Category Archives: Storytime

Changing Seats

“MEN’S A, COME TO THE LINE…” I heard over the megaphone as I was finishing my warm up. That meant that in a short 10 minutes, Men’s B—myself and thirty-something collegiate racers—would be racing another edition of the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference Championships at Black Moshannon State Park. In prior years, that would have meant three laps with Men’s A or 64 miles of pure suffering on the saddle while struggling to maintain contact with the group. Today, however, only two laps would be completed as I had come to the realization that no longer can one dedicate as much time on the bike when studying medicine and thus, riding a longer race would have been just plain dumb. The officials described the course and rules as riders sought to find good positions before the start on the gravel path. As the whistle blew, I couldn’t help but smile. During the prior six weeks, I had been sitting for an average of 11 hours a day while studying for a medical board exam and the narrower bike seat was a fresh change.

We comfortably rode for about three miles while guys chatted about how they weren’t climbers and how hard the race was going to be, etc., typical of collegiate racing. After a few unscripted changes of lines by nervous riders, we began the long four-kilometer descent that would eventually be the reason our race would be over. I had done the descent many times and last year I had obtained a PR, which I jokingly attribute to my gain of weight courtesy of medical school. I think science can back up that claim. Within meters of the descent I realized I had made a mistake. Realizing that I am in what may be the worst shape of my cycling life, I decided to stay back to save some energy early in the race. The road surface was less than ideal with large pot holes at times and riders began to doubt their descending capabilities and made questionable choices such as slamming on the brakes, changing lines, and even going into the left lane of incoming traffic, a very dangerous approach when you have four kilometers of sweeping turns at speeds of over 45 miles per hour on 25mm tires. Suddenly, I found myself split from the front group and trying to make my way to the front, not because of ambitions, but because of safety. Thankfully, I made it unscathed to the bottom and the “rollers” began. That is to say, small steep segments of hills with beautiful descents overlooking Centre County’s beautiful landscape of small creeks and farms. Once again, while gasping for air during hard racing, I couldn’t help but smile.

As we made the 90 degree turn that would take us into the long climb, I nodded to the marshal protecting the intersection from incoming traffic, a sign that I was not so concentrated on racing as much as I was in enjoying the experience of being on the saddle again at Black Moshannon. “Black Mo” is a category 2 climb that spans 6.5 kilometers from the bottom of the hill to the roller segments with an average incline of 6%, but that has rollers that would make it almost 10 kilometers to the very top of the mountain. The view during a summer or early fall afternoon as your legs burn up it, is something I can’t describe with my lack of poetic prose. To be there knowing that you have a functional body, willing to cross the comfort zone instead of sitting down watching TV or studying is something I am grateful for. As we continued to ride up with the main group a few minutes ahead, I chatted, more like gasped, with two other racers about their ride experience up the mountain. Neither of them had done the ride before so I sarcastically joked “what a beautiful day for leisure riding” as our faces showed what some friends and I refer to as the “pain cave” face. One of them understood the joke and joked back “right?!!…”, the other one said “ I feel like I am dying” to which I replied, “if you can still feel, you are doing ok”.

We worked our way up as a team with the sole unspoken purpose of not being pulled from the race, which is to say that we were too slow for officials to wait for us to do another lap. As we approached the feeding zone, I looked for my fiancé who was nervously expecting to feed me for the first time ever. I noticed her blue sweater among the group of spectators and told the guys that I would be feeding so they knew and would not be surprised by the brisk exchange that feeding a bottle of water could be during a race. As I was feeling fairly comfortable after climbing for over 20 minutes, I took the time to blow her a kiss before managing to grab the bottle handed by her with such efficiency as that of an experienced soigneur. I was in a good place. Not race wise, as I was a few minutes behind the main group, but in life in general. I was slower because I chose medicine as a career and instead of putting hours of leisure time into training I was instead putting many hours reading books and lectures in an attempt to absorb as much information as I could. But I have always needed a balance and cycling is my escape from the routine that medical school can become, I couldn’t do it any other way.

While we managed to ride strongly on the mountain ridge before descending to the Black Moshannon Lake, I had one thought in mind, “if we get pulled, I am still going to ride another lap. This is too much of a great day to not do so”. What I did not know was that at some point during the race that took place after us, there was a bad crash on the initial descent. So when we made a 90-degree turn to ride through the finish line to start the second lap and the official waved us off the road, I immediately thought, “shoot, we are getting pulled…”. But something didn’t seem right. There were a large number of riders on the road, so I immediately thought, “this has to be a crash; we are not that far off from the front group”.

