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T-Mobile Int'l: A Spectator’s Eye View by Dana Albert
By Staff
Date: 9/15/2003
T-Mobile Int'l: A Spectator’s Eye View by Dana Albert

By Dana Albert

It wouldn't be entirely correct to say that I went into San Francisco today to watch the T-Mobile International. Watching a race is what you do with a TV. I went to the race to be a spectator, and there is an important difference.

The T-Mobile Classic 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 (at least if it’s Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen), but you don’t hear the tires on the ground, the panting of the riders, or most importantly the cheering of the spectators. Maybe you hear snippets, but even these could easily be canned.

When I worked as a general purpose go-fer 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 T-Mobile International, 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.

As you know, 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.

That's a callous enough statement, and certainly Lance, and the rest of the peloton, appreciate 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 where I live. (It’s a special thrill to watch Tim race, because although I’m not nearly as strong, at least we can both do the same training rides and both get a workout; to see him racing reminds me that I’m actually involved in the same sport as the world-class field at the T-Mobile International, even if I couldn’t last a single lap with it.)

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 absolutely matters to any racer, and this is an important point. 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 have a really good crowd; Philadelphia has the long tradition there but [the T-Mobile International] 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.

Michael Aisner. Photo by Dana Albert.
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.

American cycling's most famous fan. Photo by Dana Albert.
Michael Aisner, together with Jeff Roake, did a splendid job announcing the race 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 the Mavic neutral support.  In what seems to be a tradition, they had 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 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.”  And he 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 Lokkesmore, reminding the crowd that this was a young neo-pro from Oakland.  And Dave’s convinced that hearing his name must have motivated Jason.  “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 Towle. Photo by Dana Albert.
He also 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 easily.  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 none other than Lance Armstrong rode right through the start/finish area in civvies 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 one short lap later, Chris Horner crested the Taylor Street climb all alone.  Thousands of fans had just witnessed a prophet in action.  Even off the bike, Trent 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 competitive enough, no announcer in the world could inject it with suspense.  But if individual racers can rise to the occasion, a good announcer can help the crowd enjoy it.  Today was an interesting one in that its winner, Chris Horner, is by many standards the winningest rider in the domestic cycling scene - and yet his victory today was far from rote or expected. 

For a time it really looked like Jason Lokkesmore 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.  Surely there must have been a point when his effort seemed Quixotic even to himself; perhaps he well knows the value to his sponsors and his sport of putting on a good show.  Notably, putting on a good show does not necessarily have everything to do with riding particularly well.  I well remember the Killian's 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 Michael 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.'  But they were crowd pleasers, they did all sorts of stuff.  Alan [McCormack] had a ... squirt gun, he would shoot other racers in the pack.  There was one year when Paul [McCormack, Alan’s brother] 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 they weren’t just for show either.  Alan won, he won a ton.”  I asked about Davis Phinney, whose pantomime of a clerk punching “Sale” on a cash register, every time he won a prime, had enchanted me as a kid.  “Davis was flavorful and he was a double whammy because he also delivered and he had this huge sense of self-confidence, and people in many ways love it, and other ways they'd like to see him lose, but either way they're 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.”

Bike race, or just hanging out and having a laugh? Photo by Dana Albert.

Oddly, American cycling could 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, whereas Phinney’s first stage win was a shock to all and Jeff Pierce’s solo victory on the Champs Elysees may well have been the result of the peloton not taking his attack seriously. 

This professionalism may make it harder for the lay 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, or at least believed I did, 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.”  I don’t know why this word comes to mind, but I suspect it has something to do with thinking of a champion racehorse that is literally chomping at the bit to start a race, is trembling and shaking all over, and has literally whipped itself into a lather of sweat and must be calmed by the jockey or the trainer.  (I may have to go see “Seabiscuit” to see if it shows such a thing.)  To feel frothy, but not to show it, is quite 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 “funny” violence in Robocop.  Maybe I’m not making sense now?  Exactly:  you kind of had to be there.  (By the way:  the crowd eventually got tired of waiting for the announcer and yelled out, “Mari Holden!” and she pedaled to the line many seconds before her name was officially announced.)

Maybe a great cyclist can hide his or her nervousness from the peloton and from the crowd, but a poor performance - or even the semblance of it - is basically impossible to disguise.  Moreover, 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 real race 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.  But when a rider truly is suffering, is coming apart, there is nowhere to hide. 

Whether this experience is mortifying or heartwarming 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 absolute best in people:  the crowds that turn out cheer on every guy, not because he’s winning but because he’s out there pedaling his heart 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 true cycling fans, whose love seems to really include the sport itself, not just the home team.  How else can you explain the fact that French cycling fans camp out a full week in advance to watch the Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour, even though a Frenchman hasn’t won it 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.  What I enjoyed witnessing today was one of the greatest things about this sport:  the magnanimity of the spectators.  They don’t have to be experts on race tactics - no, not when they’re watching on Taylor Street.  They can recognize pain - I mean real pain - when they see it.  Jason Lokkesmore 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.  People recognize the spirit of effort, and thrill to their own ability to encourage it. 

Sure, the fans along the brutal climbs of this race cheer on the likes of Lance Armstrong enthusiastically, 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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