Winning Over the Old Man Wilsons of American Politics
Much has been written and stated regarding Washington gridlock lately. Coming from the National Bike Summit this past week, I can report one piece of good news. On Capitol Hill the bicycle lobby - and most of the proposed bike legislation - is increasingly received warmly by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The same guys who have been locked in some weird prison fight, one wrist taped to one hand and a shank in the other, have come to appreciate the happy, healthy bike stuff.
For a decade we've been nice and patient, knowing bicycling's truths to be self-evident. We learned to take off the day-glow vest and put on a suit or a dress, to shave, wear deodorant, and not to eat lentils out of a faded yogurt container during a meeting with a U.S. Senator. With polite persistence from us, even James Imhofe (R-Oklahoma) will get it. These guys have been to enough bike path ribbon cuttings; they have received enough positive constituent feedback from business owners; they have been fed enough economic data. They have come to realize the ROI on bike investments - in both financial and political currency - could be better than any other crust of bread available in this political refugee camp.
Here is the good news from Washington. After 13 years of lobbying by advocates and industry leaders (sadly the racing community does not show up) the folks on Capitol Hill no longer see bicyclists as easy targets. I enjoyed watching 10 lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, speak at our Bikes PAC reception. I relished the speech a day prior by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a Republican and stalwart supporter of bike investments. And I was privileged to be at a private dinner with former Rep. James Oberstar.
I came to this year's summit somewhat deflated and defeated. After the 2010 election and ensuing financial acid bath, federal funding had dissolved. Our ranking champion Oberstar had been bounced out of office by a nut-job Tea Party candidate. Much seemed lost.
But every lawmaker had one message: Physician Heal Thyself. These guys used to laugh at this dis-organized and disheveled mob. But some, especially Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) rallied our forces. Every politician who spoke had enormous praise for how our forces - actually rewiring all the circuitry after the disastrous 2010 election - simply flowed around any and all obstacles, like water. We kept things going with or without Washington's help.
Like Obi-Wan Kenobi taking the sword from Darth Vader with his protege Luke Skywalker watching, Oberstar, who had organized, galvanized and trained these Jedi Knights of bike advocacy delivered a message this year: You can win on your own. And the games is being played in your hometown.
Indeed the victories in bike advocacy are no longer in Washington DC. Great bike policy has gone viral. And its not just in Portland or Boulder. There are so many great things happening in such unlikely places as Atlanta, Indianapolis, Memphis, Richmond, and Orlando. Even AAA, historically an enemy of any transportation funding for anything BUT automobiles and highways, has become pro-bike, going so far as to develop television ads promoting cycling and sharing the road. And they sponsored the summit just to get this word out.
And there is more going on than just bike lanes and bike paths. Commercial real estate developers in such horrid places as Tyson's Corner - which went from being Virginia farm land in the 1950s to the 12th largest commercial center in America without even being a formal municipality - are starting over to erect new buildings that weave transit and cyclepaths and bike parking into their design. Aaron Georgelas, a developer and cyclists overseeing the construction, described this as the "most important suburban experiment in the world." They have realized that in 1990 walk-up traffic in stores was at just 24 percent. But by 2001 that number had grown to 33 percent and by 2009 that figure had leapt up to 49 percent.
These "Beltway" communities, suffering from perhaps the worst traffic congestion in America, have surrendered after decades of incessant construction. They have realized that widening highways to alleviate congestion is akin to letting out one's belt to alleviate obesity. After 50 years of relying on highway designs developed in the 1950s, engineers and planners and developers have started over. Woven into those new manuals are bicycles. This community has fallen in love with the Washington and Old Dommion Rail Trail, the Mount Vernon Trail, the C & O Canal Towpath, and countless other bike facilities that also serve walkers and skaters and joggers.
Get this, Arlington County, Virginia, will no longer issue a certificate of occupancy to a new commercial building unless it provides indoor bike parking, welcoming bike access (no more locking your bike behind the dumpsters) and showers for its tenants.
I have often stated that the easiest way to build a bike path is to build a bike path. By this I mean once you have one path, it's easier to show the benefits and then build a second. But now that reference point is being established with businesses trying to both attract customers and retain employees. I do not know of any bike facility, lane, or path in America that has failed. Even in such regions considered politically hostile to cycling as Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Mississippi, bike paths flourished. No community has ever torn up a path or painted over a lane to revert back to its prior design. These lanes and paths are simply assimilated into the traffic landscape in the surprisingly stressless fashion with which a family adds another child. There is a bike lane down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, arguably America's most famous street, and the motorists have not been impacted at all.
Another example is in Brooklyn, where city planners overcame inflammatory journalism and a hysterical minority opposition to construct a European style separated bike lane in 2010. The rewards have proven staggering. Sales tax revenues along that strip have gone up 50 percent since the project was completed. And the commercial vacancy rate has dropped to zero.
A major revolution is underway, according to Bruce Katz of The Brookings Institute. He described this as the "urbanization of the suburbs." Where sprawling strip malls are dying, developers and communities are turning inward to create centers that have urban feel and cater to walk-up access and bike riding customers. His findings on demographic trends proved astounding, including one that indicated the automobile to no longer be such an aspirational object for American youth. In the 1990s more than 50 percent of 18 year olds had a drivers licenses; that number has plummeted to just 29 percent. While a teen coming of age in the 1950s saw the car as freedom and independence, a teen coming of age today sees the car as an expensive, cumbersome and dangerous hassle that needs to be purchased, insured, fueled, parked, registered, and maintained just for the privilege of sitting in a smoldering line of traffic.
