April 20, 2014 § 36 Comments
The night had started off slowly. I was sitting next to a couple of dudes at the bar and they were discussing beer. “I like the slightly fruity finish, almost strawberryish,” one said of his light-colored ale.
“Yeah. And it’s amazing the way it starts with a full nose, almost chocolatey, then transforms into something airy and almost, like you said, a fruity aromatic.”
I looked at my 32-oz. glass of suds. “Are you guys talking about beer or edible underwear?” I asked.
They laughed nervously. “Ha, ha. Good one. What are you drinking?”
“Oh, that’s a good beer,” approved Fruity Finish.
“Yes, very workmanlike, solid,” added Chocolatey Nose. “For sure it’s a biggie and has those strong citrus notes. Kind of muted compared to others but still lots of orange rind and piney notes. It’s a big beer, for sure.”
“It is?” I asked, wondering if they were talking about the big mug.
“Oh, yes,” chimed in Fruity Finish. “I’d add that, you know, it’s a well-balanced bitey IPA, right?” He eyed my giant mug. “You’ll get a better nose from a tulip glass, it’ll let the smell travel and pull out the high notes on that classic mix of piney, mango, citrus, resin, dankness. There’s enough bitterness, nicely mixes with the fruity, citrusy, fresh finish.”
I looked at them as if they were trying take upskirt photos of my wife. “You think so?” I asked.
Fruity Finish and Chocolatey Nose nodded. “How would you describe it?” asked Chocolately Nose.
I took another swallow from the giant mug as the bitter liquid charged down my throat. I savored it for a moment. “Hmmm,” I said. “Tastes like ass.”
The two connoisseurs winced. “Ass?”
“Yep,” I said, taking another swig. “A big old nasty swallow of ass. And that’s what beer’s supposed to taste like, by the way.”
They didn’t know what to say, so I continued. “Beer is one of the nastiest things ever invented, worse than kimchi. It’s rotted inedible offal stewed in a pot and left in a bucket to rot some more. If it doesn’t taste like shit you’re doing it wrong.”
Fruity Nose protested. “Good craft beer …”
“Fuck good craft beer. Beer tastes foul when you start and gets fouler with each successive swallow. That’s why by your tenth beer you’re cross-eyed trying to choke the shit down. That’s why men drink it after a long day digging ditches or clear cutting virgin old growth. If you’re going to fructify and chocolatify it, might as well soak a pair of flavored edible panties in ethanol and eat that.”
The two experts politely turned away, which was perfect timing because up came the Godfather. He sat down at the bar next to me and ordered a beer. Like a man, he pointed to my glass and said to the bartender, “I’ll have what he’s having.” Like a man, he didn’t bother to ask what it was, he just assumed that it was strong and bitter and there was a lot of it.
“How’d you get into cycling, Godfather?” I asked him.
The barkeep plopped the huge cold mug in front of him and he paused to take a deep, manly draft after we clinked the shit out of those 12-lb. mugs. “Fatty tuna,” he said.
I thought about that for a second, hoping like hell he wasn’t about to pronounce that there was a finishing note of raw fish. “Not saying I’m drunk, Godfather, but you’re gonna have to help me out with that one.”
“Fatty tuna,” he repeated. “And strawberries.” Then, like a man, he sucked down a full quarter of his glass and dissected it the only way any man worth his salt would ever evaluate a beer. “That shit is good,” he said.
“Damn straight,” I said, adding the only man-approved comment to another man’s approval of a cold beer. “But I’m still not understanding the berries and tuna thing and what it has to do with bikes.”
Godfather lives up on top of the Hill and runs the global energy consulting arm of IBM. He is always nicely dressed and seems like the perfect product of Southern California suburbia. But he isn’t. “You know, I grew up in Pedro,” he said, referring to San Pedro, the impoverished little armpit at the southernmost tail of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. “We were fishermen, and our family had fished the peninsula since they emigrated from a little village in Sicily in the early 1900’s. All of Pedro was fishermen, mostly Italians and Portuguese, and Croats, too.”
“Pedro?” I asked, incredulously. “You mean the place that’s now crawling with gangs and drunk longshoremen and street people who live in shopping carts?”
“The same,” he said. “We had three boats, the biggest was the Giuseppe, a hundred-footer. When I got big enough to work the boat, I was seven, they took me on my first run. We left in the wee hours and sailed up by Abalone Cove, shining lights on the surface to bring up the squid. Once we had a full load of squid, we sailed farther out to the bait barge and cashed in our bait for money that we used to fuel up the Giuseppe and the chaser boat.”
“What’s a chaser boat?”
“We had a little motorboat hanging on the back of the Giuseppe, my dad ran that.”
I tried to envision all of this happening right here on the coast of Southern California in the late 1960’s, a family fishing operation off a peninsula that’s now slathered in tract housing, faux Mediterranean designs, and filled with people whose only conception of beer is fruity finishes and chocolatey noses.
