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Interview with a Superfan

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The U.S. certainly has its share of serious sports fans—those screaming nuts in the bleachers of NASCAR, World Series, and NBA events remind me that “fan” is short for “fanatic.” However, as a competitive cyclist, I don’t see a lot of fans. If spectators congregate in any numbers to watch us race, it seems partly accidental. The race is whipping through a downtown criterium course and people who were on their way to the diner decide to stop for a few moments to see what’s going on. Or there’s beer somewhere on the course, and that makes all the difference.

I would say that cycling in the U.S. is nearly devoid of superfans: those truly fanatical followers of professional sport who collect memorabilia, hunt autographs, and can spout stats like TV announcers. By contrast, cycling’s superfans are abundant in Europe. Some are even world-famous for their dedication and antics; the Tour de France’s devil character, for one. He may be the most well-known and unusually-dressed, but there are plenty of others fans. Thousands of cycling devotees arrive at key viewing spots days ahead of the races, camping by the roadside just for a few seconds’ glimpse of their heroes.

However, among women’s racing in the U.S., such extreme fandom is almost unknown.

Nevertheless, the domestic women’s peloton does have at least one superfan. No, she doesn’t camp by the roadsides of our biggest races, nor does she wear a devil suit. She does, however, travel significant distances for the sole purpose of watching us race. And her wardrobe grows each year with an expanding collection of race T-shirts. Her name is Dawn Nale, and she resides in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. I met Dawn almost two years ago, and have been helping her collect race T-shirts ever since. Curious as to what makes a superfan tick, I asked Dawn to share her story with me.

She’s in her early forties and is married, with two sons, aged eight and eleven. She works as an intake interviewer for the unemployment office, but she’s just been accepted for a new job with the state. Although happy about the work, her biggest fear is that the training for the new position will take her away from home just when the National Racing Calendar pulls into her hometown.

In fact, it’s the NRC’s traditional stop in Western Pennsylvania (near Altoona) which first got Dawn into the sport of cycling. The International Tour de ‘Toona is a weeklong stage race which takes place in late July. Although there are not too many fans there, the race committee has done an excellent job of involving locals in the race. Dawn is the perfect example. She started out as a spectator, and after watching the race for several years, decided to become a course marshal. These helpful people sit at intersections along the race course wearing brightly-colored shirts and providing three essential functions: 1) preventing drivers from entering the course from side roads while the race is passing through; 2) directing the riders and caravan at any turns; and 3) cheering.

In 2004, after working the race as a marshal, Dawn and her youngest son, Brennan, spotted the winner of the women’s stage recuperating after the race. Dawn nudged Brennan to go and congratulate her. Encouraged by the warm reception the racer gave them, they sought out the second place finisher as well. This racer gave both Brennan and his brother Nick team hats, which they then got all three of the top-placed girls to sign. The next day, Dawn took pictures, which she later had blown up into 8 × 10 prints. A superfan was born!

Since then, Dawn has become more involved with the Tour de ‘Toona each year. For the past couple years, she’s been on the steering committee of the race, which allows her insight into the planning of the event. Last year, she even got her mother involved, convincing her to host a women’s team even though her mom “has no concept” of cycling. (Women’s cycling teams frequently stay with local hosts to help defray the cost of traveling to competitions.) Another friend of Dawn’s has become a “convert” too: He’s planning to take a week off work this year to take photos of the race from the back of a motorcycle. Dawn’s enthusiasm for the sport seems to be catching, but she notes that it’s been a long process to get the communities of western Pennsylvania behind the bike race: “After trying to promote [women’s cycling], finally people are responding.”

What’s extraordinary to me is that Dawn is not a cyclist herself. Apparently, she frequently gets asked if she rides, but she answers that she “has no clue” about riding. Although she has a mountain bike, she hasn’t ridden it in years, finding herself too busy with the kids and all their activities. She did run cross-country in high school, but says she wasn’t good at it, even though she enjoyed it.

When I asked Dawn what draws her particularly to the women’s side of the sport, she answered, “All the women racers I’ve met are very kind. I’ve never met a racer I didn’t like.” She also said after last year’s edition of the race, “I got so attached to the riders [staying with my family]—it feels like I’m missing a family member since the girls have left.”

