My introduction to bike racing: The 1994 Tour Dupont, Finale

To Possibly Transcend

The stage into Lynchburg, Virginia featured several long finishing circuits. Jeff Roake kept the crowd informed and entertained as I worked my way to a spot atop the bleachers to get a good view of the finish area. As the riders arrived onto the circuit the race DJ began to play the 1812 Overture, music that would seem totally out of place at a bike race except that somehow he managed to time it perfectly so that the finale (the part when they fire off the canons on the 4th of July) erupted just as the riders began to surge to the line for the stage win.

In that moment–here in deepest Virginia watching pro bike racers attack for the win while listening to a piece of classical music written in the 1800’s to commemorate a battle between France and Russia—something clicked. It was at that moment that I first thought “this is an awesome sport and I would love to try it.” But that thought was quickly naysayed with “nah I can’t do that—looks way too hard.”

After several stages through the Smokies and through many cases of All Sport, the race arrived in Boone, North Carolina for a classic stage finish atop Beech Mountain. At this point the general classification was tight between Lance Armstrong, currently in second, and an unassuming Russian riding for the Wordperfect team named Viatcheslav Ekimov. The race’s only mountain-top finish was much anticipated and Mike and Gary informed me that I would be responsible for the action shot of the finish as they would be shooting the battle on the climb itself.

To date, I had only performed the relatively easy task of shooting the wide context shot of the finish. Today’s shot would be tight action of the winner of the queen stage, meant to be transmitted to news outlets literally worldwide. And this was before Nikon had autofocus good enough to shoot anything other than a bowl of apples on a table. The pressure was on!

It was over before I really realized what was going on. I saw the helicopter, heard Jeff Roake’s excited commentary, saw a bunch of state police cars and commissar’s vehicles plow over the line and tried desperately to pull focus on the murky silhouette of a rider raising his arms in a thick cloud of dust.

Lance had won the stage, going toe-to-toe with Ekimov on the final climb. Rumor would later have it that Ekimov, who finished a few seconds back, had mis-shifted in the sprint and thus ceded the stage. This was all incidental to my bigger concern: Mike was looking through my negatives with a loupe trying to find the finish shot. I watched him frown as he squinted into the loupe and thought “I blew it, this is not good…” I began to explain to him the chaos of the finish, about the cars and dust… The tension became unbearable as he looked up at me, was silent for a moment and then finally spoke.

“Well, then you got lucky, mate. You barely pulled it out,” he said, handing me the loupe and negatives.

The shot was there, underexposed by about three stops but in focus and salvageable thanks to Photoshop (v2.5!): Lance in his rainbow stripes, eyes downcast, both arms in the air and fingers spread to the sky.

That night we had dinner and drinks at a small restaurant on top of Beech Mountain. Joining us was someone I had just met that day, a super-nice English guy named Phil. Apparently he was doing TV commentary for the race, or something.

A few days later we finished up the days work after covering the fast sprint finish into Charlotte, North Carolina, ate a quick southern barbeque dinner and headed to the hotel bar. The race was nearly over and hanging out in the bar with several of his Motorola teammates was Lance. As I mentioned, both photographers I was working with had known him for some time and I suddenly found myself in a small group having a conversation with the riders.

Sadly, I don’t remember many of the details and I don’t think it was because I drank too many beers. The fact that Lance was a world champion at 21, only two years younger than myself, didn’t overly impress me at the time because I had no frame of reference. He might as well have been world champion of sculling or biathlon or some such–cycling was that obscure to me.

I do remember him as being an intense guy, even just hanging out in the bar as he assertively made the case that cycling in Europe was like basketball in the US or hockey in Canada: a way for working-class kids to possibly transcend their meager backgrounds and avoid a life spent working on the farm or in the coal mines.

Lance would never overtake Ekimov on the GC as the race wrapped up in High Point, North Carolina, AKA “the furniture capital of the world.” The night after the final stage the promoters held a big party which began with a trophy ceremony for the winner, Ekimov. As the presentation wore on I found myself standing next to him so I offered him congratulations and we exchanged a few words in awkward English.

Although there are no more than just tidbits of evidence on the web that this edition of the Tour Dupont ever existed, I did happen to dig up this Ekimov quote from an article in the Phildelphia Inquirer:

“’I’m very happy today,” Ekimov said. ‘This is my first victory in a time trial. Now if I can control the mountain stages, I can win the race. I can make good climbing in this race.’”