“I bet your old man liked beer,” I said.
“Damn straight he did. But we were a big Italian family, so he loved wine, too. Anyway, we fueled up the boat and headed out because we knew the tuna were running up from Baja, and if we could land a decent catch we’d be able to keep a roof over our heads for the next three months or so. It was a big deal. Grandpa climbed up into the crow’s nest and started scanning the water for dolphin fins because the tuna ran beneath the dolphin schools. Sure enough, he spotted ‘em. He had eyes like a hawk, just like the whalers back in the day.
“He shouted down to dad, and we rolled the chaser boat into the water, and dad cranked the motor and set out after those tuna with grandpa coming up under a full head of steam. Dad got to the school, and started to turn it with the chaser boat, bringing the dolphins back to the Giuseppe, where we had the nets. It was exciting stuff, yelling and the crew doing everything just exactly at the right time and then bam, those nets were filled with tuna and all hell broke loose. We wound up with three tons of tuna that run.”
“So what does that have to do with cycling and strawberries?” I’d managed to hang onto that thread despite the boat chase and the tuna catch and the squid and the old Italians drinking beer.
“I’d ridden my bike down to the harbor that morning at dark-thirty. Dad filleted a 30-lb. cut of fatty tuna, wrapped it in some newspaper, and put it in my basket. Now mind you, the bike and the tuna weighed almost as much as I did. ‘Go get us some berries, Gerald,’ he said. So I had to crank that big steel bicycle loaded down with fresh fish all the way up the wall on 25th Street and out PV Drive South out to what is now Trump National Golf Course. It wasn’t a golf course then, I can assure you.”
“What was it?”
“Strawberry fields. And corn fields. Paolo and Maria Pugliese farmed strawberries all along the coast along with a couple of other families.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I am not. Where you now see multi-million dollar McMansions and a golf course there used to be strawberry fields and old Italians with sunburnt faces. It took me forever to get there, lugging that fish on that heavy bike. Remember, I was only seven. Finally I got there, and old Paolo took my fish and handed me two big wicker baskets. ‘Go pick your berries, Gerald,’ he said. So for the next two hours I bent over in the fields picking those fresh strawberries, then I rode home.”
“And that is how you got into cycling?” I asked.
Gerald finished off his beer in a one long manly pull. “Yes,” he said. “It is.”
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April 12, 2014 § 19 Comments
Many years ago we lived in a one-room home. The whole interior was a little more than ten tatami mats, or about 178 square feet. That probably sounds small until I tell you that six of us lived there, including one squalling infant. We were building a house on the other side of Utsunomiya, and my wife’s grandfather had allowed us to stay in one of his rental units until the house was finished. Our furnishings consisted of a small TV and low table. We lived there for eight months, but I don’t remember ever being cramped.
What I remember is the morning ride to kindergarten.
I had the biggest Bridgestone commuter bike that they sold at the local bike shop, a 55cm monster that, even with the seat jacked all the way up, was much too small. It had fenders, 30mm all-beef commuting tires, and a kickstand, but the piece of resistance was the add-on that they installed at the time of purchase: a kiddy seat.
The kiddy seat was a wire basket contraption with two flimsy cushions, foot pegs, and leg guards to keep the passenger’s legs out of the spokes. It mounted onto the rear bike rack and had a fixed handlebar so that the kiddy could grip in the event that circumstances became rough or unstable. There was no seatbelt of any kind.
Rough and unstable circumstances
My eldest daughter was in kindergarten, and due to our temporary location I had to pedal her across town every morning, a solid 20-minute commute in heavy traffic. They say that a child’s personality is formed at birth, and whether that’s true or not, it’s definitely formed after your first trip to kindergarten in a wire basket on the back of my commuter bike.
Ours was no normal commute, either, because of the Tobu Hill. This was a very short, steep, 200m downhill that swooped under the Tobu train line and flattened out at the traffic light on Heisei Dori. The road was narrow and even had a segregated bike path, but you couldn’t get any speed on the bike path so my daughter and I always opted for the lane. Well, she never opted for anything. She just hunkered low in the basket and gripped the bars survival tight.
The beauty of that little drop was that you could get a good head of steam, and if you got lucky and hit the traffic light green or mostly yellow and there was no oncoming traffic you could take the wide slightly cambered right-hander out into a clean 4-lane road. A full-speed sprint down the hill and a lucky light meant that we could sweep through the turn at a solid 35+, the bike in full lean, the tires at the limit of their grip, and the taste of fear dry and exhilarating and bitter roiling at the back of my tongue.
