February 27, 2011 § 8 Comments
The first USCF race I ever entered was one of the very, very few USCF races I ever won. It was February, 1984. I had just gotten my Cat 4 license and joined the Violet Crown Sports Association in Austin after six or seven months doing their weekend training rides, the highlight of which were the “dirt road low water crossing sprints.” Jack and Phil and Mike knew every dirt road within a 100-mile radius of Austin, and every weekend ride featured numerous detours down roads that weren’t even on a map. Every time we’d hit a low water crossing, which was about every fifteen minutes, the peloton would slam on the brakes, throw the bikes onto the roadside, and pass around a massive joint.
I inhaled lots, not because I ever smoked but because the conflagration would send up plumes of smoke so thick that you couldn’t not partake. The group would then leap back on their bikes, and anyone who thinks pot isn’t a performance enhancing drug should have been on one of those rides. The pace would go from zero to hammer-forty in ten seconds, strung out into a line of dust eating, big ring churning, full-on pedal floggers.
No more than two or three minutes later, however, the hammer euphoria of the drug would morph into the wow, dude, mellow phase and the pace line of raw meat eating musclemen would become a slow, meandering, peaceful aggregation of happy riders. But those first two minutes…what performance!
Only the hard men need apply
In order to keep its USCF club license, the Violet Crown, snidely referred to by the envious as the “Violent Clowns” would annually throw together a “race,” usually announced a week or two in advance. In 1984 it was the Bloor Road to Blue Bluff Time Trial, in between Austin and Manor just off FM 973. Total distance was 4 miles.
I still remember the excitement, getting up at 6:00 a.m., eating a bowl of yogurt and granola, airing up the tires in my bright purple Picchio Rigida, pulling on my Detto Pietra shoes and pedaling from campus out to the course on that freezing February morning. By the time I got there I was frozen solid, and to my surprise, which should have been no surprise, Bloor Road was all dirt, and it began at the bottom of a steep hill. I wondered what would happen if there were a low water crossing.
Five other riders showed up, including Mike B., who was a junior and who had the first cyclocross bike I’d ever seen. Also present were Jack P. and maybe Tom P. When the results were tabulated, I was the winner over Mike by a few seconds. The organizers had either found a low water crossing or temporarily dispensed with the requirement, and in between giggles I was awarded first prize: an unopened Laverne and Shirley board game, complete with the plastic wrapping. Just in case you think I’m making that last part up, you can see it by clicking this link. It still remains the most valuable thing I’ve ever won in a bike race, and it has appreciated greatly in value: a vintage game will set you back $77 on Ebay.
PV Hillclimb 2011
Fast forward 27 years. I’m still a Cat 4 for those who idiotically believe that if you persevere at cycling you’ll eventually get better. The PV Hillclimb series (is two a series?) is sponsored by local promoter Brad H., Big Orange Cycling member, bicycle activist, endurance racer, elbow flapper, and 2009 state time trial champion in the category of mixed tandem combined age 90+ (of the four teams, one was disqualified because the guy had an expired license and the gal had “no license info available”). Brad has shown his thirst for the kill on numerous occasions, most memorably when he wrecked me at last year’s Devil’s Punchbowl. I’ve mentioned this in previous blog postings, but not because it bothers me. I barely remember it, in fact. I also hardly remember him regaling Rod G. with the race outcome by saying, “I don’t know what happened to Seth. He just crumbled. So I rode away.” For the record I’m not even slightly bitter, because I’m bigger than that.
I got up excitedly at 6:00 a.m., ate a bowl of yogurt and granola, aired up the tires in my white Specialized, pulled on my Sidi shoes, and pedaled from home out to the course on what was a freezing February morning, replete with hail along PV Drive from last night’s hailstorm. I rolled along on fire as the Mad Alchemy “Madness” high heat embrocation cream had gotten smeared up high and inside the chamois, and my parts were simply smoking.
Prices have gone up since 1984, when it cost me $5 to enter the Bloor Road to Blue Bluff TT. Brad’s PV Hillclimb set me back $25, but it would prove to be worth every penny. Although there was no Laverne and Shirley board game on offer, the winner would have his name engraved in a PDF file and permanently uploaded to the World Wide Web. I shelled out my money and continued up the hill to warm up.
