Like the old days

December 30, 2012 § 18 Comments

I like today and its brake lever shifters, plastic bikes, Facebook-Twitter-Blogging-Email meet ups, and of course old wanker dude racing teams with better, slicker, more uber-pro outfits and gear than any Tour de France star in the 70’s or 80’s ever dreamed of having.

But I like yesterday, too, and today was a yesterday kind of day.

Back during yesterday, you trained with one or two regular buddies, or by yourself. They had names like Kent, Fields, or Callaway, or Vermeij, or Dickson, and the day’s workout was always the same: You were going to go hard, go long, and be very tired at the end.

Back during yesterday, you and Fields would roll out and it wouldn’t matter if it was raining, or colding, or hotting, or if the wind was howling, or if you were tired, or if you had a sniffle. You rolled out. You warmed up. And for the next three or four hours you suffered like a dog stuck to his rear wheel while he towed and battered and hauled you all over the Texas Hill Country.

The “group ride” on Saturday and Sunday started with a huge turnout of maybe thirty people, whittled down to half by the time you got to Webberville, and finished with three or four a long time later. No GU. No BonkBreaker. No energy drink.

It was simple. Meet, ride, suffer.

Empire State Express

Coming home from the North County Swami’s Ride today, I tuned into the jazz/blues radio station. Today is okay in the world of blues, too. There are lots of good musicians who innovate. Who wizardize on their guitars. Who make trumpets and electronic keyboards and other instruments sound like they belong in the blues.

But I grew up listening to yesterday’s locked down twelve bar blues. Plastic discs spinning names like Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson, one voice, one guitar, one dude. That was it.

Cruising through Oceanside the radio hit me like a hammer. The DJ had decided to play Son House’s Empire State Express from his 1965 recording sessions. Son was old then and “rediscovered” by the hippie blues revivalists. His voice was cracked and rough and broken; no honey or silk left on the raw, smoked out vocal cords.

His guitar playing was stiff and banging, the glide on his National steel was all jerky and hard, like his brain knew where the sound should be but his fingers couldn’t make the notes right enough. Like a worn out pair of shoes those recordings were, capturing a historical figure and his historical music for embalming in some piece of amber, to be fixed for all time and gawked at in a museum.

But oh! Even with all that, Son’s music had the grind, the power, the punch, the ungilded emotion that rose up from the field hollers of the chain gang, from the depths of Parchman Penitentiary, from the life and servitude of the Mississipi Delta.

I listened to Empire State Express with my hands clenched on the steering wheel, skin tightened up into goosebumps, the sounds I heard growing up as a boy in Texas re-floated to me on the Interstate back to Los Angeles.

A little time warp had opened up, and I’d slipped into it.

Do it ’til you get the hang of it

Every beatdown ride has its own unique pain profile. The first few times I did the North County Swami’s ride I thought the pain profile was this: Extreme pain from start to finish, with no rest or relief.

Now that I’ve learned to cower, avoid the front, and treat the thing like an exercise in survival, I’ve come to appreciate its true nature. The ride has a series of four or five pain spikes followed by recovery sections. Each pain spike clears out some chaff until you reach the church sprunt, where the reduced group lunges for an imaginary line.

Today I cowered, and even got a shove from Andy Schmidt as we crested Rancho Santa Fe. By gritting my teeth through the pain spikes, which soon ended, I reached the church sprunt unscathed.

Not so for those behind me. As I rolled into the church parking lot, Steve Hegg came up. “Dude, your kit stinks beyond belief. Wash it. Or better yet, burn it.”

It dawned on me that the repeated farts I’d been blasting in the middle of the peloton had wreaked havoc on those behind me. “Sorry, dude. Kimchee, green beans, and pinto beans for dinner last night. Toxic combo.”

Other riders pedaled by. “Was that you? Damn, that stank and I was twenty wheels back. That shit lingered, too. It was like a floating cloud of turd over your head the whole way out.” Their faces had that green-around-the-gills look.

Secretly pleased at the stealth weapon that had caused such destruction in the group, I apologized, sort of. “I guess you could have gotten in front of me…”

Those teeth all look pretty sharp to me

After the church, most of the group turned right to return home. A smaller group turned left to get in a longer ride. The group’s composition did not look inviting. It included Thurlow Rogers a/k/a THOG a/k/a The Hand of God. It included some very tough, fit looking riders. Worst of all, it included three or four national team members, none of whom was over twenty and none of whom weighed more than a hundred pounds. One of the riders had gotten fifth in the UCI U-23 World Championships in 2012.

