My coach, who didn’t know he was my coach, had sat up and was drifting back. I had been dropped on the very first section of the Switchbacks after Charon, Prez, and Bruins had split the huge field into fragments going through Portuguese Bend. They spun out the back like used rocket stages, but the damage had been done.
The lead group had about twenty riders and they pedaled away.
When Canyon Bob came by and motioned me to get on his wheel, it seemed like a good idea. I temporarily forgot about my [insert sympathy-getting excuse here] broken pelvis and focused instead on how happy I was to be on my bike.
Bob quickly brought me back into the way-too-red zone, and then I was alone again. Up ahead was Coach. I call him Coach because he once gave me some advice. “Don’t be the strongest guy in the break,” he had said.
Lots of people give me advice, of course. “Sit in.”
“Don’t move around on your bike so much.”
“Quit being such a dick.”
However, none of them won 26 pro races last year, have a fistful of national pro crit titles, or are considered the best bike racer in America.
Also, Coach became my coach because he hardly ever talks to me. I hate it when people tell me stuff. I am stubborn and dislike advice, especially when it’s unsolicited and free, and even more so when it’s paid for and requested. I once paid a woman $10,000 to not teach me how to pass the bar exam. That’s a true story, and I passed.
Ron Peterson, one of the top coaches in the business, has a word for people like me: “Uncoachable.”
Anyway, Coach has never given me any training advice. He doesn’t care about how I ride, when I ride, what gears I ride in, what equipment I ride on, what my schedule, diet, power numbers, heart rate, or what race calendar is. “You can find someone to advise you about all that on the Internet,” he’s fond of saying.
“Only thing I can help you with is, you know, actually winning a race.”
At first I thought he was kidding until, following his advice, I won my first two races since 1986. Do you know how hard it is to win a bicycle race, even a creaky-kneed, leaky prostate one? Let me tell you: It’s very hard. Very, very, very hard.
And it’s harder the older you get because there’s no churn. There are no younger guys coming up displacing the old guys. As you get older, so does your competition. They age grade right along next to you. The guys who were beating you in ’88 keep beating you in ’98, then in ’08, and soon enough in ’18. In math terms, they’re always doing calculus, you’re still struggling with arithmetic.
Coach is awesome because he fills in the huge void of ignorance that I live in, the ignorance of strategy. And the strategy itself isn’t difficult, but then again neither was sailing to America for the first time as long as you knew the earth was round.
So Coach drifted back. “Get on my wheel,” he said. I did, panting so hard it hurt almost as bad as my broken nutsack and fractured childbearing pelvis.
After a few seconds, you know, those really, really long ones that other people call “minutes,” normal breathing resumed. “Okay,” I said. “I can go faster.”
But coach didn’t go any faster. He kept me in this strange zone that said “I am doing a lot but I can do more.” My instinct, of course, was to do more. Isn’t that how you beat people?
Pretty soon we caught and dropped Canyon Bob, who I never catch and never drop. Then we got passed by a mini-three-man-train. Coach let them go. “They’re dropping us!” I wailed.
Coach looked back. “The climb’s not over yet.”
This bizarre purgatory of pain but not unendurable pain continued to ratchet up. We caught the mini-train. Where the climb jerks up for 200 yards they splintered and we left them for good without ever accelerating.
“Steep walls have a speed limit,” said Coach. “It requires exponentially more energy to accelerate on them and if you kick it there you have nothing left for the longer, easier grade where you can make time.”
We made time and picked off other riders, guys who are lots fitter and faster and younger and richer have prettier mistresses. They were not happy to get passed by Ol’ Gimpy Busted Nutsack latched onto the wheel of reigning national champ a/k/a Coach.
Now what had seemed like steady but endurable pain became suddenly awful. This corresponded with the short flat spot on the way to the Domes, where Coach sped up. I popped, he slowed, and I got back on, settling into purgatory again.
We caught and shed several more riders.
Afterwards he explained it. “Don’t ride in the red.”
“Okay,” I gasped.
I thought about that, and it prompted a billion questions until I reminded myself that one fool can keep a hundred wise men busy for a thousand years.
Then I pondered that out of that entire gaggle of idiots, only 11 had finished ahead of me, none was my age, none had a broken ballsack, and we’d picked off about half of the initial lead group.
“Hey, Coach!” I shouted. But like Racer X, he was gone.
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