Indeed, a crash had taken place but not where the riders were on the side of the road, but instead a few miles down on one of the sweeping turns of the large descent. I heard people in the area talking about two crashes, one of which apparently involved oncoming traffic. At the time of this writing I cannot confirm the information, but many people were saying that the rider had to be transported by helicopter. The race was over, as all traffic lanes were closed and we were ordered off the course by the race directors. Nothing much had to be said, we knew it was a serious situation: the somber faces of officials and course marshals told the story.

Suddenly, everything came back into perspective. One day I may be the physician on the other side of the phone, obtaining a history about a fellow cyclist involved in accident. As I later went on a small ride with some old friends from college I couldn’t help to think about the injured riders. I do not know who they are, what happened, or what their recovery would be like. However, in my mind, I already wanted to be the doctor taking care of them. Even as I write this, I find it interesting that I wanted the weekend to escape from medicine before I start my third year of medical school and what I instead found was a deep desire to get going in training so I can promptly be that physician taking care of injured.

Mariano Garay
Penn State College of Medicine
Class of 2017

Editor’s note: There were indeed extremely serious and lasting injuries, but everybody was “ok” in the sense that no brain or spinal damage was found, and all eventually went home with their teams.

Cover photo by Burt Levine (PSU), Fall Ride to Black Moshannon.

Ride your bike: maybe it can cure what ails us?

As the entire Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference girds itself for the last epic weekend of road racing for the 2014 season, and looks to the start of the first full track racing season, there will be plenty of emotions abound— as there should be. Let’s set aside the nostalgia of those with college in the rearview mirror as they drive into adulthood and the real world. ECCC ‘14 has been incredible in the sense that the conference made strides towards improving itself, from an open women’s forum to improve the state of bike racing to official steps to include riders all across the board to race bikes on the weekend. Let’s not forget the ECCC declaration of  “2015: go big or go home-” the long term mission to solve some of the problems that plague the state of bike racing.

The state of bike racing. For the week after the Eastern Championships, getting on your bike for more pain and pleasure might be the furthest thing on your mind. Giving your body a rest after eight straight weekends of travel and competing notwithstanding, a lot of people will not think about racing bikes until next season. Then, starting at the November 2014 meeting, it will start all over again; the excitement at the upcoming season, the endless plans and preparation, the head scratching on how to improve the bike racing experience in the Northeast.

It is an incredibly hard thing to streamline and troubleshoot hosting major events for twenty schools with twenty different schedules in the Northeast during one of the most troublesome weather periods of the year- I can count the number of times I did not have to lather on layers or Embrocation for a race and weekends my team did not have some racing-related incident for this season on one hand. Despite all of the discomfort or frustration, I would not trade those experiences for anything. Invaluable bonding aside, those experiences are important lessons we all learn from to better ourselves for the future. Heck, call it ‘stretching things’  a bit, but arguably the skills you learned on and off the bike will be useful down the road. Probably the most valuable lesson I have ever on a bike is struggling during a race and telling myself, “Suck it up- everyone here is dealing with the exact same problems you are.” Talk about epiphanies of a shared humanity while deep in the pain cave.

We can learn a lot from bikes, in and out of the race. Eight weekends is only so much time to take it all in and absorb as much as you can. Shame there’s no other period of the year that has organized bike racing to participate in.

So, sarcasm aside.  As a daring and relatively unfounded statement, here’s a suggestion to everyone that wants to improve the biking experience in the saddle or behind the racing scene: get involved this summer. Go to and sign up for some summer racing. Get involved with some biking community and see how they do things. Volunteer at a biking event, and appreciate just how much work race organizers do and more for us. Organize group rides, bring along someone new to biking and show them how great the sport can be. Have some amazing bike epiphany and write about it on the ECCC blogosphere. You put in this much time invested into collegiate bike racing, you certainly can afford a bit more to go hang out with other people on bikes.

