The previous week we raced the Brentwood GP, set in the heart of glamorous West L.A., smack in the middle of the homes owned by the rich, the famous, the divorced, and those serving life sentences in Nevada. What could be better than a craft beer garden, silicone breasts galore, curbside cafes with froo-froo drinks and menu items that end in -eaux, -aises, and three digits to the left of the decimal?
Ah, Brentwood! Home to Brooke Shields, who swung by to check out the action, home to a fabled bike race intertwined with L.A.’s oldest and most respected cycle club and high-dollar payday for the fastest wheels in the West, all recorded with a Hollywood sound truck and 50-man crew from Time-Warner Cable.
But I digress …
Taking it down to the next level
This Sunday, with only a few races left on the 2013 road calendar, marked the running of the Torrance Crit, a race as different from Brentwood as a $5,000 hooker is from a jar of peanut butter. By the middle of August we were all completely exhausted and even sicker of bike racing than we were in January, which was very.
After seventeen races at which I spent an average of $75.00 per race (for a total of $1,275.00, plus $1,932.83 in equipment, clothing, beer, and lodging), I had already wasted — yes, wasted — $3,207.83 in order to garner an average race finish of 31.6th place. The good news was that after Brentwood I was clearly on an uptick in performance, having crossed the line in an almost impossibly good 19th place. If I could only keep doubling my results like that, I’d be winning in no time!
It would be the challenge of a lifetime to improve on the Brentwood finish here at Torrance, but I was up to it. At season’s end when others were running on fumes, I could feel victory, or at least 18th Place, coursing through my veins.
Killing for crumbs
As I looked around the starting line I realized what a profound mistake it had been not to sign up for the 45+ race in which I had a .000003% chance of winning instead of the 35+, in which my chance was zero. Around me the riders all looked youthful, strong, and fast, with the exception of Bart, who looked older than the rest of us put together but still beat me like a drum.
The only consolation I got was that they, like me, were sick to death of pedaling around ugly office parks with no hope of victory, and, like me, were here out of force of habit, like a heroin addict who inserts the needle with no hope of relief, but prays only for maintenance of low-level misery. Like me, they were desperately hoping and praying that now, at the end of the year, some miracle would occur that might deliver a victory — a moving van running amok on the course that ran over all the other riders, or a giant sinkhole that swallowed everyone but me, or, even more impossibly, a last-minute miscalculation by Charon, Hair, Wike, or the other habitual Alpha males of the SoCal crit scene. But the most hopeful omen of all was the absence of Tinstman and DiMarchi, who had gone off to Vietnam in order to test their intestines against the local cuisine, and their legs against that nation’s top riders.
Where Brentwood was tony and well-heeled, the Torrance crit was the impoverished cousin with the extra toe, a wind-swept, barren hellhole held on the Telo training crit course so infamous in the South Bay. The wind-tossed, pock-marked, rock-strewn frontside of the course was buffeted by the standard 25 mph headwind that blows off of the ocean every afternoon. The field had a meager 31 riders, meaning that the strategy of “hide, then hide some more” wouldn’t work.
The prize, though somewhat smaller than the $13,000 on offer at Brentwood, was still enough to make the racers willing to fight and kill for it. Such is the value of a tank of gas among the hopeless addicts of the Pro Masters Crit community. When our race began there was a collective sigh of relief as we all knew we were just a few minutes closer to the end of an already endless season, and therefore the chance of receiving a serious brain injury this year while riding through potholes at warp speed on skinny tires was ever so slightly reduced.
A recap almost as miserable as the ride
You know how, when you read a race recap, it’s filled with mindlessly boring descriptions of what various riders did throughout the entire fifty minutes, though it could and should best be summed up by William Stone’s immortal race reports, which are all the same? That is, “Someone won. The others did not.”
Well, this race report has two versions.
The Stonish version: Charon Smith won. The others did not.
The Wankmeister version: Grab yourself a beer. Settle into a comfy couch. Get ready for a long, boring, painful read.
Since it was going to be a long, miserable, windy, high-speed beatdown, my teammate Josh Alverson decided to play it conservatively by sitting in, resting, and hoarding his energies until the end of the first one hundred yards, at which point he attacked. Everyone was relieved to see him go, because of all the no-hope moves that anyone could have pulled, this was the no-hopiest.
