April 30, 2013 § 14 Comments
I had a great experience Saturday commuting to work. I normally only ride on Hawthorne from PV to my office in Torrance in the very early morning hours because of the traffic. There are many other routes I can take to work even though Hawthorne is the fastest, and I never object to spending a few extra minutes in the saddle before the onslaught of the workday.
Yesterday, however, I had a client appointment at 1:00 PM and it was already 12:15. There would barely be enough time to get to the office and change unless I took Hawthorne on a sunny SoCal Saturday afternoon. From the top of the Hill to my office, which is just before Del Amo on Hawthorne, I took the lane. The only place I edged over to make way for traffic was on the section of Hawthorne after PV Drive North where there is a nice wide section that allows cars to pass safely at speed.
All the way on Hawthorne the traffic was incredibly dense. At first I was apprehensive, but I just took the whole right lane, and rather than scooting up the side when I caught a red light so that I could be first off the line when it turned green, I patiently waited in the car line for the light to change. The result was awesome. I had zero conflicts and didn’t even try to hammer to “keep up with the flow” which would have been impossible anyway. I’m not sure if it was because weekend traffic is less angry than weekday commuter traffic, or if this is really how “take the lane” works most of the time, but it certainly raised my confidence level and left me feeling like an equal on the road rather than a hated obstacle.
Vehicular cyclists believe that bikes are vehicles and therefore entitled to use roadways without being forced into riding like gutter bunnies, or having to navigate crazy-ass bike lanes that stop after a mile or that scrunch you into the door zone.
A good experience like Saturday gets me a lot closer to seeing it from the vehicular cycling point of view.
April 28, 2013 § 154 Comments
USA Cycling hates black people.
You think that’s an exaggeration? I don’t. And in fact, it’s hardly surprising. African-Americans have been discriminated against in the sport of cycling since its very inception. The greatest American bike racer of all time, and one of the greatest athletes ever, Major Taylor, was a black man. Virtually every race he ever started began and ended with racial epithets, threats of violence, and race hatred of the worst kind.
Cycling’s hatred of black people was global. When Taylor went to Europe and destroyed the best track racers in the world on their home turf, founder of the Tour de France Henri Desgrange, a noted racist, was so incensed that he refused to pay Taylor’s prize money in banknotes and insisted that he be paid in one-centime pieces.
Taylor quit the sport he dominated because he couldn’t take the relentless racial hatred. He died a pauper.
White people succeed, black people are a threat
The history of most major American sports goes like this: White people create the sport and set up the rules so that black people can’t play. African-Americans begin playing in segregated leagues, and they are so good that some white team somewhere decides it would rather risk the wrath of segregationists than keep losing, so it recruits a star black player.
The black player stomps the snot out of the white players, sets records, and generally blows away the competition. All the while he’s doing this, the athlete deals with death threats, constant harassment, segregated facilities, inferior wages, and grudging acceptance.
Finally, other teams begin recruiting blacks, and the African-American becomes much more highly represented in the professional league than he is as a percentage of the population. White people call this integration. Blacks call it having to be ten times better to get a fraction of the wages and benefits of their white counterparts.
Cycling’s no different
Like NASCAR, competitive cycling remains an extremely white sport in the U.S.A. Unlike stock car racers, though, there are tens of thousands of black recreational cyclists. Cities like Los Angeles have large and thriving African-American cycling clubs and riding groups. But when it comes to competition, there are few black racers compared to the number who ride recreationally.
One reason is likely cost. Unlike baseball, basketball, and football, which either have low equipment costs or are available through the schools, cycling requires kids to purchase expensive equipment that is beyond the reach of most working families.
Another reason is USA Cycling. In addition to having no blacks on its board, the organization does nothing to promote cycling among blacks. To the contrary, it goes out of its way to discourage them and to pass up opportunities to get poor children on bikes.
Remember Nelson Vails?
USA Cycling’s favorite way of passing up opportunities is by ignoring the sport’s black spokesmen. If you started racing in the 1980’s one of the guys you probably admired was Nelson Vails. In addition to his silver medal in the 1984 Olympics, he and Mark Gorski were the dominant track sprinters of their day.
Nowadays Nelson crisscrosses the country marketing his brand of cycling products and participating in “Ride with Nelly” events that bring together black cyclists as well as any others who want to chat and ride with a living legend.
USA Cycling’s interest in working together with Vails, or highlighting his contributions to the sport, or using him as an ambassador to the black community, or working with him to get more inner city kids on bikes? Zero. Vails does it on his own.
Contrast that with the old boy network at USA Cycling, an organization whose board is whiter than a Klansman’s bedsheet, and how it deals with other stars of the 80’s. Jim Ochowicz was head of USA Cycling for four years during Dopestrong’s heyday and as recently as 2012 was saying that Lance Armstrong “earned every victory he’s had” to anyone who would listen.
Mark Gorski worked for USA Cycling as director of corporate development, and Chris Carmichael, another white hero from back in the day, worked for USA Cycling from 1990-1997 as national director of coaching. Carmichael is infamous for the forced injection of drugs into junior national team cyclists, a despicable act that led to litigation and a confidential settlement in 2001.
Nelson Vails? The charismatic, gregarious, friendly Olympic silver medalist who travels year-round promoting cycling all over the USA? Zip. Zilch. Nada.
Why? In my opinion, it’s because he’s black.
Letting black racers know they’re not wanted
This policy of ignoring great black cyclists and turning a blind eye to the development of cycling in the black community isn’t limited to ignoring old heroes. The best black bike racer in cycling today, Rahsaan Bahati, former national champion and perennial force in big national crits, continues to be singled out by USA Cycling because he’s black.
Two years ago Bahati was deliberately crashed out at the Dana Point Grand Prix. The video is breathtaking. After the accident, Bahati slammed his sunglasses to the ground in anger, for which he was fined and suspended. [Update: Readers noted that Bahati actually threw his glasses at the oncoming pack, and later took responsibility for his fine and suspension.]
The rider who crashed him out received no penalty at all, even though the whole thing was on video and is one of the most brazen examples of evil and malicious bike riding you have ever seen. Check the video here if you don’t believe me. Seconds 39-42 are unbelievable, but not as unbelievable as the fact that the rider who got punished was Bahati.