If there is a ‘cure-all’ solution to improving the state of bike racing, it would be a pretty impressive one to tackle all of the usual problems; race organizers not going broke, creating a better pipeline to teach riders racing skills, addressing how latent sexism in a male-dominated culture hurts the state of bike racing.  Yes, whether you like it or want to argue the semantics, these are problems that hinder the process of bike racing that we as a conference are trying to solve. Eight weekends is not enough time to observe and test new solutions. Strong racing ability and a better spring racing experience is something everyone can work on and realize during the summer. You can learn something new to use in your next ECCC or USAC bike race. Who knows, maybe from your summer experience you will realize the ‘cure-all’ solution to ECCC’s “2015: go big or go home” challenge.

America! Photo by Jan Valerie Polk.
America! Photo by Jan Valerie Polk.

At the very least, enjoy camaraderie of  being on the bike with others while not freezing in the March rain.

Teams of ECCC: Friars on Tires

So how do people break into bike racing? A lot of teams here in the ECCC are established teams that rely on experienced riders and war chests from a wealth of sponsors to support race weekends. A successful race starts with a good team and better support. But what if your school has not started a team yet?

This is the challenge Tom Barnett of New Jersey faced last year . Barnett has been racing since high school and he came to Providence College looking to join a bike team. At the time a USAC Category 2 rider, Barnett just got picked up by new team Lupus Racing Team and is a part of the branch group based in New York. So joining the collegiate racing scene would be a great way to prepare for a summer USAC race, right?

“ECCC absolutely got me in shape for racing.” Says Barnett. “Other pro riders were telling me to come down south with them to do spring racing, and to not waste time with collegiate racing.” Clearly these naysayers are overlooking graduated powerhouses like Robin Carpenter and Cameron Cogburn, both of whom are now on professional teams. Some are even coming back for more suffering, if people remember Erik Levinsohn’s breakaway win during the opening weekend for the 2014 season.  Levinsohn first came to ECCC as a Williams College undergraduate, and after a year of professional bike racing, he is now a graduate student at Yale. Barnett could also recognize the value of spring collegiate racing. “People care about you more here to fully develop as a bike racer”

Thomas Barnett, in front of the field during the Men's A race at Bard College
Tom Barnett leads the Men’s A field during the Bard Criterium this season (Photo by Tom Nguyen)

So with no team at Providence, what’s a rider to do? “I talked to administration [at Providence] to get funding, but they said to do a trial season- go with a nearby team to the races for help with travel and race support.” So Barnett traveled with RISD and Brown for the 2013 racing season as the solo Providence rider. With no school outfit of his own, Barnett just wore an unmarked black and red kit and became known as “Big Red” in the Men’s A field.

“RISD and Brown were instrumental in gaining the insight to form my own team.” Says Barnett. “I am so grateful for their friendship.”

While Barnett was more than grateful for the chance to race, his major breakthrough came with a second place finish at the Rhode Island road race. That, he said, was a strong enough case to finally convince administration that he- and potential others- would be ready for more collegiate bike racing.

Not only did Providence administration help send Barnett last year to Collegiate Nationals in Utah, but they promised him several thousand dollars of support funding if he got at least ten riders. The first guy to contact Barnett was a sophomore runner named Liam Sullivan, who kept asking about this ‘biking’ thing Barnett was doing. With the help of administration, Student Life and ClubSports at Providence, Barnett and Sullivan got together 25 signatures at the semester Involvement Fair. The final count that showed up? “We got seven riders to regularly show up.” Says Barnett. “That brought down the admin’s money down.”

Five of the seven "Friars on tires." Tom Barnett, Nick Thomas, Liam Sullivan,  Nick Przekurat, Kevin McNeil (Photo by Tom Barnett)
Five of the seven “Friars on tires.” Left to right are Tom Barnett, Nick Thomas, Liam Sullivan, Nick Przekurat, Kevin McNeil (Photo by Tom Barnett)

So the self-proclaimed “Friars on Tires” are in it for a first, lean season. They are not doing too bad: Sullivan, now the vice president of the team, won his first set of races in the D field during the opening weekend. Still, to cut costs the Big Red Friar is the ‘adult supervisor’ for the team. Even though he’s just a sophomore, Barnett convinced admin to let him be in charge, saying his race experience would be a better bet than trying to find and pay for a single adult to commit for two months of coaching for just seven kids. Barnett is fully committed to keeping the seven regularly racing. For now, they have just three sponsors, and RISD has offered to help them build a team website. Currently they have mandatory practices- miss three and you miss the next race weekend. It seems harsh, but Barnett insists it’s a necessity to build the team in its first year- the presence of every rider counts. As it is, one of their D riders was in Texas last weekend as the Providence mascot for the NCAA March Madness. His cycling teammates had to drive down to pick him up Saturday night so he could race on Sunday.

