Trench report

October 28, 2012 § 3 Comments

The latest edition of the SoCal Prestige cyclocross race took place in San Diego and it was hellish. Temperatures in the 90’s added misery to a dry and dusty course carved out of a hillside and merged with the San Diego velodrome. The course had so many twists and turns that there was nowhere to get a head of steam up. Instead, it was all finesse and bike handling to keep the highest average speed without plummeting to a stop and then spiking with huge accelerations, which soon led to moderately big accelerations, followed by smallish accelerations, concluding with no accelerations at all but rather a slow, resigned, plodding flail around a random course in the grass and dirt for no particular reason while people made fun of you for being so stupid and slow.

The mill of the gods grinds slowly, but it grinds exceedingly fine. The mill of the dogs, however, is fast as snot and you needn’t wait long for your comeuppance.

Before my race began, I sat comfortably in the shade with Emily and Chris, perfectly positioned to make fun of the hapless sods who came limping over the barriers, around the turn, and smack into the sand pit where they either tumped over or struggled slowly to the other side, faces painted with strain and pain. One young girl in her first ever race walked over the barriers and never remounted.

“Get back on!” Emily shouted encouragingly. “You can do it!”

The young lady looked hopefully at us. “I’m afraid I’ll fall off!”

“You can DO it!” Emily said with a big smile.

The girl got back on just before the sand pit. “You can’t do it!” I hollered. “You’re going to crash!”

She got off her bike in terror. “Don’t listen to him!” shouted Emily. “He’s a wanker! Get back on!”

“I’m a wanker but you’re even more hopeless than me! Give up! Quit! Have a beer and come snuggle under the tent!”

The woman looked ready to cry. About that time she hit the sand pit and fell over in slow motion. “See?” I yelled. “It’s hopeless! All is lost!”

“Get up!” said Emily. “You CAN do it!”

Emily’s encouragement won the day. The girl got up with grit, both the metaphysical kind and the nasty, grimy kind that stuck awkwardly between her teeth, remounted, and forged ahead.

“When it’s your turn we’ll encourage you, too!” Emily said with a laugh.

Experience counts

My first season of ‘cross had been a steady trajectory of improvement. The last race I hadn’t even crashed, and had scored an amazing 11th place, which in my mind was like winning, or better. I’d reconned today’s course. It didn’t seem to have any areas where you could really go fast, filled as it was with turns and barriers and sand pits and dry, loose dirt and one loamy corner with a treacherous approach that everyone seemed to fall over in.

No matter. I was ready.

The whistle blew. I surged hard. Everyone else surged harder. I was in my familiar spot, the very back, with eight laps to chase.

Unlike the recon laps, the course at race pace might as well have been a completely different course on a completely different planet. MMX, Victor, Todd Stephenson, JM Hatchitt, and the usual cast of winners sprinted away.

When we exited the velodrome I barely made the turn and almost shot off the embankment into a thicket of thorns. I’d deflated my tires to 20 psi, which made for good grippiness, but also made for bad rimminess, as each large rock and edge of pavement went straight to the rim, up my spine, and stopped with a massive rattle in my braincase.

For a while it looked like I would catch up and start picking people off, but at the loamy section even that silly fantasy exploded. I half-walked through the turn, scraped my ankle on the crank, bruised my calf with the pedal, and lumbered on.

This was going to be a long forty-five minutes.

“Here he comes again!”

I’d been working on my dismounts and remounts, so even though I was the last guy in the race, I was pleased at the large crowd standing around the barriers. Employing a move I call the “Baryshnikov,” I gracefully came off the bike, made two very pretty springs into the air, and with a third leap gracefully remounted without ever racking my nuts.

I’ve never heard so many people laugh at the barriers; they must have seen something really funny but I was too busy careening towards the sand pit to pay attention. Emily & Co. were ready: “You’re winning, Wanky! Just forty-three more positions to advance and you’ll be in first place!”

