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derailleur at the maryland cycle classic
text and photos by Dan Foley
Right. So we’re in Hampden right now. I live a few blocks from here. Yeah, and if you go down that street that way you’ll run into Falls Road. So if you turn left it’s kind of the end of Falls. It splits and if you take the right it turns into the interstate and you can get to downtown that way. And if you go left it turns into this tiny kind of industrial road that runs along the creek. There’s a good bike shop down that way.
Early Saturday afternoon, somewhere along Falls Road, I sat at a table out front of a brewery. I dropped way too much money on a sandwich and a beer, and nursed them slowly under the midday sun. Over the past few years I have spent a lot of time here, as it is close to where I live in Baltimore. That day, however, the meal was a pretext to sit on the side of the road and wait. The second annual Maryland Cycling Classic, currently the only UCI Pro Race in the United States, was set to take place the next day.
Word was going around that the teams were out scouting the course. Neilson Powless posted a Strava ride the previous morning that passed right by where I was sitting. I received messages that Lidl-Trek was riding up by Lake Roland. They were among us, it seemed. With all this in mind, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the teams as they prepared. It wasn’t exactly a feeling of surprise, I knew for quite a long time that they’d be here. I was playing it cool, sitting with a beer and an enormous sandwich at a trendy brewery instead of posting up with a lawn chair at the park down the street, but I must confess to feeling quite excited simply knowing the whole machinery of a pro bike race was milling about the city.
In Baltimore, every so often you end up chatting with someone who excitedly tells you about the time they saw John Waters walking around Fells Point or Charles Village or some other part of town. We all know he’s around, that he spends a lot of his time here, but the novelty of a sighting never wanes. There sometimes seems to be a sense that it is a forgotten city, that certain things don’t happen in Baltimore. So when people are reminded that the famous director is such an integral part of the city’s culture, it always delights. I’ve never seen him myself, but I get it. I think I was feeling the same thing as I sat on the sidewalk waiting and hoping to see the riders that never showed up until the next day.
If you turn right on Falls, though, you’re going north and it kind of just goes and goes. At first you’re going through Baltimore City for a while and eventually you hit the County. I don’t know how far it goes, really, or how far it is still called Falls. It might even go all the way to the Pennsylvania border. I’ve never gone that far up it. I don’t really ride that far, and I only ride on Falls on my way home anyway. Like, I’ll get out of the city one way or another, use the first half of the ride to explore the roads in the County. And then always find my way back to Falls Road to bring me back home.
I arrived at the race volunteer staging area about an hour earlier than I had to on Sunday morning. It felt like the kind of thing that should be taking place at the crack of dawn. A white picnic canopy and five large white vans with people in red t-shirts standing around an exurban hotel parking lot. It was about 9:30 am. When the time came, the organizers gave us our own red t-shirts and some vague instructions and packed us into the vans, each of us to be dropped like bread crumbs along the race route in Baltimore County.
Our job as volunteers was that of course marshall. Each of us was assigned a location and charged with making sure spectators stayed out of the road as the race passed. This was simplified for most of us by the presence of police officers at each location. Those of us who, I am assuming, had the most trustworthy-sounding names (this was about the only information the organizers had about us) were given flags and placed at turns and forks in the road to direct the peloton to where they needed to go. My location was a straightaway with a small rise in the meters before. Enough to let me dream of an attack right in front of us, but nothing to warrant additional responsibility. I decided to make myself useful by explaining what was happening in the race to the family seated beside me, and by announcing the kilometers to go and the time gaps to the cops who did not seem to really care.
The breakaway passed, five riders doing their best to escape the gravity of the World Tour teams behind them. They were followed most notably by the team car of Team Medellin-EPM, which was rocketing across the gap at such a speed that I convinced myself Oscar Sevilla must have had a mechanical in the break seconds after passing me. After a few minutes, the peloton, which only a few kilometers before had been about twenty riders wide across the road and riding calmly, was being stretched out by Cofidis and EF Education-EasyPost. More splits seemed in order. Only one rider remained after the peloton passed. Stephen Vogel of Project Echelon Racing, after an incredible effort to bridge the gap solo, had blown and was nearly invisible in the middle of a mess of team cars, organizer vans, and police motos.
There’s some alright climbs along the way, too. You’ll see when we get there after the coffee. Like I said, I’m always coming home on Falls, so they’re my benchmark to track my fitness. I guess they won’t be much of a problem for those boys in the peloton though, huh? Riding down Falls Road, Jesus. Falls you know, cause of Jones Falls. It's not a waterfall like you’re thinking. That’s just what they call creeks around here. Jones, Gwynns, Gunpowder, et cetera. So the road follows the creek, which eventually dumps into the Chesapeake. So just coming straight down into the city on Falls they’ll miss the real burners. Turn off Falls anywhere and you gotta go up the valley walls. No EF boys are gonna beat me on those Strava climbs then!
