The pigs’ revenge

January 11, 2015 § 37 Comments

It began like any other Saturday morning. There we were, twenty-five old fellows, buck naked in the bedroom of a someone’s parents, discreetly eyeing each others’ wrinkled junk as we slathered goop on our legs and put on stretch underwear. Was it a bad home video with distasteful subject matter? No. It was the 17th Annual French Toast Ride, and we were kitting up for the big showdown.

We had already scarfed down the finest breakfast in America: French toast, hot coffee, muffins, fresh fruit, and two delicious kinds of pork — sausage and bacon. As we gratefully devoured the incomparable meal prepared by Cindi, Gina, Lynn, Nancy, Jim, and Steve Jaeger, little did we know that the porcine gods were frowning on our consumption of their brethren.

Instead, we gaily prepped for what promised to be another edition of the most amazing bike ride in America: 117 lethal miles of Ventura County torture, capped by the steeps of Balcom Canyon and terminated at Mile 115 by the stabbing, punch-em-up Golf Course Climb. As King Harold put on his leg warmers, his arm warmers, his two undershirts, his long-sleeve jersey, his shoe covers, his long-fingered gloves, and his headwrap, the other riders chortled.

“Planning for a snowstorm, Harry?”

“Gearing up for the Iditarod?”

King Harold merely smiled as he glanced out the window. “Maybe you wankers didn’t notice that it’s raining.”

“Rain, schmain!” the chorus shouted back. “The forecast says 5% chance of rain and overcast skies.”

“Well, it’s half right,” he said.

“Anyway,” said Bull, “this is SoCal, and it’s always perfect weather for the FTR, and we’re in the middle of the worst drought in recorded history. This sprinkle will be gone before we get to Fillmore.”

On cue a bolt of lightning hit the house across the street, a peal of thunder ripped across the sky, and the light drizzle picked up ever so slightly.

I thought back to 5:30 that morning, when Mrs. Wankmeister had driven me over to Clodhopper’s. He had generously offered to drive me, Surfer Dan, and Toronto up to Camarillo, and we had accepted because Clodhopper, in addition to being the world’s most prepared man, always travels in style.

“Honey, let’s go,” I said as I roused her out of bed.

“You goin’ onna French cupcake ride? It’s gonna rain onna dogs.”

“Toast, not cupcake. And we aren’t cupcakes, honey, we’re hard men. And there’s only a 5% chance of rain.”

“It’s gonna rain onna cats so don’t call me up because you’re crashing onna slickery street.” She didn’t seem too happy about the early departure, but she drove me down to Clodhopper’s anyway.

As I arrived Clodhopper was putting the finishing touches on his brand new Xyplonk bike rack.

“Like it?” he asked.

It was the most amazing bike rack I’d ever seen, and obviously cost more than my Prius. “That’s incredible,” I said.

“Yep. Xyplonk is handmade in Finnland by artisan bike rack makers. Each one is made from hand-mined bauxite and assembled by 9th generation bike rack makers.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Yep. They’re a bit pricey; this one set me back six grand. But that’s less than the cost of the bike, right?”

He wasn’t kidding. Clodhopper’s bike cost $15k, plus $9k for the handmade wheels, which are made from virtually unobtainable profamatanium. I put my bike on the rack and we got ready to go. “Where’s your bike?” I asked.

“In the back of the Avalanche. I’d never put my bike on a rack. What if some knucklehead rear-ends me, or I rip the rack off by going up a driveway that’s too steep?”

“Good point,” I said. “But if you’re never going to use it, why go to all the expense?”

Clodhopper looked at me. “If I was going to use a bike rack, I’d use the best one I could buy. And in my world, you take as good care of your friends’ stuff as you would with your own.”

“Well, if it was me you’d be getting one of those aluminum jobs with fabric straps that hang onto the rain gutter.”

“I know,” he said. “That’s why I’m driving. Let’s go.”

Clodhopper sent off  two text messages to Surfer and Toronto to let them know we were en route. “I drafted the texts last night and put them in the queue. Be prepared. That’s my motto.”

I’d rather be wet than cold: dash to the Fillmore sprunt

Our resplendent group of 25 riders rolled out in the drizzle that had turned to moderately pounding rain, and our immaculate bikes were almost immediately covered in dreck. Manslaughter turned to me as we went from damp to wet to soaked. “It’s not a cold rain at least,” he said.

“Nope,” I said.

“And I’d rather be wet than cold,” he said.

“Yep.” We both looked at King Harold, who was dry as a bone and quite cozy in his Iditarod get-up, and we wondered the same thing: “What if we end up wet and cold?”

We needn’t have wondered …

The first tiny climb, which was so small and brief and easy that I hardly inhaled, was soon past. At the next little bump we had a flat, and Manslaughter leaned over to me as we waited. “Hey, Wanky,” he said.


“Is it a bad sign if those first two little non-climbs really hurt?”