Similarly, at an April race in Florida, a spectator reported Bahati as having caused a crash. USA Cycling suspended him, but not before telling him that he could “appeal” if he paid a $300 fee. As a courtesy, they provided him with the provisional ruling. Hint: After we take your money we’re still going to suspend you. Bahati has now missed three of the most important and potentially lucrative races on his calendar.
Get it? Someone intentionally crashes out the black dude and the black dude gets suspended. Someone reports that the black dude caused a crash, someone not even in the race, and the black dude gets suspended.
Get it? The black dude gets suspended.
The travesty goes beyond the obvious. Bahati is one of the few successful pros of any color who spends significant time and money spreading the cycling gospel. In Milwaukee last year he visited an elementary school to fire up black kids about cycling. USA Cycling, rather than lending a hand, prefers to designate him as Public Enemy.
Race and the local crit
The irony is that black bike racers don’t get into the sport to make a political statement. They do it because they like racing bikes. What’s even more to the point, among local racers in Southern California there’s relatively little racial friction when blacks race with whites, although the Rule of Black still applies: You better be twice as good as your white counterpart if you want their respect.
Respect, of course, is exactly what riders like Justin Williams, Corey Williams, Charon Smith, and Kelly Henderson have earned. Guys like Rome Mubarak in NorCal, and Mike Davis and Pischon Jones in SoCal are just a few of the black bike racers who mix it up in the group rides and races every week, but for every one of them there are a hundred more black cyclists who should be racing and winning.
USA Cycling’s approach to growing the black base? Suspend the most charismatic spokesman and ambassador of fair play in a kangaroo court.
Tell ’em how you feel
If you think that your voice doesn’t matter, you’re right. If you think it does matter, you’re right.
USA Cycling deserves to know that you find its treatment of Bahati and its failure to support black cycling despicable. Email their CEO, Steve Johnson, at firstname.lastname@example.org with this simple message: “Free Bahati.”
And you can tell him I sent you.
April 26, 2013 § 21 Comments
When I rolled up with my daughter and son in-law to the Ruby’s Diner in Redondo Beach, I was out of my comfort zone. I’d taken up Jim Hannon of Beach Cities Cycling Club on his invitation to join his ride up to LA’s Ciclavia. We would intersect Ciclavia in Venice and then take part in the daylong cycling festivities.
What is Ciclavia? It is proof that Los Angeles is one of the great cities in the world. More importantly, it’s the most subversive and revolutionary activity I’ve ever been part of.
The city shuts down a major road or series of roads to car traffic and makes the streets the province of people and bicycles rather than automobiles. When we merged with the event, which had already been going on for a couple of hours, I thought I would be prepared to see one of LA’s most iconic roadways, Venice Boulevard, clogged with 200,000 people riding bicycles.
State-sponsored subversion is the best subversion
And until you do the Ciclavia, you won’t be ready for it either, because it completely upends our notions of what this city is, what the streets are for, and who the people are who really make up our larger community. For example, did you know there’s a guy who rides a fourteen-foot high bicycle with no brakes that is so tall he has to mount it from the second floor of an office building? I suppose he’s doing his part to convince skeptics that bicycle riders aren’t batshit crazy.
Did you know there’s a group called Compton South Side Riders for World Peace who have the most beautiful hand-crafted chrome easy-riders that you’ve ever seen?
Did you know that the fat lady lying flat on her back with the paramedics trying to get her heart going again shouldn’t have eaten so many gutbusting lardburgers before throwing a leg over and riding 35 miles from downtown to the sea and back?
Did you know that LA is a brown city?
Did you know that tens of thousands of children have bicycles and love to ride them in the street?
Did you know that most people don’t ride bicycles with stretchy lycra panty thingies?
Did you know that cars are the enemy, and that they are not vital to our existence?
Did you know that with planning and cooperation, huge swaths of a city like LA, famed for traffic snarls and the supposed “automobile love affair,” can be turned into one giant playground for kids, families, and people who just want to enjoy being outdoors?
Did you know that if you open the streets to people on bicycles, small businesses have an actual competitive advantage over the giant chain stores?
Did you know that tens of thousands of people ride fixed-gear bicycles and virtually none of them are hipsters?
Did you know that the police are smiling and in a good mood when they’re policing bike traffic instead of chasing cars on the freeways, in fear for their lives and ready to shoot on sight?
Did you know that bicycles bring people together because bicycles are a metaphor for freedom, and a tool to make people free?
That’s “Mr. Fred” to you, pal
I would discover these and a thousand more things, but at the start of the ride I had my hands full grappling with my stereotypes. The Beach Cities Cycling Club people were the kind of people I never ride with, and their behavior was so bizarre that after we’d gone a half-mile I wondered whether I could make the ride. Of all the weird things they did, the weirdest was talking. Yep, they talked to each other, and I don’t mean the conversation you and I have on the bike, you know, this one:
“Hey. How’s it going?”
Followed, of course, by a flurry of attacks and panting and gasping and a relentless 2-hour hammerfest.
No, the BCCC folks had these weird conversations that were slow paced, that exchanged information, that were filled with laughter, and in which the people actually got to know each other. And no one screamed at anyone else or shouted, “Pull through, wanker!”
Like I said, I was freaking out.
The weirdness of this crowd intensified as we rode. They stopped at every single red light. The first time I almost crashed out. “Don’t they know that those lights are suggestions?” I wondered.
They stopped at stop signs, too. “Wow,” I thought. “So that’s what those are for.”
They pointed out obstacles in the road instead of swerving at the last minute and dragging the rest of the group over the open manhole cover.
Then, the thing that blew my mind was the sweeper. That’s right. They had a dude who was one of the stronger riders sit at the back and make sure no one came unhitched or got lost. “WTF?” I wondered. “As long as they’ve got a sweeper, how are they going to bury and abandon somebody 50 miles from home? How are they going to shred their friends in a paceline and leave them for dead? How are they going to attack, out-sprint, drop, and humiliate the people they like? Don’t they know that cycling is supposed to be an extended index of misery and pain?”
Clearly they didn’t, and then an even weirder thing happened. I started talking to the person next to me. Like, it was a real conversation, the kind I’m told people have with their spouses. By the time we reached Venice I was relaxed and had gotten to make friends with several different people, learning more about them in a few short miles than I’d learned about the countless cyclists I regularly meet up with on the Donut Ride or NPR. For the first time since I was a kid I was on my bike and the purpose of the activity wasn’t riding the bike.
