History lessons: A conversation with Marty Blount

February 19, 2021 § 7 Comments

Martin Blount is a founding member and president of one of Los Angeles’s largest and most influential black cycling clubs, Major Taylor Cycling Club of Los Angeles. Named after the greatest cyclist of all time, African-American Marshall “Major” Taylor, the club has its roots in a much older organization, Major Motion. I spoke with Marty about the history of both clubs, and he generously shared his detailed knowledge about cycling in Los Angeles as well as race issues that affect riders of color and their communities.

Seth Davidson: What is Major Motion?

Marty Blount: Major Motion is a bicycle club started 1975 primarily to be a social outlet for blacks and named in honor of Marshall “Major” Taylor. It was one of the first bike clubs in the country named in honor of Major Taylor and was designed for non-cyclists. Obviously there were some really talented cyclists involved but the goal was to get people who had never ridden or who hadn’t ridden for a long time, for fellowship and getting involved in the cycling life. Judging from the results it was pretty successful.

Seth Davidson: What was the appeal of the club?

Marty Blount: I think it was a combination things including “Let’s be physically fit.” This was in the mid 70s and we were just coming out of the the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights, Act, the assassination of MLK and RLK, and there was a sense of urgency. The people before us had done these things and paid the price and there was a feeling of “What can we do?” It was a precursor of “think globally, act locally.” We can have a place for black people to ride bikes and do things that black people supposedly don’t do, like swimming/skiing, that’s patently false of course, blacks do all those things, but this was a way we could be seen, to wear the clothes and have the equipment and be seen.

Seth Davidson: What’s behind this idea that black people don’t ride bikes?

Marty Blount: Well, what’s behind the idea that black people don’t play tennis, play golf, that all black people do is play basketball and baseball? Part of it is those other sports require specialized equipment and specialized opportunities to participate in. Blacks were not marketed to in those so-called white sports in the black community. Whether or not it might have been too expensive, who can say that? Blacks have been doing well in this country for a long time. Blacks don’t all live in slums or on public assistance but those sports never made any specific effort to market in the black communities even thought there was the occasional high profile black participant, golfers like Charlie Sifford, tennis stars like Arthur Ashe. They were the rarity and it never seemed to motivate the industry to want to reach out to this demographic. Coupled with the fact that black people, and I’ve experienced this, some of the “we don’t do this” came from us as well. We were doing well in school and in the professions and easily played affordable sports, so that may have contributed to it as well.

Seth Davidson: What do you think has changed?

Marty Blount: It’s easy to point to some more recent trailblazers and outspoken athletes. There was a movement in pro sports that blacks are known to play, where blacks said we want more of the pie that an equally talented white player gets, the same number of years on the contract and by the way you don’t own me, or my skills. I ought to be able to sell my skills to whoever I want to, highest bidder or someone whose philosophy I like. Curt Flood and the free agency battles with black players being blackballed and blacklisted because they were bucking the system. And now we have free agency in all sports thanks to those people making the sacrifice, and like whittling away at a piece of wood something starts to take shape. You may not know what the final shape was going to be, but you know it was coming. Who knows exactly how they formed Major Motion or how they met each other? For a while they were known as “the black guys that ride up and down Crenshaw” because they’d start and finish their rides at Leimert Park. How did they know about Major Taylor in the 70s? His name was in no book I ever read. I never heard of him when people talked about famous black people. These were special people at a special time. They were inspired by the actions of other people whether they knew about Curt Flood and free agency they were aware of the feeling that if we’re going to do something, then WE are going to have to do it. If we want an improvement we’re going to have to cause it to happen. We’re going to have to do it ourselves, no one will do it for us. So from humble beginnings at a fertile time for blacks in America, wanting to do something for ourselves, not be told what to do, yeah, there was a feeling that you can ride a bike and be damned good at it and to hell with anyone who doesn’t want you on their street. They rode everywhere, to Santa Anita which was lily white, to the South Bay when it was lily white. Did the cycling community care for them? Not very much. How do I know? Because in the early 80s I joined South Bay Wheelmen and we didn’t ride into LA very much but every once in a while we’d touch on the periphery of LA.

Seth Davidson: How did you get into cycling?

Marty Blount: I was working for Magnavox in Torrance, I needed to be close to my job and moved out there, and the guy across the hall at the office had a bike and wore the funny pants and we became friends and he showed me what to do with the Peugeot I bought at a garage sale. I ended up riding with SBW and then joining. So when I did that I got stronger and I said, “Hey, I can go visit friends and my mom in LA,” and the SBW guys said, “If you go down there don’t hook up with the riders down there, they don’t ride like we do, they don’t ride correctly.” You know, “they.” I rode all over LA, I’d leave the South Bay at 7:00 AM, go all the way to La Brea, over to friends in Olympic, and then down to the beach and get home at dark. And I never once bumped into anyone from Major Motion. I wonder what things would be like if I had.

Seth Davidson: When did you join Major Motion?

Marty Blount: About 2010.

Seth Davidson: What was the motivation?

Marty Blount: I relocated to Marietta, GA but it was so inhospitable to cyclists and I had three kids then that I stopped riding. Then we moved to Ft. Worth, Texas, and were living in a suburb, and after a few years the Rails to Trails Conservancy converted a rail trail into the Silver Comet bike trail, named after the train line. The trailhead was half a mile from where we lived. We’d roll up and down the trail with the kids. After Texas, we moved back to LA in 2003 or 2004 and I was working for the same company but in Palmdale, and went for a checkup in 2008 and the doctor said you’re in great shape except you have diabetes, and it’s not life-threatening but it isn’t good. “You need to take drastic action,” he said. Because of that I was looking for resources and found the American Diabetes Association, and they recommended cycling and Tour de Cure. I’d tried running, and Seth, I’m not a runner! I ran in high school but after that, Happy Days to my running career. I did Tour de Cure, dug out my old bike from storage and had to scrounge for clothes, had warm-up pants and bought a couple of second-hand jerseys, you know I come from when jerseys were wool and the shoe soles were wood and you nailed the cleats onto the bottom of the shoe–and you’d better get it right the first time! And leather chamois, of course … now everything was carbon fiber, helmets were different, clothes different. I had tennis shoes, and started riding with whomever I could find. I happened to start getting in shape and thought I could do the Tour de Cure, so I did, and a friend of mind said, “There’s this black club but we gotta get in shape before we ride with them,” the club was Crankin’ Time, they were a spinoff from Major Motion. At that time Major Motion was strictly a racing club. Virgil Ford was racing, Mike Higgins, and several others. We joined Crankin’ Time and were going great, and I tried to get the club to do the Tour de Cure and two guys supported me, and then I started talking with Kevin Evans of Major Motion, and the next year I was stronger and went back to Kevin to see if he had time and interest to do the Tour de Cure, and he said, “Sure, but will you help me with a vision? We got it made on the West Side, in Inglewood, but I grew up in Compton and there’s nothing out there. No awareness, nowhere to shop, no bike routes, lots of traffic and commerce, I want to go there and see if people can see us and get involved just like the Major Motion of the 70s.” That is when we formed Major Motion Recreational Cycling Club with Virgil Ford’s blessing, who allowed us to wear their black training kit. We wore that and that is when I became a member of Major Motion. It was not the original Major Motion club, but it was tied to the original intent of Major Motion, which was recreational. My involvement in the recreational cycling club me in the lineage of those first guys and I had no problem saying thank you and I’m carrying on. The original Major Motion’s vision was not racing, it was social. Be as strong as you can be, we’ll help you race if you want to, but we want brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers, riding bikes, being seen on bikes and changing lives. So that was the Major Motion Recreational Cycling Club.

Seth Davidson: Then what happened to become Major Taylor Cycling Club?

Marty Blount: Our group worked. Too well! It worked so well picking up non-cyclists and turning them into riders; people saying, “I haven’t played sports since junior high,” and a few years after joining they were doing triathlons. What we were doing got back to the riders from my former club Crankin’ Time, that our training was different, it was racing prep because of Kevin’s background, he knew how to break you down and build you back up. We did a great job with a bunch of really good people, we respected our colors when we wore them, we watched out for each other, but were outstripping our mates from Crankin’ Time with the consequence that as we got better our friends were like, “What are you eating?” so they began gravitating to Major Motion, and it damaged Crankin’ Time for which I’m regretful. The leader of Crankin’ Time is a super good guy with a long history in the sport and making it accessible to people in the city. He had a family, a job, it was just tough, there were so many of us doing independent things, more training more often than with Crankin’ Time so people gravitated to Major Motion. They’re still around and doing great, they’re a sag company par excellence. Thomas Ward runs Crankin’ Time Sag, has three vans each with 15-bike racks. I happened to see him today and he was having lunch at The Kettle. Eventually our recreational club separated from Major Motion and became Major Taylor Cycling Club of Los Angeles; we’re a 501(c)3 corporation and we incorporated because we believe it lets us do more in our communities.

Seth Davidson: Do you think more black riders ride in different communities now?

Marty Blount: No doubt, but we can’t take credit for it. We can’t forget the huge impact of the fixie crew, the young crew, for attracting a lot of riders in urbanized areas, black and brown kids primarily, getting them into the sport, they are young and aggressive and blessed to have some really good organizers like Don Ward a/k/a Roadblock and the Wolfpack Hustle. Those folks helped others recognize the fixie riders had clout, and they became known as a political force to make life better for cyclists, which they did. They cultivated road cyclists and some roadies started riding fixies. What we’re seeing now are fixie-type cyclists, in their 20s and 30s, on road bikes now. Where do they live? The Valley, the South Bay, the Inland Empire. We had guys on the ride today, a 15-year-old and his dad, from the Inland Empire. And all of a sudden we’re getting marketed to. Rahsaan is doing commercials during the Olympics. Legion is getting sponsored by Red Bull, these are guys from 39th and Western in LA.

Seth Davidson: Can you tell me about race relations in cycling in LA?

