Friday, January 28, 2011

From the Archives - Big Ring Tale


I did not coin the term “Big Ring Tale,” but a Google search on this phrase turns up only five results, two of which are mine. I thought it was a household term, but perhaps it’s not. Suffice to say, it refers to a story of a showdown on bikes, with the climax coming when the hero, just before launching his final, devastating attack, “throws it in the big ring”—that is, shifts into his bike’s higher gear range.

The following Big Ring Tale came to mind when I was planning my blog post about bike helmets, and recalled the last time I broke a helmet in a crash. This was in 2008, when I was hit by a car during a training ride, and suffered a third-degree separation of my shoulder. It took a long time and a lot of physical therapy before I could return to riding, and when I finally did, I was slower, heavier, and in worse shape than I’d been in many years, perhaps more than a decade. This left me vulnerable to weak assaults on my ego, one of which resulted in a bike ride showdown with a complete stranger. As it happened, part of the reason he provoked me was that he was apparently too cool to wear a helmet.

(Original art courtesy of my daughter.)

Big ring tale – September 15, 2008

It’s not looking like I’ll have any race reports to file this year, so I thought I’d make do with a humble Big Ring Tale.

So I was humping my Salsa up South Park one day last week and thinking how utterly absurd it was for me to have thought I could come back from my injury in time to ride the Everest Challenge in Bishop. I was actually feeling relieved that my physical therapist vetoed the idea, and then annoyed at myself for feeling relieved.

I clocked a slow time up South Park, and then headed down Claremont. This would be my first time doing these climbs back-to-back since my wreck, 2½ months before. I turned the ship around at the bottom and tried to get my engine going again to climb back up. I was still sputtering away when this dude passed me. He looked pretty fit, and pretty smooth, and he had that pocket climber build, and right away I decided it would be futile to try to hang with him. The wimp in my brain assured me, in soothing tones, that the outcome of any engagement with this guy had been decided at my birth, and that there was no shame in an out-of-shape old injured dude, with what felt like a woman’s butt growing out of his belly, being passed up by a young fit climber guy. I even reflected on the words of a slippery Nabokov narrator, “Fate should not jam.” Why should I mix it up with somebody who is destined to leave me far behind?

But then, as I scanned this guy for more excuses to wuss out, I noticed some things that complicated the matter. True, he was on a nice, modern racing bike, a carbon Specialized, not some 1980s Novara or something, but on the other hand he was wearing a Camelbak (not exactly the gear of a true road cyclist). And then there was the matter of his attitude. I said “Hi,” and he didn’t reply. What, the big, puffy, puffing guy doesn’t warrant a greeting, not even a nod?

His apparently snooty attitude was exacerbated by his youth. There was something too fresh in his face, some aura of having been untested, something the opposite of weathered, like he’s just some young guy who thinks the whole world is laid out before him to just take, and he cares nothing what the older, long-suffering bastards like me think of him and his insolence. If he were in an old Native American tribe, the elders would cut him down to size by giving him some humiliating name like “White Man’s Bitch” or “Forest Pansy” or something, until he did something impressive to literally make a name for himself, at which point they’d switch to calling him “Schools Lardy Has-Been” or “Spanks Happy Buddha.”

Suddenly, I marveled at how critical I was being. After all, this was simply an angry biker like myself out for a ride. And then it hit me why he bothered me so much: the guy reminded me of Riccardo Riccò, that hot-shot self-worshipping doper. Of course it wasn’t this guy’s fault he happens to bear a physical resemblance to Riccò, but on the other hand, if I looked like that I’d make sure to act really friendly and humble.

And then there was the matter of this guy not having socks. Maybe he was a tri-guy, or—even worse—a roadie who lets the tri culture influence him. And though his form was good, his pedal stroke smooth, his physique fairly toned, he was just slightly bow-legged, which interfered with my ability to chalk him up as a classy rider who deserves to drop me. And to top it all off, he wasn’t wearing a helmet. This was forgivable twenty years ago, when people raced in worthless leather hairnets and the hard-shell helmets were hot and heavy, but in 2008, when even the Europeans wear helmets on their road rides? Who does this guy think he is? It’s a given that he’s going to be descending something steep; just how sweet a bike-handler does he fancy himself? What, he’s just so damn cool he has to be the last guy on the road without a helmet? What is he, James Dean? So I decided he had to die, or at least one of us did.

Now, if this were an ABC After-School Special, I’d have pulled up next to him, stared him down like Lance did Ullrich on Alpe d’Huez, stood on my pedals, and blown him away. Or maybe he’d put up a fight but my ultimate supremacy would never be in question. Alas, in reality, in the process of my deliberations I’d let the guy drop me already. I had to claw back up to him, very slowly. By the time I reached him, my heart rate was over 170, which is pretty much redline for me. How on earth was I going to throw down on this guy? It dawned on me that the real victim of my effort would doubtless be myself. But I deserved this punishment, I figured, for ever letting things get to the point where this bow-legged, fresh-faced, sockless, antisocial helmetless little bastard could drop me so easily. So I sat on his wheel and suffered. Of course there was still a chance he’d sit up, offer a greeting, and we’d have a social ride up the hill. Or, he’d be annoyed at me, kick it up a bit, and cast me off. But instead he just stayed at it.

