Before Lance, before Labor Power, before the ’84 Olympics, and long before anyone had even dared imagine the idea of a professional masters bike racer, there was Fields.
Jeffrey K. Fields.
The long-retired bike racer, beer swilling bankruptcy lawyer from Tipton, Iowa.
The one. The only. The immortal.
I thought about Fields leading up to Boulevard. I thought about him intermittently during the race, and I thought a lot about him this week.
Fields taught me everything I know about bike racing, which is to say he was either a lousy teacher or I was a horrible pupil. You might say he was a lousy teacher and I was a horrible pupil were it not for the countless legends in the sport who learned at his knee, or the countless others who raced against him and respected his prowess on the bike, or the nameless wankers who he ground into dust year after year, race after race after race…
Race what you got
One of Fields’s first rules was this: Race what you got. This meant that you didn’t ever forgo a race because you lacked the “proper” equipment. According to Fields, you had a right equipment and a left equipment that were used to push the pedals. Everything else was optional. It’s one of the reasons that Fields won so much and so convincingly. Although he paid fanatical attention to his equipment, right down to the white patent leather Duegi track shoes with wooden soles, and always tried to race on the best stuff he could wring out of his stingy sponsors, he toed the line no matter what.
“Race what you got,” according to Fields, meant more than equipment. It also meant you raced regardless of your conditioning. However you felt on race day, that was how you were going to start the race. I don’t think he ever blew off a race because he was sick, or was recovering from sickness, or had been “off form,” or any of the other myriad excuses pro masters racers now use to avoid events that may turn out badly for them.
Fields knew that every bike race always turned out badly for almost everyone, and if you were afraid of bad results, this wasn’t the sport for you.
On race day, you raced. If you were fat, or weak, or couldn’t climb, or your sprunt was off, well, it was going to suck to be you. Fields was also enough of a bike racer to know that sometimes you got the best results in races where you started off feeling like shit, and other times you flailed despite beginning with wings on your legs. And Fields never failed to drill in the Results Corollary: You lose 100% of the races you don’t start.
Leave the cherry picking to agricultural workers
“Race what you got,” according to Fields, meant above all, this: Race the hard races as well as the easy ones and for Dog’s sake don’t cherry pick your events. If it’s not “your” race, give some thought to how you can benefit those people you train with, hang out with, and who turn themselves inside out for you when the course suits you. You know, those people called “teammates.”
Fields was short. Fields was wide. Fields was preeminently suited to track events and crits, which he did, and which he was almost impossible to beat at. Fields’s strength and power over short distances was legendary. Combined with uncanny pack smarts, magician-like handling skills, and the ability to always find the right wheel in the final 500 yards, he was virtually impossible to beat in a local crit.
Yet he never considered himself a sprinter. He considered himself a bike racer, which was something considerably broader. To Fields, a bike racer was an impoverished idiot living a hopeless fantasy while scrounging out an existence in a cheap apartment who showed up to race regardless of the event.
If the event required a fast finish, you’d better be able to sprint. If it was hilly, you’d better have a plan to get over the climbs. If it was a timed event, you’d better be good against the clock.
Fields raced in the rain. Fields raced in the scorching heat. Fields raced in the lung-breaking hills. Fields raced on the flats. Fields raced time trials. Fields raced the track. Fields waited for the sprint when it was going to be a bunch finish. Fields initiated the break when the peloton was too tentative. Fields bridged when a good break looked like it would stick. Fields always took his pulls. Fields never, ever avoided a race he was destined to lose. And he thereby won a lot of races.
Every face is game face
Because Fields rode to win, even when he knew he’d likely lose, and because he rode whatever was on the calendar, he created a bike racing culture in Texas that is not only alive and well and thriving today, but that gave rise to the environment that produced Lance Armstrong. I’m not talking about Lance the cheater and Lance the doper, I’m talking about Lance the bike racer.
Lance would never have appeared on the scene without Richardson Bike Mart. Richardson Bike Mart owed its racing roots to the culture of the 1980’s that was created by Fields and his North Texas proteges Chris Hipp, Mark Switzer, and a number of the early strongmen who rode for Richardson’s Matrix team. These and a number of other damned good riders who still win races lined up every week with a single goal: Beat Fields. When they succeeded, it typically took their entire team to pull it off.
Fields also created the bike racing culture in Austin where Roger Worthington first raced. Roger was the creator of Labor Power before being evicted from Texas and moving the whole shebang to California, where Labor became one of the first masters pro teams, and certainly its brashest: Team car, team bikes, team kits, aggressive recruitment of the best old guys, and most importantly, a mandate to win races along with rude race reports. No masters team so totally dominated the California racing scene before or since.
The next time you see a team filled with old guys riding $10k bikes and wearing pro kits and driving around in a wrapped team van…that culture originated with Fields, which is funny because I don’t think he ever even considered racing a masters event, and certainly never showed up at a race in a team van. He quit wasting his life on the bike at the ripe, ancient, hoary, and grizzled age of 35 or so.
Hipp and Worthington always said “Stooopid sport,” a line they got from Fields, but unlike them, he actually believed it and one day just walked away.
The point is that the Fieldsian culture was the culture of the game face. Fields believed that you contended for races based on skill and fitness, but that you won races based on your desire. In our hyper-scientific world of power meters and heart rate monitors and online daily training logs and private coaching, it’s funny to see that the fastest finisher alive and the man who will soon have won more Tour stages than anyone in history is Fieldsian in the extreme: Mark Cavendish could give a rat’s ass about wattage, weight, and power-based metrics. He believes that the victory goes to the guy who wants it most, which is Mark Cavendish, and his book “Boy Racer” showers nothing but contempt on the “science” of cycling.
Fields’s game face approach to bike racing showed itself in the races he showed up for, whether it was Het Volk after the winter he raced and trained in Belgium with legends like Jan Raas and Johan van der Velde, whether it was the 120-mile, hill-filled, sun-baked districts elite men’s championship, or whether it was the local weekend crit.
What it meant for Boulevard 2013
The 2013 edition of Boulevard was pretty much what it’s like every year. Dozens of masters racers who are strong, successful, and totally immersed in the Kool-Aid failed to show up, just like the handful of skinny, elite masters road racers who studiously avoid the weekend crits.
Fields would have been at Boulevard for a simple reason: It’s on the fucking calendar. That, and the fact that if you’re going to call yourself a bike racer, you’d better go out and race your bike.
In this vein, there were a number of riders who showed up to do battle for their teammates as long as they could. In my race Jeff Bryant for Big Orange, Andy Jessup for Jessup Chevrolet, Robb Mesecher for Breakaway from Cancer; in the 35+ race Aaron Wimberley for Helen’s; in the women’s race Suze Sonye, also for Helen’s, showed up to race their bikes along with numerous others who were there because it’s a bike race and they’re bike racers. Their chances of victory or a place on the podium? Snowball in hell type chances.
None of this means that Boulevard showcased the “real” racers and the absentees were “fakers.” Unless you’re getting paid to race your bike and have your name at the bottom of a contract, you’re just playing. I’m just playing. We’re just playing.
But just so you know, the playing would have been more exciting, more challenging, and just a bit more epic if more people had dared to show up. Would Fields have raced Boulevard? Hell, yes, he would have. And it would have taken every bullet in your magazine and your entire team to beat him.