Marty Blount: I think there is a lot of resentment, I think some white people may be perceived as stand-offish when they just don’t know how to not say the wrong thing. And there’s a lot of that, in its purest sense there’s nothing wrong with being politically correct, which means reaching a deal through conversation, and being able to go through it in a friendly, productive way. On the other hand there have been occasions when I remember Major Motion being criticized for riding all over the road and riding like a herd of cats, “They just want to ride fast and don’t follow the rule.” It’s the “they,” I’ve seen that creeping in. I didn’t expect it here in LA, but yet I’ve seen it and heard stories about it. And then we went back to Maryland and stayed in a very white neighborhood, Trump signs everywhere, and couldn’t have been treated more nicely and spoken to eye-to-eye, people happy to have us in the bike shop, give us a tour of the shop, so I don’t think it’s universal, just some kind of weird thing here that’s a byproduct of our rich opportunity to be here. I still get that feeling. We were riding through Manhattan Beach, a kid was crossing the street with his surfboard, most of the riders were black but we had a couple of white women with us and as they passed as he was crossing the street he looked at the women and he said, “Wow, what a fucking shame.” We’ve had the n-word thrown at us on PCH at Pepperdine while we were regrouping after the climb and it got hurled by a passing car. The cars never stop, they never do, and we don’t want them to! But it goes the other way, too. Yesterday riding through Rolling Hills we’d come off the golf course, came down and made a right on PV, I was in the back and I noticed a Tesla deliberately slowing down and I thought, “Oh, god, we’re gonna get lectured,” and she rolled her window down and said, “I’m for Major Taylor!” and I got it on video. Just a little thing like that I couldn’t wait to get up to my buddies and tell them what had happened.

Seth Davidson: How do we get more people involved in cycling?

Marty Blount: Is what you’re describing uncommon in other parts of the world? What’s wrong with us in this country? We have no infrastructure we have a crazy car culture that refuses to share and then in our community few shops that you can count on to do the work well. That’s life and death on a bike. We do have people who open up a garage and make bikes available, not recreationally, but essentially, to get to work, we’ve seen people people riding a 11:00 PM without a light getting hit by a car. Because they were coming home from work at the restaurant and couldn’t afford a light. That mentality stands in the way of so much stuff. Covid has forced a restructuring of the transportation quarters. The pandemic has created the dreaded lane diet, not to save a life but hell yes to save our economy. In Redondo there’s now one car lane where there used to be two, and that former car lane is a bike lane. But that’s a privileged community. In urbanized areas like DTLA and areas around it, it took people like John Jones and Don Ward, Carlos Morales of East Side Bicycles, who lobbied, who found a sympathetic ear on city council, who got with LAPD and found a couple of advocates and were able to make street-by-street, block-by-block changes. They got the bike paths but the city painted them with slippery green paint and then the police park in them. Here’s an irony: There’s a sign saying “Don’t park in the bike lane” and the sign is … in the bike lane! It’s infrastructure but under that word is the society, and the politics of my car, my space, the bike is a toy. But it has worked in other places. Long Beach has done a really nice job. Bike lights, bike signals, Santa Monica is starting to do things.

Seth Davidson: How has George Floyd affected cycling in LA?

Marty Blount: I mentioned the diverse fixie bike crew, they don’t ride by the rules, don’t wear lycra or helmets, those guys are cyclists just not the same kind I am. I went on a George Floyd Ride for Justice and was impressed with the number of non-minority men and women who showed up. But completely outnumbered by the kids on fixies. They were everywhere. We have a moment to come together. I feared that once on the road during that ride the road bike snobbery would come out and the “we own the streets” ethos of the fixes would come out but it didn’t happen. We shared the road beautifully. All I had to do was ride in a straight line at a steady pace and everything worked out peachy keen. Next thing you know some kid was asking me about my bike and I was asking him about his. Road riders were chill. We had a blast. I don’t know if there was a sustained benefit to the situation but I’ve been on a couple of other community rides that got empowerment to do these rides because of the activity around George Floyd’s murder. We went from Westchester Park to Polliwog Park but we were flying down Pershing, and having a great time and we continued that all the way through Polliwog Park and I pointed out Bruce’s Beach to the riders. These are people on bikes for a common good who have a lot of interest in road bikes. We have people riding with us on road bikes who used to be fixie riders but they like how we do things nd how we look and the long rides, and plus they get to average 15 mph for 80 miles and climb a mountain in the process! That’s part of the effect of people coming together for George Floyd and other injustices and tragedies.

Seth Davidson: What is Major Taylor Cycling Club’s relationship to Black History Month?

Marty Blount: We always have participated in the black history parade on Crenshaw. Some organizations started a national Major Taylor birthday ride in November and we look at that as a bit of Black History Month in November. We ride through areas where people of color live and prompt them to ask us questions. You can tell when someone doesn’t know when they ask us “What is a Major Taylor?” Not “Who.” Or “Are you in the motion picture business?” With Major Taylor Cycling Club of Los Angeles we’re looking for meaningful ways to be present with any who want to be with us during this month. Our status as a 501(c)3 puts us in the game so we have a different opportunity. Some of the people approaching us or who want us present we feel a new power and opportunity for change and influence. We would love to be a conduit for money to flow into the community, not so that we can fly our members to the East Coast for a summit, we want to change the model of “Everybody go to Target and buy some things for our schools” to being able to give them classes or schools each a check for $5,000 for them to go buy the things they need for their school. We know it’s about the money.

Seth Davidson:  What’s your personal story?

Marty Blount: If you cut me open and count my rings you’d see there is a lot of knowledge that has been passed on to me. Ethnically I’m Creole. We go back to the Louisiana Creole communities of the early 1700s. Some of our progenitors were both slaves and slave owners on my mother’s side. On my father’s side there were both slaves, revolutionaries, and politicians in north-central Louisiana. On my mother’s side our family traces itself to a black slave woman whose parents were from West Africa who married legally in Natchitoches. She was called Kwan-Kwan, which means ‘second daughter’ in Senegalese, it was likely a nickname. She became the lover of a French entrepreneur named Natoyer; they ended up living on a tributary of the Red River, the Cane River, and had ten mixed-race children. They were all slaves including her and the children. After this the Catholic Church made Metoyer find a white wife so there was an all-white Metoyer family and a mixed-race Metoyer family, but later he manumitted her and her two oldest sons and gave her property. This was near the Melrose Plantation. It became a thriving place and as she was able to buy her children’s freedom, she did. She hired people as indentured servants and had black slaves. They built the first church built by free people of color, St. Augustine Catholic Church on the Cane River. Dad’s grandmother was a slave. My dad was light-skinned and my great-grandfather fought for non-whites. There were confrontations between armed blacks and whites. At one point they came to take him and his wife said he was “Down by the river.” The whites knew this meant that he had gathered with other armed blacks, so they sought a truce, even though they burned his church. His political clout and savvy allowed him to get the church rebuilt, then he moved back with his wife and served in the state senate of the state of Louisiana. My mom grew up on the Cane River, and my dad lived in Galveston, went to Sam Houston College and met my mom. He had all these sensibilities of right and wrong and how wrong can really be wrong, and it bothered him, and my mother was a very sensitive woman, too. Though she had a lot of privileges as a light-skinned Creole, she was very aware of unfairness to others. My dad was in the Army Air Corps. There were many Louisiana Creoles in California who used to live in the Griffith Park area. My mom didn’t like the privileges given to light-skinned blacks, and didn’t like the way dark-skinned blacks were treated; she had grown up with lynchings, and in California in the late 40s my oldest brother was really black, he was abused everywhere. My next brother was light-skinned and never had any problems. And my third brother was also very black and had polio, and mom had these three kids, one who could go anywhere, one who couldn’t, and the other one who was sick and looked North African. And they got involved in the Civil Rights Movement, by the time I was eight I can tell you every meeting my family went to, I was raised in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, and my brother Rafael was seriously involved. I’ve been an activist and militant person ever since.

Seth Davidson: Thank you, Marty!

Marty Blount: You’re welcome.

END


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Telling it like it is: A conversation with Elijah Shabazz

February 16, 2021 § 8 Comments

Elijah has, as he will tell you, “been around.” With more than fifty local race wins and two state titles over a career that spans close to twenty-five years, if you’ve ridden or trained competitively in Los Angeles you have most certainly run across Elijah Shabazz.

Good-natured, competitive, friendly, and never afraid to speak his mind, Elijah is one person in the LA-area peloton who will call bullshit when he sees it. I’ve known him for years and reached out to him to see if he’d be willing to do an interview. He graciously agreed.

Seth Davidson: When did you start cycling?

Elijah Shabazz: I started in 1997 at the age of 14. I’m 38 now.

Seth Davidson: What got you into cycling?

Elijah Shabazz: I was getting into trouble in my early teens and a guy from the neighborhood introduced me to Rahsaan Bahati and he introduced me to David Pulliam. They got me my first bike and I’ve been going ever since.

Seth Davidson: When did you start racing?

Elijah Shabazz: When I was a junior. I raced extensively locally, I’ve won 50 races, and two state titles when I was young, but now I’m a regular old masters enjoying the scene, nothing serious.

Seth Davidson: How long have you been doing the competitive group rides in LA?

Elijah Shabazz: I’ve been doing them since about 1998 back when NPR was called the Morning Ride, and Montrose, and the Donut when it was a different route.

Seth Davidson: What is your favorite ride?

Elijah Shabazz: My all time favorite is still Montrose. I did it yesterday. Not that much climbing, I love racing down the street with 40-50 people, I love it.

Seth Davidson: Can you describe the ride?

Elijah Shabazz: The Montrose Ride is in Pasadena and it goes around there and the San Gabriel Valley. There is a long and short group, 45 miles and 35 miles, and the long loop is about 2,100 feet of climbing and the short route is about 1,500 and a little less. It’s been around since before I was around.

Seth Davidson: Are there many African-Americans on the ride?

Elijah Shabazz: Basically, per every twenty people there’s one black person. So no, not really. Recently they had an influx of black people since the covid came and they’ve been calling themselves covid riders, about twenty new black riders. It’s nice to see everybody’s getting on bikes.

Seth Davidson: How are relations between whites and blacks on NPR? [New Pier Ride is a regular Tuesday/Thursday ride on Westchester Parkway, fast and competitive.]

