Wednesday, June 25, 2008

ToPA - Downington-Carlisle RR

The man known as Kevin looked at me and grinned.

"Don't worry, I won't get you killed."

I looked back at the road. We were on the wrong side of the road, going into oncoming traffic at about 30 or 40 miles an hour, and we'd just slowed down from running a bunch of red lights, passing on the left, and reaching, at some point, speeds that would easily get you pulled over by the Pennsylvania State Police, or PSP.

I loosened my grip on the sill of the door, one that conveniently lets me grab it with my hand, my fingernails pressing against the front passenger door window.

There could be, and there was, only one explanation why the PSP weren't pulling us over.

Kevin was the PSP. And my fingers were curled around a PSP car, its blue and reds flashing, the headlights doing their left-right-left-right thing, and, when Kevin felt the need, the siren blaring.

Welcome to the Tour of Pennsylvania.

Like the other days this day started out on a totally different tone. I felt a lot more fatigued this morning, woke up later, and barely got showered before Robin called me. When I opened the curtains I realized with a sinking stomach that all the team cars that had been there last night were gone.

I hurried downstairs, grabbed a plate of food (I was supposed to eat there, contrary to the other buffets where I, um, didn't eat), drank four glasses of cranberry juice while standing next to the juice thing, and ran out to the car holding a PB&J muffin. I got to take a bite of that before I got to Robin's car.

And except for 2 swigs of water from a bottle, that's all I had for the next five hours.

We rolled into the start area, many of the cars already staged. The PSP folk were still setting up, figuring out their comms, and doing the meet and greet. Since the same guys would be with the race, it was important for them to meet people, say hi, and figure out whose orders they'd need to heed.

I lost my worth-its-weight-in-gold Race Guide before the race even started. So much for my precious Guide. I resorted to one or two pages of notes, a route correction sheet, and some other small things. I had a GPS unit, my laptop, my cell phone, and a race radio, and I found out that the trooper would be a guy named Kevin.

I found him, shook hands, and I loaded out the car. When I saw that the PSP car had a 15" GPS unit bolted to the dash I ditched the 3" one in the Tech Director's car, but otherwise I hung onto everything. I set up the laptop, plugged it into one of the many 12v power supply plugs in the car, stuck the race radio next to my seat belt buckle, and put the phone in the armrest hole thing that you grab to close the door. The engine idling, the AC on, I decided I'd reduce the chance of missing the start by just sitting there.

We started off and miraculously all these cops and marshals and people were blocking roads, drivers were pulling off to the shoulder, and things were good.

That lasted about, say, 5 minutes. Then it got hairy. I quickly learned that when people see a state trooper car, all lights flashing, driving down the wrong side of the road, arm out motioning to move over, they, well, they keep driving straight. The siren helped but then you couldn't hear the radios, and Kevin had some monster radio unit and a race radio tuned to Race Ops. After a while I tuned mine to Officials. And he also had some phones that kept ringing and such.

We'd be clearing the road, he'd be waving drivers to the side, the radio would be squawking, and he'd pick up the phone and ask the Command Post (I think) to notify such-and-such county that we were entering their area. Or such-and-such town.

Man, talk about distracted driving.

We almost plowed into oblivious drivers on the phone who didn't see or notice a car driving at them, lights flashing, until Kevin would break the sound barrier by either hitting his horn or popping the siren. Then you'd see them jump in their seat, slam on the brakes, and swerve right.

Like 50 feet in front of us.

So when you read about the guy who plows into the back of a police car who'd just pulled someone over, and you wonder "How the eff does someone not notice that there's a police car with its flashing lights on?", now you know. People get distracted, and when they get distracted, they only notice what they want to notice.

I noticed really quickly that truck drivers were the best ones out there. I suppose they have a somewhat antagonistic attitude towards cops because cops have the ability to effectively end their livelihood. So when a cop asks them to do something, they do it right away.

Car drivers, on the other hand, are not so good. Once Kevin stopped in order to tell someone to pull over. The driver's response?


Kevin had already floored it to get going, but he shook his head in disgust. As he drove he editorialized.

