Tuesday, April 7, 2020

From the Archives - Portrait of the Young Cyclist: Part 1


I thought I’d just about exhausted my archives—that is, old essays and stories I’ve been writing since the ‘80s—and then I stumbled across a folder called “True Stories.” Jackpot! One of them was called “Portrait of the Cyclist as a Young Man.” I vaguely remember writing this back in 2003, but I don’t remember why. The full story runs like 14,000 words so I’ll be breaking it into installments, which I’ll run about once a month for a while. Here is the first.

Portrait of the Cyclist as a Young Man – Part One: How the Sport Found Me  (written in February 2003)

Don’t let the working title mislead you—what I am about to write will share nothing with James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (except, I guess, being written in English). Joyce must have had time on his hands, because he wrote and wrote and wrote and never got to the point (that I could see, anyway) and I gave up reading after about 150 pages. As for me, I have only one night to write this, since I’m fighting a cold and can’t ride. My goal is to write the entire history of how I became a cyclist and why that is important. If my output is poor, it’s because I’m in an awful rush. If it’s too verbose, that’s because I’m pretending I’m being paid by the word, just like the pros. (Get it?)

It’s all my dad’s fault, really, because my first bike was a ten-speed. Dad must have worked hard to find a ten-speed, in 1978, in my size. It was a Fuji Junior and had 24-inch wheels. The fact of the ten gears wasn’t the point—my dad figured that any 9-year-old, or at least his 9-year-old, would be too stupid to work the gears without running into a parked car or something, and told me not to touch the shift levers. (I reckon this was supposed to be an interim edict, but he never remembered to rescind it or teach me how to shift. Maybe he figured youthful disobedience would eventually take over, in which case he was right.)

[This is pretty much exactly the bike I had, only mine was red.]

It was the dropped bars, mainly, that differentiated my Fuji from the bikes my friends had. With my three older brothers, who of course also had ten-speeds, I held a playful contempt for regular bikes. We even had a label for them, something like High-Rise-Handlebar-Banana-Seat-Small-Wheel-In-Front-Big-Wheel-in-Back-Streamers-from-the-Grips-Stupid-Schwinn. I’d have to check with my brothers—I’m sure I mangled that—but you get the idea. I remember asking Dad if ten-speeds were faster, just to make sure, or to get something juicy to quote to my friends, and he said in his professorial voice, “The dropped handlebar improves the aerodynamics of the rider, which would make the bike faster.” I didn’t know the word “aerodynamic”—heck, it wouldn’t enter even the specialized cycling vernacular for other couple of years, but it had “arrow” in it and whatever garbled version of that word I spewed for my friends made their eyes grow wide. I felt like a racer long before I ever entered a race.

So did my brothers. I remember Max, at 10 or so, asking our next-door neighbor Greg (no authority on cycling, of course, but a good six or eight years older, and thus an authority on Life) if he (Max) looked like a racer, and demonstrated his style by riding to the top of Howard Place and executing a U-turn through which he put down his inside foot and dragged it lightly as if for support. When Max returned and pulled up to a stop, breathless, Greg laughed and said, “Yeah, you really did look like a racer, except for when you put your foot down in the turn.” I took a lesson well and never did that.

It’s difficult to remember whether my first exposure to bicycle racing was the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic stage race or the movie “Breaking Away.” I don’t think it matters. They were both huge. The Red Zinger gave me a taste, or at least a smear, of the sport. Our mom would drive us out to the Morgul Bismark course, which in the late seventies was basically the middle of nowhere, and we’d screw around for half an hour or so waiting for the racers to come by. Why we didn’t hike up to the top of The Hump, the second hardest climb, is beyond me. Lazy kids, I guess; we watched from the base of the climb. The pack flew by too swiftly for us to catch more than the patchwork of colors, like an animated quilt, and the whirring of chains, mostly drowned out by our own cheering. We knew the racers mainly through the great program that the race had put out. George Mount—Smiling George—was our favorite racer. The way he grinned while suffering, he was a superhero.

Then there was the two-page section showing nothing but racers who had crashed, with lots of blood and such, and it was a natural draw for bloodthirsty young boys.

