October 23, 2019 § 2 Comments
I got an email from some dude named Ramy Khalaf.
“Hey,” it went, “I found you on the Internet and I’m making a video about rides in SoCal can I come to your office and make a video?”
“Sure,” I said, knowing I’d never hear from him again.
A couple of weeks later Ramy showed up with a world of legit cameras and equipment. Thankfully, I’d bathed that morning. You can’t always count on that.
Ramy has a YouTube channel, Bar & Pedal, where he combines amazing video skills and a love of cycling into some fantastic stories.
I would tell you about the video, but then I’d be telling the tale twice.
October 23, 2018 § 6 Comments
Some people are amazing. Some people are fuggin’ amazing. Some people defy belief.
And then there’s Head Down James.
His story is brief. He showed up on the NPR a few years back, fresh from Jolly Colde England, and went to the front. That was when “Go to the front!” was in fashion and imprinted on the bib shorts of the NPR kit, which was seen predominantly at the back.
Head Down James would pull hard, blow up, and then get yelled at. “Dude! You pulled too hard!”
He would listen carefully, recover, and go back to the front. Pull hard. Blow up. Get yelled at. Repeat.
If he ever won the NPR #fakerace in those early years, I never saw it.
Drummed out of the Flog
Head Down James started coming to the Flog and dropping everyone except the Wily Greek. “Dude!” I would yell. “Quit bombing the descents! You are gonna fall and get hurt!”
HDJ never fell and never got hurt, but other people chasing him did.
One day after promising to go slow on the hairpins, he didn’t. I yelled at him some more. “Dude!” I said, using lots of ugly words, “you were bombing the fucking hairpins again!”
HDJ listened to the tirade. Then he answered quietly. “I wasn’t actually bombing it. I was only doing 34.”
Head Down James never came back.
Out in the canyons
Over the years, Head Down James earned a reputation none could match, like the time he rode to Laguna Seca, raced, then rode home. Or the time he did a 300-mile ride just for “fun.” Or the way he made Las Flores a regular morning leg stretcher. Or the way he did all that and raced USA Cycling events as well. Or placed in the top five of the BWR.
People still lectured him about “going too hard” and “needing rest” and “conserving energy,” but the lectures were always from way, way back. Waaaaay back.
Conventional wisdom says you can’t just keep pounding. You gotta conserve.
On Saturday Head Down James stopped at the bottom of the 30-mile climb to pee. The leaders raced on. He put his head down and chased. “My only goal for the day,” he told me later, “was to ride with the split.”
He caught the split after a 7-mile chase, took a deep breath, then got dropped. The leaders were 20 years younger and most of them rode for a living, or close to it.
Head Down James put his head back down, chased for seven more miles and caught back on. A minute later he was OTB.
“Why am I riding with these guys?” Head Down James wondered. “They are better than I am.”
Before long his head was down, and far ahead he saw a lone rider who had been shelled from the split. “If I can just catch that guy I’ll be done for the day. All I wanted to do was ride in the split, and that dude was in the split, so that’s kind of like riding in the split.”
Head Down James caught the split-ee, dropped him, and rode some more.
Over the top of the climb the road turned into hard rollers. The split only had about five guys in it now, and James passed two of them, who had flatted. He put his head down and kept smashing. “It’s only 95 miles and 9,000 feet for the day,” he told himself.
Before long, far ahead, he saw two riders, tiny specks. “I couldn’t catch them,” he admitted. “One of them was hammering it on the uphill and the other on the downhill, and it was just me chasing. Hopeless.”
“Well,” I said, “fourth is pretty amazing given the caliber of the field.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It took me thirty minutes, you know, turning myself inside out before I caught them.”
“So you caught them?”
“I put my head down, you know, and got second overall. It was like a dream.”
Conventional wisdom. So wise.
May 20, 2018 § 6 Comments
I got a text from Pornstache. “6:40 AM CotKU. Yerba Buena, 100+. It will be fun.”
Despite the obvious lie I showed up, along with Surfer, Ruins, LoLo, Megajoules, and Medium Banana. Pornstache was in a great mood. “If we hustle we can make the NOW ride and get a free tow up PCH, then continue on to Yerba.”
This made no sense at all, first and foremost because there are no “free” tows in cycling, and certainly not on the NOW ride. Not that I’d ever done it.
In fact, for years I had studiously avoided it. It is the West Side’s answer to the Donut, minus all the climbing. If rumor were to be believed, the NOW ride was a 28-30 mph jaunt up the coast in an insane bike mob of 70 to 100 idiots. It begins in Santa Monica, but that first eight or nine miles of blistering speed on the pancake flat portion of PCH going to Malibu is just the warm up.
The grenade goes off on Pepperdine Hill, and I’ve eaten plenty of grenades in my cycling life. No desire to eat another one.
