Why Cycling Deserves the Tour de Millersburg
This journal entry started as a prototypical race report. But when reflecting on the weekend in Millersburg, PA, it became apparent that this race deserved more than a 'standard' race report. That traditional approach might praise my 15th in the time trial ("TT"), bemoan 25th in the criterium, and celebrate 10th in the road race to place 11th in the GC overall.
However, the race weekend proved to be much more than just a bike race. It was a community event with excitement and warmth that is hard to find in the cycling these days. We touched on it in our prior journal entry on the race but it's that excitement that makes the Millersburg so special. And amidst a shrinking race calendar it's that warmth the underscores why cycling deserves the Tour De Millersburg and grassroots events like it.
Into Pennsylvania We go
A mere three and a half hours from New York City, Millersburg is tucked away in central Pennsylvania. Nestled between the Susquehanna river and ridge-lines carved by ancient glaciers, Millersburg isn't exactly a tourist destination. But for the past 11 years, hundreds of cyclists have descended on the small town for the annual Tour de Millersburg. I had heard about the race from teammates and other local racers who described "one of the hardest crits in the region" and "the most exciting road race finish all year." With an injury sidelining me for the team's trip to the Giro de Cielo, it seemed like Millersburg would be a suitable replacement.
I almost feel guilty for underestimating the race, but more so, the Town of Millersburg in its entirety. As my first race back after following some of my own prescriptions for rehab and recovery, the TT presented the perfect opportunity to open up the legs and test my fitness. Nervous energy dictated my warm-up pacing, as I struggled to find rhythm in the hour before my start time. When I arrived in the queue behind the TT start-house, a race official struck up a conversation and asked if this was my first-time racing at Millersburg. Admittedly, I can be quite type-A in these situations, not keen to engage and distract myself from the looming pain cave. But, the enthusiasm and sheer excitement he displayed to each and every rider put me at ease. This was a race that cared.
And Into the Pain Cave for the TT
I handed my bike off to a volunteer and climbed the stairs to the start ramp. "Would you like me to hold your bike?" a friendly volunteer asked as I swung a leg over the top tube. "Why, yes, that'd be great!", is what I should have responded, but I could only manage to nod. I clipped in and stared at the clock, 10 seconds to go. The official called out the final count down and I hurled my bike down the ramp. Sprinting until what felt like a decent speed, I settled into my TT position and pushed through the edge of Town.
Upon my return after the TT, I was welcomed by volunteers who offered up refreshing beverages and congratulations just for finishing. As team TBD regrouped, we descended on the only proximate coffee shop, now inundated with hungry cyclists. Despite the overwhelming number of skinny dudes in varying amounts of spandex, the café churned out order after order. It was exactly what I needed to revive myself from the pit left by an all-out TT effort.
Our accommodations for the weekend, just 5 minutes from the race village, consisted of a local church that opened its doors to racers free of charge. If you've ever gone to a stage race, you can understand that cyclists are not always the cleanest, or the most organized, and certainly not always pleasant on the nose. Our group was no exception as we settled into a break between the morning TT and afternoon criterium, lounging around beside sweaty skinsuits left out to dry, thankful that the Millersburg community welcomed us so warmly.
One of the Toughest Crits on the East Coast
After a bit of R&R it was onto the criterium. As I watched the elite race whittled down to a select bunch, it became clear that this really was one of the hardest crits in the area. The protagonist of the race was a sharp hill between corners 3 and 4. It was steep, and it was just long enough to sting.
Staging went woefully wrong for me as I found myself at the back half of the group, further reduced to the back of the bunch when the rider in front failed to clip in on the first go. I found myself at the back of the bunch in one fell swoop, with an entire field to carve through in just 40 minutes.
