It began like any other Saturday morning. There we were, twenty-five old fellows, buck naked in the bedroom of a someone’s parents, discreetly eyeing each others’ wrinkled junk as we slathered goop on our legs and put on stretch underwear. Was it a bad home video with distasteful subject matter? No. It was the 17th Annual French Toast Ride, and we were kitting up for the big showdown.
We had already scarfed down the finest breakfast in America: French toast, hot coffee, muffins, fresh fruit, and two delicious kinds of pork — sausage and bacon. As we gratefully devoured the incomparable meal prepared by Cindi, Gina, Lynn, Nancy, Jim, and Steve Jaeger, little did we know that the porcine gods were frowning on our consumption of their brethren.
Instead, we gaily prepped for what promised to be another edition of the most amazing bike ride in America: 117 lethal miles of Ventura County torture, capped by the steeps of Balcom Canyon and terminated at Mile 115 by the stabbing, punch-em-up Golf Course Climb. As King Harold put on his leg warmers, his arm warmers, his two undershirts, his long-sleeve jersey, his shoe covers, his long-fingered gloves, and his headwrap, the other riders chortled.
“Planning for a snowstorm, Harry?”
“Gearing up for the Iditarod?”
King Harold merely smiled as he glanced out the window. “Maybe you wankers didn’t notice that it’s raining.”
“Rain, schmain!” the chorus shouted back. “The forecast says 5% chance of rain and overcast skies.”
“Well, it’s half right,” he said.
“Anyway,” said Bull, “this is SoCal, and it’s always perfect weather for the FTR, and we’re in the middle of the worst drought in recorded history. This sprinkle will be gone before we get to Fillmore.”
On cue a bolt of lightning hit the house across the street, a peal of thunder ripped across the sky, and the light drizzle picked up ever so slightly.
I thought back to 5:30 that morning, when Mrs. Wankmeister had driven me over to Clodhopper’s. He had generously offered to drive me, Surfer Dan, and Toronto up to Camarillo, and we had accepted because Clodhopper, in addition to being the world’s most prepared man, always travels in style.
“Honey, let’s go,” I said as I roused her out of bed.
“You goin’ onna French cupcake ride? It’s gonna rain onna dogs.”
“Toast, not cupcake. And we aren’t cupcakes, honey, we’re hard men. And there’s only a 5% chance of rain.”
“It’s gonna rain onna cats so don’t call me up because you’re crashing onna slickery street.” She didn’t seem too happy about the early departure, but she drove me down to Clodhopper’s anyway.
As I arrived Clodhopper was putting the finishing touches on his brand new Xyplonk bike rack.
“Like it?” he asked.
It was the most amazing bike rack I’d ever seen, and obviously cost more than my Prius. “That’s incredible,” I said.
“Yep. Xyplonk is handmade in Finnland by artisan bike rack makers. Each one is made from hand-mined bauxite and assembled by 9th generation bike rack makers.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Yep. They’re a bit pricey; this one set me back six grand. But that’s less than the cost of the bike, right?”
He wasn’t kidding. Clodhopper’s bike cost $15k, plus $9k for the handmade wheels, which are made from virtually unobtainable profamatanium. I put my bike on the rack and we got ready to go. “Where’s your bike?” I asked.
“In the back of the Avalanche. I’d never put my bike on a rack. What if some knucklehead rear-ends me, or I rip the rack off by going up a driveway that’s too steep?”
“Good point,” I said. “But if you’re never going to use it, why go to all the expense?”
Clodhopper looked at me. “If I was going to use a bike rack, I’d use the best one I could buy. And in my world, you take as good care of your friends’ stuff as you would with your own.”
“Well, if it was me you’d be getting one of those aluminum jobs with fabric straps that hang onto the rain gutter.”
“I know,” he said. “That’s why I’m driving. Let’s go.”
Clodhopper sent off two text messages to Surfer and Toronto to let them know we were en route. “I drafted the texts last night and put them in the queue. Be prepared. That’s my motto.”
I’d rather be wet than cold: dash to the Fillmore sprunt
Our resplendent group of 25 riders rolled out in the drizzle that had turned to moderately pounding rain, and our immaculate bikes were almost immediately covered in dreck. Manslaughter turned to me as we went from damp to wet to soaked. “It’s not a cold rain at least,” he said.
