It's only 11 a.m. on an August morning, and the humidity has
already settled in to downtown Indianapolis with a spiteful thickness. Adam
Leibovitz meanders across Massachusetts Avenue on his $4,000 bicycle at a
wobbly six miles an hour. He is smiling and ambivalent to the unsavory weather
(and the downtown traffic) like a kid trying out his new bike on Christmas
morning. His friend Joe Kukolla is down the street, being pleasantly
professional in the shade.
Both cyclists are excited, despite the choking heat and
impending duel between them; on Saturday, these Marian University teammates and
lifelong friends will be racing against each other in the main event of the
Mass Ave Criterium, Indiana's cycling event and the state criterium
Kukolla, slightly older than Leibovitz, makes conversation,
explaining the nuances and technology of the tool of his trade. Leibovitz plays
the part of the little brother to humorously perfect detail, occasionally dropping
in jokes for brevity while riding small circles around Kukolla's stationary
Growing up two houses from one another in Indianapolis, the
duo are now teammates for the Marian University cycling team. Over the last
several years, they have won national championships, traveled the world, won,
lost and bled together.
But the competitive world of Category 1 cycling is one that
requires a battle for the best sponsorships and constantly evolving team
rosters. As a result, even the best of friends are rivals on race days.
Roll of the dice
While Leibovitz and Kukolla have a camaraderie that
transcends the spoils of their two-wheeled wars, they will only be two in a
crowd of great athletes on Saturday. The racecourse will take them around the
Mass Ave cultural district, as they negotiate fierce corners at 25 to 30 mph.
It's impossible to tell who is the better rider, and who has
a better chance to be adorned in flowers and champagne. "It's a roll of the
dice," Kukolla says, though ranked slightly higher than Leibovitz in the
Category 1 Men's Criterium state rankings (5th and 10th, respectively).
Kukolla's prudence comes at the expense of a critical
component of brotherhood that is lacking in their relationship: sibling
They both claim that even on their afternoon rides as
children, they never raced. If it is a lie, it is a well coordinated one.
"There's never really been a 'competition' between us, per se," Kukolla says.
"Even during [summer] races we kind of end up working
together," Leibovitz adds.
From the cradle to the Criterium
"It worked out great," Kukolla says of the two cyclists'
parallel paths from childhood to international success. "We'd get out of school
at three o'clock and just go out and ride in the country for three hours."
Many years and thousands of miles down the road, they ended
up cycling together for Marian University, the nation's elite collegiate
cycling team. Their post-secondary choices were more a product of each young
man being drawn toward the school itself, rather than one another.
"[At Marian] we're doing two races every weekend, so we have
a lot of races under our belt," Kukolla says. "Which is good, because by the
time we get to our regular races [in the summer] we're ready to go."
They have spent the summer of 2010 doing what most college
kids dream of: driving around the country in a burgundy minivan, getting paid
(modestly) to do what they love, while having loads of fun and misadventures
along the way.
"We don't pick up too many hitchhikers or anything," Kukolla
says — before one small addendum from Leibovitz: "Unless they're good
lookin'," he says with a smile.
The slinky effect strategy
The over-90-degree-angle turns of the Mass Ave Crit create a
unique challenge for riders; what Leibovitz calls the "Slinky-effect." When one
rider slows or brakes to negotiate one of the two vicious turns on the course,
all other riders must slow down in turn, making for an impassable traffic jam
for anyone who falls from the front.
Because of the sharp corners on the course, created by Mass
Ave's diagonal trajectory, it is imperative for riders to get to the front
early, and stay there — to avoid having to come to a near-stop, then burn
all of their energy getting back up to 25 mph after each turn.
Even if Leibovitz or Kukolla wanted to offer a straight
prediction on the outcome, it would be nearly impossible because of the
course's layout. But Kukolla has some general insight into who could be at the
front for the final straightaway toward the finish line, just outside the
Chatterbox jazz club.
"The Panther team of course will be up there," he says,
adding "And the NUVO guys; Eric Young has been riding great."
