Bakersfield, home of the gods of bad gas

June 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

How many times in your life do you get to compete for a championship? I’m not talking an NFL championship, or an NBA championship, or even an NHPA or an NTL championship. Those last two are National Horseshoe Pitching Association and the National Tiddlywinks League, and no, I don’t make this shit up. I make up other shit.

The fact is, you don’t often get to scrap for a championship, especially when you’re old, gizzardy, brokedown, brokebacked, when you piss too often, crap too seldom, are creaky in the morning and wore out by mid-afternoon. Nope, championships are generally for the young and the restless.

Once a year, though, if you are a bicyclist, you can compete for a state bicycling championship, where you pedal your bicycle as quickly as you can to win a prize. Then, if you win the prize, you can buy an even more special prize, to wit, a poorly made, ill fitting jersey in someone else’s size with a bad design that, ugly though it is and fitting as a potato sack though it may be, bears the words “State Champion” and the year of your championship.

This is a prize worth fighting for.

The course of snakes, stinging insects, drunk truckers, and champions

Today is Friday, June 1, 2012. It’s two days before the 45+ Elderly Fellows’ State Championship Road Race in Bakersfield, California. The race covers three 25-mile loops around a hilly course in the desert that has one moderately long climb and numerous short, punchy climbs designed to sap your legs, drain your fluids, and crush your will to survive. As I write this, a friend has Facebooked the current temp there, a moderately warm 105 degrees.

Although you would think that a desert course like this is destined to be hideously ugly, it isn’t. The hills are beautiful, and the desert has the rugged beauty of places where rain is scarce. The visual appeal of the course, however, can only be appreciated in a fast-moving car with the window rolled up and the air conditioner cranked up to “ten.”

Once you are pitched out from the cool security of the car like a fledgling forced to make its first flight, distanced from easy reach into the cooler and its mother lode of cold water, cold soda pop, and cold beer, the desert racecourse that has been designed by the Bakersfieldians is not beautiful at all. Its lack of beauty is only partially caused by the fact that the searing heat is so intense that your corneas begin to roast off the surface of the eyeball.

The true source of the course’s hideousness is the pounding sense of terror and desperation as you flail and pedal and struggle your way out, praying that you will make it back in. This isn’t a sprinter’s special, where well oiled, handsome, kitted up Adonises leisurely pedal for 54 minutes and pedal hard for one.

No.

This is a course where the cowering starters start slowly, knowing that most will quit halfway through, and where the group will only pedal faster when some idiot attacks, or accelerates, or behaves like he’s in a bike race. The pain and torture of the heat, compounded by stinging flies, bee swarms, and poisonous snakes along the roadway to bite those unlucky enough to collapse from heat prostration make Bakersfield truly a place for others to call home.

The contenders

The field will be half-filled with Big Orange, a smattering of SPY-Blue, and onesy-twosy riders from other teams. Although the bragging rights to the winner are galactic in scope, realistically hardly anyone has a chance of winning. Better to stay home and race another crit than suffer the expense, exhaustion, and humiliation of a beatdown so far from home.

What follows is a list of contenders, beginning with the odds-on favorite.

1. Wankmeister. Let’s face it, I’m the favorite here. First off, I grew up in Texas, so 105-degree heat is nothing. Average summer temperatures where I grew up were 140. At night. It’s true that I suffered a few issues at Punchbowl and got dropped rather quickly, finishing next to last. It’s also true that I got dropped on this same course a couple of months ago, finishing next to last. It’s also true that I’ve never even come close to winning a race in more than twenty years. However, I had Chinese food last night, and after the ER doc pumped my stomach I remembered that my fortune cookie had said this: “Time is a mirror of your desire.” So, that’s pretty clear. My jersey size is small. Thanks.

Pluses: Blogability. No one out-blogs the Wankmeister in a hilly road race. Plus I’ve got a cool helmet cam.
Minuses: Kind of lacking in the speed, strength, and endurance department. But I’ve got a day to come around.

