I stared at my giant bowl, sloshing to the brim with amazing chicken chili, the plate next to it runneth-ing over with chips, guac, salsa, goat cheese, giant shrimp pan-fried in ceviche sauce, a bowling ball rack of mini-cornbread, and a dessert plate groaning under two slabs of pecan pie towering with Antarctica glaciers of vanilla ice cream.
The ice cream was melting rapidly, and two thoughts occurred to me:
- “My legs feel like that soft puddle of melted ice cream.”
- “Historically they fed the lambs BEFORE the slaughter.”
Nice Michael Smith, the single nicest human being I’ve ever met through cycling, had invited a blood-soaked cadre of young assassins to his house for a Saturday “fun ride” through Orange County. The “fun ride” was to be followed by a glorious feast of food items that I normally could only gaze at from afar when trolling the oatmeal and peanut butter aisles at Safeway.
However, the night before the “fun ride” I took a look at the final start list and immediately ran to the potty. One name, writ large, Manzilla, was followed by a list of people whose only known function in life was to hurt other people. Smasher, Alx Bns, the Moldovan Murderer, Meatgrinder, Search, some Italian dude (what do they know about cycling?), All Stairs, Bo, and of course Nice Michael Smith himself.
I called up Nice Michael. “Dude,” I said, “I can’t make it tomorrow for the ride. Can I just come by afterwards and eat?”
“Sure,” he said, “what’s up?”
“I’m riding so incredibly well right now, clumbing and sprunting and time trailing and such, that I need to back it off for a week and looking at the start list you clowns are gonna throw down and I’m gonna get sucked in and go too hard and wind up hurt and overtrained which I pretty much already am here in early fuggin’ November.”
“Don’t worry, you can chill. Boozy P. and CEO will be there.”
“They will?” My fears evaporated.
Boozy P., who is normally pretty fierce on the bike, is only fit for six months every three years; the rest of the time he works on bikes between drinks. CEO is a great guy to ride with because he’s slower than a Tonka truck and super fun to talk with. In other words, I’d have company.
The morning of the “fun ride” I arrived, desperately searching for Boozy P. and CEO. Neither was there. “Yo, Michael,” I said, “where are my ride mates?”
“Oh, CEO changed his mind and decided to go to a kiddie soccer game, and I think Boozy P. forgot to set his alarm.”
On the way from Los Alamitos to our first obstacle, the San Joachim climb, we pushed along PCH, which from Long Beach is fifteen miles of road sliced by three hundred stop lights. The strong young people sat on the front and kept a steady, battering pace into the wind. Each time I got closer to the front we’d catch a light and I’d do my “whoops how do these pedal thingies work” trick and fumble with my pedal until the group was past, click in, and sneak up to the rear again. In this manner I avoided ever taking a pull.
At the launch site we paused while Nice Michael Smith explained the climb and administered last rites. “Grandpa here is riding super strong so he’ll see you all at the top,” Nice Michael said with cruel irony, and bam we were off. I hopped onto Manzilla’s wheel, grimly prepared to have my legs torn off and the dangling tendons wrapped around my nuts as Manzilla would tear off his own leg and beat me to death with it.
In 148 head-to-head match-ups, none of which Manzilla has ever been aware of, I have finished a climb ahead of him exactly twice, and both days have been circled on my calendar and turned into Davidson National Family Holidays. The first time I wept openly; the second time I slaughtered a goat and several virgins.
Today was apparently not going to be the third time because after a handful of minutes he pushed down on the pedals with such brute force that the spinning rear wheel left a three-inch divot in the asphalt. I attacked backwards as Smasher, Pink Sox, Nice Michael, Alx, and All Stairs pounded by, fighting each other for the honor of grabbing Manzilla’s rear wheel with much the same senselessness of kids playing “Kill the man with the ball,” where everyone chases after something, the attainment of which only results in getting your face beaten in.