When I rolled through the start-finish to complete my first lap, it seemed like I’d already done a thousand laps. By the middle of the next circuit I’d been caught and passed by the next two groups. Coming to the barriers I noticed a visible amount of commotion. “Here he comes again!” several people shouted.

“Who the hell are they talking about?” I wondered, looking back. I did another Baryshnikov, this time leaping so high in the air that if I’d had a basketball attached to my head I could have dunked it.

One guy with a camera, who was laughing very hard at something, changed his tune pretty quickly, as my landing zone was about three inches away from his head and camera. He scrambled, I did a perfect three-point, narrowly avoided posting up against a tree, and motored towards the sand pit.

“You’re still almost winning! Don’t give up!” Emily called out.

So I gave up.

But the team sure didn’t

Finishing DFL is not usually something to celebrate, but in my case it wasn’t so bad, as the leaders lapped me with less than 100 yards to go, which meant that I didn’t have to complete another circuit on the course. Victor had scored 2nd, MMX 4th, JM 6th, and other teammates in other races had won or done exceedingly well. Lars, Garnet, and Logan had all won their events, and SPY closed out the podium in the 3’s race.

The price of victory had been high, however, as the heat had taken its toll. A more wearied and dispirited group of people I’ve never seen, except perhaps at a funeral where the guest of honor had left his fortune to the cat.

That’s the thing about ‘cross racing. It’s touted as “fun,” but it’s only fun if you’re not doing it while sitting in a shady tent drinking beer and heckling flailing barrier ballerinas. If you have to actually race, it’s sheer hell. Just as Broken Seat Dude, who did the entire last half of the race without a a seat.

“Great job, Vic!” I said enthusiastically.

“Thanks,” he mumbled.

“Way to go, Michael!” I enthused.

“I almost had third,” he said dejectedly.

“Nice racing, JM!” I said to John.

“Thanks, buddy,” he said. “How’d you do?”

“DFL.” He looked at me as if I’d said, “I have leprosy. May I shake your hand?”

“Oh, wow, that sucks. Sorry, man!”

The only person in a remotely good mood was the other hopeless wanker, Jim, who had flogged and flailed around the course just like I had. “Good ride, Wanky!” he said.

“Yeah, I suck!”

“You sure do! Me, too! Want a beer?”

“Nah, gotta drive home.”

“No prob. See you tomorrow?”

“Yep!”

“Right on! Thanks for coming out and racing!”

“I’m not sure I’d call that ‘racing.'”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t either. I was just trying to be nice.”

“Gotcha. See you tomorrow!”

If the alarm goes off, that is…

Bicycle cage fighting

October 8, 2012 § 14 Comments

I stood in the dirt up against the barriers, watching Mike Hines power by, blood gushing from two large gashes in his arm, and his left leg raspy and raw from what was obviously a hard fall at high speed. “Go, Mike!” I yelled. “Have fun! Good luck!”

After the race I asked him “How’d you fall?”

“I passed a guy on the third lap. He got pissed and came up behind me. As he passed he completely buried his shoulder into my side. I never knew what hit me.”

“You’re joking.”

“No. I hit so hard, never saw it coming. When I stood up he had ducked off the course and quit. I would have chased him but I wanted to win. But I made up some time and got third. Never could catch the leader.”

Round Two of the Bicycle Cage Fighting Series a/k/a SoCal Prestige Cross Series had begun in earnest.

Would you please hurry up there?

Standing in the long line waiting to repair the mistakes made in pre-reg, the numbskulls around me were hopping mad. “This is so fucked up!” said Numbie One.

“Fucking bullshit!” said Numbie Two.

“We’re standing out in the fucking sun! It’s so fucking hot! This is such bullshit!” said Numbie Three.

“This heat is draining!” said Numbie One.

Numbies Two and Three sighed and stamped their feet and rolled their eyes in agreement. Numbie One looked at me. “Fucking bullshit, huh?”

“You think the race will be much harder than standing in line for a few minutes?” I asked, nicely, with a smile.