Dawn certainly is plugged into the happenings of the race circuit and of racers’ personal lives: I hear more news from her than anywhere else! From new race venues to who’s getting married this summer, Dawn’s on top of it all. It’s clear that fans of women’s cycling have an opportunity to get closer to the athletes than most fans of other sports could hope to do. Part of this is due to the low-budget nature of most women’s professional teams. Can you imagine Dale Earnhardt, Jr. staying with local families as he travels the NASCAR circuit?

Dawn’s kids, in particular Brennan (the youngest), have also become cycling buffs. Brennan worked hard at the Tour de ‘Toona last year, and according to his mom, really enjoyed the experience. “His interest has blossomed along with mine … He likes reading the email I get [from racers].” I asked her, should one of her sons express interest in becoming a cyclist, if she would encourage or discourage him. “Encourage him, absolutely. If they’re willing to put the effort in and suffer the pain, sure, I’ll go to the races on the weekend and support them.”

The Tour de ‘Toona is notable not only for being the richest women’s stage race in the country, but also because the women race exactly the same distance as the men, and the prize money is equal. However, this parity is highly unusual in the sport. I asked Dawn, as a fan of women’s cycling, what her feelings are on the second-rate billing that women’s races often receive from race organizers and the press. Her response was straightforward: “I think other races should take the lead of ‘Toona. If we can do it, they can too. There aren’t as many races for women, the money is less; women are pros just like the men, and they should be treated the same.” 

Her ideas for making the sport more spectator-friendly and getting more local people involved include such simple suggestions as bleacher seating at the criteriums (downtown races on short courses less than a mile long, which racers circle up to fifty times). Back in 2006, she also suggested TV cameras. “At [the Liberty Classic in] Philly, they’ve got helicopters and a big screen TV at the start/finish line.” In fact, at the 2007 Tour de ‘Toona, the organizers are planning TV coverage for the women’s race. Dawn’s still on the steering committee. She’s got a title now for her volunteer work on the race. I found this out recently when she proudly presented me with her business card, which reads: “Dawn Nale, Racer Relations.”

Since I met her at the 2005 Tour de ‘Toona, I’ve seen Dawn at several races outside of western Pennsylvania. To me, this is the true proof of being a superfan: willingness to travel significant distances to watch a race. She’s been to Lancaster, Reading, and Seven Springs within the Keystone State for various events; she’s been to Baltimore for BikeJam; for several years, she’s driven four hours each way to Philadelphia to attend the race there. The farthest she’s ever been is to Chicago for the August 2005 Downer’s Grove National Criterium Championships. “After ‘Toona, the adrenaline was really flowing,” she explained. “I wanted to see more racing.” She and her husband flew in for the weekend and cheered on all the riders. Her favorite race to watch remains the last-day criterium at the Tour de ‘Toona, but there are several races on her “wish list” to see. “For a women’s race—Manhattan Beach. I hear it’s pretty awesome. And Bermuda! I’d love to be a water girl for one of the teams there. On the men’s side, Tour of Georgia and Tour of California. If I had all the money in the world and the time, I’d be doing it.”

Dawn’s commitment to the sport ratcheted up a notch this spring when she took a temporary step from spectator to staff person. One of the women’s teams needed a helper at the Redlands stage race in California, and she volunteered. So she got to check one event off her “races to see” list, and what’s more she got to see it from a different angle, as part of the race team. Of course that didn’t mean she didn’t have time to catch up with all her other bike racing friends!

For the races she can’t attend, Dawn still wants memorabilia. So she’s recruited me to buy her race T-shirts wherever they’re available. When I asked her to tell me about her T-shirt collection, she laughed. “Oh my gosh. I can’t even keep count. Yeah, they’re all I wear. Today I have the Tour de ‘Toona steering committee tee with my name embroidered. You have to promote it! So that’s why I wear them.” I love to know that Dawn, one of our sport’s biggest enthusiast, dresses each day in a different race T-shirt. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that being a cycling fan has changed Dawn’s life. What’s also clear is that, in her growing involvement, she’s changing our sport. And that’s the best that can be said for a superfan.

Photo: Dawn is on the left in this group shot, pictured with the team she helped at Redlands this year.


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