Friday, June 27, 2008

ToPA - Ligonier to Pittsburgh

Last night I got to sleep in a dorm for the first time in many, many years. It was a barebones operations, sheet and pillow, no blanket. Worried I'd be a bit cold, I wore my American Eagle Outfitters hoody, my long PJs, and I was fine. I woke up posing like a gangsta (okay, I didn't, but the hoody made me want to strike a pose) with what seems to be an oncoming cold (sore throat) but reasonably well rested. A late start helped me, and at about 9:00 AM we got underway.

Yesterday finished in Latrobe. Today we backtracked a bit and started in Ligonier (which, incidentally, I thought was Langoliers, the Stephen King movie). We headed out in a winding route to the heart of Pittsburgh, to the corporate headquarters of American Eagle Outfitters.

The stage today started much later than the others, at noon. We'd be going maybe 4 hours to Pittsburgh. The start of the race looked relatively calm, but the last 15 miles, going through some tough sections of Pittsburgh, they looked really busy. I knew from the prior days that we could effectively clear about 4 or 5 clogged intersections at a time, and I was looking at perhaps 5 or so per mile for a while.

It stressed me out enough that I was at the computer at 3 AM, mapping things out, noting odd intersections, making sure I had a familiarity with the course. I mean, yes, I looked at the course before, but now I was looking at it from a turn-by-turn basis, storing each one in my "seems vaguely familiar" memory files. There were some doozies, and I had to zoom into those sections using the satellite mode so I could see exactly where I needed to go.

The intersection going onto Penn Ave I mention later. Note that my gmap-pedometer follows the actual lanes we would use, at least where it counts.

The good thing was that the expected thundershowers held off until, well, later. But there was no bike racing going on when it was pouring. Also we had virtually no problems with the first part of the route. Long steady roads, beautiful rollers, curves, it was great.

The bad thing was the extremely effective State Police guys just got overwhelmed by the amount of traffic, the road conditions, and a whole bunch of stolen or missing route arrows. I think this is like Blackhawk Down when two SEAL snipers are overwhelmed by hundreds or thousands of indigent people. The guys were great the whole week but Penn Ave was our undoing.

First off, at a huge intersection, there were no arrows. Our guy who set them up swore up and down that his crew set them up, and we believe him because he's really good at what he does (everyone calls him superman behind his back so I called him that to his face). But zip ties are no match for a determined vandal. Whatever the cause, a bunch of route arrows were gone, and we didn't see any for a long, long time.

The lead elements knew where to go because of moi (seriously) because of a laptop, wireless broadband card, a detailed recon spreadsheet with mileage and landmarks prepared by Robin and Andrea, and gmap-pedometer (i.e. stuff like the picture above). I confirmed it by asking a Pittsburgh cop to verify the road name and he did. But we lost precious seconds while things closed up and we got going. And we had no arrows to show riders or the caravan where to go.

We ran into intersection after intersection of busy traffic, my guy calling up his guys to clear this or clear that. The radio was blaring, the sirens wailing, and the man not named Keith in real would ask me, "Which way here??" as we got to each intersection. He'd relay the information to his guys, immediately, without hesitation. He had put total faith in my directions (which would make the missus cringe) and broadcast them out decisively.

Luckily I didn't mess up. And it was extremely intense, to say the least.

I'd be calling out street names and directions loudly, speaking or yelling very deliberately (all the radios were going bananas the whole time so sometimes I had to almost yell). I knew it was working because we'd approach a street, expect to see a certain name, see it, I'll call out the turn, Kevin would turn as directed, he'd broadcast the turn to his guys, and we'd all blast down the next street. I felt like a rally driver, calmly and coolly calling out route directions while the car zigged and zagged. I also radioed any unusual obstacles back to the elements just in front of the race, to prep them for things like missing signs or particularly heavy traffic.

I had a bunch of sill-grabbing moments, some much longer than others. I guess Kevin knows his car like he ought to, and he knew exactly where it would fit, when it would fit, and it fit, but my more conservative approach didn't believe it would fit.

I started wondering what would happen if we hit something and the airbags deployed. I know an airbag is supposed to make things safer, but not if you have a laptop on your lap. I found out later that exactly such a thing happened at another stage race, and one site doing the live updates for that particular race suddenly didn't have live updates for a while.

Ultimately we made it to the finishing loops. We did a lap with all the police, motos, etc., and then pulled off into a huge lot. Kevin had the motos take their glory, leading the race for the last two loops. The rest of the crew stopped and watched the very exciting finish. A small break stayed clear, the overall lead changed hands, and things set up for an exciting finale tomorrow.

Of course, for me, it wasn't as leisurely. I grabbed a YouSahDah folder, saw I had to get 1st on the stage again, found my new best friend (same guy as yesterday), and then handed him over to someone else since my new best friend was also the overall leader. Relieved of my anti-doping duties, I made like a banana and split the scene.

As far as weather went it was a zonker of a day. Hot, humid, I climbed out of the trooper car soaked in stress sweat, feeling like I'd just gotten out of a pool. Running around looking for my new best friend didn't help. I went and found one of our cars and sat in the AC comfort, trying to dry away the stresses of the previous 4 hours.

We found our dorms, manned (womanned?) by a friendly and engaging desk staff, surrounded by a lot of Catholic stuff. Crucifixes were a bit unusual, but the Final Exam Prayer really took the cake. According to the desk staff, the school has posted a bunch of prayers all over campus in public areas. For the students themselves they leave the rooms religiously neutral. As one of the desk staff happily admitted, she wasn't Catholic.

As the riders were all getting ready to eat the skies opened up. A final kick in the butt to end a hard day out on the course.

Tomorrow is the crit at 5 PM. I won't have to ride in any more trooper cars (not for the race anyway) and there is no early start. This means I can eat and drink a bit more than "as little as possible" tomorrow morning. I had to do this because we really didn't have any official opportunity to use a restroom from 10 minutes before the start until the end of the stage. To be safe I simply starved and dehydrated myself. Not ideal but I never had an "accident".

I will definitely miss riding in the lead trooper car though. I feel like it may not be a thing I'd be able to do again, but if the opportunity ever pops up, I'd grab it in a heartbeat. It was an intense, eye-opening, exciting task, well worth the stresses in the heat of the moment. I suppose it's like a hard bike race. Afterwards you go, "Well, it wasn't that bad", but during the race it just seems overwhelming.

Monday we have a 5 hour drive to the warehouse, I swap a caravan vehicle for my own, and then I have another 5 hour drive to get home. 10 hours of driving (I just typed crying by accident, not sure if that was a Freudian slip). 8 AM start. 6 PM end? If I can get across the Hudson River before rush hour, it'll be good.

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