Teammate Mike Friedman pointed me in the right direction, and I finally found Eric in a customary pre-race position, seated on a nylon chair outside the team trailer parked in the shade in proximity to the Start Line. Pro cyclists relax as much as possible on the morning of a big race and they stay off their feet too. I got introduced to several people who would be racing that day. Nationals are open to any pro rider with an American racing license, so there were eleven Optum guys suited up. However only five of the men would finish the race, a grueling course going up Lookout Mountain and back down through Chattanooga four times for a total distance of 100.6 miles.
Dying to know who won? Spoiler here.
I’d driven Rt. 41 to Chattanooga, TN, for the Memorial Day cycling road race national championship. Tom Zirbel had already won the men’s pro Individual Time Trial on Saturday (solo, race-against-the-clock, tucked onto aero bars, and wearing the skin suit and pointy slipstream helmet), so the team had a major success to celebrate with more to come.
I arrived on Memorial Day due to a stop in Bloomington, IN, a necessary detour that made me spend Sunday night in Clarksville with another three hours to drive to the race.
Optum Pro Cycling is Eric’s new team for this year, and it’s a big team with sixteen men. Unlike Bissell Pro Cycling there is an Optum women’s team of ten riders. That makes a lot of new faces for me to learn. Besides riders there are also the Team Director Jonas plus the mechanics, and the soigneurs. Bissell was a small nuclear family, but Optum more of an extended network with the ability to field teams at three different events at once, including international races. Most of the Optum riders are Americans but several Canadians and New Zealanders are in the mix. Eric is one of the younger and of course newer Optums but already has close friendships with several others especially guys who were in Spain together in March. Plus Mike Sherer who lived at the Bloomington house with Eric two years ago.
I’d arrived in Chattanooga in plenty of time, but in typical fashion for me I’d parked at the wrong hotel after spending an hour trying to navigate the closed-off streets, so it felt nice to see Friedman and find the actual team. Optum’s Jade Wilcoxson and Lauren Hall had already finished one-two for the women’s National Championship in the morning, but the hand-cranked race (recumbent bikes modified for pedaling by arm strength) was still finishing on the course. It was a race highlight for USA Cycling especially since some of the top competitors are veterans.
Once the men started I had time to chat with spectators about having a pro racer in the family and about Civil War memorabilia being found in demo houses up on Lookout Mountain. Armed with ice-cold sweet tea (and a cowbell) courtesy of race-sponsor VW I started walking the route, making my way to the walking bridge over the Tennessee River.
Chattanooga’s Walnut Street Bridge, built in 1890, is now a pedestrian walkway with a surface of wooden beams. I thought they might race along it, but instead I had to time my crossing (it’s about a half-mile long) so as not to miss a lap. The race was coming back into town about every 35 minutes on four loops, giving me plenty of time in between to cross the bridge, one of the most historic in the US. Go here for Yelp review of this scenic wonder.
But it’s not only famous for scenery. In 1906 the Walnut Street Bridge figured in the only criminal court case ever conducted by the United States Supreme Court. The feds were prosecuting a local sheriff for contempt. He maintained his innocence of any culpability in not preventing an abduction and lynching from his jail. The lynching took place on the bridge which was then the only link from white Chattanooga to the “colored section” of town. Because of the jail design the process of removing the innocent Ed Johnson (he was cleared of the charges many years later) had taken a disorganized mob over two hours to accomplish, in which time the sheriff and his jailer had not called for help or fired a shot. The Supreme Court ruled the sheriff responsible for dereliction of duty with a sentence of ninety days incarceration, also establishing the power of the Court to oversee criminal capital cases.
The Sunday after the crime occurred a local pastor delivered a biting commentary on Chattanooga (definitely worth two minutes to read here). Then his house got torched.
Next: Eric’s race