February 15, 2015 § 9 Comments
“I got a date this weekend with Konsmo and Leibert,” Strava Jr. said in his email. He was referring to the UCLA Road Race, which is held every year on the Devil’s Punchbowl course, a sparkling gem of cactus and windblown condoms set in the meth mecca of Pearblossom, CA.
“That’s a date you might want to consider breaking,” I said.
“Because it’s gonna be like one of those Internet date thingies where you select the hot blonde woman under 35 who is athletic, has a great sense of humor, loves to fuck, makes a great pizza, and then when you show up at the Starbucks ready to invest a whole $4.25 on Ms. Right you find out that she’s actually Glomhilda Bromdingnag with the one tooth, furry forehead, wart-covered chin, and a meat cleaver in her purse.”
Fast forward to the “date.”
Strava Jr. was making awful, gasping wheezing noises that sounded like high-pressure jalapeno farts being forced out his ears. It was hard to hear him because my gasps were, if anything, worse.
The peloton was in tatters. A tiny lump of fifteen riders was all that remained from the roughly $450,000 in carbon frames and wheels made of full carbon, electronic drivetrains, and designer bicycling outfits that had lined up at the start of the race for the 45+ Leaky Prostate category.
What was worse than the terrible investment that so many had made — $10k in goodies for the chance to pedal across the desert in their underwear — was the fact that for 30 of the 45 riders the fantasy train had come crashing to a halt less than five minutes into the race.
That was when Scrappypants had looked on the rest of the field in disgust and stood on the pedals. Strava Jr. and I weren’t locked in the pain box; it was more like the pain living room, or even the pain country estate. No matter which couch you tried to lie down on, which entertainment room you chose, or which bedroom you wanted to flop in, the entire place was decorated in early 18th Century Torture Chamber.
We made it over the first climb and hurtled pell-mell down the backside of the hill, which was actually named Pell Mell Hill. You could say we pell-melled Pell Mell. Then we trundled along the rollers, thinking about the inevitable destruction that awaited four miles later, when we would turn right and begin the endless climb again.
Just as we made the right-hander, a gaggle of stragglers who had been shelled on the climb the first time around latched on. This was bad judgment on their part, and it violated Rule 1 of Hilly Road Races: Once you are viciously shelled on a climb, reattaching on the descent or after a long fast section will only result in a second shelling, except it will be much worse.
And it was. As I smugly contemplated how badly the reattachees were going to be pooped out the back, I tried not to take it personally that the brief surge was shelling me as well. The peloton scooted away and I pedaled along, my day done at the conclusion of Lap 1.
At that moment a group of four desperadoes rushed by. I hopped on the back, wondering where they were going in such a hurry. Didn’t they know that if they kept hurrying they would catch the leaders? And didn’t they know that up there with the leaders lay nothing but pain and misery and defeat? Didn’t they know that the best way to ride a race like this was by soft pedaling the whole thing and then posting cool pics on Facebag?
They apparently didn’t, and before long they had closed all but the last 200 meters to the leaders, who were now halfway up the climb. I really appreciated the hard work of my mates. They had worked manfully. They had taken gritty pulls. They had left it all on the road, including gobs of spit and sputum. I, on the other hand, had been sitting back doing what I do best, which is nothing.
The final gap was too much, however, and the pace slackened. “Come on, guys!” I shouted, as I slowly rolled to the front and brought each of my friends gently up to the leaders.
That’s what I wanted to do, anyway. Instead, I waited until they were gassed, and sprinted full bore to make sure no one got a wheel. Then I put my head down and closed the gap solo. The friends who had done so much to help me imploded and vanished from view. They were great guys, each and every one, but I hated them anyway.
Towards the top of the climb I was feeling fine. Strava Jr., who had never left the leaders, was in a very bad way. I imagined a lot of friendly encouragement, since we are friends and riding buddies, as I did everything in my power to make sure he had zero draft and was stuck in the sand-and-rock-filled gutter.
While I had been off the back, Scrappypants, G$, and Gus Not Bayle had attacked and put close to two minutes on the broken shards of the field. When we hit the descent one of my teammates, Dr. Jon, looked over at me. “How’re the legs?”
“Can you hit it on the flats? We gotta get those guys back.”
At this point it felt like I was a pig in a slaughterhouse at the point where the big hairy Estonian dude had slammed me in the forehead with a hammer and run a grappling hook through my heel. The hook, which was attached to a chain, jerked me off my feet and now I was dangling in the air, blood spurting out of my heel. The temporary stun from the hammer blow had worn off and I began to squeal.
Suddenly, right in front of me there was another big hairy dude, probably Lithuanian, and he was holding a giant knife that was dripping with the gore of the porkers who had gone before me. As I moved towards him through the hair he laid the blade against my throat. The only difference my dream and reality was that the Lithuanian and Estonian dudes were Konsmo and G$, and they had garroted all comers.
Dr. Jon looked at me. “See what you can do.”
