Honor, family, and the will to win

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.

Clash of the titans

January 27, 2014 § 12 Comments

This weekend’s Big Bike Beatdown in Santa Barbara featured another two-day, two-wheeled brawl while grown men with nothing better to do risked life and limb on shitty roads as they dodged cracks, slammed into potholes, narrowly avoided oncoming traffic, wantonly broke sporadically enforced yellow-line rules, and shook their heads in fury while the braindead moto ref stopped the entire peloton three times for a “pee break.” After the dust settled, a few things were clear:

  1. 90% of the full-on, raging masters peloton would be completely burned out by the middle of March.
  2. 95% of the full-on, raging masters peloton had done enough races so far this year (four) to have a perfect excuse not to show up at Boulevard next weekend.
  3. You can’t make chicken salad out of …

While Facebook broke most of the Internet with repeated posts of race results (“Look! Freddy got 45th in the Cat 3′s! Good job!”), the first real race of the year revealed itself, and it’s a race that we’re going to keep seeing for the next eight months. Yes, the Fastest Legs in the West squarely beat the Best Bike Handler in the West. But it was close, and it promises to get better.

Tale of the tape

In this corner we have Charon (pronounced “faster than you”) Smith, the best crit racer in his 35+ age group. Charon wins more races in a season than most racers even enter. He combines dedicated training, natural speed, courage when things get gnarly, and a profound sense of fair play to produce winning results year in and year out on the SoCal crit scene. Despite the fact that he’s an easygoing guy, he’s a keen competitor, a leader, and great source of inspiration for a lot of people.

It wasn’t too long ago that Charon was essentially racing for himself, having to scrape out every single win singlehandedly. By racing consistently, fairly, and by always congratulating his opponents — win, lose, or draw — he has gathered a strong following of friends who gradually morphed into the best 35+ team in Southern California. No longer forced to race by himself or with one or two teammates, Charon is now backed with serious horsepower in the form of Kayle Leo Grande, John Wike, Ben Travis, Rob Kamppila, and the other first class racers who make up Surf City’s race team. More importantly, Charon’s optimistic attitude and positive message have helped create a team that firmly believes it’s on a mission to win, and win, and win.

With only a handful of races into the season in the bag, Charon’s team has far and away the most victories. Proving that it’s a team, Surf City is stacking podiums, stacking breakaways, and sharing the victories and placings among the teammates. But make no mistake about it: The team’s anchor is Charon, and when the heavy artillery starts firing in a field sprint, he’s the guy lobbing the 16-inch shells.

And in the other corner …

We have Aaron Wimberley, about as different from Charon as a cobra is from a tiger. First of all, the boy has a full head of hair, so you could say he’s won the battle right off the bat. But since it’s not a hair styling contest, we have to judge these two guys on their bikes. Where Charon is the quickest guy on two wheels, Aaron is the best bike handler. Only a few guys have Aaron’s skills — John Wike, the bike wizard who also rides for Charon, and Phil Tinstman come to mind. Aaron has rocketed up the ranks from lowly Cat 5 to getting a bronze medal at nationals on a fiendishly technical course.

He’s unbelievably quick and has off-the-chart race smarts. Scientific, methodical, and unwilling to count further down than first place, Aaron has been in the wilderness for the last couple of years riding with little support and lots of second-place finishes in a crit scene dominated by team efforts. This year, however, he’s moved over to SPY-Giant-RIDE, the best team in the galaxy. (Disclaimer: It really is.) Aaron rides like a gunslinger. Independent, self-reliant, takes no shit from anyone, and is more than happy to explain your shortcomings to you in colorful language. I will never forget the time he described my jumps as something akin to “watching a big blue bus go up a steep hill dragging a space shuttle.”

The question this year is whether Aaron’s new alliance with the best team in the galaxy will create the teamwork and support he needs to beat the Fastest Legs in the West (for an old dude). Judging from the finish at the Mothballs Crit this past Sunday, it could happen.

Roaring into the final 200 meters Charon had the help of Kayle Leo Grande, himself one of the fastest finishers in the 35′s, as a lead-out. Even against these two motors, Aaron managed a very respectable second, with Charon winning comfortably but not easily, but it’s my guess that Aaron’s not showing up in hopes of getting second. More organization and support from SPY-Giant-RIDE teammates could well prove to be the final push that Aaron needs to win against Charon in a drag race.

