The greatest group ride ever?

Some things, you don’t really realize how amazing they are while you are doing them. You take them for granted, people, too. 2019 was the last year of David Jaeger’s French Toast Ride. In 2018 I was sick and missed my first FTR since I was first invited, in 2010, I think. The ride itself started in pre-history, a mythical time from whence no photos or written records exist in which David and Harold Martinez were supposedly good bike racers. In all the years that the French Toast Ride went off, twenty or so, there was only one ride that got shortened due to bad weather, and only one ride that got canceled because of it.

The French Toast Ride started off as a way to prepare for the first big road race of the year, the epic Boulevard RR held in the high desert of southeastern San Diego County. It began as a no-frills, no excuses, no lollygagging 117-mile beatdown through Ventura County with sprints, climbs, the punishing ascent of Balcom Canyon followed by the golf course climb finale outside Camarillo. Although the ride greatly degenerated into a gaggle of old, weak, complaint-ridden, bladder-incontinent old farts, despite the ravages of time you always knew that it was going to be one of your hardest days of the year on the bike.

David tried to sweeten the bitterness by holding the start and finish at his parents’ home in Camarillo, where an entire family effort pulled together the French toast beforehand and the sandwiches + beer for those who survived, but no goodies could get you through to the end if you hadn’t done the preparation.

To that effect those of us lucky enough to be on the invite list, or unlucky enough, began receiving emails from David in October or November, advising us of the number of weeks we had left until we would be left puking or crying in the bowels of Balcom Canyon. Those emails were as brutal as the ride itself, because they always turned into a forum for name-calling, chest-thumping, butt-hurting, and the type of written entertainment you might expect from a group of childish old farts who thought they were tuning up for the Tour. The laughter and heartburn generated by those email was legendary …

The French Toast Ride had four stops. One in Ojai, one at the Santa Barbara County line, one in Ventura, and one atop the Balcom climb. I still remember my first FTR, having gone all-out, completely thrashed, collapsing at the county line, and having Harry look down at me with an evil leer. “We’re half-way,” he said.

Every person who did the French Toast Ride had their own awful story to tell. Although no one ever failed to finish, many was the rider who made it only through the fumes of shame and peer pressure to the Jaegers’ driveway back in Camarillo. On the year where it was shortened by rain, cutting out the Casitas Lake climb, I actually got lost in Camarillo with Randall Coxworth, unable to find the Jaegers’ home in this tiny town, soaked in freezing rain and unable to use my phone because it, too, was soaking wet. So near and yet so far. For a lot of riders it was a once-only affair, for many it was two or three times, but only David and Harry made it every single year. That’s quite a record given the toughness of the course and the inevitability of family, work, sickness, sloth, and the other lame excuses that get in the way of training.

But the continuity was a function of David’s family as well. His parents Jim and Nancy, his wife Lynn, his brother, sister, and their families all pulled to in various years to cook the food, send the riders off, then haul their sorry asses off the driveway at ride’s end. Macy and Carly, David’s daughters, literally grew up with the French Toast Ride. Were they scarred forever by having their January annually punctuated by the horrible sight of ugly, wrinkly old men prancing around the living room wearing garish clown suits? I don’t know. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, maybe. That family aspect of the French Toast Ride, more than anything else, made it special, people opening their home to strangers, helping pull off a miserably fun event for no other reason than, well, that’s what families do. And to the eternal credit of the miscreants who rode the ride, there was never a word spoken or a deed done with regard to the Jaeger family that lacked our appreciation and gratefulness for their generosity and good cheer. Excepting of course the time that Gregg Stern clogged the upstairs shitter with four pounds of TP.

The French Toast Ride was a kind of written record of our cycling careers. People got invited when they caught David’s eye or somehow entered his closest circle or when, on rare occasions, he reached out to me to ask if I had a particular recommendation. Otherwise, you couldn’t beg, buy, or steal your way onto the French Toast Ride. In a way that was a shame and a discredit to all of us because the ride never had a black rider, and in its two decades only two woman, Cynthia Marie, Kristie Fox, ever rode the FTR. This is how racism and sexism work, sometimes consciously, but most often unconsciously, excluding women and people of color simply because you accept that your world, your friends, your experiences, are a complete picture. I know that if there were a French Toast Ride done again, that part of it would be done differently.

