The strange pull of cycling

November 19, 2014 § 20 Comments

I first saw the old elephant about three years ago. He was gray-headed and busting out at the seams as we flew past him on the Donut Ride. He’d gotten a good ten-minute head start but we overhauled him long before the first big climb. He huffed and puffed and mashed for about ten pedal strokes, trying to hang on before he was blown out the back.

As we passed him someone said, “Good job, Bill,” and then we were gone.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s Backintheday Bill,” the other rider said as he filled me in on Bill’s career as a top local pro and general two-wheeled wrecking ball.

“He looks terrible,” I said. “He’s gotta weigh over 250.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen him in fifteen years, maybe more. His race weight was 140.” From that Saturday on I saw Bill every weekend and always said hello when we passed. Over time he stopped taking head starts and began rolling out with the group. And he was getting smaller.

At the beginning of the year I noticed that he was sticking with us up the first hard surge, and although he was still a pretty big fella, he was certainly under 200, and his kits didn’t look like they were about to unravel and kill someone with the force of the exploding seams. Now he’s visibly getting thinner by the month, and sticks with a much younger grupetto all the way over the first big climb. All of his kits are new because the old ones flat out don’t fit anymore.

Bill’s one of many, many riders who come and go and then come back. They leave for all the right reasons — racing is dumb, cycling is costly, pedaling is dangerous. Some leave for all the wrong reasons, too. My buddy J.C. had found Miss Right through cycling.

“Can you imagine anything better?” he had said. “A girlfriend who loves to bike?”

I didn’t say anything, because I could imagine a lot of things better, like a girlfriend who loves to cook, who earns seven figures, and who loves you to bike while she perfects her home brewing recipe. But I didn’t say anything except “Nope.”

They married and six months later she quit cycling. Then six more months later she told him to quit cycling. Then six more months later he was single again, and back, of course, on his bike.

Some dudes quit for spiritual enlightenment, like The Buddha. Tony used to be one of the most feared racers in SoCal. Then he started growing a big bushy beard, and worse, reading books, long books with hard words. They ruined him, of course, and one day he announced on Facebag that he was “done.” Now he’s a Buddhist adept, spreading love instead of dishing out the pain, but mark my words, he’ll be back. As nice as it is to make the world a better place, it’s even nicer to watch people crumble.

Sometimes when a guy sells his bikes and is “done” you’re kind of glad, but other times it’s a sinking feeling of genuine loss, like when Todd quit coming to the rides, then sold his bike, then vanished from view. Everybody loved Todd. He never had a bad word to say, he was one of the funniest guys alive, and he was always up for a beer. If you had a problem he’d give you the shirt off your back, even if what you really needed was a pair of trousers.

But as a cyclist, he was the guy who made your ride fun. You know how when someone pedals up and everyone kind of moans inwardly, as in “Why’d that buzzkill show up?” Todd was the opposite. Punctual-departure-Nazis would sit around for ten, fifteen minutes, gladly waiting for him even though he was always late and didn’t show up despite blood pacts the night before about “being there no matter what.” Todd was the brightest jewel in the crown of South Bay cycling fun, and then one day he was gone except for the occasional post on Facebag, which always made me sad.

Then yesterday Fireman texted me a photo. “Just finished our ride,” the message said, and next to the words was a picture of him and Todd draining a fermented recovery drink. There was a huge smile on Todd’s face, and I bet it was mostly from being back on his bike.

But his smile wasn’t nearly as big as mine.

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Look before you wipe

November 5, 2014 § 23 Comments

Generally, bike maintenance is a sign of weakness. Anyone who has enough time to work on his own bike is clearly not training hard enough. The only thing worse than a well-maintained bike is a clean one. Clean bikes are much worse than perfectly functioning ones, because they prove not only that you weren’t out training at 8:00 PM, but rather than rub down your S.O. you preferred to rub down your ride.

