February 26, 2015 § 31 Comments
I can see Roger Worthington now, seated atop a golden throne which is itself perched atop a mountain of tightly bound thousand-dollar bills, staring out the giant plate glass window of his mansion in Bend.
As he casts his lonely eye upon the surrounding valley shrouded in snow, he cannot focus his attention on his immeasurable wealth, on his palatial eco-home that houses three people and has a carbon footprint the size of Beijing, or on his empire of craft beer, retail pizza establishments, and hundreds of thousands of acres of genetically modified hops.
Instead, as he scrolls through his Facebag timeline and sees the racing exploits of Charon, of G$, and of lowly Wanky himself, he can only grunt in discontent and snarl thusly on his feed: “Facebag, Facebag on the wall. Who’s the greatest masters team of all?”
In 2015, everyone seems to be vying for the title of America’s Greatest Profamateur Masters Racing Team. Is it Surf City Cyclery with its cadre of hardened killers, customized bike stands, personal masseuses and wrapped RV? Is it Monster Media with its gnarled and vicious national champions, its color-coordinated team bikes and its capacious custom canopy? Is it SPY-Giant-RIDE with its 80-man team, each rider armed with his own personal collection of fancy sunglasses, and its omnipresent armada of rolling wrapped team vehicles?
Alas and alack, it is none of these. The greatest masters racing team of all time was Labor Power. Driven by the power hungry and depraved mind of Max Kash Agro, this collection of weird, antisocial, and utterly bizarre misfits created the mold for the modern profamateur masters team and then smashed it, along with Max’s hip, irrevocably in 2006 — never to be recreated or even vaguely approached.
The story began in 1983 or 1984 as I was pedaling around the track at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas, when I first met Roger. He had an orange Viner. He raced a bit but aside from being reputedly “mean as a rattlesnake” there was little to suggest that less than a decade later he would burst onto the scene as the millionaire financier of Labor Power.
By the time he had been evicted from Texas and relocated to his Shangri-La in San Juan Capistrano, he had already invented the key elements of the profamateur masters bike team: Fancy Euro car with a decal, garish team clothing, “deals” for the team members, and teamwork that even today few teams can begin to approach.
In keeping with Roger’s ethos of “winning isn’t the only thing, it’s what I pay you to do,” Labor Power put together a cadre of racers who still make themselves known as the elite of the leaky prostates. Chris Walker, Louie Amelburu, Chris Hahn, and Greg Leibert are just three of the old Labor Power crew who still dominate when they show up to race.
Others have gone on to their reward or faded from view: Chris Hipp dead, Dave Worthington retired, Mark Scott mostly retired, and Chris Hahn still racing but only when he feels like it. Among them, the stalwarts of Labor Power amassed a record that is truly beyond compare, and what’s more incredible, they did it without any real suspicion of doping.
Consider this: In 1999 the team scored 40 wins and 78 podiums, including two state crit titles and a silver medal on the road. The next year Labor Power upped their tally to 42 wins and 95 podiums including state TT and road titles, wins at the Cascade Classic, and victories in every marquee masters event in California. In 2001 the team notched 42 wins, a world masters road title in Austria, and a gold medal at the Pan-Am masters championships. In 2002 Butch Stinson alone earned 31 victories as the team rolled up a mind-boggling total of 120 wins for the year. With 103 victories in 2003, the team had nothing left to win. So, dropping down to a “mere” 37 first place finishes in 2004, Labor Power masters racer Chris Walker won the elite men’s national road race at age 42.
By 2005 the team was falling apart, and so was team leader Roger Worthington’s hip. Labor Power officially disbanded in 2006.
What possibly explains this run of dominance, stretching from roughly 1995 to 2005? First of all, Labor Power’s guiding motto was “Win.” The team would block and sacrifice if it had a rider in the break, but that rider knew that 2nd place was unacceptable. There were no glory breakaways with Labor Power, where a rider finished sixth out of six riders as his team sacrificed in the rear. If you were going to ride the break you’d better not only have a plan to win, you’d better execute it to perfection. The fear of failure was driven by the manic despotism of MKA, and it worked.
Second, Labor Power, with one or two glaring exceptions, didn’t take wankers. If you were a proven winner you might get a ride with Labor Power. There were no bro deals. If you rode on Labor Power it was because you were either a closer or you were a closer. People weren’t recruited because of their ability to help, or work, or fetch water bottles. They got a ride because they knew how to cross the line first.