It would be funny to hear Slava interviewed on television in subsequent years, having since become very fluent.

My final memory of that night is, with the party well underway, stumbling past the stage that had been set up for dancing and looking up to see George Hincapie posing for photos with an All Sport babe on each arm. “Heyyyy man!” he shouted and smiled as he pointed to me.

“Hey!” I pointed back. The dude was a rock star! I gotta get me some of that.

Epilogue

Though it would take a little while, the seed was firmly planted.

A year later I would be flipping through channels when I came upon ESPN’s coverage of the Tour de France. I was instantly transfixed as I watched Miguel Indurain drop all his rivals on La Plagne and claw back enough time on the lone break away, Alex Zülle, to save his yellow jersey. I started riding my roommate’s mountain bike that day and began picking up Velonews and Cycle Sport at the newsstand.

Not much came of it until 1997 when, completely burned out on the travel, low pay and long hours, I was mercifully laid off. Within a year I was racing and would go from a pudgy and weak 170+ lbs to a lean and strong 144.

I had been right when I had said to myself a few years before that it looked hard. It is. Despite having run cross county for three years in high school, bike racing would introduce me to a whole new level of pain and suffering. Forget the pro level, this is true even at the weekend warrior level if you don’t train consistently or are not a natural athlete.

But, as I first got a sense of as a spectator in 1994 and have personally experienced many times since, the sacrifice and the hours, day, weeks and months of effort are worth it when you get even the smallest taste of glory–all the little victories in pursuit of The Victory–that the sport can provide when it clicks.

That’s what has been on my mind with the season beginning on Saturday. Now somebody cue the overture.

Advertisements

My introduction to bike racing: The 1994 Tour Dupont, Part II

A Furious Rush of Sound and Color

The next day would dawn sunny and warm as we made our way down for the start of Stage 1 in Dover, Delaware. There would be four starting circuits around a short course, culminating in a prime sprint for a generous prize of $10,000, before heading out on the open road to finish again in Wilmington. It was in Dover that I would have my first exposure to the overt dangers of bike racing.

The start/prime line for the Dover circuits was on a wide straightaway about 400 meters after a left-hand turn with barriers on either side. At the pistol shot the riders rolled slowly out. I found a shooting position inside the barriers to the right of the prime line, dropped my camera bag and sat down to examine the angles. My hope was to get a wide shot of the riders sprinting across the line, sponsor banners flying high in all their glory against the azure blue spring sky. To my right and further up the road past the start line, another photographer was also checking the angles, contorting himself into several awkward positions—on his knees, prone, upside down on his back—apparently really trying to figure out THE perfect angle.

Many minutes later the field casually rounded the corner, seemingly on a parade lap. I squatted and snapped a few frames as they rolled across the finish line and passed in front of me by several feet. As they disappeared out of sight once more, I sat down again and listened to the race announcer, Jeff Roake, detail the exploits of various guys in the bunch. One of the Italian riders had recently done well in this race I had never heard of but was apparently so hard they called it “The Hell of the North.”

The riders came around for the second lap a little faster and the process repeated itself uneventfully, although this time they passed a little closer and I felt a strong breeze as they glided by. Shortly after they came through for the third time, the bell lap for the prime, and they had noticeably picked up speed. A little alarm bell went off in my head and I shuffled backward toward the barrier to allow for a wider birth. After they flew past, I walked back to where I had dropped my camera bag and moved it against the barrier, just in case.

When they rounded the corner for the prime sprint they were going like the TGV at full speed, right up against the barriers. “Uh oh,” I gulped as shock of panic adrenaline coursed through my body. This could get messy.

I jumped backward and crouched tightly into the barrier, then looked up to see the riders spread completely across the road, pumping wildly and surging toward the line.

Holding my breath, I had the presence of mind to raise my camera and snap a single frame as the field roared though, shaving past me in a furious rush of sound and color. I had barely enough time to exhale a nervous sigh of relief when above the wind I heard a shout and the violent clattering of steel on pavement. Someone began to scream and I thought “Oh no—my camera bag!” fearing that a rider had collided with it at top speed. But as I turned and looked I saw the other photographer sitting on the road a few feet away, stunned and motionless, his eyes wide open. I ran over to him.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

No response. I knelt down in front of him.

“Are you alright?” I repeated loudly, getting right in his face.

Again, no response. It was then that I noticed a huge, oddly bloodless gash on his forehead.

