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 championship.
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 bike.
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 rivalry.
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."