Monday, September 28, 2009

Mayor's Cup Race & Hub on Wheels Ride in Boston

What an amazing cycling weekend we just had here in Boston!

On Saturday was the Mayor's Cup Pro-Cycling Criterium, right in the heart of downtown Boston. It was the first professional cycling road race in Boston in over 20 years ... and for me, it was the first race I had ever watched live, in-person.

The City of Boston and the race's principal sponsors (TD Banknorth and Boloco) really did a great job organizing the event. They offered substantial prize money to attract serious professionals, and they created a fantastic criterium course. So bravo to Mayor Thomas Menino and our Boston "Bike Czar" Nicole Freedman for a job well done!

Now on to the races...

The first professional event was the hour-long women's race. Seeing these cyclists launch off the starting line... first reaction was that watching professional cycling in-person sure is a unique and wonderful thing -- especially a criterium race, in which the cyclists ride multiple laps around a relatively short course. There's a great burst of excitement as the peloton speeds by in an incredible rush of color and whirring gears...

...and then there's silence. Then a minute or so later, you hear the lead-out car honking its horn and the cyclists whoosh by again.

It all gives you a fantastic sense of suspense. You may only see one slice of the action, but you know the drama is still unfolding during the quiet moments as you wait for the peloton to return.

And then there's the speed they ride! I can't even begin to describe how amazingly fast these cyclists go. I could barely capture them with my camera. And they're not just fast, they're intense. Watching the peloton zip by, you see a lot of intricate maneuvering going on within that tightly packed group. The concentration on the racer's faces was really impressive, especially as the different teams jockeyed for position.

The Mayor's Cup course for both the women and the men was a wide circle around City Hall Plaza, about .7 of a mile. The fun part about being a spectator was that it was easy to get to other parts of the course simply by crossing the Plaza. The course was long enough that each of the different vantage points gave you a unique perspective on the race, whether it was the long straight section on New Sudbury Street, the hill up Congress Street, or the sharp curve in front of the historic Old State House. It made the roads around the Plaza a perfect cycling venue. From now on, I will always look at often-unappreciated City Hall Plaza with new-found affection!

Here are photos I took of the women's race from different points along the course (many of these shots are somewhat blurry, which is a good indication of the cyclists' speed):

I eventually settled back at a place near the finish line, next to where the announcer was calling out details of the race. Through him, I learned that one of the favorites to win was a cyclist named Tina Pic of the "Colavita Sutter Home presented by Cooking Light" team (yes, just like in the Tour de France, some team names are a bit odd. But hey, that's o.k. Hats off to those sponsors that keep pro-cycling alive. I've already added Colavita Olive Oil to my shopping list...). The Mayor's Cup would be Tina Pic's final race after a very successful career as a pro cyclist. I think everyone could feel a good story in the making...

Considering this was the inaugural Mayor's Cup, the crowds were fantastic. Each time the riders sped by the finish line to begin another lap, the crowd cheered loudly, and the anticipation built and built until at last the final lap had arrived.

Now the odd thing about seeing a race in-person is that you can't always get a good view of the lead-up to the final sprint. All I could see from where I stood was the finish line itself. But watching a race live gives you a new challenge that more than makes up for the lack of an overall view: snapping that perfect photo of the winner as she crosses the finish line. The trick is getting the photo without having your eyes glued to your camera. It's certainly no fun watching the big moment on your camera screen!

So as the lead car zipped through the finish line, I simply focused the camera on the finish, pressed the shutter down halfway to set the autofocus, and looked up. Here's what I was able to capture as winner Tina Pic arrived at the line in first place (yes, Tina Pic did win!):

Not bad! You can sort of make out Tina Pic just beginning to raise up her arms in celebration. And behind her are the second and third place finishers: Brooke Miller (Team TIBCO) and Jennifer McRae (Team Type 1).

Here's a photo I took of Tina Pic being interviewed just after the race ended, with Jenifer McRae standing behind her:

And here are photos from the awards ceremony that took place at the end of the day (it was actually pretty dark by then, but I was fortunate that a media photographer's high-powered flash went off just as I shot this photo):

And the traditional champagne blast...

The winners seemed truly elated, especially Tina Pic. What could be better than retiring from the sport on such a high note! It was wonderful hearing the kind things the winners had to say about Boston in the post-race interviews.

After the women's race ended, there was about a half-hour wait before the men's race started. But it went by quickly, having so many cool bikes around to look at:

The men's race followed the same course as the women's, but it was a half-hour longer.

