das pro und the rookie

Since I’ve started cycling, I’ve often wished for a cultured, sophisticated friend of the European variety. I imagine this well-connected friend, preferably reasonably attractive and trilingual, would never lack in single, male friends with chiseled features and lithe bicycles. This friend would somehow always have access to villas and chateaus, dispersed across the European Continent, in which one could crash for weeks at a time, conveniently located near spectacular riding routes. There’d be a flat in London, too, should the need for a Vivienne Westwood shopping spree ever arise, but the majority of our time will be spent in Italian cafes or the French Alps. Always in our respective kits.
Unfortunately, either birds of vastly different feathers don’t like to flock together, or, the more gentle explanation to my self-confidence would suggest, that this type of fun-at-parties, almost-annoying-cultured-in-that-European-way-but-doesn’t-come-off-as-a-total-douche friend simply doesn’t exist. Never mind that Europeans probably can’t see much charm in the cultural atrophy and addictions to reality TV that your typical Americanized individual has to offer. It’s much easier for me to explain this empty hole in my friend roster to impossibility.

Conceding that this friend can only truly exist in the confines of fantasy, it’s not a stretch, then, to imagine this individual handing you the cyclocross equivalent of the Devil’s Handbook. Except that it’s a DVD called, “Das Pro und the Rookie,” featuring lots of Belgian people, Tim Johnson, and Chandler Delinks speaking French.

It’s not porn, but as a ‘cross neophyte, the documentary is like a primer on what I need to know to most effectively pretend that I know what I’m talking about when discussing this particular discipline. Which is to say, it might be pretty close.
Because who doesn’t get off on sticky, slippery bikes races in exotic and freezing Belgian cities? If I’m honest with myself, the answer to that question would be, “mostly everyone.” But because a reality that doesn’t parse perfectly with my imagination disturbs me, I choose not to interact with the ‘cross-ignorant and thrill-deprived. It’s made for a markedly happier state of mind, and friends who would totally understand why LOLing on the trainer while watching “Das Pro,” is completely acceptable, and expected, behavior.

And this documentary – made by Chan and Todd Prekaski about Chan and Tim’s respective 2010/2011 ‘cross seasons – is that good. Not just “I’m friends with Chan and Tim so I have to say it’s good,” good, because honestly, after Chan outright ruined season three of “The Wire” two hours after I first met him, I don’t feel like I owe him anything. This was confirmed on Monday when he ruined “Dexter” for me. Thus, I’m arguably in the perfect position to rip Chan a new one…and this documentary is still hilarious, well-paced, and knows how to deliver the excitement of a ‘cross race through a video lens. I was actually disappointed that there wasn’t going to be another episode next week.

That’s not to say that it’s dumbed down entertainment a la reality TV [no cat fights are involved here]; it’s intelligent and interesting, and never regresses to macho-ness or over-analysis. “Das Pro,” gives you ‘cross as it is in Europe, raced by Chan in the Master’s World Championships, and by Tim and Team Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com in the World Championships, with the additional twist of Chan’s commentary and some great video editing. As any good documentary should, it also reflects reality – the ups and downs of racing, as well as the camaraderie between the pro[s] and the rookie. It’s not a collection of clips of how these guys would like to appear, either. The sarcastic banter between Tim and Chan, how genuinely nice Jamey Driscoll is [he told me with a straight face that no, Chan was really lying about that spoiler in “The Wire,” even though he wasn’t]; these are things that are, as far as I can attest, real. I almost wish I could pull a Chan here and give away some major spoilers.

But as the future of younger souls rests on the fact that I don’t, I’m keeping my lips sealed. Because proceeds from the sale of “Das Pro und the Rookie” DVDs go towards Tim’s Mud Fund, a scholarship set up for promising junior and U23 American ‘cross racers to take some of the financial stress of racing off of their shoulders. It’s what I’d imagine my fantasy Euro friend’s philanthropic father would be into, because he would surely love ‘cross.
Clearly, I’m loathe to give up my European friend aspirations, even if they’re of the modest, super-loaded-attractive-friend-with-hot-bike-friends-and-tons-of-connections variety. The footage in “Das Pro” hasn’t exactly killed my boner for Europe, either. There’s something inspiring, though, about Americans racing their guts out in this almost peculiar cycling discipline, going head to head with Belgians who look like they were genetically engineered to portage, mount, dismount, and run a bike through mud and snow. It’s almost enough to forgive them for that whole spoiler thing.