When we hit the descent down Yerba Buena yesterday on the Nosco Ride, I noticed that my front wheel was out of true. It was kind of a bummer, because these were practically new Mavic Open Pro 32-whole aluminum rims and they only had about 32,000 miles on them, including two BWR’s and hundreds of off-road miles. It really angered me because I specifically bought these rims because of their supposed durability. I hate it when I pay good money for a product and they fall to shit when they’re still pretty much fresh out of the box.

Of course, in addition to the crime of bike maintenance there is the greater evil of stopping a ride en route to jiggle with a mechanical. Are the wheels still rolling? Are you still seated on the bike? Air in the tires? Then it can wait for later, and don’t whine to me about your derailleur having fallen off. Back in the day they didn’t even have derailleurs, and it was good enough for them.

The wheel wobble got pretty bad, so I went to my next mid-ride diagnostic test: How likely am I to die? If death probability > 50%, I will usually take it to the shop the next day. If death probability < 50%, we can wait until it breaks, which it probably won’t any time soon or at least until the ride finishes.

I sort of kept an eye on the wobble as I hurtled down the next 50-mph descent on Mulholland. Funny how when a wheel’s not running true it looks like it’s about to fall apart, but doesn’t. So I used my final diagnostic test: Is the rim hitting the brake pad? No? Pedal harder. Yes? Reach down and open the little brake-opener-thingy, then pedal harder.

On the final descent down Latigo and the full-gas run-in to Dos Vientos Community Park, the stupid wheel took on a life of its own. It was flappier than an old breast. This is when you need to hunker down and really hammer. All of those rim, hub, and spoke parts are made of steel and aluminum and hard stuff and they are made to last, plus it’s all practically new and, if it does break, it’s probably under warranty maybe.

Of course everything ended perfectly fine. I have been doing this a long time and know how to deal with mechanicals. In a few weeks I planned to take it into the shop, where they’d try to adjust the spoke tension and say some crap like, “The nipples are corroded from being left outdoors and never maintained and the wheel can’t be trued and you need a new wheel.” I knew the drill.

The next day I put the bike up on the repair stand. I have a repair stand so that when my friends come over and drink all my beer they can look out on the balcony and see that there is the potential for bike repair and take their minds off the poisonous homebrew they’re drinking. With an old pair of underwear I wiped down the bike, and when I got to wiping the front hub, this is what I saw (note stylishly retro faux-rust on the quick release which is very pro):

Duct tape and some bondo and Fireman says I'll be good to go.

Duct tape and some bondo and Fireman says I’ll be good to go.

Of course this is nothing major and I’ve already called my pal Fireman, who can fix anything. He says that he can make it as good as new, and if not it’s probably a warranty issue since the hubs have only been in use since 2009. They’ve only had two sets of wheels built on them, have been overhauled a mere three times, and have less than 75,000 miles on them, so if Chris King doesn’t want to warranty them and cover the cost to have the wheels rebuilt I should probably sue them in small claims court for products liability, fraud, breach of implied warranty, defamation, and violation of my civil rights.

Anyway … anybody out there have a spare front wheel?

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Where was Bull?

November 22, 2013 § 9 Comments

It was 2:30 AM on the morning of the mythical running of the baby seals. The rain was lashing the roof as a chill wind blustered and blew. I lay in bed, knowing what awaited.

When my alarm went off at five, a text message from Bull popped up. “Wetsy Betsy,” it said. “I’m sleeping in.” This was in contrast to the bravado of last night’s email exchange, in which he had exhorted Skeletor to join him for a “warm-up” climb prior to the ritual running and clubbing of the baby seals.

I rolled down the hill and reached the Center of the Known Universe thoroughly wet. The first selection occurred at 6:40, as only a small group of riders had shown up. When we hit the bottom of Pershing, Skeletor broke apart the small group of about twenty, most of whom would never recover from this initial vicious clubbing. At the top of Pershing, where the Lazybones & Neverpulls typically wait to hop in with the fast-moving group, further avoiding any chance of having to do any work, we were surprised to see no one there.