But the screaming continued. Just a little further up the road a rider was on the ground several feet past his mangled bike. Race officials and medical personnel were jumping the barriers and running over to the two victims.  I left the dazed photographer well attended and began to walk away from the finish line and past the downed rider who’s screaming had subdued somewhat now that he was being worked on by EMT’s.

I had never seen so much blood. It flowed like a thick, dark-red stream from somewhere on the rider’s body to the street gutter and I literally had to hop over it to get past. The rider was a member of Team Latvia, one of a handful of amateur national teams competing in the race. He had been well positioned for the prime but apparently either didn’t see the photographer, who had been lying in the road, until too late, or saw him and simply couldn’t avoid him. Either way, he clipped the prone photographer and went over the bars at full speed.

I would hear the next day that the rider had suffered a large laceration and some road rash but was going to be ok. And despite his injury, the unidentified photographer had never made it to the hospital and had actually gone missing. It was determined that he had been lacking an official credential and thus had no business being inside the barriers in the first place.

An unfortunate and completely avoidable incident and I had to wonder what the photographer had been thinking, or not thinking as the case may be, and what level of risk was worth getting a picture of a sporting event. Not much, it turns out. Later on I was going through my processed film and saw the single frame I had gotten from that chaotic moment: a blurred silver wheel rim not four inches from my lens. So maybe we both learned something that day.

The Grout of Champions

Subsequent days saw the race heading into Maryland and Virginia and from there on out we were in a different city every night. On each stage I had the task of shooting around the start line until after the race departed. I would then jump into our van and drive the “non-caravan” route, AKA the freeway, to the finishing venue. Once there I would set up the gear to process (actual film with actual chemicals) and transmit the day’s live images shot by Mike and Gary out on the motorcycles, before heading out to the finish area to catch the race coming in.

One unfortunate coincidence was that one of the other sponsors of the race was All Sport, as in, the sports drink company created by Pepsi. As such, when people asked me who I worked for and I told them “Allsport” they would look at me quizzically and ask “All Sport, you mean the drink? I didn’t know they had photographers…” But a nice side effect of All Sport (the drink) being a sponsor was the unlimited free sports drinks in the sponsor booth, set up in the finish area of every stage, that just happened to be staffed by two very attractive young women. Needless to say, I was well hydrated throughout the 10-day event.

At the start in Fredericksburg, Virginia, I got a close tight of a pensive Lance Armstrong waiting for the stage to get underway, resplendent in a rain cape that covered the rainbow stripes of his World Champion jersey. Looking at unaffected faces of the European riders, silently astride their bikes and wearing rain capes in the misty conditions, I couldn’t help but imagine them as something like World War I fighter aces or old-time race car drivers.

I had only just begun to understand that cycling operated under a very different financial structure than team sports in the US, in that the teams bore the names and colors of a title sponsor. These names, like Banesto, Collstrop, Gan and Mapei-Clas, were completely foreign to my American ears and just sounded a whole lot cooler than say…the Cardinals.

The apparent incongruity that the best cycling team in the world at the time was sponsored by an Italian flooring supply company did not diminish this cool factor for me in the least. To this day I get a cheap thrill when I walking through the isles at Home Depot and see the colorful blocks of Mapei lining the shelves.

I even had the occasion to buy some sand-colored Mapei grout last year and I was giddy. I mean, why wouldn’t I be? This is the grout of Museeuw, Ballerini & Tafi. It’s the grout of Rominger, Bettini and my all-time favorite Michele Bartoli.

In short, this is the grout of champions.

Part III

My introduction to bike racing: The 1994 Tour Dupont

Prologue

Last year I was facing the beginning of my first racing season in six years and, struggling to come up with interesting material for my own rider bio for the Sonic Boom Racing team website, I had a chance to reflect on something I had long ago forgotten: my introduction to road bike racing.

It was not a subtle introduction.

I was 22 in 1993 when I moved from the east coast to Los Angeles to take a job as a picture editor/photographer at a company called Allsport, which at the time laid claim to the title of “world’s largest sports picture agency”.  The company had been founded by British photographer Tony Duffy back in the 60’s and as such had a very euro point of view, which is to say that it covered a variety of sports well beyond the provincial US staples of Baseball, Football, Basketball, Nascar, etc.

Sitting in front of a computer all day was still a new concept back then but that is largely what my job entailed. I monitored and redistributed incoming picture feeds from obscure sporting events around the world. I also scanned hard transparencies and negatives into the computer for outbound file-by-file transmission at a painfully slow 14.4 kbps. As one colleague told me when he left for another job: “I’m hoping to do more with my life than sit and watch progress bars.”

