Hail Mary

September 5, 2013 § 23 Comments

“Dude,” Josh said, “your face is fuckin’ covered with chocolate. Looks like you been bobbing for corn in the port-o-potty.”

Eric wiped a smear of sweat and spit across his face with the back of his hand. “Gone now?”

“Not even close.”

For well over three hours they’d been racing in the warm sunlight along the undulating roads that would ultimately lead to the mountaintop finish atop Mt. Bachelor. You couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day, at least as far as the weather was concerned.

Eric put his hands back on the bars and grimaced as the pack surged up the easy roller. They were three miles from the base of the climb and seven miles from the finish of the national championship road race for older fellows. The last forty miles had been an endless series of easy rollers, so easy that Eric’s legs were cramping and he could no longer hold onto the end of the peloton.

“I’m done, dude,” he said to Josh.

Josh glanced up at the darkening sky. “That looks bad, man. Hang on if you can.”

Eric slid off the back. As the gap widened, the pack seemed to slow. Now at the rear of the caravan, Eric dug and started working his way back. He re-connected. The pack surged again. He came unhitched, this time for good.

Alone now, he felt something hard hit his cheek. Then it hit him again. “That’s hail,” he said to himself. As each minute passed, the hail intensified. By the time he hit the bottom of the giant climb that eventually, theoretically, according to the race bible, led to the finish line, he was being pelted with golf ball-sized hailstones and blown sideways by 30 mph gusts. The hailstones hurt so bad that he wanted to cry out, and the larger ones raised giant welts where they struck his bare legs. Mixed in with the hail was a freezing rain. Then, as he got out of the saddle to pull himself up the climb, his legs cramped.

He was now officially as cold, exhausted, and miserable as he’d ever been in his entire life.

How in the hell had it come to this?

Taffy, beer, and the lure of immortality

On the fourteen-hour drive from L.A. to Bend, Oregon, Eric, Josh, and I had taken turns behind the wheel of the Prius. Initially maligned for its lack of power, its odd appearance, and its soccer-mom mystique, the Prius had quelled all criticism at the first gas stop.

“Dude,” Josh said. It was his turn to buy gas. “It only took thirty bucks and it’s full. What the hell?”

Hundreds of miles later, when we refilled again, no one was complaining about the lack of acceleration, as we’d all agreed to put the savings into a mutual beer fund. Every thirty minutes or so Eric would reach into his bag and whip out a new giant stick of taffy. Once Josh had found the taffy stash, the competition began. In addition to the giant Trader Joe’s bag of trail mix that we inhaled, I wondered about cycling nutrition before the Big Race. The taffy competition got so intense that several giant sticks, which had melted inside their wrapper, had to be placed directly under the AC vent so that they could be cooled enough for the competitors to peel off the wrappers with their teeth.

Getting the lowdown on the big ride

We reached Bend and checked into our team house, and convened a special team strategy meeting. Alan, who had done the race the year before, was blunt. “Look, dudes, it’s a really simple race. We go downhill for twelve miles, turn right, do a bunch of easy rollers for about forty miles, then hit the climb. First one up the climb wins. It’s a fifteen-minute bike race.”

“How easy are the rollers?” asked Eric.

“They’re nothing. You might be on the rivet once. Then it’s just easy.”

“How hard is the climb,” I asked.

“It’s the hardest fifteen minutes you’ll ever do.”

“What if you’re not, uh, like, you know, a really good climber?”

Alan looked at me. “Then you’ll look like a burnt fragment of flesh at a Hawaiian pig roast.”

“So what should my strategy be?” I asked.

Alan thought for a minute. “Sit in the whole way, and when you hit the climb, don’t be surprised when everyone leaves you.”

“Okay,” I said.

“What’s most important is rest and nutrition, so get to bed early, stick to your diet, and you’ll do fine.”

The perfect nutritional storm

Josh, Eric, and I were thrilled to find a nice little brewpub around the corner from the SPY Team HQ, a little place called The Old St. Francis School Brewery.

