February 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’m 40 now and thinking about upgrading but am afraid that it will be too hard and I won’t get a lot of podiums in the 3’s like I do now. Should I stay Cat 4 or should I go?
Upgrading is a serious step, and you should carefully weigh the pros and cons before rashly leaving the safety of the 4’s. I’m assuming, of course, that your idea of “safety” is to be surrounded on all sides by crashing idiots who think it’s normal to fall down heavily on the concrete every three or four races. Once you leave the 4’s, it’s a whole new ballgame: think Quidditch + pole dancing. The pressure in the 3’s is immense. You’re surrounded by athletes of the very highest caliber who, like you, have lofty goals. The commitment level is much higher. To really “make it” as a “pro” Cat 3 will require the hard sacrifices that come from hundreds of hours in the gym, 300-400 miles per week on the bike, serious weight loss and nutrition management, a (more expensive) personal coach, fully integrated power training techniques, and the investment in a bike “arsenal” that will allow you to select the optimal $15,000 rig for each race. You’ll also need to have a heart-to-heart discussion with your employer so that he/she knows your new priority is success as a “pro” Cat 3. You’ll have to get your significant other on the same page, too. For a few years, indeed, the foreseeable future, he/she and your children will have to accept that they’ll be seeing less of you. Much less. Which might be a good thing.
I just turned 45 and am really looking forward to racing in the 45+ category. It’s been rough sledding in the 5’s and I’m looking forward to kicking butt in some of those old man races. Any tips?
These races are very easy to win. There is an old fellow named Thurlow Rogers who typically shows up for these races. Just hop on his wheel and do whatever he does. Then at the end, pedal very hard until you go flying past him. You’ll win every race!
Ever since I started racing masters 35+ I can’t seem to frickin win anything. There’s this black dude who wins all the races. What’s up with that? I’m not a racist or anything, but how come he gets to win all the time? Can I downgrade or something? This frickin sucks.
That “black dude” is named Charon Smith. Don’t feel bad. White people can be successful, too. Sometimes. But there are barriers and obstacles they must first overcome. In your case, you must overcome the fact that you are slow and he is fast. For a wanker such as yourself, I recommend a lot of drugs and maybe a leg transplant. Next, you must overcome the fact that he is tough and savvy and you are pussy-ish and stupid. Finally, you must change the fact that you are are usually late for work due to hitting “snooze” four dozen times, whereas he’s usually up at 5:00 a.m. doing workouts in PV, up and down the Switchbacks. Plus you have to stop beating off so much.
I’m considering switching from Oakley’s top of the line Dorkus Buttscratcher frames to SPY Optic’s uber-rad Diablo performance cycling sunglasses. Thoughts?
SPY is to Oakley what Scott Dickson is to a first-time century rider.
I want to upgrade to Cat 2 so I can race against that Bahati guy. I’ve heard he’s not really that fast.
You don’t need to upgrade to test your legs against Rahsaan. Just show up on the Pier Ride and let him feel the sting of your Cat 3 legs. And you’re right. He’s not really that fast. He can be easily beaten by almost any stock unmodified motorcycle.
February 12, 2012 § 4 Comments
“I’ve got a spare seat on my plane if you’d like to join me for the Tour de Palm Springs Century this weekend,” read Wehrlissimo’s email.
“Fuckin’-A!” I replied, still not sure, even after all these years, what the difference was between, say, a fuckin-A and a fuckin-B, or a fuckin-C for that matter. The chance to do a century ride after my recent beatdowns at Boulevard and Red Trolley would be a significant ego-building opportunity, where I could whizz by lumbering freddies and feel fast, superior, and successful. No matter that “I won the century ride” has all the street cred of “I got laid last night…by my wife.”
The last time I had flown a private plane was when I did the hop from Geraldton, in West Australia, over to the Abrolhos Islands to see a colony of Brown Noddies and to get a picture of a nesting Red-tailed Tropicbird.
It was a red two-seater crop duster with pontoons. The pilot was 80 years old and coughed the entire way like he was going to die as he smoked no-filters and spit bloody phlegm out the window. The noise had been deafening, and the water landing horrible beyond belief.
I, Triple, Polly, FTR DS, and Wehrlissimo stood on the tarmac in the dark as Levi loaded our bikes into the King Air Turboprop radmoplane. This was traveling in style. Rather than driving across the desert for two hours and then fighting four hours back through LA traffic we’d be landing in Palm Springs in thirty minutes and home by three in the afternoon.
I tried to remind myself of all these advantages as Levi turned back to us and said, “We’re going to have dip down pretty aggressively once we cross the mountains in order to hit the landing strip, as it’s just on the other side. There might be some turbulence.”
A few moments later the airplane was pointed straight down. We could see the quickly approaching ground through the windshield, and the only thing to make the picture perfect would have been a couple of gunsights through which we could have strafed the airport or the ten zillion wind turbines that littered the valley. “Just like a roller coaster,” I thought. “With no rails.”
I glanced over at Triple. His thighs were held tightly together, as if he were trying to keep something from sneaking out. At that moment we hit “some turbulence.” The entire aircraft shuddered as if it had been hit with a giant club and we plunged, hit another pocket, shuddered again, and a warning light went off with a shrill beep.
I looked at Polly, whose teeth were clenched, not even pretending to be cool. FTR DS had been okay until his engineer’s hearing had picked up the sound of the warning beep. Now he looked scared, too. I took a final glance at Triple, and could only think, “I’m glad I’m not the chamois in his shorts.”
Welcome to Hell
The game plan had been to hook up with UbeRfRed and his Long Beach Freddies, administer a thorough Southbay SPY Blue beatdown to the denizens of Cadmium City, USA, grab lunch, and jet back home. UbeRfRed had other plans.
The moment our group of twenty-six hit the edge of town it became clear why the city of Palm Springs was developed as one of the first wind farms in California: Wind turbines require winds of up to 35 miles per hour in order to achieve the optimum efficiency and profitability. As the route along North Indian Canyon Rd. left the city and exposed us to the full crosswind that was powering the wind farm, mayhem ensued.