Last year, Kukolla finished well at the MAC, and his
teammate John Grant took the win. But Leibovitz — fresh off of two trips
to Europe — was burnt out from a rigorous summer of races all over the
world, and did not finish.
This year, he is thrilled to be a part of the marquee
cycling event in his hometown. "I'm so pumped for this race," he says. "It will
be such a cool atmosphere; it's classic American-style crit racing."
The extra gear
The 19-year-old sophomore is a team player, if anything; but
a pushover he is not. About six weeks ago at a race in Fitchburg, Va.,
Leibovitz was thrown from his bike when another rider dumped over in front of
him, and he went directly downward, without an opportunity to take the fall at
an angle or roll into it.
He describes the pain on his blog: "I couldn't breath [sic],
I couldn't pedal with my left leg, and I couldn't hold onto the bars with my
left hand/arm. I waited for the group to come back around, hung in with them
and finished at the back." Sometimes finishing is more impressive than winning.
Kukolla once went into a curb at 30 mph, flew through the
air and — like a scene from a cartoon — slammed his head into an
ice cream truck, setting the vehicle in motion. Yet he and Leibovitz ride on;
sometimes as confederates in the blue and gold of Marian University, sometimes
in red, white and blue jerseys for national teams, and sometimes head-to-head.
Even though neither of them will admit which one is the
better rider, it is clear they would not be nearly as good as they are without
the other to push forward through the road rash. "Our goal is to both be
professional cyclists at some point, but if that doesn't happen, it's been a
great road anyway," says Leibovitz. "That's why we do it: the adventures and
"It's all about
seeing how hard you can push yourself; some days you can just find that extra
gear that you didn't know you had...even though that hardly ever happens. But,
because you're racing Mass Ave right in front of your hometown crowd," Kukolla
says, "Maybe that day you have it."
Ryan Knapp: Rules of the road
The history between Adam Leibovitz and Joe Kukolla is
uncommon amongst opponents, but almost every rider in a regional Category 1
race has a reputation that precedes him. Many cyclists will see each other in
several races a year, and that recurring competition creates a mutual respect,
as well as a self-governed system of checks and balances, which keeps the
punches above the belt. Mostly.
Ryan Knapp, the scrappy "all-rounder" of Team Panther, is
ranked 4th in Indiana among Category 1 Criterium cyclists, and knows the rules
of the road as well as anyone.
"There are a bunch of little unwritten rules," he says. "No
matter what level you're racing at, you're going to be racing with the same
people a lot. So if you develop a reputation of riding like an idiot, people
are going to see you."
Aware of his 140-pound frame, he leaves violence out of
retribution. But he has no problem making several miles of racing intolerable
for any offenders.
"I'll verbally abuse them for a while," he says, with a
straight sense of justification. "Fights between bike racers are terrible
anyway. I would rather harass them for the next 20 miles... most people I know
enough of their back-story that I can make fun of them."
Especially in a race like the Mass Ave Criterium, with its
tight turns and short route, the code of honor is paramount to the riders'
Some cyclists handle the close quarters better than others.
A former teammate of Knapp's once suffered a severe crash during a training
ride, in which a bike chain ripped a gash from the corner of his mouth up to
his eye. He never fully recovered.
Knapp has been a more fortunate with his safety, and as a
result has inordinate confidence within the pack, for better or worse. He will
need it on Saturday's tightly packed triangle-shaped course, which meets the
bare minimum regulations for course size.
"I feel comfortable at the end of a race with like 150 guys
in close quarters. You'll get to a point where you just stick your fingers out
from the handle bar and they go right into the hip of a guy who's leaning into
"Maybe I'm more willing to risk my life than others at the
end of a race — whether that's a good quality or not."
In the red
The breaking point for a cyclist is a universally
experienced test of will; a place where most of us might go once or twice a
decade, when the dog escapes through the front door or you have to push your
car to the gas station. You start to feel your heart beat in your temple, your
legs wobble under your own weight and your insides boil.
There is a litany of terms to describe it, all of them
clearly understood amongst cyclists. "In the red," "burning a match," "over the
limit," and a personal favorite of Leibovitz 's— "done-zo."
