February 14, 2014 § 47 Comments
The typical bike team sponsorship cycle goes something like this:
- Dude who owns company also bikes, gets into racing.
- Dude joins a club, gets asked to sponsor the team.
- Dude kicks in some money, gets his company’s name on the jersey.
- After a few years, Dude loses interest in racing.
- Sponsorship ends.
The only sponsors who stick around local racing for the long haul tend to be those with a day-to-day stake in the bike business. Bike shops, the mainstay of team sponsorship, also come and go, however. Their trajectory looks like this:
- Shop sponsors team.
- Riders all swarm to team “deal” from the shop.
- Shop runs the numbers at year’s end, learns that it is losing all its profit margin on team sales but not making those margins up in new business steered to the shop as a result of the team.
- Shop pulls the plug.
As an Of Counsel attorney for CalBikeLaw, we actively sponsor a variety of racing and cycling events. What’s interesting to me is looking at the way bike racers view sponsorships and comparing it to the way that sponsors view their investment.
It’s not about winning
I have yet to hear a sponsor say, “My sponsorship is dependent on race results.” I’ve never even heard a sponsor mention it. Yet the thing that racers can’t talk enough about — these are the guys and and gals who wear the clothes and represent the product — is their race results.
I get it, of course. Men and women who orient their lives around bike racing are filled with excitement and pride when they win a race. But do sponsors really care? Most don’t, and they don’t care for a lot of reasons. First off is because only a handful of people actually win the local races. Second, the “big win” is only big to the winner. Outside the niche-within-a-microfissure of amateur bike racing, few people know, fewer people care, and fewer still remember. Third, winning a bike race and tying your product to an industrial park crit victory is unlikely to bring you any new business.
So what matters for a sponsor?
Well, it’s pretty simple. Most sponsors who spend money on bike racing teams understand that it’s not going to have the ROI of an ad spend on, say, a winning NASCAR driver. Instead, they look at it in more general terms. “Do more people know about my business?”
Given the way that bike racers “promote” their sponsors, the answer is a resounding “No.”
Word of mouth is king
When it’s all said and done, word of mouth is what sponsors are paying for. Did the sponsor’s investment in your team increase the number of people who know about their product or service? Yes? Then it’s a success. No? Then they probably won’t be around to subsidize your hobby next year.
Posting long encomiums about your great victory, along with blow-by-blow accounts of how you muscled through the pain and up the climb and out of the pain cave and onto the podium thanks to #sponsorsnamehere is not what most sponsors look for. They look for something much more basic and under the radar. They want to know that when you’re on the group ride, you’re talking about their product. They want to see comments and posts and tweets that mention the day-to-day value of their service. They want to hear that YOU are telling OTHER PEOPLE about what they sell.
It’s not that hard, but it’s really hard. Sharing the benefits of your sponsored products with other people will keep your sponsors happy. Sharing your awesomeness and incredible wattage on the Big Climb … not so much. By helping the people who help your team, everyone wins. So as the ad says, “Just do it.”
February 13, 2014 § 6 Comments
On Monday morning my inbox broke from the email deluge. Then on Tuesday the volume doubled. Today it finally tapered off and I’ve been able to read through all 34,872,011.92 emails regarding the catastrophic meltdown of Prez at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre crit in Brea. Here’s a sampling of the anger:
“U suck WM. Prez wuz yer number one Wanky Training Plan ™ rider and he DNF’ed. FUKKKK UUUU!!”
“Wanky Training Plan is a fraud and a sham. Prez couldn’t even finish the Brea crit using your fakish training plan. I want my money back once I pay you.”
“Sad days all around for us WTP ™ adherents. We heard through the grapevine that Prez got shitcanned at the local Sunday crit using your training plan. Huge loss of confidence in your advice, Wanky.”
“Dear Mr. Wankmeister: This is your formal notification of a class action lawsuit filed against you as a result of your fraudulent Wanky Training Plan ™ and its utter failure to get Prez across the finish line, much less a victory in a recent bicycle race. Blah, blah, blah.”
