December 31, 2012 § 9 Comments
Yah, yesterday was hard enough so today Slim played hooky at the back, then hooky off the back as the pack rolled up the reservoir climb without him, then plowed up Homes & Domes without him, then bombed down the Switchbacks without him, then let him slide on by while they were filling up water bottles, then overhauled him again in Portuguese Bend.
Slim didn’t care. He wasn’t going to do anything except sit. Let the others suffer if that’s how they wanted to spend their Sunday morning.
At the glass church Marco, Mark, and Jay rolled off the front. Thirty or forty riders watched them go, waiting for Slim to surge from the pack and tow or bridge. But Slim sat and let their indecision fester. He knew every inch of this road and they all measured “pain.” Today, hurting was for someone else.
A few riders took turns at the front, but no one wanted to push it. The Glass Church hill is unforgiving. If you fire too hard too early, you’ll be watching your erstwhile friends recede into the distance.
Slim nestled into the center of the group. He’d found his wheel, and he wasn’t letting go. Marco & Co. were gone and not coming back anyway, not with this gang of “No, dude, YOU pull” types.
Slim had glued onto Old Fox, owner of the ugliest, nastiest pedal stroke in Southern California. It was a horrible, repulsive pedaling style, jerky, elliptical, toe on the left leg bent awkwardly in towards the crank, every spin of the legs looking like a bad piece of Aggie engineering that had been redrawn by Rube Goldberg.
Slim had first run into Old Fox on the reservoir climb six years ago. Slim had been fast and fit, and Old Fox had been clunky, chunky, and already older than most naturally occurring rock formations. Slim passed him. Old Fox hopped on. Slim upped the ante to threshold. Old Fox hung on. Slim pushed the needle into red. Old Fox started to wheeze. Slim punched once, hard. Old Fox took it on the chin and blew.
The whole thing had disturbed Slim because Old Fox was so old, so ungainly, so out of shape, but had held on for so long. Nothing grates on the ego of a cyclist like having a plainly inferior rider hang on when you’re going all out.
The next time they met, it was on Old Fox’s turf. Flat. Four corners. A big bunch. A fast finish.
Old Fox took second, coming out of nowhere, beating a dozen contenders who were twenty or thirty years his junior. Slim learned that Old Fox had gotten silver in the national crit championships as a younger racer. Those awkward, ugly strokes only looked inefficient. When you stopped staring at the ankles and the knees, you noticed the high cadence and the smoothness between the knee and hip.
In dozens of head to head encounters, Slim had taken Old Fox once, and that was with the lead-out of all lead-outs from the Fireman, uphill and after a hundred miles…and even so Slim had edged Old Fox only by the width of a tire.
Slim took stock of the group’s remnants as they crested the Glass Church hill. Maybe a dozen riders remained, even though the pace had been anemic at best. Junkyard, Pilot, Canyon Bob, Mike B., and one or two others took turns revving the downhill as they approached the first of two bumps that preceded the uphill sprint. A gang of over-excited Velo Allegro wankers had melded with the group a few miles back, and they jostled for position.
Old Fox did nothing. Slim hated the way he never worked, never took a pull, never went to the front, but he admired him, too. Old Fox’s conservation of energy was an art form. His easily spinning legs had yet to make any effort at all, even as those around him made withdrawals, some larger, some smaller, from their rapidly dwindling accounts.
Slim would beat Old Fox at his own game today. Slim hadn’t cracked a sweat. He hadn’t budged from the wheel. He let Old Fox guide him easily through the group. Old Fox’s clunky pedaling was a decoy for more than his efficient, high-cadence stroke. It also took your attention off the fact that he negotiated the cracks and crevices in the peloton with utter mastery and ease.
Halfway up the first bump Pilot moved to the outside and shot forward. Old Fox pushed the pedals hard and followed, still perfectly protected. Slim was right there. Over the first bump, down the screaming backside and approaching the second and final bump, Old Fox showed another one of his cards, the expert sprinter’s ace of spades: The card of patience.
This close to the line and Slim, if left to his own devices, would have been panicking and hitting the gas full-on. Not Old Fox. He knew it wasn’t time. It was close, but not close enough. A little more pavement, and it was still close, but not close enough. A few more yards till and it was close, closer, and then showtime.
The old man kicked the pedals so hard that his bike shot like a rearing pony, and only pure attentiveness kept Slim on his wheel. As the peloton was hesitating to see who would lead it out, Old Fox was shooting free and clear, none of the remaining riders having a snowball’s chance. He’d launched from the far outside, from a fast, strong wheel, mid-way up the pack, and with such ferocity that the only other rider who could grab his draft was Slim.
They were free, Slim could feel it without looking back. the chaos of the jostling and the whining of the wheels had been replaced by silence. No long shadow throwing forward. Just Slim and Old Fox, and Old Fox was about to get spanked.
“This is how the lion feels before it sinks its teeth into the soft, warm neck of the kicking gazelle,” Slim laughed to himself. “Now tell me how you like these fangs, fucker.”
Legs fresh, with plenty of gas in the tank, Slim kicked as the finishing sprint sign approached.
But…surprise, surprise. Old Fox had some fumes left to cook off as well. Slim came off the wheel and hit the wall of wind. At the same time, Old Fox gathered his powerful shoulders and arms, coiled his entire body, and kicked the pedals one last time. Through the sucking gasps Slim saw the old man’s legs move perfectly around in that final lunge. Nothing ugly, or ungainly, or wasted, just one last complete effort.
Old Fox by a bike length.
The panting, lazy dogs came scrambling up after, frothing and foaming with frustration and proffering the best and most practiced of excuses.
“Dude it was too squirrely back there, I just let it go,” barked one.
“I was gonna lead you out,” panted another.
“I got boxed in,” yapped a third.
Old Fox just smiled and let them roll past.