May 19, 2019 § 14 Comments
Some people can’t get their day started right without a big ol’ confrontation.
I was sitting on my bike yesterday waiting for the Donut to start, idly and somewhat carelessly blocking the entrance to a coveted parking space in front of the Starbucks. On the one hand it was thoughtless of me to block it, but on the other hand it was pretty awesome because I was acting like a valet, saving the space for the next car.
As I chatted, the next car drove up and honked, the angry driver motioning me to get out of the way of his shiny, white, new Rage Rover. We laughed and moved, and as we did I imitated his hand-waving motion. I suppose it never occurred to him to roll down his window and say something like a human rather than blast on his horn.
For the next five minutes I kept yakking until the ride started to leave. That’s when I noticed that the driver had been standing off to my side the entire time, glaring at me. He was a short, pudgy dude with a scorched-earth hairline, and he was livid.
We made eye contact. “You think you’re so smart?” he snarled.
It took me a second to connect the raging dude with the Rage Rover. “What?” I said as riders slowly rolled by.
“You don’t know who you’re messing with,” he said.
“I’m not messing with anybody.” I clipped my other foot in, amazed that the guy had been standing there for at least five minutes. Why hadn’t he said something earlier if he were so eager to fight?
Then as various very large and muscled cyclists like Davy and Petrucci rolled by, I realized that he’d hopped out of his car eager to take on the skinny, aged smart-ass with twiggly arms only to find that he was in the middle of a group of about fifty well muscled mostly young people, any one of whom could have broken him in half with minimal effort, and all of whom seemed to know me.
Worse, no one paid any attention to him, further intensifying his pain at being small, slighted, and ignored. It sucks to stand there all puffed up, ready to take on your enemy, and have exactly no one notice. Foxy rolled by and took in the situation. “You touch him and I’ll kick your ass,” she said.
“You don’t know who you’re talking to,” he said again, begging us to ask.
“Whoever you are,” I said, “you still have to stand in line for coffee like everybody else.”
Unhappy Dude didn’t know what to say at the prospect of getting punched out by a woman or at being reminded of his ordinariness. He spun on his heel and stormed into the Starbucks.
“His dog is in for a rough day of it,” I said, and off we went.
May 15, 2019 § 11 Comments
Yesterday was only my second Telo of 2019. I had been placed under a temporary ban and gag order due to the fact that I had been spotted not wearing my helmet in bed, in the shower, in the car, and occasionally on my bicycle.
Plus, I was keeping a low profile because The Bike Palace has placed a bounty on Telo’s head, offering an amazing pair of brand-new, $500 Specialized shoes to the rider who completes the most NPR-Telo doubles this year. That ends up being at least a hundred miles every Tuesday, and from the moment that Baby Seal announced the bounty, hordes of riders had been showing up to make sure they clocked their attendance. In other words, however hard Telo was, it had become way harder.
My Telo reticence had also been heightened by my one and only participation a few weeks ago, where the shock to my system was so great that I fell sick the following day and wound up in bed for six straight days.
However, my fan club, led by none other than Heavy D., had been bombarding my inbox with encouraging emails like this one:
Yo, Wanky! I know we have gotten crossways in the past but you are an awesome dude, a great bike racer, and a super addition to every ride. Please let’s let bygones be bygones. We need you at Telo!
As if that weren’t enough to melt any heart, even one as hard as mine, I started getting anonymous bouquets of flowers and cold deliveries from the Cheesecake Factory. Each delivery had a note like this:
Yo, Wanky! You are the heart and soul of the South Bay. Without you, we are nothing. I know that I have trashed the shit out of you for being a helmetless wanker, a complete jerk, an asshole deluxe, and the worst human being on earth since Satan, but on reflection I was wrong and you are a super guy. Please come back to Telo! I will work for you to get you the VEEEEE!
With love like that, how could I refuse?
So Baby Seal and Foxy and I suited up and pedaled over to Telo for another fun session of happiness and love. Imagine my surprise when Heavy D. was waiting for me with ANOTHER bouquet and cheesecake! “Dude,” he said, “I’m your one-man wrecking crew. Sit tight!”