My daughter never complained, never cried, and never asked me not to do it, although upon reflection she never asked me to do it, either. She wore the cutest of kindergarten outfits, Japanese cute, a cuteness that only generations skilled in the art of tiny and cute could ever produce, and part of the uniform was a hat with a drawstring. At 35mph in full lean, the drawstring wasn’t strong enough to keep the hat on her head, of course. The times I looked back at her, usually after reaching terminal velocity but before hitting the hopefully green light, she always looked the same.
She would be staring calmly ahead, tilted in the seat so that she could see around me, a faint smile on her face, with one hand holding the handlebar in a vicegrip and the other mashing her hat onto her head so that the wind didn’t carry it away. If there was fear in her eyes as she pondered the onrushing and immediate future, it never showed.
Neither of us, of course, wore a helmet.
The great Utsunomiya World Championship Road Race
One morning we were sitting in traffic. As the light turned green and we began to move, a fancy road rider whizzed by. “Good morning!” I said, but he ignored us.
I looked back at my daughter. “That rude bastard,” I said. “Let’s catch him!”
She didn’t agree, but she didn’t disagree, either. She only peered around me to get a better look at our quarry, casually took one hand off the handlebar and clamped her palm to her hat. She knew that whatever was going to happen next it would involve high winds and turbulence.
The Bridgestone was a solid 30 pounds and Sakura was another 35 or 40, and I happened to only be wearing flip flops, so the bike wasn’t exactly quick off the line. However, once you got that giant lump of chromoly up to speed, it had momentum, and lots of it.
Packed in the middle of tight traffic I was able use the cars to draft my way up to about 30mph. Inches off the bumpers of car death I went faster and faster until my legs really started to burn and my breathing became painful and my body had to viciously sway from side to side to beat the pedals hard enough to keep up the speed. I could feel her weight shifting behind me as the bike rocked side to side.
The speed picked up and I hunkered down in the draft. Through the car’s windshield I could see the roadie up ahead as well as the car’s speedometer. We were over 35mph and the bike was starting to shimmy. My legs tore at the pedals and I was buried in the red. We approached a giant traffic intersection, and our draft was the last car that was going to make the light, which had turned yellow. The roadie had already come to a stop.
The Toyota I was drafting gunned it and got me up to forty before he pulled away. The bike was in full shimmy. Braking was not an option as I prepared to sail out into the intersection. I turned my head and stopped pedaling in preparation for the moment we’d shoot past the stopped roadie. Buzzing as close to him as I could, I said, “Good morning again!” and we rocketed by as if we’d been discharged from a Soviet work camp.
Judging from his gape, he’d never been passed by a dude in flip flops on a bike with a kickstand hauling a kid in a basket. At forty miles an hour. I’m sure the fact that I wasn’t pedaling added to the mysterious nature of the public humiliation.
My daughter is twenty-five and she still rides a bicycle, though her smile is wider and, you know, she wears a helmet.
March 1, 2014 § 21 Comments
I was pedaling along, talking to a pair of Cat 5’s about racing. A dude on a fancy bike passed us like we were tied to a stump. “Damn,” I said, “who does he think he is? Major Taylor?”
Stringbean looked at me. “Who’s Major Taylor?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say, so I thought about it. “Ever heard of Eddy Merckx?” I asked.
Stringbean laughed. “Uh, yeah.”
Stumpy chipped in. “Merckx was the greatest ever. The Cannibal.”
“Why do you think he was the greatest ever?” I asked.
“Dude,” said Stumpy. “He fuggin won it all. He was The Cannibal.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I heard you the first time. So you reckon he was better than Major Taylor?”
“Who’s he?” Stringbean repeated. “Was he better than Merckx?”
“Couldn’t have been,” said Stumpy. “Merckx was The Cannibal.”
“Yeah,” said Stringbean. “Who was Major Taylor? I bet he wasn’t no cannibal.”
Der Sieger schreibt die Geschichte
Among black cyclists, Major Taylor needs no introduction. But for many whites, he’s an ancient name at best, a blank at worst. This is weird because you don’t have to race bikes for long before you hear his name. Although I knew, or thought I knew, the rough outlines of his story, it wasn’t until I read “Major” by Todd Balf that I got an appreciation for the man who was unquestionably America’s first sporting superstar and who, judged by his accomplishments, remains one of the greatest American athletes ever.
Had Taylor been white, his palmares would have been incredible. But dominating the domestic and international competition as a black man in the late 1800’s who faced threats of violence, blatant discrimination, and machinations to keep him from even entering races testifies to a stony will and indomitable competitive lust that makes the accomplishments of Eddy Merckx pale in comparison.
In his prime, Merckx was the undisputed patron of the peloton with a powerful team that protected him and worked tirelessly for his victories. Just as crucially, very little happened without Merckx’s consent. In his prime, Taylor had to fight for every position in every single race, and could look forward to racial epithets and overt discrimination wherever he traveled in the United States.
I thought about all this as I pedaled along with Stumpy and Stringbean. “Boys,” I said, “if you want to know what it means to be a champion, a real one, get yourself a bio of Major Taylor. He wasn’t The Cannibal. He was far tougher than that.”
