Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

May 15, 2002:

Illustration by Henry Martin ’48

Weekend warriors
From NYC clubs to comedians on wheels

By Kate Swearengen '04

A mere four days after quitting crew, I joined the cycling team.

My friend Artemis, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, doesn’t understand it at all. She says it makes no sense to quit one sport and then take up another. Giving up rowing should have meant that I would have more free time. Specifically, more free weekends, which would translate into more trips to New York, more rock concerts, and, by extension, more vice. Admittedly, she has a point. But in my defense, I quoted the cycling team’s website, in assuring her that I would be participating in a "fun, fast, competitive sport, without the hassles of varsity athletics." When this reasoning failed to convince Artemis, I told her that the team’s motto was "study to pass, ride to win." Artemis approved of that.

Cycling’s a lot different than crew. For one thing, it’s a club sport, and so it doesn’t get the kind of funding that varsity sports enjoy. When we raced in Storrs two weeks ago, we spent the weekend on the University of Connecticut campus, at the Nathan Hale Inn. The Nathan Hale was a step up from the flophouses where the cycling team normally stays. A big step up. As Elliot, a sophomore on the team, put it, "You can tell this is the classiest place we’ve stayed in all year. It’s the only one that hasn’t had a condom machine in the lobby."

That’s another thing about cycling — everyone’s a comedian. This wasn’t the case with crew, where the race officials treated everything with an excessive amount of dignity. At the Eastern Sprints regatta last year, the starting marshal actually wore a navy blue blazer and a STRAW HAT WITH A MATCHING BAND. I mean, the race was in Camden, New Jersey, and this guy was acting as if he were at the Henley. It’s a good thing that race officials in cycling suffer no such illusions.

"We learned yesterday that if you hit a car, the car doesn’t move," the starting marshal at the Storrs race told us. "Let’s try to apply that today, alright?" A simple, unassuming blast of the whistle, and everyone took off. And, sure enough, one of the cyclists immediately plowed into the gray Datsun on the corner.

Although it is a noncontact sport, cycling is fraught with minor terrors. Crashes, scrapes, bruises, and broken equipment come with the territory. Occasionally, there are serious injuries as well. During my race last weekend at West Point, two of the Army girls collided on the first turn, and one broke her arm. The race was delayed while the officials dragged her off the course. Ten minutes later, one of the Harvard girls went out wide on a turn, cut in too sharply, and skidded off the course, bouncing her head off a set of railroad tracks. Some of the riders stopped to see if she was alright. I am merciless, and so I kept going.

I told my parents about the accidents, but they didn’t seem to be too worried. My mother isn’t so concerned about me getting hurt as she is about the indelible grease marks that the bicycle chain leaves on my legs, hands, and face. She was so upset, in fact, at the prospect of me going to class with grease under my fingernails that she bought me a tube of Simple Green. Simple Green is the heavy-duty, pumice-based gel that mechanics use to clean their hands. It managed to lift off about 20 layers of my epithelial cells, but didn’t do anything for the grease. I’ve been told by several people that grease marks are an indication of improper technique. Jeremy, a sophomore on the team, put it more succinctly.

"Ha ha," he said. "You have dork marks on your legs."

As I said — in this sport, everyone’s a comedian. And at no place are the jokes more prevalent than at the starting line.

"I hear UConn’s got a new German rider," one of the cyclists said during last Sunday’s race. "Too bad they have to import their talent."

"I hope he’s here legally."

"Uh oh. I think I hear the INS chopper right now."

The German rider fought back.

"You have so much energy now," he taunted his antagonists. "But you looked so tired during yesterday’s race."

That’s the rough thing about cycling — it’s a full weekend of racing, and by the end of it, everyone looks tired. On Saturday, riders compete in the road race, a distance trial that can range between 25 and 75 miles, depending upon the gender and skill level of the competitors. On Sunday is the criterium, a shorter race that lasts between 30 minutes and an hour.

Princeton generally does pretty well at these races. We have a large roster but a small team, and at any given race there are about 12 active riders, not counting the ubiquitous three hotshots. Tyler is Old Nassau’s answer to Lance Armstrong. In fact, Tyler even looks like Lance Armstrong, a resemblance that he may or may not cultivate. Scott’s a wily graduate student, and races accordingly. His strategy is to lurk toward the front of the pack, dashing forward to win valuable points in the sprints. Carolyn, a junior art history major, is a superb climber, and is tough as nails.

The Princeton team is a diverse group. Some of the riders came to college planning to ride, while others picked the sport up relatively recently. Amanda, a former coxswain, made the transition from crew to cycling last year. She attributes her love for the sport in part to the colorful jerseys and loud rock music at last year’s Army Cycling Classic. And then there’s Benson, a graduate student in the mechanical and aerospace engineering program. Benson is a former motorcross competitor who took up cycling as a safer alternative. While Benson may prefer safety on the racecourse, he disdains it on the Interstate. His motorcycle loyalties are still very much extant, as evidenced by his propensity for tailgating Mack trucks at 90 miles an hour.

But if Benson sounds scary, consider this admonitory e-mail, sent to the Princeton team a week before the race at West Point:
"USE THE RESTROOMS. The fate of this race literally depends on it. Any rider caught urinating in the bushes will be disqualified from the race immediately, and MAY BE SUBJECT TO FEDERAL PROSECUTION. This is an Army facility, remember. That means NO peeing in the bushes. Tell your teammates or suffer the consequences."

You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu