The first time I rode with Stryker was on the Palm Springs Century, a nasty, windy, hot, unpleasant slog through the desert in February that I’ve done my best to forget. We were seventy miles in and he said, “You know, I’ve got a heart condition.” I immediately eased up and let him sit on, afraid I’d kill the kindly old soul.
Five years later Major Bob called. “Hey, wanna go ride with the Long Beach Freds?”
“Are those the guys Stryker rides with?”
“Sure,” I said. “As long as it’s easy. The intergalactic Donut Ride championship and celebrity beatdown with Steve Tilford is tomorrow and I’ve been training for this since June. So I need to go real, real easy.”
“Come on. When the club name has ‘Freds’ in it, how hard do think it can be?”
Major Bob picked me up at my apartment at 5:20 and we drove to Long Beach, which is only ten miles away as the crow flies. But unless you’re a crow you have to drive or ride over there, and it takes forever. We went through the pre-dawn haunts of Long Beach, past smoking piles of slag, cadmium, mercury, lead, cesium 137, and strontium 90.
“Breathe deep,” said Major Bob.
We passed a group of youths gathered around an elderly fellow with whom they joked and chatted as they robbed and beat him with a tire iron.
The ride began in the pitch black but everyone had a light. “Where does this ride go?” I asked Gil.
“Yeah, but I mean the ride. Where do you ride?”
“Is there an echo out here?” someone piped up.
PCH through Long Beach is clogged with cars, stoplights, trucks, glass, rocks, sand, manhole covers, open manholes, trenches, and smoking piles of slag, cadmium, mercury, lead, cesium 137, and strontium 90. “As long as we go easy,” I said.
Hegg laughed. “It’ll be plenty easy.” [Note to self: When Olympic gold medalist says it’ll be easy, he might mean something different from you and me.]
Shortly thereafter the speed increased to 30, with only a few of the 40-odd riders doing any work as the rest gasped and lunged for a wheel. By the time Lotts ran into an open manhole and exploded his tube with what sounded like a rifle shot, the group was in tatters, spattered in ones and twos for more than a mile.
I had taken exactly three pulls, and each time it had felt like the final 200 meters of an uphill sprint after a 100-mile road race that you did on your hands.
We regrouped and the insanity began again. It stopped briefly as we turned around and rode home, this time in a rotating paceline. The twelve riders of the forty who began the rotation while the others sat on dwindled to ten, then seven, then six, and then five. Each time he pulled through, Lotts would punch another person out the back.
Dutifully doing my turns until the remaining five riders all began breathing like winded water buffaloes, we came to a red light. One of the dudes looked at me angrily. “Quit pulling through like that! It’s too fast!”
I apologized for making him tired and slunk to the back, as the shards of the group rolled up to the light. First among them was Stryker. “Hey Seth!” he shouted. “Ease up. I have a heart condition, y’know!” Then he pounded off the line, dropped ten guys, and would have won the final sprunt to the bagels and cream cheese if he hadn’t flatted.
“Can you give me a hand?” he barked. “I have a heart condition.”
I did my best to put his wheel on backwards, but couldn’t. About this time a huge deluge arrived. A giant forklift that had been riding on the shoulder while its operator smoked a bong saw us changing the tire, hit the brakes, and watched in amusement as his 40-ton piece of equipment with bald tires began to go sideways. “Ever had a forty-foot forklift prong stuck up your butt?” asked Stryker.
“No,” I said.
“Me either. And thank dog we’re not gonna start today,” he said as the forklift came to a stop inches from our huddled pooping group.
At the coffee shop Major Bob and I were treated to a cup of Long Beach’s special blends; you could choose strontium or cesium flavor, depending on which half life you liked best. Now that no one had to actually pedal, the shit talking assumed epic proportions. “Next time you chop my wheel like that I’m putting a fucking bullet in your nuts,” said Lotts, which was his polite way of saying “don’t move over so quickly.”
Each person recounted a version of reality completely at odds with what we all had seen, but the stitched-together delusions gradually began to replace actuality. Instead of a hot burning in my thighs, raspy lungs, and the feeling that tomorrow I’d be lucky to get out of bed, I was beginning to recall an easy, pleasant spin with friends.
“We went easy today because of my heart condition,” said Stryker. “But come back on Wednesday and we’ll make sure you get a workout.”
I spit up a pair of ribs, hobbled back to the car, and went home. Freds, indeed.
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