Confessions of a Downtube Shifter

March 21st, 2009. The day seemed innocuous enough, with the sun rising in the east, clear skies, and temperatures that were slowly making their way from downright cold to fairly tolerable. There I was, perched atop my steel-framed steed on the line of the Philly Phlyer D1 Circuit Race with 50 other D1 racers from the ECCC, wondering to myself, "What the hell am I doing here?"

I had plenty of reason for that thought. At that moment, I had never participated in a road race, much less a large group road ride. I was a mountain biker. Road riding? What a foreign concept. My bike, a 1990 Schwinn Traveler, was a rescued relic from the garage that I had dragged back to State College with me that semester in hopes of giving it a new lease on life. The lugged steel frame was an antique in comparison to the modern carbon and hydroformed aluminum frames on the bikes of other racers in the ECCC, but it was a complete road bike. Aside from a tuneup, new tires, and bartape, it was 97% the bike it was when it rolled out of the showroom in 1990, downtube shifters and all.

So, there I was on the line at the Philly Phlyer. On a bike nearly as old as I was, and I had not gotten much of a chance to warm up. Oh boy.

Less than a mile later, I was taken out of contention. A strong headwind coming off of the Schuylkill caused the pack to bunch up at the front, and with the combination of tight quarters and a low level of average experience, it didn't take much for good ol' Murphy to rear his head and wreak havoc. In this case, a rider from Columbia discovered that his training wheels had fallen off between the starting line and now, which caused him to subsequently lose his balance and careen into fellow Penn State rider, Steven Derkits. Gravity took the wheel from there, throwing bikes, bodies, bottles, and egos into a tumultuous heap that lay directly in my path.

Given that I had rather unintelligently positioned myself smack in the middle of the pack with riders on all sides, I was left with no choice but to clamp down hard on the binders and try to navigate around the mess ahead of me. The laws of physics were not on my side that morning; I locked up both wheels on the damp tarmac and slid uncontrollably into the mess of bodies and bikes.

As I picked both myself and my bike up, I found that I was in fine physical shape, but the bike was missing a several spokes from the front wheel, the bottle cage was tweaked, and the rear derailleur hanger had been bent out of alignment. I thought I was finished. However, after further inspection, I discovered that my tires still had air in them, and my wheels still spun, so I found my bottle, slapped it back in the cage, and jumped back on the saddle to finish the race I had begun. I managed to finish the race without getting lapped, not too bad.

While I came away from the circuit race with a few missing spokes and a bruised ego, I had gotten a good enough taste of road racing that fueled the desire to come back for more. After all, this was only the first day...

Sunday was the day of the criterium. The air was thick with an impervious foggy mist that managed to penetrate every last dry fiber of clothing on your body. It laid on the road only to be drawn back up through the contact patch of every 700x23 tire and flung into the eyes and mouths of many racers, including myself. Pedaller Bike Shop in Lansdale had managed to replace the missing spokes from my front wheel and true things back into shape. I had a bike again! My father had crammed a canopy into the back seat of his thousand dollar jalopy and brought it down for the team to huddle under between races. It was there, in the middle of the mist that race stories from the previous day were shared and nutella was eaten while the trainers hummed happily away.

Again, there I was, poised and as ready as I could be with 20 minutes of high-intensity suffering ahead.

And with the blow of a whistle from Joe Kopena, we were off. Immediately, there was road spray everywhere, covering my glasses to the point that I could barely see anything ahead of me. I slid my glasses down on my nose a hair to create a slit between them and my helmet so that I could still see, but keep most of the spray out of my eyes. 20 minutes, right? Alright.

Before long, the pack split into two groups. Riders from Penn State were scattered throughout the field. I made an attempt at bridging the gap with one or two other riders, but we were largely unsuccessful in doing so. It was probably for the best that we gave up, as a couple riders lost traction and slid out in the very next corner, causing a small pileup. At this point, I decided that I would play things a little safer and just try to finish the race with all my spokes intact, especially considering the miserable and treacherous conditions. Besides, I found that I was pretty blown up from my bridging attempt; it wasn't worth expending what little energy I had left at only the halfway point in the race. So, I decided to sit on a wheel or two until I got a little energy back in my expended legs.

While I never really did gain any of my strength back, I managed to hang on through the end of the race. I never gave up. When I rolled over the finish in a breathless sprint, I was soaked to the bone and my legs were killing me, but I also finished upright with my skin and spokes intact. I consider that a victory in it's own right.

I don't intend to frighten potential racers anticipating their very own entry into the madness that is the ECCC road circuit. Crashes happen and bikes break; Murphy happens. I'm not about to sugarcoat it for you and tell you it's all trophies and smiles. I'd rather tell the truth. However, these weekends are much, much more than just the sum of racing, suffering, and potentially miserable weather.

More than likely, you will walk away from an ECCC race weekend with a huge grin plastered on your face. You don't need to buy a fancy bike with all the gizmos and gadgets, either. Go ahead and dig out that old 80s road frame and give it a tuneup and new tires. It's all about throwing your inhibitions to the wind for a weekend and cramming yourself into a car with 4 bikes on the roof and people you may not know, jamming out to Russian techno, getting your bike fixed by Vanya, and crushing souls with Biopace and downtube shifters. You learn to bring your own supply of toilet paper, or make very good friends with someone who has a stash. You find out who exactly Coach Young is. You discover the merits of Black Mo', locate the pain cave, and learn about the mystical powers of Moshannon spring water. You get to watch Steve Derkits fall off of Rollers while wearing Kanye shades, hang out with a very dynamic Frenchman, and cheer on your fellow teammates in blue and white.

You have the chance to race for the best damn team in the ECCC this year. There's no thinking twice. Do it!

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