I love feed zones. They are opportunities for riders to take refuge and stock. That is, they are a sort of mental landing in the stairway, a brief pause that allows a rider to tell himself no matter how things have been, they just got better. But because they are a chance to take stock, they can also be a point of reckoning, an accounting that reminds you there’s another lap (or two) to go. I’ve seen riders hit the feedzone and just pull over because they knew, they knew another lap wasn’t in the legs.
Standing in the feedzone presents a unique reversal of roles. Suddenly, the person on the side of the road is no longer just a spectator, that warm body is a kind of participant. From listening to what the riders are asking for to locating discarded bottles, filling them back up, taping gels to them or maybe adding a rider’s favorite drink mix, the role of feed angel can be pivotal in a race.
Watching the ballet of bike and feeder connect is a breathless eternity. Threading bikes, arms extended into peloton, pedal strokes that pause, start and pause again, that crashes aren’t an inevitable part of the routine seems to defy logic. And then there’s the mayhem that ensues if someone attacks in the feed zone.
But the feedzone attack is a move of desperation, without class and the equivalent of throwing the bus under the bus. Attack in the feedzone and your stock in friendship gets de-listed. You aren’t so much short on friends as replete with enemies. The only surer route to PNG status is to hook someone’s wheel at the front of the bunch and take down the whole group, and that is harder to do than keeping Lindsay Lohan in rehab.
However, no act in the feed zone is more necessary, better defines the need of the racer in a long race, illustrates the role team management and strategy can play than the hand-up. Anyone who has ever been subject to a hand-up from a newbie knows how they can go wrong. That stiff arm and talon clutch have seen more bottles knocked into the peloton than you could manage with a golf club and a driving range. Amazing how some people just don’t want to let go.
I love watching the hand-up by an experienced soigneur. To most of the world, they simply stick an arm out and the rider grabs the bottle. But run the coverage in slow motion and you notice how the arm makes a little arc in the milliseconds before the rider grabs the bottle. Magicians should move with such speed and subtlety.
At a long circuit race some years ago I bounced two bottles into weeds on successive laps. We were allowed to take feeds, but because most guys in the race didn’t have anyone to feed them, they were carrying a third bottle in their jerseys. Consequently, we weren’t slowing down in the feed. At 25 mph—the pace I slowed to try to get the feed—it’s difficult to grab a bottle, even in the best circumstances.
Twice I got the straight arm, talon grip. And with the bottle gripped in its middle, there was no place for me to grab, other than the top, and it would pop off just before the whole bottle went flying.
Finally, a teammate with boatloads of experience stepped in. The teammate was none other than Mark Whitehead, an Olympian and 20-time national champion. He saw me coming, held up the bottle then began running. As I neared, he turned to begin running backward and told me, “Take it into your chest.” As he did that, he mimicked the move. Then he held out the bottle by its neck with a grip delicate enough not to wrinkle paper. I still don’t know how he conveyed so much in what couldn’t have lasted two full seconds.
I took the bottle from his hand with the ease of another rider handing it to me. A lap later, he gave me another, though this time I slowed down less and he didn’t utter a word.
For those who don’t know, Mark died recently. He was only 50. He’s got kids, all of them young. Mark was known as a fierce competitor; he was also known for his conflicts. Only Kaddafi has crossed more people.
He was active as a coach and his current and former clients had closets-full of stars-and-stripes jerseys. When I think of what the cycling world has lost, what his family has lost, I think of that hand-up. He cared for racing so much he’d do repeated wind sprints just to see someone fed well enough to contest the sprint. Most remember him as a larger-than-life figure. And he was, but that wasn’t his whole story. Mark’s hidden strength was his delicate touch.
He could have handed me an unbroken egg that day.