“Dude,” I said to Pornstache. “Have you ever done the NOW ride?”
“Nope. But it goes up PCH so we can just hop in.”
I shook my head. “Yeah, like you can hop into a steel foundry.”
You shoulda been here yesterday
During my surfing career as the world’s biggest kook EVER, I learned early that no matter how great the surf was when you paddled out, as soon as you commented on its awesomeness the guy next to you would shrug, bored. “Yeah, it’s okay. But you shoulda been here yesterday. Triple overhead, low tide, and hollow AF.”
We joined the NOW ride as they descended from Santa Monica towards PCH and I made mental note of the hitters. Pain was there. Head Down James was there. SoCal Cycling dude was there. Charon was there. Engel was there with a gnarly looking teammate. And there were a dozen or so other bonesnapping riders who were sweating testosterone, in addition to our South Bay contributions, especially Megajoules.
I rode up next to Head Down James. “Hey, man. How’s this ride shake out?”
“You’ve never done it before?” he asked incredulously.
“Things get pretty lively on Pepperdine Hill. I was dropped there the last two weeks when the hitters showed up. It was hard, man.”
My stomach churned. I had never not been dropped by Head Down James. And if he was calling someone else a hitter, what did that make me, besides a roach under the heel of a boot?
Next I rode up to Pain. “What’s up, Tony?” I said.
“Hey, man, good to see ya! You picked a good week. None of the hitters are here this week. Should be easy.”
“Triple overhead and hollow last week, huh?”
Pain laughed. “Exactly.”
I felt a little squirt in my chamois as we hit PCH and the pace immediately went from languid to Very Effin Fast. I hunkered down over the bars and sat at the back, glued to Head Down James. Whatever was going to happen, he would be there.
Bleating of the lambs
According to Head Down James for whom this was a warm-up for what would be his 140-mile, 12k feet of climbing “average day,” we were doing 28, but it didn’t hurt at all tucked in at the back, sucking wheel for all I was worth while the worthies up front gnashed and mashed. And before I knew it we were approaching the bottom of Pepperdine Hill.
By now I knew that there was zero chance of making the split. So I came off of Head Down James’s wheel and surfed over to Surfer’s, who had slotted in second wheel behind Pornstache. I wondered what the hell Pornstache was doing at the front on a ride he’d never even done before at the exact moment the Brownings were about to open fire.
I soon found out as he lit the fuse at the bottom of the hill, quickly gapping out Surfer.
Just so you understand, Pepperdine Hill isn’t long and it isn’t steep. I’m not great with distances and you can find it on Strava if you really want to know what it’s like. Maybe half a mile and seven percent? I dunno.
It doesn’t really matter because about halfway up my legs caught fire. Not that gradual heating up where you start to think “Uh-oh, I am fucked,” but the sudden injection of molten lava and acid into every muscle at once, and the pain hits you like a Trump speech, nasty, awful, unbearable, loathsome, and filled with vileness and bile.
Surfer kept going and I heard the hoofbeats of the onrushing herd, the sound intoning “droppage” from all those carbon wheels starting to accelerate at the very moment I had decided to decelerate in the other direction. [Reader’s note: Technically, acceleration is a change in velocity over time, so acceleration can be both positive, or negative. Unfortunately, along came the automobile, and engineers simply couldn’t have a positive and a negative accelerator pedal. Too sciencey, and the general populace became acquainted with negative acceleration as deceleration.]
The wisdom of Daniel Holloway
However, my decision to post up at the front hadn’t been completely dumb reflex. Best U.S. Bike Racer Daniel Holloway had once told me that it’s better to be at the front of a climb and then drift back as the faster riders pass, trying to latch onto the very end, than it is to be at the back of the chain and try to match their accelerations.
The only problem with his strategy was the “latch on” part.
Elijah blew by. Charon blew by. Head Down James Blew by. Pain blew by. DNA dudes blew by. SoCal Cycling dude blew by. Megajoules FLEW by. Then a string of complete strangers blew by. In the horror fog I got that funny feeling that I was the last guy, and unable to look back, I grabbed the final wheel in the sweep.
There were only about a hundred yards to go. Only. Kind of like “only another hundred yards with both thumbs slammed in the car door.”
If Mr. Scott had been in charge he would have uttered more obscenities than Howard Stern, but the engine was engulfed with flames, smoke, poisonous gas, and eruptions of plutonium from its cracked nuclear core. I played every mind game in my thin and tattered book of tricks until I came to the last page, which was ugly, brutal, and jagged around the edges and writ large: “Don’t quit, wanker!”
Everything went dark around me except the stranger’s wheel, and at that very moment when the collapse of willpower and muscular power intersect, I was over the top. At that precise moment of course the beasts at the front jumped. I mechanically stood, and what I did wasn’t a jump, or even a hop, barely even a skip, but it connected me to the caboose.
