A racer’s view of Lithuanian light shows at the Champions League

Brutal travel, eager fans after midnight, and exciting racing all come into play for the second round of the Champions League.

Gavin Hoover is an American Tokyo Olympian who is racing the new five-event Track Champions League. He is doing a regular column on his experiences, and documenting it with his own photography in the gallery below. Check out his first and second installments. 

There were only two flight paths from Mallorca to Lithuania, and the seven of us racers who had been sharing a house between the first and second rounds of the Champions League sat around the house debating the merits of each for several hours. One went through London with a quick 30-minute layover — always a risk when you’re traveling with a bike. The other went via Frankfurt with a nearly seven-hour layover. Basically, it boiled down to a choice between a sprint through Heathrow and a nice relaxed day sitting around Frankfurt.

One of the few benefits that comes from living in North America and racing in Europe is you rack up airline miles real quick and with that all the fun benefits of status. So with the ability to hang out in the Star Alliance Lounge, take a nap and enjoy a few free pretzels, I went for the flight through Frankfurt while some of the others in our Mallorca house decided the risk of sprinting through the terminal was better.

Arriving in Vilnius just after midnight, still facing a 90-minute drive to the hotel in Panevezys, I felt slightly less sure I’d made the right choice. Somewhere around hour three in the Lufthansa lounge I’d realized I was very, very bored and that sitting for nearly 12 hours the day before the race was not necessarily prep conducive to good performance.

At every race I’ve ever been to in Europe there’s been someone asking for an autograph or a bottle or some memento. On the road they congregate around team vans after a race, at track races it’s common to find them in the hotel lobby, staking out the elevators with headshots from some random race or media day you did years ago printed in triplicate and ready for you to sign. I’ve grown used to it and it’s par for the course, but… walking out of the arrivals hall in Lithuania around one in the morning and being presented with a booklet of photos of myself to sign was a bit surprising. While slightly jarring it is nice to feel like you’re doing something that people are interested in and want to watch.

After manhandling bikes and baggage under and into the shuttle we pulled up at our strangely Wes Anderson-esque hotel called The Hotel Romantic at close to three in the morning. With the race just 14 hours away at that point, I resolved to sleep as much as possible, schedule be damned, and figure out what I had to do after I’d gotten my eight hours.

I managed to miss breakfast, and woke up to a text from Corbin Strong. He’d been on the track that morning, had flatted his front wheel, and wanted to know if I’d brought any spares he’d be able to borrow. Corbin was leading the overall, and I was just a few points back in third, if there was a world title on the line I might’ve said no, but racing the Champions League the camaraderie between all the athletes has felt like such a nice change of pace and I happily offered him a front five spoke to borrow.

Five hours after I woke up and about 12 hours after I landed in the country, I was kitted up and on the track, ready to kick off the second round of racing. The first event in Mallorca had been new ground for everyone, a shorter scratch race changed the tactics significantly, and I was interested to see if anyone had adapted for the second time around.

I rolled off the rail behind Corbin and immediately the speed was on. At just five kilometers no one had anything to keep in reserve and it was clear all of us had opted to put the biggest gear we thought we could manage on the bike. It would all come down to being in position for the final kick; get caught too far back and the speed on the big gears would make it to hard to come around.

With five laps to go I found myself leading the field; swing off now and you’d never see the front again. I went up track but stayed on the pedals, with everyone else following me as I went to the rail and looked back. When the move started to surge underneath I swung back down, taking the pole lane and covering the front.

With two laps left, the Australian went flying over the top of me and I accelerated to stay with him, setting up in second and waiting for my chance to step out and around.

As we came into the bell I felt the surge coming on my hip but couldn’t move in time and two people went flying past me, I pushed out behind them and started my own sprint, going three-wide through the final corner and crossing the line in third.

I took fifth in the elimination later in the night, keeping myself in third overall, now just six points off the overall lead heading into the doubleheader in London.