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To Be Determined Journal

To Be Determined is a journal of cycling, adventure and photography, curated by a NYC-based cycling team known as TBD Racing or Team TBD. From criteriums to cyclocross to product reviews and travel diaries, it is all part of the TBD Journal.

Interview with Central Park Race Director Kevin Hsieh

As part of our Race Director Diaries Series we spent a good chunk of the year writing about the challenges associated with the current state of bike racing in and around New York City. Those Journal entries naturally focused on the CRCA Open Racing calendar because those were the events that TBD team members were most directly involved in. However at the same time that those races were being planned and executed, there was also a 12 race series taking place in Central Park: the CRCA Club Series.

Covering the complete road season, from March to August, the CRCA Club Series is one of the longest and most popular race series in New York City. And while the entire volunteer CRCA Board is involved in insuring the series happens, the races are ultimately the responsibility of one person: the CRCA Vice President of Racing. This year that position was filled by local racer and CRCA sub-team manager Kevin Hsieh.

Hosting the CRCA Club Series is a huge task that requires coordination between USAC, local institutions like NYC Parks, and any number of volunteers and race staff. It’s also a position that provides unique insight into the challenges associated with hosting races in New York City as well as the current state of the sport. As such I asked Kevin if he would be up for an interview discussing all of these topics and more:

Kevin earlier this year at the 2019 edition of the  CRCA Bear Mountain Classic.  Photo by  Clay Parker Jones

Kevin earlier this year at the 2019 edition of the CRCA Bear Mountain Classic. Photo by Clay Parker Jones

The Introduction

TBD: How long have you been riding for and how did you get into sanctioned bike racing?

KH: I’ve been riding for about 7 years now, starting shortly after undergraduate studies. I was riding in Central Park once and ended up introducing myself to a Columbia Racing (my alma mater) rider who was also doing some evening laps. Turned out he was also teammates with Shane Ferro (current TBD racer and also one of my oldest friends in New York). I think we did a few rides together and after a ride to Orchards, Shane mentioned that I should try racing and it was all downhill from there.

What is your favorite ride and favorite race (sanctioned or unsanctioned)?

As a team leader and someone who is often responsible for rallying folks for training rides, I really value predictability (so much nonsense can happen on rides no matter what you try to prepare for) so while this sounds boring, my favorite ride is probably River Road, Bradley/Tweed to Boxer Donuts and 9W back. There’s a little something for everyone there with climbing, sprinting, power sections and the proximity to various shops/rest stops throughout each section is ideal.

My favorite race will always and forever be Floyd Bennett Field. There’s a ton of nostalgia tied up in this silly race. I snagged my first and only win there and continue to learn a ton about racing my bike at that venue. I love how Floyd is always something that breaks up the monotony of the work week. Because it happens every week, you can try stupid stuff every time and not feel particularly bad about missing or wasting an opportunity. Most importantly, the way the community comes together to hang out after the race is second only to Nittany hangs.

Where do you see yourself as a racer/cyclist five years from now?

I truly don’t see much changing for myself in five years. I’m not particularly genetically gifted and it’s hard to find the right balance between work, personal, and bike life especially as the required time commitment scales up as I improve. I’ll probably still be stubbornly fighting for upgrade points for my respective Cat2 upgrades at 35. My priorities also are more community oriented rather than personal so it’s often a balance of making sure I continue to help build the scene that I want to see NYC Cycling become while making sure I prioritize some of my own personal goals year to year.

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My favorite race will always and forever be Floyd Bennett Field.

The CRCA Club Series

What motivated you to take on the massive task of being the CRCA VP of Racing?

I had taken over managing KruisCX the year prior and found it incredibly rewarding to build a space for folks to learn how to race and ride bikes with their friends. Around that time, I was also thinking a lot about what the bike racing scene in New York has done for me - allowing me to make so many new friends, learn a ton about myself personally, etc.

