The pain, almost unendurable. The stabbing throbs, radiating out from my core and spreading throughout my entire body. Everything stretched to its absolute limit, feeling as if the tissue would tear apart and spill my innards.
This is what the FTR 2012 felt like, and that was just my stomach after pounding down the twelve pieces of French toast and matching sausage logs. It was destined to become a day in infamy, but hours before the first slab of syrup-coated, egg-battered toast slithered down my throat, I had to make some important decisions, and none more important than this: What should I wear?
The choice of clothing was crucial. FTR 2012 was contested by five major teams, and two odd, all-black fashion mistakes from Santa Fe and from Manhattan Beach. The teams were SPY Optic, Big Orange, Ironfly, Helen’s, and the we-can’t-afford-a-final-coat-so-we’re-stopping-with-the-primer-gray outfits of Team LBF (Long Beach Freddies).
I stared hard at my cycling fall fashion collection. If I chose SPY, I would be honoring my comrade-in-arms from FTR 2011’s heroic pee-stop breakaway, MMX. However, a SPY kit would mark me as a teammate of FTR DS Jaeger, King Harold, Dogg, T-Rex, and that outcast homewrecker, Toronto–all foes I had sworn to destroy. Moreover, I had flown the SPY colors the previous week at the Nichols Canyon beatdown, despite being surrounded by my Ironfly teammates.
On the other hand, if I wore my Ironfly kit, word would eventually get back to the Fireman, who would berate me for my non-Fly attire. But if I failed to wear the SPY kit I wouldn’t have a Red Kite’s prayer of ever being able to face MMX again. It would be as traitorous as if I were to write a positive review of Assos Zeghole cycling glasses.
Caught in the dilemma, I resolved it the usual way: grabbed what was closest, and said, “Fuggit.”
Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who had the SPY Optic/Ironfly clothing dilemma. Unbeknownst to me, Toronto had been tormented by the choice and had called StageOne at 3:00 a.m. in a frenzy before the ride. “Dude, what should I wear?”
“Huh? Who is this?”
“It’s me, Toronto. I can’t decide which kit to wear!”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Wear whatever’s been washed. That’ll sure narrow it down. It’s fucking three a.m.”
“I want to wear my SPY kit, but what if Fukdude gets pissed?”
“Fukdude is asleep. He’s not doing the ride. He wouldn’t care even if he was.”
“I’m going with SPY then.” Toronto plunged immediately to sleep, while StageOne had to toss and turn, as he’d been mercilessly ripped from REM and couldn’t get back.
I had agreed to meet StageOne at the corporate world HQ in Redondo, where we would be picked up by T-Rex and Toronto. My initial plan had been to simply ride there, but a little angel on my right shoulder said, “Are you fucking out of your mind? After FTR you’ll be too tired to lift your weenie, much less pull yourself back up to the top of PV.” So I chose the less green alternative, loaded up the Scratch, and drove to the HQ.
T-Rex picked us up and we made a beeline for the Starbucks, where we re-rendezvoused with Stern-O and Major Bob. Stern-O and StageOne had gone through a bitter divorce in 2011, and although there hadn’t been any children, and although Stern-O had kept all the assets, and although no spousal support had been ordered, there was still the lingering bitterness from the end of a long and loving relationship. Stern-O ignored StageOne, but, ever the gentleman, StageOne said, “How you doing?”
“I’ve got shingles, that’s how!” snapped Stern-O. “Which comes from stress!”
We parted them with a crowbar and got back into the truck. As Major Bob raced ahead, we noticed his bike on the rack, while Stern-O’s $44,929.19 Look full-carbon, monococque Triumph with internal disc brakes and hybrid transmission (hasn’t been released in the US yet; Serial No. 000001) was carefully stowed in a bike bag and placed inside the car.
Ride with your legs, win with your head
As we rolled out to the cheering of six wildly enthusiastic supporters, I knew that this FTR would be different. No more pointless hammering at the front. No bait-taking on the descent and run-in to Fillmore. No stroke-for-stroke shows of strength on the climb into Ojai. I would chill at the back and save the only two bullets I had: one for Casitas Lake, and one for Balcom.
