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From Inside Peloton: St. Louis

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I look for the email from the host house. The overly long note contains thorough geographical information about the location of the house in St. Louis, Missouri, a bit about its architectural history, brief biographies of the hosts and a spreadsheet with arrival and departure times for everyone on the team. I have not met our hosts yet, but I already know I like these people. As the Metrolink train idles at the airport station, I notice a public service announcement reminding customers that we are in the “dog days” of summer and any outdoor fitness activity should be kept to a minimum. I can’t help but smile at the irony: Gateway Cup, the last big criterium event of the season, will kick off in just under 24 hours whether or not the “dog day” weather agrees.

It doesn’t.

Words & images: Andy Bokanev

The imposing summer heat and humidity still hang firmly in the air as Tour de Lafayette takes place around Lafayette Square’s 0.9-mile (1.45-kilometer) circuit. The hour-long men’s race does not start until 9:15 p.m., leaving more than enough time for the sunset to give way to complete darkness interspersed with spotlights throwing shadows on the narrow, brick shotgun homes lining the park. An excited and slightly inebriated crowd lines the start/finish straight. It’s Friday night, the beginning of the long Labor Day holiday weekend. There’s lots of great beer and not-so-great food. And every minute or so, the peloton appears out of the dark in a neat line, moving through the corners at 30 miles per hour before disappearing back into darkness. In the end, Alto Velo-SeaSucker’s Daniel Holloway goes through the final turn with the speed and tilt unmatched by any of the chasers to take the weekend’s first win.

By the time everyone gets cleaned up from the race, the only food establishment in the area still serving is a taco joint a few blocks away. The waiter insists on telling us a number of bad jokes—”Why does the chicken coop have two doors? If it had four, it would be called a chicken sedan.”

The second day is the Tour de Francis Park, another square-shaped crit on wide roads lining a giant green space. An earlier start means more light and more heat. Team CLIF Bar rider Michael Jacques channels his best Pete Morris impression—Pete missed this race because he was at Burning Man—and goes off the front on the first lap. The attack does not last and he gets absorbed by the following lap. Unlike some of the previous races earlier this season, the United Healthcare team is present in full force and the Blue Train plays a big role in controlling the pace of the race with some assistance/competition from Team Astellas. The mood changes in the second half of the race as Holloway takes a giant self-instigated spill on the backstretch of the circuit before jumping back into the race visibly tattered by the crash. In the end it is UHC’s Carlos Alzate who crosses the line just in front of an ailing Holloway to take the win.

As I make my way back to the car, a guy by the side of the road inquires if I am in town working with Team CLIF Bar. I tell him, “Yes, I am.” He looks back excitedly to his significant other and proclaims that it’s his favorite team because “they have a guy who looks like Jesus!”

After little thought and even less creativity, we wound up back at the taco joint—”How does Moses make tea? He brews it.”

USOC_CLIF_CIRCLE_STAR_Take2_PrintGiro della Montagna, the third race of the weekend, takes place in The Hill, a historically Italian neighborhood, evident from the abundant tricolor signs, hydrants and “Lady and the Tramp”-worthy eating establishments. The race itself takes place earlier in the afternoon, right at the peak of the midday heat and features an innocent looking climb on the back straight. Once again, Jacques attacks the field from the starting whistle and spends a couple of laps off the front. The fast pace, the midday sun, the tight corners and the no-longer-innocent hill stretch start to take their toll. The peloton allows a small break to get away only to have Aldo Ilesic take responsibility for the chase, leading a procession of increasingly tired and weary faces up and down The Hill. Karl Menzies crosses the finish line first to take a second win in a row for UHC.

Tacos again later that night—“Menstrual jokes are not funny. Period.”

The final race of the weekend features a technical 10-turn course in the Benton Park neighborhood of St. Louis. Bordered by the namesake park on one side and the brick giant that is the Anheuser-Busch plant on the other, the course resembles a somewhat deformed figure eight. The tight and narrow streets string out the peloton in what seems like a half-mile-long line. After solo breakaway efforts by UHC’s Adrian Hegyvary and Optum’s Brad Huff, it all comes down to a final sprint and Alzate takes his second win of the weekend ahead of Holloway.

The Coffee Nerd’s Guide to Only
Going to One Coffee Shop in Town
I would like to say that we had a list of four or five places to check out our coffee needs, but ended up coming all weekend to a place called Sump (3700 S. Jefferson Ave.). Call us uncreative. It’s just that Sump is that good.

And then, just like that, it’s over. A few of the guys will spend another two weeks on the road either for the few remaining crits on the East Coast, masters nationals in Ogden, Utah, or a road race in China. Back at the host house, everyone takes apart their bikes and packs them into expensive bike bags or tattered bike boxes hoping a smile and some small talk with a gate agent at the airport will help them avoid an exorbitant bike fee—Delta, I’m looking at you!

The somber mood at dinner—thankfully, the taco place is closed on Labor Day—is reminiscent of the last night in summer camp. After spending months traveling to and from races, seeing the same people week in and week out in different locations around the country and never staying anywhere long enough to learn our way around town, it is time to end the season. At least for a few months. Now it’s time for cyclocross and winter base miles and real-life stuff like jobs.

As we leave the restaurant, I ignore my GPS as it’s guiding me back to our host house. I know where I’m going. It’s time to leave.

Andy Bokanev on Instagram: @bokanev