February 17, 2013 § 28 Comments
Some people leave their hearts in San Francisco. I leave mine a couple of times a year in Pearblossom, one of the great scenic wastelands of America.
I rode up to the race with John Hall. He had had a superlative race at Boulevard a couple of weeks back. I had, too, in my very dumbed-down definition of the word “superlative.”
Neither of us said it, but we both approached the UCLA 2013 Road Race with high expectations. One of us would be sorely disappointed. Both of us would be sore.
As I explained to John, a guy I’ve never beaten on a training ride, much less in a bike race, number pinning was the single most important detail of the race.
“It is?” he asked.
“Sure. You let your number flap and whizz like an oversized bra on a cheap hooker and no one respects you.”
“Nope. You want respect, you gotta pin your number on right.”
“Oh, sure. All the pros pin their numbers on with at least ten or twelve pins. That’s one reason they ride so fast. It creates a more perfect airfoil for the wind.”
John looked straight ahead. I don’t think he was laughing. Not at me, anyway. I’m pretty sure.
It took eleven pins, and a carefully folded right-hand corner to get the paper to bend with my armpit, and a few stabs that went to deep into my thigh and drew blood, and a couple of errant pricks that wound up pinning my jeans to my jersey, and a readjustment or two so that the bottom edge of the number wouldn’t interfere with removal of food from the pockets, but after about an hour the number was pinned perfectly. It looked like this. Feast your eyes.
All the other losers had just slapped on their numbers and spent the time warming up. John rolled by just as I was finishing what, by all accounts, was a superb job of number pinning.
“Aren’t you going to warm up?”
“Nah. These other losers don’t even have their numbers pinned on right. I got this one in the bag.”
John continued warming up.
Greg Leibert, vainquer at Boulevard, multiple winner at Punchbowl, superstar and awesome dude rolled up. “Dude,” he said, “race starts in five. Why aren’t you warming up?”
I raised a haughty eyebrow. “You should be asking ‘Why is my number not pinned on as well as Wankmesiter’s?”
“Your number, dude. It’s not pinned on very well. It’s kind of crooked.”
He shook his head and left. Just then Tink came up. She’d just won her pro 1/2 race, had gotten second at Boulevard, and had outsprinted one of SoCal’s top women pros to win today after a 25-mile two-woman breakaway that beat the field by three minutes. “WM,” she said, “I’m really worried about your hydration and nutrition. What’s in the water bottle?”
“You need an electrolyte. You’ll dehydrate and die on this course.”
I shook my head. “Oh, Tink, Tink, Tink. You’re such an inexperience young thing. Behold!” I help up my perfectly pinned number.
“What? The number. Look how nicely I’ve pinned it on. It’s the best-pinned number by far. It will frighten everyone when they see how detail oriented and meticulous I am. They will extrapolate from the number to my careful race preparation and training methods. They will be paralyzed with fear.”
“Maybe. Until they see you’ve only got one water bottle and it’s filled with water and you don’t have any food or gels. Then they’ll think you’re sloppy and ill-prepared and have no idea what you’re doing, which will negate the effect of your number. Which, I admit, is pretty tasteful and pro.”
I laughed. “You’ll see.”
Nothing trumps confidence
Today was my day and everyone knew it. I even took a picture in the car to memorialize the look of pre-victory. Feast your eyes.
The selection for this race started when you were born
People who do or don’t do the UCLA road race always talk about how it’s a “selective” course and how the “selection” comes early. In most amateur wanker (redundant, I know) races where this kind of verbiage gets bandied about, it means that the chaff is separated from the wheat in the first few miles or so.
Punchbowl’s selection, however, begins at birth. If you are genetically predisposed to never exceed four feet in height and 57 pounds in weight, to have lungs that could double as flotation devices for an anchor, to have legs that terminate right below your neck, and to have the pain threshold of an anvil, you have made the selection of “possible Punchbowl winner.” All others are selected to be in the category of “loser” or “quitter” or “quitter and loser.”
The Punchbowl course features 15,000 feet of vertical climbing per meter, along with gale force winds. It begins at an elevation of about 5,000 feet, so unless your name is Oreamnos Americanus, the empty, rasping, dry, heaving sensation in your lungs (which quickly spreads to your other internal organs) begins the second you step out into the scorching heat.
The great thing about the Punchbowl course in February, though, is that it doesn’t always welcome you with scorching heat. With snow still on the mountains that separate this meth-infested shithole from the meth-infested shithole of Los Angeles, it sometimes welcomes you with snow, hail, ice, sleet, and freezing rain.
Canvassing people before and after they’ve raced the Punchbowl course covers the gamut in human excusifying. Here are some of the gems I overheard yesterday:
One-lap quitter: “I had terrible back spasms and my HR was at 150 going into the first climb. It was physically dangerous for me to continue.”
Translation: “I suck and am slow and wasn’t even remotely prepared for the brutality of the course and the onslaught of speed that begin in mile one of the first climb on the first lap, so, because I couldn’t endure the pain and wasn’t proud enough to guy it out, I gave up and quit.”
First-lap droppee and Cat 4 finisher: “I did the Cat 4 race because it’s harder than the 45+ race.”
Translation: “I’ve never heard of, let alone ridden with world champion Thurlow Rogers, state TT champ Greg Leibert, national road silver medalist Jeff Konsmo, et al.”
