Winning

February 3, 2014 § 56 Comments

Every dog has his day. Saturday was mine.

This race that had bedeviled me, humiliated me, broken me, and told me loud and clear so many times that I’d never be a road racer was lying at my feet. After making it up the climb with the leaders the second time around I asked myself a question I’d never asked before: How was I going to win this race?

My legs felt great despite having started the race in a snow flurry. I’d been in zero difficulty as the big guns had carved the field down into a final mass of about twenty-five riders, and while the better, stronger, faster, skinnier guys had attacked, surged, and shredded with abandon the only thing I’d done was sit at the tail end of the field, doing nothing. That too was a first.

I thought about following wheels all the way to the finish. That would be hard, to put it mildly. Konsmo, Thurlow, Flagg, Pomeranz, Slover, and several other guys remained in the field, guys who would break me like a dry twig on the final 3-mile climb to the finish. On the other hand, my legs felt so good that maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe I could follow wheels and sprint for the win. Maybe I could also grow a third leg.

Then my mind went back to the Cyclovets Omnium Road Race in 2010. The remnants of the field were about 200 yards from the top of the first peak of the infamous green road, and I had hit the jets as hard as I could. The pack didn’t respond, and as I leaped out of the field my Big Orange teammates had yelled at me. “Ease up!” they had shouted. Confused, because it seemed like the winning move, I had eased up. Teammate Dave Worthington had gone on for the win, but I’d never really understood why I had been shut down, except for the obvious fact that no one had had confidence that I’d be able to hold it to the line.

As we flew down the winding, 50 mph descent, I made up my mind. If the lead group was was dragging ass at the top of the green road, I’d hit it. There was a long way to go from there, but my legs felt good and I had a better chance to win out of a breakaway than I did in a sprint finish.

We crossed the railroad tracks and started the first climb. People were laboring, gronking, and struggling on this third effort up the back side of Boulevard. Todd Parks dangled a few hundred yards in front, about to be sucked back after a hopeless attack on the downhill. Teammate Andy Schmidt bulled at the front, with John Hatchitt working to pull Parks back into the fold. Out of the nine SPY-Giant-RIDE teammates who had toed the line, only four of us remained. Amgen still had a beefy contingent to contend with.

Once we hit the green road, the peloton begin to sag. People were gassed. Thurlow had made multiple all-out efforts to split the field. Leibert had covered countless moves. Konsmo had driven the pace like a madman up the climbs. Everyone was hurting, and my legs felt New In Box. I attacked.

This was the moment I’d waited almost thirty years for. In 1986, with John Morstead and Mike Adams up the road in the state championships outside of San Antonio, I’d hit the jets on the rollers when the remaining group containing Mark Switzer, Fields, Rob DiAntromond, and a couple of other riders who were clearly on the ropes. I’d rolled away for good.

Today was that day, only better. No one answered the attack except for a dude on an aluminum bike with a down tube shifter for his front chain ring. We crested the hill and were gone. I never bothered to look back, assuming that the leaders were hot on my heels only a few seconds behind. My companion took a couple of ineffectual pulls but I didn’t care; they were enough to give me the brief respite I needed to renew the charge. The peloton would certainly catch me on the final big climb up Highway 80, and now I was going to grill and drill to the bitter end.

Two days before I had prepared for every eventuality. I’d cleaned my bike. Lubed the chain. Most importantly I’d put on two brand new Gatorskin 25 cm tires, bulletproof and built to withstand the cattle guards, road detritus, and sketchy conditions of the lousy roads in eastern San Diego County.

The combination of adrenaline and good legs propelled me along. In a couple of minutes I’d be at the highway climb. “It’s been fun,” I thought. “They’re gonna reel me in any second now.”

As my breakaway companion swung over, I pushed harder on the pedals. The final climb loomed. And then? A deafening blast lifted my rear wheel as my the back tire blew off the rim. “Oh, no!” said Aluminum Bike Dude.

I laughed to myself and came to a halt. For the first time I looked back, expecting to see the charging peloton, but there was no one. A few seconds went by and two riders came through, including Jonathan Flagg, perennial strongman and the guy who would stick it all the way to the finish for the win.

But where was the peloton? “Surely they’re hot on my heels?” I thought. I checked my watch in disbelief that that the attack had put any significant time into the field. A full minute later they rolled by in full chase mode.

“Wow,” I thought. “Could I have stuck it out to the end?”