Five laps later, Josh returned to the fold just in time for John Wike to attack. My game plan since the night before had been to sit in. Rest. Save everything for one hard attack with a couple of laps to go. Follow nothing. Try nothing. Remember that these were all young men and that I was a feeble and infirm elderly fellow with a leaky prostate, terrible vision, and a dislocated pancreas. Seek whatever shelter from the wind I could find. Stay far from the front. Never attack. Say “please” a lot.
So of course I jumped on Wike’s wheel, which is like saying, “I poked the guy in the eye who was wearing the hockey mask and carrying the chainsaw.” Wike’s an unusual fellow in that his ferocity has multiple sources. Most bike racers can only conjure up “the angry” from some early childhood beating, or having lost a thumb while cleaning the chain on a track bike, or getting beaten up and having their stamp collection taken away while walking home from Mrs. Broughton’s 4th Grade class at Braeburn Elementary in Houston.
Wike’s fury, though comes from the usual places plus his junkyard dog loyalty to his team. I overheard the whole team pre-race meeting. Charon and Wike and Special K were sitting under the tent.
Charon: What’s the plan today, boys?
Wike: You will win.
Charon: Okay, but what’s the plan?
Wike: I will chase down everything.
Special K: Dude, you can’t chase everything. We only have three guys. Nobody’s gonna help you.
Wike: Okay. I will chase almost everything. You chase the other one or two moves.
Charon: Sounds like a plan.
Fools rush in where Wike isn’t afraid to tread
Many people say that Wike has no fear, and they cite these two examples:
Example A: Wike set the downhill speed record for the Red Bull Challenge on Tuna Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, well in excess of 55 mph on a suicidal, twisting, gravelly, washed-out, off-camber descent of death, and he set it despite crashing, remounting, and hitting it full-gas all the way to the bottom.
Example B: Coming into the final 400 yards of a mass sprint that featured ex-Euro pros like Ivan Dominguez, Wike was glued to the wheel of the Cuban Missile. A young and hormone-crazed Cat 1 tried to bump Wike off the Missile’s wheel, at 35 mph. Wike casually looped his arm under the youngster’s, then hooked their two handlebars together as the speed increased. From six inches away, Wike looked coolly into the eyes of the terrified child. “If you try to take that wheel from me again … ” Wike paused for dramatic effect as the speed increased, the finish line approached, and the roar of crowd became deafening. ” … then we’re both going down.”
The punkster trembled, Wike unlocked arms and bars, and uncorked for the finish, which was so close they had to review it with a team of officials on video replay. The enormous clunk on the concrete when Wike got off his bike was the sound of his 300-lb. testicles, and they left a divot in the cement the size of a wrecking ball.
But he seemed like such a nice axe-murderer, Mommy
The thing about Wike, though, despite his fury and his rail-like cornering skills and his devastating sprint and his fearless approach, is this: As long as you don’t try to douchebag him, he is the fairest, most honest, cleanest rider around, kind of like an ethical Great White Shark with guns and nunchuks.
Now I was on his wheel, and what had started off as a bike race quickly became an advanced lesson in high-speed cornering. Whereas most crit riders set themselves up for a turn, and it’s fairly predictable how they intend to enter the corner, Wike seems to come at each turn straight up-and-down, as tightly inside as possible, with no angle or lean at all. It looks impossible until, at the last second, rather than gracefully swooping through the apex of the turn, he grabs his stupid fucking bike by the scruff of its neck, rubs its nose in the poop, and violently slings it through the corner.
The bike is too afraid to do anything except go, and Wike never misses a pedal stroke. I, on the other hand, am ten feet back and digging like a DitchWitch in a mud trench to get back on his wheel. By the time I’d latch back on, John would be gouging the pedals again, which meant that the “recovery” from “sitting on his wheel” was in theory only.
Josh to the rescue
Soon we had another rider, and our three-man break looked promising, except for the fact that I was barely hanging on and we were a mere ten minutes into the race. Fortunately, my teammate Josh pulled the entire pack up to our break, relieving me of the indignity of getting dropped and making sure there was no way I would get on the podium. A lot of people don’t understand the teamwork in bike racing, which is complicated and hard to explain, and frankly, neither do I.
Now that I had squandered what little reserves I’d begun with (did I mention that I did a “warm-up” 30-mile ride that morning around PV that included 4k of climbing?), I slunk to the rear and swore to hide until the finish. This was the exact same moment that Special K attacked, followed by searing jumps from Wike, Josh, Jolly Green Giant, and most of the CalPools team.
