Various paths, one destination

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.

Three words

January 31, 2014 § 20 Comments

When I hear a funny noise on my bike I do the following two things: 1) Ignore it and hope it goes away. 2) If it doesn’t go away, hope that it’s nothing serious.

Some noises, though, are harder to ignore than others. This one happened every time I touched the rear brake on my ‘cross bike. Iw was the loudest, most horrific, piercing shriek you have ever heard in your life. It was so loud that it not only hurt my ears, it would startle passing motorists who had their windows rolled up while listening to Led Zeppelin. It was so loud that joggers a block away would jump when I braked. You probably think I’m exaggerating.

You’re wrong.

After about four days the noise kept getting worse. It was such a piercing scream that I started to think maybe it was serious. This led to a problem. If I checked out the source of the noise and found out that something was indeed wrong, I’d have to fix it. If I had to fix it I would end up taking out the three tools in my toolbox — hammer, screwdriver, pliers — and making the problem worse. Then I’d have to take it over to my mechanic, Boozy, and have him laugh at me before replacing all the parts I’d destroyed.

All of this was going through my mind as I hurtled down Silver Spur at 45 mph. A car started to pull out in front of me, and I touched the rear brake, which had the intended effect. The eardrum-shattering shriek frightened the driver into slamming on her brakes. I flashed past, pleased that my early warning system was so effective, but also troubled. What if this unearthly, mind-bending noise meant that the brakes were about to fail? The thought of going down Silver Spur like that without any brakes almost worried me.

I pedaled along PV Drive until I came to a stop sign. Resignedly I got off to inspect the rear brake. Perhaps there were no more brake pads and this was the sound of metal calipers on metal rim? Nope. Perhaps there was something wrong with the brake mechanism itself? I stared intently at the complex, mysterious piece of machinery known as “bicycle brake,” hoping that today, after all these years, its workings would finally make sense and I could somehow fix them. But, like a chimpanzee staring at an x-ray, the brake remained inscrutable.

Next I checked the rim and immediately found the culprit. It appeared that during one of my more energetic chain lubing sessions in which I had enthusiastically lubed the chain, the stays, the tire, my feet, and most of the sliding glass window on the balcony, I had gotten a few quarts of lubricant on the rim. The lube had, over time, picked up filth and gunk from the road, resulting in one side of the rim being completely coated with a thick, black, gooey tar that apparently didn’t mesh well with the brake pads.

The solution seemed simple: Wipe off the crud. I took a finger and ran it along the rim, expecting the gunk to come right off. It didn’t. Instead it smeared and left my finger covered with the tar. Next, I tried it with another finger, then another, until both my hands were black with oily crud, but the quantity on the rim appeared about the same. Over on the roadside was a bush with big leaves, so I went over and collected a few. Then I bent over and started vigorously rubbing the rim with a big green leaf.

At that moment a super pro-looking dude in a pro-looking kit on a bike cruised by on his 10k machine. He glanced at me disdainfully, as if he’d never seen a goofball riding a ‘cross bike with a huge red blinky light in the middle of the day while repairing his bike with some leaves. I expected him so say, “You okay?” but he pedaled quickly by.

The leaves had magical crud-removal properties, and in a few moments the rim was clean. I spun it and clenched the brakes — no squeal. This was the first time I had ever addressed a bike problem and solved it. I hopped on the bike and pedaled after Mr. Rudely. Soon enough I caught up to him. He had those 450-mile-a-week legs of a 20-something dreamer who thinks that if he just rides more and races more he will get a pro contract.

“Hi, there!” I chirped.

He turned his head towards me and made the grimmest half-smile, followed by a slight nod to acknowledge that I existed, sort of. “Nice day, huh!” I eagerly chirped some more. He nodded again, slightly, staring straight ahead. I could tell what he was thinking.

“Here I am on my easy day and I’ve been overtaken by the world champion Fred who repairs his bike with leaves and pedals 15 mph at 150 rpm. This sucks balls.”

I zoomed past, turned onto PV Drive West, and headed up the little bump out of Malaga Cove. At the top I slowed down considerably and Mr. Rudely passed me. I hopped on behind him, figuring it would drive him insane, which it did. Since he was obviously on a recovery day, he wasn’t going to hammer away from me, so he took the opposite tack. He slowed down until I passed him. I laughed to myself. “Nobody beats Wanky in the slows.” So I slowed down until he passed me again.

Now he was really pissed. “Hi again!” I chirped.

He sped up and I hopped on his wheel. Then he realized it was his recovery day, so he slowed back down. As I read the sponsors on his jersey, I wondered if he knew that by being such a prick he was causing me to memorize the name of each sponsor so that I would never, ever, ever buy any of their products? I wondered if it occurred to him that by stopping, or even slowing, to say “You okay?” he and his club and his Orange County shop would have done the best advertising possible? And of course I wondered if it occurred to him that by refusing to even speak to me because of my dorkiness he proved to be an even bigger dork than I?

Seeeeeeeerious cycling

Road cycling has a tradition of snobbery, rudeness, unfriendliness, and contempt for those who are slower and weaker than you. Why? Mountain bikers are glad you’re out on the trails with them. I wish I had a dollar for each time an MTB friend has invited me to try out trail riding. Cyclocross racers are the same. They only want to ride with you and drink beer, and many don’t even want to ride. Track riders are a little more serious, but the ice is easily broken your second or third time out and they will bend over backwards to show you the tricks of the trade.

Not road racers, though. Although there are plenty of friendly, down to earth riders, there is a distinct class of road racing snobs. Whether you’re riding with a mirror, or the expiration date on your white shorts has passed, or you’re working on your bike with an old leaf, they believe you are NOT WORTHY.

That’s when I think about Fields. Fields was the best, the cagiest, the one who trained hardest, and the one who dominated the peloton. But he never looked down on anyone because of the bike they rode or the clothes they wore. And if he passed you on a ride he’d always offer a friendly greeting, not to mention stop if you were stranded with a mechanical on the side of the road. Fields believed that people earned scorn and contempt when they acted like assholes, not when they were out enjoying a bicycle ride.

Mr. Rudely and I did another set of slow – and – pass before he got so angry that he stomped by me on the Switchbacks. I followed at about three bike lengths. When we got to the college the light was red. We stopped. I smiled. “Where are you riding today?”

“What’s that?” he said.

“Where are you riding today?”

He twirled his finger in the air as if circling the PV Peninsula. “Loops.” Then he telepathically communicated something along the lines of please-shut-up-now.

I left him for good this time, touching my rear brake occasionally on the long descent. They were perfectly silent. Maybe I’m not such a bad mechanic after all.

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