Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Another successful Mountain Bike National Championship!

Evening view from my condo of Ballhooter lift and the WV mountains
I'm sitting in 10 F of AA 435 from Charlotte to Dallas, one of those rare flights where my upgrade request has not been successful--never mind, it is the best seat in Economy with more legroom than any other seat on the plane. The reason my upgrade didn't make it, according to the AAngel in the Admirals Club, is the severe weather that tore through the area over the past few days and shut things down last night.
Right before the start of the Elite Men's Cross Country race--a serious affair
Right before the start of the first stage of the Enduro--a little more relaxed, maybe?
It must have been the same system that screwed with us up in Snowshoe, West Virginia, for the entire past week. At 1,600 meters, on top of the mountain in a resort overlooking what seems to be the entire state, we were on mountain-wide weather holds more often than I want to remember. If you're not familiar with the term "weather hold," here goes: When lightning strikes within a pre-determined distance (sometimes 10 miles, sometimes 12, even 20), or if audible thunder is present, operations issues a weather-hold--lifts shut down as soon as the last passenger has arrived at the top (or bottom), resort guests are directed to seek immediate shelter, and anything outdoorsy comes to a grinding halt for the next 30 minutes. If there's another lightning strike, the clock is reset for another 30 minutes, and so on. I once sat at the top of the downhill race in Angel Fire for something like two hours, twiddling thumbs. Even with modern weather apps and other forecasting tools, it is difficult to predict what will happen to that yellow-and-red cell moving toward you. Sometimes the lightning strikes cease, and sometimes the path of a cell will change just a bit one way or the other. But most of the time, it'll hit you with a vengeance.
Inside Snowshoe's operations center, trying to assess what the weather will do
I was Chief Referee of USA Cycling's 2017 Mountain Bike National Championships in Snowshoe, West Virginia, an honor and huge responsibility that I had shouldered the past two years when we had hosted Nationals at Mammoth Mountain, California. Since the 2015 championships, we have run a unified championship, meaning that both endurance events (Cross Country, Short-Track, and the non-championship Team Relay) as well as gravity events (Downhill, Dual Slalom, and Enduro) are offered at one venue. The result: more than 1,200 athletes competing for Stars and Stripes National Champion jerseys for age groups ranging from 11 to 85+ years old. And we have so-called non-championship events for riders as young as 6 years and adult non-Cat 1 athletes that award truly  prestigious medals to their respective winners.
In Dual Slalom qualifying, all age categories ride once on each course on a first-come first-serve basis--little girls and burly dudes 
In other words: It's an insane schedule. For 2017, USAC had decided to expand the event from six days to seven, meaning that one day (Monday) was a day for course inspections, registration, and the first riders meetings of the week. From Tuesday forward we had qualifying and seeding runs as well as finals on a daily basis. As they say, it takes a whole village to nurture a child--or something like that--and a mega event like Nationals is no different. There is USAC's staff (headed by the indomitable Tara McCarthy with the assistance of the always-nutty yet insanely computer-savvy Tom Mahoney, plus their staff that runs venue set-up, registration, awards presentations, and everything in-between), the "mountain people" (lead by overall head-honcho "Big Hat" Andy Nall as well as the fellow who designed the courses and keeps them rideable when weather hits, Philip Yates), and finally us, the officiating crew. Each one of these operational areas has someone whose ass is on the line, and for the officials it was once again yours truly. I was fortunate to have a stellar crew of eight officials from all over the nation who supervised and judged the competition. Believe me, the pressure is on when USAC's VP of Operations, Chuck Hodge, and even the President and CEO himself, Derek Bouchard-Hall, are on site.
Downhill racers do get dirty
The bike wash--both at the Downhill as well as the XC--was a popular spot
My job as CR of such a major race (by far the biggest and most complex mountain bike race in the US year after year) begins a month or so before the actual competition starts. My input covers both the nitty-gritty details of the daily calendar (training times, anticipated duration of individual events, even the schedule for the time of our daily racers meetings) as well as the so-called Technical Guide, a document that spells out special regulations and policies that are specific to this particular event and are in addition to the rules that are set out in USAC's general rulebook, which I'm supposed to have memorized. On all but one day we ran two or more finals in various disciplines, which require separate officiating crews; one day we had four championship jersey finals! Believe me, building the hour-by-hour schedule for each referee without overlaps or impossibilities (such as getting from the start of the Dual Slalom to the finish line of the Cross Country) is a task that takes days and requires continual fine tuning.
Nothing like seeing dear friends such as Christina Gokey-Smith ... 
... or high school league star and now promising UCI racer Fiona Dougherty.
I've known Pro Woman racer Elizabeth Saenz since she was maybe 7 years old!
Kaya Musgrave won the Stars and Stripes in the Junior Women 11-12 category and wnated her dad to take this picture