I looked at him and thought briefly about telling the truth. “Nah,” I said. “Those are just warm-up pangs. Everybody’s hurting.” He knew I was lying, but just hearing my blatant dishonesty said with such kindness and sincerity made him smile. The group continued on, pushing up and over the first rated climb of the day, the Fillmore Hump. I skittered to the front in order to take the descent first. I’m a terrible descender, and my full-carbon wheels, which are made completely of carbon, don’t stop at all when they’re wet, although they make a very cool full-carbon “sheeeeee” sound when you squeeze on the brakes that don’t stop, which is cooler than the “shirrrrrr” sound they make when they brake dry and do stop.

I figured that since I couldn’t stop and would likely crash, better to take out as many people as possible by riding at the front. The minute the steep, hairy-pinned descent commenced, we all noticed giant puddles of fresh motor oil in the middle of the road. Bikes began twitching sideways, sphincters began clenching (then, unfortunately, unclenching), oaths were shouted, and Hair bombed the descent with Dally Rumple at full speed. With no one able to catch them, Hair blitzed across the Fillmore city limit sign to collect the first scalp of the day.

We had a couple more flats, and raced on towards Santa Paula. Hair took that sprunt, too.

Super boring bike stuff

[This next section details the blow-by-blow of the Ojai climb, the run across the valley, the descent, and the sprunt into Ojai. It is incredibly boring and filled with mindless cycling details that are numbingly inane unless you were one of the people involved. Others may skip to the next section, “Slip sliding away.”]

A couple of miles after leaving Santa Paula the climb began. How long was it? I don’t know. How steep was it? I don’t know. But I do know this: at some point we went from twenty-five riders to seven. The rain began to pour down with personal animosity until we had all reached the level of wetness that lets you know you’re totally drenched: our balls were soaked.

Riding behind someone with soaked balls is a bummer because when they press down with one leg it squeezes the ball sauce out of the chamois and onto the saddle, from whence it drips onto the back tire and is then violently flung up into your face, imparting a light flavor of oil, hints of grease, oaked flavors of dirt, big and fruit-forward essences of transmission fluid from the asphalt, and a velvety-with-salt-and-sweat finish.

G$ pushed to the front and began shedding deadwood. I started at the back and leapfrogged from shattering grupetto to shattering grupetto. There was Bull, regretting (but not really) all those chili-cheese burritos. There was Aston Martin, looking for a replacement piston. There was Dream Crusher, finding out what it was like to be the crushee. There was Clodhopper, speed-dialing Uber. And there, just ahead, were the leaders — Roadchamp, Full Gas Phil, G$, Hair, Dally Rumple, FTR DS Jaeger, and Marmaluke.

I latched onto the rear like a sucker-fish. Roadchamp attacked and Full Gas Phil followed. G$ repeatedly attacked to try and bridge the gap before settling down to set a searing tempo. Stern-O, arguably the toughest old boot on the ride at 65 years old, had set out ahead of the group and yelled encouragement as we flew by.

We crested the climb and Marmaluke bridged us to Roadchamp and Full Gas Phil. Now we had an 8-man flailaway and the pace went from torrid to unbearable. The rain beat down, washing my sulfuric acid-based sunscreen into my eyes, blinding me so badly that I could only crack my left eye. Sitting two inches off a wheel, eyes burning, the sheets of rain making everything invisible, I feebly rotated through, easily the weakest in the group.

Hair, the supposed sprinter, was again showing his toughness as he hung with the climbers, poured on the coal along the flats, and hung back to give me a break when I started to drift off the last wheel. We hit the long, fast, soaking, twisty descent and everyone sat up except for Phil, Hair, G$, and me. Our bikes were slithering in the turns, and when we hit the flat 3-mile run-in to Ojai, Full Gas Phil opened it up full throttle. As we hit the outskirts of town Hair leaped away, Full Gas followed, and someone won the sprunt. G$ and I just gasped, relieved that it was over.

Slip sliding away

One by one the riders straggled into the Ojai Chevron, wet and frozen to the core. Instead of the usual convenience store fare of cokes and candy bars, Toronto and Surfer scarfed two large cups of instant ramen, a cup of chicken noodle soup, and an extra-large cup of hot cocoa. One rider bought two large cups of coffee, drank one, and poured the other one into his shoes.

“What the fuck are you doing?” we asked.

“Thawing my feet. Hopefully they’ll absorb some caffeine, too.”

I immediately noticed a selection of longshoreman knit caps on a rack and bought one. My helmet sat on it like a cherry atop a scoop of ice cream, but I didn’t care. We stood in a circle under the store’s heating vent, dripping filthy water onto the floor and shivering uncontrollably.

“Well, boys,” DJ said. “I think we should shorten the ride. What’s your vote?”

Various wankers nodded in agreement. We were fifty miles in, and we’d have a hundred hard, miserable miles even with the 17-mile shortcut. One rider protested. “But we’d be missing the epic Lake Casitas climb, the county line sprunt, and more of the general beatdown.”

Another chimed in. “FTR has never been truncated. Ever.”

King Harold spoke up. “What kind of wussy talk is this? Let’s do the friggin’ ride. It ain’t the French Cupcake Ride, is it?”

I thought of Mrs. WM. “Guys,” I said, “this is about pride. Honor. Manliness. Are we hardmen, or are we soggy cupcakes? What’s 17 extra miles with a touch of climbing? Who’s afraid of hypothermia and a slow, agonizing death? Do we want to go home like cowards and pantywaists, or with our heads held high? Whattaya say? Are you with me, men?”

