Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dragon boats, the Manayunk Wall, and lots of homeless folks

Lest you think that my trip to Philly was all about the beer (see my last post), here's a bit more on last weekend—all written with an hour to go before I leave for the Lubbock airport to jet down to Costa Rica.

As I mentioned somewhere, my trip to Philly was based on my appointment as the UCI's Doping Control Officer for two races that were on the World Calendar. The Liberty Classic (Pro women) and TD Bank International Cycling Championship (Pro Men) attracted a total of around 300 racers, and my task was to test six of them for banned substances under the UCI's anti-doping rules. It was my first solo gig as a DCO since completing my training last year in Canada.

I flew in on Friday of last week, and the organizers had reserved a room for me in the host hotel, the Sheraton. since I carry one of their frequent-guest cards (it's really just a scam since I'm a Hilton guy) I was put up on one of the top floors, with buffet breakfast included. From my room I had a view of part of the race course, especially the start/finish straight and the roundabout with about 500 meters to go. I could also see the Free Library (the big building on the right) where countless homeless folks mill around during the daytime as well as at night.
A room with quite a view
I had been in touch with the organizers ahead of time in regard to the possibility of borrowing a bike for a few rides, and the folks from Fuji generously allowed me the use of a fancy carbon road bike for two days. I had brought my shoes, pedals, and helmet, and thus I was able to ride  both Friday afternoon as well as on Saturday between the Team Managers' Meetings for the men's and women's races.

On both days I rode mainly the route of the race course, which leads out along the Schuykill river toward Manayunk, where the infamous 17% wall is located. Manayunk, so I understand, used to be a pretty rough place, where the workers lived. It was been transformed into more of a trendy neighborhood, with lots of eateries, small shops, and boutiques. And they are serious about the bike race! The TD Bank Classic has been in existence for the past 27 years, with different names but always under the same directorship under Dave Chauner, whom I had met the first time two years ago during my early training phase as DCO and who remembered me this year.

On Friday I did only one lap of the course, but on Saturday I did a few up-and-down along the Schuykill, especially since one side of the river is completely closed off to motorized traffic every weekend and one can ride without worries of getting nailed. On the Schuykill, a big Dragon Boat race meet was taking place, attracting dozens of 20-person boats that were battling it out in 500 meter sprints. Here's the final phase of the women's race: The Warrior Women took the gold by a smidgen. Note the big drum that the cockswain uses to set the cadence of her paddlers. It was quite a sight!
Dragon Boat racing on the Schuykill
That evening, after having had dinner with the commissaires, several of whom I knew or had at least heard about (and vice versa—it is a small community) I walked the streets of Philly in search of, well, a beer place. But that's not what I want to write about: Rather it was on the one hand the artsy-ness of this city, with small galleries, an impromptu concert in an alley, and some very interesting graffiti, but also the many homeless folks that walk the streets or just lie on the sidewalk. Here are a few pics; remember, you can click on them to get an enlarged view.
Music ...
... graffiti ...
... art ...
... fixers and the homeless
Sunday, of course, was the real raison d'être for my being in Philly in the first place: race time! Unlike the commissaires, who have to deal with sign in, staging, etc. for the 9 a.m. start, the DCO gets to sleep in and have breakfast after the teams have ransacked the place. So I took my time, loaded all my supplies into my pull-along (those test kits are not heavy by themselves, but 10 of them (you need some extras so that every rider has a choice of at least three, in case he or she thinks that one is not kosher), and then walked myself to the Doping Control Station (DCS), maybe 200 meters away from the start/finish line. The DCS was located in a rented RV, which I had inspected the day before. It had a private bathroom that would allow my medical doctors to observe the actual passing of the urine samples to the collection vessel; it had ample room for the racer, a possible team manager, the doc, and of course me to do all the paperwork and the handling of the sample; and it was away from foot traffic and thus was going to provide privacy from fans and media.