Elijah Shabazz: The relationship seems cool, everyone knows each other, so they’re normally pretty good. Personally I’ve heard a lot of smaller talk but I’ve never seen anything personally racist towards anybody and I’ve never heard anything racist either.

Seth Davidson: What is the general attitude towards black people showing up on a ride that is mostly white?

Elijah Shabazz: I’d say that since I’ve been around a long time the vibe is always cool to me, it’s inviting, they speak to you, I never see anything really negative especially with the rising of a lot of strong black athletes like the Williams brothers, Charon, Rahsaan, they’ve helped us earn respect in the peloton, they know we’ve got the racing, sprinting aspect of cycling covered.

Seth Davidson: What is the general attitude towards white people showing up on a ride that is mostly black?

Elijah Shabazz: We’ve had that a lot and honestly, it’s okay, we all like to blend in, on certain rides like Black Lives Matter ride and the MLK ride I personally like to keep it within one mixture of people, everyone has their own thing and culture, so it’s like me bombarding a Jewish ride on Rosh Hashana, I personally feel like I shouldn’t be there. An all brothers ride like the MLK ride, unless people are invited I feel like it’s for certain people. But we’ve had rides with other people, Movement Ride and such, and we’ve accepted other people and no one was ostracized, we’re all cyclists and under one umbrella. We want to keep it fair for everybody.

Seth Davidson: Have you witnessed or experienced racism in bike racing?

Elijah Shabazz: I can say that I’ve seen things personally where I thought it was racism or it was because a person was black, but it wasn’t directly said, but certain situations were taken away from people or magnified because they were black and it would have been different if it had been another race.

Seth Davidson: Do you consider yourself more outspoken than other black riders?

Elijah Shabazz: Absolutely, I have a lot of times where people will pull me to the side or tell me straight up, “You say what’s on everyone’s mind.” People appreciate me being me. People don’t always have the heart to say it and they really appreciate it, me being myself.

Seth Davidson: Would the situation be better if more people were like you?

Elijah Shabazz: It would make lines of communication clear, people wouldn’t be so frustrated, so you can get things off your chest. When I speak my mind I feel better because I didn’t hold it in and let it build up like a volcano. Like people going postal. I don’t have anything serious or violent in me because I address it then and go about my business. I let you know how I feel right then and I leave it at that rather than something going on over the years and turning into a fistfight. Life shouldn’t have fistfights and conflict, you should get it out at that very moment.

Seth Davidson: What needs to be done to get more black kids into the sport?

Elijah Shabazz: Honestly, they need more money, for one. Cycling is very expensive. I tell people cycling is so hard and so expensive you have to love it to do it. A lot of kids would get the opportunity if it happened when they were younger but I’ve realized how expensive it is, if my son wanted to do it, to get the top equipment, it’s crazy. The Specialized push-bike, carbon fiber, was $1,000 for a 3-year-old to ride for six months. Rahsaan, Justin, they do things where their sponsors donate bikes to kids, a stepping stone to get kids to ride. So many people say that cycling makes them feel free. But when they see the prices they back out. It takes a lot of riding and a lot of money. So it would really be the price points. A lot of people would do it more if it were cheaper. It deters a lot of people from actively getting into the sport. And also, when I was racing years ago, every race had 50-60 people, and kids had thirty racers at least. Racing was cheaper back then. The general consensus is that cycling is expensive and dangerous, and it’s gotten so expensive over the years, $50 for the first race $20 for the second, travel, food, the riders can afford the bike and wheels but I can’t afford $150 every week and risk crashing. Numbers have gone down and it’s a domino effect because promoters don’t give out quality prizes and money because they don’t have the attendance. I don’t care about a box of Clif bars. I’d rather have a medal and a jersey, something I can show my son even if it’s local. My son sees stuff like that he might be motivated to achieve things in life. Nobody cares about a box of Clif bars that expired three months ago. I don’t care about the money, I’d care about trophies, medals, jerseys that my son could see. I can buy gels off Amazon and get the flavor I want and it’s not out of date and I’m good. It’s not rocket science. Races used to be full, family events, nowadays nobody goes, the morale is down, and it’s not cheap enough to do. It shouldn’t be $75 to race two races.

Seth Davidson: What do white people need to know about racism?

Elijah Shabazz: The movement with Black Lives Matter and a lot of white people that jumped on or came down to the protests and did the ride and have been pushing for BLM, they’re not doing it for the hype or because it’s in style and I think they have to keep pushing that awareness to people who aren’t aware. White people have come to me and said, “I was racist and didn’t like black people but have learned through cycling that we’re all the same.” That shows a lot. Those type of people I respect more, they have the balls to admit they are learning. That’s important. People in California are diverse and they look outside the box more than the Bible Belt. Same for racism in cycling in different states. Here they’re a little more understanding and free, not as bad as Middle America or the South.

Seth Davidson: How does racism harm the cycling community?

Elijah Shabazz: Since the community is so small, we should all be together in life, but because we’re so small you have to figure like if I’m on the road by myself at 6:00 AM and two white guys who don’t like black people ride by and I’ve got a flat they’re going to ride by and leave me, which shouldn’t happen. You see someone on the side of the road you should wave and check in on people. It takes all of us. I’ve had times in cycling where people have asked me, “How can you afford this stuff?” What kind of question is that? Is it because I’m black? I have a good job and can afford it. We have to all be together.

Seth Davidson: Have you ever gotten in a confrontation with a white cyclist and been defended by other white people?

Elijah Shabazz: Yes. Plenty of times. I don’t want to say the guy’s or lady’s name who always come to my defense, but I don’t know if they do it privately to keep their names cool or in the loop or if they don’t want any problems. When something happens I speak my mind, I have people who always hit me up and say you weren’t wrong it’s okay. It’s not as genuine as if they would squash the situation. In a group the adrenaline is up, one thing happens, it’s a yelling fest. I need those people, anybody, to step up and say “Let’s chill. Relax. Let’s ride our bikes.” That’s more important, to address it right there in front of everybody.

Seth Davidson: What do you think about white people calling up certain black people to complain about a black person they have conflict with?

Elijah Shabazz: I took a break from cycling and when I came back people were telling me what to do and I was like man, I been around, so you got to give me more respect. I had a lot of confrontations and people would reach out to Rahsaan. I’ve known him since I was a kid but he’s not my father. I’m grown, right? They need to come talk to me. What is he, the liaison for the black community? I’m not the liaison for the black community. You talk to people individually, and with social media, Strava, if I get into it, I can find Strava, contact them personally and apologize. I don’t need to go through anybody. What would I need to go through you or someone else? Nowadays people do that. In the past year I haven’t had too much confrontation lately and it’s gotten better. I’m getting older. I just want to ride my bike, go home, and take care of my child. Now I don’t always tell people when they’re wrong and just leave it alone. It’s more peaceful for myself.

Seth Davidson: What do white people need to know about Black History Month?

Elijah Shabazz: White people need to know that black history was around way before slavery, people need to understand that we are just different people. We enjoy more flamboyant stuff, we come from African royalty because it’s in our lineage. People will see our flash and stuff like that and personally say things about Justin, for example, “They’re too flashy,” you gotta understand I’m not on your side on that. I knew his dad for years. They’re enjoying the moment, that’s in their culture to be that way, to be fly, and our history isn’t just a month, it’s all year, people create black history every day. We celebrate everybody else’s history too, Cinco de Mayo, I have Jewish friends, everyone’s history needs to be celebrated all the time.

Seth Davidson: Did George Floyd affect white-black relations in cycling?

Elijah Shabazz: It opened the door for everything. I saw a lot of people who never said much about anything come out and really represent, and really it was sad, but a lot of white people said, “Enough is enough,” but I say “Enough has been enough for a long time. But keep it up when it’s not trendy.” I don’t knock people for learning but I took it for what it is, we been pushing for a long time and I’m glad you finally showed up. Everyone doesn’t get good at the same time, just like in cycling, and I’m glad some people are stepping up, at least you finally came with it now. You have to see the glass is half-full, even if it was only last year that they realized it.

Seth Davidson: Whites often say, “I don’t see color.” What do you think of that?

Elijah Shabazz: Prove it. There’s a lot of racism that happens because they’ve never been discriminated against, that’s fine. Prove it, don’t just put it on a t-shirt. You have to live it and push through with it and be down with the struggle and in the trenches with us fighting for black rights and for all human rights. That will show me that you don’t see color.

Seth Davidson: Whites often say, “I didn’t invite any black people because I don’t know any.” What do you think of that?

Elijah Shabazz: At this point you should know everybody in cycling. Charon, Rahsaan, Justin, so many blacks in racing and riding and hanging out and working at bike shops. That’s an excuse. If you’re friends with someone, you have a certain group of people, there are black people in every club. I was in LaGrange for a year and I got invited to everything, so I think it’s just an excuse.

Seth Davidson: Have relations improved over your lifetime or worsened?

Elijah Shabazz: I think they’re pretty much the same. Racism has always existed, you’ve always had people who didn’t like blacks, people who fought for blacks, and blacks being misunderstood, which is about 90% of the time. Now people can express themselves better because of social media. It’s for the world to see. Like I said, you can post it but you have to live it. It’s like having all the bike stuff and not going and doing the rides. That’s the same as posting #BLM on social media, you have to live it.

Seth Davidson: You were recently on the cover of Cycling Tips. Tell me about that photo.

Elijah Shabazz: I did a photo shoot with them. Alonso Tal, a well-known African-American photographer, and when Cycling Tips had shoots available, he sent headshots and they asked for me. I have the look for cycling and I don’t have any ties to any sponsors where it’s a conflict of interest, for example I ride for one team so I can’t model someone else’s bike. I can cycle model for anyone. Alonso hit me up, we went up Highway 2 for about four hours and did a bunch of pictures, stills, drone shots. He’s very creative, one of the best creative minds I’ve ever seen.

Seth Davidson: Do you want this to continue?