With that, Heavy D. lit the matchbox with a flamethrower, set the throttle at 4,000 gigawatts, and proceeded to shred the entire field. I hung on as best I could, gritting my teeth in pain, sure that we were approaching my physical limit of 20 mph. As Heavy D. swung over, the attacks began in earnest. Gagging on my liver I couldn’t respond, but not to worry! Heavy D. sprinted up to each and every break, clawing them back to the field one after another as I sat safely in the back, refusing to do a lick of work, licking my wounds, and trying to find the little switch that turns on my electric downtube motor.
Suddenly a huge move came up the side, the decisive split, and I wasn’t there! But Heavy D. was! “C’mon, Wanky!” he said, grabbing my shorts by the hip and flinging me up into the break. With this heroic effort he gapped himself out, but with this sacrifice he guaranteed that I, too weak to do it on my own, had made it up to the escapees.
After a series of huge accelerations, Peter the Hungarian flicked me through, but none of my drugs had kicked in yet so I waited a bit. This was the key point in the race! The pack saw us leave and organized a bitter chase! But!!!!
Heavy D. clogged the lane, disrupted the rotation, and threw so many monkey wrenches into the chase that they were unable to get organized and bring us back. I heard his voice echo off the sides of the buildings, “Go Wanky! I GOT YOUR BACK!”
Peter swung over and Evens Stievenart attacked. At just that moment all the drugs and electric motors kicked in and somehow I managed to grab his wheel. For forty minutes he towed me around like a tin can hitched to the bumper of a newlywed station wagon.
Heavy D. patrolled the back, making sure no one bridged until, sure that our break would stick, he pulled out of the race to give someone else a chance to win the field sprint. I hung onto Evens’s wheel, barely, but with the help of a small bungee cord it worked out.
As I crossed the line for a glorious almost-Telo victory, who should be standing there to cheer me loudest but Heavy D.? I got off my bike totally winded as he hugged me, slapped my back, covered me in kisses, gave me a $25 gift card to the Cheesecake Factory, and offered to carry me home on his back.
For the podium picture he spent fifteen minutes getting the photo angle away from my weak chin and bad tooth, and then immediately posted everything on twelve social media platforms along with endorsements of Donald Trump, #maketelogreatagain, #buildthewall, and #impeachcongress. I am still going through all the kudos, likes, attaboys, and attagirls resulting from his outpouring of praise at my accomplishment.
But truth be known: I owe it all to him!
May 14, 2019 § 14 Comments
Every six or seven years my right ear goes out, which is a problem because I rely on my hearing when I ride, unlike the countless idiots who cycle with earphones.
When my right ear goes out I wait as long as I can, usually a couple of weeks, and then I go to the doctor and they “irrigate” it with a “lavage.” It is pretty gnarly.
This time I went to Kaiser. I enrolled in January and haven’t had any reason to go there until now. They did a bunch of tests and were very skeptical about my low heart rate and blood pressure, you know, in hospitals they don’t like it when healthy people show up because there’s nothing to fix.
Plus, they spend the entire day dealing with sick people, so they have a hard time relating, i.e. not making you feel like a freak.
The nurse looked in my ear with the ear-o-scope. “Yes,” she said, “you have a lot of wax build-up.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get that right out.” She was pretty confident as she put a bunch of towels around my shoulder and neck, but she was plainly unfamiliar with the tenacious nature of Wanky wax. “If it hurts or you feel any sharp pains, let me know.”
With those reassuring words she put this small fire hose into the side of my head and started blasting away. This went on for a while and then she turned the nozzle to warm, which felt better. After another while she turned off the hose and then got out the ear-o-scope.
“Hmmm,” she said, like a mechanic who just torqued the shit out of a bolt only to find out that he hadn’t torqued it quite enough. “I don’t think we got it.”
“I know you didn’t,” I said. “I’m still deaf as a post.”
She stuck the thing into my skull again and really blasted it, this time for twice as long. She pulled it out and looked at me, satisfied. “I bet that got it.”
I didn’t say anything because I couldn’t hear her. She stuck in the ear-o-scope and grimaced. “Well, that is persistent. It looks like there is a deep wall of wax that has hardened and is very thick. You’ll have to use ear drops for a week or so to loosen it, then come back so we can wash it out.”
