October 19, 2013 § 20 Comments
Tomorrow, when I line up at noon for the ‘cross race in Camarillo, I’ll have my eyes set on seventh place.
Because last week, you know, I got eighth, and the week before, you know, I got ninth. So seventh is doable, within reach. If you figure that David Anderson won’t be there, and F-1 Jim won’t be there, and a couple of others from San Diego won’t be there, and you figure that the usual field of about twenty riders will only be about fifteen, maybe fewer, the math plus my fitness plus my gradually improving results plus the fact that Dandy might slide out in a corner and Randy might show up too drunk on wine to start mean that seventh place is really something I might pull off.
Why not go for the win?
I know what you’re thinking. “Fuck, dude, go for the win! Any wanker can be the sixth loser! Shoot for the moon! Gun for the top step! Nobody remembers second place, and even your wife won’t congratulate you on seventh! Visualize the vee!”
Actually, there are a lot of great reasons why I’m not “going for the win.” First is because winning is not possible, and in principle I refuse to believe in the impossible. So, like, I don’t read horoscopes, or pray to unicorns, or hope that Monsanto is not really trying to poison me to death.
And there you go again, I can hear it already. “Dude! Ya gotta beleeeeve! Winning is an attitude! Refuse to lose! All it takes is all you’ve got! Never let good enough be enough! Winning is a habit! Success is a choice! Reach for the sky or don’t even try! In it to win it!” Etc.
Problem is, this ain’t my first rodeo. Winning may be an attitude, but defeat is a fact. Think about it. When have you actually won? There’s always someone better, and he’s usually in your race. Each time you’ve reached the top step, didn’t you realize that there was another staircase so high above yours that you couldn’t even look up the skirt of the person on the bottom rung?
That’s what I’m talking about. Face reality, even when you’re play-acting bike racer, because reality may be the ugliest drunk gal at the bar, but she’s the only one that’s going home with you.
The problem with winning
I’ve tried explaining this to people who are less experienced than I am, but they rarely get it. Winning bike races is a rare thing, and in order to do it you have to be able to perform under pressure. This takes many forms.
In a road race, it means stabbing yourself in the eyes at the exact point where your internal organs have failed, your legs have swelled up with something called incessant pain, and your genitals feel like they’re being smeared across hot coals with a spatula.
In a crit, it means lunging into spaces at maximum speed while banging bars, balls, and shoulders where the chance of getting through the hole without splatting your spine on the concrete is, over time, zero.
In a time trial, it means pushing yourself to the point of self-inflicted nausea so that the act of spitting up and swallowing your own vomit, repeatedly, is the least horrible of the sensations you will experience during the ride.
In a ‘cross race, it means doing all of the above while jumping over shit, climbing up walls, skidding through dirt and mud, and pounding your joints with the ferocity of a thousand sailors on shore leave.
In each of these disciplines — if foolishness can be called a discipline — it is only after sinking deep into the trough of those “winning moves” that the real pain begins. In other words, winning bike races means burying yourself completely, then boring down to the center of the earth. Or taking a shit-ton of drugs. Or both.
The bigger problem with winning
Once you commit to winning, there is a natural progression. It begins with equipment, then training, then coaching, then nutrition, then drugs. At each stage you have to make a decision, and it’s the same decision. How much of this do I do? And when do I stop?
Committed losers, on the other hand, have no such problems. Aluminum boxed rims are fine. Why? Because I’m gonna lose anyway and I might as well spend the extra money on beer. I don’t have to train so hard this week because I’m gonna lose anyway, and I might as well have the extra energy to, you know, work or hang out with the kids or — with the wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/husband. Coaching? Who the hell needs someone to tell me what to do on my off time? Isn’t that why I have a job? To get told how to do things I’d rather not be doing?
Same for nutrition … whether it’s a cheeseburger or a colander of boiled kale, I’m still gonna lose, so I might as well go for what tastes good. Drugs? Who can afford that since I’m gonna lose anyway? Might as well spend the money on a new wheel set and save my liver.
Trust me on this. Seventh place, if I get it, will be more than good enough. It won’t be winning, or anywhere close to it. It won’t be a “moral victory” or evidence of my toughness and fortitude. It will be a lousy, douchey, sortaran, almost coulda, seventh fucking place.