Third, Labor Power intimidated. They invented the cycling blog when things were still done on paper. The created the first mad-man race reports. The fecund and off-the-reservation mind of Roger Worthington made fun of everything, lampooned the enemy, lauded himself, and backed it up with vicious-but-fair, take-no-prisoners race strategy.
Fourth, Labor Power was ugly. Their uniforms were designed by Chris Hipp, a guy who had zero artistic talent and several galaxies’ worth of racing ability. Matching Hipp’s bad art with MKA’s bad taste, Labor Power designed jerseys that are notable even today for their garish ugliness and brashly bad mixture of offending colors. Yet the ugliness had an effect: When you lined up against the twisted minds of Labor Power you not only had to deal with the yelling, the intimidation, the race savvy, the steely legs and the cunning minds, but you also had to try and un-see the awful combination of colors that makes Monster Media’s kits look almost attractive.
Fifth, Labor Power had fun. It wasn’t the fun of “we gave it our best,” it was the fun of a gang of blood-soaked Mongol warriors, dripping in gore and sated from the spoils of razing a village, beheading the elderly, and selling everyone else off into slavery.
Sixth, Labor Power had money. Roger, despite being one of the cheapest, most tight-fisted people on earth, knew that to run a masters bike team it would cost money, and to that effect he made sure that at the end of each year his racers received the tiny pittance in shared winnings that are enough to keep an elite old bike racer cozy and warm in a cardboard box. For the amount of money that masters teams spend today, Labor Power could have outfitted a small country of bike racers.
So the next time you’re feeling good about your race results, or you’re thinking that the team is on its way to a winning season, take a moment to peruse the details of what is unquestionably the weirdest, whackiest, winningest masters racing team of all time: Labor.
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February 7, 2015 § 27 Comments
When I started junior high it was much, much too far to walk to school. “How’m I supposed to get to school?” I asked my dad.
“Ride your bike,” he said.
I had an old gray Murray 10-speed with lazy brakes and stem shifters. It had been brand new two years before, in 1974, so by that time it was merely new, as we hadn’t discovered disposable bicycles yet. I saved up five dollars mowing the lawn and squirreling away my weekly fifty-cent allowance, then went down to the Eagle Supermarket on Bissonnet and bought a bike lock in the hardware section.
The problem with riding to Jane Long Junior High School was that I had to go the other way down the street from the way I had gone to get to Braeburn Elementary, which meant that every morning I’d have to ride by Mrs. Dargabble’s house. Because school was such a long way off I had to leave early, which was an even bigger problem because it was usually in the early morning that Mrs. Dargabble would be up in the big oak tree, although sometimes she was up there late at night.
In the mornings, unlike the night, she didn’t cry or sing or howl. Instead, she would shinny up the bole of that ancient post oak and trot out onto the biggest limb, a limb so big and fat and thick and long that it stretched halfway across the street. It was pretty scary having to start your morning pedaling underneath that crazy old scowling owl looking down at you with her long, stringy hair and her shabby nightgown over which she’d thrown a sweater or a long-sleeved shirt, socks up to her knees and a baseball cap or a wool hat or a big floppy thing with a straw brim jammed down on her head.
Mrs. Dargabble was fifty or so and that was so old to a 12-year-old boy that she might as well have been dead. You would have thought her children, who were grown, would do something about her tree-climbing, actually it was more like tree-perching, or that her husband, Mr. Dargabble, would forbid her from sitting out on that limb, but no one ever did anything.
All I can tell you is that it scared the hell out me.
She lived two houses down and the first day I had to ride to school I looked down the street and sure enough, there she was, those long stockinged legs draped over the bough. She saw me, too, as I pushed that big Murray down the drive — I got on it like a man did in those days, left foot on the left pedal, pushing off with the right foot and then throwing the right leg over the saddle.
Our driveway was long and had a steep drop down to the street so that you always had a good head of steam going when you hit the street, leaned hard right, and sprinted away, using every ounce of momentum to carry you pell-mell under that branch with crazy old Mrs. Dargabble dangling up there in the tree glaring furiously at the world.
Of course it was the South and I was a little kid, and crazy or not she was an adult so as I pumped those pedals, my knapsack jumping all over my back like it was plugged into an electrical socket I’d still have to look up and say, “Good morning, Mrs. Dargabble!” as I slammed the pedals like hell to get past. She never said a word, just glowered at me.
This went on for the first week of school. Then on the Monday of the second week of school as I roared past, shouting my greeting, I noticed that she wasn’t wearing a hat, or a cap, or even the old dishrag she sometimes tied around her head.