They looked at me like I was insane. “Hey, Wanky,” Manslaughter piped up. “You can go do whatever the fugg you want. We’re frozen. We’re soaking wet. We’re under dressed. We have prostate issues and incipient pneumonia. Iron Mike is curled up in a fetal ball and begging someone to pour boiling water down his shorts. Zero fucks are given whether we do 100 miles or 117. The fact that we’ve even gone this far makes us immortally stupid. So no, we’re not only not with you, we don’t even know you.”

The group nodded in unison and we reluctantly faced the rain again, whose intensity had increased to that of a large-diameter fire hose.

A few miles later, disaster struck. On the outskirts of Ventura we were crossing a particularly slick section of road when Dream Crusher, who was just behind me, took the opportunity to jerk his wheel and go splattering across the pavement. I didn’t look back but could hear the hideous sound of crunching carbon and thunking meat as it hit. I immediately began composing my noble speech.

“Guys, as much as I’d like to complete this FTR, I hereby volunteer to ride back with Dream Crusher in the heated ambulance. Carry on without me, and Mr. EMS dude, please give me another blanket.”

Dream Crusher was dragged onto the pavement where, unfortunately, his bike was fine and he only had two tiny scratches on his leg. “Don’t feel bad, wanker,” said Manslaughter. “That was a tricky section right there. Only a highly skilled rider could have successfully navigated it.”

At that moment a 75-year-old man on a tricycle hauling a steel wagon filled with burritos came whipping through the same section, bunny-hopped the curb with the wagon, sailed off the far curb and careened the trike onto two wheels as he swerved through the street. “Get that guy’s phone number,” Bull said, “and sign Dream Crusher up for some lessons.”

Circle K for “killer”

[More tedious bike crap. General interest readers may skip to “Shitfaced.”]

In Ventura we turned left at the Circle K and began the long climb out of town, which began the 20-mile undulating road back to Santa Paula, and from there to the dreaded Balcom Canyon.

MMX, who had been idling is engine for most of the ride, roared to the fore and immediately distanced the group. Dogg and Dally Rumple charged for a while, then MMX surged again, his tequila-fueled legs beating the pedals with a mad fury. This time, the punch was followed by a stinging counter unleashed by Full Gas Phil. The twosome rode off, with Hair, me, Surfer Dan, and Marmaluke trailing in the fumes.

Marmaluke bridged the gap, and we settled into a terrible six-man paceline where Full Gas, Marmaluke, and MMX relentlessly crushed it. The only rider to never skip a pull besides Full Gas was Hair, who again showed incredible mettle and tenacity. Phil kept the pace bleedlingly fast, with MMX smashing through each time so hard that I finally gave up pulling and hung on for dear life.

We knew the wankoton, which included G$, Roadchamp, FTR DS, King Harold, Dally Rumple, and Clodhopper would be chasing their brains out, not that they had many. Fearing the chase we drove on even harder until I was reduced to a sobbing puddle of spaghetti legs and melted ego. However, far from chasing, the wankoton had flatted twice just past the Circle K, and they were lollygagging along, wholly unconcerned with our heroics.

By the time we reached Santa Paula, Hair was mush. “Hey, guys,” he pleaded, “shouldn’t we wait for the group? Jaeger will be upset.” This was code speak for “Can I crawl off into this gutter and quit?”

Since he’s one of our best friends, and had done a lot of work, and had never skipped a pull, we accelerated, dropped him, and left him to fend for himself. By now all pretense of warm, hard rain had stopped and we were slogging through a frozen, complete deluge.

When the wankoton got into Santa Paula, King Harold, who was the designated sweeper, was facing a scenario unlike any other in the history of the FTR. Various riders had simply disappeared. G3, Stern-O, Manslaughter, and Toronto were nowhere to be found. And instead of plowing through Santa Paula, the wankoton wobbled to a feeble stop in front of a gas station.

Iron Mike was groaning in a language he didn’t even speak, and Bull, who is very careful with his equipment, flung his $7k bike down into a puddle of mud and rocks. “Bull need cheese,” he grunted.

A line of filthy, soaked, frozen, angry, and demented old fellows followed him into the convenience mart, where they bought the entire kettle of scalding coffee and took turns pouring it onto their feet. Bull grabbed a large styrofoam bowl and heaped it high with chili-cheese burritos, melted quesadilla cheese, and four cheese-covered wieners. Using a plastic knife and his fingers, he ground it up into a slurry, added some hot coffee, water, and Gatorade, and drank it. Two other riders simply stood on the curb and urinated in their shorts, hoping the pee would at least clean them up a little bit, and if nothing else warm their refrigerated junk.

Shitfaced, or, The pigs strike back

Marmaluke, MMX, Full Gas, and I knew nothing of this as we motored through the veil of cold, pounding rain to Balcom Canyon. I had gone from taking no pulls at all to simply whimpering. “Hey fellas, don’t drop me, okay?” I begged.

“HTFU,” said MMX.

“STFU,” said FG Phil.

“It’ll cost you fifty bucks,” said Marmaluke.

