Monday, October 27, 2014

The House of the Decaying Rodent

OK, now that I have caught everyone's attention, let's reveal the rather boring subtitle, 2014 National Collegiate Mountain Bike Championships, Beech Mountain, NC.
Start / Finish area for the XC and Short Track races

After getting back from Guadeloupe last Tuesday afternoon and unpacking, doing laundry, and repacking I left Lubbock with the 6:55 a.m. flight on Thursday morning to eventually end up on the East Coast by mid-afternoon.  Lew Strader and Ugur Tosun, two fellow USAC commissaires, had already arrived in Charlotte, and together we drove up to Banner Elk and beyond, to Beech. Talk about a whirlwind of travel!
That's why they call them Blue Ridge Mountains
This was my one-and-only USAC mountain bike assignment for 2014. How an international-level commissaire (even though I decided to go the DCO route for UCI assignments I am still an IC) is supposed to stay sharp with one assignment a year is beyond me, but those decisions are being made by people who obviously understand things much better than I. For a number of years I had served as Chief Referee for the collegiate championships but had to excuse myself from my assignment last year when I broke my leg. In my stead, Tod Manning from Seattle had taken over nats in 2013, and he was back to again lead the crew in 2014. My role was that of Starter, and I was really looking forward to working with him as we have run into each other at road races here and there over the years but have never been on the same crew.
The House of the Decaying Rodent
Joining us were Judy Rhyne, who had worked with me when I chiefed Gravity Nationals two years ago in the same locale, and young-and-upcoming Justin Evans, a 22-year-old Appalachian State University student who is not only very active on his school’s cycling team but also an eager lower-level USAC official who had worked last year’s race and had impressed Tod, who asked that he be again assigned to the crew.
The boys...
... and their bikes on the way to the top
The six of us were given the keys to a vacation home just five minutes from the venue, a nice place that had only one problem: You opened the door and were greeted by the unmistakable smell of something dead. We never exactly found out when or how that mouse or gerbil that was stinking up the ante-room had expired, or where it had managed to hide its cadaver in one last heroic effort, but the thing was with us whenever we entered or exited the house. Good thing that we all had private rooms with doors, and in all fairness, the living room and kitchen were OK, too.
A neon-gloved Brevard rider humping it through the feed zone
For three full days we were on the mountain. Last year’s championship had been marred by atrocious weather conditions (snow, cold, rain, the whole gamut), but this year things were much, much better. Every morning, when we got to the venue at 7:00 to 7:30 a.m., it was well below freezing, but once the sun made its appearance things warmed up enough so that in sheltered areas one could take off one's jacket. Over the course of the weekend I was several times up at the top of the mountain for the start of the downhill. At about 6,000 feet, the wind cut fairly hard and things weren’t all that pleasant, and for Sunday’s dual slalom seedings and finals we had to contend with 35 mph wind gusts that actually blew over some of the riders in the starting gate. But overall, we lucked out in the ski resort that’s the marquee attraction (and probably also the raison d'être) of the highest incorporated village east of the Rockies.
Didn't I take a similar panoramic shot just a week ago in Guadeloupe?
Our work days were long, but they were also satisfying. Under Tod’s leadership we were able to get off all racers on time, the results were posted quickly and accurately (thanks also to the work of my old friends Cath and John Jett from CJ timing, who had come in from Telluride), and the number of injuries stayed low. We all got a lot of sun and at the end of the day felt wind-burned, the legs were tired from stomping around the hillside, and the back ached from standing for hours at the start gates of the gravity events. But, as I said, it was all very satisfying.
A "professional" photographer is responsible for this crew photo
The fun started once we made it back to the house and got all cleaned up. Tod had stocked the place with wine, beer, and two bottles of bourbon, and by the time we left, not much of that stash remained. We’d talk about the day during our “happy hour” before leaving for dinner in a different restaurant every night. USAC treated us to a nice Mexican meal one night, together with the Colorado Springs-based staffers who had traveled to Beech. Back at the house, we’d start the off-slope mentoring of Justin (and Ugur as well). Obviously, that included lots and lots of war stories from those of us who have been in the sport for a while. And of course, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes talk that will stay in the House of the Decaying Rodent (and in our, ahem, spirited minds).
Heading home through North Carolina's morning fog
This morning (Monday) I drove Tod’s rental car back to the Charlotte airport as he and Lew had to leave around 5:30 a.m. to make it to their respective flights. With my departure not until 1:15 p.m., I was able to sleep a little longer than during the past week and drive leisurely the 130 miles back to CLT. It was a nice way to close out what seems to have been an almost continuous series of transfers and flights for assignments over these past few months. There won’t be much respite from the traveling, though: On Wednesday morning I will board another 6:55 a.m. flight to DFW to continue via Philly on a personal trip to Freising. But at least I have two nights at home, in what I hope is still a rodent-free and non-smelly casita.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Butterfly Island—Guadeloupe

