Amateurs race their Tour de France in America's Dairyland
Hours before the crowds build 10-deep, the cash prizes hit $1,000 and the podium girls purse their lips for the pro cyclists in the Tour of America's Dairyland, the project managers, accountants and office grinders fulfill their bike racer dreams.
For them, the amateurs, a summer vacation is 11 days of sweat, white-knuckles and stories to tell through the winter.
"It's like a baseball fantasy camp," explained Al Krueger, a 35-year-old father of two, who returned to the peloton after a six-year career hiatus.
I found Krueger early Thursday afternoon under a bit of shade outside the historic Weill Center in downtown Sheboygan. His teammates from KS Energy Services Team Wisconsin Cycling were working up a sweat around him, merely checking tires and pulling on their jerseys for day nine of the TOAD series.
They were preparing to turn laps on the one-mile criterium course in the masters 3/4 race, a 50-minute battle at 30-mph in 90-degree heat, and one of the seven races on the undercard leading into the pro women's and pro men's contests in the evening.
Those amateur races, divided into categories based on age, experience and performance, draw hundreds of middle-aged athletes from around the country; men and women with shaved legs, expensive bikes and day jobs.
What draws them to leave home and family for 11 days in Wisconsin?
"Intensity and adrenaline," said Steve Borski, a firefighter from Houston, Texas. "You have to grit your teeth, take a risk here and there, and get through it.
"It's the only thing I wish I could do other than being a firefighter."
Borski trains on his bike for roughly 12 to 15 hours a week to ready himself for the Cat. 2 races, one step below the pro level in the Dairyland tour.
For the hundreds like him, those training hours are part of a delicate balancing act, time on the bike fit between jobs and family.
The tour gives them the payback: a chance to race one day after another, much like the heroes they watch in the Tour de France and follow in the Velo News.
"This is the first racing I've done all year," said Ric Damm, coach of the Ripon Red Hawks college cycling team and the school's director of publications. "The weekends are filled with family obligations; baseball games for my son."
Damm has enjoyed success in the Cat. 3/4 races in the masters division for the 35+ crowd. A couple second place finishes put him on the podium, sans the girls in bright yellow dresses, but with a satisfying sense of accomplishment.
Others come to pursue simper rewards.
"I started with a smile and I finished with a smile," said Hannah Stonefield, 27, from the Early Bird Developmental Cycling Team based in Northern California. "Today was my fourth criterium and I finished with the pack."
Coach Laurel Green has brought the Early Bird women to the TOAD series in each of its four years. It's an investment in time and money to take their cycling to the next level.
"They have access to riders who maybe have more experience, and they have to adapt to people from other states," she said.
Or, as one Early Bird chuckled, "throw up in your mouth."
The riders taking the start line as the sun approaches its peak are a mix of newcomers like Stonefield, veterans who have decades of healed road rash and the juniors just starting to find their way in a demanding sport.
"It may seem weird but it's what I love to do," said 17-year-old Nathan Labecki, a recent St. Francis High School graduate. "You work hard and accomplish something, win a race or have one of my teammates win a race."
Labecki, a member of the ISCorp junior team, will race collegiately as Marian University and pursue cycling as far as he can, to the pro ranks, if possible. If not, it's likely he'll be like Krueger and his fellow 35+ racers, gathering under a small awning, relishing the daily surge of intensity.
Even at 17, he seems to understand: "When you really get attached to a sport like cycling, you can do it forever."
End note: The Tour of America's Dairyland returns to Milwaukee on Saturday for the ISCorp Downer Classic. The junior races start at 10:35 a.m. and the pro races start at 6 p.m.
For the personal tale of amateur racer and father Steve Smith, check out TheActivePursuit.com.
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