Elijah Shabazz: It’s not a big goal of mine, but if people call me to do it and it fits my schedule, I’ll do it. I’m not trying to be a model, it’s just a side hustle and if it helps Alonso out then I’ll do it.

Seth Davidson: Thanks, Elijah.

Elijah Shabazz: You’re welcome.

END

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Once a bike racer … Part 1

February 11, 2021 § 11 Comments

Andy Coggan, circa 1980, blue jersey, Bell helmet, shoulder visible

Andy Coggan, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, is the foremost researcher on the application of power meter data to bicycle training and fitness. In addition to providing the theoretical framework behind the industry-standard Training Peaks WKO+ software that cyclists and coaches use to track and plan fitness, he has over 140 scientific publications covering everything from the efficacy of beet juice to the use of nitrates in recovering heart patients.

How integral is his work to modern data-driven cycling? He invented and first applied the term “Functional Threshold Power.” The next time you do a 20-minute FTP test and it says “213,” well, you can thank Andy for that.

The first post I ever wrote here at Cycling in the South Bay was about Andy and his exploits as a bike racer in Texas in the 1980s, and I thought it would be interesting to speak with him and get from him a history on the development and use of power meters. He was extremely obliging and sent me a link to an article he had written on the subject.

It was informative and thorough, which was great, but it covered all the topics I’d wanted to discuss, which obviated the need for the interview, so I shifted gears and decided to interview him about his career as a bike racer. It turns out that, as you might expect from someone who won an extremely competitive state championship on the road during the heyday of American road cycling, that Andy was more than a hobby cyclist.

One thing that became clear was that Andy was extremely modest about his talents as a bike racer. For various reasons that he shares, his racing career stopped where it did, but there is little doubt from what follows that he had all the ingredients of a successful professional. The cycling world is fortunate that his career path took him instead into the science of sport.

Seth Davidson: How old were you, where, and what was your first bike race?

Andy Coggan: I ran in junior high, was okay but had injuries, and started racing as a junior at fifteen; my identity was as a cyclist from fifteen until I finished my undergraduate studies. I raced full-time until I was twenty-two or twenty-three and thereafter treated it as hobby. I became an academic vagabond, raced in Texas, raced in Missouri—that was the last time I saw [our mutual friend] Jeff Fields, at an NRC race. I was best at time trials and road races but I was in the crit-heavy Midwest, racing against the Stetinas, Tom Doughty, those guys. As a cyclist I was like a 2:20 marathoner, good enough to dream, but the difference between running 2:20 and Frank Shorter at the time was a chasm. But if you’re a motivated athlete you’re always looking at who’s ahead of you, not at who’s behind, right? My first event was a race around a community college here in Indianapolis. It was my club’s annual race in 1975, I got fourth. I didn’t know what I was doing and got in the break; one of the guys in the break was John Schuster.

Seth Davidson: Did you begin racing seriously after that?

Andy Coggan: I wouldn’t drive hundreds of miles to race, but definitely to races in Chicago, southern Michigan, and Indiana. I didn’t get hooked until my second year, the first time I won a race. It was called the Kentucky Derby of Cycling and Governor’s Cup in Louisville. The race had a climb in it and it rained, and every lap you had a bunch of crazy juniors on the descent flying off into the woods and crashing, and towards the end as we rolled through the start/finish everyone looked around and said, “This is going to be a field sprint,” and eased up, but I kept the same speed and was immediately off the front and got about twenty seconds. As I was going up the hill I looked back and the others were chasing with pain written all over their on their faces, and I thought, “Cool, I’m doing that to them!” That’s what hooked me, that I could put the screws to other people. At the state championships In Texas that I won, I was off the back relieving myself when the break rolled, and they had a minute. They had some San Antonio riders in the break and the SA club was blocking; the race was right outside San Antonio. I thought “I need to be in that break” but no one would go with me because I was unknown, so I set off on my own and caught up to the break. Bob Lowe, he introduced me to everyone else in the break, including Jim Martin, and said “Andy, this is Jim Martin, he’s a really good sprinter.” I don’t recall this next part but Jim claims I immediately took him off the back. Stan Blanton later bridged after a hard 20-mile chase and as soon as he got there I took him off the back because he wouldn’t pull. I didn’t care how long he’d been suffering or needed a rest!

Seth Davidson: What were the best memories of your racing career?

Andy Coggan: That first win and winning the Texas districts. As a masters racer since I couldn’t sprint I had most success at road races and time trials, and racing with a team. I was always trying to win from a break, but if it was a technical crit I worked for my team sprinter. At age 40 I was racing in St. Louis with a friend and won six or seven road races in a row across two seasons; that was a good memory. Speed is a double edged sword, if you have it you use it but if you don’t you have to take risks. I couldn’t sprint, so I had to turn races into time trials, it was like scorched earth: Keep the pace high the whole time and then attack. At the masters level where there’s more heterogeneity between racers that worked. In a 2-hour road race, at the 1.5 hour mark everyone seemed to slow down. I kept attacking, pushing the pace, a break would form, then with ten to go you had to whittle it down. One race I got a gap and dropped my last competitor; I was dead but he wouldn’t give up, chasing me all the way to the finish and every time I looked back that one one guy was still there. But you have no choice if you want to win. I had these painful moments, you remember the pain. When I was fifty a guy in New Mexico was looking for a tandem nationals time trial partner. So we did that in Louisville and I have a nationals jersey; then we went for the national record for our age, 90+ on the tandem, and got it.

Seth Davidson: Why did you quit racing?

Andy Coggan: I tapered out of it. Like many long-term cyclists I’m osteoporatic so I tapered from mass starts to time trials just because of the risk of falling, then raising kids and then didn’t have the motivation to continue. In 2014 Hunter Allen asked me to come to his training camp in Virginia. There’s a climb there, Thunder Ridge, the big day was 100 miles and the climb up Thunder Ridge, so I whipped myself into shape because who wants to be last on the big climb? And I got to thinking about racing again, came back from the camp, started riding for a week, then crashed and compressed a vertebrae that has bothered me ever since. So the racing ship has sailed, that was 2014. That particular fall, I took myself out on a suburban street, it had a 35 mph speed limit, reasonable traffic, and a 3-ft wide shoulder. I was climbing a hill, to the right of the white line and up ahead I saw a stick and thought, “I don’t want to run over that but I don’t want to swerve into traffic,” and for whatever reason in that moment of indecision I ran over the end the stick, flipped it into my front wheel and woke up on the pavement with a priest standing over me. True story. After that I didn’t do a lot of cycling again until the pandemic.

Seth Davidson: Did you race differently pre- power meter and post-power meter?

Andy Coggan: I trained differently, I wouldn’t say I raced differently. To turn the clock way back I discovered physiology while I was a junior in high school and said, “Math, science, exercise? This is what I want to do!” The performance lab at Ball State was world famous so I went there, undergrad and masters on a scholarship. While there I volunteered for various studies, and Dave Kostel wrote an off-season ergometer training program for me in watts in 1978. My first exposure to power as a framework for prescribing training was from Dave’s program in 1978. In 1996 the EDS track team was an early adopter of SRM power meters which I used for a couple of months. I wanted one but they were too expensive and then the PowerTap came out in 1999 and I became a beta tester. It didn’t change my racing because I knew my strengths/weaknesses. I was chasing a masters TT title and had all the TT aero gear, etc. What really changed was that I refined my approach. I simplified it. Jim Martin says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Your power meter is like a compass. Almost any question you have about what should you should do, the power data helps you inform your decision.” I distilled my many workouts into just a few. Being a hobbyist cyclist I was always time-crunched, ten to eleven hours a week was as much as I was willing to commit. And I lived in places where I trained indoors nine months out of the year because it snowed a lot–like it’s doing right now! I managed to get a Schwinn Velodyne on my 30th birthday. I call indoor training erg-wrestling and I’ve been doing it for thirty years now. I still use it. It has a ¼ inch divot in the rear roller, which is made of solid steel, that’s about 200 hours a year for 30 years. I intend to be cremated but jokingly tell my wife to bury the Velodyne with me. I don’t spend a lot of time on it but an hour gives me time to think and listen to music. My routine was to get up at 6, ride for an hour, and when I was racing with the power meter, I really only did one of four workouts.

Seth Davidson: How would your trajectory have differed if you’d started with a power meter at age 15?

Andy Coggan: I was 40 before I got a PowerTap. If I’d had it earlier I would have gotten to the same place much quicker. As a young rider I wanted to understand why other guys were better than I was. I heard of this thing called “VO2 max,” so I found a place and got tested. Mine was 80, so I was like, “Well, that’s not the reason they’re better.” Then I learned there were different muscle types, so I got a muscle biopsy and found out that my muscles were 75% slow twitch. So that wasn’t the reason. It was my innate curiosity about my own performance the drove me into exercise physiology. If I’d had power data in training I would have realized that if I were going to be any good I would have had to get out of the Midwest. In fact, I applied to the Claremont colleges because they had a cycling team, so I was dreaming about weather and bike racing and California, but financially that wasn’t going to happen. When I decided that cycling was no longer my identity and rather a hobby, that was in1984. They were going to have the Olympic trials in Wisconsin, and I was set on going. I didn’t even know where it was, but was going to go there, and that’s when I realized I’d have to move on.

Seth Davidson: Thanks, Andy.

Andy Coggan: You’re welcome.

END

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The greatest group ride ever?

February 9, 2021 § 10 Comments

Some things, you don’t really realize how amazing they are while you are doing them. You take them for granted, people, too. 2019 was the last year of David Jaeger’s French Toast Ride. In 2018 I was sick and missed my first FTR since I was first invited, in 2010, I think. The ride itself started in pre-history, a mythical time from whence no photos or written records exist in which David and Harold Martinez were supposedly good bike racers. In all the years that the French Toast Ride went off, twenty or so, there was only one ride that got shortened due to bad weather, and only one ride that got canceled because of it.

The French Toast Ride started off as a way to prepare for the first big road race of the year, the epic Boulevard RR held in the high desert of southeastern San Diego County. It began as a no-frills, no excuses, no lollygagging 117-mile beatdown through Ventura County with sprints, climbs, the punishing ascent of Balcom Canyon followed by the golf course climb finale outside Camarillo. Although the ride greatly degenerated into a gaggle of old, weak, complaint-ridden, bladder-incontinent old farts, despite the ravages of time you always knew that it was going to be one of your hardest days of the year on the bike.