That sounded good to me. “Since most of my head is wet now, can you also throw in a shampoo and a rinse?”
She didn’t laugh. My head hurt and I knew she hadn’t made much of a dent in the wax hockey puck inside my head; if she had there would have been wax shavings spewed everywhere, like some crazy topping at a Cambodian restaurant.
“Let’s give it one more shot,” she snapped. She was personally affronted by the wax and was going to blast it out of my head or kill me in the process. I submitted as she nozzled me again, but at the end it was Hockey Puck 1, Kaiser Multibillion Dollar Healthcare System, 0.
She sent me home with instructions to buy some earwax softener at the store, and told me to come back in a week. “Will I get that shampoo if I do?” I asked.
May 11, 2019 § 14 Comments
We had just passed the traffic circle in Venice and were nearing the 3-way stop sign. A dude in a Prius was reaching the stop sign to the right about the same time. I could see the girl in the passenger seat; she had that look of “He didn’t tell me he would be in his Mom’s Prius. I hope no one sees us.”
The dude saw us approaching and it was clear that we weren’t going to stop as required by law, and the little switch in his brain flipped, as it often does with drivers who observe cyclists taking liberty with the vehicle code as it pertains to stop signs.
By the way, this switch never gets flipped by big tatted up dudes riding Harleys, only dainty fellows pedaling plastic bicycles in their underwear.
We three watched him in amusement. You could see the crazed look from a mile away and we weren’t stopping and he knew we weren’t stopping and the girl knew there was going to be a scene and tried to squeeze into her invisibility cloak.
I was in the lead and we sailed through the intersection, grinning like monkeys.
The dude in the Prius lost his shit. His face turned vermilion, he shoved his head out the window and screamed. Problem is, when you are suddenly enraged it often happens that your tongue gets all mixed up because you are thinking ten different ugly things and your brain can’t decide which one to direct to your tongue, so it turns into insult hash.
This, though, was amazing. He roared in a voice you could have heard all the way to Gardena, “BICYCLES DO NOT NEED TO APPLY!”
The force of the nonsense hit us like a bat and we erupted in howls. He jetted through the intersection, racing by us at full Prius throttle of at least 33 mph. As he passed we yelled back, “BICYCLES DO NOT NEED TO APPLY!”
The girl hung her head and he gripped the wheel and stared straight ahead, pretending that we weren’t there. Problem was, he got stuck behind several cars and there was another stop sign a few yards up, so we caught him easily.
“Hey, fucker!” I yelled. “BICYCLES DO NOT NEED TO APPLY!”
Baby Seal added, “FOR A PILOT’S LICENSE!”
Foxy chimed in, “OR FOR WELFARE ASSISTANCE!”
Then we stopped at the stop sign and began chatting gaily, loudly. “Have you applied yet today?”
“My application got rejected!”
The boy rolled up his window and so did the girl, and you know she was thinking, “That’s what I get for riding in a Prius.”
Of course this became our rallying cry for the next hour. Each time we saw a cyclist we’d yell, shaking our fists, “Bicycles do not need to apply!” People thought we were insane. “Thought.”
Then we started going up Paseo de la Playa and a woman got stuck behind us. She patiently waited two seconds, then gunned it, roaring around us. She slowed to our pace, put down her window, and it was clear the switch had been flipped with her, too.
Red face. Veins popping. Spittle about to launch. And then, the money shot: “YOU NEED A SAFETY HELPER!”
Well, after bicycles not needing to apply, needing a safety helper was about all we could stand. So we got off our bikes and fell down laughing.
Today, Mrs. WM and I were finishing up a coffee ride. We got to the three-way intersection of PV Boulevard and PV West and PV North, scooting up along the edge of traffic. A guy in a Rage Rover put down his window as we stopped, switch flipped.
“IF YOU DON’T RIDE SINGLE FILE I CAN’T LOOK OUT FOR YOU!” he screamed.
Mrs. WM and I couldn’t help it. We laughed and laughed and laughed. All the way home.
May 9, 2019 § 7 Comments
It’s pronounced “rifby.”
And it had been a rough week.
