September 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
I met Jess Cerra in 2012 on a BWR training ride of some kind in North County San Diego. She was crazy good, and as near as I could tell, had only recently begun road cycling as her main sport.
How good was she? In a matter of months she was riding professionally, jolting her way to the very top in an area brimming with top-level talent. I never spoke with her about it, but from the way she rode, Jess didn’t seem to consider herself a woman athlete.
She considered herself an athlete.
It didn’t matter who she was riding with, she tried to beat them, and usually, she did. Although she got into the pro cycling game late, she earned some impressive wins, not least of which Redlands, a race that is probably the most competitive race on the calendar. It was clear that she was headed for a career on the women’s world tour in Europe. That’s how good she was.
Until, as they say, life got in the way. Jess was hit with serious medical issues that required major surgery; she had to have her femoral artery re-routed, and then found herself battling with a host of auto-immune issues. World domination, in her words, never quite happened.
What did happen, though, was a different kind of domination, the domination that is the toughest kind of all–overcoming, persevering, pushing on not because there’s an Olympic medal waiting at the end but because the fire inside won’t let you stop. Jess fought through obstacle after obstacle, never giving up on her goal of racing at the very highest levels, even if ultimately it meant she’d never win “the big one,” whatever the big one is.
Jess retired from pro road racing this week, and left the profession with amazing grace and kindness; trademarks she was known for showing even when she rode you off her wheel. She thanked the people who had helped her, and was effusive in her praise for those who believed, encouraged, supported, understood. It wasn’t a retirement, as she said, but an “evolvement.”
In showing us how to fight the hard fights, how to share the success, how to not give up when the easiest word to spell and say is “quit,” Jess really did win the big one. The big one being, of course, life.
Hell of a ride, Jess. Hats off.
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August 30, 2019 § 12 Comments
I hadn’t raced all year. I’d let my license lapse. Done with it.
A buddy invited me to come check out the new vibe at the local sanctioned weekly race in Long Beach, the Eldo crit, so I thought I’d ride over. It’s about an hour and a half from my apartment, through hellish traffic, much of which includes lane sharing, lane switching, and maneuvering with 18-wheelers.
I’m inured to traffic but it was not for the faint.
I got to Eldo and people began giving me shit. “Are you racing?”
“I #fakewon NPR this morning and already rode an hour and a half to get here.”
“You can get a one-day.”
“Here man, I got a spare.”
“They take credit cards.”
“I didn’t bring one.”
“Here’s ten bucks.”
“The race is about to start.”
“They’ll expedite your number and pin you up.”
That’s how I found myself on the starting line next to reigning national champion Justin Williams and ex-national champion Rahsaan Bahati. I deliberately opted not to race the masters, which started a couple of minutes before, because I figured if I entered the fast race I’d get shelled on the first lap and could then quit dishonorably.
The race started hellish fast. I was the final wheel and dangled for dear life. Each time I clawed back the gaps that started to open up, the speed would jump again and there’d be another opening between me and the field.
We approached the start/finish at blitz speed and saw the ref waving us to slow down. “Crash!” he was yelling. A rider was curled up on the left side of the road, but in bike racing you generally take note of crashes in a binary way: Will I clear it or am I going to hit it? If the former, you keep pedaling, only faster. If the latter, you brace for the impact.
The peloton moved over to the right, slowed, and we passed. The moment the leaders cleared the crash they hit the jets again and I resumed survival mode.
On the back side of the course the pack slowed briefly and then someone strung it out again. My legs were screaming, but I’d moved up to the top third. After it relaxed, I was going to hit out once, do a glory attack through the start finish, get caught, dropped, and call it a day. I was so, so done.
But you know? It never happened.
As we came through the start/finish, the ref ordered us to stop. The masters field had been stopped and we were shunted off the course. “We’re calling the race,” he said. I looked over at the fallen rider, now surrounded by half a dozen people, blood coming out of both ears. He wasn’t moving.
Nor did he ever move again. Gerry Gutierrez, 36-years old, teacher, dedicated husband and passionate cyclist, died early Thursday as a result of head injuries sustained in a bike crash.
The grief and shock were immediate, and radiated out from social media channels of every sort. I didn’t know Gerry, just as I didn’t know Chris Cono, the rider who died several years ago after hitting his head in a crash at CBR, leaving behind a wife and tiny child.