I glanced back only to see the brokedick remnants of the peloton smeared along the roadside in little clumps like bugsplat on a windshield.
“You made it,” Pain said with a grin, as if he’d just strolled around the block with a puppy. “Good job.”
I said something no one could understand. Me, either.
Freedom isn’t free, at least on the NOW
To make a miserable story less so, additional people got ejected from the lead group. I brought up the rear as we rolled into the first rest stop at Trancas. Pornstache looked breezy.
“Great idea, getting a free tow with the NOW ride,” I mumbled.
“Aw, come on,” he said. “It wasn’t that bad.”
I looked around at the other riders, none of whom was within ten years, and most of whom weren’t within twenty. “Yes,” I said. “It was.”
Before long the ambitious plan to ride Yerba Buena, an endless, badly paved, faraway road of death had been reconditioned into a trip up Decker Lane, a less endless, well paved, much steeper road of death. I went along, got to the top and gave up, turning tail and riding home.
Fortunately, I was overtaken at Zuma by two very fresh dudes from team Every Man Jack. They set the needle at 26 and hauled me back to Sunset in no time, which was great, but which left me with another 30 miles to go and no legs to get there with. I got to see a motorcycle collision, a police rolling enclosure along PCH for a group of marchers, and my friends Deb Sullivan, Kristina Ooi, Alx Bns, and Matt Wikstrom, all in the course of my ride home.
When I got back, I was, um, tired. Or should I say a zombie?
In any event, if you ever start thinking it’s NOW or never, I encourage you to choose never.
This is called method journalism, where I don’t report on things, I do them and then report on them. As a result, my legs are killing me. Please consider subscribing … Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!
August 9, 2017 § 38 Comments
With one lap to go I was a few minutes from achieving the only thing I have ever desired in life, that is a victory at our local training crit a/k/a Telo.
The field was a mishmash of gizzards, car parts, tree roots, defective Morton-Thiokol O-rings, broken razor blades, bald tires, and sunken galleons on the Spanish Main, as the pack had disintegrated shortly after re-entry, leaving only Frexit, Head Down James, Hair, and me in three-man-one-robot breakaway.
With seven laps to go, Frexit had urged me “Easy, easy!” as we came through Turn 4, which in bikeracespeak means “Ouchy!” So I waited a lap and attacked, shedding my unwelcome partners in an honest effort to toss them onto the garbage pile of discarded racers.
My hands were tied. If I sat in the break until the finish I would certainly get fourth. If I attacked I would [certainly – .0000001%] get fourth. So I had to go with the percentage shot.
Five laps to go and the gap held steady.
Four laps to go and I started pulling away.
Three laps to go and they clawed some of it back.
Two laps to go and it held at ten seconds.
One lap to go they were eight seconds back. Dreams of victory danced through my windshield. A lifetime of groveling was about to be rewarded with a few seconds swallowing a deep draught of the elixir of victory. Repeated beatings at the hands of unpleasant people was about to result in the bootheel landing on their neck instead of mine. Revenge would be sweeter than a diabetic dessert.
I rehearsed my victory speech, remembering to thank the little people who had made me who I am, thanking my parents, my deceased dog Fletcher, Phil who sold me my first bike, Fields, and then moving on to my wife, children, and a brief explanation of the dedication and hard work it had taken to reach what to the casual observer looked like an overnight success.
My speech, however, failed to account for the bitter hatred that Head Down James felt deep within his soul. Even though I had mentored him as a beginning cyclist by shouting epithets at him, screaming at him to lift up his fucking head, and trying to intimidate him at every turn, he apparently had forgotten all those little kindnesses and was now hell bent on revenge.
With Head Down James preferring to drag Frexit and Hair up to me so they could smear him in the sprunt rather than seeing me walk off with a glorious, life-altering victory that I would mockingly hold over his head for all time, he buried himself and closed the gap with only a few hundred yards left to go. Head Down James knew that the ignominy of being dropped out of his own breakaway and then beaten by a solo move at the hands of the leakiest, braggiest, un-cagiest racer in America would put paid to his professional athletic career. Frexit also knew that a Wanky defeat before his assault on the 24 Hours of Le Mans Velo would cause an emotional collapse from which he might never recover. Hair didn’t care; he wasn’t getting higher than second no matter what and he knew it.
Head Down James’s effort was enough. Aaron and Frexit buried him, and worse, they buried me. I praised them insincerely afterwards, congratulated them while secretly wishing that each were slowly beheaded by a rusty table saw, and pedaled home, crushed.
And although you may not give a damn, my dear, tomorrow is another day.
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July 10, 2017 § 20 Comments
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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June 19, 2017 § 62 Comments
The longest I ever rode my bike was 150 miles, when a couple of guys snookered me into riding from Utsunomiya to Inubozaki and back. I still remember being miles and miles and hours and hours from home when the guy who had arranged it said “I quit” and checked into a hotel with everyone else except Saito-san, the lone guy who knew the route home.
