Intro: This is the first year the Cadence Cycling Foundation has been a program of the Bicycle Coalition. As we seek to expand the program and enrich the offerings we provide to the young athletes involved, we also will be sharing news and stories from the program.
Our summer communications intern Khoury, no slouch of a bicyclist himself, recently attended a practice. Here is his account.
Having never heard of Lemon Hill before, I was expecting a topography befitting such a summery moniker: scores of lazy inclines grading out to wide, sweeping curves through acres of untamed fauna; packs of intrepid riders pumping uniformly through canopied trails and forgotten boulevards. But after climbing the first hill off of Lemon Hill Drive, I began to realize the quality of rider who traversed these grounds was of a different caliber than what I, and most casual riders, are accustomed to seeing.
The task was simple: meet the CCF cycling teams on Lemon Hill at 4:15pm. It was crucial that I get there on time because the professional Airgas cycling team, which boasts some of the best U-23 riders in the nation, was to pay CCF cyclists a visit. There is no worse first impression than showing up late to something, especially when a professional cycling team goes out of their way to ride with you and give you free Cliff Bar swag.
As I reach the intersection of Sedgley and Lemon Hill Drive at around 4:10, worried that the groups might set out without me, I notice just ahead a biker, clad in CCF gear, resting at the base of the hill. When I get to within ten yards of him, he briskly jumps on the saddle and blazes up the incline, accelerating all the way until he reached the summit. I follow after him with the intent of catching him, but I soon realize that I will fail and resign to a more casual pace. It’s a harbinger.
I clear the first climb with relative ease and speed over towards the meet-up spot, a quiet stretch of road near the mansion that gives Lemon Hill its name. I encounter a few more CCF cyclists along the way. By the time we get there, most of the CCF riders have already arrived. A representative from Airgas is chatting with the younger members about cycling and various other topics as the rest of the two teams ride in.
After everyone arrives and pleasantries are exchanged, Airgas riders share personal testimonies of their own journeys into cycling and offer advice on its nuances as a sport instead of a hobby. At first, their accounts of sunrise practices and personal sacrifice appear to fall on deaf ears. But as the rap session’s tone shifts from work to play, the countenances of the CCF riders liven, and dialogue between the two groups escalates. After a Q&A, both groups head off towards the other side of the hill to start their long, arduous lap through the heart of Fairmount Park.
All five CCF schools are in attendance—riders from KIPP, Girard College, Pickett, Shoemaker, and Neighborhood Bike Works. Most of the riders are in high school and their coaches are around 20 years of age. The Airgas riders hail from a litany of places: from Montreal to California to Colorado to Kutztown. The oldest rider is 22, and is ranked 18th in the nation for his age bracket. The youngest Arigas riders are only 18 years old, one of whom began competitive cycling only the year before.
The two-hour ride starts out casual enough, with Airgas and CCF members riding as a collective group over Girard Bridge towards the Mann Center. I assume the lead for much of these early stages, making sure not to seem like I’m trying too hard in front of these seasoned cyclists. Trailing just behind me is a pack of CCF coaches and Airgas riders, inundating my peripheral senses with amicable soundbites. Some are talking about music and blogging, while others are trading war stories of races won and lost. A sizable distance behind them are the younger riders picking up the rear, although they, too, are accompanied by fellow Airgas members.
About twenty minutes in, we round a barn-like construction in a bucolic section of Fairmount. As we level out on the flat stretch, I hear from behind me a vociferous “Sprint!” followed by a chorus of cheers. Sensing what is happening, I pick up my cadence to an adrenaline-draining clip. But with every pedal, the ominous buzz(ing?) emanating from the other riders’ speeding tires only grows louder. In a matter of seconds my vision is clouded by a cluster of sponsored backs and race bikes roaring down the street at what I can only estimate is around 30mph. The sprint goes on for some 10 seconds as the professionals show why they are professionals. Impressively, two CCF coaches hang right there with them to the end of the sprint.
The pace slows again when the area’s abundant foothills take their toll on the less experienced riders. After summiting a monstrous climb on Georges Hill Drive, the lead pack stops and waits for the other pack to catch up. At this point one of the CCF coaches asks me to stay in the rear to escort an injured CCF rider back to the Lemon Hill rendezvous point while the rest of the group continues the ride. I agree to it, and proceed to ride the rest of the way with the injured rider and a few of his buddies. There are a few bumps in the road [no pun intended] along the way, but ultimately we catch up with the main group back at the starting point.
The two-hour ride concludes atop Lemon Hill, where the Airgas coach hands out a second helping of protein bars and water bottles (and jerseys!) to exhausted riders from both teams. Friendly chatter started during the ride carries over to the cool-down period, with CCF and Airgas cyclists exchanging contact information and promising to ride with each other again one day. But as all good things must come to an end, the Neighborhood Bike Works’ team coach calls his team in for one last roll call. The team says goodbye to the Airgas crew and rides away into the cool, overcast summer evening. The other teams prepare to depart.
Spent but satisfied, I depart a few moments later for my own home, in the opposite direction, clutching my handlebars tighter than ever.