On Tuesday I sprinted by. She wasn’t wearing a shirt or a sweater, just the old threadbare nightgown and of course no bra, and with the hot and sticky Houston weather you could see her droopy breasts pointed down so straight they looked like the would bore into the center of the earth.
On Wednesday she had dispensed with the stockings and I had to grit my teeth as I looked up, because sure enough her legs splayed on that branch showing her thick cotton granny panties all bunched up and her nightgown raised up to her knees.
I got up on Thursday and knew what was coming. “Hey, dad,” I said.
“What?” He put down the paper.
“Would you give me a ride to school?”
“I’m feeling kind of sick. It’s such a long way. I think I’m gonna throw up.”
Dad put down his paper. “Let me tell you something,” he said. “When I was your age I lived on a ranch. It was a two-mile walk from the house to the front gate. And you know what I had waiting for me when I got to the front gate?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. It was one of those old, much hated stories that every kid despises every time he hears it, but eventually cherishes when he’s old enough that he doesn’t get to hear it anymore.
“I had another three miles to get to the schoolhouse. And you know what I did when it rained?”
“I walked. And you know what I did when it snowed?”
“I walked. And you know what I did when it hailed, or when it was 105 degrees, or when it was flooding, or when the snow had turned to ice, or when the road was churned up into a mud pit two feet deep, or when I was sick, or when I didn’t feel like going to school, or when I’d forgotten my homework, or when I knew that Gus Tumpkins was laying for me past the creek?”
“I did the same damn thing. I walked.”
He picked up his newspaper and went back to it. “You don’t look sick anyhow,” he added for punctuation.
“Yes, sir.” I wondered if he’d ever had to walk underneath a crazy lady who didn’t have any shorts on.
My heart was pounding as I rolled the Murray out of the garage. I couldn’t bear to check down the street; I didn’t have to. I knew she was there. I shoved off with my right foot like I was trying to push off an aircraft carrier, and I got the biggest head of steam I ever had. The rubber whined as I careened into the quiet suburban street, the sun barely up, and I mashed the pedals with the power spawned by fear.
I looked up. She was perched on the branch, stark naked, legs spread open, the tuft of red hair thick and wiry looking and glorious, and she was smiling at me. It was the first time in the seven years I’d lived on the street that I’d ever seen her smile.
On Friday morning dad put down his paper. “You want a ride today?”
“No, sir,” I said.
He looked surprised. “Okay.”
I casually rolled the bike out and cruised slowly down the drive. I looked up, but she wasn’t there. And she never was again.
One day, some thirty-five years later, I returned to that street. Most of the old houses had been torn down and replaced by McMansions. The giant oaks that formed a massive arbor over the street remained, having grown more beautiful with time. Our old house was still there, and so was Mrs. Dargabble’s, the only two on the block that were left from my childhood.
Starting at my driveway, I drove the entire route from my house to my old junior high school. I was surprised at how near it was.
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January 17, 2015 § 10 Comments
My buddy Winemaker raced in Europe in the 1980’s. He occasionally sends me his reminiscences. Here’s one from Span. Enjoy!
Independence Day, Spain, 1987
“How came that blood on the point of your knife? My son, come tell to me.”
According Mr. Wondra, my tenth grade English teacher said, fratricide was a nasty action which has been the mainspring for much great literature. This story is about fratricide, and it was done to me.
I really liked Mr. Wondra. He taught me the structure of writing, and I still use it. He retired and moved to Morro Bay. This last weekend was a pair of road races around Zaragoza. I blame my friend Vierra, or KV, for it, as his distant relatives got me interested in this whole Spanish cycling thing to begin with.
KV did the introduction to his immediate relatives, who were intrigued by the idea of an American and his Irish buddies even trying to keep pace up the cols with the veined-out, speed-addled, underfed, poverty-stricken stick figures who made up the amateur racers in northern Spain.
Bike racing was weird, but getting to the bike races was weirder. Getting home, in comparison was always anticlimactic. We had flown to Madrid on the night of July 3, last Friday, got into the Holiday-effing Inn via the most rickety shuttle bus ever on a road, fand flopped into our beds at 11:30 PM. We got up the next morning because Brian, Graeme and I had to catch a train from Madrid to Zaragoza, which is a couple hours northeast of Madrid. The road race started at 1 PM, which seemed like a decent hour, but more on that later.
We piled all the bags and bikes into a van for a cab ride to the train station. It was 8 AM and we had been up since seven, eating eggs and bread and washing it down with bottled water, having learned that nothing else but wine and coffee were safe to drink in Spain. We schlepped all the stuff onto the train. The baggage went below and we sat up high, so as to have a lovely‘view of the parched wasteland that passed for the countryside.