The amazement rippled through the peloton as I took up my seat at the back of the bus. Where was Wanky? We’d already done 1.2 miles and he hadn’t attacked, or gone to the front for a senseless pull, or scampered up some slight rise. Looks of amazement shot my way as various riders dropped back to compliment me on my restraint.
On the first climb Roadchamp strung it out and sprinted away for the KOM. I happily chilled in the GdW (Grupetto de Wank) and advised Hockeystick of the sharp downhill turn coming up. We reattached and the group split again on the next rise. Mystery Rider rolled off the point and began the long climb before the descent into Fillmore. FTR DS marshaled his SPY unit and chased, but to no avail: MR nailed the KOM and was far down the descent before our chase group crested the top. I’d been doing 350 watts just sitting on a wheel for much of the climb, and was thrilled that FTR DS was willing to fire the bullets in his clip.
On the descent I got stuck behind Roadchamp and Dogg, both of whom are massively chicken descenders. UbeRfRed sped away and at the bottom it was just me sitting on Roadchamp’s wheel. He turned on the muscle once we hit the flats, and over the course of the next mile brought us to within 200m of the lead chase. MR was in sight. He flicked his elbow for me to close the final gap, but I did the unthinkable: laughed and refused.
Unfortunately, my teammate Polly had latched on, and rather than forcing Roadchamp to do a little extra work, he launched and dragged us up to the breakaway, which contained King Harold and Hair, and now Roadchamp. We overhauled MR, and one of the day’s many revelations began to make itself known: G3 attacked, taking UbeRfRed with him. They flailed valiantly in the vicious headwind for a few minutes as the gas slowly escaped from their egos with each pedal stroke.
Here, however, was a new G3: gone was the wheelsucking, cautious, gas-saving, calculating viper of sneakdom, replaced by the G3 I feared more than any other–the attacking, risk-taking hammer who was now blending panache into his well polished arsenal of strategic conservation. Although this attempt failed, it marked the beginning of a very ugly and ultimately successful pattern.
With three hundred meters to go before the Fillmore sprint, Hair hit the jets. It was a nice little clinic on the difference between road racers and road sprinters. He cleared the sign by so much that it took the light several seconds to travel the distance from his rear wheel to our retinas. Score: Roadchamp 1, Hair 1, Wankers 0.
Don’t poke the gorilla
Our gap on the GdW was immense, and I pulled over in a driveway off the main road to relieve myself. As I fumbled with my parts a group of chickens dashed out from the bushes, surprised at the early morning shower. Unfortunately, they were accompanied by a rooster, who was prepared to defend his hens. He had giant spurs and was advancing menacingly towards me. You may not think chickens are scary, but when you’ve got one leg still over your top tube, the other leg awkwardly balanced in loose gravel, your hand on your dick and the other hand trying to keep your bike from sliding out from under you, and a big ass rooster with a huge beak and spurs sharp enough to cut sheet metal, well, it’s unnerving at best.
At the same time, I heard commotion in the little rental cottages behind me, and realized with a glance that whoever was looking out the kitchen window was likely wondering why the skinny guy was peeing on their chickens. My Spanish isn’t great, but I heard something that sounded like, “I think I can shoot it off from here,” and then the familiar noise of shells spilling out on the kitchen counter.
It was going to be hard to explain to the guys how I’d been neutered from 200 yards and then scratched up by an angry rooster, and even though it would easily top the Balcom flail from 2011 for its bloggability, I holstered up and scampered back to the roadway.
We regrouped; StageOne had flatted, and as we got going McRibs lost his iPod Shuffle at 35mph. It was unthinkable that he could complete the ride without listening to the endless loop of Chrissy Hines and “Back on the Chain Gang,” so we stopped while he collected his hardware. A few minutes later, Turtle got what would the second and last flat of the day.
As we churned towards Santa Paula with a whipping tailwind, Roadchamp decided to take the sprint, a move that poked Hair right in the eye. As Roadchamp raised his arms just before crossing the line, Hair pipped him at the finish. Erik Zabel knows about this, I think. So as we turned onto the road towards Ojai, it was Road champ 1, Hair 2, Wankers 0.
