The Roadie is that species of bicycle racer that goes the fastest. In a peloton (large pack) of pros and advanced amateurs, these people regularly exceed 35 mph. (Sound easy? Try it.) This is one of a very few human-powered sports (the others include speed skating and cross-country skiing) in which competitors move so rapidly that air resistance factors greatly in the outcome.
Now, you may already know that American cyclist/cancer-survivor Lance Armstrong has transcended to athletic godhood by clinching five Tours de France, which only four other men have done. A big deal. But did you know that Armstrong's indispensable teammate in 1999 and 2000, Kevin Livingston, hails from St. Louis? Did you know that a century ago, road races drew bigger crowds than baseball; and that right now, the city is experiencing a resurgence of cycling interest, the pinnacle of which will be the THF Realty Gateway Cup this Labor Day weekend?
"In the last five years, we've gone from having three or four racing clubs to eight or nine," affirms Mike Weiss, president of the Missouri Bicycle Racing Association (MOBRA) and owner of Big Shark Bicycles in University City, where road-bike sales have eclipsed mountain-bike sales. Weiss also reports that this year, more new riders than ever are trying out their competitive legs at the Tuesday-night training races in Carondolet Park -- more proof of the roadie renaissance.
What renders this "naissance" "re" is that St. Louis used to be a rabid cycling town. In the 1890s, this city boasted no less than five cycling newspapers and more than 30 cycling clubs. Try to imagine the epic Forest Park Road Race of 1897, wherein nearly a hundred riders competed before some 75,000 spectators, at a time when the St. Louis Browns' Sportsman's Park held only 10,000.
This year's Gateway Cup consists of four stages, one per day, in Lafayette Square (August 29), Kirkwood Park (August 30), the Hill (August 31) and U. City (September 1). They're all criteriums (a.k.a "crits," rhymes with "splits"), meaning that the peloton loops around the course for a to-be-determined number of minutes until a bell announces the five-laps-to-go dash. To spice things up before this climax, bells will intermittently ring for "primes" (rhymes with "schemes"), meaning that the first racer across the line for that lap wins a special prize. And with $20,000 in prizes up for grabs, expect copious suffering.
For, as the very best in the sport often claim, road racing is predicated on suffering. Not just "pain" or "sacrifice," but Suffering with a capital "S," from physical exertion and the occasional crash. In his letter to race participants, grand-poobah Cup organizer Tim Ranek writes, "I hope to have even more St. Louisans come out and watch you all hurt yourself. That is the fun of cycling." Consider starting the Labor Day weekend on Friday night at a Lafayette Square beer garden, watching gaunt athletes suffer at 40 mph in surreal backlighting, amidst thousands of other fans.