Letter from Philadelphia

I went up to the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship on Sunday, more to look for feature story inspiration and catch up with some contacts than to do any on-the-scene reporting, though I did grab some quotes here and there for use by other parties. But by far my most surprising and sort of scary contact came well away from the press tent.

A couple of laps in, I decided to pay a visit to Strawberry Hill, the course’s neglected hill, which sits between the ascents of the Manayunk Wall, the party hill, and Lemon Hill, the race connoisseurs’ hill. Trying to stay in the shade as much as possible, I was having a look at the long, wide-open descent that takes riders off Strawberry and back down to Kelly Drive, the main artery of the course. I was the only person there until a middle-aged man and his two young sons came from the opposite direction. The kids were water bottle hunting, so I tossed them a couple from my side of the road. The father thanked me in a thick Australian accent and, spotting the badge around my neck, asked me my affiliation. I told him, and we fell into talking about where we were from, the race, the heat, and assorted other pleasantries.

He explained that he lives in the area, and that through various twists and turns he’d become familiar with High Road assistant director Andrzej Bek. We talked about the team being a class act, and he noted how Bek was so friendly he had just called him during the race to try to arrange a meet-up. And then he dropped the bomb: “And they’ve rented my RV from me for the week.

Here I was, in an isolated area, with no witnesses, face-to-face with a man whose recreational vehicle I’d openly mocked on this site for my own self-glorification just days ago. A hundred thousand people at this race, and this is who I run into? I wasn’t sure whether to scream and run away or go buy a lottery ticket. Being a pretty good distance from anywhere, and neither a runner nor a gambler, I decided to just act casual.

But Philly is a long race, and that was just one of any number of semi-notable things. Here are a few more.


Perusing the full results back in the comfort and air-conditioning of my own home, the final accounting was striking in two ways. The first was the number of finishers – 81 out of 180 starters. Yes, that’s less than half of the starters making it to the far end, but given temperatures that started around 80 degrees at the 9:00am start and rose to over 95 degrees by the finish, coupled with high humidity, I went in expecting maybe 40 or so finishers. Granted, it was one of the slowest editions of the race, with plenty of riders being more cautious than usual with their efforts due to the heat, but that’s still a hell of a crowd after 156 miles, however you cut it. Remember when Manayunk was a race-shattering climb? Now, not so much.

The second striking aspect of the results came in the less auspicious section below the final finisher (for the record, David Guttenplan of Time at 14:41 back) in the DNF section. Every team was represented down there, and the guys watching the finish from the sidelines included notable names like former winner Henk Vogels (Toyota-United), Paris-Roubaix champions Servais Knaven (High Road) and Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream), and Giro points jersey winner Danielle Bennati (Liquigas). But that wasn’t the interesting part – after all, everybody has a job to do, and anyone can have an off day.

The interesting part was that two teams – Jittery Joe’s and Rite Aid – managed to lose their entire 8-man squads. With 81 guys making it to the finish, it has to be pretty hard to explain why not-a-one of yours could get there, heat or no heat. It also has to make you wonder about next year’s invitation – without the Philadelphia race serving as the USPRO championship, a spot in the lineup isn’t as safe as it used to be.

Coping Strategies

Who can blame those Rite Aid and Jittery Joe’s boys for packing it in, though? It was hot out there. Damn hot. Africa hot. So teams were making a special effort to make sure their riders kept cool enough to go for the win, or at least not die. For water bottle and musette hunters, it was a banner day, and thank god for them, because if it hadn’t been for the scavengers, we’d have been wading knee-deep in bottles by the midpoint.

But giving more liquids is basic, and this sort of heat and humidity called for a bit more effort. Soigneurs in the team tents were busy all day, stuffing ice in ziplock bags and team socks to hand up to riders, who would stuff them down the back of their jersies. It seems to me there are upsides and downsides to that method – on one hand, you’ve got a bag of ice down your back. On the other, you have to zip up the front of your jersey to hold it there.

I don’t know if it’s because they didn’t pack any spare socks or plastic baggies, or just a preference, but the Symmetrics riders seem to disproportionately prefer the full chest unzip in comparison to the rest of the peloton, and if you paid attention you could see why. Those Canadians are damn hairy.

