Monday, October 11, 2010

Hub on Wheels Ride and Mayor's Cup Race

September 26, 2010 was a great day! It was the sixth-annual Hub on Wheels ride, with 10, 30, and 50-mile routes to choose from, followed by the Mayor's Cup professional criterium race around City Hall. Both were organized by the City of Boston and its sponsors. I've written about many rides on this blog, but nothing was quite like this.

Before the Ride

That's over 4,000 riders you're looking at, stretched out from the start line at City Hall all the way beyond the Old State House. You may be wondering: why is this ride called Hub on Wheels? Well, it's a Boston thing. "The Hub" is short for "The Hub of the Universe", a phrase written by Oliver Wendell Holmes to describe Boston. One of the goals of the ride was to give cyclists a sense of the many diverse neighborhoods of our beautiful city -- on bicycle wheels!

The nickname "hub" certainly fit on this special day. I felt as if the entire universe of cycling revolved around Boston.

The ride was set to begin at 8:00 a.m., but I arrived downtown at about 6:45, taking my bike on the T (the T is our subway system, which allows bicycles on most lines). This was the eerily-quiet scene as I cycled through Downtown Crossing on my way to City Hall Plaza.

I registered online only a week before the event, so I had to pick-up my number at on-site registration rather than receive it in the mail. This worried me a bit ... I had a feeling the lines would be long. But fortunately not many riders had arrived by the time I reached City Hall Plaza, and I was able to walk right up to the registration table.

The organizers gave me a route map (which you can see a PDF of here) and my number...

...and then I began the pre-ride ritual of pinning the number to my jersey. There are all sorts of superstitions surrounding number-pinning among racers (although this was a ride, not a race). Many of the world's best cyclists insist on pinning their numbers themselves, and of course the number 13 requires special consideration. Fortunately, I didn't notice my number as I pinned it on (4413), or I would have pinned it upside down to let the bad luck pour out, as Tour de France racer Fabian Cancellara did this past summer! But I guess ignorance is bliss ... I had no flat tires or any other mechanical issues during the ride.

After carefully pinning the number to my blue jersey (being sure not to make it too tight or it would tear, but not so loose that it would flap in the wind -- it takes a bit of trail and error), I had nearly an hour to simply walk around and enjoy the pre-ride atmosphere.

City Hall Plaza is a huge, expansive brick pavement, surrounded by government buildings, coffee shops, pubs, and our modernistic City Hall. It's not as warm and inviting as the Common or Public Gardens, but for this event it worked really well. Over the plaza's large open area we could easily roll our bikes around, and in the center of the plaza vendors were setting up for the bike festival which was set to begin after we arrived back from our rides.

By 7:30 a.m., I realized that arriving early was a wise decision. The registration line was now very long and the plaza was completely ... wonderfully ... full of riders! The weather was perfect (sunny, in the 60's), so I think a lot of people decided to show up on the spur of the moment.

That modern gray building in the last photo is our City Hall, and in the third photo you can see historic Faneuil Hall. They make a nice contrast to each other.

If you're wondering why I'm using so much space to write about this pre-ride time, it's because I love these moments. There's a great feeling of anticipation in the air, knowing this is the starting point for a great journey. But more simply, we cyclists just enjoy being together! Conversation flows easily, and we're probably one of the most polite and good-humored crowds ever to assemble on City Hall Plaza. Everyone is patient and kind, and stories of epic rides flow around the plaza as effortlessly as the cool New England early-autumn breeze (which would later turn into a thrilling coastal headwind ... but more on that later). For many of us, there was no place we would have rather been.

At about 7:35 or so, I decided I had better get myself onto Cambridge Street and into the starting area. As I've written before on other posts, I don't like riding in the rear of a pack. I feel better knowing there are plenty of riders behind me in case I get a flat tire. That way, by the time I change it I can still easily catch up.

As I made my way toward the start banner, I noticed these cars...

Recognize them? They're the neutral support vehicles from the Tour de France! Well, to be honest I'm not sure if they were the exact same cars, but they're still very cool.

Since most of the riders were still pinning their numbers on their jerseys or hanging out on the plaza, I got myself in great position close to the start-banner.

That gate you see was used by the organizers to stagger the start a bit. The people in front of me were in the first group, which headed out a little after 8:00 a.m. Our group left about 30 seconds later, and so on and so forth all way back. Everyone pretty much did end up coming together in a gigantic line of cyclists, but this slightly staggered start allowed each rider to find her or her own pace for the first mile or so with a little extra room around the wheels.