“I will forever be indebted to the ECCC- its executives and riders- for enabling me to bring my love of cycling to [Providence]” Says Barnett. “Because that’s what the ECCC is about. Sharing the love of two wheels and each other. Now, I hope to pay it forward to a Johnson and Wales University rider I met with last week.”

“The love that started this team and fuels this conference may continue to grow not only at Providence, but at all schools touched by its big red heart.”

Welcome to the Zen Zone

Close your eyes and imagine it. The raw cold that bites the exposed skin, causing you to squirm. The nervous energy, focused as two points of force pressed and drawn back under your cheeks. Feel it first with your skin, then let it thrum deep in your chest. Your field of vision is narrowed to just your handlebars, the matte finish line tape and water in your eyes. Make that deep breath count, for it will be your last before the plunge. As the race official puffs up for the whistle blow, you ask yourself: why am I doing this again?

Let’s take a real good look at what we do here. Tomorrow, ECCC riders will have driven at least two tanks of gas worth just so they can exercise at the crack of dawn on dangerous pieces of equipment at death-defying speeds, ready and willing to risk neck and limb to move up a slot on the results sheet because complicated points system, that’s why. Most people can usually find at least one thing about that last sentence that sounds unappealing. Chances are after hearing your explain your sport while riding rollers at the gym, they feel the need to point it out to you— as if this was some new perspective you had never considered before. And this whole time, you thought everyone was comfortable sitting on a bike seat. You tell them the long hours getting massive leg muscles and a hunched posture is a worthwhile price to pay for bike racing. Then they say, what for?

The circular nature of this all-too-familiar conversation is probably like your workout: mind-numbing and getting you both nowhere. There might be a vague reason or two that got you hooked on bike racing, and a dozen more that justify its place as a good activity. Turning this article into a listicle of “Why We Bike” is at best lazy writing and at worst pedantic to a fault. Will enumerating five or ten reasons be enough to get people off your case and accept your pastime? Is there a minimal level of appeal or pragmatism that we need to achieve to choose how we use our time? This sport is not my first love. It’s probably my seventh when I think of things I would rather spend my time and money doing.  If you are getting a bit too much existential dread explaining bike racing to others- or to yourself while cranking mile three out of five of a hill climb- why this sport is worthy of so much pain and emotion, use mine:

Because. That’s why.

Never mind that bike racing is just the literal and metaphoric vehicle for basically all of my social and fitness time for the next seven months. Or with all the stress of long-term projects, saddling up on weekends is how I deal. I do not do this to feel better about myself. Indeed, anyone that has actually ridden hard before can tell you this sport makes you feel the opposite of fresh, pretty and accomplished. Racing bikes might make you feel miserable or fantastic; it does not really matter which. Heck, the reason why you come every weekend might not be just for the bikes. Hands up if you are here to meet cute people in spandex, and keep them there if you think these venues are the best and worst places to meet said people.

For the rest of the world that will not be getting up at ungodly weekend hours the next couple of months, they may never get this sport. It’s too easy, too hard, or not just right. Great, that’s like half of humanity’s problems right there: miscommunication, or not conveying what we really mean to say to people. Now more than ever is it easy to sit comfortable, anonymous and critical of what others do. Not everyone is going to understand exactly what you say or do: too bad for them. It’s not their problem, and their issue with it is not yours. To those however, meditating instead on your race strategy/survival plan— I salute you. For your upcoming season, race as hard as you want.  Why?

Because. That’s why.

