Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cherry Blossom Classic

As the date of this bicycle race, cosponsored by my team Sorella Forte, got closer, I started grumbling more. What was I thinking, agreeing to spend my last weekend of an already too-short spring break--and I use the word 'break' loosely-- standing around the side of the road in The Dalles, OR?

But it was too late to back out. At the least, I figured I'd get far enough east to get a little sun. So, after spending most of the day Friday putting the last touches on our newly painted office, I packed (I used the word 'packed' loosely) up too much and not enough stuff and headed east.  I took my Cross Check, figuring that any riding I might have a chance to do would be more commute style than recreational road riding. My poor roadie definitely needs some love though.

I left after 7:00pm, late enough to miss rush hour traffic. My energy was good and so was my iPod mix and the drive out was not bad, as drives go, until I got into town and mis-read tHost Puppyhe directions. I turned left off the exit, which took me straight into Washington.  Not good. I turned around and stopped at the gas station to get directions, turning off a song that might get me shot before getting out of the car. The guy in the gas station was very nice and gave me a free map.  A few more missed turns in the dark and I finally arrived at my host  house, home of Tara, her daughter Leanna and their incredibly cute dog, Milo. Milo unfortunately stays in an outdoor kennel all the time or I would have been happy to sleep with him.

The back door was open with a welcoming note to come in and make ourselves at home.  Leanna was the only one home, sharing her mom's room for the weekend and allowing one of us volunteers to take over her (very pink) room.  Jen's bag was already stashed in there, so I took the 'designated teen room' with a much more sleep-compatible color palatte. 

I took the sign at it's word and settled in the living room to catch the end of Dollhouse.  Tara came home shortly after that though so we ended up chatting instead.  I could tell instantly that she was very sweet (she was letting a bunch of strangers invade her home after all) and very involved in the community. She told me about her work with Haven, a shelter for domestic violence victims.  I got a tour of the kitchen and she'd bought all kinds of muffins, fruit trays, juice and coffee for us. 

Jen came home a bit later and we had a chance to talk some too. The best part of the weekend was definitely spending time and actually having conversations with my team mates. Since I don't race and don't show up to the group rides (thanks in part to the school black hole I'm in for at least another two years), I rarely get to see them, and have a terrible time remembering names when I do.  Jen is doing some really interesting work with her consulting firm so we geeked out about web stuff for a while. Then she wisely went to bed, while I unwisely stayed up way too late reading Ghost Trails.

In the morning I reported to the defunct Petersburg school and checked in with Shari. She sent me to join Deb and Maureen at the turn off to the parking lot at the school and direct folks to the start line, two miles further up the road. I drove back down and parked next to Deb, but they warned that the property owner might be a little crotchety about having more than one car there. So I took the opportunity to go back to the school and ride my bike the half mile back to our spot. Whoo hoo, I used my bike, yay! 

There we proceeded to talk and shiver in the sunny, but 35 degree morning air. Even with the cold, time flew by until they both left for a nature break and ended up going on errands for Shari for an hour. And me with no book to read. And despite packing everything under the sun, I had left my mittens at home, which I was sorely regretting.  So I did jumping jacks in between directing riders on high end, funny looking time trial bikes to turn left to get to the start.  It was funny when I told them it was two miles up the road and some of them reacted with a look that clearly said, that far? To which I replied, "You're a racer, you can make it!" 

Eventually my companions returned and we resumed gossiping about everything from the common tax bracket of most racers (those bikes are pricey, and the crashes inevitable), to the sexual orientation of the racing community at large (overwhelmingly straight among men, in fact the three of us couldn't think of one gay male racer). This confounded Mo's sheltered coworker, who assumed that any sport with that much spandex must be crawling with homos.

The temperature eventually rose to more pleasant levels and a coffee fairy came by with Starbucks *and* condiments.

2009_0404_007_cherry_blossom_raceThe time trial was over at 11am, at which point we were released from duty for a few hours, until the afternoon criterium.  As I drove back toward Tara's, I crested a hill and was literally stunned by the majestic view of a snowy Mt Hood,  framed by a cloudless blue sky.

