The sidewalk was hot enough to fry the frying pan after incinerating the eggs. There was a nasty crosswind howling across the desolate course, which was strewn with construction equipment and port-a-potties, doors ajar as they wafted their sweet aroma through the spectators’ area. The final turn led to an impossibly bitter finishing climb that topped out at 6% at the line, where the sweltering audience would be able to inspect the bits of puke dribbling down the racers’ chins.
To quote a famous bike racing film: “Dozens of spectators. Hundreds of dollars on the line. And the stakes? Medium.”
It was Mike Hecker’s and Tom Fitzgibbon’s 805 Criterium, a labor of love that showed the depravity of older men. I took one look at the course and the boiling, stretched, agonized grimaces of the riders toiling up the grade a mere five laps into their race and knew it was going to be a day of bliss.
The race was held a half-block or so from the Amgen Campus in Thousand Oaks; so in addition to the complimentary wheel pit, the wrench services by sponsor Win’s Wheels, and the crack bike injury lawyer services offered by Derryl Halpern, there was also a special EPO pit where I could drop off my syringes in the event I started running low on oxygen uptake receptors mid-race.
Before the race began I carefully reviewed Steve Tilford’s racing principles, thoughtfully taped to my top tube. I only needed to review Rule 1: Don’t Fuggin’ Pull. Before the race I had spoken with Head Down James, who had relentlessly attacked but was never able to make it stick. “No breakaways,” he said. “The group’s momentum on the downhill will peg you back.”
“Then why did you keep attacking?”
Head Down James looked at me blankly. “Dude,” he said. “Because it is fun!”
The 45+ Leaky Prostate Profamateur Full Carbon Made of 100% Carbon race went off, shortened from 50 to 40 minutes due to a terrible accident a couple of races earlier. I sprinted to the back and began fighting aggressively for last place with another fat, slow, and stupid looking racer who looked a lot like Anthony Reguero. It took a while for me to establish my dominance at the end of the chain.
A long way ahead in a galaxy far, far away, Off the Front Wars were taking place as Pat Bos, Tony Brady, and countless other real bike racers ripped away from the field with incredible displays of amazing power. All I noted was that Matt Carinio, that dude who won that national crit title that one time, was fighting hard for next-to-last place and wasn’t interested in the heroics up ahead.
Before the race I had felt him out for his condition. “How’re the legs?”
“Just trying to find some form,” he egregiously lied with a straight face.
“Really? Because judging from your legs you can probably stop looking.”
He laughed. “No, I’m riding for fitness. Hopefully I can come around later in the season.”
The great thing about bike racers is the way they shamelessly lie in the face of indisputable facts. First, it was already later in the season. Second, he was obviously in peak form. Third, no one “rides for fitness” in a steel smelter. Whatevs.
With two and a half laps to go, one of the hopeless breakaways got caught immediately before the final turn leading up to Barfnpuke Hill. I had done nothing the entire race. My legs felt great. The hill had taken nothing out of my legs. The field was looking at each other, calculating the math for “When do I start moving up without getting stuck too far forward?”
I hit it hard. With five or six Big Orange teammates back in the field, I knew it would have to be decisive in order for them not to chase me down, as our key team tactic at Team Lizard Collectors is “Never chase anything but orange!”
My strategem worked. As I flew away from the tired, wrinkled, sad, scabby, pickle-faced old men, Rahsaan Bahati and Tom Fitzgibbon in the announcer’s booth began screaming something that sounded incredibly similar to “Wanky wins the $50 cash prime!”
I caught sight of Ms. WM on the sidelines, who was swooning as she realized that after more than thirty years her husband was, instead of worn-out excuses, finally going to bring home actual cash from a bike race. The gap was huge, it was now two laps to go, and the only way they would bring me back was with an organized team effort. Since Team Lizard Collectors had inexplicably decided not to chase, the work was left to Pat Bos and Team Don’t Fuck This Up Bart Clifford.
With one lap to go I was still clear and the five or six fans paying attention were cheering wildly, or at least somewhat lukewarmedly. With a final shuddering push, Pat and his henchmen hunted me down like a mangy cur, put the bootheel on my neck, and listened to the popping and cracking sound of my cervical vertebrae as the life and fight slowly seeped away.
Unhappily for them, instead of having sat up and gifting me the awesome victory, they were now left in the sad situation of having brought Matt Carinio, fully rested national champion who’d been at the back all day, Dave Holland, fully rested Big Orange Lizard Collector who has a massively fast finish, and one other fully rested dude to the bottom of the hill.
Carinio put away his nail file, folded the Sunday paper back into his jersey pocket, adjusted his glasses, did a couple of mini post-up practices, unclipped the leash and let go with what is often referred to as a “sprint.” Brian Davis got second, Dave got third, and Team Don’t Fuck This Up Bart Clifford watched as Bart, totally gassed from his team’s chase, kicked hard for fifth. Moral to the story: It’s better to get beaten by a national champion than a worn-out, broken down, wheelsucky, desperation-move Wanky.