“It’s not about the bike,” I told myself. “Hey, that’s a good name for a book.”
The ride was fun, but the fun didn’t involve a beatdown. I can’t really describe it. It was fun without being painful and awful and ending with a crushing defeat. I know, you can’t understand it, either. But it was. Why? Because this pain-free fun stuff, well, it’s pretty cool.
And on June 23, the date of the next Ciclavia, I’m doing it again.
April 20, 2013 § 9 Comments
I’m no patriot.
I don’t love my country, right or wrong.
I don’t think this is the greatest nation on earth.
And I don’t believe that soldiers are heroes.
The nickname that’s not a nickname
One of our South Bay stalwarts we call “Major.” What with all of the nicknames that get bestowed in the peloton, it’s easy to forget that we call him “Major” for a reason: He’s a major in the Air Force, and he’s nothing like Yossarian’s Major Major.
Our Major never skips a pull. Our Major never gaps out. Our Major always makes the break.
Most importantly, our Major is always straight up. You’ll get a good word when you do right, and a sharp rebuke when you don’t.
Looking for sugar coating? Look somewhere else.
The day job
Amidst the silliness of cycling in the South Bay, we often forget about the real world. Maybe that’s the point. Then something happens to remind us about the hungry maw of toothy reality that’s there whether we acknowledge it or not.
I learned via a Facebook invitation that there would be a send-off party today for Major. Send-off for what? Deployment number three. I don’t believe in patriotism or foreign wars. But I believe in my friends.
I believe in this guy’s honesty, decency…his humanity. I’ve seen it too often not to know what a rare man he is, and the thought of him going off to a war zone, again, fills me with fear and dread.
It fills me with dread not because he’s a hero but because he’s a good friend going off to do a dangerous job. But then I think about him as a representative of our country. I think about his character and his uncomplaining yet fully aware attitude towards his work. I think about how, of all my friends, he’s the one who never brags about his country or makes a big deal about what he does for a living, though he’s the one entitled to do both. I think about how when people abroad see him they will think he’s a typical American.
Then, reflexively and unconsciously and even embarrassed I flush with pride. Come back to us safely, Major. If you’re the face of our nation I guess I’m a patriot after all.
April 18, 2013 § 8 Comments
My most recent post is on the Cycling Illustrated web site at http://cyclingillustrated.com/2013/04/shift_er-by-seth-davidson/
They’re running it for five days on their web site before I port it over to my blog. I’m going to be posting two columns a month on their site. They’re doing an incredible job publicizing local and national cycling events, and I’m really pleased that they’ve included me in their efforts.
You can order a print version of their magazine from their web site. They were kind enough to ask me to do the lead-off column for their inaugural issue, and even threw in a photograph that made me look like I was semi-sort of-halfway-potentially legit on the bike. You and I, of course, know better.
April 18, 2013 § 6 Comments
I was Campy until about 1990. That’s when I got my first downtube “click shifters.” I rode Shimano from then on, and in 2008 upgraded to “handlebar shifters” along with my first plastic bike.
The handlebar shifters were always mushy, never crisp. It was explained to me that the sloppiness was the result of the longer cable. Downtube shifters have a shorter cable so they’re snappier. Being a stupid mule, I accepted this explanation, since it was prattled by people who knew so much more than I did, i.e. people who could change out a cassette or tape their own handlebars.
In September I got a ‘cross bike and it came with SRAM stuff. When you go from one long-owned brand to a new one, especially shifters, it causes you to break out in hives. “SRAM!! Oh, wow…can I really do this?”
I could, and did.
SRAM v. Shim
The SRAM stuff had one really nice feature–gigantic shifter paddles that were easy to reach and easy to push. The SRAM stuff had another really nice feature–it was much sharper than the sloppy seconds Shimano.
But it had one killer downside, too. It hated upshifting under a load, and upshifting on a road bike is what it’s all about. You know what I mean. You’re flailing up the Switchbacks as Craig and John Hall and Danny Heeley and Dan Cobley and Stathis the Wily Greek and the kindly old lady with the basket in front are riding you off their wheel, and you madly try to upshift, mistakenly thinking that the problem is the gear rather than your puny legs, feeble heart, and teacup lungs.
This is when you need to upshift, no questions asked, and it needs to be right every single time. Shimano understood this when it designed its stuff, because for all the sag and droop it never mis-shifted with pressure on the pedal going uphill.
Don’t think. Just click. Or as the Nissan ad says, SHIFT. Or a I say, SHIFT_er.
After a few thousand miles of SRAM-ming it on the road, I found that however much smoother and solid and quick the SRAM stuff was, once you started trying to shift uphill or under a big pedal load, it shifted reluctantly, or worse, it did that thing and made that sound I’d forgotten even existed: The sound of grinding gears.
Money can’t buy you love, but it can apparently buy you the perfect shift
One fine day, however, Shimano corrected all aspects of its infamous mush with the introduction of electronic shifting. Now it was just as perfect and effortless as the transmission in your car. You touched the button and boom–you got a perfect shift every single time.
What’s that? You don’t have $4k to spend on your bike’s transmission? Sucks to be you.
And so it sucked to be me, as I fiddled along with my recalcitrant upshifting SRAM, dreaming of the day when I could retire, cash out my IRA, and use the entire thing to buy my dream gruppo, the perfectly shifting Shimano Di2.
Then one day while climbing Via del Monte and trying to upshift a chain that was covered in dirt and sand and old lube and slathered with bad memories of my BWR recon ride the day before, all the while cursing a bit at the reluctance of the derailleur to quickly and cleanly do its job, a thought occurred to me. “What if I do what we used to do in the old days?”
You know, the days when shifting was a skill?
Oh, you don’t?
Let me explain.
When shifting was a skill
Time was when bicycle chains didn’t shift themselves and hop all over the place at your beck and call. In fact, they obeyed Newton’s Law of Chains: A chain at rest will not upshift unless you know what the hell you’re doing.
There were lots of ways to know you had a wanker in the group, and not just because he was wearing tennis shoes with his toeclips. You knew because he couldn’t shift properly. Yep, that’s right. Shifting up a cog, especially under a load, took lots and lots of practice.
