The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. The definition of bike racing is getting beat down over and over again, and doing it over and over again.
The UCLA Road Race holds its annual road race on the Devil’s Punchbowl course, far from all those Asians in the library whose parents come and do their laundry. In fact, Punchbowl was recently rated the Least Asian-friendly Road Race Course in America, beating out Gruene, Texas, and Bakersfield, California, by a wide margin. You can listen to the UCLA Road Race Asian Theme Song here.
This was my fifth run at a race held on the infamous Devil’s Pukebowl course, a windblown, trash-strewn, barren wasteland of cactus, rusting trailer homes, sand, grit, meth incubators, and bad memories. I knew it was going to be bad this year, too, because the most famous UCLA bike racing Asian, Kwaan Lu, had graduated and wouldn’t be there to laugh as the howling wind picked up and blew away the sign-in tent. UCLA Road Race without Asians? Whaaaaa?
I also knew it was going to be bad because none of my teammates would ride to the race with me. Bike racers, in addition to their generally unscientific approach to racing (“I heard this beta carotene will stop cramps,”) are terribly superstitious. Once word gets out that you’re a bad luck racer, even your teammates will stop offering you rides. In my case it had gotten so bad that the entire Ironfly contingent refused to attend the race. “Dude, you’re fucking snakebit. The blogging shit is funny and all, but you’re fucking rat poison in the birthday cake. We’re gonna ride the track and go drink some beers.”
Tri-Dork to the rescue
Fortunately Tri-Dork knew nothing of this, and since, like most triathletes, he doesn’t do great with long words and has therefore never read this blog, he agreed to give me a ride. It was his first road race and in exchange for taking me to the race I promised to advise him on tactics.
As we got underway I began with Rule 1: Proper nutrition. “You had lunch, dude?”
“Isn’t it kind of early? It’s only ten and we don’t start until 1:30.”
“Dude, it’s probably too late. A triple cheeseburger and fries take almost four hours to properly digest.”
He laughed nervously. “You’re joking right?”
“Yeah. Two hours is plenty.”
“We never ate cheeseburgers before triathlons.”
“And how many did you win?”
“Only a couple, actually.”
“There you have it. Hey perfect timing. There’s an In-N-Out.” He still thought I might be joking. “Stop the fucking car!” I ordered. Tri-Dork swung into the parking lot. Now he was scared.
As we sat down to our triple meat with onions and large Coke, I explained. “Look, dude, you have zero chance in this race. You weigh 191 pounds, not counting the five you’re about to add. This fucking race has 6,000 feet of climbing over a 50-mile course and the next heaviest guy in the race is me at 165.
“Glass Hip is here. 150. G$. 155. Baby ‘DQ’ Louie. 125. You are going to get dropped immediately, even faster than me. You’re probably not even going to finish once you’re out their flogging by yourself up the face of a cliff in a howling sandstorm. So, knowing that it’s hopeless and that you suck, your only recourse is to drown your sorrow in greasy food. Chow down.”
Rule 2: Proper race psychology
As Tri-Dork guided the fully loaded Prius and the even more fully loaded us onto the highway, he asked me about race wheels. “These new Ksyriums are really light. I’m hoping they’ll make a difference on the climb.”
“Dude, that triple cheeseburger you just ate weighed more than your frame. If you want to do well in this race, which is impossible, you need to have the proper mental preparation.”
Tri-Dork smiled. “I’m pretty good in that area. The year I got fifth at Kona I did an entire course on race psychology.”
“Look, Kona is for pussies. It’s a fucking coffee blend, for Dog’s sake. Triathlon has all the strategy of beating off: start out easy, build up gradually, and make sure you save the final spurt for the end. Any fifteen year-old can figure that shit out.
“But you’re bike racing now, Dorky. The mental aspect is completely different.” I could tell the analogy had hit home.
“Okay. So what should I do?”
The bike-rama sutra
“If triathlon strategy is wanking, then bike racing strategy is sex. Which means a couple of simple things. First, you gotta have the right equipment. Second, what you do depends on what the other person does. Third, you have options: suck wheel, pound from the front, come from behind…it’s complicated. Takes practice. Sometimes you think you can shoot through the hole, but you have pull back and go for a different opening.