The combination of rain, mud, filth, chill, and the two beasts of prey from North County had shriveled the already smallish dicks of the usual pack fodder, and they had rightly concluded that the proper place for them was, like Bull, snuggled up at home with their Teddy Bear.

Nasty beginning, nasty ending

Every time prior to leaving North County at 4:00 AM to collect a brace of seal pelts, Stefanovich had been bravely told by various would-be San Diego clubbers, “I want to go down there with you to see what that NPR is all about.”

But come four o’clock on Thursday morning, as usual, the only thing in the passenger seat was Stefanovich’s helmet and shoes.

The blows were swift and the carnage was immediate. The final selection consisted of Hair, Sausage, Skeletor, Fireman, Stefanovich, Boozy, and me, with Hair claiming muddy victory after a one-mile lead out by Skeletor. Video of the silliness is posted here.

Junkyard found himself spit mercilessly out the back, his legs throbbing and his his lungs rasping, cursing like a crazy homeless person as he pointlessly screamed for a light to change. In sum, this was no spiffy little Rapha, suit and tie ride for gentlemen, it was a filthy, ugly shit-covered club-fest where the only tie was a noose.

Toronto, who was clubbed and tossed almost immediately, later shook his bedraggled, scum-covered head at the coffee shop. “I thought that maybe because of the rain, you know, it would be easy.”

What started out as a clump of seal ground beef collected more maimed baby pinnipeds, each one vainly trying to swim its way back up to the disappearing break of blood-stained clubbers. As Junkyard later explained in the coffee shop, body dripping with grime and face aglow with the happiness of having gotten his dick stomped and head staved in, “We were like a clump of defective sperm swimming, hopelessly, for the fast-retreating egg.”

Movember chimed in. “Yeah, some had a tail that was too short, others a tail that was too weak to paddle, whereas others had no tails at all and were just floundering in the sperm-goo, never to reach the egg.”

“It was Darwinian,” agreed Skeletor in the coffee shop, his fangs dripping gore and the head of his club matted with the bone, gristle, tendon, and brain spatter of the hapless seals. “If you believe in that evolution stuff.”

Junkyard nodded. “It was Darwinian, but there was an element of religion in it, believe me. I was seeing the face of Dog on Toronto’s ass.”

Movember shook his head. “We were like a bunch of metal shavings on a weak magnet, some would stand up and tip over, others would hang on, others would fall off … reminded me of an 8th Grade science experiment gone bad.”

Junkyard thought for a moment. “Yeah, it was kind of like a failed science experiment, like where they try to attach a cat’s head to an elephant. Or, I suppose it might have also looked like an Aztec temple, with all those heads rolling down, and everything covered in blood and body parts, and people wailing and gnashing their teeth and shitting their shorts.”

Toronto rued this miserable day, on which he’d opened up more gaps than a broken down picket fence. “I must have swallowed three pounds of grit,” he said, spitting out a four-pound blob grime. “I think I chewed so much of that stuff it’s gotten underneath my fillings.”

“Sand is good for your gizzard,” Junkyard opined. “Helps you digest food, just like a chicken.”

“Then my gizzard is full to busting,” chimed in Erik the Red, who was sitting in a pool of his own sweat, dirty water, and mud. Everyone looked at the gooey seat and thought the same thing: “Hope the next customer isn’t wearing white pants.”

“All I can say,” said Junkyard, “is that was some Class A sphincter snapping.”

Because it was.

Hard man’s cookies

December 1, 2012 § 31 Comments

New Girl’s eyes flexed open at 5:00 AM, beating her alarm clock to the punch by half an hour. A broad smile crept over her face.

She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and reached for the elastic band on her nightstand, quickly tying her hair into a ponytail. She pulled the ponytail tight and smiled again.

Her clothes were neatly laid out on the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. She’d chosen all Donut, and not just because it was the Donut Ride, and not just because it was her favorite kit, and not just because Junkyard, who’d designed it, would be riding with her. She had also chosen it because rain was not only in the forecast, but it was lightly beating down outside her bedroom window, and she’d learned the hard way not to wear white kits on rainy days.

