May 18, 2016 § 11 Comments
Jeff Fields was the older brother I never had, which is weird because I actually had an older brother. The problem with my older brother was that he got the brunt of the conflict between my parents, and in a play as old as time, he passed it down to me in the form of beatings, teasing, and ritual humiliation.
Ian could be the best guy in the world, but a mentor he wasn’t, preferring most of his lessons be delivered through fisticuffs rather than patient instruction.
Jeff was the opposite. He was stern and gruff, but patient beyond belief. He knew I adored him and he’d never had a younger brother; his sister was many years his junior. Jeff didn’t talk a lot about how to train or how to race, but when he did it was always golden, and his pile of race wins spoke for his mastery of the craft.
Unfortunately, as all of my teachers in school had quickly learned, I was a miserable student. I didn’t want to learn anything, I just wanted to mash gears and ride my bike all day because it was fun. Jeff never told me I was riding stupidly, and he certainly never yelled at me or offered me advice. As a brilliant and calculating bike racer, he enjoyed watching my hopeless pursuits, pointless attacks, and devil-may-care approach. For all that, he noted everything I ever did and never seemed to forget it. Praise from him was treasure.
Yet he didn’t tolerate dangerous riding. He was the safest, steadiest, best-positioned wheel in the bunch. You could close your eyes on Jeff’s wheel, I always used to tell myself, and he didn’t have to coach you. If you wanted to be like him, you just imitated. There weren’t any secrets, except perhaps to the riders who didn’t care to watch.
Jeff put structure into my riding and confidence into my legs. He told me I was good and that I could always be better. He took me on the most challenging rides he could find, and let the distance and the pace do the rest. Countless Austin winter days days it would be overcast, cold, maybe even drizzling, and like clockwork we’d layer up, roll out, and ride.
We had one workout called The Path of Truth, where we sat behind a 50-cc motor scooter piloted by Randy Dickson out to Webberville and back. I took the wheel going out, Jeff took it going back. In all the times we did it, I never made the full 25 miles without getting shelled. Afterwards we’d shake our heads at the pain and the difficulty and the speed and the wind.
In those days of course there were no coffee shops. We simply kept pedaling as we talked in the cold and the rain, invincible.
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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.