Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Human Powered Rollercoaster

Let's take a trip back in time, to the late '90s.  I am a big fat bike messenger and happy as a clam.  I jump on an aeroplane and land in Rochester, New York, my home town.

I ride to my Grammy's house and spend the night.  She insists I bring my bike into her carpeted living room and work on it there and explain every little thing I'm doing.  She makes me feel so smart, even though all I'm doing is putting the wheels and pedals back on and pumping up the tires and adjusting the handlebars.

Grammy was a Great Lady and the result of an out-of-wedlock conception.  My mother told me the story about the big scandal and how my great grandma ran away with my great grandpa to elope and live their lives far away in shame.  She made one last call home and my great-great grandma, her mother, answered the phone and insisted they come home for a proper wedding.

Back to the 1990s and my date with a certain bike race in Toronto.  I take a bus over the border at Niagara Falls, weekend destination of my childhood.  I meet up with friends at the hostel before riding over to the venue - a large warehouse rented by the race sponsors, Dunhill Tobacco and JetFuel Coffee.  Bike messengers from near and far will be racing in this giant space over the weekend, on a thing called the Human Powered Rollercoaster - or the HPR.

I'll never forget my first glimpse of the HPR.  Built out of plywood and two by fours, it doesn't look quite real.  Or maybe it looks too real.  Gritty.  Not polished or varnished or finished really.  hand-built by a team of I don't know who.  Exposed everything.  A figure eight with a bridge and tunnel.  Small, with tight turns.  A plywood tarmac.  My heart started beating very fast.

Inside one loop of the figure eight: a band.  Very loud.  Inside the other loop: spectators, racers, fans.  I found the line for registered riders and queued up.  I was in Canada so I had to queue up instead of wait in line impatiently like Americans do.  When I mentioned earlier that I was a big fat bike messenger, I meant it.  I was pretty hefty at that time, nowhere near the svelte self I've worked so hard to sculpt out of that other big and burly, but powerful, body.
The HPR Alley Cat Scramble jersey, which I still own and even wear occasionally, was quite tight and exposed every little bulge.  Self-consciously, I stripped down and started over, this time putting my jersey and shorts on first, then covering it all with a black jumper dress that was my favorite thing then.

I pre-rode the track, which wasn't really a track.  It was more of a roller coaster.  I was on a fixed gear, as was the fashion then.  The banks and tight turns were unforgiving and my little KHS frame, you know, the one with the curved seat tube, had some pretty extreme toe overlap.  It made for an adrenaline-filled experience.

One of the organizers waved me over.  "You can't wear anything that covers the jersey".  Sentences that begin with "you can't" don't sit well with me now, much back then in my hyper punk rock rebel f the police days.  I asked to talk to the main organizer, head honcho, top guy.  I was escorted to an office in the back of the warehouse.  There was a very official looking official dude, I think he might've been wearing a suit, or maybe it just felt like he was.  He was on the phone and waved for me to sit down.  After a heated discussion with whoever was on the other end, he asked me what the problem was.

I went ahead and tried the honest route.  I told him I felt really fat-looking in the jersey and wanted to wear my jumper over it.  I modeled for him to demonstrate that the sponsor logos still showed beneath the jumper's straps.  He nodded at me and said with a smile "of course you can wear your jumper over the jersey".  Then he asked if I planned to race in the black chunky heeled loafers I had on.  Yes.

One of the other ladies in my heat crashed.  She wasn't badly injured, but it enabled me to move on to the next round.  I won again, but that was the last time and I was happy to get off of that scary track.  Many talented riders ate wood that weekend.  There was blood on the track, and that's no story.  One dude, piled headfirst into the bridge support and was taken out in an ambulance.  He came back later with his jaw wired shut, drinking beer through a straw.
I have been lucky many many times in my life, and part of that luck is getting a front row seat in events that are later heralded as historic.  Months later, someone sent me a clipping from a Toronto magazine.  I was named as having won "Best in Show" because of my outfit.  That was the first I time I had heard of it, but it helped explain the small box of goodies I was given at the event.

An apparent tradition at this event, for this was the second time it was set up, was for the racers to tear down all of the vinyl banners to take as souvenirs after the last race.  A security guard wrenched the banner from my hand, bent my arm behind my back and escorted me outside.  I was enraged, but within seconds, he got a call on the radio.  He let go of me, apologized, and handed back the banner.
A seamstress friend made the banner into a jumper dress to wear in the Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC) in DC the following year.  I didn't win anything, but that same friend made the filmy silver supertar dress that won me "Best Dressed Messenger" at the CMWC in Barcelona in '97.  The CMWC continues to this day, in a different country each year.  This race is completely organized by that city's messengers, who volunteer many hours to put on an event that includes not just a race, but alley cats and film festivals and art showings and concerts - all showcasing the talent stockpiled within the bike messenger community.

The Human Powered Rollercoaster, sadly, is no more.  Some sort of Canadian law was introduced that prohibited tobacco companies from sponsoring athletic events, and that was that.

However, not all was lost.  Lifetimes later, here in Portland, Oregon, a local company known as Portland Design Works housed a very tight-turned round wooden track, reminiscent of the HPR but in a figure zero.  They named it Circulus and it was thrilling to watch racers on BMX bikes ride around and around and around this very steep-banked, tiny and tantalizing little track.