First-lap droppee and 45+ finisher: “This was the worst day I’ve ever had on a bike.”
Translation: “I’ve never done Punchbowl before.”
19th-placed Cat 4 finisher: “I had a great race!”
Translation: “I finished!”
First-lap shellee and quitter: “I actually made it up the first climb, but got dropped on the descent.”
Translation: “I was slow and out of gas and terrified of the 50mph+ speed so I pooped in my shorts and quit before the goo drizzled out my pants leg.”
Cat 3 Pack Meat: “Our team got third!”
Translation: “I personally got stomped!”
First-lap droppee and second-lap quitter (that would be me): “I have a vastly overrated opinion of my ability and when the going gets tough I squnch and splatter like a soft jelly-filled donut under the wheels of an onrushing freight train.”
Translation: “You are the 99.999999999%.” [Of bike racers.]
The path to victory is strewn with the bones of the poorly-pinned
One of the great things about having the best-pinned on number in the race and having eked out 15th place in an earlier race is that you become an instant expert on everything, especially race tactics. “Man,” I said to MMX before the race began, “Konsmo plays it too safe. If he attacked more, on a course like this no one could hold his wheel. He could shatter the entire field, sit up and wait for a handful of reinforcements, then decimate whatever was left in the sprint.”
One mile into the race Konsmo attacked on the course so that no one could hold his wheel. He shattered the entire field, sat up and waited for a handful of reinforcements, and then rode away. I was panting so hard that I couldn’t hear anything except the opening and shutting of my heart valves. My world had been reduced to the six inches of pavement in front of my wheel. I made the first turn, struggled along at the rear of the lead group for a minute or two, and then imploded.
However, I wasn’t worried. Konsmo’s number was askew and had been haphazardly attached with yucky spray stuff that would leave ugly marks on his jersey. He was coming back.
At that moment a pro rider who had missed his start came whizzing by with a grin. “Yo, Wankster!” he said. “Hop on!”
Sergio slowed down to a crawl, I attached, and he dragged me over the climb, where we picked up Tri-Dork, MMX, and a host of other droppees. Tri-Dork was having the ride of his life. Our reinforced group, driven by my awesomely pinned number, chased down the leaders.
I turned to MMX. “Poor bastards,” I said. “They don’t have a chance.” I slapped my number in confidence. MMX shook his head and moved up, clearly regretting the decision to let me wear the SPY-Giant-RIDE team outfit. We trolled along the crosswind and hit the right turn up the climb.
Leibert, who must have gotten a number adjustment along the way. Hit the first roller with a vengeance. “Thanks for the tow,” I muttered to Sergio.
“No problem,” he laughed. “You’re back in the mix now! Do it!”
So I did it. “It,” of course meaning that I sputtered. I coughed. I choked. I flailed. I got dropped.
Right there, my race hopes died, and things went from bad to worse. Tri-Dork passed me, and roared on to an incredible 12th place finish. At the end of the race there was a small de-naming ceremony where he was placed on the podium and the Poobah from Pearblossom waved his magic meth stick over Tri-Dork’s head and spake thus: “Oh, mighty Tri-Dork, eater of In ‘N Out, spreader of butter on his beer and ale, goofy bastard who is fain to hold a straight line at Boulevard and who descendeth Punchbowl with the ferocity of a Russian meteorite, he who lacketh the gene of Quit, who rolleth like thunder despite his inherent Tri-dorkiness, today we de-name you “Tri-Dork” and hereby christen you forever and henceforth “Anvil” for the crushing weight you drop on on your adversaries, and for the fatness of your own posterior which aids your descending and does not in the least impede your uphill skills against featherweight manorexics half your size.”
A quite graveside service
At the end of the second lap my dead hopes and dreams, bleeding and inert, were rudely shoveled off the racecourse and into the ignominy of the car, where I undressed, put on jeans, and sobbed quietly over my perfectly pinned on number. Little teardrops formed sad hearts and drippy unicorns as I cried and gently rent by breast.
Then I went back to the start/finish to cheer the racers and let the women feel my satiny skin while extolling the virtues of a kimchi-based diet. The women were impressed with my skin, but not so much with the kimchi. “I bet you fart all the time because of that stuff,” they said.
Now that you mention it…
The final shakedown
As I stood there cheering it occurred to me how much more awesome it was to stand on the roadside with a cold energy drink, snacking on Cheeto’s, and having cute girls feel my satiny skin was than pounding out a tattoo of death with angry, forceful, road warrior assassins hell-bent on inflicting misery and pain on wankers like me. I made a mental note of this.
On the final lap, Konsmo caught the three breakaways with 400m to go and left them like they were planted in cement. He roared to what can only be described as the most impressive victory for someone with a poorly sprayed-on number in the history of the sport.
Showing the grit, determination, and toughness that made them borderline mental cases for persevering in such a hopeless display of defeat and pain and misery and disappointment, the rest of the field dribbled in.
John had a great result, and we returned to Los Angeles enjoying an extended rehash of each and every move and countermove. I explained in great detail how Jay LaRiviere, with whom I’d had an Internet dust-up the year before, had caught me, dropped me, and ground me into dust. Revenge, as they say, is best served up cold, although in this case the extra flavoring of pain, altitude, endless climbing, and physical and mental collapse probably made it even better.
“Still,” I said, “he’d have done even better if his number had been pinned on straight.”
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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.