Shotgun with Garmin, Part 2: Epic Race, Epic Post

[part 2 of a series started here]

With the rain came the flats – plenty in the first 20 kilometers or so as we headed out on the long lap. Race radio was plenty busy trying to keep up with the service calls as the peloton approached the first sprint point, but the Garmin name was absent, and speculation in the car began as to why. Tom the mechanic theorized that, with many amateur and lower-tier professional squads in attendance, many of the teams could be riding tires that would have been retired from Garmin bikes already. Or maybe it was the effect of clinchers, with their air pressure dropped a bit to handle the slick roads, hitting the inevitable slings and arrows of Pennsylvania road surfaces. Lim’s speculation was more ethereal, citing the fact that Garmin’s tires encountered only “pure, virgin racing roads,” thereby imparting them with mysterious yet appreciated flat-prevention qualities.

As the rain continued and the roads were seemingly washed off more thoroughly, the flat action tapered off. At least the actual flat action. Passing through one rural stretch of road with a strange cluster of houses built to subdivision spec, we spied a rider, who shall remain nameless, pulled 10 feet or so up the asphalt driveway, huddled over his handlebars and fiddling with the front presta valve. Judgment in the car was unanimous – somebody had had enough, and was looking for an easy way out.

I’d heard jokes about such exit strategies tossed around the amateur ranks since my junior days, like the idea of riding with a tack embedded in your glove, pointy end out. That way, if things got rough, a quick slap to the front tire could end all of your pain and suffering. But I’d never actually seen someone try to flat themselves out of a race. Lim, however, had seen it. He recounted the story of firing a rider (who again, shall remain nameless) on the Celestial Seasonings womens’ squad he managed circa 1999 for the same offense. Like our rider at the side of the road, she hadn’t considered the trail of evidence before committing the crime. Namely, the fact that if you just let the air out of your tire via the valve, your mechanic can simply re-inflate it and see that you’re full of shit. Guess they’d never heard of the tack.

The continued rain may have helped with road debris, but there was still enough accumulated oil, filth, and water on the road to make things more than a little glassy, and while Garmin avoided the flats, they couldn’t avoid the crashes. On the narrow, twisting descent following the day’s first KOM point, the team’s marquis attraction here, Tom Danielson, came off on a curve with two other riders.

By the time we’d screeched to a halt at the scene, Danielson was sitting in a folding chair surrounded by a small group of resident spectators. The houses are so close to the road that, had he missed the turn to a greater degree, he could have been lying in their living room instead of sitting in their lawn. As it was though, they were busy running inside to get him towels. The usual road rash marred his right leg, but a deep cut to his right forearm was generating quite a bit of blood.

Lim and Hopper were out of the car immediately, darting across the road to Danielson as the rest of the caravan eased through. One look at Danielson’s arm made it clear that continuing wasn’t an option – at least not in a minor, end-of-season UCI race in the middle of Pennsylvania. Lim flagged down the broom wagon to see if they could fit him in and give him a lift to the feed zone, where Garmin staff could have a closer look and transport him to the hospital if necessary.

There was a brief debate as to whether that could happen – a number of other sodden souls were already peering from the foggy windows of the minivan of broken dreams. Lim asked Danielson if he wants to jump in with us, and glancing back at the back seat full of equipment, I started thinking of how I was going to find my way to the finish when I got ejected from the passenger seat to make room for one of the squad’s bigger names. Word came back that either the broom wagon or the ambulance could transport Danielson as long as we could take his bike.

Hopper already had the Felt on the roof, so I breathed a sigh of relief and settled back into my seat. But only briefly, as I realized the car, of which I was currently the sole occupant, was moving down the hill. I grabbed at a thing that looked like a parking brake, but which in a Saab apparently is not a parking brake, before moving to the more awkward solution of leaning over the center console and depressing the foot brake long enough to put the car in park.

Leaving Danielson in the lawn chair with a jacket, Hopper and Lim jumped back in the car, and it was time for the rocket ride. Because of the crash, we were now far behind the caravan, and at the front end, a break had formed containing three Garmin riders – Tyler Farrar, Pat McCarty, and Lucas Euser. Their gap was pushing the minute mark, when team cars will be allowed to move into the gap to support their riders. The next 10 minutes were a blur -- driving at ass-puckering speeds down narrow backroads to catch the back of the caravan, Lim talking with the soigneurs on the phone about the incoming Danielson, weaving and honking our way through dropped riders and other team cars, and finally getting the nod from Comm 1 to pick our way through the peloton and rally our way to the back door of the break.

The break was working smoothly, and Lim soon received word that the team had collected Danielson and were taking him to the hospital for stitches, so things settled down a bit. If it weren’t said inside the twisted world of bike racing, Lim’s reaction to the Danielson’s situation would seem callous: he was relieved because the hospital visit was well-timed, early enough in the day that it wouldn’t delay the team’s departure for the Tour of Missouri.

With things calmed down a bit, we resumed the time-passing conversations we’d begun before things heated up. The testing of the team car passenger doesn’t stop with the initial response detailed in our first post. With Lim, it went on throughout the day. We talked about my history with VeloNews, how I got into bike racing, my educational background, common acquaintances, the usual stuff. Lim threw in some beauty contest style questions as well:

Q: Which presidential candidate will be better for cycling?
A: Neither, most cyclist issues are largely local, and the few “friends of cycling” in Congress are probably as much as we can expect on the national level, advocacy wise.

