USAF Crystal Ride, Part 2: The Ride

Crystal Ride2The Crystal Ride is one of my favorite events of the year.  With about 1,800 riders, it is the largest cycling event I attend.  Despite my Army roots, the USAF military theme is nice and there is a healthy smattering of military-themed jerseys in the peloton.  The route is on closed streets that are normally quite busy and it is fun to ride on them.  Unlike most cycling events I participate in, this one actually has spectators which cheer you on.  It is the only event I ride where simply finishing is not the only goal – the finishing time becomes important and determines which sort of medal you receive.

But perhaps my favorite part of this event is the chaos.

Putting 1,800 riders of greatly varying abilities on a closed course with sometimes narrow roads of questionable quality is a recipe for the kind of excitement normally found in demolition derbies or Roman chariot races, at least the one depicted in the movie, Ben Hur.  The 9+ mile course means the faster riders never truly distance themselves from the slower cyclists, they merely lap them and are always mixed amongst them.  You have to be ready for just about anything, but just about anything usually happens.

Having reached the starting group with two minutes to spare, I was well to the rear of the leaders at the start.  I was so far back that I couldn’t hear any of the opening ceremonies or even the official start of the race.  I knew the ride had started by the cheering which slowly moved from the start line to my position in the back.  We slowly built up speed from our standing start, moving from walking speed to a leisurely 12 mph as we moved up Crystal Drive toward Route 110, where I knew the herd would begin to thin on the two mile straightaway.

At Mile 0.6, I saw my first injury.

He was lying on the road with three cyclists standing over him, trying to help until a ride marshal could arrive.  He was clutching his right shoulder and was in considerable pain.  It appeared to me to be either a broken collar-bone or a dislocated shoulder.  I don’t know what caused the accident, but its a good bet he simply collided with another cyclist in the jumbled mass that still existed at this point.  Since he was being tended to, I pressed onward, found a nice paceline and zipped northward toward the city of Rosslyn.

Having reached Rosslyn, we did a sharp U-Turn (one of several on the course that had the effect of breaking up any impromptu paceline that may have developed on the straightaways) and headed back toward the Pentagon and the USAF Monument, which sits on a hill and is the main terrain feature of the course.  I was pleased that I stayed WELL away from my bottom gear on my first ascent and looked forward to bombing back down the hill.

The hill leading to the USAF Monument

The hill leading to the USAF Monument

It was during this first descent where I had my brush with disaster.

I was having a happy descent (almost all my descents are happy ones.  It’s the one moment where my excess mass plays to my advantage) when the fellow in front of me unexpectedly hit a water bottle that fell out of another cyclist’s cage.  We were moving at 30 mph, so this was a significant moment for all concerned.  In microseconds, I saw the man’s rear wheel hit the bottle, saw the bottle explode into a mist of orange Gatorade, watched his rear wheel move into the air while his front maintained contact with the asphalt, then noticed his bike begin to rotate slightly to one side.

I was about fifty feet behind this guy, moving at a very fast pace.  When that rear wheel hit the asphalt again, he would be slightly crooked.  There was a good chance he would crash.  I could either attempt to move quickly off my line and almost certainly hit another rider (and thus crash) or take my chances with the fellow in front of me.  I chose the latter.  Since I am typing these words, you know things worked out ok for me.

Remarkably, the cyclist was able to keep his bike under control.  I moved slightly to one side and passed within two or three feet of him, realizing I had chosen wisely.  That was some very good bike handling on his part.  I don’t think I would have remained upright.  Had he crashed, I would have hit him and launched myself into the air at 30 mph.  I’m glad I didn’t get to have that experience.

The rest of the ride was far less eventful.  I maintained a nice pace and was going to finish a little faster or even with last year’s ride, which I was pleased to see given my lack of miles, jet lag, and the morning adventure with my derailleur.  As the laps went by, the group thinned out considerably.  The course was dotted with cyclists repairing flats or broken chains.  I pedaled past two more serious crashes which required ambulances, though both cyclists were alert and seemed to be doing well, all things considered.

Crystal City

Crystal City

On top of the hill near the USAF Monument.  I'm normally not this grumpy.

On top of the hill near the USAF Monument. I’m normally not this grumpy.

The ride settled into a routine.  Each lap would begin amongst the tall buildings of Crystal City and the PA announcer at the Start/Finish line giving a running commentary for the spectators which was difficult to hear as I pedaled past.  In short order, I would be on the straight road of Route 110, where I would attempt to find somebody’s wheel to suck.  After returning back on Route 110 and passing the Pentagon on its west side, it was time to focus on climbing the USAF Monument hill and enjoy a short flat section at the top where a DJ was regaling a small crowd with techno music.  After bombing down the hill (and avoiding any water bottles that may be there) the route returned to the potholed streets of Crystal City and a large crowd cheering cyclists on.  I did this 9+ mile course six times – enough for a gold medal.

