Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Racing Day 2: Giants to Midgets

Tabor Day 4
Race Day 2

From Giants to Midgets

PRAGUE, Czech Republic (Jan. 31, 2010) - "Hey, pssst, pssst....You want a Japanese midget in a cage?"

We had walked by about a dozen guys hawking sex workers and strippers as we walked through Prague Center with about a dozen Americans, looking like good targets for these guys. But I have to admit the offer of a Japanese midget in a cage caught my ear.
"What?" we collectively asked.
"Japanese midget in a cage," he repeated. "You can kick it."
As if that would whet my appetite for this product more.
We kept walking totally confused.
It had been the strangest, most comical cherry on top of a sundae of extravagant experiences during the weekend. Witnessing perhaps the great 'cross event of my life had me on a high. This whole midget thing kind of popped that bubble.
I arrived at the venue for the big day, the elite women followed by the elite men. I emptied out of the van driven by Beat Wabel, the Swiss star who won the World Champion in Munich more than 20 years ago.
I must admit to being nervous, but eager, to announce for the giants of this sport that I love.
After checking in to the office, I started the process of preparing for the call-ups, updating research, and codifying each rider's palmares into a few key symbols, letters and numbers. At 8:40 a.m. I heard the music come up. Frank, our sound guy, obviously had arrived. A pleasant fellow, he had been cut from the cloth seemingly used to make all sound guys. Long hair, beard, and bags under his eyes from working late nights in clubs. And they tend to prefer hair band music. I opened the office door to hear "I'm looking for the hotty with the million dollar body...." He would play Nickelback and Bon Jovi all morning while I worked, repeating about four songs over and over and over.

I've learned to simply let sound guys be sound guys. With Frank alone in the booth I stepped in reviewed the music I had prepared for the day. I asked to push the music up to its highest level. He did. I put a piece of blue tape on the mixer at that level and instructed him to push it there when I gave the cue. I returned to the office for my work. Then on came Jindrich. Mornings with Jindrich had become something a kin to visiting Treblinka.....A monotone, authoritative voice instructing the prisoners "Work will set you free." The entire Soviet bloc housing surrounding us kinda just creeeped me out at first. Then I came to recognize that Jindrich was simply being the pro announcer; he was reading the PA tags. So we got it down. He read the sponsor tags; I read the sponsor tags. He re-capped the Saturday races; I re-capped the Saturday races. He did the pre-race line up; I did the pre-race line up.

We had about 90 minutes until the start and I had everything in place. So I ran up to the town to take money out of a bank machine. I streamed back in to venue with spectators. They poured in jangling with bells; fluttering with flags; honking with horns; and banging on drums. The whole place converged with a buzz.

Upon my return we went right into the show. Laura Van Gilder had confessed to being nervous on this snow and ice. Katerina Nash was visibly tense, with all the Czech Republic expecting a win. The event is truly stunning for those of used to being a modest fringe sport. In the Czech Republic, 'cross - and not just cycling, but cyclo-cross - is truly a big time sport. The crowds paraded into the venue with huge Katerina Nash banners and Zdenek Stybar photos.
I spent several weeks preparing for this moment, studying results, watching Sporza, and researching rider bios. The junior and under-23 categories were a bit tough to work as there is very little material on them to study. But for this day I had prepared for months, if not years.

And then it's there.