I never spoke to any of them again.
Riding long distances is fun for some people, but not for me, although every year I do the French Toast Ride, which is 118 miles, and in the past I did four editions of the Belgian Waffle Ride, which is 130-ish, and I recently did 140-ish in Mallorca with a nice young man who wanted to do his first century. I think he gave up at 100 miles and 11k of climbing and called his uncle for a ride home.
But every time people suggest I do a long ride with them I politely decline, usually by saying “No fucking way.” In fact, my rando friends had an intervention earlier this year in which they tried to get me to commit to riding my bike for a long time for no particular reason.
“No fucking way,” I said.
So it stands to reason that on Saturday I rode 240 miles.
Then on Sunday I spent Father’s Day eating without pause and unsuccessfully rolling around in bed trying to find an angle at which everything didn’t hurt at once. The whole disaster was my own fault, as usual, and it started with the same lie that every big bike ride starts with: “This is a no-drop ride.”
It had seemed like a great idea at the time. There was a sagged ride that would pedal from Brentwood to Santa Barbara, with some riders leaving from Van Nuys to get the even century, and then we’d all take the train home. We’d chat along the way, have a jolly time, eat lunch in SB, and do something different from the usual Death Cab for Roadie that these things always devolve into.
The obvious deception in this well-worn package of lies became apparent in Brentwood, when James Cowan, Leo, Nigel, Reeven, and Steven all showed up ready to do the ride after having already done a quick 30-mile “warm-up” loop that included climbing Las Flores Canyon Rd.
Strava it, is all I can say, and if that still sounds like a warm-up for anything besides a funeral, you are insane. Then they said that they would be riding back from Santa Barbara to make it a solid 200+ day. Of course all this was done with much preening, flexing, and Rapha-ing.
I rolled my eyes. “You guys are complete idiots,” I said.
Five miles into the ride, we found out who the idiot was as the leisurely no-drop ride had it pinned at 30 on PCH. Although it was easy sitting in the group, I was wondering about the handful of riders who looked like that speed might be a formula for early detonation. I turned to Larry. “I’m going to float to the back for a minute and see how folks are doing,” I said.
Larry laughed. “We are the back, dude.”
In the distance I saw my friend Debbie vanishing behind into a tiny speck, about to spend the next six very sociable hours plodding alone into a headwind on the coast road. I dropped back to her and watched the group furiously pound away.
“They’ll wait for us,” Debbie said, confidently.
“Yes, they will,” I agreed, knowing cyclists perhaps better than she did. “In Santa Barbara.”
Debbie, who is slim and fit, slipped in behind me, I throttled it back to about 18 mph, and we pedaled the next ten thousand hours into a battering headwind until we got to Carpinteria, by which time I’d gone through most of my single water bottle and both of Yasuko’s homemade granola bars.
We stopped at the Starbucks and I had a bag of chips, some water, and an espresso. We remounted and shortly out of Carpinteria ran into Chris Hahn, who was going the other direction. He turned around and guided us into Santa Barbara, and we were able to chat and catch up on the latest masters crashout polemic and doping gossip.
At the rendezvous restaurant we expected to see our group but they weren’t there. Apparently they had rested at a park, gotten some flats, and made a bunch of unplanned stops, so Debbie and I actually rode there faster even at our modest pace. All I knew is that I was exhausted and looking forward to the train ride home. I’d been wearing that rotting kit since 6:00 AM.
We killed an hour at Handlebar Coffee, rode around Santa Barbara, and finally joined everyone at the restaurant. I was sitting there in my smelly kit, very hungry and picking away at a vegetable tostada I’d ordered that consisted of lettuce and tomato and a piece of avocado, while also eating baskets of chips and salsa. It briefly crossed my mind that this wasn’t the best day to embark on vegetarianism, but I’d finished the last part of a collection of stories by Miyazawa Kenji in which he had written about a vegetarian convention in Newfoundland in the 30’s that was crashed by lobbyists from the Chicago Slaughterhouse Union, and was inspired to try and live without meat for at least a day.
The beer began to flow and I fell into that morose alcoholic sobriety where you’re watching everyone enjoy their delicious beer, and I started thinking about the train ride back and how everyone would be happily drunk and I’d be sour as a bad pickle about having busted the wind all day and then gotten nothing but sobriety as my reward.
About this time the Cowan group began egging me on to join them for the ride back, and even though I was tired and had zero interest in the endeavor, I was in a foul and sadistic enough mood to want to observe such a friendly, confident, happy group of bleating sheep get delivered into the bloodthirsty jaws of Head Down James.
