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To Athens and Beyond

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“Hey, can you drop a pin and tell me where the race is?”

Words & images: Andy Bokanev

The voice on the line is that of Pete Morris, one of the riders on Team CLIF Bar. It’s late on a Tuesday afternoon when commuters are starting to make their way home from jobs in the Charleston area. Lacking proper directions from the race organizer, you tend to follow cues to get to the start of a race. That car looks like it has a couple of race bikes on the roof. Should I follow it? Are those flashing lights I see down that block? I think I see an orange fence…. Then you see it, the orange rectangle with black letters: CAUTION: BIKE RACE. Found it!

We are in the South for a week’s worth of fast racing, left turns and a chance at a $125,000 purse in a series of races known as Speed Week. And it all began a few days ago in Athens, Georgia….

USOCAthens is a college town. Actually, the more appropriate description would be to call it a town that is actually a college. The race circuit is lined with bars, breweries, pizzerias, burger joints and beer gardens that get progressively fuller as the day goes on. When the sunset plunges, parts of the course are in complete darkness, so spectators cluster around the floodlit corners and pack the start/finish straight. As you stand in one of these lit corners, riders appear to fly out of the darkness, dive through the thick barbecue smoke and get ever so close to the iPhone-wielding fans sticking their slow-motion-video-recording devices through the barriers.

Things seem a bit quieter on the backside of the course. In the distance, you can hear the announcer talk almost non-stop along with the faint noise of the crowd. But here, halfway between corners two and three, you can actually see and hear the riders. Some yell out instructions or provide constructive criticism to their fellow racers, others, including those recently dropped from the pack, ride around alone looking dejected. The only lights here come from photographer’s flashes, the occasional GoPro mounted on racers’ handlebars and the whirring drones overhead (there are always drones).

This year’s edition featured a course that had been altered for the first time in 35 years. Already fast and tough, the new start/finish straight features a false-flat climb that results in an elevation gain of more than 4,000 feet over the race’s 90-minute duration.

 INCOMPLETE AND SUBJECTIVE GUIDE TO THE BEST PLACE TO WATCH THE RACE:
Athens, GA: Pick a bar along the start/finish straight or grab some food from the vendors at corners three or four. If you do not like crowds, well, this is not the race for you.
Roswell, GA: The lawns along the finish straight have a few food options. We went with The Fickle Pickle.
They have beer, and pastries.
North Charleston, SC: Corner one is fast and fun to watch. Check out the backstretch, which gets darker by the minute, and the freight trains between corners three and four.
Walterboro, SC: This race gets dark, so if you are looking for a new perspective, witness a few laps on the backstretch. Quickly. Corner four is where the party is.
Spartanburg, SC: Anywhere on the course makes for good viewing. This course offer primes on the back straight as well as the front. The start/finish straight is rowdy and the back straight feels somewhat corporate.

As the race winds down, the noise keeps building. The DJs keep ramping up the sound levels on their dub-step playlists, the announcers keep yelling louder and louder into their microphones, while the spectators along the finish straight relentlessly pound on the fence boards until the whole experience sounds like a freight train passing through a rave.

And then, just like that, it’s all over. The winner makes a victory lap and gives a few interviews at the finish line, and the race organizers waste no time in tearing down the fencing around the course. The spectators pack up and make their way back into bars and dorms leaving behind loads of beer cans, papers and general trash that’s generated by such gatherings.

INCOMPLETE GUIDE TO SURVIVING A WEEK ON THE ROAD WITH A CRIT TEAM:
If your photographer (me) locks you out of the Airbnb because he put the key in the lock pad and he was not supposed to, try the following combinations before calling the condo owner: 1111, 1234 and 0000.
Do not let your bike fall down a set of stairs before the night of the first crit. And if it does, you better have someone
traveling with the team who knows how to fix it.
If you rely on the racers to set the alarm the morning after a twilight crit, you will wake up at 10 a.m.
When traveling to a new town and looking for “cool” coffee shops and places to drink, do not shy away from Googling: “Where is the Hipster part of ….” You will find what you are looking for.
The Spartanburg course encircles a high-rise that is home to a Denny’s. There is a Denny’s Test Kitchen close by. Use this information as you will.

The following day, with the beer and the pizza of the previous night’s college experience still coursing through our veins, we set off for Roswell, a suburban community north of Atlanta. The contrast with the race the night before is immediate. The drunk teenagers and college bars have been replaced by upscale restaurants and bakeries serving drinks and food to spectators calmly sitting on lawns surrounding the finish straight. The word “quaint” comes to mind.

The course itself is a relief from the night before, allowing the tired legs a break from all of the (somewhat unexpected) climbing—although, for some, the experience of the night before takes its toll early in the race. Overheard from two dropped riders off the back: “Hey, at least we’re getting a good workout.”

COFFEE GUIDE TO SPEED WEEK
If you are anything like me, one of the first things you try to find in a new town is a decent coffee shop. Sure, you probably already travel with an AeroPress and your own beans, but it’s always worth checking out the local caffeine scene.
Athens, GA: Hendershot’s, 237 Prince Avenue.
Roswell, GA: Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee, 352 South Atlanta Street.
Charleston, GA: Black Tap Coffee, 70.5 Beaufain Street.
Greenville, SC: Coffee Underground, 1 East Coffee Street.
Spartanburg, SC: The Coffee Bar, 188 West Main Street.

The two midweek crits in Charleston feel a lot more relaxed, as midweek races tend to. But fewer riders and fewer spectators hardly means easier racing. There are still plenty of primes, attacks and crashes. And there are more pitch-black suburban streets to navigate.

The crit party returns on Friday night with Speed Week’s last event, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The race kicks off a weekend worth of family events in town featuring carnival rides, concerts and lots and lots of food. It’s loud and fast. And it feels like a family-friendly Athens.

And then, it’s all over. It’s time to pack our bags and head back west in search of more crits, more primes, more wins and more coffee. The CLIF Bar team ends the week with just over a $1,000 in primes. I ended up with a 1,000 more miles on the odometer.

From Issue 43.

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