We rode and slept for an hour or so and got out at the station in Zaragoza, gathered up the gear, and pumped up the tires. The plan was to ride about five klicks to the hotel, check in, drop the gear, dress, eat, and pedal over to the start. We walked out of the station and got hit with a wall of heat. It reminded me of that Grateful Dead line: Leaving Texas, fourth day of July, sun so hot, clouds so low, the eagles filled the sky.
I was made acutely aware of the transition from 60 degrees to 100. I hadn’t seen heat like that since last summer, and my body was almost instantly in revolt, telling me that this just was not a good thing, and ordering me to get my ass back in the shade, pronto!
We rode to the hotel. I was soaked with sweat and close to puking. We checked in and of course the room was not air conditioned, so we knew that night would be really, really fun. We dressed. Check. We ate. Check. We rode the 10k over to the start with 20 minutes to spare. Check.
Some lizard posing as the local race official blew his whistle, and we started, 85 madmen in 100 degrees out for a cute little 150k road race. The race started slow, a very casual 20-22 mph pace for the first hour and a half. Suddenly, and I mean, like in the space of five seconds, the whole group went gonzo crazy and hit it hard.
I became the gutter bunny caboose, jumping from wheel to wheel of the soon to be dropped emaciated locals, essentially doing sprint intervals every minute to stay on the back of this trail of ants winding its way to the death volcano which must have lain at the turnaround point. Yes, this road race was 75k out, 75k back, same road, same climbs, just in reverse.
I told myself that I would pay attention to the road on the descents on the way out, so that I would know the route on the way back. Right. That plan got canned about 13 seconds into hammertime. This road had exactly zero total elevation gain but over a million rolling hills that never stopped, up, down, up, down. The Spaniards couldn’t descend for shit, because they all weighed less than 130 pounds, and I could tuck and coast my way up to and off the front on every descent, and that was the only time my sorry rear end saw the front.
We turned around at the top of a particularly nasty climb, and some little dude attacked on the descent. I jumped on his wheel (we were going downhill, remember?) and 2 km later, after pulling through on a flat section, I noticed that we were now in a break of six. Yay for me!
Exactly ten seconds after that silent jubilation, we hit one of the rollers and I was spit out the back of this break like a booger from a redneck’s truck window in Oklahoma. I mean, I was on the rivet, and there was no coal in the furnace.
They rode away from me like I was sitting at a bus stop reading the newspaper. I pedaled on, convinced that I would just jump into the group when it rolled up, except that there was no group. There were collections of 2 to 5 riders all struggling to breathe. Remember that 1 PM start? Well, it was 3 PM now, and it was so hot and there was no wind, and I was about finished with my second bottle of water, and life was about to change. A Spanish guy rode up and haned me a full bottle of coke. He smiled, pulled off the road, and stopped. He was quitting the race, and I was about to find out why.
Like Kafka’s chrysalis, I entered the pain room, stayed there for two hours, and only finished 18 minutes down. And I was 20th out of 85, and there were 24 official finishers. The smart locals just quit after giving their bottles away to the idiots from Ireland. I was afraid to even ask for a scale because I was sure I had lost 20 pounds.
I mumbled something about needing water and food and lotion and sleep (sounds like, “Urgle,” the same in every language, and managed to pedal back to the hotel, clean up, and eat. That Spanish guy who gave me the bottle of coke knew I was going to finish, and he figured he might as well give me some sugar and caffeine, to soften my descent into sure death. He might as well have stabbed me with a sharp knife.
I couldn’t really remember the rest of the weekend, but then, it is only Tuesday now, and I am joyfully back in Kill, where it is raining and 58 degrees. I am pretty sure that I will have a good recollection of Sunday’s race by this Thursday, but for now, there is nothing there, like waking up from a coma. I did lose 12 pounds over the weekend. And, my resting pulse is now 60, where it used to be 45. So, the voodoo medical sense in me says I am probably sick or overtrained, or both.
That Spanish bike racing shore is fun, ain’t it?
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October 3, 2014 § 28 Comments
I sometimes hear riders talk about getting lost, but I don’t believe it. Hardly anyone gets lost anymore. With a phone and a Garmin, you can’t.
My first proper bike ride, I got lost. “Lost” as in “I had no fucking idea where I was, where I was going, or how to get back home.” On that December day in 1982 I took my mostly new Nishiki International into Freewheeling Bicycles. Uncle Phil had told me to bring it in after I’d ridden it for a month to get it tuned up. He checked the cables and made a few minor adjustments, all for free, of course.
