I’ve been racing dirty.
There. I said it.
The signs have been out there for a while, but I thought people wouldn’t connect the dots, especially since I’ve been such a vocal advocate for clean cycling. But the thing that pushed me to confess, aside from my conscience, was an email from a friend. “It doesn’t add up, dude. Why don’t you come clean?”
The “it” he was referring to was a series of eyebrow-raising results, starting with a CBR crit at the end of last year where I got tenth out of a break that included some pretty phenomenal competition.
Then, this year I finished Boulevard with the group. Typically I get dropped on the first lap. Next was a third place crit finish, 50+ CBR. Icing on the cake was third place last week, where I overplayed my hand by riding in every break and collecting three primes.
Now that I’ve confessed, I’m going to do what others who’ve been caught most often refuse to do: I’m going to explain how an older masters racer goes from racing clean to racing dirty. It’s not a pretty story.
The problem is, of course, rooted in my childhood
When I was a little kid, I hated taking baths. Getting me wet and soaped down was always what my mom called a “production.” After cajoling, threatening, chasing, and finally manhandling me into the tub, a process that took a solid hour and was utterly exhausting to a woman with already frayed nerves, once I was in, I was equally hard to get out.
My brother and I would have water wars, spill most of the tub water out onto the mildewy tile, and leave the large white porcelain claw-footed bath with a thick black grease ring that took a can of Ajax and a bad case of elbow tendinitis to remove. If she could get me bathed twice a month it was a good month. In the summertime the success rate was even lower.
Why was I such a filthy, dirty little kid? Because I was from Texas, because we didn’t have a TV, because I was always outside, because I was always barefoot, and because of Fletcher.
When there’s a funny smell…blame it on the dog
Fletcher was our mixed German Shepherd – Airedale – Snipsnsnails mutt who rescued us when we went to the La Marque ASPCA to get adopted by a pet. Fletcher grew up into a rather large mammal, and like every dog in Texas from his generation, that meant he had an even larger contingent of fleas.
Dogs, yes, used to have fleas. There were no magical flea collars, or special flea-icide that you rubbed into their coat, and there sure as hell weren’t any mobile on-demand mutt washers painted pink with cute names like “Poochy Pedicures” or “Scrub-a-Dub Doggie.”
In those days, the only way to kill the fleas was with a garden hose and a box of flea powder made by DuPont or Dow, a chemical so strong it would make your fingers rot off, or dissolve the enamel on your teeth when you added it to the bathub gin, but that never, ever, ever killed one single solitary flea.
Instead, the lethal flea powder made the fleas stronger, bigger, jumpier, and supercharged their flea libidos such that after the flea bath Fletcher would, within days, have twice as many as he did before the rubdown. Since Fletcher slept in my bed and on the couch, and since I laid and played with him on the floor, and in the grass, and in the mud, I, too, was covered in fleas.
Many was the lazy summer afternoon when my brother and I would sit on the white couch and catch fleas, expertly laying them on their side, up against the hard edge of our fingernails as we popped them in half for having the audacity to bite us. In sum, Fletcher was a filthy, dirty dog, and not just because of fleas.
He was also especially nasty because he was constantly licking his balls. Nowadays the first matter of business when you get a dog is to whack off his gonads, but not in 1968. Dogs in those days had balls, and big dogs had big ones. Dogs grew to maturity with their nuts intact. Fletcher’s balls were big and purple and of all his body parts, they were the one that never got bitten by a flea. He licked and slurped and kept those things scrupulously clean, and woe betide the flea who tried to suck the blood out of either of those big doggie nuts. Whatever else you could have said about Fletcher, you couldn’t question his priorities.
Of course, in addition to constantly licking his balls, Fletcher would often lick us boys as well, on the hands if we were eating something, on the face if he saw a bit of peanut butter that hadn’t made it down the gullet, or on the legs if he just needed some salt. So I grew up, I suppose, in addition to having fleas, with a protective layer of dirty dog slime that covered me from head to toe.
As a side note, and in confirmation of what recent studies suggest, suffice it to say that I never got sick.
When the boy becomes a man
I cruised through elementary school a dirty and greasy little urchin and never thought much about it. Then, in seventh grade, we were sitting in the cafeteria at Jane Long Junior High, and the guys started talking. It was 1978, and boys had long hair.