“Heartbroken. Prez DNF. Wanky Training Plan ™ a failure. There is no Dog.”
“Whats next Wanky or should I say Bernie Made-off, as in ‘made off with all my money’? Your a crook and the Wanky Training Plan ™ is a faik. Going back to Elron Peterson and his one-legged drills. Look stupid I may, and broke it may make me, but defeat with honor.”
“Yo, Wanky! I saw Prez sobbing in the gutter after NPR yesterday. Claimed the WTP ™ has made him SLOWER. WEAKER. LAZIER. FATTER. WTF?”
I can explain
First of all, it’s true. After following the Wanky Training Plan ™ religiously, plus 2,500 hours in the gym, plus $8,762.09 spent on a special spin bike coach, plus an entire season dedicated to becoming the anchor in the SCC lead out train, Prez did in fact get shitcanned in the final laps of the race when the brutes on SCC brought it up to 35 mph and held it until the end, when Inkjet and Loverboy closed the deal in first and second place.
It’s also true that Prez not only followed the WTP ™, but he got a custom Wanky tattoo on his special place so that he could remind himself how dedicated he was to the plan. And it’s also true that he paid the Wanky Foundation (a non-profit group dedicated to helping wankers overcome their fear of doing hard road races) $75,000 for a signed diploma from the Wanky Institute and a collectible pair of Wanky’s old underwear from back in the glory days.
The reason that he came unglued, quit, gave up, threw in the towel, and failed to finish the race had nothing to do with the Wanky Training Plan ™, a scientific system developed in conjunction with research from the Harvard labs, Olympic racing data, tea leaves, astrology, and input from Crazy Betsy the Psychic Reader.
No, the reason Prez abandoned, backed down, bailed out, bowed out, buckled under, capitulated, caved, chickened out, collapsed, cried uncle, folded, pulled out, stopped, and surrendered was because he forgot to take his Wanky Toughness Pills ™ before the race.
What’s a Wanky Toughness Pill ™ ?
Elite members of the Wanky Training Plan ™ who have been diagnosed as having Low Toughness by a medical professional, psychotherapist, or playground bully are eligible to receive one bottle of Wanky Toughness Pills ™ to treat their Low – T.
When a racer follows all of the steps in the training plan but is still unable to hang in when the going gets tough due to his emotional frailty, he is put on a special regimen of raw kale and toughness pills. The Low – T is then ameliorated, turning the former milquetoast into a badass leg breaking pain drinking nail eating muddafugga.
Without divulging patient confidentiality, Prez suffered from extremely Low – T. His T was so low that he couldn’t even take a pull on the NPR, kind of a threshold level of mental weakness that only a few baby seals are capable of de-spiring to. In sum, he received a double dosage of Wanky Toughness Pills ™ designed to remedy his habitual characteristic of “When the going gets tough, I get another frozen daiquiri.”
After the race we spoke and he admitted that he’d forgotten to take his toughness pills. However, he also said that in order to make up for this week’s epic collapse he had taken the whole bottle, eaten four pounds of raw kale, and was going to show up for UCLA Punchbowl to show “those skinny little fuggheads how it’s done.”
So before you go clamoring for a refund, watch for race results. You’ll see who’s been taking their toughness pills, and who hasn’t.
February 12, 2014 § 30 Comments
Trust me, you have something better to do. Training. Facebook. Prayer group. Leisurely review of all the glam photos from the local 4-corner crit.
What you don’t want to do is sign up for this race, because it will strip you of your ego and reduce you to an off-the-back has-been on the very first lap. Who wants to pay $35, drive out to the Meth Capital of LA County, and be instantaneously downgraded to Category W … for “wanker”?
