January 24, 2016 § 13 Comments
My coach, who didn’t know he was my coach, had sat up and was drifting back. I had been dropped on the very first section of the Switchbacks after Charon, Prez, and Bruins had split the huge field into fragments going through Portuguese Bend. They spun out the back like used rocket stages, but the damage had been done.
The lead group had about twenty riders and they pedaled away.
When Canyon Bob came by and motioned me to get on his wheel, it seemed like a good idea. I temporarily forgot about my [insert sympathy-getting excuse here] broken pelvis and focused instead on how happy I was to be on my bike.
Bob quickly brought me back into the way-too-red zone, and then I was alone again. Up ahead was Coach. I call him Coach because he once gave me some advice. “Don’t be the strongest guy in the break,” he had said.
Lots of people give me advice, of course. “Sit in.”
“Don’t move around on your bike so much.”
“Quit being such a dick.”
However, none of them won 26 pro races last year, have a fistful of national pro crit titles, or are considered the best bike racer in America.
Also, Coach became my coach because he hardly ever talks to me. I hate it when people tell me stuff. I am stubborn and dislike advice, especially when it’s unsolicited and free, and even more so when it’s paid for and requested. I once paid a woman $10,000 to not teach me how to pass the bar exam. That’s a true story, and I passed.
Ron Peterson, one of the top coaches in the business, has a word for people like me: “Uncoachable.”
Anyway, Coach has never given me any training advice. He doesn’t care about how I ride, when I ride, what gears I ride in, what equipment I ride on, what my schedule, diet, power numbers, heart rate, or what race calendar is. “You can find someone to advise you about all that on the Internet,” he’s fond of saying.
“Only thing I can help you with is, you know, actually winning a race.”
At first I thought he was kidding until, following his advice, I won my first two races since 1986. Do you know how hard it is to win a bicycle race, even a creaky-kneed, leaky prostate one? Let me tell you: It’s very hard. Very, very, very hard.
And it’s harder the older you get because there’s no churn. There are no younger guys coming up displacing the old guys. As you get older, so does your competition. They age grade right along next to you. The guys who were beating you in ’88 keep beating you in ’98, then in ’08, and soon enough in ’18. In math terms, they’re always doing calculus, you’re still struggling with arithmetic.
Coach is awesome because he fills in the huge void of ignorance that I live in, the ignorance of strategy. And the strategy itself isn’t difficult, but then again neither was sailing to America for the first time as long as you knew the earth was round.
So Coach drifted back. “Get on my wheel,” he said. I did, panting so hard it hurt almost as bad as my broken nutsack and fractured childbearing pelvis.
After a few seconds, you know, those really, really long ones that other people call “minutes,” normal breathing resumed. “Okay,” I said. “I can go faster.”
But coach didn’t go any faster. He kept me in this strange zone that said “I am doing a lot but I can do more.” My instinct, of course, was to do more. Isn’t that how you beat people?
Pretty soon we caught and dropped Canyon Bob, who I never catch and never drop. Then we got passed by a mini-three-man-train. Coach let them go. “They’re dropping us!” I wailed.
Coach looked back. “The climb’s not over yet.”
This bizarre purgatory of pain but not unendurable pain continued to ratchet up. We caught the mini-train. Where the climb jerks up for 200 yards they splintered and we left them for good without ever accelerating.
“Steep walls have a speed limit,” said Coach. “It requires exponentially more energy to accelerate on them and if you kick it there you have nothing left for the longer, easier grade where you can make time.”
We made time and picked off other riders, guys who are lots fitter and faster and younger and richer have prettier mistresses. They were not happy to get passed by Ol’ Gimpy Busted Nutsack latched onto the wheel of reigning national champ a/k/a Coach.
Now what had seemed like steady but endurable pain became suddenly awful. This corresponded with the short flat spot on the way to the Domes, where Coach sped up. I popped, he slowed, and I got back on, settling into purgatory again.
We caught and shed several more riders.
Afterwards he explained it. “Don’t ride in the red.”
“Okay,” I gasped.
I thought about that, and it prompted a billion questions until I reminded myself that one fool can keep a hundred wise men busy for a thousand years.
Then I pondered that out of that entire gaggle of idiots, only 11 had finished ahead of me, none was my age, none had a broken ballsack, and we’d picked off about half of the initial lead group.
“Hey, Coach!” I shouted. But like Racer X, he was gone.
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January 9, 2016 § 17 Comments
I got the pre-ride queasies, and I never get the pre-ride queasies.