Even the best stuff made, the awesomely incredibly drool-inducing Campy Record that we actually saved up for and that no one ever, ever, ever put on his very first road bike, required you to slightly ease up on the stroke between noon and two o’clock in the pedal rotation when going up a gear. And since easing up meant slowing down, the art of the shift lay in relaxing the bare minimum to coax the chain up onto the next cog. Slow down just enough to shift and don’t relent one fraction of a pedal push more than necessary.
When you were in deep dookey and you had to hop up two or even three cogs, the differences in ability became more pronounced. Wankers would grind and clank and mash their chain between the cogs, and true flailers would throw the chain and tip over. Part of riding a bike, and absolutely part of racing a bike, meant mastery over the chain.
Push just right and fiddle with your Sixth Sense
If there was an art to relaxing pressure on the pedal in order to sweet talk the chain to upshift, it required a sixth sense when it came to finding the right cog. It took thousands and zillions of shifts to know exactly how much and how far to push or pull the shifter in order to get it smack on the cog you were seeking. Once on the cog, it often took a micro adjustment or two to get rid of the slight rattle and buzz.
This little memory lane trip as I thrashed up Via del Monte brought back the other things we actually had to learn through flail and error, things like getting your foot into the toeclip, getting the groove in your cleat over the edge of pedal before cinching the strap, reaching down to cinch the strap just enough to be tight but not so much that the other four toenails also turned black and fell off, loosening the strap prior to coming to the stop sign or stoplight you would probably run anyway, all those things that you learned rather than had gifted to you in the form of some magical invention or mechanical improvement that took out or at least greatly reduced the flailing curve but that also made idiots the equal of pros in many respects without having to pay anything except money.
As I hit the stop sign (and stopped, of course), I clicked the upshift paddle, and ever so slightly, every so Campy Record-ish, ever so old school, relaxed a tad between twelve and two.
She shifted smoother and with less resistance than a forefinger poked into the smooth top of a newly opened jar of Skippy. It was magical. All this fine piece of post-space age equipment had needed was a bit of old school finesse in order to perform to perfection.
Tired as I was, I eagerly awaited the little bum before Granvira Altamira. It rose up. Relax. Shift. On the money, to the penny.
I got home and sat down to the dinner table. “Why are you grinning like that?” she asked.
“Yes. Ear to ear.”
I thoughtfully chewed, then swallowed my food. “I’m smiling because…”
April 14, 2013 § 49 Comments
I got the final results via email. There I was, #95. And who beat me? Who took the coveted spot for 94th? According to the results list, it was someone who had registered as “Dragon Butt.” Get it? Dragging butt. Beaten by someone who was dragging butt.
It sure hadn’t seemed like it would end so ignominiously at the start. Oh, yeah, the start…
Prez had carefully selected his BWR rig from his quiver of orange and red and lime green bikes, and decided to go with the one that had the ultralight brakeset that doesn’t stop very well but is waaay trick. In order to save 3 grams or so of weight, the brakes don’t have the little flipper dealie to open the calipers when you take off a wheel; instead you have to actually disconnect the brake cable from the brake to release the tension so that the calipers open wide enough to slide the wheel out from the fork. Prez had yanked the wheels for the drive down to North County, and upon arrival, in his excitement he reassembled his bike and forgot to connect the brake cables.
Naturally, Prez wanted a little pre-ride warmup, so he stormed up the hill on Las Palmas in front of SPY World HQ to loosen the legs. Atop the little riser, he wheeled around, admired himself briefly in a reflective car window, and bombed back down the steep, short descent. A steady flow of people were crossing the street into the exhibitor and waffle feed area, so he dashingly grabbed a handful of brakes at the very last second after he’d built up a good head of steam.
The brakes, however, grabbed nothing at all, as they were unconnected to the cable. Now Prez found himself barreling at speed into a crowd of women, children, old people, puppies, media, war veterans, and a guy carrying a bucket of nitroglycerin, carefully, so as not to jiggle it and blow up the northern half of Carlsbad.
As luck would have it, this emergency put Prez in the situation he knows best: Crashing. “Been there, done that, and got the rebuilt face and fused brain to prove it,” he chuckled to himself as he laid his $12,000, 3 lb. carbon rig on its side at 30 mph.
Women screamed. Children cried. The fellow with the nitro froze. Prez casually scraped off most of his skin, most of his knuckes, the buckles on his shoe, and half of his elbow as the metal end of his pedal threw up a shower of sparks. Dripping with blood and shredded flesh, and with most of his bike ground into powder, he picked himself up and hobbled over to the starting line, where the race was about to start.
“What the hell happened to you?” someone asked.
“Oh, just a brake malfunction,” he said.
When the gun went off, and for the rest of the ride, he got a wide, wide berth.
Over the top!
Twenty-five miles into the ride, we plunged over the lip at full speed and down into the sand pit, a chaotic mess of bikes, legs, and bodies going end-over-end amid screams, curses, a wall of dust, and the double jar of our wheels pounding on rocks as our minds smashed against the even sharper and less forgiving shoals of reality. Like bison being driven over a cliff, the jumbled confusion instantly transformed the cohesive peloton into a slaughterhouse-bound frenzy where it was every foaming, stampeding rider for himself.
After 25 miles of full-gas “neutrality,” with Strava KOM’s popping and falling like corn kernels in hot oil, the utter awfulness of the 2013 Belgian Waffle Ride had begun, piercing our livers like a rusty meat hook on the very first foot of the very first dirt section. For the 80 or so riders that remained out of the 150 who had started in the first wave, the BWR ended here as well: The leaders leaped over the embankment full-bore, floored it on the rough, sandy, rocky dirt path, and were never seen again.
“Pedal, pedal!” I roared at Dan and Dave, who took the plunge with so much ladylike hesitation that my front end was now about to mix with their rear. They pedaled and soon we were chasing, exertion levels first in the red, then in the purple. The leaders pulled away, their spot marked only by a giant cloud of dust that propelled itself, djinn-like, down the path.
I reached the dismount and lunged at the vertical concrete wall, slipped, then fell backwards onto my bike. My knee punctured and spewed blood. My chain fell off. As I cursed and tried to untangle my legs from my frame, the stampeding herd of 70 remaining bison came rushing up.
“You okay, dude? Need any help?” Brent asked in the middle of a full-on 50 meter dash, and by the time I answered “Yeah, nah,” he was already atop the wall, astride his bike, and racing after the leaders. Other riders leaped over me, ran around me, and scampered madly up the wall.
