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. 


domingo, 1 de enero de 2012


Blurtful (adj.): inadvertent in nature and with the potential to be harmful to feelings, image, self-esteem, or judgment.

My team mates and I were walking down the hallway in the Team USA building on our way to the dining yurt of the PanAm Games athlete’s village. At this point, we cyclists had been on the ground in Guadalajara for only a few days; a handful of athletes and staff were still trickling in before competition began. Liz Reap, Maddie Godby, Robin Farina and I were about to board the elevator when off walked USAC’s Olympic Team leader Ken Whelpdale. Liz greeted him with her usual friendly “Hello!” (as Liz seems to know all of the important people) and we went in a semi-circle of introductions.
                “Hi, I’m Ken, ” he said as he extended his hand to me.
                “Hey, I’m Dana. Dana Feiss,” I replied with a firm shake. Not too firm, not too lame. MAN-SHAKE.
                “Ah, so you’re our keirin racer,” he asked.
                “Yep, that’s me.”
                “Feeling good and ready?”
                “Aw, hell yeah! Ready to murder some bitches!” I piped emphatically. Oh, man. Did I really just say that? Blurtful. Didn't even flinch.
                Ken blinked for a beat and straightened up. “Well, okay then!” He made his way to the coaches’ room and we proceeded to file into the elevator. As the doors closed, Liz glanced at me.
                “You realize who you just said that to?” she said. “That’s our team leader and USOC representative right there. Might want to be careful what you say.”
                Didn’t the intros already cover this? “Oh. Shit. Hmm.” I’ve said before that I have peculiar neurological condition in which my lips move when I think – the end result being statements that often push the limits of social grace. In this particular instance I had had a terrible lapse.
                Robin chuckled and said “That was awesome.”
                “Send me off to the ladies room the next time we run into someone important,” I huffed. I gave Robin a half-hearted high-five and studied the linoleum as we descended, trying to decide if I should be proud or ashamed.
I would learn later in the week that not only did Ken himself curse like a sailor, but that he was rather impressed with my confident response. My stupid knee-jerk reaction turned out to be one of my more socially savvy achievements. Two points for Dana – blurts be praised!

The New Year is everyone’s time to pick something that we need to change about ourselves. We vow to do something that will make us better individuals in some way: lose weight; drive less; get fluorescent light bulbs; be friendlier. But what about things we like about ourselves?
                Understand that I’m all in favor of resolutions for self-improvement. But, to add to that, here’s my New Year’s proposition: find something that you like yourself and won’t change, no matter what. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do – chances are that you bring at least one cool and good quality to the table. Something you think a flaw just might be a saving grace.
                Go be blurtful if you want. But more importantly: Train hard, ride well, love yourself, and be good to everyone else. Let’s make 2012 awesome – GO TEAM!