The wounded and bleeding flailers huddled in a small lump, looking at each other and wondering which of the following would happen:
- We’d play “Yugo! Uh-uh, YOU go!” until the pack went off and left us for good. Then we’d be able to go home and give our pals “kudos” on Strava and tote up our weekly mileage.
- Some idiot in our midst would tow us up to the peloton, thereby frying and dropping himself from the race.
- The pack would miraculously slow down.
We got lucky, and it was Door #3. The wind and the accelerations were so fierce that the pack had winded itself, kind of like a dog that mindlessly chases a stick over and over until it collapses in a heap, never really sure why it was chasing the stick in the first place, and resolving never to do it ever again as long as it lives, or at least until someone throws the stick again.
A big lob
Josh attacked again for the 357th time and was up the road with Ollie before the pack brought that stick back, too. As everyone caught their breath, I seized my chance and rolled off the front with six to go. After the race a dude came up to me and said, “Yo, Wanky. New nickname. After that Big Blue Bus on flat tires acceleration, we’re gonna start calling you ‘Dangle.'”
As I dangled, each time I came through Turn 5 a hopelessly besotted clot of drunks screamed my name. At first I thought they were my friends, because it sure looked like Hoof Fixer Dude, New Girl, Frenchy, Tumbleweed, G3, Surfer Dan, Francisco, Toronto, Shannon, and Peyton Place.
Then I realized that they were standing in the driveway of the Strand Brewery, a local beer maker with a 10,000 gallon brewing tank that sells growlers to the public on the weekend. Noting that it was a weekend, and noting that everyone was clenching a growler, I paid closer attention the next time I came through, this time with another rider in tow.
“Get off the front, you fucking idiot!” is what they seemed to be saying. I wondered if they meant me?
With three laps to go, I and CalPools Dude were joined by the Jolly Green Giant, only he was more like the Grumpy Green Giant than the jolly one. I didn’t care, as he pulled like a giant, and now the game plan began to coalesce. None of us could sprint, but I could sprint at least as less badly as the other two. Victory was entirely possible. Best of all, my two teammates, Josh and Eric, would be at the front slowing down the pack, soft pedaling through the turns, and messing up Wike’s inevitable chase of death.
Josh to the rescue, again!
Fortunately, with two laps to go, Josh did such a great job of blocking that he blocked the whole peloton right up to our breakaway, then attacked us. “C’mon!” he said. “Let’s go!”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, since the only place I knew to go to was the finish line, and I’d been trying like hell to get there for the last four laps. Now there was a small gap, and Grumpy looked at me. “Close that gap!” he ordered.
“But that’s my teammate. Why should I?”
“You moron,” Grumpy snarled. “You need to learn how to race your bike.”
“That’s true,” I said. “But I’m still not chasing down my teammate for you.”
Grumpy lumbered up, but by that time the peloton was together again.
Final lap fireworks
With one lap to go, Charon woke up. He went over to the wash basin, brushed his teeth, put in some menthol-flavored mouthwash, and adjusted his helmet. Then he stretched, and with a moderate yawn rolled up towards the front.
“Hey,” he said. “Which one of you babies has the candy?”
“I do!” yowled one baby.
“Me, too!” hollered another.
“Me, me, me! Me got candy!” shouted a chorus of others.
“Okay, then,” said Charon. “Hold your hands up real high so I can take it from you easier.”
With three hundred yards to go he stretched again, checked his mouth in his pocket mirror to make sure there weren’t any pieces of black pepper between his teeth, and put his hands on the drops. Now the others were sprinting at max speed, giving it everything they had.
Charon pulled the morning newspaper out of his jersey pocket to make sure that the 15% Off Sale at Bill’s Bible Store was still going on, carefully refolded it, and put it back in his pocket. With a hundred yards to go he checked his phone. There was a text message from his fan club. “Hey, Charon!” it said. “Now might be a good time to go.”
“All right, then,” he said, and pushed one of his legs down, hard.
The bike shot forward.
Then he pushed down his other leg, harder. The bike shot forward even more.
“Aw man,” he said, seeing Hair and Eric almost at the line. “Am I going to have to push down AGAIN?” He gave the pedal one more mighty push with his leg and passed the two leading riders by thirty feet. Both of them wobbled and almost smacked into the curb as the wall of wind, combined with the sonic boom, knocked them into each other.
Sure, those guys stood on the podium. Eric even clinched third place zero help from his teammates. But me? I finished 18th, one whole placing better than at Brentwood. If I can just squeeze in seventeen more races between now and August 31, well … you do the math.