15 avril 2005

No place for personal space

Dennis Taylor

They're a tightknit bunch, those road racers. If you cuddle with your spouse this weekend as closely a pro cyclist will with his nearest rival at the Sea Otter Classic... well, you'll probably never need a marriage counselor.

Pro racers regularly exceed 35, 40, sometimes even 60 mph, in packs tighter than the coach section of a cut-rate airline. The margin for error at such a moment -- and every race is full of those moments -- is something they'd prefer not to consider.

"It definitely can be pretty dangerous," confirms Mike Sayers, a 13-year veteran now riding for Team Health Net. "Really, though, one of the things you tend to have at the pro level is confidence in the other riders in the group. You're operating with faith that everybody is going to be up to par with their bike-handling skills, based purely on the fact that we're all pros."

Considering there is physical contact in ever road race -- plenty of it -- that's a lot of faith.

Pro road racers regularly tailgate their cohorts at breakneck speeds -- drafting, it's called -- allowing a front-runner to split the wind and create a path of least resistance. The distance between tires often is an inch -- or less.

"If you're not bumping people, if you're not burning rubber, you're not getting close enough," says Ben Jacques-Maynes, a 26-year-old team racer for Kodak/Sierra Nevada.

Meanwhile, a rider could be literally rubbing shoulders, or bumping handlebars, with the racer next to him.

"You're close enough to shake hands," says Sayers, who lives in Phoenix.

Such jostling is an accepted part of the game. In fact, when things get really hairy, a pro rider might actually use the guy next door to steady himself.

"Most of the contact really comes from somebody in front of you coming over your front wheel, forcing you to move over to avoid a crash," says Jackson Stewart, 24, of Kodak Gallery/Sierra Nevada. "Then, you bump shoulders with the guy next to you, and literally use him to push off and get your balance again.

"That sounds dangerous, but, in reality, you're probably avoiding a crash that might take out everybody behind you," he says.

Stuff happens, even when the best riders in America are on the road. Stewart narrowly averted disaster when a rider attempted to overtake him at a criterium earlier this year and their bikes literally locked handlebars.

"There's not a lot you can do when you get hooked -- something pretty bad probably is going to happen," he says. "In that instance, I ended up holding up somehow; he went down and went to the hospital."

Sayers admits he lost concentration for a moment on a windy day at Santa Ana this year, bumped into the back of a teammate, and crashed at 40 mph.

"It was a mental mistake on my part -- very embarrassing for a guy with my level of experience -- and it could have cost us the entire event," he says. "I had a little bit of humble pie to eat that day."

In 2001, at the Tour of Flanders, the biggest race in Northern Europe, he smashed into the tailgate of a motorpacing car at 60 mph.

"Incredibly, I didn't have a broken bone in my body, but I needed three pain shots just to keep me strapped to the backboard when the hauled me away," he recalls.

Maynes, a Mountain View resident, crashed four years ago at the Sea Otter Classic when another rider bumped into him in the rain. He suffered a four-inch tear on the inside of his mouth -- nearly ripping his lip in half -- which resulted in a 12-hour ordeal at the emergency room.

Stewart's teammate, Scott Zwizanski, hit a pothole and slipped out of his pedal during a race last June. He crashed headfirst into a concrete pillar supporting a railroad bridge, caving in his helmet and shattering a cheekbone and the orbital bone of one eye.

"We were at the hospital all night. He was on a resuscitator, he was coughing blood, and he was out cold for about a day and a half," recalls Stewart, who lives in Los Gatos. "For the next three days, he kept calling two or three times a day, all groggy, saying, 'They should be letting me out today. I don't know why I'm still here.' And we were all thinking, 'Dude, do you know what happened ?'"

Potholes and debris on the road are a common problem for road racers in America. In Europe, where the races literally cut through villages, there are other obstacles.

"We call it road furniture," Sayers says. "There's a lot more infrastructure in the road over there -- road dividers, for example -- and that stuff can be extremely dangerous."

At races like the Sea Otter, the temperature rises significantly during the final three laps of a criterium, when riders try to position themselves for the sprint to the finish line that will decide the race.

"The last five to eight minutes are insanely aggressive," says Stewart, who admits that he takes the perils of racing more seriously with each passing year.

"I'm just 24, and I've only been riding professionally for three years. But the older I get, the more I realize that certain situations probably aren't worth what I'm getting out of it," he says. "Seems like I'm hearing more and more riders out there saying, 'This is too dangerous -- there are just too many guys.'"

Sayers, the veteran, continues to take it all in stride.

"It's going to happen to every pro rider at least once: We're going to find ourselves in a position that could be career-threatening, or maybe life-threatening," he says. "Yeah, this is dangerous -- but it's all part of the job, part of who we are. We accept that."

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