Putting the Me in Media

I had an opportunity to do some race reporting for VeloNews last weekend at the USAF Clarendon Cup and the USAF Cycling Classic in Arlington, VA. Even though I don’t do it very often anymore, race reporting – the pure blow-by-blow accounting – is something I always welcome the opportunity to do when the circumstances are right. And “right” in this context means “right for me,” not “right for a minimally employed 25-year-old single guy with no pets.” With that in mind, it’s hard for circumstances to get more right for me than a pair of professional criteriums within eight miles of my house. Almost non-existent travel, in-and-out in a day, no time off from work, sleep in my own bed? Why not?

Since I don’t get out often, being on-site working at the races always makes me reflect a little more on life inside that travelling circus of a world, on my own bit role in it, and on cycling in general. So here’s a shotgun blast of things that crossed my mind as I roasted on the roadside over the weekend:

  • Criteriums take a lot of flack – many times from me, I’ll admit – but when you’re on the ground at a professional crit it’s easy to recognize the appeal, particularly in a country with minimal cycling heritage. On Sunday I was entertaining questions about the race from an older gentleman who lived near the course. He thought the whole short-lap idea was just fabulous, because years ago on vacation he’d spent 8 hours sitting by a French roadside and seen approximately 6 seconds of racing in return. End result -- he just didn't get it. So, until U.S. producers can master the art of filming bike races and people start actually watching them on TV, criteriums are what it’s going to be on this side of the pond. And maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world. After all, most of the action in Euro racing comes in the first hour – waiting for the break to go – and in the last hour, waiting for that break to be caught and the real action to start. Criteriums are nothing but the first hour and the last hour, so it's a lot of nicely condensed action. Now if they could just include some alpine scenery...

  • All that said, I still don’t think criteriums have any place in timed stage races.

  • Logistical note: The most important part of finding a place to park at a bike race is not asking anyone where you can park.

  • Since the Clarendon Cup course is about ½ mile west of my office, I know it better than more distant courses – not because I rail that 90+ degree lefthander into Washington Boulevard at 30mph on my way into work, since that would be suicide on open roads – but because, like anyone who lives here, I know how and why the course arrived at its current condition. The unavoidable truth this year was that the Clarendon Cup roads were crap – filled with cracks, holes, and big, sticky, last-minute asphalt patches that only served to deepen the potholes housing water, gas, and sewer access points. Promoters fault? Nah. You go to race day with the roads you have, not the roads you wish you had. The area has been a beehive of heavy building construction for the last five years, and together with several winter blizzards and hundreds of snowplow passes by largely inexperienced operators, the tarmac hasn’t quite recovered yet. That all led to pit visits aplenty, made easier officials’ decision to let riders cut through to the pit via the pinch-point in the wasp-waisted course. Clarendon Cup winner Hilton Clarke (UnitedHealthcare) hisownself had two flats over the 100 laps, including one just before the expiration of the free lap rule. I’m told Arlington has some repaving plans in the works, so things might be a bit smoother next summer.

  • Sometimes, the things you have to keep in mind as a press hack on a near hundred-degree (F) day feel a little like the ones you have to pay attention to when you’re racing. To whit:

    - Never stand when you can sit.
    - Keep hydrating if you don’t want to be a hollow, babbling wreck when crunch time comes, which in our case is the period between the final sprint and when we hit “send” to file the story.
    - If you don’t have a good reason to be out in the elements working, hide as best you can. The press just hides from the sun instead of the wind.
    - Take comfort in the fact that, if you’re suffering, there’s probably someone else suffering worse -- like the photographers, who have to haul 40 pounds of camera crap around, wear a moto helmet, and kneel on hot pavement.
    - Sometimes, if things get hairy or hectic, you just have to yell at someone or elbow them out of the way. There's just no other way.

  • There’s a reason feed zones are (just about) always on the right side of the road. First, cycling tradition and normal rules of the road in most bike racing countries dictate that the right side is where slow-moving activity goes down – service, feeding, peeing, etc. – so that’s what most riders are used to. Also, most people are right-handed. So when you put the feed on the left-hand side, things can go a bit awry. Questionable feed location aside, good on the officials for making an exception to the no-feed rule on a day that clearly warranted it. It sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes people get so focused on strict adherence to the individual rules that they ignore the parts of the book that allow reasonable adaptation to the conditions.

