Granfondo Hincapie

By: Ben Zawacki Nov 7

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Recently, I was invited to George Hincapie’s Big Ride, or more romantically, the Granfondo Hincapie, as a kick off to my new team and a farewell to the great classics rider. Winding up and along the North and South Carolina border the route would take us through the mountains that I rode at my alma mater. With a little luck, I could reconnect with old friends, meet new teammates and see some of the biggest names in cycling. Beyond that, the event was taking place at an interesting time within cycling; USADA’s report had just broken and a large number of named parties would be in attendance. I won’t be writing about that exactly, but I will address what I believe the ideals of riding a bike are and how this event reminded me of them.

After filling my girlfriend with images of grandeur, tour winners, fancy after-parties, beautiful fall weather and the like, she skipped work and we arrived in Greenville Friday afternoon. We were greeted by a parking lot packed with cyclists roaming around various booths and standing in a rather large registration line. We met up with my future team director and he promptly toured us in and around all things Hincapie Sportswear. Unsurprisingly, the headquarters were chic yet relaxed. No corporate cubicles here. It felt exactly like one would expect from a family-oriented company with distinct Colombian roots.

We spotted our host for the weekend working the registration table and before I knew it, I was competing with two little girls searching for transponders in trays holding well over a thousand. After an hour or so of this, I was exhausted and my girlfriend pointed out that this was just a glimpse of normal working life. The alarm sounded off at 5:30 the following morning and again reminded me of the luxury of calling cycling my profession. My host, girlfriend and I groggily made our way downstairs for breakfast. Not hungry, our early morning trio made up for it by consuming copious amounts of coffee and drove off toward La Bastide, the Hincapie’s soon-to-be resort.

Parking in a sea of cars we rode off to the start encountering an ominously steep ride to the start. As we crested the mini mountain, an ocean of cyclists appeared before us. It was truly a beautiful sight to see, over a thousand people joining together to go for a bike ride. We can make these events as meaningful as we like, but the simplicity of people getting together to go for a ride is pretty powerful.
The announcer called for the start and the celebrities emerged from the central villa. Like New Yorkers working their way through a crowd, they slipped through the mass and appeared at the front. It’s always fascinating to see the pinnacle of cycling. Smaller than on television and wearing what seems to be far too much clothing, the awe is different than seeing a basketball player towering over you. It’s not exactly a let-down, but the realization that to be one of the best cyclists in the world requires the body of a small child that shivers in a cool breeze can be startling.

Truth be told, our intention was for a mediofondo, so we watched as the ambitious riders blasted off and waited for our peers. The flow of riders was amazing, a constant and steady of stream of people rode by us and eventually we dove in. As the ride opened up onto wider roads you could see the full scope of the peloton. The sheer size was a spectacle as well as the variety of riders. Sleek looking racers, bikes from decades ago and even a hand-cycle rider, all joined together in harmony.

I could go on and on about the beauty of this area, but my words won’t do it justice, suffice it to say, the landscape was breathtaking. A particular highlight came around mile seventeen where we rode around the perimeter of Lake Lanier. It was spectacular. Surrounded by mountains is a quaint lake community with smooth and twisting roads. I described it as the Lake Como of South Carolina to anyone in earshot.

Rolling into the first rest stop was a mistake because I quickly didn’t want to leave. We managed to run into quite a few familiar faces as we chewed down handmade ham biscuits and other goodies. After a bit of trepidation, we were on our way and rode through the town of Tryon, NC before splitting off in the medio direction. I may not have a firsthand account, but from what I’ve heard, the Gran truly lived up to the meaning of the word. Steep climbs and harrowing descents met the riders who were up for the challenge.

Our route took us up a snaking climb and into the town of Saluda before turning back south. At this point, riders were spread all over the road and the pack we would finish with had formed. It’s amazing the people you can meet on a ride if you give it the chance. Out of the vast number of people in attendance spread out all along the roads, I found my way next to one of the head directors for Hincapie Sportswear. It was a pleasant surprise and we got to talk about the team, company and all things cycling.

Our group leisurely rolled across the line and we promptly made our way to the wonderful food stands before sitting down to watch the big names finish. While this was happening, I was also in search of a very elusive pass to George’s after party. The search required help from a number of people and ended with Rich Hincapie handing me the envelope and a high-five from George himself. That was nearly as gratifying as the ride.

The dress was smart casual, which of course we didn’t really understand but knew that our job was to look like a better dressed and more stylish version of ourselves. Some very official looking bouncers greeted us before we stepped into the beautiful villa. Like everything else, the party was a hit. Catered by Table 301 with an open bar in a swank setting, it was hard not to have a great time. That and watching cyclists attempting to dance leaves a found memory with me. Particularly the moves of a certain pro-tour rider on a certain flo-green Italian team make me smile. I’m from New Hampshire, so it’s cool.