They stamped some more and rolled their eyes some more until we got up to the sign-in table. The harried dude at the table was drenched in sweat, paper flying everywhere, with five or six other volunteers who had no idea what to do peppering him with questions. He was gentle with everyone. “Hi, there,” he said to Numbie One.

“This is ridiculous,” Numbie One answered with a snarl.

Harried Dude stopped. “What is?”

Numbie One waved his hand. “This. I’ve never seen such disorganization.”

Before Harried Dude pulled out his .357, I tapped Numbie on the shoulder. “Hey dude,” I said. “This guy here with the papers, you know what his name is?”

Harried Dude looked at me, wondering how I knew him. “No,” said Numbie.

“His name is Volunteer. Bill Volunteer. He does this shit for free because he’s a nice guy so douchnozzles like you can ride for a lap and crash into the barricades. So you might want to lighten up.”

We all got signed in without further ado.

Don’t ever say “crash” before a race

This course was completely different from last week’s course in Costa Mesa. Whereas Costa Mesa had been narrow, dangerous, dusty, terrifying, technical, impossible, and short, the Downtown LA course was narrow, dangerous, dusty, terrifying, technical, impossible, and long.

The night before, a group of merry pranksters had dropped acid and built a giant wooden bridge that we would have to ride over and then drop down off the face of into a sand trap, followed by a tight, narrow left turn. Ha, ha, ho, ho, merry pranksters are we.

Then there were some stairs. Then there were some barriers. Then there were some mini-barriers on a short run-up. Then there were several thousand acres of wood chips. Then there was mud. Then there were more sandy, twisty, tight turns. Then there were bumps and ruts and holes and muddy tracks that ensnared the tires of the unwary. Then there was a howling headwind.

“This will be a good course for you, dude,” said Hatchitt. “It’s fast. Just like a road race.” I looked at him like he was crazy.

“This course is terrible for me. I’ll be lucky not to die. Plus, every time people tell me that a course is ‘good for me’ it’s my worst fucking nightmare. Fukdude told me ‘This is a good course for you’ the first time I did Punchbowl. I got dropped on the first climb of the first lap.”

Practice makes overconfident makes injuries to your parts

I learned the week before that ‘cross requires “skills.” This means that when you come to an obstacle, you must smoothly dismount, get over the obstacle, remount, and resume pedaling in one smooth motion. I learned all this from last week’s heckling.

“Hey, Wankmeister, you’ve come to a complete stop you jackass!”

“Hey, Wankmeister! You look like you’re fucking a pig when you remount!”

“Hey, pink socks dude! You’ll go faster if you quit falling down!”

And my favorite: “You suuuuuuuuuck!!!!!”

In order to live the ‘cross maxim of “going fast by going smooth” I had gone down to the neighborhood kiddie soccer field yesterday to practice my dismounts and remounts. There on the smooth, flat, slightly damp grass I totally became SuperPro. Sure, I took out a kid or two, but that’s the price of perfectionism.

I couldn’t wait to use my polished skills on this course, and so we did a practice lap. I noted that it had nothing in common with the soccer field. Atop the first run-up I confidently leaped onto my saddle. Somehow, though, my left foot whacked the ground, hard. There was a grinding and a ripping noise inside my thigh, and I was sure I’d torn my epiglottis or perhaps even sheared off a hypotenuse.

I staggered around the course, with my hamstrings screaming as if they’d been charleyhorsed with a brick.

Skills. Some folks have ‘em. Other folks never will.

Huddling for shelter

It was another SoCal Belgian wintry day. High 90’s, smog thick enough to eat with a fork, choking dust everywhere, and three stunted trees near the staging area. Elbows flew as riders tried to hog shade while waiting for the call-up.