What I do know is that bike racing, although incredibly safe, is incomprehensibly risky when things go bad. You can fall at 30 mph in the middle of a pack and walk away with a bit of road rash, or you can fall at half that speed and spend a month in intensive care. Or, as in Gerry’s case, it can simply be life’s end.
We all sign waivers when we enter events, but it is so pro forma that we never really think what “catastrophic injury and death” really mean … for us. And in those rare instances where someone actually dies, the survivors are left wondering “What the hell was that for? What kind of a waste was that?”
We can’t ever know “what it was for” in the mind of the dead person, but I for sure know this: The cost of admission to the party of life is death. No one gets out without paying the full price.
The great majority of people live predictable lives in order to die predictably, in old age, with some sort of pension, hobbling about or mildly active as they degenerate into death. They choose not to burn out, but to rust. Nor do I blame them.
It isn’t my way though, and it isn’t the way of anyone who toes the start line at a mass start bike race.
You can’t get to the sharp, cutting edge of life, the place where life actually happens, without pushing all your chips into the middle of the table. You can’t get it watching sports on TV, reading books, painting, playing music, or by dedicating your life to making money. The only way you get the full thrill and intensity of life is by pushing in the chips.
I won’t say that Gerry died doing what he loved. I didn’t know him; that’s for someone else to say. But I will say this much after cruising his timeline and seeing the total commitment he’d made to racing his bike. Gerry Gutierrez got more out of his life on Tuesdays at 6:00 PM in Long Beach than most people alive will get from anything, ever.
I hope you rest, dude, but not in peace, not if there’s an afterlife, not if there are days of the week where you are now. Rest up for next Tuesday. I have a hunch I know where you’ll be.
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August 22, 2019 § 12 Comments
The hardest part of any awards ceremony is picking winners. A lot of time it is pretty squishy because the world famous South Bay Cycling Awards doesn’t exactly have a precise procedure, scoring system, nomination system, selection system, and etc. Still, every year we mostly manage to come up with winners who deserve what they’ve won.
This year the woman who won Best Young Rider was Zoe Ta Perez. She won the national time trial title this year and is a powerful force on the local racing scene, to put it mildly.
When I called her dad to tell him about the award and see if she would be able to accept it in person at the awards ceremony he said, “I don’t think so. She’s in Germany at the moment.”
“Okay,” I said, “no worries. We will drop it off the following week. What’s she doing in Germany?”
“She’s racing the madison at junior track worlds at the Frankfurt track.”
“Wow,” I said. “I hope she wins!”
On the day of the award ceremony, someone came up to me, breathless. “Did you hear about Zoe?” he said.
“No? What happened?”
“She won the world title in the madison with Megan Jastrab.”
In other words, what I’m trying to say, is that, you know, well, picking this young world champion for our Best Young Rider award kind of, you know, NAILED IT.
On Wednesday Ken Vinson and I drove over to drop off the trophy. We had her trophy and swag bag and were pretty pleased to have the chance to present her with her award.
She had been expecting us and met us at the door. “Here’s your trophy,” I said, reaching into the bag and pulling it out with a flourish. She beamed and I handed it to her.
That’s about the time that we both studied the plate glued to the base of the trophy, which said “BEST MALE RACER: JUSTIN WILLIAMS.”
“Um, uh,” I stuttered, but she didn’t.
“No problem! Don’t worry about it.”
“I must have grabbed the wrong, uh, you know, gosh, gee …” I looked frantically around for the STUPID and MORON signs that usually dangle off of my chin. “We’ll get it to you,” I said. “So sorry …”
She was so kind and understanding, and after a couple of seconds, so was I because Zoe probably doesn’t have much space left in her trophy case anyway, and if she does, it may well be reserved for the world road title she’ll be hunting down a couple of weeks hence in Yorkshire, England.
Ken and I gave her the swag bag, took a couple of pics, and left. The award couldn’t have gone to a more deserving #winner. I do need to work on the presentation, though …
July 17, 2019 § 6 Comments
I learned this from Fields and the Dickson brothers. In bike racing it’s often called “taking someone off the back.” It has a lot of variants and is a key bike racing skill.
Here’s the way it works: There is someone in the break who you don’t want to be there. Sometimes the rider is a threat. Other times he is a lame wheelsuck who can only make it to the line by doing zero work in the break. Still other times he is just a weak blabbermouth.