The entire weekend reminded me of how great this sport is and why we all do it. Everything beautiful can get muddled down but the essence of cycling remains. Riding a bike is fun and that is why we do it. Meeting new people, being outdoors and the unencumbered freedom make cycling what it is. Sometimes it is best for everyone to join together and just go for a ride.

 

Dope Control

By: Ben Zawacki Apr 9

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This season started off as perfectly as I could have imagined: I won a race. The venue was Delray Beach, Florida for the USA Crits opener and for me, it was my first race of the year and questions like “do I suck?” were certainly running through the back of my mind. With no local racing to rest my confidence on, it was a joy and relief to knock off a major team and personal goal so quickly. The details of the race are unimportant, so I’d prefer to summarize: I got in a break of three, we lapped the field, and my team gave me a beautiful lead out. I crossed the line next to my final lead out man with our arms extended in triumph. It was perfect. But that victory allowed me to check off a true career goal of mine.

This video is unreasonably long. The interesting part comes at around 4:30:00, and at 4:48:00 you can see Ben signing the USADA papers, and looking too tired to deal with legal language.

After crossing the line, a cool down lap ensued with celebrations spontaneously breaking out as my teammates saw each other and reveled in the payoff of our hard work. Stopping at the finish line, my favorite announcer gave a quick post-race interview where I was able to gush about the team’s performance. With that done, I rolled a few feet down the road to meet up with the boys and talk as the podium was set up; this is where I was introduced to my career goal.

“Hi, I’m Mr. Someone, I’m from USADA. I’ll be following you around till you pee in this cup.” The stark uniformity of his introduction caught me off guard in the midst of such jubilation. At first, I was taken aback, “You want me? Really?” quickly followed by an internal, “Awesome!” It was a strange mental process to go through as I prepared to smile pretty for the podium.

As the presentation wound down, I stepped off the podium and walked back to the chaperon, a few pleasantries followed and then he asked if I would need an escort. I’m sure there can be good reasons for needing one, but my only thought was, “I can hold it myself.” Being a grown man, I politely declined.


I was then handed off to a different chaperon and we walked away from the crowds toward our undisclosed location. The bliss of winning was quickly replaced with a more sobering businesslike manner. A few riders rolled by asking questions all in the vein of, “Is there a list? Am I being tested, too?” My chaperon eventually informed them that she was not part of USADA and we were merely two people headed away from the mayhem. This certainly caught me off guard and quickly made me question her true intent. Who was this freak pretending authority but seeking fetishism? After some reassurance that she was in fact a USADA employee and simply didn’t want to deal with the randoms, we continued.

As we approached the parking garage of fate, my Tucson roommate rolled by and yelled, “Yeah, you better test him!” which was fun for me but maybe a bit worrisome for my new friend with no idea of the relationship. We rounded a corner and I was presented with a bunch of suits meandering around a case of water and what must have been the entirety of one team that was “randomly” selected to be drug tested. I was told to grab a seat and some water and inform them when I was ready.

I began the process of topping my tanks and quickly realized I was in the midst of a rather frenzied situation. There was a conflict between a number of the other riders and testers all revolving around the topic of drug testing. One didn’t want his photo taken and had no ID to present. One wanted their coach present. One didn’t have to pee and apparently wasn’t going to have the urge anytime that day, by his calculation. I was promptly left unnoticed leaning against a car gently downing bottle after bottle of water.


Girlfriends rolled in and joined the discussion, agreeing wholeheartedly about the wrongful persecution of their trapped partners. Eventually, the man I assume was their team coach appeared and acted as the liaison between both parties. Most of the conversation was in Spanish, which I have no grasp of, but from what I could tell things weren’t going well. At one point they all turned and pointed to me, which was a little worrisome, but I am confident they meant no harm. I’m assuming they said something about testing more people like me—people on the podium that is. I can’t disagree; the so-called random selections did not appear to be very random, but who am I to judge? Justifiably or not, some teams and riders have an air of mistrust following them around, and it appears they are “randomly” chosen more often. Doesn’t quite add up, but that’s how it is. Racism, anonymous tip or whatever the reason, this ethnically alike group was chosen from the field and they were unhappy.

I too was entering a perilous situation. Being worried about dehydration and the inability to perform my task of peeing in a cup, I drank copious amounts of water. This quickly turned into a stomach ache as my starving body ballooned. Eventually that passed and was replaced with the much more unpleasant feeling of an overwhelming urge to relieve myself.

I poked, prodded and begged my way around the testers waiting for someone to pay attention to me. Preoccupied with their problems, they put out the figurative fire in front of them and slowly carted the more willing coals back and forth to the bathroom.
Finally someone saw me and gave the go ahead. It was my turn! This was far less exciting than I hoped for. We walked into a handicap stall and I ripped the cup out of its container as fast as possible while simultaneously avoiding urinating all over myself. Once the cup was adequately full, I continued to empty myself while holding a mildly pleasant conversation with the man calmly staring at me.

