Sunday, October 30, 2011

Merry Christmas in New Mexico—well, almost

Since Wednesday I have been residing in a condo at Angel Fire Resort in New Mexico, where the 2011 USA Cycling National Collegiate Mountain Bike championships are taking place. And it was on Wednesday that winter returned, with a powerful storm system that has brought traffic chaos to the region (as well as the East Coast). Here's what I woke up to on Thursday morning:

The Chile Express ski lift at Angel Fire Resort

What had been rain on Wednesday had turned into snow in the late afternoon, and by morning our mountain bike venue had been changed into a ski paradise. At the base elevation where the Chile Express ski lift is located at about 8,900 feet, the snow was about 8 inches deep. At the top of the mountain, where the downhill race was going to be started on Friday, it was more than a foot; the elevation here is around 10,600 feet, well over 3,000 meters.

Now, does that look like a mountain bike commissaire?
Fortunately, the weather forecast for the remainder of the week included lots of sunshine and above-freezing temperatures, but not by much. So, race organizer Hogan, USA Cycling’s National events Director Kelli, and I in my capacity as Chief Referee put our heads together for contingency plans and a few schedule changes. We feared the worst, but even though the course conditions turned out to be anything but ideal the entire event so far has come off with an astonishing ease and smoothness that we’re still wondering whether something really bad is going to happen tomorrow, on the last day of competition. With the collegiate crowd enthusiastic and in high spirits, who cared about a little bit of snow and freezing temperatures? well, certainly not these guys who supported their female teammates:
You gotta love collegiate cycling!

With the sun out and some of the snow melting, the course soon turned into a complete quagmire. Our first event, the cross-country race, became a total mudfest. The fastest woman needed almost two hours to cover two 5.5-mile loops! Many of the men were not able to match that speed in their contest, which was held later in the day when even more thawing had set in. Nevertheless, everybody loved it since these were truly epic conditions, and when does one get to play in the mud?
The final turn before the finish line
Dirty Girl! Catherine Harnden of Union College (KY) after the XC
Men's DIV I XC winner Howard Grotts of Durango's Ft. Lewis College
The downhill race posed its own challenges, both in the form of deep snow and ice patches as well as boggy traverses that rendered the riders and their number unrecognizable. What should have been a 5-minute downhill suddenly became a 12-minute sliding and pedaling contest. I walked the downhill, and despite being as careful as I could be, I slipped and bruised a few ribs. I can’t even start to imagine how these guys can ride bikes down this stuff! But I do have to say that the ski-lift trips up to the mountain top were incomparably beautiful. It’s just so amazing to look over the white mountains after what I thought was an eternal summer.
Yes, they pay for my ski lift ticket
OK, let's fast forward 24 hours, because I started this blog update on Saturday night but then our internet connection shut down. I think that one of my most memorable moments as a commissaire came last night during the banquet. Now, you need to know that back in 2006, Collegiate Nationals was held in Angel Fire, and the students ransacked the banquet hall in a drunken stupor (and there were other disciplinary excesses). Needless to say, the race was not invited to come back and then was held for two consecutive years on the East Coast—with similar out-of-hand behavior. The following year, I was chief referee when Nats made it to Northstar, a swanky ski resort near Lake Tahoe. I was not going to let another national championship sink to such lows, and with a lot of personal engagement, professionalism, a few well-placed fines, and innovative strategies I managed to clean up the event and its image. This year, I was determined not to be at the helm of a repeat of the 2006 debacle, and I applied what I had learned at Northstar in 2009. (I had been invited back in 2010 but had to decline because of Judy's condition).
The 2011 crew: Boris Decourt, moi, Leo Campos-Moya, and Cyndi Smith
One of my strategies has been to conduct on-time, professional riders' meetings (which are scheduled every day after the races, previewing the next day's activities) during which I approach the riders and their coaches as equal partners. I explain to them what I expect and that it is their choice to make the event successful. I also explain to them that I have zero tolerance for excess—but I also make clear to them that I am a human being who has a sense of humor and wants to have a good time. It's a juggling act, but last night it became clear that it paid off when, at the banquet, one of the students showed up as Chief Referee Jürgen, replete with fake mustache, blue USAC shirt, and even a fake German accent! My, I have no idea where he found glasses that look like my prescription Rudy's! He was making the rounds among the other frolickers, introducing himself as "Jürgen" and admonishing them to be good citizens. It was too freaking funny! And then he even started the festivities on the microphone the way I would start a racers' meetings. I was laughing tears! All this showed me was that they really trust and like me and believe that I can take a joke. It was the biggest compliment and show of respect that I can think of.
Who is who? One Jürgen hails from Humboldt State (CA) and is also known as Alex Deich

Chief Referee Jürgen starts the evening's festivities

The banquet at the AF Country Club came off beautifully, with only one stiff-drunk racer whom we discretely escorted to a safe location before things could get ugly. The food was outstanding, the hosts had invited a good guest speaker, and the awards ceremony showcased lots and lots of talent. And we had a chance to mingle with the racers, quite a few of whom had chosen to dress up.
That's why we officiate!
The newly crowned Division I XC champion ...
... and male counterparts
The final stars-and-stripes jerseys were given out today, Sunday, for the Dual Slalom. It's a cool discipline in which two racers go head-to-head down a 30-second course. This short video that I took gives you an idea not only of the format but also the challenging conditions, which continued to vary during the day depending on where the sun started to melt the muck ice into icy muck.

We had a few problems with the generator that activates the start gate, and there were a few other small hick-ups, but overall it was a great finale to an extremely successful National Championship. I think that everyone involved with this event—racer, organizer, volunteer, USAC staffer, or commissaire—will take away lasting memories.

Thanks for reading this long entry, but believe me, it was a LONG week!



  1. It was so great to catch up with you this weekend. Always a pleasure to work with you! Please come visit us if you need another snow fix!

  2. Ditto, dear Cath, ditto. I just wish there had been another evening drowned out by good conversation and red wine. And remember that there is someone on the sidelines here who whispers "courage."

  3. Jurgen... Hands down great job at nationals.. It was great hanging out at nationals after so many years of you being a TMBRA official and never finding the time to introduce myself...BTW Texas State racers still want a beer with you. Brandon Ewers.