I like today and its brake lever shifters, plastic bikes, Facebook-Twitter-Blogging-Email meet ups, and of course old wanker dude racing teams with better, slicker, more uber-pro outfits and gear than any Tour de France star in the 70’s or 80’s ever dreamed of having.
But I like yesterday, too, and today was a yesterday kind of day.
Back during yesterday, you trained with one or two regular buddies, or by yourself. They had names like Kent, Fields, or Callaway, or Vermeij, or Dickson, and the day’s workout was always the same: You were going to go hard, go long, and be very tired at the end.
Back during yesterday, you and Fields would roll out and it wouldn’t matter if it was raining, or colding, or hotting, or if the wind was howling, or if you were tired, or if you had a sniffle. You rolled out. You warmed up. And for the next three or four hours you suffered like a dog stuck to his rear wheel while he towed and battered and hauled you all over the Texas Hill Country.
The “group ride” on Saturday and Sunday started with a huge turnout of maybe thirty people, whittled down to half by the time you got to Webberville, and finished with three or four a long time later. No GU. No BonkBreaker. No energy drink.
It was simple. Meet, ride, suffer.
Empire State Express
Coming home from the North County Swami’s Ride today, I tuned into the jazz/blues radio station. Today is okay in the world of blues, too. There are lots of good musicians who innovate. Who wizardize on their guitars. Who make trumpets and electronic keyboards and other instruments sound like they belong in the blues.
But I grew up listening to yesterday’s locked down twelve bar blues. Plastic discs spinning names like Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson, one voice, one guitar, one dude. That was it.
Cruising through Oceanside the radio hit me like a hammer. The DJ had decided to play Son House’s Empire State Express from his 1965 recording sessions. Son was old then and “rediscovered” by the hippie blues revivalists. His voice was cracked and rough and broken; no honey or silk left on the raw, smoked out vocal cords.
His guitar playing was stiff and banging, the glide on his National steel was all jerky and hard, like his brain knew where the sound should be but his fingers couldn’t make the notes right enough. Like a worn out pair of shoes those recordings were, capturing a historical figure and his historical music for embalming in some piece of amber, to be fixed for all time and gawked at in a museum.
But oh! Even with all that, Son’s music had the grind, the power, the punch, the ungilded emotion that rose up from the field hollers of the chain gang, from the depths of Parchman Penitentiary, from the life and servitude of the Mississipi Delta.
I listened to Empire State Express with my hands clenched on the steering wheel, skin tightened up into goosebumps, the sounds I heard growing up as a boy in Texas re-floated to me on the Interstate back to Los Angeles.
A little time warp had opened up, and I’d slipped into it.
Do it ’til you get the hang of it
Every beatdown ride has its own unique pain profile. The first few times I did the North County Swami’s ride I thought the pain profile was this: Extreme pain from start to finish, with no rest or relief.
Now that I’ve learned to cower, avoid the front, and treat the thing like an exercise in survival, I’ve come to appreciate its true nature. The ride has a series of four or five pain spikes followed by recovery sections. Each pain spike clears out some chaff until you reach the church sprunt, where the reduced group lunges for an imaginary line.
Today I cowered, and even got a shove from Andy Schmidt as we crested Rancho Santa Fe. By gritting my teeth through the pain spikes, which soon ended, I reached the church sprunt unscathed.
Not so for those behind me. As I rolled into the church parking lot, Steve Hegg came up. “Dude, your kit stinks beyond belief. Wash it. Or better yet, burn it.”
It dawned on me that the repeated farts I’d been blasting in the middle of the peloton had wreaked havoc on those behind me. “Sorry, dude. Kimchee, green beans, and pinto beans for dinner last night. Toxic combo.”
Other riders pedaled by. “Was that you? Damn, that stank and I was twenty wheels back. That shit lingered, too. It was like a floating cloud of turd over your head the whole way out.” Their faces had that green-around-the-gills look.
Secretly pleased at the stealth weapon that had caused such destruction in the group, I apologized, sort of. “I guess you could have gotten in front of me…”
Those teeth all look pretty sharp to me
After the church, most of the group turned right to return home. A smaller group turned left to get in a longer ride. The group’s composition did not look inviting. It included Thurlow Rogers a/k/a THOG a/k/a The Hand of God. It included some very tough, fit looking riders. Worst of all, it included three or four national team members, none of whom was over twenty and none of whom weighed more than a hundred pounds. One of the riders had gotten fifth in the UCI U-23 World Championships in 2012.
And they were headed for the Lake Wolford climb, which, for a lamb like me, is akin to saying they were headed for the executioner’s pen. I looked at MMX, who had turned with me. “We going with these mass murderers?” I asked.