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February 26, 2014 § 28 Comments
With the impending release of his book, Battle Scars, former Australian cyclist Stuart O’Grady has embarked on a media tour and sat down with Cycling Fanboys for his first major interview since his retirement and dished on his experiences with drugs in the pro peloton.
Fanboys: Why the name?
SO: “Battle Scars” is a name that is very appropriate to my career because there were so many battles. Battles all the time, every day. And you know, because of those battles I had scars. So, battles and scars, and then “Battle Scars.” The scars of battles. Get it? Bities, bitzles, bingles,the whole shebang.
Fanboys: After announcing your retirement on the first Monday after the 2013 Tour de France, you admitted to using epo ahead of the 1998 Tour, just before the French Senate released its report on doping in the Tour in 1998. Why the timing?
SO: Well, I sure as hell wasn’t gonna admit it during me career, was I? Maybe I’m Ozzie, but I’m not as dumb as all that.
Fanboys: And that’s the only time you doped?
SO: Oh, yeah. Just the day before the ’98 Tour. A tiny little pinch. Itsy bitsy amount, actually. Hardly enough to even see, much less make me ride faster. It was kind of a joke, really.
Fanboys: Wow. Because 1998 was the year, you know, that teams were supplying it in gross to their riders, everyone walking around with his own personal thermos of epo.
SO: Really? What a bunch o’ cheaters, eh?
Fanboys: So you didn’t really ever hear about other riders using drugs?
SO: Lord, no. The French guys, sure, and maybe some of the lower class riders, the donkeys, the guys who were never gonna be any good, maybe they did it, but the big teams, the legit teams, I can honestly say I never heard of anyone using drugs to gain an unfair advantage. It’s just not how we thought at the time.
Fanboys: Where did you obtain the drugs?
SO: Oh, I don’t remember. You know, it was just a very small amount, not more than a couple of thermoses. I think I got it from some gal in a bar. We was talking about the Tour and she said, “Try this,” and gave me a couple of thermoses. I only used it the month leading up to the Tour, kind of on a training plan I made up meself.
Fanboys: Did you notice any difference in your riding?
SO: From the epo? Blimey, no sir. It was like drinkin’ orange juice. Made me kind of drowsy, in fact, which is why I quit taking it right after the ’99 Tour, the year Lance won his first yellow jersey.
Fanboys: When did you quit using drugs?
SO: Immediately, right away, as soon as I heard about the Festina affair in ’98. I smashed me thermoses, got rid of it and that was the last I ever touched it.
Fanboys: Except for ’99, right?
SO: Right. And 2000. We used a spot of it in 2000, me and the boys, but just before the Tour. It didn’t help us at all, though, so we quit immediately.
Fanboys: “The boys?”
SO: Oh, sure, you know, the boys on the team. It wasn’t organized by the team, it was all individualized, but we did it together. There was a big cooler on the bus, we had ten thermoses for each rider along with the other usual supplements, and just used them. I believe they made us slower, actually.
Fanboys: What were the other “usual supplements”?
SO: Test, corticos, clen, a blood bag ‘ere and there for when you was gettin’ a bit woozy after the big mountain stages. And before the big mountain stages. And the long flat days, too, and time trials, a pinch before and maybe a spot after. But that’s all we did, and after the 2001 Tour, Bjarne told us “no more drugs because drugs is bad.” You know he was tough about drugs like that and wouldn’t tolerate it. “It’s just cheatin’,” is what he told us all the time. So we just quit, and I’ll tell you that they didn’t make you any faster. They made you slower. That’s a proven fact.
Fanboys: Your admission of doping cast into doubt your subsequent results, particularly your 2007 win at Paris-Roubaix.
SO: Sure, I can see how people might think that, but Roubaix is a strongman’s race and drugs was gone completely from the peloton after the Tour wrapped up in ’02, I think it was. We just all kind of reached an agreement that cheatin’ wasn’t worth it. It was the right thing to do, so we did it. Simple as that.
Fanboys: How did you feel during all those years when you were denying drug use even though you were plugged to the bunghole with PED’s of every kind?
SO: I felt awful, actually. I just kind of buried it so far back in my mind because it was just one of those things that I hoped would never surface. It was the darkest period of my career. It was the darkest period of cycling in general until things got cleaned up for good in 2003, right after the Tour.
Fanboys: How did that come about?
