May 21, 2019 § 17 Comments
When I was 18, I had just bought my Nishiki International and was pedaling over to the business school on the UT campus to lock it up. The business school had the best railings, and even though I was a philosophy major I swallowed my disgust and kryptonited my love to the secure steel bars of finance rather than trust it to the honesty of philosophers.
I stood up in time to see Robert Doty unlocking his bike, a maroon Fuji.
“Hi, Robert,” I said.
We eyed each others’ bikes like junkies eyeing the respective tracks on their forearms. “You’re one, too,” we thought.
Bob was fifteen months older but two years ahead of me in school. We’d gone to Jane Long Junior High School but didn’t really know each other; I knew his name because every week on the Monday announcements over the PA, Mr. Thompson would praise the football team for losing valiantly again and then in a hurried aside would add, “Jane Long’s Debate Team of Robert Doty and Thomas Chatoney won first place again in the xxx debate tournament.”
Mr. Thompson never learned how to pronounce Tom’s name, which rhymed with “flattony,” preferring instead the more redneck version that rhymed with “baloney.”
In high school I got to know Bob as the senior star of our nationally ranked debate squad, but I was still a lowly sophomore debater. Two years’ difference in high school is a lot.
Standing in front of the business school that day, standard social hierarchy crumbled as it often does when bikes are concerned. “You ride?” Bob asked. If there was gonna be a hierarchy, it was gonna be leg-based.
“Yes, but I’m new at it.” The last part was superfluous; my Nishiki glittered, still never having even been ridden in the rain.
“Let’s go for a ride sometime,” Bob said, and we did what people used to do, that is, took out pens and wrote down each other’s phone numbers and then a few days later made an actual telephone call on a thing wired into the wall.
Bob became my first riding partner, and he beat me down mercilessly. He was a distance runner as well, and terribly fit, whereas I was merely terrible. Our most epic route went out FM 2222 up Feedlot Hill, a mile-long grade of about six percent that you had to climb on the way out to Lake Travis. We could scarcely imagine a more imposing mountain to ascend on a bike. Each time Bob would drop me there, hard.
One day I made up my mind to hang no matter what. I hung on for as long as I could until he lowered the hammer about halfway up and kicked me out the back. I was blown physically, but emotionally, too. I started crying and cursing as he vanished up the road. Shortly before I crested the top, where Bob was waiting, I stopped trembling and swore that one day I’d beat him.
I think back on that moment a lot. Who breaks down in tears on a bike at getting shelled?
The following year I roomed with Bob and his older brother, Harold the Bad, in the rundown, roach-filled Villa Orleans on 38th Street. Harold was a redneck, duck-hunting Ph.D. student, and he thought the whole cycling thing was silly. Why couldn’t we just go out and kill shit like normal people? I was a pretty solid pain in the ass roommate, but Bob had never had a younger brother and he cut me a lot of slack that, hardass that he was, he’d have never tolerated in someone else.
One of those places where he cut me nothing but slack was the kitchen. Bob was the house cook and he baked whole wheat bread a couple of times a week. I’d never had fresh bread before and when it came out of the oven I had to be restrained from eating all of it at a single sitting. “It’s not just for you,” Bob would remind me, half pissed at my gluttony but also half pleased at seeing someone relish his bread so completely. Through all these decades I’ve felt guilty at having eaten all that bread and never so much as lifted a finger to help out, cf. The Little Red Hen and the Grain of Wheat.
Yesterday Bob was in town for a conference and he had brought his bike. He was staying right around the corner at Terranea, so we met up there. I handed him a paper bag. “Might want to go put it in your room. It’s not going to do well on a long bike ride.”
“What is it?” he asked, taking the bag. “Ummm,” he said, feeling the outside, “still warm.”
He opened the sack and tore off a piece of the bread. “Man,” he said, “this is good!” Bob would know.
He went off to his room to stow the goods.
It was a very sunny day.
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April 28, 2019 § 9 Comments
I was standing on a crowded shop floor, cyclists milling as cyclists mill, awkwardly, not sure where to put legs that aren’t positioned on pedals, talking about things that cyclists talk about, falling off bicycle incidents, today’s ride, friendly and familiar but still Cyclist Awkward.
There was a knot of people standing around the burly man in the back and he was holding court; it was his day, he was the king, and surrounding him were the princes of the national amateur cycling scene. In a few minutes he was going to talk.
