So I have the bike, the glasses, the funny shorts and the lingo down, but true graduation to road-biker status would not be permitted by Tony without first joining him for some rides in Austin, and participating in the local Driveway criterium series. Tell a lie; I also need to shave my legs.
Instead of renting a bike, Tony had expedited assembly of his 1992 vintage Bianchi. A proper professional-grade thoroughbred from the early 90s, it is a marvel of lugs, lucious Ferrari-red paint and chroming. It showcases the cabinetmaker-standard construction techniques that were employed in Italy, and is in stark contrast to the carbon jelly-moulds around today. It also offers partial explanation for the rebound in custom steel frames that are flooding out of Portland, Berlin, and East London, recreating their ideal of an industry that has long since shifted to Asia.
Turning up at the race track, I quickly donned Lycra and went about warming up. Visions of the Cat 5 ‘beginner’ race had me finishing in the top ten and applying my fitness and handling skills to turn the screws on some of the locals. These thoughts vanished when I saw the waves of carbon, shaved legs, and steely gazes singeing the grass. Yup, this was my first race, I had never seen the back 70% of the track before, and it was my first time riding this (20 year-old) bike. I was absolutely bricking it. Shit!
Criteriums differ from the ‘stage’ racing format, given they are typically hosted on a tight, twisting track and offer fantastic opportunities for spectators to take in the racing, enjoy some drinks and scream their support at the riders. The atmosphere was alive with kids trundling around, music pumping out and the warm sun setting in the distance. America takes its recreation very seriously, and the results are communities like this, with families and friends getting together.
Meanwhile, in Hell, the pack of fifty-odd riders is slowly picking up locomotive pace, and my senses are a mess of static electricity, trying to process sounds, feelings and a spectacle that is completely different from anything I have experienced before. Looking at a pack of riders go by, and it seems so serene, like a rolling flock of birds. Inside that flock of riders, surrounded by a thousand fluttering wings of gear trains, aero wheels and bearings, it is a cacophony of white noise, expressionless Oakleys staring back at you. It is intimidating.
I keep pace pretty well for the first few laps; it’s surprising how little effort you need to apply when air resistance is removed from the equation. But a dull thud, shouting voices and a spray of arms, sunglasses and feet in the air up ahead, and it is quite clear there is a crash at the tightest corner – probably a clipped pedal. The pack splits up, and while we try our best to catch up, the air has suddenly become viscous, and I seem to be plummeting back through the field as my legs turn to plastic. I pick a couple of riders that seem to be attempting to bridge a gap back to the field, but it’s hopeless; they disappear from view.
There is no need to give up though. It’s a lovely evening with the sun splintering through the trees, and myself and a few others keep a reasonable pace. The finish line shouts out numbers: “6 to go!” but I don’t know if they mean minutes, laps or kilometers. I make a mental note through my panting to check with Tony. They scream “1 to go!” and I pick up the pace with the remaining stragglers to give a shot at sprinting for the final lap. Weary, we spear for the line and I see him peeling off, and all of a sudden I am surrounded by riders: were we lapped? Is this the next race starting? Do I stop now? Please?
Yes, so I was a bit confused at the end (I was lapped, and I think there were still a couple of laps to go), but it was a rush, and the memory of being surrounded by riders with ‘that sound’ was intoxicating. I shall be back!