Later still, Greg Leibert pedaled by and stopped. He’s the best guy in the world, and having won The Monument multiple times, he and Todd Darley preferred to stop for a friend rather than pedal insanely by for 25th place. Better yet, he called Lauren, who picked me up as I pedaled along on my blown out rear wheel.

“What happened?” she asked. I told her. “Oh, no! What a bummer! That’s terrible!”

I smiled at her. “Second best race ever.”

“Really?” she said.

“Yeah. You don’t always have to be first in order to win.”

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Boulevard road race and tragedy, Part 2

February 5, 2013 § 15 Comments

At the starting line we very old fellows staged behind the somewhat old fellows in the 35+ race. Stefanovich was there, and looked back at me.

“I made it!” he grinned.

“Sorry about that,” I replied.

“No, dude, I was inspired by your blog. This is gonna be awesome!”

“Inspired?”

Dandy Andy, whose four-foot handlebar mustache drooped down to his knees, nodded vigorously. “Yeah! We read it on the way down. Inspired!”

“Oh,” I said glumly. “Then you missed the point.”

“I did?” asked Stefanovich.

“Yes, it was supposed to be a demotivational piece, something to despire you from coming, not inspire you to show up.”

Stefanovich laughed. “Yeah, well we’re here now! So braaang it!”

The whistle sounded and off they went.

He’s got your whole world (in his hands)

When it came our turn, my only concern was whether I’d get dropped on the 10-mile twisting, tailwind descent. The ref sent us off with a warning. “Okay, guys, watch out for the turns on the descent. We’ve already lost seven or eight riders in high speed collisions, so I’m asking you to take it easy the first lap. After that you can do whatever you want.”

I wondered why our lives were precious on lap one, but worthless on laps two and three, until I realized the ref’s unspoken subtext: “Most of you wankers won’t be around for the second lap, so it will be safe to go full throttle.”

Ulp.

After cresting the first brief, gentle 2-mile climb, we hit the downhill. My 50 x 11 immediately spun out, but I was prepared for the acceleration and sprunted onto the end of the whip, letting the slipstream suck me along.

The down side to being on the end was simple: There were about fifteen wankers ahead of me who were scared shitless, and with good reason, as they were clueless about how to handle their bikes at 50 mph in a tight formation on a twisty road. I had a flashback to the year before, when Tree Perkins had lost control, crossed the center line, and leaped up into a fence, then a shrub, then climbed a tree with his bike.

The feeling of helplessness was complete. My life was wholly dependent on the flubs and flails of some Cat 4 wanker who had just turned 45 and decided to ride with the “safe” dudes rather than the suicidal Cat 4 field, not realizing that it was these very aged Cat 4 wankers who made our normally conservative old fellows’ category so deadly on a course like this.

As if on cue, Tri-Dork dropped back to a couple of wheels in front of me. Tri-Dork was the one wheel I wanted to avoid beyond all others, but like a moth drawn to a flame, could not. Tri-Dork’s bad bike handling skills, which had caused him to flub and crash on a dry road one morning with only one other rider and shatter his shoulder, were accentuated times a thousand by the speed and the turns.

Swooping through each curve, Tri-Dork wobbled, braked, gapped, accelerated, and slashed his way through the formation with terrifying abandon. Charging up through the field at just the moment he should have been slowing down, Tri-Dork got bumped and did the only thing you’d expect a recovering triathlete to do in a bike race: He panicked and shot for the center line.

If a car had been coming in the other direction this story would be an obituary extolling his bravery, instead, he regained control and charged back into the field. “Tri-Dork!” I shouted. “Get the fuck away from everyone! And stay out of the trees!”

The race in earnest

Today’s elderly fellow beatdown and prostate abuse ride would be dominated by Big Orange and Amgen. We turned off the downhill and began the climb up Las Posas, with Mike Hotten of Big Orange setting tempo on the front. His steady pace was the first phase of the Big O “softening up.”

A huge rivalry had shaped up between Big O and Amgen. Steve Klasna, who had ridden for Big O the year before and is one of the best racers in SoCal, now rode for Amgen and was looking for his first victory of the year. Thurlow Rogers a/k/a Turbo a/k/a The Hand of God a/k/a THOG had won Boulevard the year before, and as one of the the greatest American cyclists in history, as usual he had come to win. Backed by national champion and locomotive Malcolm Hill, Amgen was closely matched against Big O.