I noticed that I was standing next to a rider with a Raleigh bicycle (same brand as mine), so we chatted for a while. He worked for TD Bank, which was the principle sponsor for the event. Working for a non-profit arts organization, I know a bit about sponsorships, and I have to say that I think TD Bank got their money's worth. They were a visible presence throughout the day, but in a fun, snazzy way. It was clear that this event could not have happened without their great support, as well as all of the other sponsors.

Time went quickly as we awaited the start of the ride. You just kind of stand there, at peace, chatting with fellow riders, enjoying all the good feelings and thinking about the route ahead.

The route I had chosen to ride was 30 miles. Although I completed a 48 mile ride in August and would normally have bumped up my mileage to 50 ... 30 miles felt just right for this end-of-the-season ride. When I ride an event, I like to end strong, and although I cycled throughout August and September I hadn't concentrated on long distances. Anyway, this ride was about discovery and enjoyment, not miles. I loved the look of the 30-mile route, and .... most important of all ... I wanted to get back in good time for the lunch party!

Just before 8:00 a.m., the sponsors and organizers stepped onto the small stage to give their pre-ride greetings, including our bicycle-riding mayor Thomas Menino:

And then with a few parting words of advice ("don't ride to close to the rider in front of you" and "follow the traffic rules on open-to-cars roads") we were off! The first group cranked their pedals and headed out amidst a crowd of cheering orange-shirted volunteers ... and a few moments later the gate was moved and I was on my way! 30 miles of adventure lie ahead.

The Ride

As always when I do organized rides, I only took photos at the rest stops. It's simply too much fun being on the bike, surrounded by the whirring gears of all your fellow cyclists, to then stop, pull over, get out the camera and take pictures (or worse, try doing it on the bike ... yikes!). Normally I would go back in a rental car and take photos along the route, but having come to this ride by subway that wasn't possible; and besides, it's just not the same without all the riders on the streets. So after the ride I dusted off my watercolor set and went to work.

My first painting is a scene from the first few miles of the ride, which took place on roads closed to traffic:

And that's not just any road ... it's Storrow Drive, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city! On this beautiful morning it was all ours. Storrow Drive is a very dramatic road, with the Charles River and tree-lined Esplanade on one side, the brownstones of Beacon Street and Boston University on the other, and ... once we made the sweeping turn back toward downtown ... the skyscrapers of Back Bay in the distance. I painted this scene from memory, so it's more an impression of all of these things rather than an exact spot on the route.

The start of a large event ride always feels great, but to have it take place on this beautiful road, traffic-free, with 4,000 fellow riders was just incredible. Although mindful of needing to conserve my energy, I still found myself moving steadily forward around a nice 17 mph pace.

It takes a bit of choreography to get into your riding rhythm, passing slower riders with a politely called out "on your left" so they know not to swerve into your path, while yielding to speed demons who fly by you (whom you assure yourself will wear out by the end of the ride, making you feel a little better). While there were certainly plenty of carbon fiber and aluminum road bikes (like mine) on the road, there were also riders on mountain bikes, cruisers, hybrids, and everything in between. This was a big-city urban ride, which means you saw all ages and types of people. There were teams of riders, couples, and families, but also plenty of independent souls who showed up on their own and made 4,000 new friends.

We rode up one side of Storrow Drive, made a u-turn just after passing Harvard University, and then rode down the other side. That's when the enormity of this ride really hit home. In the remaining miles of Storrow Drive, I never saw a single break in the huge pack of riders coming the other direction. I could have stopped, replaced a flat tire, oiled my chain, and eaten a cereal bar or two without seeing the final rider pass me!

As we pedaled off Storrow Drive, those doing the 10-mile route turned back toward downtown, while the rest of us continued on the tree-lined Fenway and Riverway, meandering down landscape architect Frederick Olmsted's "Emerald Necklace" of parks. We were back on open streets now, with some red lights (providing nice breaks to check out the cool bikes of fellow riders) but very little traffic on this early Sunday morning.

Passing by Jamaica Pond in the heart of the artsy, hip, and diverse Jamaica Plain neighborhood (one of my favorite haunts in my college days), we made a turn into the beautiful Arnold Arboretum and soon arrived at the first rest stop.