Cyclists, however, hold certain truths to be self-evident.
But my takeaway from DC in 2013 is is that it is not about DC. It's about you and your town and your business and your lifestyle. You need to be the change you want to see. And the Federal and State governments - struggling to deal with obesity, energy supply and climate change - will support you.
This came to light for me a week prior to the National Bike Summit. I attended a public hearing, what may be the final hearing, in a different Arlington, the one in Massachusetts. After five years of hearings, debates, votes, editorials, social media campaigns, leaflets, and placards, the public filled the Town Hall to review this plan to take a mile long stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, presently as lawless as the OK Corral, and add medians to protect pedestrians and bike lanes for cyclists. But in order to use the $5 million in approved Federal funds, they would need to ascribe to national standards for lane width. Hence this lawless and lane-less strip would need to go down from four lanes to three for motor traffic.
This has infuriated a sector of the public who complain of morning congestion on that roadway all ready. Reviewing the audience, I realized the vanguard of the opposition to be cut from the Old Man Wilson cloth. You know the guy, Dennis the Menace's neighbor portrayed by Walter Matthau. They were mostly overweight, probably in bad health, looked to be in some physical discomfort, and pretty pissed off in general. Get this, one guy was stupid enough to spend $100,000 of his own money to defeat this plan.
I learned that despite unanimous support from the Board of Selectmen, majority support from Town Meeting, support from state lawmakers, support from town engineers, and about 80 percent of the speakers being in favor of this plan, a handful of Old Man Wilsons can stall things in America. If you read a Ezra Klein's article in the Jan. 28, 2013, issue of The New Yorker on how the filibuster has crippled Congress from passing any meaningful legislation, you realize how much easier we've made it to stop things from happening than to make things happen in our system.
We need to be patient, like water. The average age of a new car buyer in America has now reached 55, the oldest of all time. For folks over the age of 55, those born prior to 1957, the only thing they have known is the ever expanding network of roads and infrastructure for one mode of transit: the automobile.
But I realized that affairs in Arlington, Mass., are just as important as those here on Capitol Hill. When studying cycling infrastructure, as with military history, we must realize that geographic choke points are what converts places such as Ticonderoga into historically significant locales.
And this is what the opponents to the Arlington plan, and bike haters everywhere, cannot fathom. The locus of their logic is that the bicycle is a toy used solely for some gleeful Pee Wee Herman spree. The Minuteman Bikeway runs from Bedford through Lexington and in to Arlington Center, where it crosses Mass. Ave and continues about 1.5 miles southeast towards the Alewife subway station. But for those heading due south into or out of Cambridge or Boston for work or shopping by bike, the straight line is Mass Ave and not the bike path. In short, it's the hypotenuse of the triangle. Staying on the bike path adds about 10 minutes to the commute of the average Boston-bound cyclist.
If the Arlington plan goes forward, legions of soft-core cyclists - students, commuters, children - will be able to comfortably roll north from Boston and Cambridge to the Minuteman Bikeway with a safer, dedicated bike lane. And this means restaurants, coffee shops, doctors, dentists, movie theaters, gift shops, specialty shops, and that adorable salvage shop nobody notices when whirring by at 45 mph in a car will get more business.
People and animals prefer the shortest distance between two points. And Arlington, like Ticonderoga, is a choke point between the high tech and bio tech and defense tech jobs and internships of the Boston Beltway and the worlds largest college town. College kids ride bikes. And young parents saving for a home ride bikes. And middle-age folks trying to fix their hearts and lungs and heads ride bikes.
All the stuff written about here, however, is all "pull" marketing. Meaning the self-evident benefits of cycling - less expensive, more expedient, less stressful, more healthful - are the only thing working to date. Like a boxer with just one hand, we're winning over the Old Man Wilsons of the world.
But the "push" marketing is the second hand. When Peak Oil hits in the coming years (many forecasters, including such wild-eyed hippies as Deutsche Bank and Bloomberg, see 2016 as the critical year) gasoline prices are expected to dramatically rise. Some see $8 a gallon in the near future.
At such a juncture, our society will no longer view cycling as something Americans want, but instead what Americans need.
The blueprints are being laid out today for that change. Capitol Hill is ready to support this when the mandate arrives. They have learned, as Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City's Transportation Commissioner, stated during the Summit: "Turns out that what is good for Trek, is good for America."
Let's start with a text sent to my good friend Gary Thornton on Feb. 23 at 6:37 p.m.
'CANNOT EVEN COME UP W THE DOOR FEE. AM I OK?'
At that moment me, two of my children, and wife were preparing to head into Boston for a People for Bikes fund raiser, ostensibly to softly launch the third edition of Tim Johnson's Ride on Washington.
I had gone through the woods that morning to harvest fire wood to heat my home in the wood stove as the oil tank was empty. I had scoured the refrigerator of our dwindling supplies for some dinner. My wife had emptied the change jar to get our daughter some butter so she could make cookies for Tim Johnson, who had texted his request to her. And I checked the gas gauge on the Subaru, comforted to see the fuel light had not flicked on...yet. With a winter storm gathering, I questioned the wisdom of our attendance at yet another festive event as we anxiously moved up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
I had spent the bulk of the day at the Lexington Depot helping out with the inaugural Best Buddies Indoor Time Trial. "Are you getting paid for that," my wife had asked sternly the day before.
"Nope," I replied, adding nothing. The silence roared her frustration with our state of affairs. Who could blame her?
