Grant's Tomb Criterium: How the Race Happened
With the 2018 edition of the CRCA Grant's Tomb Criterium in the books there are many tales of victory, defeat and crashes to be told. However rather than focus on our experience on the bike, this initial race recap is instead focused on a less told story amidst the inevitable post race review of results and hunt for photos from the plethora of photogs on site: the story of just how the New York City cycling community manages to spend the second Saturday in March racing bikes around the tomb of Ulysses S Grant. Though he may be too modest to acknowledge it, as the volunteer CRCA Director of Open Racing To Be Determined's own Ted Teyber is at the center of that story. Without his effort the Grant's Tomb Criterium simply would not have happened.
The Early Planning
The groundwork for the Grant's Tomb Criterium starts months in advance as multiple stakeholders must come to the table to permit/approve the event. New York City, NYPD, NYC Parks, Riverside Church and the National Park Service all ultimately have a say in whether the race is allowed to continue. In certain years this has meant significant compromises like running a short-course for part of the schedule to allow vehicular access to the Riverside Church parking garage. Thankfully this year's stakeholder negotiations were smooth sailing after several years of significant effort building community relations, in particular with the NYPD precinct that plays a vital role overseeing the event.
In fact the only early planning complication was instigated by Grant's Tomb stepping in to serve as the NYSBRA State Criterium Championship after no other races applied for the honor. With a fixed number of hours of street closures the CRCA Board had to dive into the race schedule to ensure we could host all of the prerequisite championship fields. Ultimately the only way to do so was to start races 35 minutes earlier than normal: meaning a longer day for volunteers and race staff and less time to address any last minute issues on race morning. With street closures beginning at 7:00AM and races starting at 7:25AM dozens of barricades would have to go up in just 15 minutes to ensure the schedule ran on time. That's no small ask given the challenges associated with turning a windy stretch of New York City into a criterium course.
After the permits were in place and a race schedule finalized preparations shifted to involve the majority of the CRCA Board. We started with mapping out a race budget, building on years of race registration data collected by long-time CRCA Treasurer Ken Edwards. At the same time the registration page was set up (a process complicated by the State Championship element), sponsorship dollars were chased down by CRCA's Director of Public Relations Jeff Young, marshaling roles were staffed by Director of Marshaling Tony Pletcher, team duties were assigned by the Director of Teams Lucia Deng, criterium clinics were scheduled by VP of Rider Development Tara Parsons, any other number of seemingly mundane but important boxes were checked including generating all of the usual pre-race #hype content on the new CRCA.net. There may only be nine hours and five minutes of actual racing at the Grant's Tomb Criterium but many multiples of that went into the early planning for the event.
No Sleep in the Final Week
In the final days leading into Grant's Tomb the workload transitions to the broader CRCA community. To this day the Club's race calendar - some twenty or so races - only exists because CRCA members serve marshaling and team duty obligations behind the scenes. These obligations take on many forms for the Grant's Tomb Criterium. One team is responsible for printing the hundreds of waivers and stapling the equal number of race numbers in a dozen or more binders while another answers the plethora of last minute inquires that come in via Bikereg (I missed registration! I want a refund! How do I change my team name?). Other teams go out mid-week (just as a Nor'easter was hitting) to put up no parking fliers across the course. And in perhaps the most exhausting role available one team stays up overnight on Friday on the course instructing NYPD tow trucks on what vehicles to clear from the course so that hopefully, come dawn we have clear streets to race on (unfortunately that is rarely the case).
Meanwhile in addition to coordinating with all of the various race staff (USAC officials, results service, assistant race directors, etc) as the CRCA Director of Open Racing Ted was also busy sorting out the details of a new addition to this year's race: a heated tent meant to improve the race experience for racers and spectators alike. Unfortunately somewhere along the way wires got crossed with the event permit and not only were the heaters nixed by NYC Parks on Friday night (after they were delivered) but after being stuck at the venue for multiple hours that same evening Ted received a summons over the mere presence of the tent at the venue. Not exactly the ideal conclusion to an always stressful final week of preparations.
Early Morning Scares
Take all of the workload and stress involved with race preparations to date, bundle it up into a two hour stretch after a week with too little sleep and you have the morning of the Grant's Tomb Criterium. This year I set a 5AM alarm in order to arrive on site well before the sun was actually up. After a quick cup of coffee I arrived to meet Ted on a course that was a long way from being ready to host the state championship.
