Half a wheel is worse than none at all

February 23, 2013 § 25 Comments

I dropped down the hill to meet Geriatric Jedi-in-training. The sunshine from Sunday had turned to overcast and chill. The wind beat helplessly against my insulated long-sleeve jersey but stung my legs and bare fingers.

G-Jit was doing circles in the Golden Cove parking lot to stay warm. We dropped onto PV Drive and headed towards the Switchbacks. The last time I’d ridden with him two years ago he’d been 55 years old and a solid 250 pounds. Today he was a touch under 200 and couldn’t wait to tell me about his new diet.

“Wanky, I know you’re really into diets have you ever heard of the Rocket Coffee Butterbomb Diet?”

I shook my head and stared straight ahead as he wobbled, weaved, dashed ahead, dropped behind, and drew even again.

“Yeah,” he said, “My son in-law has this new Rocket Coffee Butterbomb Diet that provides eight essential vitamins and oil and butter and flaxseed and kale baked into a lump with brown sugar and a pre-brewed intense coffee that you add hot water to, drop in the lump and that’s all you need until your next meal!” He rocketed about five feet ahead and veered out into the lane where he was almost picked off by a passing gardener’s truck.

I saw the headline in the Daily Breeze: “Peninsula Cyclists Hoisted on Lawnboy’s Petard.”

I still hadn’t moved an inch to the right or left and was doing my best to watch the pavement, where I’ve generally found all the action is in cycling, even more so than new diet-acne-male enhancement additives that go in your coffee.

“I think you’re gonna really like this stuff,” G-Jit said, “Even though most people don’t put butter in their coffee, it’s fine.”

As G-Jit dropped back and began to jerk ahead again I reached out and grabbed his jersey pocket. “Dude,” I growled in my best Fields. “Quit fuckin’ half-wheeling me.”

Back in the day

A long time ago, when I started riding with Fields, cycling wasn’t nearly as good as it is now. The equipment sucked, especially the tires. The only thing we had were sew-ups. No one called them tubulars. They were sew-ups, because when you flatted you would stuff them in your jersey pocket and the next day take them over to Cap’n Jack’s.

You’d knock on the door and let yourself in. It was always dark and smelled like rubber, more precisely, like old bicycle tire rubber mixed with freshly smoked herbal remedies. That’s because there were tires everywhere amidst the resiny haze. Hanging on the chairs. Laying on the kitchen counter. Draped on the bed. Coiled next to the toilet. Piled in huge mounds around the ancient Singer sewing machine with the foot pedal.

You’d stagger through the smoke trying not to inhale too deeply and give Cap’n Jack your tire, or tires if you had a few that needed fixing. Then you’d leave. Long after you’d forgotten about the tires you’d go into the bike shop where he worked and Cap’n Jack would say. “Hey! Tires!” and he’d hand you three or four or ten tires. In each one he’d found the leak, cut the thread on the casing, patched the tube, and SEWED THE CASING BACK UP. It was a sew-up.

It was also feast or famine, because his repair schedule went in phases of the moon, or the growing season, or something inscrutable like that. You’d be out of tires and doing some long-ass ride on bad roads with nothing more than a bad spare and a prayer that you wouldn’t flat, and then the next day you’d have so many repaired sew-ups that it would take a year to flat them all. If you were lucky they would even occasionally be some of the same tires you’d left with him.

Cycling back in the day sucked for other reasons. The bikes sucked. They were flexy and heavy and only had a few gears. You had to nail your cleats on the shoes and bind them onto the pedals with leather straps that blackened your toenails and caused them to rot and fall off. The pads in shorts were so thin that they’d scrunch up like toilet paper and chafe the hell out of the whole damned undercarriage.

But there was one thing we had back in the day that we don’t have anymore: We had rules about half-wheeling. Rather, we had a rule: Don’t you ever fucking half-wheel. Ever.

The torched lung teaches best

It was my first ride with Fields. He’d said we were going to “go easy.” I was all jumpy and excited and pumped to be riding with The Legend. As we rolled out past the airport in East Austin, I later realized, my front tire was an inch or so ahead of Fields’s. He pulled even. Unconsciously, I pulled ahead, ever so slightly. Half-wheeling. Fields pulled even, never saying a word, and waited to see if I did it again.

I did.

It was the last time I ever half-wheeled anybody.