SO: Well, we was using blood transfusions, and transfusions from our family, and from our pets, and of course there was always a bit of androstenediol, androstenedione, androstene, bolandiol, bolasterone, boldenone, boldione, calusterone, clostebol, danazol, dehydrochlormethyltestosterone, desoxymethyltestosterone, drostanolone, ethylestrenol, fluoxymesterone, formebolone, furazabolgestrinone, hydroxytestosteronemestanolone, mesterolone, metandienone, metenolone, methandriol, methasterone, methyldienolone, methylnortestosterone, methyltestosterone, metribolone, mibolerone, nandrolone, norandrostenedione, norboletone, norclostebol, norethandrolone, oxabolone, oxandrolone, oxymesterone, oxymetholone, prostanozol, norandrostenedione, norboletone, norclostebol, norethandrolone, oxabolone, oxandrolone, oxymesterone, oxymetholone, and maybe a spot o’ noretiocholanolone, stuff like that. None of it worked for shite, though, I can promise you.
And one day we just all said, “Hey, mates, enough’s enough. HTFU.” And that was it. I personally threw all my stuff away, broke it with a hammer, tossed it in the toilet. Remember it just like it was yesterday, felt a enormous burden off me shoulders, day after the 2004 Tour finished we was all like, hey, it’s a new day. Right?
Fanboys: Since your doping admission you’ve not been seen a lot in public. What’s Stuey O’Grady doing to occupy himself?
SO: Oh, you know, just bein’ a regular dad, playin’ with me 10-year-old, tryin’ to forget about all those battle scars, the ones from the battles. Epic battles. And scars, too. Epic battles, epic scars. Battle scars.
Fanboys: Any thoughts of returning for one last hurrah?
SO: Lordy, no. Twenty years as a pro, it’s enough. It was black times a lot of them times, black times for cycling, but we’ve turned a corner. Things is better now than they was.
Fanboys: Can you pinpoint when the change happened?
SO: Blimey, just like it was yesterday. It was right after the Tour, 2005 if memory serves, and we all decided on a new direction. Smartest thing we ever did, ’cause doping was killing us and people just couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Fanboys: But didn’t you say that the drugs didn’t actually help?
SO: Oh, they didn’t. They made you slower, mate. But it’s the thinkin’ that they’re makin’ you faster that makes you go faster. Hard to explain, y’know? But Bjarne helped us change the game. It was right after the 2006 Tour, we dumped all of our stocks and investments in Big Pharma, just did everything pan y agua. That’s Polish for “bread and water.” And I’m glad it happened then, couldn’t have come at a better time because all that winter and then the spring of ’07 I trained pan y agua and HTFU and I won Roubaix that year, clean as a whistle. I can look back on me career and that day in particular with nothin’ but pride.
Fanboys: Thanks for your time, Stuey. We here at Cycling Fanboys really believe in you.
SO: You gonna buy a copy of me book, then?
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February 10, 2014 § 8 Comments
Fields called up last night. We spoke for the first time in a couple of years. We chatted about law and obnoxious bankruptcy trustees for a few minutes before the conversation drifted to bike racing.
He and I have taken different paths in life, but we’ve both wound up in the same place, that is, stuck in the past. I know this because every time he reminded me of some long-ago incident, I’d one up him with a detail. “Remember the time I lowered the car onto Buffalo Russ’s hand?” he said.
“Sure. You guys were working on the brakes in his old silver Honda Civic. The one with the aluminum bleed nipples.”
Every time I’d bring up an old tale, he’d add a detail that proved he remembered it better than I did.
But there’s always one trip down memory lane that neither of us can ever add any detail to because we both remember it so perfectly. Fields named it “The Path of Truth.” The first time we did it was 1984. We would meet over at his place by the old Austin airport and ride for 30 minutes or so, warming up. Then we’d head out MLK to where it intersected with FM 979.
As soon as we crossed FM 979 it was nine miles to the green sign that said “Webberville.” Fields would put it in the big ring and wrap up the pace, jolting my system from warm-up to threshold in a few terrible pedal strokes. That first surge of pain when the intervals started I can still remember. It was a bright, searing pain, and for the first minute I never believed I’d make it to the city limit sign. Then the pain would ratchet back, just in time for Fields to swing over.
I’d hit the front and the rush of pain would return, only this time it was ten times worse. “Faster!” Fields would yell, as I’d invariably slow down now that I was the one pushing the wind. Somehow I’d get back up to speed, pull for a minute, then flick Fields through.
That was always the most terrifying moment, the end of each pull. I’d be wrecked and racked with pain, knowing that Fields would be coming by hard. If I missed the timing his rear wheel would pull away and I’d be on my own. The trick was to go hard enough to do my pull, but still have something left to lunge onto his wheel. Whoever was on the front would lead out the other for the green sign; not that it mattered. Fields always got there first.
We’d soft pedal for a mile, then turn around and soft pedal back to the sign. He’d nod, and we’d do it again all the way back to FM 979. Sometimes on those return intervals I’d be able to repay some of the pain I’d received on the way out. Other times Fields would ease up on his pulls just enough to keep me from shooting off the back, gassed and bleating. He never gave me a free ride and I always had to pull through, but he was merciful as well. Those fierce surges to slip behind him and get some brief shelter from the relentless crosswind, that merciless give and take that was nonetheless merciful, the trust of the wheel in front of you, the discipline to endure misery now for gain later, those things were the most indelible part of my college education.
