“I don’t know. Tom and I were planning on talking about lesbians the whole time.”
That was the answer to the first question I’d ever asked Allen Lim, the man behind many of the Garmin-Chipotle squad’s widely publicized processes and procedures. Lim: team physiologist, inventor of ice vests, proponent of large vats of waterless hand sanitizer, chronicler of power curves, and author of down-to-the-second TT warm-up routines. Apparent connoisseur of lesbians.
When the subject came up, I was standing outside the driver’s side door of Garmin’s idling Saab team car a few minutes before the start of the 2008 Univest Grand Prix, which I was covering for VeloNews.com. I’d just asked Lim, the acting DS for Garmin’s five-man lineup here, if I could hitch a ride with him and mechanic Tom Hopper as the race headed out for a long loop through the Pennsylvania countryside and back into Souderton for 11 finishing circuits.
Approaching Lim was a last ditch attempt on my part – I hadn’t prepared very well in the days ahead of the race, and hadn’t pre-arranged a caravan ride in a SRAM, commissaire, or team car. With the promised drenching rains from tropical storm Hanna likely to derail the live TV coverage that usually provides a decent remote view of the race, caravan seats had apparently filled up quickly with hacks and VIPs of various stripes, and I was more or less on my own hunting for a spot as the clouds gathered. I kept passing by Lim’s car as I cruised up and down the caravan looking for a seat without success. The Garmin car seemed the least likely place to find shelter from the storm at this late hour – Garmin had the heaviest hitters in the race, was the only “Tour de France team" in attendance, and was the team of defending champion Will Frischkorn, though he didn’t take the start due to reported tendonitis. There was no doubt in my mind that particular passenger seat had been “called,” junior-high style, first thing this morning, if not weeks ago.
But with four minutes to the start, I could see that the seat next to Lim was being filled with nothing but the team-issue Blackberry and a rain jacket, and there didn’t seem to be any other media types loitering about, so I went for it. If you’re shocked or somehow offended by Lim’s answer to my request, don’t be. It comes in many forms, but the “test answer” to the “can I catch a ride” question is always meant in jest, and it's a near constant in these sorts of dealings:
“OK, but we take off our pants after the neutral zone.”
“Be our guest, but my mechanic has terrible gas.”
“Yes, please – ride in the front seat. It’s her first time driving in a caravan, and we need someone to absorb the impact.”
That last one has an air of truth to it (Univest GP 2005, I believe, Mavic 2 car – nobody died), but you get the idea. Roll with whatever the response is, and you’re good. Recoil or stammer, and you’ll probably still get a ride, but you’ll be treated a bit more warily. So roll I did, and Lim cleared the debris from the passenger seat to make room. To say getting that particular ride was lucky would be an understatement. Garmin would go on to force every major selection of the race, and with each successive whittling down, we'd sidle up behind the break again as the key players' voices crackled over the team radio. But that's later.
Though I knew how to treat the initial response from Lim, I’d be lying if I said that reading him was easy. As we made small talk and awaited the caravan roll-out, Lim suddenly turned to me and delivered a very deadpan, “We’re happy to have you. Use his hand sanitizer now, do not touch anything in the car, do not touch me, do not touch my mechanic. Do not sneeze, do not cough.” I took the hand sanitizer he offered, remembering all those Tour de France pieces about the team’s concerted efforts to prevent illness – methods considered over-the-top in a sport that already sets a pretty high bar for germ paranoia. Through whatever vocal or body language clues Lim may have given, or maybe for my own peace of mind, I chose to take the rest as a joke playing on the team’s well-known reputation. I think I got it right, since somewhere around kilometer 70 I had an uncontrollable coughing fit, to which Lim was sympathetic and a bit amused: “I’ll stop the car if you need to throw up – we’d do that for you, man.”
The presence of outsiders in the car can lead to plenty of discomfort on the part of the team staff, especially when the role of that outsider is to write down and then publish what’s happening. Tongues can initially be held in check, and though everyone’s usually perfectly polite, you can tell the environment in the car is different because of your presence. If you’re lucky, everyone just relaxes a bit as things get underway, or something happens that helps to break down the barrier -- you stumble on a common bond, your knowledge of the sport is deemed acceptable, or you somehow prove you’re more than dead weight. Make no mistake – you'll still be an outsider, and the atmosphere in the car will still be different than if you weren't there, but the tension level comes down a bit, and everyone can get on with playing their role during the bike race without worrying so much about each other.
In this case, the happening that broke the barrier was the failure of the team to pick up the organizer-issued race radio – the one that lets the team cars and support vehicles hear commissaires’ instructions, time checks, breakaway numbers, calls for service, road hazard warnings, crash announcements, and random dope control numbers. Without one, you’re effectively deaf and mostly blind, and though you still have the radio connecting the car to the riders, you’re left with very little to tell them. We were about to roll under the start banner when the lack of a race radio in the car was noted. Fortunately, I had stuffed my scanner into my bag on a whim, and the Univest GP, god bless it, uses actual radio frequencies like the European races, not the janky Nextel walkie-talkie bullshit that’s the bane of the Philly Week experience. Even better, John Eustice’s crew had the foresight to publish the frequency in the race bible, so after a few minutes of fiddling, we were back in the loop, I had earned my spot in the car, and everybody settled in for a four-hour jaunt through the Pennsylvania hills.
The rain started a few minutes later.
[I’ll continue with a second installment, which might have to do with actual racing, as soon as time permits. Thanks for your patience.]