After a minute or two, Scotty frantically warned me, “The ship can’t take much more o’ this, Captain!” I simply didn’t have the minerals to win a war of attrition. I decided my only hope was to take a deep breath (this I was already doing) and then cruise past the guy with my best simulation of ease and infinite strength, in hope that it would break his spirit and he’d descend into a low-performance bout of self loathing. A Hail Mary, to be sure, but what else could I do? Every now and then you get lucky, and your opponent is like one of those Imperial storm troopers whose minds are putty in Obi Wan’s paws, who say, “These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.” So I rolled on by the guy at the first steep section, as gracefully and unhurriedly powerfully as an expert rower in a racing scull passing a kid in a paddle boat. (At least, that’s how I convinced myself I looked. I was probably more like a dancing hippo from Fantasia: fluid, and yet somehow pathetic.) I kept this up until things got really steep, and I got further into the red, and no longer had the luxury of pretense. Once out of the saddle, I was thrashing ugly, like Escartin in the early Lance years. God.

We think of roads as having a fixed length, like Pi or the wavelength of Cesium. Of course this is simply untrue. Claremont when you’re fit is pretty long. Claremont when you’re really fit isn’t so very long. Claremont when you’re getting in touch with your inner fat bastard is basically endless. Why, why, why did I do this? And why was I continuing? All the rationalizations (his bow-leggedness, helmetlessness, etc.) popped right into my mind, along with a new one: I’m going to look like a real ass if I falter now, after my big strut; this skinny little bareheaded Doogie Howser is going to laugh inwardly, or maybe even in my face, as he plucks the baton from my generation and leaves me gasping in his wake. I couldn’t let that happen. Maybe I couldn’t prevent that from happening, but I wasn’t going to sit up and welcome it. So I pressed on, absolutely murdering myself.

Then, I had the epiphany. Not “an epiphany,” which is normally how these go, but the same epiphany I have—and then forget—time after time in such situations. The realization is this: though I convince myself that I quit racing because of the time commitment involved, the traveling, the cost, the overall lifestyle and the impact that would have on my family, the truth of the matter is that I’ve had enough of this kind of suffering. Riding is fun, and riding hard is fun but hurts, and riding really hard is fun but really hurts, but racing—officially or in these desperate ego-driven throw-downs—is pure agony. There’s just this huge chasm between anything you can inflict upon yourself in the name of fitness, and this kind of searing, overwhelming pain, a thousand nerve endings crying out at once to try to get the brain to do something, anything, to rescue the organism.

I’d gone past the fine edge of what is tolerable, and every shove on the pedals increased my abject misery. “I don’t want to be here,” I thought. “I don’t want to be doing this. This sucks. Nothing is worse than this.” And yet I kept on, because I’d written a check I could not afford to bounce, because a skinny, duck-footed, helmetless Riccò-type was probably sitting right on me, or hanging just back, deciding how to best punish me for my foolish audacity.

One of the rules of these “pick-up races” (to coin a term) is that you don’t look back at your opponent. I didn’t hear him behind me, and eventually a car approached and I had an excuse to look back. He was maybe 150 feet behind. I looked again, a few minutes later, and he was maybe 200 feet back. A third look showed he was gaining. It definitely seemed he was working on catching me—but here I suddenly had some doubt: what if this entire showdown is in my head, and this dude is just pedaling his bike up the hill, oblivious to my challenge? Could I be locked in a struggle against my own shadow, my own delusion? Could it be that I’m scarcely different from those crazy people you occasionally see on the street having a loud, public argument with—nobody? Fortunately, no one would ever know. Just as modern crazies are camouflaged among all the hands-free cell phone users, I must have looked like any joe having a hard time with a tough climb.

Besides, he must have been trying to catch me. I’ve been riding long enough to know when somebody has taken the bait. I figured I’d know for sure soon enough, as soon as he came by me and accelerated. Except that, amazingly, I was going just fast enough to hold him off. Every time I glanced back, he was somewhere between gaining on me and faltering. Eventually I realized he’d run out of time, and I would make it to the top of Claremont ahead of him—that I’d actually managed to turn a clever bluff into desperation-fueled triumph. Chances were that he’d either go straight, down Fish Ranch, or right, along Skyline. He might even turn around and go back down Claremont. But the horrible possibility existed that he’d go left, like me, and drop my ass on Grizzly Peak. I shuddered at the thought, and made sure I lost no time making my left turn, just in case. I kept it floored until the first switchback, when I looked back to make sure that—oh, crap. He was turning, too, and not wasting any time about it. I’d just had a bunch more tacked onto my sentence.

Funny how the mind works. On the brink of despair, I convinced myself of a lie that, in retrospect, seems like a reasonable truth: if this little pocket climber can’t chase me down on Claremont, where the grade is steep enough to put the laws of physics squarely in his favor, he shouldn’t be able to close the gap on the shallower grade of Grizzly Peak. I even told myself that he himself would be painfully aware of this idea, and might just lose all hope. Of course it felt like a lie at the time, because my entire output was really a myth, like Wile E. Coyote running along in mid-air only because he hasn’t yet realized he’s gone off a cliff. But I willed myself to believe it, and kept the hurt on, abusing myself so badly that it almost started to feel normal, and, one pedal stroke at a time, I finally reached the part of the climb, near the steam trains, where it starts to really ease up.

Guido handed me a pistol and said, “Here—finish him.” So I threw her in the big ring. Not because I was going so fast I’d run out of small cogs or anything, but because you can’t have a Big Ring Tale without the big ring, and I was already sensing the first stirrings of this story you’re now reading. Meanwhile, with the end in sight I suddenly felt like I had a little more energy in store than I’d thought. In fact, my full awareness of how badly this had hurt was already beginning to recede, and now it is a feat of imagination for me to remember how very badly I suffered in the pursuit of this minor, possibly delusional, victory over a single nameless foe.

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