As you can see it wasn't very crowded, since I had ridden pretty close to the front of the riders. I heard it filled up quickly though, which actually would have been fun to see. But for now, I was glad to have first pick of the huge amount of healthy goodies they had lined up for us (although in the end I went with the tried-and-true cycling staple ... a banana and some Gatorade). After a few pleasant moments enjoying my small breakfast, I was back on the road.

Living along the coast, the interior sections of Boston are places I rarely visit, so it was wonderful discovering this section of the city by bicycle. The route took us through the leafy Arboretum, then into the busy neighborhood at the junction of Washington Street and Hyde Park Avenue, and finally into the soulful Forest Hills Cemetery. This was the location of Rest Stop #2.

Isn't that gothic gate extraordinary? Just one of the many beautiful sights on the ride.

Again, the rest stop wasn't very crowded when I arrived. I think it had to do with the group-dynamic of the ride. Not long after leaving Storrow Drive, we had transformed ourselves into a long line of cyclists with little pockets of groups riding together. As you increased or decreased your speed, you would find yourself cruising along with a new set of riders. It made for some pleasant cycling.

As I cycled out of Rest Stop #2 and the cemetery, one of the volunteers singling a turn yelled out to me: "lookin' good blue bike!" This was another incredible feature of the ride ... at every major turn there were at least two volunteers in bright orange shirts pointing riders in the right direction, often yelling out "great job!" and "you can do it!". Volunteers were everywhere, as were police officers guiding us through intersections, and EMT personnel ready to help if anyone got hurt. The level of organization and support was phenomenal. It made me so proud to be a Bostonian.

After leaving the cemetery, the route soon took us into Franklin Park for some quiet riding through rolling hills and woods. We then entered the neighborhood of Dorchester. Dorchester is an expansive, densely populated, culturally diverse area, which made for a wonderful stretch of urban cycling. Its defining architectural feature is the Dorchester Triple Decker ... a large three-story flat-roofed house with clapboard siding, built as closely as possible to its neighbor. Again, my painting doesn't depict an exact place on the ride, just an impression from my memories:

It was here that I experienced an odd sense of deja vu, as if I had dreamt of riding on these streets before. Strange things like this happen on bike rides. You're so focused on the moment and in touch with your surroundings, that sometimes your mind drifts into its deeper, more mysterious corners. I simply enjoyed the sensation.

Our route through Dorchester first took us due-south, but as we gradually turned to the east I could begin to pick up the scent of the sea. Along the way a woman working in her garden waved to me as I passed, and the volunteers and police officers were wonderful as they helped us through the intersections. Moving steadily along and feeling great, I decided not to stop at Rest Stop #3 (although it was tempting!).

After turning onto a transitional street of businesses and warehouses, it wasn't long before we made a right onto the seaside Morrissey Boulevard and the final third of the ride had begun.

With Boston's vast waterfront on our right, we rode up Morrissey Boulevard (where a flat surface was laid across a rough drawbridge, to make it easier to cycle on) and onto the Harborwalk Path, which took us past the stunning JFK Library and around the University of Massachusetts before we arrived at Rest Stop #4:

Here's my bike, looking good...

...and thanks to Wheelworks, a great local bike shop, you could get your bike fixed if you happened to have any midride mishaps...

Leaving the rest stop, I had a feeling the final portion of the ride was going to be something extraordinary ... and it was. The route was both quietly beautiful and epic at the same time. Riding along the beaches of South Boston, colorful boats bobbed on the bay to my right, while on my left narrow streets climbed upward past neat rowhouses to Telegraph Hill. As we followed the path around the end of Southie, the huge cranes of the Conley Shipping Terminal loomed large in the distance.

Crossing a small bridge over an inlet, we entered the Black Falcon Cruise Terminal, which is the docking point for the many cruise ships making port in the city. I loved this area! Like all waterfront shipping districts, it's a mishmash of gigantic warehouses, abandoned railroad tracks, and fish distribution centers. Cobblestones appeared in the road where the modern asphalt had worn away, recalling earlier days of clipper ships and steamers. I love old industrial landscapes, so cycling through this area was a real treat.

Making our way through some powerful ocean headwinds, we rode along Northern Avenue, past the Fish Pier with its commercial fishing boats tied up along its edges, and back onto the Harborwalk to loop around the ultra-modern Institute of Contemporary Art. Following a winding route of waterfront streets, we were soon cycling on Atlantic Avenue toward downtown.

