Grant's Tomb Criterium 2019: The Behind the Scenes Perspective
Race directing a race like Grant’s Tomb Criterium is both satisfying and exhausting. But it’s also addictive. Every year, in the days before the race, I say “never again”. But [on] race day I learn something new, so it’s not hard to tell myself “just one more year, then it will be perfect”
-Liz Marcello, Grant’s Tomb Criterium Race Director (via Twitter)
Somewhere in Sunday’s post-race exhaustion I stumbled upon Liz’s tweet about her experience with the Grant’s Tomb Criterium. Maybe it was the soreness or the lack of sleep in recent days, but the tweet really hit home. Sure, both personally and as a team we have always put a heavy emphasis on community building and trying to give back at least part of what we get out of cycling. And we certainly spend a lot of time thinking about this crazy niche sport that we all love, as expressed via any number of essays and analysis that we have published on the Journal. But it is also hard to succinctly and appropriately articulate the personal tolls and stress that can come with taking responsibility for events like this past weekend’s Grant’s Tomb Criterium - which is why Liz’s tweet hit home.
The lead into this year’s Grant’s Tomb Criterium was particularly tough. The challenges were both broad - the event itself faced additional hurdles that seem to increase with each passing year, and personal - as doubt whether the stress and workload as a volunteer was truly ‘worth it’ compounded. Even with a revamped team led by Liz, who did an incredible job, and support from a wide swath of individuals, preparing for the race was an intense and exhausting process. And about two weeks before the race, for the first time in my long history of behind the scenes involvement, I was ready to give up. In fact, I wound up drafting a late night Journal entry about how I couldn’t justify the workload any longer.
At the time I was particularly disheartened by the fact that we seemingly weren’t making progress on either the sport’s gender disparity (at that point in time women represented just 9% of registrants) or the abbreviated lifecycle of a bike racer (at that point in time less than 30% of 2018 racers had registered for the 2019 edition of the race) with what was supposed to be our marquee event. If I wasn’t able to drive an improvement on those two key points, which I personally view as so important to the survival of the sport, then what was I doing spending hours on Bikereg and in Google Sheets mapping out race logistics? About that point in time I told a few people that I would get through Grant’s Tomb, Orchard Beach and Bear Mountain, but I wasn’t planning on serving out my year as Director of Open Racing as I started daydreaming about shifting gears to organize gravel events instead (where I felt like the prospects for improving the status quo might be better).
In the days that followed my decision to throw in the towel, the Grant’s Tomb workload only got more intense but something funny happened. The weather forecast started to improve and with it, the key registration trends also improved. The increased registration didn’t soar to heroic “we’re fixing the sport” levels, but when registration closed we had record participation for any recent iteration of Grant’s Tomb Criterium, women’s registration improved to ~14% of the event (while still not tapping into the unreached potential for women’s racing or where I would love to see participation levels, it was more in line with expectations based on past registration), and 45% of last year’s racers decided to come back for another round of the Grant’s Tomb Criterium. Again, not heroic, but also pretty impressive given some of the challenges facing road racing.
And then, after a last minute crunch that consumed most of Thursday and Friday, race day arrived. And yes, there were still stressful moments, particularly early in the morning as the clock ticked down to our first field’s 7:20AM start and a driver was busy on the start/finish line cursing at everyone in sight for the need to move his car from street parking. But the skies were also blue and our ‘dream team’ of staff and volunteers was fully engaged on multiple fronts. Racers were showing up eager to test their mettle - and all their hard work and many hours of winter training - against the first of the season’s competition. It was a stressful but intoxicating environment to partake in.
As the day went on more and more of the community showed up. Sure, there were racers from every category of beginner to elite. Juniors to 60+. There were also two criterium national champions on hand who went 1-2 in the Master’s field. But perhaps more importantly there were also friends, family members, and significant others. For our team the atmosphere took on that of a social event as much as a bike race as girlfriends, wives, babies and dogs all made the trip up to Grant’s Tomb. Injuries and illness may have kept a number of our riders from racing - my own ambitions to race went out the window with my 4AM alarm clock - but it was still a jovial scene at the finish line as we all reconvened under sunny March skies to get the gang back together again for another season of road.
In the end, there were stressful and disappointing moments to the day including some frustrating interactions with members of the community that don’t deserve rehashing here — after enough years hosting races I have learned that those bad moments are unfortunately part and parcel with the ultra-competitive mindset that sometimes comes with cycling. Certain people quite simply wind up with tunnel vision and will never understand the challenging logistics that underlie each step of a race like Grant’s Tomb. What’s important is that despite those incidents, on the whole it felt like we managed to put together something really special for the entire cycling community on an unseasonably warm Saturday in early March.
Which brings us full circle back to Liz’s original tweet. This will almost certainly be my last year on the CRCA Board. I have been on and off the Board for the better part of a decade and it feels like it is increasingly time to move on. But in the meantime, with the positive vibes and feedback from Saturday I am now looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead for this season. And I am hoping that Orchard Beach and Bear Mountain, as well as the Central Park Open Races that follow, can live up to or even surpass what was an incredible edition of the Grant’s Tomb Criterium. Here’s to the 2019 road season… may it be the best one yet.