Here they are at the start:

And here are some of my photos from the race itself...

I loved the sounds of the cyclists speeding by. For instance, as the peloton powered up this small hill...

... you could hear so many loud clicks as they all simultaneously shifted gears, like staccato punctuations above the cool cadence of pedals in motion.

After a while, a breakaway of seven riders separated from the peloton, creating a wide gap. It turned out that they would remain in front all the way to the end.

I wasn't as lucky at the finish line as I was during the women's race -- I completely missed getting a shot of the winner (it was also getting quite dark, so my photos were increasingly blurry). But I did get a halfway decent photo of the winners at the awards ceremony:

They winners were: Kyle Wamsley (Colavita Sutter Home presented by Cooking Light), Shawn Milne (Team Type 1), and Clayton Barrows (CRCA Empire presented by Northwave).

For a good summary of the race, check out the article at the Daily Peloton.

So what an exciting day! I rode home on the subway with my ears still ringing with all the amazing sounds of cycling.

But the fun wasn't over yet. The following morning was Part II of Boston's great cycling weekend: The Hub on Wheels Ride (with all proceeds going to the Boston Public Schools). There were three courses to choose from ... a 10 mile ride (all on streets closed to traffic), a 30 mile ride, and a 50 mile ride. Over 6,000 people registered! I registered online about a month before the event and received my number in the mail. Since 30 miles is normally within my cycling abilities, I had originally planned on that riding that course.

The night before the ride though, as I pinned my number to my windbreaker, the forecasters on the Weather Channel called for rain, rain, and more rain! Oh no! I had only taken one or two short rides in moderate rain before ... but that was close to home on familiar roads. I couldn't imagine doing 30 miles in the rain, especially having never ridden among thousands of other riders before.

But I went to bed Saturday night simply thinking: lets just see what tomorrow brings.

The next morning I got up at 6 am, and sure enough ... steady rain. Rats! But I went through the motions of getting ready for the ride anyway. I dressed in my cycling clothes, packed my seat bag, put on my cycling gloves and helmet, and walked my bike out the door. "I'll just ride to the T station and get a feel for what it's like out," I thought to myself.

It was pretty miserable. My windbreaker wasn't nearly as weatherproof as I had thought, and in the two minutes it took me to ride to the station, I was getting chilled to the bone. So I went back home, added extra layers under my jacket, and tried heading out again. After nearly turning around and heading home for good, I finally made the decision: "I need to support my city's cycling efforts -- I'm going to the ride". But I decided on a compromise: I would just do the 10 mile course. Having now gotten my mental ducks in order, I got on the T with my already very wet bike at my side and made my way into the city.

It turns out that I was not alone. Of the 6,000 people who registered, I would estimate that maybe 1,500 or so cyclists showed up at the start line. Pretty amazing! And what a nice group of people!

By this time it was still raining steadily; but standing there among all these happy cyclists, it didn't seem quite so bad. I felt like I was part of something truly special.

Because of the rain, I took very few photos ... not wanting to put my little Canon PowerShot SD1000 at risk. But here's one I did take of some riders getting ready at the start line...

And here was my view of the sea of cyclists just before the start of the ride...

And at 8 am sharp, we were off!

Now keep in mind this was a ride, not a race. Yet right from the start, I knew this was going to be an extraordinary experience. The 10 mile course was all on city streets completely closed to traffic. We first coasted down Cambridge Steet, then onto Storrow Drive along the Charles River, through the Back Bay Fens, up Commonwealth Avenue, and finally ended with a good climb up Beacon Hill before returning to City Hall Plaza.

All around me were the whirring of pedals, the clicking of gears, and the swishing sound of tires on wet pavement. It was exhillirating -- and a fantastic exercise in concentration. Sometimes I politely passed by slower cyclists, while other times I kept my riding in an even line so that faster cyclists could gracefully pass by me. It was about an hour of perpetual motion, full of sounds and sensations I had never before experienced. And riding on closed city streets was phenomenal! It was as if the city was ours alone.

The experience was all quite a sensory overload .... and in the rain, no less! I can't imagne what it would have been like if the weather was sunny. But hopefully I won't have to imagine too long ... I'll definitely be back next year.

So to the City of Boston, Mayor Menino, Director of Bicycle Planning Nicole Freedman, the volunteers, and all the event sponsors ... thank you, and great job on creating this wonderful weekend!

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