October 17, 2015 § 8 Comments
The first time I rode with Stryker was on the Palm Springs Century, a nasty, windy, hot, unpleasant slog through the desert in February that I’ve done my best to forget. We were seventy miles in and he said, “You know, I’ve got a heart condition.” I immediately eased up and let him sit on, afraid I’d kill the kindly old soul.
Five years later Major Bob called. “Hey, wanna go ride with the Long Beach Freds?”
“Are those the guys Stryker rides with?”
“Sure,” I said. “As long as it’s easy. The intergalactic Donut Ride championship and celebrity beatdown with Steve Tilford is tomorrow and I’ve been training for this since June. So I need to go real, real easy.”
“Come on. When the club name has ‘Freds’ in it, how hard do think it can be?”
Major Bob picked me up at my apartment at 5:20 and we drove to Long Beach, which is only ten miles away as the crow flies. But unless you’re a crow you have to drive or ride over there, and it takes forever. We went through the pre-dawn haunts of Long Beach, past smoking piles of slag, cadmium, mercury, lead, cesium 137, and strontium 90.
“Breathe deep,” said Major Bob.
We passed a group of youths gathered around an elderly fellow with whom they joked and chatted as they robbed and beat him with a tire iron.
The ride began in the pitch black but everyone had a light. “Where does this ride go?” I asked Gil.
“Yeah, but I mean the ride. Where do you ride?”
“Is there an echo out here?” someone piped up.
PCH through Long Beach is clogged with cars, stoplights, trucks, glass, rocks, sand, manhole covers, open manholes, trenches, and smoking piles of slag, cadmium, mercury, lead, cesium 137, and strontium 90. “As long as we go easy,” I said.
Hegg laughed. “It’ll be plenty easy.” [Note to self: When Olympic gold medalist says it’ll be easy, he might mean something different from you and me.]
Shortly thereafter the speed increased to 30, with only a few of the 40-odd riders doing any work as the rest gasped and lunged for a wheel. By the time Lotts ran into an open manhole and exploded his tube with what sounded like a rifle shot, the group was in tatters, spattered in ones and twos for more than a mile.
I had taken exactly three pulls, and each time it had felt like the final 200 meters of an uphill sprint after a 100-mile road race that you did on your hands.
We regrouped and the insanity began again. It stopped briefly as we turned around and rode home, this time in a rotating paceline. The twelve riders of the forty who began the rotation while the others sat on dwindled to ten, then seven, then six, and then five. Each time he pulled through, Lotts would punch another person out the back.
Dutifully doing my turns until the remaining five riders all began breathing like winded water buffaloes, we came to a red light. One of the dudes looked at me angrily. “Quit pulling through like that! It’s too fast!”
I apologized for making him tired and slunk to the back, as the shards of the group rolled up to the light. First among them was Stryker. “Hey Seth!” he shouted. “Ease up. I have a heart condition, y’know!” Then he pounded off the line, dropped ten guys, and would have won the final sprunt to the bagels and cream cheese if he hadn’t flatted.
“Can you give me a hand?” he barked. “I have a heart condition.”
I did my best to put his wheel on backwards, but couldn’t. About this time a huge deluge arrived. A giant forklift that had been riding on the shoulder while its operator smoked a bong saw us changing the tire, hit the brakes, and watched in amusement as his 40-ton piece of equipment with bald tires began to go sideways. “Ever had a forty-foot forklift prong stuck up your butt?” asked Stryker.
“No,” I said.
“Me either. And thank dog we’re not gonna start today,” he said as the forklift came to a stop inches from our huddled pooping group.
At the coffee shop Major Bob and I were treated to a cup of Long Beach’s special blends; you could choose strontium or cesium flavor, depending on which half life you liked best. Now that no one had to actually pedal, the shit talking assumed epic proportions. “Next time you chop my wheel like that I’m putting a fucking bullet in your nuts,” said Lotts, which was his polite way of saying “don’t move over so quickly.”
Each person recounted a version of reality completely at odds with what we all had seen, but the stitched-together delusions gradually began to replace actuality. Instead of a hot burning in my thighs, raspy lungs, and the feeling that tomorrow I’d be lucky to get out of bed, I was beginning to recall an easy, pleasant spin with friends.
“We went easy today because of my heart condition,” said Stryker. “But come back on Wednesday and we’ll make sure you get a workout.”
I spit up a pair of ribs, hobbled back to the car, and went home. Freds, indeed.
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September 6, 2012 § 20 Comments
Yesterday night I was dragging ass through the parking garage and this dude said, “Good ride?”
“Yep. I’m pretty whipped, though.”
“Where’d you go?”
“I did the race out at Eldo.”
“Oh, a race? I used to race.”
