I hadn’t raced all year. I’d let my license lapse. Done with it.
A buddy invited me to come check out the new vibe at the local sanctioned weekly race in Long Beach, the Eldo crit, so I thought I’d ride over. It’s about an hour and a half from my apartment, through hellish traffic, much of which includes lane sharing, lane switching, and maneuvering with 18-wheelers.
I’m inured to traffic but it was not for the faint.
I got to Eldo and people began giving me shit. “Are you racing?”
“I #fakewon NPR this morning and already rode an hour and a half to get here.”
“You can get a one-day.”
“Here man, I got a spare.”
“They take credit cards.”
“I didn’t bring one.”
“Here’s ten bucks.”
“The race is about to start.”
“They’ll expedite your number and pin you up.”
That’s how I found myself on the starting line next to reigning national champion Justin Williams and ex-national champion Rahsaan Bahati. I deliberately opted not to race the masters, which started a couple of minutes before, because I figured if I entered the fast race I’d get shelled on the first lap and could then quit dishonorably.
The race started hellish fast. I was the final wheel and dangled for dear life. Each time I clawed back the gaps that started to open up, the speed would jump again and there’d be another opening between me and the field.
We approached the start/finish at blitz speed and saw the ref waving us to slow down. “Crash!” he was yelling. A rider was curled up on the left side of the road, but in bike racing you generally take note of crashes in a binary way: Will I clear it or am I going to hit it? If the former, you keep pedaling, only faster. If the latter, you brace for the impact.
The peloton moved over to the right, slowed, and we passed. The moment the leaders cleared the crash they hit the jets again and I resumed survival mode.
On the back side of the course the pack slowed briefly and then someone strung it out again. My legs were screaming, but I’d moved up to the top third. After it relaxed, I was going to hit out once, do a glory attack through the start finish, get caught, dropped, and call it a day. I was so, so done.
But you know? It never happened.
As we came through the start/finish, the ref ordered us to stop. The masters field had been stopped and we were shunted off the course. “We’re calling the race,” he said. I looked over at the fallen rider, now surrounded by half a dozen people, blood coming out of both ears. He wasn’t moving.
Nor did he ever move again. Gerry Gutierrez, 36-years old, teacher, dedicated husband and passionate cyclist, died early Thursday as a result of head injuries sustained in a bike crash.
The grief and shock were immediate, and radiated out from social media channels of every sort. I didn’t know Gerry, just as I didn’t know Chris Cono, the rider who died several years ago after hitting his head in a crash at CBR, leaving behind a wife and tiny child.
What I do know is that bike racing, although incredibly safe, is incomprehensibly risky when things go bad. You can fall at 30 mph in the middle of a pack and walk away with a bit of road rash, or you can fall at half that speed and spend a month in intensive care. Or, as in Gerry’s case, it can simply be life’s end.
We all sign waivers when we enter events, but it is so pro forma that we never really think what “catastrophic injury and death” really mean … for us. And in those rare instances where someone actually dies, the survivors are left wondering “What the hell was that for? What kind of a waste was that?”
We can’t ever know “what it was for” in the mind of the dead person, but I for sure know this: The cost of admission to the party of life is death. No one gets out without paying the full price.
The great majority of people live predictable lives in order to die predictably, in old age, with some sort of pension, hobbling about or mildly active as they degenerate into death. They choose not to burn out, but to rust. Nor do I blame them.
It isn’t my way though, and it isn’t the way of anyone who toes the start line at a mass start bike race.
You can’t get to the sharp, cutting edge of life, the place where life actually happens, without pushing all your chips into the middle of the table. You can’t get it watching sports on TV, reading books, painting, playing music, or by dedicating your life to making money. The only way you get the full thrill and intensity of life is by pushing in the chips.
I won’t say that Gerry died doing what he loved. I didn’t know him; that’s for someone else to say. But I will say this much after cruising his timeline and seeing the total commitment he’d made to racing his bike. Gerry Gutierrez got more out of his life on Tuesdays at 6:00 PM in Long Beach than most people alive will get from anything, ever.
I hope you rest, dude, but not in peace, not if there’s an afterlife, not if there are days of the week where you are now. Rest up for next Tuesday. I have a hunch I know where you’ll be.
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