The race day favorite was Greg Leibert, whose teammate Jeff Konsmo could be expected to play his usual role of policeman/late attacker. New to the 45+ fold was John Hall, easily one of the top climbers in the South Bay and a guy who always kept a strong finishing kick for hilltop finishes. Former Boulevard vainquer Todd Darley would also play a key team role, with Tri-Dork flying the wild card colors in his 45+ debut. One of the biggest men to line up for Boulevard, Tri-Dork had proven the year before at the UCLA Punchbowl course that size was no limiter, as he’d ridden with the leaders for most of that hilly, attacking course.

Jessup Auto Plaza brought the heat with the Man Who Fears No Hill, Andy Jessup, easily the biggest dude in the field and also the gutsiest. Not content to do the flat crits, he was always pushing the pace in the races least suited for his build, uncowed by altitude or by the toothpick physiques of the likely podium contenders. Benny Parks, who had won for Jessup at P[e]CK[e]RR the week before, would be in the mix, and Jessup’s Brien Miller would play a key role in my own personal Boulevard saga.

Supermotor Jon Flagg, riding mateless for Surf City, tough guy Greg Fenton, and national champ Doug Pomerantz for UCC would round out the movers and shakers in the race. My own SPY-Giant-RIDE Cyclery team started with a solid contingent that included Alan Flores, John Hatchitt, Jon Geyer, and Andy Schmidt. As Alan would later remark after posting his best-ever Boulevard finish for 6th place, “We were just passengers today. It was a handful of other guys driving the bus.”

Lap One Climb: Devil take the hindmost

Klasna, Leibert, Konsmo, and THOG sprinted around the kicker that ended Las Posas and began the 4-mile climb up to the finish on Old Highway 80. The pace went from cool to warm to hot to full-fryalator. Midway up the climb the field had been reduced from about 70 to no more than 40 riders. Thankfully I’d started at the front, and as Konsmo and Co. turned up the screws and my legs seized up there were plenty of spaces to fall back without getting dropped completely.

The survivors were now in one nasty line, and as Leibert and THOG looked back to assess the damage, it occurred to them that, with the remainder of the field bleeding from the eye sockets, now would be a good time to ride in earnest. Their two-man attack left the rest of the field gasping and huddling for a rear wheel.

With about a mile to go the pack bunched up and I realized that today would be the first time in four attempts that I’d ever finished Boulevard with the lead group on the first lap. It was more than euphoria. It was victory, and it tasted sweet.

As we piled into the start/finish, however, the leaders ratcheted up the pace and blew out a handful of riders on the steep finish line pitch. My victory evaporated as I realized that my race was about to end at one lap. Fortunately, we crested the finishing hill with Amgen’s Robb Mesecher coming by, and by latching onto his wheel and double-wide draft was able to maintain contact with the group, which was now strung out in a mad chase to bring back G$ and THOG.

Once we hit the descent, the group had thinned considerably, but Tri-Dork was still very much there. G$ and THOG had returned to the fold, and Hotten again rode tempo on the green tennis court vomity stretch of Las Posas. We pushed up onto Old Highway 80, rolled slowly for a hundred yards or so, then exploded as Konsmo, G$, and THOG blew apart the group.

A few seconds before I popped we overtook Aaron Wimberley, a sprinter in the 35+ race and one of the few fast men with guts enough to take on a hilly killer like Boulevard, rather than hiding and waiting for the speedfest at the short, flat, fast crit the following day. “Go, Wanky!” he yelled as we flew by. I “went,” all right…straight off the back.

As I cratered, Brien Miller yelled at me. “Come on, wanker! Dig!”

“I’m digging!” I gasped. “My grave!”

My race had ended midway up the climb on the second lap as I watched the leaders ride off, then came detached from the chase group. I soft pedaled to catch my breath, well aware that the next lap and a half would be done alone, into the wind, slowly, with nothing left in the tank.

As I recounted to myself all the grand successes of the day (finished one lap with the leaders, got halfway up the second lap with the leaders, almost sort of kind of practically didn’t get dropped, etc.), I heard an awful noise behind me. It sounded like a large animal in its death throes, or like a giant engine with a major internal part broken and rattling loose, or like a one-eyed monster from the Black Lagoon coming up from behind to eat you.

I didn’t dare look back, and it’s a good thing I didn’t, because when the shadow of Malcolm Hill came by, it took everything I had to latch on. Powerful arms flexing, mighty legs pounding, bellows-sized lungs blowing like a racehorse, Malcolm had the chase group in his sights and he wasn’t slowing down.