First was Danny Martin, who had long, black, shimmering, beautiful hair. “When do you shower?” he asked Steve Wilson, who had long, shiny bronze hair.
“Before school, for sure.”
“Me, too,” said Danny.
Bill White, who had long, silky, blonde hair, piped up. “I shower at night, too. But I only shampoo in the morning.”
Everybody looked at me, including Glynis Wilson, the lovely girl with the gorgeous long hair. I stammered. “Uh, only in the, uh, morning,” I said.
A fiery curtain of red started at my neck and enveloped my entire head as I realized I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d bathed. In my entire life I’d never showered. That was for girls. Then I looked at Glynis and a light went on. Maybe girls weren’t so bad…
If I could have covered my head in a bag the rest of the day, I would have. I rushed home and ran to the bathroom. There, staring out at me from the mirror was an oily face topped with a rat’s nest of long, thick, matted, greasy hair. I jumped into the shower. I washed my hair. And I never intentionally missed a morning shower for the next thirty-six years.
When I started racing my bicycle in 1984, I raced clean, and I believe that most of the peloton did, too. There was always the dirty racer here and there, but for most of us there were too many compelling practical reasons to stay clean.
First and foremost were the shorts. Word was that if you wore the same shorts for even two days running, you’d end up with butt boils and ass chancres and festering saddle sores the size of a fried egg. That scared us. So we washed ourselves, and we washed our shorts.
Second of all was the stink thing. We were young men, and we smelled rather badly rather quickly. Unlike the halcyon years of little boydom, when I could go unbathed for weeks and never smell much worse than a mild case of mildew, all that changed with puberty.
Any mom who’s opened the closed door of a teenage son’s room knows this smell. It’s the dank, rank, febrile, fertile smell of boymones, those chemicals that lace everything they touch with the strong smell of reproduction. Stick a young man on a bike, make him pedal around in the hot Texas sun for a few hours, and you’ll wind up with a case of the Serious Stanks, the noxious B.O. that screams “I’m in France!” or “Next we invade Rome!”
Yeah. That smell.
So between the stink and the sores, it just didn’t make sense to race dirty. And I didn’t. For over thirty years I rode clean.
When the levee breaks
I have to admit, though, that it was frustrating, especially as I got older, slower, weaker, and more stupid. People who had once begged for mercy on my mighty wheel now came around me barely cracking a sweat. Was I that slow? Had my decline in my 40’s been that rapid? Was that massive sucking sound at the end of every chain gang me?
I tried everything. Diets. Power meters. I once spoke with a coach. I even talked to a guy who knew someone who had been properly fitted on a bike. I traded in my steel for carbon. Wool for lycra. I buried myself in the physics and metrics of performance, with the singular goal of cycling success. But the only compromise I refused to make was riding dirty. I’d win clean or I’d not win at all.
But then I’d look around and see some dude who wasn’t nearly as experienced, who didn’t train nearly as hard, and he’d spank me without even trying. I knew those guys were dirty, and I finally decided, if just to prove it to myself, that if I were as dirty as they, then I could win, too.
The long descent into corruption
The first thing I learned about racing dirty is that you don’t get fried egg-sized saddle sores. That’s just a fairy tale they use to scare away the goody two-shoes and keep them from going to the dark side. I found that you could wear the same pair of shorts three, four, five times (six if you were Brad House), with no ill effects.
Riding dirty wasn’t so bad, and the money you saved on laundry could go straight to gas money and entry fees. That’s how the system works. Sad, but true.
The other big fear riders have about riding dirty is that they’ll smell bad. This is true for the young dudes, but old fellows lose that stink of youth starting about age 40, and by 45 the testosterone odor has been completely replaced by Ben Gay. You can sweat for days on end and go to bed with a salt crust encasing your entire skin and it will only barely out-duel the smell of those joint creams and diaper balms.
In short, I got on the dirty racing program, and it worked. Even though you don’t smell that bad, it’s bad enough for guys not to want to draft off you, or at least not to draft too closely. And once I knew the secret, I could immediately tell who else was riding dirty, and who was riding clean. That’s how it is when you’re on the program. And it would shock you to hear some of the names.
Anyway, I’ve tried it and I’ve had enough. It’s time for Mrs. WM to let me move back in from the porch. From now on I’m going back to riding clean. But if there’s real money or prestige on the line, you just never know…