Thursday, August 23, 2018

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


My last post was part one of an old Daily Peloton story from my archives (it is alas, not in their archive anymore). This week I give you part two. I left off describing how a bike race announcer has the difficult job of amping up the crowd and making the complicated sport accessible to non-fans. Here I pick up that thread again.

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

Michael Aisner, together with Jeff Roake, did a splendid job announcing the San Francisco Grand Prix from the finish line along the Embarcadero. It’s not an easy job, but they managed to keep the crowd engaged during the long spells between laps, explaining the tactics of the race as they unfolded, and providing interesting tidbits such as the role of the team car and of the Mavic neutral support. In what seems to be a tradition, they had longtime cycling fan Robin Williams get up on the stage for some impromptu comedy: “Look for me, riding with Team Viagra. You’ll see in the team poster that not many of the bikes have kickstands. There’s a reason for this.”

But the better race commentary gig was at the top of Taylor Street, where another announcer, Dave Towle, had his station set up. Here, the crowd was at least half a dozen deep all the way down the hill, and was curb to curb farther up Taylor beyond the point where the course turns left. The upward block of the street is like a natural set of bleachers, except that these spectators were content to stand for four and a half hours.

Dave and I go way back—we grew up together in Boulder, Colorado, where he still lives—so it was with particular enjoyment that I watched him stoking the coals of the throngs of fans. It sure didn’t hurt that his own enthusiasm was off the charts—I’ve never seen anybody yell into a microphone at a bike race before—but he also knew the right buttons to push. He sensed that the crowd’s awareness of its own power was one such button. “If I yell, ‘Okay, Taylor Street, let’s give it up for these racers, show ‘em what you can do,” he explained, “I can bring their volume from here” (hand held, palm down, at chest level) “to here” (hand above head). “Of course, you can only go to that well so many times.”

Dave doesn’t stop with the spectators: he also works to motivate the racers themselves. Lap after lap he led the crowd in cheering on Jason Lokkesmoe, reminding them that this was a young neo-pro from Oakland on Health Net, a local team. Dave was convinced that for Jason to hear his own name must have motivated him. “Think about it,” he told me. “When you hear your name over the loud speaker, time and time again, you start to believe that the entire crowd, the entire world, is focused on you. And how could you not dig just a little deeper, knowing that?”

Dave explained the need to gradually build a crescendo as the race develops. “If you’re telling them on lap three that you’ve never seen anything so amazing in your life, what are you going to tell them on lap six? There are only so many times in a day you can be the most amazed you’ve ever been in your life. These guys are going to think, man, this guy amazes easy. What, did he just get out of prison?”

The highlight of Dave’s announcing was when he spotted his fellow Boulderite Trent Klasna, who earlier in the race had done major work for his Saturn team, then had dropped out, and now had changed into street clothes and was strolling the course. (To even recognize a cyclist in regular garb is something of a feat; earlier in the day Lance Armstrong rode right through the start/finish area in civvies, having dropped out as well, and just about nobody noticed.) Dave jumped at the opportunity to collar Trent and ask him a few questions, to give the crowd some insight from a cycling expert who’d sized up this field from within less than an hour before.

“Trent, right now Saturn has two riders in the group: Chris Horner and Mark McCormack. Mark is the better sprinter. I predict that if it comes down to a bunch sprint, Chris will lead Mark out. What do you say?” Trent grinned and assured Dave that it wouldn’t come down to a bunch sprint. And indeed on the final lap, Chris Horner crested the Taylor Street climb all alone, on his way to a dramatic victory. Thousands of fans had just witnessed a prophet in action. Even off the bike, Klasna came off as a most impressive cyclist.

Naturally, any race announcer is subject to the limitations of his material. If a race isn’t tight enough, no announcer in the world can inject it with suspense. But when a rider tries something bold, a good announcer can help the crowd enjoy it. Today was an interesting one in that Horner’s victory was far from expected, even though he is by many standards the winning-est rider in the domestic cycling scene. For a time it really looked like Jason Lokkesmoe was going to sew up the race. He had an amazing ride, starting out in a group of five that dwindled until it was just Jason and the huge German Rolf Aldag, both clearly giving it everything they had. But the race was very, very long. Surely there must have been a point when Lokkesmoe’s s effort seemed quixotic even to himself. Maybe he stayed out longer, even when he knew he was doomed, just to put on a good show.

Showmanship is not only a matter of riding fast. I well remember the Killians team in the Coors Classic who (unlike their sponsor) hailed from Ireland. I was a young fan, by no means an expert on the rules of the race, but had been convinced ever since the early 1980s that these guys were cut some slack on the time cuts because they were so popular with the crowds. So today I challenged Aisner on this point. “It might have been,” he said cautiously. “I don’t remember what the circumstances were but it wasn’t just at face value ‘we let them back in  [after missing a time cut].’ But they were crowd pleasers, they did all sorts of stuff. [Killians rider] Alan [McCormack] had a ... squirt gun, he would shoot other racers in the pack. There was one year when Paul [McCormack, Alan’s brother and teammate] was off the back of the criterium in North Boulder Park and he had an umbrella that had ‘Killian’s’ on it. He had it open, he was racing with an open umbrella over his head. But these guys weren’t just for show either. Alan won, he won a ton.”

I asked about Davis Phinney, who had enchanted me as a kid through his pantomime of a clerk punching the “SALE” button on a cash register every time he won a prime. Aisner replied, “Davis was flavorful and he was a double whammy because he also delivered and he had this huge sense of self-confidence, and though many loved it, others liked to see him lose, but either way [these fans] were out there.... A sport thrives on the combination of both of those, those who simply excel and those that can bring more than just cycling to the table.”

