April 9th, 2011

Confessions of a "handicap specialist."

Should the life of a seminal voice on the architecture of bicycle transit ever weigh too much on my soul, I would settle into a quieter career, I don't know, as a corsetier maybe, and on my weekends, serve my local cycling club as their handicapper. Here are some pictures of handicappers, from this club, my club, and this club. Oh, and a picture of a corsetier, plying her noble trade.
Seeing these faces now (look at the dudes, please) I have to stop myself from limping, coughing, or at the very least looking relaxed, as though I've just spent 6 months on a deck chair letting my muscles turn into fat. You see, it is the duty of these fine handsome gentlemen to keep track of the current strength of every club racer in town, and I swear, nothing gets past them. You can pick up a 3rd place in some little race on the other side of the country, and word will get back; they're all in cahoots. As indeed they must be, charged as they are with ensuring every rider in a handicap race is given the exact head start they need, to be shattered at the end, but with some hope of winning.

It is with a mixture of shame, and perverse pride, that I must tell you I am known to these men as a "handicap specialist." But your honor, I can't help myself. I get so excited by the size of the trophies and all the money I know will be in those envelopes. You see, my non-racing readers, handicaps have the most generous prize money. 
I've held off mentioning this in my blog since last September: I won the Walker Walpole Memorial Handicap, my city's longest continually running trophy event, for the 4th time. The whole touching story of my 3rd win, I provided back in January 2010. I was very proud, but I somehow feel this 4th win might in some way cheapen the concept of winning. On the one hand, I want these years 1993, 1998, 2010 and 2011 tattooed on my bum, yet at the same time I feel a need to atone for a sin. If this will suffice, those of you deprived of plaques thanks to me, I present the secrets of a "handicap specialist."

Wear grey, for reasons that soon will be clear. Let your group find their own pace, then be demonstratively self sacrificial. If a rider can't come through to do his turn, do his turn for him. If during his turn he falters, ride up beside and actually push him through with your hand. You're doing everything you possibly can, to help your crew sweep up all of those slower riders ahead, and if the handicappers have done a good job, your leadership by example will indeed make that happen. That is because no other group in the race, will include someone as determined as you, to bring out their best.

This sequence of photos shows a handicap win by Jim Stewart, handicapper of the Hunter Valley Vets, from whom I learned what I am now sharing with you.   

Behind you, faster groups have still not joined up. But at the leading end of the race, that you're now a part of, groups are joining like drops of mercury, now turning into a torrent. Predictably, your team of soldiers from just moments ago, are so in love with the pace-line you taught them to ride in—the best in fact they have ever been part of—that they are still hammering away at the font, with 50 or 80 slower riders being sucked along in their draft, and some, if they can, doing turns also. And right in the thick of that peloton, hardly touching his pedals, will be a grey jersey. On the front now, everyone is thinking the peloton is some kind of audience to their heroics, so the pace will get faster and faster until, 600 meters out from the finish, a few eager beavers are sprinting, really going for gold by 400, as you are too, only not quite in the lead.

What happens next, I think a dice could describe better, if they have memories of being rolled in crap shoots. I can't honestly say I recall that particular moment in any race. All I can advise, is that if the next few seconds of blackness end with you seeing empty road, and a finish line on it, be prepared for the most wonderful ostracism a man can ever enjoy. Because no one likes a handicap winner, save maybe the handicapper, who has been there himself. That's why he gave up the limelight, became a corsetier, and made this his hobby.