“Where is a good place to cycle if I want to ride longer than my commute to school?” I asked him.
He grabbed a bicycling map from a little rack and spread it out on the counter. “How far do you want to go?”
“I don’t know. A couple of hours, maybe?”
He bent down over the map and used a pencil to trace a route from the bike shop to Manor and back. In those days once you got just the tiniest bit east of Austin, there was nothing but country roads. “Have a good ride,” he said.
I started out on what was a cool and sunny day. As the route went east, I passed through poor parts of Austin I never knew existed. Although I’d tried to memorize the streets and the turns, I periodically took out the map and checked. It was a big city map, and the wind made it flap, and it shared the common deficiency of all maps, that is, once they are unfolded they can’t be refolded along the same lines. It’s the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics, actually.
So each time I’d refold the map along different lines and stick it back into my sweaty wool jersey it would be soggier the next time I took it out. Oh, and wet paper tends to tear. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Garmin tear.
By the time I got up to somewhere, located just off of somewhere else, and not too far from over yonder, I was totally fucking lost and my map was in tatters. You know what used to happen when you got lost? You got scared. Just the word “lost” was scary. Lost is what happened to soldiers who ran out of water tracking Indians between Texas and Mexico, and ended in them drinking their own piss, and then slitting their veins to drink their own blood.
Lost is what happened when you were miles from a convenience store, when you didn’t have a phone, when email hadn’t been invented, and when you didn’t dare go up to some brokedown trailer with a junkyard dog on a chain and ask the woman in the wifebeater t-shirt where you were.
Worst of all, lost was something you were going to have to deal with, and it wasn’t going to be fun because however far you planned to ride, lost only happened when you were the absolute farthest from home, and lost guaranteed that you were about to add twenty miles of riding to your trip.
Lost also, in accordance with the Fifth Law of Thermodynamics, only occurred when your one water bottle was empty and the day had reached its maximum temperature and that tiny saddle sore had bloomed into a gaping magnolia-sized flower of blood and pus, and, if you were really lucky, after you’d flatted and used your last tube and had bonked.
Fortunately, I was endowed with a keen sense of direction, which I relied on until I flagged down a pickup. “Where’s Manor?” I asked.
“Manor? You’re headed in the wrong direction, sonny. Just turn around and follow this road for the next ten miles or so.”
Ten miles or so, in Texas, is a distance roughly equivalent to something between ten and fifty miles. I flipped it and got to Manor, eventually. Even more eventually, I got back home, but without a Garmin I wasn’t even able to console myself with the satisfaction of knowing how far I’d ridden. The only consolation was, I suppose, that I hadn’t had to drink my own blood.
But that’s not quite true. Getting lost meant a couple of things. First, incredible satisfaction at finding your way back. If the bike ride was an accomplishment, getting lost and then getting found was an even bigger one. Second, you learned the roads. Nothing sharpens your sense of location and memory of places like fear. I can still remember that route vividly. Third, it almost always made a good story, especially the part where you broke down and begged the woman in the wifebeater to let you drink out of the hose and she said, “Shore, it’s over there by the dog, don’t worry he won’t bite usually,” and you had to decide whether it was going to be worse getting the rabies shots or drinking your own piss and blood.
Yesterday Derek and I headed east and took the LA River Bike Trail. It goes northeast and ends not far from somewhere, pretty close to over yonder but not as far as way over yonder. We stopped to take a leak.
“Dude,” he said. “I gotta know where we are.” He whipped out his phone.
“Hell, I can tell you where we are,” I said.
“Yeah?” he glanced up as he waited for his phone to pick up a signal. “Where?”
“We aren’t lost, that’s where.”
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April 20, 2014 § 36 Comments
The night had started off slowly. I was sitting next to a couple of dudes at the bar and they were discussing beer. “I like the slightly fruity finish, almost strawberryish,” one said of his light-colored ale.
“Yeah. And it’s amazing the way it starts with a full nose, almost chocolatey, then transforms into something airy and almost, like you said, a fruity aromatic.”
I looked at my 32-oz. glass of suds. “Are you guys talking about beer or edible underwear?” I asked.
They laughed nervously. “Ha, ha. Good one. What are you drinking?”
“Oh, that’s a good beer,” approved Fruity Finish.
“Yes, very workmanlike, solid,” added Chocolatey Nose. “For sure it’s a biggie and has those strong citrus notes. Kind of muted compared to others but still lots of orange rind and piney notes. It’s a big beer, for sure.”
“It is?” I asked, wondering if they were talking about the big mug.