“Why are they fuckin’ serving brewskies at a school?” Josh asked. “Not that that’s a bad thing,” he said as we took a table.

“What are you having?” I asked Eric.

“I’m so not hungry,” he said.

“How can you not be hungry? We just sat in the car for fourteen hours.”

“I think it was the taffy.”

“You gotta be nutritionally energized,” Josh said as the waiter came by. “Eric wants a double cheese baconburger and a 32-oz IPA.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And I’ll have the same thing with double cajun fries and a pizza.”

“Yes, sir.” The waiter looked at me.

“Uh, I’ll have the garlic bleu cheese bacon and sausage pizza with artichoke and creamed corn. And the IPA.”

We got home shortly after the brewpub closed at two. The five-minute walk took a solid half hour, but we made it, and got ready for bed.

“Dude,” Eric said as he pulled out a gigantic pair of orange earplugs, each one of which was long enough to go from one side of his skull to the other. “Do you snore?”

“Only when I sleep. Do you?”

“Yeah, but not too loud. Do you fart?”

“Never, except at night.”

Eric dug around some more in his bag and pulled out a giant pair of nose clamps. “See you in the morning.”

The big bike box flail

The next morning we drove out to the time trial course in Prineville, where USAC had moved the registration, almost an hour from Bend, the city that everyone was staying. It made sense, you know, to have registration and packet pickup as inconvenient as possible. We got there just as our teammate Mike Williams was finishing. “How’d it go?” I asked, knowing that there’s only one of two ways a time trial can ever go. Horrible, and you win, or horrible, and you lose.

“It was horrible,” said Mike. “But I beat one dude.”

“More than one, I hope.”

“Yeah, but this one was awesome. My minute man came up to me at the start and said ‘Take a look at this jersey and memorize this number, ’cause you’re never gonna see it again.’”

We began laughing. “You’re joking! Even a bike racing douchebag wouldn’t say that!”

“Oh, but he did. So I caught him at the turnaround and as I passed him I said, ‘Have I seen you before?’”

Mike had schlepped up several bikes for the team from L.A., including Eric’s and Josh’s. His parents lived nearby, so we went to their house to get the bikes. The moment we stepped inside his house, his mother came up. “You boys look hungry.”

This is a polite way people have of saying to bike racers, “You look sickly and malnourished.”

“Well, now that you mention it … ” we said.

“Let me see if I have anything for you to eat.” In a matter of minutes she had laid out a huge spread of turkey sandwiches, fresh vegetables, homemade fudge, upside down pineapple cake with ice cream, and beer. There was enough food for twenty people. We ate ourselves sick and then went outside, where we had the dilemma of putting three bikes and four wheelsets into the Prius. We’d been joined by our teammate F-1 Jim Pappe, so nicknamed because he drove so slowly that even the local rusted out redneck pickup trucks passed him at will. We somehow got all the bikes and people crammed into the two cars and headed back to Bend with all our gear and our registration goodies.

One by one the team began to show up, with MMX arriving that afternoon, and John Abate arriving with Jess that evening. The road races were scheduled for the following morning, with the 50+ going first at 8:00 AM (me, Alan, F-1 Jim, and Randy Tinney), followed by the 40+ race (John A.), then the 35+ (Eric and Josh), and finally the 45+ with MMX, John Hatchitt, Andy Schmidt, and Peter Anderson). We all gathered that night again at the brewery and prepped for the race with copious amounts of greasy bar food and fresh beer. F-1 JIm, who had gotten sick on his drive up from Bakersfield and vomited all along the way to Bend, had recovered somewhat. Randy, however, was feeling awful.

“Dude,” he said. “I can’t race tomorrow.”

“Can’t race?” I said. “Why the hell not?”

“I have a headache.”

“We’re not asking for sex,” I said. “We just need you to toe the line and help Alan in the road race. You don’t even have to finish.”

“You don’t understand,” he said, as he wandered off to the men’s room to throw up again.