And I’ll enjoy it every bit as much as if I’d gotten sixth.
September 30, 2013 § 12 Comments
At the first cyclocross race of the season in downtown LA, my friend Greg Lonergan pulled off an impressive result in his first race despite flatting and losing scads of time trying to find a spare wheel with disc brakes. His wife and kids were there spending a beautiful fall day with the family, cheering him on, proud of him for going all out.
Marilyne Fichant was there with her two kids, and her 8-year-old Cooper won his division. Mom raced, too, and the daughter took pictures, cheered everyone on, and behaved like a perfect little lady.
Carey Downs showed up with a big contingent of Big Orange family. They all raced hard. Brian Perkins, Don Wolfe, Jeff Hazeltine, and a slew of other South Bay family sat around afterwards comparing notes, mechanical failures, excuses, successes, and washing it all down with cold beer and laughs.
When I got to the parking area at 8:00 AM, job one was to haul the heavy tent and equipment up to the top of the hill. Arik Kadosh lent his strong arms, strong back, and good humor, and soon the task was done. Robert Efthimos, also of the Westside family, showed up prepared to heckle all and sundry with insults and cheap beer, then joined us on the hill after the race (he’d snapped a chain) and shared his limitless good humor while we shared our limitless beer. When the day was done, he lugged the heaviest items along with Arik back down to the van.
The SPY family raced together, relaxed together, complained about flat tires together, had a post-race beer together, registered together, and did what family always does. We joked and cussed and planned for better racing the next time around. Randy with his DNF flat, Erik with his DNF flat, me with my DNF flat, Andy with his flat-but-to-hell-with-the-DNF-I’m-finishing, Ryan with the win, David Anderson with a super second, Jim Miller, Bull, F1 Jim and the rest of the team making a great day of it.
I got home and returned a phone call from mom, who had just read “Cycling in the South Bay” and said that it made her feel like she’d just been in a bike race.
My wife served dinner.
November 10, 2012 § 10 Comments
It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of ignorance, it was the age of folly, it was the epoch of faithlessness, it was the epoch of disbelief, it was the season of darkness, it was the season of night, it was the winter of hopelessness, it was the winter of despair, we had misery before us, we had disaster behind, we were mired in sand, we were pinned by the wind, in short, we were not characters in a Dickensian epic about the French Revolution, we were racing ‘cross on the beach in Oceanside, California.
And you’re not even going to have to read 700 pages to find out how it ended: MMX finished first. I finished last.
Yet our paths to victory and defeat could not have been more different, which, I suppose, explains our respective outcomes.
The team huddle
A few moments before the race I huddled with my ‘cross mentor and team leader. “What’s the plan?” I asked, eagerly.
MMX gave me a steely look. “For you? Try not to fall off your bicycle.”
“Oh,” I said, a bit disappointed. We had no other teammates in the race and I’d hoped that, if only on this day, I’d be a sort of lieutenant. “Anything else? I mean, like tactical strategy stuff so’s I can, like, help you win and stuff.”
He looked away briefly, then focused his full attention on me. “I’m going to give you some advice.”
“When you sling your bike over your shoulder on the run up…”
“Try not to spear your testicles with the chainring.”
Then the race started and I mostly never saw him again.
Just add sand
Roughly coinciding with the invention of tequila and the bikini, the beach became a travel destination. For millions of years, however, beaches were loathsome places that no living creature sought out or stayed at for long.
The beach is where the relentless wind and wild ocean meet land, and they do so with such ferocity that they grind everything into sand. The mightiest rocks? Ground into sand. The largest continents? Ground into sand. Cliffs and mountains? Ground into tiny little fucking microscopic grains of sand.
The beach is where animals scurry momentarily in a wild dance to avoid being eaten as they seek refuge beneath the waves or cover in the vegetation farther back from shore. The Little Penguin does its daily death race against the marauding gulls as it slips from the water’s edge and dashes across the sand to its warren. The baby turtle hatched beneath the sand runs madly across the exposed beach to the safety of the ocean and life.
