Friday, June 27, 2008

ToPA - Bedford to Latrobe

I woke up and looked around. The lights were on, the laptop, the TV. I was fully dressed, minus my socks and shoes.

I had no idea what time it was, and I could feel anxiety tightening my chest. Did I oversleep? Did I miss the race? Was my phone dead and therefore no one could call me?

I checked the clock. 5:30.

I glanced at the curtains. I saw daylight underneath them. And since I know I was out at dinner last night, I realized it was the morning.

My anxiety subsided, to be replaced with a deep rooted fatigue. I hadn't missed the start. But I didn't dare go back to sleep.

This was Stage 4 of the race (which I know only because I just checked the Tech Guide), but as far as how I felt? I didn't know anymore. I figured out it was Friday by looking at my watch. I had lost all concept of time, of the week, of the month. Literally trembling from a combination of a lack of sleep and food, yawning uncontrollably, I tried to pull myself together. Today was another road stage, another few hours of alternating boredom and extreme stress.

I met up with the Trooper known as Kevin (not his real name, because I wasn't clear about that before - I was already forgetting things in my fatigued state). I set up shop in the car, carefully placing my radio so as not to disturb his, plugging in the laptop and waking it up so I could see the carefully mapped route. As a bonus the car was blowing ice cold dry air, a bonus in the stifling humidity.

I'd been tapped to be a YouSahDah chaperone, but this time I wasn't given a badge. No worry, carrying things around was starting to become a pain. I also got a couple radios (ditto on carrying them around), and even a start list (now I could tell who was doing what).

We started off a bit late, only 5 or so minutes before the start, and hurried up through the first few turns. Then we got word that a caravan vehicle's battery had died and there'd be a delay. We stopped at an intersection, a bit helpless, unable to go forward.

I'd decided (obviously) not to do a "live" report since trying to get numbers and such was too distracting yesterday. The radios all go crazy at once, traffic seems to appear magically whenever that happens, and basically it gets to be a total mess. So I decided no more live reports.

I sat in the car, waiting at that intersection, not doing a live report, waiting for the race to start. Then suddenly we were told they'd just started and they were "up our rear bumper". Or something like that.

Whatever, we leapt forward into action. We went by the usual oblivious drivers. We were clearing roads all the way to the last lane to the left, or shoulder if there was one. Yesterday, on a particularly wide section of road, I questioned the necessity of doing so, but when I saw the following picture, I realized it was.

Good thing we pushed traffic all the way to the opposite shoulder.

I relayed this discovery to Kevin who nodded in understanding. Our goal, as usual, was to clear the road well enough that the road-closure type problems would not affect the race, and to keep the caravan on course.

A couple times he had his troopers give particularly clueless or fast or otherwise unusual drivers a "talk", i.e. scare them into thinking they were on the edge of getting a ticket. Usually it was those drivers either going 70 or 80 towards us (that still gets my heart going since we're usually on the wrong side of the rad) or those that give extremely dirty looks because of the inconvenience of having to give way to an emergency vehicle.

Now, granted, a bike race isn't an emergency, but if that person's kid was in an ambulance, they'd probably want everyone to get out the way quickly, not mosey on along to the shoulder while casting dirty looks at the "freakin' ambulance that is going to make me late for whatever".

You'd think that they'd want to move over, but no. A state police cruiser with its lights flashing is merely an inconvenience. Nowadays it's all about me. No one else matters, just me. But that's a different topic altogether.

You could tell the good drivers, the ones that respected the law. They pulled over firmly and decisively, sometimes hit their hazards, and waited patiently. Truck drivers always did this, to the best of their ability. Keep in mind it takes 300-400 feet to slow an 18-wheeler down from 60 mph, and since most of the speed limits were 55 mph, it was reasonable to expect them to take a full 100 meters to slow and stop on the shoulder. You could smell the brakes and I felt bad for the truckers, using up 5000 miles of brakes for the bike race.

At least they'd have time to cool them off while they waited for the race to pass.

We screamed up and over the first KOM, clearing the descent long before the field even got to the base of the climb. I took advantage of a park's "Visitor Center" bathroom. Something I ate early on didn't agree with me, and drinking a "friend of the race's coffee shop's" coffee didn't help either. Properly de-stressed I jumped back in the car, good until the finish.

What did stress me out was the blast up and over the mountain just before we stopped. We flew up the climb, going deep into the national speed limit speed, braking heavily for the various curves. We did the same on the (posted speed limit 20 mph) downhill, the car struggling to slow on the wet and curvy descent. I definitely felt a few wiggles from the tail of the car under heavy braking, but it might have been my overactive imagination.

Part of the reason we stopped at that Visitor Center is the brakes got severely overheated on the descent, causing the car to buck wildly every time we needed to slow - it felt like we were driving on egg shaped tires. Kevin stopped the car and walked around the car, seeing if there were any obvious problems with the brakes. I did too, and except for them smelling like we'd driven with the parking brake on, they were fine. He let the car idle for a few minutes, reconnecting on the comms (a relay went down so we lost our radios, and we had no cell phone signal either), and let the brakes cool off.

The brakes cooled nicely and we were on our way once again, without getting jerked around when slowing.