And then, of course, there's the weather. You have prepared the perfect schedule, only to have a 1-hour mountain hold throw everything into disarray. Days have only a finite number of daylight hours, and all three gravity events were dependent on the ski lifts. Snowshoe is a weird place as it is an upside-down mountain. Sounds odd, doesn't it? I had worked Collegiate Nationals at this venue before and thus was familiar with the general layout of the village and the various courses, and especially the anomaly of an upside-down mountain: The condos, shops, and restaurants ("the "village") are on top of the mountain, and you take the lifts to get back up after doing your ski or bike run. Angel Fire and Mammoth are normal: You take the lift up to do your run and come back down, whooping. And one more thing: Ski lifts need operators, and if they start running their operation at 6:30 a.m. to transport the first training runs back up to the start at 7:00 a.m., they're not crazy about running the lifts much beyond 5 p.m. And neither do the medical dudes ("ski patrol," but in the summer they sit on quads) or the many course marshals who have radios to call in an accident. You get the picture.
Visibility for several of the Downhill training sessions was rather poor
Well, let me tell you: Big Hat, aka Andy, gave us all the resources that we needed to keep competitions running when weather delays were about to derail our entire schedule. When you have a chock-full schedule, how do you reschedule a final that will take an extra 1 1/2 or 2 hours for the next day? So, the lifities were working until 8:00 p.m. on some days. Yep, we call the operators lifties. They are the equivalent of the carnies who on a daily basis set up and tear down the start/finish area at a major traveling stage race. We're a tight-knit tribe, and I am proud to be one of this community.
I love the way a Pro mechanic will meticulously set up his little world in the technical assistance zone
I can't say enough positive things about our athletes. Personally I heard not a single negative comment about our many weather-related holds and delays. I faced a few unhappy riders who were pissed about the unacceptably delayed final results of the two-day Enduro. But once I explained to them that one of our guys (diplomatic ID for mountain guy? timing? official? bear?) had connected the electronic timing box for the start of stage 8 with the wrong cables (stage 4 and stage 8 were separated by just a few meters, on two subsequent days), they mellowed down. "Dude, don't you just totally see how anyone could have fucked up like this?" That helped. And when I told them that we had a full set of manual back-up data (I had personally scrambled to get to the start of this stage because I knew that the starter of stage 5 who also was the starter for stage 8, the final one, might or might not make it in time for the fastest riders to do their run ahead of everybody else; so I recorded the first half dozen riders and then Jean, our stage 5 and 8 starter, arrived and took over with aplomb), they were OK. They even understood that processing 125+ riders' data for altogether eight starts and eight finishes, down to the tenths of seconds, takes time--yes, that's about 1,000 data points for the manual back-up and cross-check. We had electronic data for all but one stage, but chips make mistakes just as humans do, and we checked everything. I am now confident that the eventual winners in the various categories are wearing the Starts and Stripes because they truly earned those jerseys.
During one of the transfer stages of the Enduro, a racer fixes his bike while tourist babes in bikinis look on, not so sure what to make of these aliens
Positive. No other way to describe it. Yes, I had to assemble a panel twice--that's a situation when the Chief Referee gets together with two other senior officials and the three make a final ruling on a protest brought on by a racer, always involving issues that are beyond the scope of timing errors. The rulings we came up with inevitably did not please each one of the affected parties because it is always A versus B, so somebody "loses" out. Twice in a week-long competition--not bad. Actually, pretty damn good.
Howard Grotts, of the Men Elite Men's Cross Country event
I heard my name ("Hey Jürgen, how are things going?" "Hey Jürgen, thanks for being here!" "Hey Jürgen, remember me?") more often than I have in all of the races I have worked in the past year. It's scary. People I have had multiple encounters and conversations with, well, I at least recognize them. But to be truthful: I'm terrible with names and faces. In my defense, I meet literally thousands of people every year who shake my hand, have serious 2-minute conversations with me, and then vanish into the mountain-scape. I wish I had better recall when it comes to faces and especially names, and I am really working on it with little tricks (mnemonics it's called, I believe). But when you're walking through the village from the Ballhooter lift to the stage and are trying to figure out in your head how in three days you're going to manage getting Janet or Emily over to the 80% together with Ugur so that either one gets this experience, and you're also mulling the issue with the delays in getting racers out of the gate at the Dual Slalom from where you just came, and then somebody comes up beaming and shouting your name and then high-fives you and tells you how his son just placed third in the 13-14 XC and how he so much appreciates what you have done for his son and his family and the sport, and you have no fucking idea who he is but you smile and humbly (truly!) accept all these accolades and deflect by highlighting your crew, and the mountain people including Andy, and of course USAC including Tara, and thank him for supporting the sport and bringing his entire family out, well, then you feel a bit overwhelmed and ask yourself: Is this what a CEO goes through? And this happens all the time, all the way through the racers meetings and the question-and answer session. Trust and respect--I want to thank all racers for granting me these two. And if my crew did't trust and respect me, we'd all be history.
Dual Slalom is fast and exciting, but numbers were somewhat down this year.
So, in other words: It was an awesome experience that couldn't have happened if it had't been for this entire support entourage. I worked my ass off (26.5 overtime hours in seven days of work, and we consider a normal working day as having 9 clock hours), but that paled in comparison to my secretary, Sara, who  who piled on another 5 or 6 hours on top of that. No telling how many hours Tara and Tom put in. When we had our farewell party at the Firefox Grill last night, we didn't care about sleep anymore. Slurred talk revolved around big thank you's, cussing at the weather, and open disappointment that Andy's three jugs of moonshine had evaporated earlier in the evening. I tell you, I'm probably the luckiest guy on earth to have such wonderful people around me and be allowed to be a part of all this stuff that I truly, truly love.
Standing for hours is physically taxing; here Sara fills in as a Finish Judge.
And thus another Mountain Bike National Championship has come and gone, and I am secretly hoping that I will be allowed to return next year. I'd even bring a growler or two of good weather.