What to look for

SoCal has few crits that are technical enough to give Aaron a chance to use his bike handling edge. Most of the races are four-corners, wide, and they finish with a fast man throwdown. However, there are some exceptions. Look for Mike Hecker’s 805 Crit series to provide challenging courses, potentially huge crosswinds, and an arena where Charon’s flat-out speed may be offset by Aaron’s wizardry in the turns. The San Marcos Crit will also be a place to see bike handling and a slight bump take the sting out of a drag race finish.

And of course any given race has an amazing crop of first-class speedsters fully capable of winning. Danny Kam, Phil Tinstman, Mike Easter, Chris DeMarchi, Rudy Napolitano, John Abate, Michael Johnson, Randall Coxworth, Jamie Paolinetti, John Wike, Ivan Dominguez, Eric Anderson, Brian Cook, Josh Alverson, Patrick Caro, and Karl Bordine are all 35+ riders who stood on the top step in a crit in 2013. There’s no reason to think they won’t be going for the top step again this year.

Whatever happens … it’s gonna be fun to watch!

Samson & Delilah

July 10, 2013 § 2 Comments

Aaron “Hair” Wimberley reached down into his shorts and pulled out a big, honking win in the Cat 2 race at the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix. Not bad for a guy who, a couple of years ago, told me that he was “a Cat 3-level rider in terms of threshold power.”

Whatever.

Aaron’s now been booted upstairs to Cat 1, and he won this race with style, speed, caginess, courage, and flat out skills. It’s terrible talking to Aaron after a race (or before one, for that matter) because it’s like listening to a physics professor describe why a ball drops when you let go.

“Great race, Aaron!” I innocently said.

“Thanks!”

“The other guys in the race were singing your praises.”

“Well, on the last corner you had to know the line and understand that the barriers were going to be on the lateral twice-removed plane of motion that would give you the acceleration at about ninety degrees, and given my weight and the wheels I was running and the rotation of the Earth plus those farts that the Surf City dude was blowing, you could figure that acceleration times mass plus the torque on the lateral angle of spin would put me about eighteen degrees under the first guy’s wheel, and … “

I dozed off, and woke up just at the point where he was explaining how the moon’s tidal pull had moved enough of his voluminous, luxurious hair to the inside of the curve and given him enough kick for the win.

“Wow,” I said, wondering when I could ask for five bucks to buy a beer.

There’s not a lot you need to say when someone pulls out a signature win at one of the biggest races in America, but there’s a shit-ton you need to say when they pull out (another) win at the least-known race in SoCal, the TELO training crit.

Aaron wins this thing almost every week, and he wins it after attacking into the wind, dropping the field, riding breakaways for the entire race and beating his breakaway companions or, if caught, winning the field sprint. He’s amazing.

On Saturdays, the chubby dude who used to come unhitched at Trump is not twenty pounds lighter and wins the Switchbacks, out-climbs the climbers, and pokes a stick in your eye when you’re on the rivet by saying, “Why so serious, Wanker?” On the NPR he smokes the sprint, rolls with breaks, and hits the front at speeds designed to crack your spirit, which it does.

Unlike other SoCal fastmen, Aaron doesn’t have a huge team to help him. His supporting cast usually includes one or two guys, which sounds kind of thin until you learn that his wingman is usually Derek Brauch, a canny, lethal weapon who usually makes the split or who can be counted on to excel in road races and hard, challenging crits.

I’d congratulate the bastard in person, but since he’s already pretty sure he’s awesome, why bother? Saying it here on the Interwebs is enough. You rock, wankstar.

Clogstacles don’t sprint

June 13, 2013 § 27 Comments

You, dude, are a clogstacle.

Look it up, Merriam-Webster’s New Dictionary of American Cycling: “Clogstacle: A bicycle racer who clogs the lane in a finishing sprint, then rapidly decelerates so as to become a deadly obstacle to the real sprinters who are still accelerating to reach maximum speed.”