“Oh, yes,” chimed in Fruity Finish. “I’d add that, you know, it’s a well-balanced bitey IPA, right?” He eyed my giant mug. “You’ll get a better nose from a tulip glass, it’ll let the smell travel and pull out the high notes on that classic mix of piney, mango, citrus, resin, dankness. There’s enough bitterness, nicely mixes with the fruity, citrusy, fresh finish.”
I looked at them as if they were trying take upskirt photos of my wife. “You think so?” I asked.
Fruity Finish and Chocolatey Nose nodded. “How would you describe it?” asked Chocolately Nose.
I took another swallow from the giant mug as the bitter liquid charged down my throat. I savored it for a moment. “Hmmm,” I said. “Tastes like ass.”
The two connoisseurs winced. “Ass?”
“Yep,” I said, taking another swig. “A big old nasty swallow of ass. And that’s what beer’s supposed to taste like, by the way.”
They didn’t know what to say, so I continued. “Beer is one of the nastiest things ever invented, worse than kimchi. It’s rotted inedible offal stewed in a pot and left in a bucket to rot some more. If it doesn’t taste like shit you’re doing it wrong.”
Fruity Nose protested. “Good craft beer …”
“Fuck good craft beer. Beer tastes foul when you start and gets fouler with each successive swallow. That’s why by your tenth beer you’re cross-eyed trying to choke the shit down. That’s why men drink it after a long day digging ditches or clear cutting virgin old growth. If you’re going to fructify and chocolatify it, might as well soak a pair of flavored edible panties in ethanol and eat that.”
The two experts politely turned away, which was perfect timing because up came the Godfather. He sat down at the bar next to me and ordered a beer. Like a man, he pointed to my glass and said to the bartender, “I’ll have what he’s having.” Like a man, he didn’t bother to ask what it was, he just assumed that it was strong and bitter and there was a lot of it.
“How’d you get into cycling, Godfather?” I asked him.
The barkeep plopped the huge cold mug in front of him and he paused to take a deep, manly draft after we clinked the shit out of those 12-lb. mugs. “Fatty tuna,” he said.
I thought about that for a second, hoping like hell he wasn’t about to pronounce that there was a finishing note of raw fish. “Not saying I’m drunk, Godfather, but you’re gonna have to help me out with that one.”
“Fatty tuna,” he repeated. “And strawberries.” Then, like a man, he sucked down a full quarter of his glass and dissected it the only way any man worth his salt would ever evaluate a beer. “That shit is good,” he said.
“Damn straight,” I said, adding the only man-approved comment to another man’s approval of a cold beer. “But I’m still not understanding the berries and tuna thing and what it has to do with bikes.”
Godfather lives up on top of the Hill and runs the global energy consulting arm of IBM. He is always nicely dressed and seems like the perfect product of Southern California suburbia. But he isn’t. “You know, I grew up in Pedro,” he said, referring to San Pedro, the impoverished little armpit at the southernmost tail of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. “We were fishermen, and our family had fished the peninsula since they emigrated from a little village in Sicily in the early 1900’s. All of Pedro was fishermen, mostly Italians and Portuguese, and Croats, too.”
“Pedro?” I asked, incredulously. “You mean the place that’s now crawling with gangs and drunk longshoremen and street people who live in shopping carts?”
“The same,” he said. “We had three boats, the biggest was the Giuseppe, a hundred-footer. When I got big enough to work the boat, I was seven, they took me on my first run. We left in the wee hours and sailed up by Abalone Cove, shining lights on the surface to bring up the squid. Once we had a full load of squid, we sailed farther out to the bait barge and cashed in our bait for money that we used to fuel up the Giuseppe and the chaser boat.”
“What’s a chaser boat?”
“We had a little motorboat hanging on the back of the Giuseppe, my dad ran that.”
I tried to envision all of this happening right here on the coast of Southern California in the late 1960’s, a family fishing operation off a peninsula that’s now slathered in tract housing, faux Mediterranean designs, and filled with people whose only conception of beer is fruity finishes and chocolatey noses.
“I bet your old man liked beer,” I said.
“Damn straight he did. But we were a big Italian family, so he loved wine, too. Anyway, we fueled up the boat and headed out because we knew the tuna were running up from Baja, and if we could land a decent catch we’d be able to keep a roof over our heads for the next three months or so. It was a big deal. Grandpa climbed up into the crow’s nest and started scanning the water for dolphin fins because the tuna ran beneath the dolphin schools. Sure enough, he spotted ’em. He had eyes like a hawk, just like the whalers back in the day.
