Various paths, one destination

February 10, 2014 § 8 Comments

Fields called up last night. We spoke for the first time in a couple of years. We chatted about law and obnoxious bankruptcy trustees for a few minutes before the conversation drifted to bike racing.

He and I have taken different paths in life, but we’ve both wound up in the same place, that is, stuck in the past. I know this because every time he reminded me of some long-ago incident, I’d one up him with a detail. “Remember the time I lowered the car onto Buffalo Russ’s hand?” he said.

“Sure. You guys were working on the brakes in his old silver Honda Civic. The one with the aluminum bleed nipples.”

Every time I’d bring up an old tale, he’d add a detail that proved he remembered it better than I did.

But there’s always one trip down memory lane that neither of us can ever add any detail to because we both remember it so perfectly. Fields named it “The Path of Truth.” The first time we did it was 1984. We would meet over at his place by the old Austin airport and ride for 30 minutes or so, warming up. Then we’d head out MLK to where it intersected with FM 979.

As soon as we crossed FM 979 it was nine miles to the green sign that said “Webberville.” Fields would put it in the big ring and wrap up the pace, jolting my system from warm-up to threshold in a few terrible pedal strokes. That first surge of pain when the intervals started I can still remember. It was a bright, searing pain, and for the first minute I never believed I’d make it to the city limit sign. Then the pain would ratchet back, just in time for Fields to swing over.

I’d hit the front and the rush of pain would return, only this time it was ten times worse. “Faster!” Fields would yell, as I’d invariably slow down now that I was the one pushing the wind. Somehow I’d get back up to speed, pull for a minute, then flick Fields through.

That was always the most terrifying moment, the end of each pull. I’d be wrecked and racked with pain, knowing that Fields would be coming by hard. If I missed the timing his rear wheel would pull away and I’d be on my own. The trick was to go hard enough to do my pull, but still have something left to lunge onto his wheel. Whoever was on the front would lead out the other for the green sign; not that it mattered. Fields always got there first.

We’d soft pedal for a mile, then turn around and soft pedal back to the sign. He’d nod, and we’d do it again all the way back to FM 979. Sometimes on those return intervals I’d be able to repay some of the pain I’d received on the way out. Other times Fields would ease up on his pulls just enough to keep me from shooting off the back, gassed and bleating. He never gave me a free ride and I always had to pull through, but he was merciful as well. Those fierce surges to slip behind him and get some brief shelter from the relentless crosswind, that merciless give and take that was nonetheless merciful, the trust of the wheel in front of you, the discipline to endure misery now for gain later, those things were the most indelible part of my college education.

At the end of those vicious sessions we’d part ways, me off to class and him off to whatever it was that pro bike racers did with the rest of their day. Each time I think about those rides I realize that wherever it is that I’ve finally arrived, the Path of Truth helped get me there. It’s not, maybe, such a bad past to be stuck in after all.

Three words

January 31, 2014 § 20 Comments

When I hear a funny noise on my bike I do the following two things: 1) Ignore it and hope it goes away. 2) If it doesn’t go away, hope that it’s nothing serious.

Some noises, though, are harder to ignore than others. This one happened every time I touched the rear brake on my ‘cross bike. Iw was the loudest, most horrific, piercing shriek you have ever heard in your life. It was so loud that it not only hurt my ears, it would startle passing motorists who had their windows rolled up while listening to Led Zeppelin. It was so loud that joggers a block away would jump when I braked. You probably think I’m exaggerating.

You’re wrong.

After about four days the noise kept getting worse. It was such a piercing scream that I started to think maybe it was serious. This led to a problem. If I checked out the source of the noise and found out that something was indeed wrong, I’d have to fix it. If I had to fix it I would end up taking out the three tools in my toolbox — hammer, screwdriver, pliers — and making the problem worse. Then I’d have to take it over to my mechanic, Boozy, and have him laugh at me before replacing all the parts I’d destroyed.