game on at gloucester

It’s 5 a.m. and jet lag has me wide awake. It’s Sunday; the Sunday after the first day of Gloucester. Did I really see Lyne Bessette’s Paralympic gold medal yesterday? My stomach rumbled and I could still smell the giant bowl of rice Tim and Jamey were diving into after their race, inside a Cannondale team truck packed with about 10 frames of varying sizes. I remember running and nearly tripping over blue Shimano tape marking the race course with Chandler, his video camera in one hand. Didn’t we all last hang out and do the same kind of thing in Tokyo? But we were in Boston – er, Gloucester, this time, right?

The past few days have been surreal to say the least. One moment I was at Haneda airport in Tokyo at 5.00am. Next, I was in NYC Velo and it felt like I’d never left. Less than 24 hours later, I was in Boston, feeling like the nameless narrator in Fight Club, just as he’s on the cusp of fabricating Tyler Durden, his brain going a little haywire on too much Starbucks, travel and Dunkin coffee. Did I make this all up? Did I actually see Ryan Trebon smile, at me, in real life? [me: are you going to introduce me to Ryan “Dreamy” Trebon? Tim: …he’s too tall for you.]

The commuter rail receipt in my back pocket claims otherwise, but it could all be in my head. After taking the usual Chinatown bus up to Boston and spending the night watching “Lost in Translation” with Jeremy B. and Carrie, I jumped on the commuter rail to Gloucester. One of the biggest UCI races on the East Coast, Gloucester was the first cross race I watched back in 2009. I heard Richard Fries yell into the mic as Tim Johnson took the win that year, and hardly knew whom either of them were.
Since then, my knowledge of cross has progressed to a value greater than zero, but still less than one. Most of what I know can be condensed into what I’ve mentally fabricated as an appropriate slogan for cross: “Masochists who like to get dirty, unite.”

I’ve clearly yet to dip a cleated toe into the slippery mud of a run-up, but there’s nothing like a great cross race to make me want to ditch smooth pavement and banked corners in favor of mud, rain, and barriers. And the Gran Prix of Gloucester – two days of quality racing on a huge course that seems to stretch and weave its way across the entire length of Stage Fort Park – is one of the most entertaining cross races you can watch on the East Coast. Lucky coincidence had me arriving in NYC three days before this particular race, with more than a few friends racing. As an added bonus, heavy rain on Friday ensured the course would be slick and slippery on Saturday. Perfect weather for cross spectating.

Lucky coincidence also had me running into Tim [Johnson] just as I arrived at the course. He gave me directions to the Cannondale tent, among the multitude of team tents pitched in the parking lot and all along the paved road leading to the uphill finish. Dozens of bikes and wheels leaned against SUVs and team vans. Cowbells clanged as racers spun by and I shouted at Jeremy Jo, who smiled at me in surprised recognition. And then I saw a Paralympic gold medal.

Shown to me by Chan’s wife, Jenny, as I met her and Lyne, it looks incredible. I’m still not sure I actually saw it, and that I was less than a foot away from it. It was a surreal start to the day and was a sign of good things to come. After unloading gifts, I watched Tim warm up, bumped into Jamey Driscoll looking super cute with longer hair, yelled at Andrea Smith as she sprinted past in the Elite Women’s race, and was once again lucky enough to shake hands with some great people giving good advice.

Because as the Elite Men’s field lined up, Jim [of Giro] told me to “get up to the front, don’t be shy.” It defined the next hour, as I ran after Chan and Pat, slipping, ducking, and jumping around the course to the best spots to get pictures of the race. We yelled and cheered on the men in green, and laughed at the heckling. Waves of cheering erupted as Tim rode past, in hot pursuit of Jpow as Dylan McNicholas of Team Cyclocross.com hung tight with Jesse Anthony. I clapped and cheered and ran. I had the time of my life.