David tried to sweeten the bitterness by holding the start and finish at his parents’ home in Camarillo, where an entire family effort pulled together the French toast beforehand and the sandwiches + beer for those who survived, but no goodies could get you through to the end if you hadn’t done the preparation.

To that effect those of us lucky enough to be on the invite list, or unlucky enough, began receiving emails from David in October or November, advising us of the number of weeks we had left until we would be left puking or crying in the bowels of Balcom Canyon. Those emails were as brutal as the ride itself, because they always turned into a forum for name-calling, chest-thumping, butt-hurting, and the type of written entertainment you might expect from a group of childish old farts who thought they were tuning up for the Tour. The laughter and heartburn generated by those email was legendary …

The French Toast Ride had four stops. One in Ojai, one at the Santa Barbara County line, one in Ventura, and one atop the Balcom climb. I still remember my first FTR, having gone all-out, completely thrashed, collapsing at the county line, and having Harry look down at me with an evil leer. “We’re half-way,” he said.

Every person who did the French Toast Ride had their own awful story to tell. Although no one ever failed to finish, many was the rider who made it only through the fumes of shame and peer pressure to the Jaegers’ driveway back in Camarillo. On the year where it was shortened by rain, cutting out the Casitas Lake climb, I actually got lost in Camarillo with Randall Coxworth, unable to find the Jaegers’ home in this tiny town, soaked in freezing rain and unable to use my phone because it, too, was soaking wet. So near and yet so far. For a lot of riders it was a once-only affair, for many it was two or three times, but only David and Harry made it every single year. That’s quite a record given the toughness of the course and the inevitability of family, work, sickness, sloth, and the other lame excuses that get in the way of training.

But the continuity was a function of David’s family as well. His parents Jim and Nancy, his wife Lynn, his brother, sister, and their families all pulled to in various years to cook the food, send the riders off, then haul their sorry asses off the driveway at ride’s end. Macy and Carly, David’s daughters, literally grew up with the French Toast Ride. Were they scarred forever by having their January annually punctuated by the horrible sight of ugly, wrinkly old men prancing around the living room wearing garish clown suits? I don’t know. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, maybe. That family aspect of the French Toast Ride, more than anything else, made it special, people opening their home to strangers, helping pull off a miserably fun event for no other reason than, well, that’s what families do. And to the eternal credit of the miscreants who rode the ride, there was never a word spoken or a deed done with regard to the Jaeger family that lacked our appreciation and gratefulness for their generosity and good cheer. Excepting of course the time that Gregg Stern clogged the upstairs shitter with four pounds of TP.

The French Toast Ride was a kind of written record of our cycling careers. People got invited when they caught David’s eye or somehow entered his closest circle or when, on rare occasions, he reached out to me to ask if I had a particular recommendation. Otherwise, you couldn’t beg, buy, or steal your way onto the French Toast Ride. In a way that was a shame and a discredit to all of us because the ride never had a black rider, and in its two decades only two woman, Cynthia Marie, Kristie Fox, ever rode the FTR. This is how racism and sexism work, sometimes consciously, but most often unconsciously, excluding women and people of color simply because you accept that your world, your friends, your experiences, are a complete picture. I know that if there were a French Toast Ride done again, that part of it would be done differently.

And how people begged! Everyone wanted the golden invitation but Dave was scrupulous in limiting the number of riders. He didn’t care that it was the most prestigious ride anywhere, he cared that it was safe, and he had a maximal number of people he’d allow, a number that correlated perfectly to road safety and to the number who could crap pre-ride without destroying his parents’ plumbing. David’s commitment to safety wasn’t in name only. For him the FTR required a kind of super-human fitness because he did the ride and he also played mother hen, making sure that the riders who showed up against their better judgment weren’t left to wither and die on the roads of Ventura County. There were only a handful of crashes in the ride’s history, and never a significant injury. More crucially, no one ever had his bike destroyed.

Of all the unusual characteristics of the ride, David went out of his way to invite people who were as good or even better than he was. He had no pride and although he was always one of the top climbers, I don’t think he ever won Balcom and maybe not even a sprint. He didn’t care. The ride was fashioned to bring out the best efforts of the best riders, and if it meant that David got shellacked, so be it. On the other hand, since he was always preoccupied with making sure everyone’s diaper was dry, shuttling back and forth from tail to the front, it’s a safe bet that if he had ridden FTR to crush and destroy … he would have. He made sure the ride was fun, even if it meant he wasn’t always having any. And no matter how hard it was, he never looked tired.

This is also the reason that David’s email reminders were so regular and so brutal. He wanted you to come but only if you were in shape, and no, it didn’t count if your shape was round. He knew that one wholly unfit rider could ruin the ride and he kept the pressure on until the day of. The only thing more dishonorable than bailing at the last minute was showing up unable to ride. To that end, once you’d been invited and had done the ride, you were on the list forever, and the only thing that could get you stricken was a) rudeness to the hosts or b) failing to show up without notifying David. He accepted your lame excuse without scolding or shaming. He knew, you knew, everyone knew, that you were too weak and that after all the braggadocio you simply didn’t have what it took, but he appreciated it if you quit, even at the last second, as long as you let him know. And I believe that in 20 years only one rider ever failed to notify him. It’s a sign of the respect that we all had for him and his family. We’d rather be dishonorable quitters than to dishonorably leave him in the lurch.

The French Toast Ride had some truly animal participants. Olympic gold medalist Steve Hegg was a regular for several years. Neo-pro Alex Bowden showed up one year and rode like you’d expect a pro to ride after some initial drubbing by the old farts. Phil Tinstman’s one FTR was in the rain-shortened version, and Michael Marckx showed up every year fit and ready to kick ass. No one though can match the record of Jeff Konsmo, who won the Balcom Climb practically every time he did it, along with Casitas Lake, over a period of fifteen FTRs, maybe more. And of course tough guys like Greg Leibert, Dan Cobley, lightning sprinter Aaron Wimberly, and David himself ensured that every single year you were going to suffer like a dog. For years the misery of the French Toast Ride’s climbs were exquisitely revenged on US 101 by Harry Martinez, famed for his 35-mph “King Harold Flatback” along the coast. Let a few inches open up and you were by yourself all the way to the next stop in Ventura. Stay connected and you were going to wish you hadn’t.

For all the pain or because of it, the French Toast Ride had camaraderie. You looked forward to it it and you trained for it. It was cold when you started and boiling when you finished. You spent a day with friends and sort-of-friends, you #fakebattled, and at the end you ate sandwiches, told jokes, acknowledged getting your ass beat, and felt lucky to be part of something so special. You reveled in images of Joe Yule getting towed up Balcom Canyon by hanging onto a pickup, and of Harry finally dominating a climb by grabbing onto a motorcycle as he ascended Casitas Lake. My own sneak attack at a pee stop that resulted in cramps and collapse at the foot of Balcom contributed to the lore of the ride, along with a hundred other people and moments that made the ride what it was.

This specialness continues on today, in its own way. The Belgian Waffle Ride, America’s best and only classics-style road race, grew directly from David Jaeger’s French Toast Ride. The inspiration that BWR’s progenitor, Michael Marckx, got from the FTR spurred him to create something that in the beginning mirrored this morning get-together of friends for a truly vicious beating smothered in syrup, bacon, and French toast. FTR lives on in other ways, too. The people who did it, when they reflect, know that it was a snapshot of fitness, fun, and cycling intensity that won’t come again. It was from their youth, youthy-ness, or middle age. It was from a snapshot of time in which speed and fitness and competition on the bike were important. It was from a time when you had the legs and weren’t afraid to test them out against your betters.

Maybe the French Toast Ride wasn’t the best group ride ever. But if it wasn’t, please direct me to the one that was.

END

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Postscript: I shot off a few text messages to FTR alums to get their top three French Toast Ride moments … here are a few of them!

