May 9, 2014 § 28 Comments
One of the first jobs I ever had that didn’t involve mowing lawns or delivering newspapers or selling candy door-to-door was sacking groceries at a Victory supermarket in Houston. I was fifteen and I’d never done something so easy for so much money. Other sackers complained and schemed about how to get into the produce department or to be a stock clerk, but as far as I was concerned it was easy street.
There was another sacker named Clyde. He was blind in one eye and missing a leg. The eye he covered with an old-fashioned pirate patch, and his artificial leg was of the kind long before the high-tech prosthetics that people have access to now. It was big and heavy and Clyde walked with a big hitch, and since the prosthetic started mid-thigh he couldn’t bend it very much.
I rode my bike to work and was supposed to lock it up outside, but Houston was rainy and I hated to leave my trusty old Murray out in the wet even though it was about as beat-up as a kid’s bike could be. Clyde was in his thirties and had been working there for a long time, so even though we were both sackers he was kind of a senior sacker and could do little things here and there that the rest of us couldn’t.
Clyde wasn’t supposed to do it but on the days I worked he’d sneak my bike in from the loading dock and park it near the indoor dumpster. It was always funny how careful he was with my bike, more careful than I was, certainly.
We had a new store manager who came on shortly after I started working there. His name was Mr. Cragsworthy and he was a bastard. No one could ever please him and he always thought you were loafing even when you had a cart full of ten sacks and you were pushing it all the way across the parking lot and bringing back a string of empties when you returned to the registers.
No one at that store worked harder than Clyde. He wasn’t quick because of his leg, but he was fast. His economy of motion was unbelievable. He couldn’t run to Aisle 9 when some knucklehead had broken two huge jars of Ragu, but he could get the mop, get to the aisle, and get the mess cleaned up and dried quicker than anyone else. Nothing was wasted.
Mr. Cragsworthy, who was a fool as well as a bastard, thought that because Clyde walked slower than the rest of us that he was lazy, so he took to calling him “One-Eye” and “Crip.”
“Hey, One-Eye! Refill the bag slots on registers one through ten!”
Clyde always smiled and said “Yes, sir,” then did as he was told with that shuffling gait of his.
“On the double!” Cragsworthy would holler.
Clyde was a big strong man and he lived about a mile from the Victory in an apartment with his mother, who had some terrible chronic illness that required his constant care. He once told me that he had to bathe her and help her go to the bathroom. At the time I couldn’t even imagine it, that level of intimate care with your own mom. I suppose in a way I still can’t, which is one of the many differences between Clyde and me. He was a man who could carry a pretty big load.
Clyde didn’t have a car and he walked to work every day. When it rained he wore a raincoat and carried an umbrella. I never saw him get angry at anyone for anything, even the nasty customers who would tip him a nickel or a dime just to be mean.
One day I had just clocked in and he was bringing my bike in through the back bay. He leaned the bike up against the dumpster and pulled a rag out of his back pocket and started wiping off the bike. “You need to keep your bike more clean,” he said admiringly as the silver started to come through where he wiped away the grime. “That’s such a pretty bike.”
I’d never thought about it; to me it was just my means of transportation. “I guess so,” I said, but it struck me as funny the way he was eyeing that clunky bike with the lazy brakes and the bar tape that was unraveled on one side and the split in the saddle so that the foam cushioning was coming out. It seemed covetous almost, that look.
Over the next couple of months he’d bring in my bike and spend one or two minutes wiping it down. After a while it was sparkling clean. So clean, in fact, that Mr. Cragsworthy saw it one day. “Hey, Crip,” he said. “Get your damned bike out of the back of my store.”
I was just about to say that it was my bike but Clyde said “Oh, Mr. Cragsworthy, I think it’s okay in here.”
“I don’t give a good goddamn what you think, get it the hell out and do it now.”
Clyde shrugged and started walking over to the bike but it wasn’t fast enough to please Cragsworthy. “Now doesn’t mean thirty minutes from now,” he said. Then he got the bike and pushed it out the back bay as hard as he could, rolling it off the loading dock. It hit the pavement with a nasty crash.
