Friday, February 7, 2020

Big Ring Tale - Cycling “Hail Mary”


I am old. Fifty, and that’s mighty old, especially to try to be an athlete. But to paraphrase Faulkner, age “might have kilt me but it ain’t whupped me yit.” I still try to duke it out from time to time with the high school kids whom I coach mountain biking. These kids, if they did nothing, would continually improve just by getting older (and thus bigger and stronger). When they train regularly, their progress is stunning. Thus we coaches enjoy watching kid after kid go from learning the ropes to whupping us, often within the span of a single season.

This tale concerns a quixotic effort to beat L—, my team’s star rider, in a drag-out sprint recently on Wildcat Canyon Road toward the end of a team practice. If the outcome was “He kicked my ass and I never had a chance,” there wouldn’t be a story. Trust me, it’s a bit more complicated than that. My tale involves verve, poor fitness, equipment, tactics, politics, shame, equipment, tactics, suffering, equipment, luck, tactics, and luck. In that order.


Who am I to be going up against our fastest rider in a slightly downhill sprint? This kid has been on the podium in every race he’s done, except the State Championships and Nationals (where he was top ten in both). When he first joined the team I was expecting a very stocky kid because we inherited him from the football team (which had such a weak bench, they had to cancel their season when concussions claimed too many players to continue fielding a team). Instead, his physique is perfect for bike racing. He could have been a transfer from Team Ineos.

So yeah, why would I even try? Well, I always try. This is because cycling is such a complicated sport … crazy things happen that can suddenly put an otherwise non-competitive rider into contention (say, a giant crash in the final corner of a criterium that squirts a single lucky rider through). Moreover, I like taking on ridiculous odds just for the lunatic thrill of it. In a sprint you always end up going fast, and if you’re on the right wheel you go really fast, and speed feels great even when you lose.

But that’s still not the source of my foolish verve. Ultimately, if I don’t always try, no matter how doomed I am, I’ll become one of those guys who doesn’t try. That leads eventually to the being guy who never goes hard at all, and then to the guy who only rides to the bakery, and finally to being the guy who stops riding altogether.

Poor fitness

Am I going to say my opponent lacked fitness, this being February? Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. He’s young—he never lacks fitness. Aware of his own talent, L— always has ample motivation to train, and even his light off-season training has a dramatic result, meaning that the normal sine curve of seasonal fitness doesn’t apply to him. His graph is a constant upward trajectory, albeit with a steeper slope during the racing season.

Of course it is I who had the poor fitness. This is actually a strength for me when it comes to sprinting. Because my training is almost all in the hills, getting fit means climbing (marginally) better at the expense of my (already spotty) sprinting ability. If I’m ever going to finish fast on a flat road, it’s going to be in the early season.


I was late to the party, about halfway through the group when I saw the contenders boiling at the front. This might seem like poor tactics on my part, to be caught napping like that. Actually, it was a timeworn strategy to protect my ego: I had an excuse, I was out of position! Of course, this is a bad strategy because the relief I feel at having an excuse is itself shameful, so my ego comes out the worse for wear.

Fortunately, even as L— began to pull away from the other riders, like a running back shrugging off defenders, he suffered an equipment problem—his chain wouldn’t go into the highest gear. This slowed him slightly, giving me hope of making it onto his wheel. Suddenly he had one foot out of the pedal and was swiping at his rear derailleur with his foot. By the time he kicked it just right and got into his highest gear, I was halfway across to him with a good head of steam.

Tactics, politics, and shame

So, the perfect tactic might seem to suck L—’s wheel until the very last second, and then sprint around him. But this would be problematic. It’s long run-up to the finish, along the twisty, slightly downhill road, and that’s a long time to suck anybody’s wheel. If we were professionals and the sprint actually mattered in the slightest, we might get into one of those deadlocks like you see on the velodrome, where riders slow to a crawl, neither willing to lead out the sprint. But this was just for glory, and there’s nothing glorious about sitting in your opponent’s draft for such a long stretch.

So, to work things right politically, I’d need to take a turn at the front, and the sooner I started, the better. The smart move is to pull good and hard and long so that the stronger rider will eventually see you dying up there and decide it would be equally shabby to suck your wheel the rest of the way … so he finds himself taking the final pull, essentially leading out the sprint. He won’t like it, but he’ll be honor-bound to do it.  That was my plan, anyway. I went to the front and started slaying myself. I drilled it for a good while, and then started to slow down, very gradually, as if running out of steam—but I was faking it. Sure enough, L— eventually went to the front and I tucked in behind him. NOOICE!


My mountain bike, though it sports a carbon fiber frame and modern brakes etc., is old-school in that it has a triple chainwheel. In the realm of mountain bike culture, this is as lame as, well, being fifty years old. A double chainwheel is much more current, and all the best cross country bikes have just one chainwheel (a “one-by”). I’ve often mused that if the one-by came first, and then the industry added a second and later a third chainwheel, that would be considered rad. Yeah, my drivetrain doesn’t look as clean, and there’s more room for shifting failures, but that third chainwheel gives me a higher gear. At the speed we were going, L— was fairly wound out in his highest gear and spinning really fast, which wasn’t as efficient as my cadence. Plus, knowing my top gear was higher than his stoked my mojo.