Manzilla kicked it again and everyone decided that they had reached their training goals for the day except Smasher and Pink Sox, whose coaches had prescribed a few more kicks to the groin, which Manzilla dutifully delivered before soloing to the top. We gathered, one by one, piece by piece, quietly and gasping.
“How much more climbing is there?” I begged Nice Michael.
“Just one more.”
That was terrible news. If there were six more, they would be gentler. If there was only one more, it would be the Night of the Living Dead. We descended Newport Coast, rode into Laguna Beach, and passed a pretty high school as we began the climb. Smasher suddenly bolted ahead and the conversation silenced. None of us knew the road except Nice Michael, and I was now referring to him in my head as Sonofabitch Michael Bastardass.
The road went steeply up. “Manzilla is gonna bridge to Smasher now and I’m gonna follow him,” I thought to myself, and half of that was true.
I don’t know how steep or long the climb was, but it devastated everyone except Manzilla. Smasher lingered on his wheel for a while until, annoyed by the breathing and the smell of Smashers’ freshly upchucked lungs, he kicked it and vanished.
The whole climb was surreal, and not just because it was endless and mostly 18-percent. It was surreal because as we heroically battered our way to the top, driving wooden stakes into the entrails of our enemies, engaging in the fiercest hand-to-hand combat as we toiled to the top, the ferocity of competition and the viciousness of the climb created the expectation that the victors would scale the summit, a lonely and desolate peak occupied at most by a wizened wise man sitting in a cave dispensing The Truth, or perhaps there would be a cairn that had stood there for a thousand years and only those strong and valiant enough to survive the climb to this desolate peak would be allowed to scratch their names into the stone, perhaps with their fingernails or with the smushed testicles of the vanquished.
Instead, the top was populated by hundreds of nice people and tourists, and there was even a middle school a few yards from the top where you could hear someone saying, “Here you go, Jenny,” as they opened the car door for an elderly lady who was about to enjoy the same precious view as you with none of the entrails ejecta.
It felt like climbing to the top of Mt. Everest on your elbows and having to stand in line behind a dozen plump people in wheelchairs as you waited for your chance to sign the book.
We regrouped at the Starbucks in Laguna Beach and spent an hour or so looking at the beautiful ocean and making excuses for our weak performances, “I’m a grandpa,” I repeated seventy-five times.
“I just had shims put in my shoes,” excusified the Moldovan Murderer.
“I thought we were going easy,” said Search.
“It’s the off season,” everyone else echoed in chorus, except Manzilla, whose only seasons are Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, and Kill, which runs concurrently with the other four.
Happily, our group got a bit separated after we climbed Newport Coast, and Manzilla stopped to fix a flat. “We’ll just roll ahead slow,” I said. Manzilla nodded and waved us on. As soon as we were a couple of hundred yards away I put it in the 53 and started sprunting.
With the tailwind we were soon doing mid-30’s. “Catch this, you bastard,” I said as our greased paceline rocketed through red lights, around terrified people trying to get into or out of their cars, past pedestrians innocently crossing the street, and over road detritus that no one pointed out to anyone else, hoping to achieve through flats, equipment failure, or crashing what couldn’t be done through strength.
By the time we got through Huntington Beach some of our crew were feeling the ill effects of the sustained effort, and after checking in with their Internet coaches determined that it was probably time to go easy. Everyone, that is, except Nice Michael, whose true character came to the fore as he battered his teammates and young friends off the back one by one until no one was left but Smasher.
We got back to Nice Michael’s and hurriedly changed so that when Manzilla arrived we could pretend we’d been there for an hour, rather than for five minutes as we knew that he’d single-handedly make up our entire 10-person advantage in very short order.
In addition to getting mostly last up both climbs and being shed rather quickly from the pace line, my body shivered and shook as I plowed through the diet-busting plates of food, all prepared by Nice Michael’s astonishingly beautiful wife, who was as expert a cook as she was lovely.
“I’m a grandpa, you know,” I said loudly to no one, hoping that some of the youngsters would drop a kernel of praise or two for my lackluster performance.
No one said a word.
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