My brother joined me to watch the Second Ascent Twilight Criterium (aka “The Ballard Crit”) on Saturday. He had never seen a bike race and was skeptical, but I successfully convinced him that it would be like watching a combination between a drag race, a cage fight, and a ballet. The racing in all the categories blew him away (almost literally, at times) and he was inspired to write this:
Two Hundred Fifty-Six Dollars, a Couple of Bus Passes, and a Miller High Life
–by Tom Longdon
I woke up in the middle of the night with my stomach in knots. Crazy images from a dream were still skittering through my brain: Mechanical torture devices and bodies hurtling around and around in a frenzy: Blood and flayed bones, whirrs and clicks and shouts and groans and thumping heartbeats and a multi-legged rampaging monster that was part machine, part bio-organism. And it breathed a chill wind that screamed like a banshee. My intestines burbled and roiled.
Not a night on The Bad Whiskey: I had just witnessed my first criterium bicycle race through the streets of Old Seattle. The course was laid out in the dockside area of the Ballard District, where the streets are still cobbled in brick and warehouses and merchants who ply to the marine trade abut historic Shanghai Saloons.
This is not a rally or a pastoral touring race, or anything like a sterile sprint around a pristine velodrome. A four-block circuit, about a half mile, is lined with banks of steel barricades and stacks of hay bales and lots and lots of caution tape. An ambulance keeps its engine running on one of the side streets.
Teams of riders, you might call them gangs, race in packs numbering up to sixty. Lined up four deep at the starting line, they span the narrow street curb to curb, elbow to elbow. These aggressive competitors range from weekend amateur to elite and professional. Few rules. Pure speed. Highly tuned bodies and expensive machines. Little room to maneuver and no margin for error. Prize money and too much testosterone. It’s a damned street fight.
Races run forty to seventy minutes. Speeds can reach forty miles an hour. That is, as long as the bike stays glued to the pavement. Turning ninety degree corners over uneven pavement or a slick manhole cover, if a rider comes unstuck, the physics of acceleration and centrifugal force spit out some catastrophic forces. On turns, as the pack is choked to a dense unit and lactic poison builds up in the blood, riders lose it and become projectiles on a straight vector. Five riders can go down. This thins the pack, which speeds up the race.
Attrition is high. Only a third of the starters finished some of the races. The starting leg along Ballard Ave., about a thousand feet long, is a slight incline approaching turn one, which has a nasty pothole right in the best line. Racers hammer hard against gravity up this leg and turn down Vernon Place in a maneuver like a flock of birds in an aerial wing-over. They accelerate around turn two which declines along Shilshole Ave., where they get a push from gravity and a clean humming run down smooth grooved concrete.
At turn three, Dock Place, the surface transitions to ancient brick. Here, at the tightest radius of the turn, there is a steel manhole cover worn smooth by decades of industrial traffic. This takes out many riders. Race volunteers and spectators scurry onto the course to drag off twisted wreckage and bloodied whimpering bodies before the breathing multi-legged banshee comes screaming around again, in less than a minute.
The pack, called a peloton, produces its own wind at these speeds, and it blows and sucks your hair and clothing around like you are being passed by a tractor trailer rig on a highway. Inside the peloton there are micro cells of moving air, slipstreams and turbulence, and team members shout to each other: “move back!” “up on your left!”, maneuvering for the best aerodynamic position within the peloton as a whole. As the group gets squeezed and expands again out of the turn, or if there is a “mishap,” those lucky enough to make it through sprint away and up the Ballard Ave. straightaway again.
Sometimes a single racer emerges and bolts two hundred feet ahead of the pack. It looks like he has an unsurpassable lead. But by the next lap he may be gone, absorbed by the pack again. Or you will see him later, sitting rocking back and forth next to a broken bicycle, being doctored by a medic.
Even at the end of the Ballard incline, the banshee is accelerating. Riders grunt and gasp, brakes squeal. The pothole at turn one claims a victim. The breathing monster hisses as a tire peels away from a rim, and a rider with a flat veers off into the gutter and flies into the hay bales.
This is a free-for-all. A tag-team cage fight. If a racer has to pull out because of a mechanical problem, he can emerge from the pits and re-enter the race. He is out of contention, but he can help his teammates by playing hit and run with riders on other teams. He can slip in behind a team riding in a cell to produce drag, or sprint ahead to create a compression wave for his own team members to ride. It’s not fair, but it’s not against the rules, either: there are no rules.