Race Jitters in Fevered Prose

          Frankly, or whatever that means as a method of setting a specific tone which I’m no longer sure is applicable to the duration of this article (perhaps insinuating that another point of attack might have been more appropriate,) the unorthodox training plan I have adopted over the course of this idiotic winter, primarily consisting of staring at my rollers while riding my Netflix account or dainty donut-ridden cruises while I fantasize about the ramifications of my bicycle spontaneously transforming into a woman, has been remarkable both in its ability to rabidly undershoot any vague hope at hitting an effective volume of bike-related work and in its prodigious talent for keeping any likelihood for success in the upcoming season on par with the probability that one might find a lone Flintstone’s Vitamin in the Ural Mountains or that some other specific item will be juxtaposed with a setting or condition that is either absurd or irrational (i.e. A Cornish Game Hen spontaneously combusting at Niagara Falls, Ruth Bader Ginsburg shaving her head and joining Barnum and Bailey’s as a trapeze artist, every Cat 1 Racer in the ECCC being diagnosed with polio and being confined to blanketed wheelchairs.) Needless to say, while I could blame the winter, the cold (snot-freezing and laziness-enabling) the snow (piled high as a night out with Boonen) and the ice (slick as a Vaseline-coated Fonzie) for the nightmares I’m getting of Robin Carpenter breaking away backwards at the front of the race while he chucks forks at my legs and calls me a “little nancy boy” (recently, the forks have been exchanged for bowie knives, his bicycle has become a unicycle and Robin Carpenter has become a faceless Intro Rider coddling my strenuous efforts with a patronizing “d’aw, it’s like you’re really trying”) the fact of the matter is that I have somehow, by my own deludingly fatigue-justified volition, introduced a great degree of uncertainty into my life that’ll probably result in a great deal of asthmatic wheezing, tunnel vision, and an inability to walk more than 10 feet. There are all sorts of terrors orchestrated by monsters on bikes, those sick lizards who can stomp on pedals and produce some sort of effort that is apocalyptic to both my immediate ambitions of not getting shelled out the back and to any sense of pride I’ve had in my ability as a cyclist, those 6’10” behemoths riding 25 cm saddle-to-bar drops and shaving their legs with old steak knives who scream through the wind at six hundred watts for a half hour, jetpack-wearing ethereal mountain goats capable of descending uphill at paces that can only be described as stupid all with smiles on their faces, midget juniors spinning 200 reps a minute with hummingbird hearts that shift from a resting rate of 12 beats a minute up to 400 at a moments notice before careening back down again to enable another attack just 3 seconds later, sadistic 30 year old veterans who’ve delayed their PhDs some five extra years so that they can look back into my contorted face to see honest fear and flowering pain before jumping off the front of a 60Km/hr train, thick and lean germanic sprinter-types with horse legs that look like eight of mine who need new crank arms after every race because they keep bending them as they approach the sound barrier, and I’ve cast myself right smack down in the middle of it – a mouse in a snakepit.

          With that last bit acting as a set of excuses for my inevitable failure (and not mentioned my proposed ban on any training at all for everyone except myself) I have constructed a pre-race training plan, tentative strategy, and speculative and pseudo-prognosticative race report for our the first weekend’s road race (I won’t get into the hill-repeat tragedy that is the unwinnable 90 minute circuit race that will only result in the demise of every participant) that begins at the moment I finish writing this unreadable and non-informative article: Tonight, after drinking another pot of coffee, I will ride my bicycle on the rollers for a scant thirty minutes that will stop if I break a sweat, get tired, or get bored of whatever movie I have on my computer that I cannot hear because of the heavy oscillating of my uneven pedalling. Tomorrow, I will wake up and make myself a french press and go to they gym with my team to do a workout that is probably not as good for me as I like to pretend it is (I am determined not to do any more arm workouts because you don’t need arms to pedal and I’ve been wasting valuable time trying to make the upper half of my body look properly nourished.) Saturday, cup of drip in hand, I will look outside and see that it is snowing and decide that it’d be better if I got ahead on my homework then got sick from riding, and instead do neither. On Sunday, after smelling a 12 oz. bag of Stumptown French Roast for fifteen minutes, I will try to coax someone into taking me XC skiing – I have never done it before so I will probably crash and die, rendering my cycling season dead in the water (which should be really good for my anxiety.) Monday, I’ll be dead – no need to train. On Tuesday, I will lead an indoor workout in a spin room through a process too ridiculous to describe without further debasing myself. Wednesday, I’ll try to ride rollers for a bit and end up refreshing the comments section of this article waiting for someone to respond positively. Thursday, with shaking hands from spending too much of the day in a cafe, perhaps I try to ride outdoors, perhaps I see if a couple extra hours of sleep will make me faster. Friday – taper. Then Saturday is Race Day, where I’ll probably have to be up moving and full of 12 servings of mud, around 5 O’clock if not earlier so that we can make it to Stevens in time for the team time trial, after which I will elevate my legs, eat cereal, and do a mix of napping and cheering on my teammates until I need to start getting ready for my race around 1.