Back at the SPY HQ, I readied my gear for the race the following morning. The horribly dry air and the altitude left me gasping every time I walked up the stairs. “I hope the bike race isn’t harder than the staircase,” I muttered, before falling asleep.

The morning dawned to reveal at least one terrible hangover tinged with dry mouth and the overpowering urge to vomit. I somehow overcame the urge.

Abate had gotten in at two o’clock with Jess, minus their bicycles, which United had conveniently lost in between San Diego and Bend.

“No problem, sir,” United said as John frantically dialed their “service” department. “We should have them to you by the end of the day.”

“Dude,” said John. “We’ve got a bike race in a couple of hours. We need those bikes now. How do you lose a hundred-pound giant plastic container filled with bicycles? How?”

“Well, when we find it we’ll send it over to our service delivery center, and Delta will bring it to your hotel.”

“I didn’t know Delta had merged with United.”

“They haven’t, sir.”

“THEN WHAT THE FUCK DOES DELTA HAVE TO DO WITH MY LUGGAGE?”

He slammed down the phone and implemented Plan B.

Plan B

“Hey, Randy,” John said as the phone awakened Randy from his dried pool of puke.

“Yeah?”

“You still not racing this morning?”

“Right.”

“Can I borrow your bike?”

“Sure.”

John raced over to Randy’s condo and got his bike. Then he and Josh swapped machines, since Josh’s bike was closer to his size, and began the meticulous process of recalibrating seat posts, cleat positions, handlebars, and all the other important modifications that have to be made if your $10k bike is going to earn you the 57th place you have worked so hard to attain.

The leadenness in the sky

Since our race started three hours before John’s in the 40+, F-1 Jim and I left the SPY HQ at 6:15. MMX stuck his head out of the bedroom. “Weather forecast is for thunderstorms, hail, and temperatures in the 30′s.”

“At least we have that to look forward to.”

At the start of the 50+ elderly fellows’ national championship road race, the temperature was forty degrees, but the skies were clear. Greg Leibert, who was riding solo for Big Orange, did a few efforts with me up a short hill, and we chattered like chipmunks in the biting air, which, when you added in the wind chill, was easily 30 degrees. “Glad it’s going to be a sunny day,” I said.

We started off shortly past eight o’clock and in order to freeze us even more the race pointed immediately down a screaming twelve-mile descent. As the speeds began to ramp up over fifty mph, various riders who had never descended at those speeds in their lives began to get high speed frame chatter. One rider’s bike began to shimmy and twist like a flag on a pole in a hurricane as he rocketed off the road at speed and careened into the gravel, then the brush, and then into the soft landing of the sharpened ends of pine boughs.

The terror of avoiding the chattering bikes was almost enough to counteract the sub 20-degree chill that had penetrated into our internal organs.

How the race was won

Even though Alan’s race plan was solid, it was clear to me after looking at the national champions, world champions, and galactic champions in the race that my only hope lay with Godzilla showing up and eating everyone except me. After a handful of initial attacks, with Godzilla not showing up, the winning break of four mutants “rolled” of the front, which is another way of saying they went so fast that no one could catch them. Pretty soon the sun came out and we warmed up. The riders who’d been wrapped in several layers of plastic began undressing, which created a second level of terror almost as bad as avoiding the downhill catastrophic crashes caused by the frame shimmies.

The undressing riders would sit up, hands off the bars while packed in the middle of the clotted peloton, and begin fighting madly with zippers, sleeves, hats, and gloves, and then packing it all into a tiny rear jersey pocket. The merest chughole or wobble would have taken out half the field, but somehow no one crashed. However, one dude couldn’t get an arm of his rain jacket stuffed into his rear jersey pocket, and the flapping sleeve began driving me crazy.

“Is it going to droop down into his spokes and crash us all out?” I wondered. Each time I tried to get close to him to tell him, the Law of Cyclist Proximity kicked in. This is a basic racing peloton rule that says you will always get stuck behind the one person you don’t want to be stuck behind, or, you will never be able to get up to the rider you need to get up to.