"Elite women, report to staging!"
Thankfully Frank had figured out the gig by now. He drove up the music and the crowds, like iron filings to a magnet, drew towards the staging area. There is nothing in my opinion quite like the start of a big 'cross race. Mechanics, soigneurs, officials, riders, coaches, and media all converge into this one location. For a November New England race the start line can get mighty crowded. For the world championships it is an amazing crush of people.
We lined em up, got em off, and went to work on the call. In the first-lap traffic, Katerina tumbled hard. She leapt back up but the Orange Line had left the station: Marianne Vos, Daphny Van Den Brand and Sanne Van Paasen were gone. Across came Hanka Kupfernagel. Katie Compton, sadly, went right out the back with her legs knotted in cramps. Truly a tragic story of sport.
Katerina, drawing on the support of the crowd, came back up to Van Passen and moved into fourth. But every time she challenged Van Den Brand for third she would bobble or dab or fall. She clearly rode as strongly as any body in that race, but 'cross is a game of mistakes, mishaps and mechanicals. And while Marianne Vos danced about cleanly on this course, Nash simply had too many demerits that day.
Vos won ahead of Kupfernagel and Van Den Brand. Jindrich and I knocked out the podium. I had my own bobble there but nobody noticed.
During the break I made my way down to the concession stand. I bought three T-shirts, two mugs and a pack of stickers. I handed the guy 2,000 Czech Krona, expecting him to ask for more. He gave me 1,300 back. I had gotten all that stuff for about $8. In hindsight, I wish I had bought the entire lot of stuff! I could have sold it all in a day back home.
I got some lunch, checked in on the dancing at the beer tent, saw the Cross Crusade boys, and then made my way back to the office.
So here's a confession. I really do not think I'm all that good of an announcer. I don't have a great voice. I don't show up with reams and reams of research on riders. I don't study websites and magazines every day. And quite honestly I don't spend all that much time with bike riders due to my competing interests of my family and other friends. I will say this: I'm a quick study. I had spent a long time prepping for this race. Once the race is under way, an announcer pretty much sticks to the roster and adds a bit of analysis and when possible, a touch of color for spice. Many of the greatest announcers from whom I learn are NOT cycling guys but from other sports. One of the hardest things to teach is something I learned from the guy who announced Hank Aaron's record home run. He called it and then let it go. Just let it breathe. Good advice.
Part of what I have tried to do as of late is talk less, especially before the event. My Czech colleague just kept pounding on the mic before the race. I feel it creates the Charlie Brown effect; you know, the squawking horn of the teacher. Just noise and inflection but no content.
For what they would pay me to call the World championships - the flight, the hotel, the fee, the meals - I truly feel I earned it in just 17 minutes.
I truly believe less is more. Ever since I was a boy, I have loved watching great athletes in that precious hour before competition. And I try not to talk.
The lunch time band ended. I had Frank hit it hard with "The Things You Say" by Cicada. Then Jindrich did the sponsor thing, the preview thing, and then it hit me. I would be talking about 'cross in front of 35,000 people and probably 10,000 of them knew more about the subject than I.
I left the announcing booth at 1:20, with the race to start at 2 p.m. Jindrich would keep talking; Frank went back to Nickelback. I pissed about three times, ate some cookies, and then did the calculations based on the music I had given Frank.
Six minutes to go.
I had checked the sound, walked up and down the stretch. I had drilled Frank to keep the sound up high. With the final race, he got it.
Three minutes to go.
I fist bumped Frank; winked at Jindrich; and grabbed the wireless.
One minute to go.
I took a drink of water and left the booth. At 1:43, Frank pulled down the sound entirely and I gave the hard call to staging. Then Frank brought up Fat Boy Slim's "Right Here, Right Now" really hot. The place went electric.
This is where I like to let it go. I took a moment just to watch his massive crowd just move to this music. I am told they rarely have any music at European 'cross. The whole scene simply pulsed with this music and this pressurized atmosphere. I bathed in that moment. The giants all moved into the pen and the Czech official, Miroslav Janout, gave the signal. With that, I gave a brief introduction, and Frank swapped the music to the call up song. For this, I had chosen a cut by Hardfloor. I get great music from a lot of sources, including Dan Ferguson of the Bay Area, my son, Grant, Joan Hanscom, and continue to use stuff from the best sound guy I ever had, the late John Pavlat. Living in the world's largest college town, Boston, also helps. But this cut came from one of my best sources, Merlyn Townley, the ace mechanic. He has great access to the trance scene which I use a lot.
With that thumping, I took a breath, then earned it. I would call all 66 riders to the line, starting with Zdenek Stybar and ending with Pekatch Dror of Israel. The names were Flemish, Czech, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Basque, Hungarian, Japanese and even Mongolian. And the announcer cannot stop to read. I learned from Larry Longo how to codify all the palmares, the career highlights, in tiny symbols next to the rider's names. It looks like cuneiform at first glance. For example, next to Stybar was "WC2xu23cz." That means World Cup winner, two-time Under23 World Champion, current Czech national champion. Those symbols were next to about 25 names. The others, sadly, only get their number, name, and country called.
Once staged, I cram along the fence to return to the front of field, stopping to tell Jonathan Page that I would talk to him in one hour on the podium. He smiled.

After the crowd work, clearing the media, I have to shut up for the final, wonderful, 30 seconds.
"They're off, they're, they're off!!!!