As volunteers cheered us on through the final turns, we made one last left onto historic State Street.

What a way to end this ride! Back from our journey through so many of the beautiful corners of our city, this final stretch of road featured an iconic Boston image: the colonial-era Old State House surrounded by the modern skyscrapers of the financial district. It truly felt like a grand-finale moment. And then with one final right turn onto City Hall Plaza, riding through a crowd of congratulating volunteers, we made it!

I truly felt like I had returned from an adventure. I discovered parts of the city I didn't know existed, met new people along the way, challenged myself, and made it back knowing I had experienced something extraordinary. It was a wonderful 30 miles.

By this time it was 10:40 a.m. or so, and I seemed to be among some of the first riders back. I picked up my free bag of goodies from the sponsors...

...and then walked around the plaza, stopping by all the booths at the bike expo.

The next big event of the day was the Mayor's Cup professional bike race, which was set to begin at 2:00 pm. Since I live just a 25-minute T ride from City Hall Plaza, I decided to make a quick trip home, drop off my bike, take a shower, and return refreshed for lunch and the race.

The Mayor's Cup Criterium Race

I arrived back at City Hall Plaza around 1:00 p.m. Sampling some of the lunch items provided by sponsors Boloco and Redbones, I then waked to the start banner to wait for the women's race to begin. It was the same banner I had pedaled under just five hours earlier at start of the Hub on Wheels ride! Announcing both races were the wonderfully enthusiastic David Towle and Tour de France rider and Versus Channel reporter Frankie Andreu.

It had gotten fairly chilly by this time, with high winds and occasional periods of light rain ... such a switch from the morning. The course was a .7 mile loop around City Hall Plaza, around which the racers made multiple laps. It was quite scenic, with one nice uphill section, and plenty of long straightaways for launching an attack. All of the elements you see in the Tour de France you could see in this race, including breakaways, a peloton, sprints, and ... unfortunately ... a crash (there was one bad crash during the women's race that neutralized the field for a number of laps. I hope the two riders who fell are o.k.).

Here are the racers lined up at the start of the women's race:

That bell you see on the left side of the photo is a cowbell, passed out to the crowd by TD Bank (I have mine sitting on my desk right now). It's the traditional way to cheer on a bicycle race! How cool!

After a brief introduction, the racers were off! They zipped by in a blaze of bright color...

...and then you wait, the suspense building as each second ticks by.

It isn't long before you hear the honking of the lead-out Volvo car and the racers are back, barreling under the start banner at incredible speeds...

The commentators were wonderful throughout, keeping fans informed on the details and tactics of what was a very exciting race.

After a while I decided to walk around the rest of the course...

Here's a nice view of the peloton with the narrow streets of the North End in the distance. Incidentally, that restaurant on the right side of the photo is called the "Bell in Hand" pub -- very apt today!

Here are the riders making a sharp turn at the Old State House, which I had ridden by earlier that morning:

The crowd cranes their necks to catch the final sprint finish...

...and here's the winner Lauren Tamayo after the race:

The men's criterium began a short while later...

This next photo is pretty blurry, since it was getting dark by the time the race ended, but here you can see winner Daniel Holloway just after he crossed the finish line in a thrilling sprint:

The award ceremonies for the first, second, and third place winners of both races were then held. For the men it was Daniel Holloway, Gavin Mannion, and Andrew Crater...

And the winners for the women's race were Lauren Tamayo, Jen Mcrae, and Laura Van Gilder...

And with that, this magical day had come to an end. It wasn't long before crews were tearing down the stage and start banner, and by the next morning all traces of Boston's cycling festival had vanished. It now just exists in our memories, which is why I decided to take my time writing this post to record as much as I could.

On this special day, we celebrated not only the beauty of cycling, but also how far our city has come in just a few short years, from once being ranked one of the least cycling-friendly in the US to quickly becoming one of the best. Mayor Thomas Menino and Boston's Director of Bicycle Programs (a.k.a. Boston's "Bike Czar") Nicole Freedman have provided such great leadership to make the transformation possible, promoting healthier, greener living in the process. But it takes the entire Greater Boston cycling community to show up and make these dreams come alive -- and show up we did.

Thank you so much to all the volunteers, the police, emergency personnel, the generous sponsors, and Mayor Thomas Menino and Bike Czar Nicole Freedman for creating this magnificent event. It was one I will never forget.