All of this was going through my mind as I hurtled down Silver Spur at 45 mph. A car started to pull out in front of me, and I touched the rear brake, which had the intended effect. The eardrum-shattering shriek frightened the driver into slamming on her brakes. I flashed past, pleased that my early warning system was so effective, but also troubled. What if this unearthly, mind-bending noise meant that the brakes were about to fail? The thought of going down Silver Spur like that without any brakes almost worried me.

I pedaled along PV Drive until I came to a stop sign. Resignedly I got off to inspect the rear brake. Perhaps there were no more brake pads and this was the sound of metal calipers on metal rim? Nope. Perhaps there was something wrong with the brake mechanism itself? I stared intently at the complex, mysterious piece of machinery known as “bicycle brake,” hoping that today, after all these years, its workings would finally make sense and I could somehow fix them. But, like a chimpanzee staring at an x-ray, the brake remained inscrutable.

Next I checked the rim and immediately found the culprit. It appeared that during one of my more energetic chain lubing sessions in which I had enthusiastically lubed the chain, the stays, the tire, my feet, and most of the sliding glass window on the balcony, I had gotten a few quarts of lubricant on the rim. The lube had, over time, picked up filth and gunk from the road, resulting in one side of the rim being completely coated with a thick, black, gooey tar that apparently didn’t mesh well with the brake pads.

The solution seemed simple: Wipe off the crud. I took a finger and ran it along the rim, expecting the gunk to come right off. It didn’t. Instead it smeared and left my finger covered with the tar. Next, I tried it with another finger, then another, until both my hands were black with oily crud, but the quantity on the rim appeared about the same. Over on the roadside was a bush with big leaves, so I went over and collected a few. Then I bent over and started vigorously rubbing the rim with a big green leaf.

At that moment a super pro-looking dude in a pro-looking kit on a bike cruised by on his 10k machine. He glanced at me disdainfully, as if he’d never seen a goofball riding a ‘cross bike with a huge red blinky light in the middle of the day while repairing his bike with some leaves. I expected him so say, “You okay?” but he pedaled quickly by.

The leaves had magical crud-removal properties, and in a few moments the rim was clean. I spun it and clenched the brakes — no squeal. This was the first time I had ever addressed a bike problem and solved it. I hopped on the bike and pedaled after Mr. Rudely. Soon enough I caught up to him. He had those 450-mile-a-week legs of a 20-something dreamer who thinks that if he just rides more and races more he will get a pro contract.

“Hi, there!” I chirped.

He turned his head towards me and made the grimmest half-smile, followed by a slight nod to acknowledge that I existed, sort of. “Nice day, huh!” I eagerly chirped some more. He nodded again, slightly, staring straight ahead. I could tell what he was thinking.

“Here I am on my easy day and I’ve been overtaken by the world champion Fred who repairs his bike with leaves and pedals 15 mph at 150 rpm. This sucks balls.”

I zoomed past, turned onto PV Drive West, and headed up the little bump out of Malaga Cove. At the top I slowed down considerably and Mr. Rudely passed me. I hopped on behind him, figuring it would drive him insane, which it did. Since he was obviously on a recovery day, he wasn’t going to hammer away from me, so he took the opposite tack. He slowed down until I passed him. I laughed to myself. “Nobody beats Wanky in the slows.” So I slowed down until he passed me again.

Now he was really pissed. “Hi again!” I chirped.

He sped up and I hopped on his wheel. Then he realized it was his recovery day, so he slowed back down. As I read the sponsors on his jersey, I wondered if he knew that by being such a prick he was causing me to memorize the name of each sponsor so that I would never, ever, ever buy any of their products? I wondered if it occurred to him that by stopping, or even slowing, to say “You okay?” he and his club and his Orange County shop would have done the best advertising possible? And of course I wondered if it occurred to him that by refusing to even speak to me because of my dorkiness he proved to be an even bigger dork than I?

Seeeeeeeerious cycling

Road cycling has a tradition of snobbery, rudeness, unfriendliness, and contempt for those who are slower and weaker than you. Why? Mountain bikers are glad you’re out on the trails with them. I wish I had a dollar for each time an MTB friend has invited me to try out trail riding. Cyclocross racers are the same. They only want to ride with you and drink beer, and many don’t even want to ride. Track riders are a little more serious, but the ice is easily broken your second or third time out and they will bend over backwards to show you the tricks of the trade.