PS: Low and behold, right before the airplane door was closed in CLT, a gate agent came to my seat and gave me the totally unexpected news: "Mr. Heise, your upgrade just cleared. Would you like to move up to 4D?" I tell you, clean living ...

Saturday, July 15, 2017

440 miles of riding in Germany, and lots of biergartens

The hilly area north of Freising at its finest summer-best
When I tallied up my mileage for the past 2 1/2 weeks, which I have spent mostly with Sabine in and around Freising, I was thrilled to see the total: 440 miles. That's a lot, especially considering that I also spent the better part of three days in Berlin with my brother and that the weather did have its occasional hick-ups that stymied going for a ride. Still, for the most part it was dry, quite sunny, and a few times even hot, so this was a real summer vacation.
On top of the Breitenstein in the Alps
For my short stay here we had not planned anything special. Sabine's son, Jonathan, had just graduated from high school (diplomas were handed out two days after my arrival), and she had to work a mostly full schedule in her capacity as landscape architect for the City of Munich, so running off to Tuscany or Provence was not in the books this time. The best we could muster was a one-day excursion into the fore-Alps where we hiked up to the Breitenstein (1,622 meters) and managed to destroy our cycling legs in one fell swoop. If I really go though with my plans to walk up Kilimanjaro one of these days, I better keep this in mind.
Riding through the hop fields of the Holledau, just a few miles north of Freising
The two of us went on some very nice rides, though, on the weekends as well as on two Tuesday nights when we joined her club, the group of Italian-inspired  (and alike-attired) locals whom Fritz, the owner of a local shop, has somehow managed to corral. It was fun to ride with these guys and gals (even though they have a rather unorthodox system of riding in a dual paceline and changing the lead rider). Ol' man Fritz, whose shop is located less than 100 meters from Sabine's place, runs a tight ship when it comes to his club: If you want to ride with the group you must show up in his jersey (red/white/green) and you better join the correct peloton (groups 1 through 4) when things get rolling. Our two evening rides (in group 3) were were led by Sigi, a guy who really knows all the local roads, and they were spectacularly scenic! One was pretty flat, the other rather hilly. Great stuff!
Post Fritz-ride festivities include many beers and ice cream at the local Italian gelateria
It never fails to amaze me how I can ride for seemingly half an eternity, seeing a gazillion new things, and then realize that I have just turned over 30 miles on the odometer--the same as my usual rather boring route in Lubbock that doesn't even take me beyond the city limits. Seriously, riding in Europe, with villages two kilometers apart and roads that turn and twist like spaghetti in a bowl, is completely different from what we experience in West Texas. And when the weather is nice, you can't beat it. But there's always that "when" ...
Amidst my inanimate friends, the hops
My rides took me through the hop fields of the Holledau, past golden-hued wheat fields, through green pastures with happy cows, and to hidden swimming holes. You can't beat these small ponds where the locals stop by after work (or during lunch), simply drop all of their clothes, and go for a quick skinny dip. I wonder what would happen if I did the same in Dupre Park's "tank" after a hot ride. Here it's de riguer.
Local pond with sunning, ahem, beauty
It's also de riguer for 16-year-olds (cute boys and even cuter girls alike) to carry around one-liter beer steins (yes, full of beer) and take healthy swigs from same during a city-wide fiesta, as I witnessed tonight at the Freising Altstadtfest. The city center was blocked off to everyone but pedestrians (even bikes had to stay out--large trucks were used to seal off any terrorist route that might be used to cause mayhem in this medieval city). Thousands of citizens strolled around, drinking many, many more thousands of liters of beer, listening to music, eating Wursts, Kebaps, and Bretzen, squatting on the ubiquitous brewery-supplied beer benches, and having a good time with their neighbors. I tell you: Those Bavarians know how to throw and enjoy a party!
Sabine bonding with the local wildlife
It was a nice farewell to another enjoyable stay here with Sabine and her home. In a month and a half she'll come to Texas, and I hope that her stay will be as pleasant as mine was here. Tomorrow morning we'll have a Weisswurst und Bier breakfast (maybe I get a chance to add a pic), and then I'll head out to the airport to catch my flight to CRW--Charleston, WV. For the next week I'll be busy as Chief Referee of the US National Mountain Bike Championships in Snowshoe, West Virginia. Lubbock will have to wait a few more days for my return.