“Nope,” I said.
“And I’d rather be wet than cold,” he said.
“Yep.” We both looked at King Harold, who was dry as a bone and quite cozy in his Iditarod get-up, and we wondered the same thing: “What if we end up wet and cold?”
We needn’t have wondered …
The first tiny climb, which was so small and brief and easy that I hardly inhaled, was soon past. At the next little bump we had a flat, and Manslaughter leaned over to me as we waited. “Hey, Wanky,” he said.
“Is it a bad sign if those first two little non-climbs really hurt?”
I looked at him and thought briefly about telling the truth. “Nah,” I said. “Those are just warm-up pangs. Everybody’s hurting.” He knew I was lying, but just hearing my blatant dishonesty said with such kindness and sincerity made him smile. The group continued on, pushing up and over the first rated climb of the day, the Fillmore Hump. I skittered to the front in order to take the descent first. I’m a terrible descender, and my full-carbon wheels, which are made completely of carbon, don’t stop at all when they’re wet, although they make a very cool full-carbon “sheeeeee” sound when you squeeze on the brakes that don’t stop, which is cooler than the “shirrrrrr” sound they make when they brake dry and do stop.
I figured that since I couldn’t stop and would likely crash, better to take out as many people as possible by riding at the front. The minute the steep, hairy-pinned descent commenced, we all noticed giant puddles of fresh motor oil in the middle of the road. Bikes began twitching sideways, sphincters began clenching (then, unfortunately, unclenching), oaths were shouted, and Hair bombed the descent with Dally Rumple at full speed. With no one able to catch them, Hair blitzed across the Fillmore city limit sign to collect the first scalp of the day.
We had a couple more flats, and raced on towards Santa Paula. Hair took that sprunt, too.
Super boring bike stuff
[This next section details the blow-by-blow of the Ojai climb, the run across the valley, the descent, and the sprunt into Ojai. It is incredibly boring and filled with mindless cycling details that are numbingly inane unless you were one of the people involved. Others may skip to the next section, “Slip sliding away.”]
A couple of miles after leaving Santa Paula the climb began. How long was it? I don’t know. How steep was it? I don’t know. But I do know this: at some point we went from twenty-five riders to seven. The rain began to pour down with personal animosity until we had all reached the level of wetness that lets you know you’re totally drenched: our balls were soaked.
Riding behind someone with soaked balls is a bummer because when they press down with one leg it squeezes the ball sauce out of the chamois and onto the saddle, from whence it drips onto the back tire and is then violently flung up into your face, imparting a light flavor of oil, hints of grease, oaked flavors of dirt, big and fruit-forward essences of transmission fluid from the asphalt, and a velvety-with-salt-and-sweat finish.
G$ pushed to the front and began shedding deadwood. I started at the back and leapfrogged from shattering grupetto to shattering grupetto. There was Bull, regretting (but not really) all those chili-cheese burritos. There was Aston Martin, looking for a replacement piston. There was Dream Crusher, finding out what it was like to be the crushee. There was Clodhopper, speed-dialing Uber. And there, just ahead, were the leaders — Roadchamp, Full Gas Phil, G$, Hair, Dally Rumple, FTR DS Jaeger, and Marmaluke.
I latched onto the rear like a sucker-fish. Roadchamp attacked and Full Gas Phil followed. G$ repeatedly attacked to try and bridge the gap before settling down to set a searing tempo. Stern-O, arguably the toughest old boot on the ride at 65 years old, had set out ahead of the group and yelled encouragement as we flew by.
We crested the climb and Marmaluke bridged us to Roadchamp and Full Gas Phil. Now we had an 8-man flailaway and the pace went from torrid to unbearable. The rain beat down, washing my sulfuric acid-based sunscreen into my eyes, blinding me so badly that I could only crack my left eye. Sitting two inches off a wheel, eyes burning, the sheets of rain making everything invisible, I feebly rotated through, easily the weakest in the group.
Hair, the supposed sprinter, was again showing his toughness as he hung with the climbers, poured on the coal along the flats, and hung back to give me a break when I started to drift off the last wheel. We hit the long, fast, soaking, twisty descent and everyone sat up except for Phil, Hair, G$, and me. Our bikes were slithering in the turns, and when we hit the flat 3-mile run-in to Ojai, Full Gas Phil opened it up full throttle. As we hit the outskirts of town Hair leaped away, Full Gas followed, and someone won the sprunt. G$ and I just gasped, relieved that it was over.