“Sure. Unless you’re not up for it.”
“I know a shark tank when I see one. What happens when we hit the climb?”
He mused, briefly. “Shrapnel. You’ll be dropped instantaneously. Everyone will be destroyed except those tiny youngsters and Thurlow.”
“How about we turn off and do our own ride?”
“If you want to, sure.”
I wanted to.
Don’t twosome with the guy who owns 257 Strava KOM’s
The sharks swam away, and the two of us turned off and began our own ride. If I’d been expecting a leisurely, conversational pace, I was soon disappointed. MMX bent over his handlebars and pushed the pace up to where it was just unpleasant enough to seek refuge on his wheel.
Over the next hour we eased off and chatted a bit. The weather was warm. The back roads were uncluttered with cars. The North County rollers that typically exacted such a high price from my legs seemed to be minor obstacles at best. With the exception of Bandy Canyon, where I came unhitched and he had to wait, we pedaled in unison along the scenic roads.
Then his phone rang. “Yes, honey. Yes, dear. Okay, honey. No, I didn’t forget, honey. It’s just me and Seth. We’re right around the corner from the house. We’ll be home shortly, honey. Okay, dear. Love you, too.”
“You’re in deep shit, huh?”
He nodded. “Yup.” He clipped back in. “We’re going to take a more direct route back.”
“Are we really right around the corner?” I was always lost in North County and had no idea where we were.
“No.” Then his face got a funny look. “But we soon will be.”
Tugging on Superman’s cape
He pointed his bike onto a bike path that paralleled some freeway. I tucked in behind him. 16. 15. 14. 13. 12. Then 11. The last cog. And it was turning quickly.
MMX is the perfect draft for me. He’s about my height and slightly wider. When he gets going it creates the ultimate cocoon of draft. As he roared along I snuggled up against his rear wheel, blasting along without having to do a lick of work. The only nagging doubt I had was that at some point he would tire and I’d have to pull. At this speed, any effort on the front would completely do me in.
He just went faster.
After about ten minutes my little twinge of shoplifter’s delight began to fade a bit. Yes, I was stealing a wheel. Yes, it was a great wheel. No, he wasn’t flicking me to pull through.
But…it was starting to hurt like hell.
At each roller he came out of the saddle, driving it harder to maintain the hellish pace. I’d flail to hold the wheel, then settle back into the cocoon. After about twenty minutes I was in a world of hurt. All I could see were the pounding pistons of his legs where the calf separates from the soleus, and the variations of his chain: Now the 11, up to the 12, back to the 11, repeat.
Occasionally the strain would show as his shoulders rocked, but the pace never dropped, and still he never waved me through. The only consolation was that no matter how tired I was, he must have been at the very end of his tether.
We finally slowed at the end of the bikeway and he looked back. His eyes were narrowed and his mouth was set. That’s when I realized it. He wasn’t racing to get home. He was tackling a segment on Strava. For me to pull through would have meant that it didn’t count.
“When we hit PCH I’m going to drop you. But don’t worry. I’ll circle back and pick you up.”
“Go fuck yourself,” I laughed silently. “I’ve been sitting on your wheel and not doing a lick of work. You’ve been carving it up hill and down dale into the teeth of a nasty crosswind. You’re tired. You may be stronger than me, but you’re not strong enough to drop me after an effort like that.”
But I said something slightly more diplomatic. “I’ll be fine. I’m riding well on these rollers for the first time ever. Tucked here behind you, I won’t come off so easily. My legs are really coming around.”
He nodded. “I’ll circle back.”
The Little Engine that Couldn’t
We rolled underneath the Interstate and he began accelerating. Soon we were on a long roller leading up to Del Mar. I could see the ocean and knew that all I had to do was hold his wheel up the climb; after that we’d descend and be on PCH and I’d be home free. He was tired. He’d been drilling it relentlessly for miles. I’d been hunkered down in his draft. This was a gimme.
Midway up the climb I was fine. Three-quarters of the way I’d redlined. A few hundred meters from the top MMX stood on the pedals and shook me off, effortlessly. My engine blew completely, and he disappeared.
Glad he was going to circle back.
A few miles from Encinitas he came back to get me. We rolled into town and had a cup of coffee. I felt awful, wrecked, broken, and demoralized, but consoled myself with the fact that it was North County. I always felt destroyed post-ride in North County.
MMX checked his iPhone. “Cool. Ten new KOM’s.”
“Go to hell,” I said.
“You rode well. But you look pretty beaten.”
“Yes,” I said. “I am.”
And I was. And it felt absolutely great. Just like old times.