You see, Head Down James, although a relatively new cyclist with little understanding of the nuances of bike racing, is a relatively new cyclist with little understanding of the nuances of bike racing. Although devoid of tactics or guile, he is on the other hand devoid of tactics or guile. And whereas a beginner might mistakenly approach a 240-mile ride with a reckless display of murderous smashing, James approaches every 240-mile ride with a reckless display of murderous smashing.
I say “every 240-mile” because unlike randos, James sees no need to conjure rather long distances into impossibly longer-sounding stretches by use of metric conversion. Head Down James rides 300-milers, 400-milers, whatever-milers, and does it at one speed: Full smash.
We set out from Santa Barbara with plump tummies, and the vegetarian tostada + fried chips diet looked okay, at least initially. Several brave young bunnies gamely hopped to the front and set a very brisk tempo, proudly showing their youthful legs, happy optimism, and excited fluffy tails at getting the chance to do such a big ride with Head Down James. In my estimation they were all about to get their skin torn off in narrow strips and have the remaining flesh charred live over an open flame.
The only rider who looked like he would not immediately have his head hoisted on a pike was Reese, a 40-ish dude with tri-bars who is fiendishly strong and more importantly, wide enough to give me a good draft. You could tell he was for real because his team kit, which was only six months old, already looked like it had been used to wash the undercarriage of a Peterbilt. I tucked in while the bunnies frolicked, awaiting the inevitable, which happened at about the 30-mile mark.
People were starting to get that funny look of twice-tasted Mexican food; Steven had already been shelled once on the 101; Reeven had opined that “5 minute pulls were optimal,” Leo was deathly silent, and everyone else was huddling at the back only to find that with eight riders in a sidewind THERE IS NO BACK.
Somewhere on RV Alley, Head Down James took a pull. I don’t know how fast it was. I don’t know how long it was. But I know that the faces of the riders were twisted in pain, and short little bunny gasps were in plentiful supply. After a very long time that seemed much longer, Reese rolled to the front. It made the pull of Head Down James looked like the efforts of a kindergarten tug-o-war team. After a while, but before he was done, I decided to make a brief excursion to the fore of the ship to see what all the ruckus was about. My acceleration might have been a bit brisk, brisker even, than, say, the already brisk pace of Reese.
By the time I flicked my elbow the only two sailors left on HMS Idiots were Reese and Head Down James. This was good because the bunnies had been set free from the clutches of vivisectionist James. It was bad because it was fairly obvious that I was now going to be the next rabbit on the operating table.
I’ve never done a rando, but if, at mile 183, they’re still doing 28 mph, I don’t ever want to. Reese mercifully flatted. I lay down in the parking lot of Surf A Hoy and hoped he never got the flat fixed or that North Korea had targeted its first nuclear launch for Oxnard. James did donuts to keep his mileage up.
We got going again, but the “we” part evaporated on Hueneme Road. “Guys,” I said, “I’m done.” Although I had sat on, refused to pull, and hidden like a mouse running from a boa in an aquarium, the combination of speed and total absence of draft from Head Down James ground me into bits.
Head Down James look back for a brief second, swerved and took me through a giant pothole that almost shattered my rims and spine, and looked kindly at me, kindly as in “the way a shark rolls its eyes back into its head before sinking its razor-sharp teeth into your soft gut, which spills out a trail of soft intestine and foamy gore.”
“Okay,” he said, and they vanished.
Or so it seemed.
A couple of miles later Reese was standing up against a fence in a playground with a dazed look on his face. “Dude,” I said, with insincere concern, “are you okay?”
“My toe is cracked and I have to restraighten it,” he said, or some other gibberish, which I instantly understood as “Head Down James bored a hole into my skull so please let my brains dribble out in peace.”
“Okay,” I said, without stopping to make a fake offer of help, although I made sure he could hear me downshift.
For a very long time I rode alone. Although there are a lot of unique physiological changes that your body goes through when you are stretched that thin on a few leaves of lettuce and parts of a tomato, the major one is The Feeling Of Stupid. “Why am I here? Where am I? When will this end? Whose fault is this? Who do I know who lives nearby?”
These and a million other variations of “You are a complete fucking idiot” played in an infinite loop until Reese passed me somewhere around the Rock. “All better?” I asked, grateful for the draft.
“Yeah,” he said, blasting by. For a while I sat on his wheel until, faster and faster, I couldn’t. He vanished.
It had been overcast all day and now I was alone in a dense fog on PCH and freezing cold. I hated everyone, especially my rando friends in Sacramento who had made me do this, and my wrists hurt. My neck hurt. My back hurt. My ass had been grated with chunks of razor coral. My glasses were fogged over. Then, around Neptune’s Net, I saw a red blinky light–it was Reese again.
“Dude,” I said, “I didn’t think I was going to see you again.”
“It’s my heart,” he said. “Every so often when I go too hard for too long it starts spiking.”