2. DQ Louie: Unless he gets dq’d, which frankly is most of the time, there’s no one who can beat him in a hilly road race. Blazing speed. Relentless attacking. Strategic wheelsucking when necessary, full-on TT mode when he’s off the front. Always has a vicious kick at the end.
Pluses: Tininess. He’s got a drag coefficient of .00000002, which is about the same as a newt or a flea. His power-to-weight ratio is 3 gigawatts per kilo. So you’re basically fucked.
Minuses: Cheatyness. The officials love to dq DQ Louie. Why? He’s from Nevada, that’s why. The races are in California. He’s the dude on the freeway doing 80 who gets pulled over when everyone else is doing 100. Sorry, dude. But not really.

3. Roadchamp: He won last year, and he won two years before that, and he had a creditable showing at Vlees Huis even though they’d removed all twelve lower teeth for implant surgery the week before the race.
Pluses: He’s so skinny that he has to safety pin his socks to his calves. He’s focused. He’s all about winning. He hasn’t had sex in months, ergo mucho ferocityness.
Minuses: Everyone will be gunning for him; carries around old trophies from previous road victories as a talisman; has been known to crumple in the extreme heat. The pressure of not having won yet this year may be too much.

4. Invincible: He’s won this race before, he’s got national crit titles to his name, he sprunts, he climbs, he time trails, and he has more wins in the 45+ this year than everyone else combined.
Pluses: Dude always fucking wins. What more of a plus could you want? Best all around tactician in the game. Knows who to work with, how to control a break, how to kick out the shirkers, how and when to pull out all the stops.
Minuses: Sneakiness. He makes DQ Louie look positively forthright. Plus, he’ll be isolated in the race. THOG is recovering from a major injury. Glasship got his fill of Bako heat at Vlees Huis and is on sabbatical to the beer capital of Deschutes County. So, he’s by himself…yeah, I know. So what?

5. G$: This is one title that’s always eluded him, either due to bad luck, or poor luck, or inferior luck, or luck that wasn’t quite right, or fuckaluck. That’s too bad, because he’s one of the top guys in any category, and built to succeed on a course like this. He has specially prepared snake stomping boots that were made just for this race. With a huge B.O. contingent, he will likely let attrition do its nasty work, and only get to stomping dicks in earnest at the end, when they’ve all gone limp and stretched out from the heat.
Pluses: Time trails. Climbs. Attacks. Makes cool interview videos. Deep and wide team support to control the race or protect a break or send guys up the road. You know he’s got to be frothingly hungry for this jersey. He’s been tapering on the local rides, and has even cut back to five burgers ‘n fries a week. Serious shit.
Minuses: He’ll be dogged by Invincible and DQ Louie. If they get up the road with him, he’s got slim chance in a sprunt. Also, his team is so strong that Roadchamp, Kalashnikov, Capture the Flagg, Thing Two, Herndy Doo, or Hottie could wind up on the podium.

6. FTR DS Jaeger: The smartest rider in the bunch, always goes with the right move. Conserves when he has to, churns out the watts when it matters, never gets dropped on the hard climbs. Missed the vee at states by the narrowest of margins a couple of years ago, this could be his year.
Pluses: Savvy. Tenacious. Experienced. The best in the peloton at making up with savvy and smarts what he lacks in the legs, which frankly isn’t much.
Minuses: Can’t sprunt. Small team, and partially weighted by the anchor teammate from hell, a/k/a Wankmeister.

7. Kalashnikov: Super strong, fast, and clearly on form, Kalashnikov has the benefit of his Big Orange teammates to further strengthen his hand. He will likely play the role of agitator, forcing the other teams to waste valuable energy chasing, a strategy that has worked like a charm in the past.
Pluses: As stated above.
Minuses: If he has to go early, the bitterness of the course could spell doom.