I’d been in bed for six days with a hangnail. Our toilet overflowed because as I lay dying the tots had been flushing baby wipes down it, and Noah’s Flood broke our pipes and the pipes in the apartment downstairs. We were out of coffee, which didn’t matter because the coffee grinder had broken. My pickup threw a rod, my wife moved out, and my girlfriend told me that she had finally decided to go back to her husband in Ohio or her one in Tallahassee. My other girlfriend tearfully announced that she had antibiotic resistant something that I can’t pronounce.
Then, my dog died, and on the way back from the burial dumpster I checked the mail and found out I’d been sued for copyright infringement. Apparently there is an actual human being named “Wank Jonathan Meister” and I’ve been using his name in this blog without permission for a decade. The alleged damages are $1 billion.
While sitting on the couch reading the lawsuit, my phone rang just minutes before the phone company disconnected it. “Wanky?” my boss said.
He hung up.
It had been six months since my last bike ride, the Slovenian Ghoulash Ride, where you pedal up the side of a gorge for fifteen hours. I still hadn’t wiped the mud and shrapnel off the chain and the tars were flat.
I aired up the tars and went to look for a clean kit, but since I hadn’t done laundry since the SGR there wasn’t one. I fished out the bibs with the least amount of mold, put them on, and went looking for my shoes, but my wife had sold them on Craigslist before she moved out, so all I had was a pair of flip-flops. I put ’em on.
The bike rolled down the hill, gathering speed, the wind pushing through my hair. Some wanker on a $15,000 bike screamed “WHERE’S YOUR HELMETTTTTTT??” as I whizzed by. A Rage Rover honked in fury as I took the lane, delaying his arrival at the red light by .5 seconds. I flipped him off and blew through the light. Four other Rage Rovers with mommies-n-lattes-n-phones honked a chorus of anger. Bye-bye, bitches.
I hooked a left at the bottom of the hill, my nipples numb because I wasn’t wearing a jersey. A pack of South Bay Easy Fakers came by me, all duded up in their perfectly matched kits. I hopped on the back. No one said anything; they clearly didn’t want Moldy Pants With Thong And No Helmet And No Jersey And No Shoes with them, so they ramped it up.
Pretty soon I was, as they say, on the rivet. The pickup, the women, the dead dog, the lawsuit, the unemployment, the fierce bacteria, it all receded as my heart rate rose and my breathing labored. The Fakers rode harder and I struggled mightily to remain attached. Dude in front of me leaned over and blew a giant snot rocket onto my shin.
For five minutes I was buried. Couldn’t breathe, think, nothing, just forced the pedals so hard that everything was blank except the pain. Someone in the group finally shifted into the big ring and as the speed hit what I figured was at least 15 or 16 mph, I came off the back, done. They receded, their matchy-matchy shoe covers, helmets, and jockey straps sparkling in the late morning sun.
My head, though, was clear as a bell. “Ryfb,” I whispered with satisfaction. “Ride yer fuggin’ bike.”
May 6, 2019 § 26 Comments
“Are you sure you’re okay?” the nice man asked.
“What a strange question,” I thought, lying peacefully on the pavement, swimming in and out of semi-consciousness. “Oh, yeah, man, thanks. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a ride?” his wife asked. They bent over me as my eyes came into focus. My helmet was off and all I could feel was the beautiful sensation of not having to move. No pedaling. No jarring. No falling. Just me and the luscious, sweet, soft cement.
I considered their offer. On the one hand, I really did want a ride. On the other hand, I desperately wanted a ride. What do do? “Are you guys driving back to Lost Abbey?”
“Yes,” said the woman. “But we’re not going directly there. We’re following our son, who is also doing the BWR.”
“Also?” I wondered. “Does she mean that I’m doing the BWR, too? Oh, yeah, me. BWR. I’m a participant, too.” My brain couldn’t hold one single thought for more than a couple of seconds.
Mr. 4.75 Milan-San Remo
Two nights before I was having a beautiful evening on the showroom floor of Canyon Bicycles in Carlsbad. It is an amazing place, stuffed full as it is with beautiful bikes all shrieking “BUY ME NOW!” The showroom is state of the art, by which I mean they have an espresso machine, but on Friday evening we were eating a delicious catered meal, not drinking coffee, and listening to BWR Godfather Michael Marckx describe the intricacies of the course.