Seven weeks ago tomorrow I was hurrying to the Donut Ride, all fit and feeling great and shit, and I fell off my bicycle and fractured my hipbone, which is connected to my nutsackbone, which fuggin’ hurts when you mash it between the pavement and the steel rails on your saddle.
Now, though, I’m 100% healed up minus about forty percent, but it’s the forty percent that doesn’t matter so I’m headed off tomorrow for the Donut Ride to fulfill my date with destiny. Only thing is, chances are good that it will be a real loser of a date, where the other person is missing a lip, has a death’s head tattoo and a pierced tongue, and is dragging a duffel bag filled with shrunken heads and dynamite.
Usually I love going to the Donut but tomorrow I’m scared. Ever since I fell off my bicycle I have been scared. Scared of falling off again and re-breaking the crack that isn’t healed. Scared of falling off and whacking my head. Scared of getting smacked by a car.
But worse than all that is my fear of droppage. Usually on the Donut I get dropped but not until a bunch of other people have been carved up into bite-sized pieces and fed to the Destroyer or Surfer Traitor or Smasher Traitor or the G-Money or the Strava, Jr. or the Jules or the Frenchy or the Pony Girl.
Tomorrow though I’m going to be the chum. That’s how it is when you have more excuses than training miles. Here’s how it will go:
- Man, this hurts but I’m near the front.
- Man, this is awful but I’m not too far from the front.
- Man, I can’t stand this anymore I hope someone closes that gap.
- Man, I hope I can hang onto this fourth chase group.
- Man, I hate riding alone.
- I wonder if I beat that little kid who started with us on a mountain bike?
Yeah, it’s gonna suck and when I heard that Manzella and his West Side wrecking crew are coming I knew it was going to suck times a thousand. If you don’t know Tony, he is a very nice fellow.
Except he’s an absolute bastard the way he grinds you up into pulp and is then nice to you afterwards. It would feel better if he’d spit and curse a little bit but I’ve never even heard him say “fuck.” I don’t think he knows any dirty words and dog knows I’ve tried to teach him.
I also hope he doesn’t bring that other nice bastard Michael Smith. He is a wheelsucking bastard until he stops wheelsucking and rides away from you and then congratulates you at the top even though he weighs 250-lbs. and you’ve been dieting your way down to 135, that bastard.
The best policy tomorrow would be to stay home and ride the trainer and do Zwift. Do you know Zwift? A buddy in Japan sent me a link to it. It is the apotheosis of stupid. You get on your trainer and pretend you are racing people on a video screen.
I can pretend a lot of shit. I can pretend I’m president of the galaxy or that I’m fucking a movie star, for example. But I can’t pretend I’m racing an animated character on a screen. Oh, and I forgot to mention that on Zwift you pay money to race the fake cartoon characters.Why not just pay your wife to get on a trainer next to you and race her? Afterwards if you let her win you might at least get laid.
Like, I know bicycle people are maroons, but are they so stupid that they can pretend they’re racing Tom and Jerry? I guess the answer is “yes.” And please don’t send me some whiny-ass email about how it’s snowing in Bismarck or some shit. Put on another layer and go ride, you big pansy.
But back to the Donut, where I’m gonna get smeared. It’s going to be humiliating. How humiliating? There’s a 1-in-10 chance that I will get beat by Prez. All these wankers are going to blow by me and some of them will probably pat me on the back and say “Good job!” which in cycling means “Fuck you, loser.” Usually they just snarl at me, which in cycling means “You are awesome, dude.”
Prez has never beaten me on a climb because he is so fucking slow. One time I did the Donut after a lung transplant and I still beat his ass up the Switchbacks. That dude climbs slower than a vine in winter. But tomorrow he might whip my ass. You know how that’s going to hurt? I can see it now. “Wanky passed by Prez, who pats him on the back and says ‘Good job!'”
They say you have to get back on the horse but why, especially if the horse is nasty and has kicked your head in already? Can’t you just poison the sonofabitch, or shoot him?
Anyway I better go to bed but not before I have some milk and pie to calm my nerves.
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November 23, 2015 § 49 Comments
There are a lot of things that happen when you fall off your bicycle because you are stupid, or because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because you forgot to wear your lucky banana.
- Every cyclist will sympathetically inquire about your alleged injury and conclude with “It could have been worse.”
- “How are you?” is always followed by “How’s the bike?” even if you’re bleeding out of the ears and still in the middle of the road.
- Ambulance drivers are pros at hitting all the potholes.
- It is humiliating to be stuck in the ER corridor for an hour while they find room for people who are actually in need of serious care.