Clyde had a funny look on his face. He had reached the dumpster where Cragsworthy was standing. With his left arm he grabbed the edge of the dumpster to stabilize himself, and then he swung his left leg with all his might into the manager’s knee. That fake leg was heavy and it sounded like a wrecking ball going through plywood when it made contact. Cragsworthy crumpled in a heap and began screaming in pain. I went over to help him up and as soon as the first wave of pain receded he screamed, “You’re fired, you one-eyed sonofabitch!”
It didn’t quite work out like that, though, because Victory was union and Clyde filed a complaint against Cragsworthy for discrimination. People lined up to testify that Cragsworthy regularly insulted Clyde and called him terrible names, making fun of his disability. Cragsworthy was fired and Victory ended up paying Clyde to keep him from suing them. This dragged on for a couple of months until the manager finally left, and it took about that long for Cragsworthy’s knee to heal. He had gotten a taste of what it was like not to have the full use of his legs, and maybe it made him a bit more humble. Or maybe not.
One day after Cragsworthy had left Clyde came up to me as I was about to leave. “You do me a favor?”
“Can I ride your bike?”
“Ride it? Where to? I was about to ride it home.”
“Just for a couple of minutes around the parking lot.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure.” I was puzzled but we walked down the steps off the side of the loading dock and I handed him the bike.
He looked sheepish. “I’m probably gonna need some help.” His leg wouldn’t bend enough to get it over the top tube.
“Oh, yeah, sure.” I felt stupid for not having anticipated that.
I held onto him while, with both hands, he lifted his leg over the top tube. We almost couldn’t do it, but we did. He was sweating and looked worried. “I don’t know if it’s gonna bend enough to pedal,” he said, hoisting himself onto the seat. Then he pushed off and indeed his leg bent just enough.
He rode four or five big circles out behind the supermarket. When he was done he came back to me, and it was kind of like a plane coming in for a landing, but he stopped and I steadied him so that he didn’t fall over and we got his leg back over the top tube.
“Damn,” he said, with this enormous child-happy smile on his big, craggy face. “I been wanting to do that for a long, long time.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone so happy, before or since.
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May 8, 2014 § 18 Comments
One of the things I’m proudest about is my cultural fluency. After living in Japan for ten years, working as an interpreter and translator, and staying married, pretty much, to my Japanese wife of a long-ass time, I’ve developed an amazing appreciation of and sensitivity to other cultures.
So I was thrilled to hear that one of my wife’s friends would be visiting Los Angeles for the red carpet thingy to commemorate the opening of the movie “Godzilla.” She had invested in it early on, and now, many years later the project had come to fruition. Since she’s from Tokyo and accustomed to really fine food, we thought it would be fun to take her to The Counter, a build-your-own-burger chain that was definitely different from anything in Japan.
Because they also serve beer, I decided to do some pre-dinner preparation by getting in a solid 60 or 70-miler in anticipation of the calories. Learning to ride long before you eat big is an important part of race fitness.
Hollywood, oh Hollywood
The friend was staying at the Roosevelt Hotel, so we picked her up and took her to The Counter on Sunset. My daughter, who graduated from a four-year Japanese university, and her husband, who was a classmate, joined us. It was pretty awesome to be part of this Japanese mini-community, blending in with amazing, near-native cultural skills. I think that of all the things my wife loves about me, the thing she loves the most is my cultural sensitivity, acquired after decades of concentration and, frankly, hard work.
But then the beer arrived.
It appears that someone at The Counter’s corporate HQ decided that Racer 5 IPA was a good beer to have on tap, a decision I heartily approved. So I knocked one down. Unfortunately, a pint is a rather meager unit of measurement and so I ordered another and knocked it down, too. By the time our burgers arrived, my third pint was drained and working its way into my bloodstream, which in turn was dutifully carrying the alcohol to my brain.
My wife’s friend was having a great time; the previous day she’d been dragged to vegan restaurants and was dying for a bit of red meat. She also liked the build-it-yourself experience. Most of all she loved being with people who were hip to her own cultural viewpoint while simultaneously introducing her to the fun and excitement of Los Angeles.
Then the fuggin’ beer hit.
Remember that gal I used to date?
For some reason, as I began swallowing my fourth pint (and most of this I know only because it has recently been told to me by my wife), it occurred to me to start talking about a couple of Japanese gals I used to date. One of them, ol’ Midori, I’d actually shacked up with before meeting my lovely wife.
Before. Of course.