“You also need to get in the right frame of mind by distrusting everyone in the race. Just like casual sex. Assume your partner has every disease in the book.”
“Even my teammates?”
“Especially them. Your only possible role on a team is to work for the riders who are better than you. Which is all of them.”
“Okay. So then what?”
“Once you recognize that the world is your enemy you must never take a pull. Ever. Sit on wheels. Hide from the front. Save everything for the two big moments of the race.”
“What are those?”
“The first is when you get dropped. Save all your energy for making a lunge to close the gap.”
“So I can get back on?”
“No. You’ll never get back on. When they accelerate at the top of the climb physics will overcome fantasy and you will become a giant millstone heaved off into a very deep lake.”
“So why do I need to save my effort for that if I’m just going to get dropped?”
“So you can tell me after the race how close you were to hanging on. ‘I was THIS close!! Just a bike length!!’ By the way, ‘just a bike length’ when getting dropped on a climb is approximately equal to the distance that light travels in one year. Just so you know.”
“This is pretty complicated. What’s the second big moment?”
“The finish, where you put yourself through agonies unimaginable to the average 45 year-old gentleman as you risk life, limb, and fifteen thousand dollars in race equipment to beat out some other wanker for 47th place.”
Ol’ Gizzards and Comeback
We pawed the dirt at the starting line as I surveyed the competition. Glass Hip, looking relaxed, fit, and intimidating with his new death row crew-cut. The more he smiled and smalltalked with Baby ‘DQ’ Louie the more I realized how bitter this beatdown was going to be. G$ casually straddled his top tube, looking like a giant heart and lung with two long legs attached as an afterthought. Klasna sat calmly, fresh blood from the roadkill he’d just eaten still dripping from his fangs. Fatty Flagg, who at 170 pounds was the true beast of the race, looked coolly at the race official.
Then I pinched myself. These guys weren’t my competition. My competition was Bumblebee, the newt in a black and yellow-striped Halloween costume. My competition was Ol’ Gizzards, the stringy, misshapen wanker who kept falling off his bike at the start line. My competition was Comeback, the 52 year-old who’d had a run of Cat 3 wins back in ’79 and wanted to resurrect the glories of his racing career. These were the losers I’d get to know intimately over the course of the day.
Our field had 53 riders, including Skankdaddy, a twiglike specimen doomed to flail, who bulled his way up the middle of the group, elbowing Herndy-Doo in the process. I shook my head. Why would anyone try to pass Herndy-Doo in the first minute of the race? Herndy always makes the split and he benches 350.
We climbed up the first couple of miles to the right turn that leads to the infamous “Punchbowl Staircase.” This is a series of three climbs, each followed by a brief plateau. Like a staircase, you can see each section stretch endlessly off in front of you, and also like a staircase, it hurts like a motherfucker when you get thrown off it.
By the turn I was redlining, Comeback had gone back, Ol’ Gizzards was frying in the pan, and Skankdaddy was now trying to tweezle his way across the gap between him and us. Tri-Dork looked great, which was troubling.
There were less than thirty of us left at the top of the Staircase, and we pointed our bikes down the screaming crosswind descent. After the race everyone lied about how fast we went, with the biggest whopper coming from DQ Louie, who claimed he’d hit 60. Even so, it was a solid 45-50 for the entire 5-mile descent.
I almost didn’t get dropped
After the descent there’s a rolling 3-mile stretch before making a sharp right and doing the climb again. As the climb began I felt great. Thirty seconds in I felt not so great. Forty seconds in, the entire group detonated as G$, DQ Louie, Fatty Flagg, and Glass Hip crushed it. I would have stayed with them if I hadn’t gotten dropped, no question about it.
As I settled back with Gilligan, the Skipper, and the other castaways, I watched the leaders pull away. Tucked safely in their midst was Tri-Dork. All 191 pounds of him.