It is only on the sand that they find death, that awful strip of no-man’s-land where no green thing grows, where no structure gives shelter, where the unending war between ocean and landmass have been, and will be, fought until the end of time.
It ain’t just the critters…
Whether it’s the sands of Iwo Jima or the beaches of Normandy, humans have regularly killed one another on beaches. Beaches have been the point of ingress for marauding armies for thousands of years, a weakness for defender and invader alike.
Beaches are the sites of slaughter, and today’s ‘cross race at the US Marine Corps tactical vehicle training site on Camp Pendleton was just such a killing field. As a wholly unskilled ‘crosser, I knew the race would be packed. All season my fellow racers had complained about the boring, easy, non-technical nature of the races.
With its 22+ mph headwind along the exposed shoreline, its brutal 100-yard climb up a sheer sand wall, its death-defying full-on descent into a knee-deep sand strip followed by a crazy hairpin turn, its second hard ascent immediately after the barriers, where you had to remount on an incline, its second fast downhill through a curvy, sandy drop that ended in another huge sand pit with a 180-degree turn, and with its bitterly hard and fast tailwind section…this course had it all.
“This,” I thought “is going to bring people out of the woodwork! It doesn’t get any nastier than this!”
With the addition of rainstorms in the forecast, cold temperatures, and the pitiless, exposed nature of the course, this would really attract all those racers who were sick of the boring and easy courses and who really needed a tough challenge in order to distinguish themselves from all the loafers and newbies and wannabes whose only skill was pedaling quickly through soft and grippy grass.
Where is everyone?
I was shocked at the start line to see only a handful of riders. “Yo, MMX,” I whispered. “Where is everyone?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Everyone?”
“Yeah. All the people who wanted a tough, fast, technical course with bad weather.”
He gave a bitter laugh. “You’re looking at ‘em.”
We blasted off the line and rode in a tight pack through the sheltered, hard packed tailwind section until the first sand crossing, where the course emptied out onto the beach.
The group shouldered their bikes and ran across the deep sand, which was like, uh, running in deep sand. I was the last rider through, and the pack sped off. With a huge effort I bridged. MMX sat on the front, driving the pace as we all huddled in fear of the howling headwind.
Huge clumps of kelp provided extra bunnyhop fun, but I was already having so much fun that I couldn’t fully enjoy the jarring smack of seaweed getting thrown up into my face and spokes. Shortly before we reached the end of the headwind section, MMX, Mike McMahon, and Brad Stevenson pinched off the rest of us, kind of like a pesky bowel movement that’s hung around for just a second or two too long.
My group then hit the second sandy dismount. I came to a complete halt, even as I could see MMX flawlessly dismount at speed, shoulder his bike, and run up the sandy wall.
Thinking about my testicles and the chainring, but also about being the last rider, I finally chose honor over reproduction and draped the bike half-assedly over my shoulder. This was where it hit me: I’m running up a sandy mountain while carrying a bike when I could just be riding a bike along, say, a paved road.
The last time I actually ran, as in “moved my legs quicker than a walk in order to speedily arrive at a destination” was in 1982. I remember the night well, but that’s another story. This story was an incredible reminder of how slow you run when you’re 48 years old and haven’t run in thirty years.
There were short fat dudes with tiny legs blowing up that thing twice as fast as I. I wasn’t just the slowest, I was also the most awkward, and I was also the most gassed, having already been dropped once and time trailing back onto the group.
I looked and sounded so bad that one of the hecklers asked, genuinely, “Are you okay, dude?” Then, because it was a ‘cross race, he added, “And if you die, can I have your bike?”
Meanwhile, back at the front
MMX now had his breakaway companions sitting on his wheel, and after giving them ample opportunity to come up to the front and enjoy the scenery, he realized that they weren’t going to take the invitation. On the fourth lap disaster struck in the way it always does racing ‘cross: One small mistake leads to a bigger one which leads to an even larger one which leads to sailing out of control way too fast into the sand trench and falling off your bike, which is what happened.