Then I recalled how I’d met my lovely wife and then gotten really sick, and somewhere along the way I might have proposed to ol’ Midori but then with my wife in the picture THAT was a non-starter so I might have broken the news to ol’ Midori and that might have been about the time I was down with a bad flu and ol’ Midori might have gotten pretty angry and stormed out of the apartment with her kerosene stove which might have been the only thing keeping me from freezing to death and thank goodness my wife showed up the next morning with her mom in tow because they had a replacement stove and cleaned my apartment and made me dinner and my future mother-in-law allowed as how ol’ Midori couldn’t clean a toilet for squat, which was even more of an indictment than it sounds because it was actually a squat toilet.
Sitting there at The Counter our guest was slack-jawed (I’m told) and I then got to talking about one of my exes ol’ Reiko (I’m told) and from there things looked pretty grim (I’m told) until (I’m told) I hit upon the idea of extolling the virtues of Mrs. WM (I’m told) and so I went off on a tear about how she was the most beautiful and wonderful and smart woman on earth (I’m told) and then my daughter and son in-law were hanging their heads in shame (I’m told) and Mrs. WM was rolling her eyes and gritting her teeth (I’m told).
What I didn’t need to be told was that our guest was so amused at this funny recitation that she giggled and laughed and had a wonderful evening shortly before they called security after my fifth credit card was declined.
When we dropped our guest off at her hotel she was all smiles, that much I remember. I’m sure she had a great time and it was so kind of her to pick up the tab.
This morning I went for a long ride, a very long one, because I’m meeting up with some friends for dinner and perhaps a drink. I’m pretty sure no one will be speaking Japanese, but if they do, I’m ready for them.
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Also, if you haven’t picked up a copy of “Cycling in the South Bay,” you can order it on Amazon here.
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March 22, 2014 § 41 Comments
I have three commuter routes in the morning.
The best one takes an hour, drops down Hawthorne to the coast, wends through Lunada Bay and Paseo del Mar, drops down by the Cove, picks up the bike path at RAT Beach, then goes up Emerald through the neighborhood by Victory Elementary and over to my office on Hawthorne. The ride has scenery, a couple of short climbs, and I arrive at work completely relaxed and ready for the day’s nap.
The mediocre route takes about twenty-five minutes. I go down Silver Spur, take PV Drive to Via Valmonte, then snake over to Anza and go straight up Anza to Spencer and my office on Hawthorne. This route has traffic all the way along Anza once you cross PCH, but the traffic is rarely hostile. Anza has a bike lane in some places, and a faux bike lane in others that is packed with parked cars ready to door you any second. When I take this route I arrive at work not very relaxed because the cars are so close for most of the ride.
The hell route takes twenty minutes. I bomb down the other side of Hawthorne at 45 mph side by side with the cars, the buses, and the trucks whose brakes are frying on the descent. Drivers chop me at very high speeds and occasionally honk even though I’m passing them. Once I’m on Hawthorne past PCH it’s a war zone. There are four lanes, and I control the entire right lane. This makes a lot of morning commuters very angry. I could add a couple of more “very’s” and still not capture the rage that many cagers express at seeing me in my lane. About half the time I take the hell route a cager yells at me, and I always yell and gesture back. I get to work tense and feeling like I just escaped death or serious injury.
“Hey, you, get offa my cloud!”
Yesterday morning I was stopped at Hawthorne and Torrance. I was the first one at the light and there was a long line of cars backed up behind me. Next to me was a late 1990’s gray Chevy pickup. The cager was in his late 50’s, badly overweight, and wearing slacks and a dress shirt. His hair, such of it that there was, had been slicked back. I could smell his aftershave.
“Hey, pal,” he said, indicating that we were almost certainly not going to be pals. “Get up on the sidewalk. You’re backing up traffic.”
“Hey, non-pal,” I said. “I have a legal right to be in this lane.”
“No, you don’t. You’re on a bike. Get on the sidewalk and let the cars pass. You’re blocking traffic.”
At that moment a big city bus turned from Torrance onto Hawthorne and pulled up to the bus stop just past the light we were stopped at. “Yes, I do have a right to be here. Just like that bus, which is also ‘blocking traffic.’ Or maybe he needs to also get on the sidewalk?”
The guy got really angry. “You’re breaking the law!”
“No, I’m not, and I don’t see your badge, so shut the fuck up.”