Up the bump, then hit “thrust”
We began the climb that lies between Santa Paula and Ojai. The leaders quickly pulled away as I sat patiently in the GdW. The road rolls by several small goat and llama ranches, and the cute little lambs there all shouted at us as we rolled by, chorusing “Meee-meee-meee” as they vied for our attention.
MR took the KOM with ease, and two miles before the Ojai sprint, G3 again showed his “new man” colors and took a flyer. This time, instead of being chased down by his own teammates, he rolled freely up the road, not to be seen again until the first official rest stop. Although the SPY chase was fast and furious, it failed to bring back the valiant charge of the man in orange. Ironfly blue was nowhere in the hunt, flailing, flogging, and wanking at maximum capacity. We gassed up, and soldiered on. It was now Roadchamp 1, Hair 2, G3 1, MR 1.
Firing the first bullet
As we began the climb up from Lake Casitas, I chambered the first round and pointed it squarely at the heads of Roadchamp, MR, FTR DS, and G3. The road tilted up, they pushed the pace, and then out of the group leaped King Harold at the very moment a motorcycle was passing on the left. He grabbed onto the seat of the motor and was gone, and all the screams and curses couldn’t bring him back.
After a few more moments it was a select group of six, also including Yoda of the Long Beach crew. I pointed the gun and pulled the trigger. Expecting a huge recoil from the massive slug I’d fired, I was surprised at the tiny dribbling BB that plooked out the end of the barrel. However, I glanced down at my watt meter, which read “480.” That was an unusually high number, and it corresponded with a searing, frying burn accompanied by a lacerating pop, huge black spots in front of my eyes, a wavering front wheel, and the receding figures of the leading five.
Until you’ve been sitting on Roadchamp’s wheel and had him accelerate away from you on a long climb at over 500 watts, you don’t know helplessness or despair. But that’s what he did. Now it was back to my usual Plan B, which was “Don’t get caught by the wankers in the rear!” I got a few fistfuls of air and spun for a few seconds, and then shifted into my big chain ring.
Here came King Harold, finally dislodged from his motorbike. Next came Yoda, with a strange, twisted look of un-wisdom plastered across his face. Just ahead of me was G3, but his rapidly pumping legs telegraphed “Give up, Wanky. I’m much faster than you. Quit now while you’re behind.” Just ahead I could see the fireworks as Roadchamp crushed the life out of FTR DS, who was now unhitched and flailing in between the leaders and G3.
I slogged over the first peak and pedaled hard. At less than halfway the effort had already initiated miniature, pre-cramp twinges in my legs. This far from Balcom and cramps already setting in? It was ugly and about to get uglier. G3 stayed in my sights all the way to the second Casitas peak, and I could even see the threesome of Roadchamp, MR, and FTR DS, and just before the top I had closed to within 200 meters of G3, but the second he hit the downhill it was game over. He literally vanished, so hard and fast did he hit the downhill.
In the real race ahead, Roadhchamp and FTR DS dropped Mystery Rider on the second peak, leaving him to flail and chase all the way to the next huge sprint at the Santa Barbara County Line. Just as the leaders were sure they had buried their best friend, beloved teammate, and person they’d do anything for, he appeared out of nowhere, chasing down the leaders and blazing for the sign. FTR DS was having none of it, and opened up with the sprint for which he’s not really famous, in fact, for which he’s not really ever been known to have, a sprint so tiny and small and hard to observe that you generally need a large magnifying glass to see it.
Not so today! FTR DS, raging at the Casitas climb debacle, blew by Roadchamp even as MR turned on the Come-Around-From-Dog jets to no avail. Shortly after flailing by the sign on my own I was overtaken by the charging paceline of T-Rex, Polly, and Yoda, confirming several other key points of this year’s FTR: 1) Polly had climbing legs 2) Yoda had only cracked the lid of his can of whupass 3) T-Rex was in for the long haul.
New adjusted score: Roadchamp 2, Hair 2, G3 1, MR 1, FTR DS 1. Everyone else: flail and flog.
