Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Mission Control at #USACrits Hyde Park Blast

I’m under a tent, under the Hyde Park Blast podium scaffolding in front of a bank of switches and red LCD clocks.  As an audio producer at a local radio station, I’m accustomed to banks of effects knobs and volume sliders.  Despite my alleged experience and University of Wisconsin degree in Buttonpushingology, I still feel like a caveman at Cape Canaveral mission control. 

The guy in charge of the lap timing at the Hyde Park Blast USA Crit Series Race stepped out for a soda, and asked me to man the controls.  His judgment has obviously been compromised by being inside this prison hot box all day.  Like every year at the Hyde Park Blast, It’s 90 degrees outside and 120 in the timing tent.  I remind myself, “Hit the red button when the leader comes through to reset the timer.  Hit the other red button as the pack rolls through.”  Race fans think the clock is run electronically with a bike sensor embedded in the start finish line.  Despite available technology, races are run by people at the root, in my case, a hot monkey in a tent with a 5 foot roof. 

The Timer Peers Between Podium Scaffolding Banners
Cowbells and cheers erupt.  I can see the rider from Patent It approach the start/finish line through the 3 inch slit in the tenting.  It’s like watching a pro bike race through a submarine periscope.  I hit the button, the lap clock starts.  Now 15 seconds later the pack storms down Erie Avenue into Hyde Park Square.  I hit the other button.  The split clock pauses at 00:15.04 while the lap clock continues.  “He’s got 15 seconds,” I hear someone shout.  Mission complete, and about one minute and 40 seconds till my next lap.

Solo Breakaway Burning A Big Match
Just behind the timing tent is the pit.  I’m holding a rear wheel in my right hand.  The rules seem a bit loose, especially to the guy in the Hawaiian shirt nearby as he watches a rider stop in the pit and get a butt-push out.  It doesn’t seem fair.  He taps on my shoulder and asks, “Why do they get to stop?  Why do they get to skip a lap?”  I explain. 

At the official’s discretion, riders suffering a mechanical problem are allowed a chance to get back into the race.  At the Hyde Park Blast, with a lot of riders a U-turn choke point, again at an official’s discretion, riders who got tailed off the pace early in the race due to a poor starting position are sometimes granted a second chance.  I get a nod and an eyebrow.  Stopping in the pit isn’t an advantage.  Riders refer to every hard effort as burning a match.  When you move up in the bunch, sprint or try to get away from the peloton, you burn a match.  Once the box is empty, the fire goes out.  You’re done. 

A rider with a flat rolls in.  The official nods.  As the rider lifts the rear of his bike, my mechanic friend undoes the quick release and removes the flat wheel.  I whip the fresh one into the bikes drop-outs, finesse the cassette into the chain and close the quick release skewer.  With a hand on the rider’s lower back, my buddy escorts him to the pit exit lane.  The pack rounds the corner.  The official nods and the rider gets a turbo boost push back into the race.  I turn to Hawaiian Shirt Guy and pick up the conversation. 

Remember that match burning, I ask.  The stress of getting a flat at 28mph is burning a match.  Coming into the pit and hoping you get a good wheel change is burning a match.  Getting your bike back up to 28 miles an hour is burning a match.  That guy is 3 short of a full box now.   10 laps later the same rider makes the slice of the throat gesture to the official and exits the course, all burnt up.

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