As a veteran whore, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been a huge beneficiary of Michael Marckx, a/k/a MMX. Free shades. Free prescription glasses. Free racing kit. Free tows up and down PCH on his mighty wheel. Free car trips to Camarillo for the annual FTR. Free overnight at his mansion d’swag in North County. So please don’t bat an eyelid at what follows, as I’m bought and paid for. Happily, though, it also happens to be true.
Different people have different visions of the world, and take different approaches to fitting into it. For most of us, life consists of reaching into the giant dumpster of experience and hauling out various pieces of trash until we find something we like. A house. A spouse. A job. A car. A hobby. A club. Et-cet-era.
We then dust off the little treasure and set it on the mantel, cluttered as it is with the gewgaws that represent our other accomplishments, real or imagined, or our interests in various areas. Our lives, and mine especially, is just a concatenation of knicknacks without order, forethought, integration, purpose, or meaning.
A tiny minority of people don’t live this way at all. They have a vision of how things should be, and they ceaselessly work to implement it regardless of the hurdles. They are unconcerned with what’s in the dumpster, and are instead focused on creating the city in which the dumpster is just one minor detail. Steve Jobs was this kind of person, through-putting his visions and dreams and bizarre conceptualizations until the resistance simply faded, and his way became the new way.
MMX lives in that tiny minority, as I later learned. The buildings he lives in, the music he listens to, the clothes he wears (well, except for that ugly skeleton bike jersey), the people he surrounds himself with, the decorative objects that coexist in his physical space…all these things are part of a world that he is constantly forging, and you’re unaware of it until you take a moment to look around and see that things look, sound, and feel a certain way because he has insisted they be so without ever telling you what the end result was going to be. He may be smiling, or laughing, or telling a funny story, or listening with great attentiveness, but after he’s mined the nugget of whatever you had to say his mind is busily fitting it into the architecture, blissfully unaware of the remainder of your blather.
In conversation it comes through in a piercing look. On the bike it comes through in the punishment he metes out. In work it comes through in a kind of strange perfectionism, the melding of infinitesimally nattering detail with scales of grandeur so vast as to appear, at first blush, delusional. Behind it all, however sharp the edges, lie compassion, loyalty, friendship, and a belief that you give first, give second, and give third before you can possibly expect to receive.
The beneficiaries of his largesse are public and private, large and small. They range from individuals who have received real help when times were tough, to bike clubs who suddenly found a sponsor to leap into the void when their longtime sponsor deserted, to cyclocross races that suddenly found themselves awash in real prize money, to deadbeat friends like me who, after a mere wheedle or two, and plied with totally rad swag, will say and write anything as long as it’s true.
The world’s most butt-ugly cycling jersey ever
The first time I ever saw him on a bicycle he looked like a skeleton. It was on the Donut Ride, and he was wearing a black jersey with the bones of a white ribcage outlined on it. It was the fugliest jersey I’d ever seen, even though at the time I was clad in a wool jersey and still shifting on the down tube. So there was kind of a natural affinity between us. We exchanged names, as we were both pretty gassed from having traded blows leading up to and over the Switchbacks.
Over the next few years we got to be friends, and the more I knew about him the more amazed I became. All I’ve ever done is ride my bike, and rarely if ever with much distinction. After so many years, I’ve given myself up to a number of stereotypes about the sport, and the biggest one is this: it attracts unidimensional people whose brains sink into the bicycle rut, never to be retrieved.
Like all stereotypes, you only have to look beyond your nose to find the wildest exceptions to it; in this case the stereotype buster was MMX. Although he had a cycling background as a national caliber triathlete (not that triathletes actually cycle, mind you), the bulk of his athleticism was in distance running and surfing. Chairman of the Board of the Surfrider Foundation and junior record holder for the Palos Verdes Marathon and Catalina Marathon, he has what in other endeavors is called a pedigree, and it’s pedigree of excellence.
Of course, on the Donut Ride no one gives a shit, and his achievements in other arenas only took him so far up the Switchbacks, particularly when the 140-lb. wheelsuckers launched their last minute surges on the next to last turn. Trim and lean when he’s 175 lbs., in cycling the gravity thing has always favored him on the rollers, on the flats, and most of all over long distances. First place out of 10,000 participants on both occasions that he rode the Tour de Palm Springs, there was little in the way of 100-mile road racing on the USCF calendar.
CX, meet MMX
Somewhere between the ramps of Las Flores and the flats of Pacific Coast Highway, MMX began dabbling in cyclocross with a few buddies on the Hill in 2008, his first year dedicated solely to cycling. In his first race he dabbled his way to fifth place. It didn’t take more than a couple of rides for him to realize that a long time ago, in far-away Flanders, a type of bike racing had been created with him in mind. This is hardly surprising; his surname was originally Merckx when his forebears came through Ellis Island and the officials misspelled it as “Marckx.” It’s also hardly surprising because MMX’s fortitude in the muck is only equaled by his fortitude behind the open neck of a beer bottle: he holds the master’s world record for the beer mile, which is as tough an athletic event as you’ll ever find.