I can hear it already. “Me? A clogstacle? No way! I’m a sprinter!”

Uh, no, dude, you’re not. Take this handy-dandy (not to be confused with Dandy Andy) quiz and you’ll see what I mean.

Key –

YANAS: You Are Not A Sprinter
YAS: You A Sprinter
YUNT: You A Sprunter
YANK: You A Wanker

Step 1: Sprinting Self-Evaluation Quiz

1. You are sitting on Jon Davy’s wheel at 35 mph with the finishing line in sight. You say to yourself:
a. “What am I doing here?” = YANAS
b. “There’s no way I can come around.” = YUNT
c. “Faster, motherfucker!” = YAS

2. You come through the final turn with 500m to go. John Wike is on Ivan Dominguez’s wheel. You want the wheel, so you muscle over onto John. Wike hooks his left elbow under your arm as you lean against him, and says to you in a voice as cold and steely as a sharp knife shoved into a warm belly, “You move one more millimeter and we’re both going down, buddy.” You say –
a. “Sorry, dude.” = YUNT
b. “Eek!” = YANK
c. “See you in hell.” = YAS

3. In a race there is first place and ______.
a. A participation ribbon = YANK
b. A hot contest for 57th = YANAS
c. Nothing else = YAS

4. The crazier the finish, _______.
a. The happier I am to make it home alive = YANAS
b. The more I prefer giving a good lead out = YUNT
c. The better = YAS

5. You’re in a two-up break. The other rider turns to you and says, “How much do you want? My wife and kids are here, this is my biggest race of the season, and I’ve never won before.” You say –
a. “And you won’t today, either, motherfucker.” = YAS
b. “$500, but we’ll have to make it look close.” = YANAS
c. “$5,000, ’cause I haven’t, either.” = YANK

6. You’re in a two-up break. You turn to the other rider and say, “How much do you want? My wife and kids and grandparents and boss are here, this is the biggest race of my life, and I’ve never won before.”

YOU ARE NOT A SPRINTER, PERIOD.

7. You’ve had closed-head and spinal injuries in previous sprint crashes. You’re the sole breadwinner and have five young children. You speed through the final, twisting turn when suddenly Twitchy MacGruder goes sideways and the domino effect starts, with the sprint train on the left starting to brake and rub tires and scream and curse. You can brake and stay upright and still get second place and $500 bucks or you can gun it through a rapidly closing, impossibly tiny window of daylight which, if it slams shut, will send you headfirst into the pavement at 40 mph. The last thing that flashes through your mind is –
a. “Nuh-uh.” = YANAS
b. “My family is too important for this nonsense.” = YANK
c. “I’ve GOT this.” = YAS

8. It’s the bell lap, there’s been a pile-up in front of you, and you’re now 75th wheel with three turns to go. A superhuman effort with balls-out risks will net you a top-ten finish, so you –
a. Give it all you’ve got because it’s a great workout. = YANK
b. Give it all you’ve got because it’s gas money to get home. = YUNT
c. Get off your bike and throw it into a pond. = YAS

9. When someone slams you hard in the middle of a full-on sprint, you –
a. Steady yourself to keep from crashing. = YANAS
b. Slam them back. = YUNT
c. No one ever fucking gets anywhere near you in a sprint and lives to tell about it. = YAS

10. The key to winning sprints is –
a. Core strength and workouts in the gym. = YANAS
b. Having a good lead out train. = YUNT
c. Being crazier than a shithouse rat. = YAS

Step 2: Textbook racing advice for clogstacles

If you took the above quiz and selected any answer other than one that led to “YAS,” you are by definition a clogstacle. And although you will never win a sprint, all is not lost for your cycling career, although, frankly, it pretty much is. Below are some rules for what to do and what not to do now that you know your chance of ever winning a sprint is zero or much less.

Cat 5 Clogstacle Tactics and Strategy

As a Cat 5, every pedalstroke of every turn of every race is fraught with potential carnage. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what you do. Bull your way to the front, or hang onto the tail of the whip, the risk factor is the same. So, on the bell lap, you should go all out no matter where you are in the field. The worst that can happen is permanent debilitating injury or death.