Not road racers, though. Although there are plenty of friendly, down to earth riders, there is a distinct class of road racing snobs. Whether you’re riding with a mirror, or the expiration date on your white shorts has passed, or you’re working on your bike with an old leaf, they believe you are NOT WORTHY.

That’s when I think about Fields. Fields was the best, the cagiest, the one who trained hardest, and the one who dominated the peloton. But he never looked down on anyone because of the bike they rode or the clothes they wore. And if he passed you on a ride he’d always offer a friendly greeting, not to mention stop if you were stranded with a mechanical on the side of the road. Fields believed that people earned scorn and contempt when they acted like assholes, not when they were out enjoying a bicycle ride.

Mr. Rudely and I did another set of slow – and – pass before he got so angry that he stomped by me on the Switchbacks. I followed at about three bike lengths. When we got to the college the light was red. We stopped. I smiled. “Where are you riding today?”

“What’s that?” he said.

“Where are you riding today?”

He twirled his finger in the air as if circling the PV Peninsula. “Loops.” Then he telepathically communicated something along the lines of please-shut-up-now.

I left him for good this time, touching my rear brake occasionally on the long descent. They were perfectly silent. Maybe I’m not such a bad mechanic after all.

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Pass the tweezers, please

November 14, 2012 § 48 Comments

There we were, hauling ass down PV Drive North into the sweeping, slightly off-camber right turn up to the reservoir climb, and sitting on the point I swung out as far as possible to 1) hold max speed through the corner and 2) show off my awesome, ‘cross-inspired cornering skills.

‘Cause when you can rip through loose sand and gravel at speed, smooth tarmac ain’t shit.

Just as I reached max lean, the front tire started to slide. “This is exactly what happens to me in ‘cross,” I thought, out-of-body as it was, feeling the pavement grind up into my hip and right elbow. “And it’s gonna hurt.”

Iron Mike, who had been far enough off my wheel to avoid the crash, couldn’t help staring slack-jawed at the carnage, so instead of neatly avoiding the mess he smacked into the median at 2 mph, tumping over like a clunky lamp, one foot unhooked.

I twisted my neck to see who was going to run over my head.

No one. The braking and hollering were in full force. Thank goodness I’d decided to avoid that dangerous ‘cross race in San Diego and stick to the safety of the Sunday Wheatgrass ride.

Timing is everything

I came to rest in the middle of the lane and was surprised to see my good friend Bruce, clad in jeans, leaning over me. “You okay?”

The South Bay Wheelmen were staging their annual club hill climb, and I had arrived just in time give a lesson in safe bike handling. The whole team had paused to watch bits of flesh, tattered kit, and a thin sheen of blood spatter up in the air.

The guy in charge of sign-in said in a loud voice. “See? That’s what I don’t want any of you idiots doing.”

The bike crash on the group ride is a beautiful thing. Everyone’s personality leaps out in high relief at the moment of crisis, and our group was no different. Neumann sprinted away up the hill with another IF wanker, thrilled to finally have a chance at getting KOM and putting into practice his lifelong motto of “All for me, and me for me!”

Patrick sequestered my bike, straightened the brake, and had soon loosened the bolts to straighten the stem. Craig and Bruce were fixing the front flat that had caused the crash, and Bob, after giving me the physical once-over, stood ready to air up the tire. Chris stood at the ready to help, and Fussy, after making sure Iron Mike was okay, provided running commentary highlighting Mike’s awkward fall. Joe stared at my elbow, in the throes of broken-joint flashbacks from the fall that had cost in excess of $75k to rebuild his elbow joint.

As Bruce carefully checked the brand new Gatorskin, he said, “Aha!”

We all looked. “There’s the culprit!” he said.

We couldn’t see anything. “Here, run your hand on the inside of the tire.”

Sure enough, a sharp pin prick was coming through, almost invisible. After more working and worrying, we got it slightly out, but not enough to grip and remove. It was a tiny piece of wire from a car tire.