We’d started about 7:30, and the road was clotted with thousands and thousands of freddies. So far, no problem. The 30 mph crosswind, however, was literally blowing people off the road. Every couple of hundred yards there would be bicycles lying in a huge tangle, with hapless freddies pulling and pushing and tugging and lugging on their $5,000 bikes that were now part of a giant parts bazaar.
UbeRfRed gassed it, and we clawed onto his wheel as we zoomed by the endless line of flailing freddies. Since the crosswind was so strong we had to echelon across the entire road. This meant that with each clump of freddies that we overook, UbeRfRed would roar, “Riders!”, but the freddies wouldn’t hear until we were right on their asses. Many of them, cleverly riding deep dish wheels, would jerk to the right, the wind would catch their wheels, and they’d go sailing off the road.
By mile three there were long lines of riders who’d simply given up, turned around, and headed back to Palm Springs. For us, there would be no quitting, as the Long Beach Freddies’ favorite epithet is to shout “You’re weak!” whenever someone quits, gets dropped, gets passed, turns around, swings off the front, takes a drink, stops to pee, or sucks his thumb, or cries for his mommy.
A confederacy of dunces
The whole idea of having 12,000 idiots on bicycles in a venue that it designated as “ideal for a wind farm” could not have happened by coincidence. Rather, it took the conspiracy of core stakeholders to come up with something this awful.
President of the local hospital: “Let’s do something that will fill the beds! February’s a slow month; we won’t really be rocking until Coachella in April.”
Coalition of local bike shops: “Let’s do something that will require 5,000 people to have to completely replace their bikes.”
President of the Chamber of Commerce: “We can showcase the beauty of the desert by routing the ride through all 427 stoplights and through each of the 19 bedroom communities.”
Bill Snooker, Owner, Bill & Snooker Used Auto Emporiums: “Make sure the route takes ’em by my fourteen lots. Never know when some idiot’ll throw in the towel and want to drive home.”
Crazy Sam Throckmorton, Desert Survival Adventures, Inc.: “Put 12,000 city slickers on bikes on pothole-filled, thorn-littered, gravel-strewn desert roadways a thousand miles from nowhere, watch ’em flat and wander off into the scrub and ocotillo looking for water, then do emergency rescues and charge $859 a head. Works ever’ time!”
Freddy Freeloader, 2012 president-elect, Palm Springs Friendly Riders’ Club: “It’ll be just like Solvang!”
It really isn’t anything at all like Solvang
After five miles of battering along in a full echelon as the howling crosswind sprayed sand and grit into our eyes and noses and teeth, with freddies flying off the road and smashing into each other, and with UbeRfRed and FTR DS drilling the pace the whole way, we turned left directly into the wind. Never in my life have I been so happy to have a headwind. For one, it meant no more leaning at a 30-degree angle to keep from being blown over. For another, it meant true shelter, not the misery of a partial draft echelon.
This respite only lasted a couple of miles before we turned right again and back into the crosswind. UbeRfRed now really hit the gas, exploding the remnants of his flailing Long Beach soulmates. I hadn’t bothered to look at the course map and had no idea how long the hell was going to last. For all I knew, it would be fifty miles out into this sandstorm and fifty miles back. My resolve began to fade and defeatism set in as the line of quitters and the clumps of the crashed flashed by.
After a mere 1.5 more miles of crosswind hell, the road turned right into a tailwind. I couldn’t believe it. UbeRfRed, after flagellating us mercilessly for the first twelve miles, held up his hand. “Let’s regroup!” he said.
I looked at FTR DS. He looked at me. We both thought the same thing: “He’s weak.”
I love you, that’s why I hate you
The next sixty miles went by quickly, a combination of straight tailwind and tail-crosswind. UbeRfRed would hammer until he’d dropped all of his best friends, and then make us stop so that they could all catch up and he could catch his breath. Repeat. By mile seventy we were well into the bowels of the poorly marked, suburban, stoplight-filled portion of the course.
At the final rest stop one of the Long Beach Freddies regaled me with the heart attack he’d had while cycling a few months back. “Yeah, I was with the guys and just keeled over.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Heart attack. Piece of plaque came off an arterial wall and chugged into the heart. Everybody has plaque on their arteries. Mine just lodged in a bad place.”
“Yeah…right,” I said, eyeing his beer belly. “Is that what the doctor said?”
“Yeah. Said everybody has it.”
“Did he graduate from a medical school in the Caribbean by any chance? Last name Sojka?”
Freddie looked at me funny. “No. But the good thing about it was, the guys were there for me.”
“Hell yeah. They waited until I’d stabilized in the ICU before they all came in and told me I was weak.”
“Well, at least you’re back on the bike,” I said, trying to make a positive out of a quadruple negative.
“Yep. I took a long time off the bike to recover, it being a heart attack and me almost dying and everything.”
“That’s good. How long were you off?”
Realizing that I was dealing with a true madman, I got back on the bike and continued pedaling.
Anybody can pedal a bike 70 miles…
“But can they drill it for the last thirty?” That was FTR DS’s question, and UbeRfRed answered it with a simple question phrased as a whimper.
“Hey guys,” he said. “Let’s just ride two by two for the rest of the way. Okay? Okay?”
FTR DS smiled a nasty smile, then went to the front and set an, um, steady pace. Alex the Poseur sidled up alongside him to match the pull, but after a couple of minutes went rocketing off to the side in the rickety wobble of someone who is blown and not coming back.
I came to the fore and was joined by Long Beach Freddy Rick. He had done the entire ride in booties, a skinsuit and full TT rig, which included Speed Racer-style bottle ejectors that caused his $40 insulated water bottles to fly out of the saddle-mounted holders and into the spokes of whomever was on his wheel. Showing the most grit of all the LBF’s with the exception of Heart Attack, who we fully expected to die at any moment, Rick matched the pace for a solid five miles.
Ultimately his head drooped, his fanny pooped, and he did the wobble-and-fade back to the ignominy of the rear wheelsuck with UbeRfRed and the Cadmium Crew. With eighteen miles to go, FTR DS came up and joined me. It was as nasty and unpleasant a finish as I can recall, with countless stoplights, and so many wrong turns that we were eventually stuck on the truck-car-senile-retiree highway to hell that is the 111.