When Nelson Vails began to speak, everyone shut up and listened. But that doesn’t last long with Nelson because pretty soon he had us laughing, then clapping, then looking on in amazement as he trotted us through a highlight video of his extraordinary life.
It’s a story that anyone who knows anything at all about U.S. cycling has heard repeatedly, but this time it was with the commentary that only Nelson himself can provide. He may be old, he may be long retired, he may not ride more than 20 miles at a pop, but when he glares at you and jokingly says “Sit the wheel!” you stiffen up and only laugh a few seconds later. Passing Nelson in a tight bunch on a velodrome was not for the faint of heart.
The youngest of ten children from a Harlem family, he started racing bikes, became a bike messenger in NYC, attracted the attention of the national team, and rode his way to a silver medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Vails is the first and still the only African-American to have won an Olympic medal in any cycling event, and as he reminds anyone who cares to listen, that’s not going to change anytime soon because “there ain’t nobody in the hopper.”
It’s not a slight to the two dominant African-American racers Justin and Corey Williams, it’s a slight to what Vails still calls “the federation.”
But the point of the evening wasn’t to deliver a rant on the failings of USA Cycling, and Nelson didn’t make it one. The point was to roll out his new clothing line, produced by Rapha, the Nelson Vails Collection. And he was blunt: “The great memories of riding in this kit will remain long after the pain of the price tag has gone.” I bought a jersey and bibs, rode in them the next day, and although they are the best looking, most comfortable bike clothes I own, it’s going to take a few more memories.
What was striking about Nelson’s talk was what he said and what he didn’t say. He didn’t talk about racism and discrimination in cycling, about hurdles he’d had to overcome, about the prejudices baked into such a pristinely white sport as track cycling in the 70s and 80s. Instead, he started his speech with a code word, the invocation of Marshal “Major” Taylor, America’s first and greatest world champion in any sport, before or since.
When African-American cyclists mention Major Taylor, they are telling you something. It’s subtle, and you either get it or you don’t. What they are telling you is that this sport you love and idolize so much, studded with names like Merckx, Hinault, Bartali, Anquetil, and Coppi, was first dominated, controlled, and ruled with invincible legs and will by an African-American named Major Taylor. And he didn’t do it to the adulation of the masses in what was the world’s most popular sport, he did it in the face of hatred and racism that are our American legacy.
Whatever you think about the conquests of your heroes, they pale compared to the achievements of a slightly-built man born in 1878 who became world champion, multi-national champion, and crusher of foreign professionals on their home turf in the face of physical violence, constant abuse, overt racism of every conceivable sort, and, when none of that worked, rule changes that excluded African-Americans from the nation’s cycling organizing body.
Taylor retired at age 32, unable to withstand any longer the punishing racism that was heaped upon him wherever he raced. He died penniless.
What does any of this have to do with the unveiling of the Vails Collection by Rapha? A lot, in fact …
First, by invoking Taylor and saying plainly that as the only African-American to win an Olympic medal in cycling, Vails is continuing in his tradition, it invites us to examine the history of cycling without actually coming out and saying “racism.” What does it mean to continue in the tradition of Taylor? You can’t know that unless you know your history, and once you do, you have to ask yourself why Eddy is your hero instead of Major? And to continue the question, why is it that the most influential and accomplished athlete in what was at the time the biggest competitive sport on earth, cycling, is not part of every rider’s tradition? Why doesn’t every Cat 5 racer know the Taylor story? Why is he not celebrated a thousand times more than Vince Lombardi or Babe Ruth?
The answers are uncomfortable, for some more than others.
Second, by invoking Taylor, Nelson was also pointing to himself. He too had multiple national professional titles, a financially lucrative multi-year career as a keirin racer in Japan and 6-day racer in Europe, and broke ground as Nike’s first ever sponsored cyclist. Flamboyant, fast, and able to deliver the goods on a global stage, where was the enthusiasm in America’s national governing body to discover and develop more young boys and girls from poor communities into the next generation Nelson Vails? Why was the path blazed by Taylor, then re-blazed by Nelson, left so quickly to overgrow with the same weeds and thorns of preconception and prejudice that had matted it for decades?
Third, by invoking Taylor on the sales floor of a high-end clothing store in Santa Monica, Vails was calling attention to a history of a different sort: The first time that a clothing manufacturer with the global, Pro Tour, luxury cachet of Rapha was partnering with a legend of cycling to put African-American prowess in cycling where it belongs: Front and center.