“There’s no need to curse!” he screamed.
“There’s no need to be a square-headed dick, either.”
The light turned green and he sped off. I kept smack in the middle of the lane and sure enough, as happens all the way down Hawthorne, the traffic behind me waited until the neighboring lane cleared, then safely passed by, one by one. I had won the battle, but had lost the stress war.
Get a car, maroon!
Although I have three routes to work, there’s really only one route home, and that’s the fastest one, back down Hawthorne. I’m always tired and always want to get home quickly because, beer. Yesterday was Friday and I was leaving at 5:30. Hawthorne traffic is always angry, but the two angriest times for cagers are Monday morning and Friday late afternoon. This is because on Monday they have to go the place they hate the most for the next several days, work, and on Friday they have to go the other place they hate the most, home, for the next couple of days. If every commute ended in a bar or strip club or all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, cagers would be a lot happier.
I made it most of the way to Sepulveda without incident. Then, about a hundred yards before the light, I heard the telltale sound of a cager to the left of me slowing quickly because he’d been texting or listening to music or fiddling with his knob only to discover that he needed to move two lanes to the right so he could get into the right-turn-only lane and turn onto Sepulveda. The only thing between him and his multi-lane change was me, and as always happens, the cager becomes enraged that an otherwise last second clean-lane-sweep is going to be thwarted by a puny bicycle.
By now we had stopped in the traffic waiting for the light. The driver had long blonde hair and looked like he had come straight out of a police profiling manual under the heading “Typical Unemployed Surfer Dude on Drugs.”
He leaned over and began speaking through his open window. “Hey, asshole!” he shouted, not even bothering to try and trick me with the “pal” thing.
“What’s up, shitwagon?” I answered.
“You think you’re a fucking car? Get out of the fucking road before I run your ass over.”
“You think you’re a traffic cop? Shut the fuck up you sorry ass drug runner before I video your license number and file a complaint for civil harassment and the cops strip search your anus with a cattle prod.”
“Get on the fucking sidewalk! Bikes aren’t cars!” he raged. The traffic began to move, he waited until I had passed him, then shot over into the far right lane and raced down Sepulveda in a squeal of angry rubber.
Use it or lose it
The obvious question, paraphrasing an email from a friend who saw me commuting on Hawthorne the other day, is “Why in the world do you drive on that awful and dangerous street when you have much better alternatives?”
The answer is because it’s quick, and although stressful it’s not any more dangerous than the other routes I take. When I ride in the center of the far right lane, cagers pass me safely. This isn’t always the case on Anza. What seems dangerous, the proximity of cars, is actually safe when I’m in the lane with a bright taillight blazing away, especially in the daytime.
The other answer is that I have a right to ride in that lane. Why should I let cagers intimidate me with their ignorance? Why should cagers get all the fast, well-paved roads? Riding where I have a legal right to ride isn’t something I have to justify, any more than a person has to justify wanting to eat at a lunch counter or go to a movie. In tandem with that is the fact that every time a cager sees a biker in the lane, like it or not the cager is getting educated. He’s learning to expect bikes in the street, where they belong, not on the sidewalk, where they don’t belong.
I’ve seen downtown L.A. over the last five years go from being a place where bikes were a rarity to being a place where motorists absolutely expect to see bikes in the lane. I’ve yet to see a bike-cager encounter in DTLA like the ones I regularly experience on Hawthorne. Exercising your right to be in the lane is the best possible way of teaching cagers that you have the right to be there.
I’ve often thought that if bikers would commute down the bigger, more hostile roads in small groups it would be awesome. The sight of ten or fifteen commuters in a lane would make a much stronger message than some lone dude pedaling like crazy while screaming like a lunatic and flipping off his harassers. Maybe.
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June 25, 2013 § 24 Comments
Yesterday a group of about twenty-five riders rode from Malaga Cove to the downtown L.A. Ciclavia. Along the way we picked up riders along Crenshaw as we made our way to Wilshire Blvd., the epicenter of the big event. One of our number was Tara, who had mistakenly hopped in thinking we were the Wheatgrass Ride.
It was Tara’s birthday and she had opted out of the Ontario crit and decided to do an easy pedal around the hill. “Where’s this ride going?” she asked.
“Downtown,” I answered.
“Well,” she said “I hope it’s an adventure. Today’s my birthday and I want an adventure.”