So long, it’s been good to know ya
Wehrlissimo had reserved a spot for us at PS Wine, and we rolled up to sandwiches, water, chips, and lots of wine. As each group of finishers passed us by, from their perch on the sidewalk the LBF’s shouted “You’re weak!” to the broken, salt-encrusted, beaten down tourists.
Suddenly one of the LBF’s commanded, “Everyone! Stick your finger in your left ear!” Too drunk, frightened, tired, or confused to object, we all did as we were told. “Remove fingers!” We did. “Inspect fingers!” We looked at our fingertips, which were coated with a 1/8 inch layer of sand and grit stuck together with earwax. This, then, was our souvenir from Palm Springs, finer than any blue and yellow jersey designed by a middle schooler who “wanted to be an artist.”
We said our goodbyes, and Levi the Pilot proved again that he was the real man among men. He’d not only flown the plane and ridden a hundred hard miles, but he’d abstained from so much as a sip of alcohol and looked like he’d hardly exerted himself.
Back on the tarmac in LA, we deplaned and said our goodbyes. I thanked Wehrlissimo for his incredible generosity, and offered him $15 to help pay for gas. “Thanks,” he said, refusing my generous offer.
“So how much does a tank of airplane fuel cost for one of these, anyway?” I asked.
The other guys thanked him, too. He laughed. “All this stuff,” he said, waving at the airplane and hangar, “isn’t really worth anything if you can’t share it with your friends.”
February 10, 2012 § 6 Comments
It all started innocently enough. I had joined Twitter a few months back. Then a couple of evenings ago I finally took a look at their “recommendations” about who I should follow. One of the recommendations was Lance.
I clicked on him, just to browse a few of his tweets. From the first tweet, it all came flooding back. Memories as sharp and clear as if it had all happened yesterday. As I scrolled down through the tens, then the hundreds of tweets, I was astounded at how he had changed.
Of course I’ve long known that he had changed since we first met in January of 1991, simply by following the extraordinary course of his life and career. But the ticker tape parade of thoughts and remarks and comments brought out into incredibly stark relief the difference between this world-famous celebrity and the teenager who once tried to sell me the parts off his bike.
His choice of words, his facility with them on Twitter, and his understanding that his words shape the thoughts of others all pointed to the unmistakeable: he is a profoundly intelligent man. If you had told me in 1990 that he was a toweringly bright guy, when the only thing he wanted to know about the girl at the copy shop who I’d had print and bind his resume was whether or not she had big boobs, I would have laughed.
I’m not laughing now.
These memories seared home the fact that he used to be a real person. Before he became a juggernaut, then a superstar, then a metaphor, and now, a post-post modern retired celebrity athlete, promoter, and fundraiser…before all that he was a just a young man with a compelling story and a once-in-a-generation set of genes. I want to share those memories with you, on the off chance that a few of them might actually have happened. I want to share them because whatever you think of Lance, and whatever you’ve read about him, you haven’t read this.
My intersection with Lance was natural enough. I’m a jock sniffer. Put me around a great athlete, and something warm and fuzzy comes over me. My nose starts tickling. Then twitching. Pretty soon I’m nuzzling around in his jockey strap, snurfling at the sweat, the curly hairs, and the residues of whatever else might be left down in that musty cotton bag.
I can say this with no trace of shame because the chances are excellent that you’re a jocksniffer, too. Go to any bike race and you’ll see a small cluster around the Stud. Watch what happens at major sporting events when ol’ Sweatnglory shows up to receive his plaque. The bigger the star, the more recklessly people will fight to plunge their noses as deeply as they can into the dank ball holder. Sniffers can’t help jocksniffing in the presence of successful athletes. It’s in our genes to genuflect before the hairy one who slew the enemy and paraded around with his head on a pike.
Studly athletes pretend to hold jocksniffers in contempt, and in fact, they do. But they also love them, kind of like the man feels about the “woman” in a men’s prison. Without jocksniffers, the greatest athlete in the world would be just another nut.
When I first caught the faintest whiff of Lance’s jock
I had returned to Austin from an internship with a German law firm in Tokyo to pick up law school where I’d dumped it, unceremoniously, a year and a half before. One of the first calls I made was to Filds, who was running Eurosport over on 32nd Street, where the old Bice Cyclery used to be.
“You back?” he asked.
“I got a VHS of the world’s in Utsunomiya. That was some course.”
“Yeah, it was awesome. I got to see Delgado, Indurain, Kelly, Lemond, and got to ride in the Spanish team’s car when I took them on a training ride up through Nikko, Kirifuri-kogen, and some other cool places.”
“Did you watch the amateur race?”
“One of the guys who was in that race lives here. Armstrong. Lance Armstrong. He almost won the fucking race if he hadn’t attacked every single lap.”
“Oh.” I was embarrassed to say that I’d paid no attention to the US amateur team, not at the huge welcoming party with two barbecued cows and a massive fireworks display thrown by the city for the racers down on the Kinugawa River, nor at the reception at the Utsunomiya Grand Hotel, not even at the race itself. I couldn’t have picked Lance out of a crowd of two.
“He’s coming down to the shop tomorrow morning to ride. You been riding?”
“Well, you should come join us. It will be the hardest ride of your life.”
The path of truth
Whatever Filds was, he was always factual. Midwestern factual. And when it came to “hard” he was something of a connoisseur. When I first got the strange idea that I wanted to race bikes, he introduced me to motor pacing. Dogbait and he shared a 50cc Honda scooter. We’d pedal out of town to the intersection of FM 969 and FM 973, Dogbait would ramp up the scooter, and one of us would sit behind the motor all the way to Webberville, nine very unpleasant miles. In Webberville we’d switch places. Never once did I make it all the way back to FM 973, usually coming off in the last mile.
We came to call that road the Path of Truth. There was no hiding. You either held the motor or you didn’t. Even today when I think about the pain, misery, suffering, and defeat from those sessions, I get tingles up and down my legs. They say your body and mind have the ability to remember pleasure, but to forget pain. “They” have never done the Path in a cold February crosswind at 30 mph trying to find a nonexistent draft behind a tiny scooter.
“Is it going to be harder than the Path of Truth?”
Filds didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
That night I tossed and turned. A beatdown was on its way, that was certain. But how bad a beatdown? Would I finish the ride? Who was Lance Armstrong?