I was actually hoping to take on the Teams Director role as that seemed manageable based on what I had seen from Lucia’s involvement in previous years, but there were two other qualified folks shooting for that position and no one volunteering for the VP of Club Racing role. I definitely got a few gentle nudges from Lucia and other folks that were involved.

Ultimately, I agreed to it because I felt that I had good partners in Lucia, Matt Vandivort, Randy Locklair, and the rest of the board as well as the support of my team to succeed. Without that knowledge, I don’t think I would have even considered it.

With the 2019 CRCA Club Series, your first as the VP of Racing now in the books, what do you think were the biggest success and the greatest challenges for the season?

The biggest success to me was that everyone involved was generally pretty happy with how things turned out after 12 races. There are so many people involved that my role is primarily just managing expectations and making sure people are happy (riders, NYC Parks, staff, results team, etc.), so to be able to roll-up to a few folks after the last race of the season and shake everyone’s hand and say “Thank you. See you next year!” without anyone particularly angry at me was awesome.

In terms of the biggest challenges, I think the toughest part is communicating how important it is for our membership base to take some things seriously (and maybe to take some things like results and stuff less seriously). I understand that it is a sacrifice to wake up early in the morning to race and that a lot of self-worth is tied up in results and upgrades. For folks that are marshaling, I’m sure they’d rather be sleeping or riding than standing on the side of the course with a whistle.

It is important to realize that all of those things exist for a reason and are often process changes that the board or someone has made in response to some feedback or need. Not following those asks doesn’t necessarily make a typical racer’s day any worse, but add up real quick for me when I’m counting on as many things to go right as possible so I can have the attention to properly deal with things that go wrong.

I don’t think I’ve gotten to the point where I feel comfortable not being at a race or not having a trusted person representing me at the race. I believe there is a lot of importance in being present and taking personal accountability for things not going according to plan. For example, personally giving extra assurance to Parks Department that I’m investigating ways around fixing marshaling deployment or making sure people don’t cross into the rec lane is far stronger than just sending an email. I think a goal for me next year would be able to comfortably run a few races of the series without any board members physically present.

Similarly while we did a good job at doing the minimum requirements for putting on 12 successful races in the park this season, I feel like there’s a ton that we can improve beyond operations and safety. I’d love to improve racer experience before and after the race and be able to tell longer term stories around rider development and the various battles and rivalries that form throughout the season.

Many of these things I’m realizing I can’t physically be there to make sure it happens smoothly, so I’m looking to lean on some volunteers to take on some extra responsibility. For example, I’d love to improve how we do podiums and highlight the riders that have been doing well throughout the season with proper ceremonies and leaders’ jersey handoffs. However, I’m often running around fighting fires immediately after race finish that I physically can’t be there to ensure that will happen.

 
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I think the toughest part is communicating how important it is for our membership base to take some things seriously (and maybe to take some things like results and stuff less seriously)

 

What surprised you most stepping into the role of VP of Racing for the first time?

Honestly, the amount of trust that there is among the operations team that people will show up to do their specific role. So much hinges on Sergio showing up with his van, Masa and Armstrong unloading the trailer and setting up registration and marshal check-in on time, Jim or Bob or Tom showing up with all the results equipment, our motos showing up on time and ready to go, or our ambulance showing up prior to the race. Without any of those things happening in quick succession, we can’t start the race and it’s incredible that twelve times a year I can count on this handful of people to bust their butts at 4 in the morning to make sure that we can run a race.

Can you describe the relationship with the NYC Parks Department and how you view their role in making Central Park racing happen?

Prior to my taking on this role, I had the impression that the relationship with the Parks Department was largely adversarial. It sounded as if our wants of racing bikes in the park at an average speed of over 25 miles/hour was largely counter to their goals of having a safe park for all park users.

However, after a season of working closely with various representatives from the Parks Department, it’s clear that our goals are aligned. As VP of Club Racing, I also want to run safe races and find reasonable and meaningful ways to make improvements to our process to provide more safety for racers and recreational park users.