Tim came in a solid 3rd with Ryan Trebon coming in 2nd after Jpow. After the awards ceremony, I ended up crawling through a space in the mostly enclosed Cannondale tent and climbing inside the team truck to say goodbye and secure promises of a reunion in Tokyo. It only sunk it later exactly how much fun I’d had. So much so that racing cross – even as the personification of an American muscle car [low to the ground, only good at going in a straight line] – began to seem like a very good idea. Because, you know, I can totally learn how to turn…at speed…in mud. Totally.

I’ll be heading back to Tokyo too soon with lazy legs and a scary obligation to practice turning. I’ll miss Richard Fries’ voice and the smell of mud and cyclocross. The pitch of cowbells and the uniquely American practice of heckling. But most of all, I’ll miss the friends who keep gently – but insistently – enabling [and encouraging] my entrance into a world of barriers, run-ups, and other super hard shit. Spectacular face-plants, here I come.
And, Tim, Chan, Jamey, Ryan and everyone else at Cannondale – I’ll see you in February, with high five hugs.
[Lots more pictures here.]

beer in bed pans and late night ramen

It’s 2 a.m. and I’m sitting next to Jamey, both of us waiting on our respective bowls of late night ramen. Tim is threatening to hose down the toilet seat in the only bathroom with urine before Chiharu and I use it [Jamey: “don’t worry, urine’s pretty sterile”], Chandler is taking quality shots of the guy next to me who is passed out in his bowl of ramen, and Ben is exclaiming something loudly in his Belgian accent. Oh yeah, and I’m in Shibuya – oh , sorry, Shi-BOOYAH – with a bunch of cyclocross pros.
…What the fuck…?

The day that started with Cyclocross Tokyo picked back up again in Shibuya with a visit to a mental hospital-themed bar: Alcatraz. A suggestion by Chiharu of Champion Systems, scantily clad “nurses,” showed us to our table before the lights went out, strobe lights came on, and ominous shrieks from surrounding tables followed. Impatient and close to cracking after a long day, I flipped through the menu in the dark with the aid of an iPhone light, only to glance up to see a masked man inches from my face. I screamed. Possibly louder than I did earlier in the day.

After the bar determined that both Chiharu and I had been sufficiently targeted and terrorized, we ordered bed pan pitchers of beer and drinks served in test tubes and Erlenmeyer flasks. Beer has never looked so unappetizing.

We left the bar and wandered around until Chiharu turned to me: “we should take purikura!” [Purikura is short for “Print Club,” a high tech version of a photo booth that will turn the photos taken into small stickers. The booths let you draw on the pictures, choose different background colors, and offer a range of filters from “glamorous” to “cute”.] It was probably the best idea of the night. We ducked into an arcade on the corner and crammed into the nearest open booth. Shenanigans ensued, including taking pictures that made our eyes look bigger.

More beers followed at an English pub with a few beers on tap, Chandler told us all about kegel cramps, and we finished off the night with the aforementioned ramen. I jumped into a cab, got home to an email that the guys had lost Don’s glasses and wallet, called around, found out that the items were recovered, and finally passed out.

Surreal night? Definitely. Crazy? Compared to a few nights later, not even close.
[Make sure to check out CycloWHAT? for more Tokyo trip madness.]

cross pros and boston bros

Some people recount memorable nights – the surreal ones, especially – with something along the lines of waking up on the floor of a littered hotel room with certain events conveniently blacked out. There is usually some sort of alcoholic debauchery involved, possibly ending in a raided mini-bar plus a pizza, and could include a half-dressed stranger passed out on the bed. I’ve had milder forms of those nights – which, despite making it to my bed, usually without strangers or, okay, sometimes pants – I’ve retold with more enthusiasm than I should and a completely unjustified sense of “holy shit can you believe this happened?!” Because while my life is very exciting, yes, yes you can believe I passed out on my bed, alone, without pants on.
Even so, friends getting engaged, holding down jobs that involve career prospects, or otherwise acting their age had me mostly convinced that I should maybe tone down the spinning and consider doing the same. But then Saturday happened. Saturday, which included a race, a hotel hallway cluttered with bikes, a room filled with bike gear, clothes, shoes, the signs of seasoned travellers, and a Swiss national champ offering me chocolate. In his underwear.

