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!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Safe Roads

This morning's ride took me up and over Chickatawbut Hill, with its great views of Boston...

...then through the quaint town center of Milton...

...when I came across this:

Bravo Town of Milton! Is there anything nicer than a dedicated bike lane? It's like a magic carpet, safely carrying you home...

Monday, September 14, 2009

North Shore Adventure

A bicycle is a graceful and elegant machine ... until you try fitting it into a car.

It's 3:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, and I'm standing before a Zipcar SUV that looks like it should hold my bike pretty well though. Parked in its space at my local train station, the car is a Honda Element, described on the Zipcar website as: half car, half house -- extra large capacity for medium furniture items.

"That should work nicely for us, don't you think?" I said to my bicycle Saturday afternoon, looking through the various Zipcar rental options online. My bike just glared at me. I thought about it for a moment, then clicked reserve.

"You'll be fine," I said.

Here's a photo of the car (taken later on Sunday)...

By 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning, I had driven the car home, figured out how to lower the back seats to create extra hatchback space, put on my cycling clothes, printed maps from my computer, and packed the car with all sorts of stuff (helmet, gloves, change of clothes, camera, sunscreen, paper towels, cereal bars, pocket knife, cell phone, wallet, notebook, and cycling shoes). All that's left now is to put my bike in the back.

"O.K., time to go!" I announce. I gently roll the bike out to the car and set it beside the hatchback.

My bike just stands there, looking at me.

"You're going to put me in there?" it says.

"Don't worry," I reply, "it'll be fun. We're going to the North Shore for a 6:00 a.m. ride, and it's beautiful up there..."

That's when my bike kind of lost it.

"The North Shore?! I don't want to go to the North Shore! I'm a South Shore bicycle. What do you want to go to the North Shore for? It's so far, all the way on the other side of the city! Ugh!"

My bike is such a Bostonian. Here in Boston, the coastline north of the city is called the North Shore and the coastline to the south is called the South Shore ... and if you live in one, you rarely, if ever, visit the other. They might as well be separate universes, even though they're only a little over an hour's drive apart. It's that city of 600,000 people in between that creates the mental barrier. While the two shores are somewhat similar -- both have rocky ledges, beautiful homes, sandy beaches, and awe-inspiring lighthouses -- the North Shore is a bit more more rugged, with deep coves and rocky necks jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.

"It'll be okay, you'll see," I reassure my bicycle.

Lifting it up off the ground, with a turn of the handlebars one way and a skewing of a wheel another, I set my bike on its tarp in the back of the SUV and ... unbelievably ... I manage to fit it inside, awkward limbs and all.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?" I say. It answers by unexpectedly slipping downward, shifting all its weight on the delicate rear derailleur.

"You're impossible," I mutter. I reposition the bike more securely, put towels on all the spots it makes contact with the car interior to keep it nice and clean (the car, that is), and with a bit of a flourish I shut the hatchback. Done!

I climb into the front seat, start the ignition, turn on the headlights ... and we're off!

Through the dark pre-dawn night we make our way up I-93 to the glittering city ahead. It sure seems easy driving the northward passage at 5:10 a.m. with no traffic. As we emerge from the new Central Artery Tunnel and up over the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, we're officially on Boston's other side. The North Shore awaits.

The Honda Element drives nicely, although it does feel a bit like the old company van my father used to drive home from work when I was a kid. Ride over a bump, and all sorts of strange things clunk in the big space behind you.

"Everything o.k. back there?" I ask. My bike says nothing.

"You'll love it. Trust me."

I count off the towns along the expressway: Peabody, Salem, Beverly, Prides Crossing, Swampscott, Essex. Then at about 5:50 a.m.: Exit 14, Gloucester.

"That's us!"

It's exactly 6:00 a.m. when I reach the center of this legendary commercial fishing town -- America's oldest seaport, recently made famous by the book The Perfect Storm. I make a quick stop at the local Dunkin' Donuts to buy a corn muffin (which I'll save for a post-ride treat), park in a municipal parking lot, drop quarters in the meter (until I realize it's free on Sundays), and unlatch the hatchback.