The next morning I rolled down to the shop from my married students’ apartment on Lake Austin Boulevard. I arrived a few minutes early. Lance was there exactly on time. “So you were in Utsunomiya?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say. “It sure looked like it.”
A fourth person started with us, but I don’t remember his name. What I do remember is hitting the bottom of the climb on Lime Creek Road and already feeling like I’d done a 300-mile ride. Simply sitting on Lance’s wheel as he and Filds rode side-by-side took every bit of strength and concentration I could muster. He breezily chatted up the climb as #4 dropped away permanently, and Filds and I struggled to keep the pace. For Lance it was effortless, and he was obviously going slowly so that we could stay together.
On the top we turned right on FM 1431. “Wanna buy these Dura-Ace STI shifters and gruppo?” he asked. “I’m leaving Subaru after I turn pro. I’ll make you a deal.”
“Who are you going to be riding with?”
“I don’t know. I’ve got a contract from Motorola. You’re a lawyer, right? Maybe you could look it over for me?”
“I’m not a lawyer, I’m a law student. I can’t really give you any legal advice.”
“Aw, sure you can. Come over to my place after the ride and look at the contract. You’ll know more about it than I do. Maybe you can tell me if I’m getting a good deal.” Goddamn, he was an optimist, thinking I’d still be alive after the ride.
Somehow I finished it, a mere 60-mile leg stretcher that remains the fastest I’ve ever gone that distance on a bike. I was destroyed. Filds was wrecked. Lance hadn’t yet ridden his bike that day. After he deposited us at the shop he went out for a real ride. I still can’t imagine what one of those is.
The blind leading the partially blind
That afternoon I went over to his apartment on Shoal Creek, just down from the tennis courts there at the intersection of 24th and Lamar. I was struck by how orderly and put together it was. For a nineteen year-old kid, he sure seemed to have clear ideas of how he wanted the world around him to be. It wouldn’t be until I reached my late 40’s that I ever lived in an apartment half as neat as his.
“Here’s the contract.”
I tried to protest again, but he wasn’t interested. I was as close to a lawyer as anyone he knew, and I could tell he liked and trusted me. Well, maybe trusted isn’t the right word. So I read the thing and tried to understand it. As we talked it over I asked, “Can you show me a copy of your race resume?”
“Yeah, sure.” He dug out a three-page typewritten list of results. It was an extraordinary rendition of firsts and seconds in ten-point type that went on and on and on and on.
“Fuck, dude,” I said. “Where are your press clippings?”
“Press clippings. Surely you’ve been written up in the local newspapers.”
He laughed a little. “My mom keeps all that stuff. It’s in Plano.”
“You might be able to negotiate some better terms, or maybe you could get a better offer from a European team. But you’ll need a first-rate bio and nicely bound folder to put your press junk in.” I was thinking a 5-10 page document with his press clippings that summed up who he was, what he’d done, and where he was going.
“I could get you the stuff. I’ll drive back home tomorrow and could have it here the day after. Is that something you can do? I’ll pay you.”
“You don’t have to pay me. Just get me the stuff and I’ll put something together. These results are astounding. People ought to be falling all over themselves to get you on their team. Christ.”
Two days later Lance called. “Hey, man, I’m back. I got the stuff. You want to come over and get it?”
“Sure.” I drove over to his place. I think he had some kind of pale blue Dodge.
“Stuff’s in the trunk.” He opened it. I stared. Then I stared again.
“Fuck, dude. What is that?” The cavernous trunk of the Dodge was filled with a massive stack of newspapers and magazines as long as my arm.
“Those are my press clippings.”
“All that shit is about you?”
He looked at me. Not modestly. Not arrogantly. Matter-of-factly. The way you’d look at someone if you were making them conform to your vision of how the world was going to be. “Yes,” he said.
Big boobs and a whole lotta Rosie
I brought the stack of crap home and embarked on a weeklong project. Every couple of days Lance would call. He was never overtly excited, but it hadn’t escaped my attention that the minute he had seen the value of putting together his press clippings, he’d jumped in the car and driven four hours to Plano. Now that I was working on it, he wanted to know how it was going. He was keeping tabs on the story of his brief athletic life, and on the person in charge of it. Nineteen years old and keeping tabs. How about that?
This, too, made a strange impression on me. I was eight years older. I’d graduated from college. I was enrolled in one of the nation’s top law schools. I was doing this as a favor to a fucking punk bike racer kid. But Lance was in charge. Not rudely, or roughly, and certainly not insultingly. Just unmistakably. In. Charge.
I wound up with the makings for an 8″ x 11″ book, not 5-10 pages, but maybe 100 pages long, chronicling his career. It included magazine covers. Encomiums by sports writers. Terse tales of the swath of destruction he’d left in his wake in every event he’d ever entered. I started to get a sense of the force of nature I’d bumped up against. This wasn’t just any old jockstrap. This might be, I thought, the biggest, gnarliest, sweatiest jockstrap of all time. “For Dog’s sake,” I kept telling myself. “And he’s only fucking nineteen.”
There was a little copy shop just off the corner of Red River and Medical Arts near the law school. I took in the manuscript of clippings and photos and struck up a conversation with the girl running the shop, whose name was Rosie. “This,” I told her, “is the short history of the guy who’s going to be the greatest cyclist this country has ever known.”
Rosie lit up. “Really?” It sounded so dramatic and exciting. She leafed through the pages. “Wow. This is incredible. He’s so good looking.” Then she batted her eyes at me. “Can I meet him?”
I laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The next day I picked up the bound final copy. I’d included an introduction, and had spent some time trying to get it right. Of course, I had gotten it wrong. While leafing through the pages trying to organize it, and getting intoxicated by the scruffy smell of that sweaty old jockstrap, I’d let my creativity run wild. “Lance Armstrong,” I wrote, “is destined to become the greatest cyclist since Eddy Merckx.”
Now I looked at the finished product. “What a pile of shit,” I thought. “This kid’s no Eddy Merckx.”
If it bothered Lance, he didn’t show it. I had made four or five copies, and gave them to him. He leafed through the finished product, carefully. “Thanks.” I could tell he liked it. Then he reached into his wallet and proffered $200. “Here. I said I’d pay you.”