I tried to pull it out with my teeth, but after scrimshanking a few deep scores into the enamel, gave up. Bruce looked around. “Anyone have a pair of tweezers?”

People guffawed. “Yah, sure, man, right next to my pedicure set.”

“Fuck, Bruce, nobody carries tweezers on a bike ride.”

Bruce surveyed the group, unfazed. “Anybody have a pair of tweezers?”

Silence, and a few more laughs ensued.

Then New Girl said, in her small voice, “I do.”

We were stunned. In a moment she produced a perfect pair of splinter-pulling tweezers, and in another couple of moments the wire was yanked.

I looked at her. “Why in the world are you carrying tweezers on a bike ride?”

“Because…” she said.

“Because what?”

“I thought somebody someday might get a super tiny splinter or piece of glass or wire in their tire and wouldn’t be able to get it out without some tweezers. Isn’t that great?”

“No,” I said. “It isn’t great. It is awesome beyond belief.”

Onward and upward

I pedaled up to Norris, who was glumly waiting for the ride to resume. “Sorry, dude. You okay?”

“That’s gonna cost me.”

“Oh, crap. How come?”

“My front derailleur is broken.”

“Really?” I looked at his front derailleur, which was in pristine condition and appeared to be completely unharmed. “What about you? You okay?”

He pointed to his shin, where he had already affixed a small band-aid, covering up the tiniest of nicks. “Wow, dude. Heal up.”

I felt a horrible stabbing pain in my right leg, and finally looked at the gaping hole in my shorts. The skin facing the hole didn’t look so bad, but I peeked under the fabric higher up and saw a nasty strawberry smear that was going to be oozing and draining and scabbing all over my pants for the next week or two.

Then I took a deep breath and looked at my elbow. I’d gone down so fast at such a deep lean that the fall had peeled my long jersey sleeve right up to mid-bicep. The road, or something, had ground a neat hole through the armwarmer I’d been wearing under the sleeve. I bent my arm and looked. Down in the hole was something kind of white and pale looking, along with big clots of blood and bigger flaps of skin.

Did I mention I’m a wimp?

There are wimps, and then there are wimps

I have the pain threshold of a 2 year-old. The dentist has to give me morphine just to clean my teeth. I hate the sight of blood. I feel waves of pain at even the thought of broken bones, stitches, surgery, needles, you name it.

The time I got my thumb caught in my track bike chain and ground off the tip was as horrible to me as if someone had slowly burned out my eyes with coals, or forced me to vote Republican. When I had a tiny cavity drilled out in Japan, the dentist sternly told me to “stop quivering like a child.”

Yeah. I’m a gutless wuss.

Fortunately, so are most other male cyclists. No matter how brave and tough they are when attacking, or climbing, or sprinting, the minute they get a boo-boo they whine and wail and complain as if they’d lost a leg to an IED. With the exception of my buddy who broke his neck, spent five months in a halo, and then had screws bolted into his neck and never said anything other than, “I’m fine,” when asked about his condition, most cyclists are whiny hypochondriacs who milk their injuries, minor or major, into the finest whiny cream.

Nonetheless, there was a ride to finish. So we set off up the hill, and I noticed for the first time that we had a new member. He was riding an orange steel Volkcycle with cantilever brakes, rakish chromed steel forks, lazy brakes, and bar-end shifters. He was a teenager, and this was his first group ride, apparently.

“Yeah, dude,” I thought. “Welcome to cycling. We crash on the first turn, it’s just how we roll.”

Craig, Bob, Paul, Vince, and I  emerged together from Homes and Gardens, and then Bob and Craig towed me to the top of the Domes. I went down to the bottom of the Switchbacks alone and checked out my elbow again. “What’s that white shit down there?” I thought. “Blood isn’t white, is it? Unless those are white blood cells…” I wished I knew more about biology.

Glass Church and home

Bob, Craig, and I escaped on the Glass Church roller, were brought back for the sprunt, and I turned off at the top of Hawthorne to go home.

“How was a ride?” Mrs. WM asked.

“It was awesome.”