We met up at Tara's, where Maureen would be taking over the pink room that night. Then we went into town for some lunch.  When we asked locals about food places, the choices read like a who's who of fast food joints: McDonalds, Subway, Carl's Jr, Burgerville...and Taco Del Mar.  Deb decided on TDM. It was actually the nicest location I'd been to and they had free wifi.  Who says you can't get modern conveniences in small towns?

When we showed up downtown later, we were put on corner marshal duty for the criterium. Our job was to keep people from crossing the street in front of the racers. It's amazing how easy it is to control a crowd when there's no actual crowd. It was a pretty chill assignment and of course, the racing provided great entertainment. And did I mention the sun was out?  My corner mate Connie, a resident of The Dalles, even traded corners with me so I could shelter behind a building and out of the ever present wind. 

Cherry Blossom Classic RaceTowards the end of the women's 1/2/3 race, my team mate Sage came over to visit. As a mountain bike racer, Sage was out of her element, but had decided to dip her toe just once in the road racing pool.  I left her to guard my post for a few minutes while I found the loo and when I came back, all hell had broken loose. There was a nasty crash as the women came out of the turn on the last corner of the race.  I heard talk of broken ribs, femurs, concussions. I was kind of glad I didn't see the crash. I think those things are much more bearable to watch on TV. In the end, four riders went away in three ambulances and the men's race was shortened  by fifteen minutes because of the delay.

The men's pro race went off without any mishaps and all the exciting race tactics you'd expect from a pro race. It's amazing how they make the beginning riders look like they're out for a sunday stroll. There's an audible whoosh when they go by. It's pretty cool.

When the racing was over, we worked well into the evening breaking down all the equipment, including the scafolding over the finish line.  The weekend definitely made me appreciate all the work that goes into pulling off a successful bike race.  The owner of the pizza shop came out when we were nearly finished and offered the nectar of the gods--FREE BEER! Everyone become very excited except for me of course. I managed to get a free juice instead and we all hung out and talked of bikes and racing and sun, sweet sweet vitamin-D-giving sun, till the owner brought out a mop and kicked us out. 

When I got 'home' Lorraine, a new team member, also joined us at the house. Lorraine is in nursing school and I have plenty of experience listening to nurses bitch about work, so I listened while she told me about some evil biddy who's making her clinical training extra challenging. I could tell from the way she handled the situation that she has zero tolerance for B.S. and she's going to be a fantastic nurse. 

My phone service said 'extended' from the moment I arrived in town, so instead of calling Jess each night, we used Google voice chat, which worked quite well.  Her laptop doesn't have video but hearing her voice was better than texting.  I once again stayed up too late with Jill's Ghosts, and then slept poorly on top of it, thanks to a second TDM burrito brought around for free to the course marshalls. Yeah, burrito for lunch and dinner with no Beano wasn't really a great plan.

The next morning it was off to the Gorge Discovery Center for the start of the final stage of the race.  This was a road race on a 28 mile loop course featuring several evil climbs. When you turn onto a road that's named Seven Mile Hill Rd, there really can't be any good in store.  The cat 4 women only had to do one loop, but everyone else did 2-3 turns around the course.  My station was at the turn off to Seven Mile Hill Rd, and my job was just to make sure the racers turned onto the right road on the three way fork.

Cherry Blossom Classic Race

Cherry Blossom Classic Race

The races went off three at a time with about 10 minutes in between. On the first lap, the peloton was still all together with the lead car in front, so I really wasn't necessary, but I waved the blue pom pom Shari had given me and said encouraging things to all the racers.  It was a gorgeous day, sunny, just shy of warm and not too much wind, at least for the Gorge.  Once the cat 4 women came by, I had about an hour before the next wave. I drove back down the hill to hit the loo at the gas station and stock up on zoos zoos and wham whams as mom used to call them--junk food to everyone else.  Then it was back to my station, where I read my book until Betty radio'd to look out for the next wave.