Before it had gotten underway Michael had come up and introduced a friend. “This is Erik,” he said.
“Hi, Erik,” I said.
“Erik’s son just won a stage in the Tour of Yorkshire yesterday,” he said.
I looked at Erik again. “Congratulations,” I said. “That’s awesome.”
“Thank you,” he answered.
After a few more seconds I put the face to all of the photos I’d seen over the years; it was none other than Eric Zabel, the four-time winner of MSR, or rather the 4.75-time winner as I like to call him, counting the time he threw his hands up in the air and got nipped at the line by Oscar Freire.
Erik works for Canyon and had come to San Diego to do his second Belgian Wafer Ride, as well as take the pulse of riders in the Tour of California in preparation for Tour selection in July. In addition to Erik, Pro Tour rider Peter Stetina was also there, along with riders like Ted King, Phil Gaimon, Brian McCulloch, and a host of other pros who were racing the BWR for its significant prize purse. By the time the evening had finished there were so many good vibes and so much happiness floating around that it seemed as if I’d already successfully finished my fifth waffle ride.
Was it even necessary for me to show up?
My BWR prep had gone perfectly, at least in the category that matters most, the excuse prep category. I hadn’t trained for it. I’d been sick and in bed for the last ten days and had lost ten pounds. My mind was a mess due to ongoing personal drama. The last time I’d ridden off road was when I did the Wafer in 2018. In a fit of insanity I had replaced my knobby ‘cross tires with 28mm road slicks. I had decided to use road shoes and pedals instead of my ‘cross pedals. In other words, my excuse game was strong.
I had been placed in the first wave of riders, which included 310 Pro/Cat 1/Cat 2 racers plus me and Alain Mazer. We looked at each other as we bunched for the start. Alan is one of five riders who has completed (now) all eight Waffles. “How’s your prep this year?” I asked.
“Doubled my mileage from last year,” he smirked.
“How many is that?”
“I’m up to 340 total miles for 2019.” He slapped his belly and grinned.
“It’s going to start out hot,” I said.
“Yes, but as for me, no matches will be burned.”
I knew what he meant. He was going to set the throttle at “finish” and plod his way over 11 or 12 hours to the end. No heroics for him. He was old. He was slow. And he was smart.
Ready, set, sprint
My advice for anyone who plans to do the BWR in the future is this: You better be able to race an all-out, 100% effort for eleven miles before the real race starts, because it’s eleven miles to the first dirt section, and the riders literally race for it. I was gasping trying to hang onto the end, wondering why? Why was I not simply burning matches, but throwing the entire matchbook into the fire at the beginning of a death ride? Every watt used now would be a hundred watts at mile 120, when the ride became truly difficult.
No matter, I’ve been racing too long to sit up when the group hammers, and so I figured I’d cross the bridge of collapse when, not if, I came to it. I’d been here before.
We hit the first dirt section and it was chaos as ten riders bolted up the trail and 300 got off their bikes and waited their turn to enter the single track. One dude dropped his shorts and began taking a huge dump in the weeds.
“Nerves?” someone shouted at him.
“Not anymore!” he said.
Everyone shuddered at what his chamois situation was going to be like for the next 8-9 hours, and worse, anyone unlucky enough to have to sit his wheel.
I waited my turn and struggled up Lemontwistenberg, the line of riders clumping, then breaking apart, then clumping again. By the time I crested the top I was alone and I started to wonder when I’d get overtaken by Wave 2 and another 300+ mad dirt maniacs. Plus, I was exhausted already and my poor tire choice, combined with terrible dirt skills, had already come close to sending me off the edge of the trail and down the mountainside.
“Well,” I thought, “at least I’ve only got 123 miles to go.”
The watering hole
By the time I hit the Lake Hodges trail, the mixed mass of waves 2 and 3 overtook me, long lines of riders screaming “On your left!” as I timidly tried to find a line and give them space to blow by without hooking my bars.