“What’s it at?”
“201,” he said.
“You’ll be fine. I think as long as it’s not your age plus 400 you’re golden.”
“I have to dial it back until it drops back into the 180’s.”
“Okay,” I said, attacking him on the small roller and leaving him for the defib crew.
Many more miles went by and Reese caught me again. Now we were both too tired to attack. We laughed at how stupid we were. We cursed Head Down James, silently and in the open. We compared notes on the trail of burrito and salsa puke that the bunnies had left in their wake. And we finally got to Trancas.
Trancas, holy Trancas! Home of the Chevron and Saint Dr. Pepper and His Bottled Holiness Frappucino and Father Snickers, the divine and dogly Father Snickers, ambrosia of the dogs!
I had gone through my second water bottle for the day and was thirsty. We ate as much sugar as we could and then, horror of horrors, as we left the gas station we saw the most gruesome thing imaginable: The bunnies were pulling in as we were pulling out.
“Want to wait for them?” Reese asked.
“Fuck no,” I snarled. We pretended we didn’t know them and raced on.
With renewed energy and sugar in our veins we flew through the pitch-dark fog of PCH as stoned surfers, drunk beachgoers, and horny teenagers pulled out of the Zuma Beach parking and headed for more drugs at Moonshadows. Reese and I took turns until somewhere after Cross Creek, where he sat up and gave me the thousand-yard stare.
“I’m done,” he said. “Good riding with you.”
A wave of kindness and camaraderie flowed over me. I don’t know if it was the distance, the exhaustion, the fact that we’d already disproved whatever it was we set out to prove, or maybe it was simply a kinder and gentler me who wanted to show respect to a stronger, superior rider and all-round decent guy.
I smiled and sat up. “Okay, man. Hope you make it home.” I downshifted and rode off. [Editor’s note: I never heard from him again. If anyone knows what happened to Reese, please send condolences to his next of kin.]
After Temescal Canyon Rd. the traffic on PCH became bumper-to-bumper, and my speed was about that of the cars. As I cruised along peeking in the windows I saw normal people drinking beer, texting, and having a nice life although they admittedly killed the odd pedestrian or cyclist here and there. They seemed peaceful and happy. None of them could fathom that of all the people on PCH at that very moment, I was the dumbest.
By the time I got to Manhattan Beach I had made a list of all the people whose homes I was going to stop by and from whom I’d beg a ride home. I had rehearsed my speech, which went like this: “Hi, Derek, I know this is weird it being 9:30 PM on Saturday night and all and the baby is probably asleep and you and the missus are naked but could you drive me home? I’m very tired and am on Mile 230. Please? I have ten bucks and half of a smushed BonkBreaker as payment.”
What I couldn’t get past was how I’d explain having left on an all-day ride without my phone. If there was one thing Derek liked to say it was, “The great thing about Uber is you never have to call a friend to bail you out.” Who would understand it? Not even Manslaughter, although I pedaled by his house to see if the lights were on. They were, which meant he was watching NASCAR and so, no chance there, either.
I ran out of supplies in Hermosa Beach and stopped to buy another Dr. Pepper. I totted up my expenses for the day:
- Ms. WM’s granola bars: $ .25 each
- Coffee at Peet’s: $1.85
- Ride fee: $20.00
- Coffee and chips in Carpinteria: Free
- Piece of lettuce in Santa Barbara: Free
- Unused train ticket home: $36.00
- Donated BonkBreaker: Free
- Dr. Pepper & Frapp & Holy Snickers in Trancas: Free
- Dr. Pepper in Hermosa: $1.85
The closer I got to home the more my mind tried to figure out ways to not have to pedal there. But my legs were okay, my blinkies were still working, and my raging case of fire in the hole had subsided just enough to throw a leg back over.
I got to the bottom of the hill in PV and girded my loins for the final 30-minute climb. There were no streetlights and no traffic. I was swallowed up by a silence so complete that all I could hear was my gritty chain. At the bluff overlook on Via Del Monte I gazed at the brilliant city below. A young couple was standing there holding hands, oblivious to the filthy and tired old man laboring by with a raw ass and defective mental condition.
Eventually, like all colonic obstructions, the miserable climb passed. My wife greeted me at the door. “What happened to you?” she asked in horror, having expected me home hours earlier.
“What happened to me? James happened. Head Down James.”
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March 20, 2017 § 24 Comments
Before the race G3, who won it the year before, told me that “It’s the hardest race you’ll ever do.”
The Hun, who was driving, nodded savagely. “Absolute fucking hardest,” he said.
When two good friends, experienced road racers, and all-round tough guys tell you that it’s the hardest race you’ll ever do, my (obvious) reaction was to discount everything they said because they were such soft little cream-filled cupcakes.