In the traditional last man lag, you drift to the back, where LW is sipping tea, and you open up a gap. LW notices the gap, then sprunts around. It’s the only effort he has done all day, or intends to do. He latches back on and resumes his wheelsucking. Of course when he sprunts by, you grab his wheel so he tows you up to the group.
You then reshuffle yourself in the break so that LW is again on your wheel. You open up a gap, again. LW sprunts by to close the gap, and tows you back up. Now LW knows what’s up and he’s winded, huffing and puffing. Sometimes, LW is so dumb that he doesn’t even know what’s going on.
You reshuffle again, get in front of LW, and open up a gap a third time. This time, though LW is mad. “Fuck you!” he either says, thinks, or both. Now he has decided not to close the gap. The gap opens, and opens, and opens. Pretty soon LW realizes that if he doesn’t do something, the race is over. But it’s too far for him to close the gap because he’s a lame wheelsuck. You then kick it hard, drop LW, motor back up to the break, and he’s gone.
The key to making last man lag work is that you have to be strong enough to close the gap. Alternatively, you have to be content with simply drifting all the way back to the peloton or the chase group. The key is to neutralize LW, to get him out of the break because he doesn’t belong there. Last man lag is always accompanied by lots of histrionics, shoutypantsing, and mean words, which you are duty bound to ignore. What makes last man lag so painful is that it exposes LW’s complete weakness, and therefore you don’t want to try it with someone who is better than you. They will simply let you drift way off the back, then come around you so hard that you’re the one who gets dropped, and they will happily reattach.
A second version of last man lag, and by far the more emotionally painful one for LW, is the disruptive non-rotation.
In this version, you refuse to rotate through. LW and others will shout at you and get very angry. Don’t worry, though, it’s bike racing, and the iron rule of breakaways is this: If you can’t drop a rider out of the break, you can’t drop a rider out of the break.
Once the frustration reaches a pitch, someone will start attacking in order to get rid of you. This part can be briefly painful, because you’ve targeted LW and want to make sure that he’s not part of the final mix, and you may have to actually exert yourself as you follow LW, who is going to try and not get dropped. LW is typically a clueless dunderhead and has no idea that any of this is transpiring. A better scenario is that he is a 99% clueless dunderhead, knows what’s happening, and knows he can’t do anything about it.
LW or the other breakmates will cover the move and you will resume your non-rotating, engendering more shoutypantsing. Sometimes it even takes the form of wheedling. For example, LW, who hates your fucking guts, will sweetly say, “Come on, buddy, just rotate through.” It’s important that even though you want to get off your bike and laugh hysterically, you maintain your poker face and refuse to work.
The anger pitch resumes, along with the attacks. The attacks are of course the one thing that LW can’t respond to, so gaps open up. In the melee you have to get on LW’s wheel, which is like taking candy from a baby. Once you’re there, you’re golden, as he will pedal mightily, jersey zipper popping as his tummy jiggles hither and yon, yearning to be free.
Then LW will do the elbow flick of the century and swing over. You will swing over with him. Under no circumstances will you pull. He will say some unkind things about your mother. About your childhood. About your lack of manliness. But no matter, because you and he are now off the back with one or two other riders and the race is up the road.
The key to making this version of last man lag work is silence and 100% fixation on LW’s rear wheel, because in addition to swerving, taking you to the curb, and trying to knock you down, he will also make one super-human effort to get back up to the break. Of course because he is LW and the jump will immediately deflate and peter out, this move will fail–you just want to make sure that you don’t get gapped out and actually have to pedal.
After a while you will either go back to the field, or better yet, get lapped. LW will be so angry that he goes slower and slower until, if you’ve played your cards perfectly, you’ll both be pedaling at about 5 mph. LW will really lay into you then. But the insults will be confused and jumbled and sound like the playground taunts of that kid in third grade who was really bad at spelling. DO NOT LAUGH. Just keep pedaling until the race ends or you get pulled.
The payback to being DFL with LW is of course the hilarity and mirth that result when you regale your teammates with the details after the race. It will be something to giggle and laugh about for weeks, if not months, and if it happens in a training race where you don’t have to pay an entry fee, and if LW is especially lame, you can do it again, and again, and again, taking turns with other riders in successive weeks.
Don’t say you never learned anything here about bike racing.