At the bottom of the trail is a low water crossing and it looked like a watering hole on the Serengeti, with more than a hundred people clopping around in the mud, falling off in the water, or timidly trying to figure out how to cross without wetting their socks. I picked the far right mud line and shot through, for the first time all morning feeling confident and good.
And the last.
More dirt followed and hundreds more riders flew by until we dumped out onto Hidden Valley, a murderous 6-mile climb that is mercifully on asphalt. Now my road tires worked wonders and I began passing countless of the riders who had passed me earlier. After the climb I fell in with a guy named Colin Carrington who motored the entire way into Ramona, joining up with a group of about 25. I sat at the back and enjoyed the draft. “This isn’t going to be so bad,” I lied to myself. “It’s going to be over pretty soon,” I lied to myself. “The BWR isn’t as hard as I remembered,” I lied to myself.
We reached the aid station at the bottom of Black Canyon, a 6-mile brutal dirt climb that is thankfully on hard-packed, well-graded dirt. I blew through the aid station while the mortals and weaklings stopped. “Water and food,” I sneered, “what a joke.”
Fear and loathing in North County
In less than a mile I had slowed to a crawl. Someone had forgotten that the road was supposed to be hard packed; instead it was a deep sand pit–no problem for everyone with tubeless gravel tires, no problem for everyone with mad dirt skills, but a massive problem for me, who had neither.
My tires slid and twisted and there was no good line. I was knotted atop my bike like a fist, but that was nothing compared to the descent, which my knife-sharp, rock-hard tires turned into a free fall. And the riders bombed by me at twice or triple my speed, some with more speed than skill, as one dude fell in front of me, putting his neck immediately in front of my tire.
Fortunately I was going granny slow and steered around his terrified face before stopping. “You okay?” I asked.
He hopped up. “Yeah, man!” and zoomed off, seeking death around perhaps the next curve.
A bit farther another rider was seated on a rock with a broken arm, covered in blood as a CHP moto radioed for the ambulance. I was already stiff and frozen from being in a constant clench of fear. At the end of the dirt there was another aid station, but somehow I wasn’t contemptuous of the water and food anymore, and not simply because all the riders who had stopped earlier had passed me ages ago.
My food prep for the morning had been a cup of coffee and two eggs, all of which had been incinerated in the first 11-mile TT.
The better you feel, the closer the collapse
I got on the asphalt again and fell in with a group of about 20 riders. Suddenly my legs came around. It was magical and I throttled it, shelling rider after rider until there were only four left in our group, the other three unable to take a pull.
“This is odd,” I thought. “Why do I feel so good? How long can it last? How much farther is there to go? Maybe I should slow down?”
We turned off the highway and went through the back side of the dam until we hit more dirt. My companions left me, easily, and so did my legs. By the time I finished the dirt descent all of the riders I’d so gloriously shelled had blown by me forever, which is another truth of the BWR: If you can’t go well on all surface types, you will be miserable.
Out of water I stopped at a VeloFix van and got some drink mix. The VeloFix people saved a bunch of lives yesterday …
Laboring up the deep sandy pitch, barely staying upright, I was passed by Dandy Andy. We chatted. He’d stopped for over an hour to help the guy with the broken arm and still caught me. Confidence builder … then he easily rode away.
After what seemed like twelve hours I reached the end of the dirt climb, descended through more soft dirt terror, and hit another aid station. Nature called. I answered, and I hope to never be as happy and as at peace with the world as the fifteen minutes I sat locked in the little blue can, where everything was quiet, where I didn’t have to pedal, where I could just not move.
Only 35 to go!
That’s what Ken said as I staggered out of the next aid station at the end of the Mule Trail. “You got this!” he said.
I knew I didn’t have it. 35 miles meant another three hours because it was more huge dirt. The Lemontwistenberg sector that had started the madness now, along with the Serengeti Watering Hole, got ridden in reverse along with a horrible rock garden. If you survived that, you still had Questhaven and the monster of Double Peak. Survival wasn’t looking likely as I pedaled away.
On the rock garden section I continually unclipped, and my road shoes made it hard to get out, hard to get in. Every line I chose was the wrong one. My tires had quit pretending. I was now cursing out loud and going so slowly that at times I was barely faster than a walk.
