A Bike in Flight! Up Up & Away!

Two years ago triathlete & USAT Coach Lani Diemicke noticed a tiny ad on the fold of Bicycling Magazine’s calendar page.

“The word balloon caught my eye,” says Diemicke. The bicycle and balloon race
held as part of the Warren County Farmers’ Fair in Phillipsburg, N.J., cost each bicyclist $100 with all entry fees donated to charity. The first-place team earned $600. See a slideshow of balloon photos here.

Teams launched out of the Warren County Fair and bicyclists raced back to the Fair. Unless athletes already knew a balloonist, bicyclists were randomly assigned a pilot.

On race morning Diemicke located her pilot then helped the ground crew inflate the balloon. “First the ground crew unfurls the balloon from the storage bag and then spreads it out on the ground,” she says. Then the pilot attaches the balloon to the basket and preps a giant fan to fill the balloon with air.

“Once the balloon is laid out, you hold up part of the balloon so the fan can blow air into the balloon to inflate it,” says Diemicke. “Once the balloon has enough air the pilot uses the burner to heat the air and the balloon goes upright,” she says. The entire process takes 20-30 minutes.

In 2008 the teams raced to inflate, launch, land and return via bike. But in 2009, the FAA revised the rules. The new winning time was the shortest amount from launch until return. “This ensured the pilots didn’t rush during the inflation and launch,” says Diemicke.

With her bike strapped to the outside of the balloon basket (bungee around the handlebars and around the seat post), Diemicke was ready to soar.

“Honestly, I was a little shaky for the first few minutes, probably a combination of the excitement and the adrenaline!” says Diemicke. “I thoroughly enjoyed the flight, took a ton of pictures, and of course kept watching the road.”

The teams had to fly past a certain road before landing. And there were red zones that were off limits for landing (farmers who wouldn’t let you land in their land, corn fields, and soy bean fields.) Wind speed, passenger weight and flying height would determine each balloon’s travel speed.

“After landing, I had to get my bike off the basket, me out of the basket (4.5-feet high walls), get on the road and race back,” she says. “We descended quickly, bounced twice and Tom yelled to get my bike off the basket.”

Unfortunately Diemicke set down in a scrub field. “The bushes were up to my armpits and so thick I could barely push through,” she says. “I hoisted my bike up over my head and trudged through the field not unscathed!”

Scrapes, blood & all Diemicke hit the road. For the remaining miles, Diemicke and another athlete played leapfrog while also juggling flats and dropped chains.

The balloon-bike experience was one of her most fun moments as an athlete. “You can do anything if you want to,” says Diemicke. “I was so excited, but as we lifted off, I suddenly realized I had a fear of heights, or at least a healthy fear of dying. It’s surreal to realize you’re a mile off the ground without a parachute!”

But overall, the ride was a blast she says. “It was beautiful not just to be in the air, but to see so many balloons around you at the same time, to see the lake from the air, people, etc.,” she says.

The balloon race taught Diemicke that pushing herself outside her comfort zone isn’t always something intentional, but sometimes it happens. “I thought this race would be fun, not stressful, but it was both!”

She doesn’t see herself bungee jumping or parachuting in the near future, but says she’s learned to read Bicycling Magazine cover to cover as well as Runner’s World and Triathlete Magazine looking for new tiny blurbs of cool things she doesn’t want to miss.
You may contact Lani Diemicke at wwlani at hotmail dot com.

Questions for You:
- What's something new you'll try in 2010 (Happy New Year!!)?
- Would you go up in a balloon? Heights = good or bad?
- Have you seen the movie Up in the Air? (hello George Clooney!!)

photo credits: Lani Diemicke


tri_al said...

totally brilliant idea! love it!

KK said...

Oh man that sounds like a blast! What a great idea. HOw far do you think you rode back to the start?

Velma said...

I really want to see Up in the Air - it was filmed largely in St. Louis.

I really want to do a 70.3 event this year :)

chris mcpeake said...

Sounds like a lot of fun.
Happy New Year

Sara Cox Landolt said...

Tri_al : yes! brilliant!
KK: I don't know the distance by bike. But fun huh?!!
Velma: I didn't know that - fun!
Chris: Happy New Year to you!

Thanks all!

Sara Cox Landolt said...

I saw Up in the Air this weekend. George Clooney - excellent, vulnerable, worthwhile.
:-) Sara

Lani said...

Haven't seen the movie (Up in the Air) but it's on the to do list

Ride back was approximately 6 miles the first year and 13 the 2nd (winds took us much farther away!