“Done,” I said.

We turned up the road leading to Balcom, and a mile in I cracked and fell off the back. Balcom is steep, and this time the right-hand gutter was filled with a raging torrent, whereas the surface of the road was slapping back at my front wheel with cascading sheets of water.

Up ahead Marmaluke broke like a stick in Stern-O’s rear triangle as MMX paperboyed up the climb. Full Gas Phil distanced the duo and claimed his first ever Balcom Canyon FTR KOM … or so he thought. Impossibly, they waited for me. I got to the top; the view to the bottom of the canyon was visible in between the alternating strength of the downpour, but we saw no one.

“Should we wait for those wankers?” said Full Gas.

“I’m frozen,” said MMX.

“If we stop much longer I won’t be able to restart,” said Marmaluke.

“Urgle,” I said.

We hopped on our bikes and slid down the other side of the canyon. MMX now rolled to the fore and stayed there. My punishment for asking to be allowed to stay was being allowed to stay. Marmaluke occasionally showed a glimmer of humanity and towed me back up as MMX and Full Gas took turns smashing it into the rain and grime.

Only, as we turned onto the final stretch of highway leading to the feared Golf Course climb, I noticed that we weren’t riding through grime anymore. Instead, we were riding through a thick, light brown sludge that had the suspicious smell, look, and consistency of pig shit. All of the manure from the pig trucks had turned into semi-liquid from the rain and was now being showered into our faces.

I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten a gallon of pig shit before, but it doesn’t taste very good. Perhaps it’s the Hepatitis C, or the lethal piggi shitti killimus bacteria, or maybe it’s the clumps of raw pig sewage mixed with the detritus of the road, but whatever the reason, smearing your face, lips, and tongue with clods of pork poop tastes downright awful.

On cue, cars passed us at 80, showering our sides with more of the lovely piggy perfume. In moments we had gone from filthy, grimy black to shimmering poopy brown. The only thing that would have been worse would have been getting dropped, so I hunkered down, swallowed my portion as it spewed down my throat from Marmaluke’s rear wheel, and pounded on.

At the golf course MMX and Full Gas Phil kicked it one last time, and Marmaluke crumpled like piece of tinfoil. I had crumpled long ago, but struggled up to his rear wheel and made sure that my front wheel was 1mm ahead of his at the summit because, bike racer. And wanker.

MMX and FGP had attacked over the top, determined to gloriously ride in covered in pig shit without us in tow. That was fine, except that since I’d only been to the Jaegers’ home about ten times, I got lost. Somewhere in Camarillo Marmaluke whipped out his cell phone. “I got their address, dude, no worries.”

However, there actually were worries, and the biggest one was that the rain kept pounding his cell phone, which as a result gave us perfect directions to downtown Shanghai, then Kinshasa, then Bobodelasso, then Prague, but couldn’t find the Jagers’. Now the prospects were dire and I thought about how I’d complained about shortening the ride. Marmaluke, who had bragged about his Chicago origins and his imperviousness to this wimpy SoCal weather, was shuddering and shaking so badly that he could barely hold his phone.

“We gotta keep moving,” I said, feeling the hypothermia ratchet up a notch. After five pointless minutes wandering through a neighborhood, we saw a postal truck. “Excuse me,” I chattered, “where is West Kensington Lane?”

The driver wrinkled his forehead. “There’s no street in Camarillo by that name.”

“Yes there is. I’ve been there numerous times. It’s right around here somewhere.”

“I’ve been delivering mail here for thirty years,” replied, “but good luck.”

Just before we decided to throw our bikes on a lawn and let them be washed by the torrent down to the Pacific, Marmaluke spied a school. “Let’s go there and see if we can dry out the phone,” he said.

“Are you sure you’re allowed to go within 150 feet of a school?” I asked. “Plus, how are you going to dry it out? We’re wet from head to balls to toe.”

Marmaluke pulled under an awning and took out his phone. Then he carefully unpacked a small tool bag, which was drenched. Out of the bag he took a piece of paper, which was drenched. He unfolded the paper and inside it was the world’s tiniest plastic bag. He opened the micro-bag and took out a lone, bone dry piece of tissue paper.

“What in the world are you carrying around a dry piece of paper for?” I asked in amazement.

“For something like this,” he said, and proceeded to wipe dry the phone screen, which buzzed to life and mapped us instantly to West Kensington Lane, a mere 3-minute pedal away.

We swooped up the driveway and spied the bikes of MMX and Full Gas Phil, along with the rigs of Surfer and the others who had given up on Balcom and taken a shortcut home.

Cindi, Gina, and Lynn stood in the garage smiling at us. “You made it!” they cheered, draping us in towels. We wiped off the mess and tiptoed into the shower, where the day ended pretty much the same way it had started, with slightly older, infinitely more tired, and much more wrinkled old men standing around naked, except this time doing it together in a shower.

All hail the conquering heroes

One by one the broken and weary riders came in. All were frozen to the core except for Clodhopper and King Harold, who were still toasty and mostly dry. The Jaegers then fed us with Round Two, which consisted of delicious sandwiches on the freshest buns, mounds of cookies, gallons of very hot coffee, and cold beer for those who could ingest anything modified by the word “cold.”