I finally gave up, and just in time, because the easy rollers had begun to do serious damage to the peloton.

Easy for you, impossible for me

The easy rollers that Alan had promised were in fact a grueling, grinding series of endless, short climbs that, one by one, gradually sapped everyone’s legs even as the winning break of mutants disappeared forever. I hit the front exactly once and took a mighty pull, but after the peloton stopped laughing they reeled me back in just in time for the big final climb. I’d not eaten anything except a few Gatorade gummy chews which had been included in my preregistration goodie bag.

The gummies were wrapped in a long plastic tube best opened with a buck knife or blow torch. Each one was in a separate, hermetically sealed compartment made of industrial-strength rubberized plastic, and I almost tore out my rear molars opening the thing up. Then, in desperation I chewed not only the gummy but also the rubberized wrapper. It was nice that USAC had partnered with a company that knew how to make cycling-friendly food products.

As Alan had foretold, everyone over 140 pounds, which was virtually all of the elderly fellows in the race, was hideously shelled on the lower slopes of the climb. As the climb continued, the destruction became more pronounced. Sag-bellied, multi-chinned fellows who had begun with fantasies of glory were now relegated to wheezing, gasping, square-pedaling oafs who looked like they were being flayed to death by Captain Ahab.

Roger Worthington, who had won the tandem TT the day before, decimating a field of three other teams in the 50+ Men Who Are Willing To Spend $15k On A Custom Carbon Tandem That They Will Never Ride Again While One Has His Nose Jammed Up The Other’s Ass, was wasted from the effort. He took a long hard pull in the lead-up to the climb and then, as he imploded, began to shout “Pizza and beer, one dollar off at Worthy Brewing tonight!” as the wounded, stampeding elderly fellows roared up the climb.

I roared, too, but only for two hundred yards or so. Then I was stuck by myself, the field maddeningly close but hopelessly and forever unreachable. I could see the field break into smaller bloody clots as the final climb did its terrible work. Just as I had resolved to get off my bike and cry, a big white Nissan drove up alongside me. It was MMX, whose race wouldn’t go off until three.

“What are you doing back here?” he sternly asked.

“Flailing,” I said.

“Those guys up ahead,” he said. “Catch them.”

The guys were way ahead, and I had to choose between saying “Fuck you,” and “Yes, sir.” I chose life. I chose “Yes, sir.”

What unfolded was the most glorious 38th-place finish in the history of Elderly Fellows road racing. Whether it was MMX’s encouragement, my fear of looking even worse than I already did, the photo crew that was shooting close-ups of my awful grimaces, or the slight draft from the passing vehicles, I somehow got atop the gear and picked up speed.

Everyone who races loves to talk about pain, misery, and the hell of enduring a hard climb, but in addition to all that I had a special collection of facial grimaces that I practiced religiously at home to make sure I seemed more heroic than 38th place would normally seem. I gritted. I contorted. I drooled. I blew flecks of snot. I bobbed. I weaved. I thrashed. And incredibly, I began picking up one wanker after another. As Rudy Napolitano had said before the race, “Just don’t give up hope. Even though you’re hopeless.”

Each freddy freeloader I passed leaped onto my wheel, but quickly came off. With a last lunge I reattached to the seventeenth chase group, a collection of ragged and tattered and chubby and demoralized riders who were only thinking about the finish line 500 meters hence. I sped by, bringing BBI’s Brad Hunter with me. We had a brutal, heroic, incredible struggle for 37th place, with his final kick propelling him to a step on the sub-sub-sub-sub podium and a prize that included all of the unopened Gatorade gummy chews that had been thrown to the roadside in disgust.

Our race finished with the strongest of the mutants dropping the other mutants and me crossing the line in thirty-eighth place, one of the strongest placings imaginable and much more awesome than “38th” sounds. I checked with lots of people after the race and they all told me that thirty-eighth was truly impressive.