I pull my bike out and set it on the ground.

"We're here!" I say. "What do you think now?"

My bike is still unsure. But little-by-little as it sits there in the glow of the early morning sun, its elegant self begins to return. Breathing in the fresh salt-air of the ocean, we both have a moment of clarity. Yes, it sure does take a lot of preparation to plan an out-of-town bike trek like this. But if everything is done correctly, then soon it's just you, the bike, and the open road ... and that's all that matters. The world is good and right once again.

"O.K., let's ride," says my bicycle. A machine of few words, my bike is. I put on my cycling shoes, helmet, and gloves ... and off we go!

Just across Gloucester Harbor is a rocky peninsula called Eastern Point. My father and I drove out here a few weeks ago when he came up to visit from North Carolina, and I decided then and there that I needed to come back and ride its rocky shores on my bicycle. It's not a long road around Eastern Point ... maybe 10 miles or so. But it takes me almost 1.5 hours with all the photos I stop to shoot!

Uninhabited Thatcher Island lies in the distance, its gloomy twin lighthouses barely visible in the early-morning mist...

I then ride on to Good Harbor Beach, with its stunning ocean views...

I now turn around and ride the same road back into town, but this time putting my camera away and simply enjoying the scenery. I couldn't help but take a couple more photos though...

Making my way back into Gloucester, I'm reminded at nearly every turn that Gloucester is still a busy fishing village, dotted with nautical supply stores...

...and of course commercial boats in the harbor, lobster traps strewn around on the docks, and coast guard vessels on constant alert...

Riding further on to the other side of town, I arrive at the Fisherman's Memorial, honoring the over 5,300 fishermen lost at sea in the town's history...

A series of plaques sit on the other side of the statue in a large semi-circle, with the names of all those who have perished at sea over the past 200 years. I stop and stand there quietly for a few moments...

It's now around 8:00 a.m., and I'd slowly watched the town come to life over the past couple hours. Riding along Eastern Point, tourists emerged from the motels lining the shore, taking photos of the rocky coast. I greeted a number of early morning walkers on the road. And around 7:50 a.m., I stopped to chat with another cyclist as we waited at a drawbridge.

"The bridge is 70 years old, and it still works fine," he told me as it noisily opened and closed, "although it probably could use some oil..."

As the sun rises higher in the sky and the number of cars on the road increase, I decide that it's time for my ride to come to a close. I do love the early morning hours ... the way the landscape seems fresh and new, and the feeling that it's a time separate from your everyday life and responsibilities. So it's nice to simply keep a good ride framed within that special time of day.

I take a detour back through the center of town...

...and then ride along the harbor one last time -- when I come across this wonderful statue...

...commemorating the Gloucester artist. The pose is perfect. Headstrong, with his face to the wind, the artist magically brings the stories of this colorful old village to life.

And with that, it was time to ride back to the car and head home.

I gently clean my bike of all the sand and mud it had collected. Soon it positively glows. My bike lets me put it back into the car without complaint this time, happy to lie down and rest for while.

Driving back to the same Dunkin' Donuts I visited a couple hours earlier, I stop in the restroom to change out of my cycling clothes into jeans and a cotton shirt, and then I buy an unbelievably refreshing iced coffee (I absolutely love my morning coffee, especially Dunkin' Donuts!). Back in the car, I put my large iced coffee in the cup holder and unwrap the corn muffin that had been patiently waiting for me since 6:00 a.m. Coffee and a muffin ... that's a good post-ride treat.

As I sit there in the car enjoying my breakfast, I watch other cyclists ride by -- just getting out on the road, I suppose. But my adventure for the morning is complete, and it feels great.

Finishing the muffin, I put the car in "drive" and turn toward home.

"Now wasn't that worth it?" I ask my bike as we zip down Route 128. It just sits there, dreamily looking out the window. A machine of few words, my bike is. But I suspect it couldn't be happier.