This weekend’s menu offers up a foul smelling, bad tasting bicycle race called Punchbowl, and pretty boys and pretty girls need not apply, because this punch bowl will be filled with chunks of diarrhea, razor blades, and arsenic, and you’ll have your face shoved in all the way to the bottom. If all it took were a fancy kit, a lead-out train, and some bar-banging intimidation to get you to the finish you’d be in the mix. But it doesn’t, and you wouldn’t. “Why is that?” you ask.
Because, silly rabbit, to win this puppy you have to actually race your bike.
For many years now there has been the most false of dichotomies in SoCal bike racing. Someone came up with the idea that there were “crit racers” and “road racers.” But that’s wrong. The discipline is called “road racing,” and crits are one of the types of races that road racers do, along with time trials and, yes, road races. There’s no discipline on your license for “crit racing.” If you really are a road racer, you do it all, not just the crits and the namby-pamby road races where there’s zero danger of getting shelled. Road racing, when done properly and against people of your own caliber, guarantees that you will lose far more often than you win … if you ever win. But road racers don’t cherry pick. They show up when it’s “their” course, and they show up when it isn’t.
The “crit racer” v. “road racer” thing is there for one reason and one reason only: To save your ego from being savaged.
This weekend’s course is brutal beyond belief. Unlike Boulevard (another race on the calendar that finds so many “road racers” busy doing besides doing a road race), UCLA Punchbowl throws a rabbit punch to the medulla from the first hundred yards of the race. You can’t muscle your way up because people fear you, you can’t get dragged over the climb by your minions who sacrifice for you, and you sure as hell can’t brag your way up the bitter pill of that first relentless stair step hill.
The only way you can stay in contention at Punchbowl is to have the right mixture of grit, lungs, and legs, which is why the masters field on Saturday will be lacking so many of the industrial park heroes and weekend pack fill. It’s easy to race when you have a chance of winning. It’s a bit harder to look yourself in the mirror when you’re guaranteed to be spit out the back, puked on, and forced to struggle through fifty nasty miles of hills, headwind, and anonymity. You really think Jesus loves you? Not at UCLA Punchbowl. He thinks you’re a fuggin chump.
Categories of fear
Everyone who races conquers fear. The fear categories are:
- Fear of crashing.
- Fear of sucking.
It’s the fear of crashing that keeps most people off the starting line of most crits. Riders who win crits overcome this fear and then take it to a completely new level by putting themselves in the deadliest and hairiest few seconds of what is already sketchy as hell, a/k/a the Sprint Finish.
But it’s the fear of sucking that keeps riders away from Punchbowl. It’s easy to tell yourself you’re good when you finish mid-pack in a crit. “I didn’t want to risk going down in the sprint. Not worth it.” Of course the reality is that even if you’d clawed your way to the very front you’d still have been smoked by the high speed specialists, but you don’t ever have to admit that to yourself, and you certainly don’t have to admit it to your wife/girlfriend/co-workers.
Tough road races are different in this regard. They will present you with irrefutable proof that you suck. You will give it everything you have, train as hard as you want, buy the fanciest equipment, wear the prettiest clothing, and you will get annihilated at the very beginning of the race by some scroungy dude who doesn’t have a job and who lives in a cardboard box. Not only will you get annihilated, but it will be painful annihilation. That’s because UCLA Punchbowl selects three types of people: Contenders, dreamers, and fools. The ones who win are a combination of all three. The ones who stay home? They’re the ones who can’t stand to see their carefully cultivated images smeared into an unrecognizable paste of collapse, inferiority, and abject defeat.
I’ve finished the Punchbowl race course in its UCLA or its longer course version only three times out of eight tries. Once I quit on the third lap during a snowstorm. Other times I got dropped immediately and gave up after a couple of hours of flogging. The closest I ever came to burning my bike was at Punchbowl, where I got caught, then dropped, by Brad House. Yeah. That Brad House.
Two years ago I didn’t get shelled until the very end. In every case I’ve gone home completely wrecked, exhausted, legs drained, mental state destroyed. Contrast that with most crits, where, a few seconds after it’s over, you’re ready to either do another one or go on a bike ride.
