Leaping into Lady Bird Lake was as good as I felt all day.
It was a bright, mid-June Sunday morning, and my pal Perry and I were endeavoring not to embarrass ourselves too badly during our first competitive outing as Team Old and In the Way. Surrounded by fitness buffs in tight-fitting spandex, we sucked in our guts and summoned the strength we’d built up over countless Sunday mountain bike rides across Central Texas.
This was no Tour de France (which wrapped up in Paris last month). This was a competition welcoming novice and expert alike. We had no dope, no hormones beyond the naturally occurring kind, and no expectation that anybody would care whether we came in first, last, or smack in the middle of the peloton.
The Urban Assault Ride has lately emerged as the largest cycling event in Texas. That’s no small claim in a state widely known as the birthplace of Lance Armstrong, arguably the greatest cyclist ever. The assault ride is not strictly a race, though any number of strapping young men with legs shaved cleaner than a debutante’s would have given non-cyclists pause at the entry line. (Lance was nowhere in sight.) The ride is an open-road event staged throughout the summer in cycling-positive cities such as Austin, Madison, and Seattle. The competition also involves a scavenger hunt and a series of physical challenges, all of which make the ride’s very route a choose-your-own-adventure variable.
To win, competitors must not only ride fast, but avoid certain thoroughfares, including large sections of North Lamar Boulevard and Guadalupe Street, while connecting Central Austin neighborhoods from Hyde Park to the boat docks south of the lake and incorporating stops on the freshly gentrified East Side.
There was also the matter of being able to pedal up to 30 miles while solving riddles and overcoming oddball obstacles. We found ourselves forming a human wheelbarrow, ducking a pole for bicycle limbo, and pushing a floating keg around a buoy on Lady Bird Lake.
Why can’t we collect beads the old-fashioned way,” Perry cracked as we stripped off our shirts, Mardi Gras in mind. (Beads are a crucial component of the ride, earned by clearing various hurdles and identifying local landmarks. Beads protect teams against time penalties.)
The day was heating up fiercely, as was the competition, and I was happy for an excuse to cool off. Having ridden more than a dozen miles to that point and partaken of the human bumper course-a challenge, seemingly poached from a Japanese game show, wherein we wore inner tubes around our waists while collecting balls from buckets guarded by staff wearing tubes of their own-my legs had begun to fatigue.
“Competitive teams finish in something like two hours,” race organizer Josh Kravetz, a former pro mountain biker from Colorado, had told me. “You can do it.”By the time we found ourselves up to our necks in Lady Bird Lake, the two-hour mark was pretty much upon us. Despite the advantages of racing in our hometown, despite our plum starting position in the second group of four, well ahead of half the race’s 1,300 or so participants, despite even our shameless willingness to “borrow” answers from fellow racers at checkpoint puzzles, we could not get ahead.
On the other hand, it was a neat experience to see crowds of riders-families, coed teams, hippies, and serious athletes alike-swooping through downtown Austin on a Sunday morning like a flock of migrating birds. Three hours seemed a reasonable goal.
Kravetz had explained that the race, sponsored by eco-friendly national companies including New Belgium Brewing Co. and Clif Bar Inc., aims to promote alternatives to fossil fuel-based transportation. For what it’s worth, turning out more than 1,000 citizen-racers for the ride has the potential to boost cycling participation. A friend who had participated in the 2007 Austin assault said the race helped him discover new bike routes around town. Maybe one of them will get him safely to Lance Armstrong’s new bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s, opened this spring in downtown Austin with showers and bike lockers, which Armstrong hopes will encourage more commuters to climb onto the saddle. With the city investing millions in its cycling infrastructure, recreational riders on this day, at least, had a chance to bask in a limelight usually reserved for hard-core pedal pushers.
Who am I kidding? As Perry and I, still dripping from our quick dip, slipped back into our cycling jerseys and biking shoes to complete the ride, the race leaders were returning to the staging area in the RunTex parking lot downtown, where cold beers were being served. Free tacos and ice cream were waiting as well, and the temptation was growing to cut corners and blow through red lights, shoving fellow travelers aside. But in the end there was nothing more than pride and cold beer on the line-hardly enough to knock us off the straight and narrow, if leisurely, path to the finish line.
Anyone aware of my pre-race routine would have had probable cause to expect this outcome. On the Saturday night before the race, my carbo-loading pasta dinner had been accompanied by plenty of antioxidants in the form of red wine. Instead of mapping a smart route online or going to bed early, I spent the late-night hours wrestling to replace my worn-out bike tires with a new set. Rather than making a smooth transfer, I punctured the flimsy inner tubes against my wheel rim. After failing to patch them, I was left to wait for Perry to arrive with fresh equipment the next morning.
We had managed to roll up to the starting line with plenty of time to spare. Now that the race was wrapping up, there were still a few hurdles to knock off before we could avail ourselves of the foamy rewards of the finish line.
For our next trick, we joined the performing monkey-like troops riding miniature circus bikes between Jo’s Coffee and the Hotel San Jose on South Congress. While nonplussed onlookers sipped caffeine and watched, we zipped back and forth between orange cones, knees and elbows flapping to maintain balance on the surprisingly sturdy toy cycles. There was no way to maintain a straight face on those little machines, and even back on our regular bikes, merging with motorized traffic, we retained our grins. Another bead earned.
Planned chaos greeted us as we finally dismounted near the finish line for our last official challenges: an adult Big Wheel rally and the water-slide finale. Even after three hours of near-constant movement, racers were still raring with excitement and the knowledge that cold beer was only moments away. We skidded and elbowed for position on those crash-prone plastic trikes, then leapt up and shed our cycling shoes to charge down the water slide. Hearts pounding, we collected our final beads at the finish line, paused for a photo op, and then rushed to the scorer’s table to see how we’d done. Even with a combined age of over 80, Perry and I still managed to finish ahead of about 30 percent of the competition.
As we hustled over to the beer line, we found ourselves facing the harshest ethical challenge of the day. Standing behind a race veteran, we learned that some competitors were planning to hold their beads back and save them for next year in hopes of finishing “more efficiently” in 2009.
The strategy, like doping at the sport’s higher levels, seems to run counter to the event’s built-in egalitarianism. When professional athletes cheat, like the defrocked Tour de France riders with their EPO and synthetic testosterone, there’s big money and at least a modicum of fame at stake. Just ask any Olympian what he or she would do to win in Beijing this month. What’s surprising is how many true amateurs seem to get caught up in the quest for an easy fix.
Every day we indulge trade-offs to make life a little easier. Drive instead of bike; dope instead of train. Headed home, Perry and I pedaled past a suddenly incongruous line of cars also leaving the race, the afternoon’s eco-ideals retaking a backseat to convenience. It would hardly be fair to judge them, I thought. They probably had a long way to go.
Dan Oko is a freelance writer and bike rider in Austin.