Sunday, October 25, 2015

Tour Williamette, 2001 - from VeloNews

No use denying it: I behaved badly at Tour Willamette. I whined, I screamed at God and the race organizers, I was not always graceful with my Shimano co-workers. In my defense, I will say that I was not alone.

Strong men abandoned, sat up and softpedaled, chose mid-event to experience the blissful warmth of follow vehicles, climbed off in feed zones, turned around a few miles into road races and rode back to the cars. Quit.

I would have quit, but I had a job. As a Shimano volunteer, I had to carry a mechanic on my motorcycle in the road stages, and there were four road stages. After a short hillclimb TT Tuesday evening, there were road races on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

On Saturday, you'd think you might get a break, but Saturday there were TWO stages, a time trial and a crit. Sunday they threw a 120-mile road race at you, 120 miles over two mountain passes, the frosting on the cruel cake.

Wouldn't be so cruel, but Tour Willamette happens in April in the Willamette Valley, in Oregon, not far from the coast. Other things happen there too at that time, things like cold, rain, hail -- and snow at relatively low elevations. I speak from experience here.

I rolled into Eugene during the prologue and didn't see any of it, but I know it was cold out there. I'd ridden the motorcycle from northern California and been rained on the last couple of hundred miles.

The first road race, Wednesday's, was wet and cold, no fun for me or the riders. You'd be cold and uncomfortable every mile, every mile wishing you were someplace else. Deprived of sun and warmth, I began to lose my sense of humor on this first road stage, but I was a load-a laughs compared to what was to come.

All that first day, I dreaded the next day's race. On Thursday, we knew, we had to drive or ride to the start maybe 45 slow-road miles out of Eugene, then work a 100-mile race on BLM roads in the remote country and get the cold and the rain.

By the time I reached the start on my motorcycle, I was frozen through, my hands unresponsive. I sat in a Shimano car, heater running, shivering in my motorcycle gear -- really good, expensive gear, largely ineffective in April in Oregon.

That race was hours of bone-chilling cold for my mechanic and me, and surely for the racers, who wore plastic rainjackets from start to finish. Lots of guys' hands wouldn't work the brakes or the gears. Guys' faces looked like zombie faces. It wasn't a race so much as a fight for survival.

One section was up and down a steep, mud hill. Some riders had to dismount and walk. We're talking riders who've had their photos on VeloNews covers. My motor slid around under us and coated its underside with Oregon mud. Exhaust heat baked the mud onto the muffler.

The front tire dumped large amounts of Oregon mud into the lower part of my motorcycle's fairing, so that after 10 minutes of post-race hosing in the hotel parking lot, big clods of mud were still washing out. I remember every clod.

I hated it extremely, every minute of it, from leaving the motel at the break of dawn to returning there late in the afternoon, cold and wet and uncomfortable all day long, my motorcycle never to be pristine again.

I was not subtle in my speech to co-race-workers. I told them bluntly what I thought of Oregon, Eugene, springtime and the Tour Willamette. Some reacted with shock at my frankness. I think it was the short, effective Anglo-Saxon verbs.

The next morning, the sun shone on the start area at the appointed time, but alas the start was postponed. By the time we did start, large hailstones pelted the pack and the support motor crew alike. I had to ride one-handed, the other gloved hand covering my face. I felt even more dismay and even less love for springtime Oregon.

The hail and something like snow covered the road as we left Cottage Grove, south of Eugene. Traction? Who knew. Maybe the motorcycle will slither from under us and we will crash to the icy pavement, I thought.

My mechanic panicked a bit. Remember, Maynard, rubber down, he said.

I figured: The cyclists aren't falling down, so my mechanic and I probably won't. We didn't. A blessing.

As we left town, the hail stopped and the sun came out. Nice. The race had been shortened before the start from nearly 100 miles to 75. Suddenly, mid-race, we happened upon an unmarked, unmanned corner on a fast descent. Some riders went one way, some another.

The officials stopped the race, then released the break, then the pack at the latest time-split they had. One race stoppage? Probably a record low for Tour Willamette, and the officials and riders smiled throughout the mess. It's not Le Tour, after all, not brain surgery.

Somehow, instead of the 75 miles we expected, race distance turned out to be less than 60 miles. We loved it, a "rest day" in the weak Oregon sunshine.

Sadly, though, at the finish I noticed that my motorcycle was puking coolant over the side of the engine. When I got it to the BMW store in Eugene, we discovered that the radiator had a hole in it. A new radiator would have to be ordered and would not be in until Tuesday.

The race would be over on Sunday, but I would be stuck in the rain and the cold until Tuesday. Or even Wednesday... The horror.

One of the local guys who'd been helping out on his own motorcycle told me he had another that he'd loan me for Sunday's road race. I borrowed that bike and it served valiantly.

On that motor on Sunday, I was following a Crown Vic sheriff's car down one of the endless descents. The road was a cleared black ribbon between scenes of winter wonderland, nothing but white snow and bits of green from the trees.

Somehow, a snow-bank appeared suddenly behind the cruiser and I hit it. The front end of the motor flicked back and forth three or four times while I said oh sh-t oh sh-t. As luck would have it, we did not crash. Coulda, mighta, didn't. Danger is part of the fun at Tour Willamette. Big fun.

If you race or work races all season, including the Tour Willamette, you will have as many stories from that race as the rest of the races combined. Is that good? Does that make it a great race? You make the call.

Someone said they're gonna move it to May next year. Will I go back? Nah.


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