Getting a push from a pro
What other sport lets you get side by side with professionals like cycling?
When I’m riding with a group, I’m present, in the moment. You have to be because you can’t confidently predict what the person in front or next to you is going to do.
But on a solo ride I tend to replay parts of past rides, usually prompted by the route or a particular stretch of road. That's not to say I’m not present. I enjoy the scenery and watch for traffic, but more often than not I’m recalling and reliving a past ride with a group, or a particularly memorable solo ride.
Yesterday I was on US 78 outside Leeds, a road I’ve ridden hundreds of times over the past decade or two. But two rides came back to me, and both involved Birmingham’s pro cycling event, Hammerfest.
The first was during the 2019 inaugural event. We had a “ride with the pros” event where many of the pro men and women who had raced Saturday did a 60 mile training ride with amateurs and casual riders. We left from Avondale Brewing and rode out past Leeds and Camp Winnataska. Some of the pros took it easy, but if you wanted a more spirited ride, some were sprinting for city limits signs.
In what other sport is this even possible? You can’t go out and kick around with Birmingham Legion FC on a Sunday afternoon after a match. You can’t go casually shoot baskets with pro basketball players.
But on this Sunday, I was riding up a short pitch on Camp Winnataska Road and felt a hand on my lower back giving me a gentle push.
“Dude, I’m not doing this for you; I’m doing it for me. I need you in front of me because you’re the only guy tall enough for me to draft.” It was Frankie Andreu, former Tour de France racer and two-time Olympic cyclist, who is now an announcer at cycling events including the USA Crit series. His explanation of why he was giving me a push was the most charitable characterization imaginable. Here’s a guy who was fourth in the Olympics and has top 10 finishes in Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Nice. But again, where else does this happen?
The second ride I recalled was from last March, just as the world shut down. It would have been Hammerfest’s second year and many of the pro teams had already made it to town before the event was canceled, a lot of them staying in people’s homes. The Automatic Racing women’s team was staying with us and Automatic’s men’s team was two doors down. When the racing was canceled, the team’s leader, Thomas Gibbons, kind of sheepishly asked if the teams could stay anyway and turn the weekend into a team camp. So of course we did.
On that Friday afternoon, I joined them for an easy 50-60 mile ride. Easy for them, at least. They were patient on the hills and it wasn’t until we were a few miles from home that they absolutely lit it up. You can’t fully appreciate the difference in raw talent and fitness until you’ve ridden side by side.
On Saturday, we did an unsanctioned group ride for any teams in town and any local riders who wanted to join in. It was about a 100 mile ride up past Springville on a beautiful spring day, but it’s what a young, talented local racer told me later that stuck with me. He’d ridden with the pros the whole way and was awed by the experience of sitting on Gibbons’ wheel. “When else will I be able to sit in on the Automatic train?”
Maybe next month.
Hammerfest is back in Birmingham in August as part of the USA Crits series of races around the country. There will be crit racing for amateurs and pros on Saturday, August 14, at Pepper Place (and it’s free to watch), but there will also be another opportunity to ride with the pros on Sunday, August 15.
This year the ride is free but benefits the Lakeshore Foundation, so fund-raising is highly encouraged. And the Birmingham event will be the only race in the national series to include handcyclists, aligning it nicely with Lakeshore’s international reputation for providing opportunities for people with disability to live a healthy lifestyle and as a US Olympic and Paralympic Training Site.
I know I won’t win any city limits sprints (even though I know where the signs are) but maybe I won’t need a push from Frankie this year.
2020 unsanctioned Hammer ride: https://www.strava.com/activities/3183365221
2020 Automatic team ride: https://www.strava.com/activities/3180743469
2019 Hammer Ride: https://www.strava.com/activities/2221089194