The details matter

October 6, 2014 § 9 Comments

I rode out to the memorial ride this morning for Stuart Press. He was 39, and left behind a one-year-old son, wife, grieving mother, and devastated cycling community after fighting a brief battle with brain cancer.

I never met Stu.

Well over three hundred riders massed at the start of this Sunday’s legendary west L.A. Nichols Ride, which had been dedicated to him. Like me, many of the riders had never met him.

One block up from the start there is a Starbucks, and riders crowded into the small store to get a snack and a cup of coffee. They had come from all over, with the Surf City team fielding six riders from as far away as Orange County and Long Beach. Starbucks is a natural place to start a ride from, simply because so many cyclists enjoy a quick jolt before they start pedaling in earnest.

But you don’t start the Nichols Ride at Starbucks. Founded by Raymond Fouquet, the oldest and most venerable ride in L.A., the La Grange ride, always began at Raymond’s restaurant. That restaurant, long gone, is now the site of an anonymous west L.A. office building. A few years ago the tradition of starting at the former site of Raymond’s restaurant began to erode, just because it was easier to roll out from the Starbucks.

The old guard saw what was happening, and quietly put the word out: Get your coffee wherever you want, but the La Grange ride starts where Raymond’s restaurant used to be. The new folks got the message.

Why should anyone care? It’s only one block. And why start from an antiseptic office block when you could start from a food-and-coffee-infused eatery?

The answer of course is that details matter, because history is in the details, and our present is constructed on the building blocks of the past, and our future will be built based on how we conduct ourselves now. This is another way of saying that sentiments matter. Because Raymond Fouquet was beloved, and because the things he began changed people’s lives, and because those he affected felt love for him, the sentiments surrounding something as simple as the starting point of a bike ride have meaning. By honoring the past we are honoring the sentiments of the past, and we are allowing those sentiments of love to stay alive and empower us, even though the people themselves are dead.

It’s through the details that we cheat time, and cheat death.

If you ride bikes, and if you write about bikes, you will become familiar with death. People fall, get hit, get sick, get old, and then they’re not around anymore, forever. But in our cycling community, those losses are keenly felt. Riders we used to laugh with, race against, talk trash about, and count on are people who have made us what we are, for better or worse, and almost always for better. When they die, it hits us so much harder than the passing of a distant relative in a distant place, or a celebrity on the screen.

When Stuart died, we all gasped and said, “That could have been me.”

We hit the lower slopes of Nichols Canyon. The only other time I had done this ride, three years ago, KP and Surfer Dan had exploded the massive field and gone on to “win” the ride. It was a searing exercise in endless pain and abject terror as we shot through red lights, bounced over chugholes, and flailed our way to the breathless finish.

Not today. We climbed slowly and densely bunched. We descended quickly but carefully. We ended in Brentwood still filled with adrenaline and excess energy, a huge group of hundreds that had done anything but “leave it all on the road.” Along the way we talked about Stu, we talked about our own mortality, and we gave thanks, each in our own way, for simply being allowed the gift of life.

The details of where we started, where we finished, and what we did in between to honor the life of a good man, those details, like the details of Stuart’s life, mattered.

END

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Pedals of anger and love

January 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

“You up for the La Grange ride? It’s fuckin rad, dude. You’ll fuckin love it. It’ll be your new favorite ride.” Fukdude was amped and up as we massed at the Center of the Known Universe for the Sunday Kettle Ride.

“I feel like shit. I’m still trashed from yesterday. I’m flailing. FTR is next Saturday and I’m already overtrained and cracked.”

“So you’re coming, right?”

The choices were bad and awful. I could go with Fukdude and the mixed-Ironfly contingent of Toronto, JDawg, Vegemite, Newlywed, Gonzo, M8, Danc, and Becker Bob, and get thrashed into a pulp on the La Grange Ride, or I could roll north with Roadchamp, G$, McRibs, and TF, and get squished and smeared along the roadway up Latigo.

I ended up going with my team, as I suppose it’s better to get your beatdown surrounded by friends, and the La Grange Ride is one of the most famous rides I’ve never done. As usual, Fukdude had a plan. “You’re going to get on my fuckin wheel, dude, and I’m going to drag you over the wall. Once you’re over the wall just grit your teeth and hang on. It’s all mental after the wall.

“You’ll be rolling out looking at all these fuckin dudes and thinking ‘Fuck, who are all these fuckin dudes ’cause you won’t fuckin know any of them because they don’t race but they’re strong as shit and this is their race. It’s a fuckin beatdown, dude. You’l love it. Just hang on.”

From paradise to Tin Pan Alley

We sheared off from the Kettle Ride at Marina del Rey and headed to West L.A. It was nasty and gnarly, and went down roads that, six and 3/4 days out of seven, were choked with cars. At the rendezvous point, the corner of Westwood and La Grange Avenue, riders began showing up in dribs and drabs until there were about eighty of us. The La Grange cycling club has a description of the ride on its web site which is a masterful expression of understatement and non-disclosure.

The first part of the ride is described as “purely conversational” as we started off by slogging  through what seem like dozens of traffic signals, and continue navigating potholes, avoiding treacherous splits in the asphalt that run parallel with your tire, and staying far enough forward that the guys flaunting hairy buttcracks were behind us, not in front. The “conversation” is a variety of “fucks,” “shits,” “whatthehells,” and “oh-oh-oh-oh-heyfuckitHOLE!” as the menagerie bumps, whacks, brakes, stops-and-starts its way to the throwdown.