I laughed. “I don’t want your money. Glad to help.”
He smiled back, politely, but his outstretched hand didn’t budge. “I said I’d pay you.”
I felt it again, keenly. He was in charge. He did what he said he was going to do. The world was going to look the way he wanted it to look. I took the money. “The gal at the copy shop was mightily impressed. Said she’d love to meet you.”
His eyes lit up and suddenly he was a 19 year-old kid thinking about pussy. “Big tits? I like bit tits. What’s her name?”
“Rosie. Tits, not so big.”
“I’ll pass,” he said. Firmly. No hesitation. No more curiosity. In charge even when it came to his dick.
What’s in it for me?
The whole thing was a huge distraction. I couldn’t stop thinking about this guy. More to the point, I couldn’t stop doing what everyone else who knew him had been doing, and what the rest of the world would soon be doing, too: trying to figure out how I could make a buck off this prodigy. What I was too stupid to realize, though, was that Lance had long ago understood that others wanted what he had, and that the name of the game was, and would always be, keeping the upper hand from the cheats and the liars and the con men and the sniffers. Especially the sniffers.
As I was struggling with the nascent idea of how to turn him into my own private cash cow and no clear idea about how to do it, he had already developed an effective strategy for handling the the jocksniffing, wannabe leeches like me who surround every person with great athletic talent: give them a whiff, stay in control, and play them first before they play you. It’s no different from winning a mass start bike race.
At the time there was a new publication, long since defunct, called Texas Cyclist, or maybe it was Texas Bicyclist. I hit upon an idea: pitch an article to them about Lance. I called the editor and they immediately agreed. I called Lance and he was game. The next day I was back at his apartment. Sniffy sniff sniff!!
We talked for about an hour. Some of the things he said I remember with crystal clarity: “When I watch the Tour on TV, I visualize myself winning it.” “I’m a bigger rider, more like a Merckx or an Indurain, so those are the guys I try to emulate.” You know…little things like that. I took a few notes and basked in what was now the full-fledged odor of his steaming jockstrap.
I got home and was giddy from all the sniffing. So I wrote a long, fawning article and threw in a bunch of things he never said, all designed to make him look great and to inject myself into the awesome reality of Lance. I was the fanboy of all fanboys, a grown man with a family and the beginnings of a legitimate career licking the spittle and sniffing the jock of a teenage athlete.
It was not my finest hour, but the final piece was tremendous. The magazine loved it. Lance liked it too, but he saw through the bullshit and the completely fabricated quotes in an instant. He never said anything about it or criticized me for it, but it proved what he’d suggested all along and never had to say: he was the better person. He was in charge.
What’s with the pink?
The next time I talked to Filds he asked if I was going to the Tuesday Nighter out at Nuckols Crossing. “Lance is gonna ride out there with us and do the race.”
“Sure,” I said.
My helmet was just styrofoam with a fabric cover. The fabric cover was gaudy pink. Lance took one look at it and laughed. “What’s with the pink?” For some reason, I’m not sure why, it stung. There’s nothing worse than having your favorite jockstrap make fun of your pink helmet cover.
We got to the course and the race started. For the first lap we sat in the back and chatted. We came through the start/finish and crested the hill. Far off in the distance were two tiny specks. “Are those guys off the front?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “They’re gone. So much for this race.”
He looked at me funny. Without getting out of the saddle, he pushed the pedals harder. In a few seconds he had rocketed off the front, never getting out of the saddle or even appearing to exert himself. I watched him vanish up the road. He caught the breakaway, dropped it, and won the race so far head of the next finishers that it was as if he had been in an entirely different race.
That was the last time we rode together. I may have spoken with him a time or two before I finished law school in May and moved to Japan.
Nuts! Or, the world’s most famous lateral orchiectomy
A couple of years after settling down in the upstairs bedroom of my in-law’s home and beginning what would become an illustrious career as a world-famous English teacher in Japan (“What did you today?” “Do you like music?” “I’m from Texas.”) I heard the big news. Lance had won the world road championships in Oslo, just down the road from Granger. I called his mom in Plano and congratulated her. She told me with excitement and pride about how she got to meet the king of Norway.
A few years later I read about his death sentence, and called Linda again. We spoke briefly, and I told her how much I hoped Lance would pull through. She handed the phone over to her husband, a rather gruff guy. “He’s gonna be just fine. He’s gonna be a-okay.”
“No,” I thought. “He’s going to be dead.” It was a funny feeling, that kid who’d held all the cards and played them so well, never laying down anything but aces, the kid who, before he was twenty already knew how the world was going to look, dead from cancer before he ever reached thirty.
We all know how that story ended. He pulled seven aces out of his ass and won the biggest bike race seven times in a row. And then on Friday of last week, he plunked down another one. Still in charge. Still playing the jocksniffers before they play him. Still shitting aces.
He’s a lot more complicated than he was in 1991, but that residual admiration, that lingering aroma of the jock, that primal bowing of the head before the chieftain…there’s something there that won’t ever go away, at least for me. I’ve sat on the wheel, suffered a beatdown by one of the greatest riders ever, and finished the fucking ride. Forget that he never broke a sweat.
If you’ve ever read Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, you’ll get why the smell overpowers the rational brain and makes us, once again, reptiles.
So as far as my Lance predictions go, I have a lifetime batting average of .500: greatest cyclist since Eddy Merckx, check. Dead from cancer…not so much.
Last night I was at Cynergy Cycles in Santa Monica, and who should walk in to buy a tire but Tom Danielson. He hung around for a few minutes and chatted with us old farts. He is personable, engaging, and a world class athlete, and after we prodded him he told us a few tales about some of the climbing records he has set. His tale about breaking Lance’s record on the Madone outside of Nice by forty seconds had us hanging on every word.
And I couldn’t help thinking as my nose perked up…”What’s that smell?”
February 7, 2012 § 4 Comments
The sun did not shine. It was too wet to ride.
So we sat in the house. And we felt like we’d died.
I sat there with Sally, we sat there we two.
And I said, “How I’d love to go biking with you!”
Too wet to go out and too cold to pedal.
So we sat there forlorn. Like Hansel and Gretel.
We stared at our bikes and thought Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!
And we did not like it. No time trial or crit.
And then something went WHAM!