July 8, 2019 § 6 Comments
I showed up for what I thought was going to be a mellow Cali Riderz group cruise on Saturday. I was still tired from the Holiday Ride beatdown and hollerfest.
When I got to the parking lot, George said, “You ready to race?”
“This is the annual Alameda Corridor race.”
“We give the women a five-minute head start and then chase them all the way to O Street and PCH along Alameda. It’s about 13 miles. Whoever gets there first gets bragging rights for the year, and the smack has been nonstop since they beat us last year.”
“What about all the lights?”
“You gotta stop for ’em.”
“Five minutes is huge over 13 miles. Do the guys ever win?”
“They haven’t in several years.”
About this time Michelle rolled up. She was crying.
“What’s wrong?” George asked, alarmed.
“I’m so sad,” she said.
“Then why are you crying?”
“I’m just thinking about how sad you boys are gonna be when we kick your butts again this year.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’d obviously wound up in the middle of a war. “This thing been going on a long time?” I asked.
“Decades,” George said. “Decades.”
We rode a long way to the start, picking up riders along the way. When we got to the restaurant parking lot where the festivities were going to begin, there was a crowd of riders. Part of the crowd included Travis and Joselyn, on a tandem.
“What are they doing on a tandem?” I asked George.
“Travis is going to pace the women.”
“We’ll never catch him.”
“It’s better than their Plan A,” he said.
“What was Plan A?”
“To get paced on a motorcycle.”
“How does this usually work?” I asked George, getting nervous.
“Last year we didn’t go hard enough at the start because of all the lights. After the 91, there aren’t any lights and you have a clear shot, but there’s only five miles or so left, so if you aren’t picking up stragglers by the 91, you’re never gonna catch the leaders.”
“So we sprint after every light?”
“We have to.”
“What about the other riders in our group?”
“What about ’em?”
The women left, timing their departure perfectly with a green light. Five minutes later we started and rolled immediately into a red. From there we sprinted after each light for what seemed like forever, more than ten or fifteen full-gas efforts from a complete stop. After a while it was just me, George, and Michael.
By the time we got to the 91 we could see a few rear blinky taillights. We went even harder. With less than a mile to go we saw Travis and Joselyn and Shermadean. The rule was that you have to finish with at least two women if you’re on the women’s team, and with two men if you’re on the men’s team.
With a quarter mile to go they broke up. We barely passed them at the end.
After we caught our breath the women advised us that it didn’t count. “The real race is in November,” they said. “When we have all our strong riders.”
“What was this?” I asked.
“Just a little warm-up. To let you feel good about yourselves.”
I don’t know how good I felt. My legs just ached. It was, however, one of the most fun rides I’ve done in ages, seasoned with plenty of spicy smack. I tried to keep my mouth shut, which is hard. November is way too close.
July 2, 2019 § 1 Comment
Nobody “deserves” to be in the Olympics. With few exceptions, you begin playing a game years before, the Olympic Game. It’s the contest that inexorably leads to your inclusion or exclusion from the biggest sporting stage on earth.
The battle isn’t just with splits or with successive triple axels or points or wins or or or or or. No, the battle is at every level, from breakfast to training, from personal issues to whether or not your country is at war, from getting on with your coach to getting sent to the competitions that matter, from tearing the legs off your competitors to tearing ligaments in an unfortunate fall.
The Olympic Game doesn’t end until you’ve either made the squad or you haven’t.
And even though the Olympics are so near that Tokyo has completed the stadiums, spit-polished Ueno Station, painted the city with English signs and ripped out the squat toilets, for the athletes the Olympics are still a thousand years away simply because anything can happen between now and then, and by “anything” I mean “anything bad.”
Yet the Olympics are dazzlingly close, too, because at least in the world of track cycling the pool of candidates has winnowed considerably, and there are only a handful of races left that will put contenders on a competition trajectory to participate in the most important events leading up to the Games.
Your chances of getting picked if you’re not winning? Slimmmmmm.
Your chances of getting picked if you’re not at the biggest races in the next eleven months? Zero.
One of the biggest forks in the road if you’re a U.S. bike racer trying to qualify for the Olympics is happening this week, it’s happening in Carson, and for many of the riders, everything is on the line. A crushing performance here will likely send you to the Pan-Am Games, and a strong showing there will propel you into the upcoming events in the World Cup.