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The van returned after the caravan had passed and whisked us up one by one, each of us right where we were left. We got onto 83 South and passed from the County into Baltimore City en route to our second marshaling posts. I was slightly bewildered when I learned that my post was on Falls Road only about two blocks north of the previous day’s lunch spot and only about a mile or so from where I live. In fact, it was just about the exact stretch of road I’d see in my head when I tried to picture the absurdity of pros racing through Baltimore. This part of Falls had been under ceaseless construction all summer, but by Sunday afternoon was finished and perfectly smooth for the racers.
This isn’t the type of neighborhood you often see on race broadcasts. The farmlands of Baltimore County played at deceiving you into thinking you were in rural France. The City course was unmistakably American. The peloton passed enormous supermarkets with enormous parking lots on roads that seemed to be measured precisely four car widths wide, neither highway nor boulevard. Most distinct of all were the sections of rowhomes they raced through, a defining feature of the mid-Atlantic cityscape.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the foreign riders were taking notice of these differences, as well. It became hard to believe that they were as soon as the leaders group came into view. It was a different race than I had last seen it, blown to bits by the favorites. It was a slight downhill drag and they were aggressively racing it, trying to whittle down the group further before entering the finishing circuit downtown in a few miles. Hugo Houle and Lucas Hamilton drove the front of the group, followed by Toms Skujins and Neilson Powless. Sitting with an almost ominous calm at the back of this group was Matthias Skjelmose. Chasing groups then passed at gaps of a few seconds, a few minutes. It became clear that a good portion of the riders had already DNF’d. For the second year in a row the race would end with a select group battling it out at the Inner Harbor.
Yeah, you probably have heard about it. Falls is one of the roads every cyclist in Baltimore is pretty familiar with. For better or for worse. Right. Probably every city has a road like that. Well here’s ours. Couple of nice coffee shops along the way. Stop in at one and grab a cup and then you know what's ahead of you for the rest of your ride. Few more bike shops up north from here, too, which makes you feel like you’re on a “cycling road” if there’s such a thing as that. But honestly other than all that it’s a bit shitty. Narrow roads, no shoulder half the time, potholes everywhere, full of traffic. All the time, man, packed. There’s enough room and the county and the city both put up all those “share the road” signs, but still. I guess they’ll shut it down in September though, huh? UCI event and all that, very official.
Something happened in the time it took us to get down to the finish line on Pratt Street. Skjelmose torched the rest of the lead group somewhere on the circuit. I have no idea where. We watched him finish two and a half minutes before anyone else. The race was over. The strongest man clearly won.
Almost immediately after the podium ceremony, it was clear that the packing up had already begun. The job of the organizers was done. The World Tour teams had flights to catch after their strange sojourn outside of Europe. The whole race passed through the city in a disorienting bluster, and Baltimore would be normal again by morning. I’m not sure I had learned what anyone wanted out of all of this. It felt as if something was happening far above my head. A man at the team presentation on Saturday said the race resulted in $10 million in economic activity in the area. I guess that sounded nice. At the podium ceremony, another man celebrated the event's success by saying he hopes this race becomes a “tradition.” That sounded nicer, but betrayed the fact that it wasn’t yet.
Sunday night, after driving down Falls Road to get home, I thought about all of this and why I had decided to volunteer for the race. On the one hand, as someone who lives and works and rides my bike in Baltimore, I felt on the side of the host of the event. On the other, as a fan of professional cycling and as a volunteer with the race that had just taken place, I felt on the side of the guest. Perhaps this double consciousness is what makes a race on one’s home roads so exciting. Bike races are by nature transient and decentralized. They float through a town or a region or a country like a slow-moving cloud, and as they pass above they are able to coax us into seeing wherever it is we happen to be watching from with a different perspective. When you happen to be watching a mile from your house, sharing with your neighbors something you love, your sense of belonging in your community is enriched.
I leave this year’s Maryland Cycling Classic less convinced that a race is an invasion of the pro peloton into whatever city they are in. There are certainly inconveniences a race brings, and corporate interests hoping to benefit from the event. These are realities that can’t be ignored, and they should be responded to with the participation of the communities in which the races take place. The same communities I saw on the streets all over the county and city today, directing the racers or simply gawking at them. With any luck at all, I am confident that this race will become the tradition it ought to be, both for American cycling and for the city of Baltimore.
You’re right, man. It's gonna be cool to see ‘em rip down Falls. It’s not like we’ve got the Kwaremont out here in Maryland or anything. Anyway, let’s kick off. I’ll show you everywhere they won’t be riding.