It was the first time in history that the FTR had gone less than the full 117 miles, but had it gone even fifty yards further there were riders like me who would have finished not with a sandwich but with a solemn graveside service. It was still a full hundred miles of suffering hell, of misery beyond compare, of danger, collapse, fear, regret, a ride whose awfulness was encapsulated by the words of Full Gas Phil as we plowed through the pig poop — “Okay. I’m not having fun now.”

In other words, it was the very best FTR ever. Thank you Dave Jaeger, and thank you to the Jaeger family for the gift. My eyes are swollen shut this morning as a result of the bacterial infection from the pig stuff, and later in the afternoon I’ll get my blood tested for hepatitis, but it was worth every terrible turn of the pedal, not least of all because everyone made it home alive.



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Good love

January 19, 2014 § 23 Comments

The 2014 edition of Dave Jaeger’s French Toast Ride had diverse offerings, including the flowers and bushes on the edge of Price Road who were nourished by the projectile vomiting of Uberfred. He had made the fatal mistake of taking a well-aged piece of a sweat-soaked, partially gnawed Snickers bar offered up by Sterno, and instead of magically transforming from Betty White to Eddy Merckx, he almost metamorphosed into Dude With Stomach Cramps Lying In The Ditch Five Miles From The End.

It was a French Toast Ride that began with piles of thick toast soaked in French, pan-fried to a golden glow, and poured down the hungry maws of the hardy riders who had managed to wake up on time and get to the feed zone at Camarillo by 7:30. The delectable toast, cooked in the home of Dave’s parents Jim and Nancy, was accompanied by stacks of bacon, pans of sausage, gobs of butter, buckets of cream, a giant urn of coffee, and a small plate of fruit as a sop to the healthful. No one was fooled, however. There would be nothing healthful about this FTR, just like there had been nothing healthful about any of the other fifteen editions of the ride.

A little something bad for everyone

The genius of the FTR is the way it disappoints, frustrates, humbles, aggravates, and insults each rider in a unique way over the course of 118 nasty, windy miles and almost 9,000 feet of very unpleasant climbing. Despite a day filled with unpleasantness and misery, each year the same cadre of idiots happily reconvene to do it all over again. If you have zero fitness, like Turtle, FTR is simple masochism. You drag your butt over the course, last up every climb, last to every stop, first one to get shelled when the pace picks up, and typically you get up Balcom Canyon by holding onto a gardener’s truck or with a hoist.

If you’re somewhat prepared, FTR is a day filled with cagey wheelsucking, where, like Toronto, you stay near the front in anticipation of a move, but never actually on it. Fear of being shelled cancels the duty to do your share, but of course it all pays off when, like Toronto, you absolutely blaze up the climbs and stick with the lead group when the pace ramps up.

If you’re supremely prepared, like Surfer Dan, the ride is pure agony, because when the group splits at the first climb less than 20 miles into the ride, and you’re ready to ride the remaining 100 miles in a death march with five other guys, the group halts, Dave coddles the weak and the dropped, and everyone gets back together. Yet despite the beatdown, the coddling, the stopping, the hand-holding, the hammering, the climbing, the sprunting, the cramping, and the unholy exhaustion that sets in at Mile 100, just before you tackle the 20-percent slopes of Balcom, the FTR is the best, happiest, most satisfying and rewarding ride you’ll ever do.

How can that be? Because of good love.

The ties that bind

Dave’s parents are in their 70’s, and what possesses them to allow a ravenous mob of cyclists to invade their modest home every year, prance around semi-naked as they change into kit, rub smelly embro all over their bodies, stink up their bathroom with the quaking bowels of twenty men with the pre-ride purge, and occasionally (like the year Stern-O wiped his derriere with four pounds of toilet paper) clog up the pipes in the entire house, I’ll never know for sure. What I do know is this. The Jaegers have good love, and it permeates their home, their family, and every aspect of the FTR.

It’s the kind of love that is built year by year over decades, one day at a time, through the rewards and travails of raising kids, living through the hard knocks and comfortable landings of life, trusting in the person next to you when the chips aren’t simply down, they’re not even on the table anymore. The Jaegers’ good love, quiet and unassuming, solid as bedrock and there as predictably as the sunrise, spills over into every aspect of the FTR. That love is, of course, what gave rise to Dave, and that love is, of course, what Dave and Lynn have in their own marriage — you can see it because nowadays the Jaegers are FTR hosts emeritus. The brunt of the shopping, cooking, cleaning, organizing, and making it happen is done by Dave’s wife Lynn, his sister-in-law, and his daughters.

The good love doesn’t stop with sharing the plumbing and the home and the food. The good love is part of the ride itself, mostly old guys getting older and weaker, along with an infusion of new 30-something blood to keep everyone broken and in pain throughout the day. Every year the pummeling and the projectile vomiting and the pro wheel changes and the butt pats and the towing on the flats and the full-gas sprunting and the empty, vacant looks of misery at the Circle K in Ventura … these things bubble and boil and then harden, solidifying into something that can only be called “I’d do anything for you,” also known as “love.” That love is especially poignant when it involves doing your utmost to crush your closest friends and bring them to their knees.