Fifth.

And they were headed for the Lake Wolford climb, which, for a lamb like me, is akin to saying they were headed for the executioner’s pen. I looked at MMX, who had turned with me. “We going with these mass murderers?” I asked.

“Sure. Unless you’re not up for it.”

“I know a shark tank when I see one. What happens when we hit the climb?”

He mused, briefly. “Shrapnel. You’ll be dropped instantaneously. Everyone will be destroyed except those tiny youngsters and Thurlow.”

“How about we turn off and do our own ride?”

“If you want to, sure.”

I wanted to.

Don’t twosome with the guy who owns 257 Strava KOM’s

The sharks swam away, and the two of us turned off and began our own ride. If I’d been expecting a leisurely, conversational pace, I was soon disappointed. MMX bent over his handlebars and pushed the pace up to where it was just unpleasant enough to seek refuge on his wheel.

Over the next hour we eased off and chatted a bit. The weather was warm. The back roads were uncluttered with cars. The North County rollers that typically exacted such a high price from my legs seemed to be minor obstacles at best. With the exception of Bandy Canyon, where I came unhitched and he had to wait, we pedaled in unison along the scenic roads.

Then his phone rang. “Yes, honey. Yes, dear. Okay, honey. No, I didn’t forget, honey. It’s just me and Seth. We’re right around the corner from the house. We’ll be home shortly, honey. Okay, dear. Love you, too.”

“You’re in deep shit, huh?”

He nodded. “Yup.” He clipped back in. “We’re going to take a more direct route back.”

“Are we really right around the corner?” I was always lost in North County and had no idea where we were.

“No.” Then his face got a funny look. “But we soon will be.”

Tugging on Superman’s cape

He pointed his bike onto a bike path that paralleled some freeway. I tucked in behind him. 16. 15. 14. 13. 12. Then 11. The last cog. And it was turning quickly.

MMX is the perfect draft for me. He’s about my height and slightly wider. When he gets going it creates the ultimate cocoon of draft. As he roared along I snuggled up against his rear wheel, blasting along without having to do a lick of work. The only nagging doubt I had was that at some point he would tire and I’d have to pull. At this speed, any effort on the front would completely do me in.

He just went faster.

After about ten minutes my little twinge of shoplifter’s delight began to fade a bit. Yes, I was stealing a wheel. Yes, it was a great wheel. No, he wasn’t flicking me to pull through.

But…it was starting to hurt like hell.

At each roller he came out of the saddle, driving it harder to maintain the hellish pace. I’d flail to hold the wheel, then settle back into the cocoon. After about twenty minutes I was in a world of hurt. All I could see were the pounding pistons of his legs where the calf separates from the soleus, and the variations of his chain: Now the 11, up to the 12, back to the 11, repeat.

Occasionally the strain would show as his shoulders rocked, but the pace never dropped, and still he never waved me through. The only consolation was that no matter how tired I was, he must have been at the very end of his tether.

We finally slowed at the end of the bikeway and he looked back. His eyes were narrowed and his mouth was set. That’s when I realized it. He wasn’t racing to get home. He was tackling a segment on Strava. For me to pull through would have meant that it didn’t count.

“When we hit PCH I’m going to drop you. But don’t worry. I’ll circle back and pick you up.”

“Go fuck yourself,” I laughed silently. “I’ve been sitting on your wheel and not doing a lick of work. You’ve been carving it up hill and down dale into the teeth of a nasty crosswind. You’re tired. You may be stronger than me, but you’re not strong enough to drop me after an effort like that.”

But I said something slightly more diplomatic. “I’ll be fine. I’m riding well on these rollers for the first time ever. Tucked here behind you, I won’t come off so easily. My legs are really coming around.”

He nodded. “I’ll circle back.”

The Little Engine that Couldn’t

We rolled underneath the Interstate and he began accelerating. Soon we were on a long roller leading up to Del Mar. I could see the ocean and knew that all I had to do was hold his wheel up the climb; after that we’d descend and be on PCH and I’d be home free. He was tired. He’d been drilling it relentlessly for miles. I’d been hunkered down in his draft. This was a gimme.

Midway up the climb I was fine. Three-quarters of the way I’d redlined. A few hundred meters from the top MMX stood on the pedals and shook me off, effortlessly. My engine blew completely, and he disappeared.

Glad he was going to circle back.

A few miles from Encinitas he came back to get me. We rolled into town and had a cup of coffee. I felt awful, wrecked, broken, and demoralized, but consoled myself with the fact that it was North County. I always felt destroyed post-ride in North County.