And for me, it was in some ways this third thing that meant the most, simply because the cycling community is so quick to mouth support for diversity, yet often so embarrassingly slow to put its money where its mouth is. Because no amount of hand-holding and nodding in agreement can make up for the fact that the first part of equality has to do with sharing the money–to clap a retired hero like Nelson on the back and tell him how much you admire him? Meh. To partner with him over a year-long process to design and develop a beautiful, comfortable, luxury riding kit that exceeds every standard there is?
Now you’re talking.
I got mine. You should get yours. There are worse things in life than collecting memories.
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March 19, 2019 § 10 Comments
I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!”
What do you mean somebody else is gonna do a profile on Greg Leibert? Is there another Greg Leibert I don’t know about? Greg Leibert the CEO at Mesmerize? Greg Liebert the engineering consultant? Greg Leibert the helicopter pilot who crashed in Antarctica?
‘Cuz I mean if it was one of THOSE Greg Leiberts I would sort of shrug and say, ah, well, okay, write whatever you want, dude. But on the other hand. IF you are talking about Greg Leibert the bicycle, then I am offended and challenged all at the same time.
There is no bicycle, there never was any bicycle, there is never gonna ever be any bicycle like Greg Leibert bicycle. And it’s not like people haven’t tried. Oh yes, they have. And when they try to bicycle like Greg Leibert bicycle, most generally all they get is a mouth filled with their own puke. The greenish yellow kind that burns like battery acid and eats off your teeth.
Just the facts
People have been writing and videoing and oohing and aahing over Greg Leibert bicycle a long time and generally it is the same old thing. Let me rehearse. The fax.
- Greg Leibert bicycle kicked your ass in a bike race.
- Greg Leibert bicycle kicked that other dude’s ass in a bike race.
- Greg Leibert bicycle kicked a bunch of people’s asses on a training ride.
- Greg Leibert bicycle kicked all those same people’s asses who he kicked on a training ride all over again in a bike race.
- Greg Leibert bicycle kicked your ass and that dude’s ass again in a bike race.
- Greg Leibert bicycle did a workout on VdM so hard it broke the hill down into a flat street.
- Greg Leibert bicycle is a very nice fellow.
- Greg Leibert bicycle never cusses (much).
- Greg Leibert bicycle helped a granny over a mud puddle once.
- Greg Leibert bicycle was kind to a puppy that one time.
- Greg Leibert bicycle tore some grown men’s kidneys out backwards in a bike race and made them weep.
- Greg Leibert bicycle used to be Greg Leibert Kansas foot runner who was real fast but not fast enough.
Okay, those are the facts and you don’t need to memorize them because the next story that comes out about Greg Leibert bicycle in a couple of months will tell them all over again, rearranged. You know what I say to that? Shoddy pumpernickel. That’s what I say.
I liked the way it sounded so I said it again.
Listen up pillow-babies
I don’t care about any of those facts because they are just facts. What I care about are the pillow-babies and the Faceblab babies, the folks who see Greg Leibert bicycle and all they think is “There goes tall wrinkly Yoda in a Speedo,” or “He ain’t that fast for a motorcycle,” or “I was gonna come around him but.”
Yes, all of you pillow-baby Flaceblab concept kit wearing team turkeys, listen up because I am going to tell you what Greg Leibert bicycle is, was, and will always be, no matter how many preen laps you do around CBR getting hooted at by three drunk homeless people, no matter how many selfies you take in your newest $800 Dopefinn Dopesquatch kustum kit, and no matter how many #fakewatts you generate in your Zwift cave bathing in your own stink and sweat.
What Greg Leibert bicycle is, is a benchmark. If you want to make the needle move on the badassometer, you will need a time machine, and you will need to go back to when Greg Leibert bicycle wasn’t a brokedown old Yoda who is still faster than 98% of the riders out there, no sir, you’ll need to zip back to the late 90’s or early 2000’s when he had more hair on his chest than a grizzly bear, yes, you’ll have to go back in time to those days when there wasn’t no Garmin, wasn’t no Stravver, wasn’t no power meters except for the right one and the left one, wasn’t no carbon bikes or electronicified shifting, when most racers was too flat fuggin’ broke to dope, you go back to THOSE days and try on Greg Leibert bicycle for size and see if you can swallow back the puke when he stomps it because unless you was one of the few, the cagey, the talented, the mean, the living-in-the-backseat-of-an-old-BMW Chris Walker, you wasn’t gonna do anything except tail off the back like an old cigarette butt getting pipped and flipped out the car window.