And we both said, “Goddamn!”
We looked! Then we saw him roll in with a flex!
All filthy and gnarly! Big, bad MMX!
And he said to us, “What? Are your bikes total wrecks?
“I know it is wet. And the roads are all rough.
“But we can find out who’s the wimp and who’s tough!”
“My Ride, Belgian Waffles, we’ll do,” said the dude.
“And if you’re a Fred you’ll be totally screwed.”
“A lot of good roads. I will show them to you.
“There’s only one catch!” And he looked at us two.
Then Sally and I we both looked kind of dumb.
Our wheelsucking style was what we called “fun.”
But our goat said, “No! No! Make that dude go outside!
“Tell that dude in the tights you do NOT want to ride.
“He should not be here, Belgian Waffles and all!
“I’ve heard of that ride! It’s a two-fisted brawl!”
“Now! Now!” said the dude. “Have no fear. Have no fear!”
“As long as you work, we’ll swill good Belgian beer.”
“But if you’re adjudged at the back to have dawdled,
“You won’t be rewarded or fawned on or coddled.”
“In fact,” said the dude as he pushed us outside,
“You’ll flat rue the day that you learned how to ride.”
The goat by this time was astraddle my bars
As crazily fast we three weaved through the cars.
“Take me back!” said the goat. “I hate it up here!
“I do my best work sucking wheel in the rear!”
The dude simply grinned as he cut through the wind.
“Oh, goat, now’s the day for your sins you will pay
“As the wind and the rain and the cold have their sway.”
“With the bugs in your teeth! The throttle full bore!
“But that is not ALL I can do! No, there’s more!
“Look at you! Look at you now!” said the dude.
“All panting and hacking! Your brain fairly stewed!
“You see what it’s like at the tip of the spear?
“It’s not quite as easy as back in the rear.
“And look! We don’t have to stay just where it’s paved!
“The dirt and the cobbles are yet to be braved.
“Follow my wheel if you can, though it’s hard
“And not much like farting around in the yard.
“Grip the bars tight but don’t fight for control,
“Take the bumps easy and let the wheels roll.
“Feel the wheels slip as you let the wheels slide,
“And soon you Freds both will be able to ride.
“And rather than cower and quaver and quake,
“The gnarliest, bad-assedest pulls you’ll soon take.”
That is what the dude said.
Then I fell like a Fred!
My goofy maneuver damn near cleared the decks,
It knocked down poor Sally and shook MMX.
I hit with a thud and my mouth filled with crud.
I said, “Do I like this? The warm spurting blood?”
“This is not a good ride,” said our goat as I crashed.
“My horns are all blunt and my side fairly thrashed.”
“Now look what you did!” said the goat to the dude.
“His shorts are all ripped! He’s riding half nude!
“You fucked up his frame and her nice carbon rim,
“And tore the nice kit that was given to him.
“We SHOULD NOT be riding our bikes in this shit!
“You take us home now! We won’t ride one more bit!”
“But I like it out here where it’s nasty and wet,”
Said the dude on the bike to the goat he’d just met.
“I won’t take you home, or tuck tail like some pup.
“The ride has just started, so man the fuck up!
“Your sad sack maneuvers, your wheelsucking game,
“Is frankly pathetic, disgusting, and lame.
And then he looked down and he dropped it a cog,
His mighty quads flexing, I flailed like a dog.
And just as we thought we’d crack, crater, and blow,
He looked back and said “95 miles to go.”
Then he got up on top of the big, massive gear,
“I call this game RIP OFF YOUR LEGS,” did he leer.
“In this locker of pain you’re now bound up inside,
“You will find something new, from which you can’t hide.
“These things that you’ll find here are truer than true,
“A view of yourself that’s entirely new.”
And out came two things, clad in stylish SPY Blue,
As pitilessly they spun out a tattoo.
A tattoo of pain, and they rolled like a train,
And they said to us, “Watch how we sprint in the rain.”
“Would you like to match pulls with SPY One and SPY Two?”
And Sally and I did not know what to do.
So we hopped in the line with SPY One and SPY Two.
We each took a pull. But our goat said, “No! No!
“Don’t rotate like that! Your poor legs will blow!
“We should not be here in the muck or the storm!
“Let’s beat a retreat where it’s toasty and warm!”
“SPY One and SPY Two,” said the dude on the bike.
“Don’t give a goddamn what you hate or you like.”
“They are here to take names. They are here to kick ass.
“And you’re on their list, and it don’t say ‘free pass.’
“Now, here is a game that they like,” said the dude.
“They call this game ’53-12.’ In the mood?”
“Not 53-12!” said the goat in great fear.
“We’ve never held pace in so monstrous a gear!
“Oh, the speeds they will go! Oh, the pain they’ll inflict!
“How did we wind up in this mess? We’ve been tricked!”
Then Sally and I saw the big rings engage.
We shuddered in pain as they pedaled in rage.
They flew through the mud, we were covered in it,
The rain and the cold and the muck and the shit.
SPY Two and SPY One! They went faster than fast!
The hours turned to minutes so quick did time pass.
Our faces all covered with muddy spit flecks,
All grinning the while was big MMX.
Then those Things hit the gas with big bumps, thumps and whacks,
And with sprints and big jumps and all kinds of attacks.
And I said, “I’m beginning to like how they play!
“Are those balls down below that I’ve grown here today?”
Then our goat said, “Look! Look!” And our goat shook with fear.
“You’re about to get dropped! Suck wheel at the rear!
“What if you come off? What will your friends think?
“They’ll scorn you and laugh and they’ll say that you stink!
“Suck some wheel! Fast!” said the goat. “Do you hear!
“Your limit of lactate, your threshold is near!”
“As fast as you can, race back to the back!
“You’ll have to forget that you want to grow sack!”
I looked at the goat but his offer I spurned,
With heroes like this, this much had I learned.
‘Tis better to pull on the point with your crew,
Get beat down and fail, the best you can do,
Than to finish respected by no one but you.
I moved to the front and I pulled for a while,
And then through the slime and the mud did he smile.
I said to the dude, “Now, buddy, I’m done.
“‘Twas harder than nails, but its own kind of fun.”
“You pussy,” he said. “It’s not over yet.”