I re-hung my chain, launched at the wall and fell backwards again, finally getting my plastic road cleats to grip on the third try. Then it occurred to me. “Maybe the nineteen waffles, ten eggs, six packets of syrup, healthy dollops of Tabasco, and five steamer mugs of coffee with cream and sugar weren’t such a great idea.”
“Nor,” my stomach gently suggested, “was last night’s chicken mole, carrot cake, ice cream, yogurt, fruit, and peanut butter.”
Dainty dieters don’t deign to dip
I had gotten to the Sign-in And Waffle Engorgement Area at 6:30, just as food service began. Five or six friends from the South Bay, including Cary and Wankomodo, sat around the table picking at their single quarter-section of waffle, with impending doom and abject fear slathered across their worried faces. Wankomodo carefully dribbled on a few drazzles of syrup.
I piled my plate high with six waffle sections and bathed them with ketchup, syrup, honey, and as much Tabasco and butter as could be balanced atop the food pyramid. “What are you wankers dieting for?” I asked. “Don’t you know you have 130 miles of death ahead of you? The time to diet was December. It’s go-time.”
Cary looked dubiously at my plate. “I’ve been eating all morning during the drive down.”
“Yeah? Eating what? Bonk Breakers, GU, and Barbie food?”
“You need to start laying in stores like you’re a bear getting ready to add three layers of blubber for a long winter.” I swilled my coffee and returned to the line.
Wankomodo, looking nervous, followed me, and piled his second plate with half a dozen pieces of waffle. Cary eventually did, too. “I suppose you’re right,” he said.
Now, several miles into the BWR, all I could think as I mounted my bike after the first section of dirt, was that Cary had supposed wrong. “Why do people ever listen to me? More importantly, why do I ever listen to me?” No answers were forthcoming. Not good ones, anyway.
My “eat until you think you’re going to throw up” pre-race fueling strategy, combined with my strategy to “radically alter your normal morning eating routine before the most important ride of the year” were bearing fruit, and the fruit was bad-tasting, spoiled, and noxious in the extreme.
Unbelievably, as I got up to speed Karl Bordine roared by. I grabbed his wheel and was soon anaerobic. We hit the curlicue of turns that led to the next dirt section, jumped the curb, stroked into the gravel, and saw that the mass of riders who had passed us were now just a few meters ahead.
As they jumped and dove onto the treacherous path that was laced with large, loose chunks of gravel and mixed with sand, it couldn’t have been more of a massacre if someone had climbed one of the palm trees, hauled up a .50 caliber machine gun, and opened fire on the riders below. It was carnage. One rider lost control, veered off the path and onto the giant jagged boulders that lined the river embankment. His front wheel detonated and he launched head-first down the rocky slope into the shallow riverbed, coming to rest in a foot or two of toilet runoff mixed with toxic sludge.
Two other riders bumped and fell. A third dropped a chain, fell over, and flopped in the gravel while a duo of chasers bunny-hopped his leg, one of them almost doing so successfully and only severing what looked like most of the downed rider’s calf.
Within a minute Karl had ridden me off his wheel. “There,” I thought. “Thank Dog. My race is officially over. Now I can kick into Plan B.”
Plan B for “Brokedown”
Plan B was actually Plan A, which was based on my experience in the BWR’s inaugural 2012 edition. The race was so arduous and long that after getting shelled I had sat up at mile 30 and pedaled the remaining 85 miles at my own steady pace. It had been tough but I’d felt good the whole way, especially towards the end, where the toughest part of the course awaited.
In Plan B, by recognizing my own weakness and sluggery and refusing to get caught up in the mini-race dynamics of the chase groups that littered the course, I had picked people off all day long and finished feeling great. In Plan B I’d ridden my ride and finished on my terms: Tired but strong.
The moment Karl blasted away I sat up, grateful that Plan B was going to allow me to drop my heart rate down to the low 300’s. Then Erik Johnson pounded by. “Get on!” he said. Like Pavlov’s dog, I salivated at the sight of the passing wheel. Within seconds I was back in the purple zone, inches off Erik’s wheel in the nasty unstable gravel, trying to follow his line as he hopped from smooth track to smooth track to avoid the giant sharp rock shards that I somehow managed to catch.
After a minute I popped and Erik rode off. “Thank Dog,” I thought, “now I can ride Plan B.”
Thirty seconds of relief ensued, followed by the crunching sound of an overtaking bike. It was Ryan Trebon and Evan Stade, national champion cyclocrosser and the localmotor who would eventually get fifth. I couldn’t believe they were behind me, and I latched on as they passed. Ryan brought us back up to the main chase group, some fifty riders strong. Ryan’s bitter pace soon strung the group into the gutter, fifty baby seals receiving repeated murderous blows to the head.
I drifted to the back of the group just as we hit the first climb, which was paved with gravel and dirt. A few helping hands gave me a push, but I was now deadset on Plan B. The group vanished, spitting out stragglers and strugglers, and reminding them, as if they needed it, that it was going to be a long, miserable day.
A ticklish affair
After settling in and preparing to finish the day, the long, long day, at my own pace, I discovered two things. First, my legs were shot. How do you do 100 miles with 9,000 feet of climbing on dead legs? Second, digestion had worked its wonders and the processes of nature now demanded to run their course.
There was nothing I could do about the dreaded Dead Legs Syndrome, but as each mile passed I began to wonder more and more wildly about Issue #2. When Dave Gonyer caught me a few miles before Couser Canyon and dropped me on the climb, I experienced with him what I would experience the rest of the day: Getting caught and dropped. No one who overtook me was going slow enough; a few minutes after assimilating into each group, I’d pop off the back, whether it was Kelsey Mullen, Kenny Lam, Mike Hotten, Prez, Leibert, Lauren M.; it didn’t matter. No matter how slow anyone was going, my legs were going slower.
There was, however, something I could do about the dreaded “Middle of a Bike Ride and Gotta Go NOW” syndrome, although without TP I was stuck. I agonized along for 80 miles in this miserable state, my insides exploding with the reluctant baby that couldn’t be born just yet, feeling so desperate that I considered wiping with cactus, or my toolbag, when David MacNeal and a group of flailers overtook me again. The pace was fine and it looked like I would be able to ride this one all the way in, a mere 20 or 30 miles to go.
Then, a hundred yards off the road, just as we approached the bottom of Bandy Canyon, I saw it: The bright blue sides and shiny white roof of a port-o-potty. Unfortunately, it was placed in what looked like a citrus grove, behind barbed wire. “Never mind,” I thought. “These are desperate times.”
