20 Miles, Mennonites, Mud & Macchiato
The 2006 Brownstown Road Race in Lancaster County, PA
Saturday, June 24th, 2006.
My Starbucks opens at 6 am on Saturday mornings. The staff is friendly and they make a mean doppio macchiato. The doppio macchiato is a simple drink, a cup of foam “marked” with two shots of espresso - simple, but effective. 6 am is critical because race days start early. Living in Chambersburg, PA puts me an hour or two from most race starts in the mid-Atlantic region (Philadelphia, Lancaster, DC & Baltimore). The doppio makes the early morning drive doable.
Today amateur racing in cycling demands internet savvy. First, you need knowledge. To find out where and when events are you have to check the race calendars posted at www.pacycling.com or www.mabra.org. Second, you need access. To have any hope of getting into a race you must register weeks in advance at www.bikereg.com. That most races in the mid-Atlantic region sell out well in advance is a testament to the health of amateur cycling in America. Thanks to the Lance Armstrong effect, many excellent races, talented promoters, and a plethora of active local clubs the mid-Atlantic region is teeming with racers and races. Third, you need directions. Resources like www.mapquest.com or Google Earth probe that navigation in the twentieth century is only a click away. Finally, you need the beta or inside information. This includes weather information for race day, results from previous years, and hints about the competition. Weather information is available at www.accuweather.com, previous year’s race results are available at the promoter’s website, and pre-registered racers are listed at www.bikereg.com (you may want to cross reference the latter two). Weather information is especially important because bike racing is a rain or shine proposition.
Google Earth indicated that Brownstown, PA is a small rural town north east of Lancaster, PA that was easily accessible via major roads. Bikereg.com said that the USCF category 4 field size was 75 and that it was sold out – luckily I had pre-registered. The confirmed rider list at www.bikereg.com showed that I had two teammates in the Category 4 race, John and Tim. Teammates in that we were from the same local club (Yellow Breeches Racing) not that we had been training together or working on tactics. Notably, Accuweather.com indicated that there would be severe thunderstorms throughout the day.
According to race promoter, Red Roses Races, the course is a rolling 5 mile circuit on well-maintained country roads with USCF category 4 racers doing four laps or 20 miles. Many races start at schools, parks or colleges. Brownstown starts at the intersection of Peace Road and Maple Avenue, a junction of small country lanes amidst corn fields. With well over 300 registered participants, spectators, officials and no parking lot - parking was at a premium.
Arriving before 7am allowed me to get a parking spot on Peace Road, register, set up my trainer and get a good warm-up. The rain began to fall while I was on the trainer and it became clear this was going to be a very wet day. As 9 am approached, I made my last journey to the port-a-potty and then toed the line for the start. Indeed, the men’s category 4 field was full and with the centerline rule in effect that meant 75+ riders jockeying for position on one lane of a narrow country road with no berm.
Since I warmed up on the trainer, I used the first lap to get a feel for the course. It was fast and flat with a couple of sharp turns, one chicane (sharp S-turn), and a double step hill leading to an uphill finish. The course was surrounded by Amish and Mennonite farms and saw frequent use by horses and buggies. Normally, the road would be sprinkled with occasional patches of horse manure. As the rain continued to come down these patches became more and more liquefied turning into a hellish mix of manure and water that I call “Mennonite Mud”. In a pack of 75+ riders the wheel spray was sufficient to liberally coat everyone and everything in this Lancaster County treat.
The finish had 1km, 200m to go signs, a banner covering the entire road, lots of spectators, and a two-story press box complete with photo finish camera. On the second lap I began to become conscious of my position within the peloton. Moving up in the pack was proving difficult so the plan was to get up front and stay there. After a solo flier from the first lap was caught, two riders got away on the second lap and began to build a gap - one of them was my teammate John. I call John the “Hammer” because earlier this year as John and I were checking the posted results for a TT in Philadelphia another rider who was in front of us talking to a friend said “that Hartpence guy is a hammer”. John had finished first in the TT that day and is a two-time state TT champion – the name stuck.
This spring I had watched quite a bit of racing on www.cycling.tv and I knew exactly what to do in this situation. I took the opportunity to go to the front and just sit there. As John and his breakaway partner continued to build their gap, my other teammate Tim came to the front and rode beside me, 2 against 75. I was amazed that the field would let us just sit there as the gap continued to grow. I “pulled” through the double hill near the finish just soft-pedaling. After that, a group came to the front and began to take pulls. Tim and I were in the pace line just tapping through on the pedals to slow the whole thing down. After one guy yelled at Tim for not pulling another more experienced rider came up on the left and said “they have a guy up the road.” The gig was up. One lap of blocking was over as a chase group finally formed to reel in the breakaway. Tim and I got a free ride as the others worked hard to bring back the break. With John back in the group we headed into the final lap. My goal was to stay near the front and take my chances in the uphill field sprint. Twice on the final lap I almost came to grief as riders made contact with me, but this was par for the course as the speed continued to crank up and many riders fatigued. The quickened pace made moving up increasingly difficult and many riders were pushing the limits of the centerline rule. The moto was honking constantly in an attempt to keep things in line. Past the 1k marker and into the final double step climb a lead-out train came up on my left and I hopped into their draft up to the front where another rider was beginning his sprint. I switched wheels and we left the lead out train in our wake. There was another pair of riders doing the same thing to our right - four of us in front of the field – killing it. The order didn’t change at all in the final 200 meters. The three in front of me had made good jumps and were too strong to pass – so I finished fourth. During a cool down lap, the reality of it all began to sink in. We had run a good race – a breakaway, blocking, and a sprint finish in the money. There was another reality sinking in at the same time. The brown mixture that coated our bikes, our jerseys, our eyes, and our mouths wasn’t mud at all – it was Mennonite Mud. Back at the registration tents I caught a glimpse of the trophies that they were giving to the top three finishers. While the second and third place trophies were nice the first place trophy would have made even a pro bowler proud. It was a two column, double-tiered gaudy affair crowned with a golden plastic bicyclist. No trophy for fourth place. I picked up my cash, washed off, and watched my other friends finish their races. We ate lunch together in Lancaster and I grabbed another doppio for the trip home. Yes, the Amish have Starbucks too.
In addition to the cycling spectators there were many local Mennonite and Amish children who turned out to watch and it was clear that this was a cycling-friendly area. The last internet skill racing requires is checking the race results available at the promoter’s website: www.redroseraces.com. While I didn’t get to see much of Brownstown that day I did gain some insight as to how they may have chosen its name.