Slip sliding away
One by one the riders straggled into the Ojai Chevron, wet and frozen to the core. Instead of the usual convenience store fare of cokes and candy bars, Toronto and Surfer scarfed two large cups of instant ramen, a cup of chicken noodle soup, and an extra-large cup of hot cocoa. One rider bought two large cups of coffee, drank one, and poured the other one into his shoes.
“What the fuck are you doing?” we asked.
“Thawing my feet. Hopefully they’ll absorb some caffeine, too.”
I immediately noticed a selection of longshoreman knit caps on a rack and bought one. My helmet sat on it like a cherry atop a scoop of ice cream, but I didn’t care. We stood in a circle under the store’s heating vent, dripping filthy water onto the floor and shivering uncontrollably.
“Well, boys,” DJ said. “I think we should shorten the ride. What’s your vote?”
Various wankers nodded in agreement. We were fifty miles in, and we’d have a hundred hard, miserable miles even with the 17-mile shortcut. One rider protested. “But we’d be missing the epic Lake Casitas climb, the county line sprunt, and more of the general beatdown.”
Another chimed in. “FTR has never been truncated. Ever.”
King Harold spoke up. “What kind of wussy talk is this? Let’s do the friggin’ ride. It ain’t the French Cupcake Ride, is it?”
I thought of Mrs. WM. “Guys,” I said, “this is about pride. Honor. Manliness. Are we hardmen, or are we soggy cupcakes? What’s 17 extra miles with a touch of climbing? Who’s afraid of hypothermia and a slow, agonizing death? Do we want to go home like cowards and pantywaists, or with our heads held high? Whattaya say? Are you with me, men?”
They looked at me like I was insane. “Hey, Wanky,” Manslaughter piped up. “You can go do whatever the fugg you want. We’re frozen. We’re soaking wet. We’re under dressed. We have prostate issues and incipient pneumonia. Iron Mike is curled up in a fetal ball and begging someone to pour boiling water down his shorts. Zero fucks are given whether we do 100 miles or 117. The fact that we’ve even gone this far makes us immortally stupid. So no, we’re not only not with you, we don’t even know you.”
The group nodded in unison and we reluctantly faced the rain again, whose intensity had increased to that of a large-diameter fire hose.
A few miles later, disaster struck. On the outskirts of Ventura we were crossing a particularly slick section of road when Dream Crusher, who was just behind me, took the opportunity to jerk his wheel and go splattering across the pavement. I didn’t look back but could hear the hideous sound of crunching carbon and thunking meat as it hit. I immediately began composing my noble speech.
“Guys, as much as I’d like to complete this FTR, I hereby volunteer to ride back with Dream Crusher in the heated ambulance. Carry on without me, and Mr. EMS dude, please give me another blanket.”
Dream Crusher was dragged onto the pavement where, unfortunately, his bike was fine and he only had two tiny scratches on his leg. “Don’t feel bad, wanker,” said Manslaughter. “That was a tricky section right there. Only a highly skilled rider could have successfully navigated it.”
At that moment a 75-year-old man on a tricycle hauling a steel wagon filled with burritos came whipping through the same section, bunny-hopped the curb with the wagon, sailed off the far curb and careened the trike onto two wheels as he swerved through the street. “Get that guy’s phone number,” Bull said, “and sign Dream Crusher up for some lessons.”
Circle K for “killer”
[More tedious bike crap. General interest readers may skip to “Shitfaced.”]
In Ventura we turned left at the Circle K and began the long climb out of town, which began the 20-mile undulating road back to Santa Paula, and from there to the dreaded Balcom Canyon.
MMX, who had been idling is engine for most of the ride, roared to the fore and immediately distanced the group. Dogg and Dally Rumple charged for a while, then MMX surged again, his tequila-fueled legs beating the pedals with a mad fury. This time, the punch was followed by a stinging counter unleashed by Full Gas Phil. The twosome rode off, with Hair, me, Surfer Dan, and Marmaluke trailing in the fumes.