I tailed off the back of the group and rode down the dirt track to the barbed wire. I dismounted and prized apart the two top strands so that I could squeeze through without getting fileted. My cleats filled with sand. “Never mind,” I thought. “Better than my shorts filling with something else.”
I madly stripped off my helmet, jersey, undershirt, and gloves, rushed in, plopped down onto the seat, and confirmed two basic facts of life: Nothing is as overrated as a good lay, and nothing is as underrated as a good dump. Inside the potty I relaxed and as I sat there thinking that this was as good a metaphor for the day as any, I could hear various clumps of riders whizz by. “Go on,” I thought. “I don’t care.”
Unfortunately, in my desperation I’d forgotten to check for TP, and upon the conclusion of services I reached for the paper to find that there were only two squares left on the roll, with the last square being mostly glued to the core.
By now the scorching sun had turned my plastic sanctuary into a fume-filled mini-microwave, and as sweat poured off my head and arms I carefully removed as much of the two squares as I could. Of course the paper was port-o-potty TP, which is so thin that you normally need half a roll to do the mop-up of a normal strand, and I was faced with a major hazmat job using only a square and a half of gossamer-thin paper. Carefully removing as much of the last square as I could from the core, I lowered my hand between my legs only to have a sweat gusher roll down my forearm, onto my hand, and onto the tiny TP square-and-a-half, which was instantly soaked.
I made a mess of the job as the TP disintegrated on contact with the river of sweat, and can only say this: Have you ever tried to completely reassemble a form-fitting, sweat-soaked biking outfit with one hand? Worse, have you ever tried to do it while holding the other hand as far from your body as possible? Have you?
I have. And I did. Then I returned to the road just in time to meet up with Jeff Krivokopich, who was flailing by himself towards the bottom of the Bandy Canyon climb. “Damned teammates left me at the last rest stop without telling me,” he complained.
“They’re biking teammates, man, what did you expect?” I slapped him on the back in commiseration, realizing too late that I had just smeared his jersey with the brown paw of doom.
Jeff dragged me over the climb, then put his head down and started pulling in earnest. “Finally a wheel I can hold!” I told myself, amazed at the performance differential that resulted from being ten pounds lighter.
We took turns until we reached the freeway, which was bad because the freeway wasn’t on the route. We’d overshot the turn somewhere, what with all that head-downishness and falling-into-a-rhythmishness, and now there was a decision to be made. Backtrack and add even more miles to this endless beatdown, or swallow a tablet of Fukitol and continue on.
Jeff looked at me. His face had that salt-encrusted, aged-far-beyond-his-years, withered look of defeat and exhaustion, not to mention a slight tincture of brown on the side of his jersey. I couldn’t see myself, but must have looked even worse. “You okay, dude?” Jeff asked. “You gonna make it? And what’s up with your hand?” I was unconsciously holding it as far away from my body as I could.
“Oh, this? Nothing. I’m fine. Yeah. Well, let’s backtrack and find the route. If we hadn’t put this danged thing on Strava I’d vote that we cut the course and cheat our way back, but…”
Jeff nodded as we both tried to imagine being pilloried by Michael Marckx as cheaters and losers which, frankly, we both would have gladly endured if it had meant we could shave a minute or two off our time and thereby end the misery prematurely. However, since the course had been changed at the last minute, it was possible that the revamped route would actually get us home quicker and more easily than if we cheated. So we reluctantly turned around and retraced our path.
[Note to future BWR penitents: The course, no matter its iteration, will never get you anywhere “quicker” and “more easily.”]
Slow sand quicksands
Small wonder we missed the turn. It was a poorly marked, narrow little cut in the hedges that, once you’d made the turn, emptied onto a nasty little dirt track. This was King of the Dirt Sector No. 4. A clump of leftbehinds entered just ahead of us, and the hard packed dirt quickly gave way to soft, slippery sand, four nasty miles of it.
The worst section of sand was nothing more than the dumpings of a huge sandbox, plopped in the middle of the trail. One by one the riders hit it, thrashed halfway through, and then tipped over.
Which was bad.
But what was worse was the middle-aged woman on the horse, mounted next to the sand trap with her riding crop tapping the horse’s butt as she shouted at us “Watch out for the sand! It’s soft!” Then on cue someone would tip over, cursing. “I told you to watch out!” she’d admonish as the rider vainly tried to remount with his cleats and pedals filled with sand.
You know how hard it is to click back in when your cleats and pedal are filled with sand? Try doing it lathered in sweat and filth after a hundred-mile beatdown while a dominatrix with a whip on a horse screams at you.
The only thing missing from this Dali-esque, Munch-line scene was having the woman lean down and beat the snot out of the riders as they fumbled in the big litter box. Afraid of her crop, afraid of her horse, and mostly afraid of looking stupid, I ramped it up and crossed the pit without falling. A few miles later we had formed a group of Dragon Butt misfits, thrilled to complete KOD Sector Four but apprehensive of KOD Sector Five, the Lake Hodges Rock Garden and Puncture Gallery.
Jeff flatted rather immediately, and as his buddy I spake the obligatory “You okay?” and then sprunted away before he could beg for help. The other leftbehind neverpulls came apart on the rock-studded wall out of the axle-deep mud pit of a water crossing. Tires flatted. Rims broke. Whole new curse words were invented on the spot. I bounced and jounced past one idiot who was overgeared, overstomached, and severely underbrained, as he’d picked the far left edge which had fewer rocks but down which was flying a giant, out-of-control MTB dude. They crashed, of course, each blaming the other with a volley of oaths, and rubbed each others’ blood in each others’ wounds as they gashed their arms, legs, and elbows on the sharp rocks while tied together in a knot of carbon, rubber, sweat, and dirt.
Stand…by your man…I mean, uh, your gal
At the end of the sector people were replacing wheels, changing flats, trying to fix shattered pedal spindles, and most of all gorging themselves on green bananas and Barbie food at the sag stop. And never was a stop better named than “sag,” because a saggier, sorrier, droopier collection of wankers there never was.
As I filled my water bottle (110 miles on a single bottle, why am I so thirsty?), G$ and MM zoomed by. They were my good friends, so when I saw them happily and speedily and freshily zooming through the sag stop, I hated them with great intensity.