In other words, benchmark.
Gnash your teeth, pillow-babies, because the mark that Greg Leibert bicycle set wasn’t in 0’s and 1’s, it was in broken manhood and shattered egos.
There’s marks and then there’s marks
Greg Leibert bicycle set the benchmark for bicycle but he set the benchmark for human being, too. There were plenty of really, really good bike racers who beat Greg Leibert bicycle, but many were also really, really big unpleasantness. Doper unpleasantness some of them, arrogant unpleasantness some of them, you get the point.
What set Greg Leibert bicycle apart was his legendary Let Me Walk Your Dog Across the Street Ma’am attitude, his willingness to tear out your kidney on a climb and then put it over a mud puddle so some little old granny didn’t get her tennis shoes wet.
Greg Leibert bicycle invented bicycle friendliness, and it’s why road cycling in his back yard is pretty darned friendly. And when he gets mad he actually does say “Darn.” And he never calls anyone a “sorry maternal fornicator,” even the sorry maternal fornicators, which is pretty much everyone on the NPR.
There are lots of other benchmarks that Greg Leibert bicycle set, for example benchmark of sincerely laughing at your stupid jokes.
Benchmark of nodding sympathetically at how you almost won that race but got 58th.
Benchmark of stopping to help you fixaflatfillawaterbottlechangeadiaper.
Benchmark of driving the van to races. Or the Prius. Or the dog cart.
Benchmark of helping you stragetize how you was gonna upgrade from Cat 5 to Cat 1 next year.
Benchmark of coming to your party and never making an ass out of himself.
Benchmark of towing your maternal fornicating self to the finish line and gifting you the win.
Benchmark of being polite when he met your parents.
Benchmark of doodling a hilarious cartoon that you loved so much you tattooed it on your undercarriage (not me, really).
Benchmark of listening to the tale of your epic training ride/gigantic power numbers/29th spot on the Strava leaderboard for your age-weight-gender/new bicycle gewgaw/question about training that you have zero interest in hearing his answer to.
Benchmark of supporting his club and new riders.
Benchmark of encouraging instead of discouraging, clapping instead of slapping, cheering instead of jeering.
Benchmark. Of. Friend.
February 2, 2019 § 21 Comments
I glanced at this magazine cover on the coffee table, and it struck me. Oh, yeah. The Super Bowl is coming up. Then I looked at it a little harder and realized that I had no idea who was playing. Ignorance sure was bliss, but I puzzled over the headline for a second. The Rams? 35 years? Then I shrugged and moved on with, you know, life.
The thing that cycling saved me from was football. Not that I ever played it or followed it, mind you, but growing up in Texas if you didn’t follow football, it followed you.
Every idiot starting at about age six talked about football, and no matter how disinterested you were in it, unless you were deaf you had to listen to the endless, mindless chatter about the game. And when you got older, it was “the big game.” There was always a “big game.” Every weekend.
I learned early that football was for other people. Sandlot and schoolyard football were brutal excuses to pound people’s faces into the dirt, and the smaller and slower you were the harder you got pounded. At some point I came up with the strategy of always lining up on the end, going long, and dropping the ball. This ensured that no one ever threw it to me, and no one ever tackled me.
On defense it was always the same suicidal order from some big dude who had hair on his nuts four years ahead of everyone else. “Everybody rush!” And you’d smash into some immovable meat hunk who would knock you on your butt or run over your head or both.
“Why?” I wondered, “should I spend my time outdoors voluntarily getting my head staved in when my brother did it to me continually at home against my will?”
The brutality was compounded by the fact that any boy wanting his boy badge had to sign up for Pop Warner no later than four, so by the time you were scrapping in the schoolyard during gym at age 12 or 13, half the kids were semi-pro. They ran fast, they threw accurate spirals, and they tackled not simply to knock you down, but to make sure you didn’t get back up.
I hated football and still remember the first time I rode my bicycle to San Marcos on Stupid Sunday. Roads empty. No one out. Best cycling day of the year except for maybe Christmas, and of course none of my buddies gave two squirty shits about football. By late January or February we were already speculating on Flanders and Roubaix, wondering who would open hostilities at Het Volk, eager to see if the Badger was going to to dominate Lemond again, or whether Fignon would make a comeback.