Your wish is my command
We got to the Ciclavia and learned an important fact about bicycle riding. The slower you go, the hungrier you get and the worse you have to pee. Stephan was ready to gnaw the covering off his saddle after our two-hour stop-and-start meander to downtown. Alan was chewing on an old inner tube, and as I stared at my compadres everyone was starting to look like a different kind of food item. It didn’t help that as soon as we got to Wilshire, Raja started talking about Tommy’s Chili Burgers and Chili Fries.
“You don’t have to order chili on your burger,” he said. “Just order a burger. It’ll have more chili than hair on a nun’s butt.”
“Yeah,” added Charles. “If you order chili, they’ll just put chili on the chili. It’s alright if you’re not too concerned about stuff like cardiac arrest.”
The Ciclavia wasn’t yet in full swing, but there were already tens of thousands of people walking and riding along the street. We stopped at the food trucks at the end of Wilshire and ate, then coffeed up around the corner. Several of the group were going to return to the coast, but I had planned to attend Kevin Phillips’s hour record attempt at the Carson velodrome, so my route would take me down Central Avenue.
“Heading home via Watts and Compton,” I said. “Who’s with me?”
“Uh, I, uh, am taking the beach route,” said Raj as the entire crew pretended not to hear me.
“Beach route? You’re FROM South Central, dude.”
“My ghetto card expired,” he confessed. “But you’ll be fine. Skinny white dude on a $5,000 bike. No one will notice. Maybe tape a few Ben Franklins to your arms to be more incognito. Before they stab you to death just tell ‘em you’re looking for women and crack. You should be fine.”
Tara piped up. “I’ll go with you. I want to see Kevin tackle the record.”
Raj nodded with approval. “Yeah, man. Skinny white dude on $5k of bike and cute white chick on $6k of bike and tight pants. You cats will blend right in. You know how to dial 911, right?”
Most of what you’re afraid of is wrong
Raj let us go because he knew the ‘hood, and he knew that people in South Central L.A. are a hell of a lot friendlier than the average Angry PV Housewife Behind a Benz. We pedaled along for a ways, passing Moreno’s Bike Shop and Mother’s Bike shop on Central as we cruised through Watts.
After a while we saw two riders ahead of us, one wearing a stars and stripes jersey. We picked up the pace a bit, passed them, and then mistakenly veered off onto Clovis. As we rode in the bike lane, a giant mound of broken glass appeared in front of us. I wasn’t worried, having made the clever choice to ride my ‘cross bike and its mondo, bulletproof 700 x 34 knobby tires.
Tara, on the other hand, was in trouble. “Are those tubulars?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Where’s your spare?”
“I don’t have one.”
“I don’t know how to change a tubular, so it wouldn’t do me any good even if I had one.”
“I know how to change a tubular.”
“Too late for that. But I have this.” She reached into her jersey pocket and whipped out a giant tube of Fillitup, a goo injector that looked bigger than the cartridge from a grease gun.
“Man, I hope you don’t flat. That thing is useless. When you’re riding urban routes you have to run beefier tires. Otherwise you’re asking for trouble.” I pointed expertly at my awesomely honking-Foxworthy-approved-mondo-treaded tires.
On cue, there was a loud hiss — pfffft — flapflapflap. From my rear tire.
“You’re rear tire is flat,” said Tara.
I cursed a tiny little bit.
“We can pull over here and change it if you want.”
“Uh, that won’t be happening, unfortunately.”
“You think it’s dangerous here?” Several local denizens were curiously eyeing us from the edge of their shopping carts.
“Dangerous? Shit, no. You see, I, uh, don’t have a spare tube.”
“How come? These urban routes can be pretty rough on tires, I’m told.”
“Yeah, I, uh, well, you see, I’ve never flatted on these tires and I figured they wouldn’t, you know, like, flat today.”
“Ohhhh,” Tara said. “The old ‘these tires don’t flat’ deal, huh?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, keep pedaling then. Goodness knows I don’t have a spare.”
Manuel y Pablo’s Hardware y Pupuseria
We got back over onto South Central, and after a mile or so, just at the end of Watts, there was a dude smoking a cigarette on the porch and grinning at us. “Hey, man, is there a bike shop around here?” I asked.
“Whatchu want one of them for?”