“Yeah, back when they had the Olympic village, I was a track monster. Raced the old velodrome.”
He didn’t look very monsterish. “Ever try the new one in Carson?”
“No, I just lost interest. I used to be an animal, though.”
I couldn’t help thinking about Paul Ryan and how he, too, had been fast when he was young. Yeah.
The main two reasons people quit racing or never start
Aside from the fact that it’s pretty stupid, the main reason is fear of crashing. All it takes is one good crash to make you realize that the risk-benefit analysis is all whomperjawed over on the side of risk, and not much more than $25 or $30 in race “winnings” on the side of benefit.
Crashing and getting hurt is scary, and it’s a given that if you race, you’re going to crash. So, like, I get that.
The other reason people quit racing is because they are afraid of losing. They’ve built themselves up so much on Strava, or on their solo rides, or on their beatdowns with their fellow wankers, that it’s too intimidating to actually go toe-to-toe with people who don’t give a rat’s ass about your motor-assisted KOM and who will happily pound you into oblivion.
It’s better to stay comfortable as a coulda-been contender than a real-life lump of pack fodder.
There are a whole bunch of other reasons that people don’t race, and they’re all valid, but Fear of Crashing and Fear of Losing are far and away the top two.
My best three races of 2012
On the flip side, there is really only one significant reason that people do race: They’re idiots.
As my road racing season mercifully came to a close yesterday, I’m happy to say that it couldn’t possibly have ended any better. On Sunday I raced the 45+ Elderly Gentlemen’s Tender Prostate Category at Dominguez Hills. The field of 54 riders was greatly reduced from the first crits of the year, which were often at or near the 100-idiot limit. Many of the heaviest hitters were out replenishing the Depends, or getting their dentures refitted, but a healthy contingent including national and state champion Rich Meeker showed up to fight for the day’s honors.
In typical fashion, a few laps into the race the winning break rolled up the road. I was mid-pack, marveling at all the bicycles and how they never seemed to crash even though they were all so close together. I think about this often. All those moving parts! Each bike guided by a separate idiot of highly questionable handling skills! Yet through each turn they swoop and swerve and curve and slow and speed, always within a few inches, and hardly ever bounce along the pavement in a shower of carbon scraps and shredded skin.
It’s generally at these times, when I’m wondering if this kind of mass communication is what happens when flocks of shorebirds fly in tight formation at astounding speeds on moonlit nights, that something significant in the race happens, like a break, which it did. Of course, I had no idea, because what goes on “Up there” has nothing in common with what’s happening “Back here.”
When the lead shorebird squawks
As I was wondering about Western Sandpipers, a dude in a SPY-Blue kit came whizzing up on the left. It was my teammate, Johnny Walsh. “C’mon, Zeth!” he yelled.
“Wonder why he’s yelling at me? And ‘come on’ where? And why?” It was quite cozy back there in mid-shorebirdville, and the nasty pace at which he passed me suggested lots of un-shorebirdy pain.
Then I noted that on his wheel was Alan Flores, our team leader and Dude Who Doesn’t Do Stupid Shit in Races. I’m still unsure why, but I hopped on his wheel. The next time I looked back, we were clear of the field. “Where are we going?” I wondered. Then I looked up. Around the bend was a break. “Wow!” I thought. “I wonder if we’ll bridge?”
Johnny just went harder, and my legs just hurt more. When he sat up, we were on the back of the break. He nodded, legs blown, and drifted back to the field. “Wow!” I thought. “So that’s how you do it! What happens now?”
What’s with all these colorful sleeves?
My temporary joy at being in the break was immediately muted as I took roll. There was a dude with a stars-and-stripes thingy on his sleeve. That meant he was a national champion in something; probably not chess. There was another dude with a stars-and-stripes thingy…another non-chess national champion. There was a dude who looked a hell of a lot like Brett Clare, the dude who passed me in San Marcos like he was a Ferrari and I was a lamppost. Out of us eleven, there was only one complete flailer, and it was me. Everyone else looked pissed off and ready to go even faster.
Despite trying a series of moves that would later be described as “the silliest in the 2012 annals of SoCal crit racing,” I miraculously didn’t get dropped from the break and finished eleventh, my best placing of the year by far. Was it worth the $1,590.33 in entry fees? Yes. The $527.12 in gas? Yes. The risk to life and limb? Yes. The $15,982.12 in equipment/clothing/accessory purchases? Yes. The admission of personal failure every night when I looked in the mirror and said to myself, “Self, you’re almost fifty but are still fascinated by riding a bicycle.” Ummm, well, mostly yes.