I’d already seen what happened to those who braved the course. Bruce got pummeled in his race. Natty Hnatiuk had been dismembered. Hines had been gored. Chris D. had quit. Gangsta Chick had been swallowed in a sandstorm but somehow stormed back. Hazelblind had staggered across the finish missing an arm. Dutch had thrown a rod. Tiff had been plowed under, but came out from the grave to claim fourth. Emily had suffered like a dog despite her great result. What hope was there for me?

None.

Fortunately, prospects were much brighter for my team. MMX had a chance to advance in the overall. Chef Boyardee, same. Hatchitt was going to bury the hatchet…in someone’s head. Bako Jim was looking for revenge after last week’s mechanical meltdown. Bill and Randy were ready to have a go, and our 35+ team looked even better. Dave McNeal would try to replicate last week’s win, and Garnet Vertigo would try to better his third place standing.

Before I could remind everyone to be nice and not go to hard, the whistle blew, the cowbells rang, the hecklers heckled, and a few of us dropped a bit of chocolate in our chamois in the hustle and pandemonium off the line.

This was definitely not a good course for me

Like pigs in a slaughterhouse, we raced full tilt down a straight chute and then made a hard, sandy left across the remains of an exploded minefield. It didn’t take long before the peloton was smashed into bits. The turns that had seemed somehow doable at a slow and careful pace were suicidal, insane at race speed.

Gagging on the sand, panting from exhaustion, front tire ripping and jumping and kicking and straining to flop over onto its side or to throw me over the bars, I realized that a ‘cross race is truly lost in the first two minutes…and for me, those were the two minutes after getting out of bed this morning.

MMX was already locked in a duel to the death with Backbreaker Mac and some other evil rival, while Chef Boyardee, Hatchetman, and the rest of the SPY-Giant crew swarmed the front.

After half a lap there was only one other rider visible, a Sho-Air wanker who was as frightened and bad at bike handling as I was, only marginally less so. I finally chased him down, and then passed a huge lummox in green who appeared to be having a cardiac event. There. I was no longer last, or even next-to-last. I was now officially next-to-next-to-last. Take that, fuckers!

Just as I flushed with the thrill of Less Than Utter Defeat, though, I hit a turn in full granny mode, but even that was too fast for my sloppy skills. Over I flopped, banging my leg again and getting gummed up in the sand and muck. This, sports fans, is how you get sand wedged up your butthole in ‘cross.

Sho-Wank bunny hopped my head, and I watched in one of those “I’m glad this isn’t me” out-of-body moments as the gear teeth on his big ring slowly spun about an inch away from my upturned eyes, nose, and chin. Then, as the sawteeth slowly passed, here came the spinning tire, so low that there was no way it was going to avoid skidding atop my face and grinding my nose down to the roots. But it didn’t.

I disengaged from the mudpit and then put into effect my kiddie soccer field remount. Wham! Nuts on the top tube! No sex this trimester! Fortunately, a roaming beautiful camera lovely from Cycling Illustrated had her 1000mm Canon lens trained squarely on my twisted face as the nutsack smacked the carbon. Timing, as they say, is everything.

Although it took a lap, I reclaimed my position as next-to-next-to-last from Sho-Wank.

Hey, Wanky, let’s go!

Coming through the pit area, Bako Jim was exiting after getting a wheel change. Texas Randy had already flatted and quit, MMX was battling with the leaders, and the rest of the field was spread far and wide.

As Bako Jim came up behind me, he hollered. “Yo, Wanky! Let’s go! Let’s reel that dude in!”

There was another floundering lummox about 200 yards ahead of us. I grimaced and latched onto Bako’s wheel. Jim had no fear. He had skills. He was in a flat fucking hurry.

We went through a couple of turns at angles that I know, mathematically, do not work. Shortly we had Lummox No. 2 in our sights. Lummox looked back and saw Bako Jim bearing down. This was sweet. I’d actually get to pass another rider!

The sight of a hard-charing Bakersfield crazy, however, was too much. Lummox leaped off his bike and crawled under the barrier rope. Bako Jim powered away.

It’s great being famous

Each time through the barriers, up the two run-ups, and through the shaded areas, I got heckled.