“The road isn’t finished, we’re still soaking wet.”
“Hop on, you poor sod, for this much I’ll say,
“In doing your best, what you’ve earned for today,
“Not sneaking or skulking or trying to steal,
“A free ride on some fellow traveler’s wheel,
“I’ll haul your ass home, so just tuck in behind
“But don’t be surprised if it’s work there you find.”
And then all the pain and the hurt heretofore,
Was as flowers in spring to the beatdown in store
For Sally and me as we clung to his rear,
Our tongues in our spokes as he shifted each gear.
And when we looked up, only sunshine remained.
Aside from our kits, you’d not know it had rained.
He dropped us off quick, with a nod of respect,
And then he was gone, but we didn’t expect
That he’d leave us with such an amazing attraction
A feeling of deep inner self-satisfaction,
The knowledge that taking’s a shiny, bright star,
But giving’s so truly much better, by far.
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February 5, 2012 § 9 Comments
Everything was going fine. There we were, whizzing along at 46 mph in a tightly grouped bunch of grizzled codgers, when we rounded a modestly tight bend. Zing! Perky floated across the center line (bad), locked up the brakes (worse), and went flying headfirst into a tree (worstest).
A collective “Thank God it’s not me” shuddered through the peloton, as some of his Big Orange teammates looked caringly, with great briefness, in the direction of his crumpled body.
Suddenly, things no longer seemed fine, and a concatenation of worries flashed across my mind. “What am I doing here? Why are elderly men with prostate issues crashing their bikes into trees at just under 50 miles per hour? How am I going to get that embrocation off my balls?”
Then I realized: weird shit always happens at the Boulevard Social Hour.
Take a chance on me
The race stages a mile or so down the hill from the Golden Acorn Casino, which is a good name to symbolize the opportunities that await at the road race. The acorn is a tiny little booger, and even if it were solid gold would barely be worth a couple hundred bucks–about the prize money you could expect to win for one of the road race events if you took all top ten placings. And of course, for most of the 70 some-odd idiots who signed up for the 45+ race, the chance of winning was slimmer than getting a $25 payout at the Golden Acorn.
Unlike last year, where I planned a convincing win but instead got dropped halfway up the four-mile climb on the first lap, my goals for 2012 were more modest: finish the first lap with the leaders. Everything else would be gravy. And after watching Perky climb that tree on his bike, I added “finish without hitting a tree” to the list.
In the staging area, wedged between the double-wides and the single toilet for all 300 racers that had a 30-minute wait and a 2-year smell coming out of it, I took stock of the competition. There was the short fat guy in the painted on skinsuit. “What the fuck is that wanker doing here? Didn’t he get the memo about the 6-mile climb followed by the 4-mile climb followed by the paramedic tent? Idiot.”
There was the big, tall, fat guy lathered in tattoos and wearing a half-polka dotted maroon kit from Team Dude Chick. “Did he take a wrong turn looking for the transvestite bar? This is a fucking road race. A hard one. For hard men. Jesus.”
Over there was a gnome with crooked legs and triple-bent spine. “Fuck. The nursing home is back in El Cajon. Maybe they let him out of the Alzheimer’s ward for the day to play the slots and he wandered down here by mistake.”
These few minutes of rolling around in the bright sunshine reminded me that, sunshine or not we were still at 4,000 feet and it wouldn’t take much for the 60-degree weather to drop. Something like, say, a howling wind. Which there was.
The roar of a hundred men
Moments before the gun sounded, a Breakaway from Cancer rider shouted to us. “Hey! Listen up! Today is Glass Hip’s birthday! Let’s sing him a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday!'”
At first everyone thought it was a joke, and then the wisecracks started. “What about a chorus of ‘Hungry Like the Wolf” or “Nasty by Janet Jackson?”
After the jeers subsided, the 70 raspy voices broke into a half-hearted rendition of the birthday classic. Glass Hip, touched all the way down to his artificial joint, allowed as how he’d “never been more prettily serenaded by an uglier group of post-menopausal men.”
And off we went, about 30 of us to a bike race, another 39 of us to a one-or-two lap beatdown, and me to my doom.
A note to the makers of BonkBreaker
When we hit the bottom of the long climb on the first lap my legs felt great. A nasty acceleration at the front strung us out and summarily dropped everyone who hadn’t already quit or run into a tree. I smiled to myself. “Is this the best these alleged national and former world champions have? Puh-leeze.”
Halfway up the climb, almost exactly where I’d come off the year before, a rather unpleasant sensation began building up in my legs. In seconds it had spread to my lungs, throat, head, and finally my eyes. In a few more seconds I watched the lead group ride away.
It came to my attention that, without the shelter of the group, there was a vicious, horribly cold headwind. I crumpled as the long line of shellees pushed on by. After the world’s longest mile we reattached to the lead, and I remembered that part of my pre-game nutrition plan had been to eat one peanut butter BonkBreaker per lap.
The pace had slowed and I reached into my jersey and fished one out. I’m not sure why, but they are housed in ceramic-titanium wrapping, which is easy to open with a blowtorch, but impossible to tear into with your teeth.
Starving, terrified that a bonk was near, and too tightly wedged into the pack to take both hands off the bars (I could see the headline now: Cat 4 Wanker Loses Control of Bike Trying to Open Candy Wrapper, Kills Great American Cycling God Thurlow Rogers) I began to wrestle with the packaging.
The harder I bit and pulled, the more it didn’t open, until in desperation I was jerking so hard that I could feel my back molars start to give in their sockets. This headline wasn’t much better: 45+ Wanker Pulls All Rear Teeth Out of Gums in Epic Battle for Lump of Peanut Butter.
All this pulling with my teeth meant that no air had been getting to my lungs. Now it was either open the package or pass out. Miraculously the wrapper tore and in a flash I had half the thick, dry, lumpy treat in my mouth. A simultaneously massive inhalation almost rammed it down my windpipe, but at the last second I wrestled it over to the side of my mouth with my tongue.
The oxygen debt from the wrapper battle was huge, and I began gasping as I tried to gulp down enough air. Unable to chew, the spit soaked the brown lump and dissolved part of it. Before I could swallow the liquified part of the goop we hit the sharp climb through the aptly named “feed zone.”