Cat 4-3-2 / Masters Clogstacle Strategy

Now that you’ve left the 5′s, it’s evident that you will never be a sprinter. This means that on the last couple of laps of every crit, your goal is the same: Get home alive, get out of the way, and leave the bike racing to the bike racers. This means you should ease off on the pedaling, drift to the back, and put as much space as possible between yourself and the field. Quitting is fine, too. Below is a list of things you should not do under any circumstances:

1. “Lead out” your teammate. If you’re not good enough to sprint, your pathetic lead-out attempt will get you far enough forward to really gas you, make your head droop, and smash into the curb, endangering everyone else as well as yourself.

2. Go for a podium spot. This is madness. Those spots were reserved long ago by people with last names like Williams, Smith, Bahati, Wike, etc. Go to the back of the bus. Now.

3. Take a flyer. If you were too weak to ride off the front with Tinstman and DeMarchi, why would you suddenly be strong enough to hold off a field charging at 35 with Danny Kam, Tomo Hamasaki, John Slover, and Kenny Rogers driving the train? Answer: You won’t be. What will happen is you’ll get out there, blow, and then become a wobbling, weaving, rapidly decelerating lump that everyone else has to swerve around in the finishing turns.

4. Follow the wheel of anyone named “Charon” with five laps to go. Dude! 85 guys want that wheel, and sixty of them are ex-pros. What are you thinking? Aaron Wimberley will bust you off that wheel with two to go easier than taking a wallet from a corpse.

5. Join a gym. You are wasting money, son. It’s not about the strength in the core, it’s about the craziness in the head. You ever see Johnny Walsh or Aron Gadhia hanging out at a stupid gym? ‘Course not.

6. Ask Bahati for “sprinting tips.” He will tell you everything about sprinting, but you will still suck. When it’s showtime, go to the back and stay there. He’ll respect you for that lots more than crashing out thirty people in a mid-field sprunt where everyone else has sat up and you’re still charging for the line like a bull with his balls in a vise.

Any questions? Good. Now get out of my way. I’m going to win me a sprint on Sunday.

KOM-munism

March 31, 2013 § 9 Comments

This one had merit. Out of 14,304 times and more than 2,000 riders, he convincingly took the 1.2 mile KOM by three seconds. The segment is regularly ridden hard and the contingent yesterday, as it often does, contained continental pros, former pros, national champions, state champions, and some of the the best active racers in California.

Strava KOM-munism is mostly standing in front of a mirror admiring yourself. The rider picks a segment, hones the conditions, and repeatedly goes for it until the little crown pops up. The segments are mostly minor in terms of the number of riders and the number of times the segment has been ridden on Strava. KOM-munism is self-glory that is only rarely vindicated through actual racing.

Sometimes, though, the right rider on the right ride with the ride mix of fellow flailers pulls it all together. The result? A mass clubbing of baby seals and a new King Clubber.

That happened yesterday on the Donut. MMX came to town from North County San Diego, and the ride included Rudy Napolitano, Danny Heeley, some pro dude from Champion Systems, and a host of other hammerheads. Aaron Wimberley exploded out of Malaga Cove. MMX bridged up to him, followed by a tiny chick named Flavia. She was so small that hunch over as much as I might the only thing that got a decent draft were my knees.

Aaron kept the heat on until Flavia fried off the back, and I with her. As we rounded the bend, MMX hit the front with such power and abandon that Aaron, who had set the KOM-winning pace, was busted out the back. MMX pulled away, quickly becoming a tiny speck of churning, pounding pain levers. By the time he sat up there was nothing left of the 100+ wankoton, and he would find out at ride’s end that he was the new KOM of this segment: http://app.strava.com/segments/753144.

This, of course, is how it should be done. It should be done from the sharp end of the spear, not lollygagging in back and “making up time” by racing through the group to the front when the pace picks up. It should be done amidst a field thick with accomplished riders. It should be done convincingly and with strength, not by hanging onto the wheel of a breakaway and pushing through at the last second to snag the KOM by a wheel. Most of all, it should be done the way this one was done–not to get the KOM, but to break the legs and spirits of those behind, the KOM being a secondary reward that only came as surprise after the ride.

Hats, then, off!

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