Awesome race result #2
The following morning I celebrated Labor Day with two hundred other cyclists, many of whom appeared to be be on what was at least their second or even third full day after having learned how to ride. If this ride didn’t frighten you, you were beyond hope, because it was terrifying.
Usually, in order to steer clear of the fat dude with the dangling buttcrack, or to avoid the yackety chick who thinks that the center of a fast-moving foolfest is the perfect place to turn her head to the side for minutes at a time, or to keep from getting rear-ended by the neo-neo-neo racer pro kid who’s picked today to show off the $10k wheels with lightly glued tubulars, usually, I say, in order to avoid the certain death and injury resulting from riding near these knuckleheads and their next of kin, you have to get up to the top 20 or 30 riders and stay there.
Not on Monday.
No, sir, on Monday, the crazies had all gotten the Wankmeister memo that said, “Go to the Front!” and so, like crazies, they all went to the front. At the same time. Constantly.
The wankoton looked like the beach on a huge surf day, with massive swirls of raging dorkbreak foaming up to the front, followed by another series of churning idiots pushing up behind them, but the bozos in front, unable to drift back, created a fredtide, which ripped backwards through the wankoton, sucking the unwary back with them into the deathly perilous undertow, where victims such as Old George were crashed out and run over by people who didn’t even know the thing they were rolling over was a live person.
Don’t they know they belong in back?
I got to the front, the absolute front, and ran as many lights as I could, hoping that the bait of a speeding leader would draw at least a few of the worst wankers out into the intersection where they would be crushed and mutilated by speeding cross-traffic.
It didn’t work, however, as the number of idiots careening down Mt. Chevron on Vista del Mar was so great that it clogged both lanes and spilled out into opposing traffic as well. Drivers were petrified and simply stopped, and who wouldn’t if your windshield suddenly filled with a bearded, pony-tailed idiot wearing a vomit-spray jersey, gangly hairy legs poking out at right angles from the bike, spit and snot spewing from his face, and a barely-in-control-bike swerving crazily in and out of the lane?
This, of course, is the huge difference between racing and dorking: In a race, we wankers know that we belong in back. Our chance of winning isn’t even mathematical, so the only reason to be in front is to either suffer more (not good), crash out the dudes who can actually ride (worse), or have one of the ride bosses push us into the curb (worst).
On a fredfest, without this natural policing of the weak and feeble, those who don’t belong don’t know that they don’t belong, so they charge pell-mell to the front and create unforgettable mental tableaux such as when Ponytail Boy whipped a 30mph beeline for the curb at the bridge for the Marina bike path with Eddie W. on his wheel, only to decide at the very last second that nah, that ol’ curb is too big to hop, so he veered off to the right, braking hard, and sending Eddie into one of his finest string of oaths, a string so foul that even the wankers fishing off the bridge were taken aback at the new and inventive string of expletives.
They mysteries of the universe
It was at San Vicente that Chaos Theory gave way to Hammer Theory. Somehow, the freaks and freds who laboriously pounded all the way to San Vicente began to thin out as the road, like the pace, tilted up. By the end of the first mile we had lost between fifty and a hundred idiots.
At the turn onto Mandeville, another huge contingent had vanished, and by the end of the climb it was a small group of fifty or so out of the original 200+ horde.
Where did they all go? Did they fall by the wayside, dead? Did they drag themselves, mostly lifeless, to the doors of the angry, cyclist-hating Mandeville residents, and beg for shelter or for a quick gunshot to the head to end their misery? Did they swerve into a bike shop and sell all their gear? Or were they simply vaporized by the pace?
In any event, on the non-race race to the top of Mandeville Canyon, I got fourth going up the climb, which is almost a best ever, and even managed to get it on video. Once this gets published, Jonathan Vaughters will likely be sending me my contract.
The lost city of El Dorado
After this signal accomplishment, on Tuesday I went over to Long Beach for the year’s final running of the El Dorado crit series, which was held in honor of Mark Whitehead, the legendary Olympian, keirin pro, and track coach who died last summer at nationals in Frisco. Anything done in honor of “Meathead” is required to have, whatever else is on offer, the following three items:
- Cash prizes (to fight over in the parking lot after the race)
- Beer (to quickly stimulate the fighting)
- Controversy (to justfy #1 and #2)
A four-man breakaway left early in the race and collected the $100 cash primes on offer, cleverly working a combine to work together and share the loot. It would later turn out that in the chaos of the post-race awards ceremony someone claimed the money who allegedly wasn’t in the break, a perfect controversy that Meathead would have met with both fists and a gang fistfight.
With three laps to go, Rahsaan Bahati took the reins in hand and closed down the 30-second gap in half a lap, bringing the bunch together for the finale.