“It don’t look on no awesome. How come you butt meat hanging outta that biker flap?”

“I took a little spill.”

“Don’t get all those blood pieces onna bed and carpet. How come you always falling offa bike? Every since cyclingcross you coming home all bruising and cutting and bleeding and falling offa bike. And tearing up onna biker outfit butt flaps and that’s costing big money.”

“But ‘cross is really upping my skills.”

“It’s upping onna doctor repair bills, that’s what it’s upping on. Oh goodness! What’s onna elbow?”

“That’s just road rash, but it’s a little deep.”

“Here lemme see onna that. Oh goodness! You get onna doctor now! That’s blooding everywhere!”

“I think it’ll be fine with some Tegaderm and a little peroxide.”

“You musta hit onna head with a hammer. Thatsa blood hole with a bone pieces inside I can see white bone pieces! Oh goodness!”

“Will you give me a ride?”

“Onna doctor? You fall offa your bike without none of my help, you can get onna doctor without none of my help.”

She had a point, so I showered, doused the hole with peroxide, slapped on some Tegaderm, ate lunch, and went to the Doc in a Box.

Sorry, I’m just a licensed physician with 20 years of training

The Doc in a Box wrinkled her nose. “Ewwwww!” she said, peeling back the Tegaderm. “When did you do that?”

“This morning around 8:30.”

“Why didn’t you come right here? It’s almost one o’clock.”

“I wanted to finish the ride.”

She looked at me like I was an idiot. “Didn’t it hurt?”

“Hell yes it hurt. Canyon Bob and Craig were ripping my legs off the whole way up to the Domes.”

“I mean your elbow. Didn’t it hurt?”

“Oh, that. Yeah, it hurt like hell. That’s why I’m here.”

“But if it hurt so much why didn’t you come directly here?”

“Because I don’t like pain. And I knew that whatever you were going to do, it was going to hurt.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s actually not. This wound is too deep for me to suture, especially because of all the gravel and grease down in the puncture. I’m sending you to the ER where someone with more experience can sew you up.”

On to the next one

Doc #2 didn’t flinch. “Yep, that’s going to need a deep scrub. Lie down.”

I lay down.

“If it really hurts let me know and we’ll anesthetize it for cleaning.”

“It hurts like a mofo.”

“But I haven’t touched it yet.”

“So it’ll hurt even worse once you do. Shoot me up, doc.”

“Okay. This is going to hurt a little bit.”

He lied, of course. It hurt like having a needle plunged into your elbow joint.

The numbness took over and he started to scrub. I could feel the pieces of meat being soaked and rubbed and washed and sponged. Even though it didn’t hurt, I imagined how much it would have hurt without the painkiller, which made it hurt awful bad.

“Okay, we’re done.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes. You did great.”

“I didn’t feel a thing!”

“That’s why we use anesthetic, you know.”

Crash. Bleed. Publicize.

Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to take grisly photos before the suturing and post them on Facebook. The comments came rolling in, from the heartfelt “Get well soon!” to the “Wanker!” to the prize-winning reminiscence of Marco Vermeij about the time at the Kenosha crit in ’89 when he sewed up Randy Dickson’s gaping wound with a needle and thread from a tubular patch kit. Randy, of course, needed the quick repair so that he could do the next race.

I reflected on my own frailty when compared with the broken necks, shattered elbows, snapped femurs, and on-site surgeries performed with nothing more than spit, callused fingers, and the implements found in a cyclist’s toolbox. I reflected on the faux toughness of the modern rider, equipped with all the latest stuff, but sorely lacking in the oldest stuff: Grit, tolerance of real pain, the will to keep going, and the tight-lipped contempt that tough guys have for acknowledging injury or pain.

I never had been, and never would be, one of those few men who Fields used to approvingly nod towards and declare that they were “made of stern stuff.” But maybe one day, if I kept falling off my bike and doing those nightmarish ‘cross races, I’d at least be made out of semi-stern stuff.

That would be something to brag about, wouldn’t it? And no one would have to know that I’d gone out and bought myself a nifty little set of ladies’ eyebrow tweezers…would they?

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