Football fans? Losers.
Still, in the real world you still had to hear the drivel about the big game and see it in the papers. Even though I never watched TV, my roommates did, and game day, always the “big game,” was an orgy of drunkenness, pot, and hysterical screaming.
One neighbor, Joe Vessowaite, was so tied up with the success and failure of the Cowboys that their performance on the field actually had the power to put him into six solid days of solid depression or manic euphoria. “My ‘Boys!” he’d say, as if, you know, they were his children or his friends or his family or his lovers or all of the above.
Then and now I wondered how an adult could have any portion of his identity wrapped up in the sporting success of interchangeable athletes? What difference did it make if Michael Jordan scored another touchdown, or if J.R. Richard kicked the baseball through the uprights?
And although friends knew better than to mention “the big game” to me, strangers and acquaintances didn’t. “How ’bout that game?” they’d say with satisfaction the day after, assuming I knew, assuming I cared, and assuming we’d both settle into an “intellectual” “discussion” of whether the Oilers’ two-minute game was any good, or whether Barry Switzer’s wishbone was what had made the difference in the incredibly important annual “shootout” between Texas and OU, and what this meant for the Southwest Conference standings.
Usually I would simply say “I didn’t watch it and don’t give a shit,” and thereby make a lifelong enemy.
But one day I was having my car worked on Cecil Cashman, a recalcitrant, misanthropic car genius if ever there was one. His garage was inside a fortress off of US 59, and in order to be one of his customers you had to be introduced, which I had been, by his equally misanthropic brother Dan.
It was a Monday and Cecil was ridiculing the grown men who cared about football. “Fuckin’ stupid ass big game,” he said. “It’s always the ‘big game.’ But you know what? I can’t tell ’em they’re a bunch of grown babies. If I did, I’d have zero customers.”
“So what do you do?” I asked.
“Pretty simple. Customer comes in all grinning and ready to talk fooball. ‘How ’bout that game?’ he’ll say. Always the same. They fucking assume you watched it so they don’t even need to say which one.”
“And I just look at ’em with a big old grin, shake my head, and say, ‘Yeah, boy!”
“Yep. Works like a charm. Fucking idiots then rattle on about it while I fix their car and charge them double, once for the work and once for having to listen to their drivel.”
Ever since then I enjoy Stupid Sunday as much as I always have. Empty roads, and a truly peaceful, easy feeling. And when people ask me “How ’bout that game?” they always get the perfect answer.
February 1, 2019 § 22 Comments
I found out the other day that Julie Dilday was dead.
I met her in Third Grade at Braeburn Elementary, in Mrs. Smith’s class. Dilday came right after Davidson, and we were stuck with each other throughout elementary school.
Julie had the reddest hair and the fairest skin and the greenest Irish eyes of any person I’ve known, before or since, and from the moment we met we were enemies, enemies as only people who like each other and sit next to each other in Third Grade can be. Julie was tall and athletic; I was average height and had an extremely athletic mouth, which Mrs. Smith, and later Mrs. Owen, and after her, Mrs. Livingston, punished liberally, with help from Mrs. Goode, Mrs. Allan, Mrs. Cox, the vice principal Mrs. Riley, and later the principal Mr. Bob Bradford.
In junior high Julie and I were stuck with each other again, this time for three years in Mr. Byrd’s homeroom class. Julie still played basketball and I still played the fool, and we had gone from active enmity to simply ignoring each other. Well, she ignored me. I spent hours of my life staring at her bright red hair.
Since Jane Long Junior High was a long way from home, everyone took the bus except for the handful of weirdos who rode bicycles, and that was me for three years, pedaling rain or shine, in cold or through the brutal Houston heat, astride my gray Murray ten-speed. My route passed the Carlton Woods apartments where Julie lived, and most mornings I’d see her walking to the bus stop, very cool and very pretty, carrying a huge stack of books.
In those days no one had a backpack. Girls carried them out in front with two hands, the books stacked up, and the boys carried them with one hand tucked under their arm. I stuffed mine into an orange Wilderness Experience backpack, the most embarrassing accessory known to junior high man, and quickly became a speed master at whipping it off and stuffing it into my locker before it attracted beatings.
