By Stephen Cameron
A staple in many criterium cyclist’s calendars, especially here at Green Line Velo, is the Intelligentsia Cup race series in Chicago, IL. Every July, racers from all over the country fly and drive to the Midwest in order to race elbows out in nine days of technical crits.
The week before flying out to Chicago was painfully slow. This was my first time attending a nationally attended event, and I was so excited to race bikes with friends for the week and a half. The flights were bought, the AirBnB was booked, and the Zipcar was reserved. We were ready to go.
Unfortunately, the first few days did not go exactly according to plan.
Day One, Glen Ellyn, was so incredibly hot. The heat index was 136 degrees. I was completely drenched in sweat just from getting dressed prerace. Butterflies were in my stomach as I warmed up, and then I hovered around the start to get a good position at the starting line. My ice sock had practically melted as the whistle blew, and we went off racing.
The heart rate never went below 185 the entire race – it was fast, furious, and painfully hot
After dropping the friends off at the AirBnB, I drove to CVS to pick up Tegaderm, and then to a bike shop to try to get some emergency repairs completed. Eight more days left and I was bruised, bloody, and with a with a half broken bike; “Was coming out here a mistake?”
Day Two, Elgin, started with an early drive to meet the bike shop as they opened. The repairs were completed with enough time to pick everyone up, and get back on the road to get to the race.
It was another hot day, and today was one of the few “Road Races” that Intelligentsia offered. The course was another technical one; a four mile circuit, rolling terrain, a steep kicker, and of course, many corners. While labeled as a “road race” this was raced as a two-hour crit, and it was painful like one.
While my bike was fully functional, my body was not. I hung on for the count, but yesterday’s crash was felt. During that crash someone rode into my back as I was on the ground, and my back was absolutely burning today. At the end of the two hours I could barely hold myself up on the bike. I limped in at the tail end of the peloton.
The way the overall scoring worked for the cup was that out of the nine results, one would get dropped and the point total for the other eight would create the standings. My mindset at the end of Day One was that only eight races counted for points in the overall series, and that result was my ninth, with eight more opportunities to score. Limping to the line on Day 2, out of the point scoring placings, was not according to my plan.
Day Three, South Chicago, things were off to a good start. At this point, we were settling into the habit of waking up, eating breakfast, pinning our numbers, and loading the car for the daily trip to Dunkin Donuts, and then the race. The drive to the South Chicago was short, with ample time to warm up and mentally prepare. The race was another “road race” but this one was pancake flat along the shoreline of Lake Eire. With a long stretch of exposed road, followed by a 180 then that same stretch in the opposite direction, we were met with a block headwind and then an absolute beast of a tailwind. It made for a bit of a boring two-hour race.
My body was feeling better today which was a pleasant surprise, but unfortunately a breakaway got away in the last few laps. There wasn’t much teamwork involved in order for the peloton to catch the break, which became a trend in the week ahead. While I made some valiant efforts to try to bridge myself, or with a few others, it was mostly met with the peloton hanging on to the bridge group, trying to get that free ride. Not wanting to drag the entire field up to the break, and have no legs for the finish, I settled for a field sprint finish for some points. Not the worst-case scenario, but also not ideal.
After the race I learned that one of my good friends at the race crashed catching back up to the field after fixing a flat, and was taken to the hospital. There was not a ton of information about it, just that his hand was bleeding and probably needed stitches. That’s not that bad. Driving to the hospital, I expected to pick him up, give him a hard time, and then drink some extra beers together that evening.
When I got to the hospital and arrived to his room, nothing was there except some bloody rags, a ripped up kit, and a bloody helmet. That’s not a good sign. After waiting about 30 minutes, they wheeled my buddy in on a rolling bed – definitely worse than just a cut up hand. He was describing the crash, describing what hurt, but still keeping spirits high and joking around. We thought it was at worst a broken rib or two. The nurse came in with a serious look on her face, very alarmed that his neck brace was not on, and gave the news – “Cervical Fracture”. As self described medically clueless, I Googled this quickly, and the first result is “Commonly known as a Broken Neck”. He could move everything on his body, so the most severe damage was avoided, but the seriousness of the injury still sunk in fast.
That was a long afternoon and evening in the hospital and I can only imagine how much longer it must have felt for my buddy. After leaving him at the hospital, the car ride home from the hospital was a long and quiet one for the group and myself.
Day Four, Lombard, started off somber. There was a mixture in the air that made no one want to race bikes that day; tired from the late and emotional night, our buddy not coming home with us, fatigue from three hard days of racing, and mediocre results. We were tired, banged up, and down a friend. Sitting in the parking lot, that was the hardest it has ever been, at any race ever, for me to get out the car and start prepping.
Lombard had far less corners than the previous races. We were back to doing what we do best, crits. The course was shaped like a stretched oval, with corner one being a sweeping off camber 180 degree U, which had a wide opening, but the exit was tight and went into a steep S curve kicker that swept into what felt like a tiny back alley, running parallel to the other side of the course … are you still with me? Corners three and four were more like your regular crit, two right handers, spaced out enough to gain spots if you attacked through the first, but spaces not gained easily. The finishing stretch was long and slightly downhill, connecting you back into turn one.
As we were lining up to start the race, we were delayed due to an ambulance being required on the course. Someone crashed badly on the final lap – rumor was he had a bone sticking out. That is never fun to hear prior to a race, but especially bad timing after the emotional day yesterday. Races do not care about your feelings, and we lined up just like any other day.
