jueves, 11 de diciembre de 2014

Intro to Euroland

“You know, most people go to normal places for their first European trip. London, Paris, Rome, or something. You picked Belgium,” Erin said. “What the hell?”

My friend had a point. Growing up on the Eastern seaboard I had always envisioned grand European adventures – the geographic accessibility alone seemed to make it a no-brainer, along with the culturally euro-centric focus of the east coast: good things come from just across the pond.

“Um, well, it seemed like an unusual opportunity,” I stammered into the phone. “When one presents itself, you’ve gotta take it.”

In the four years that I had been racing internationally I had never been to Europe once. Bike racing had afforded me the opportunity to travel to and compete in a handful of incredible and unlikely locations, mainly in South America (though the Kazakh visa is still my favorite page in my passport). Europe, the crown jewel of cycling sport and culture, had been conspicuously absent from my rider resume. Patrik Lyons, a friend and cycling agent who had been trying to get me into 6-day events for a number of years, tipped me off to a grand prix that had just added women’s sprint events. A few days after the Los Angeles Grand Prix in early November – and with the encouragement of my coach and family, as well as the help of a heap of frequent flier miles – I was on a flight over to race the International Belgian Open in Ghent. I was about to dump myself into a city I had barely researched, without a local contact, to do a race I had only learned of about a week prior. Good God and dry gin, what am I doing?

Solo travel can be daunting in one’s own country. Solo travel in a foreign country with no ground support and crap-load of bike equipment is an odd mix of terrifying and exciting. Get on a plane. Tumble off the plane and onto a train – the correct train (and find somewhere to stuff the bike box on said train). Pile off the train and onto the little tram that finally stops at the hotel on the outskirts of the city. The strain of attempting to read each stop in Dutch, Flemish, and French was enough to give me gray hair – but, unlike the organized chaos to which I had grown accustomed in South America, at least everything in northern Europe runs blissfully regimented and on time.

Upon arrival at the Holiday Inn, an unassuming brick-and-plaster cube across the parking lot from an Ikea and an empty expo center, I was able to connect with fellow rider Jake Duerhing and his Dutch mechanic Jan-Willem van der Heijden. Jake and our third U.S. teammate Ian Holt would both be racing the men’s ominium that weekend (a lucky coincidence for me); I was thankful to have a couple familiar faces here with me in such unfamiliar territory.

*

Ghent may be Belgium’s best-kept secret; once medieval Europe’s second-largest city after Paris, it has developed over the centuries as an incredible showcase for European arts and culture – but has remained less on the tourism radar than Brussels and Bruges. Here hides one of Europe’s finest panoramas of canals, ancient spires, and extravagant grand houses against a backdrop of steely skies.  Under the imposing grace of Gravensteen Castle and St. Bavo’s cathedral the city hosts an ornate opera house, 18 museums, 100 churches, and over 400 historical buildings – as well as a handful of monasteries-cum-breweries that put Belgium on the map for some of the finest beers in the world.



The city sits at the confluence of the Scheldt and Leie rivers in the heart of the Flanders region – arguably one of the most infamous racing realms in professional cycling. Belgium takes its cycling seriously and Ghent is not stranger to this obsession – it boasts two separate velodromes, one being the Eddy Merckx Cycling Center and cycling school. This particular 250-meter oval office would be the venue in which we would do bicycle battle for a weekend.

The Eddy Merckx velodrome is a stunning expanse of track from the inside and a perfect tribute to Belgium’s most celebrated cyclist. Glass panes on all sides of the building allow light to pour through and illuminate the black-brown boards in a rollicking explosion of color and contrast. Not all tracks are created equal; I became irrevocably sure of this as we walked into The Cannibal’s shrine for the first time for pre-race training.



Getting acquainted with a new track is like going on a blind date. No matter what your friends and the internet tell you about him, the only way to properly determine how well you guys mesh is to meet in person – and the first encounter is almost always awkward and a bit uncomfortable. If one can be comfortable with being uncomfortable, everything will go fine. Probably. Maybe.