Throwing caution to the wind, I took the last burnt match out of my matchbox and scorched what was left of it to a crisp in order to join them. MM looked like she’d just gotten out of bed, taken a shower, and had decided at the last minute to ride her bike.
G$ had yet to break a sweat; he was keeping MM company, and she was on track to get third overall in the women’s field. Jess Cerra, the eventual women’s winner, had dropped all but a handful of men, making particularly short work of last year’s winner Dave Jaeger, who was learning that “dropped by a chick” is a mantle of pride and honor.
I toiled up to MM. “Oh!” she said, sweetly. “It’s you! I didn’t know we’d passed you!”
“Hey! Is that another climb up ahead?”
“Gosh, I’m really tired!”
“Yeah.” I observed that she was so tired she effortlessly rode off and put almost half an hour on me in the final fifteen miles.
I think he hates me
Fortunately, the ride was almost over, and I knew what lay ahead: Double Peak. This monstrously steep, paperboy-inducing, windswept climb was the last obstacle to finishing. I’d done it enough times to be mentally prepared, and since the new course had cut out the bitter climbs of unpaved Questhaven and steep San Elijo leading to Double Peak, it wouldn’t be all that bad.
But I had forgotten that the designer of this ride was a bastard. I had forgotten that behind his casual smile lay the mind of sadist. I had forgotten that this ride was put together so that the only memory you’d have at the end was the memory of pain.
As I labored along, blissfully ignorant and filled with false confidence, another group passed me. This one contained Prez, Pumperrymple, Mike Hotten, and some poor bastard whose handlebar tape had unraveled after multiple crashes on the dirt and was now trailing along behind him like a tapeworm that had gotten unhitched from his nether eye.
Prez mercifully let me tag along at the back, but after a while the tapeworm, who’d apparently been sucking wheel for miles, got to be too much. Prez reached into his jersey, swung off the front (Prez! On the front! At the 120 mile mark! Leading up to a climb!) and whipped out his purple card.
“Yo, wanker!” he said. “You’ve been served! Get your skinny butt up to the front and take a pull!”
Tapeworm shook his head. “I ain’t gonna ’cause I can’t.”
“You’re strong enough to suck wheel, you’re strong enough to take a pull! Don’t make me remember your number and turn you in to the purple police!”
Tapeworm started to curse. “Up yours! I’ll do what I …”
He never got to finish the sentence, though, because the long trailing end of the handlebar tape got caught in his chain, which pulled it into the derailleur, and then jerked the whole thing tauter than a string bikini on a rhino’s ass, yanking his handlebars hard to the right. His wheel hit the curb, he flipped over the bars and landed on a sprinker head, which then turned on. In my delirium I atually wondered, “Who knew that’s how you activated lawn equipment?”
Tapeworm didn’t seem to have much brain damage, although that’s partially because he didn’t seem to have much brain, and we continued on, hoping that if he died it would at least be slow and painful.
Prez rolled back to the front and kicked the pedals as we turned onto Twin Oaks. My sides heaved with the death rattle of a sperm whale whose lungs have been pierced by the point of the harpoon. I spat snot, sweat, blood, and a couple of teeth and came unhitched. Prez & Co. rolled away.
Learning to count
This was where the truly diabolical, Mr. Hyde-like nature of the route’s designer revealed itself: It was infinitely worse than the Questhaven/San Elijo section that it replaced. Long. Steep. Endless. No matter how much you pedaled, the top never got nearer, like one of those dreams where you show up to school naked and try to run away but just end up jogging in place while you fail the graduation exam and have to take Third Grade all over again, naked, even though you’re forty-nine. Oh…you don’t have that dream? Never mind, then.
One mile into Twin Oaks I quit looking up and began counting the cracks that separated the sections of concrete curb. I estimated that each section was about ten feet long. There. Another ten feet. [Insert endless infinity time unit here.] There. Another ten feet. [How many feet in a mile? Five thousand? Fifty million?] Both numbers were plausible.
This was the portion of the ride where–and I know this has never happened to you–I flushed with an active hatred of cycling and all things associated with it. “What am I doing here? I should be home with my family. I’m a terrible husband. I’m an awful father. I’ve lost my mind. I’m 50 years old, dressed in stretchy dance clothing and counting pavement cracks up an endless mountain that leads to a more endless mountain by myself with the remnants of brownpaw while getting dropped by Prez on a climb. What’s wrong with me?”
Once that crack in the dam opened, the mental collapse flowed forth in a torrent. “I hate cycling.”
“I hate the BWR.”
“I hate MMX.”
“I hate Prez.”
“I hate…” and before I could finish the spew, along came Kenny Lam. So I subbed in his name with a vengeance. “And I really hate Kenny Lam.”
Kenny, like Prez, and Tapeworm, and a host of others, blitzed right by. What made me hate him more than everyone else combined was that I’d dropped him earlier…at mile 40. What right did he have to go over all that dirt and those rocks and those mountains and sag stops just to crush me on Pavement Crack Counting Mountain?
“Hey, Seth,” he said as he passed. “Good job. Keep it up.”
If I’d had a pistol, my gun wouldn’t have killed people, I would have. But I’d have done it with the gun.
Double your displeasure
Everything bad eventually comes to an end, but in this case it only led to something worse: Double Peak. The fiendishness of the BWR, building for over seven hours, crescendoed here, at the bottom of a climb so steep and punishing that you would grimace and groan if you hit it fresh at the beginning of a 20-mile spin after a good rest week.
Now you had to tackle it at mile 120. The jarring, battering, slogging, mental and physical beating that had begun the night before left you at the bottom bereft of hope. It was as close to the long march passage in Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” that any of us would ever come short of island hopping in WWII. As I began the climb, smashed and broken riders from the grupettos ahead of me paperboyed and slowed to 3 mph or less. Midway through the steepest section one poor slob unclipped and cried.
“Come on, man,” I said as I passed. “You can do it.”
I hated him, too.
At the steepest point, just before the turn that led to the turnaround at the top, a cluster of crazy people with cameras clotted the edge of the road. They were screaming with excitement. Who were they? Why were they photographing me? Where was this “Go” place they were exhorting me to go to? Who was “Wanky”?
I hated each of them as a group and I hated them individually, especially the small children who were jumping up and down and looking so happy. Why were they happy? What was great about the job they were telling me I was doing? What job were they even talking about?