I didn't carve through the entire field. Each lap, I passed riders going backwards, crosseyed and "turning squares." The pace was unrelenting, and the corners never got easier as dive-bombing riders kept at their dangerous game. But there I was in my first race back, terrified yet full of joy and excitement. Into turn one I'd ease off the pedals, leave a small gap and fly through the turn at full tilt. One, two, three pedal strokes and lean hard into turn two. Defend the wheel down to turn three, check for divebombers, shift, lean in, sprint. Each time up the hill, more riders came unhitched from the group, do I go right or left? A pedal strikes the pavement a few wheels up as we lean into turn 4, the group scatters and regroups like a flock of migratory birds. I'm still in this. 5 laps to go. No more free laps. Nothing stupid now.
I just want to finish with the group. I dig deep and fight to defend my position on the back of the group. I'm not going to contest the finale, but I'm damn well going to be in the bunch. 2 to go, a crash just in front of me in turn one, I lean harder and come through the turn unscathed. Too close for comfort, no time to worry what could have been. Close the gap, hold the wheel.
26th. An unremarkable number out of the 70 starters, but it felt good. "Lemonade or water?" said a young girl from beside her wagon filled to the brim with ice and bottles. Lemonade.
to the pool for swim lessons
Day 1 was done. Or at least the racing element. Had it only been just a day? With tired bodies we decided to partake in one of the Tour de Millersburg's finest amenities: the local pool.
That's right - racers receive free admission to the pool conveniently located just a few blocks from the crit course. There we engaged in a great deal of R&R, along with a few swim lessons for some of our less talented swimmers, before finally retiring to downtown Millersburg for a hearty meal and a few cold beverages.
Closing out the weekend with the road race
Sunday's road race suited my strengths and offered a chance to crack the top 10 on GC, an unexpected possibility as I sat 14th at the conclusion of Day 1. An 8am start had us huddled in the kitchen at 6am, staring at the coffee pot imploring it to yield its elixir. Business as usual as we prepared for the final stage.
To my surprise, the TBD squad was relaxed as we arrived at the start area, the distinct lack of nervous energy set me at ease. The entire downtown area had been shut down for the race, and volunteers were almost as numerous as the racers. Course marshals stood ready at the corners and coolers marked "free for racers" lined the start-finish area. Millersburg was ready, but was I?
At the start the officials announced that the race would have a rolling enclosure and we'd mostly have the entire road to play with. Closed roads? At an amateur race? This was going to be fun. As the whistle blew, I clipped in and set off into the unknown.
The bunch was charging. Elbows out, hands on the drops, I held steadfast on the wheel in front of me. The right is swarming up the gutter, I'm losing position, someone needs to plug that up. Now the left side is surging up to the front. I need to move. 5 miles to go, I need to be in the top 20 wheels. King Kog appears beside me, thank god. I trust those guys. We hit the final descent into town, speeds creep up to 40mph as we eye the penultimate turn. Mark Steffen of King Kog calls out that he's next to me, urging me to take my own line with confidence. I fly through the turn and sprint up to speed, making up a few wheels. I'm too far back, but in the mix. The final corner comes quick, someone divebombs it, we're through. It’s all out now, I'm making up places, throw the bike at the line. Top 10?
It's over now. But I don't feel soreness or exhaustion, just contentment. A post-race bliss takes over as the team regroups. We recap the weekend, all smiles, even the hard parts seem fun now. A wagon rolls up. Lemonade, please. The young volunteer joyfully hands out our drinks and congratulates us on finishing. The results don't matter, we came here to have fun, remember?
An Ode to Millersburg and the Tour de Millersburg
Maybe this isn't about cycling deserving this race, but rather Millersburg deserving success and our support. It deserves the best we, as a cycling community, can offer. Our registration dollars were clearly at work: there was a start ramp at the TT, a rolling enclosure in the road race, and endless support at every venue. This race is special. While it doesn't have the stature of Green Mountain Stage Race or the resources of Intelligentsia Cup, it has character in spades.
As the lactic acid set in on my drive back to NYC, I thought about the goals still left in my season. But then I realized, you don't always have to be a type-A bike racer to race bikes. If Millersburg taught me anything, it’s that bike racing doesn't have to be defined by results, or even by racing itself. This weekend was about the riders beside me, my friends and teammates sleeping in a Sunday School classroom, and the community who welcomed us for a weekend of unforgettable racing.