The break jumped and left MMX in the dust, or rather in the sand, forcing him to chase the entire 5th lap. Since the two leaders weren’t working together, MMX caught back on the shoreline headwind section, took a quick breather, and then charged first up the wall in order to hit the downhill at full speed with no one in the way, get to the turn without having to pedal, pedal through the turn to the dismount, and then remount in the big ring, power up the hill, and gap the two chasers.
On the last lap, MMX overhauled a group of 35+ A danglers, and drove them over the sand with none willing to take a pull. Coming hard into the soft sand dismount before Mt. Everest, teammate Garnet attacked the last 150 yards on the beach all the way to the dismount, sending MMX through the sand and up the wall first. This, with a fast remount, gapped the chasers and sealed the race, giving MMX his first win of the season on what was indisputably the toughest course on the calendar so far.
Afterwards I made my way through the throng to congratulate MMX. “Great job!” I said.
“Thanks, li’l buddy. How’d you do?”
“I was lapped by the 35+A leaders, including D-Mac.”
“Hm. You were with us there for a few pedal strokes. What happened?”
“I kind of fell off the pace in the first sand bog and had to chase back on. Then I was gassed at the run-up and had to lie down for a few minutes. So, like, could you give me some pointers now?”
“Sure. On the big run-up and remount, never let anyone by you on the run up; you have to get to the remount first. Did you at least beat the other guys in your group on the run-up? That’s key.”
“Well, there were a couple of big clumps of kelp that were having a bad day. I beat them. Why’s it key, anyway?”
“Because of the climb after the remount. You don’t want to be behind some slow wanker going up the hill. That can ruin your race.”
I thought for a minute about the two or three people who had been stuck behind me on the hill, and whose race had been ruined. Maybe time to change the subject? “So, that run-up was really hard, huh? I mean mentally and physically.”
“Psychologically I looked forward to it on every lap. Others dreaded it or used it as a place to take a breath or quit, but it’s often a good place to attack, even on foot.”
“Attack? On foot?”
“Sure. Couldn’t you see how badly people were hurting a few steps into the dismount?”
“I think I was one of those people. At the run-up after the barriers this one dude kept asking me if I was racing or just doing a course recon.”
“What’d you say?”
“I don’t remember anything except barfing on his shoes.”
“The run-up is also key because you can take very good stock of your opposition there. I could tell on the big dismount they were struggling. Body language, posturing, speed; all of it.”
“I guess my body language was that way, too. Lying down in the kelp and crying and everything probably tipped ‘em off, huh?”
“But you have to save enough for the last lap. I rode the fastest time on the last lap; that’s where you get the separation. Gearing’s important, too. Big ring after the barricade, for sure. How about you?”
“I used the no-ring.”
“Yeah, I think I kind of walked, sort of.”
“Really? Bummer. What’s all that sand and blood on your knees?”
“I might have crawled a little bit. Not far. Just a few yards.”
“This course allows for great psychological tactics, too, because the sand is so demoralizing. It zaps you of everything, and then grinds you up with the battering headwind. How’d you fare in the sand?”
I sat down and took off a shoe, then turned it upside down. “Like this.” Out came a cascade of sand.
“Wow. How’d you get that much sand in your shoes?”
“Walking knee-deep in sand, mostly. And lying down. Didn’t you at least have to walk a lot?”
I could tell he was trying to be nice, but that the truth was getting ready to win out. “No.”
“Sorry I was so useless, man.” I felt like crap.
He clapped me on the back and grinned. “There’s more to racing ‘cross than winning.”
“Really?” I brightened. “Like what?”
“Losing,” he said with a laugh.
I laughed too, giving a clump of kelp a vicious kick. “Loser!” I said to the kelp, and I meant it.
October 21, 2012 § 11 Comments
The first ‘cross race of the SoCal season was thrilling, filled as it was with fresh, happy faces beaming with the eagerness to try out this new fashion called cyclocross. In preparation for their first race, many had purchased brand new, top of the line ‘cross rigs, had donned fancy Rapha and Assos clothing, had invested in pro-grade Specialized shoes, and, in the final frenzy of their folly, had paid the advance $350 fee to pre-register for all ten events in the SoCal ‘Cross Series.
