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.