November 23, 2016 § 142 Comments
A quick glance at the 2017 SoCal road race calendar confirms what anyone who has bothered to race in the last decade knows: Bike racers here don’t like to race.
In addition to the loss of Vlees Huis Road Race, the promoters of Boulevard RR have also folded. There go two of the very best races on the calendar, if by “best” you mean “challenging courses that take everything you have just to finish.” Forget winning. These races are nails-and-broken-glass tests of your physical and mental fiber.
These departures leave UCLA Devil’s Punchbowl race, Tuttle Creek RR, and maybe, if we’re really lucky, the Castaic beatdown as the only three events left on the calendar that are anything more than a parade followed by a sprint. Because the fact is that there’s no comparison to winning a 45-minute crit and finishing–yes, finishing–a grueling 60-mile road race with over 6,000 feet of climbing.
The one requires timing, intelligence, teamwork, speed, and fearlessness. The other requires that you go so deeply into the world of pain and tenacity that you come out the other end a different person. One is fun. The other is transformational. One is thrilling. The other is the essence of sport, distilled to performance and desire.
Why has the SoCal calendar become a series of crits and boring circuit races that anyone can finish? Why have the toughest, most challenging races in an already grueling sport fallen by the wayside?
Well, I hate to break the news to you, but it’s because most bike racers, otherwise known as customers, are too emotionally fragile to stand the shattering reality of getting crushed on a hilly course. It’s not that they can’t complete, it’s that they can’t compete. They equate last place with failure, getting shelled with failure, being ground up and spit out with failure. No one bothered to teach them that doing your best in a tough situation is what matters in life.
And of course, failure is the one thing that Americans are uniquely unequipped to handle. Everyone’s a winner, and if they can’t be a winner, they’re going to stay home.
That’s weird because the most epic physical and mental feats I’ve ever witnessed happened in road races and were the product of people who had zero chance of winning. I still remember Harold Martinez burning up the first two laps of Vlees Huis in service of his teammates, only to fade and stagger across the line by himself almost three hours later. Harold, the sprinter.
I’ll never forget watching Charon Smith toe the line at Boulevard and give it 100% helping his teammates fight for a podium, even though he was done after two laps.
And of course I’ll never forget the countless times I’ve been dropped, beaten at the line for 20th place, punctured while off the front in a potentially winning, last-minute move, the humiliation of throwing in the towel, or the grim satisfaction of having punched it through to the very end of a freezing day at Boulevard, one of the very last riders to make it in before the sun completely set. Frozen to the bone. Wet. Drained. Destroyed. Happy.
There were never very many people willing to sign up for the guaranteed defeat of tough road racing, and nowadays there isn’t even the tiny number that there once was. The old riders are tired of hard racing that ends miserably, and the young riders are afraid of it. Better to sprint for 15th in a crit and preen before and after than to straggle in, your face covered in sheet snot, legs cramping, bottles empty, twenty minutes down on the winner.
But the sad thing is that people who’ve made the investment in all that fancy equipment, who’ve bought all those pretty kits, who have logged all those miles, who have amassed all those trinkets, who’ve subsidized all that coaching, and who are uniquely positioned to go out and enjoy the real beauty of bike racing, are afraid to go exploring in the wilderness of pain and human limits.
They’ve gone to the brink of paradise and pulled back because their only conception of winning is being first. No one ever taught them that if you want to win, you have to fail.
Adios, bike racing. It was nice knowing you.
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April 24, 2012 § 14 Comments
DJ got the bikes loaded up and we went to pick up Roadchamp. He was waiting at the curb with four sets of spare wheels, a 75-lb. bag, and his trophy from Vlees Huis Ronde 2010. This enormous sculpture consisted of a giant block of wood with a meat cleaver embedded in it. “What’s the trophy for, dude?” I asked.
“It’s going with us. To let the competition know what they’re up against.”
“Like, somebody attacks and you’re going to brain them with it?”