Coming back to the fire pit, I proudly held my trophy aloft and was passed on to a woman who would help me with the paper work. She was a wily veteran of the process and took us aside and into a car. I opened containers, verified numbers and agreed to whatever questions were asked of me. I also managed to spill a bit on her and the car, which she seemed a little laissez-faire about if you ask me.

Overall it was a pleasant experience and she was very helpful, going to the extent of informing me that was I was fairly hydrated after looking at my urine through a kaleidoscope or something similar. When she said we were done, I thanked her and readied myself to leave. She gave me an odd smirk, telling me she doesn’t hear that too often. Maybe it was virgin inquisitiveness. Maybe some people just don’t like to be tested. Either way, I was happy to become part of the tested few, and wanted to thank her. Then, paperwork in hand, I smiled to myself and went to join my teammates for cheesesteaks.

*Chemstrip image courtesy of J3D3, Wikimedia Commons.

**Photo “Jerome Relocation Center, Denson, Arkansas. In the laboratory at the center hospital, Iiuao Oyama” courtesy of Tom Parker, National Archives and Records Administration.

 

5 Classes

By: Ben Zawacki Mar 14

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As my Tucson travels have come to a close I’ve realized this place is far more than the library of cycling I’ve previously compared it to. Tucson is far more like a university. Many come for a quick visit, others, like me, are enrolled for a semester of learning. Some even make this their permanent residence, taking on a professorship of cycling. I’ve just finished a full semester and think it’s high time for a regrouping and reflection on my time spent here and the classes I’ve attended. These classes are the climbs in and around Tucson.

The first class I’ll mention is Sentinel Peak; it represents the stereotypical introductory college course. Located fairly centrally, it is short and gently curves up and around the big A, for the University of Arizona, offering a panoramic view of the campus. It’s a nice opening to the university with a first taste of things to come, but it’s no place for a real academic. Upon reaching the top, you can see the full scope offered at school and choose which direction you want to go.


We’re first going to head north and west to the Math and Science department and look at Mount Lemmon. This wondrous climb represents calculus IV, differential equations, where much of my work is done. The climb is a steady slog, never overly difficult, but relentless and often functions as the weed-out class separating those who will continue and those who will turn around and choose a different direction. When you finish, there’s a sense of accomplishment that goes along with the knowledge of achieving something that many quit.


At the top there’s a cookie shop that offers another fascinating comparison. There are a few unique options in cookie flavors, and I think it’s not too far of a stretch to relate this cookie decision to choosing your specialty after differential equations. Once you’re proficient in the class and reach the top you can go off in diverse and exciting directions of study. My cookie of choice is The Rachel, which you’ll have to climb to Summerhaven if you want to experience.

The Rachel course brings us back down the mountain and just slightly south and east to the obscure ascent of Reddington Pass. This climb may be unfamiliar to most, much like the class it represents, quantum physics. Still in the Science area of campus, quantum physics represents the far reaches of undergraduate material. The climb starts off in a few hard and twisting switchbacks of steep pavement before quickly turning to dirt as you ascend into the unknown. Turn after bumpy turn leads to beautiful views as your insights grow deeper into this branch of science. Cresting the final pitch you look out on a vast expanse of virgin land waiting to be explored. The dusty road continues on into the distance, but this is as far as my studies will take me for now. A brief look into the quantum world shows me that there is much more to learn and that I’ll have to save that for my future and more advanced studies.


So now we’ll head out of this part of the campus and in the direction of the Humanities. Traveling to the far south of Tucson we arrive at the base of Madera, a climb taken on in the popular Shootout group ride. Starting out rather gently and imperceptibly, we begin our study of philosophy. The climb is not steep, but is noticeably more tiring, and we realize that our base of knowledge is continually growing despite the less obvious growth in our cumulative understanding and altitude. The steadily rising exposed land is coming to a close and you suddenly realize that it’s been much harder getting to this point than any snapshot of the previous miles would disclose.


Now philosophy II begins. This climb must be separated into two parts, and the second is far more difficult. Like philosophy, the deeper you get into the climb, the harder the figurative questions get to answer. Each consecutive pitch is steeper than the last and steeper than you expected. At times the cyclic knowledge nearly grinds you to a halt, particularly on the pitch past the final switchback. And then the climb is done. You step off the bike and out the classroom. That was a rough one, but enjoyable. You might have to come back for more.

There’s one final part of university I was introduced to this year, and that is graduate school, known as Kitt Peak in these mixed terms. Located outside the immediate campus, sixty miles to the south west, it’s a lumbering beast separated from the undergraduate world. Only the true academics make their way out here to test their knowledge and might. Preceded by an inclined application process, you turn left into the proper climb. A very brief flat introduction crashes you into the first pitch, and from here on out you wind up and along the ridge line, circling the mountain and steadily gaining elevation. There are no breaks, the wind is persistent and the top is always further than you expect. It’s a mighty push up the slopes but eventually you are rewarded with a hard right-hand turn around the base of a large telescope and the flat top arrives. Here you are rewarded with a true sense of accomplishment as the vast world of research surrounds you. You’ve entered the cycling intellectual elite.

 

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