The mornings I rode by Julie’s apartment I always kept an eye out for her bright red hair, and most mornings I saw it. She never saw me, not once, and how could she? I was on a bike. I was invisible.
When high school started I was desperate to ditch the bike and get a driver license, and I did. My mom and dad divorced and my mom took up with a guy ten years younger than her who drove a Pontiac Firebird. Pretty soon she had bought him a very nice car and somehow the Firebird wound up sitting in our driveway, and eventually it became my school car.
My sophomore year I think it was, I got tickets to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. This was right after they came out with Damn the Torpedoes. Of course Julie and I were in the same homeroom again, and I screwed myself up one day and asked her if she wanted to go to the concert with me.
“Sure!” she said.
I was stunned and didn’t know what to say. It seemed as if she had meant it. “Okay,” I said, almost adding “thank you” but catching myself and saying “Great!”
The night of the concert it was weird. We had known each other most of our lives but had never held hands or been in any situation that anyone would ever mistake for a date, and suddenly there we were, around each other for the first time, almost. She was as nervous as I was. The concert was amazing and as we left the Summit a kid ran by and snatched her bag. I gave chase and Julie followed. She was still athletic and fast, and we closed in on the snatcher as he ducked into the underground parking and jumped into a waiting car filled with older, very tough looking guys.
“Give back the purse,” I tried to shout, but it is hard to shout when you are envisioning four people jumping out of a car and smashing your face in.
“Who’s gonna make us?” laughed the driver.
“I’ve got their license number,” Julie said. “Let’s go get the cops.”
The guy tossed her purse back out and they sped off. She picked it up and looked at me. “I can’t believe you chased that kid. I didn’t have anything in my purse. Just a couple of bucks.”
“I wouldn’t have chased him if I’d known he had his family of felons in the car waiting for us.”
Julie laughed. “Yes, you would have. I could tell you didn’t care.”
“I was scared.”
“Me, too,” she said.
We found my car and I drove her home, got out, and walked her to her door. I was shaking, I was so nervous. “Good night,” I said.
I swallowed hard. “Can I kiss you good night?”
“Of course,” she said.
Julie Dilday closed her eyes and tilted her head back, and our lips met. Then before I knew what was happening she had put her arms around me, holding me tighter than I had ever been held in my life, her soft Irish lips covering mine, her mouth “as sweet as horde of apples leyn in hey or heeth,” and her delicate tongue touching mine as she pulled me close.
I thought we kissed for twelve days but it was only for a few seconds. Our mouths unlocked and she put her hands on my chest and gently but firmly pushed me away. I looked at her green eyes, the greenest I have ever seen, before or since, eyes that said “Do you see me now?”
My throat choked up, I didn’t know what to say.
“Glad you ditched the bike,” she said.
January 19, 2019 § 14 Comments
Yesterday was my 8th bloggaversary and I was going to write something about that, tying in writing and riding, lawyering and grandfathering, physics and a bit of organic gardening, along with a dab of pan-roasted coffee and the joys of rye sourdough bread.
Instead, I lay in bed sweating hot rivers.
The day before had begun crisply at 4:00, like it always does, but this time I had a plane to catch for a NorCal deposition, only it wasn’t a plane, it was a rental Toyota Camry, and the depo began at one o’clock, and it was raining sheets, and it had been for days.
I rolled out at 4:30 and the second I hit the 405 I was white-knuckling it, as the wipers on high still only gave me minimal visibility, okay, no fucking visibility, because if a tire or corpse or overturned semi had been in front of me I would have had to chew through it with my face. Any time you leave LA for points north, you want to hit the 405 from the South Bay no later than 4:50. Because, Grapevine.
The Grapevine is your worst driving nightmare. In heavy rain it can also be your graveyard. Depending on how you calculate it, this stretch of road, which controls virtually all inbound-outbound traffic to the LA area, is about 44 miles long, beginning in Castaic and ending at the In-N-Out in Wheeler Ridge, where exhausted drivers collapse in a heap over the steaming grease and rubber buns of California’s best known and worst-tasting fast food.
Would you like trucks with your fries?
The true brutality of the Grapevine isn’t simply the way that the gentle twists and turns take you unawares, as they obviously had taken the Dodge Charger lying upside down as I plodded by at 40. The horror of this highway is the 18-wheelers. Of course from their perspective the horror is the little bugsplat passenger cars like the Dodge Charger.