“I got a flat tire.”
“Aw man, you fucked. Ain’t no bike shop in the ‘hood less you go back uptown and hit Mother’s. She gon’ fix you up.”
“No, that’s too far the wrong way.”
“You can try Manuel and Pablo’s. They got tacos and hardware, man. Maybe can’t fix yo bike but you can eat up like a dog and get some hardware if you need any.”
“I don’t need any hardware.”
“I know that. But yo skinny ass could use a taco, know what I’m sayin?”
“I really need a spare tube.”
“Manuel might have that too. Might as well have a look ’cause they’s on your right a half mile up.”
We pulled into Manuel y Pablo’s Hardware y Pupuseria just as a lady was putting away the dogs. The small one was about as big as Tara and lunged so hard against the leash that if it hadn’t been wearing a spiked choke collar it would have ripped free and mauled us both. Tara held my bike while I went in.
The lights were almost completely out and it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. The tacos smelled great. “How can I help you, senor?” a very nice girl asked.
“Do you have any inner tubes for a bike tire?”
“Oh yes, senor, we have so many ones. On the last aisle over there.” She pointed off into a distant area where it was darker than a black hole. I made my way over. Two dudes in cowboy hats were smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and looking at me.
“Hi,” I said. They nodded. The bigger of the two had out a monstrous Bowie knife that he was using to pare his nails. A scar ran down across his forehead, and his front teeth had so much gold they glittered like Smaug’s treasure hoard despite the gloom.
I found the inner tubes and squinched my eyes hard to read the labels. Bowie Knife sauntered over. He was so big he blotted out what little gloom there was. All I could see was the glint on his teeth and the shine on his knife. I was so fucking scared I thought I would crap in my pants.
“Man, whatchu lookin’ for?”
“A…inner…tube…sir…” I stammered.
“Ya, man, what kinda tube?”
“It’s for a kind of bigger style bike, ‘cross, I mean, uh, bigger wheels.”
“Ya, man, you want a 700 x 34. They got one right here. He reached over and pulled the box off the shelf.”
“Oh, gee. Thanks. Yeah, exactly. 700 x 34, that’s exactly it.”
He squinted then reached over and pulled it back out of my hands. The knife glittered. “Ya, man, but you don’t want this one.”
“I don’t? I mean, of course I don’t.”
“Ya, man. I saw your bike when you rode up, man, you’re runnin’ Presta. These are all Schraeder. In the ‘hood it’s all Schraeder. You want Presta you gotta go back up to Moreno’s or Mother’s.”
“Oh, yeah, right.”
“That’s some nice SRAM Red shit you runnin’, bro. Want a beer?” He thumbed over to the half-drunken case of Tecate.
“No, man, but thanks.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
I went back outside. “Let’s go.”
“Even if they had a spare, you don’t have air do you?”
“Well, with sixty years of experience between us, we’re pretty unprepared, aren’t we?”
“You said you wanted an adventure…”
A little help from my friend
As I thunk-thunk-thunked along the rutted asphalt, a great idea occurred to me. If there was one person alive who could help me out in a pinch it would be Mr. Freewheeling, a/k/a “Phil.”
Phil was the best mechanic alive and I just happened to have his phone number. So what if he lived in Austin? I dialed.
“Phil, this is Seth.”
“What’s up, man?”
“I’ve got a flat rear wheel, no air, no spare, and no levers. How do I fix it?”
“First just pull off the tire, then stuff it with grass. You’ll be fine.”
“I don’t have any levers.”
“Can’t you pull it off with your bare hands?”
“No, I mean I don’t think so.”
I could hear him rolling his eyes. “Really?”
“You’re dead to me,” he said, and hung up.
For the next hour my rear wheel went bump — bump — flapppp, bump — bump — flapppp, all the way to the velodrome in Carson. Tara had slowed down to my lumbering 7 mph and accompanied me every inch of the way. “Adventure?” I asked.
She grinned. “Unforgettable.”
June 1, 2013 § 22 Comments
So there I was, with a game plan. Sort of.
I had met up at 5:40 AM with Jack from Illinois (not his real name), and we did a couple thousand feet of climbing along with a couple thousand more feet of lying about our fitness, and then gave up the whole charade at the Sea Bean and Olde Larde Shoppe at Terranea. After three rounds of coffee and sugary honey buns, I checked my watch.
