Last week in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the 2011 Road World Championships in cycling, Fabian Cancellara, a four-time world champion, made a costly error in navigating a tight turn in the time trial.
While Cancellara didn't crash after overshooting the tricky corner, he had to come to a dead stop to avoid doing so, proving that the course was insanely difficult. There were the slick cobblestones, high- speed corners, small European streets, rainy weather, nasty headwinds, and ruthless competitors.
"What about for you?" asked a friend, who had seen Cancellara's corner, and wondered how someone with, um, slightly lesser skill had fared on such a course. I too was at the world championships, competing for the fourth time. "What was the toughest part of racing worlds?" I thought it over carefully.
"Lunch," I said. Sometimes the hardest part about going after an Olympic dream has nothing to do with sports.
Over the past four years of chasing my Olympic qualification dream, I've learned that racing is less than half the battle. It's about the little things that aren't so apparent. Because I race for a nation unable to support its cyclists financially (I have dual citizenship with St. Kitts and Nevis), the logistics leading up to the races are usually harder than any cobblestone corner. Getting there is the first step.
Flying for 16 hours with two bikes, having no budget for a hotel or rental car, and hoping the male homestay I'd found through Facebook wasn't a serial killer made up most of my world championships concerns. (It's cool -- Jens used smiley face icons when we communicated via email, so I knew he'd be a good person.) Anyway, while most of my competitors spend their prerace routine navigating a mental and physical route to victory, I ruminate on the odds of being within walking distance of a grocery store. After all, you can't win a time trial if you can't score lunch first.
Sure, the fully funded teams have it easier. Things like food and beds and transportation are provided. There are team mechanics, doctors, massage therapists, coaches, and lunch shoppers/makers on hand to allow the athletes to focus solely on the sport. My journey is a little different, but when my bike is creaky, my solo-ness gets tricky, and the grocery store closes earlier than expected, I just have to remember one thing: I'm lucky to be here. Finishing 44th might not come with a medal, but it always awards perspective.
Lucky for me, Denmark turned out to be a good trip. My homestay was fantastic. I could walk to the grocery store and ride my bike to the time trial course. I needed help with other logistics, but I managed. And the cobblestone corners turned out to be my friend. Despite my seemingly far-away-from-winning 44th place in the time trial, my time and my speed average (just over 25 mph for a technical 27K course) were my best to date, and I'm only a couple minutes away from the top 20. I've improved, and the Olympic dream is still alive.
But my friend's question about the "toughest part" got me thinking. There's a lot about the world championships that people probably don't realize, especially from the non-podium perspective. Television captures the winners, but not so much what it's like behind the scenes and for smaller nations. So here's a list of the top 10 largely unknown facts about the world championships of cycling, as experienced by a non-famous competitor.
1. Strange men ask me for my clothing.
Occasionally, security will let cycling fans wander through the warm-up tents. Most are men who collect weird things. They often ask me for a St. Kitts and Nevis team jersey, hat, gloves, etc. I explain that there are no extras, that I have to buy my own team uniform. They linger, waiting for me to change my mind. The security man does not come over. He is busy smoking. I retreat to my backup plan and start my "strange facial tick" routine. Very soon they leave me alone.
2. The time trial tent is like an athletic version of a suspect interrogation room.
Wealthy men's cycling teams have extravagant team buses to keep athletes safe and warm during warm-up time. But for most women's national teams traveling halfway around the globe to get to worlds, we get a chair and a table, usually under a weather-challenged tent. They look like 50 little suspect interrogation rooms. Mind you, I'm quite grateful for this. Having the use of a table and chair is a step up for my unranked federation.
3. Team cars are for ... teams.
While the major teams in women's cycling are given a car to follow the peloton with spare wheels and bikes, the LGFs (lost girls' federations of pro cycling) -- nations with just one or two riders -- are herded into shared cars. That means the car may or may not stop if you have an emergency, depending on if you're more or less important than your fellow nation. Car sharing at worlds is like the start of a bad joke. A Croatian, a Syrian and a tropical islander are in the back seat of a Skoda ...