The beaches of Normandy a/k/a Balcom Canyon Road

This is a nasty climb, just under one mile long, that averages ten percent and slams up to twenty on the steepest ramp. On any day it would be a beast, but Dave has it positioned at about Mile 100 into the ride, after huge efforts up Grimes Canyon, the 4-mile race to Fillmore, the 7-mile climb from Santa Paula towards Ojai, the 3-mile race and sprint into Ojai, the murderous twin peaks of Lake Casitas and sprint for the Santa Barbara County line, and the miserable, endless climb out of Ventura when your legs are filled with poison and your morale is at its all-time lowest.

Then, and only then, with the tank on empty and your mental fortitude in the gutter, do you hit Balcom Canyon. It gets in your head, starting pretty much with the first piece of French toast. As we plowed along Mountain Road, each pedal stroke along the five miles leading to the turnoff onto Balcom Canyon Road felt like I was pedaling towards my doom. The flurry of tiny, twanging, twinges that had begun in Ojai gradually morphed into full blown cramps. That’s a good sign before the steepest, hardest climb of the day right? The one where it’s common to paperboy just to get up it, right? The one where you count it as victory just getting to the top, right?

Wrong. It was a bad sign.

Everyone felt the doom. This is how soldiers felt sitting in little steel boats with tiny motors as they churned towards the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. It’s a sickness in your stomach and a bitter misery in your head. Reality has something ugly in store for you and you cannot avoid it. Whether that bad reality will be your complete undoing or not is the only question. But whereas the soldiers on D-Day leaped into frigid water to face the murderous rake of machine guns and mortars and artillery and mines and concertina and horrific injury and death, we faced something much worse: The knowledge that each pedal stroke would be painstakingly analyzed on Strava by all of our friends.

When we made the turn, it was clear that honor for the Balcom KOM would be decided among Surfer Dan, Manslaughter, G$, and Unpronounceable. Before the Balcom climb proper, you have to batter for 1.5 miles, usually into a headwind, up a 2-percent grade to the base of the climb. Although it had been tried before, most famously during the Pee Stop Attack by Wanky in 2010, no one had ever succeeded in stealing a march on the group before the base of the climb.

This year was different. Surfer Dan took one look at the haggard, frightened, sniveling, and broken faces of his competition and rolled away. Everyone wanted to chase, but only one rider could, and it wasn’t enough. Mike Frias, who had been pulling his brains out, never shirking the front, and digging like a DitchWitch all day long, took over the nastiest chore of the entire day. For the entire 1.5 miles he towed us at full speed, keeping Surfer Dan in our sights but unable to close the gap. We hit the base of the climb and Mike swung over, waving us through. “All yours, boys,” he said, planting his foot squarely on a land mine just as he took an artillery round, a machine gun strafing, and a mortar round to the chest all at once.

Surfer Dan was just ahead of us, but on Balcom Canyon, “just ahead” is a meaningless term because the gradient is so steep that even a few feet can prove impossible to close. Dan churned away as what remained of the chasers detonated. Manslaughter saw his chance and punched it, followed by G$ and Unpronounceable, with BB-gun in hot pursuit. I sent all power to the engines, who, already blown, simply giggled.

The day before Destructionmas

Somehow, while I can’t actually call it “finding a rhythm,” I managed to keep from tipping over by pedaling, and that effort led me ever closer to Unpronounceable. When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, came charging Toronto with bounds like a deer. With granny gear twirling, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment he’d stomp on my dick. More rapid than spin class his pedals they turned, and he grunted and labored, and calories burned. “Now, Surfer! Manslaughter! Now, Money and Aaron! On Wanky! Up Balcom I’m rarin’ and tearin’! To the top of the climb! To the top of the wall! It may cost my life, but I’ll pedal, not crawl!” As old men that before the steep obstacle faint, when they meet with the obstacle, rub their sore taint, so up and past Wanky, Toronto he flew, with a grin on his face because deep down he knew, that then, in a twinkling, Wanky would feel, the sting and the bite of Toronto’s sharp steel. And then, in a twinkling, I heard with a start, the breaking and rupture of valves in my heart. As I hung down my head, and was watching his ass, I knew I could not let this old wanker pass. He was pedaling fast, like the canyon he owned, but I knew once he wobbled his engine was blown. A bolus of snot then poured forth from his face, then he tottered and faltered, the end of his race. His eyes how they stared! How bloodshot and red! His cheeks were like corpses, all sunken and dead! His droll little mouth was drawn up in a frown, while spittle and mucous both oozed slowly down. The stumps of his legs shaved clean of their hairs, had gone from full circles to pedaling squares. His lined, broken face and his wheeze from the battle, escaped from his throat in one final death rattle. I left him there quick with a pat on his rump, as if he’d been beaten and chained to a stump. But though he sank back like a great anchor’s plunge, he somehow dug deep and with one final lunge, he gasped and he choked and he coughed up a lung, and finally onto his seventh place hung. Atop mighty Balcom he leaped off his tool, and he pranced and he danced and he texted Joe Yule. “I did it!” he said, “With Clif bars and java! A number I’ll proudly now upload to Strava!” But I heard him exclaim, ere I bombed down the hill, “With a compact next year I will climb faster still!”