We bombed the descent at well over 55 mph, but the three leaders were tiny bug specks far away. At the turn we launched onto the rollers. I put my head down and pulled for a while. Pretty soon the fly specks became large pieces of cow dung. Then the cow dung turned into actual people. Along the way we overhauled the 35+ peloton, which had started ahead of us by five minutes.
We turned up the climb and the three leaders were a handful of seconds ahead. I wheezed, sagged, and imploded. The field roared by. Shattered, I struggled, slug-like, up the hill. A car cruised slowly by. It was Holloway and Spivey. “Hey, wanker, why are you going so slow? The group is RIGHT THERE! They’re not even a hundred yards away!”
I considered explaining that when you’ve just had your throat cut by a hairy Estonian, a hundred yards is equal to 4.5 parsecs, but my tongue was plastered to the back of my head, so I just slumped some more and pedaled squares.
The remaining two laps proceeded at a snail’s pace. First I got caught by the chasers. Then I got caught by the chasers who were chasing the chasers. Then the gristle stinky horsemeat of the 35+ field came by. Then the leaders of the 3’s. Then the chasers of the 3’s. Finally I was passed by an old lady walking her dog.
Then, when I thought there was no one left to pass me, along came Garrett. We chatted briefly, sharing the lessons we had learned from this epic day of racing. “One thing’s sure,” he said. “There are no lessons to be learned from a shitshow like this.”
“Except that we are slow.”
“And that we suck, even among our geriatric peers.”
An eternity later we finished, but not before an animated young boy in the 12-year-old junior field chased us down and beat us handily in the sprint.
Patrizia R., who had handed up a team Big Orange water bottle to me on Lap 3, was standing at the finish line. “Thanks for the bottle!” I said, reaching down and pulling it out of my bottle cage. As I flung it over to her, I reminded myself why I had spent so much time on the bench in Little League, because the enormous, half-full bottle sailed directly into Garrett’s forehead, who was riding next to me. He wobbled and almost crashed into the judge’s stand, but saved it.
“Sorry, dude,” I said.
“No problem,” he answered with a smile. “That was the least painful thing that’s happened all day.”
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April 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
This is a re-print from the UCLA 45+ Road Race in 2010. I had an archive of stories on FB and WordPress before deleting them all in a mad frenzy. My buddies on Big Orange posted this to their page in 2010, where it remains.
Feed the beast
The most important part of a bike race is pre-race nutrition. Before we arrived at the race course, Mrs. Wankmeister wanted to stop and sample the barbecue at Charlie Brown’s in Littlerock. It was only 10:30, but we went in. The thought of barbecue was appealing, though eating it in combination with a tough, hilly, windy road race was not. But the flesh is weak, and the smell of barbecue was strong. We both ordered brisket sandwiches with beans and cole slaw.
My sandwich was heaped with slabs of greasy meat and giant slivers of pure fat. The whole thing dripped sugary, oily barbecue sauce, and the chunks of meat and fat were so tender they slid down my throat without even needing a chew. After each bite I tried to stop, telling myself that the race would be unforgiving, but I couldn’t. There was so much grease around my mouth after finishing that it took two napkins to mop up; both looked like they’d been dipped in a deep fryer after I was done.
The gnome’s revenge
The snarling, amped up gang of elderly racers toed the line at the infamous Punchbowl race course, primed for a slugfest that would pit the entire Big Orange road crew against DQ Louie. The laps had been shortened so that we would be climbing the big hill four times rather than three.
I was already traumatized by my experience at Punchbowl two years ago, when I was shelled like a bad pecan on the first lap of the first climb, and spent the entire race crawling and cramping with Polly for what seemed like a month. Whereas others in the relatively small field of about 30 dreamed of victory, my goal was simple and carved in stark relief: don’t get blasted out the back on the first lap.
We started at a reasonable pace, nothing like the Punchbowl of 2008, where the pack had split in two before the left turn, and into shards and fragments by the first hill, and into a final winning group by the end of the stairstep. Nonetheless, it was plenty hard, and I concentrated on staying low and staying out of the wind.
We hit the downhill section and immediately got blown from side to side by a howling crosswind that blew my tightly cinched helmet onto the back of my head. We reached the bottom and turned right, when DQ Louie drove to the center and strung everyone out into a single line, unable to echelon because of the center line rule. I didn’t see a single rider cross the yellow line, with the exception of DQ.
After about a mile he rolled off the front with G$, and before they’d gone fifty yards the ref’s follow car came roaring up with a tiny, bearded gnome screeching and screaming in such a hysterical panic that I could only think, “My God, the Japanese must have bombed Pearl Harbor again.”
Then the unthinkable happened. Mr. Gnomes commanded the entire peloton to stop and dismount. He got out of the car, pulled on a shiny pair of knee-high jackboots, adjusted his armband and Obersturmfuehrer cap, took out his riding crop, and went on a rant that left us all slackjawed.