When flirting with co-eds, there's a maxim that is oft repeated by college boys, especially the ones with liberal arts majors and no freakin' clue what to do after graduation: "Do what you love and the money will follow," they proudly exclaim. And usually about five years after that those guys are jaded and doing something they do not love but saving for a home and paying for kids and then saving for retirement....
I'm living proof that the maxim can truly be applied to a life. But the first word is "do." And know that all love, always, will be tested. And the money may not be that much. And exactly how far behind that money will follow you is constantly in question.
My family has been patient and forgiving with me, following this Don Quixote husband and father as my Sancho Panzas of reality. The travel, the events, the fund raisers, and the campaigns to the make the world right and just for every deserving cyclist....all is fine so long as the mortgage gets paid and the children get fed and the house feels heated.
Two weeks prior to this weekend my luck, after a number of years, ran out. With a son in college, a massive mortgage, an overdue tax bill, broken appliances, home insurance, car insurance, holiday bills, dental bills, and assorted financial meteors were crashing through the roof. And the shimmer of Louisville's World Championships had worn off as I waited for the wire transfer from Europe to right our ship. Each day became a scene from a Samuel Beckett play; each time I logged on my bank account it felt like another match burned by Jack London as winter and darkness closed around me.
And with the gloom of February on our sky, the dashboard gauge for every commodity of our lives - gas, firewood, food, heating oil - went into the red zone. Me going off to serve yet again as an evangelist for cycling did not go over well. At such manic moments every expenditure of money, time or energy is harshly scrutinized. And few are embraced...
On the dashboard of my life, however, the one red light that has never come on was the bike. Bikes keep working practically for free. They rarely fail you.
So off I went to the indoor time trial to put on a happy face to encourage more people to tilt at the windmill of cycling with me...
I have a great relationship with Best Buddies, a great organization for which I work part time helping to convert executives into bike nuts. They grant me flexibility with my schedule and enable me to pursue my passions in cycling. There are times I get the better end of the deal; and times they get the better end of the deal.
This indoor time trial had proven truly successful with nearly 60 participants on Computrainers run by Performance Breakthrough Coaching. With openings in the final slot I had opted to jump in. I rolled my bike up to John Caton, the mechanic from Belmont Wheelworks kind enough to support our event, and asked him to simply lube the chain. Mind you the bike was in horrible condition from a month of winter commuting.
"I know, I know," I said. "I'm about three weeks away from just tossing the cassette and chain."
John looked aghast as the salt and the grit and the gooey residue of lube and dirt on the drive train. "You just need a new bike.... No, seriously, you need a new bike."
But I loved this bike, a 1996 Merlin Extralight. I had overhauled it about two year earlier with a Sram Red Group and Mavic Ksyriums. I adored this bike despite its dinged top tube and one-inch head tube. This thing - with fenders and stickers and a worn saddle - had outperformed The Africa Queen and still begged to be pushed harder and faster. This bike had seen national championships, stage races, a ride from New York to Boston, festivals, urban adventures, and countless sloppy commutes through Boston winters. This bike had been locked to racks during countless public hearings and testimonies and pep rallies to improve cycling. And this rig proudly made the 2012 Ride on Washington with bikes far younger and more modern.
And this bike rode comfortably. Recently Kevin Wolfson, one of the founders of Firefly Bicycles in Boston, had e-mailed about my fit, noting a customer had commented how well I sat on that Merlin. While I just felt right on the bike, I confessed to Kevin to having never really done much measurement save for knowing my seat height to always be 74.5 cm.
After being prodded a few times by Kevin, I finally got out a plumb bob and level and measuring tape. I became somewhat self conscious. What if my fit turned out to be the goofiest of contortions? This was me, the guy teaching all sorts of corporate big shots about cycling for Best Buddies and other adventures. The process bugged me.
Ultimately I did a lot of research, especially on saddle setback. There is little done on this which is kind of important. I found myself absorbed by a little known guru of fit: Bernard Hinault. Le Blaireau had actually written about fit in the early 1980s and his format would be used by Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon and other European hard men. It's a balanced fit between the powerful aero position of the Dutch and Belgians and the upright climbing set up of the Spaniards. Let's leave triathletes out of the discussion entirely.
My measurements, I boasted to Kevin, were spot on according to Hinault's formula! And I had done this all without lasers or algorithms or protractors! Imagine that.
I proudly grabbed this old perfectly fit bike for the time trial. Dirty and fendered, it locked into the trainer. I warmed up a bit, jumping off to make announcements, change music, and top off my water bottle, and then jumping back on. A friend grabbed the tire and noted my low tire pressure, which I use in the icy conditions, and suggested more. I gassed them both up to 110 psi. I continued my warm up and readied for the painful 20 minute race. Moments before the start I heard the explosion. My rear tire, its casing raw from all the salt, blew apart on the sidewall.
The final dashboard light of my life came on. Even my bike, this perfectly fit, beautifully storied bike, had failed me....
A rider offered me a rear wheel, but knowing the horrid condition of my chain and cassette, I asked John to switch over the cassette to the loaner wheel. When the cogs came apart in John's hands everybody could see the sludge that had amassed. Holding this syrupy stack of pancakes, he crammed it all together. I re-mounted the bike into the trainer.
The race proved painful but worthwhile. Jeff Capobianco, the coach and boss of Breakthrough Performance Coaching, charged through the 10 k course. I tried to stay with him initially but realized the futility. He was putting out a solid 400 watts; I chose to stay at 275. He set the fastest time of day. I rode respectably to second in that group and 19th overall.