Just this one last little bit

Surfer Dan was never reeled in, Manslaughter finished hard on his heels, G$ crested the hill next followed by BB-Gun, me, and Unpronounceable. We regrouped, descended, then hit the gas all the way to Golf Course Hill, a nasty little .3-mile kicker that finishes on a 13 percent grade. The final FTR tally looked like this:

  1. Grimes Canyon: Frias
  2. Fillmore sprunt: Hair
  3. Santa Paula sprunt: Hair
  4. Ojai climb: G$
  5. Ojai sprunt: Hair
  6. Casitas climb, first peak: Surfer Dan
  7. Casitas climb, second peak: Surfer Dan
  8. Santa Barbara county line sprunt: Hair
  9. Ventura county line sprunt: King Harold
  10. Balcom Canyon climb: Surfer Dan
  11. Golf Course climb: Manslaughter
  12. Most trash talked: Wanky

Honorable and Dishonorable Mention

  1. The last-minute cancellations, including Elron who bailed because he was too lazy to get up in time.
  2. Mike Frias for pulling like a Trojan All Fricking Day Award.
  3. 60-year-old Jim Bowles for Octogenarian of the Ride Award.
  4. Stern-O for Toughest Old Boot of the Ride Award.
  5. Turtle for Finishing Award.
  6. Manslaughter for Dude We’re Going to Really Fear Now That He Knows the Route Award.
  7. Unpronounceable for If He Ever Gets Serious About the Road We’re Doomed Award.
  8. Hair for All Around Champion Award.
  9. Surfer Dan for KOM, BOM, and SOM Awards.
  10. Uberfred for Best Projectile Vomit Award.
  11. Toronto for Best Self-Praise Award.
  12. G$ for Best Old Dude Who Rides Better Than the Kids Half His Age.
  13. Danny N. for Gutting It Out Award.
  14. King Harold for Best Recovery After Contracting Bubonic Plague at Training Camp.
  15. Jaeger for Best Mother Hen Award.
  16. Polly for Best Driver Award.
  17. BB-Gun for Best Shock Therapy on Balcom Award.
  18. Golden Boy for Most Awesome Ride With Less than 12 Miles of Training.

About two blocks from the Jaegers’ driveway, both of my legs seized up with those full-body cramps that bring you to a complete standstill while shrieking and grimacing in agony. Fortunately it was downhill, so I cruised into the driveway and tipped over, where I was shortly resuscitated with the Jaegers’ famous post-ride sandwiches and beer. As I stood in the kitchen, shaking, drinking beer, and refilling my plate, one of the family members looked at me. “I noticed that you were the last one in the driveway,” she said. “Does that mean you were last place on the ride?”

I sucked in my breath and got ready to tell her about the fireworks on Grimes, the carnage in Ojai, the warfare up Casitas, the death sprints, the Normandy charge up Balcom, and the final launch up Golf Course, and my incredible heroics at every step of the way. Then I thought about it and it hit me like a ton of bricks: I was the last one up the driveway.

I hung my head. “Yes.”

Out with the old, in with the…on second thought…

January 4, 2013 § 14 Comments

2013 rushed in, rudely sweeping aside 2012, who had just only gotten going. “Out with the old, in with the new!” she shouted.

“Old? I just turned one!” said poor 2012. “I was just getting going! I was on track to be the best year ever!”

“Beat it,” retorted 2013. “You’re the jackass who brought us the fiscal cliff, hurricanes in New York City, mass murderers in schools and theaters, apocalypse in Syria, complete melting of the polar winter ice, destabilization of the Antarctic ice shelf, crop failure in the Midwest, and the hottest summer ever recorded. You had your shot at glory and you blew it. Now step aside.”

With that, and copious amounts of tequila, the world’s revelers plunged madly into 2013, where, on the first day of the year, although things didn’t look exactly “new,” they sure looked foggy, dull, and shot with pain from the blinding hangover.

“Don’t worry about the over indulging in bad food, the excessive drink, and screwing your best friend’s wife on the last night of 2012,” reassured 2013. “We’ve got a fix for all that. It’s called the ‘New Year’s Resolution.’ You can fix all your problems and guarantee perfection in 2013 with it! Buy now and you’ll get this special SlicerDicer with a compact ratchet set and skin moisturizer all in one!”

Making 2013 the perfect year

Of course 2013 will be just as cobbled together, filled with disappointment, shot with joy and happiness, complicated, simple, profitable, and stained with red ink as 2012. The only difference is that by the end, everyone over the age of 28 will be one year dumber, one year weaker, and one year uglier. And EVERYONE will be one year older. So there’s that, as Knoll would say.

“No!” shouted 2013. “With resolutions we can fix the errors of the past! Let’s get started!”

A notepad and pencil were hastily shoved in front of the post-revelers, whose headaches had gotten so bad that, after puking three times they were too dehydrated to go back to sleep. Plus, the dog needed to be fed and had already crapped twice on the carpet. “Argh,” said the revelers. “Might as well resolve.”