Soon we’d overtaken Brien. “Dig!” I shouted as we went by.

He grinned and hopped on. Malcolm flicked me through with his elbow after a solid half-mile haul, but all I could do was fizzle and fade for a few strokes before Brien came through with a powerful surge. Between Malcolm and Brien, with me sitting on the back taking notes and adjusting my socks, we closed the gap to the chase group to within a hundred yards.

Suddenly my inner wanker blossomed, and the possibility of catching on spurred me to actually take a pull. I leaped forward, temporarily dropping the two mates who had done all of the work, latching onto the back of the chasers. Malcolm and Brien joined, and a quick glance proved that this was indeed the chase group to be in.

Get that Flagg, Darling, and put Pomegranate on it

Jon Flagg, Todd Darley, and Doug Pomerantz comprised the chasers, along with a couple of other horses, and the leaders were briefly in sight, though they vanished after the turn onto the descent. Whittled down to about ten expert riders and one Wankstar, these elderly fellows conducted a downhill clinic on the backside of the course.

I’ve never felt safer at 50 mph on a bike as Malcolm & Co. drilled us through the tight turns at max speed, max lean, and never so much as a waver or a wobble. With a few miles to go before the turn onto Vomit Road, Darley leaped off the front. The final effort to bring him back, just before the turn, revealed the incredible once we’d crossed the tracks: The leaders were right there.

As we steamrolled up to the leaders I spied a poor sod in a Swami’s kit flailing in the gravel off the road to let us by. He wasn’t pedaling squares, he was pedaling triangles. He had that Wankmeister look of dropdom that comes from having ridden alone, fried, cold, into the wind, by yourself, for most of the race. He was haggard and beaten and defeated and covered with the frozen crust of snot and spit and broken dreams.

It was Stefanovich.

“Come on, you fucking wanker!” I yelled as we roared by. “Get out of the fucking dirt and race your dogdamned bike!”

He looked up and smiled through the crusty snot.

A few hard turns and we’d reconnected. Todd paid for his efforts by slipping off the back, and Tri-Dork, who’d made an amazing reattachment, was likewise surgically removed. More incredibly, G$ and THOG were still there.

My one lap victory had now become the ride of my life: I was finishing the third lap at the head of the field, and in my excitement I surged to the front as we crested the first rise on Las Posas. G$ looked over and grinned. “Wanker! Hit it, buddy!”

I swelled up like a big old balloon, pounded hard for three strokes, then blew and got dropped. As my race ended yet again, I passed a Jessup wanker from the 35+ race. “Get your ass up there, you quitter!” he yelled.

Spurred by shame I dug and caught onto Malcolm’s wheel just as we flew over the cattle guard.

A few pedal strokes later I was rested and taking stock. There were fifteen riders left. Just then, G$ glanced over to the side and attacked. It was a thing of beauty. With fourteen riders keyed on this one guy, and with him already having ridden a 15-mile breakaway, he kicked it hard. No one could follow as he dangled just off the point. It was that moment in the race where everyone tried to rationalize the reason they weren’t chasing, while refusing to admit they were too tired and afraid and broken and chickenish and weak.

G$ dangled for a mile, getting slightly farther away as Konsmo and Hall kept the pace brisk enough to discourage any followers.

Except one.

With the animal fury that’s his trademark, THOG ripped away from the peloton. “There,” we all thought, “goes the race. If I chase I’m doomed. I think I’ll just sit in and hope for third.”

By the time we hit the big climb for the final time, cat and mouse had begun. Only problem was, the cat and the mouse were up the road and out of sight. So it was more like roaches and Raid. Flagg attacked repeatedly but no one was letting him go anywhere. After the third surge, Konsmo rolled. The gap opened, and then he vanished.

“Well,” we all thought, “fourth is pretty respectable to brag to the GF about. I’ll fight for fourth.”

As we approached the start/finish, the hard attacks came for real. With a few hundred yards to go I had to choose between getting dropped and getting dropped, so I wisely chose to get dropped. “Fifteenth,” I told myself “is damned respectable in this race. And even if it isn’t, I’ll claim it is.”

G$ outlasted THOG for the win. I crept across the line significantly behind #14.

Big Orange took first,third, and fifth. Amgen walked away with second, ninth, and tenth.

But if you ask me, it was 325-lb. wobblywheels Tri-Dork, finishing 25th in his very first Boulevard outing who went home with the best ride of all.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 3, “Post-race analysis of why you’re a fucking wanker for not showing up”

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