And how people begged! Everyone wanted the golden invitation but Dave was scrupulous in limiting the number of riders. He didn’t care that it was the most prestigious ride anywhere, he cared that it was safe, and he had a maximal number of people he’d allow, a number that correlated perfectly to road safety and to the number who could crap pre-ride without destroying his parents’ plumbing. David’s commitment to safety wasn’t in name only. For him the FTR required a kind of super-human fitness because he did the ride and he also played mother hen, making sure that the riders who showed up against their better judgment weren’t left to wither and die on the roads of Ventura County. There were only a handful of crashes in the ride’s history, and never a significant injury. More crucially, no one ever had his bike destroyed.

Of all the unusual characteristics of the ride, David went out of his way to invite people who were as good or even better than he was. He had no pride and although he was always one of the top climbers, I don’t think he ever won Balcom and maybe not even a sprint. He didn’t care. The ride was fashioned to bring out the best efforts of the best riders, and if it meant that David got shellacked, so be it. On the other hand, since he was always preoccupied with making sure everyone’s diaper was dry, shuttling back and forth from tail to the front, it’s a safe bet that if he had ridden FTR to crush and destroy … he would have. He made sure the ride was fun, even if it meant he wasn’t always having any. And no matter how hard it was, he never looked tired.

This is also the reason that David’s email reminders were so regular and so brutal. He wanted you to come but only if you were in shape, and no, it didn’t count if your shape was round. He knew that one wholly unfit rider could ruin the ride and he kept the pressure on until the day of. The only thing more dishonorable than bailing at the last minute was showing up unable to ride. To that end, once you’d been invited and had done the ride, you were on the list forever, and the only thing that could get you stricken was a) rudeness to the hosts or b) failing to show up without notifying David. He accepted your lame excuse without scolding or shaming. He knew, you knew, everyone knew, that you were too weak and that after all the braggadocio you simply didn’t have what it took, but he appreciated it if you quit, even at the last second, as long as you let him know. And I believe that in 20 years only one rider ever failed to notify him. It’s a sign of the respect that we all had for him and his family. We’d rather be dishonorable quitters than to dishonorably leave him in the lurch.

The French Toast Ride had some truly animal participants. Olympic gold medalist Steve Hegg was a regular for several years. Neo-pro Alex Bowden showed up one year and rode like you’d expect a pro to ride after some initial drubbing by the old farts. Phil Tinstman’s one FTR was in the rain-shortened version, and Michael Marckx showed up every year fit and ready to kick ass. No one though can match the record of Jeff Konsmo, who won the Balcom Climb practically every time he did it, along with Casitas Lake, over a period of fifteen FTRs, maybe more. And of course tough guys like Greg Leibert, Dan Cobley, lightning sprinter Aaron Wimberly, and David himself ensured that every single year you were going to suffer like a dog. For years the misery of the French Toast Ride’s climbs were exquisitely revenged on US 101 by Harry Martinez, famed for his 35-mph “King Harold Flatback” along the coast. Let a few inches open up and you were by yourself all the way to the next stop in Ventura. Stay connected and you were going to wish you hadn’t.

For all the pain or because of it, the French Toast Ride had camaraderie. You looked forward to it it and you trained for it. It was cold when you started and boiling when you finished. You spent a day with friends and sort-of-friends, you #fakebattled, and at the end you ate sandwiches, told jokes, acknowledged getting your ass beat, and felt lucky to be part of something so special. You reveled in images of Joe Yule getting towed up Balcom Canyon by hanging onto a pickup, and of Harry finally dominating a climb by grabbing onto a motorcycle as he ascended Casitas Lake. My own sneak attack at a pee stop that resulted in cramps and collapse at the foot of Balcom contributed to the lore of the ride, along with a hundred other people and moments that made the ride what it was.

This specialness continues on today, in its own way. The Belgian Waffle Ride, America’s best and only classics-style road race, grew directly from David Jaeger’s French Toast Ride. The inspiration that BWR’s progenitor, Michael Marckx, got from the FTR spurred him to create something that in the beginning mirrored this morning get-together of friends for a truly vicious beating smothered in syrup, bacon, and French toast. FTR lives on in other ways, too. The people who did it, when they reflect, know that it was a snapshot of fitness, fun, and cycling intensity that won’t come again. It was from their youth, youthy-ness, or middle age. It was from a snapshot of time in which speed and fitness and competition on the bike were important. It was from a time when you had the legs and weren’t afraid to test them out against your betters.

Maybe the French Toast Ride wasn’t the best group ride ever. But if it wasn’t, please direct me to the one that was.