MMX checked his iPhone. “Cool. Ten new KOM’s.”

“Go to hell,” I said.

“You rode well. But you look pretty beaten.”

“Yes,” I said. “I am.”

And I was. And it felt absolutely great. Just like old times.

Schooling the big dudes

December 10, 2012 § 29 Comments

Dave Gonyer. The name even sounds big. And it is. Two hundred pounds of big. “Gonyer.” Makes me think of a huge dump truck loaded with slabs of rebar.

“Hey, bubba. Back up the Gonyer a couple more feet so we can unload the concrete.”

“I almost got run off the fuckin’ road by a Gonyer. Damn operator didn’t even see me.”

Gonyer. It’s actually an Americanization of the French surname “Gagne.” But lest you think it’s French as in “Those wusses who drink lattes and discuss poetry on the Left Bank,”…nuh-uh.

The Gagne clan are from the Central Massif Departement of France, which means “Region of Massive Testicles.” They worked for generations in the mines, where their hereditary occupation was “prendre le merdre pendeleuse,” or “carrying heavy shit.”

The Gonyers are big people. Heavy people. Stoic draggers of useless things without complaint.

How’d our roles get reversed?

I had driven down to North County San Diego for the Swami’s Poker Ride. It’s a 51-mile, four-person team time trial. You get the time of your slowest rider. The only other rule is that there are no rules.

Over the last year or so I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with North County, but haven’t yet discovered the “love” part of the equation. My trips there follow a pattern.

Good buddy MMX: “Hey WM, why don’t you come down to North County next weekend? We’re having the [insert name of awful-sounding ride] and you could ride with us. It will be fun.”

Me: “Uh, okay. Sure. Thanks for the invitation.”

Once I get there I find out that the “fun” consists of MMX and the other North County zombies tearing my legs off, shelling me forty miles from home, and leaving me adrift in a sea of endless, stabbing rollers.

This time, though I’d been put on the Team from Hell with MMX and David Anderson, I was relieved to see that there was another rider on our team, Gonyer, clearly unfit for duty and in comparison with whom I would appear fit and fast, for a change.

Before the ride started, Jim Miller came up to me. “How you feeling, WM?”

“Great,” I said. “We might actually have a shot at winning this if it weren’t for the weak link.”

“Oh?”

I nodded over at Gonyer.

Jim looked at me quizzically. “Gonyer? He’ll do fine.”

I shook my head. “Not with this crowd. MMX is loaded for bear. David is coming off a state win in ‘cross. I’m as lean as I’ve ever been. Dude’s going to peg out on the climbs, and since our time is based on the slowest rider, Team Nemesis will beat us. Looks like I’ll be dragging weak link’s ass all over San Diego County.”

Jim laughed. “You’ve got it all figured out, don’t you, buddy? Ride safe.”

Warming up, then getting into a rhythm

We were the next-to-last-team to start, just in front of Team Nemesis, which consisted of Slasher, Assassin, The Hand of God, and Dandy. We rolled out and MMX slowly brought up the pace so that we had a chance to get good and warmed up.

Then, after those first 200 yards were completed, he sprinted away. One after another we clawed our way to his wheel as he continually looked back to see if Team Nemesis was gaining.

By the end of Mile One we’d overhauled Team Stefanovich. MMX and David took turns attacking the group. By the end of Mile Two I was done, hardly able to hold a wheel. Gonyer was gassed, too.

By Mile Ten we’d shed Team Stefanovich and passed Team Nemesis, who had taken a shortcut to get ahead of us but had gotten three flats courtesy of Karma, who is a bitch.

After the first checkpoint, at Mile Fifteen, I was unable to pull through. It had become clear that although Gonyer was equally gassed, his ample width meant that getting on his wheel was the Cadillac draft. “What the hell,” I thought. “He can tow me for a while. I’ll be towing him soon enough.”

Sharing the work by not working

Now my three teammates were doing all the work, and as we whizzed down one long descent Gonyer, who wasn’t very good at pointing shit out, rolled over a manhole cover. The civil engineers in North County had all decided that the best place to put big manholes with 2-inch lips was in the middle of the bike lane, so when Gonyer hit this one, his rear bottle popped out of the cage and exploded.

Karma Bitch paid me for my suckery when the contents of the bottle coated me from helmet to foot. This was the bottle in which Gonyer had put his triple-thick mixture of Fanta grape soda pop, with a viscosity of approximately 250 Pa┬Ěs, the same as peanut butter.

