along the wooden police barricades for about 50 feet with two turns to go, people screaming in my ear the whole time. End of my race, my foot in 6 inches of water, my hand resting on a wooden barricade.

Speaking of screaming, the crowds are really entertaining. They love crashes the most, but they really, really appreciate hard efforts. If you attack, are moving up aggressively, or are trailing along but looking like you're trying (bleeding from road rash helps), they cheer you on like it's 2 seconds left in the Super Bowl. You can't hear yourself think, you can't hear your gears, your bike, nothing. I can't imagine racing up an Alpe D'Huez or the Manayunk Wall, with such noise and energy pushing you the whole way.

Crashes take the cake for the crowd though, they love crashes. Until noon the races are reserved for local residents, inexperienced racers. One guy took off from the line, impressively fast. I'd say he could out jump 90% of the Cat 3s based on his acceleration. He didn't slow at all for the turn though, and t-boned the first wooden barricade on the next stretch at 30 or 35 mph. He cartwheeled on top of the barricades for a good 30 to 50 feet, his bike cartwheeling on the street next to him. The crowd went bananas, cheering and screaming. "Did you see that guy crash?! Did you see that blood?!" Then they tried to help the poor guy up, bleeding from everywhere, dazed and confused.

Some of the crowd aren't interested in bike racing, they're interested in making money. It's not uncommon for someone to walk by, look at you, and mimic the motion of smoking a joint. In other words, "Want to buy some?". Or, in the heyday of another drug, they'd walk by and ask, "What's crackin'?"

Not me.

Others are so out of it they don't even realize there's a bike race.
A guy in a strong break one year t-boned a kid who rolled through about 5 cops, right into the road in front of the break. Racer's frame broke into two, end of the day for him. The local was totally out of it (high?) and didn't seem to understand why he was on the ground all of a sudden. He just tried to pick up his bike and then got mad because his wheel was bent.

In such a poor/bad/stereotyped neighborhood (even local NYC folks say not to go above about 110th street, and this is at about 125th or so), people think more about theft and crime.
A lot of the racers park in what I call "The Corral", a basketball court (maybe 4 of them?) with a 20 foot high chainlink fence surrounding it, in the middle of this 2 block park (the race goes around it). You have all these rich racers (relatively speaking), with their multi thousand dollar bikes (a standard question from locals is "How much is that bike?"), nice cars, suburban clothing, suburban accents, dropped off in the middle of.. Harlem. It's something else.

Inside this tiny chained off area, everyone looking out for one another, in the middle of a "bad part of Harlem". Within that area things are quiet, no screaming, no commotion. You see a lot of trainers, guys warming up next to something familiar - their car, their friends. Not the foreign world outside the Corral. Even the locals seem to avoid the racers.

But outside of it? Complete and total chaos.

A teammate once told me, "If you crash, hang onto your bike". Not sure if it's rumor or what but apparently bikes disappear after big crashes. When my best friend crashed on the last lap of the race (my saddle broke over all the bumps and I'd already dropped out), I got into a tug of war with two other people over his bike. One was a friend of ours, the other I have no idea who he was. The friend and I won, and I didn't even know it was him until we both looked up to see who was fighting for the bike. We both smiled and he let go - apparently he dove in when the other guy dove in, and he knew the other guy wasn't a racer. So my best friend's bike was safe.

Another friend, my Belgian trip teammate, crashed, big crash, on the rainy day, and stood up, panicking because he didn't see his bike. Then, along the line of spectators, he picked out a little white woman holding his 66 cm bike. He walked over and she told him that she grabbed the bike for him so no one else would take it.

Now, granted, although there are a lot of stereotypes at work here, it's important to be sensitive to the fact that you're entering a different culture, a different type of area. I know this even though I'm pretty naive with a lot of things. Some people don't understand this though. One year, deep in my naive state of being, I got a ride with a teammate of mine. He also drove another guy in, someone I'll call Mister Brilliant, a white bread suburban racer.