- All your biking toughness evaporates the moment you realize that the blood you see is yours.
- There’s something satisfying about a pretty doctor checking out your scrotum, even though she’s wearing two sets of gloves and staring at your junk like it’s the most unexceptional thing she’s ever seen.
- Having the deeply embedded bits of asphalt scrubbed out of your road rash falls into the “New Category of Pain” category.
- There is a lot going on in your groin, but until you injure it you have no idea.
- The best pharmaceutical painkiller in the world pales next to a big aluminum tin filled with take-out lasagna.
- People who bring you cookies and cheesecake either love you or hate you.
- No matter how agonizingly the person in the room next to you is screaming, it doesn’t diminish your own pain one little bit.
- Doctors hate you for refusing painkillers. It means you’re not really hurt and it means you’re lying when you say “I’m not in much pain.”
- The seriousness of all injuries is defined by the ease with which you can sleep, eat, shit, and piss.
- Seeing a friendly face in the hospital make you 100x stronger.
- The only thing Valium does is it makes you not angry at having missed the Donut Ride.
- The only thing ibuprofen does is nothing.
- The only thing Norco does is make all your friends envious and gets you lots of requests for “the leftovers.”
- The worst way to get sympathy is to describe your injury.
- The second worst way is to describe your pain.
- The third worst way is to post hospital bed photos on Facebag.
- The best way is to say “I’m fine” and then when people ask you about riding, getting together, etc., to tell them you can’t do anything until they remove the feeding tube.
- Always keep a spare wheelset, and always keep a dozen spare sheets of Tegaderm.
- Your real cycling friends don’t care how you got hurt, they already know you’re stupid.
- Bodies heal, but broken bicycles are much harder to pay for.
- It really could have been worse.
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November 20, 2015 § 9 Comments
I miss you. Remember the first time we met, on the NPR? You were wearing a backpack and I called you “Backpack Boy.” You were one of three people then who would hammer like a fuggin’ monster, then still bake everyone in the sprunt.
Then a few weeks later you shed the backpack and started showing up in that ugly OTR kit. Only I couldn’t make fun of it because I couldn’t talk hanging onto your wheel.
After a few months I learned your name. Dude, you were the best addition to cycling in the South Bay since coffee. It wasn’t long after that that you started showing up for Cat 4 races, all of which you won, and then Cat 3 races, and the epic rivalry with Prez began.
Except you smeared him like a bug on the windshield of a Ferrari and catted up to 2, then 1. Dude, everybody wanted to be your friend then. Even though you doubled in fitness and speed every month you still talked to me. Remember how we became friends? Or rather, how I tried to be friends with you and you tolerated me?
Then when we were teammates it was super awesome. We never raced together because I was still a Cat 5 after thirty years, but we wore the same jersey and I told everyone I knew you and that we were teammates.
And that doesn’t even begin to get into that epic ride to Mandeville where you called your wife at the top and left a message except your phone wasn’t working and you didn’t know that and you bonked on the way home and I had to carry you across the handlebars and when we got home it was dark and your wife was, um, how shall we say this, “displeased,” and I hurried home and pretended it wasn’t my fault.
Man! The awesome times we had! Remember when I borrowed your truck that morning for an hour or so and returned it at midnight with that little character ding in the grill and the thing with the axle? (I have no idea how it happened.) Then there was the time I showed up on the way home from work and you gave me a ride home that sixteen or eighteen times or so and fed me dinner, too, and beer.
And what about the good times with Smasher? And Boozy P.? And how we’d spend most of your savings for your daughter’s college fund at bike races? And that epic trip to Bend where you drove for 30 hours in the F-1 Prius while Smasher and I drank beer and slept? You are an awesome driver!!
So it’s with heavy heart that I think about your absence. I know you have a family and a job and all that junk and you’re rebuilding your house from the slab and work is really busy and you don’t have a bike anymore and the team folded but think of all the great times!!
Anyway, Smasher has pretty much moved back to the South Bay and Boozy P. went on a bike ride last Saturday and I need to borrow fifty bucks. Whattya say? Flog ride next week, or NPR?
Miss you like the sister I never had!
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November 4, 2015 § 20 Comments
The path of truth is straight, but lined with razors and thorns.
Reading about George Hincapie got me thinking about Steve Tilford. You couldn’t pick two people who are more different. One is quiet, dishonest, and makes his living on the back of ill-gotten gains that he earned through a career of cheating.
The other is garrulous, honest, and makes his living by playing fair and giving it his all. I’ve been meaning to do a write-up of Steve’s visit to the South Bay a few weeks ago, when he flew in from Kansas to give the keynote speech at the 3rd Annual South Bay Cycling Awards.