Roadchamp was unfazed and loaded the thing in the Suburban, which listed a few degrees starboard as a result. We next picked up King Harold, who, not to be outdone by Roadchamp, had a bike bag heavier than Roadchamp’s, filled as it was with his igneous rock collection.
The drive was a pre-race bullshitting contest, with each person telling a more outlandish tale of stupidity than the one before. DJ led off with his famous “lost a tranny towing a boat outside Vegas story,” which I easily topped with my “running the Alpha Spider sans oil ’til the engine seized tale,” followed by Roadchamp’s “we got lost riding mountain bikes and spooned overnight in a briar thicket after jumping across a waterfall until we were almost rescued by the sheriff narrative,” followed by DJ’s “broken femur on Bronco epic,” which I had to totally p*wn with “the time I bow and arrow target practiced one day on the public golf course legend” which totally shut everyone the fuck up, except King Harold, who admitted that he’d never “had an adventure, gotten lost, been arrested, sunk a boat, crashed a car, killed anyone by mistake, or been in jail” although there was one time when his dad fell out of a chair and all the kids laughed really hard.
When we got to Bakersfield it was already 107 degrees. We parked next to G$, Axena, and Mighty Mouse, who were trying to put up a tent with half of its legs broken. Fortunately, King Harold, DJ, and Roadchamp are all engineers, so by the time we finished the canvas was torn and the other half of the legs were broken. I slammed a tuna sandwich and a couple of bananas, loaded up with three water bottles, and we rolled to the line.
The ref began with, “The center rule line is permanently enforced for all eternity by cement trucks and crazed pickups going the other way and by angry people with loaded guns. Cross the line and you will be relegated to the coroner’s office. Also, at the bottom of the first climb there is a massive swarm of stinging bees. Close your mouths. Finally, when you pull off the side of the road to quit or just to die, watch out for the poisonous snakes that are everywhere. Riders ready! Go!!”
Pain is intelligence leaving your body, or, what doesn’t kill you makes you pretty much an invalid
Vlees Huis Ronde, which in Dutch means “How’d you like getting fucked in the throat with a sharp stick while having your balls slowly roasted over a campfire?” has quickly become a place that racers avoid with a passion. Its first year, the 45+ field had 30 finishers. Word spread that it was a brutal and nasty race, and riders flocked to test their mettle in 2011. Forty finished. This year, everyone who’d wanted any had gotten a taste of this beastly desert beatdown, and barely 45 racers signed up. Twenty-three finished.
The soul-destroying heat and relentless climbing whittled the field down by half in short order. Somewhere up the last steep climb on the first lap, I think it was after the second turnaround coming up the backside of Leibert’s Corner, I realized I was up to my old tricks again: glued to the wheel of the craziest dude in the race.
This hairy-legged wanker was riding a vintage 1980’s steel DeRosa with “Diamante” tubing (Srsly? Diamond tubing?) and downtube shifters, and each time we hit a climb he would plunge from deep in the red zone into the purple zone and from there into the wobble off into the gravel zone. With me on his wheel, stupidly, of course.
By the second lap our tightly knit group of people who all hated each other was feeling the effects of the heat. Roadchamp’s stitches from his 12-hour oral surgery the day before the race had come loose, and every time he exhaled, a spray of blood blew out like spit fired from a misting machine. The steel bike dude had received a brief graveside service where everyone threw their empty water bottles and GU wrappers at his corpse as we rode by. Giants of the road such as Thing 2 had pedaled off into oblivion. King Harold had turned the ride into a solo pedal through purgatory.
The only people left were the gritty, the tough, and those who can only be called “too stupid to quit and/or so poor that it’s worth a $15,000 hospital bill for the chance to win $37.” However hard up and miserable we all were, though, it was about to get that much worse.
[Tune in tomorrow for “Wanky Learns the Difference between Self-Preservation and Self-Immolation”]