Saturday, June 13, 2009

NVGP: Stage 5 - Mankato Road Race

I might be nuts for doing this, but I hauled my carcass out of bed at an insanely early hour, loaded up my bike, and drove down to Mankato to help with the race set-up. Unfortunatly, I couldn't stay for the race; as someone else had a previous claim on my afternoon.

Mankato is a college town, housing at least two major universities: Minnesota State Universtiy, Mankato and Bethany Lutheran College. Since it's summer, the downtown area was pretty quiet. But, then again, it was nine o'clock on a Saturday morning.

Thankfully, I still know my way around Mankato from the four years I spent there (GO MAVERICKS!) and found parking without any trouble. The next order of business was coffee. I'd left the house without "real" breakfast and a latte seemed the perfect fix. Off to the Fillin' Station! The Fillin' Station Coffeehouse is, in my opinion, the best independent coffeehouse in downtown Mankato. Some say The Coffee Hag, but that's in Old Town and a bit far to walk most days from campus. On top of the hill, the best place to go is The Hub. They've got really good omelets. But, I digress...

As in Minneapolis, I was putting up tents, unloading gear from trucks, and zip-tying banners to the course fencing. A surprising number of the set-up volunteers drove down from the Cities to help put stuff up. What better way to spend a Saturday, than to help with a bike race?

Since I could only stay until two o'clock, I don't have any pictures of the race itself, or the finish, but here are a few shots of the pro races:

The men at the starting line at Hickory Street
And they're off and riding for 92 miles!

The women took off about a half hour after the men. I was one of the lucky volunteers who go to hold the rope that "corralled" the riders, so they didn't hit the start-line too soon. I was supposed to drop the rope once given the signal and the riders would take their starting positions. Yeah, it didn't turn out that way, they jumped the announcement and went under the rope. Thank goodness Matt (one of the volunteer director guys) was on the other side of the fence and was able to lift the rope with me so the riders could keep going under.

The pack, from the rear.
Hanging out, waiting for the gun.
And they're off!
Until next time, ride long and keep the rubber-side down.

Friday, June 12, 2009

NVGP: Stage 4 - Minneapolis Uptown Crit

A crazy afternoon and evening in Minneapolis! I'm not sure I've ever seen so many people packed into Uptown, but then, it was Friday night.

I got to Minneapolis early and rode around Lake Calhoun a few times (it's a 3.2 mile loop) just to stay loose. Riding around Lake Calhoun is rather like a three-ring circus: Although the path is one-way and marked as being only for bicycles, people do run with their dogs, inline skate, and ride their bikes the opposite way. I recommend leaving the iPod at home if you're going to ride down there.

Uptown was already hopping when I arrived at the volunteer tent and locked my bike to a sign-post. Again today, I was unloading gear from pallets, setting up tents, and zip-tying banners to the course fencing. There were plenty of willing hands, but a few of us were a little confused as to what we should have been doing and in what order. My only complaint is that the bike corral people were a little late showing up, so we had to turn people away, even though the corral was set up. Oh, well. Everything got done eventually and before the race started, and it looked great.

While I was heading back to the volunteer tent to find out if there was anything else I could do, I noticed that there was a yellow-shirted cyclist sitting astride her bike on the sidewalk. I walked up beside her, intent on just passing by, and who was she? Yeah, Kristin Armstrong.

"Oh, hello again," I said, with a grin.

She looked up, "Hi there." She sounded a little tired, the road stage in Cannon Falls yesterday must have taken a bit of a toll.

I was intent on my destination and I was sure she had something important to do, she is Kristin Armstrong, after all. "I've gotta keep going. Have a good race, Kristin; good luck!"


Sweet! I just had another tiny conversation with a pro racer and didn't sound like a complete idiot.

The OUCH team parked themselves right behind the volunteer check-in, which was just fine by me. It dramatically increased my chances (and my courage) about finding Floyd Landis and asking him to autograph my copy of Positively False.

The women lined up a little before 6:30, to race for an hour. The course was a little less than a mile, flat and 'L' shaped. Makes it a little technical and definitely more interesting, not taking left turns all night.

The weather was absolutely perfect. That's the way this race always seems to shape up. The first two days are rainy and a little cold, and once the race moves into the third through sixth stages the weather warms up and the sun comes out.