“He shouted down to dad, and we rolled the chaser boat into the water, and dad cranked the motor and set out after those tuna with grandpa coming up under a full head of steam. Dad got to the school, and started to turn it with the chaser boat, bringing the dolphins back to the Giuseppe, where we had the nets. It was exciting stuff, yelling and the crew doing everything just exactly at the right time and then bam, those nets were filled with tuna and all hell broke loose. We wound up with three tons of tuna that run.”
“So what does that have to do with cycling and strawberries?” I’d managed to hang onto that thread despite the boat chase and the tuna catch and the squid and the old Italians drinking beer.
“I’d ridden my bike down to the harbor that morning at dark-thirty. Dad filleted a 30-lb. cut of fatty tuna, wrapped it in some newspaper, and put it in my basket. Now mind you, the bike and the tuna weighed almost as much as I did. ‘Go get us some berries, Gerald,’ he said. So I had to crank that big steel bicycle loaded down with fresh fish all the way up the wall on 25th Street and out PV Drive South out to what is now Trump National Golf Course. It wasn’t a golf course then, I can assure you.”
“What was it?”
“Strawberry fields. And corn fields. Paolo and Maria Pugliese farmed strawberries all along the coast along with a couple of other families.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I am not. Where you now see multi-million dollar McMansions and a golf course there used to be strawberry fields and old Italians with sunburnt faces. It took me forever to get there, lugging that fish on that heavy bike. Remember, I was only seven. Finally I got there, and old Paolo took my fish and handed me two big wicker baskets. ‘Go pick your berries, Gerald,’ he said. So for the next two hours I bent over in the fields picking those fresh strawberries, then I rode home.”
“And that is how you got into cycling?” I asked.
Gerald finished off his beer in a one long manly pull. “Yes,” he said. “It is.”
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April 12, 2014 § 19 Comments
Many years ago we lived in a one-room home. The whole interior was a little more than ten tatami mats, or about 178 square feet. That probably sounds small until I tell you that six of us lived there, including one squalling infant. We were building a house on the other side of Utsunomiya, and my wife’s grandfather had allowed us to stay in one of his rental units until the house was finished. Our furnishings consisted of a small TV and low table. We lived there for eight months, but I don’t remember ever being cramped.
What I remember is the morning ride to kindergarten.
I had the biggest Bridgestone commuter bike that they sold at the local bike shop, a 55cm monster that, even with the seat jacked all the way up, was much too small. It had fenders, 30mm all-beef commuting tires, and a kickstand, but the piece of resistance was the add-on that they installed at the time of purchase: a kiddy seat.
The kiddy seat was a wire basket contraption with two flimsy cushions, foot pegs, and leg guards to keep the passenger’s legs out of the spokes. It mounted onto the rear bike rack and had a fixed handlebar so that the kiddy could grip in the event that circumstances became rough or unstable. There was no seatbelt of any kind.
Rough and unstable circumstances
My eldest daughter was in kindergarten, and due to our temporary location I had to pedal her across town every morning, a solid 20-minute commute in heavy traffic. They say that a child’s personality is formed at birth, and whether that’s true or not, it’s definitely formed after your first trip to kindergarten in a wire basket on the back of my commuter bike.
Ours was no normal commute, either, because of the Tobu Hill. This was a very short, steep, 200m downhill that swooped under the Tobu train line and flattened out at the traffic light on Heisei Dori. The road was narrow and even had a segregated bike path, but you couldn’t get any speed on the bike path so my daughter and I always opted for the lane. Well, she never opted for anything. She just hunkered low in the basket and gripped the bars survival tight.
The beauty of that little drop was that you could get a good head of steam, and if you got lucky and hit the traffic light green or mostly yellow and there was no oncoming traffic you could take the wide slightly cambered right-hander out into a clean 4-lane road. A full-speed sprint down the hill and a lucky light meant that we could sweep through the turn at a solid 35+, the bike in full lean, the tires at the limit of their grip, and the taste of fear dry and exhilarating and bitter roiling at the back of my tongue.
My daughter never complained, never cried, and never asked me not to do it, although upon reflection she never asked me to do it, either. She wore the cutest of kindergarten outfits, Japanese cute, a cuteness that only generations skilled in the art of tiny and cute could ever produce, and part of the uniform was a hat with a drawstring. At 35mph in full lean, the drawstring wasn’t strong enough to keep the hat on her head, of course. The times I looked back at her, usually after reaching terminal velocity but before hitting the hopefully green light, she always looked the same.