At the end of those vicious sessions we’d part ways, me off to class and him off to whatever it was that pro bike racers did with the rest of their day. Each time I think about those rides I realize that wherever it is that I’ve finally arrived, the Path of Truth helped get me there. It’s not, maybe, such a bad past to be stuck in after all.
February 7, 2014 § 82 Comments
When Joe Robinson got up on Sunday morning he was excited. Even though his riding partner had bailed on him — funny how the optimism of Saturday afternoon so often fails to carry through at 6:00 AM on Sunday morning — he awoke with ease. Shortly before seven, with the sun not yet risen above the hills outside Irvine, he rolled down the drive. By the time he got to Santiago Canyon Road the muscles in his lean, 21-year-old legs were flush with blood and his youthful lungs were sucking in the fresh morning air. The whole road was going to be his because of all the days in the year, none is more peaceful for cyclists than the morning of Super Bowl Sunday.
His excitement came from the intersection of several puzzle pieces in his life. Joe was excited to be on his bike because it had been three days since he’d ridden. His mother had a broken foot and he’d been helping her get around, run errands, and make the short-term accommodations you have to make with a foot injury. Being off his bike for three days had left him pent up and eager to pedal. He was excited because this early morning ride was the only chance he’d have to cycle before work. His job selling bikes at Jax’s in Irvine was hectic, and his Sunday shift would start at ten and last the entire day.
And he was excited because of the power meter. He’d just built up a power tap hub and couldn’t wait to see how his growing strength, and especially his climbing strength, translated into watts. He’d been cycling for a short time, but was already fully smitten, and his combination of enthusiasm, youth, long legs, and a rail-like build meant that he was gaining in leaps and bounds. He hadn’t said much about it, but any experienced observer could tell that it wouldn’t be long before Joe started racing his bike.
As it has for so many others, the discovery of cycling had begun the progress of putting structure, discipline, and confidence into the life of a young man who, like virtually every other 21-year-old, was still trying to make his way in the world. Since he’d begun cycling he had re-enrolled in college. The once sporadic scholar was now bringing home A’s with only the occasional B. He was a semester away from leaving business administration, a dull subject, for computer science, the area that he secretly loved more than any other.
Joe turned onto Santiago Canyon, having now climbed the rollers on Jamboree for a few minutes, and he breathed harder as his legs jammed the bike up the climb. He breathed with the freshness and strength you only have once, when your body is as young and resilient as it will ever be. Joe Robinson had the day and his entire life ahead of him, and it was good.
We’ll never really know exactly what happened, but one possible version of reality is this: The girl was scared. She and her friends had been partying hard at the pre-Super Bowl party. They had hit the beer and vodka and tequila until the wee hours, and even though she had stopped drinking long before sunrise, she was still drunk. A friend had offered her something to “pick her up,” and she’d taken it. It might have been meth, but she didn’t care. She took it and enjoyed the rough buzz that beat back, then overpowered, then comfortably mixed with the booze. She wasn’t scared anymore.
What she still cared about, though, was how she was going to get home. She knew that at age eighteen she couldn’t afford a DUI for a long list of reasons, but her route home took her directly through Irvine, a city that’s notoriously hard on drunks. She too had a full day ahead of her and the party was over and she had to get home. If she hurried she might make it before her parents were even up.
In her stoned and drunken state she figured it like this: Her biggest chance of getting nailed was on the highway. The CHP would be out looking for leftover drunks from last night, so better to take the surface streets. She did, and was pleased at her strategy. No cops anywhere. Best of all, she could avoid the freeway entirely by taking Santiago Canyon, which ran parallel to the highway but never had any traffic because cars preferred to take the faster freeway next to it. She pressed on the accelerator, bringing the car up to 55 mph on the narrow road.
It was 7:30. The sun had now crested the hills and was shining directly into her drunken, addled eyes. She could barely make out the edges of her narrow lane. “Fuck it,” she thought. “Why didn’t I put on my sunglasses?” She mashed harder on the gas, rushing towards her rendezvous.
The soul mate
Those of us who are old and who grew up before computers don’t really understand anything about youth, least of all young love. While we stare grumpily at our beer and complain to our friends about how “those damned video games have ruined this younger generation,” the younger generation is doing just fine, thanks very much. Sydnee Hyman was Joe’s girlfriend and they already recognized that they had found in each other a life partner.
It came about in the most 21st Century way you can imagine. Sydnee had been buried in a game of World of Warcraft as a high school student when Joe entered the fray. He was good, beyond good, and she sucked in her breath as the game unfolded. Then something odd happened. When two new, plainly inexperienced players entered the game, Joe did what expert video gamers never do. He started helping them.