In any event, if you are going 50 because of blinding rain, sleet, or snow, they are going half that, and there are a thousand of them for every one of you. It is a live video game where the lives don’t “power up” after you slam into the loaded semi.
With a max elevation of over 4,000 feet, the Grapevine often shuts down in winter due to snowfall, leaving everyone planning to get into or out of LA what is known as “stranded” a/k/a “raging blood pressure skyrocketing through your skull.” In my case, the whole point behind getting out of LA at 4:30 is always the same: Hit the Grapevine with minimal traffic, because on the return trip it is always going to be packed.
With visibility ratcheted down to nothing, fingers lizard-clawing the steering wheel, and the Grapevine already filled with trucks and cars who had hit it early for the same reason I did, I got over Tejon Pass and through the bright lights of In-N-Out feeling as if I’d just finished the French Toast Ride, minus the French toast. On the straight, flat run to the Bay Area, with the relentless rain pounding as if ordered up especially by defense counsel, it nevertheless seemed easy compared to the Grapevine.
It was going to be a 783-mile day. Glad I was healthy, in good physical shape, and not afraid of long drives.
Sick, wrecked, and afraid of long drives
Funny how quickly things change. The depo finished and in the interim the parking garage had flooded, leaving my Camry surrounded by a small moat. I started the drive home with my feet wet to the ankles.
In a matter of minutes my head felt heavy and unnaturally warm. The rain picked up. Even if I hit zero traffic it was going to be a 7-hour haul, and the minute I thought that thought, I hit traffic. Traffic in the Bay Area. Who knew?
Two hours in, the hot head had turned into a conflagration-level fever. I still had forever to drive. A 15-minute roadside nap wasn’t going to dispel the problem. Stay at a motel? That would be a two-day stay, because I could tell that what was overtaking me was the beginning of a legit cold-flu-kneecapper. Damned if I drove, damned if I stopped. What’s a feller to do?
Carnage and Culture
A few days prior I had finished reading Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. He is a Trump-nut, immigrant hating, ‘Murrica luvvin’, jackanape, so we can get that out of the way right now. He is also a damned good historian, and he writes engaging, provocative, well reasoned history. You can disagree with him all you want, but if you don’t want to look like a complete fool disagreeing with him, you’d better know your history, because he knows his.
One of the parts of the book that popped into my head as I was trying to figure out whether to die on the highway or die in a motel bed was the part where he described the life of a galley slave. Galley slaves rowed war boats. They were chained to a wooden plank. When nature called, they did it right there. When nature called their neighbors, they too, did it right there. When they got sick and vomited, they did it right there. When they bled, they did it right there. In other words, the galley was a moving, rolling, open and active sewer.
The galley slave was beaten with a whip by the row master when he didn’t row hard enough. When the galley engaged the enemy and got boarded, the attackers would swoop in and run a spear or sword through the galley slave’s head or chest. Since he was chained to his plank, covered in open sores, and couldn’t walk anyway, to call him “defenseless” is a bit of an understatement.
So I thought about the galley slave, and about what he would do if someone came to him and said, “Hey, galley slave, we’re going to unchain you from your plank, put you in a heated, comfy passenger compartment that goes 75 miles an hour, and ask you to ‘endure’ five hours of driving on a glass-smooth superhighway. If you get hungry you can stop and eat, if you get thirsty you can stop and get a drink, we can adjust the climate to your personal preference, and of course if your wittle tummy gets too hurty-wurty, we can put you in a cozy hotel bed wif a softy-wofty piwwow.”
What would the galley slave have said? “Nah, I prefer rowing for six months at a stretch, sleeping on a plank in my own shit, getting beaten, starving, and having a sword run through my skull.”
What is happening to us?
In other words, why are we so weak? Why are the smallest inconveniences so debilitating? The Grapevine wasn’t originally traversed by a Toyota Camry. It was traversed on foot by Pedro Fages, with 73 other men and a mule train. They returned to San Diego, exhausted and near death, barely surviving after slaughtering and eating their mules. What was going to take me fourteen hours took them seven months.
I reflected on the galley slaves and Pedro Fages, and weirdly, in my feverish state, connected with them through the ether. “You are a weak and pusillanimous 21st Century leaky prostate ex-bike racer,” they said. “Collect thy gonads in one place, clear thy head, and get thine ass home. And quit thy whining.”
My head cleared, literally, and my fever subsided to almost nothing.