Then I noticed that my bike was tilting to the right. No matter what I did, it tilted to the right. How as that even possible. And my glasses weren’t working properly anymore because everything was doubling up. I made a note to get new glasses, and at one point I got off and actually checked my bike to see if it was really leaning to the right.
I caught myself. “Bikes don’t ‘lean’ to one side or another, Seth.”
The reverse section of Lemontwistenberg has a steep wall punctuated with sharp, large rocks, and I fell, slowly and heavily, on my right hip. I lay there, eagerly awaiting the pain to hit from my shattered femur, because as much as I knew I would hate breaking my hip, it was far preferable to continuing even another foot forward on this miserable bike ride.
A guy came by. “You’re hurt,” he said.
I didn’t say anything, hoping the pain from the broken leg would kick in.
“Can you move?” he asked.
“Let me see,” I said.
He helped me get unclipped and to my horror I hadn’t broken anything. A scuff and a bruise and now I had to continue.
Another mile on I passed a big wall of vegetation on the right. “I bet at least one idiot has ridden off into that today,” I mused. At that instant my front tire hit a patch of loose gravel and I shot off into the bushes, ass in the air, just as a group of twenty riders pedaled by. No one said a word. I lay face first in the shrubbery, breathing in the smell of the fresh green leaves and the thorns in my side. Heaven.
A long time later I finished the tailwind section on Del Dios Highway and made the left-hander that would take me to Elfin Forest and then Questhaven. That’s when I spied the nice lady whose husband gave me some water and who was now looking over me, asking if I wanted a ride.
I knew that even though it would be awesome to quit, I’d have to sit in their van while they followed their successful son, cheering him for his perseverance and for not being a quitter as I said in the back, quitting all over again at every stop.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
They drove off and I pondered what I had really meant by “fine.” “Dead,” I thought. “What I meant was ‘I’ll be dead.'”
I lay on the soft cement for another few minutes and remounted. Less than a quarter mile later I rode over a nail and got my first ever BWR flat, to go along with the slow leaks I had going in my right and left legs. I cursed some more and started changing the flat. Riders passed and no one made eye contact. It was so late in the ride, people were so drained, and the end was so near-yet-far that no one even pretended to care.
“Sucks to be you, you non-tubeless wanker,” they must have thought.
In mid-multi-syllabic curse a red car with a bike rack drove by. I flagged the guy down. I was done. “Can I get a lift?” I pleaded.
“Sure. Where to?”
“Lost Abbey Brewing.”
“Yeah, of course. We’re actually driving by there.”
The guy and his wife, Jason and Rebecca, listened appreciatively as I rehearsed my well-prepped list of excuses. “Well, you did good getting as far as you did,” he said.
I thought about that for a second. The ride was over. I hadn’t broken anything. No one gave two broken fucks about whether I finished or not.
Maybe he was right.
April 28, 2019 § 9 Comments
I was standing on a crowded shop floor, cyclists milling as cyclists mill, awkwardly, not sure where to put legs that aren’t positioned on pedals, talking about things that cyclists talk about, falling off bicycle incidents, today’s ride, friendly and familiar but still Cyclist Awkward.
There was a knot of people standing around the burly man in the back and he was holding court; it was his day, he was the king, and surrounding him were the princes of the national amateur cycling scene. In a few minutes he was going to talk.
When Nelson Vails began to speak, everyone shut up and listened. But that doesn’t last long with Nelson because pretty soon he had us laughing, then clapping, then looking on in amazement as he trotted us through a highlight video of his extraordinary life.
It’s a story that anyone who knows anything at all about U.S. cycling has heard repeatedly, but this time it was with the commentary that only Nelson himself can provide. He may be old, he may be long retired, he may not ride more than 20 miles at a pop, but when he glares at you and jokingly says “Sit the wheel!” you stiffen up and only laugh a few seconds later. Passing Nelson in a tight bunch on a velodrome was not for the faint of heart.
The youngest of ten children from a Harlem family, he started racing bikes, became a bike messenger in NYC, attracted the attention of the national team, and rode his way to a silver medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Vails is the first and still the only African-American to have won an Olympic medal in any cycling event, and as he reminds anyone who cares to listen, that’s not going to change anytime soon because “there ain’t nobody in the hopper.”