I had three days to figure out this particular track before racing began. Each track has its own quirks and nuances – a facet of racing that one comes to appreciate instead of dread if she’s adaptable. Steeper turns made this track a slightly different animal than my usual training venue of L.A.; otherwise the shape and tightness of the two seemed the same and made it easier to get a handle on timing and strategy. In an unknown field the only thing a rider can control is her own ability and her own execution; this velodrome would suit me just fine.

*

Rituals tend to be an important part of the racing process, especially in an entirely unknown place. In my case, these anticipated patterns became centered largely on convening on caffeine and food. Each morning I found Jan-Willem in the dining area of the hotel atrium – where we swapped cultural notes over bad Keurig coffee.

Jan is a Dutch racer-turned-mechanic; a light athletic build matched with bright blue eyes, angular nose and cheekbones, and sandy Flock of Seagulls-style hair give him the quintessential euro-dude countenance. At 20 years old he’s one of USA Cycling’s go-to mechanics at its European base of Sittard, The Netherlands – and, to compliment his wrenching skills, also happens to be an excellent guide on all things Euro. We discussed everything from the precarious predicament of Ukraine to Bulgarian travel to the culturally divisive nature of Europe as a whole.

Ukraine is screwed. Don’t ever fly Bulgaria Air. Despite how everyone here likes to pick on their neighbors, they all seem to unanimously hate the French. Makes sense.

*

“Give me your bike for a second,” Jan said.

“Um, ok. What’s the matter?” I blinked at him and wheeled it over.

“Your bar tape. It looks like shit. I won’t let you ride like that, you’re not in South America anymore,” he replied as he plunked my bike onto the stand.

Yes, that became grossly apparent by the giant Lithuanian and Belgian girls who just strode onto the infield for the open training session. That’s cool. No problem. I got this. Yep.

“Thanks, cupcake. Good lookin’ out.”

*

Whoever coined the saying “attitude is everything” may have very easily been a cyclist. The attitude that one brings to the line can often dictate how a race will unfold even before the gun goes off. I considered this briefly as I sat at the start of the keirin final, hands on hips and staring straight ahead at the sweeping boards in front of me.

The attitude doesn’t tend to change regardless of whom I race – from a good friend to a French stranger.  Look me in the face; know that I want to rip your heart out and eat it raw. It’s not personal.  

I had managed 5th in the sprint tournament the previous evening. I knew very little about the riders on either side of me except some 200-meter times and their respective placements; everyone had speed, varied skills. I didn’t care, it didn’t matter; I want to rip your hearts out and eat them raw.  I gave Jan a couple thwacks on the shoulder as he held me before I sank into my drops; the gun went up.

BANG
*

“Hey, are you almost ready to go?” Jake asked. “We need waffles!”

“No way, dude, I gotta go do that podium thing first. We’ll get to the waffles soon enough. And beer, that’s non-negotiable.” I zipped up my skin suit, checked my hair, and moseyed across the infield.

I had drawn fourth position and slotted in directly behind Belgian rider Shana Dalving. I was anticipating a move from the German behind me and patiently protected my precarious fourth spot until the derny swung off. I throttled out of turn two on the final lap and swept up Dalving in three, barreling through the corner and into the home straight after Olivia Montauban and Mélissandre Pain on the front. I finished on the wheels of the two French to round out the podium.

After the photos and proper “félicitations” I was still reeling, thrilled for my results and thankful for the help I had to get there. It was indeed time for a beer.



*

Belgium’s claims to culinary fame are all items that are decidedly deemed bad for athletes – beer, chocolate, waffles, and fries. In fact, my theory regarding the Belgians’ cycling prowess is that they’re inherently strong because they have to ride so much – how else can they consume all of these things and still remain lean? They need to burn them off somehow. It’s the only logical conclusion in my American brain.

Naturally, the mission once racing had concluded was to sample all of these items – not necessarily in any particular order. After dumping off equipment and swapping spandex for normal clothes, Jake, Ian, Jan, and myself took the tram into downtown Ghent to see what we could find.