She would be staring calmly ahead, tilted in the seat so that she could see around me, a faint smile on her face, with one hand holding the handlebar in a vicegrip and the other mashing her hat onto her head so that the wind didn’t carry it away. If there was fear in her eyes as she pondered the onrushing and immediate future, it never showed.
Neither of us, of course, wore a helmet.
The great Utsunomiya World Championship Road Race
One morning we were sitting in traffic. As the light turned green and we began to move, a fancy road rider whizzed by. “Good morning!” I said, but he ignored us.
I looked back at my daughter. “That rude bastard,” I said. “Let’s catch him!”
She didn’t agree, but she didn’t disagree, either. She only peered around me to get a better look at our quarry, casually took one hand off the handlebar and clamped her palm to her hat. She knew that whatever was going to happen next it would involve high winds and turbulence.
The Bridgestone was a solid 30 pounds and Sakura was another 35 or 40, and I happened to only be wearing flip flops, so the bike wasn’t exactly quick off the line. However, once you got that giant lump of chromoly up to speed, it had momentum, and lots of it.
Packed in the middle of tight traffic I was able use the cars to draft my way up to about 30mph. Inches off the bumpers of car death I went faster and faster until my legs really started to burn and my breathing became painful and my body had to viciously sway from side to side to beat the pedals hard enough to keep up the speed. I could feel her weight shifting behind me as the bike rocked side to side.
The speed picked up and I hunkered down in the draft. Through the car’s windshield I could see the roadie up ahead as well as the car’s speedometer. We were over 35mph and the bike was starting to shimmy. My legs tore at the pedals and I was buried in the red. We approached a giant traffic intersection, and our draft was the last car that was going to make the light, which had turned yellow. The roadie had already come to a stop.
The Toyota I was drafting gunned it and got me up to forty before he pulled away. The bike was in full shimmy. Braking was not an option as I prepared to sail out into the intersection. I turned my head and stopped pedaling in preparation for the moment we’d shoot past the stopped roadie. Buzzing as close to him as I could, I said, “Good morning again!” and we rocketed by as if we’d been discharged from a Soviet work camp.
Judging from his gape, he’d never been passed by a dude in flip flops on a bike with a kickstand hauling a kid in a basket. At forty miles an hour. I’m sure the fact that I wasn’t pedaling added to the mysterious nature of the public humiliation.
My daughter is twenty-five and she still rides a bicycle, though her smile is wider and, you know, she wears a helmet.
March 1, 2014 § 21 Comments
I was pedaling along, talking to a pair of Cat 5’s about racing. A dude on a fancy bike passed us like we were tied to a stump. “Damn,” I said, “who does he think he is? Major Taylor?”
Stringbean looked at me. “Who’s Major Taylor?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say, so I thought about it. “Ever heard of Eddy Merckx?” I asked.
Stringbean laughed. “Uh, yeah.”
Stumpy chipped in. “Merckx was the greatest ever. The Cannibal.”
“Why do you think he was the greatest ever?” I asked.
“Dude,” said Stumpy. “He fuggin won it all. He was The Cannibal.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I heard you the first time. So you reckon he was better than Major Taylor?”
“Who’s he?” Stringbean repeated. “Was he better than Merckx?”
“Couldn’t have been,” said Stumpy. “Merckx was The Cannibal.”
“Yeah,” said Stringbean. “Who was Major Taylor? I bet he wasn’t no cannibal.”
Der Sieger schreibt die Geschichte
Among black cyclists, Major Taylor needs no introduction. But for many whites, he’s an ancient name at best, a blank at worst. This is weird because you don’t have to race bikes for long before you hear his name. Although I knew, or thought I knew, the rough outlines of his story, it wasn’t until I read “Major” by Todd Balf that I got an appreciation for the man who was unquestionably America’s first sporting superstar and who, judged by his accomplishments, remains one of the greatest American athletes ever.
Had Taylor been white, his palmares would have been incredible. But dominating the domestic and international competition as a black man in the late 1800’s who faced threats of violence, blatant discrimination, and machinations to keep him from even entering races testifies to a stony will and indomitable competitive lust that makes the accomplishments of Eddy Merckx pale in comparison.
In his prime, Merckx was the undisputed patron of the peloton with a powerful team that protected him and worked tirelessly for his victories. Just as crucially, very little happened without Merckx’s consent. In his prime, Taylor had to fight for every position in every single race, and could look forward to racial epithets and overt discrimination wherever he traveled in the United States.
I thought about all this as I pedaled along with Stumpy and Stringbean. “Boys,” I said, “if you want to know what it means to be a champion, a real one, get yourself a bio of Major Taylor. He wasn’t The Cannibal. He was far tougher than that.”
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