The race caravan on one of the many laps
The Pro women started about 10 minutes after the men, but since their race was only about 55 miles long, they were the first ones to be tested. After watching the start of both races I prepared the station, got all the supplies in place, made sure we had sealed beverages for the riders (just in case they needed to wait and rehydrate before being able to provide the sample), etc. Another thing I needed to do was determine the two random riders to be tested, in addition to the obligatory test of the winner. Before long, my chaperones showed up and I instructed them in their duties—they find the respective racer assigned to them after the race and stay with him or her until the completion of the testing. The doc showed up, and we went over the procedure, and then it was time for the finish. The women showed up in short order, each one courteous, professional, and pretty much ready to pee. I tried to minimize the intrusion into their work day as much as possible by staying focused, friendly, and efficient. An hour after the race, all three samples were properly documented and sitting in the RV's fridge.
Louise LaLonde, working the race radio
With several hours until the finish of the 150+ mile men's race I was able to catch a ride in the chief commissaire's car for two laps of the race. The PCP (that's the UCI's official name for the chief, the President of the Commissaires' Panel, and that's what I'll be in Costa Rica this weekend) for the TD Bank International Cycling Championship (different from the PCP of the women's Liberty Classic, Canadian Wayne Pomario) was none less than the "bull-dog" herself, Louise LaLonde. Now, you need to understand that this nick-name is a loving one. Louise is an unbelievable commissaire and DCO with sooooooo much experience. She was my final coach and mentor last year in Saguenay, Quebec, and her reputation precedes her. She has worked pretty much any event out there, outside the Tour de France. World Championships, Olympics, Pan-Ams, you name it—her most recent gig had been as DCO at the 2011 Tour of California.

So here I had the privilege of sitting in the chief commissaire's car, at the biggest one-day event in the US, and seeing and experiencing all the action from the back seat. Of course, I've been Com 1 or Com 2 at road races before, but dude, this is the BIG time! And I have to say, after that hour spent with Louise, her driver, and the man whose voice was "Radio Tour" (more on that in a second) I have even more respect for what road commissaires are doing, versus what we as mountain bike commissaires are experiencing. I would like to publicly state: I am distraught by the fact that I am 55 (and thus way beyond the UCI's age limit), that I never got a chance to progress as a road official (because of the distance from the races), and that I will forever miss the intensity of being in charge of a world-class road event. Honestly, that chagrins me.
We were right alongside the charging field
The chaos was all-encompassing. With a field of  close to 200, everything was in flux. We were in the late stages of the race, and there was a break off the front, and the pack was chasing. With 24 team cars in the back (the break was hovering around 1 minute, and team cars can't move up until it exceeds a minute and the chief thinks it will stick) and no race radios (disallowed by the UCI), there was constant motion forth and back. We had three radios going in the car. The fellow next to me, the voice of Radio Tour (that's the official name of the channel that is being used to communicate between commissaires, motos, and the team cars, informing everyone of what the current situation is on the road—"a break of three riders, #53, 17, 78 has 1:56 over a 5-man chase, consisting of riders # 38, 123, 173, 48, 56, who have an advantage of 38 seconds over the main field"—and at the same time listening to team car requests—"Team HTC wants to talk to its riders"—and letting the team cars know that Team Exergy needs a feed (since one of their riders just raised his arm), was constantly talking, Louise was up and down on her seat, looking through the roof and giving  team cars instructions, and the driver dodged riders, team cars, motos, even pedestrians. Holy shit, it was total mayhem! And I loved it and I know I would thrive on it.
The infamous Manayunk Wall, 800 meters of 17% pain
Driving up the Manayunk Wall, a place that I had read about in VeloNews forever, was truly a spectacle. Fans were standing five, six deep almost the entire 800 meter stretch of this 17% climb. The noise was deafening. I could have sworn I was on the Mur de Huy in Belgium! The smell of beer and whatever was on the barbecue grill was overpowering. Our driver had no mercy with those who were dropped as he swerved around those riders to make sure we wouldn't lose the field on the downhill afterward. The roads are pretty horrible; when I had ridden this stretch on Saturday I had been wondering how the riders could bomb down going 50 mph and not lose their grip on the bars. Man, the car was bouncing like crazy and we were screaming through the turns!

The peloton approaching the start/finish area in Philly
After two laps I was dropped off at the DCS, just in time to determine the two randoms and meet with the male doctor. Testing the guys took even less time than the women as each one of the three wanted to get back to the hotel as quickly as possible. So, my job was done less than 45 minutes after the race. All that was left was fill out the appropriate paperwork, go to FedEx, and ship the samples to the lab. Easy! My first solo assignment as a DCO had been successfully completed.

I enjoyed another nice evening in Philly and then flew home on Monday morning, for another two days in Lubbock. And now I am sitting in Costa Rica, outside of  Cartago, overlooking a verdant valley and waiting for the organizers of this weekend's mountain bike race to pick me up and inspect the course with me. So, come back in a day or two for another update. Maybe the next one will not take 24 hours to write as this one did.


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