Not bad for a fat old man and dirty old bike and borrowed wheel, eh?
Still shaky from my ride, I helped with cleanup and started wrapping up sound equipment. In came Thom Parsons, the talented videographer from dirtwire.tv. He complained about believing he could ride in the 3 p.m. heat, which did not exist.
Nonplussed by the disappointment, he pulled out his video camera - as he does at every event - and did a quick stand up with me explaining where we were and what I was doing. I went on and on about Best Buddies and the time trial.
Then he paused and asked me to talk about this 1996 Merlin, which I adored.
"So when are you going to get a carbon fiber bike?" he asked.
I replied that if I was to buy a dream bike it would be a Boston-built titanium bike.....either Seven or Firefly. The things are light, fast and bomb-proof. And they handle everything with elegance. End of interview. And he rolled on to meet at the fund raiser.
After breakdown and clean up I went home, where I anxiously puttered about - still shaky from the ITT - as my wife and kids got ready to join me for the trip to Boston. Then I remembered the door charge was $5 for an event I was supposedly to help present. This corrosive panic came over me.
I live by the mantra, if you have to ask for something you don't deserve it. But it became evident to me that I did not even have the $20 to cover the donation at the door for all four of us. And then I learned Grant, our oldest son at Suffolk University, would be coming.
I sheepishly sent the text above to Gary Thornton, who had come all the way up from Pennsylvania to promote this fund raiser. And he replied:
"HAHAHAHAHA. I GOT YOU AND YOUR FAMILY'S BACK. YOU'RE GOOD."
Given Gary's devotion and effort going into this thing, I felt relieved to see the threat of a winter storm had softened. Frankly I could not figure why a guy from Philly would put on a fund raiser in Boston. He had claimed the advice came from my friend Bruno Maier at People for Bikes, noting the Boston scene just had more going on for advocacy. We left our house in a dark drizzle and carefully nursed the Subaru to Boston without the fuel light coming on.
Once inside I spotted Gary and tried to help he and his delightful girlfriend, Janine Carroll, get the room set up. We were there about 20 minutes early to do just that. As I took lids off deli platters and set out food, my adorable daughter Emma, who loves to attend cycling events with me, stayed within inches of me, lightly punching me the entire time, as I walked about. Madison, my youngest son, took my Samsung phone and started the battery drain with games. As the crowd filtered in, my daughter continued to pelt me with affectionate punches, as I greeted the guests and worked with Gary to develop the "run of show."
Tim Johnson texted Emma to let her know he was running late....which is standard for Tim. Gary and I reviewed the run of show. The brewery team would start the event with a description of the beers being sampled. And then I would go on. Then Tim.
Guests streamed in. I cannot begin to name them all but they were all fantastic friends and loyal supporters of cycling in the Boston market. Most were at the first Redbone's events I helped to promote. Others put on 'cross races or crits. They are all stalwart supporters of cycling for both sport and transit.
One attendee truly stunned me with her attendance. Kate Powlison of Bikes Belong not only made the trip, she did so from her hometown of Erie, Pa., with her mother! Kate lives in Boulder, rode the Ride on Washington (and then the Reve Women's Tour de France). A graduate of Williams College, Kate continues to defend the merits of New England bike culture against anybody in Colorado, California, or Oregon.
Hmmm.....Long way to go for a Harpoon, I thought, but it is fine beer.
Tim arrived, grabbed the cookies from Emma, and we readied for the pitch. The basic Tim Johnson Ride on Washington dog and pony show ....It's one which I am the dog and he is the pony.
Right before I went on, Tim tugged at my elbow.
"Keep it short....I'll talk about Ride on Washington....You just keep it short."
I've been doing this awhile. I can stretch it out; I can speed it up. I can edit on the fly.
I had nothing written, so I took Tim's cues, hopped up on the chair and spoke about how important Tim is to advocacy. And how important it is for racers to embrace advocacy. And how important getting cool people to embrace advocacy - not just in their statements but in how they ride - is to our movement. "Be the change you want to see," I told the crowd. And then I introduced Tim.
He had set the trap. Gary had set the trap. Kevin had set the trap. My daughter Emma and my wife had set the trap. Thom had set the trap. Bruno had set the trap. Kate had set the trap.
Tim started to speak...ostensibly about advocacy. But in a lecturing judo move he nimbly changed topics and instead spoke about ... well... me.
Ride on Washington never came up. He just went on and on about .... me.
Then Gary leapt up on the chair and went on and on .... about ....well .... me. At this point I'm feeling really uneasy. Tim whispered in my ear, "They got something for you...it's a water bottle."
By then I realize the whole thing had been a ruse. The entire audience had come out for me. And then Kevin Wolfson, our navigator for the Ride on Washington, wheels out a custom ti Firefly. The folks at Sram had donated a Red group and Zipp 101 wheels. And they had it built to my specs, gathered up through a range of faux questions from Kevin and my daughter, claiming to be working on a geometry project for a teacher. And Harpoon, the greatest brewery on the planet, had donated the space. Dozens of people in the cycling community had donated to this cause. My cause.
In football they called it getting "ear-holed," when you are clobbered by an unseen blocker.
I was speechless....aghast....embarrassed. Where I am so well-spoken in public, I stammered and stumbled about thanking those I could. There were photos. There were hugs. I could not get my breath.
Finally I had to help evacuate the back room and get my kids home. We put this piece of art on the roof of the Subaru, in a pelting rain. As we motored through Boston the fuel light came on.