In video gaming, as in road cycling, the new face often endures what can only be described as bullying. Locked behind her computer screen, Sydnee watched this expert player gently and with skill help a mom and her daughter learn the ropes. His warmth and his character were right there, for the entire world to see. Was she the only one who could see it? Sydnee had to know more about this guy. The spark from his gentle character had turned a remote video game player in Southern California into a person, and the spark did what it has been doing since the beginning of time. It brought together two strangers, a boy and a girl, and it transformed itself from a spark of curiosity into a cascade of love.
Sydnee was now majoring in biomedical engineering, and even though it was early in her academic career, she was a straight A student who knew she wanted to pursue a masters degree at Purdue once she finished her undergraduate studies, and ultimately a Ph.D. somewhere on the West Coast, closer to her family outside San Francisco. She and Joe were completely in love, and her trips from Indiana back home took on a new pattern. Rather than going straight across, her flights somehow detoured to John Wayne Airport in Costa Mesa. She’d spend time with her life partner, usually a few days, before continuing on home to her family in Northern California.
It was Super Bowl Sunday, and while the other students were still in bed, Sydnee was already up, studying. It was cold and miserable outside, and she knew Joe was out riding in the warm California winter. She looked forward with warm anticipation to the phone conversation they’d have later that morning.
Brian got up early and headed in to work. The shop was going to be busy and they were short handed. He was glad that Joe, his star salesman, was coming in. Even though he normally worked three days a week during school, at Brian’s request he had agreed to log some extra hours. Brian thought about how lucky he was to have hired Joe, and he grinned as he remembered the day they’d met. Joe had come in and asked for a job. When Brian asked him about his qualifications for job in bicycle retail, Joe had smiled his characteristic smile and handed Brian a sales printout from the previous shop he worked at. “Wow,” said Brian. Joe’s best month had brought in $70,000 in sales. “You’re hired.”
Joe had only been with the shop since November, but he was already a fixture. The shop loved him because he sold bikes. The customers loved him because he didn’t “sell” bikes, he just talked with them about cycling and helped them get what they needed. He had a direct, honest gentleness about him that people instinctively trusted. These were the kind of employees you lucked out with, the rare gems who were dependable, hardworking, honest, friendly, and effective at what they did. As the clock got closer and closer to 8:00, Brian worked harder, mentally checking off all the tasks he had to finish before the doors opened at ten.
Things were moving quickly, but they were coming together, too.
Battalion Chief Mark Stone was mulling over the work that lay ahead as he drove towards Westminster and his Sunday shift. The career fireman reflexively scanned the hillside, noting the dry landscape. “We need rain,” he said to himself. That habit of seeing everything at once had been with him for as long as he could remember, and it showed itself in little ways, like when he took his family to the movies and, without thinking, noted the location of every single exit, noted any strange looking patrons, noted anything that stood out. His eyes glanced at the approaching car in the opposite lane. He had an instinct for finding whatever didn’t fit.
The oncoming car’s windshield was violently smashed on one side and the driver was hauling by at well over 60 mph. “She must have hit a deer,” he thought, wondering why the car hadn’t pulled over to call a tow truck. Now he was on alert, checking the roadside for an injured animal that might stagger out in front of his truck. At the same time, the hair stood up on the back of his neck. At the beginning of his commute he had seen several groups of cyclists. “I wonder if she hit someone?” he wondered. “Not possible. She would have stopped.”
His eye caught a shoe on the edge of the road, almost invisible in the dry grass. He swung over. “Not possible,” he thought again. There was nothing near the shoe, but he waded off the roadside into the scrub. First he saw the bike, then further, completely invisible from the road, he saw Joe. Mark touched the young man’s neck where his pulse should have been.
He set his jaw and raced back to his truck. Mark’s mental impression of the car with the broken windshield was one of complete recall. He got on his radio, and the CHP put out an all points bulletin. Shortly thereafter a police officer saw the car with the broken windshield in a parking lot, deserted except for two women, one of whom was frantically taking her things out of the damaged car and throwing them into the other car in an attempt, perhaps, to vanish, to claim the car had been stolen, and to place the blame for Joe’s death on a phantom “thief.”
“You have the right to remain silent,” he said.
Through the haze of drugs and alcohol, the owner of the smashed car started to sob.
Valerie Dubois didn’t know what to do, exactly. There was no way to rehearse, to practice, to prepare yourself for this. The third day after Joe’s death she stood in front of Jax’s Bike Shop, watching the assembled riders. She had been humbled by the thought that the shop was putting on a memorial ride for her son, and she’d expected a dozen or so riders to show up there at 6:00 in the morning in the middle of a work week. Now she looked out on a group of close to two hundred, a group that would swell once the ride began and riders joined en route to Joe’s ghost bike.
