Wednesday, August 15, 2018

From the Archives - San Francisco Grand Prix Spectator’s Eye View


Since 2003, I’ve been an occasional contributor to the Daily Peloton. A few years ago, I discovered that most of my stories there are no longer available due to some server problems.  It’s another slow news day at albertnet, so here is one of the lost articles, restored and preserved for prosperity. This isn’t race coverage per se; it covers the sport in general and subtopics that I hope you’ll agree are still relevant.

San Francisco Grand Prix: A Spectator’s Eye View – September 14, 2003

I attended the San Francisco Grand Prix bike race today, and was reminded how different these events are in person. Being a live spectator is much more exciting than just watching on TV.

The SF Grand Prix covers a 10-mile circuit of downtown city streets, largely shutting down all normal traffic flows. Attendance was impressive—as always, the sidewalks were clogged with spectators, estimated today at over half a million. If you showed up early enough—and this year the first-ever women's edition started at 7:30—you got a good position along the scenic waterfront Embarcadero where the Start/Finish line is. I got a great spot, and if I’d stayed put for the next eight hours, I'd have had a great view of the finish of both the races.

But this stretch really isn't where the race is won or lost—that happens on the brutally steep climbs of Fillmore and Taylor streets, roughly on the opposite end of the loop. Last year I watched Charles Dionne win the race on Taylor Street. Of course I didn't know he was winning it at the time; nobody really did, not even the other riders in the lead group, or at least not all of them. That's because Dionne didn't do anything obvious, like drop the rest of the group, on that hill. All he did was manage not to get dropped himself. Dionne is a sprinter, and his superior sprinting ability is like money in the bank, a simple and incontrovertible fact of nature. If he's there to contest the flat finish line sprint among a bunch of climbers, stage racers, or time trialists, he'll beat them. The sprint itself was a formality for Dionne. The climbs are where the action is, so staking out a good spot on Fillmore or Taylor makes a lot of sense.

Still, it's not totally satisfying to see the defining action on the backside of the course only to miss the moment of victory, the winner throwing his arms up as he crosses the line. But since you can’t see the action on the climbs and still make it to the finish line in time, and you’re thus doomed to miss so much of the action, what is the attraction of being there? Any spectator, of any sport, will tell you that these things are just better live. You're not just there to watch the athletes; you're there for the entire spectacle of the thing, for the atmosphere. Just like the smell of popcorn at the movies, or of suntan lotion at the beach, there’s a sensory bonus to being at the race in person: sound. TV coverage gives you great voice-over (if the announcers are good), but you don’t hear the tires on the ground, the panting of the riders, or most importantly the cheering of the spectators.

When I worked as a general purpose gofer for ESPN covering the 1988 Coors International Bicycle Classic, my first assignment was to point this giant phallic microphone at the pack as it went by. After one stage of this, the recording was deemed unusable and I was off the hook. An even stranger request I got was to run up and down a flight of stairs a few times and then let a sound guy record my panting. This would be dubbed over footage of a pro cyclist climbing some grade. I must not have sounded authentic enough, because the recording was never used. But the fact that they tried to get it says something. And yet if you are actually there at the race, the sheer noise factor is almost overwhelming.

This year at the SF Grand Prix, sponsors such as Clif Bar and Saturn gave out cowbells, which created a huge and pleasant din. When I sat at a restaurant bar to have lunch, and watched the race on TV, what I got for sound was less than nothing: the one screen showing the race was muted, and all the other screens were showing a football game, with sound. Between the TV sound and the cheering football fans, it was hard to enjoy the subtle pleasures of cycling coverage. It struck me, when the 49ers scored a touchdown on fourth down with eight to go, that the yelling and cheering in the bar was nothing like what I’d heard outside. These guys weren’t cheering on the players, who after all can’t hear them anyway. Their cheering had a strangely turned-in quality, like they were cheering themselves on for living in San Francisco, the home of the 49ers, and thus basically deserving some of the credit.

Beyond the noise factor, at any sporting event the presence not only of your sports heroes but of the throngs of other spectators creates a certain energy that far surpasses what you get at home, or at a sports bar. I went to a Diamondbacks/Giants game years ago, and managed to miss every big play—I was fighting with the relish dispenser when Barry Bonds made an amazing catch that was on all the evening news highlights—but I still had a good time (better than I’d have had seeing it on TV). And the thrill of actually being there is even more pronounced in cycling than in any stadium sport, because the athletes and the action are so accessible—nobody has to watch through binoculars from the nose-bleeder seats. You're as close as you manage to get, often (ideally) with nothing between you and the racers but your own discretion.

Lance Armstrong commented some months ago on the vulnerability of cyclists in the Tour de France (a comment that many misconstrued as terrorist-attack paranoia). And we all watched in horror as Lance's handlebar hooked a spectator's musette bag on the Luz-Ardiden, crashing him. But I have to agree with Tour director Jean-Marie LeBlanc: it would be wrong to overreact to this incident and place new constraints on the spectators. The absence of ubiquitous crowd control is one of the things that makes bicycle racing special. And you don't see Lance complaining to LeBlanc, either. Doubtless he recognizes that without the spectator-friendly culture of the Tour de France, you won't get as many fans, and if you don't get enough fans, teams don't get the corporate sponsors, and without the sponsors, Lance doesn't get a paycheck.

Beyond their livelihood, the peloton surely appreciates the fans on a more human level. This is what we, as spectators, need to believe to thoroughly enjoy the event: that we are not just watching, but participating, having a connection with the athletes and creating the special energy that defines a big race. But do we? How much do the spectators really matter to the bicycle racer? Are we actually any different from sports fans in a bar congratulating ourselves for what the athletes are doing ten, a hundred, a thousand miles away? There's a simple answer, which would be yes, but it's not actually a simple matter.