Another minor notable was that Toyota-United and some other squads were using oversized water bottles. They’re commonplace in amateur racing, of course, where you’re more-or-less on your own for your feeding needs, but in the pro ranks they’re rarely seen. At that level, caravan vehicles passing up bottles and competent feed zone help eliminate some of the need, and the small bottles weigh less are less apt to bounce out of the cages. But on a day like Sunday, those few ounces of extra capacity were likely well worth any associated negatives.

Still other teams were handing up ice-water soaked kitchen sponges, which now cover a colorful 5 mile stretch of Philly riverfront. So be on the lookout for extra-clean homeless people storing their urine in Slipstream-Chipotle bottles in the coming weeks. If any of the teams had gone truly retro and used damp cabbage leaves under their helmets, they could have had a meal as well.

Get it Right

At the finish of the Liberty Classic, the women’s race that does four laps of the full course, the announcers were going apeshit about the late solo move by U.S. champion Mara Abbott (High Road) on Lemon Hill. She held her small gap all the way to the line for the win. I must have heard her name at 100 decibels at least 10 times in the seconds it took the race to pass the press tent, loop around Logan Circle, and get back to the line, including a great big “MARA ABBOTT WINS THE LIBERTY CLASSIC!” as she crossed the line with arms raised.

The only problem was it wasn’t Mara Abbott. And everyone who knew a bit about bike racing knew it wasn’t. The announcers apologized to Chantal Beltman, the young Dutchwoman who’d actually delivered High Road the win, several minutes later. They blamed the mix-up on a last minute switch in numbering within the team that wasn’t noted on their start sheet.

Is it easy to innocently misidentify riders in bike racing? Yes, it is. Just ask Phil Liggett. Does the press occasionally get a start sheet that’s less than accurate? Absolutely. But a few things make this incident especially troublesome. First and foremost, it’s pretty easy to pick Abbott out from her teammates – as the announcers noted, she’s the U.S. road champion. Meaning she has a different kit from the rest of the team, including Beltman. Second, I picked up my start sheet a good hour and a half before the start, and Beltman was number 4, plain as day, just as she was at the finish, so somebody wasn’t doing their due diligence. Furthermore, this was no tight bunch sprint – Beltman’s number was clearly visible at the head of the race from Lemon Hill onward, ample time to figure things out. And even if their start sheet was actually wrong, they should have known it wasn’t Abbott by the jersey alone. It’s just sloppy, and this race is better than that.

It’s Not A Car Show

Finally, a safety note. Every year, the organizers find a way to let some Philly gearheads drive whatever overpowered creation they happen to own at the tail end of the race caravan. This year, it was one guy in whatever the new version of the Porsche 911 body style is, and a guy in an Acura NSX. The organizer, Threshold Sports, should give some real consideration to whether this is in everyone’s best interests, including their own.

Both vehicles were covered in some slipshod vinyl graphics, so I have to believe Threshold got some relatively small amount of money or in-kind services from those represented companies in exchange for the relatively minor logo placement. Even without knowing the value of those ads, I’m going to go ahead and tell Threshold it’s not worth it.

Race caravans themselves are dangerous, but they’re also loud, spend most of their time at 25 miles per hour, and due to generally good organization at Philly, you damn well know when its coming towards you. And the guys driving in the caravan are typically experienced and know the patterns and implied rules of the road during a bike race.

Not so with the gold-chain and wife-beater crowd piloting these extra vehicles. These guys were occasionally dropping well off the back of the race, then goosing it to about 60 mph up Kelly Drive. It would be bad enough if they hit a rider, a moto, or a mechanic stopped for service or a crash. But it will be even worse when they run over some kid who, with the peloton and caravan well past, steps out in the road to retrieve that High Road musette they’d been eyeballing since it left the rider's hand.

In addition to the primary concern of injury or death, trust me, after that happens, there will be no more Philly race, 24 years of history or no, and anyone trying to run any other race on public roads will face a lot of questions. Whatever they’re getting from the companies plastered on those cars – whether it’s money or services – the mighty Threshold Sports can acquire it some other way, or find a safer way to provide the same exposure value. A few hundred bucks saved won’t mean much if the scenario above comes to pass.