After dropping off my son at Suffolk University with a tray of sandwiches, we splattered up Arlington Heights where the rain converted to snow. We got to Lexington. We shuffled into our cold home. I made popcorn and the four of us bundled into the bed together, laughing and wrestling and glowing in each others' warmth.
The only thing we did have at that moment was each other.
I woke up pre-dawn, started a fire with the last of the wood, sipped coffee and studied this new bike as one views a sleeping puppy just brought home, trying to imagine our future. I simply glowed. I had a new, sturdy and invincible bike.
The next day, the wire transfer came from Europe.
Thank you to all for getting me through such a dark moment with the brightest of friends and warmest of family.
So this whole UCI thing is a curious accident that I enjoy and fully
This has been an amazing roller coaster ride I truly wish to stay on. And you should join me. It is way better than the Tour de France with a lot less traffic and a lot more access to cycling legends.
For me this started in Tabor, Czech Republic, where I announced the
cyclo-cross worlds in 2010. I arrived in the frigid but fantastic town thrilled
but intimidated by the formality of the UCI. Let’s face it, announcing in the states
is a back woods affair where the announcer sort of wings it.
This would be a formal event with exact protocol. So they
had me attend a rehearsal for the awards ceremony. This came with a chart and a
diagram that had all sorts of dotted lines and arrows and exact
I responded much like I had when I first sat in high school
chemistry with Mr. Terlinksy and stared at a diagram about logarithms. I glazed over.
There I stood in the cold Soviet athletic facility next to
my colleague, Heinrich, a smoking, bearded, heavier version of the Dos Equis world’s most
interesting man, looking at this chart. The delightful UCI woman spoke mostly French.
Heinrich spoke Czech. I spoke English. And just to help us all out, they assigned
us another delightful woman who spoke Czech and German….
I figured it out as I have now on six occasions. Be nice,
smile, show up on time, and then use the one American universal mechanism to
make people like you: slapstick.
I stumble, I trip, I pretend to have my eye poked out…all
with great effect. I have done so in German, Danish, Czech, Flemish, French and
Dutch. It works with security, police, children, racers, officials and timing
crew. Just about everybody likes it....except old ladies; but they’ve been on to me for years,
regardless of culture. I almost married such a woman who was 30 going on 69.
So I sauntered into this year’s awards ceremony rehearsal with a
little swagger. And I brought along 9-year-old Ryjder Hessenfeld along with his
dad, Ted. We hung around a bit and then we met the Dutch announcer, a legendary man,
Cees Maas…or Kees Maas, depending on the translation. I will write about him
later on, but let us just say, I am out of my league with him.
But all we have to do is the awards rehearsal. It is all
about the podium girls, the sound guys, and presenters, and not about the
experienced professional announcers, right?
We knocked out the individual awards rehearsal without
Then we had to think. For the first time in recent memory we would be hosting
a team time trial awards ceremony with six riders racing for trade teams. Think
The presenter needs six bronze medals…..
Then the next presenter needs six bouquets of flowers….
On to silver….
Then to gold…
And how big of a podium do we need for 18 athletes plus
three directors? (We even had 18 stand
ins, including Theodore Essenfeld and his son, Ryjder.)
Do we hand out six rainbow jerseys? A trophy? Belt buckles?
Oh yeah, it is trade teams…with riders from several
different countries. So what national anthem do we play? We decide to play the anthem
from the country where the team is registered…which is curious should Radio
Shack win, given this team from Luxembourg does not have one rider on its team
from Luxembourg riding.
I do not in any way mean to ridicule this process. This is why we hold rehearsals for such seemingly trivial affairs. If we
sweat the details now, you folks on Sunday will inhale in awe at our pomp and
So figure that all out. On to race day.....
We pound through the ceremony for
team time trial without incident, fortunate that Radio Shack did not win.
Mind you I am stumbling a bit through some of the protocol
changes from prior years. And there is always some confusion with the flag guys
(think about it, we need flags for more than 70 countries and what would happen
if Morocco swept the podium?), and the sound guy who needs to have access to
the national anthems of 76 nations including Andorra (…..who has the national
anthem of Andorra?) and the podium girls and the medal guy and the flower
guy.Am I getting to you?
And it is all on global television. Mind you the sound guy
is frantic when the Russian wins….Because in scrolling down the CD of national
anthems, given to him by the French woman, he cannot find “Russia.”
This is a holy shit moment…..
We are back stage reading, and
re-reading this CD label and I am thinking about how China and Japan are about
to go to war over an island I did not know existed two weeks ago…Or that four
fine Americans were killed in Libya over a movie no American I know has ever
seen. Then I thought about the Czech uprising in 1968 which was sparked by
what? A hockey game in which the Czechs beat the Russians.
If we could not find the Russian national anthem, I
envisioned all the progress of the last 20 years dissolving….. and tanks rolling back into Eastern Europe.
….Then I found it…..”Federation of Russia” is under “F” not “R.”
Crisis avoided, no?
During the ceremony, and you may see this on TV to the left
of your screen, a television camera operator follows the presenter on stage
with the camera hand held for the bronze medal. The UCI staff, some of the nicest guys I know,
intervene. And they hold the cable to ensure the camera will not go back out
“You don’t go out
“Let go of my equipment”
“You don’t go out there.”
“Let go of my equipment.”
Voices were raised.
Announcers tried to conduct awards ceremony.
Fists were clenched.
Day glow vests shoved.
Orange jackets converged.
Cameras turned away from ceremony to controversy.
