That’s the distance from Philadelphia to Atlantic City and back. It the length of six and a quarter marathons, or for more traditional sports fans…about 250,000 football fields. More pointedly, for those cyclists who come to Philadelphia each June to fulfill a promise of a year’s training 156.25 miles is also the measure of a man.
For athletes used to racing in events like the Snake Alley criterium in Burlington, Iowa or torturing each in the deserted mounts of New Mexico’s tour of the Gila, Philadelphia is Bob Barker’s Showcase Showdown. The often used and ill conceived analogy of “ this sports SuperBowl” might actually apply in this case as no other event in north America provides this type of live television coverage, this much money, or this much prestige. The top American finisher is declared the national champion and meaning a ride in Europe and a big fat contract.
This event also has spectators, and a lot of them. Where most events might stretch the already flexible limits of crowd estimation at 500-1000 spectators, over 100,000 Philadelphians turn out over 100,000 rabid drunken fan…Philly Fans…in what is dubbed as the East Coast’s biggest block party.
About 30,000 of those fans were screaming so loudly that I couldn’t hear my mechanic trying to get my attention in the seat behind me. Finally he had tapped me on the shoulder and drew my attention away from the drunken bikini clad girls with half filled plastic cups that adorn the slopes of the Manyunk Wall every June. What he pointed to was the figure of a rider losing contact with the breakaway and starting to fall back through the caravan of cars that follow the race.
Other than the oppressive heat of a Philadelphia summer the biggest obstacle of this bicycle race is the Manyunk Wall. The wall rises at a 17% grade for about 3/4s of a mile and then pitches to about 22% for the last 600 yards. The riders do this climb half way through each of the 15 mile laps for a total of 11 times. Starting around the third lap, every time up the hill the race requires the offering of a human sacrifice. This was lap 3.
Each time up the hill, a year of pain and travel and crashes and loneliness of the road , a season of going to bed early, of not eating while hungry, of hundreds of hours of solitude in riding in all weather, of suffering through questions about when you’re going to get a “real job” ….all of that gets sacrificed to the gods of gravity. And in front of the ravenous South Philadelphians in mid-day bender, professional bicycle racer Trent Klasna was the sacrifice.
I moved to the car slightly to the right to offer him a little more room and the tall handsome Californian drew up along side our car for a couple of moments. He was in intense pain and equally intense concentration. We had just hit the steepest section of the climb and with only 600 yards to go he hadn’t given up hope. Despite being at his physical limits, he, as the cyclists are apt to say in reverent tones, hadn’t ‘cracked’. He still had hope, and he still had fight. It’s the great dick tease of cycling…” If I can just get to the top of the hill…if I can just get to down the next descent…if they just ease up for a second.” But just as quickly as he came into view, he slid back behind to the next car and then slowly out of site.
Bicycle racing does not mourn its dead, at least not very long. And where there were once 26 cyclists 5 minutes ahead of the 100 rider chasing group, there were now 25. What goes up, must come down and the riders and team cards weren’t thinking about what was behind them. They were focused on the pressing matter of trying to negotiate the twists and turns of the heart pounded descents off of The Wall. The cyclists and cars were sliding through the corners at speeds of 60 mphs past the porch party BBQs and all praying that no little kid ran into the street and keeping out thoughts that this might be a really bad time for a flat tire.
Seemingly by design, the only quiet section of the races comes about 1 mile after the white-knuckle ‘fall from the wall’. For a stretch of about a mile and a half the race uses some flat back roads of Fairmont Park without storefronts, 6 pack shops, or spectators to grab water from the team car or take a quick ‘nature break’ ( peeing off the bike while rolling along of course). This also gives the team cars a chance to get updates on the race radio and to reorganize all the equipment that got thrown ass-over-tea-kettle while screaming through corners at 45 mph bumper to bumper. That’s exactly what we were doing when I heard the BEEP BEEP. Two quick beeps is shop talk for “ There’s a rider coming up through the cars. In addition to the cars serving a rolling water stops/ bike shops, the cars also serve the purpose of providing safety and shelter to the riders. When a rider has a mechanical or requires feeding, he’ll come back to the cars, get what he needs, and then jump from car bumper to car bumper, drafting his way back to the shelter of the field. The beep wouldn’t usually surprise me, but I hadn’t seen any rider go back for food or water and when I checked I the mirror I was surprise to see the green and blond figure of Trent Klasna fighting his was back into the race. “ If I can just got over the hill…..if they just ease up…”. This time, also out of respect, I DID make eye contact, “ great job Trent” and off he went, forward this time, and out of sight into the safety of the flock.