In a criterium race, there is prize money, but more importantly there are points to be won for finishing in top positions. These are carried through in subsequent races and accrue through the season. Top point earners rise in rank. To make things more interesting in individual races, race officials randomly announce “Primes” (pron. ‘preem’): individual lap prizes. This is done to pick up the pace, and arouse the bloodlust of spectators. Prizes may be cycling merchandise donated by vendors, or they may be cash. In one race a Prime was shouted by the race announcer as a cynical challenge during a lull. The cash prize: One Dollar.
The lower class races, the masters, fours and threes, have produced a lot of casualties today. Parts of the course are actually smeared with blood and meat. In the ones and twos, the elite amateurs and professionals, a smaller field takes the starting line. These are the racers who tour nationally and internationally, the guys who are chasing Lance Armstrong. The elites call in sick at work to punish themselves with extra training for a race. The pros train and race full-time. Superior training helps, and so does luck. The consistent winners, however, are known as The Freaks of Nature.
The Freaks of Nature are born with inhuman qualities: lungs like cheetahs, and heart muscles that could pump blood to the brain of a full grown giraffe. Some, like Lance, have extra mitochondria in their cells, which enables their bodies to better metabolize toxic lactic acid and deliver more oxygen to the muscles than even the finest normal athlete. They are anatomical freaks, and as competitors, they are ruthless. They ride $10,000 bicycles and are at the peak of athletic condition. No energy is wasted. Some say they do not feel pain, at least not as normal humans feel pain.
Rounding out of turns in a synchronized mass, these racers are like statues at 35 mph. Rider after rider clicks into a higher gear in metronomic sequence. The group sweeps around the course like a fast-moving amoeba, smoothly reshaping itself to conform to the contours of the circuit and fluctuations in timing and speed. Surface transitions ripple through each rider and across the mass like a rogue wind over a field. There are fewer frantic shouts of command, breathing is smooth and controlled. The pitch of the breathing monster is a little higher, a little louder.
Their race runs approximately seventy minutes. For an hour the cyclists pound out lap after lap, then the race announcer will call the race to a final ten laps. For sixty minutes the riders push flat out. Team riders with less overall endurance push the pace in multi-lap sprints, strategically sapping the strength of other teams, then fall back themselves, or drop out, exhausted. Or they crash. Around lap forty I saw a cyclist walking his bike to the pits from the treacherous turn three. His left knee and elbow were scraped to the bone. Later I saw him back in the race, threading himself into the middle of the pack.
Racers at this level stay together in a tight pack. Even after an hour they are still a rolling amoebic monster about a half block long. The elite amateurs are beginning to show themselves within the pack, breaking formation, pumping their bicycles from side to side, flailing. They are pushing against a wall of air and the wall is gaining mass. This is yet another purpose of the Prime.
Throughout the day race officials have passed a hat through the spectators to amass a purse. At around seven laps to go, the purse is announced as the riders blow past the finish line: Two Hundred Fifty Six Dollars, a Couple of Bus Passes, and a Miller High Life. To the pros this still real money, and for a contentious amateur it’s a jackpot, and it’s a chance to give the pros a run for their money.
For most of the race the pros have hidden within the pack, preserving strength for the finish. They tuck into pockets of negative air pressure, deftly working fluctuations in the fluid dynamic of a gaseous envelope. But now a racer breaks away and squeezes off a small group of leaders with him.
They are a meta-human, bio-mechanical engine. It summons power from the Primitive and welds it to carbon fiber and titanium. Strategy becomes instinct. The abstract finish line is survival itself. The primeval subconscious rises to the lungs and heart and pumps down through sinew and muscle to deliver rolling momentum to hybrid composite and alloy.
The Peloton, that banshee-breathing monster of my quasi-nightmare, has birthed a changeling. It is Thoroughbred and Wild. It is Pure and It is Predatory. The Freaks of Nature have patiently and relentlessly harried down their pursuit, and now they, or It, release a final shock of adrenaline. It lithely corners the final turn: Strides lengthen into powerful closing paces, like a cheetah reaching out with clawed limbs at weakened prey.