Athletes looked confused.
Announcers tried to conduct awards ceremony.
……We endured a serious moment of détente.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," I said. "May we have your attention for the playing of the national anthem The Federation of Russia"
OK, I am writing this from the Netherlands. For too many of
my friends (and probably myself up until one week ago) knowledge of this
country stopped at Austin Powers’ Goldmember.
OK, I knew more than that.
But when trying to understand just about any other culture,
start with a map. Maps help one understand all sorts of issues: cultural,
economic, linguistic, and athletic.
So open up a map of The Netherlands and then we will
continue. Go on…..I will wait…….
Good, you are back.
Try to follow along. Copenhagen, where I worked last year, is a city; Limburg is not. Limburg is a
province of the Netherlands. It dangles down between Germany to the East and
Belgium to the west, like a Dutch epiglottis. OK, that helps to explain a
little bit of language. Dutch is sort of German with a filter. And Flemish is
sort of Dutch with a French filter. And then you have the English and those
whacky Scandinavians coming through on occasion.
Weirder still is that Spain actually ran the Netherlands for
a while until a) the Dutch simply could not stand being so uptight about sex,
and b) the Brits scored one of the biggest upsets in naval history in 1588.
Somewhere in there is the story of why these folks wear the color orange. (Go read, it is awesome stuff.)
Cyclists today view Holland as a cycling utopia. But there
are different reasons. For my advocate friends, much is made of Amsterdam and
its massive amount of mode share by bike.Indeed the Dutch embrace cycling as well as anybody. It is
But those into the sport of cycling will rally around
Maastricht and Limburg, the province. Get out your map. Look at the proximity
to Belgium and such cities as Liege. It is right there.All the great cyclo-cross, Amstel Gold, and
everything else that is fantastic about Dutch racing. Just to the south in
Germany is Aken. To the west in Belgium is Hasselt and to the south is Liege.
But part of it I discovered while driving from Brussels to
Maastricht, taking in all the flat landscape.
And then you drop into the valley of the Meure, or the Maas
(as the river is called in Dutch), and the terrain changes. The Limburg region
is defined by fertile plains with these pronounced ridges.
I discovered these on my first day here riding with Theodore
Essenfeld and his son, Ryjder, who is 9.I was on a 52 cm bike but enjoying being outside (typically I ride a
55). After puttering about on the bike paths we worked our way towards
Valkenburg, where I had a rehearsal for awards.
En route we encountered the cyclo-sportive, with 7,000
riders. Wow. We followed the group. We ended up on a bike path that gouged into
these ravines with sharp, overgrown cliffs to our right. There were chalk caves
in which I learned the Dutch resistance used during World War II to hide. As a
history nut, I drank it in. As a cyclist, I got it. I saw cyclo-cross courses
and mountain bike trails and roads woven throughout.
And this, I would learn, is only in the Limburg province.
We came into Valkenburg. Whistles blew and paddles waved.
Wow. Team Rabobank came roaring through the turn on their
practice TTT ride. Later came Movistar.
And we were rolling through the final turn before the
Cauberg, the climb that leads to the finish of the Amstel Gold race. With
thousands of riders on the road, I scaled the Caubergwith this 9-year old boy. The crowds were
already clapping and this boy got extra applause.
By New England standards, the Cauberg is a pussy climb. But
with a Pro Tour field going up this thing at 40 km/hour to finish I can only imagine the suffering it
inflicts. And there are dozens of them in the Limburg region. And after scaling
several of them in the 100k leading into the finish circuit on Sunday, the pro
men will then go up the Cauberg 10 times.Oh yeah, there is another climb, the Bemelberg, on the backstretch.
Did I mention that I have had fantastic weather? If the North
Sea thinks otherwise, this place can be a crosswind cool zone of mist and rain.
I love the lowlands the way I love New England.
Everybody, from the pro cyclists to the postal worker to the old lady to the 12-year-old school
girl has something others lack: resolve.
Geography does this.
This world championship is ambitious. There is just one
finish venue in Valkenburg. But there are six different start venues: Sittard,
Landgraf, Eijsden, Heerlen (where Eddy Merckx beat Jan Janssen in 1967 to win
his first of three world titles), Valkenburg and then Maastricht.
The Eneco Tour, The Tour of Limburg, the Valkenberg
Cyclocross, the Amstel Gold Race and of course this World Championships, the
sixth time the UCI has selected this province to host its grandest ball.
But this entire region is dripping in cycling history that
the American charity ride fans will miss by going to l’Alpe d’Huez. I stumble
about…..there is Jan Jaansen,there is
Henni Kuiper, Leontien Van Moorsel, Jan Raas, Peter Post, and Leo Van Vliet…Will
I see Joop Zoetelmelk? How cool is a country that names a guy “Joop”?
And then there is the bike culture…I need sleep. More to
Like losing my iPad, something about foreign travel makes us
stupid and awkward and alone. Whenever I travel abroad for these UCI gigs I
feel like a kid who has just moved into a new town and starting school for the
first day. On the outside it all looks good…Like I got it going on… But inside
one simply feels out of place.
The UCI folks are getting to know, and like, me. But it
remains a cautious thing.
I love travel to Europe and other cultures. And I love
traveling alone. But I hate being lonely. This would be fun if I had a friend
or my family along.Because I have to
work eight straight days, I must hole up in rooms alone. First I must preserve
my voice, which is to profession whata
hand is to a pitcher’s profession: everything. And because of the language
barriers – although everybody speaks English the nuances of the language are
lost – I end up alone a lot. This makes me come off as introverted, which most
will tell you I am not.