This was Trent Klasna’s last year. He had been a professional since 1998 when he took up cycling to help straighten himself after a few troubled years of partying around the beaches of Southern California. One addiction for another. However good he may have been at rolling joints and drinking Bud pounders, he was much better at this bicycle racing thing. Almost immediately he rose through the ranks of amateur cycling and into a job with Saturn, the most dominant team in North America. In 2001 he was the US Time Trail Champion and the Overall Champion of the National Series. But then came a series of injuries, bad luck, and the demised of the big budget Team Saturn. When 2003 ended Klasna found himself a forgotten hero and out of work . Like I said, cycling doesn't mourn its dead.
With a new house, newly married, and the hopes that he still had one more good year left in him, Klasna took up the 2004 season with the new and inexperienced Sierra Nevada Cycling Team. For the beer sponsored team, signing Klasna was a boon. His addition brought instant credibility to the team and with that came access to bigger races and some respect in the pecking order of the controlled chaos of the racing peloton. Klasna honored the contract with strong performances in early California races like the Redland Classic and Sea Otter at Laguna Secca. But once he started losing the benefit a mild California winter it started becoming apparent that Trent was no longer the champion who dominate the scene from 1999-2002. As April turned into summer Klasna was having trouble hanging in the field and was being left behind by riders who should have been asking for his autograph.
Still, Klasna was a professional and he had a job to do. His name alone meant press coverage and TV time in Philly. His experience and attitude was an asset the young riders of his team. His best hope was to get up the road early and his attack initiated the early (suicidal) break that went away at the 5 mile mark. At the very least with the motorbike camera catching his return to the break he was providing his human billboard return on investment for the folks at the brewery who signed the check each month. Of course once you’re back in the race anything can happen. In 1995 the suicidal move went away at the start, got 35 minutes, and never came back. And at Paris-Roubix when the train came through the level crossing and delayed the chase and the early break stuck. It could happen. Those were the thought going through the minds of Trent Klasna and the other 18 escapees as they ate, drank, and prepared for lap around the track.
The next time up the wall, in fact the next 5 times up the wall were a repeat of the same. Each time up Klasna would get dropped, usually with one or two other riders. And each time across the flats of Fairmont Park I’d hear the BEEP BEEP and see the lone figure of the cagey veteran making his way back to what was left of the break…” one more lap…one more time up the hill…maybe my legs will come back”.
But with just a few laps to go, news of the inevitable came across race radio. The Dutch powerhouse CSC had enough of the games and was driving the chase from behind. The lead group, which was down to about a 20 riders was losing 20 seconds a mile and their lead evaporated from 7 down to 3 minutes across the start/finish area. As the breakaway entered downtown Manyunk, their lead was just over a minute and the riders pressed on knowing that if they could get over the wall before getting caught, they might have a good chance of finishing the race hour of racing with the front group. As we hit the lower slopes of the Wall with the chase breathing down our neck the riders put everything they had into the climb. Immediately Klasna got popped. Just as he had all day, he lowered his head and pressed on. But this time as he went by there was no faking it….he was cracked. He was committed to the effort, but he was going nowhere. As he faded off behind us he was pedaling squares and fighting for his life. As we rounded the corner at the top of the hill you could see front of the chase group starting to swarm and eating up everything in their sights.
So now the break was caught, the pretenders and their false hope put away, and the stars were battling it in what was shaping up to be an exciting final 40 miles. With all of our riders out of contention, experience told me that there was not point in driving around for the last hour and a half. After dropping the car off at the feed zone and tending to our riders, we ran the two blocks back to the hotel to watch the closing 10 miles.
With everyone out watching the race live the bar was empty except for a bored bartender and one lone patron with his head in his drink. We saddled up to the bar, I ordered a couple of beer and asked the bartender to turn up the TV as my mechanic shared a much needed cigarette with the guy sitting to his left. The race was in full cry with five riders holding a slim 20 second lead to a chase group of around 40 riders. The bartender asked what was going on.
“ Well those five have got to try and hand on another few miles”, I answered.
The bartended asked, “ Do you think they can do it ?”
And before I could answer, the guy at the end of the bar spoke up with a half slur, “ Bahhh, NO WAY. You need at LEAST 40 seconds coming off Lemon Hill. And Horner isn’t going well. If he felt decent he’d be waiting for the sprint.”
Stunned, we all turned to around to see what kind of barfly knows so much about bicycle racing, and the bartender asked, “ You sure seem to know what you’re talking about pal. What are you, a pro biker ?”
Trent Klasna, freshly showered and three beers in looked up over his pint and took a drag from his cigarette, “ Nope.” He said with an exhale, “ not any more.”