Fields then moved his wheel a couple of inches ahead of mine. I pulled even, and he moved an inch ahead. Soon we were battering down the road, into the wind, as fast and as hard as we could. I was down on the drops gasping as I tried to keep even, but each time I pulled level he’d move ahead. Never going down on the drops, never letting his face show the agony, he finally rode away from me as I blew, spectacularly.

A minute or so later he eased up, a tiny speck. I caught up to him.

“You call that going easy?” I gasped.

“Don’t ever fucking half-wheel me again,” he said.

“Half-wheel? I never half-wheeled you!” I was pissed. In my tiny mind, “half-wheeling” meant what most idiots nowadays think it means: Putting your wheel halfway in front of the person you’re riding next to.

Fields looked at me. “You put your front wheel one millimeter in front of mine, it’s half-wheeling. Don’t fucking half-wheel.”

After a little reflection, I got it. And it was the best and most thorough lesson anyone ever gave me on a bike. That, and the corollary: When you teach “The Half-Wheeling Lesson” you have to crack the offender riding on the tops, poker-faced.

Reason to the rule

Half-wheeling is bad because it says “I’m faster than you,” which is always an invitation to throw down and wrecks any semblance of moderation, tempo, or steady pace. If you’re riding in a group, it also throws off the formation by causing the bikes behind to also be uneven.

G-Jit quickly got the message and tried to implement. What he learned is what everyone learns. Riding steadily and even-wheeled at the other guy’s pace takes a lot of concentration and skill. Undeterred, he focused.

As we entered Portuguese Bend the traffic got bad. “Let’s skinny up,” I said.

“Yeah,” said G-Jit, dropping behind.

I nudged the pace up slightly as we rolled through the Portuguese Bend Beach Club. “Hey!” yelled G-Jit. “Want me to get in front of you and pull?”

This is like someone saying “Hey, weakling, want to let a real man take over?”

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s get through this narrow section and once we hit the Switchbacks you can take the reins.” I was steaming.

“Okay!” he said happily.

By the time we came up the bump by Trump National Golf Course I was out of the saddle, gradually upping the pace. We hit the bottom of the Switchbacks and I upped it some more. “Come on up when you feel like it!” I said cheerily. G-Jit just huffed and puffed and wheezed.

This was the best part of the ride. He was on the rivet and I was going to keep notching up the pace until he popped, no later than the first switchback. Unfortunately, things went downhill rather quickly.

Having gassed it too hard, a few pedal strokes later it was now I who was on the rivet. Pride wouldn’t let me slow down or pull over, and G-Jit was tucked neatly into my draft. There was a headwind. Oh, and I forgot to mention this detail: G-Jit had gotten faster than hell and stronger than three oxen in the last two years.

Behind me he sounded like Moby with a harpoon through his dick, but he wasn’t fading. I went from on the rivet to redline to deep purple. Now it was a contest of wills, and each pedalstroke he survived undermined me further and weakened my resolve. If it’s hell sitting on the wheel of someone faster than you, it’s an even worse hell towing someone who gives no sign of cracking.

We rounded the last turn and incredibly G-Jit was still there and fighting like Jack Dempsey. Dude had more guts and game at 57 than I had at 25, and he was still there.

I reached down into hell and kicked once again, downshifting to try and break him mentally. Sometimes, even when you go a touch slower, the vision of the chain clanking down onto the smaller cog is enough to crack the guy on your wheel. I was hoping it worked today, because my bag of tricks had been turned inside out and emptied of everything, including the lint and fingernail clippings.

Two hundred yards from the mailbox he popped and slid off the back. I crested the climb, shuddering in pain, my field of vision invaded by the alien giant black flying saucers that fill your eyes just prior to passing out. A big, slick, gooey spit bridge connected my chin and top tube.

G-Jit caught up to me, fully recovered just in time for me to get the goop wiped away. “Geez,” he said. “I’ve got a lot to learn.” He was riding bar-to-bar with me like a seasoned pro now, without so much as a wobble.

“Yeah,” I said.

And unuttered, I added to myself, “Me, too.”

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§ 25 Responses to Half a wheel is worse than none at all

  • New Girl says:

    My heart rate hit 172 just reading this ~ THANK YOU for the pull up the switchbacks (as well as the lesson/reminder)

    (WM has have been gently reminding NG not to 1/2 wheel him from the very first time we rode side by side!) :)

  • JP says:

    Well if its any consolation, you guys looked top-notch coming down PVDE.

  • Peter Schindler says:

    Thanks for the nice trip down memory lane. Remember riding in your new shoes to mark the soles so the shoe man would know where to nail the cleats? Or the joy of wool shorts and wool jerseys?

