Mass Ave Crit brings out the best

Adam Leibovitz and Joe Kukolla try out the racecourse for the Mass Ave Crit. Photo by Stephen Simonetto

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

the camaraderie.

"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."

Close quarters

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-

1st place

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.


Top riders

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

the day's events, registration information and prize money, visit Check Andrew Roberts'

blog for more on the MAC.


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