Going through the race, I was hanging towards the back. I was not-not racing hard, but not racing with the same intensity as I normally do. I was not mentally there. I was having to sprint to stay with the group as it accordioned through the S turn, and not fighting on the straights to make up any ground. About half way through the race, it finally hit me; this is not how I race bikes. It hit me as I pushed up the S turn – it was a mixture of anger, frustration, and adrenaline – I did not come all the way to Chicago to race bikes like this. I kept pushing the pedals as we crested the incline and immediately starting gaining places.
The prior three day’s races had mostly stuck together for the entirety of the race, but this was starting to string out due to the skinny streets and fast corners. I moved up at the right time, if I had stayed at the back, I would have easily fallen off the leaders group. As the laps wound down, I monitored the lead and stayed patient as attacks went off the front, even as the pace stayed high. The mindset was “stay calm and be towards the front”.
The bell rung for the last lap, and I found myself in pretty good position coming into turn one. There were two riders just barely off the front, the field knowing we could catch them. I knew I still had to move up a few spots, and followed a wheel as they cornered through one, two, and then powered up the S climb. They pedaled hard and passed the front of the field on the inside. I was now second wheel. With half of the final lap to go, the rider in front pulls off. I hesitate to go as it is still way too early, but I feared of being swarmed and losing all chances. I pedal steady to keep the pace high enough to keep everyone calm as we are lining up to go into corner three. I bought time, and an idea came to me; if I pedal into corner three as first wheel, I can sprint through corner four, and hopefully create a small enough gap entering that final downhill stretch.
No one swarmed, and I take the best line into corner three. Immediately I stand up and mash as many pedal strokes as much as I can in the small amount of time to corner four. I find the best line going through and see the two lead guys off the front. There is still about 30 seconds to the finish line. I keep sprinting as I approach them, and sit for a few seconds as I ride up behind them; trying to give my legs even a second or two of sprinting rest, and to catch any draft that I can. I am approaching them with speed, and at the last moment, while savoring every last bit of draft, I speed around them and resume a standing sprint.
That was the longest sprint of my life. I was thrashing my body to stay at the front of the race; just keep turning the cranks, “you are almost there”. I am on the left side of the road, almost hugging the barriers, and with less than 100m to go I see someone approaching me on my inside. The road was very wide, but towards the finish line, the barriers squeezed the field slightly into the center of the road. Seeing this up ahead, I held my line straight, effectively turning a somewhat manageable lane on the left into a risky gap to try to shoot at the end of a long sprint.
It paid off. I threw my bike at the line, and let out a triumphant Ric Flair “Woooooooo” as I hear the announcers yelling “Zipcar” and “GreenLineVelo”.
I almost dumped it going into corner one – it was so short of a run up after the line, and going into it with the speed of a finish line sprint. I gripped the rear brake and had some skid skips as I hit the off camber turn. I think the spectators in that corner thought I was a lunatic as that extra jolt of near crashing adrenaline made me cheer even more.
The Intelligentsia Cup had the best podium set up that I have ever been to. It was covered and elevated above the road with a fantastic pink floral background that was inspired by the design on the summer blend of Intelligentsia Coffee. It hit me that I was about to be stepping on top. They call the third and second place finishers, and then finally, “the Winner, racing out of Boston, Massachusetts for GreenLineVelo powered by Zipcar, Stephen Cameron”. The announcer helps me put on the “Science in Sport Winners Jersey”, and I take that step up onto what felt like the top of the world.
After the race the next day, we went back to see my buddy in the hospital. The mood was much lighter as we received more good news about his healing time frame, and how the situation was not as critical as once thought. We were able to celebrate the win together. I like to think that part of that tipping point, the point where I said, “this is my race now,” came from the situation the day prior. If anything, it became a joke around the AirBnB, “who needs to go to the hospital next, so we can get another win?”
Result wise, the end of the race series was not as glamorous as the day at Lombard; a few top 10 finishes, but still gaining points in the overall cup standings. There was a weight lifted off of my shoulders after the win though, I knew that if I got on a plane that day after Lombard, I would have been happy. That did not stop me from racing as hard as ever, now knowing that a win was definitely doable.
Going into the final day, day nine of racing in a row, I was only a few points out of 5th position in the overall cup series. This crit was a classic, just four long corners around the Goose Island brewery. Some people think it is a boring course, but I loved the open roads and the view of Chicago that welcomed you into the final corner every lap.
On the second to last lap, the two guys infront of me went into each other and fell. I had nowhere to go. I fell on the same side I fell on in day one, slammed hard, and rolled to a halt. I was quickly bleeding as I ripped open my already torn up leg. I gathered my bike with the help of a spectator, slapped the rear wheel back in, and bent the derailleur into a semi-functional state and slowly rolled off for the final lap. I had completed every lap of the other eight days of racing here in Chicago; I was not about to come up one lap short. I was able to roll slow and savor the moment.
I ended the race series as I started it, bloody and limping across the finish line, but my two moods were complete opposites. I must have had the biggest smile crossing the line that anyone bloody and coming in 40-somethingth place, has ever had. I travelled to my first destination race, and completed the whole series. I raced the nine days, and I raced hard. I crashed twice, came in sixth place overall and I even won a race. I’m going to keep that winners jersey forever.
I laid on the sidewalk in the hot Chicago summer, bloody and torn up, surrounded by friends, still high on the adrenaline of crashing, racing, and accomplishment, and of course, drinking an ice cold beer, I felt like a true bike racer.