She smiled again.

In a few minutes the oatmeal was bubbling on the stove. It had that roasted smell, like coffee, but more wholesome, with a creamy foaming and bubbling on the top. She loved to watch it swirl and make patterns, but most of all she loved to laugh at it, because oatmeal was so funny.

Here she was, starting each and every day with oatmeal, even though she’d gone out of her way to poke fun at Wankmeister’s FB posts that regularly featured images of gray-as-death oatmeal with raisins bubbling in the top like rabbit pellets. Oatmeal was funny, she decided again, and smiled at the pan. It foamed and bubbled in a way that, if you cocked your head right, looked kind of like it was smiling back at you.

The meeting place

New Girl kitted up and pulled on her clear plastic rain cape. She’d spent thirty minutes in the bike shop picking a rain cape, and went with this one because even though it wasn’t very snazzy, it was clear, and clear was what she wanted so that the Donut Ride logo would shine through, even in the rain.

She went into the garage and ran a cloth over Princess. She’d cleaned it the night before, and she smiled at the sparkling cogs and well oiled chain. “Enough to lubricate it, not bathe it,” Junkyard had told her. It sparkled, just in time to get covered with muck and filth and grime and fun, especially covered with fun.

She rolled out of the garage, each foot clicking with that solid life-affirming lock of pedal on cleat, binding her to the machine, making them one, turning their mutual admiration into codependency. Now, the decisions she made were binding. Now, whatever happened to Princess would also happen to her.

The simple rain beat harder against her, but inside her three skins she was dry and warm and smiling at the shiny, muffled world. The thought of meeting her mates made her push just a little harder. As she came up the slight bump, eagerly looking into the parking lot at Catalina Coffee, her smile fell. The lot was empty.

Calling in sick

New Girl got off her bike and stood under the concrete arch. She looked at her phone; Tumbleweed and Madeline had texted to say they were opting for less rain and more bed. New Girl smiled again and texted back, “OK! I’m at CC and pedaling anyway! HAGD!”

She sat back to wait, realizing that she was early, as usual. Very early, as usual. Her first surprise came when Tumbleweed and Madeline appeared. “Not going to let you ride alone!” said Madeline.

Then Gussy appeared from out of the light rainy fog, his jersey halfway unzipped and carpets of wet chest hair spilling out. He was already laughing. “You can call me ‘Gorilla in the Mist,'” he said, and everyone laughed.

As the other riders appeared, Gussy’s monologue of jokes, tales from the old days, observations on Krispy Kreme, and predictions about how the Donut Ride beatdown would unfold kept everyone grinning. But New Girl grinned biggest, because she was smiling on the inside, too.

With Toronto and Junkyard in formation, they all rolled out for a pre-loop, destined to get them to the start of the Donut with just enough time for coffee and a bathroom break.

Warming up for a beatdown

New Girl loved the pre-loop best of all, even in the rain when everything was shiny and trying hard to jerk her wheels out from under her. The road striping, the BOTS dots, the oily runoff, the slicky leaves and fallen pine cones and magnolia cones all conspired to knock her over, but she smiled her way through it, so happy to be pushing up the little kicker by the golf course that she forgot to talk or chat or do anything other than grin.

Now they were soaked and back in Redondo’s Riviera Village for the final call-up before the massacre. New Girl wheeled up to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and smiled some more as she saw more of her buddies. There’s the Pilot; there’s the Bull; there’s Arkansas Traveler; there’s Sparkles; and oh! Look! Over in the corner looking all sour and out of sorts but really not sour or out of sorts at all…it’s Wankmeister! She smiled big, and he smiled back in his finest Donut morning scowl.

The group pushed out, the rain had stopped, and fifty or so riders filled out the peloton. New Girl smiled at Suze, at Wolfe, at JP, at Dawg, at Marco, at Erik, and at Prez! She thought she might run out of smiles before they hit the first climb out of Malaga Cove, but she didn’t.