Ghent has a cool elegance during the day, but it comes truly and lavishly alive at night. The streets and building walls teem with electric light that bathes the city’s intricate architecture in a brilliant golden glow; sparkling facades in the old port markets of Graslei and Korenlei pair with bubbling banter from canal-side cafes and bars long into the evening.  Unfortunately, this excludes bakeries and waffle stands (which close promptly at 6PM on Sunday evenings, apparently. Damn it) and so we settled for beer first. We bought a round at the cozy Picardie – I sipped the best brown ale I’ve ever had (Trappistes Rochefort 10, for the record) in a basement bar that was older than my home country. We cut across the square for some proper Belgian fries and a second beer before calling it a night.




*

Cobbles are awful. After a day of running around on the cobbled streets and sidewalks of Ghent I will never understand how folks manage to race their bikes over them. I suppose that’s one of the many reasons I remain a track racer. My extra day on the ground after the grand prix allowed me to fully embrace every tender step; the boys had left early that morning and I was on my own. I spent the morning getting hopelessly lost in the medieval neighborhoods of Patershol and Vrijdagmarkt before stumbling into a teeny café on a tight side street for a recovery waffle. Indeed, I finally got my waffle – airy and delicately crunchy with a dappling of powdered sugar, accompanied by a perfect cappuccino at Fritz.  

Ghent is best viewed from the ground up – or, rather, from the canal. Gravensteen’s walls were as striking looming over me on the water as they had been as I viewed the city from their tops an hour beforehand. For six euros a boat tour gave an intimate look at Ghent by way of the very canals that gave it life; incidentally, it’s also better than walking. I used the remainder of my on-foot energy to snag to chocolates and cuberdons in Korenmarkt and an afternoon glass of Gruut at a canal-side bar across the square. That evening I lingered over post-dinner coffee in a corner of Restaurant Valentijn, allowing the rich Belgian cuisine to settle in my stomach, before reluctantly ambling through the bright streets to the tram station.






As I stuffed the chocolates into my bike box back at the hotel, I realized that I had just completed my first crash course in European bike racing. If that’s the intro course, what are the core credits? I can’t wait to find out.

***

viernes, 20 de julio de 2012

Summer Camp


I spied Jack as he ambled on to the infield – and immediately took off running at full tilt. I barreled across the grass and leapt straight at him through the air, arms stretched wide. We collided into a hug as he took three staggering steps backwards, narrowly missing the rack on which he had just hung his bike. It was two days before the Alpenrose Velodrome Challenge in Portland, Oregon, and the bike racing Summer Camp extravaganza was in full swing.
                When I was a kid, summer camp entailed a week plunked into a chunk of Pocono forest and doing, well, campy-type things: hiking, canoeing, horseback riding, archery, campfires, arts n’ crafts, sleeping platform tents. It was a time to get out of town and reunite with friends whom I hadn’t seen since last summer. We kept in touch with letters or email as we impatiently awaited a blissful 7-day block of shenanigans.
                Now, at 22 years old, my version of summer camp has taken on an entirely new meaning. The winter World Cup season had long since ended and the summer domestic season officially started up in June. It was time to load the bikes and prepare for a couple race weekends of fast and friendly racing up the West Coast. Besides Nationals, this is the time that we bike racers can get to commune en masse with others of our kind – and not have a damned care in the world.

I had stuffed myself into the back of Missy’s Subaru Impreza like a troupe member in a clown car. The vehicle had three humans, five bikes, a bike box, a wheel case, three sets of race wheels, and luggage loaded in and on top of it. We were chugging up the 5 from Los Angeles to San Jose for the first stop of Summer Camp: the Hellyer Velodrome Challenge. My vision was still hazy as I was coming out of post-nap stupor, having been dozing and cuddled up next to a Mavic disc wheel for about two hours of the trip.
                “Are you okay back there?” Missy said, blinking into the rearview mirror.
                “Yep, I’m good. I told you, I’m little. I’m totally compact and built for travel,” I replied.
                The name “Summer Camp” started out as a playful nickname for the West Coast race series. The idea is that each major track – Hellyer in San Jose, Alpenrose in Portland, and Marymoor in Seattle – hosts a three-day track race. The relative proximities of the tracks makes a drivable trip, and riders go to as many of the races as they can; more often than not one sees the usual suspects year after year. Like the summer camps that we attended as kids, the race series has become a summer staple – both athletically and socially speaking.
                The Hellyer Velodrome Challenge felt like a warm-up. There were fewer familiar faces at this particular race than in seasons past, but that only left me more stoked for Portland. Wagons-ho!