  • Cycling coverage can be a hard thing to parachute into. It is, of course, easy to show up, get the story from the roadside – who was in the break, who crashed, who won – get your quotes, and get out. But getting the entire context is harder if you’re not entrenched, because the dinner-table conversations, the race hotel hallways, and the departure lounges are where you get the real background and pulse – not on news sites, blogs, or twitter.

  • A note to race promoters: There are only two fundamental things the cycling media needs from you – a start list at the start, and results at the end. The rest we can pretty much handle ourselves. Do not be surprised when we get irritated – and irritating – when we cannot obtain these things. Want coverage of your national-level event to be plastered on the website in the evening, when folks visit to read about the Dauphine and Tour de Suisse? Then cooperate. If you have media people in your organization and they’re not on top of these two things, you don’t need media people.

  • Sunday’s race featured a morning charity ride that ended just before the start of the pro men’s criterium. That left hundreds of everyday Joes and Jolenes on bikes intermingling with the finely tuned professionals around the start line, which in turn created quite a bit of contrast in nearly every measurable category: race, age, gender, income, education, hairiness, ability, body fat percentage, equipment choice...and on and on. Call it the Breakfast Club effect, but that mishmash of proverbial brains, athletes, basket cases, princesses, and criminals milling around the Crystal City course did, despite outward appearances and a multitude of invisible demographic stratifications, have one common trait – they like riding bikes. Sure, the idea of so many wildly different people all going for bike rides may not be groundbreaking, revolutionary, or politically important, but any common ground is a nice thing to have these days.

  • The charity ride mentioned above also proved that people will do almost anything to be like the pros, whether that’s shaving their legs; buying $10k Pinarellos; or getting in the drops, putting their heads down, and auguring themselves into the barriers for no apparent reason. If you thought the 200-meter stylings of Djamolidine Abdoujaparov didn’t warrant imitation, you’d apparently be wrong.

  • I suppose I should make at least one note about the actual racing, so I’ll just say that United Healthcare looked damn near unstoppable this weekend. They had two men in the six-man move that lapped the field in Saturday’s Clarendon Cup, then led out the sprint handily to win with Hilton Clarke. On Sunday, they put all eight of their men on the front with around five laps remaining and never faltered on their way to sweeping the podium. Not much you can say about that.

  • With the rule changes, this is the first year in awhile that almost everyone in a pro criterium isn’t plugged into an ear piece, which is good, because it’s probably the discipline that needed them the least (in time trials, they’re useful for keeping everyone awake). The European team directors like to bloviate about how radios are necessary to warn riders of course hazards – a reasonable if overblown and easily addressed concern for the long road races they’re focused on. But that argument holds not a drop of water for criteriums, where riders can quickly and easily preview every inch of road they’ll see during the race. As for the effect of the radio ban on the tactical game, I don’t really have enough data points to say. It did seem like the fight to get a breakaway was tougher than it’s been at these races in the past, which could be down to the fact that teams can no longer let the break go 10 seconds up the road, have the director radio them the numbers, call everyone to the front to chase, and continuously monitor the time gap. The information is still there, of course, it’s just harder to get and puts more onus on the riders to organize themselves, and teams seem to be more cautious about letting moves go as a result. I will say that the lack of radios allows the interested fan to hear more of the inside game as directors now shout their instructions from the sidelines instead of mumbling them into their shirt collars.

  • One of my favorite parts of covering races is hearing the question that’s invariably asked at the conclusion of end-of-day conversations: “Where are you going next?” Obviously, it’s asked between media and the riders, but it’s also asked between riders and other riders, between directors and officials, between media and media, and between nearly every other pairing of the groups of people who show up at these events week-in week-out. Depending on where, when, and who you’re asking, obviously, the answers vary considerably – it might be to the next NRC race, to a stint with the national team in Europe, to a day job, to some stage race in the Bahamas or the far east, to the mountains to train, or to a friend’s couch halfway between here and the next race. The constant inquisition is all part of an offline, unwritten tracking system that helps connect the members of a nomadic society to each other. But to me, just hearing the question over and over in the post-race background noise highlights a reassuringly human aspect of professional cycling at a time when the sport is mired in scandal and bureaucracy, and when the idea that the names in the articles represent actual people seems to get lost in the shouting. And, in probably the most humanizing aspect of all, it’ll come as no surprise which answer is usually accompanied by the biggest smile: Home.