Cycling on the Palos Verdes Peninsula has several iconic climbs, and this course is one of them. It’s six miles long, starts at the nature center at the bottom of the reservoir, and goes up Palos Verdes Drive to Marymount College. At the college you turn right and head up Crest to the radar domes. The total distance is six miles, with about .5 mile of downhill halfway up the climb. The first three miles are a gradual grade, no more than 4 or 5%. After the downhill the road tilts back up, and then you go right at the college where there’s a short but steep section before the road settles down into a gradual climb up to the finish. It’s easy to come out too hot on this course and run out of gas once you hit the college. It’s also easy to hold too much in reserve and finish with gas in the tank. My goal was to hold 310-315 watts for the entirety of the climb.
When the cat’s away
This weekend bragged an absence of the South Bay hammerati due to the Callville Bay Classic in Nevada and the Ontario crit. Other lightning fast climbers had gone north, where they could pedal as many long hills as they wanted without having to pay for it. The absence of a Laverne and Shirley board game, the cold weather, competing events, and common sense meant that when sign-up closed only 37 idiots had penned their names and paid their money.
Teammates Kevin, Jon, Bob, Greg, Alan H., and Alan M. toed the line and went off on schedule. Kevin won the 35+, and Jon got second. A couple of minutes into my ride I started to remember why it had been 27 years since the last uphill time trial: they really hurt. My category included 6 other riders, so it was bigger than the entire field in 1984. Moreover, one of the hungry Hard Men against whom I had to prove my mettle was Big Brad, the glare from his white state champion’s mixed tandem 90+ TT jersey blinding in its refulgence.
The sweet taste of victory
My minute man was a furry Freddie, and I overtook him with ease. My two minute man was furry Freddie’s furrier cousin, and I devoured him as well. At the finish I turned in a 22:31, which was good enough to put me atop the 45+ category, relegating the six other pretenders to the ash heap of defeat. In the course of human endeavor, has anyone ever achieved more? In the annals of cycling, has a more glorious chapter ever been written?
I stood at the roadside, sucking in the winter smog and reflecting on my accomplishment. How did this compare to Merckx’s Mexico City hour record in ’72? To his Giro TT victory in ’73? To Boardman in ’96? Surely those events, noteworthy as they were, couldn’t compare to this field of six that I had so totally dominated. Did Merckx, Moser, or Rominger ever have Brad H. snapping at their heels? Were any of those titans ever hardened by the spoils of victory in their early years by a Laverne and Shirley board game? I doubt it.
February 20, 2011 § 2 Comments
Some places are so pitilessly ugly that they scar you with their wretchedness. Pearblossom is one such place. Pearblossom howls with a dry desert wind that sucks the moisture from the air as it blows over the sharp, spiny, wound-inflicting desert plants that puncture the coarse sand like rusty studs on the collar of a rabid punk rock killer. Stuck in an orbit of pain and ugliness at 3,997 feet, this dustblown town has just enough of a commercial dribble to keep it from being a ghost town, but not quite enough to raise it much above the status of a graveyard.
Every time I load my car with bike, pump, wheels, and dread, I think about the bone deep ugliness of Pearblossom, gateway to the Devil’s Punchbowl, the last cobbled and cracked pavement on my own personal highway to hell. Saturday was no different. Mired in the defeat and despair of the relentless horsewhipping I’d suffered two weeks earlier as the only Ironfly 45+ at Boulevard, all I could think about on the drive to the race course was the weather forecast: rain and temperatures in the low 40’s. I’ve done Devil’s Punchbowl twice and finished near-last or DFL both times, and have done UCLA’s Punchbowl once, finishing in the last group of broken stragglers and damned proud of that.
There’s something poetic about the race being held along the San Andreas fault. According to UC geophysicist Yuri Fialko, “The information available suggests that the fault is ready for the next big earthquake but exactly when the triggering will happen and when the earthquake will occur we cannot tell. It could be tomorrow or it could be 10 years or more from now,” he concluded in September 2005. Devastating, catastrophic, unexpected, pain, suffering, misery, loss of life…great place for a bike race.
Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly is to the bone
Saturday, I could feel deep down that the only recompense I’d have for spending the day in the vicinity of a town that looks like it has been shot with a shit cannon would be another painful beating at the hands of my betters. Turning off onto Pearblossom Highway I noted the wind turbine that was spinning crazily from the 30-mph wind and gyrating in tandem with the billows of dirty diapers, styrofoam cups, and fast food wrappers that blew across the roadway. The wearying ugliness of the place was heightened by the hand-lettered roadside cardboard placards that advertised “Coffee and Gas” and “Chorizo Viern/Sab/Dom,” scratched in black magic marker and nailed to a post. A junked car lot had a rusted out VW microbus that some redneck had painted camo and welded onto a set of tank tracks.