          My day-of preparation will go as follows: I will stop eating around 11 or Noon, thinking that if I eat any more, I will either cramp up or get fat; I will complain about how there’s not enough coffee at ECCC races. I will put on too many clothes and stuff some cookies in my pockets for quick fuel when I need to close a gap or bribe someone into slowing down a little bit (“I’ll give you a cookie if you take the foot off the gas pedal. Honestly, I have cookies in my pocket, and they’re pretty good too. I’ve had four already.”) I will drink any caffinated substance I can find; I will pour Five Hour Energy into my bottles while my coach is not looking. I will show up to the startline jittering and bloated like a balloon strapped to a Brookstone massage chair, and waste about 300 calories trying to be sociable to a bunch of grad students who will whip out their leg-destroying machines some hour later to suck my muscles clean off the bone. The race will begin and some people with a lot more ambition, talent, stupidity, gross distortion of their abilities, endurance, pride, or anything that would make someone want to exert a bunch of effort for a chance of winning in the low zeros than I have will go rocketing off the front, and we’ll spend the first 20 minutes huffing it to chase them down. After the first break has been caught, I will eat a cookie and drink some watered down energy drink. This will give me power and confidence for when I stupidly end up 50 meters up the road for ten minutes, burning every match that I’ve been collecting in glycogen stores since I started my non-training in November. At this point, the race will be a quarter done and will settle down for a bit. I will then ask, “Where are all the Cat 1s?” The answer will be that they have already finished the race without any of the rest of us knowing, in addition, all riders of my age will also have made the split, leaving me stranded amongst a slew of people who have no appreciation for my antics. I will cry and binge-eat three more cookies. After another hour, I will take part in the bunch sprint for eighth place and come in ninth (out of the sprinters, for a combined total of seventeenth place.) I will then realize that I was not actually sprinting for eighth place, but for twenty-third, and everyone who finished behind me had just come off a nine-month chemotherapy treatment.

          I will get off the bike, and try to gather myself, as my team is antsy to leave after being at the race for eleven hours straight. On the ride back, I will detect a tone in both my teammates’ and my Coach’s voices that lets me know that I ‘should have started in Bs.’ I will become indignant and write an article about how the ECCC is rigged in favor of people who care about the sport and/or train. I will delete it and post something far more nonsensical.

          The sport is masochistic and addictive – it’s a disease more than anything. The people who show up to the race aren’t some sort of a support group, they’re the decadent enablers for one of the primary reasons that I’m so lonely, the people who give back pats and accolades, sick props and depraved facilitation to the leg-shaving and the spandex, to the tan lines and the disproportionate bodies, to the hours spend on a leather crotch-hammer pelting road noise into the perineum, to the artful sock choice and tasteful cap addition, color coordination and bar-tape job, to the glossed up account of the top ten finish in a weekday criterium some six months ago, to all the stupid trivialities of a sport that, at our school, has less members and appeal than the Quiddich Team. There is no other option. There’s no methadone for the sport besides self-loathing, laziness, jealousy, contempt, and beyond-marginal weight-gain: we’re all stuck in this vicious cycle; staring at VeloNews instead of training, pretending that we’ll go out tomorrow and instead watching reruns of Flanders, or Roubaix: It has you even when it doesn’t. There are really two ways to go about it: you can chase a dragon named “W” who keeps getting bigger as you pull off his Gecko tail, or you can ride alongside those lightspeed lunatics deep into their binge, trying to hang on, maybe getting a kick out of some pictures thrown up on the Facebook, getting a little joy when a teammate can throw his hands in the air, getting a little pulled in when you sneak into a break, when you can smell the dragon’s sweet embers, when you go for it. There’s one way to race your bike. It hurts and fills your head with lunacy. But it’s a fun ride. It’s such a fun ride.

(At best, this piece is entirely constructed on lies in order to arrive at the one definitive proto-truth of the season (that winning anything is a pipe dream) – no one shaves their legs with steak knives, Juniors need at least 5 seconds to recover, and I drink at least twice as much coffee as reported. If you are interested, my bicycle is named Charlotte. )

30 Seconds

By Ben Civiletti

The UVM Team atop Caesar's Head , South Carolina
The UVM Team atop Caesar’s Head , South Carolina

My teammates and I had stopped at a crossroads in Greenville, South Carolina. It was day one of our spring break training camp, and already the mood was a bit deflated. The weather wasn’t as nice as the year before, and the group was disorganized. I felt fat and flat, just turning the cranks over in a monotonous grind. I had lost any reason for riding, and each pedal stroke reminded me that I was slow, lazy, and unmotivated. Paris Mountain loomed on the horizon as yet another billboard advertising my woeful ineptitude.

