Monday, June 13, 2011

"Just a Bike Race"

Do you recognize this photo? How about the location? Were you there? 

This picture was taken in the mid to late 80's and the man off the front is the late Craig Holmes. I work with his daughter, who upon seeing a similar photo I had posted, dug up this photo and story her dad had written. While I never knew him, I think you will enjoy his story as much as I did. 

Just a Bike Race By Craig Holmes:
Does this photo provide a simple picture of a bicycle race? Can the visual articulation of unfolding drama appear in this photograph? Why does the young man lunge out on to the racecourse? How soon will the race end? Who ultimately triumphs? Yes, this snapshot disseminates all these answers and more.

A two-wheeled game of chess at thirty miles per hour just begins to describe bicycle racing. Teams of as few as two, up to a dozen, as well as individual cyclists create the group of racers termed “the pack” or “the peloton”. Teams wear colorful jerseys and shorts covered with so many sponsorship logos that cyclists flash past mimicking a moving wall of graffiti. Each team works against the others to enable one of their team-mates to win. Racers’ techniques depend of variables like location of their fastest cyclists in relation to other team’s top racers. One common tactic used in bike racing, called “blocking”, involves one or more team-mates riding to the front of the pack and actually slowing down which causes the entire pack to slow down. This allows another team-mate to sprint away from the group, and if the blocking succeeds they also prevent their partner from being chased down by the pack. Racers react to blocking by swarming around the blockers in an attempt to chase down anyone breaking away from the pack. Blocking provides only brief pauses in the pace and requires continual effort to keep the speed down. Team members who block pay a high price with the draining of their strength while repeatedly sprinting around everyone to get to the front and block again. As the race progresses, favored status may shift from one team-mate to another due to blocking tactics by other teams.

Criterium bike racing throbs with excitement. Great viewing, due to laps of less than a half mile, benefits the spectators as the competitors round the same course many times. Cornering at top speed, four and five abreast in a pack, requires nerves of steel and extreme bike handling skills. Fans, as in other high speed sports, love the thrill of possible crashes. Cyclists race in several different categories based on age and skill. Skill rankings provide four levels. Racers begin in Category 4 and move up to 3, 2, and 1, as finish placement awards them points toward progression. Typically each category has a separate race. A full schedule of racing uses an entire day.

This photograph shows the bottom two-thirds of a key-hole shaped criterium course of just under a half mile in length. The entry-way of an old train station, rising slightly from surrounding parking areas, makes up the lanes of the race course. A giant grey swath of pavement cutting across from upper right to lower left dominates the lower part of the picture. Small shadows directly beneath the riders tell the time near noon on this hot, sunny day. In the upper left corner, the median of dry sunburnt grass about twenty yards wide divides the parallel lines of pavement from the foreground portion of the course. A tent the color of Virginia Bluebells provides shade for some spectators. Hurricane fence restricts access to the race course from the median in some places while bright highway-orange cones demark other boundaries. The connecting lane at the bottom of the course barely shows at the photograph’s top.

I approach the photographer as a solitary racer in the Thirty Five Year Plus category race. My jersey sports watermelon red epaulets which hopefully catch the eye of finish line officials as they pick places at the finish line. My yellow and white helmet cover displays logos of companies sponsoring the Louisville Wheelmen Racing Team to which I belong. The white field on my backs shows logos but also reflects heat on sunny days. The peloton follows, chasing me up a small rise in the road. From the side, a young man steps out between traffic cone barriers towards me. From the style of the sandals and his shaven legs, you can tell he also races bicycles. Bobby, my team mate, will race later in a different category. He yells encouragingly to me. The peloton either laps me or they fight to bring me back to the pack. I struggle mightily to stay ahead. Aerodynamic posture, bulging arms shiny with sweat, and a death grip on the handlebars, portray my strain. The question endures; getting lapped or winning the race? The answers comes from the truth that once lapped, a bike racer feels defeated. The racer back in the top of the picture shows this dramatically. He sits up, no longer trying to stay in the race. Chasers at the pack’s front also answer this puzzle. Their posture imitates my strain. Like my battle to stay ahead, they struggle to catch me. If they don’t reel in the leader, I might maintain the gap until the finish. Their concern for my lead also means that the finish nears and they dare not ignore my attack.

The final drama begins. What thoughts fill my mind and tell me I can break away from the peloton this close to the finish? What information hides from the camera convincing me to give my all for a chance to win the race? Why not hang on until the finish sprint like most of the others? Garry and Randy race with me on the Louisville Wheelmen team. Today they ride in the pack. During the race I feigned breakaways to test the other team’s racers for their strength. Power courses through my well-trained legs today. I can dominate with my speed. Feeling fast and with team-mates to block, what more does any experienced racer need! How can I, as the fast leader, know teamwork and self-sacrifice are unknown concepts to my self-centered team-mates? As the shutter exposes the film for this story, no one blocks. Realistically, no team exists to support me. Truly I remain the lone bicycle racer. In merely half a lap, as all riders approach the finish, the unrestrained pack devours me, the ambitious athlete, and I wearily finish somewhere near the back of the pack. Neither of the unhelpful team members wins the finish sprint. “I was saving myself for the sprint so I couldn’t block for you” held no consolation for me, the defeated cyclist.

This story tells of non-verbal communication based on situational analysis in a dynamic high speed group effort. The importance of role comprehension and execution appear in the failure to win the race by a team unable to work together. Bicycle racing marries the individual’s goal of success with the balancing act of deciding when to sacrifice any chance of winning to make it possible for another team member to attempt to win.

Concepts of behavior required in successful bike racing cross over into numerous endeavors. These typically include any activity requiring cooperation and teamwork. Many occupations also require nonverbal communication and demand that team members reassess changes and adapt actions accordingly. During clandestine combat missions soldiers cannot sit around chatting about the attack without detection. They must understand each others’ roles and know the goals of the mission to allow adaptations that all will follow without verbal communication to avoid discovery. Educators face a similar challenge with students. When students show signs of restlessness, the teacher has the responsibility to shift their approach to regain interest from the class. Leading questions from the teacher promote participation and greater understanding from the class. Enhanced learning will succeed if the students follow their role to respond. Many problems occur when communication disintegrates. Athletes lose, writers don’t publish, and students struggle to learn.

This photograph graphically depicts the potential of success. I can win this race only with my team-mates’ help. Garry and Randy have roles to play as soon as I break away from the pack. They should analyze the facts and act. I cannot turn around and remind them of their responsibilities. Seeing the gap between me and the peloton, combined with having only two laps to go, screams at them to give everything they have to block the pack for my chance to win.

(Note: The racers' names have been changed since I did not talk with those gentlemen before posting.)

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