After his first season racing ‘cross in 2008, he was a Cat 3. In 2009 he didn’t race at all due to a catastrophic injury on the road, where he was taken out by a car while descending Old Topanga in LA County. In 2010, he upgraded from a Cat 3 to a Cat 1. Yep, just like that.
In 2011, he currently leads the prestige series leader board as one of the best ‘cross racers in California. In addition to his own formidable skills, he has benefited from the formation of an elite ‘cross squad sponsored by SPY Optic and bringing on a stable of truly exceptional talent. What follows is a kind of mind-numbing blow-by-blow of his season highlights. For those of you who only race on the road and think that ‘cross is bike racing for slow people, you have my personal invitation to come out and show the field how it’s done…just be sure to bring a big enough garbage bag to carry home the shards of your shattered ego.
Los Olivos ‘Cross, 2010: MMX traveled up to the Central Coast NorCal to Los Olivos. The racers comprised a different crew of gritty pain addicts, and the race featured a nasty, muddy course with rain, bumps, and four extra helpings of misery per turn. In other words, he was in his element. However, while leading the race he threw caution to the wind, gambling everything to win, overcooked a turn, went down hard, and slid off the course. Getting back onto the course after the hard collision was no problem, but starting from zero he was unable to gain enough speed to make it up the muddy canyon wall. Slipping and sliding in the muck, he found himself dismounting, forced to push the bike up the hill. The rider who’d been tailing him in second place was able to pedal freely away as he struggled with post crash reality and the prospects of finishing second after such a long, lonely drive.
None of the other riders were even in the same zip code, although local roadie hammer and 45+ Masters bronze medalist in the 2010 state road race Mike Hotten eked out a respectable third place when he wheeled in several minutes behind the crashed out, broken, and snakebit MMX.
Lake Casitas ‘Cross, 2010: The next day, MMX drove to Lake Casitas. When the gun fired, he was all in. Blowing into the first turn on second wheel, the leader shot off course and came close to crashing out the following field when he tried to regain the ruts. MMX took over at the front, settled in and pounded through the shit and the mud. Leading through the first lap he felt good and was ready to begin throttling the best of the rest, who included the top guns in California ‘cross. Confidence, though, turned to catastrophe–a common theme in cyclocross, and first a crash followed by another crash sent him back far enough so that dreams of victory were supplanted by prayers for simply getting a spot on the podium.
Cyclocross is a sport of ferocity, of high aerobic thresholds, and of bike handling, but the remaining 99% is ruled by Lady Luck. MMX found himself racing with a blown motor and was lucky to finish fifth. Nonetheless, these struggles earned him a spot on the front line of the state championships and the opportunity for redemption.
Downtown LA ‘Cross Race, 2011: This was the first race of the year and the biggest field to date for a cross race. The new SPY Optic squad took ownership from the gun. NorCal transplant and ‘cross hammer David Anderson split off with MMX, while teammates John Hatchitt and Todd Stephenson remained farther back. David took his first win in SoCal, and MMX took second.
Temecula ‘Cross Race, 2011: MMX’s first victory of the year came a couple of weeks later on a challenging course in Temecula. From the gun he hit the front and stayed in the lead until a fall took him out of the leader’s spot and he ceded enough time to the followers to allow second and third place to catch up. The frustration at having lost the lead had the predictable result: pilot error. On the final lap, as he was passing a lapped rider, he called out “on your right.” The knucklehead then swerved right, blocking and sending MMX flying off his bike. Remounting on the uphill, teammates Todd and Jeff passed. MMX regained his teammates, who had ratcheted back the pace so he could rejoin them. The final 1-2 was all SPY, with MMX atop the steps thanks to the efforts of his team.
PV ‘Cross Race, 2011: The PV cyclocross race, which is more of a mountain bike course with hills, no grass, lots of dirt, and some funky dismounts, puts a whole different twist to ‘cross racing. The course is an MMX favorite, and as a PV native he has won the event numerous times. In the masters race he led from the gun, and halfway through the first lap his only company was a racer who had contorted his face into the most horrific of grimaces, hoping perhaps that by twisting open his mouth at weird angles he would somehow take in more air. A second look revealed a sight even more awful: the punch-drunk, starry, vacant gape of a boxer who has received a punishing blow to the head, and who is about to get knocked out by the follow-up sledgehammer that will joggle his brain just enough to disconnect the switch for good.
One firm stroke of the pedals and the sole challenger drifted off, never to return. MMX’s margin of victory was close to three minutes.
San Diego ‘Cross Race, 2011: MMX’s favorite race of the year, which finished at the velodrome, resulted in second place behind teammate and buddy David Anderson. In technical terms, the race was a clusterfuck for the first two laps, as it included the 35+ racers as well. Despite several hard surges to blow apart the field, MMX found himself fortunate simply to hold onto Anderson when his SPY teammate attacked. This surge turned out to be decisive, as it shelled the rest of the field. Rather than waving MMX through after the split, Anderson simply powered through the remaining laps, putting more and more daylight between themselves and the chasers. At the end MMX took the lead and led out his teammate on the velodrome for the win.
Pending tomorrow’s race results, MMX will qualify for the upcoming masters world championships in Louisville, Kentucky. I know where I’m placing my bets.