May 5, 2014 § 27 Comments
I teed up at 9:20 AM. There were sixty other old people, all over the age of 50. The checkered flag fell and we clipped into various levels of anxiety. Me, I, mine was minimal because it was just another bicycle race and the worst that could happen was death.
Roger had smoothed out the course from its heyday in 2009. That was my first and only attempt, when we spit down the quick hill onto a hard right-hander. There is a channel across the street when you hit the turn, and back in the bad old days the disorganizers had only shut down half of PCH, which meant you went screaming, flying, then oh-shit-Mary-mother-of-dog gimme a fucking handful of the biggest brakes you got because you were following the numbnuts in front of you who was following the numbnuts in front of him who was following the numbnuts in front of him who was coming in way too hot, hot like honey-I’m-so-glad-to-be-home-after-three-months-on-the-road-hot, and by the time the bad, broken tune of the accordion effect had reached you, mid-pack, you were squealing brakes and coming too damned fast too damned close to the giant steel barricades that cordoned off the highway.
Chris Hahn’s brother had flipped his bike and broke his frame and his wheels and shattered his hip that day. The medic tent had been a MASH unit, and none of that bothered me nearly as much as this, the terrible nightmare I still have and see with the same Technicolor I saw it in 2009: the giant, wet, glistening red pool of blood in the turn, a pool augmented lap by lap, race by race until it was a bona fide puddle of gore.
Progress in the name of sport
Today there was none of that. The course took the full two lanes on PCH and the inconvenienced commuters, made minutes late for their afternoon drunken stupor, could either stew in their juices or pull over and hop into the beer garden. Many did.
We were off and running, forty minutes of sad testosterone, sagging skin, incipient melanoma, drippy urinary tracts, and memories of what we thought we used to be but in fact never really were. I sat at the back and cruised through the turns.
It is easy racing in a giant blob of old people on a short closed fast course. No matter how fast the fast riders go, the blob goes faster, reabsorbs them, belches, farts, picks its teeth, waits for the sprunt.
Three riders dashed away and their teams “blocked,” which is another way of saying none of the old people wanted to race their bikes, especially if it meant going as fast as the three people out there in the wind. But the blob has its own fears and desires, and before long it came to life and sucked them back.
I may have been part of that.
With old people, even sixty or seventy of them, there are several core principles that define their bicycle races. The first is that none of them wants to die. This differs wholesale from all of the 5’s, all of the 4’s, all of the 1’s and 2’s, most of the 3’s, and half of the 35+ racers.
Those people race their bikes truly, because if you are not willing to die now, today, this moment, then you are not racing, you are simply following other racers, or, in the case of the entire 50+ field, in which no one even wants to get paralyzed or to lose a limb or to come home covered head to toe in bandages, you’re simply pedaling fast. I should note that exactly forty-one of them pedaled faster than I did.
With six laps to go we were all back together. This was the point where that which we expected, predicted, and knew would happen did in fact come to pass. The great unwashed mass of riders acknowledged what math could have told them before they ever signed up: their chance of winning was zero percent. But cyclists are generally innumerate, and it takes the blunt trauma of reality to demonstrate what could have been learned with a calculator over a beer and a sandwich. The blunt trauma was this, the same thing it always was: in order to win the race you must now do three impossible things in succession.
- Move up fifty places so you are on Thurlow’s wheel.
- Stay there until the final 200 yards.
- Pass Thurlow and whomever is in front of him.
None of these things was possible. In order to move up, you would have had to go 35 miles per hour. As an old person, you could not do this. Even if you could, you would have found twenty other people just as hopeless as you fighting for that one magical wheel. None of them would have given it to you, so you would have been pedaling at 35 miles per hour, which you couldn’t do, by yourself, out in the wind, which, after the first turn, would have thrust you all the way back to sixtieth place, where you began.
Even if you had been able to get to the front and barge your way onto Thurlow’s wheel, then what would you have done? You would have had to come around him. How would you have done that? You’ve never passed him in your life, except for that one time before a race when he was standing on the sidewalk adjusting his brakes. And then, even if you had done all of these impossible things in succession that you had never done before singly, and in fact don’t even know how to do, there would still have been the issue of the one or two people like Craig Miller or Mark Noble who would still have been in front of you. How would you have passed them?
Answer: you wouldn’t have, and you didn’t.
This was all a best case scenario, of course. More likely, you would have gotten to the front gassed and done something stupid, crashed onto your chest or spine or neck and had forty people run over your head and teeth.
How to properly finish the race
As a result, with six laps to go the race separated itself. Everyone who knew that 1-2-3 above was impossible drifted to the back. That was most of the field. Twenty riders either surged to the fore or locked in their position. They were still not willing to die, so it wasn’t technically a bike race, but at this point they were certainly willing to kill someone else, which was extra incentive to stay at the back and mug for the cameras.
Having won neither a placing nor a prime, I came up to Roger after the race and congratulated him for having removed the blood puddle corner. He smiled and gave me a free giant bottle of beer, proving that you can often get better results in a bike race by knowing the right person than by showing any type of athletic talent or skill.
On the way back to my car I saw Peta. She waved me over to her table, where she was having a cup of coffee and a light breakfast with David Miller, a Cat 4 who had been willing to die that day and had earned 3rd place as a result. I was so excited to be invited to join her that I tripped, dropped my bottle of beer on the paving stones and shattered it into a million pieces. My shoes filled with cold beer. Peta didn’t seem as happy to see me anymore.
I went beerless back to the car, leaned my bike against it, and changed. I had signed up for the 35+ race later in the day but after losing my beer had lost my enthusiasm as well. I got into the car and drove off, forgetting about the bike, which landed with a loud crash in a pile of gravel and dirt.