The CHP, the Irvine police, and the Orange police shut down every intersection as the group made its way out to the point on Santiago Canyon where Joe had been killed. Valerie could hardly believe the rolling police enclosure as the mass of cyclists rolled through the early morning commuter traffic. At 7:30, approximately the time that Joe had been hit, they reached the site of the ghost bike. Valerie made a brief speech to the massive crowd. Her voice shook as she thanked them. The warm morning light poured over the hilltop just as it had a few days ago. Most of the people there had never met Joe. They listened in silence, thinking the same thing: “That could have been my son, that could have been me.”
Valerie thought about other things above and beyond the things she said. Joe had been her youngest, and he had meant everything to her. His gentleness, his kindness, his joyful approach to life, his passion for cycling, all of these things washed over her. The unwritten rule of parents had been broken, of course: Thou shall not live to bury your children. But even that couldn’t erase in her mind what Joe had left behind: His reminder that a smile to someone having a rotten day matters. That the way we intersect with strangers gives the truest picture of who we really are. That Joe was her angel, and if he could see the people he’d touched standing in the morning sunlight, people he knew and people he’d never met, he’d smile his gentle smile and say “Remember me for this.”
December 21, 2013 § 28 Comments
When Raymond Fouquet died, those close to him were aware that his health had been failing, and that at age 92 his end was near. His death was not tragic or shocking; it came at the end of a long live that had been wonderfully lived. Raymond’s death punctuated a lifetime of kindness, but death could not erase or even diminish the ripples of goodness that continue to fan out from the warmth and humanity of his good deeds.
In a profound and complex way, Raymond lived the American Dream. Not the dream of textbooks or political ideology, but the dream that all people have of providing for those they love and giving their children a better hand of cards than the ones they were dealt. In his case, Raymond had been dealt a pair of twos.
Born outside Paris in 1920, France was still in ruins from World War I. The loss of an entire generation of young men, the wholesale destruction of the northern part of the country, and the political instability created by the Treaty of Versailles meant that by the time he turned nineteen the continuation of World War I, otherwise known as World War II, had erupted with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. France quickly fell and Ray was sent to work in a forced labor camp in Germany.
An athletic and competitive young man, once the war ended he followed his passion for bicycles and raced for Montmartre Sportif, a cycling club based in Paris. This passion for bikes he brought with him to the United States, where he emigrated, finally settling in Los Angeles in 1956. Ray worked as a waiter until he saved up enough money to open his own restaurant, La Grange in Westwood, in 1968. This was the same year that he formed the La Grange cycling team, one of America’s oldest and most highly regarded bike clubs.
The real American Dream
Raymond’s life was a kind of cardboard cutout of “Succeeding in America for Dummies.” Work hard. Make friends. Save money. Take risks. Reap rewards. Although Ray did all of these things, his American Dream was something different. It involved planting a seed in the relatively barren cultural soil of 1950’s Southern California, and nourishing that seed with the passion and reverence that only those who have left a homeland for another country can understand.
For Ray, the dream was to infect his new homeland, one person at a time, with his passion for the most revolutionary peacemaking machine ever invented, the bicycle. As a restaurateur, nothing could have been simpler than doing group rides with his waiters, rides that started from the restaurant, of course. The late 1960’s was a time of political and cultural revolution in American history, and in his solid, quiet, middle class immigrant way, Raymond fomented change of his own in the form of bikes and bike racing.
Velo Club La Grange became the anchor for cycling in Southern California, and it formed along with the Nichols Ride, a legendary Sunday beatdown started by Ray and featuring a nasty 3-mile climb up into the Santa Monica mountains followed by a punishing 10-mile smashfest along Mulholland Drive. Had Ray only created the club and this one ride and nothing more he would still rank as one of the pioneers who helped make Southern California a national icon for bikes and bike racing.
But his real contribution was much greater than that.
Spreading the gospel with a gentle hand
In a sport where social graces are often wholly absent, and where a kind of nasty, rude clubbiness is painfully common, Ray believed that cycling wasn’t nearly as important as people. He believed that, since each person had a name, it was incumbent on him to know it. His rides began with a personal greeting to each friend and to each new face. This was in tandem with what became legendary hospitality. One rider still remembers with reverence how he went to Fouquet’s home to pick up his first kit and the kindly Frenchman invited him to sit down for dinner.
People who joined Ray’s circle of cycling friends –and everyone was welcome regardless of ability, ethnicity, or equipment — found themselves in a community that looked after its members and that practiced the camaraderie and joy of cycling embodied in Ray’s daily life. I didn’t know Ray Fouquet, but his goodness and his humanity touch me through those who knew him and through the good works of his club, which continues to be one of the best in the nation. This beachhead of bike racing and cycling culture that Raymond Fouquet established in California, however, is not his legacy.
His legacy is the grace and kindness and gentleness that he brought to the task. We can honor him by learning the lesson, and passing it on.