Oddly, American cycling may be, from the standpoint of spectacle, a victim of its own maturity. There was an unpolished, youthful exuberance to domestic cycling in the 1980s that at its best was Phinney’s cash register and at its worst was Alexi Grewal tearing his 7-Eleven jersey down the middle as he crossed the finish line in first. Either way, it was a wild show. Since that time the phenomenon of the American cycling professional has steadily developed. Lance is now expected to win the Tour de France, whereas Phinney’s first Tour stage win was a shock to everybody. As they have adapted to the European sport, these American riders seem to have adopted its culture and tradition, which isn’t given to theatrics (beyond the traditional victory salute, of course). This modern professionalism may make it harder for the American spectator to connect with the cyclists.

For example, this morning I watched the women’s field assembled a couple of hundred feet behind the start line. I could sense the tension in that group, especially in the half dozen front-runners waiting about six feet ahead of the rest of the group. Clearly they understood the importance of this race. Handled properly, this excitement can be a huge benefit to a racer, but there’s no benefit to showing your competitors how nervous you are. I know from my own racing days that when my head was right, the pre-race feeling was one I think of as “frothy”—my own coinage, based on the image of a champion racehorse that is literally champing at the bit to start a race, has whipped itself into a lather of sweat, and must be calmed by the jockey or the trainer. To feel frothy, but not to show it, is  admirable—a result of experience and discipline. The problem is, to the untrained eye it just looks like somebody who just isn’t taking the race very seriously.

The women I watched today didn’t just have poker-faces; they were joking around with each other like this was a social event. If you saw this on TV, you wouldn’t have felt the real tension there. But there was an odd moment when the announcer had just run down the impressive bio of Mari Holden, and was about to announce her name to summon her to the line, when his microphone suddenly cut out. For several awkward seconds, all was silent. Then I heard Mari whisper to Jessica Phillips, “He forgot his lines.” Jessica laughed loudly, but it wasn’t the hearty laugh of somebody truly amused; it had the tense quality of somebody laughing to bleed off nervousness, a venting laugh, like that of someone watching the tasteless over-the-top comic violence in “Robocop.” Eventually the crowd got tired of waiting for the announcer and yelled out, “Mari Holden!” and she pedaled to the line.

There are other ways a non-savvy spectator can misread a bike race. For example, a strong performance made as a sacrifice to a teammate can make a good rider look bad. A cycling aficionado knows that when a great rider crosses the line in fiftieth, it’s probably because he led out his teammate and his job ended 200 meters from the line. But to the casual spectator, it just looks like a guy who isn’t that strong. I looked for Tim Larkin in the main bunch at the top of Taylor Street on the last lap today, and while he was still in contact, he was right on the back and looked pretty fried. Afterward, I asked what happened and he explained that a group of eight made it off the front of the main pack before the Taylor Street climb, and because his teammate was climbing better than he was today, Tim gave everything to drag him up to the group. As so often happens, this move galvanized the rest of the pack, and everything came back together, making Tim’s work for naught. But had he not done it, that group may indeed have stayed off. Tim likely changed the outcome of the race, but not in any way that made him look good. How many similar scenarios played themselves out today, unappreciated by the fans? Probably dozens. And when a rider blows up badly enough to lose contact with the group, there is nowhere to hide.

Whether this experience is mortifying to the struggling athlete all depends on the crowd. This sport has the unfortunate characteristic of looking far easier than it is, so the uninitiated onlooker may not sympathize with the rider. But if the energy is right, a bicycle race brings out the best in people: the crowds that turn out cheer on every guy, even the ones who get dropped, because after all they’re out there pedaling their hearts out.

It’s a wonderful thing about cycling: even though it’s very much a team sport, it’s not just two teams, one of which you hope wins. No riot ever broke out at a bike race because CSC beat Telekom. Ages ago, I watched TV coverage of unruly Denver Broncos fans who pelted their own team with snowballs because they were losing so badly. These were not people who stumbled onto a football game in progress—these are people who paid good money for a seat. They’re supposed to be the loyal ones! I can’t imagine such an attitude from bike race spectators, who are watching for the entire spectacle, not out of a tribal instinct to support their home team. This is true of seasoned fans as well; consider all the French people who camp out a full week in advance to watch the Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour de France, even though a Frenchman hasn’t won there since Bernard Hinault in 1986.

Granted, such devotion to the sport is far greater in Europe than in the U.S., but in San Francisco today it was easy to imagine that gap quickly decreasing. Today the magnanimity of the spectators was on full display. They didn’t have to be experts on race tactics—not when they were watching on Taylor Street. They recognized extreme depths of human suffering when they saw it. Lokkesmoe ended up struggling over the Taylor climb solo, well off the back, today, but the crowd hadn’t forgotten his earlier glory, and screamed their lungs out for him.

Of course the fans cheer on the superstars like Lance Armstrong, but perhaps no more enthusiastically than they cheer for the poor sods who are way off the back and just trying to keep their bikes going. You can see how the cheering animates the riders, too: about half way up a climb, just as one of these guys is about to grind to a halt, you see a little sheepish grin appear on his face, maybe he shakes his head a little, then gets out of the saddle and shoves a little harder. The crowd responds to this, cheers louder, the process repeats, and like a slow-motion hockey puck the guy is gradually buoyed up the hill, lap after lap. It’s like watching a butterfly smash against your windshield, and then—like a cartoon of some kind—unfold itself, try its wings, and fly off again.

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