As I sat at the intersection stewing in this cocktail of dejection, I heard riders approaching from behind. Following the sound of a spinning cassette, I saw the grinning face of a man I watched for 10 years as he raced through the mountains of France. He pulled in front of us and said “Hi, I’m George.” As I held in my surprise, I managed to ask where he was headed. The response:

“Caesar’s Head, I mean… Paris Mountain! We’re on a lunch ride. You guys coming?”

I looked to my teammate: our eyebrows had migrated beyond our hairlines in shock. We gave some affirmative mumbles, and suddenly found ourselves on a ride with George Hincapie. I could tell you that I threw my bottle at him on behalf of cycling fans everywhere. I could tell you that I yelled at him and called him a liar, asked him why he cheated, why he tricked us. I could tell you that I was mad, and that I found myself wishing he hadn’t showed up. The truth is, I didn’t even think about it.

Yes, he lied. He cheated. He perpetuated a toxic culture of high pressure doping and he wasn’t alone. On that ride however, we were both cyclists riding Paris Mountain. George is retired, and I will never be a professional rider. I can’t say we were on even ground, but that day we were on common ground. I sat at the front of the group, riding shoulder to shoulder with someone I never thought I’d meet.

I told him as I huffed and puffed up a small rise that I was working on losing some significant off-season weight, a detail that he could plainly see as I more than filled out my UVM jersey. He replied that retirement was giving him some trouble in the weight department as well, which was about as far from truthful as his career on the Postal squad but I appreciated the sentiment. That was the extent of our interaction. I faded to the back to wait for riders who had fallen off, and I started mulling over the 30 second conversation. George won’t remember my face, my name, or our little chat but I will. I thought to myself: why aren’t I angry? Where is my integrity? This guy is a fraud, and I believed in him for 10 years while he worked the system.

The answers came to me as I labored up the climb alone, pushing all my excitement and confusion through the pedals. Cycling is a sport that has struggled to survive for its entire life. It is difficult to watch, difficult to predict, and difficult to market. The reason that it has survived and will always persist is that the people who find it never leave. Everything about the sport is based upon group dynamics, and this includes college kids on the road in South Carolina. Cyclists find each other and stick together both on and off the bike because we share the love of a singular pursuit. We all share the challenges and triumphs of cycling, and we ride the same roads whether we are ProTour champs or chubby club racers. When George found us out on the road, he found people with the same passion that drove him forward.

How can I resolve to hate someone who has cut their life’s work out of the cloth I am made from? This is not to gloss over the mistakes that he and many others have made,but in that moment I enjoyed the simple fact that we were both doing exactly what we wanted. We were riding bicycles in the spring, and our lives beyond that did not overlap. As I lumbered through the switchbacks, the idea of the ride for its own sake was reinforced. George was on a lunch ride with some friends, and I was doing the same. He was not getting paid, searching for victory, or proving anything, he was just riding. In the past, he had clearly forgotten about these rides. He had forgotten about the reason for them. He had become tangled in pressures from the outside and perhaps from his own motivation, and he lost his way.

I was climbing the same mountain, and I was leaving behind similar flaws. School had become too much; I lost my fitness and then my motivation. I wanted to reach my potential but I couldn’t even bring myself to swing a leg over the bike. All winter I told myself I would interrupt the pattern of over-eating and apathy, but spring arrived and I was more entrenched than ever. Sometimes it takes a storm to clear the air, and I had mine on that climb. George had his already, and I don’t know when it hit but I’m glad it did. He will always have to live with his mistakes and I with mine, but now he is through the worst of it and the damage can be repaired.

Do I forgive him? That’s not my responsibility. As a fan of cycling, I am inspired by the hard work of talented athletes. This is my only task, and I will leave the anger and guilt to the people who have reason for those feelings. George may be never be able to enjoy his accomplishments under the shadow of his past, but that is more than enough motivation for the next generation to avoid the same fate. Now he can enjoy riding again, and I can look forward to following the future of our sport.