  • Seth cramping on the way up Balcom and splayed over the guardrail.
  • Shon Holderbaum spinning around the intersection like a top and almost taking out a taco cart.
  • Going up the golf course climb in the pouring rain riding up the gutter which was roaring like a river.
  • Winning the golf course climb!
  • Literally eating pig shit as the pig haulers roared by in the mud and rain.
  • Shon Holderbaum falling for absolutely no reason.
  • Racing down every hill with Aaron Wimberley.
  • Getting second up Balcom.
  • The awesome food and people at the end.
  • Rain pouring down Balcom like a river.
  • Seth clinging to the guardrail after an “ill-timed” attack.
  • On the maiden FTR, we were calling it the “No Whiners” ride, thinking we would just put our bags on the porch of Dave’s folks’s house and MAYBE use their restroom, and thinking after the ride we’d simply load up and head home, when we were surprised to find a full French toast breakfast with everything you might find at a hotel brunch as we’d been adopted by Jim and Nancy Jaeger. The real heroes were the hosts, unforgettable, and second to none!
  • You and me drilling it to Balcom Canyon.
  • Finishing second or third three times on that DAMNED hill.
  • Chasing from Castaic Lake and getting a KOM for that stretch.
  • Drilling the front going down the 101.
  • Jim Miller’s consistent cramping in Ventura.
  • Drilling it in a paceline after the Ventura stop.
  • The rainy day!
  • The crazy sprinting after the first major descent into Fillmore.
  • The drive up the first time!
  • The year of the rain!
  • The girls doing chalk art to welcome home the riders.
  • The year the coffee pot kept blowing the fuse to the kitchen and we were in a panic trying to get the French toast ready and had to drag an extension cord in from the garage.
  • Seth cramping on Balcom, OF COURSE!
  • The rain year, I was fuckin’ miserable.
  • Stern’s excuses for either not showing up or not being able to hang while bragging about how many miles he did and how old he was.
  • Yule hitching a ride on a truck up Balcom.
  • The year it rained, getting soaked and coated with roadside mud.
  • The gas station stop re-group in Ojai and the dreaded anti-climactic golf course hill EVERY YEAR.
  • Most epic FTR was the year it rained. It was funny to see grown men cry because they were cold and wet.
  • DJ’s entire family was so into the FTR. His girls Carly and Macy and the chalk art on the driveway, his mom and dad welcoming everyone as they arrived, and DJ’s sister opening her home up as the lunch stop in Ventura, and Lynn always making sure the breakfast and lunch were spot on!
  • The overwhelming generosity of Jim and Nancy Jaeger.
  • The fear of Balcom.
  • DJ arguing with the Circle K manager as to why he and his entire crew should be granted an exception to use the non-public restroom … and winning!
  • Public encouragement by Michelle on Facebook the night before telling me I could do it!
  • Riding the first climb, talking with Dan Seivert about cycling.
  • Eating a life-saving blueberry muffin that Andy Schmidt gave me on the 101.
  • Most brutal 15 minutes I have every spent, 27 mph paceline on the coast.
  • Gorgeous view from atop Balcom Canyon that marked the end of the right–NOT!
  • Michelle Landes immediately posting congratulations when it ended for being the first and only woman to ever do this ride.
  • Everyone’s pre-ride anxiety.
  • Everyone’s post-ride collapse.
  • The time DJ and Harry rubbed a fake poop smear in Konsmo’s shorts.
  • Leibert’s funky outfits!
  • Steve Hegg shredding everyone on the climbs despite being 40 lbs. overweight.
  • Getting invited!
  • P-Normous doing the ride with no mileage on his legs, finishing, then collapsing on Dave’s parents’ lawn, unable to get up.
  • Riding with good friends.
  • Riding in the canyon leading up to the steep section of Balcom, having someone tell me “It’s not that bad,” then coming around the bend with the steep wall in sight and yelling, “Oh shit!”
  • Steve Yurosik walking up Balcom.
  • Harold flat-backing on the 101.
  • Post-ride group photo!
  • Walking in the front door and seeing three generations of Dave’s family making us French toast as if it was our last meal.
  • Shon jumping early and raising his hands in victory … 50 meters before the sprint finish in Ojai.
  • Yule hitching a ride up Balcom with a pick-up and hopping out as if no one would notice.
  • Sliding across the intersection in the rain.
  • Food at DJ’s parents’ home when we entered.
  • 3rd up Casitas behind Leibert and Konsmo.
  • Konsmo’s chartreuse North Face jacket and wondering if it came in a men’s model.
  • Seth doing the entire FTR on a handful of nuts and black coffee.
  • Seeing you on Balcom thinking I would catch you only to have you look back and ride away!
  • Fear and anticipation of the herd before the ride.
  • The one-inch bow wave of water coming off the road onto my front tire as I slogged up Balcom on the one and only rain year.
  • Seth’s ill-fated attack toward Balcom and the subsequent mega lock-up against the guardrail.
  • The happiness of having all my trusted and mature (mostly) biker buddies treat my Mom and Dad with the attention and respect they deserved.
  • Killing it on Casitas and crumbling on Balcom … EVERY YEAR.
  • All the memories. Good times, bad times, you know I had my share!
The most epic day!

Omens in the sky

February 8, 2021 § 5 Comments

Dear Suzunami,

When you entered the world this morning near five o’clock, I was asleep and wholly unaware of your arrival. You showed up ten days early and you exited the warm place quickly, in only a couple of hours.

Fat, bright red, and hungry, you latched on and drank yourself to slumber. The first I saw of you was a photograph as you lay content, warm, snuggled, asleep.

I won’t see you for a few days yet, but I thought about you all day, and you know what I thought? I thought that everyone should have a written welcome into the world. Here’s yours.

From time immemorial the birth of a child had meaning, but what that meaning was people had to divine from the natural world around them. Some divined it from the stars, some divined it from special marks, and some divined it from the wild creatures. I wanted to know the meaning of your birth so I got on my bicycle and rode up a long, dirt road. A bicycle is a toy; you will someday have one. Dirt is also a toy, you will come to love it. Roads? They are things that we all follow whether we will or no.

As I rode I looked up in the sky and saw a hawk. A hawk is a large and fierce bird, and this one had a red tail. I have seen many hawks like this along this road, but today I saw something rare: The one hawk, as it floated on the wind, was accompanied by another. I have never before seen two such hawks flying together, so I watched them because I knew they were the sign, the omen that I had been seeking that would tell me the meaning of your birth. Unfortunately, no matter how long I looked I couldn’t figure it out. “Maybe,” I thought, “they are just hawks.”

So instead I will welcome you in another way, shorn of superstition but warm and loving as I can make it nonetheless.

You have been born into a world that is no better and no worse than any other world of any other time. It is filled with happiness and sadness, with good luck and bad, with surprises and boredom, with obviousness and mystery. Most importantly for you, it is a world filled with love. You have a mother and father who love you mightily, grandparents who love you mightily, and two older brothers who are going to love you mightily though they may not know it just yet. You have uncles and aunts who adore you, and even great-grandparents in great number. You have been born under a roof that will keep you warm in winter and cool in summer. When you are hungry you will be fed. When you are sad you will be entertained. When you are happy you will be surrounded by people who share your mirth. When you are sick you will be succored and when you are healthy and running fast your brothers and friends will run with you. When it is your birthday you will receive Hot Wheels, new ones, not the used and banged-up ones handed down by your brothers.

As you grow up you will see that the world is complex. Things that seemed one way will seem another. People who spoke one way will speak another. Places that felt one way will feel another. And the you that you thought you knew will one day become someone quite different but at the same time will be unchanged. Also, you will one day have to wear pants and use a potty. I told you life is filled with sadness.

Your job? Learn to use the potty. And, to never let us forget that you are here to teach us. To remind us that if we fail you we have failed everyone. To be our inspiration to make things better so that you, when it is your turn, will have something left to pass on.

You have more jobs than that. You must learn to laugh deeply and to cry openly. The crying part you appear to have already learned. You must learn that all people are, oddly enough, people. It’s a dumb world where you’d have to learn such an obvious thing, but you’ll find that grown-ups needlessly complicate and dumb-up the simplest things. Since I’m your grandpa, which is a person impossibly ancient and old, you will have to accept that some old people are utterly ridiculous. You will have to learn how to play “Bal-ti-mo,” how to watch Ultraman episodes 1-500 in a tent, and how to rip out an old man’s beard by the roots. You will have learn to infuriate your older brothers and how to tattletale when they are mean to you. You will have to learn this mathematical equation: Grandpa = Gummy Bears + Unlimited Cartoons.

The good news is that for now all you have to do, you’re already doing. Eat. Sleep. Poop. Repeat. You will be snuggled and loved, loved and snuggled, dandled and kissed, kissed and dandled until you’re so sick of it that you will learn to sit up, then crawl, then walk, then run. Some day, with legs stern and stout, you will run far from me to places that time will place beyond my reach. Carry me in your heart then, even if it’s only a little bit, when you do.

All my love plus gummy bears,

Gramps

END

The unwinding

February 6, 2021 § 4 Comments

Burrs stuck all over everything, tromping through the river bottom, Kern River, CA
Marking the path

We are told that it’s a good thing to go off and discover yourself. We are encouraged to take the road less traveled, to go where others won’t, “But he that dares not grasp the thorn/ Should not crave the rose,” etc. etc. and etc.

However, there’s a problem with the Jesus model of going out into the wilderness, and it’s this: If you leave in order to seek, and you find that which you’re seeking, you return a changed person–all well and good, except that the people you return to are the same. And whereas you look at them with new eyes, they look at you with old.

And when you return unwilling to stumble back into the traces, blinkered, you quickly realize that the place they were saving for you has been taken, that the light they said they’d keep on has been turned off. The unwinding has happened and now, where there was once a comfy and well-fitting sweater, the only thing that anyone sees is a tangled skein of yarn.

I have ridden my bike a lot, more than most, over the last 57 years, and it has never really failed me. Nor does it fail me now.

Yesterday I rode over to Kernville, planning to take the as-yet-unridden Sierra Way back over to Lake Isabella and then home. A few miles along I found a Forest Service road that looked like it might lead to the river, so I took it, and it did. At the dead end I turned around and found another sandy track which led to another dead end bordering a thicket of dried brambles. After a half-mile’s hard march, pushing my bike over the dried limbs and dragging it through the thorns, I paused, winded, my ankles cut, trying to spy out the way back.

I recalled a fragment of this poem by Stephen Crane, which I’ll print below in full.

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

Stephen Crane, “The Wayfarer”
Doubtless there are, but I prefer them not.

END

Eulogy for a hero

January 19, 2021 § 16 Comments

Priest and corpse

Dearly Beloved–

We are gathered here today to celebrate the life and the death of the reputation of Jay LaPlante, a/k/a Manslaughter. Few reputations lived so fully, so completely, so utterly without excuse or apology as the reputation of Manslaughter. As we sit here, led to the brink of despair as we consider the premature, the far too premature, end of this stellar reputation, I ask each of you to consider that with every death there is a life, with every loss there is a gain, and with every end there is a new beginning more glorious than any that can be seen by the eye of man.

Manslaughter’s reputation was born on a mayonnaise farm in New South Wales, where it grew to manhood working the mayonnaise plants that grow so plentifully in this luscious part of Singapore. Fighting off mayonnaise sharks, protecting the tender shoots from tsunamis, and harvesting the tender and delicate mayonnaise buds by hand, hard though it was, made Manslaughter’s reputation fierce, canny, unyielding, and courageous at an extremely early age. After the collapse of the global mayonnaise market in the Great Mayonnaise Crash of 1987, Manslaughter’s reputation relocated to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where it became a brain surgeon, curer of cancer, and ace sailor.

After several years cruising the Minnesota Main in HMS (His Manslaughter’s Ship) That’s Dumb, Manslaughter’s reputation left off raiding ski boats and fishermen and set off for the South Pacific. Many whales were harpooned, many ships and cabin girls were boarded, and Manslaughter’s reputation grew yet bigger, stronger, hungrier for new fields of conquest. Shortly after its final voyage to Fiji, Manslaughter’s reputation sailed to the California coast and took up residence in Hermosa Beach, where it purchased a bicycle, a terribly ugly orange bicycling outfit, and established itself as the reputation that none could match.