A catastrophic showing in Carson and your Olympic campaign will likely come to a halt, the kind of halt that happens when someone takes out your front wheel with a bulldozer. So if you’re wondering what to do this week, I recommend you take a few hours of your time starting Thursday and mosey down to the Carson velodrome to watch some hard core pre-Olympic knife fighting in the mud.
And no, I’m not going to backtrack on my opener, that no one “deserves” an Olympic slot. But I will say that at track nationals this year you’ll get to see the best, most astonishing, most accomplished, most interdiscplinary bike racer we’ve had in this country for years. Of course I’m talking about Daniel Holloway.
How good is Holloway? He has won the national elite crit title five times. He’s a two-time national elite road champion. How about this: he’s held a national title of some type every single year … since 2014. And on top of that, for a couple of years he was wearing national titles simultaneously in three events. Name a national caliber crit and he’s not only won it, but chances are he’s won it multiple times. Athens? Yup. Snake Alley? Yup. Speed Week? Yup. Tulsa Tough? Yup, yup, yup.
The only reason that he doesn’t still dominate the national road and crit scene is because he’s trying to make the Olympic track squad, period. He has raced six-days in Europe for years, and brings the same intellect, bike skills, and tactical genius to the boards that he brings to road racing. Explosive, canny, tenacious, he’s the kind of rider who quickly exhausts your thesaurus when you’re trying to explain that HE IS A BADASS KILLER OF A BIKE RACER.
But in addition to all that, he has another skill, one that truly puts him at the pinnacle of the sport: The ability to polish off a giant stack of homemade sourdough pancakes topped with butter and maple syrup and not even whine about the calories. In fact, when I offered him this healthy post-ride snack before we went for a pedal the other day, all he texted back was, “Sounds like gluten. I’m in.”
So my advice is that you boogie on down to the Carson velodrome sometime this week to watch some crazy great bike racing. You’ll see some people here in your hometown that, twelve months hence, you are for sure gonna see on TV.
June 25, 2019 § 5 Comments
Perhaps the biggest news in all of professional sports broke a couple of weeks ago when it was revealed that several riders accused team manager Patrick Van Gansen of inappropriate behavior. CitSB sat down with “Boxers” Van Gansen to get his side of the story.
CitSB: So it’s all out there. Sexual harassment. Fat shaming. Asking women riders to clean and cook. What do you say?
“Boxers” Van Gansen: This is all so what, no? But when they say I walk around the house in my underwear, I draw the line. I will make the strong defense.
CitSB: You’re denying that you walk around in a house full of young women in your tighty whities?
BVG: First of all, I do not wear the jockeys but the boxers. Second of all we had two rules in the house. 1) I never walk around in my underwear. 2) Unless the girls ask me to.
CitSB: And did they?
BVG: All the time.
CitSB: You’ve also been accused of fat shaming.
BVG: What is this?
CitSB: Humiliating a person because of their weight.
BVG: You are kidding, no?
BVG: I never do such a thing, only to the fat ones. And they are usually the ones asking me to walk around in underwear, by the way.
CitSB: Your accusers have also said that they weren’t paid.
BVG: This is true.
CitSB: Why is that?
BVG: As you know, they refused to cook and do the house clean.
CitSB: How has this controversy affected you?
BVG: As I have said in the interview with the CyclingNews, and I will quote, “Every day I receive messages from all over the world, telling me what a fat bag, dirty butt, bastard and so much more I am not.”
CitSB: Wow. A dirty butt bastard. People actually called you that?
BVG: Yes, it is true, they say such things but I am not dirty butt or bastard or fat bag.
CitSB: You say that your accusers were problem riders?
BVG: Yes, of course. They don’t like to ride in a little Belgian sprinkle. ‘It is too wet,’ they say. But I say ‘Get your fat ass out on cobbles and pedal, bitches.’ And for this they become angry and call me dirty butt bastard?
CitSB: Well, it is kind of strong language.
BVG: This you call strong language? Pfffft. It is little love whisper, my friend.
CitSB: How has your title sponsor, Health Mate, reacted?
BVG: They understand me completely, perfectly. They stand by me like big horse.
CitSB: Any concern that they may pull their sponsorship?
BVG: No, this good publicity for them. Excellent press coverage. Now whole world knows Health Mate is company that encourage women not to be fat.
CitSB: What about the formal complaints lodged with the UCI?
BVG: It is nothing. Trust me.
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