The only bright spot was the bright blue sky, the brilliantly shining sun, and the knowledge that however awful the day’s drubbing was going to be, it wouldn’t be meted out in the rain. When I pulled up to the sign-in booth I spotted my good buddy Kwan Luu. He had been there since 5:00 a.m., and although the day was still cold, the dreaded rain never materialized. Shortly after signing in, a huge gust blew through, picked up both sign-in tents, and carried them away like the giant sails they were. Volunteers scrambled pell-mell into the cactus-filled desert scrub, trying to wrestle down the wayward tents, which blew farther and farther away with each fresh gust as the angry desert plants shredded the volunteers’ legs into bloody, pulpy wounds. The tents came to rest several hundred yards off, heavy steel legs tangled up in the cactus. “This,” I thought,”is the perfect metaphor for this race: sturdy legs caught unawares and blown to hell into a cactus field of pain.”
An earth-shattering event
I tested the air temperature against my bare legs and chatted with racers who had just finished. “Arm warmers and you’ll be fine,” one idiot said. “I took my gloves off after the first lap.”
The air was still biting cold, but the sun was bright and we didn’t go off until 1 o’clock. “Perfect time to slather on the Mad Alchemy,” I thought. Fortunately, I’d brought the Uber Madness tub of gel, which warms down to 0 degrees and in a pinch can be used to smelt ore. I rubbed on gob after gob and then got out to warm up. To offset my thin gloves I smeared a thick layer on my hands. Despite the sun it was cold, mid-40’s or so. I’d been off the bike all week and felt even slower than usual.
This isn’t a Boy Scout merit badge yet, but it should be, because navigating your way through a pre-race port-a-potty is more technical and has more horrific repercussions when done badly than any accident on the bike. I entered the cubicle of brown death to empty my bladder one last time, carefully placing my cleats so that they were on either side of the brown lumps on the floor that might have been mud. Or that might not.
I took off my right glove and held it with my teeth as I reached down to grip. Just as I made contact I cursed to myself. “Goddammit!!” I said, realizing that I hadn’t wiped the fiery hot leg embrocation off my fingers prior to reaching down. As I cursed, my glove slipped out from between my teeth and into the urinal. I swatted to catch it with my left hand, lost my balance, and both cleated feet slipped squarely into the big brown patch that I’d now concluded most definitely wasn’t mud.
Glove covered in piss, cleats clotted with manure, and the inside of my shorts now burning with the heat of a thousand forest fires, I hurried to the line just in time.
Lambs to the slaughter
The dire weather predictions had thinned the 45+ and 35+ fields to such a tiny contingent of idiots that the officials decided to combine us into one race of about thirty. As we sat astride our bikes waiting for the official to wave us off, a giant storm cloud that had been hovering above the peaks began to sweep down. The hillsides were covered with snow, but until that moment the bright blue sky and the warming sun, especially while sitting in the car with the windows rolled up (an especially accurate way to approximate what it’s going to feel like out on the course), had obscured harsh reality: we were starting at over 4,000 feet and climbing another thousand or so each of the four laps that would make up the 50-mile race.We rolled out into the 20mph+ uphill headwind at a pace that was simply a crawl. “This is awesome,” I thought. “I’ve never gone out this slowly. I may actually do well today. Plus, these 35+ guys don’t look that tough. All the guys who race 45+ say that it’s much harder than the 35’s.”
A few hundred yards later it began snowing. “Snow!” someone yelled.
“It’s not snow,” an idiot responded. “It’s a flurry.”
“A flurry of what, you dumbass? Charcoal?” someone shot back who sounded a lot like me.
Tucked in towards the rear of the group I sidled up next to Leibert. He looked at me and smiled. “Lambs to the slaughter,” he said.
“Yeah,” I chuckled, but then stopped as I choked back a bleat, realizing who he meant.
By the time we got to the right hand turn the early flurry had petered out. I was impressed at how un-tough the 35+ guys were. In the middle of that reverie, my legs awakened to the sharp pain of an even sharper acceleration. Within seconds we were strung out in a line, with the gutless and weak 35+ girly men smashing the pack into pieces. Dave W., Mike H., and another Big Orange rider made the split. The rest of us were pulverized into easily digested baby food and barfed out the back. I knew it was bad because one of the guys who missed the split was Leibert. It’s a rare sight indeed, but not an altogether unpleasant one, when you get to see the executioner with the blade against his throat for a change.
“If a man hates at all, he will hate his neighbor.” Samuel Johnson
We flew down the back side of the big hill in a mixed group of about twelve riders. When we turned right at the bottom of the screaming descent, the lead group was less than 30 seconds ahead of us. They had slowed as the gradual rise braked their speed.