My glasses were immediately coated with grape goop, and long sticky goopcicles hung from my nose and helmet and chin. Everyone thought it was hilarious, but I was having a hard time getting the joke, so I figured if I sat in some more I would perhaps understand it better.

TTT tactics for people who hate TTT’s

Although we were nominally called “Team MMX,” in reality we were doing ITT MMX. As we rolled up one long climb, popping Gonyer off the back, I remarked to MMX, “You dropped Gonyer.”

MMX shrugged. “He knows how to chase.”

“But we’re only as fast as our slowest guy.”

“He’d better hurry, then.”

Unlike other teams, whose strategy revolved around sheltering the weak in order to maintain the highest average speed by keeping the group together and benefiting from the draft, MMX’s strategy was to destroy his teammates and make them go faster through fear, humiliation, and pain.

Gonyer caught back on. It was working.

Somewhat disappointed that his own team was still together, despite chasing down and dropping half a dozen of the teams in front of us, MMX gave the next set of death commands. “We will take the dirt.”

The ride had a “dirt” option where you could get an extra card for your poker hand by taking a “short” and “easy” off road section. At the Thirty Mile checkpoint we got our card plus an extra card for the dirt, and pounded on.

MMX and David shot off down the dirt trail, which was studded with boulders, gravel, a creek sporting 2-feet of soft mud on either bank, steep successions of sandy walls, plunging descents through off-camber corners with sheer drops and mined with sharp stones and numerous other “interesting features.” We passed countless dead and wounded Swamis in various states of bike carrying, bike dragging, flat repairing, or just holding each other and sobbing.

Before vanishing, David had admonished Gonyer to “ride lightly in the saddle” as he wasn’t a ‘crosser.

“WTF?” he said. “Two hundred pounds don’t ride anything light.”

I felt sorry for him, briefly, until my own self-preservation needs took over.

The last thing I heard him say, just before plunging into the mud pit, was “What the…..?”

Bring out your dead

Thankfully, MMX had flatted at the end of the dirt road. I staggered over to a fence and peed. Rummaging through my jersey pocket I pulled out a handful of GU gels and crammed them down my throat. We still had fifteen miles to go and I was done. Dead. Bonked. Cratered. Finished. Waxed.

“Where’s Gonyer?” asked David.

“Hell if I know. A long ass way back.”

“No he isn’t,” said Dave. “There he is!”

Gonyer whipped off the dirt just as MMX finished changing the flat. The other four-man SPY-Giant team was there too, and we left together.

“How you doing?” asked MMX. He had a thin smile cut across his face that said many things, but of all the things it said, none of them was “I hope you’re doing okay and if not I will help you.”

“I’m done,” I said.

“No, you’re not. Just one more climb and then you’re done. Questhaven.”

He punched ahead as the other riders accelerated up a short roller.

At the mention of Questhaven, my legs seized. Just one more climb. Questhaven. That’s like saying “Just one more island to hop: Iwo Jima. Oh, and you’ll be landing in the first wave. With a bow and arrow.”

Gonyer came undone ahead of me and I toiled up to his rear wheel. In more than thirty years of cycling I’ve never been so undone so far from the car. This was a level of emptiness, of bonk, of mental and physical collapse that could only be explained by the fact that I had been eating a diet to sustain a squirrel while making the physiological demands of a professional rock climber. I wasn’t going to make it.

“You okay, buddy?” asked Gonyer.

“No.”

“Just sit on, then.”

I nodded, licking the strings of grape shrapnel from my face, thankful for the carbs.

The tow truck

Gonyer proceeded to haul me up hill, down dale, and along straightaways at blistering speeds. Never flicking an elbow for me to come through, easing up each of the several dozen times I came off, waiting for me atop every climb, patiently signaling the turns and coaxing me along, he showed more grit and teamwork and camaraderie in those fifteen miles than I’d shown since 1982.

Somehow I got over Questhaven. “It’s all downhill from here,” he said. “Sit tight.”

Momentarily elated, I soon realized that in North County when they say “downhill” they also mean “uphill.” Dropped, reattached, repeat…

As we got close to the barn, he turned to me. “You just having a bad day?”

“No.”

“Did you do a lot of high intensity miles this week?”

“No.”

“Just getting back on the bike?”

“No.”

“What’s the problem, then?”

“I’m…just…not…very…good.”

Gonyer shook his head. “Well, good effort, anyway. If you have four dudes, someone’s got to be the weak link. No shame in that.”

No shame, indeed.

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