UCLA Punchbowl demands road racers, not scaredy cats who poop in their shorts when the road tilts up. Mike Easter. Jeff Konsmo. Chris DeMarchi. Mauricio Prado. Phil Tinstman. Roger and David Fucking Worthington. These are the hard men, bad ass, real deal road racers who cross the line first on this course. And guess what? Most of them race and win crits as well.
So tell me again about how you’re a road racer. I’ll check your results at Punchbowl.
February 11, 2014 § 16 Comments
Some people climb the top step and the first thing they do is forget the people who helped them get there. For others, a sense of thanks is the thing they carry on their shoulders as long as they live.
When Rahsaan Bahati toed the line this Sunday at the Roger Millikan crit in Brea, he was looking forward to the throwdown. He was looking forward to it because Roger Millikan, an icon in SoCal cycling who affected the careers of countless cyclists before his early death due to cancer, was one of the first people at the velodrome who encouraged Rahsaan, a kid from the ‘hood who was destined to be one of the fastest racers in the American history of the sport.
Roger took Rahsaan under his wing even though his own son Chad was the best junior around, and even though everyone knew that if you wanted to win a junior race you had to beat Chad. Roger didn’t care that Rahsaan was gunning for his son, to the contrary, he accepted and embraced it as the apotheosis of sport. Rahsaan thought about all those things as he lined up with ninety other racers on a .6-mile course that would test the nerves, legs, and agility of every single racer who survived, from the fastest to the guy who crossed the line last.
As the pack rolled out, Rahsaan kept reminding himself not to miss the winning move, even though he doubted that anyone would be able to pull away from such a large, strong field on such a short, relatively unchallenging course. Staying attentive and watching the legs of his opponents was key, and he stayed in the front the first 15-20 minutes to see who was on fire and who riding with sand in their legs.
By the first ten laps it was clear. They were flying at 29 mph and A-Ray, David Santos, Michael Johnson, Tyler Locke, and a handful of others were clearly on form. They attacked, followed moves, responded to counterattacks, and showed that all pistons were firing. Still, the safe money said that the course would work to bring back even the strongest riders if they made a solo effort.
There were a couple of times when Rahsaan found himself far out of position, forty guys back and coming out of Turn 4 when a good move looked like it was coalescing all the way up in Turn 1, but nothing stuck. The pain and the speed and the jockeying for position were relentless. At times like this Rahsaan’s teammates in the race, Steven Salazar, Justin Savord, Christian Cognini, Bret Hoffer, and Arturo Anyna made their presence known by surveying the front, following moves, and motivating the field to follow.
In addition to a race victory that would pay homage to his mentor and friend Roger Millikan, Rahsaan’s family had packed the edges of the racecourse. With his wife, kids, nieces, and nephews all standing by and cheering him on, the pressure was high, especially since he’d placed fifth in two consecutive races and knew that his form was good enough to win.
Rahsaan also knew that the finish would be a battle of speed between him, Justin Williams, and Corey Williams. Between them these three rockets were marked in every single speed contest, and on a day like today when the course was tight, hectic, physical, and sure to end in a full-bore blast for the line, Rahsaan had no doubt that these two were his nemeses. As far as strategy went, it was simple: When the KHS p/b Maxxis guys went, Rahsaan had to be in their leadout train because they were the ones who would ramp it up to warp speed and set up the finishing explosion to the line.
The speeds were so high, though, that when the KHS team went to the front they would then sit up, which caused chaos as the charging field swarmed the slowing riders on the point. Rahsaan’s strategy got more complicated, because in order to avoid being swarmed he had to stay in the wind.
How did it feel?
“It hurt. It hurt bad.”
But he stayed with his nose in the wind and out of harm’s way, because it was the deceleration into the swarm that caused crashes, and suddenly it was five laps to go and all bets were off. SoCal Cycling threw its heavy artillery to the front and drilled like a sailor on shore leave for two full laps. With three to go, they swung off and the KHS team blew through. This was the moment.