Now on the tail of the lead and coming unhitched, it was impossible to do anything but gasp for air. Having gone to this much effort to get the BonkBreaker into my mouth, I wasn’t about to spit it out. Instead, the violent exhalations forced the dark brown spitgoop out of my mouth, along my cheeks and down my chin.
Thrust up against the line of shouting spectators, each person saw me from mere inches as I labored by. “Oh my God,” I heard one horrified woman say. “He’s vomiting up his own shit!”
The people in front of her on the hill looked as I came by, my face contorted in pain. A little boy looked, fascinated and happy, as the brown chunks began to spill out. “And he’s trying to swallow it back down, too!” This was perhaps the grimmest headline of all: 45+ Wanker Pukes up Own Feces, Re-Eats it to Survive Mindlessly Hard Road Race.”
That’s Mr. Gnome to you, Wanky
At the top of the feed zone the pack had left me. Again. And unlike last year, when I’d had a few dropaway companions to slog along with, this time I was alone with 42 miles to go and an impossibly freezing headwind to contend with. Suddenly, who should whiz by but the wizened gnome from the staging area. He was on a mission, and unbeknownst to him, part of his mission was about to include me.
I hopped onto his wheel and he lit into the downhill. The leaders were in sight and he was determined to catch. We raced into the stretch where the road began to rise again and there on the side of the road was a poor hapless sod from Big Orange, JF, changing a rear wheel on the side of the road. “Poor bastard,”I thought. “Gonna be flailing by himself the rest of the race. He’s never catching us.”
Mr. Gnomes railed us to within a couple of hundred yards of the pack and then swung over for me to close the last bit of pavement. I pulled heroically for a few seconds before my legs returned to their former rubbery state. He came through and charged as hard as he could, then popped, and the leaders vanished ’round the bend.
It was going to be a very long day, and I started thinking about starting up a conversation with Mr. Gnomes. Just as I’d hit upon an icebreaker, I heard the sound of whizzing carbon rims. In a flash we were passed by JF. I leaped for his wheel, realizing that he, too was on a mission, and it too, if properly utilized, could include me. Mr. Gnomes, after nobly helping me this far and sacrificing himself for a complete stranger, was left pitilessly behind.
We made it!
JF was going fast when he came by, but upon hitting the downhill he opened up the jets. Occasionally looking back to see if I would help with the effort, he soon realized that he was carrying the deadest of deadwood. Somehow Mr. Gnomes time trialed back on, and the two of them smashed and bashed and beat the pedals to a fare-thee-well, while I thanked them from the bottom of my heart.
After a couple of miles we started seeing the taillights from the motor just around the next curve, and another mile later the entire 45+ field was right there. A more beautiful sight I have never seen, and to make matters sweeter I had been dragged back up without having to do a lick of work. Mr. Gnomes was starting to pedal squares, but I figured I’d wait until they were proper triangles before relieving him.
We caught just at the railroad tracks, and the final effort up that sharp bump was too much for Mr. Gnomes, who shattered and fell back, never to see the leaders again. I felt deeply for him as I straggled onto the rear. Poor Mr. Gnomes. He was such a good fellow. And a hard worker. To be dumped mercilessly by a freeloading freddie just at the moment of success…it was almost too much for me to think about. So I didn’t.
A few seconds passed and the road began the first rise. The Tragedy of Gnomes evaporated from my mind and the Execution of Wanky, Act II, came to the fore. JF had caught his breath and then shot to the front. “That,” I said, “is exactly what I must do. Shoot to the front. Because it’s dangerous back here.”
I shot to the front, and relaxed in safety amongst the rainbow jersey and red-white-blue collars and sleeves. The road rose slightly. With a power and speed that amazed even me, I shot backwards again. And kept shooting, all the way out the back. For good. The pack rolled away.
Pleased to make your acquaintance
In the next few miles I became acquainted with a kindly gentleman who by day is a sociologist and statistician. We exchanged pleasantries before he dropped me and rode away. Two other riders came by. I tried to engage them in conversation, but they had better places to be than a windswept, barren desert climb with the sun quickly going down and hypothermia in the offing. On the long climb I was even passed by Ol’ Grizzles, the aged, mustachioed chap with densely furred legs. He encouraged me with a “Come on, buddy!” but he would have gotten a better reaction from one of the large boulders on the side of the road.
Back in the feed zone people eyed me strangely. I crested the hill and by came Mr. Gnomes. “Fuck this shit,” he said. “I’m done.”
With one whole lap to go, I was next passed by the leaders in the pro-1-2 field. Going up the next grade, the referee slowed down his motor. “The 1-2 field is coming.”
“Am I the last 45+?”
“What number is that? 500’s? Nah, they’re all over the course behind you.”
This was the shot in the arm that would get me around the course. With a hard enough effort I might place 26th! I sprinted up the climb and dropped into the long downhill. Along came the 1-2 field and the follow motor. Behind the follow motor was the short fat guy with the painted on skinsuit. I hopped on. We drafted the motor as long as we could, which wasn’t nearly long enough.
We crossed the railroad tracks and the fat guy dropped me. Next to come along was the tattooed rider from Team Dude Chick. He was in dude mode. Although he looked too big to get up the grade without a helium balloon, he was amazingly fast. Or I was amazingly slow. Or both. He, too, left me by myself before we could get a good lively conversation going. Quite unfriendly of him, it seemed.
About a thousand years later I finished. Incredibly, there were eight people slower and dumber than I. By now I was frozen to the bone, but not too frozen to stop and ask Glass Hip, who was changing a flat on his car, about the race that I had been in but not really been in.
Thurlow had won. G$ second. Glass Hip destroyed the remnants for third. JF got 8th. Glass Hip looked fresh and happy and relaxed, not like someone who’d just been to hell and decided to live there. “You okay, buddy? What’s that brown stuff all over your face? You need a doctor?”
“I’ll be fine. Thanks.” The temperature had fallen into the 30’s with the wind chill. It was almost dark. I stripped down in front of a double-wide then hopped into the car, cranking the heater full blast. I’d taken my two chances in the race, Mr. Slim and Mr. None, and wound up with the latter. I took that as an omen and rolled on past the Golden Acorn, sorely tempted as I was to try my luck there. It was a long drive home.