Approaching Guadeloupe on the heels of tropical storm Gonzalo
They call it the Butterfly Island not because of its population of lapidopterae (although there are some big ones!) but rather because of its odd shape: Guadeloupe, seen from outer space or simply on a map, looks like a giant mariposa, and for the past four days or so I have been spending my time right in the thorax area, near the island's capital of Pointe-a-Pitre.
You don't need much imagination to see the butterfly
No diving this time around
This latest assignment to a UCI race is quite possibly the most exotic one that I have enjoyed this year. Whereas Ecuador and Costa Rica were definitely foreign, Guadeloupe is differently "other." It may be part of France, but its Creole population and its Caribbean climate set it apart in ways I didn't expect, even though Judy and I had been to another French outlier, Martinique, more than a decade ago. This is a place that uses the euro and where cars' license plates are French, but a majority of the people look anything but European. The French they speak is difficult to understand, or worse, and things don't get done the way one would expect. It is hot and sticky, and the climate most definitely influences how people move: slowly, or not at all.
Modern-day travel involves certain risks
I am writing this update on the third competition day of the European Track Championships (Les Championnats d'Europe Elite Sur Piste), which this year are hosted by France. And since the French are French (meaning, they do whatever they like to do because, after all, they are French!) they decided to make everyone fly across the Atlantic and visit this outpost of French civilization. As a matter of fact, those European teams that flew via Paris arrived in one day of travel while, for me, both coming and going involved two days each—and I had to be very selective about my travel days since there's no air service from Miami or San Juan on certain days going to Pointe-a-Pitre. My travel plans were almost derailed by tropical storm Gonzalo, which blew through the area just a day ahead of my flying in. Thankfully, it changed course a bit and left the place unscathed.
The Belgian women's team pursuit team warms up before the race in the infield ...
... while others use the tunnel to sweat it out
The Irish squad starts under the watchful eyes of my old friend Martin Bruin

Even though many of my friends think that all of these trips are vacations, that's really not the case. My days here start around 9:00 a.m. when my colleague Helene and I leave the hotel and drive our little Peugeot to the velodrome. The day comes to an end when we leave the track around 11:00 p.m., or later. Tonight, with the heaviest schedule of the four-day competition, it very well may be after midnight. But that still leaves a little bit of time in the mornings to enjoy the beach and the water at our sea-side hotel, and we managed to run back to the Hotel Le Creole for lunch these past two days, eking out another 45 minutes of R&R. That won't happen today, though, and tomorrow's schedule looks too tight as well. Never mind: Floating for 30 or 45 minutes in the warm, caressing waters that are part Atlantic, part Caribbean is balm for the soul and body, and mind you, I'm being paid to be here!
Lunch-hour bliss
Our hotel is straight ahead—sweet, eh?
The velodrome has an outdoor concrete track, 333.33 meters long. During the day, qualifications and training sessions are being run while the various finals don't start until the late afternoon when things should be cooling down—but they don't. When the sun is out (most of the day), the infield of the 'drome is a broiling cauldron with air temperatures in the mid- to upper-90s. Add the thick, heavy humidity, and you will understand why everybody is soaking wet. But even in the evenings it is virtually impossible to stay dry as the concrete still emanates heat. Riders sit on rollers, warming up and sweating up a storm, and commissaires and other personnel might as well have just emerged from a thunderstorm. Only the locals seem to not mind—maybe because they don't display much movement?
The velodrome at Baie-Mahault, just outside of Pointe-a-Pitre
Once the lights come on (and the giant moths appear) the 'drome changes character
Our office is somewhat air-conditioned, and my constant going in and out has given me a bit of a scratchy throat. I am trying to shoosh it away by enjoying the fresh fruit every morning in the hotel and thinking positive, but we'll see how successful I'll be. To think that a week from today I will be at almost 6,000 feet in North Carolina, most likely freezing my ass off, is mind-boggling.
Outside breakfast at the hotel restaurant ...
... and midnight dinner while doing paperwork in the room
The afternoon sessions are about to begin and my lunch-break is coming to an end. I wish there had been a little extra time to explore more of Guadeloupe, but with the airline schedules and my having to be in NC on Thursday of next week there was just no way to fit in a vacation. Two more days of work, and then two days of travel before I have 36 hours in Lubbock before leaving again. Man, it's crazy!
Click on this panoramic view from the hotel's beach for the full effect
Ms. Crab lives in the rocks ...
... and Mr. Iguana in the nicely groomed hotel grounds
With that said, I'll close things down for now and publish this update. As always, thanks for reading!