I leaned a little harder on the accelerator and beat through the clogged, wet, truck-strewn Grapevine as if it were my driveway.
I got home and crawled into bed, broken. “Are you okay?” Yasuko asked.
I felt the fever return with a roar. “Galley slaves,” I murmured, “don’t come home to pillows.”
December 28, 2018 § 5 Comments
It is easy to tell people to get it together when the New Year rolls around. But somehow resolutions never seem to work.
So I figured this year that instead of platitudes I’d offer up some concrete examples. Pick any one of these and stick with it for even a week or two, hell, even a day, and you can chalk up 2019 as a win. A big win.
- Be like Dave Wehrly. Take the brutal things life gives you without complaint and maintain your decency, generosity, and sense of responsibility to others.
- Be like Emily Georgeson. Compete like hell, take the victory with a humble smile, and compliment the other person when they win.
- Be like Rahsaan Bahati. Don’t be afraid to take the longest, hardest pull.
- Be like Cheryl McQueen. Give back.
- Be like Greg Leibert. Keep doing it the right way.
- Be like Michelle Landes. Let people know they are special and you love them.
- Be like Marvin Campbell. Help the world laugh, and call bullshit for what it is.
- Be like Daili Shang. Go to new places, learn new things, and excel at them.
- Be like Ken Vinson. Do what you say you’re gonna do.
- Be like Nevrik Gevrykian. Support your partner to the hilt.
- Be like Geoff Loui. Welcome people into your home, even cyclists.
- Be like Yasuko. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, even if it means riding in tennis shoes.
- Be like Baby Seal. Make other people the star.
- Be like Sherri Foxworthy. Never, ever fear the word “fuck.”
- Be like Elijah Shabazz. Be a true friend.
- Be like Surfer. Fit or unfit, hairy or smooth, finish the ride with a grin.
- Be like Lisa Clayton. Share your gift.
- Be like Lily Konsmo. Put up with the same old biking stories and do it with class, even when you don’t bike yourself.
- Be like Dave Jaeger. Talk plenty of shit, and back it up with legs of steel.
- Be like Ava Seyranian. Keep at it until your stuff is good enough to be exhibited in a major museum.
- Be like Charon Smith. Keep getting better, and turn out enough watts to fuse the cassette to the freehub body.
- Be like Kristie Fox. Let the boys win every once in a while.
- Be like Marco Cubillos. Sit on the front even when it’s windy AF.
- Be like Jami Brauch. Treat people with kindness and respect.
- Be like Evens Stievenart, Rudy Napolitano, and James Cowan on the Big Day. Put everyone to the sword, and wash it down with beer.
- Be like the Flawless Diamonds. Make a difference in people’s LIVES.
- Be like Chris Tregillis. Give your friends an attaboy when they need it. And when they don’t.
- Be like Deb Banks. HTFU.
- Be like Boozy P. Pull over, get off your fuggin’ bike, and fix the other person’s stupid mechanical even when you are completely bonked, in a foul mood, and still 50k from home.
- Be like Tink. Ride guys off your wheel.
- Be like Eric Hallander. Proofread it, even when it’s not yours.
- Be like Jess Cerra. Embrace adversity, then kick its ass.
- Be like Nelson Vails. Inspire people.
- Be like Kris Prinz. If you’re going to bother to do something, do it great.
- Be like Craig Leeuwenburgh and Bob Spalding. Look out for others.
- Be like Chris Gregory. Ditch the fuggin’ helmet.
- Be like Gus Bayle. Put your kids first.
- Be like Christine Marckx. Have the patience of a saint.
- Be like Joe Yule. Get back up.
- Be like Nancy Linn. Make people better.
- Be like Gary Cziko. Advocate like hell.
- Be like Lauren Mulwitz. Ride the NPR like it fuggin’ matters.
- Be like Robert Efthimos. Always do more than your share, especially when you’re shoveling shit.
- Be like Suze Sonye. Don’t take no crap from nobody.
- Be like Vlad Luskin. Always have a funny-ass retort.
- Be like Kate Wymbs. Go very, very fast on your bicycle.
- Be like Dan Chapman. Turn your pain into art.
- Be like Major Bob. Say exactly what you think, leave the sugar coating to Betty Crocker, don’t hold grudges, and be fair to a fault.
- Be like Trump. Just kidding. Don’t.
The list goes on and on, look around and you’ll see what I mean … Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!