So while they are largely the gatekeepers in the sense that they do have the final say in renewing our permits year to year, I believe that as long as we are both reasonable about our needs and operate within the reasonable boundaries that are set for us, we can continue making racing happen in Central Park.

While CRCA’s open races may be the headline events of the season, Central Park racing is the bread and butter of the Club. What is one thing you wish CRCA members understood about racing in the Park?

Aspirationally, I’d love CRCA members to realize how important consistency in their actions and decision making can play into their safety and experience during a race, be it while racing, marshaling, or another responsibility they’ve been assigned. I think operating a race in Central Park is a fascinating exercise in risk management. We’re in one of the most densely populated cities in the world in one of the most famous parks in the world. There is so much that can go wrong at any point so every little thing that can be standardized and relied upon to be consistent is so important.

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We’re in one of the most densely populated cities in the world in one of the most famous parks in the world. There is so much that can go wrong at any point so every little thing that can be standardized and relied upon to be consistent is so important.

I’d love for folks to take the racing part of racing in Central Park less seriously. Jim, one of our great results folks from Mainsport, was wonderful when I was stressing out over something (probably some early season set of crashes or some people angry about results) reminding me that “It’s just a bike race”. That’s something I carried into every following race and really helped shape my perspective on the whole role.

One thing that I came to a realization upon during this season was the incredible privilege I have to even say that I run races in Central Park. I grew up watching movies and seeing aerial shots and B-roll footage of people exercising or picnicking in Central Park. It’s arguably one of the most famous parks in the world if not the most famous. This might sound pedantic but I’d love for folks to reflect on the privilege we have to be able to wake up and literally roll our bikes over to race in a park of this level of renown.

Add onto the fact that prior to recent years, we did not have official results so our training races had no play in upgrade points. I think a large takeaway for me (and this has played a lot into the way I race and approach the sport) is that a lot of this doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I find the wider my understanding of the cycling scene becomes, the less tiny personal things phase me.

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I’d love for folks to take the racing part of racing in Central Park less seriously. Jim, one of our great results folks from Mainsport, was wonderful when I was stressing out over something (probably some early season set of crashes or some people angry about results) reminding me that “It’s just a bike race”. That’s something I carried into every following race and really helped shape my perspective on the whole role.

Park racing is a great training series not only for racers but also for race staff. Can you talk about some of the behind the scenes actors (RDs, officials, motos) who play a role in ensuring that the series happens?

I’m so lucky that we have such a dedicated and consistent staff and I’ll probably not do all of them the justice of naming each and every thing that has to be done before, during, and after a race. Here is an attempt at trying to explain everything that needs to happen from earliest to latest. Sergio and a few other volunteers drive his van in every race so we can load up all the safety equipment and set them up at major crosswalks to notify park users of a bike race. Around this same time Masa and Armstrong unload the trailer and set up registration and marshal check-in as well as lug the podium from Boathouse to Rambles. Paulette, Alison and company show up to check-in, deploy, and check-out marshals. All of our 8 (give or take) motos coordinated by Stephen Chang have to arrive on time. Our results team (Mainsport) has to show up at the designated finish and set up their equipment. Rob and Alex, our race directors this past season, have to make sure they know all the details about the race to run the race smoothly. Parks department needs to come and unlock the bathrooms and start making their rounds on the loop to make sure we have enough marshals out on course. Our ambulance needs to show up before we even start.

What is the biggest challenge in maintaining the Club race calendar and operating functionality of the series?

In the grander scheme, one of the biggest challenges this year was managing the variability of the weather, particularly during the early season. From a more operational perspective, knowing that you can do everything you can to account for nearly every situation but something will likely still go wrong that you didn’t quite predict. Learning to roll with those punches was a learning experience for me, particularly as someone that is very much a control freak.

A great deal has changed with the CRCA Club Series in recent years - for example bringing in a professional third party results service. As you think about the longer-term future for the Club Series what changes do you see on the horizon?

