East Coast Messenger Stage Race
Words by Erica Schwanke, Photography by Christopher Lee
On Friday September 19th I met Dave Yoha in terminal 3 of the San Francisco Airport. He was packing snacks into his sling bag for the long day of travel we had in front of us. If you know Dave, you know he needs a lot of snacks. I was nervously eating oatmeal and silently praying TSA was being gentle with my Cannondale. Before either of us said anything past ‘Good Morning,’ I knew we were both wondering the same thing: What the hell did we get ourselves into?
The answer was the 2014 East Coast Messenger Stage Race, or ECMSR for short. A DIY, honor-based stage race where teams of 4 start in one city, finish in another, and route themselves in between. Team Bionic Hamster (made up of myself, Dave, Chas Christiansen, and Marc Marino) had been quick to assemble in March and one of the first registered. 6 months prior to the start of the race, we were incredibly confident (cocky, some may say), certain we’d crush the race.
September had been a busy month for all of us. Marc was just back from the Red Hook Crit in Barcelona and the other three of us were fresh off planes from the NACCC. I was starting to feel uncertain. For me, thats how this works. I book a plane ticket while full of stoke but as soon as I start packing my bike I find myself questioning my training, nervously studying maps, and wondering if I’m mentally prepared. That is up until the morning of the race.
Marc was already in Washington DC, ‘gramming about his Dunkin Donuts runs and city loops, while Chas was making his way to across the country via another airline and learning the perils of a double layover (no one wants to get stuck in Lansing, MI). Between downing free pretzels and wiping drool off my face, I rambled to Dave about being nervous about the days ahead. After a brief layover and some mediocre nachos in Atlanta we landed in DC, right on time.
I woke up the next morning, like always, ready to get started. Finally together in DC, the team ate breakfast, kitted up, and rolled to a bike shop to fix any last minute travel glitches before heading to the start of Stage 1, a 10 mile Time Trial in Haines Point. Or, as Dave said, “Oh yeah, that spot overlooking the Fruit of a Loom Precipice.”
The TT was a pretty straight forward course with two 90 degree turns on one end and a gentle semi-circle on the other. Knowing that I had a gnarly week ahead of me I took it easy, using the pre-ride and TT as a time to spin out my legs from the long day of travel. Chas & Marc had other ideas and hammered through, claiming the top spots on the podium.
Austin, donning cowboy boots that would prove to be detrimental (ask him how his knee is doing), grilled some burgers on the side of the support vehicle - a rattle canned pick-up with a camper on the back. After we snacked we dipped out to play tourist, taking in the Air & Space Museum and Lincoln Memorial, eventually making our way back to our hosts house and settling into what would become a week long routine of shower, eat, and rest for the next day.
Stage 2 started early the next day and we started this morning like we would the next six: coffee, toast, eggs, kit, more coffee, pack, and roll to the start (with a crucial Dunkin stop squeezed in somewhere, of course). We met at a bike shop near Logan Circle and, on Austin’s mark, started to roll out of town.
From here, I started what would become my personal ECMSR routine: I’d start the day with the pack, holding on to different wheels as we busted out of the city and onto the poorly signed country roads of the eastern seaboard. I’d hold my own until we hit the first real rollers, and after a few attacks a few of us would get popped out the back. Once losing sight of the front pack I’d pull out the route, memorize the turns, and turn up the headphones. Stage 2 totaled 58.5 miles with 4,100 feet of climbing. Considering the stages ahead we called it an easy day and made it to Baltimore in time for lunch.
Stage 3 took us from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Our route totaled at 116 miles with 8,600 of elevation and just like Stage 2 I started with the pack. At about 40 miles in the few riders in the front pushed it hard up the first hill and soon I found myself preparing for a long day solitude, occulting between singing whatever was in my headphones and giving myself little pep talks, “You are doing this, Erica. You’re totally doing this.” I rolled into Philly just shy of 7 hours after the start to find Chas & Marc at the top of the podium once again.
