“Racing is like a 100-meter dash, a chess match, and a stampede at the same time,” says saxophonist Brian Sacawa, curator of the Mobtown Modern contemporary music series. Since 2006, he’s also raced as a competitive amateur cyclist, most recently for Integrated Sports Medicine, presented by Pyramid Training Systems.
As an example of that chess-sprint-stampede, Sacawa talks about breakaways, those spurts of a handful of road racers who try to put distance, and time, between themselves and the main pack. “The thing people don’t realize if you watch it on TV, if there’s a breakaway, those guys laid it out there to get in the breakaway,” he says. “You need to go as hard as possible and then go a little bit harder. You need to not have anyone want to follow you, because they think you’re insane.”
And once you’re in that break, you’re constantly thinking. Is this break going to stick and is it worth contributing to its pace? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. Either way, you’re sizing up the other riders in the group. “I had an incident last July in a race in Richmond in Bryan Park,” Sacawa says. “It was a three-night series. We had a break of, like, eight [riders], and I had a teammate in the break. And with five [laps] to go I saw the strongest guy reach down for his bottle, and then I attacked. And I was away and my teammate got to sit around until they chased me down and then he got third in the sprint.”
Rebecca Chan is one of those sprinters. “I like going really fast and crushing souls,” she says laughing, though she’s being quite sincere. The 24-year-old moved to Baltimore from Philadelphia in December to become the project manager for the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, where she currently coordinates the Open Walls Baltimore street-art project. The former high school 200- and 400-meter runner started riding while studying archeology at the University of Illinois, and when she moved to Philadelphia to earn her master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, she got hooked into the mid-Atlantic cycling network. She now rides for the Capital Area Women’s Elite Squad, which is sponsored by Twenty20 Cycling in Hampden.
And as a sprinter, her role is to sit with the group and wait—and wait, and wait, and wait. “I’m a sprinter, so I’m kind of a closet asshole,” she says. “But you need to have that. You need to be willing to go out, knuckle to knuckle, 35 miles per hour in a finishing sprint and wedging people out—you have to have that attitude. I’m going to get there first. Me, me, me, me, me. I try to dial it down in the working world.”
Cyclists just aren’t like other people who participate in amateur sports. Yes, like any endurance athletes, they’re able to make their bodies do things that involve a great deal of pain. Training to run or bike long distances requires a year-round, regular schedule and consistent nutritional observation. This year’s Tour de France course covers roughly 2,161 miles, which the riders complete in about three weeks. Forget winning—merely finishing sounds herculean. And you don’t get in that kind of shape overnight.
But cycling is also very much a thinking-person’s team sport, where riders have designated roles. Some can climb with the best. Others, like Chan, are sprinters who wait for their moments. And then there are domestiques, those gutsy character actors of the peloton. They’re the riders who chase down breaks so that the team leader doesn’t have to burn the energy. They’re the riders who shuttle water bottles up and down the peloton to team members. If a team member is among a race’s leaders and gets a flat, the domestique hangs back and then lets the teammate get on his rear wheel and rushes him up to the front of the pack. It’s a sport that requires the discipline to train and maintain nutrition alone but also the smarts to know how to work in crowded fields. And it doesn’t appeal to everybody.
The Colorado-based U.S. Cycling Federation oversees amateur racing in this country, from mountain biking to cyclo-cross, road racing to criteriums (closed-track races). Its membership currently exceeds 31,000 riders nationwide. That’s still a relatively small number. The Amateur Softball Association’s web site reports about 245,000 softball teams registered nationwide, representing about 3.5 million people.
Chan and Sacawa are only two examples of Baltimore’s local cyclist pool, athletes who found something about the sport that appeals to them both physically and psychologically. Race seasons typically run from spring into fall, April through September. They could race every weekend but typically don’t, picking and choosing races that play to their strengths or when needed for the team. Training involves scheduling two- to five-hour rides in and around work and daily life schedules. When Sacawa tours on his steady gig with the United States Army Field Band, his bike goes with him—and he formed a food group with other players to maintain what he puts into his body.
The sport requires the sort of self-discipline that attracts a certain type of mind-set. “I always joke that I thought I was a type-A personality until I met some of the women” on her team, Chan says. “There’s 10 of us and no one is a deadbeat—all very smart and with very high-powered careers. I’m one of the younger women on the team, and it’s amazing to see all these amazing women who also kick ass on their bicycle. So, yes, you can do both.”
And with that mind-set sometimes comes an appreciation for the sanctuary being on the bike affords. “You also have to be the kind of person who is OK being alone,” says Sacawa, who discloses that he used to listen to music while training, but not anymore. “I like the quietness. I like hearing the tires on the road. I like letting my mind be free of anything for those few hours that I’m on my bike. As I get older there’s more things grabbing for my attention, so the fact that I can get on my bike and go for a three- or four-hour ride and just think of nothing—that’s really great. I don’t really think of it as therapeutic, but I guess you could see it that way.”
And it’s an appreciation that continues even after an auspicious start. “I DFL’ed my first race,” Chan says. “Dead effing last. Had no idea what I was doing, but it was fun. But that’s something that keeps people in the cycling community, is that it is such a strong community. Yeah, you’re probably going to get shelled your first couple of races. Don’t panic. It’s OK. We’ve all been there. But I just like riding. A bicycle is one of the best ways to experience a place. It’s faster than walking and it’s still slow enough that you can take it all in.”