I, of course, spent the race walking the course with my camera. Here are a few shots:

Brooke Miller (Tibco) won the stage, which is fitting. She is the national criterium champion, after all.

On to the men's pro race! My opinion is that the race was a little boring, at least until the last few laps.

The Bissel squad sat on the front of the pack, keeping riders under control and protecting the leader's jersey, which is currently on the back of Tom Zirbel. If anyone attacked before the last lap of the race, I missed it.

Sebastien Haedo had the perfect lead out from his Colavita teammates and won the race this evening.

I wandered my way back to the volunteer check-in after the men's race, trying to come up with the nerve to walk over to the OUCH team area and ask Floyd for his autograph. I waited while other people walked up and lined up at the fence; I finally thought, This is ridiculous! He might be an internationally-known cyclist, but he's a person, too. I pulled my book out of my bag, found a place on the fence, and waited for Floyd to get to me.

He looked a little surprised when I smiled and held out the book for him to sign. He asked who he should sign it for and asked how to spell my name. I shook his hand and told him, "Thanks so much, Floyd; thanks for coming. It's good to see you racing."

He smiled, "Thanks."

Until next time, ride long and keep the rubber-side down.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

NVGP: Stage 2 - Saint Paul Lowertown Crit

Okay, on to Stage 2! The Saint Paul Criterium was on Wednesday evening (the same day) as the Riverfront Time Trial, but across the river and up the hill in the Lowertown neighborhood.

The rain let up and the sun came out while myself and other volunteers worked on unloading gear and putting the course together. Everyone started out in sweatshirts and rain jackets, and ended up in shorts and t-shirts. A good thing, too. Working at and/or watching a bike race is about as fun as it gets in my book, but it can be miserable if the weather is cold and wet.

The course was a roughly nine block circuit with Mears Park in the center. This is a busy area with condos all over the place, businesses, and industrial warehouses close by. It was quite interesting to watch as we set up the tents for the expo and began "throwing fence" to block off the streets and set up the course.

I was walking the course while the pro women warmed up before there race started at six o'clock. Who do I notice zipping around, but Kristin Armstrong wearing the yellow leader's jersey, of course. Me being me, I yelled out "Hey, Kristin!" as she rode by. She looked up and right at me, "Hey there!" she yelled back. Cool, huh?

Kristin has won the overall race for the past three years (2006, 2007, 2008) and last year she did it with only one teammate. This year, she might have a little bit of a tougher time. Why? Because for this race, she is the Cervelo TestTeam! Yep, she's racing alone this week. While that was okay during the individual time trial this morning, it could hurt and probably will hurt later this week.

The women lined up, with the leaders' jerseys in the front row.
Bang! Went the starting gun and they were off for 40 laps.
Kristin set a furious pace right from the gun and was out front for a good portion of the race.
While walking/riding the course with my camera, I ran into Julia (GoBigGreen) who races for Verve Racing. She was watching the action with Rich and getting ready for her first half-Ironman triathlon. I'll be sending her good energy on Saturday!

Kristy Broun (Riverstone CDA) won the stage in a brilliant sprint, but not by enough to take the overall lead from Kristin Armstrong.

After the women's race finished, I saw a young lady speaking with the champ herself and thought, "Okay, this might be my only chance". I asked a buddy to watch my bike for a bit. I crossed the street, dodging riders warming up and walked up to Kristin.

"Kristin?" She turned her head and grinned. "I wanted to say hello and thanks so much for coming this year. It's great to see you racing."

"Well, thank you! Thanks so much for coming out and watching!"

"I was marshaling out on the course this morning, you were flying!"

She laughed, "Oh, was I?"

I grinned back, "Oh yeah! Zoom! 'What was that blur?' It was you... I don't want to keep you, just wanted to say hello and thanks for being here. Good luck this week!"


Wow, did I just walk up to one of my hero's and hold a coherent, if short, conversation? YES!


The men's pro race was also extremely fast, right from the gun.
A four man group got away early and stayed away for most of the stage.
Sebastien Haedo (Colavita) beat out Tom Soladay (Mountain Khakis) for the stage win and Haedo's teammate Alejandro Barrajo rounded out the podium. Tom Soladay was in the break group and nearly rode the cranks off his bike, only to be caught by Haedo on the final sprint.
Until next time, ride long and keep the rubber-side down.