Once home I read the newspaper and thought about signing up for the 805 Race Series next weekend. I took out my calculator and ran some numbers on a napkin. “Zero percent,” it said.
“Yes,” I nodded, well into my second bottle of beer. “But I wonder to how many decimal places?”
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April 1, 2014 § 21 Comments
On the last day of the San Dimas Stage Race I hurried to the line. The ref read our last rites, blew the whistle, and off we went, careening through six turns, a modest incline, and a screaming downhill that dumped into a 90-degree turn onto the finishing stretch.
My goal was simple: earn another DNC crown to go with the string of them I’d won in every crit now since the Dana Point Grand Prix in 2008, when a lummox clipped one of the steel barriers on the left and started a pachinko cascade of bikes, wheels, screaming idiots, and soft-cartilage-and-bone smearing along the pavement at 30 mph. “DNC,” by the way, stands for Did Not Crash.
Downtown San Dimas was an idyllic place to race. The start/finish was packed with spectators. The town was charming. The weather was perfect. Nothing could possibly go wrong, and in fact nothing did until the last turn on the last lap, when things not only went wrong, they went horribly wrong while slinging ass downhill at 40 mph some dude on the BonkBreaker team took the hard right hander a bit too hard and wound up splaying himself against the barricades, crashing out Steve Klasna in a great glorious finale of crunching, smashing, cursing, and opprobrium.
This of course is the price of trying to win bicycle races. You must take chances. Those chances will not always pan out. When they do not, you will pay with skin and gristle and purple scars that you can point to years later, grotesquely, as you pull up your pant cuff and itemize the scars to queasy-looking coworkers at the water cooler. This is generally a day or two prior to the time you get your termination notice, assuming you have a job, which of course as a self-respecting masters pro bike racer, you don’t.
You know you’re in trouble when the liberal arts major is calling you out for your bad math
I knew that by skulking in the rear, sitting up long before the sprunt, and letting Troy Huerta madly dash by to beat me for 46th place, I would almost certainly earn another DNC crown, and I did. What caught me unawares was the announcement “One lap to go!” and the Pavlovian shark attack that ensued when they rang the bell lap.
It caught me by surprise because I checked my watch and noted that they had rung the bell at about 32 minutes into the race, meaning that we finished our 40-minute event in about 34 minutes. Nor was it the first time that a masters race had been shorted. In fact, it’s a tradition at virtually all SoCal crits to hear the bell lap five minutes shy, sometimes more, of the scheduled forty or forty-five minute race.
The rationale, of course, is that it’s better to end the race a few minutes early than a few minutes late — better for the promoter, that is. The inanity of a 35-minute crit for the 45+ racers (and incredibly, for the 35+ racers as well) was shown on the course itself. With a star-studded field of truly great racers, the peloton averaged over 28 mph for the entire race. The 35’s averaged over 29. In other words, it wasn’t a bike race. It was a drag race.
Forget tactics. The strongmen kept the foot on the gas for the entire time, ramped up a lead out train at the end, and awarded the spoils to the flat-out fastest guy in the field. In our race that was Bill Harris. In the 35’s it was Charon Smith.
And although those two guys can win any crit of any length, it greatly diminishes the racing element of the event when it’s set up to be so short that there isn’t even a mathematical possibility of a breakaway. Why not just make it two laps? Thirty-five minutes isn’t long enough to make a dent in the big engines, and it’s not long enough to create the pauses that lead to attacks, breakaways, and the thrill of, you know, tactical bike racing.
Don’t blame the promoters, they voted for McGovern
Of course the real illness is the proliferation of categories. Promoters only have a limited amount of time to close off downtown or to occupy an office park. Many crits have as many eleven categories, without even providing kiddy races or junior racing events. Dana Point in 2014 has thirteen events beginning at 7:50 … and no junior races, either. The Cat 5’s and the 30+ 4/5’s race an absurd — yes, absurd — twenty minutes.
The attraction of multiple categories for promoters is maximal entry fees. The attraction for the bicycle riders is the illusory hope of a trinket. The victim is the sporting event itself, where the spectators are virtually guaranteed to witness a mass gallop finish every single time. Is that fun to watch? Hell, yes! Who doesn’t want to watch Charon out-kick a hundred guys in the last 200 yards so that it looks like a greyhound racing a bunch of pet rocks?
But we don’t need to stand around baking our brains in the hot sun to watch an outcome that will be the same whether the race lasts forty minutes or four.
Also … don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining. Unless it’s also raining.
When the flyer advertises a 40-minute or 50-minute race, then the promoter should run a race for the advertised length, the same as when a gas station advertises gas for 4.15 a gallon: it means a gallon, not 3.75 quarts.
If, because I’m old and slow, I only deserve forty minutes of competition, don’t short me on my lousy forty minutes unless you’re prepared to welcome me back to the registration table and refund my money. Five minutes hacked out of a 40-minute race is 12.5%, and for a $35 entry fee, that’s $4.37 that just got lifted out of my back pocket. In real terms, that’s half a six-pack of Racer 5 IPA.
Of course the simplest solution is the worst one. Make the races longer and decrease the number of events. Maybe the sport would be more exciting if my precious 50+ category and all the other sandbagger categories got axed, leaving us with longer, more exciting events for six or seven categories of genuinely fast people who had the legs to race a technical crit like San Dimas or Dana Point for an hour or more. Maybe lengthier, tougher courses would produce, better, tougher racers.
Or maybe not. Maybe without a 30+4/5, a 50+, or a 65+ category the sport would just dry up and blow away. You know, like it has in Europe.
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