Whether it was almost killing its good friend Wanky on the NPR, winning belt buckles at Leadville, winning MTB races, sailing off high jumps onto its face or skidding out on wet pavement and shredding off half his skin, Manslaughter’s reputation knew no fear, left no challenge untaken, and preferred a good ol’ fashioned faceplant rather than giving up and quitting. Many a cyclist in the South Bay met Manslaughter’s reputation like this:

Reputation: Hey! Let’s go ride off road!

Sucker: I don’t have an MTB.

Reputation: No prob. I’ll lend you one of mine.

Sucker: I’m afraid of dirt.

Reputation: We’ll only ride gravel, hardest packed.

Sucker: I’m a terrible bike handler.

Reputation: I’ll teach you how to hop a tennis ball.

Sucker: I’m afraid.

Reputation: I’ll be gentle.

Suckers of all stripes found themselves staring down into ravines, over cliff ledges, or onto shoals far below once they rode with Manslaughter’s reputation. No climb was too steep, no drop too terrifying, no uncharged pit of quicksand too deathly for Manslaughter to attack, jump, and vanquish, even though Tri-Dork and Chris Downs were frequently led off the field of battle in an ambulance.

And then, dearly beloved, began what we all now sorrowfully know as the gradual and painful decline of Manslaughter’s reputation. Some said it was having an actual job. Some said it was old age. Some said it no longer had the killer edge. Most, however, agreed that it was the Twinkies, and month by month, year by year, Manslaughter’s reputation sunk until that fateful moment when it tried to transplant a lemon tree without a shovel and threw out its back worse than a third string junior high quarterback’s wobbly spiral into the basketball net.

Manslaughter’s reputation would not have wanted this story of a life well lived to end here, and it will not. As painful as it was for Boozy P., Chris D., Adam “Lurch,” K-Vine, and Wanky to see the death of Manslaughter’s reputation, we will share it with you, dearly beloved, as Manslaughter’s reputation would have wished.

It was a sunny January morning on the Peninsula, and Manslaughter’s reputation sent out the call for a few trusted friends to come do a slow ride around the hill so that it could begin getting back into shape, despite the fact that round already is a shape. These trusty friends gathered, and seeing Manslaughter’s reputation bulging at the seams of his kit, they realized that it would take the combined efforts of good and loving friends to assist in this seemingly impossible task. After a short conference, the trusty friends decided that gentle would be best, and so it was decided to begin with the Cove Climb as a leg-opener, followed by the Alley, Millionaires, Forrestal-Ganado, and Crest.

At some point in this gentle, mostly flat ride, Manslaughter’s reputation began tacking back and forth, mistaking the bicycle for a sailboat. As the flatness became slightly less so, Manslaughter’s reputation vanished. It was found at Marymount College lying on the sidewalk, a paler shade of gray. “You okay, dude?” it was asked by loving and concerned friends.

“I don’t feel so great,” it said.

“That Manslaughter’s reputation! Always joking!”

The loving friends continued down the hill, turned left onto PV Drive North, and rode for a couple of miles. “Hey!” said Chris. “Where’s Manslaughter’s reputation?”

No one knew. Retracing the route, Manslaughter’s tattered reputation was found lying on a bus bench, a few moments from the end of its long and illustrious, nay, legendary life. A priest was called who administered first rites, then middle rites, and then last ones, which sounded a lot like “So long, motherfucker.”

I ask each of you to bow your heads for a moment and ponder what the death of Manslaughter’s reputation means for each of us, to consider how that the hard stone, on which we tread and goon, yet wasteth it as it lieth by the way. This world is but a thoroughfare full of woe, and we are but pilgrims passing to and fro. Death is an end of every worldly sore, and over all this could I yet say much more.

To this effect: dearest Manslaughter’s reputation, you were mighty in your time, and you fell manfully in your prime. So long, motherfucker.

END

Footprint in time

January 16, 2021 § 8 Comments

Everybody has a past, but not everybody can access it. Most of the time, the past accesses you. It’s trite to say I’ve been on a journey this past year, but I don’t know a better word to describe cutting loose, physically and emotionally, the bonds of the present and traveling around the country by bicycle.

The reason it’s hard to access your past is because oftentimes it no longer exists. Houses get torn down, people die or move away, and the physical touchstones that were the well of your past are simply gone. Memory is rarely reliable, what with its distortions, omissions, and slapdash paint jobs, covering up pain or trauma with the whitewash of forgetfulness or memories that retain the good and none of the bad.

Nonetheless, the past is very much alive and well. It’s a foundation but also a web, something upon which we stand but also a network of people, places, and experiences that daily tell us where to go, what to do, how to live.

I made up my mind after returning from my ride to Canada that I was going to try to re-live my past, or at least as much of it as I could still lay hold of. Not re-live it in the literal sense, but while recognizing that life runs “As dooth the streem that turneth never agayn,” it is possible to peer back in time and see bits and pieces of what was, to make sense out of the present.

One of the people I admired most I met in college, George Forgie, who was a professor of history. Is, actually. He gave a simple analogy of history that has stayed with me my entire life: “Viewing history,” he said, “is like viewing a large mountain. Up close you can see the fine details but not the big picture. From afar you can see the significance but not the fine grain. History is like that. When history is recent you can’t see where it fits in, and when it is far away, you can’t see the details of life that made the history occur.”

This is so apt. When you are young you experience the minutia and the intensity of growing up, but when you are old you cannot see the pieces of the mosaic of life that made you what you are, or just as importantly, what you are not.

When I rode through Houston I visited a few places that had been important to me, and had a few serendipitous moments along the way.

We moved to Houston for the second time in 1972; I started third grade at Braeburn Elementary. The old school was torn down several years ago and a new one raised in its place. Gone was the vast playground, replaced with a rather imposing modern building. My teachers there were Mrs. Apel Smith, Mrs. Broughton, Mrs. Owen, and Mrs. Livingston. Except for Mrs. Broughton, they were all African-American. They were some of the best teachers I ever had. Mrs. Smith nicknamed me “Mouth,” and my girlfriend was Joy Silverstein until she started getting better grades than me in, well, everything. Mrs. Smith also gave me one of my life’s great lessons.

I was always in trouble, always talking out of turn, always clowning, always complicating her teaching day. One day she accused me of doing something that I hadn’t actually done, a rarity. “But I didn’t do it!” I protested indignantly. “It isn’t fair!”

Mrs. Smith pulled me close, to within an inch of her face. “Guess what, Mouth?” she said, slowly, evenly, hard as a knife edge. “Life ain’t fair.”

She knew something about the fairness of life, or the lack thereof, as an African-American who was one of the first to teach in what had until recently been the segregated South. I often thought about her, about how committed she was to her students, and about what she must have had to overcome. She was a great teacher, affectionate but strict, understanding up to a point, and most of all imbued with a desire that we leave the third grade with a command of our subjects. She succeeded, except for my handwriting.

Next I rode over to Jane Long Academy, formerly Jane Long Junior High School. Our vice principal was David C. Harsch. He was short and fat and feared by all. In those days we got beaten with a huge wooden paddle, and Mr. Thompson would hold you down in his office while Mr. Harsch beat the shit out of you. Our parents, all parents, fully condoned it, although at the beginning of each year they had to sign a “corporal punishment waiver.” I never knew a kid whose parent refused to sign it, but there were always whispered rumors about some lucky kid who could supposedly never get “pops.”

For all the brutality, Mr. Harsch cut me slack when I needed it most. Given my constant disciplinary issues, he could have expelled me from school permanently. But when the beatings didn’t work, I got assigned to “in school detention.” We had a drill sergeant type lady named Mrs. Miller who supervised all of us reprobates in a room set off from the rest of the school. It was called the SRC, the Student Referral Center, and you were sent there until you had completed all of your classwork. Most of the inmates were already academically behind, to put it mildly, so it was a convenient way to get them out of circulation permanently.

I got put into the SRC the first time for spitting a loogie on the handrail of the stairwell when a teacher who was behind me, Mr. Campbell, put his hand in it. “SRC for you, Seth,” Mr. Harsch had said. I found out that you didn’t have to simply do your “classowork,” but rather the actual teacher’s lesson plan which no teacher ever fully did. In other words, it was an undoable amount of work. But I simply knuckled down and did the work so that I was out in three days, record time. The second time in the SRC I had been caught selling fake drugs, but again I beat the system and was out in three days. My final SRC assignment was for breaking out an entire row of fluorescent lights with a combination lock. I still remember being in Mr. Harsch’s office. “Back to the SRC for you, Seth,” he said with a smile.

“Yes, sir.”

“For a month.”

Next I pedaled over to my old street, an oak-lined avenue called Braeburn. The trees were big and beautiful then and bigger and more beautiful now. Forty years is a lot of growing, and one thing that Houston has a lot of is rain.

My old house, 5409 Braeburn, is one of the only houses on the street that is original construction, built in 1942 by Mr. Judson. All of the other houses were gone, replaced with modern homes. But there was my old house; it had once been pretty large but now looked tiny compared to all the modern, massive homes. “I wonder if they would let me take a few photos?”

“Why don’t you go knock on the door?” Kristie said.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Worst they can do is call the police.”

“Right.” I went up and knocked.

A very nice lady in her 50s answered the door. “Yes?”

“Hi, I used to live here and was just taking a walk down memory lane. I wondered if you’d mind if I took some photos of the outside of the house?”

“Of course not. Would you like to come it? It’s a mess, I’m afraid.”

“Really? I’d love to.”

She let us in and it was just as I remembered it. They had lived there for the last 23 years. The lady’s husband was there, home-officing due to the covids. “He used to live here,” she said to her husband.

“Really? When?”

“1972-1982.”

“Well please come on in and look around. Does it look familiar?”

“Yes, it does, exactly.”

The guy studied me for a minute. “Your voice is really familiar,” he said.