But I haven’t been able to do it because each time I sat down to type, the job seemed too immense. This evening it seems even more impossible, and not just because there’s a pot of Cajun beans and pork bubbling on the stove, infusing the room with a smell that screams “Eat me now!” without pause.
Big job or not, here goes.
Steve flew out and we met him at the Hotel Shade in Manhattan Beach. I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve ridden with lots of pros and cycling icons, and for the most part they are really disappointing in terms of personality. Something about endless miles seems to make the top tier of riders mute, or stupid, or bland, or some tasteless combination of all three.
Not Steve. From the minute we started pedaling, he was talking. Friendly, funny, and more stories than you could ever remember. Riding next to him was like leaping off into a bottomless pool of anecdotes and cycling history. If we had been expecting a bitter old curmudgeon, we would have been sadly surprised. As Steve said, “I’m not anti-doping, I’m pro-cycling. And that means I reject cheating in all its forms.”
Surrounded by us, the clueless clods of the South Bay, Steve never missed a beat, never looked down his nose at anybody, and politely followed the etiquette of the ride–an etiquette that ended with him stomping the collective dicks of some of SoCal’s strongest riders. Smiling, game for a hard ride, happy to cruise, he made us all feel like champions even though the real champion was he.
It’s impressive to watch great athletes do their thing, but the beauty of cycling is that you can sometimes participate, however briefly, in the performance. Finishing a hundred yards back from Steve the first time up to the Domes and right behind him the second time was better than any masters race, even though he was obviously going at quarter-throttle. Later in the ride, when he pulled out the stops going up Via Zumaya, no one could hold his wheel. No one. And where we were all wrecked after the ride, he had coffee and then went out for another “easy” 30 miles.
But his athletic performance was nothing compared to his keynote speech at our award ceremony. He literally graced us with his presence, speaking with conviction, with passion, with honesty, and with hail-fellow-well-met good cheer that turned a special night into an unforgettable one. Sincere, funny, and happy to hang out with the crowd after speaking and knock back a few beers … this is what every champion should be, but hardly any of them are.
The path of truth may be a hard one, but seeing people like Steve Tilford should give everyone hope and inspiration that it’s not simply a path we can take, but one that we should.
October 23, 2015 § 19 Comments
His head was tilted to one side, he was slurring his words and gesticulating.
So I stood there in my tuxedo and listened.
“Ya see,” he said, “There’s a bigger chain ring they’re gonna make for me, see? Now I’ve only got fifty teeth, ya see? But the new one, it’s gonna have fifty-four or five or six, ya see?” He shaped the bigger chain rings with his hands.
“Yes, I see.”
“And they’re gonna put that on my bike, ya see?”
“Yes, I see.”
“And then you know what I’m gonna do?”
“Pay for it?”
“No,” he said. “I mean of course I’ll pay for it, but you know what I’m gonna DO?”
“I’m gonna beat the head Donut guy.” He paused for effect. “Ya see?”
I didn’t see at all. Not even a little bit. “How? I mean, the way things stand you can’t even beat Prez.”
“The head Donut guy, ya see, I can’t catch him on the flats. He’s got me there. But with this bigger chain ring, ya see, I’m gonna catch him on the flats. I can already beat the head Donut guy on the hill, don’t worry about that, I can beat him there.”
I wasn’t worried at all, but I was curious. “So who’s the head Donut guy?”
The slightly unusual fellow who had walked from San Pedro to the Wanky Awards in North Torrance, an eight-mile slog one-way, and who was going to walk all the way back, cocked his head a bit more. “The head Donut guy? He’s the guy always wins the Donut race. Don’t you know him?”
“But the first rider up the hill every Saturday is different a lot of the time. There’s not really any one head Donut guy.”
He shook his head vigorously, then nodded vigorously. “Oh yes there is and I’m gonna beat him at the race next Saturday.” The head Donut guy was apparently an apparition, or a symbol, or a metaphor. Or maybe he couldn’t tell us apart because of our glasses and helmets. Or maybe he just meant Wily.
This fellow was well known around the peninsula for riding a 40-pound MTB, shirtless, in baggy shorts, and sporting giant clodhopper work boots. He was a seal clubber of sorts. Despite his appearance he was viciously strong and loved nothing more than trolling for kitted out baby seals. He’d approach them slowly, out of the saddle, then pass them slowly.
Outraged, they’d give chase on their $10k rigs and he’d dangle. After a minute or so they’d be on the rivet and he’d pull away, leaving their self image in ruins.