4. The UCI is now regulating pelvic bones.
There are all sorts of crazy rules in cycling, among them the positioning of time trial bikes. The bikes have to weigh so much, measure that much, have this or that angle. Right before the start of the time trial, a stodgy man in a business suit decrees the proper angle of every cyclist's saddle by placing a level on it. Despite the fact that bicycles are built so the saddle can be tilted slightly up or down to fit the rider's pelvis dimensions, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's governing body) has now declared that a saddle must be perfectly level. If it's not, the rider must "fix" the bike to this man's standards, often resulting in a different riding position and a fair amount of inner angst. This new rule was created to uphold the UCI's creed on technological advancement: "If it ain't broke, let me find my sledgehammer."
5. The hot seat is cold.
The three riders with the fastest times in the time trial get to sit in the "hot seats" until all the riders have finished racing. They're just three plastic chairs at the finish line, and the athletes in them get lots of camera time. It's nice to be there. But when the third-fastest rider is ousted due to a better competitor, there's no love for the departing guest. Getting forced out of the hot seat is the athlete's version of becoming Charlie Sheen.
6. The broomwagon is driven by Ricky Bobby.
In a road race, any rider who drifts off the main peloton and is no longer in contention for the victory is "swept" off the course by a vehicle called the broomwagon. The broomwagon is not a friend of small countries, which are forced to start the race at the back of the field. They are often the first to go. While the Olympic creed states that the most important aspect of competition is taking part, the broomwagon adheres to the less-participatory sports philosophy so eloquently put by Will Ferrell in "Talladega Nights": "If you ain't first, yer last!"
7. Unranked riders are sent to the back.
While every other race on the UCI calendar allows rider to place themselves at the start line in whatever fashion they choose, at world championships, the small nations and unranked riders are forced to let the more "important" athletes ahead of them at the start. Sure, the ranked countries have earned the right to be recognized, but if the emerging nations are kept at the back, perhaps they'll struggle longer. The upside is that at the back of the pack, there's lots of camera time on my backside. On second thought, maybe that's not exactly an upside.
8. The sound of one hand clapping is actually quite loud.
There are five identifiable species of world championship applause: Thunderous, Drunken, Sarcastic, the Mom Clap, and the Sound of One Hand Clapping. The first two are similar, and are the best reward any athlete can receive for their effort and pain. The world championships draw large crowds of European cycling fans who often like to party during a race that lasts up to four hours. Sarcastic clapping comes from the "fans" who share the broomwagon creed and is often reserved for struggling riders. It's rather mean, but luckily the rarest of the applause types. Sarcastic clapping is offset by the Mom Clap, which comes from the devoted people in the crowd who firmly believe that every rider needs encouragement. Strong, clear, loud and rhythmic, the Mom Clap is often accompanies by phrases like "You're almost there," "You can win this," and "Don't give up," despite the fact the athlete is often 10 minutes or more behind the leader. The Sound of One Hand Clapping is the newest member of the applause family tree. Plastic hand-shaped toys that issue a thwack-thwack-thwack when shaken vigorously now offer an alternative for people too lazy to bring their own two hands together. Either way, it works. Cyclists at the front and the back of the peloton enjoy it greatly.
Even for the greatest cycling competitors at worlds, the Porta-Potties never have toilet paper.
10. We get by with a little help from our friends.
So, all in all, there's no free lunch for the smaller countries at the world champs, but there are people who help keep our heads off the platter. The Mexican team helped me out with a gearing issue and lent me some spare parts. The Shimano guy gave me a front wheel when mine developed a problem. The Guyanese team gave me a ride to the road course every day when they learned I could not afford a rental car. The lady in the supermarket, noticing I was foreign, pointed out I'd selected buttermilk in my failed attempt to find skim. All were small battles that could have cost me the war had I not had some help during worlds. Next time a world championship race is on TV or maybe even in your town, watch and cheer on the best of the best. And maybe even bring a sandwich for the girls in the back, forever trying their best to get up to the front.