It’s a long way (to Tipperary), It’s a long way (to home)
As we regrouped several other truths became self evident, among them Hockeystick’s serious road skills. After all the jokes and hilarity and rude comments about his eminent unsuitability for this particular hammerfest, he looked fresh as a daisy and was riding like a champ. And despite all the love and support heaped upon the head of StageOne, he looked like he’d been forced to swallow a grenade and then chase it with a bunker buster. “Dude,” King Harold said. “You okay?”
“Urrble gmelszx prrp,” was all StageOne could answer. Which was too bad. Because the second we hit the 101, King Harold twisted the throttle clean off the handlebar. The acceleration was nasty beyond belief, so sudden did it rain down upon our heads. Sitting second wheel as the pavement flashed by, so many thoughts went through my head.
1. Wow, my legs feel great. I should save it for Balcom.
2. Man, now is the time to show how much I’ve learned. Just chill and save it for Balcom.
3. We’re barely halfway. Let King Harold administer the beatdown. Save it for Balcom.
4. You’ve only got one bullet left. Save it for Balcom.
5. Tuck in. Save it for Balcom.
Harry swung over, and Turtle matched the pull with a monster effort. A quick glance back saw the group strung out in a thin, long, narrow line of grimacing pain. The siren called. Turtle swung over. The siren called louder. I flung myself willingly into her waiting arms.
I can’t tell you much about the next six or seven miles except that our group got a lot smaller. Everyone stopped pulling except for MR. Hockeystick stuck his nose up into the wind for two solid pulls, Turtle took another hit or two, but everyone else just cowered or cracked. Roadchamp rocketed off the back to “help StageOne,” and presumably to also help his own legs avoid the brutal battering on the point.
At one point Hair rotated through and advised me to “stop surging,” which we all know is bikespeak for “please slow down because I’m cracking like a whimpering cur,” and which we also know does nothing but encourage the surger. Which it did. By the time we’d whittled down to a small group I swung off as we approached a heretofore unknown “sprint” at Faria Beach. King Harold zinged by, raised his hands, and everyone heaved a sigh of relief–rather than pound out the remaining six miles until everyone was hamburger meat, we sat up and were rejoined by the flotsam and jetsam created by King H.
Iron Mike had closed one particularly nasty gap, and everyone had a survival story to tell, particularly StageOne, who had devoted an entire Biblical psalm to Roadchamp for dropping back to help. The new score was Roadchamp 2, Hair 2, G3 1, MR 1, FTR DS 1, and King Harold 1.
The joy of sugar-covered donuts, Dr. Pepper, and a handful of nuts
At the Circle K in Ventura we ate, sneaked into the off-limits bathroom, and sat on the curb while our legs stiffened like quick-curing concrete. Several riders looked remarkably fresh. There was Toronto, who’d been following wheels and riding smart. There was UbeRfrEd, who’d done not a lick of work since his attack into Fillmore and looked like he could retrace the route, twice. There was Stern-O, older than dirt and looking fresh as a daisy. There was Douggie, hardly covered with more than an inch of crusty salt. Hockeystick? Looking great. Becker Bob? Looking like a cadaver. Dogg? What long bike ride? Major Bob? Peaked, but surviving. Elron? Flogging but happy. McRibs? Refused to get off his bike at the Circle K and rode around in circles to stave off the Balcom cramps. Iron Mike? Refused to even stop, and soldiered on with StageOne, fearing that once off his bike he’d never remount. Yoda? Scary good. Big Bowles? Fine ‘n dandy.
As I stood in line with my Dr. Pepper, a roll of powdered sugar donuts called sweetly to me, proving an axiom of long hammerfests: the harder you ride, the worse your nutrition becomes. I couldn’t resist, and bought the pretty little package. Out on the curb, the donuts were so sweet that they made the DP taste less than sugary. Before I’d had so much as an opportunity to nap, FTR DS was herding us back onto our bikes.
“Want some of these?” MR asked. He held out a giant bag of nuts.
“Fuck yeah. Sugar donuts, espresso GU, Dr. Pepper, a bonk breaker, and salty nuts. What could possibly go wrong?”
