Leaving Kerrville this morning and riding towards Fredericksburg it really felt like I was back in my old stomping grounds. This part of the hill country is so much like the Austin in which I first began cycling.
It is a truism that you don’t really know an area until you have walked it or ridden it on a bicycle, but it is even more of a truism that you don’t really know an area until you have cycled it for years sitting on the wheel of Jeff Fields. The great thing about riding with Fields was that he was going to take you far away to somewhere you had never heard of and probably couldn’t pronounce. It was going to be long, parts of it were going to be unspeakably hard, and when you got done you were going to sleep soundly.
Fields knew the roads as if he had been born in the hill country even though he was from Iowa. He never forgot a road and he never forgot a place. As I was riding today I passed a country path called “Fields Rd.” I texted a photo of it to him. He texted me right back. “Florence, Andice, Oatmeal.” Those were all tiny towns that we had ridden through many years ago, names that I had long forgotten but that were still on the tip of his tongue ready for instant recall.
Before Fields came and snapped up all the prize money in Texas, however, there was a guy who preceded him. That guy was Mike Murray. Mike was short, stocky, fierce, and a very fast sprinter… just not as fast as Fields.
in 1984 Mike won a very hilly Texas State Road Race championship in style and in the way of pure bike racing. He was in a three-man break with 35 miles to go. The other two guys, one of whom was the legendary Stan Blanton, were climbers, and it was a rolling course not suited at all to Mike. He had made the break by saving his energy and going at exactly the right moment with exactly the right two guys. In other words, he was racing his bike.
Once the break was established, Mike stopped pulling through and his breakmates were pissed. “Come on man, pull through,” they said.
“I can’t. I’m done.”
“Okay, then you better not sprint.”
Mike never answered, which they took to mean that he was going to sprint if he could make it to the finish with them, so they took turns trying to ride him off on the climbs. He hung on panting, gasping, shaking his head, playing possum, and doing everything possible to show that he was only a few pedal strokes away from an early grave.
Convinced that they had beaten him into submission, his breakmates took the race in hand and began building an unsurmountable gap between themselves and the chasing pack. As the three breakaways swooped towards the finish line, the 500m, 400m, 300m, and finally the 200m markers appeared. The two climbers began positioning to see which of them would win the race.
They needn’t have bothered, because Mike Murray came alive and looked fresher than when he had started the race. He fired by them so fast and with such explosive speed that there were twenty bike lengths between him and second place. His breakmates were furious. They called him names. They pointed fingers. They whined and complained. They swore they had been swindled. But everybody else who raced bikes recognized that Mike had ridden an amazing race, beating the climbers on their course in the most prestigious race of the year over 120 grueling hot miles under a frying Texas June sky.
Mike was one of the first guys that I rode with when I began riding in Austin with my first club, Violet Crown. Today, when I got to Kerrville, I stopped in at the bike shop to put some air in my tires. A vintage Tommasini was in the stand. “That’s a nice bike,” I said.
“Thanks,” said the mechanic. “It’s a rebuild project of mine. I got the frame from a guy who used to ride in Austin.”
“If it’s a Tommasini from the 80s then it probably came through Bill Lewis Imports.”
“Yes, exactly. How did you know that?”
“I was around back then. I rode a Tommasini then, too. Everybody did.”
“Who did you ride with?
“Violet Crown out of Freewheeling.”
“Really? Did you know Mike Murray?”
“State Road champion 1984. I rode with him a bunch. We were teammates. How do you know him?”
“I just know him through stories. Plus, I have this amazing photograph of him on the starting line at the old Kerrville Road Race back in the early 80s. It’s a great photo. Guys with no helmet, guys with no shirts, guys in tennis shoes, and of course several bike racers who actually knew what they were doing. Mike was one of them.”
That is another way you know when you are back on your old stomping grounds. Legends remain. People have photos tacked up somewhere. An old bike that was once ridden by somebody who was your friend or teammate popping up in the bike shop as a rebuild project.
This is why the past is so important and it’s why we must do homage to it if we are to understand ourselves. Mike was the champ, at least until Fields showed up, and then everybody was second place for a long, long time. But one day Fields went away, too, replaced by another, and another, and another.
I won’t say those were halcyon days but I will say they were mine. I’m glad I lived them. I was lucky to race with Jeff and Mike and get soundly beaten by them both. I’m glad that was my past and that it’s one that, with a little bit of effort and a good map, I can revisit, if only through an old bicycle being refurbished on the stand, or only through a backcountry road with a name on it that reminds me of an era, a legend, a friend.