8. Your name here. I’m sorry I left you off. You deserved to make the list, as you’ve got the right stuff, the training miles are there, and it’s finally your year. On the other hand, it’s almost 8:00 PM on a Friday night and I’m blogging about a stupid bike race for old men out in the fucking desert, for dog’s sake. This is enough, even for me.

You’re totally screwed now, Charlie Brown

April 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

This is a re-print from the UCLA 45+ Road Race in 2010. I had an archive of stories on FB and WordPress before deleting them all in a mad frenzy. My buddies on Big Orange posted this to their page in 2010, where it remains.

Feed the beast

The most important part of a bike race is pre-race nutrition. Before we arrived at the race course, Mrs. Wankmeister wanted to stop and sample the barbecue at Charlie Brown’s in Littlerock. It was only 10:30, but we went in. The thought of barbecue was appealing, though eating it in combination with a tough, hilly, windy road race was not. But the flesh is weak, and the smell of barbecue was strong. We both ordered brisket sandwiches with beans and cole slaw.

My sandwich was heaped with slabs of greasy meat and giant slivers of pure fat. The whole thing dripped sugary, oily barbecue sauce, and the chunks of meat and fat were so tender they slid down my throat without even needing a chew. After each bite I tried to stop, telling myself that the race would be unforgiving, but I couldn’t. There was so much grease around my mouth after finishing that it took two napkins to mop up; both looked like they’d been dipped in a deep fryer after I was done.

The gnome’s revenge

The snarling, amped up gang of elderly racers toed the line at the infamous Punchbowl race course, primed for a slugfest that would pit the entire Big Orange road crew against DQ Louie. The laps had been shortened so that we would be climbing the big hill four times rather than three.

I was already traumatized by my experience at Punchbowl two years ago, when I was shelled like a bad pecan on the first lap of the first climb, and spent the entire race crawling and cramping with Polly for what seemed like a month. Whereas others in the relatively small field of about 30 dreamed of victory, my goal was simple and carved in stark relief: don’t get blasted out the back on the first lap.

We started at a reasonable pace, nothing like the Punchbowl of 2008, where the pack had split in two before the left turn, and into shards and fragments by the first hill, and into a final winning group by the end of the stairstep. Nonetheless, it was plenty hard, and I concentrated on staying low and staying out of the wind.

We hit the downhill section and immediately got blown from side to side by a howling crosswind that blew my tightly cinched helmet onto the back of my head. We reached the bottom and turned right, when DQ Louie drove to the center and strung everyone out into a single line, unable to echelon because of the center line rule. I didn’t see a single rider cross the yellow line, with the exception of DQ.

After about a mile he rolled off the front with G$, and before they’d gone fifty yards the ref’s follow car came roaring up with a tiny, bearded gnome screeching and screaming in such a hysterical panic that I could only think, “My God, the Japanese must have bombed Pearl Harbor again.”

Then the unthinkable happened. Mr. Gnomes commanded the entire peloton to stop and dismount. He got out of the car, pulled on a shiny pair of knee-high jackboots, adjusted his armband and Obersturmfuehrer cap, took out his riding crop, and went on a rant that left us all slackjawed.

“Ve haf ways of making you talk!” he screeched.

“Talk about what?” we asked.

“Ze yellow line! You haf all crossed ze yellow line!” He whacked one of the poor Cal Pools guys with his riding crop and made him clean the lint off his boot. “If you cross ze yellow line again, all riders vill be kaputt! Disqualifiziert!”

“Yo, numbnuts!” said one of the Big Orange heroes. “Are you going to admonish the breakaway? There are two guys up the road who have been pedaling full bore while we’ve been sitting here listening to your screed.”

Mr. Gnomes looked nonplussed, then hopped in the car and sped off. “You are all being vatched!” he hissed. Needless to say, we never saw G$ or DQ Louie again, and Mr. Gnomes’s antics had neutralized our best weapon, which was having the break in striking range for Thing 2, who could have bridged and combined with G$ to put DQ in difficulty. In theory, anyway.