“At least you’re not crying!” one of them offered.
I reserved a special mindwave of hatred for him.
“Don’t tip over!” shouted one especially happy person.
As I tried to say “Up yours!” my mouth, twisted in a grimace, upturned into what looked like a slight smile. The cameras clicked. I hated the cameras, making me look happy when I was too tired to even spew an insult. A few meters later I reached the top, where dazed and crushed and befuddled riders milled around at the sag-and-collapse station. I did a u-turn and stole a march on them all. “Take that, Kenny Lam,” I snarled. “It’s all downhill from here. See you never.”
Which way is up?
It was all downhill, of course, except for the uphill parts, which was most of the return to SPY HQ. Michael Marckx had chosen the hilliest, windiest, most serpentine route back, adding at least a thousand feet of climbing and throwing us into the teeth of a relentless headwind, no matter which way we turned.
Kenny overtook me again. “Good job, Seth,” he said, bulling his way by. I grabbed the wheel and he towed me the whole way back until, a mile from the end, on Palomar Airport Road, his legs seized up in vicious cramps.
“You okay?” I asked as I unleashed the hardest attack I could muster.
Apparently he was…in a moment he had recovered and we finished in tandem. At the finish area people were milling around in various stages of post-traumatic disbelief. The “winners” had arrived almost two hours earlier. The “losers” wouldn’t make it in for another three or four hours, including Bill Pinnell, who had woken up at 3:00 AM in order to do the course on a pogo stick.
Beneath the fatigue, the mental and physical strain, the dirt, the sweat, the dried mucous, and the general sense of defeat that permeated the finish area, people were actually happy. “Why?” I wondered. “What are they so happy about? They can’t be that stupid.” So I started asking them, one by one, “Why are you happy?” and realized that they were.
Lisa C.: “Because it was harder than childbirth and I DID IT!”
MMX: “Who said I was happy?”
Gus B.: “I’m always happy, dude.”
Chris G.: “Well, my pedal broke, and I fell a few times, and had several flats, and almost drowned in the water crossing, but, I guess, well, you know, I’m always happy when I’m riding my bike!”
Prez: “I dropped you. That’s why.”
DJ: “I got shelled by a chick. A beautiful chick. What’s not to like?”
Bull: “Why am I happy? Let me spell it out for you: B-E-E-R.”
Kelsey M.: “Because it’s fricking over, dude.”
Ryan D.: “Hmmm…because after flatting I chased for 25 miles and caught the leaders.”
Dan C.: “Because I didn’t get beat by someone named Dragon Butt.”
Mark N.: “Well, there’s the free beer of course, and there’s the hockey game on TV tonight.”
Craig L.: “I don’t know if I’d say ‘happy.’ But I would say this–don’t come to the BWR with deep-dish carbon rims and one spare tube with a short stem unless you also bring an extender. Just sayin’.”
Canyon Bob: “When does the real ride start?”
Steve H.: “Hardest ride I’ve ever done in my entire life. Since yesterday.”
Is there a psychiatrist in the house?
And so on. It was weird. People were actually happy at having spent an entire day getting their brains beaten out along the toughest one-day road course in the U.S., and most couldn’t wait to puke out their tale of woe. “You people are all weird,” I thought, wondering what kind of littering citation I’d get for tossing my rig out the window on the way home.
Cary shambled in after more than ten hours on the bike, broken, beaten, and barely able to dismount. “Good job, dude!” his enablers said.
“Yeah, thanks,” he mumbled, clearly delirious as he reached into his jersey pocket and pulled out the remnants of an old waffle square, almost biting into it before someone knocked it away and replaced it with a beer.
Marilyne and Carey D. say cheerily at a table, happily telling all who would listen about their awful day, filled as it was with pure misfortune and therefore unadulterated fun. “Yeah, I sliced my tire on the first KOD and exploded the front rim,” Carey lamented.
“What were you running?”
“Schwalbe Raceday Ultra Paperthins on a Lew Racing Pro VT-1 custom full boron wheelset with machined axle end caps, titanium freehub pawls, titanium wheel hub spacers, tapered carbon/boron axles, and Si3N4 full ceramic bearings. Piece of junk broke apart after flying off into the first KOD ditch, and I blew out the Paperthins on shards of gravel and glass.” Carey looked mystified that a wheelset built for 120-pounders had failed his 185-pound frame.
Then Marilyne chimed in, chirpily relating her own sad tale with inexplicable enthusiasm. “My derailleur fell off of the bicycle.”
“How’d that happen?”
“The hanger of the derailleur, it fell off of the bicycle aussi.”
“Aren’t you that chick who had, like, eighteen flat tires over the course of three days a few months ago?”
“Well, yes, I did have a problem with the flatting. But Carey was always there to help me with the mechanical problemes.” She pointed to the dude whose bike collapsed at Mile 20.
“So what was up with the derailleur?”
“I’m not sure, but we found a hanger of the derailleur on eBay to replace the one that was problematique, but apparently it was of a manufacture inferieure, and so it fell off of the bicycle.” She smiled, thinking about the hundred miles she’d pedaled without a derailleur.
I couldn’t take it any more, and went off in search of some psychotropics, as eleven hours had now passed since the start and Wankomodo would be showing up any minute now, if he were still alive. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand listening to him. He’d be the happiest miserable SOB of the lot.
I sat down next to Christine, the only noncyclist in the bunch, and therefore the only one with a brain. “Good ride?” she asked.
She nodded. “You’re the first person who’s said something the entire day that has made any sense. Why don’t you get yourself a beer? They’re free.”
“I’ve been sober for three years.”
“So much for the ‘making sense’ part,” she said. “Have you sworn off hotdogs, too? They’ve got great ones over at the food truck.”
“No, I’d rather not spend the money. Plus, these are fine.” I’d gotten a plate and stacked it high with old waffles from the morning and lathered them in ketchup and mayonnaise.
Christine got up and brought me back a giant hotdog and a beer. “It’s my financial contribution to the Brain Damaged Cyclist Fund. Enjoy. See you next year?”
At that moment Wankomodo ambled up, covered in a thick crust of dried snot, spit, sweat, and dirt. He was grinning from ear to ear. “I made it! It was awful! I’ve never felt so bad in my entire life! It was awesome! Where’s the food?”
I looked at Christine, pleading with my eyes for help. “Next year? Yes, I’ll be back. Of course.”