I teed up at 9:20 AM. There were sixty other old people, all over the age of 50. The checkered flag fell and we clipped into various levels of anxiety. Me, I, mine was minimal because it was just another bicycle race and the worst that could happen was death.
Roger had smoothed out the course from its heyday in 2009. That was my first and only attempt, when we spit down the quick hill onto a hard right-hander. There is a channel across the street when you hit the turn, and back in the bad old days the disorganizers had only shut down half of PCH, which meant you went screaming, flying, then oh-shit-Mary-mother-of-dog gimme a fucking handful of the biggest brakes you got because you were following the numbnuts in front of you who was following the numbnuts in front of him who was following the numbnuts in front of him who was coming in way too hot, hot like honey-I’m-so-glad-to-be-home-after-three-months-on-the-road-hot, and by the time the bad, broken tune of the accordion effect had reached you, mid-pack, you were squealing brakes and coming too damned fast too damned close to the giant steel barricades that cordoned off the highway.
Chris Hahn’s brother had flipped his bike and broke his frame and his wheels and shattered his hip that day. The medic tent had been a MASH unit, and none of that bothered me nearly as much as this, the terrible nightmare I still have and see with the same Technicolor I saw it in 2009: the giant, wet, glistening red pool of blood in the turn, a pool augmented lap by lap, race by race until it was a bona fide puddle of gore.
Progress in the name of sport
Today there was none of that. The course took the full two lanes on PCH and the inconvenienced commuters, made minutes late for their afternoon drunken stupor, could either stew in their juices or pull over and hop into the beer garden. Many did.
We were off and running, forty minutes of sad testosterone, sagging skin, incipient melanoma, drippy urinary tracts, and memories of what we thought we used to be but in fact never really were. I sat at the back and cruised through the turns.
It is easy racing in a giant blob of old people on a short closed fast course. No matter how fast the fast riders go, the blob goes faster, reabsorbs them, belches, farts, picks its teeth, waits for the sprunt.
Three riders dashed away and their teams “blocked,” which is another way of saying none of the old people wanted to race their bikes, especially if it meant going as fast as the three people out there in the wind. But the blob has its own fears and desires, and before long it came to life and sucked them back.
I may have been part of that.
With old people, even sixty or seventy of them, there are several core principles that define their bicycle races. The first is that none of them wants to die. This differs wholesale from all of the 5’s, all of the 4’s, all of the 1’s and 2’s, most of the 3’s, and half of the 35+ racers.
Those people race their bikes truly, because if you are not willing to die now, today, this moment, then you are not racing, you are simply following other racers, or, in the case of the entire 50+ field, in which no one even wants to get paralyzed or to lose a limb or to come home covered head to toe in bandages, you’re simply pedaling fast. I should note that exactly forty-one of them pedaled faster than I did.
With six laps to go we were all back together. This was the point where that which we expected, predicted, and knew would happen did in fact come to pass. The great unwashed mass of riders acknowledged what math could have told them before they ever signed up: their chance of winning was zero percent. But cyclists are generally innumerate, and it takes the blunt trauma of reality to demonstrate what could have been learned with a calculator over a beer and a sandwich. The blunt trauma was this, the same thing it always was: in order to win the race you must now do three impossible things in succession.
- Move up fifty places so you are on Thurlow’s wheel.
- Stay there until the final 200 yards.
- Pass Thurlow and whomever is in front of him.
None of these things was possible. In order to move up, you would have had to go 35 miles per hour. As an old person, you could not do this. Even if you could, you would have found twenty other people just as hopeless as you fighting for that one magical wheel. None of them would have given it to you, so you would have been pedaling at 35 miles per hour, which you couldn’t do, by yourself, out in the wind, which, after the first turn, would have thrust you all the way back to sixtieth place, where you began.
Even if you had been able to get to the front and barge your way onto Thurlow’s wheel, then what would you have done? You would have had to come around him. How would you have done that? You’ve never passed him in your life, except for that one time before a race when he was standing on the sidewalk adjusting his brakes. And then, even if you had done all of these impossible things in succession that you had never done before singly, and in fact don’t even know how to do, there would still have been the issue of the one or two people like Craig Miller or Mark Noble who would still have been in front of you. How would you have passed them?
Answer: you wouldn’t have, and you didn’t.
This was all a best case scenario, of course. More likely, you would have gotten to the front gassed and done something stupid, crashed onto your chest or spine or neck and had forty people run over your head and teeth.
How to properly finish the race
As a result, with six laps to go the race separated itself. Everyone who knew that 1-2-3 above was impossible drifted to the back. That was most of the field. Twenty riders either surged to the fore or locked in their position. They were still not willing to die, so it wasn’t technically a bike race, but at this point they were certainly willing to kill someone else, which was extra incentive to stay at the back and mug for the cameras.
Having won neither a placing nor a prime, I came up to Roger after the race and congratulated him for having removed the blood puddle corner. He smiled and gave me a free giant bottle of beer, proving that you can often get better results in a bike race by knowing the right person than by showing any type of athletic talent or skill.
On the way back to my car I saw Peta. She waved me over to her table, where she was having a cup of coffee and a light breakfast with David Miller, a Cat 4 who had been willing to die that day and had earned 3rd place as a result. I was so excited to be invited to join her that I tripped, dropped my bottle of beer on the paving stones and shattered it into a million pieces. My shoes filled with cold beer. Peta didn’t seem as happy to see me anymore.
I went beerless back to the car, leaned my bike against it, and changed. I had signed up for the 35+ race later in the day but after losing my beer had lost my enthusiasm as well. I got into the car and drove off, forgetting about the bike, which landed with a loud crash in a pile of gravel and dirt.
Once home I read the newspaper and thought about signing up for the 805 Race Series next weekend. I took out my calculator and ran some numbers on a napkin. “Zero percent,” it said.
“Yes,” I nodded, well into my second bottle of beer. “But I wonder to how many decimal places?”
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