By the third race in the series, which was held yesterday and billed as Spooky Cross, the herd had thinned considerably. “Welcome to ‘cross season!” for many eager beavers had translated into “Crash your fucking face into a berm and quit after one lap and sell your new bike to some other sucker.” For others, it meant “Wife livid at spanking new, trashed $2k tubular ‘cross wheels that need replacing.” For others still, it meant something far worse: “Sheer, unmitigated terror shot through with almost unbearable pain and repeated smashing of nuts on the top tube.”
Where the rubber doesn’t actually meet what you’d describe as “road”
After my first race, MMX had given me a friendly grin, taking in the blood mixed with sand, torn shorts, broken bike, and just-finished-a-bout-with-Manny-Pacquiao look on my face. “The thing about ‘cross,” he said, “is the learning curve. It’s steep.”
Yes, it is.
With no BMX or moto background, even the most basic thing about riding a bike through sand and grass and dirt had eluded me: How to steer.
Luckily, the learning curve came to my rescue. I’d started in the coveted last spot, but unlike the previous three races, rather than watch the entire group instantly vanish, I easily stayed with the peloton. We entered the chute together, and along the narrow sand ledge the wanker in front of me ejected. I neatly pedaled around him. “Wow, I’m like, actually cyclocrossing instead of just riding by myself through a yard.” I passed several others.
By Lap 3 the field was shattered, the race decided, and I simply dialed in the rider ahead, overtook him, and then dialed in the next. On the long dirt section that goes through the start-finish I passed three wankers who’d been dangling out ahead for half a lap. “Take that, wankers!” I chortled.
The entire time, though, something had been gnawing at me. “Why can’t I corner?” In every turn my front wheel skittered and slid, and in the sandy turns it was invariably touch-and-go.I was that guy who the people behind looked at and thought, “Just get around that fucker, he’s going down.”
The terror quotient was high, and the pain quotient higher because if I braked I had to come full sprint out of the turn from what was almost a dead stop. If I let the momentum take me through the turn I almost crashed every single time.
Going through the sandy 180 just before the run-up, my front wheel leaped skyward. I fell on my right side, my skull thwacking the dirt so hard that, for a split second, everything stopped. “Won’t be seeing that dude again,” said the wankers who I’d so dropped earlier with such authority, as they bunny-hopped my torso and head.
Enlightenment through gravity
Legend has it that a falling apple whacked some gravitational sense into Newton’s head. In my case, that pounding on my temple beat in a stunning realization:
If you want to go through a turn safely and fast, take the fucking weight off your front wheel, dipshit.”
It made such perfect sense. I don’t load up over the front hub in a crit or bombing a downhill, why the fuck was I all hunched up on the drops and throwing my weight to the front in this shit?
The guys who had bunny-hopped my head were already atop the run-up. I clambered up the steps, where One of the Finest Photographers Ever, Danny Munson, clicked away at my Stumble, Drag, and Whack Nuts approach to the stairs. I began a furious chase using my newfound “sit higher and shove your ass back technique.” I began waltzing through the turns…okay, more like polka-ing with an iron accordion, but still nothing like the Free Willy Frontire turns I’d done every fucking turn for the three previous races.
As I passed Wanker One, he looked at me in surprise. “Good job, dude,” he said. When I passed Wanker Two, he grunted and pedaled harder. This, however, is what Supcat would say is the unfortunate result of introducing road-fit riders into the mix of strictly ‘crossers: We drag them down to our level of technique and beat them with fitness.
He battled heroically to hang onto his 17th or 38th or 43rd position or whatever it was we were risking life and limb for, but in vain. One of my many hecklers shouted, “Yo, Wanky! You can’t win 27th place if you keep jumping off your bike and rubbing your face in the mud!”
Another helpfully hollered, “Go to the front!”
The second day of racing starts shortly. The weather gods of cyclocross, tired of all the sunshine and dry ground and warm temperatures, unleashed cold rain and drizzle all night long. I know because I periodically woke up and as the rain beat down could only think, “Tomorrow, I die.”
I know what I’m going to find when I get to the Fairplex course in Pomona: Mud, rain, cold, mud, and more mud. Did I mention rain and cold?
That learning curve just got a lot steeper.