A Barry Lasko rider accelerated to try and close the gap. Leibert answered with a swift counter. Bill Ralph and I took this as the perfect strategic moment to crack. With us was a rider from the 35+ gaggle, No. 104, I think, wearing a red-white-and-blue kit. I would come to hate him with all my heart over the next hour of my life.
Bill put his head down and began to pull. All I could do was come through with short, weak efforts, trying to spell him as he did the lion’s share of the work. To my amazement, up came Hotten from behind. Hotten, Bill, and I (well, not so much I) took turns as #104 sat on the back. Of course there was no reason for him to help, and by the looks of it, he was completely shellacked, but nonetheless out of my own misery a deep and lifelong hatred began to well up. I cursed that guys’ stupid Felt bike, I cursed his stupid jersey, I cursed his squeaky clean freewheel, I cursed his goofy pedal stroke, I cursed his parents, his siblings, his life story, his family tree, I even cursed his legwarmers, which looked really warm. Of course I did all of this manly cursing to myself, mostly because he looked big enough to twist me into a pretzel.
As we struggled through the finish area, world’s best Maggie, Angel to the Freds, called out encouragement and offered me water. Her smiling face got me through the second lap…not sure if I should be grateful or not. After getting halfway up the big hill the second time we were joined by another 45-er, “Scott,” who I will never forget as long as I live. He had closed the gap to our foursome and when he overhauled us he was gasping and wheezing and gagging with such ferocity that it sounded like he was being strangled.
That was fine and normal. What was unforgettable was the 12-inch dangle of near-frozen snot that had dripped from his nose, over his mouth, and was now swaying in the wind as it hung off his chin like a living, breathing stalactite. I wanted to offer him my piss glove and turd shoe to make the ensemble complete, but didn’t.
When the going gets tough, I head for the car
On our third time up the big hill, the P-1-2 group overtook us. Bill rolled towards the front of their group. “These punks aren’t so tough,” I snarled to myself. We turned right to attack the stairsteps, the not-so-tough punks hit the gas, and I hit the skids along with snotnose, wanker, and Hotten. Bill surged with the others and was gone.
Snotty and wanker then accelerated, leaving Mike and I alone. My piss glove was now iced piss. No feeling remained in my hands. The Mad Alchemy embro had mixed in with the dirt, mud, and sand and had ceased to heat. My feet were frozen. I couldn’t feel my lips or my face. My glasses were covered with ice as we hit the 50mph downhill. The wind cut through my short sleeve jersey and arm warmers like a bandsaw through a drunk millworker’s wrist.
Hotten looked back, let me attach to his wheel, and drilled the downhill as if there were actually something to drill about. We hit the bottom, where the snow had turned to freezing rain. “Got another lap in you?” he asked.
“Bleat, bleat, bleat,” I answered.
Crossing through the finish area for the third time, I saw Maggie. “Can I quit now?” I bleated.
“Of course you can, honey! Get off that stupid bike and get to the car before you freeze to death!”
It’s a known fact that the only two people you can’t disobey at a race are the official and Maggie. Bill had disobeyed the official a few minutes earlier by crossing the center line and getting DQ’ed. I wasn’t about to get DQ’d by disobeying Maggie, so instead I quit the race and staggered over to the car. Hotten roared on up the climb and finished like the iron man he is.
Winning isn’t everything (but it’s better than being a quitter wimp)
I wish I knew how the race unfolded, but since I don’t, I’ll have to speculate: Dave Worthington, Mike Haluza, and Jon Flagg rode everyone off their wheel to finish 1-2-3. This seems confirmed by the photo I stood around to snap at the finish. Greg got 4th, grinding it out for 50 miserable miles and never losing more than a minute or so on the leaders.
Haluza, judging from the absence of shoe covers, absence of leg warmers, and arm warmer pulled halfway down, wasn’t even cold. I’m not sure he knew it was snowing. Of course you’re wondering how they decided who got the win. It may have gone like this:
Dave: “Okay, guys, I’m winning today.”
Guys: “FU. You always win.”
Dave: “That’s right.”
Haluza: “I’m 6’4″ and could squash your entire body with my left foot.”
Dave: “I’m 5’8″ and can sprint faster than your Moto Guzzi.”
Haluza: “Okay. Take it.”
Jon: “Well, I get second then.”
Haluza: “Okay, but I get to punch you once as hard as I want after the race.”
Jon: “Ah, er, third place and that bag of pistachios sounds pretty good to me.”