It’s not a slight to the two dominant African-American racers Justin and Corey Williams, it’s a slight to what Vails still calls “the federation.”
But the point of the evening wasn’t to deliver a rant on the failings of USA Cycling, and Nelson didn’t make it one. The point was to roll out his new clothing line, produced by Rapha, the Nelson Vails Collection. And he was blunt: “The great memories of riding in this kit will remain long after the pain of the price tag has gone.” I bought a jersey and bibs, rode in them the next day, and although they are the best looking, most comfortable bike clothes I own, it’s going to take a few more memories.
What was striking about Nelson’s talk was what he said and what he didn’t say. He didn’t talk about racism and discrimination in cycling, about hurdles he’d had to overcome, about the prejudices baked into such a pristinely white sport as track cycling in the 70s and 80s. Instead, he started his speech with a code word, the invocation of Marshal “Major” Taylor, America’s first and greatest world champion in any sport, before or since.
When African-American cyclists mention Major Taylor, they are telling you something. It’s subtle, and you either get it or you don’t. What they are telling you is that this sport you love and idolize so much, studded with names like Merckx, Hinault, Bartali, Anquetil, and Coppi, was first dominated, controlled, and ruled with invincible legs and will by an African-American named Major Taylor. And he didn’t do it to the adulation of the masses in what was the world’s most popular sport, he did it in the face of hatred and racism that are our American legacy.
Whatever you think about the conquests of your heroes, they pale compared to the achievements of a slightly-built man born in 1878 who became world champion, multi-national champion, and crusher of foreign professionals on their home turf in the face of physical violence, constant abuse, overt racism of every conceivable sort, and, when none of that worked, rule changes that excluded African-Americans from the nation’s cycling organizing body.
Taylor retired at age 32, unable to withstand any longer the punishing racism that was heaped upon him wherever he raced. He died penniless.
What does any of this have to do with the unveiling of the Vails Collection by Rapha? A lot, in fact …
First, by invoking Taylor and saying plainly that as the only African-American to win an Olympic medal in cycling, Vails is continuing in his tradition, it invites us to examine the history of cycling without actually coming out and saying “racism.” What does it mean to continue in the tradition of Taylor? You can’t know that unless you know your history, and once you do, you have to ask yourself why Eddy is your hero instead of Major? And to continue the question, why is it that the most influential and accomplished athlete in what was at the time the biggest competitive sport on earth, cycling, is not part of every rider’s tradition? Why doesn’t every Cat 5 racer know the Taylor story? Why is he not celebrated a thousand times more than Vince Lombardi or Babe Ruth?
The answers are uncomfortable, for some more than others.
Second, by invoking Taylor, Nelson was also pointing to himself. He too had multiple national professional titles, a financially lucrative multi-year career as a keirin racer in Japan and 6-day racer in Europe, and broke ground as Nike’s first ever sponsored cyclist. Flamboyant, fast, and able to deliver the goods on a global stage, where was the enthusiasm in America’s national governing body to discover and develop more young boys and girls from poor communities into the next generation Nelson Vails? Why was the path blazed by Taylor, then re-blazed by Nelson, left so quickly to overgrow with the same weeds and thorns of preconception and prejudice that had matted it for decades?
Third, by invoking Taylor on the sales floor of a high-end clothing store in Santa Monica, Vails was calling attention to a history of a different sort: The first time that a clothing manufacturer with the global, Pro Tour, luxury cachet of Rapha was partnering with a legend of cycling to put African-American prowess in cycling where it belongs: Front and center.
And for me, it was in some ways this third thing that meant the most, simply because the cycling community is so quick to mouth support for diversity, yet often so embarrassingly slow to put its money where its mouth is. Because no amount of hand-holding and nodding in agreement can make up for the fact that the first part of equality has to do with sharing the money–to clap a retired hero like Nelson on the back and tell him how much you admire him? Meh. To partner with him over a year-long process to design and develop a beautiful, comfortable, luxury riding kit that exceeds every standard there is?
Now you’re talking.
I got mine. You should get yours. There are worse things in life than collecting memories.