“Shit! I’m gonna be late for the race!”
Jack nodded sympathetically, the way people do who recognize profound mental illness in a friend but nonetheless tolerate it. “You better get going, then.”
“Yeah!” I answered, seeing the opportunity to dash off and stick him with the check, which I did.
I sped by San Pedro and its Memorial Day weekend hookers, then Torrance and its Republicans who love Medicare, and over to the race course at Dominguez Hills. My race started at 9:00, and I was just in the nick of time. “Yo, Vera!” I shouted to the organizer and money collector and Boss of the Race. “Give me a number and pin me up! I’ll pay you later!”
“You’ve got plenty of time,” she said.
“My race starts in five minutes!”
“The 50+ Elderly Gentleman With Incipient Prostate Issues Race! Hurry!”
“They went off at 8:00. Slowly. You missed the start. The 45+ Not Quite So Old Gentleman Who Still Enjoy Regular Erections Race goes at 10:30, if you want to do that one.”
I didn’t really want to do that one
The 45+ race is filled with fast youngsters, and I don’t like racing against them because they always trounce me. Left with no alternative, I drew up my battle plan and lined up.
- Sit in.
- Sit in a lot.
- Sit in the whole race.
- Wait until the last lap.
- Get a double-double cheeseburger with bacon and extra lard at the Five Guys in Carson.
- Roll home. Literally.
- Explain to Mrs. WM how I’d almost won.
The race began and a pair of wankers got off the front. A couple of laps later they came back. The peloton slowed to a crawl as the riders thought about the Barry Wolfe crit beatdown on Sunday, the state TTT beatdown on Saturday, the uber-beatdown ITT the week before, the impending beatdown of death in Bakersfield on tap the following weekend, and about how they’d really prefer to chill for 45 minutes and sprunt at the end, all things being equal.
Stick to the plan, man
As soon as the peloton slowed, I attacked with my signature Giant Red Bus Loaded With Passengers Going Up A 25-Percent Muddy Slope attack, and caught everyone off guard. They apparently thought I had a mechanical.
A few pedal strokes later and my effort had succeeded. One passenger tagged along, a guy with as little tactical sense as me, or less, Tony from Pinnaclife.
We traded pulls, with him throwing down Fabianesque efforts that immediately put the field out of sight. “This,” I laughed to myself, “has got the smell of victory.”
Two laps later, Tony swung over. “I’m done, dude.”
I sniffed, sensing the all-too-familiar reek of total defeat. “You fucking kidding me? We’ve got forty minutes to go.”
“Sorry,” he said as giant plumes of flail poured out of his ears, nose, eyes, mouth, and butt.
“Shit,” I said. “Just sit on my wheel, rest, and come through when you can. We’re screwed.”
Keep your head up
Of all the disciplines I’m not known for, the one I’m most not known for the least is time trailing. Every couple of laps Tony would come through, but after a few pedal strokes he would do the Gasket Droop, which happens when you’ve blown a head gasket and your head starts to droop as you look stupidly at your Garmin and think “Wow this is slow but why’s it so painful?” and then your head droops some more as you stare at your thighs and think “Wow this is so painful where is all this pain coming from and why am I here?” and then your head sags so that your eyes are gazing at your navel and you hit a manhole cover at speed even though Lotts has painted it electric green and you crash out the dude behind you and flip yourself over the curb and into the blanket with the nice lady and three kids who are eating peanut butter sandwiches which is now smeared all over your face and derailleur.
“Keep your head up, stupid!” I’d shout, and Tony would jerk his head up for a few strokes, only to let it start to sag again.
There is an art to keeping your head up when you’re gassed and miserable and hopeless and mashing in a two-up flailaway that’s doomed to be caught and shelled, and Tony hadn’t mastered it, so each time he came through, and it wasn’t very often, I yelled at him to keep his head up in a cheerful and supportive way, using friendly modifiers like “fucking” and “dogdammit” and other terms of encouragement.
Save it for the end
During our doomed expedition, the announcers called two primes, one for a bucket of Cytomax Pomegranate and Liver Flavored Decovery Drink, and another for a bag of coffee. Tony let me have both primes, clearly unaware that they were the first primes I’d won in 30 years of bike racing (except for the used water bottle with mold stains that I won at a Tom Boyden race outside Dallas in ’84), and with these two primes alone I’d notched more glory than in any bike race, ever.