At the end of each day I get unsolicited advice on how to
fix my voice.
Tea with lemon.
Hot water with olive oil…
Hot water with salt.
Tea with honey.
Halls….Vicks….you name it, they’ve suggested it. It is not
my first rodeo. What works is this:
Throat Coat tea from Traditional Medicinals, which contains
slippery elm.Also I stop drinking beer
but take in a glass or two of Grand Marnier. I hydrate with water constantly.
And sleep is really important. Most important is that I simply avoid loud bars
and restaurants and instead do thinks like long, long walks or bike rides.
But I had struggled going in to this event.A combination of August allergies, a sinus
infection, and a dental problem fostered some problems with my voice. I simply
could not recover as usual. A visit to the dentist revealed a broken tooth,
which got me some antibiotics. The voice improved but would it be enough to
handle eight straight days of announcing at the world championships?
Let’s find out, eh?
I nailed day one, the team time trial. Then the reparation
began. Riding the hotel bike 10k back to the hotel is a start. No talking. Then
I started the constant rehydration.Whilst trying to type this, I got drowsy. I rode for 90 minutes on the
hotel bike, simply touring Maastricht, before fishing up with pad thai.
Everything is done alone. No talking. I return to the room alone. I stay alone.
I checked e-mail and then fell to sleep at 9:30. I would sleep for 10 hours,
which truly may have been the most important ingredient.
And I got to the venue for day two solid. No problems and
actually better than day two.This is
how I will mow down the entire eight-day gig.
But day three proved interesting. I awoke without the alarm…having
slept miraculously again….and got ready for my favorite part of European lodging,
the breakfast.I was so ready for those
funny looking meats, the eggs, the cheese, the cappuccino and of course the
As I sifted through my clothes with the blinds drawn I
remembered having heard my phone, which is also my alarm, shutting off in the
night. I had gotten up to charge it but neglected to turn it on. While brushing
my teeth I sauntered over and turned on the phone…..
“Holy shit the junior women were to start at 10 a.m.!!!!!! “
I thought. “Or was it 9?”
I flew down the stairs sliding on shoes and buttoning shirts
and charged to the bike rack. I grabbed bike 2365 and pounded towards
Vanderburg. Whirred through roundabouts
with my foot down as an outrigger, and then charged towards the hill. I climbed
at a pace as stern as any race I had entered.I topped off the hill and shifted up for the final 2 k to the event.
I flipped out the phone….9:49 a.m. as I entered the Tissot
booth.I had ridden 7 km on a hotel bike
with a Shimano Nexus 7 speed uphill in 19 minutes. I was blown…..But relieved
to learn the race started at 10:30.
Limburg 2012, Day One
First there will be no apostrophes in these reports.
Why, you ask?
This is coming to you via my aging HP Thunderclap. Instead of impressively tapping it on the Bluetooth keyboard and iPad, I am boxing on the broken keys. Actually the letter o and k have no keys. In my sleep transatlantic haze, I left my iPad on the plane.
I discovered this 120 km later in Maastricht. So instead of typing out my blog, I spent the day frantically trying to reach United and/or Brussels Airways, which manages its baggage. No, they did not respond. Gone.
But Holland is fantastic. I arrived under a dull spitting sky to find a lackluster venue next to a construction site. Frankly the Lowlands of Belgium and Holland always present a gray curtain as their stage; you must learn to pull them back to start the show.
I caught up on e-mail and then napped.
When I awoke I had no sense of time. Neither my laptop nor phone were updating the time. But the sun remained up so I figured it to be around 3 p.m. So I did what has become routine in Europe: I rented a hotel bike.
Within 100 meters I rolled under the highway interchange and onto the Fietsnetwork of bike lanes and into the core of the city. Masstricht is a fantastic city tightly woven around the Maas River, downstream from Liege in nearby Belgium. This would be recon ride, getting my bearings: train station, restaurants, bike shops…and then how to get back. The bike costs about 7 euros and I hoped to go back out after I exchanged money and checked on my work schedule. I ended up checking e-mail; when I looked up rain had started slashing on the window. I turned the bike in and returned for more Internet lull.
Later I walked about looking for food before I realized with all the jet lag and latitudinal difference it was like 11:45. The place was evacuating by bike; all sorts of couples lazily tumbled the pedals, side-by-side, brushing each other’s hands, smoking or texting as they rode. It is about 20 percent pedestrians, 40 percent cars, and 40 percent bikes. And they ride without helmets comfortably through a city made for all three to get along. No horns. No anger. No more fanfare than we might find at a coffee shop at 8:30 a.m. Everybody is courteous and quiet.
I found no restaurants opened. After walking an hour I returned to the hotel bar to find my UCI staff. Marching orders for Day 2. Lots more to come.