Haluza: “Damn right.”
If you missed this epic slugfest on the San Andreas Fault and had to vicariously enjoy the UCLA Punchbowl race results on this blog, don’t worry! There’s another Punchbowl race coming up in April that will be longer, but every bit as fun.
Here’s the link to my WKO+ power file for the race, just click here.
February 2, 2011 § 2 Comments
People who’ve done the Boulevard road race have varying memories of it. Mine, aside from crushing defeat, ignominious defeat, and humiliating defeat, are mostly centered on having been frozen to the core. Last year the race began in a freezing rain. The year before it snowed. This year the forecast is for sunshine, but if you check the course elevation–5,000 feet, same as Denver, Colorado–you’ll know that the forecast can change quickly. My expectation is that it will be very cold or at least very chilly, maybe even batshit miserable.
The whole idea behind embrocation is to heat your legs without covering them in lots of restrictive clothing. The other point is to augment your training/racing without having to say “I use Ben-Gay.” The biggest benefit of an embrocation is that it sounds very pro and very Euro, more so if you just say “embro.” Finally, of course, it has the talisman effect of cream in a jar, stored in a small bag, and rubbed on like a magic elixir prior to going forth to do battle. Davis Phinney used to achieve the same effect with his “lucky shorts.” After a few grand tours that must have been lots gnarlier than this stinky gel in a jar.
Mad Alchemy appeals to the most base bike racing instincts: its name admits mental instability and suggests a thoroughly discredited scientific theory. False advertising lawsuits need not apply.
How much to use?
If you’re cycling on the Palos Verdes peninsula, the pre-dawn temperatures can vary from the high 30’s to the low 50’s this time of year. Getting the type of embrocation right, and then smearing on the proper quantity, involve lots of trial and error. I bought a jar of Mad Alchemy Cold Weather Medium, recommended for temperatures from 30-60F, and a jar of Mad Alchemy Cold Weather Madness, recommended for putting on your shelf as a reminder that if you need this stuff it’s too damned cold to be outdoors on a bike.
Last Friday it was in the high 40’s and I put some medium cream on my legs, not very much, in fact, and I paid scrupulous attention to putting my shorts on first, rolling up the legs, and only then applying. If you put it on nude and then pull up your shorts, you will get hot dick and frypan balls, as described in a previous post. If you’re a woman I shudder to think what the phenomenon would be called. After a few minutes the Mad Alchemy warmed up my legs so that no leg warmers were needed at all. However, I didn’t put enough embrocation on so that after two hours my legs were cold.
On Saturday it was in the low 40’s and I put on medium cream, this time slathering it on pretty heavily. It worked wonders, especially since the temperature got up into the 60’s after a couple of hours. The heat remained on my legs for five or six hours, and it was exacerbated by sunshine. I also stuck a finger in my eye almost eight hours after using the cream, and it burned like hell for about thirty minutes. Lesson: wash your hands, dumbshit.
On Tuesday it was in the high 40’s and, like Friday, I used the medium cream. My legs were warm but my hands and feet, which were protected only with thin gloves and sock material booties, were really cold. I decided that today I would lather up my feet and hands as well as my legs and see how that worked. One side effect after yesterday morning’s ride was that after showering (hot water makes your legs really burn) and getting dressed for work, my legs pulsed heat for another couple of hours in the office. People were actually huddling around my thighs for warmth. That’s what they said.
This morning I put on what I thought was a lot, and rubbed it between my toes, all over the tops and soles of my feet, and on the back of my hands. I considered putting a pinch between my cheek and gum, but didn’t. Unfortunately, I didn’t check the temperature until I rolled out. It was in the mid-30’s, and even though my legs, hands, and feet were toasty warm, the rest of me froze to hell. Lesson: make sure you’re bundled up, up top. The medium embrocation was at its limit, and I probably could have used the extra hot cold weather Madness. If it’s cold enough tomorrow, I will give it a try.
The best thing about this product is that it’s really expensive. At $20 a jar, you can spend several hundred dollars a year just on your pro “embro.” Studies have shown a correlation between the amount of money you spend and the amount of pro-ness you feel on the bike, and if nothing else it will give your wife another item on the monthly credit card bill to nitpick and criticize. Not that it happens in my family. Right, honey?
Buy or not to buy?
Definitely buy. It’s a good product and it works. You’ll pedal faster and stronger in cold weather without all the lycra on your legs. Not sure if rapeseed oil, the active ingredient, is on the UCI list of banned substances, but it’s definitely in the California Penal Code. Use with caution.