Two minutes later, as we began struggling up the sharp climb out of Ventura, everything went wrong. Legs refused to work. Brain began sending distress signals to heart and lungs. Bowels tried to void.
The only remaining bullet I’d had was fired pointlessly on the 101. Everyone now looked terrible, the brave facades from a few minutes before erased like a blow to the face with a hammer. We still had 38 horrific miles until we could collapse in the Jaegers’ front yard. So there was only one rational choice, and I made it.
A few quick jolts on the pedals and I was gone. A look back, and they were gone. A second look back, and I had company. Mystery Rider. The one guy above all others you want in a breakaway. Stronger than fifteen draft horses. The heart of a thousand warriors. Legs of steel. Perpetually burning inside with the fire to crush and destroy. Lover of attacks, initiator of breaks, climber of legend, relentless machine…so off we went.
The gap grew and grew until even the impossible began to look like it could happen–if we made Santa Paula we’d be able to take advantage of traffic and spring out onto the road leading to Balcom with a huge, perhaps insurmountable advantage. Cramps and collapse be damned, we were all in. Until, of course, we weren’t.
As we hit the big sweeping left I looked down at my watt meter. We’d gone from a steady 290-300 watts to 230. “I’m unraveling, dude,” MR muttered.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ve already unraveled.”
And there to reel in the yarn was the steady, tempo-pounding beasts from SPY, hauling us gradually back into the fold. “Nice try,” said UbeRfrEd, “but really pointless.”
The tamer of beasts
When we turned off onto Death Alley, a few guys stopped to pee and Stern-O, StageOne, and Major Bob dashed off ahead in a replay of last year’s infamous pee attack. The rest of us pedaled slowly, feeling every muscle tense as we awaited Balcom. I’d spoken with Iron Mike before the ride and he’d asked, “Is it as hard as Santa Cruz?” referring to the wall we’d had to climb in 2010’s leg of death on the Man Tour. “It’s about the same,” I’d said.
He would later gently chide me. “Balcom Canyon Road and the climb to Santa Cruz,” he would say, “are not the same.”
And indeed they are not. We made the fatal right hand turn and passed by the Guardrail d’Cramp. FTR DS hollered out from the front, “Wankmeister! There’s your guardrail!” A few riders chuckled, but not too many and not too loudly, because about that time the giant thorn of Balcom came into view, gashing the skyline with an ugliness and ferocity that made the prospect of cramping on a guardrail seem very, very real.
We hit the bottom and Hockeystick rode away from me. Stern-O, defying every truth known to carbon dating, flew up the hill. I focused on the pavement three inches before my front wheel and refused to look one inch further. I knew what was coming.
Roadchamp raced to the top, beating out the sensational and impressive G3, followed by FTR DS. And then, propelled by smart riding, extensive wheelsucking, great base miles, and the advantages of being one tough sonofabitch, Douggie crossed the line fourth, followed by Yoda. UbeRfrEd flew his colors and raced in shortly after MR, with Dogg and Polly in hot pursuit.
Inch by inch I overtook Hockystick, who nonetheless put in the ride of all rides, and I even got to enjoy the misery of Stern-O as he suffered the worst possible mechanical at the worst possible time: his $7,599 brand new Campy Electro gruppo (Serial No. 00001) didn’t function with quite the same precision as our cheapass mechanical Dura-Ace, and his chain slipped catastrophically off his 25-tooth cog onto his 23.
Going from a 25 to a 23 on the steepest part of Balcom is kind of like having your triple-wrap condom tear while you’re in a Calcutta brothel. Aside from the physical implications, mentally it just takes all the wind out of your sails (I’m told). Moreover, I’d done Balcom with a 23 the previous two years, and how Stern-O didn’t tilt over and fall I’ll never know. Wait a minute, I do know…he’s tough as a boot, that’s how. I passed him, and then Turtle, and then Toronto, and finally Hair, and it was over.
Except it wasn’t.
At the base of the climb StageOne had simply done what any intelligent person would have done when faced with that monstrosity of a climb. He had gotten off his bike and walked, and in the beginning he was walking faster than Iron Mike and Major Bob were climbing. But that didn’t last.