So the Big Four marched out, the same Big Four that march out every year. The Big Four resolutions that enter the new year with so much force and fury that McDonald’s and Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol recoil, and employers everywhere rejoice. You know who I’m talking about:

Mr. I’m Gonna Lose Ten Pounds And Exercise Regularly.

And Mr. I’m Gonna Quit Smoking And Doing Drugs.

And Mr. I’m Gonna Quit Drinking.

And Mr. I’m Gonna Get Organized And Quit Putting Stuff Off.

Cyclists, of course, always add Mr. I’m Gonna Become A Better Climber.

“Yeah,” say the painfully hungover revelers. “I’m gonna do all that shit, but first I gotta have a cig and a beer after I finish the cake and eggnog leftovers from last night. And since I’m sick as shit today, I’ll get started on it tomorrow. Where’s the Advil?”

Some old things never change, Thank Dog

In the crazy rush to get rid of all the things that make us happy, though, one ancient, time-encrusted, hoary old tradition stands tall against the battering waves of change: Dave Jaeger’s French Toast Ride.

It’s now in its 15th or 500th year, depending on how aged and decrepit Jim Bowles, Martin Howard, and Gregg Stern look on the day of the ride, but numbers aside, it’s a lot older than the sum of its years. The FTR, like all old things, and especially like all old cyclists, is a perversely constructed event that has adapted and survived because of its perverse construction.

It’s not a race. It’s not a ride. It’s not an event, either. It’s more like scratching your butt–a nice habit that’s a bit socially awkward but that feels so good once you start that it’s almost impossible to start.

The FTR covers 118 miles of roads in and around Camarillo, Ojai, and Ventura. It has a couple of hard climbs, with the Balcom Canyon stinger thrown in at about mile one hundred. Strava it, or Google it, or search this blog for write-ups on past years and you’ll see what a miserable climb it is, and you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about the route and its various obstacles, not to mention the travails of the riders.

Since the participants are all quite aged, with only one rider in his twenties, one in his thirties, the rest being far over forty, and a handful just a decade or two shy of the Jurassic, the ride doesn’t race, exactly. The balance of riders are too weak and old for that.

There are, however, a couple of KOM’s, a couple of regroup points, and everyone finishes together on a miserable little pitch up the backside of a golf course leading into Camarillo. Weather is mandated to be perfect, and it always is.

A tribute to the enablers of 2012

What the FTR really is, is a tribute to the cycling enablers among us. They’re the people who watch us roll out in the morning, fully aware that we may come back via LifeFlight, or we may come back so injured that we’re never the same again, or we may never come back at all.

They’re the people who don’t fully understand but nonetheless approve the purchase of not one, but two extra sets of full carbon race wheels. They’re the people who don’t share our passion for cycling, but who love us because of our in spite of our passion. They’re the ones who don’t ask why, even though they occasionally grumble about having to give hand-ups in the hot, or the cold, or the snow, or the rain.

FTR couldn’t take place without enablers, and not just ordinary enablers. Jim and Nancy Jaeger, the hosts, open their home to invasion by thirty or so ravenously hungry, highly excitable, and digestively dynamic cyclists.You might not think that’s such a big deal until you realize that each one of those cyclists, after scarfing the French toast breakfast, immediately dashes upstairs with massive rumblings of the large intestines.

No one will ever forget the year that Stern-O’s release and subsequent OCD tissue-wiping of the entire bathroom clogged the toilet, burst pipes inside the walls, and required a hazmat crew to come in and clean up the destruction. But what I will never forget is despite that incident and the general bomb-dropping and log burials that accompany the FTR every year, the Jaegers graciously make their home available again. Enablers? Yes. Saints? Most likely.

Lynn, Macy, and Carly Jaeger put together an assembly line of French toast, bacon, sausage, and strong coffee that would shame any military operation. They chalk the sidewalk, or at least the driveway, with cheerful slogans like “You guys all suck!” and “Good luck, wankers!” Mostly, though, they provide the infrastructure of food, good cheer, and assistance that makes every little nattering glitch dissolve so that the ride rolls out on time.

Who’s your enabler?

The FTR’s enablers come together for this one day each year to allow us the dual pleasures of wasting another entire day on the bike and getting to do it fully supported with food before and after the ride. If need be, and need has occasionally been, Jim Jaeger is never too far away to drive out to some point in the ride and scrape up a hapless wanker who’s found himself mechanically, physically, or emotionally unable to continue.

In 2013 you’ll be rolling the highways, or the dirt tracks, or race courses that have been set up for your cycling pleasure. Someone’s making it all possible for you, or at least not throwing up roadblocks, unless it’s Dorothy Wong and you’re racing ‘cross. In all likelihood, no matter what your enablers say, they admire you for not needing a New Year’s resolution to go out and push your body and your mind in this most physical of ways. At the very least, they admire your courage in wearing lycra despite that saggy gut.

I’m not so sure that global warming, or psychotic gun nuts, or war in the Middle East, or the surveillance state, or political gridlock will markedly improve in 2013. But I’m sure that the FTR and its enablers, as well as all the enablers who make your cycling possible, need to stick around, not just for this year, but forever.

In that one little way, at least, here’s hoping that 2012 is here to stay.

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