The amazing fart explosion

John Abate’s race, which rolled out shortly after ours finished, got caught in the hailstorm just as the climb began. But an even worse storm had descended on his smallish peloton a mere twenty miles into the race. A dude who shall forever hence be knowns as “Mr. Poopers,” raised his rear end up off the saddle in order to unleash what he thought was a mighty fart. Unfortunately, there was a major miscommunication between his sphincter and his brain, because when he released the gas, it was a fully loaded breakfast burrito turd with all the trimmings.

More impressively, he was wearing white shorts, and the gigantic brown bomb shot straight up the back of his bibs, staining everything brown and gagging everyone nearby. The smell was overpowering and it forced the pace up as each rider struggled mightily to get in front of Mr. Poopers. What was even more terrifying to the riders was the onset of the rain, because everyone knew that the water would start washing the poop out of Mr. Poopers’s shorts, and from there onto the bikes, shoes, and kits of whomever was behind him.

John surged to the front of his group at the base of the climb. The winning break was already up the road as the hail unleashed with such fury that it shattered his Garmin. Neither snow, nor sleet, nor hail, nor sideways wind gusts of 30 mph were enough to slow a man trying to escape the now-sopping-and-dripping Mr. Poopers, and John charged through the flying hail like a madman.

John hit the finish line and saw that the barricades and the entire finishing area had been destroyed by the hail and the gusts of wind, which had exceeded 50 mph atop the ski resort at Mt. Bachelor. The USA Cycling organizational team, which was extremely adept at cashing the checks of the riders. was less adept at handling problems on the actual race course, leaving it to racers, their wives, friends, and some dude in a wheelchair to pick up the barricades so that the finishing riders weren’t crashed out and killed as they finished. Hiding somewhere far from the calamity and sipping hot chai lattes, the USA Cycling brass convened an emergency meeting.

“Shit out there is gnarly,” said one.

“Glad we’re not out in it,” said another.

“Want to send off the rest of the races?”

“Sure. Worst that could happen is someone gets killed.”

“Plus if we cancel we’ll have to deal with scheduling and possibly refunds.”

At the mention of the word “refund” everyone panicked. “Send ‘em off, no question. Hey, waitress! Could I have another tea?”

Just as they decided to order a few frozen and wet volunteers out to the PA system, a troop of angry motorcyclists stomped in. These were the men and women who followed the races and various chase groups. “If you think we’re going out in that deadly hail and snow and rain and sleet, you’re nuts,” said the leader.

The chief USA boss shook his head. “But what about refunds?”

Everyone quailed and several of the veteran staff began sobbing. “We can’t do refunds. We just can’t!!”

“I know!” said the boss. “We’ll move the race to tomorrow!”

“But what about the riders who just flew in for this one race and who can’t stay?”

“Fuck ‘em!” the others yelled in unison.

“And what about the riders who were going to do the tandem road race on Friday? The two events will overlap!”

“Fuck ‘em!” everyone roared, even more loudly.

“No refunds ever! Crank up the email machine and notify everyone. Chai tea lattes on the house!” roared the boss as everyone applauded.

What teammates are for

No sooner had John dismounted than the winners, then the remnants, of the following 35+ group came straggling in. Josh and Eric were covered in sleet. Josh’s helmet had been dented in by the hail, and Eric’s legs were covered in giant red welts. Neither could speak, and both had to be helped off their bikes. John, who was still frozen from his race, kicked into gear. With Jess providing towels, blankets, and warm clothing, the riders were stuck beneath the heating vents, which were going full blast. Both riders looked like they had just been through a terrorist attack.

Josh looked over at Eric. “Did we finish?”

“I think so.”

“Dudes,” said John with a grin. “You didn’t just finish. You finished the toughest, most grueling nationals road race ever.”

Eric cracked a smile. “It was a piece of cake until that final climb thanks to all those easy rollers.”

“Where’s my recovery beer?” Josh asked.

There was the hiss of a cap flipping off a bottle as Jess pressed an ice cold brew into his hand. “Right here.”

Josh drained the bottle as the icy cold beer warmed his frozen insides. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah.”

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