Bored with our slowing flailaway, and with the pack now in sight, the announcer announced a “field prime” to hurry up the chasers and put us out of our misery and them out of theirs, because in the world of stupidly, incomprehensibly, unenduringly boring things there is nothing more numbingly dull and untertaining than watching a slow breakaway in a slothlike Old Folks Crit. Coming out of Turn Three, national champion and General Hero from the Planet Zetron-X, Steve Strickler, launched an attack to bridge to our flailaway.
With him was Gary Wall, who zoomed by me in search of the field prime. What Gary didn’t know is that I had heard that this prime was for a free CBR race entry ticket, i.e. something that would actually save me money, so I stomped after Gary had sat up and pipped him for the incredible, unbelievable, almost inhuman record of collecting three primes in one race. In those few seconds I began to think about doing drugs and turning pro, or at least doing drugs.
When the force be’s with you
Our little sprunt + acceleration had gapped the field, and another Pinnaclife flailer joined us with a La Grange gentleman of the brain-dead variety. We now had a new Breakaway of the Hopeless, and we gunned it. The peloton receded again, and a quick time check after two more laps showed that we had less than ten minutes to race.
Suddenly, fourth place looked possible. As I rotated off and slid to the back, I checked over my shoulder and saw the awful sight from Hell, otherwise known as the Surf City Cyclery Bridge of Death.
Strickler was towing his minions to our flailaway. With him was Kenny Rogers, fresh off his triple platinum recording of The Gambler, and, worst of all, was Smilin’ John Slover.
They caught us, hammered through, and instantly transformed our weak and tattered flailaway into that magical, mythical thing of beauty, an actual breakaway. I now had instantly transformed a nondescript fourth place finish into seventh. Rad!
Strickler, Wall, and Rogers pounded on the front, and I stupidly got into the rotation, occasionally looking back at Smilin’ John, who refused to do a lick of work. “Why doesn’t he pull through?” I wondered. “If he sits in like that all day and lets his teammates do the work, he’s going to win. Idiot.”
Finally, exasperated, I started to whimper. “Hey, John, why don’t you take a pull? It’s fun up here! Really!”
Smilin’ John just smiled as Strickler and Rogers drilled and grilled with such fierce nastiness that now I was the only other idiot rotating through with them.
The man, the myth
Slover isn’t just one of the strongest and fastest riders in SoCal; he’s one of the most experienced and one of the best workhorses. He’s been racing for decades, and when he races in the 35+ crits he’s the go-to guy for bridging, riding the break, and leading out whips like Charon Smith. Sitting pretty in the break, with two of the biggest motors gaining more and more real estate from the field, he’d grin at me each I came through, the grin of a shark about to munch on a plump, tender little baby seal.
On the final lap, with Strickler hammering into the headwind and Slover shouting at him in third wheel, “Faster! Faster!” it was an out-of-body experience. They were going to kick my ass.
“Wait,” I told myself. “They’re already kicking my ass.”
Strickler’s pull was so long and my fourth wheel slot afforded me so much rest that when we whipped through the third turn I’d recovered, and so I dove tight into the turn and made my bid for glory. Three strokes into it, I realized that perhaps I hadn’t really recovered after all.
Kenny jumped hard far over to the right side, which was actually the longer line, and in moment of stupid decisiveness, poor judgment, and lack of confidence, I drove back to the other side of the street and latched onto Slover.
This was like latching onto a rocket just before liftoff, because when we hit Turn Four, Slover was just flat fucking gone. My legs and arms were dismembered at the joints, but I now at least had second place down cold because Kenny was fading.
Like any good thoroughbred, though, once he’d launched his teammate to victory, Kenny heard me panting, gasping, thrashing, and flailing to come by. He put his head down and gave one more huge effort, easily besting me at the line for the giant tub of Gizzard Flavored Cytomax and a $35 check.
Smilin’ John rolled over and clapped me on the back. “Good race, dude!”
I stuffed my tongue back into my head. “Thanks. Urgle. Gurp.”
He did the next race, rode the break and got on the podium.
I went to Five Guys and drowned my happiness in cow parts. Praise be to cows. Oh, and I’ve got a nice tub of Pomegranate and Liver decovery drink for sale. Cheap.