There is one more incident to report, this one a mere half mile from the finish in Crystal City.  A woman didn’t see one of the many potholes in this section of the course and buried her front wheel in it.  She fell to the side, landing on her shoulder blade.  I stopped next to her and made sure she was ok.  She was looking herself over and was amazed to see no cuts.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t see the massive road rash on her shoulder blade (she was wearing a sleeveless jersey) which I could see.  Rather than draw too much attention to that, I focused instead on checking her bike and determined it was fine.  I mentioned to her that she would be feeling her shoulder in the morning and asked if she wanted medical attention.  She said she wanted to try to finish so I watched as she got on her bike and made sure she could pedal.  Then I went on my way to the finish, where I actually had enough energy left to do a proper sprint.  I’m not sure if Mark Cavendish (a world-class sprinter, for those who don’t follow the sport) would classify it as a “sprint,” but I was riding much faster than normal for me and using all my energy to do so, so I was pleased with the effort.

A classic look

A classic look

I ended up finishing two minutes slower than last year, which I thought was just fine.  I picked up my gold medal and was wandering over to the Shimano tent when I noticed a cyclist on the reviewing stand being interviewed by the announcer.  He was riding a steel-framed peugeot bicycle which he bought forty years ago and was decked out from head to toe in classic cycling garb, including an old-fashioned helmet, shoes, and a spare tube which he carried drapped over his shoulder.  Very neat.

As I approached the Shimano tent, I heard a voice shout, “Steve!  Steve!”  That being my name, I turned and met regular reader, Nene, who had just finished the ride himself.  It was really cool to be recognized by a reader in the middle of a crowd and we had a nice chat together.

Less grumpy at the finish

Less grumpy at the finish

After visiting with Nene, I reached the Shimano tent and once again thanked the mechanic who saved my day.  I then made my way back to my car and loaded up my bike for the ride home.  Thus concluded my third running of the USAF Crystal Ride.  It wasn’t my best time, but it certainly was an adventure before, during, and after the event.  2013’s ride ranks as my favorite of the three and I’m already looking forward to 2014!


15 thoughts on “USAF Crystal Ride, Part 2: The Ride

  1. This ride confounds me, I’m not sure i would do it. On one had I have to admit that passing slower cyclists is fun and it sounds like an awesome ride, but 1800 cyclists on a closed 9 mile course just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. If I were organizing this thing I’d think about releasing the riders in waves or something.

    Glad to see you made it through unscathed.

    • The obvious (to me, anyway) solution is to reduce the size of the field, but that would mean losing money for the charity that they are organizing the event for. Even with one large start, the fastest riders will lap the slowest (I finished 347th out of 1,800 and they lapped me at the end of Lap 4 – the slower riders much sooner) so no matter what, the field will get jumbled. I’ve thought changing the start to the long straightaway would help but its not easily reached from a logistical point of view.

      I was mentioned to work colleague this week that if I was responsible for the ride safety, I don’t think I could recommend conducting it in its current configuration. Crystal City’s roads are abysmal, there’s a very tricky turning and narrowing of the road at the base of the USAF monument, right where riders are at their fastest, and the field is very large with a wide disparity in talent and bike handling skills. I try not to think about those things too closely as I dash about the course. It’s a lot of fun, at least if you can remain upright.

  2. Great meeting you Steve! I really enjoy the Crystal Ride, but it’s definitely nervewracking. I passed the first fallen cyclist you spoke of and its kind of sad to think that his day was over in basically 5 minutes. The things that make the ride enjoyable are also what makes it dangerous, but I’ll definitely participate again next year.

  3. Quarters too close for me, I know that. Kudos to you … for your good finishing time and for avoiding pileups.

    I don’t dind a way to email you, but any hints for parking, or anything else to ride the bike path from Mt. Vernon to Roosevelt Islsnd? It sounds lovely, and I have a chance Thursday morning. Imagine you are at work?

    • You can park right at Mt. Vernon’s parking lot! The trail starts right at the entrance to Mt. Vernon. Unfortunately, I’ll be slaving away “for the man” on Thursday. Have fun – the weather is supposed to be great!

  4. Congrats on avoiding injury. That’s my absolute minimum criteria for any ride. Stopping to help the other rider was a class act: you should knock two minutes off your time for that.

    • I whole heartedly agree on your minimum criteria. I have actually deducted two minutes of stoppage time for the crash plus I have awarded myself a 30 minute “Good Samaritan Bonus” which has REALLY improved my average pace. Next year, I plan on stopping a couple of more times and I my “official” time should be around 100 mph!

    • Yeah, that didn’t work out so well. 🙂 Still, I am reminded of BikeSnob’s maxim that a bicycle really isn’t that complicated and it is very hard for a novice to ruin it to the point that a mechanic cannot fix it. I therefore will continue to (judiciously) fiddle with my machine.

  5. Great write up and I’m glad you avoided mishap. The only true way to reduce the confusion would be to lengthen the course, at least IMHO, 🙂 Then you would have less lapping and more room for the riders to spread out.

    • That’s probably correct. Unfortunately getting more closed roads in and around DC will be difficult and costly. They’ve improved the course over the 2011 version, which had more hairpins, and many of the roads have been freshly paved (with the notable exception of Crystal City). Despite this, it remains congested and the portions where riders double back on the route are especially bad in the first two laps.

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