This time it was all strung out, as riders who had been popped off the back in the climb struggled through their own personal time trials.  Sometimes they were lucky enough to find a small group to work with, but it was a good 30 minute spread between the first rider and the last. The cat 3 men who came through first were feeling good enough to joke around with me: "Hey, aren't you supposed to have our beer?"

"Its at the top of this hill," I promised.

Betty gave me a heads up when the DFL rider went through. Once I waved him on (but that road doesn't look as steep, he said wistfully of the alternate fork), I grabbed my bike again and decided to see a little of what the racers were dealing with.

There was an Ironclad racer stopped just after the turn, and he talked for a long time to someone in a support car. Then (reluctantly it seemed), he started pedaling again, just as I started up the hill. Although he'd been racing for hundreds of miles over the past three days and was obviously tired, I couldn't keep up with him even for a few minutes. The road curved gently enough that I kept him in tantalizing sight for a little while, giving me great fodder for imagining what a real race might be like.  In a real race, I most surely would be spit out of the peloton in short order, and chasing to keep up with whoever I could, so it wasn't too far off the mark. I surmised that if I'd had my road bike, a big breakfast and a warm up, I maybe could have kept pace with him for a mile or so, before the road turn more sharply upward.

Once he dissappeared, I turned my attention toward the spectacular scenery. I was squarely in the middle of farm country, winding through rolling hills covered in trees still barren from winter, that looked like figures from Lord of the Rings--frozen in mid-stride by some evil force, just waiting to be set free. Rusted out trucks and farm equipment gave splashes of red to the greens and grays of the grass and rocks. And the road, at least what little of it I had time to ride in fifteen minutes, didn't seem that steep, even on my steel tank of a cross check. I decided I really need to return sometime with Jess and our road bikes and make a proper tour of it.

But time was running out and I had racers to shepherd. There was still time before the start of the final days races at noon so I went down to the start to see if I could figure out who was replacing me. I had let Shari know that I needed to leave at noon. On my last official day of spring break, I needed to get home to take care of a few things and get the car back to Jess in time for her scheduled massage.

I got on the race radio and was told that Alana would take over for me. But first I had to go give Lorraine a desperately needed potty break. She was only a half mile from the finish line, at the entrance to a golf club, closing the road when the peloton came barrelling into the last 500k of the race. I rode my bike down to her spot and she grabbed her bike from her van and took off towards the finish line and the porta-potties.

I only had to stop a few cars, but the old white guys coming out of the club weren't too keen on obeying my orders. Things that make you go Arsenio would say. But they didn't run me over, and the racers got to sprint to the line in peace--or as much peace as you can have when your lungs are about to burst from your chest.

I cheered everyone who came by and was amused by the retort of one of the Ironclad riders who grumpily proclaimed, "This is the worst thing I've ever done!"

"But you finished!" I shouted to his quickly receding form.

When Lorraine came back, I went off to find Alana and found out she had gone back to the Sorella host house to pack up her stuff.  All the racers, lead and follow cars were gathering for the start of the men's pro race and my corner marshall spot was empty. So I got back in the car and squeezed into the line behind the Landrover/Orbea support car as they rolled out.  It was quite a sight to see the colorful sea of riders moving smoothly down the road. Although it felt slow as a driver, I realized were doing 20mph and the race was still neutralized while we got out of town.  When we reached my corner, I pulled off to wait for the cat 3 men and pro women to come by. In the meantime, I hunted down Alana's phone number and we straightened out the hand off.  I left once the last of the first wave came by, but Alana had about an hour before the men would come around again, so it all worked out.

As annoyed as I was before the start of the weekend, I had a really good time and was glad to get to know a few of my teammates better. Heck, I may even remember their names next time I see them. Hope springs eternal.  The race seemed to go off without too many hitches, especially considering it was the inaugural event. And the town seemed to welcome the event too.

I hope to make it back out there sometime this summer and explore some of those open roads the proper way--on two wheels.

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