Friday, February 4, 2011

Road racing, California style.

It all starts early in the wee hours of the morning. Aging baby boomers and their teenage offspring load their SUV's and vans with $6,000 bicycles, $2,000 spare wheels, trainers, rollers, floor pumps, and various day-camping gear. It is cold before sunrise in California so they bring extra clothing, jackets, arm and leg warmers. They bring coolers with food and water because where they are headed there is nothing to be found. Then before the sun comes up they settle for a 120 mile drive into nowhere land.

Soon they are in the middle of the Central Valley with little or no traffic. This is the weekend after all and nobody, except a few stray Mexican farm workers and a couple of forlorn truckers are on the road at this time. Bits of fog and low clouds obstruct the view, creating an eerie atmosphere. But the cyclists are not to be deterred. A few hundred of them gather from all over and converge on tiny roadways that are absent from most maps. Although their oversized vehicles are equipped with the latest GPS and iPhone technology, soon they will lose coverage and the gadgets will be useless.

Not to worry though. They make this pilgrimage year after year, always heading to same place. Only a few newcomers are added as time go by. But by and large this is a procession of veterans who have been performing this ritual for the past 20 years.

When they reach the foothills on the other side of the Valley, the sun is just cresting the hilltops. And then, as if by magic they stop by the side of the road. There are no signs of civilization here and if you did not know, you might wonder how they know this is their destination.

And they're off

Other than an few farmhouses and barns in the distance there are only cows and crops. For those arriving later, there will be a small square tent and few orange cones. Maybe even a sign on the corner warning motorists that a special event is underway. The motorists here are farmers driving farm equipment and they do not care much for cyclists or their signage. If you are not careful you might get hurt.

Covered in many layers and wrapped in blankets the cyclists pull out their licenses and head over to the tent, where two elderly frozen officials await them. There is coffee and donuts but these are only for the workers and volunteers. Cyclists bring their own breakfast. There are no signs of festivities and no music. No spectators gather and none are expected. The only people who will watch the race -or part of the race- are those who came along with the cyclists or the race organizer.

Now is the time to fill out the obligatory disclaimers and waivers and to pick up a race number. Then quickly get over to the car and pull out the gear and the trainers, get dressed, and start warming up.

As early as 7:30 AM a small group of twenty racers line up by the roadway behind an old truck. In all likelihood these are the pro-1-2 racers. One or two pro racers and a number of Category 1 and Category 2 racers make up the field. Most are masters and well into their forties. Some are even older but today they feel good and so they will skip their own category and race pro. A few juniors have also decided to join in. Someone is called over to check their gearing.

If all goes well and the two highway patrol (or local sheriff's department) officials show up, we will start on time. If not, everyone will just sit around until law enforcement gets there. The cops will likely position themselves at one of the intersections but when they get bored they will drive the course and leave the intersection to the volunteers.

An official wearing a black and white striped prison suit awaits on his motorcycle. After a brief speech and a few miscellaneous instructions, they are off. Since this is the pro field, they will have one follow vehicle with some spare wheels.

Before the first group disappears over the ridge another smaller group is getting ready for their race. Another official pulls up. A few people go looking for a volunteer to drive a follow vehicle. Maybe they will be lucky, maybe not. If nobody is available the racers will have to solve their own problems.

Sometimes the group that forms is too small even by US standards. Then the organizers will put them together with a larger group. Sometimes there aren't enough officials so one group will be sent off without officials.

The ritual is repeated eight or ten times and then all is quiet again. The racers are off, and the few spectators left behind go back to the warmth of their cars and trucks. A few hardy ones pull out foldable chairs and sit by the roadway. Another tent is erected at the finish line, which may or may not be in the same spot. There fifteen odd people will wait for their racer to finish. A few others will drive out to the feed zone with bottles to hand to the cyclists.

Spectators at the finish line

Half an hour later the first group comes through and start their second lap. Most likely -but not always- these are the pros since they can be expected to go faster. But with the later groups all bets are off. The women were likely passed on the backstretch and now people have to check the schedule to see who will be coming next.

It gets even more confusing because some dropped riders will inevitably hitch a ride with a slower pack. That is against the rules, and if they care, they may hold back a bit -or speed up a bit- while passing the officials in the tent. But as soon as that is taken care of, they quickly regroup with their new pack to start drafting again.

Feed zone pack 1, pack 2 is following close behind

This scene will repeat itself two or three times, getting more and more confusing as time goes on. Packs are now split and dropped riders are all over the road. Faster groups have caught and passed slower ones, and the order is messed up too. If all goes well, these events happen out on the course. If not, a faster pack that is about to finish may run into a slower pack that has a few more laps to go, thereby wrecking everyone's sprint.

Either way the results will be wrong. Both the officials and the spectators are now thoroughly confused. Lapped riders who stay on course may well be counted in the pack, and solo breakaways may well be mistaken for dropped riders. The winner could end up last and the dropped rider may well "finish" in the top 10.

As one group after another rolls in, the finish line area clogs up with riders standing around and chatting with their friends. Officials and organizers will now try -often in vain- to clear the road. Most likely the pro pack will still have a few extra laps, but when they come through they may well find themselves bumping into parked riders. If two packs happen to arrive at the same time, the scene becomes as confusing as a shopping mall on black friday.

Soon enough the first riders will start packing up and heading home. The leaving cars will only add further obstructions and more confusion, but most people hate to hang around and watch the race. Why would they? There is a long road ahead, and traffic has picked up significantly by now. They'd be lucky if they get home by 5PM. But not to worry, they'll do it again next year.

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