On the way to the race Mister Brilliant would lean out of the car and holler at the others "Who do you think for the Finals?" (Apparently it was basketball talk - but I'm ignorant of basketball so I don't know). Whoever they chose - Phoenix maybe? I don't remember. Anyway, whatever team the other car chose, Mister Brilliant had some good thing to say about them. "Yeah, me too. They have So-And-So and they have more defense." Or whatever basketball teams have.

Sometimes it took a while to get the other car to understand - at 65 mph on I95, I can understand why. I just slunk lower into the back seat, embarrassed to be in the same car as this guy.

Then, when we finally got off the highway in the insane maze called New York City, we promptly got lost. So, Mister Brilliant started asking for directions. Now, I could understand if he said, "Yo, you know where 125th and MLK is?".

Did he do that?


We'd pull up to a light, he'd motion to roll down the window, the other guy (a "local") would do so, and Mister Brilliant would phrase the question such:

"You speak Jive?"

The first time he said it (yes, the first time) I expected either a hail of bullets or a fist coming through the window. I literally dove down in the back seat.

As you may imagine, we didn't get a lot of helpful directions, just a lot of mention about crackers and calling Mister Brilliant's mom all sorts of names as well as questioning his choice of mating partners.

I pleaded with him to just ask for directions, pointing out that my mom wouldn't appreciate reading about two white guys and an Asian guy killed in a non-descript Chevy in New York City. Nevertheless he insisted on opening his conversations the same way, insisting he knew how to speak Jive. Finally, after about five close-to-getting-killed conversations, even the driver, who initially thought this was hilarious, told him to chill with the Jive talk. Plus, as he pointed out, it wasn't called Jive anymore. So Mister Brilliant chilled with the Jive talk and would you know it, someone finally told us how to get to the race.

For the life of me I can't remember how I did that day. It wasn't the barrier day because it wasn't raining. The only thing I can remember is looking at the guy who might be able to give directions, his cautious rolling down of his window, and then his face change when he heard Mister Brilliant's opening phrase.

I don't speak Jive, but at some point I'll make it back to that race. Maybe even this year. And we'll see if anything has changed.


Giles said...

Of course that reminds me of the famous jive brothers from airplane . . . good stuff.

GMF said...

What memories from the Harlem Crit! - even though I only did it once: Eating breakfast at the "West African Cafe" - the only place we could find that was open at 10:30 on a Sunday morning (adventurous eating a couple hours before a race is not a good idea), waves in the poorly maintained asphalt so deep that my pedal hit the pavement and lifted my rear wheel up and over about a foot (on a straight! watch out for that, racers!), all the locals dressed to the nines in their Sunday church outfits watching the races on their way to/from service, crashing into 2 guys who went down on turn one of the last lap and having "Big Harold" land on top of me in the pile up - all 6'5" and 220lbs of him. Thanks for bringing back the memories (and stories). And thanks for grabbing my bike back then after the crash!

Brian said...

It's safe to say that your description of the race thoroughly scares the crap out of me! Yet, like most things in life, I feel compelled to do it even though it's clearly not in my best interest. Sorta like skydiving.

Just tell me that it was fun and I'll give it a shot.

Sean said...

hi Aki!
Harlem Skyscraper, what an adventure. I remember doing that race and thanking the lord for the fenced in parking lot where all the suburbanites hung out. insane. i cant think of a course that has more real 'eat your wheel' potholes..
...and just when you think it cant get crazier, they are putting this year's race ON TV!!

mattio said...

Good post, but the area's changed a whole lot. What years did you race? Neighborhoods in NYC are changing at a blistering pace, and telling you to clutch your belongings in Harlem is pretty much an anachronism - it's a gentrification hotspot these days, and the street crime is nothing like what it was in the nineties. Of course, don't leave your bike out of sight anywhere in NYC, but fear-mongering about Harlem is pretty outdated.

Sometimes I cruise around the park a few times on my way home to the South Bronx. Usually a nice change from the clamor of the avenues.