I think the theme for me for this season as VP of Club Racing has been establishing a baseline in terms of relationship building and operations for me to do some crazy shit next year. While we were very successful at putting on 12 races and the primary goal of “don’t piss off Parks” was achieved with reasonable success, I definitely would love to prioritize the storytelling aspect of bike racing a bit more. I loved the drama within every race and watching the various battles and rivalries unfold but wish I had the time and energy to put that drama on display more for our member base and people passively following bike racing in New York.

I’d love to make changes that give riders more opportunities to try new things and discover things about themselves aside from the typical “I’m going to sit in for the bunch sprint” mentality that I feel a lot of us fall into by virtue of the relatively flat terrain we tend to see out here. I can see a sprints classification being a very feasible addition that I will propose next year that can add an extra layer of tactics to a few of the races.

Given your experience with other local series (including targeting the sprint classification at FBF), what are some lessons the CRCA Club Series can learn from other local series (like FBF) and vice versa?

Similar to the question above, I feel like Charlie (Lucarelli & Castaldi Cup in Prospect), Tom/Charlie (Floyd), and the Rockleigh team all do a great job at telling stories about various battles that are unfolding throughout the series. I’d love to similarly build that hype and engagement from racers and spectators alike by telling those stories.

If you had unlimited resources, what is the one thing you would most like to change about the CRCA Club Series?

I would hire and train marshals that I could use throughout the year in key points so I could at least ensure that there was a standard knowledge of how to operate and deal with various situations (dogs, trucks, angry park users, etc.) Any consistency I can get week to week is a godsend.

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I definitely would love to prioritize the storytelling aspect of bike racing a bit more.

The NYC Cycling Community

In the face of permitting challenges at FBF and the various organizational challenges inherent in the CRCA Club Series, what do you see as the biggest strengths and shortcomings of the NYC Cycling Community?

The community is a godsend for rallying around stuff that they might lose. Seeing how the community came together to raise money to meet permit costs around Floyd and also applying political and media pressure was inspiring. However, in less severe situations, I think the community also turns a bit of a blind eye thinking that key people will just figure it out. There’s also an interesting case around how it’s likely easier to throw money at a problem and get signatures on a form than it is to actually commit to taking a significant time out of your day/week/year to run or organize or volunteer to help operate a race series.

Maybe it’s a fault of ours in terms of how we communicate but I really hope we never let the state of the sport to get to that point. I’d love to better communicate our risks with Parks, our risks with staffing, our risks around running our slate of 2020 Open Races so that folks can actually know what they can do to help and step up.

Given the challenges sanctioned racing is facing more broadly, what do you think the NYC Cycling Community can help do to support the growth of the sport over time?

By whatever means you can, please give back to the community. It can mean volunteering. It can mean introducing someone to bike racing. It can mean becoming a donor member for CRCA. It can just mean being a generally friendly person in the peloton to strangers. Every little thing matters to overall rider experience particularly for newer folks that are getting into the sport. The biggest thing for me is realizing that generations will age out, folks will move on, people will experience life changes. Everyone should operate as an advocate for the sport. A good day in the saddle for someone on the fence about bike racing might be the experience that makes them as crazy as us. That person catching that bug might end up having a lot to contribute to our community.

You’re also a leader on the CRCA sub team, KruisCX, which has been really great at recruiting new bike racers recently. What’s your secret for helping these riders develop?

The team is incredibly defensive of its culture. By virtue of having a strong culture, people tend to gravitate towards wanting to do things together and constructively push each other to improve in their own ways. We also don’t set very strict goals as a team (we’re not very results driven and it shows) and it’s largely a Choose Your Own Adventure type of thing for every rider - you will receive as much support if you’re just finishing the damn race as you would if you’re targeting race wins.

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The community is a godsend for rallying around stuff that they might lose. Seeing how the community came together to raise money to meet permit costs around Floyd and also applying political and media pressure was inspiring. However, in less severe situations, I think the community also turns a bit of a blind eye thinking that key people will just figure it out.