“It is?”

“Yeah. I’ve heard it somewhere. Do you live in Houston?”

“LA. Last time I lived in Houston was in 2006.”

“Where did you live?”

“Off of Braeswood.”

“Do you have kids?”

“Three.”

“Did they play soccer when you lived here?”

“My youngest did.”

“What league?”

“I have no idea. It was a long time ago.”

“I coached soccer for a long time.” He pointed to the photos of his teams on the wall.

I studied them. “My son played for that team.”

Scot laughed. “Is he in any of those pictures?”

I studied them some more. “No.”

“What was his name?”

“Woodrow Davidson.”

Scot nodded. “I coached him. I remember you. Your voice, anyway. You had short hair and no beard back then.”

We looked at each other for a moment as the weirdness washed over everyone, my son’s former soccer coach living in the house that I grew up in. But then I realized it wasn’t weird at all. As Bryan Kevan had said to me when I first started bike touring, “Meeting people in strange places is totally normal when you tour. What would be weird is meeting them if you never left your couch.”

This was the corner of the yard where we had our vegetable garden. It seems so small now, but as a kid I remember the bitter hugeness of it as I had to weed it out under the frying Houston sun. We always had fresh, juicy, sweet tomatoes, endless buckets of cucumbers, watermelons, squash, and strawberries. No matter how much we fed the insects and birds there was always so much more left over than we could ever eat. There was no way I could have known that my mom’s cooking, made of garden vegetables, would fashion my palate for the rest of my life.

This was my old bedroom. My bed used to be up against that far window, and my desk was where the bed in this picture is. There is another window behind that bed. One time I got bored, took a roll of toilet paper, and set the end on fire, unrolling it out the window. The flames raced up to the roll and almost burned the house down. Moral: Fire burns up.

Next I went to my old high school. It too has been rebuilt but this part of the building remains. I barely graduated, #437 out of 617 graduates in 1982. I was on the debate team and went to nationals my senior year, a big comeback from my junior year when I got kicked off the squad for stealing. I always thought that wasn’t as bad as Norm who sold massive quantities of drugs and never got in trouble for that. Also, our squad stole hundreds of books from the University of Houston library, and they littered the debate shack. Our debate coach, David Johnson was blasé about that kind of larceny as well.

Johnson was a sadistic fuck who verbally abused and intimidated everyone. It was great training for law (for some) and for a lifetime of psychotherapy (for others), but he consistently had the best teams in the nation. Despite his cruelty, debate trips were always incredibly fun, traveling to far-flung hell holes like Lubbock (LaButtocks as we called it), Plano, and wherever he sent us. Our squad was so huge we traveled in a bus like a football team, only our debate squad, unlike our football team, won virtually every tournament it entered. I still remember Johnson demanding a private phone line for the debate shack. He told the principal, “You give a phone to a football team that hasn’t had a winning season in fifty years. I’ve never had a losing one.” He got the phone.

Next we visited the Bellaire city swimming pool on Evergreen. It looked completely different and I didn’t recognize it; I used to practically live here in the summer. Turns out that my memory was defective; the pool I frequented was on 5th Street, not Evergreen.

The only thing really exciting that ever happened at the pool was the time that Robh Ruppel and I made a bomb and detonated it at the check-in counter. It blew a hole in the brick foundation; if anyone had been standing there it would have seriously injured or killed them.

Our escape plan? Light the fuse and run.

We heard it detonate as we raced through the park, where Tim Van Meter, the local hoodlum, was sitting on a park bench. “What are you little faggots running away from?” he asked.

“Uh, uh, um …” we said.

He grabbed us each by an arm. “Don’t uh-uh-um me, you little fuckers.”

Moments later we were apprehended by the chasing lifeguards, who took us back to the smoking rubble. I was sure we were going to be hanged.

But in those days, instead of receiving the prison term we deserved, we simply got screamed at by Chuck Overmiller, the guy who ran the rec center. Robh was a star swimmer and I was, well, a delinquent. I still remember Overmiiller, enraged.

“Robh!” he roared.

I thought he was going to say, “I can’t believe you did this!”

But instead he ignored the bomb completely and said, “I can’t believe you are hanging out with HIM!”

Finally we rode over to my mom’s old house on Amherst. I never lived there as I was in college by then, but I had a lot of good memories. My grandparents were still alive then, and so was my dog Fletcher, who lived into his early 20s. Fletcher was the only real friend I ever had, and the only time he bit me was when I tried to wrest a blood-soaked bone out from between his jaws. By the time he died he was blind, mostly deaf, and could hardly walk, but he still loved enchiladas.

My last memory of Fletcher was in that house. My mom had thrown a party the night before and had catered Mexican food. There was a giant steel pan of enchiladas left over. I was up early and my mom had set the entire steel tray down on the floor for Fletcher. With shaky legs, and the only sense still working being his sense of smell, he stood in the middle of the giant steel pan, feet covered in cold cheese, happily munching on a chicken enchilada. “Fletcher, boy!” I said, scratching his head.

He couldn’t hear me but he could smell me. He stopped chewing, let the enchilada fall, and raised his muzzle to my face. He licked me vigorously and with so much love.

He died a few days after that.

Would that we all went out with so much happiness, satisfaction, and grace.

END

Lovely old thing

January 7, 2021 § 6 Comments

Of course the thing that gets you is the saddle. It arrests you from the second you spy it across the parking lot. Images of discomfort, cheapness, misuse, overuse, and of course incompetence, all these things and many more are transmitted at the flick of an eyelid.

Some things, though, in their retiring nature demand closer inspection precisely because they care not the montance of a tare whether or not you notice, indeed, they are placed carefully, discreetly, artfully, so that your eye will pass over, if at all, and keep moving on. There is something to see here, but not for you.

The more our eyes dug into this old piece of steel, barely held together it seemed, the more we were rewarded. One brake only and that attached with a cable which barely worked with the mightiest of squeezes, then repaid the squeeze by refusing to release the rim.

One derailleur, the rear, shifted onto the fifteen, and the chain permanently slammed onto the big meat. The rider didn’t fear hills.

Brilliant Nitto bars that shone brightly on the tops where they had never been wrapped, perhaps, and sticky, ugly, black on the lower halves from some peeled-off ribbon of Christmases past. Schrader valves. Thirty-six spokes. Mismatched, mostly bald tires. Chain grease that bespoke an oiling every few years or so. The artfully beautiful pantographed “FUJI” on the steel crank. An original and originally corroded centerpull rim brake. Cable clamps around the tubing from a day when internal routing wasn’t even a dream, the pie plate still happily jammed in between the freewheel and the hub.

The down-at-the-wheels worthlessness of the bike was belied by the owner’s attitude, unmistakable in the giant u-lock that bolted this prized possession to the bike rack. His or her sole means of transport to a minimum wage job at the supermarket? His or her hipster ride to get groceries?

I don’t know, but I do know when a rider looks at their bike with fierce affection, because beneath the rust and jangly parts you could easily see the noble and lovely lines of the classic triangle, so much strength and endurance and longevity built into that simple triangle of steel, prettier than any plastic.

END

First ride

December 20, 2020 § 5 Comments

Do you remember your first bicycle ride? I mean the first time you pedaled a road bike with all those gears and skinny tires and the saddle that hurt your ass?

I don’t remember the first time but I remember the second time. I had bought a bike to ride to campus and don’t remember the route I took, or recall even riding, back to my apartment on Burton Drive off Riverside.

Austin has so not changed.

But I do remember putting the shiny new bike in my bedroom and gazing at it with love and awe and anticipation of riding it to school the next day.

Do you remember the anticipation? How excited you were to ride? How you couldn’t fall asleep? Where did that go, and where can I get some more?

That next morning I bounded out of bed. Do you remember bounding out of bed with excitement to ride your bicycle? I do.

I threw some cereal down my throat, dressed, stuffed my books in my pack, and wheeled that pretty, shiny bike out the door. At the bike shop I had gotten a map of Austin. Do you remember maps? Big paper things you had to read to figure out where to go? I do. And I knew I didn’t want to pedal along the death alley that was Riverside, so I found a little street called Woodland that would take me to Congress and then to the Capitol and then quickly to campus.

I was pretty proud about finding that route. But since I was still a few moments away from becoming a cyclist, I hadn’t considered gravity, and with blithe heart I set forth. Woodland had no cars and was pretty until I came to the biggest hill I’d ever seen.

Of course I had seen hills and mountains plenty but you never see a hill for real until you have to pedal up it. And that is when, that very moment, I became a cyclist, because halfway up this massive peak my bike wanted to stop and tip over and even though my legs were screaming and my lungs were burning and the hilltop was a thousand miles away, you see, I refused to get off and walk.

All I had on the back was a 23 with a 42 on the front, and sister let me tell you, did I stand on those pedals. It was late November and humid and hot, I was sloshing with sweat, and I cursed that hill for standing in my way, gasping my way over the top, lightheaded and wobbly and flush with a feeling I’d never had before, the feeling of a conqueror.

My heart rate dropped back down to 190, my eyes focused, and as I was starting to really bathe in the amazement and satisfaction of having whipped that bastard of a hill, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a second, even bigger one.

Now, though, I was a cylist, transformed from victim to aggressor, and I took the bit between my teeth and charged. It was another monumental struggle of life and death but I vanquished that wall, too, now wetter than if I had showered. The third and final hill I crested after a bitter struggle, hit Congress, and sailed downhill all the way to school, where I started class among my groomed classmates looking like a bedraggled cat. I cared not. While they had been plodding afoot to class or driving, I had been ascending steep slopes under my own power that they, poor dopes, couldn’t even imagine.

Yesterday Matt drove me over to the old Village Glen apartments, now renovated into condos. I only lived there a semester, but the daily battles I fought riding to school were unerasable. “Let’s take Woodland back to town,” I said.

“Sure,” Matt agreed.

The road was just as I remembered it, only we passed under the freeway and there was … no hill. A hundred yards or so went by and we came to the slightest, shortest, most gentle bump you have ever seen. We crested it and a little later there was another, equally insignificant rise.

There was no third hill at all.

END

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