  • grumbly oldguy says:

    Thanks for the reminder about the past. I found my itchy, saggy wool kit, the painful old Detto-s and wobbled around on my old steel bike. Damn those sew-ups still suck. I think my local version of Capt’n Jack still has a couple of my tires Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  • Master Wankmeister Sensei Seth San, Thank you for the Lesson One and the many laughs reading about it. The concept of half wheeling has been indelibly seared into my cerebral cortex and if my Alzheimers can be staved off, I will endeavor to Never, Ever, Never half wheel anyone again!

    Just to set the record straight, I was just getting ready to come around you (uh huh) and pull up the Switchbacks when I panicked. As I swung out into the 30 mph headwind that you had been shielding me from on your seemingly effortless dance up, I, umm, err, uh, uh suddenly thought, “Oh no! What if Lesson Two, (which I am equally ignorant of as Lesson One- Halfwheeling) is how to pass correctly and pull someone. What if I pass too wide or too close or cut over way too far ahead of him and he can’t get in my draft. Will I be further humbled, chastised, embarrassed by my ongoing demonstration of lack of knowledge? Will the scorn and disdain of the Master ever be forgotten? Will he ever ride with me again? What if Lesson Two is delivered with even more enthusiasm than Lesson One??” I, umm, err, uh, uh decided that as the student, I should pull back in behind you and do my best to mimic you and learn as much as I could watching you. I started giving my best imitation of the sounds you were making up front, and thought that you were giving me some great subliminal breathing tips, like the tennis girls are doing now, and the bleating and groaning and wheezing was yet another lesson, yet unspoken, that I should incorporate into my riding…which I did with gusto! I also had started gagging and coughing as we swept through odd pools of sewer gasses that seemed to be increasing as we continued up the climb. Just as you shifted into the smaller cog at the top and I umm, err, uh, uh was going to do the same, we hit a particularly bad cloud of grayish green fog, that actually caused me to tear up and blurred my vision…I then umm, err, uh, uh decided to drop back (yea, that’s it) to clean my sunglasses and then bridge back…

    “Always give back, that which you have learned.” I thank you for the great ride, and the lesson. I only hope I can pass on the knowledge in as convincing a way as you do!

  • leo says:

    dear wanker,
    did g-jit just half-wheel you in composition?

  • A Benchmark In Training says:

    Seth: As usual, in the midst of irony and chagrin, you have incorporated an important lesson for all those who boldly go where only a few have gone before. Those who fail to heed your admonishment should have this post stapled onto their Spy frames. No group ride endures unless all of the participants acknowledge the necessity to remain side-by-side, and nothing causes a rider to be shunned more quickly than their inability to avoid half-wheeling(Unless it is the penchant that one or two possess for descending on the wrong side of the Switchbacks, in a line of 20 other riders,but I digress).
    Said lesson can only be taught effectively, however, when the teacher has the ability to finally gain the student’s full attention by eventually leaving them on the side of the road, gasping. Unfortunately, if the student possesses that rare combination of ignorance and brutish strength, the teacher can end up learning an important lesson themselves. We are all students, and each teachers. And it has always been true that only those who refuse to listen and to learn will be destined to forever repeat the same mistakes. Thanks for the elucidation and enlightenment.

  • dan martin says:

    Loved the part about cycling back in the day. In the garage there still hangs an ancient Colnago…Probably welded by Ernesto, with deathtraps for pedals and some deteriorating leather shoes with wood soles. Yea it sucked..but looking at it yesterday its actually kinda cool. Now if I can just do something with that titanium thingy I still ride…how come all my shit is old?

  • Jah Slim says:

    As an intern at Jack Patch Co. I learned many tubie sew-up tricks like oversewing a spoke on Conti’s to allow for extra slack when they layed flat, using window curtains for boot material, the multi uses of a Velox stash box as well as it’s contents. I’m still living the tubie life thanks to Cap’n Jack. Also taught me that half wheeling = death.

  • Jorgensen says:

    Last time I was in a half wheel duel was on PCH in 1975. It started a bit past the Malibu Fire House “with what are you in?” 84.9 was the reply (44×14) as that was the maximum I could race with back then and it started, it ended with the signal near the Getty Villa. We were lucky or unlucky depending on how you looked at it to hit the other signals green. The group we were with was way back. We cracked up. Those were the days. Still use the bike, won’t ride that stretch of tarmac anymore.

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