The contrasts here are remarkable. Let me give me you some of the amazing numbers about this event: • They have sold out 45,000 tickets for Sunday. They have an additional 10,000 VIPs. (Which makes us question how "important" one is if there are 10,000 of you.) And this venue is smaller than Roger Williams Park in Providence. • They have used 18 km of hard fencing. Every piece of hard fencing in Belgium is deployed here. They had to go to the Netherlands to complete the job. • There are 22 camera positions. • There are three massive VIP tents. With flooring, tables, silverware and china. And I stopped counting beer tents – each one large enough to swallow all of the tents of the Madison nationals - at seven. • There are 24 countries represented. The scope of it is hard to comprehend. And yet, the event has a quaint – almost naïve – element. The Cross Worlds have not yet achieved the multi-media, pyrotechnical sophistication of the NFL in terms of production. I have been stunned by the lack of overall production value. They just don’t realize how much more we could do. And despite the raucous nature of the beer tents after the races, and the festive nature of costumes, the flags, the bells, and the horns, I must concur with Meredith Miller’s assessment that these crowds are … well….tame. They don’t make that much noise. Perhaps tomorrow will change this opinion. Or maybe that’s my job…. Yesterday we had 15,000. I awoke to a rather somber breakfast in the dark, where I sat studying alone in the restaurant with just the Korean member of the UCI management committee, awkwardly formal in a three-piece suit. I drove to the venue with Beat Wabel, a former junior world champion and several time Swiss national champion, and Peter Van Den Abeele, the UCI cross boss who was also Belgian national champion, and his daughter. They all could recall stories of racing at Koksijde. In 1994, Van Den Abeele had won the national championships and received the honor of getting the front row slot. In those days every country got one slot per row. He gave up his spot to Paul Herygers, out of respect for his prowess in the sand. To this day, the largest dune on the course is named Herygers Dune, named so after Paul Herygers passed Richard Groenendal here in 1994 on the final lap, patting his Dutch rival on the back as he blew by to score the world title. Even by Belgian standards, that day set new heights. That dune is a natural amphitheater which is used for countless photos showing thousands of spectators. Van Den Abeele recalls that day in 1994 because the entire Belgian team – stunned by the sheer size of the crowd – fired off the line and blew all their fuses and circuit breakers. Only Herygers could put himself back together to salvage the day. We arrived on this air base as the sun scoured its way through the clouds. After some recon, I learned from the sound guy that they had a separate microphone for me on the X Dune, where crowds were forming. I checked it out and felt I could do some pretty serious damage. That would indeed be the case. So after some research and prep work, I braced for the juniors, which could be the toughest race of the weekend to call. We reviewed the protocol, which includes a really cool starting light system, and then started to prepare. There would only four races this weekend: Juniors and Under 23s are Saturday; Elite women and men Sunday. The production is very precise. My colleague here is Mark Bollen, who has announced races in Belgium for 31 years. That seems daunting; it IS Belgium after all. That means Museew, Boonen, Aerts, Vervecken, Nys….He’s a delightful guy and we both have worked with the great Peter Graves.
I was surprised by how matter of factly he simply started the roll call without the fanfare I expected for the world championships. I stumbled through the Flemish, the Dutch, the Czech, the Spanish and the French names and we lined ‘em up. But it had all the grandeur of reading that days’ high school detention list.
The juniors fired off the line and I tramped up to the X Dune, found the microphone and what appeared to be about a 200 watt amp patched into the 70 volt system which fuels cones of speakers all around the venue. I hit the microphone hard, clipped out the amp, and the thing went dead: good idea gone bad. I scrambled back to the finish line took my place in the box and called the front of the race well enough. But one only talks of the heroics of Goliath and never sees the epic battles of the Davids from 10th place back. That is what makes ‘cross great. But hell, this is worlds and these Goliaths, even as 111-pound juniors. Mathieu Van Der Poel was the heavy favorite, having won every World Cup, the Dutch nationals, and of course having the genes of Adri Van Der Poel in his body. He was thumped hard on the first lap, got behind a pile of Belgians, and appeared downright human. He finally got control but had to fend off a surprisingly strong Wout Van Aert of Belgium and France’s Quentin Jauregui, who fought back to score third. The race was a race for four laps but finished in strands. One race done. After awards I spotted Tom Simpson, my California friend. We tramped about getting frittes and Jupilers. We had three hours to kill between races. We got hats and posters and books and stickers…. And this was the slow day. Then came the Under 23 race, which featured the Orange Crush: six Dutch riders, three of which would start on the first row, two of which would be on the second row; and David Van Der Poel who would be on the third row. Again we had a heavily favored Dutch rider in Lars Van Der Haar. Unlike the junior race, he fired off the line to grab control of the race. And unlike the other race, the Belgians fought back. Wietse Bosmans pounded up to Van Den Haar and actually applied pressure. Three times he dropped the Dutch hero; three times Van Der Haar fought back. Farther back a scramble between Arnaud Grand (Switzerland), Clement Venturini (France) and Michale Teunissen (Netherlands) fought for third. Then up came Michiel Van Heijden who rode brilliantly. These three went hammer and tong in the deep sand. Van Den Haar made mistakes. The final lap would be a game of sand hockey elbows and hips and hands deployed to either stay upright or defend positions. Brakes were checked, hooks were thrown, risks were taken …. All this was done while swinging the body about wildly like the boom on a ship to keep the keel set in a single groove in the sand. To come out of that groove risked all. During the last time through the Herygers Dune, Van Der Haar steered Bosmans off his line and his Dutch henchman passed. Bosmans responded in the deep sand, dove under Van Heijden and pinned him into the fences. All three separated and all three fought back together, just as France’s Arnaud Jouffroy made contact as the group hit the pavement for the sprint. Van Der Haar repeats as world champ. Bosmans gets Belgium its second medal, a silver. Van Heijden gets Holland its third medal, a bronze. After the awards I visited with Dan Ellmore, a great friend and supporter. Then I caught the shuttle to the hotel…Dinner there. Boring, eh? Tomorrow it’s Fort Apache. I did have an amazing meeting and will likely make another cool announcement in the very near future. Thanks for reading