Just as things looked bleakest, a small white pickup filled with laborers, tools, ladders, chickens, a banty rooster, and one small goat came by. “You okay, man?” the driver asked.
“No, not really.”
“We give you a pull up this hill? This is one steep hill, man.”
“Yes,” StageOne agreed. “It is.”
“How long you been riding your bike, man?”
“I’m not really sure.”
“Where you going?”
“Uh, I think to…no, it’s…uh…up there?”
“All right, man, just hang on. We’ll give you a tow.”
So from atop Balcom we watched the little white engine that could, loaded down with the goat, chickens, the banty rooster, the leaf blowers, the mower, the ladder, the rakes, the gas can, and the one flat-ass, tired-ass, whupped-ass, beat down, run down, smacked down, knocked down but not out, one and only StageOne. He made it to the top and we all cheered. He staggered over to the guardrail. Several hours later, in the ride home, he looked over at me. “Where the hell am I? What just happened? And who the fuck are you?” We tucked him into bed with Zeke as he gave praise to dog, but that’s another story.
The score (not that anyone’s keeping it): Roadchamp 3, Hair 2, G3 1, MR 1, FTR DS 1, King Harold 1,
Meanwhile back at the ranch
We returned triumphantly to Camarillo, with Roadchamp mashing up golf course hill first, followed by Douggie and MR, and Big Bowles doing his best to dust me and flailing. Final score: Roadchamp 4, Hair 2, G3 1, MR 1, FTR DS 1, and King Harold 1.
The Jaegers had mountains of sandwiches, chips, salsa, and cold beer, but before we started eating there was a fight to the death between Douggie and Stern-O to see who would get to shower first. Stern-O won out, having successfully clogged the Jaeger family plumbing the year before, as his theory is that no asshole can be properly dubbed “clean” until you’ve scrubbed it with a full roll of toilet paper and clogged your host’s pipes for a month.
A person with those standards isn’t about to step into a shower that’s been defiled by the sweat of Douggie, and Douggie wasn’t about to take a shower after Hockeystick. I couldn’t have cared less, and was happy to sit in my stinking muck and dried sweat for the next few hours, if only to remind me of how lucky I was to be off the bike.
When I entered the bedroom where my street clothes were, UbeRfrEd was just getting out of the shower. Now I’m not the kind of guy who just sits around and stares at naked men, but the thing UbeRfrEd had hanging down to his ankles looked like a prop from G3’s video collection. At first I thought I was hallucinating due to the beatdown and exhaustion of the ride, but a second look convinced me that I was in the presence of Dog. And the more I thought about it, the more awed I became: he had hauled that 47-pound fire hose all the way up Balcom? Impressed as I had been with Roadchamp’s exploits on Casitas and the climb of death, they paled in comparison to this. It was like marching over Everest with a pet giant anaconda tied to your waist.
I staggered back out into the front yard, partially blinded by what I’d seen, and stumbled upon Roadchamp’s bib shorts, which he’d left out to dry. Unfortunately, in his anxiety on the 101 about holding onto my fiery tempo, he’d suffered from a bit of nerves, and the result, photographed here by Toronto, was, er, toxic.
T-Rex, Toronto, StageOne and I bundled ourselves into T-Rex’s truck after enjoying the lunch and the incomparable Miss Jaegers’ cupcakes. For the awards presentation, SPY Optic had donated an awesome pair of performance wear to the person who suffered the most, displayed the greatest courage, did most of the work, and exhibited the truest qualities of determination, fitness, strategic thinking, teamwork, strength, endurance, and overall attitude. Of course they could therefore be awarded to no one but FTR DS’s wife, Lynn, for putting up with all this nonsense for so many years…so they were.
As we sat in the truck, comfortably cruising home with T-Rex at the helm, a message came in from MMX over the Internets: something was in the offing…SPY Optic was on the verge of doing something so extraordinary as to make all that had come before it pale in comparison. What in the name of Dog? We looked at each other in fear and disbelief at the mysterious closing: “On Tuesday, all will be revealed.”
The day of reckoning was almost at hand.