Tactics – Part II

As much as I longed to shelter myself in L—’s draft for as long as possible, I realized the chief problem with this strategy: I don’t have a lot of fast-twitch muscles, and it’s possible that at the very end, once I swung out to the side out of L—’s draft, he might have enough punch to hold me off. It’s never a good idea to underestimate the sheer power of a young, faster rider and I’ve been burned this way before. It’s also the saddest way to go out: you suck the guy’s wheel to the very end but still lose. So I decided I had to use the element of surprise and launch my sprint far sooner than he would ever expect. If I gave it everything, I figured it was just barely possible he’d fail to get my wheel. So, marveling at how stupid it felt to try this, I attacked L— as hard as I could, well before the end.


Well, it worked … sort of. Truly caught out by my seemingly suicidal move, L— failed to catch my wheel. Now I was fully committed and just hammered my brains out. This is where experience can really help: part of what holds a rider back is fear of acute pain, but I’ve suffered too badly, too many times, to succumb. Resignation is a skill that can be refined and polished. I’ve learned how to distract myself slightly from the agony by stepping back to look at it, to marvel at it. Wow, it’s just searing pain! It’s amazing! The legs don’t want to turn anymore, but they do! Look at ‘em go! What a bizarre behavior, all this self-abuse just for the chance at a tiny dollop of glory I’ll almost certainly be denied in the end anyway! What a fool! Let’s see how far we can extend this!


Every second L— failed to get my wheel increased my chances of success, so I was pedaling harder than ever and my chain started skipping. I guess I kind of knew my 11-tooth cog was worn out, but had forgotten because honestly, how often do I pedal this hard in that gear? The skipping reduced my efficiency, of course; not a lot, but I needed all the planets to line up here. This. Was. Not. Good. I looked over my shoulder and L— was not far behind. I still had a long way to go. It didn’t seem possible for me to hold him off. Ah, well … there were a dozen ways to fail at this, and going too early was one of them.

Suddenly I came around a bend and saw a car up the road, not so far ahead, that had passed us earlier when we weren’t going so fast. It was going just a tiny bit slower than I, and I figured if I could close the gap to it, I’d benefit from the large slipstream a car produces. If I got into that draft, and not L—, maybe I could maintain my lead.

Tactics – Part III

The problem with giving it everything to catch the car is that if I did, but it wasn’t going fast enough to keep me ahead of L—, I’d have expended all that energy for nothing … I’d be stuck behind it as L— caught up. Then, when the road flattened and straightened out, and the car pulled away, L— would leave me in the dust. What I really needed was for the car to speed up a bit once I caught its draft. I figured the chances of this scenario were 50/50 … a lot better than just holding my own. So I went all-in, going almost anaerobic to close the gap. (Don’t worry, I’m not an idiot … I kept plenty of distance between me and the car, so I could react in time if it did something erratic ... about as far back as another  motorist would stay.)

Luck – Part II

As I approached the car, I was close enough to see, through the rear window, that the driver was male. Ka-ching! If you wondered earlier how I’d reckoned my odds were 50/50, here’s your answer: a male, observing any kind of challenge from another male, will generally be provoked to take action. Sure enough, this guy’s ego couldn’t handle the idea that a bicyclist—that is, a nerdy person using a child’s toy as though it were a vehicle—could match his speed. Naturally, he accelerated. Even at the higher speed, my workload was much reduced. I had a free ride, and unless L— had also closed the gap (I dared not look back to see), I was home free. In the event, he hadn’t … he never got my wheel.

So … yeah, man! I took the sprint! I fricking won!

Epilogue … so what?

Needless to say, though his tiny victory meant something to me (at least in the moment), it meant nothing to L—. It was just another day, another ride, another sprint. “That was fun,” was all he said later. And he was right.

So … is there anything to take away from this little tale? I think so. When I decided to rise to the occasion and contest the sprint, I figured my chances of prevailing were very, very small. And yet I took my shot anyway, because you just never know. Moreover, there would be no downside to losing, as that was practically inevitable to begin with. To succeed was a nice reminder that throwing everything you have at a challenge is actually sometimes enough.

And when we compare cycling to life, that’s where the real lesson is. Life is often (usually?) harder than sport, and in so much human endeavor we face terrible odds. I don’t know about you, but I seem to be blocked continually by obstacles that, in aggregate, can produce an overarching feeling of futility. But by continuing to show up, by continuing to dig deep into our personal grab bag of parlor tricks, lessons learned, and arcane capabilities, we can sometimes prevail. You never know when you might have a breakthrough … all you need is the right chain reaction of verve, tools, tactics, politics, shame, suffering, and a little luck.

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