“So what’s so hard about it?” I asked, bored and hoping they would fill the rest of the 2-hour drive to Desertmethtrailerville with epic lies about their awesomeness and somewhere along the way I could pick up some good intel that would help me attack my teammates and cover myself in glory at their expense.
“Wind,” said G3.
“Fucking wind,” said the Hun.
“Incredible wind,” said G3.
“Wind so fucking bad you gonna cry your mommy,” cursed the Hun.
“The wind is so ferocious it will destroy everyone who doesn’t have a wheel the entire race.”
“Fucking wind gonna break your balls and you gonna quit right away you don’t ride smart.” He cast a sideways glance indicating that “ride smart” wasn’t something he necessarily credited me with.
We got to the course outside Lancaster, which is part of California, but not the good part. I had made sure to fuel up on a Burger King double bacon cheeseburger and fries when we stopped for gas, so although I was properly nutritionized I was not prepared for …
On the course, way over in a field, four Big Orange teammates were fighting with a team canopy that had blown several hundred yards into the middle of someone’s dirt and plastic trash orchard, where this year’s crop also included used syringes and not-brand-new condoms.
By the start-finish, all the port-a-potties were lying on their side.
The paperwork at registration was on the ground, weighted by thirty-pound rocks.
Everyone was covered in sand, grit, and anger. Lots of anger.
I got on my bike to warm up and unwisely pointed it with the tailwind. Without pedaling I quickly hit 30 mph, then 35, then with a pedal stroke or two was doing 40. By the time I turned around I had gone so far that returning to base camp took almost thirty minutes and I was already tasting bacon.
Head Down James had just finished racing. “How’d it go?”
“Breezy,” he said.
“How was the climb?’
“Headwind. Three miles. Not too steep. You’ll do fine. But watch the downhill.”
“Straight as an arrow with a couple of gentle curves you can hit without touching your brakes. You’ll easily hit 55. Watch out for the potholes and cracks, and big pieces of cactus blown onto the course, and of course the trash and there’s one place where a load of logs spills out into the road. If you hit one of those at speed it won’t be good.”
“No,” I agreed.
“One guy in our race did and took down five other people.”
“Is that what those five ambulances were for?”
“Yes. No one died though.”
“Yeah, and watch out for the puppies. There are so many puppies and people have all driven up from LA to photograph them. Gets dicey at 55 with people running back and forth across the highway and pulling over.”
“Yeah. They’re gorgeous but watch out.”
“How’d you La Grange guys do?”
“We swept the podium.”
At that moment a blast of sand swept in and covered us, sticking to James’s sweaty face and my sunscreened one.
Our race began straight into the headwind up the 3-mile climb, with about twenty very old, very tired, and very apprehensive fellows engaged in a fierce competition to do nothing but hide. Contemptuously I went to the front half a dozen times and tried to up the pace.
G3 pedaled up alongside. “Dude,” he whispered. “Hide. You don’t know what you’re doing.” I spat in reply.
We crested the climb, having culled a few of the weak, sick, and mentally infirm, did a short easy downhill, and then made an easy right-hander. In front was a short 200-meter bump. This was the bump where G3 had warned me to “Be at the front because it’s short and easy but they will race over it and if you have even two bike lengths between you and the group you will never see them again because the second they crest it they will be going 60 with a huge tailwind and your day will be over.”
“More silly exaggeration,” I had thought as I saw the leaders begin to accelerate. “But just in case …”
Horribly positioned at the very back I sprinted with everything I had, which wasn’t much, and just latched on as the leaders crested the bump. The four riders who were a few wheels back were never seen again. It was that instantaneous.
The fear was awful, the chug holes in the road were abysses, and everyone except me seemed fine with the idea of dying, if that’s what it took, to get to the bottom quickly. Before long we began rocketing through corridors of cars and SUVs parked on the road side, with city folks wandering randomly across the road.
“The fucking puppies,” I thought. “The puppies. Where are the puppies? All I see are giant orange fields of poppies.” Then it dawned on me. “Puppies. Poppies.”
Tucked into the back of the group we made a right turn into the worst cross-wind in history. The leaders punched it hard. If you were in the first six wheels you had a draft; everyone else was shoved against the double yellow line in a vicious echelon with no shelter.
The moto ref helpfully yelled and honked at us to “get off the yellow line,” which only made us move farther to the left such that the giant mirrors of pickups passing in the opposite direction at 75 came within inches of our heads. Gaps opened and I began having to close them.
If you’ve never had to close a gap in an echelon with a howling cross-wind, it is like being Sisyphus but instead of pushing a giant rock up a hill you are pushing a giant rock off your head only to have it fall back and spatter more brains when the next gap opens.
I closed four gaps and then almost ran over the red cones before the next turn, a right-hander that went straight into the wind, back through the start-finish and up the climb. After two minutes of sitting at the back cursing the dirt, the puppies, the poppies, G3 and the Hun for telling the truth, the wind, the tumped-over toilets, and praying the moto ref would DQ me, I gave up.