It started with a tweet and mutual friends; six-time U.S. National Cyclocross champion Tim Johnson was heading to Tokyo, and as a former-Massachusetts-transplant-current-Tokyo-resident, Michele S. directed him my way. A few tweets later, there were vague plans to meet on Tuesday or Wednesday.
But I woke up Saturday to a message about a race that day. “What race?” I thought to myself as I tried to regain consciousness [my next thought – “wait……’cross?” – a testament to the lack of caffeine in my system]. I googled, found Cyclocross Tokyo and jumped on a train headed to Odaiba: a man-made island complete with a beach, outlet malls, and [for the day] a ‘cross course.

The beach, a short walk from the Tokyo Teleport station, was packed. People shuffled across the course guided by race marshals, and bicycles [road, mountain, cross, and even track] were propped up everywhere. A line of tents stretched out from the park entrance to the start/finish line, just beyond a wooden boardwalk crowded with small clusters of racers and spectators. And nearest the park entrance, bordered by fans with pointing cameras, was the neon green Cannondale tent with three familiar faces [thanks to CycloWHAT?’s blog] inside.

Introductions were made [to Tim Johnson, Christian Heule, and Jamey Driscoll], hands shaken, a face placed on the man [Chandler] behind CycloWHAT? [my latest favorite bike blog], and some general small talk exchanged before I was booted out of the tent so photographers could shoot the visiting pros unobstructed. I walked around with the crowd, and caught the tail end of the women’s elite race. The field was tiny by American standards and uniquely Japanese, with the Japanese national cyclocross champ donning a helmet half-bedazzled with Swarovski crystals [and later promising to buy a Chanel bag with her prize money].

An excited buzz reminded me to find a spot to watch the start of the elite men’s race as half the crowd seemed to pull away from choice spots around the course to catch a glimpse of the pros. The area surrounding the start line was already four to five people deep by the time I hurried over, but I was able to wedge myself between two bikes about 100 yards down. We all seemed to hold our breaths, waiting, cameras pointed and ready.

Tim, Christian, Jamey, and [Belgian national cyclocross champ] Ben Berden sprinted to a good start, staying close together for the first half of the race. Their speed made the course look easy as they wound their way through trees, obstacles, sand, and stairs. Sure there was none of the shoe-sucking, peanut butter mud of New England, but the guys made the course look as smooth and as fast as a road race. One moment they were on pavement, the next navigating through the woods, then riding through sand. The ten laps seemed to fly by, with Japanese national champion Yu Takenouchi leading the way until the 5th or 6th lap, before popping and losing the lead to Ben Berden. Tim, Christian, and Jamey followed soon after as cowbells clanged loudly, mixing in with the shouting. I screamed encouragement before looking around to realize that most of the crowd had flocked to the next part of the course. Like a cloud of locusts with high-tech cameras, fans descended on the race leaders, strategically moving with the race favorites, shutters snapping.

The last lap was announced, and within minutes Ben flew to a first place finish, with Tim second, and Christian third. The guys were immediately swamped by photographers, media people, sponsors, and fans; Tim couldn’t walk to the podium and back without being roped into at least ten photos with fans. Embracing my Japanese roots, I paparazzi-ed with the rest of the excited crowd before meeting the guys back at the Cannondale tent. An offer to walk back a pit bike to their hotel turned into awkwardly pedaling Tim’s bike [!!!] in my boots [on mtb pedals] as the saddle kept poking me in the right buttcheek [Tim: “Kaiko, you look really comfortable.”]. I walked into the hotel hallway to see Christian in his underwear, ate too much of Tim’s Martha’s Vineyard Mix [missed that stuff so hard], topped it off with some Swiss chocolate and made plans to meet later that night.

For the more impatient, there are already some details of our night here. I crashed early, sober and stranger-less [with pants!], but happily reminded of why bikes – and the people that ride them – are so much fun, and how I should tell this concept of “growing up,” to go fuck itself.
And, oh yeah, to start saving up for that ‘cross bike, too.
[More pictures here.]