In fact, though, we got going again with Steve, Bill, Todd, and other Big Orange riders patrolling the front to make sure that no chase effort developed. This controlled pace was the only way I made it over the hill on the second lap. Towards the top, however, the first big surge of Charlie Brown’s barbecue fought its way up to the lower reaches of my throat. Brisket doesn’t taste better the second time around.

Midway through the stairstep, Thing 2 hit the gas with a guy in the ugliest kit of the day, a green concoction that must have been modeled after a late night sidewalk splat found outside of a bar in Hermosa Beach. They pedaled off.

You can’t have your brisket and eat it, too

Thing 2 and Fugly Jersey couldn’t hold off the chasing pack on the descent, as they were hitting speeds of well over 50mph, and by the turn they had been brought back. As we turned onto the gentle up-tilt towards the finish line, a thick worm of fat chugged up into the back of my mouth, all rubbery and greasy and eager to be free. I swallowed hard just as we began climbing the big hill for the third time.

Either the race was really slow, or there really is a god, or barbecue is the secret food of champions, because I somehow made it up a third time. DQ Louie and G$ were so far ahead that no matter what happened, they would have had time to complete a coif, cuticle treatment, and pedicure by the time the pack crossed the line. We turned right after the downhill and I rolled away from the pack with a Cal Pools guy. Thing 2 bridged up to us and pretty soon the baked beans kicked in.

Cal Pools began to whimper and apologize for not pulling through, which only invited the eleven. The break established, I was totally psyched. The worst I could do was fifth. My secret barbecue weapon, which had been tweaked with a mug of thick coffee sludge fifteen minutes before the gun, had turned out to be the perfect race nutrition.

We turned again onto the road leading to the start finish, and as I swung off, the cole slaw blindsided me with a vicious attack. My right leg shot straight out and went into rigor mortis. Thing 2 and Cal Pools looked at me, and were gone. The pack came by, I struggled on the back, and we began our last time up the big hill.

A few hundred yards before the turn to the stairstep, the cole slaw attacked again, crushing the beans and overpowering the last chunks of grease. Purple Parks and I came unhitched. As we watched the pack roll away on the stairstep, he grinned and let loose with a one-liner that almost made me fall of my bike. “You think they’ll wait for us?” he cracked.

It’s not over till the fat lady cramps

We turned onto the stairstep, I put my head down and somehow bridged back up to the group. What seemed like a good idea at the time seemed like a bad idea a few moments later, as Veins began drilling it into the brutal wind all along the stairstep. It was nastier than a dirty movie with a hairy woman. At the top, Veins sat up, my beans and brisket counterattacked the cole slaw, and I readied for the finale.

At about that time one of the guys in our group who must have been at least a hundred, and who had spent big chunks of the race on the point, attacked on the downhill. In addition to being older than dirt, he was big. He passed us like we were standing still, seated on the top tube and ready to risk death and destruction. No one had the legs to follow.

We turned right at the bottom of the descent and echeloned as Veins strung it out in an attempt to bring back Methuselah. He swung over for me to pull through, and the cole slaw, which had made a secret deal with the one remaining chunk of pure fat, came roaring up the side of the brisket in the form of two simultaneous, full leg cramps. I dropped off and got off my bike, a feat in itself because neither leg would bend.

Crying and moaning and promising not to eat any more brisket sandwiches finally did the trick. I remounted just in time for Purple Parks to come blazing by. I labored in for thirteenth. You might think this sucks, and you’re probably right, but I’m pretty pleased just the same.

Thing 2 crushed the two riders who had bridged up to him for third. G$ was outkicked by DQ Louie, earning another great placing for a year that has so far been packed with palmares for Big Orange, and proving the wisdom of Mr. Gnomes’s canny bit of officiating wisdom: if you can’t beat `em, cheat `em. Had Thing 2 been at G$’s side, one of them would surely have put DQ in second, or, as they like to say in Texas, “If grandma had balls she’d be grandpa.”

Punchbowl’s only three weeks away. I’m already preparing my excuse for why I won’t be racing it.

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