Needless to say I took every opportunity I could to get out into the field to shoot–or process, edit and transmit the “live” images taken by the more senior photographers from–an actual event. So it was in April of 1994 I was assigned to cover an event that was completely unknown to me: the Tour Dupont.

Smells like…

Looking back, it is amazing how apathetic I was about covering an event that would end up dramatically influencing my life to come. I knew nothing about bike racing other than that Greg Lemond had won the Tour de France once or twice, that there was this movie I had caught on cable a few times called Breaking Away and that one of the senior photographers I was to be working under at the event, the very talented Mike Powell, was personally acquainted with this young racer who was supposed to be the “next Greg Lemond.” In fact Mike used to say the name of this cyclist—which instantly struck me as funny ‘cause it sounded like the dude was a Viking or some such–drawing it out with his English accent in faux-dramatic style: “Laaaaaaahhhhhnce!”

The Tour Dupont is arguably still the best ever attempt in the US to pull off a big-scale professional stage race with its 10 days of racing through the mid-Atlantic states. Starting in Wilmington, Delaware (headquarters of the title sponsor) and finishing just outside of Greensboro, North Carolina, the race would include sprint finishes in cities like Richmond, Virginia and Charlotte, NC, a time trial in Raleigh, NC, epic mountain stages through the Great Smokies ending in Blacksburg, VA and Asheville, NC, as well as queen stage: an uphill finish on Beech Mountain in Boone, NC.

Of course I knew none of this when we arrived in Wilmington the day before the event began. I was the junior lackey on a team of three Allsport photographers hired by the promoter to be the official photographers of the event.

Sitting in the press room the day before the start of the race Mike and the other senior photographer staffing the event, Gary Newkirk, sat me down with a round of Frescas (one of the race sponsors, unfortunately so if you’ve ever tasted the stuff) and explained to me the dynamics of road racing in general and stage racing in particular. The difference between mass starts and the time trials; the huge effect drafting has on the tactics of the sport; that the only real way to differentiate yourself from the bunch and thus get the lowest cumulative time to win the race was in the time trails and mountain stages, when drafting was not a factor; and the fact that all riders arriving to the finish in a bunch are given the same time.

“Huh?,” I asked, not really understanding the logic of that last part. “That seems unfair to the guys who finish up front, why do they do that?”

“Because if everybody was trying to scrap for a second or two at the finish, well…there would be carnage, mate,” came deadpan Mike’s answer.

Over the course of the hour or so that we sat in the press room a variety of people would stop by to say hello to the senior photographers, or sit down for a Fresca. As a humble, un-introduced junior photographer I would politely listen or daydream as these conversations rolled on only to be told after the person left  “that [big guy with the cowboy hat] was Nelson Vails, he won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics” or “that was Paul Sherwen, he’s the PR guy for Motorola” or “that was Davis Phinney, he used to ride for 7-Eleven and won a bunch of Tour de France stages.”

One guy who didn’t need an introduction was Greg Lemond. In the twilight of his racing career, Lemond was the big draw at the pre-race press conference, which we covered that afternoon. I specifically remember him answering the question “How has the perception of road racing in the US changed over the course of your career?” with “Well, you guys don’t ask me why we shave our legs anymore.”

There were other American names in the race, young guys who were much less well known but even to my untrained eye would appear to show promise over the course of the race, names like Bobby Julich, Tyler Hamilton, Jonathan Vaughters and George Hincapie.

The only thing I remember about the prologue through Wilmington is that I spent most of the time trying to keep my cameras dry as it rained the whole time. My job was to stick around the start/finish area and try to get pictures that would put the race and its sponsors “in context” with the crowd and the city itself. It was a pretty dreary and mellow way to start the event but even so I was surprised by my own reaction to it.

Having been raised as a typical American sports fan on heavy doses of Boston pro sports as well as tennis and collegiate hockey, I found myself intrigued by the racing and these guys in their slick and colorful spandex: the determined way they powered and suffered up the lone, cobbled climb of the prologue and their polished and shiny steel bikes (especially those one’s with the kick-ass paint job and the clover on the front). And of all the weird things, I was intrigued by the acrid smell of the stuff that the…what did you call them? So-on…swan…soig…errrrr massage dudes rubbed on the riders’ legs. To this day I love the smell of embrocation in the morning. That smell, that hot piney smell. Smells like…racing.

To be continued.