Monday morning, I climbed in the back of a little red Kia, wedging myself between tool boxes, water bottles and seven spare bike wheels. It was the support car — picture a bike shop on wheels — for I AM Racing, one of the teams entered in the women's USA Cycling Professional Road National Championships.
If something goes wrong on the race course for a cyclist, like a flat tire, the support car has to get there as quickly as possible. Let me repeat: as quickly as possible.
Putting the car into gear, the driver -- a local guy named Mark Fasczewski -- looked over his shoulder.
"Sure you don't get car sick?" he asked.
Turns out, you can't have a better time in a back seat. For more than two hours, we broke more traffic laws than Lindsay Lohan. Raced down Lookout Mountain like an avalanche. Ran red lights like outlaws. Rode ever-so-close to some of the coolest, fastest females in the nation.
"The best in the entire country are here,'' said Emma Cribb.
Cribb is the generous team director for I AM Racing who let me tag along. Monday, she rode shotgun as we followed her team of seven women -- in their signature lime green jerseys -- as they rode fast and furious through Chattanooga streets.
All her racers are either students or professionals. They train when they're not working or studying. The youngest is 24. Oldest is 40. One is a math teacher, another a scientist studying malaria, another a bioengineering student.
Kim Flynn from Chattanooga.
"Relax those shoulders,'' Cribb yelled out the window. "Breathe.''
We'd sped up alongside Flynn and a pack of cyclists -- several minutes off the leaders -- as they started their climb up Lookout Mountain.
Legs pumping like Kansas oil wells, calf muscles shaped like North America, these women kicked asphalt as they rode up -- not once, but twice -- Ochs Highway.
Didn't think I could be any more impressed.
Then, we reached the top of the mountain ... and started down the other side.
It was like entering a Matt Damon movie. Saying we went fast is like saying Pavarotti can hum. Both lanes of the road were closed, so cyclists zoomed back and forth from side to side, taking the straightest line possible, within inches of guardrails, other cyclists and the support cars.
I stopped looking once we hit 45 miles per hour.
"The men go 50 to 60 miles per hour,'' said Fasczewski over his right shoulder.
Fasczewski, a personal coach for Vantaggio Fitness, is married to Flynn. He's also one heck of a driver. Not only did he have to drive the five-speed Kia down Lookout Mountain feet away from other support car bumpers, he also had to keep an eye out for cyclists who might be passing.
Out our rear window? Just behind us, feet away from our car? Three other cyclists, all pouring down Scenic Highway going God-knows-how-fast.
I'd found myself smack in the middle of something done expertly well. Perfection, on two wheels. The sweet hum of a fast bike being pedaled like mad.
From the back seat, I also saw how good Chattanooga looked. The mountain view, city streets and best of all, the great crowds. People in folding chairs all along the course, families parked for hours along Lookout Mountain, the thousands at the finish line. Wide-eyed cops taking cellphone videos of the race. Cowbells.
If race organizers needed to see a welcoming city, you all surely showed them one.
(Best fan of the day? The guy dressed up as a Star Wars Storm Trooper, holding a sign that read: "Move Along, Move Along'').
"It was awesome,'' said Flynn at the end of the race.
Coming off a springtime illness, Flynn -- along with many others -- did not make it back to downtown in time from Lookout Mountain to ride the final laps alongside the leaders. No one seemed disappointed.
"We have a phenomenal cycling community [here],'' she said. "I really hope this is the next big step for women's cycling here in town.''
Kim, I'll speak for lots of people here in this city:
You have our great support.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...