Throughout the race there was a dude without a number who was constantly pissing me off with his numberlessness. He sure as hell could ride a bike, though, and each time the pack surged he easily kept the pace. The longer the race lasted, and the longer he lasted, the more pissed off I got. “Who does he think he is, crashing our race?”
Each time I thought that, he would put on another display of bike magic, squelching my urge to ride up and say something to him. “Dude can fucking ride a bike, sure enough.”
With half a lap to go, all hell broke loose, with the wheelsuckers charging freshly to the fore, the fried wankers giving it their all to keep from getting dropped, the canny sprinters slotting into position, and the handful of spectators screaming what sounded like “Ugghhgooattlexphlllmzxooooo!” as we shot by at warp speed.
The magical moment when the wheels come off the cart
It’s in these final moments of a bike race that you are living on the razor’s edge of insanity, alone, but separated from the idiots all ’round you by nothing more than chance. It’s shorebirdy, almost, with nothing making sense, yelling, grunting, hands pushing people out of the way, hunched shoulders squeezing wide bars between too-narrow gaps, narrow rubber strips of rubber slinging from side to side, and everyone thinking the same thing: “Don’t fucking crash, but for fuck’s sake hold the wheel, don’t gap out, and go faster!”
The union of opposites, where the fear of catastrophe is perfectly blended with the thirst for meaningless glory, cancels out the risk of death with the benefit of knowing you’ve gone as hard as your spindly legs will carry you.
Then it was over, like sex, and I was shuddering across the line, cruising along as my lungs and legs and brain caught up with my heart, eventually pointing my bike into the parking lot where the banter had already begun: Who did what when to whom and man, that was HARD.
The dude without the number was laughing and backslapping with Steve Hegg and Johnny Walsh and Suze Sonye and Rahsaan, and I felt pretty stupid when I realized it, and felt even happier at having kept my stupid mouth shut: Nelson Vails don’t need no fucking number.
July 21, 2012 § 8 Comments
This dude I’m not friends with on FB posted the results of the USCF national individual time trial championships from 1982. I was eighteen, had not yet started college, and had not yet bought my first road bike.
Scanning down the list was awesome. Names from the present were right up near the top–Thurlow Rogers, Steve Hegg–and other, less famous names of people I knew well and/or raced against stared were there as well. Texans Stan Blanton, Terry Wittenberg, and Lone Star transplants Bob Lowe and Andy Coggan were all on the list. Each one of those guys was tough, and fast, and tough. Did I mention they were all really fucking tough?
It didn’t take long for my eye to wander over to the winning time, 55:10.52. In 2012 the USA Cycling national ITT winning ride was by Dave Zabriskie, 40:41.44 over a shorter 35k distance in a race that was contested by US professionals racing for UCI trade teams. Those 1982 guys included the top US amateurs, but no UCI professionals.
In thirty years the races couldn’t have become more different. That event in 1982 looked nothing like the one in 2012 in virtually any respect.
Compare that to the 10k distance in track. In 1982 Alberto Salazar held the American record in the 10k at 27:42. Today, the American record is held by Galen Rupp, at 26:48, a thirty-year improvement of less than four percent. Those apples can easily be compared to the apples of 1982.
My first contre-le-montre
In 1984 I did the Texas state ITT west of Houston, and turned a 1:04. I flew out into the tailwind, blew up after the first ten miles, then slogged back into the headwind, a textbook case of how not to ride a time trial. Even so, there were plenty of people who went a lot slower than that. I still remember the guys who could break an hour were demi-gods. A time trial bike meant one without water bottles in the cages, or 32 spokes instead of 36.
In 2005 I did another 40k ITT, this one also outside Houston, in Katy. I still had the same bike configuration from 1985, but everyone else rode full TT everything. I turned a 1:05 or maybe it was a 1:04. Compared to the people I was racing against this was so slow as to merit incredulity. It didn’t make any difference that in twenty years I’d not lost much, perhaps because there hadn’t been a lot to begin with.
I’m afraid it’s mostly about the bike
A winning state TT time over 40k these days can be expected to break 56 minutes. Although drugs unquestionably play a role, what remains to explain the newfound speed is aero technology. The cumulative effects of disc wheels, slippery clothing, helmets, shoe covers, tire technology, aerodynamic frames, and radically improved body position mean that people go faster today because they have, quite literally, purchased the speed to do so.
Of course the people who win still have to suffer like dogs.
Looking at those results from 1982 made me think that there is something more impressive about a 40k ITT with minimally aerodynamic equipment than going ten minutes faster with all the trick stuff. Andy Paulin smashing into the wind, all six feet five inches of him, without a helmet or disc to help with the effort…something about that makes you admire the man and covet his ability rather than making you want to purchase his rig and his wheelset.
Which, frankly, is how it ought to be.