Sunday morning dawned wet and rainy here in Ann Arbor – less than ideal conditions for a series of downtown bicycle races on a course that already featured rough pavement, six 90-degree turns, and two railroad track crossings. Just an hour before the first race was scheduled at 10 a.m., rain was still falling on the already-barricaded streets. At the 1st and Liberty street closure, one driver who was stopped by the orange and white barriers sought directions to the nearest place to park to get to Sweetwaters.
Along Main Street, race workers were unfurling red netting across metal barriers. In addition to providing space to print advertising, the netting served the practical function of keeping the crowd from squeezing between the widely spaced metal bars and onto the street into the path of speeding cyclists. “You’d be surprised how many people would try to crawl through there,” explained a yellow-slickered man with an handful of zip-ties.
The pole-mounted camera with a feed to the VIP seating area required some improvised weather protection from Tim Sundt of Viking Creative, who was busy lashing an umbrella into place to deflect the rain drops. Tim and his colleagues were up at 5 a.m. to start their technical work after arriving in Ann Arbor at 11 p.m. from Grand Rapids, where the previous day they had worked the Grand Cycling Classic, the first of two events in the Priority Health series.
As the rain faded to a light drizzel, Rachel Brunelle, one of two Huron Valley Ambulance bicycle-mounted EMTs, told us that their assignment to the event by HVA was by sign-up. Membership on the HVA bicycle-mounted team requires a practical skills test on a bike fully loaded with its 40-pound panniers: an obstacle course, plus a ride for time over distance.
Senior Women’s Race
The Chronicle soon met up with Dawn Lovejoy, who rides with the Priority Health women’s cycling team. For today’s race she wasn’t riding, but rather serving a managerial role for the team. Because the event sponsor was also their team’s sponsor, she wanted to make sure that coordination between the team and the sponsor was seamless, so she opted to sit out.
She explained Priority Health’s interest in bicycle racing: “Bicycle racers are mascots for health and fitness.” She went on to describe that much of the team’s sponsorship arrangement involves community outreach, like visits to schools to promote health and fitness.
Women’s seniors were first up on the racing schedule and the Priority Health women went into the race with a strategy – put their rider Aimee Lahann in position to see if she could just ride away from the field. Why would Lovejoy think Lahann was even remotely capable of pulling that off? Because, says Lovejoy, Lahann has national-caliber physical talent. Lovejoy first spotted that talent watching Lahann ride the spinning machines at the YMCA, where Lovejoy coordinates the spinning program, and asked Lahann if she’d ever thought about racing bicycles.
With a only a couple of years of bicycle racing experience, Lovejoy says that what Lahann is working on now are race tactics and bike-handling skills. Her motor, says Lovejoy, is already plenty strong.
But Lovejoy said their goal for the day was not to put Lahann on the top podium place. Instead, their aim was to keep the race really hard by making a hard tempo: “We’re looking at making the race a race.” Acknowledging that it seems a little odd to approach a race without results in mind, Lovejoy explained, “If we keep the race a race, the results will follow.”
When the race left the start-finish line, located just north of William Street on Main, The Chronicle walked with Lovejoy as she traversed the course in reverse direction. By the time we reached the southern edge of Ashley Mews, it was evident that the women of Priority Health were executing their pre-race strategy. Lahann was hammering away towards us, off the front of an already strung-out field. We walked around the corner of Main and Jefferson and paused at Jefferson and Ashley as the racers took the corner made treacherous by the wet conditions and the angled crossing of railroad tracks.
Even in dry conditions, the gaps between the rails and road would have posed a risk to a 23mm tire. But today, at least, they were covered with a layer of carpet. Later, Lovejoy’s husband, Mark, who had a hand in procuring the carpet remnants from Lowe’s and tacking them down, would report that racers through the day said the solution worked out pretty well.
As Lahann cruised by, her gap on the field narrowing, Lovejoy exhorted her, “Pedal through the corners, there’s better traction!” By the time we reached William Street, a few laps later, Lahann had been joined by some other racers. And soon after that the leading group was down to three: Lahann plus two others. One of the three saw a chance to guarantee themselves a podium spot: “Okay, ladies let’s work together!” As we left William Street behind us, a stray SUV wandered onto the course – unclear how – and Lovejoy dashed back to move the barricades at William enough to open space for the marshalls to shoo the errant vehicle off the course.
We made our way past the Fleetwood Diner and down the hill to First Street. At some point a teammate of Lahann’s, Laura Johnson, who had disappeared from the field on a previous lap, re-appeared in the thick of things. Later she would report that the rider in front of her had crashed at the corner of First and Liberty and that she had T-boned into her. She’d taken advantage of race rules that allow crashed riders (or riders with mechanical problems) to keep moving along the course in the same direction as the race – or to cut through the course – until they reached the neutral support area, then re-enter the race at that point on the same lap as the race leaders. Later, Johnson said when the team started the race, “We really wanted to do Priority Health proud – it’s our sponser and it’s their race. So when I crashed, all I could think was, I’ve got to get back in it, because I’ve got a teammate up there, I’ve got to help her!”
We finished our reverse walk of the course briskly, because it was not clear to us how many laps were left and we wanted to make sure we saw the finish. As we hit Main Street we heard the race announcer say, “Four laps to go!” So it was a leisurely stroll to a spot to watch the finish. As the final lap began, Lahann was driving a hard tempo at the front in an apparent attempt to ride the others off her wheel so that the finish would not come down to a straight-up sprint. But at that point, Lovejoy knew it was too late: “Oh, she’s not going to be able to ride away now.”
In the inevitable sprint that unfolded, Lahann finished just off the podium in fourth place. By the time that race concluded, the rain had abated and skies were beginning to clear.