Q: What’s the future of cycling?
A: Over the next 10 years, cycling for transportation, not racing. Increases in fuel costs could put the clamps on racing on a number of levels, but as long as there are two guys with bikes anywhere near each other, there will always be bike racing in some form.

There were a few others, which I’ve forgotten now, but I chose to play the straight man no matter how absurd the question was intended to be. If I didn’t get to know exactly who I was dealing with, I figured they shouldn’t either.

So Lim and Hopper learned a little about me, and I learned a few things about me as well. Apparently, I’m not nearly as spastic as some reporters are when they’re in the team car. Lim remarked, “you have an air of calm about you,” noting that some others do not. Something I can’t recall cut the conversation short, so I’m left wondering now just what the hell other reporters are doing in the car. Fiddling with the CD player? Beatboxing over the team radio? Rifling through musettes? Don’t get me wrong, my apparent calm has nothing to do with my level of interest, excitement, or experience – I suspect it stems more from an anal-retentive attention to getting the details of the race right, which leaves me staring through the windshield and straining to hear the race radio a lot of the time.

I did get to learn a little bit about the team’s approach to this race, which, though a big deal for many involved, obviously pales in comparison to some of the others they’ve attended this year. The general take was that for the staff and the riders, it was a good chance to get some miles, keep a finger in the domestic pie, and generally hang out with each other and ride a race with far less pressure than usual. And Lim did note what many others have: at Univest, organizer John Eustice has assembled all the components of a European-style UCI race – TV coverage via helicopter, proper communication and caravan control, publicity, announcing, etc.

There may have been less pressure than at the Tour de France or the preceding weekend’s national championship, but Garmin wasn’t soft pedaling at Univest. I won’t recount all the race details here – that’s what this article was all about -- so I’ll just cut to the point where Garmin had Euser in the winning break with Frederik Eriksson (CykelCity), the defacto big Swede in the peloton since Garmin didn’t bring the peloton’s primary big Swede, Magnus Backstedt. By then, we were on the last couple of finishing circuits, and driving through a blinding downpour. Even with the windshield wipers going full tilt and the headlights on, it was getting harder to pick out Euser’s small body and now-grey jersey through the mess.

But we could hear him. Race radio chatter picked up significantly in those closing laps, with Farrar radioing in that the remnants of the break, where he and McCarty were playing guard dog, were demoralized, and questioning whether the organizers really needed them to ride all the circuits. Lim was urging Euser on with calm but forceful encouragement, breaking form with one slightly more colorful plea to Euser to attack the used-up Eriksson and leave him for dead – “Life’s not fair, Lucas, and right now you’re the one holding the machine gun!”

For his part, Euser was feeling confident, yelling back “tell [Farrar and McCarty] not to chase. I want this one” during one of the early finishing circuits. But several laps later, with Lim again urging him to drop Eriksson and avoid a sprint, Euser responded with a more modest “I don’t have too much left in the tank.” It wasn’t panic that ensued in the car, but there was certainly concern. The gap between Euser and Eriksson was enough that one of them was nearly assured of the win regardless of anything McCarty and Farrar could do in the chase. The team had committed to Euser’s move, but the last statement wasn’t inspiring confidence in the decision.

It didn’t matter. With a single attack about three kilometers from the line, Euser dutifully pulled away from Eriksson and soloed in for his first professional win. After the finish, I asked him about the “not much in the tank” remark and the consternation it caused in the car. The real story? He and Eriksson had already chatted – Eriksson was cramping with several laps to go, and just wanted to make it to the finish. Euser may not have had much in the tank, but he knew it was enough.

There’s a lot of hubbub that follows a bike race, at least for those who are involved in riding it or writing about it. Riders have to find soigneurs and directors, get changed, do podium presentations, go to dope control. Writers have to chase them down during all of that and interview them before they wander off. It’s a little bit like herding cats. As I staked out Euser, who was up on the podium, I chatted with his USADA escort, a woman of maybe 60 years old. “The poor thing really has to pee, he’s ready, and they keep dragging him away for more awards and things,” she told me.

Univest has more awards than your average one-day race – things like best team, best American rider, best haircut – to the point that Eriksson asked me if this is normal in the United States. They’ve cut back in recent years, but it’s still quite a few, so Euser, perhaps at that time the world’s most willing urine donor, was just going to have to hold it for awhile. After his appearance for the win, he was called back up for the team award, and then to receive a leader’s gold jersey. (Univest is technically a two-day omnium, though Garmin wasn’t sticking around to contest the next day’s criterium.) You could sense his disappointment when race organizers asked for the jersey back after he’d left the stage. “You keep podium jerseys?” the woman asked him. Though he argued that yes, people typically do, and that it was his first big win, he still came away with only his team jersey and promptly hustled off to the Univest bank building to pee in a cup. Though I doubt he’d trade a quicker trip to the urinal for the spoils of his first professional win, he seemed relieved to be headed that way.

In closing, I have to say that while it’s my job to be objective, I was happy for Garmin to win Univest. But it was for my own reasons. Since I starting doing this stuff, I’ve never, ever been in the car of the team that won the race. Not even with teams that were fairly dominant in their time, like Saturn, or Mercury, or Health Net. I was starting to feel like a curse, but now the burden has been lifted. People will be begging to give me a ride now, I tell you.