The good news however was mixed with a hard realization. After comparing routes with the rider in third (and who’d eventually claim 2nd in the GC) we learned that while his route was 4 miles longer than ours, it had 2,000 fewer feet of elevation. Though we took 1st and 2nd in the stage that day, our team learned a very important lesson: routing will win or lose this race. Actually, we learned two important lessons. The second being that in Philadelphia you can order a 28 inch pizza, but maybe pass on the cheese fries.
Leaving Philly the next morning marked the start of Stage 4, and unfortunately for us, the end of Team Bionic Hamsters Quest for Victory. Now, I could ramble on for awhile about the four flats my team saw that day, the hazards of routing through unmarked and poorly paved roads, how Dave had to force feed Marc a box of cookies in rural New Jersey, or that somewhere deep in the woods I may have thrown a little tantrum. Instead, I’ll just say this: We blew it. After 10 hours on the bike I pulled into Brooklyn exhausted, filthy, and with legs that hurt to the touch. I was ready to give up.
The next morning moral was low. So low even the finest of New York bagels and schmear couldn’t raise it. When we’d started Stage 4, Marc was sitting in 2nd overall, less than a minute 1st place. At the end, he was over an hour down. Stage 5 was to take us from New York to New Haven, an ‘easy day’ with 80 miles and 3,000 ft. We packed our things, threw out the impressive pile of Chinese take out containers we’d amassed the night before, said goodbye to our host’s three-legged french bulldog, and rolled to King Kog Bike Shop.
Leaving New York, it became apparent that the shift had changed. The day before the team went out hot, united, and confident. Today, while Marc went with the main pack, Chas, Dave, and I split off, taking a different route out of the city. We settled into a pace line and fought the headwind together until Dave spotted a Dunkin and we stopped for coffee and donuts. By the time we made it to New Haven we’d spun out the frustrations of the day before and fully refueled on PMA. Getting into town early meant extra recovery time so we spent the evening watching cable in the hotel, passing bags of Munchkins and practicing our best Keanu impressions. “Your stepmom is cute, though.”
Stage 6 was the Queens Stage. Rested, I made my way down to breakfast first to catch the weather forecast and over the beautiful sizzle of a hotel waffle machine heard the following: cold rain and wind with the occasional 40 mile-an-hour gust. After everyone made it down for coffee and multiple bowls of cereal, we weighed our options. Fight like hell to finish the stage on the podium or do what we set out to do and ride together.
The race started well for us as we left New Haven and settled into the pack, but it was short lived. 10 miles in I heard the familiar hiss of air leaving a tire and saw Chas pull off to the side of the road with Dave following. Not wanting to fight the wind alone, Marc and I decide to stay with the pack. Then, 7 miles later, I hear a loud pop and this time Marc pulled to the side, his tired ruined. Knowing I had a spare, I hopped off my bike with Marc and by the time we’d fixed his flat, Chas & Dave had caught us. We were cold, tired, frustrated and 17 miles into a 145 mile day. We knew there was only one solution: donuts.
The remaining 130 miles were tempered by playful conversation, high fives, and heckling while we fought the seemingly endless headwinds. We took time to outwardly ponder things like ‘why aren’t there more songs about taking it easy?’ and discuss the finer points of one of life’s biggest challenges: peeing while on the bike. And while I fought threw leg cramps and mentally getting myself over yet another set of rollers by the time we hit Boston, 145 miles later, we were all smiles.
The next morning we gossiped over coffee, collected in the bathroom for a group toothbrushing, and made our way to the 7th and final stage, a 15 mile uphill time trial. With morale recovered, Chas and Marc went for victory and once again hammered their way to the top of the podium, claiming 1st and 2nd in the final stage, respectively. And just like the first day in DC, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Boston, snaking, and tormenting Marc. (That was a pretty sick soul patch, bud.)
Though we were all relieved to spend the next day off the bike, it was bittersweet. Those 7 days were some of the hardest I’ve spent on a bike and it certainly had its low points (we all went to some pretty dark places in rural New Jersey) but its not everyday you get to spend a week crossing the eastern seaboard with three of your best friends. Team Bionic Hamster was a deep, beautiful (though smelly) pool of all-day PMA, terrible jokes, good looks. and some of the keenest eyes on the east coast (not everyone can spot that beautiful pink and orange at 500 feet like these hungry Californians). Until next year. In short, we ran on Dunkin.