After the race Ms. WM, recovered from the shock of winning fifty whole cash U.S. dollars, propped me up beneath the tent, doused my head with cold Gatorade, and firmly instructed me rest.
“Rest? We’re going home.”
“No,” she said. “You gonna race the 35 little boy race.”
“Like fuck I am,” I said. “It’s not for four hours, it’s already 100 degrees, and they’ll all be fresh. Fuck that.”
“You gonna go out there and get onna more fifty dollars. Thatsa good bike racin.”
“Honey, I won my first $50 cash prime in 33 years. Lightning won’t strike again today. Trust me.”
Four hours later I was lined up with a smaller field. A younger field. A fresher field. An angrier field. Fortunately, the wind was blowing lots harder and it was now 105 degrees. “Don’t worry,” I told Holland. “A break won’t stick. All we have to do is suck wheel and when they get pissed, flash our AARP cards. I’ll lead you out and you can show Charon and Bahati what the word ‘sprint’ means.”
Holland rolled his eyes. “Please don’t get anywhere near me in the sprint,” he begged.
The whistle blew, the race started, and coming up the hill on Lap 1 Charon and two dudes attacked. “Don’t worry,” I told Holland. “It’s way too early. They’ll be coming back.”
Charon and his breakmates then put a minute on the field and Charon won the race by six furlongs.
Twenty minutes in, things were getting desperate. A chase group of five was up the road, including John Abate. Another group of about fifteen riders was also up the road. In the far back were Holland, I, and fifteen other idiots all wondering why it was so hot, why our lungs were on fire, and whether anyone would notice if we sat out ten or eleven laps and then hopped back in.
As we hit the bottom of Barfnpuke Hill I knew it was now or never, and most likely never. Somehow I got across to the chase group. Holland made it too, but later realized that he had a dentist’s appointment and was not seen again. Everyone in the third chase group got a case of acute reality poisoning as the facts indicated the race for them was over, and if they stayed they would feel terrible and be ridiculed by their wives for finishing 20th, or ridiculed by their wives if they gave up and quit. So most of them quit.
Now I was with Rahsaan, Brandon Gritters, and a large person in an orange outfit (not with Team Lizard Collectors) who was delusional enough to think that we could catch the break. He began shouting at me to pull through, not realizing that he was large, young, and a perfect draft, and that the only way I would pull through is if he had compromising photos of me and someone’s pet goat.
“Pull through!” he yelled, breaking the rule of Don’t Talk. I silently hunkered down, enjoying his width.
Soon other unhappy bicyclists, all twenty years my junior, joined the chorus. “Pull through!” they yelled, treating a tired grandfather like some stupid draft animal. I hunkered some more.
As we hit the bottom of the hill, the one person who had not broken the rule of Don’t Talk, Rahsaan, downshifted and accelerated hard. I hopped on his wheel as he dragged me out of the trench, through the concertina wire, through the mortars, past the bayonets, through the mustard gas, into the barrels of the .50mm Brownings, and somehow, miraculously, onto the tail of the second chase group.
Orange Shoutypants Dude learned two vital lessons: (1) Save your air for pedaling, not bicycle racing instruction. (2) Wanky don’t pull.
No one else made it across except for Eamon O’Reilly and Gritters. Now there were three up the road and about nine riders. Everyone else in the bike race had quit in disgust or was flailing, lonely and in pain, around the windswept hellhole of a course. We were only halfway through. And if you want to know what makes people in a 35+ bike race angry, it’s having a 53-year-old hairy-legged old fellow tagging along. It’s very hard for 35_ fellows to convince themselves that they’re any good when they’re riding with someone who isn’t, especially since every time through the start-finish the announcers would shout, “There’s Wanky, somehow hanging on by a meat thread! Boy, these guys must suck if they can’t get rid of that worn out old shoe!”
The obvious solution to this shameful disgrace was to begin attacking the elderly, which they did. However, a lifetime of wheelsuckery and general meanness somehow allowed me to hang on, even as the group got smaller. With a few laps to go all pretense of pride vanished and the young, strong, handsome, fast young fellows submitted to the incredible humiliation of having me pull them around the course.
“This is all being caught on camera,” I told them as they refused to rotate through. “Rahsaan, they’re going to take away your national champion jerseys when this video gets out,” I added.
Finally, Rahsaan and Gritters, after resting comfortably for a while, responded to my last-ditch attack with a hard counter at one lap to go. I was left with four other riders, none of whom felt inclined to pull. Why should they? We were probably the last five riders in the race. Rather than fighting for a shred of self-respect they would be duking it out for, uh, sixth. Somehow, that’s better than last.
With a few hundred yards to go they all found legs and a new lease on life. I got tenth out of the eighteen corpses who finished the race, the only wanker to have completed two full races on a punishing, miserable, excruciating, stupid, meaningless, regret-and-invective-filled day. Everyone else had quit.
My best race ever, or at least since Telo.
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