Every summer camp needs activities, right? Our theme might be bike racing, but that doesn’t mean that other interests are neglected. If one thinks about it, we’re already sort of camping: tents litter the infield at each race and we’re based out of said tents for most of those three race days. In Portland, there are requisite day trips to Sumptown Coffee and Bike Central, or sometimes Voodoo Donuts.
                “Arts n’ crafts” pertains to decorating one’s race number with stickers, as well as nail painting. I can’t speak for the male racers, but any girl worth her salt takes these necessary decorative measures into her race prep. Racing is a lot more exciting with glitter and neon colors.
                Picnic lunches consist of splitting a slightly smushed peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich on a blanket under a pop-up tent – followed by a banana and an energy gel for dessert. We don’t have campfires, but we all like to gather around a table with food and some beer after racing. Singing, dancing, and rambunctious laughter undoubtedly ensues – much to the chagrin of normal diners. It’s almost the same.

We sat in the ready area for the keirin final. The rain had passed lightly over Alpenrose and we had been able to move on with the third and final day of AVC. Some of the girls skimmed their tires for dirt; others shook out their legs as final wake-up for their muscles. I stared straight ahead before turning to my right to look at Missy.
                “Attack pandas, engage” I said as offered up my hand for a pre-race fist bump.
                “We got this,” she said as our knuckles clacked together through our gloves. We then drew starting position Popsicle sticks and walked to the line.
Racing is the common thread that ties us into this whole thing in the first place. But it wasn’t until this year that I myself actually started to get it. I went to my first summer camp race in San Jose in June of 2010 and treated it like a World Cup. It was my first race anywhere else other than Trexlertown or Los Angeles. I had no idea who anyone was, no actual team mates, and limited race skills. I did, however, manage to put a lot of pressure on myself, regardless.
However, this was my third year of Summer Camp and was somehow different – more relaxed, I suppose. We all race to win, and it’s true that this is about competition – it always has been. But it’s also about fun and just racing your freakin’ bike. It’s about cheering for everybody. The same people that race each other in a sprint final become partners in the team sprint. The friends you make and keep along the way are just as important as any cash you make or records you break.

*

domingo, 18 de marzo de 2012

Don't Cry For Me, Argentina

This time was going to be different, I was sure of it. I lay on my cot in our tiny hotel room as the Mar del Plata nightlife roared on outside; the Argentinean beach city was alive and glittering beyond the 19th-story window. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, letting my belly balloon with air and my spine to press into the smushy foam mattress.
                We’re in the starting gate. Count-down is starting. Beep-five, beep-four, beep-three, beep-two, beep-one, beeeeeeeeep-GO!
                Yes, this time would be different.
 

Located on Argentina’s Atlantic coast, the city of Mar del Plata is about 400 kilometers south of Buenos Aires – the second largest city in the Buenos Aires province after the capital itself. Mar del Plata was built essentially on national and international tourism; it’s the quintessential South American beach city, complete with a host of hotels, restaurants, casinos, and golf courses. It also hosted the 1995 Pan American Games, which attests to the city’s certain athletic panache.
                Subsequently, it was here that we were plunked for the 2012 Pan American Continental Track Cycling Championships. After roughly 20 hours of planes and airports, as well as a five and half hour bus ride, it’s only fitting that I was genuinely enamored with Mar del Plata. This went beyond the normal gritty fieriness that I enjoy about South America in general. The vast expanse of ranches and grassland we had covered to get there belied the vibrant mixture Old World European-styled architecture and modern coastal flair of the city itself. It’s lively, loud, and eclectic.
                Plus the steaks were to die for. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise about Argentina’s meat products should be smacked. Period.
After months of trying to rebound from Colombia, I was ready to sink my teeth in Argentina. Immediately we settled into the all-too-familiar, enticingly chaotic routine of the South American bike racing scene. Game on



