By: Cal Weisman, Living Sport Milan 2018 Participant & Student at Bradley University
“Move, Move, Move. Get out of the way,” I hear Kacey hollering at the top of her lungs to the cyclists looking for their starting grid positions. Subconsciously I immediately follow her lead, not sure what’s going on. Soon, I see. The race had just started and like dominos, a mass of cyclists in the middle of the pack crashed to the ground, tumbling on top of one another. The crowd is gasping. We are sprinting onto the course only to turn our heads and see in the distance behind us, the front group of riders, zooming around the corner at more than 35 MPH into the straightaway to end their first lap – right where we are standing. The race had been called for a restart, but the riders rode through the stoppage warnings.
ZIP, ZIP, ZIP. “They are getting closer,” Kacey yells out as we hear the sounds of the approaching bikes. Meanwhile, the majority of the 80 cyclists in this third qualifying heat are lining up to restart in the middle of the start/finish line area. Kacey seems calm like she has seen this exact scenario play out a million times. I am however terrified for the danger of what is about to happen. Nevertheless, the energy is intoxicating. This is a sight to be a part of. With not a second to spare, we move the riders enough out of the way for the front riders to pass through. Safety at last - PHEW! Those are ten seconds that will be forever ingrained in my mind.
When I heard from a fellow employee that Kacey’s role on race day was to “put out fires wherever necessary,” I wasn’t sure what that entailed. In that ten-second sequence of events, I clearly understood the reason, and saw the respect she commanded among her Red Hook Criterium colleagues. As a more than ten-year professional cyclist who won the inaugural Red Hook Crit in Brooklyn, New York in 2008, today, Kacey serves as the Assistant Race Director of the Red Hook Crit. Needless to say, she knows a thing or two about bike racing. As part of the Living Sport program, I was given a golden opportunity to shadow her throughout the event, serving under her direction in race control. We were tasked with guiding the athletes through the logistics of this high-speed, highly competitive race.
When starting my role on race day, I recalled event management advice I had been given in the past, that no matter how busy you get behind the scenes, “What the audience will see is a world-class event.” My goal that day was to take in as much as I could from Kacey and other Red Hook Crit staff members about the sport of cycling and event management. Panos Sinopoulos - a business development leader from Athens and the Red Hook Crit Volunteer and Logistics Coordinator - provided pivotal information to us that day, “Ride it out. Enjoy the highs, stay aboard through the lows.” I took this to heart and used it as my mentality when approaching unfamiliar situations in this fast-paced environment. Which were many, considering we were communicating with athletes and spectators who spoke little to no English.
Working this event flashed my mind back to all of the cycling experiences I’ve had in my life up to this day. I grew up in a family that loves to ride bikes, including competing in triathlons (my Mom!). I learned at a young age that races are about so much more than biking. They are about passion and purpose. I understood this even more during summer 2017 when I interned for Pedal The Cause, a fundraising cycling challenge for cancer research based in Saint Louis, Missouri. At Pedal, I learned about all things bike-related: riding, fixing, distances, terms, etc. I joined in team ride days where we spent 30 miles talking, laughing, bonding and feeling a sense of accomplishment together. Most importantly, I experienced moments that wouldn’t come about in the traditional office environment. Like seeing the support for a 12-year old girl during a bell ringing ceremony who fought to rid herself of cancer.
Here I am now, I think. Two years after interning for Pedal. With a front row seat to the action. Inspired by yet another type of passion and purpose for cycling. In front of me are amateur riders, Olympian riders – all with full on kits, aerodynamic helmets. Each athlete seems like superman to me – athletically gifted, disciplined and accomplished. They are putting their bodies on the line. They are fueled by their hearts and their dreams to become the best of themselves, to push their limits physically and mentally. But still these are real people; real challenges; striving; crashing; getting back up and never giving up – it reminded me of the resilience and determination of 12-year old girl at Pedal. I look out into the crowd and see the passion burning in their eyes. I take in the view of the anxious fans standing five-deep alongside the course waiting for the gun to go off for the final race. My teammate Max, who’s kept me going all day with his jokes and positivity, whispers to me, “This one is for all the marbles.” As the rider introductions are starting, 15 hours after we began this morning, I know I am in my element.
The day following this incredible event experience, I found myself sitting next to Panos Sinopoulos. Thinking of my goal to take in all the knowledge I could through others, I began asking Panos about his career path. He shared with me his love for the sport of cycling, the discipline, and this specific Red Hook Crit event. Even mentioning to me that his excitement wouldn’t be the same working for an event like Tour de France. With each response, his genuine enthusiasm for what he is doing allowed me to connect with him deeper. Moving me to think, working for what you’re passionate about is a special opportunity.
My other crew manager who I spent a lot of time with was Alex from Barcelona, Spain. Alex I learned had gone to undergrad at University of Missouri – Kansas City, a college four hours from my hometown, on a soccer scholarship. He started with Red Hook Crit four years prior as a volunteer because he is a former racer and bike enthusiast. He was a hard worker and a quick learner. The organization invited him back for the past two years in a consultant role and key crew leader. I was inspired by his mentality, positivity and drive, and his genuine love for the environment and people associated with the event. Again, finding that passion was the fuel to growing his position.
I mentioned to Alex I had a few extra travel days following the Living Sport program. He invited me to stay with him and his wife, Madeira in Barcelona. Excitedly, I took him up on his generous offer. He was a gracious host and tour guide. Spending three full days showing me the city sights like Park Güell, La Sagrada Familia and Bunkers Carmel, and sharing the history of Spain and his ownlife. Alex and Madeira even cooked traditional Spanish cuisine for me - Tortilla de Patatas and Pa Amb Tomaquet. And taught me how to navigate Barcelona by foot, car, moped and bike. I could not believe my good fortune. Building a relationship with Alex during the Red Hook Crit, translated into me being given an opportunity to come to his home for a true local Barcelona experience. Through all of this, Alex quickly became a role model in my life.
After ten days of working a large-scale international sporting event, meeting people from all over the world, furthering my career goals -- I was inspired. I had watched the peloton (cycling term for the main group of riders) whiz by again and again in perfect formations, with their speed creating a wind that blew me away - literally. I could not help but ask myself then and now: What is possible for me? How can I challenge myself to improve? To Grow? To Seek? To Dream?
I realized one of the most important aspects of growing is the connections you make and the knowledge and experience that come from these relationships. When you have an opportunity to meet people, take it. Putting myself out there isn’t always easy, but through the Living Sport program, I made it my goal to strike up conversations with everyone around me. And especially to pick the brains of the sport industry professionals. The program and these relationships I built have given me a widely expanded personal and professional network around the globe. It’s given me new mentors to help further my career wherever that takes me. And through it all, it’s given me a unique story to tell. I can’t wait to see what new cycling experience and local excursion I find myself in next.