First, we have to differentiate between two basic spectator scenarios: teeming masses vs. sorry handfuls. The fact is, there’s a critical mass required before the racers could possibly be inspired. Today certainly measured up. After the race, I talked to Tim Larkin, a professional on the San Francisco-based Ofoto / Lombardi Sports team, who is by any account one of the best bicycle racers in the Berkeley area. Though Tim was clearly fried from the race and couldn’t have been operating on more than 20% of his brain power, he immediately commented on the crowds. “The crowd was phenomenal,” he said. “You don't expect it in cycling over here, and to see that kind of turnout . . . from the first time up the hill they're going nuts, and they keep that intensity up for four and a half hours, just yelling their heads off, it's pretty amazing. Everyone’s ringing the cowbells, so you can't hear anything, just this din. What was new to me were those balloon things, that were big last year in the world series—the Anaheim Angels started that, got everyone in the stadium banging those together—so to see them at a bike race, to see them cross over from a mainstream sport, makes it feel like what you're doing gets more respect than racing in the middle of nowhere with, you know, people's parents there. Even if it's an important race for other reasons, if there aren't many people there, you're like, well, how important can it be?”

I’ve known that feeling myself, and it’s more common the further you get from Tim’s level. Let's face it, it is the reality for the majority of local races in the U.S, and it can be demoralizing. A race can feel an awful lot like a bunch of guys riding fast around a residential street or office park, if there isn’t someone there besides a referee keeping track of the results. It makes a huge difference if a critical mass of spectators manages to assemble itself, and seems to care about the action and the athletes, if not the outcome, regardless of how important the event is to the racing calendar. And this is why U.S. races should be held on city streets in places like Boulder, Colorado where cycling is in the blood of 90% of the residents, or tiny, quiet places like Sterling, Colorado, or Casper the friendly Wyoming, or Nevada City, California—places where the spectacle of a bike race is honest-to-God exciting to the small-town folk who turn up in droves with their Igloos and lawn chairs.

This enthusiasm certainly matters to any racer. Tim races all over the country and finds that good crowds are seldom a given, even when the race draws top talent. “Only a couple of other races in the country that have a really good crowd; Philadelphia has the long tradition there but [the SF Grand Prix] even takes that up a notch. To be fair to other races, criteriums can have a very loud crowd but it's a 1 km course, and this is a 10-mile loop with half a dozen places where it's just packed, so there’s no comparison to road races where you may expect people at the Start/Finish line and that's it. Very rarely do you get to have a race downtown, and this one happens because you have Lance and Thomas Weisel behind it to get the city’s buy-in. If promoters can keep on working to bring races to bigger cities, it can only be good for the sport.”

Cycling in the United States simply doesn’t have the strong tradition and national identity that it does in other countries, and as sports like soccer increase in popularity here, it must continually fight for a place in the national psyche. Certainly Lance’s phenomenal success has helped the sport, but I’m disappointed it hasn’t provided an even bigger boost. The road bike has gone from a standard to a specialty item. Junior fields in big races like the Nevada City classic have dwindled alarmingly. To keep the sport healthy will require that the spectators cease to be small gatherings of already interested people. It needs to bring in curious onlookers and hook them on the action, so they won’t change the channel from OLN once the bronco riders have finished up.

Of course it would be unfair to put the burden solely on the race promoters and the communities that can choose to put on races or not. I talked today with one of the race announcers, Michael Aisner, about what it takes to create excitement among the spectators of a bike race. Michael announces for various top U.S. races, but formerly had a much larger role in U.S. cycling than that. He essentially put the cycling on the map in this country, taking over the fledgling Red Zinger Bicycle Classic (sponsored by Celestial Seasonings, when it was a much smaller company than it is now), landing Coors as its new main sponsor with a much bigger budget, adding many more stages to the race, and drawing a world class international field.

I grew up watching this race, and even at a young age could see the progression each year. There’s nothing I can see that was a revolutionary change in the approach to the race; Michael’s formula seemed to be fairly simple: make each stage exciting to watch, show the crowd a good time, and next year the crowd will be bigger, the TV coverage better, and the race will increase in prominence. This in turn brings a better field every year. But what did this race do to achieve these ends? For one thing, there were plenty of criteriums, always held on downtown streets where crowds can find them. Purists criticized the format, trying to champion the more traditional point-to-point road races popular in Europe, but (as Tim Larkin pointed out) this format isn’t conducive to large crowds. It works in Europe because the sport is already huge there.

But beyond the format, the success of the Coors Classic depended on harnessing the elusive potential of the sport. “Cycling is kind of a rock and roll sport in a way, and its energy level was built on people being able to really exploit it in a big way,” Michael told me. “And I really credit the announcer for having done what he needs to do in order to make a race huge. I think you need to bridge the gap through your announcer, and through music and energy levels … so that cycling can become comparable to other things that people relate to that are exciting.”

This is a core difficulty with popularizing bicycle racing in America: making people relate to it, helping them understand that it’s far more complicated than it appears. Other sports have surpassed this obstacle, of course; a colleague of mine took a foreign client to a baseball game and explained the rules to him. “It’s really quite simple,” he started out, but by the time he’d explained the sacrifice fly, the bunt, the walk, and the strike zone, he realized that it’s really not simple at all: it just seems that way because we take our own knowledge for granted. It should be possible with cycling as well; after all, anybody who’s tried to ride a bike fast knows the challenge and the thrill of this sport. But it takes a good announcer to really amp up the crowd.

Click here for the second and final part of this article.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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