NVGP: Stage 1 - Saint Paul Riverfront Time Trial

The Nature Valley Grand Prix has come to Minnesota. This is one race that I wait for all year because the pros are right there, walking amongst us mere mortals.

The first stage was a short, 4.5 mile out-and-back time trial along the Mississippi River in Saint Paul. The morning dawned rainy and wet, I was quite glad I packed my rain jacket and a cap when I rolled up to the volunteer sign-in.

They put me on the straightaway in the middle of the course where a bike path crossed the road. My job was to raise my flag and blow my whistle whenever a rider came by, thus stopping any riders on the bike path from crossing the road during the race.

These racers were moving fast and I mean fast. Zoom! There went one rider down the course. Zoom! There went the rider before her/him coming back up the road.

There were some patches of the course that were sketchy with rough pavement, thanks to our Minnesota winters, but everyone got through okay and there were no crashes.

The problem with being on the straightaway was the road was only two lanes wide, one out and one back with little to no shoulder. So I had to keep my head on a swivel so I would know when someone was coming from either or both directions.

I did recognize a couple riders as they rode by: Kristin Armstrong is the defending champ of this race, so she was the last of the women to ride the course. She was also the only rider with the distinctive "e" on the shoulders of her Cervelo TestTeam jersey.

Floyd Landis, who is riding for Team OUCH is wearing number 4 for this race and working for Rory Sutherland, the defending men's champ. Yep, that's Floyd zipping by on his TT run.

This is going to be a fun week!

Until next time, ride long and keep the rubber-side down.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dirty Jobs: Mountain Bike Trail Builder

Mountain bikers have had a bad rap over the years. I'm pretty sure the reason is because back when mountain biking was first becoming popular in the late 80's and early 90's, very few people were maintaining trails for bikers to ride on. Also, any place that they did ride tended to get trashed quickly and not cleaned up.

These days, mountain bikers are some of the most active trail builders, maintainers, and volunteers in Minnesota. Today was National Trails Day and I got to spend the morning helping build and clear trails in Saint Paul with 84 other volunteers. It was cold, wet, muddy, and a heck of a good time.

Not that we were complaining about the rain. It has been really dry in Minnesota this spring. To the point where if you hadn't been running the sprinklers, your lawn looked like late July. Besides, we had to wear pants and boots to protect ourselves from the tools and terrain, so the cooler temperatures were a bonus. The rain also kept the dust down.

A good portion of the trail was already cut, to a certain extent. Our job was to cut the trail to roughly three feet wide, grade it to a maximum of about 10 degrees, descard any rocks, roots, or other organic matter that could make the trail hazardous, and take care of any low-hanging branches.

I'd say it was a morning well spent.

There is still a lot of work to be done to finish this trail and maintain it. But from the sound of our crew leaders, they were quite happy with the work. For more information about mountain biking, trail crews, and volunteering, visit International Mountain Bicycling Association.

Until next time, ride long and keep the rubber-side down.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Volunteers Make the World Go 'Round

It was a busy weekend for me. Saturday saw me up and out the door before I would usually consider a humane hour (read 7:30am). Why, you ask? Yep, for the bicycle!

There was a race sponsored by my old bike shop and the women's racing team they support. The amateur racing scene in Minnesota is pretty big, and we live (and love) to race on the weekends.

I spent four and a half or five hours out in the sun and wind, "marshaling" the third corner. Being a corner marshal means you keep an eye out for and direct automobile traffic, and warn the riders if there is oncoming traffic in the far lane. I couldn't be happier that I did. The nasty sunburn on my face and legs was worth it to see the peloton of riders zooming through at nearly 20 mph and the smiles that I got from the organizers.

Volunteers make these races happen, actually. Without volunteers, there wouldn't be anyone at registration to hand you your number or help with the racing licences, there wouldn't be anyone to sweep the corners free of sand and grit, no one to call people/companies and ask for sponsors... Wow, that's a lot. Even the Nature Valley Grand Prix, a domestic pro race put on during the Great River Energy Bike Festival every June, depends on volunteers at all levels.

So, next time you roll up to the start-line, please remember to give a thank you to the officials and volunteers, they make all the fun possible.

Until next time, ride long and keep the rubber-side down.