With that, Frank tapped the deck for The Hives "Hate to Say I Told You So." Giving this song to Frank could be akin to giving cocaine to a lab rat. He would play that about six times during the race. I kind of liked that.
After the start, Jindrich took the first half lap. And he totally pinned it. The locals said they never heard him so excited.
The race was nothing less than brilliant. Stybar led early. Then went into the second pit with a flat. He would emerge with a new bike in 12th. From there, the Czech team went to work. Radomir Simunek, the son of the Czech legend of the same name, went to the front and kept the Belgians in check. He went just hard enough to keep them from attacking. Martin Zlamalik drifted back to help pace Stybar back up to the front. Martin Bina lingered at the back of the lead group, paying attention to the Belgians in front and looking for Stybar coming back from behind. The Belgians all rode as individuals. And why not? They are each millionaire athletes with web sites, contracts, fan clubs, and clothing lines. The Czechs all rode for Stybar. The friendly Swiss star Christian Heule, who raced in the states in September, went to the front and led for two laps. But then Stybar, in two big moves, returned to the front. Simunek had done his work and he faded. Stybar surged. Despite a few mishaps, he just pulled away leaving Klaas Vanternout and Sven Nys in his wake. Up to them came Martin Bina. French rider Francis Mourey - like the entire French team that weekend - rode brilliantly but stayed out of the bar fight between the Belgians and the Czechs. To the thrill of the crowd, Stybar rode to a solo win. Vanternout rolled off to finish second. And the legendary Nys, with a reputation for his acrobatics, stumbled, bumbled and tumbled on the course. He and Bina swappped savage attacks and counter attacks on the final lap and brought the fight to the pavement with Nys winning the sprint.
The crowds went bananas for their beloved "Stee-bee". The cameras could not see him through all the massive flags on the finishing stretch. I let Jindrich take the finish call completely in Czech. He went three minutes HARD on the mic. It was great.
Podium. Anthem. Done.

Three months of excitement and preparation and anticipation...Done.
I had a few beers in the beer tent and returned to the office. It's a massive void after something so big. I texted home that I was done. From there I had some final fireworks ahead. Dinner with the Americans in Prague.
We found our way to Bruce Fina's car and piled in. From there we drove to the American team hotel in Tabor. We exchanged the post race pleasantries, sympathy for Katie Compton, empathy for Laura Van Gilder, wounded in an icy scrape of a crash, and installed pillars of suport for a number of young riders accustomed to podium finishes back home. The elites had out performed the junior and Under-23 riders. Meredith Miller would be the highest placed American with her 12th in the women's event. Amy Dombroski (14th) and Mo Bruno Roy (25th) put three Americans in the top 25. The elite men were sold with three riders in the top 30: Tim Johnson in 14th, Jamey Driscoll in 19th,and Jonathan Page in 30th.
From there we whisked our selves to my hotel; Dan and I packed out. And we drove to Prague in two vehicles. The winter darkness closed in around us. After an unremarkable drive on the autopista we dropped into Prague. The darkness obscured the geography. Initially the city unfurled as any other European capital. We arrived at the Hotel Perla and dropped our bags off. Then the group gathered for a walk to dinner. Around one corner the city's charm simply cracked open like an oyster laden with pearls. Every building led to another amazing building to another amazing street. All the Americans, with Dan, a Brit, and Joachim Parbo, the Dane, in tow, filled into a room. We must have been 20 strong. The food of the Czech Republic is unremarkable. But the beer flowed and there were toasts all night.
And walking home through Old Town we were besieged by the flyer-wielding guys offering strippers and sex workers and such. That included the Japanese midget in the cage...we collectively realized he may have mixed up "kiss" and "lick" to arrive at "kick". Hoping that would move us to learn more. I could not fathom there would be sufficient demand for a Japanese midget in a cage ... let alone the even more demand subgroup of the demographic looking to kick it.
We laughed for blocks until arriving at home.
I shared a rooom with Dan. The were two beds, shoved together, but we were so exhausted we did not complain. As I lay in bed, with a full wall mirror in this classic European hotel room and this classic European city, I came to realize how much I had missed my wife who was to have come along but we failed on the money end to make it happen. The "North Bend" debacle in concert with the lack of a bonus conspired against us.
I passed into a coma.
In the morning I awoke for breakfast and joined Joachim Parbo for breakfast. Bruce, Joan and Dan joined. Then Dan and I hit out for a two-hour whirlwind tour of Prague. Having been to Paris, London, Barcelona, Madrid, Brussels, and other cities in Europe, I can say Prague tops them all for stunning architecture.
As we ripped back for the cab to the airport, I could not help notice that the same guys were still out putting leaflets into people's hands. Only now they were hawking classical music and opera.
I headed home feeling as if I had been gone a month. The flight home is never as remarkable and as electrifying as the flight away. Especially to Europe.
Thanks for reading.
The last day had started with giants and had ended with midgets. To what I would return I could not say.


  1. Richard,

    Thank you for the post. It was well worth the time you invested in writing it.If we couldn't be there your description of the race and the trip made it real, Keep up the posts

  2. Really enjoyed the blog Rich! Your writing is sharp and funny, and it made me feel like I was there too. Just excellent!