One lap, quit, wobbled into the start-finish area where I was cheered by no one except my good friend Kristie. “What are you quitting for?” she said. “Finish the race!”
“I double flatted,” I said.
“Oh my dog! That’s terrible!”
“Yeah,” I said.
She looked at my tires. “Your tires are fine, Seth.”
“Yeah, but it was a right flat and a left flat.”
Two small children who were there to watch their dad race quizzed me in great detail about my weakness, why I had quit, why I had come if I only rode one lap, whether I usually quit, whether my kids also quit, whether quitting was okay (their teacher said never quit), did I like quitting, did my dad know I had quit, did I know their dad wasn’t gonna quit, had I ever beaten their dad and if so how come I had quit and couldn’t beat him today, and did I want to try and beat them playing Gorgonzola Space Destruction Zombie Catchers.
Next, I got to sit on the side of the road for another hour and a half and watch the miserable faces of the racers come by in gradually reduced numbers until they slow-motion sprunted across the line, faces caked in salt and grit and misery. “One lap to go!” I shouted as they finished, Cruelty Thy Name Is Bicycle Racing.
G3 got second and the Hun got third, which was awesome because before they even dismounted I demanded my share of their winnings. “You couldn’t have done it without all that work I did on the first lap.”
Too tired to resist, they staggered to the car and deflated, thousand-yard stares pasted on their drawn faces while the wind howled and moaned.
August 19, 2016 § 13 Comments
In addition to being born in the foreign nation of Kenya and/or Hawai’i and being therefore an ineligible and illegitimate president, in addition to perpetuating the hoax that global warming is caused by humans, in addition to causing 9/11 when he was a state legislator in the Illinois Senate, in addition to being a founding member of ISIS, and in addition to repealing the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Consution, I blame Obama for beating me at the Telo training crit, him and Head Down James.
“Surely, Wanky, you don’t mean that.”
“No, no, no. What you mean is that Obama put in place the policies, procedures, funding, and geopolitical landscape that caused you to lose at Telo last Tuesday. That’s what you mean, isn’t it?”
“No. I mean what I said. I blame Obama for beating me at Telo. Him and Head Down James. And Pegleg Barrett for hosting the conspiracy on his private server and sending out classified emails to all of Velo Club La Grange to incite them to pile into the team van, drive down to Telo, and smash us into bits.”
“How is that Obama’s fault?”
“Glad you asked!”
It happened like this: There I was, giving a polite and courteous and harmonious speech to the raving NIMBY lunatics in RPV who want to promote bike safety by banning cyclists from public roads, and I was covered in dried spit and snot and sweat and smelled like an old hunks and was shaking from exhaustion and on the verge of collapse because I’d driven straight from Telo to the city council meeting.
Everyone was looking at my slobber in awe and a bit fearful of Zika and etc., but I couldn’t collect my thoughts because of Obama and Head Down James.
Right before the race began, Destroyer had sidled up to me. “You want to win?”
“Of course,” I said, reflecting on my Chevy Volt and therefore a bit suspicious of his as-yet unuttered advice.
“Follow Head Down James.”
“Okay,” I said, having no intention of doing it and fulfilling the first law of bike racing strategy, which is Lie At All Times. I mean, there was no way Head Down James and Obama could stay away from the beginning, and if there’s one thing more certain than that we need to make America great again, it’s that Head Down James was going to attack from the gun, which he did, so why should I follow him in a hopeless attempt?
“Go!” said Destroyer as Head Down James attacked at the beginning.
“Okay!” I said and drifted back.
Head Down James pounded away and won but not before Obama completely messed up the chase. All I really remember is that there was some poor schmo in a Texas Aggies pair of pants and another dude with a green jersey and Texas flag and they got completely shelled and lapped along with all but about seven people, welcome to California and Obama and socialism.
I followed wheels and did zero anything until I found myself in a break with Destroyer and Frenchy Jr. They almost dislocated their elbows trying to get me to take a pull, but with Obama working against me, and Frenchy Jr. being 22, and Destroyer being the champion sprunter, I didn’t see what sense it made for me to do a lick of work plus I’m lazy that way.
Although Big Orange started out with five guys we were Little Orange by the end with everyone but me and Skinny Dave having been shelled and lapped, and Velo Club La Grange only had Surfer Dan left but since Head Down James was up the road all he had to do was wheelsurf, which he did, plus pull me up the group the one time I got dropped which was around the time that Bahati literally tore off a crank arm he was pedaling so hard to bring back Head Down James.
But Obama carried the day with ISIS, and Head Down James closed the deal and got his first Brexit Winner’s Tunic. I can’t wait until Trump is president and implements Making Wanky Great Again and I finally have a chance.
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