Not only were there a frightening number of cars still on the course but thanks to the Nor'easter suspending parking regulations during the week every time a car was moved icy pavement was left in its wake. Nowhere was this worst than on the hill up 122nd street where both lanes had huge sheets of ice. As our first shift of CRCA Marshals arrived cold and bleary eyed a hearty few started attacking the ice with shovels and hammers in a desperate attempt to clear the course before the first field was scheduled to go off. Elsewhere registration had to be setup and staffed (by another CRCA sub-team fulfilling their team duties) while we started shifting dozens of barricades around the course to prepare for street closures. And in case you are wondering, moving metal barricades in freezing temperatures is rarely fun. All the while a half dozen other forms of prep work were underway at the same time we did our best to urge NYPD to continue clearing the most important stretches of the course. Unfortunately it quickly became apparent that we were going to have no choice but to barricade cars in on several stretches of the course. There simply wasn't time to move them but this decision would come back to bite us later in the day.
The moment the clock hit 7AM we rolled the barriers out into each corner of the course. By that point registration was open and running smoothly but the hill at 122nd street remained a mess so we pushed the barriers in to narrow the course until temperatures climbed enough to melt the remnants that our now exhausted marshals couldn't clear by hand (we even tried a portable heater at one point to no avail). With the clock ticking toward 7:25AM stress levels continued to climb - our crit schedules are constructed to maximize the number of fields we can run to insure nearly every category of racer can compete against their direct peers. For Grant's Tomb this meant scheduling 13 fields but with just five minute gaps between fields there is zero opportunity to make up time if we start late. So we spent those final moments sprinting (quite literally) from problem area to problem area. Somehow when the clock struck 7:25AM our first juniors field was on the start line. There was a slight delay as the last few tow trucks left the course (unfortunately they left before clearing the last two vehicles we urged them to move) but racing started essentially on time and would remain on schedule for the next ten hours.
Non-Stop Throughout the Race
Of course just because the racing started on time didn't mean stress levels dropped. The (no-longer heater equipped) tent remained an issue throughout the day as various NYC Parks representatives arrived to discuss the topic with Ted. Within the first few hours of the race we were forced to remove all of the walls and move registration off the grass to a nearby patch of concrete, essentially rending one of the new additions to the race (and an expensive one at that) essentially wasted. Shortly thereafter the fact that we were forced to barricade cars onto the course even after all of the no-parking signs and towing resurfaced as driver after driver arrived looking to access their vehicle. Each time a CRCA Board Member or race staff member would have to escort the driver to their car to insure that they were able to exit the course safely. We managed to get those drivers off the course but in doing so some of our staff who would normally handle prizes and podium presentations were instead running from point to point on the course helping drivers, leaving us scrambling to complete those presentations.
As a result for those of us working behind the scenes it wasn't smooth sailing but overall every race started on time and the few crashes that occurred were thankfully on the minor side of what can happen while racing bikes at twenty plus miles per hour in the second race of the season. In fact the majority of the CRCA Board Members on site on Saturday, including a sleep deprived Ted, somehow managed to get in some racing during the day. For Ted and I the race results were not what we were hoping for but it's indescribably difficult to pedal your bike hard after so many hours dragging barricades and performing the various other duties that come hand in hand with 'race promoter legs.' By the time the Elite Men went off - a field I was planning to race but didn't bother taking the start line for - my mind and body were equal parts cracked and I headed for home. Unfortunately for Ted he still had a few hours left at the venue overseeing the final race of the day and before managing the event breakdown with the final shift of marshals.
another Grant's Tomb Criterium in the Books
The 2018 edition of the Grant's Tomb Criterium will certainly go down in the history books. It was an edition that featured record attendance despite a midweek snowstorm, it was the first time that Grant's Tomb served as the State Championship, and it was almost certainly the first time a CRCA Race Director has received a summons in the pursuit of hosting a bicycle race. From the CRCA Board members involved in early planning to the marshals hammering sheets of ice at 6AM to the team that spent the Friday night at the venue, it quite literally took a village to make it happen. And at the center of all of that was the CRCA Director of Open Racing: Ted Teyber. Having served in that same volunteer role many years ago I know how thankless of a task it can be. But as Grant's Tomb fades into the rear view and we start to look forward to the CRCA Orchard Beach Criterium and the CRCA Bear Mountain Classic (the state road race championship) we should all be immensely thankful for the work Ted did to ensure we could spend the day riding very fast in circles around Grant's Tomb. Kudos to Ted and everyone else involved in Saturday's event.