Things went pretty well for the most part until the last 5 km of the race, when things went down the tubes. It was not quite totally hairy, but it was definitely hairy. There was a lot of construction with orange and white barricades all over the place, and we had to turn right off of that road onto another road with tons of construction. Our right turn was so narrow that Kevin almost drove past it, me crying out "981 north, to the right!" just in time. He jammed the wheel sideways, we stopped, and he asked the marshal if it was 981 north. The marshal nodded affirmatively.

The Tech Director was just behind us, the break just behind him, and there was perhaps 6 feet of width of clear road, the rest of it packed with cars and trucks coming towards us and gridlocked at the closed intersection. I imagined a Cat 3 coming into that turn hot with 3 k to go. I think maybe the first or second rider would have made it. The rest of them would have plowed into the waiting vehicles.

I hoped these guys were better than that.

They were. They were U25 elite level riders and they demonstrated that they have what it takes to, say, succeed in the narrow roads of Europe, where 6 feet wide roads might as well be a superhighway. The Canadian DS Steve, when I asked him about the corner, shrugged.

"We had a lane open. That was fine."

I queried him again, giving him a chance to edit his answer. He remained resolute.

"You gotta fight for position. It was fine."

His smile told me that it really was fine. Robin, listening in, looked at me.

"Dude, he knows. He knows that they gotta be able to handle this (bleep). It's part of racing."

It was sketchy, no doubt, and even the stage winner said so. He didn't mind though, it kept things strung out, and I'm sure it helped him out.

Right after the finish Kevin parked the car. I told him I had to do dope control and I'd have to go right away. I packed up the laptop, phone, grabbed radios, and huffed it back to the finish line. The YouSahDah woman was there and handed me a clipboard. I opened it up again. Who would I have to escort?

"1st place Stage".

Cool. The winner. I saw him blow by the trooper car shortly after we parked, number 71, the Canadian hotshot on the Kelly Medifast team.

I found him, tagged him, and I became his new best friend. Or, more accurately, a bodyguard. I went where he went, and he kept an eye out for me. If we got separated, it's possible he'd be considered positive, and neither of us wanted that. 1:39 PM. He'd have to report by 2:39 PM.

He was called to the finish line area and we walked over there slowly, navigating through the crowds at the finish. They found a chair for him and he took a seat. His director eventually caught up with him.

I checked my watch.

He waited around, got interviewed by a couple local TV stations.

I checked my watch.

He got called up to the podium presentations. They presented everyone. The stage winner. The KOM guy. The sprinter guy. The leader guy. The most aggressive guy.

I checked my watch. After each guy was called. This was taking for-freakin'-ever.

He came back. Waited for the press conference scheduled with the news channels that hadn't caught up with him.

I checked my watch about 20 times. 30 minutes had gone by.

Press conference. A few cameras showed up.

Jeepers. I checked my watch again. These things drag on forever. And we didn't have forever. We had about 28 minutes. Not that I was counting.

Suddenly, from the middle of all the cameras, the people, the reporters, he looked up. Caught his new best friend's eye. Nodded. I pointed towards the control location. He nodded.

I checked my watch. I wouldn't have to run. His DS Jonas Carney and he started walking. I trailed behind since I can't lead him unless I was walking backwards, those are the rules.

Then some folks asked him to sign something. Someone else wanted a picture of the winner with his kid. You absolutely cannot screw this stuff up, this is what will make bike racing popular. I actually stopped caravan traffic to give the kid a chance to take a picture with this bike racing star.

Dope control? Look, we had at least 27 minutes, plenty of time. We're talking cycling fans here. This is important stuff, as important as dope control. I didn't even have to check my watch, it's that important.

I delivered him to dope control about 40 minutes after I tagged him, 20 minutes before he'd be an automatic positive. Because Jonas was there, I got to hear some of the tactics that took place at the finish. Jonas read the race to perfection and told his guy when to go. The guy went and ended up hitting a corner "10k faster than everyone else" (his words).

I wonder if I'd have read the finish the same.

Afterwards the tough as nails soigneur Ryan and I tried to turn off the Kelly-Medifast car's rear wiper. It was giving the bone dry rear window a swipe every 5 or so seconds and it was driving me nuts. It drove her nuts too, but it was like my SRM - German, works well, and completely unintuitive. I fiddled with it for a minute or two. She asked what I was doing (in their car) and I told her the rear wiper swiping the dry window was driving me nuts.

"Me too! That thing is such a pain!"

So I wasn't the only one. She came over and said that there was something with the right side control stalk that turned it off. After squirting wiper fluid on the windows, turning on and off the front wipers, and making the rear wiper interrupt its rhythm, she finally got it to stop. We smiled like a couple kids who just figured out where the chocolate was in the cupboards.

Today we stay in dorms. I chivalrously traded Amy my single-with-bathroom for a single-without-one as there were a bunch of guys on the floor and only one female. This got me a stack of points in her book, reduced in part when Andrea said "Oh, you were supposed to trade rooms with him". Amy still appreciated the sacrifice though.

And now I'm exhausted. It's 4:29 PM. I'm hungry - I didn't eat after 7:45 AM due to the stomach-churning food I had at breakfast. I'm tired - I fell asleep on the keyboard a few minutes ago, but now I'm wide awake, and I didn't even have to delete a few thousand k's or some other stuck-key-letter. And I want to do laundry.

Tomorrow is a tough day for the caravan. We're already calling it an SS day and it hasn't even begun. 15 miles of twisting turning stuff in the worst part of Pittsburgh. It ought to be interesting.

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