Marmaluke bridged the gap, and we settled into a terrible six-man paceline where Full Gas, Marmaluke, and MMX relentlessly crushed it. The only rider to never skip a pull besides Full Gas was Hair, who again showed incredible mettle and tenacity. Phil kept the pace bleedlingly fast, with MMX smashing through each time so hard that I finally gave up pulling and hung on for dear life.
We knew the wankoton, which included G$, Roadchamp, FTR DS, King Harold, Dally Rumple, and Clodhopper would be chasing their brains out, not that they had many. Fearing the chase we drove on even harder until I was reduced to a sobbing puddle of spaghetti legs and melted ego. However, far from chasing, the wankoton had flatted twice just past the Circle K, and they were lollygagging along, wholly unconcerned with our heroics.
By the time we reached Santa Paula, Hair was mush. “Hey, guys,” he pleaded, “shouldn’t we wait for the group? Jaeger will be upset.” This was code speak for “Can I crawl off into this gutter and quit?”
Since he’s one of our best friends, and had done a lot of work, and had never skipped a pull, we accelerated, dropped him, and left him to fend for himself. By now all pretense of warm, hard rain had stopped and we were slogging through a frozen, complete deluge.
When the wankoton got into Santa Paula, King Harold, who was the designated sweeper, was facing a scenario unlike any other in the history of the FTR. Various riders had simply disappeared. G3, Stern-O, Manslaughter, and Toronto were nowhere to be found. And instead of plowing through Santa Paula, the wankoton wobbled to a feeble stop in front of a gas station.
Iron Mike was groaning in a language he didn’t even speak, and Bull, who is very careful with his equipment, flung his $7k bike down into a puddle of mud and rocks. “Bull need cheese,” he grunted.
A line of filthy, soaked, frozen, angry, and demented old fellows followed him into the convenience mart, where they bought the entire kettle of scalding coffee and took turns pouring it onto their feet. Bull grabbed a large styrofoam bowl and heaped it high with chili-cheese burritos, melted quesadilla cheese, and four cheese-covered wieners. Using a plastic knife and his fingers, he ground it up into a slurry, added some hot coffee, water, and Gatorade, and drank it. Two other riders simply stood on the curb and urinated in their shorts, hoping the pee would at least clean them up a little bit, and if nothing else warm their refrigerated junk.
Shitfaced, or, The pigs strike back
Marmaluke, MMX, Full Gas, and I knew nothing of this as we motored through the veil of cold, pounding rain to Balcom Canyon. I had gone from taking no pulls at all to simply whimpering. “Hey fellas, don’t drop me, okay?” I begged.
“HTFU,” said MMX.
“STFU,” said FG Phil.
“It’ll cost you fifty bucks,” said Marmaluke.
“Done,” I said.
We turned up the road leading to Balcom, and a mile in I cracked and fell off the back. Balcom is steep, and this time the right-hand gutter was filled with a raging torrent, whereas the surface of the road was slapping back at my front wheel with cascading sheets of water.
Up ahead Marmaluke broke like a stick in Stern-O’s rear triangle as MMX paperboyed up the climb. Full Gas Phil distanced the duo and claimed his first ever Balcom Canyon FTR KOM … or so he thought. Impossibly, they waited for me. I got to the top; the view to the bottom of the canyon was visible in between the alternating strength of the downpour, but we saw no one.
“Should we wait for those wankers?” said Full Gas.
“I’m frozen,” said MMX.
“If we stop much longer I won’t be able to restart,” said Marmaluke.
“Urgle,” I said.
We hopped on our bikes and slid down the other side of the canyon. MMX now rolled to the fore and stayed there. My punishment for asking to be allowed to stay was being allowed to stay. Marmaluke occasionally showed a glimmer of humanity and towed me back up as MMX and Full Gas took turns smashing it into the rain and grime.
Only, as we turned onto the final stretch of highway leading to the feared Golf Course climb, I noticed that we weren’t riding through grime anymore. Instead, we were riding through a thick, light brown sludge that had the suspicious smell, look, and consistency of pig shit. All of the manure from the pig trucks had turned into semi-liquid from the rain and was now being showered into our faces.
I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten a gallon of pig shit before, but it doesn’t taste very good. Perhaps it’s the Hepatitis C, or the lethal piggi shitti killimus bacteria, or maybe it’s the clumps of raw pig sewage mixed with the detritus of the road, but whatever the reason, smearing your face, lips, and tongue with clods of pork poop tastes downright awful.