“Ve haf ways of making you talk!” he screeched.
“Talk about what?” we asked.
“Ze yellow line! You haf all crossed ze yellow line!” He whacked one of the poor Cal Pools guys with his riding crop and made him clean the lint off his boot. “If you cross ze yellow line again, all riders vill be kaputt! Disqualifiziert!”
“Yo, numbnuts!” said one of the Big Orange heroes. “Are you going to admonish the breakaway? There are two guys up the road who have been pedaling full bore while we’ve been sitting here listening to your screed.”
Mr. Gnomes looked nonplussed, then hopped in the car and sped off. “You are all being vatched!” he hissed. Needless to say, we never saw G$ or DQ Louie again, and Mr. Gnomes’s antics had neutralized our best weapon, which was having the break in striking range for Thing 2, who could have bridged and combined with G$ to put DQ in difficulty. In theory, anyway.
In fact, though, we got going again with Steve, Bill, Todd, and other Big Orange riders patrolling the front to make sure that no chase effort developed. This controlled pace was the only way I made it over the hill on the second lap. Towards the top, however, the first big surge of Charlie Brown’s barbecue fought its way up to the lower reaches of my throat. Brisket doesn’t taste better the second time around.
Midway through the stairstep, Thing 2 hit the gas with a guy in the ugliest kit of the day, a green concoction that must have been modeled after a late night sidewalk splat found outside of a bar in Hermosa Beach. They pedaled off.
You can’t have your brisket and eat it, too
Thing 2 and Fugly Jersey couldn’t hold off the chasing pack on the descent, as they were hitting speeds of well over 50mph, and by the turn they had been brought back. As we turned onto the gentle up-tilt towards the finish line, a thick worm of fat chugged up into the back of my mouth, all rubbery and greasy and eager to be free. I swallowed hard just as we began climbing the big hill for the third time.
Either the race was really slow, or there really is a god, or barbecue is the secret food of champions, because I somehow made it up a third time. DQ Louie and G$ were so far ahead that no matter what happened, they would have had time to complete a coif, cuticle treatment, and pedicure by the time the pack crossed the line. We turned right after the downhill and I rolled away from the pack with a Cal Pools guy. Thing 2 bridged up to us and pretty soon the baked beans kicked in.
Cal Pools began to whimper and apologize for not pulling through, which only invited the eleven. The break established, I was totally psyched. The worst I could do was fifth. My secret barbecue weapon, which had been tweaked with a mug of thick coffee sludge fifteen minutes before the gun, had turned out to be the perfect race nutrition.
We turned again onto the road leading to the start finish, and as I swung off, the cole slaw blindsided me with a vicious attack. My right leg shot straight out and went into rigor mortis. Thing 2 and Cal Pools looked at me, and were gone. The pack came by, I struggled on the back, and we began our last time up the big hill.
A few hundred yards before the turn to the stairstep, the cole slaw attacked again, crushing the beans and overpowering the last chunks of grease. Purple Parks and I came unhitched. As we watched the pack roll away on the stairstep, he grinned and let loose with a one-liner that almost made me fall of my bike. “You think they’ll wait for us?” he cracked.
It’s not over till the fat lady cramps
We turned onto the stairstep, I put my head down and somehow bridged back up to the group. What seemed like a good idea at the time seemed like a bad idea a few moments later, as Veins began drilling it into the brutal wind all along the stairstep. It was nastier than a dirty movie with a hairy woman. At the top, Veins sat up, my beans and brisket counterattacked the cole slaw, and I readied for the finale.
At about that time one of the guys in our group who must have been at least a hundred, and who had spent big chunks of the race on the point, attacked on the downhill. In addition to being older than dirt, he was big. He passed us like we were standing still, seated on the top tube and ready to risk death and destruction. No one had the legs to follow.
We turned right at the bottom of the descent and echeloned as Veins strung it out in an attempt to bring back Methuselah. He swung over for me to pull through, and the cole slaw, which had made a secret deal with the one remaining chunk of pure fat, came roaring up the side of the brisket in the form of two simultaneous, full leg cramps. I dropped off and got off my bike, a feat in itself because neither leg would bend.
Crying and moaning and promising not to eat any more brisket sandwiches finally did the trick. I remounted just in time for Purple Parks to come blazing by. I labored in for thirteenth. You might think this sucks, and you’re probably right, but I’m pretty pleased just the same.
Thing 2 crushed the two riders who had bridged up to him for third. G$ was outkicked by DQ Louie, earning another great placing for a year that has so far been packed with palmares for Big Orange, and proving the wisdom of Mr. Gnomes’s canny bit of officiating wisdom: if you can’t beat `em, cheat `em. Had Thing 2 been at G$’s side, one of them would surely have put DQ in second, or, as they like to say in Texas, “If grandma had balls she’d be grandpa.”
Punchbowl’s only three weeks away. I’m already preparing my excuse for why I won’t be racing it.