“Go to the front, dumbshit!”

“You can catch them! You’re only two minutes down!”

“Pedal harder!”

“Go, Wankster!”

But it all melded into one stream of noise that sounded like “Mmmmgggargghpfllggtheppp!”

Like a root canal, the race finally ended. Our 45+A team had held its ground, placing 4-5-6, and Dave McNealy had won again in the 35+.

My hamstring charleyhorse was so bad I couldn’t straighten my leg. My right knee throbbed from all the jumping and running. My neck hurt from last week’s crash. I was covered in filth and had sand in my shorts. My bike was a mess. I’d finished DFL, after the minister officiated at a graveside service for Sho-Wank.

MMX ambled up. “So you’re you liking ‘cross?”

“Fucking love it, dude.”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “I know.”

Enter the Dragged On

October 1, 2012 § 11 Comments

“I’m really sorry, dude,” he said with an extremely apologetic and embarrassed tone of voice.

I looked at his sincere expression and was impressed with how badly he obviously felt. He was a young fellow, clearly nonplussed at the mix-up, and his first instinct was to do the right thing and apologize. I took all that into account, and with a polite nod I accepted his words in the spirit they were offered. Then I said, “Get off me you stupid fucktard,” and pushed him backwards by the throat.

With the other hand I shoved his chest, even as the cascade of idiots kept piling atop us, screaming, cursing, skidding, and clumping like a spaghetti bowl of arms, legs, helmets, bikes, cranks, chains, and wheels in a grimy sauce of sand.

First ‘cross race ever.

First lap.

First technical spot on the course.

And mowed down from the rear like fresh meat in a men’s prison.

Yesterday, Karma Bitch was just getting warmed up

I banged on the bars to straighten them, put the chain on, got the brakes working, and hopped on my bike. The last of the idiots from my Sub-wanker Cat 4 “C” group had just started to scale the sand wall at the end of the sand pit.

After a few pedal strokes I saw that the front derailleur no longer worked. At the bottom of the wall I dismounted, and this occurred to me: “What kind of fucking bike ride is it where you have to get off and scale a wall made of loose sand?”

I struggled up the sand wall, and this occurred to me: “What kind of fucking bike ride is it where you have to carry your bike while running uphill in loose sand?”

I tried to remount, smashed my shin against the pedal and racked my nuts on the sharp end of the saddle (MMX had warned me against trying the jump-remount technique), and this occurred to me: “What kind of fucking bike ride is it where you bloody your shins and bust your balls on the saddle?”

Then I tuned in to the fat bald guy at the top of the wall who was screaming so hard that his pale skull throbbed with purple, swollen veins, “Puke and spit ’til you shit blood, goddammit! Puke and spit! Catch those bastards! Puke and spit!”

Next to him was an even crazier fellow who was profoundly drunk even though we’d yet to crack the hour of eleven a.m. This gentleman had a giant black megaphone and it was stuck between his legs from the rear so that it looked like it was coming out of his ass. He had bent forward and, with his head between his knees, was mouthing huge farting sounds into the megaphone.

This occurred to me: “What kind of fucking bike ride is it where you’re exhorted to puke and spit and shit blood and be faux farted on by drunks?”

The answer occurred to me, finally: “It is cyclocross.” And the race wasn’t yet five minutes old.