New Girl didn’t know it in words, but this is the secret of the congregants of the Church of the Spinning Wheel: The faces, and backs, and bikes, and legs are as familiar to you as you are to them, and with familiarity comes trust and with trust comes the elemental core of us to the surface, our humanity, in other words our belonging to and place in the tribe.

Legs to brain: We’re not part of the tribe anymore

Up the climb out of Malaga Cove, New Girl felt the sting and then the throb and then the fire in her lungs. She wasn’t smiling anymore as she locked onto the wheel in front of her, praying she’d make the climb with the group, hoping that her ride wouldn’t end here as it sometimes did, before it even started.

A split second of inattention and she wobbled, smacking into Junkyard who was alongside her. He gave her a friendly smile, but she was terrified. She’d almost knocked down her best buddy, what was she doing here, she was redlining, she was a hazard to the group, the road was incredibly slick and it had started raining again.

She’d been kicked out the back so hard the week before that by the time she reached Hawthorne, alone, she’d had to pull over into the parking lot of the 7-11 and sob, and here she was again about to get her ticket punched. At the moment of disconnecting, Wolfe, who’d watched the whole mini-drama, reached over and gave her a hard push, gloved in five words of encouragement and faith: “You can do it, dig.”

She dug as hard as she ever had, hanging on by a thread until she was over the bump. She caught her breath as the sucking of the peloton dragged her through Paseo, along the bluffs and the billion dollar mansions with the trillion dollar views that they all got to enjoy for the price of a bike and some pain, until she found herself on Pilot’s wheel. The next big acceleration came through Lunada Bay, and this time the kick was hard and sharp and on top of the several jumps already in the account which meant it was every man and woman for herself, and so New Girl was out of the neighborhood and by herself.

She was still smiling, though, and when Madeline and Sparkles came by they rode a steady paceline up to Trump National, the gateway to the Switchbacks.

As she gathered herself for the big push, New Girl felt her rear tire go soft, then flat. The rain had started up again. The group atop the Switchbacks wouldn’t know she’d flatted and they’d continue on. For the first time that morning her inside smile frowned.

If you have to grow up, be like the Fireman

A handful of people in the South Bay are larger than life. The Fireman is one of them. He looks gruff and road-hardened and ready to take whatever the hell you can dish out and pay you back double then drink you under the table plus beat you in the sprint or give you the lead-out from hell that you’ll remember for a thousand years if you ever manage to come around it, but it doesn’t take anything at all to get underneath the callused exterior and find a heart as large and kind and generous as any, anywhere.

Maybe it’s because his day job involves roadside visits to catastrophic freeway collisions, or because his night job takes him to blazing infernos venting poisonous gas and smoke and death, or because his summer holidays take him to raging wildfires throughout LA County, maybe that’s what explains him, but I think there’s more to it than that; I think there’s something of the man, the husband, the father, the patriarch who opens his door to friends and feeds them from his table until they can eat no more and swallow not another single drop, this is what explains him, he is a throwback to the days of the tribe, he would have been the leader of the clan, the first one to throw the spear or lead the charge or repulse the invading horde, the first one to christen the infant or bless the newly wedded couple or mark the newly conquered ground as hallowed, it’s this, his Stone Age mantle of hunter, gatherer, and leader of the tribe that makes him what he is, the one we all look up to without knowing why.

Which is a fancy, long-ass way of saying he stopped to help New Girl change her flat.

In a flat fucking jiffy.

Then he paced her up the Switchbacks to a new personal Strava record.

Then he continued on his way after perfecting her day and restoring her smile before she could even say “Thanks.”

Mud stockings

New Girl got home from her Donut, legs covered in mud, and after cleaning up she got to work.

An hour and a half later she was knocking on the firehouse door. A burly fireman answered. “Yes?”

“Here,” she said. “These are for you guys.”

“Oh,” said the fireman. “Is it something we said?”

She laughed. “It’s something you DID, silly.”

“You gonna let me in on the secret?”

“No,” she said with the biggest of smiles.

The firehouse dude smiled big, too, the circle now complete.

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