That feeling is what Knapp and Leibovitz love most about
racing. The difference is that while Leibovitz wants it for himself — to
find that "extra gear," Knapp wants to impose it on others.
"I want to crush people's hopes and dreams," Knapp says,
"You have this physiological threshold in your body," he
adds, "where it starts producing lactic acid faster than your body can consume
it—you burn it up, so your muscles start filling with lactic acid...once
you get to that point it's hard to recover."
With a 40+ mph sprint down the final straightaway of the
Mass Ave Criterium, there is certainly going to be a breaking point that will
determine who has the extra gear, and who is done-zo.
Breaking away: Sinead Miller
Marian University's Sinead Miller is a local favorite,
following a summer full of first-place finishes and a trip to Italy to compete
with the world's best.
The Men's Category 1 race begins at 8:10 p.m., but it is
certainly not the only competition of the day that features world-class
The women's main event is headlined by Miller; though she will barely be recovered from jet lag when she
rolls up to the starting line. Last month she rode for USA Cycling in the Giro
d'Italia 10-stage race in Italy, which is widely regarded as the most
prestigious women's race in the world. The scary part for her competition is
that she didn't just participate — she and her squad implemented their
strategy to perfection, propelling their teammate Mara Abbot to become the
first American to ever win the race.
Twenty-year old Miller is hoping to qualify for the 2012
Olympic Team, and her resume certainly seems to do the dream justice;
June 27: U23 US Road National Championships, Oregon- 1st
June 24: U23 US National Time Trial Championships, Oregon-
June 6: TD Bank Philadelphia International Cycling
Championship, Pennsylvania- 1st Place in Best Young Rider Category
May 9: Collegiate Road National Championships, Madison,
Wisconsin- 1st place- Division 1 Team Omnium
The list goes on like that for the last decade; full of first
place finishes and overall wins.
Her newfound success at the national level has come a
tenacious time commitment; Miller, a native of Pennsylvania, has rarely spent a
day at home this summer. Following her afternoon bike ride around Mass Ave, she
will leave for a flight to Holland just a couple of days later — and
still be back in town in time for the start of the Fall semester at Marian,
where she double-majors in math and chemistry.
Despite her success — or perhaps tantamount to it
— Miller is not too busy to return to her home away from home in
Indianapolis. "I really like Indy and I have to be there for school soon
anyway," Miller said, when asked about her reason for competing in the regional
race, 24 hours before an international flight. "I don't get to race in Indy
very often, and it's been three months since I've seen all my friends there."
But her friends are not alone; it's been about three months
since any rider has seen anything of Miller except for the back of her jersey.
Nothing is certain in a stacked field of great Category 1
riders, where the gray area between professional and amateur is decided only by
sponsorships and legalities. But here are the best Criterium riders in Indiana,
according to those closest to the race and the USA Cycling points system.
Ryan Knapp- Team Panther: Knapp is another integral part of
the Panther team, and unlike last year, will not just be stopping by the MAC on
his way to the National Criterium Championships in Chicago. However, the
self-admitted jack-of-all-trades might need some help to set himself apart from
the pack down the stretch.
Joe Kukolla- ISCorp: Kukolla has had a rough summer
following his part in Marian's National Championship, but works very well in a
pack, and the tight quarters of the MAC might play very well into his strength.
He and teammate Adam Leibovitz are especially motivated to be racing in their
hometown, and will be looking to upset the big dogs on their turf.
Chris Uberti- Team Panther: Uberti has recorded four top-ten
finishes in the last month, and rides for a stacked Panther team with an
incredible amount of support and experience. Depending on how he is riding that
day, he may be called upon to slingshot one of his teammates up to the front,
or he may be the one receiving their help on the final straightaway toward the
finish. Either way, it would be surprising not to see him factor into the last
moments of the race.
Eric Young- NUVO/Cultural Trail: Young is the top-ranked
Category 1 Criterium rider in Indiana, and is a favorite among the field as
well. He has won the Little 500 two years in a row, and is coming off of two
first place finishes in the last month (Elk Grove, Ill. and Marion, Ind.).
For more information, including a complete schedule of
blog for more on the MAC.