Rahsaan jumped onto A-Ray’s wheel, the powerful rider on Hincapie Development. Now it was two laps to go, tucked behind the churning legs of A-Ray, and on the bell lap all hell broke loose. The KHS blue train hit the front with the force of a hurricane, and Rahsaan slipped into seventh wheel. At Turn 2 the blistering pace shed two KHS guys out of their own train, moving Rahsaan up to 5th wheel. This was perfect positioning because on the backside of the course, as the blue train notched it up another mph, another teammate exploded, leaving Rahsaan in 4th wheel and Corey Williams in 3rd.
Just before Turn 3, the cagey veteran Aaron Wimberley, riding for SPY-Giant-RIDE, threw his bike off the front, and the gap he opened up caught the KHS blue train completely off guard. Aaron was a closer and everyone knew it. By the time KHS closed the gap, they had sacrificed more riders, putting Rahsaan in 3rd position and Corey in 2nd. In the last turn Rahsaan gave Corey room and took a run, a hard one, with every muscle in his legs about to rip away from the bone.
Fearing a last minute move to the left that would box him in and give Corey the win, Rahsaan slung himself into the wall of onrushing wind and took the hard, stiff, unrelenting, in-your-face headwind approach around Corey’s right. The gamble paid as he shot to the line clearing Corey by a bike length. Justin, who had been slotted in behind Rahsaan, got boxed in as Corey shut down the left-handed alley approach.
This win wasn’t just for Rahsaan and his family. It was also for Roger.
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 9, 2014 § 25 Comments
My Facebook addiction is terrible. I waste hours each day reading the posts of others, commenting, and starting my own inane threads. Whether it’s at work, at home, or on the road, I constantly check my notifications, messages, timeline, and newsfeed. Why?
I don’t know. You might as well ask why people do meth or ride their bikes.
Like any good addict, I know I have a problem, and like any good addict I decided to take the bull by the horns, defeat my addiction, and take control of my life. However, addicts are not stupid, so they always begin with things that have little or nothing to do with their addiction. It’s like the drunk who throws away his stamp collection, a token sacrifice to protect him from dealing with the 800-lb. bottle of vodka in the room.
For the last few months I’ve stopped using Strava. Mind you, I was never hooked on Strava like I’m hooked on FB. For me, it was always a way to log miles and occasionally compare a “hard” ride against other fast times on the leader board of a segment. My presence on Strava has always been anemic — good placings on some segments, hardly any KOM’s, and no really big rides to impress anybody.
Worse, I never really got into the whole “check out everyone else” thing that makes Strava so popular. I’ve always known who can kick my ass and who can’t, and watching the exploits of some wanker who sets a KOM with wind assist, moto assist, teammate assist, and every other cheap trick in the book never meant anything to me; nor did those endless strings of KOM’s that people create so that they and only they can hold the title.
In other words, it was easy to kill my Strava account after letting it lie dormant for a few months … or so I thought.
When it came time to actually delete the account, I got a warning message to this effect: “This action cannot be reversed. By deleting your account you will lose all data, including KOM’s and your position on all leader boards.”
“Oh my dog!” I thought. “If I actually hit the delete button, will I still exist?”
It was like having someone threaten to remove all my DNA, or to take away my high school diploma. My past and the cycling data set that defines my existence was about to be erased. I couldn’t do it. I logged out of Strava and had a few beers, then a few more, then some dessert, then a nightcap beer, and went to bed.
The next day I woke up, grimly aware of what lay ahead. I logged onto Strava, went through the settings, and came to the delete screen. Like a Mafia hit man with his prey lying face down on the landing of the dirty apartment building, I took the equivalent of the pistol and placed it at the back of Strava’s head. Bap, bap, bap. Take that, bitch.
The next morning was Saturday. I got on my bike and had a good ride.
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.”