I turn to JDawg. “When does this fucking ride get hard?”

He looks and grins. “Oh, about…now.”

We begin rolling up Nichols Canyon, the road kicks straight up, Danc spins off the front, and I’m fifth wheel, tucked behind Fukdude per the plan. A few minutes into the climb I’m laughing to myself. “This is nothing.” The group is strung out single file, I’ve got my high cadence on, and Danc is playing rabbit just up the road. The climb continues. What could be easier than this?

We hit a couple of turns and the guy on the front pulls back Danc and it’s full throttle. The easy climb that was perfectly suited to my cadence goes from totally doable to on-the-fucking-rivet-holy-mother-of-Dog-I’m-gonna vomit. Danc latches on, I struggle for another minute, the oxygen debt becomes an oxygen Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, all power to the engines is instantaneously lost, and it’s Teblow Time.

Flail and flog

JDawg whips by me. “Spin, buddy,” he says. I try to focus on the blur as it races past, and try even harder to decipher his words. “Spin.” I know that word. “Buddy.” I’ve heard that before. What can he mean? Who is he talking to? Where am I? What am I doing? What is this hand grenade that has detonated in my chest?

Then there’s a hand on my left leg as Danc gives me a huge push. “Just a couple more minutes, buddy,” he urges. “Minutes.” I know what those are. One minute on Nichols Canyon at full throttle is a time interval equivalent to a billion years. Two minutes is twelve billion years. I gasp, choke, drop my head, and shoot off the back.

The second group comes by. I struggle on as the road continues up, up, up. A few seconds’ rest and we hit the Wall. This is the part of the ride that Fukdude described thus: “We’re gonna hit this fuckin wall, dude, it’s like straight fuckin up and you’re gonna already be on the fuckin rivet and you’ll come off a little but you’ll have to give just that extra bit beyond what you’ve got and then you’ll hitch back on and can just suffer the rest of the way. It’ll just be a few dudes and if you don’t hook on there you’ll be flailing by yourself the rest of the ride.”

He was right about the “on the rivet” part, but he was way wrong about that “extra bit” part. I would have needed a new set of legs and a hoist to close the 50 or 60 yards that now separated Group Flail from Group One. They crested and were gone.

My group of wankers included Newlywed and Vegemite, the 17 year-old team vegan who, like me, was doing the ride for the first time. The other six guys were La Grange, and they punished us mercilessly until Newlywed curled up in a fetal ball and launched back to the next chase group. Vegemite put in one good attack, then melted down into a puddle, but manfully hung on.

Adding to the fun of having your heart up in your throat for about 40 solid minutes with zero recovery was the thrill of trying to hang onto the wheels of the guys who knew the route, a fair chunk of which involved shooting through stone red lights, drilling through narrow corridors of cars at 40 mph, blasting into the middle of high speed intersections, and my personal favorite, doing it all while navigating massive potholes big enough to swallow you whole, jumping giant road cracks, edging through piled up rocks and gravel in the gutter, and stomping full power on the pedals with each punishing roller.

I flogged and flailed as two of the Mexican La Grange guys discussed the sprint finish strategy. “Hay un semaforo, y despues, los mailboxes y el sprint finish.” From my college Spanish, I knew that “semaforo” meant “fat older sister,” and “despues” meant sitting. So the one guy’s sister was sitting on the mailboxes to cheer us for the sprint finish. I was onto their strategy now.

Ahead of us, Fukdude, JDawg, and Danc had three Grangerites in their breakaway. In a well-timed urination on La Grange’s home fire hydrant, Fukdude nailed the sprint, with JDawg taking second. In Group Flail, I waited until the slight rise that presaged the mailboxes atop which the sister would be sitting. I saw the mailboxes, but no sister–and by the time I realized my error the Grangerites had sneaked by, narrowly beating me to the line by a hundred yards or so. Vegemite crept in slightly OTB, and Group Flog, containing Toronto and Newlywed, arrived in the next wave looking quite fresh, strong, healthy, fit, and fast. Had we done the same ride? I staggered over to the bushes at the Skirball and assisted with some emergency shrubbery hydration while all the Grangerites stood around and looked daggers at Fukdude, JDawg, and Danc.

Pedals of love

After fueling up at the CotKU with coffee and a chicken sandwich, I headed for the Hill and for home. In Redondo I was passed by Don and Dustin Webb. Dustin sits in the front of his dad’s customized rig, carefully belted in and wearing a very cool Livestrong helmet as Don does the tough work of pedaling the bike and his 115-lb. son up and around the hills of the peninsula.

As we hit the steep part of the pitch coming out of Redondo, Dustin looked back at his dad in pure happiness as Don cranked the bike up the hill. “He loves it when I suffer,” Don laughed. The customized fairing kept the headwind from chilling Dustin, who was warmly dressed in long-sleeved jersey and tights. As we crested the hill, Don took out Dustin’s water bottle and helped his son have a drink.

We chatted about gearing and about upcoming plans to convert the sturdy but heavy rig into a carbon fiber frame, all the while enjoying the sunlight and the beautiful view as we rolled out atop the Cove. Watching Don’s smooth, almost effortless power as he propelled his customized assistive cycle up the slope, I reflected for a moment on the morning I’d just spent smashing and bashing up Nichols Canyon, and compared that effort to the lifetime that Don has devoted to caring for, and enjoying the time with his son Dustin. My efforts felt small compared to their companionship and love.

We parted at Coronel, and I hit the climb up Via Zurita with a vigor and strength and freshness and happiness that I hadn’t had before.

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