Success in ‘cross is nine parts preparation, one part Preparation H

I had arrived early and ridden two laps around the course. Set in the middle of a dustbowl in Costa Mesa that serves as as BMX track and breeding ground for thorns, the racecourse started with a few turns in dirt and then went through the massive sandbox, up the wall, over a cement sidewalk lip that hit your rim so hard and so deep that your skull felt like it would rattle off your neckbone, through more dirt, up and over a tight mogul that accelerated into an off-camber mogul with a tiny chute off to the left that if you missed put you in the thorns but if you nailed tried to throw you over the bars, then along more dirt to a jerk-up dirt mound also with a narrow chute that you could either nail and coast over or miss and stall out on the steep top of the mound, and then sharply down into a high-speed right with more thorns and loose sand, a brief respite of more dirt and dust along a flat section, and then into the BMX bowl with a quick drop and climb, then down a head-first elevator drop, up along the edge, 180-degree pivot and down a second elevator shaft, around a couple of turns, and a fast drop and straightaway until you hit the grass, which was partly muddy, wending past trees that all shouted “Hit me!” and through more soggy shit and around a turn and then what-the-fuck-is-this-here where someone had placed a couple of barricades and you had to jump off and either time it perfectly or rack your shins and have the people behind you run you over, and of course there are tons of people camped out next to the barricades to watch you trip and hopefully hang your bike on the lip of the barricade so that you bellyflop into the mud, and then remount from a standstill if you’ve fucked it up while the gazelles leaped back on their saddles without ever breaking stride or spearing themselves in the balls, through more grass and sharp turns and bingo–you’ve completed one fucking lap and felt like you’d run a Paul Ryan marathon with ankleweights, all the while people calling you a slacker and a sub-wanker and ringing cowbells and laughing and enjoying the shit out of watching you dis-enjoy the shit out of riding your bike with only four or five or a thousand more laps to go.

This all seemed impossible at recon speed. Once the whistle blew it was ten times faster and a thousand times worse.

Taking Karma Bitch head-on

The rest of the race was as advertised: sheer dick-stomping agony at threshold, with trees, barriers, sand, moguls, drop-offs, and briar patches at every turn. My swollen and bruised ankle banged against the crank arm every few pedal strokes until it was a bloody, throbbing mess of flesh and pink sock and pain. I chased and passed wanker after wanker, but never caught the leaders, and never so much as caught sight of Jules, who had done on the ‘cross course what he does on the Switchbacks: Show up, nod, and ride the fuck off.

After what seemed like days I saw Hines on the sidelines and shouted out, “How many laps?”

“This is it!” he said.

I sliced through a few more turns, crossed the finish line, and left the course filthy, bleeding, drained, sore, gasping, and DNF’ed as my placing never showed up on the Sub-wanker Cat 4 result sheet which was posted, appropriately, on the back of the port-o-potties.

Five minutes later I was on the start line for the 45+ A race, which was easily the second toughest field of the day, sporting hammerheads like MMX, David Anderson, Victor Sheldon, John Hatchitt, and a sprinkling of other veteran badasses. MMX had summed it up when I told him I was doing the 45+ A’s immediately after the Sub-wanker race.

“Oh,” he said. “So you’ll be completely gassed before the race even starts.”

Victor helped get my chain onto the big ring, as I’d ridden the previous race in the small one. It’s nice to start your race knowing you’ll do the whole thing in the big ring, and having your fingers covered in black grease-and-sand tar.

The whistle blew and everyone rolled away. In the BMX bowl a kindly spectator shouted out, “Yo, Wanky! You’re dead fucking last! Do you hear me? DEAD FUCKING LAST! Get your ass up there!”

So I hammered until I caught the one gasping, gaffed fish who was dangling ahead, passed him, and, no longer last, set the needle at “cruise” for the rest of the race. I got passed by the 35+ B racers. Then the 45+ B racers. Then a pack of kids. Then a flock of starlings. Then by an empty oil drum. And finally by Jules. “What’s he doing out here again?” I wondered. “He’s already raced and won three times today. Isn’t it his bedtime?”

When MMX and the leaders lapped me, I was enjoying myself thoroughly. No longer compelled to dash crazily over the barriers, I daintily dismounted, stepped over each one, dusted the crud off my shoes, and remounted. No longer afraid of the sand pit, I coasted easily through it and walked–yes, walked–at a leisurely pace up the wall. Bald Dude and Farter looked on in disgust. “Aren’t you even gonna TRY?” asked Bald Dude.

“Yep,” I answered with a smile. “But not any more today.”

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