[Insert incredibly stupid, boring, “I”-centered recount of every dumb move, every retarded struggle, every adjective designed to impress readers with how tough it was, every reference to grit and power and climbing and hammering for every bump, climb, descent, pull, flail, and flog of the remaining 38 miles.]
At the end of the third lap we overhauled Tri-Dork, as he, Veins, and I dropped our contingent of wankers on the last time up the big climb. We hit the downhill and Tri-Dork demonstrated his mastery of the Egg. This is where you sit on the top tube, put your hands on tops of the bars, curve your spine, and tuck your head. When you’re almost 200 pounds it means that you easily go 55 mph.
It also means that your nuts are smashed flat on the top tube, a minor point, and that you lose 95% control of your bike, a major point. This is no problem when you’re a triathlete, and blunt trauma force to the head leaves the internal cement undamaged, but when you’re a nerdy bike blogger it’s kind of a different deal, and rather worrisome. All this was going through my mind as a big farm truck with a trailer full of unused IQ points flipped on its blinker and made as if to cut across our path, with Tri-Dork in full tuck, and Veins and I cowering in his draft.
Thanks to dumb luck we avoided the side of the trailer, and thanks to the Egg we caught what was left of the main field, which consisted of the saddest, fucked-overest, tiredest, beatdownest, sad-sackest bunch of wrinkled old shits you’ve ever seen. And they were the fresh ones, everyone else having quit, except for Tree, who had dropped his chain at .5 mile into the race and rode the rest of the race alone.
The race for first
We found out after the race that Glass Hip, Klasna, Baby Louie, Fatty Flagg, and G$ had shellacked the field at the turn onto the Stairstep on the second lap. You’d think that with three Big O riders represented in the group it would be an easy win, but the Orangemen were able, just in time, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Unfortunately for them, Glass Hip was on form. That means something different than it does for most people. When he rode for the U.S. Olympic team, Glass Hip was tested along with the other elite racers. In every parameter he failed miserably. His VO2 max was 19.5 ml/kg/min. His functional threshold power was 185 watts. His torso measured twice the length of his longest leg, which was six inches longer than the other one, such that neither foot could reach the ground without a short stepladder.
However, in one critical parameter, he outscored everyone ever tested at the U.S. Olympic Center, except for Hacksaw Jim Duggan, in the category of “Hammer Thumb.” This is a test where they tie your hand onto a board and the tester smacks the shit out of your biggest digit with a ball-peen hammer. Electrodes are wired to your brain to record your ability to withstand pain, but are rarely used because after the first whack the testee usually shrieks in agony, and after the second one passes out.
They not only hammered Glass Hip’s thumb, but they hammered all his fingers and toes as well, culminating with a four-minute session on the end of his pecker. The tester finally passed out from sympathetic pain sensations, kind of like guys who go into labor when their wives get pregnant. When they read the computer print-out after scanning his brain, it said, “No brain detected. No brain, no pain.”
In short, no matter what they threw at him, and they threw it all, Glass Hip took it on the chin, shook it off, and braced himself for the next blow. Pretty soon, like the testers at the Olympic Training Center, his adversaries found themselves in a weakened and addled and terrified state. As the five heroes approached the line, Glass Hip bent over, gently took the candy from the babies, and rocketed across the line effortlessly.
Baby “DQ” Louie opened up his sprint for second close to the gutter, then came all the way across to the center line, shutting the door on Klasna and earning himself yet another yellow card, relegation to fifth, and a note that he had to take home and get his mother to sign acknowledging his bad behavior.
The race for fifteenth
Tri-Dork and I, locked in mortal combat, engaged in a battle for the ages. He, doing his first road race on a course suited for tiny bony people, was matched against me, a tiny bony person who had done about a thousand hilly road races. It was only by using every ounce of cunning, skill, strength, ability, tactics, and him throwing a chain at the bottom of the climb that I was able to claim the coveted spot of Number 15.
On the way home we re-hashed the race. “At first I thought you were bullshitting me about the hamburger and fries. But that shit really works. Thanks, Wankmeister.”
I, for once, didn’t know what to say.