But he couldn’t hang with “the Donut race” so he’d hop in with various shellees ascending the Switchbacks, pound for a while, and get dropped.
“The head Donut guy,” he repeated. “I’m gonna beat him. You’ll see.” He wandered off. Wearing a shirt and long pants he looked halfway normal.
But what weird ideas he had bouncing around in his head! What strange fixations were propelling him around the hill, driving him to walk sixteen miles in a single evening just to tell me his strategy against the head Donut guy, whoever that was! He was ricocheting around in an alternate universe, delusional, trying madly to find a wormhole back to reality.
Just like me.
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September 27, 2015 § 16 Comments
Every Saturday morning the best riders in the South Bay assemble to contest the legendary Donut Ride. They are young, they are shaven, they are tiny, they climb very fast. And they are wearing their finest clown underwear, except for Wily, who showed up this morning in culottes and a tank top.
Ostensibly the goal of the Donut Ride is to be the first rider to reach the radar domes. But roiling beneath the stated objective is a deeper, more fundamental objective, one driven by horror and terror and the fear of humiliation: Don’t get beaten by the creaky old wanker with hairy legs.
No one has ever said it to me directly, but they don’t have to. Being ridden off my wheel is the most demoralizing thing that can ever happen to a cyclist because it means you really aren’t very good, and it can destroy the future dreams of an aspiring young athlete. Therefore, it is with especial relish that I target the young, the bright, and the upcoming.
For them it is lose-lose. No possible excuse can make up for getting stomped by a wrinkled prune who is old enough to be the father of most, the grandfather of many, and almost the great-grandfather of one or two. “It’s the off season,” “I’m going easy today,” “My coach told me to keep it in Zone 3,” … at the end of the day getting whipped by a senior citizen on a challenging climb is simply a deal-ender.
For me of course it is win-win. As soon as I’m shelled I can chalk it up to biology. “I’m almost 52, he’s 25. I was lucky to stick around for as long as I did.”
And of course by simply hanging around and hanging around, once in an incredibly rare while I actually pick off one of the targets on my list. I still remember and savor the day a couple of years ago when I caught and dropped Wily. The afterglow from that is as strong and fresh and warm as peeing in the shower.
And who can forget the time (singular) that I shelled Ponytail, a 25-year-old climbing phenom with the draft of a knitting needle? And how the wonderfulness of the victory was punctuated by his comment that he thought I was in my 20’s, and how crestfallen he was to learn I had an AARP card.
Then of course there was the time I scampered away and beat Derek the Destroyer, an accomplishment so drenched in fantasticity that I didn’t ride for a month afterwards. In my checklist there is even a mark next to Tony Manzella’s name. One mark, one time, to be savored each night with incense before I go to bed. That’s kind of my scorecard, after about 450 Donut Rides, with an asterisk for the time in 2008 that Rudy dragged me up to the Domes on my steel Eddy Merckx and intentionally didn’t drop me.
One of the unstated rules every week is “Drop Wanky.” I’ve seen guys take years off their lives rather than have me beat them. I’ve seen riders spent, dead, and ready for the retort when, looking back and seeing me, they come back to life like the undead and sprint away from the embarrassment of getting wankied.
But for the last three years there has been a very rare bird I’ve been trying to tick off my list, a kind of California Clapper Rail that has been elusive, cagey, and hell bent on thwarting me. He has beaten me in every possible configuration, and has beaten me when I’m riding my best and he’s riding his worst. And he’s always done it by generous margins. No bike throws, no last-second surges, just a smooth swing of the executioner’s axe and bam, he’s gone and I’m tied up in knots going backwards.
I’d go so far as to say he’s sworn a blood oath and it looks like this: That repulsive old faker will never finish anywhere near me.
And I never have, until today, of course.
Julien had sandblasted the pack of about twenty that still remained at the bottom of the Switchbacks into a small group of seven. My quarry had attacked hard just before we hit the wall on Crest, headed to the radar domes. Julien pulled him back and only Wily, Ponytail, Strava Junior, my quarry, and I remained.
Julien turned the screws and I popped. Strava Junior must have come off before then, because I was alone as my quarry and the three others pedaled away. Just before the turn to flat spot there was another flurry of attacks, and my quarry blew. He was within range. I pulled him back then came around him hard, listening for the telltale signs of having someone on my wheel. It was dead silent.
When I finished, the only three riders ahead were all younger than my children.
I hurried home and made a tick mark on my checklist. Then I logged onto eBay and put everything up for sale, because that’s as good as it’s ever going to get.
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