On cue, cars passed us at 80, showering our sides with more of the lovely piggy perfume. In moments we had gone from filthy, grimy black to shimmering poopy brown. The only thing that would have been worse would have been getting dropped, so I hunkered down, swallowed my portion as it spewed down my throat from Marmaluke’s rear wheel, and pounded on.
At the golf course MMX and Full Gas Phil kicked it one last time, and Marmaluke crumpled like piece of tinfoil. I had crumpled long ago, but struggled up to his rear wheel and made sure that my front wheel was 1mm ahead of his at the summit because, bike racer. And wanker.
MMX and FGP had attacked over the top, determined to gloriously ride in covered in pig shit without us in tow. That was fine, except that since I’d only been to the Jaegers’ home about ten times, I got lost. Somewhere in Camarillo Marmaluke whipped out his cell phone. “I got their address, dude, no worries.”
However, there actually were worries, and the biggest one was that the rain kept pounding his cell phone, which as a result gave us perfect directions to downtown Shanghai, then Kinshasa, then Bobodelasso, then Prague, but couldn’t find the Jagers’. Now the prospects were dire and I thought about how I’d complained about shortening the ride. Marmaluke, who had bragged about his Chicago origins and his imperviousness to this wimpy SoCal weather, was shuddering and shaking so badly that he could barely hold his phone.
“We gotta keep moving,” I said, feeling the hypothermia ratchet up a notch. After five pointless minutes wandering through a neighborhood, we saw a postal truck. “Excuse me,” I chattered, “where is West Kensington Lane?”
The driver wrinkled his forehead. “There’s no street in Camarillo by that name.”
“Yes there is. I’ve been there numerous times. It’s right around here somewhere.”
“I’ve been delivering mail here for thirty years,” replied, “but good luck.”
Just before we decided to throw our bikes on a lawn and let them be washed by the torrent down to the Pacific, Marmaluke spied a school. “Let’s go there and see if we can dry out the phone,” he said.
“Are you sure you’re allowed to go within 150 feet of a school?” I asked. “Plus, how are you going to dry it out? We’re wet from head to balls to toe.”
Marmaluke pulled under an awning and took out his phone. Then he carefully unpacked a small tool bag, which was drenched. Out of the bag he took a piece of paper, which was drenched. He unfolded the paper and inside it was the world’s tiniest plastic bag. He opened the micro-bag and took out a lone, bone dry piece of tissue paper.
“What in the world are you carrying around a dry piece of paper for?” I asked in amazement.
“For something like this,” he said, and proceeded to wipe dry the phone screen, which buzzed to life and mapped us instantly to West Kensington Lane, a mere 3-minute pedal away.
We swooped up the driveway and spied the bikes of MMX and Full Gas Phil, along with the rigs of Surfer and the others who had given up on Balcom and taken a shortcut home.
Cindi, Gina, and Lynn stood in the garage smiling at us. “You made it!” they cheered, draping us in towels. We wiped off the mess and tiptoed into the shower, where the day ended pretty much the same way it had started, with slightly older, infinitely more tired, and much more wrinkled old men standing around naked, except this time doing it together in a shower.
All hail the conquering heroes
One by one the broken and weary riders came in. All were frozen to the core except for Clodhopper and King Harold, who were still toasty and mostly dry. The Jaegers then fed us with Round Two, which consisted of delicious sandwiches on the freshest buns, mounds of cookies, gallons of very hot coffee, and cold beer for those who could ingest anything modified by the word “cold.”
It was the first time in history that the FTR had gone less than the full 117 miles, but had it gone even fifty yards further there were riders like me who would have finished not with a sandwich but with a solemn graveside service. It was still a full hundred miles of suffering hell, of misery beyond compare, of danger, collapse, fear, regret, a ride whose awfulness was encapsulated by the words of Full Gas Phil as we plowed through the pig poop — “Okay. I’m not having fun now.”
In other words, it was the very best FTR ever. Thank you Dave Jaeger, and thank you to the Jaeger family for the gift. My eyes are swollen shut this morning as a result of the bacterial infection from the pig stuff, and later in the afternoon I’ll get my blood tested for hepatitis, but it was worth every terrible turn of the pedal, not least of all because everyone made it home alive.
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