"People think that you don't need to pull over if the emergency vehicle is going the other way, but that's not true. My kid is 16 now and I hammer the point home with her."

Point taken.

When things are normal-crazy, it's hairy. But when it's worse, it's really hairy. And when we crested one hill, it became really hairy. In front of us was a truck, its boom extended, workers on the wire, and cones blocking off most of the road. Traffic was backed up heading towards us, I radioed it in, and Kevin hit his siren.

I was reminded of my ant battle a few weeks ago (was it that recent?). When I lifted their cover, the ants would scatter instantly. The siren had the same effect, scattering the cars to the side, clearing a way.

"Really hairy" got downgraded to just hairy.

We had a few interesting things like an unmanned exit fork (the exit area forked twice, and the second fork had no marshals of any kind) where the folks behind me almost missed the turn. We made the turn but it only took a 50 yard gap to be out of sight on this sharp curve, and a bunch of the lead vehicles almost missed the exit. SRAM realized they missed it, backed up, and the red station wagon backing up at the caravan made them realize that, hey, we don't want to go down there.

Just like there's a Cat 4 problem (hairy), a Cat 3 problem (really hairy), there's a Cat 2 problem. That's when it's really insanely hairy, and that's what we ran into in Harrisburg. A four lane road, 18 wheelers on either side jammed in traffic, side streets busy, cars trying to get on, and lost in the midst of all this a few cops desperately waving cars to turn and get off the course.

The race was a couple minutes behind us and flying into town.

I know I almost crushed the sill of the door, hanging on while Kevin navigated the "mobile chicanes" (i.e. cars and trucks in the road), blasting the siren, barking out orders to his guys, even jumping out of the car to direct one particularly poorly placed vehicle out of the way. We stormed through there, took names, kicked butt, and blasted a way through for the race.

A short time later the race came flying through, oblivious to the chaos traveling in front of them.

We had to do something similar in Carlisle, clearing tight roads full of cars, blasting across a bridge at an unbelievable speed. I'd have gladly taken the opportunity to check the speedometer (when the engine is whining that loudly you know you're going fast) but I couldn't take my eyes of what I thought was the last thing I'd ever see, the rapidly approaching logjam of cars. I realized my fingers and stomach totally clenched, knowing abstractly that it would be okay, but emotionally thinking "What the heck did I get myself into?!"

Finally, inside the last 10k of the race, the police were out in full force, closing everything down, marshaling even gas stations and larger parking lots. You don't want field sprints to deal with, say, a stray vehicle. We cruised through to the finish, rolled through (normally we have to turn off before so we don't get to go under the banner, but this route made it impossible to turn off early for us), people cheered us on, and it was great.

Kevin pulled over and parked the car. We both took a deep breath. I was staring blankly at the laptop, the last bit of the course (missing a detour at about mile 70 into a park due to construction) still on the Firefox browser. I finally looked up, and I guess he noticed that movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked at me and grinned.

"So what'd you think?"

My mind was just started to unravel from the chaos of driving into town. My fingers finally unclenched from the sill.

"I don't know how we're gonna make it through the next two days," I replied. "This was supposed to be the easy one."

Kevin grinned in response.

"Look, I don't think either of us lost their jobs, so it'll be fine."

With that he hopped out of the car to meet with his people.

After a bit of dazed wandering I found Robin, got back to his now-mundane car, and we headed out to the hotel. We ran into all the commissars while checking in and I asked them how their day went.

"Great! Everything went smooth! Well, I probably could have fined a few teams but that's a different issue. Everything with the race went fine."

Well I'll be. I guess we did do a good job and the bike race worked out without a problem.

Oh, right, there was a bike race. Who won? I have no idea. Who got second? I have no idea. One of the Belgian guys is in the lead, a Kelly Benefits guy has the sprinter's jersey, and I don't know what else. It seems the South African team is also good.

But I don't know very much about the race.

But it's okay. I was exposed to something totally different today.

Racing a bicycle? That's fun. Fighting for position with 500 meters to go in a crit? That's great fun. Riding in the lead State Trooper cruiser clearing the road for the Tour of Pennsylvania?


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