It was if, for a moment, the morning breeze was being held like baited breath. Liz and I sat in the ready area for the team sprint in anticipation of our qualifying heat. We had practiced handfuls of starts together prior to departing Los Angeles and upon getting to the track in Mar del Plata. The track here was 250 meters of outdoor concrete, a seemingly far cry from the protected indoor wooded tracks we had raced on before.
                It matters a lot less in the pole lane, assuming I can get on Liz’s wheel. We had started perfectly in practice the day before. Somewhere in training my breathing rhythm had clicked, my bodily mechanics slowly and consciously aligned to enhance my start. We were ready. We had to be.
                But as I sat in the plastic lawn chair on the home straight, all my demons from the Cali World Cup came screaming out of the closet. The frozen legs as the gate released, the wheel bobble, Liz slowly pulling further and further away with each pedal stroke, all replayed in my head as I remembered the disaster.
                Not this time. You just nailed it yesterday. You visualized your perfection last night. You will do this.
                At the call of “Estados Unidos!” we rose from our seats and went to the start line; Liz got situated in the gate as Ben rolled me up next to her.
                “Cincuenta segundos!” Hands on top of the bars, deep belly breathing. Yoga’s good for stuff, see?
                “Treinta segundos!” Keep breathing. Remember, hips forward and up.
                “Deiz segundos!” Hands in the drops. Breathe in on the odd counts, out on the evens.
                Beep-five, beep-four, beep-three, beep-two, beep-one, beeeeeeeeep-GO!
                It was the scene I had played in my mind’s eye the night before. Our start was perfectly synched as the gate released; I filed directly behind Liz before the middle of the first turn, building smooth speed as I latched onto her wheel in her draft. Leave a gap, take a run. By turn four Liz was swinging up for the transition and I slung myself ahead. I barreled along the black line for my second lap, legs cranking against the lactic strain in my quads and hamstrings.
                I busted across the line with a guttural yelp and swung up to graze the rail, hoping, praying for a satisfactory time. Holy hell.
                Jamie gave us the news as I spun on the rollers: we had qualified second behind Venezuela and would be riding against them in the gold final ride-off in the evening.
                “Dana, that was the best start I’ve ever seen you do. Ever.” Mind: blown.



That afternoon I eased onto my bed and watched the ceiling fan wobble precariously as its blades whirled in a breezy blur. My open palms faced skyward, my feet splayed lazily outward. Outside, gulls squawked overhead and boats bobbed on the deep green Atlantic in the distance. A tired taxi horn blared somewhere down below.
We were in the gold final. It would be easy to get wrapped up in anticipation of the races to come already. But the sprint and keirin were far off – and whatever happened in those races happened. The focus was here and now, and I had to visualize accordingly.
                Let’s get this.


Shakira blasted over the loudspeaker – it’s difficult to attain maximum groovitude at a sporting event without a decidedly Latin beat. I tapped my cleats on the concrete as we sat in the ready area on the backstretch. The Colombian team sprint team sat next to us as they prepared to ride off for bronze.
                I glanced to my right at the Colombian starter and extended a fist in an offertory good luck fist bump. She met my knuckles with hers and smiled, braces glinting; I smiled and nodded back.
We watched as the Colombians clinched bronze in a perfectly-executed ride.
                 It was our turn; we settled into the starting formation as usual. Just more of the same. The countdown and breathing began.
                Breathe and GO.

We finished second after Venezuela edged us by 0.3 seconds – close enough that it should have felt like a crushing defeat. Compared to my Cali ride, however, it was perfect. Nothing to cry about there. 

*