The program also had a section showing the racers’ legs, all shaved, totally muscular, vein-y, superhuman. I also remember that the racers had these really cool-looking hairnet helmets—we called them Bandinis, for some reason—and between the name and the obvious lack of real protection, we were completely enchanted. I also remember that one or two of the racers had the new Bell Biker helmets, like what our dad had. The fact of those helmets told me that it was possible, just barely possible, that a nerdy kid like me might actually be able to join that race someday, even if at the back of the pack—heck, even off the back of that pack. I would be honored.

While the Red Zinger aroused our interest, “Breaking Away” blew us completely away. It delivered not just a glimpse of the sport, but a real story—actually, lots of real stories, and the main story was of this being a European sport that an American could hope to have a tenuous piece of, but only if he’s willing to immerse himself in another culture. (This was remarkably accurate, if you look at what Jonathan Boyer and Greg LeMond had to do to make it in international cycling at this point.)

It didn’t occur to us to view Dave as an adult would, to find humor in his attempt to become Italian—we were completely with him, somehow identified completely. When the Italian racer put the pump in his spokes, sure, we hated the guy, but we were also in awe, and couldn’t really fault him because this was their sport, not ours, so the Italians were somehow exempt from judgment, like how a hockey player who assaults another player gets a couple minutes in the penalty box instead of going to jail.

Max taught me that Europeans were physically stronger than Americans, and less affected by pain. (When we had some new neighbors and wanted to try to convince them that we were from Europe, we demonstrated our heritage by pretending to fight, and being unfazed by the punches we landed on each other.) “Breaking Away” helped to teach us that as Americans we were not worthy of this beautiful sport. So complete was my awe of the Italians, I was as horrified as poor Cathy was when Dave gave up the Italian impersonation. Even his triumph at the end of the movie was only over a bunch of American college students, on crappy AMF Roadmaster one-speeds. Winning the race, and holding up the trophy, didn’t quite redeem him. What did redeem him for me was that at the very end, he had picked up a new French persona. For months after seeing that movie, I carried around a French/English pocket dictionary and made a horrible attempt to speak in that indecipherable language.

The other thing “Breaking Away” did for us was to steep us in the arcana of the sport. What we didn’t catch from the movie itself, we got from the Bicycling magazine article about it. For example, I knew that the cycling caps that flooded the marketplace as being identical to Dave’s—that is, yellow Campagnolo caps—were completely wrong. They weren’t the right canary yellow (they were too orange), and they had too many stripes down the middle (i.e., five, these being the World Championship stripes). Dave’s cap had just three stripes.

When I found the right cap, for a shocking $5.00 at Pedal Pushers (most caps were $3.50), I had to panhandle for the 30 cents I needed to cover the tax, having only a five on me. When a friend accidentally broke the plastic inside the bill, and refused to apologize appropriately, our friendship was over. I also had a really cool red Cinelli cap, with the old coat-of-arms logo. By wearing these to school instead of a baseball cap, I brought on myself the scorn of my peers, but took it as a natural part of the outcast role I’d need if I wanted to embrace this sport. Boulder, Colorado was something of a cycling mecca even then, but this did not trickle down to the elementary school level. That cap was almost a badge of courage. I was almost, I felt, a Cutter.

[With a cap that cool, it’s a mystery why I wasn’t totally popular at school, especially with the girls. As you can see below, my overall fashion sense was unparalleled. The t-shirt I’m wearing actually says “LAMBCHOP” on it. My mom sewed those letters on there; Lambchop was her nickname for me. At least I had the physique for cycling, though I didn’t appreciate that at the time.]

All my identification might well have stayed in the realm of unearned or false had it not been for the Red Zinger Mini Classic stage race put on by the Sandvold family—Eric and his dad Eddie—and three of Eric’s friends. I guess they’d done a little race in 1980, but I never knew about it. It wasn’t until 1981 that they put on what can honestly be described as a totally legit stage race for kids. They had published a program that was remarkably similar to the Red Zinger ones we’d seen, except of course it didn’t show a lot of crash photos. (Don’t want to scare the devil out of the parents!)

The race’s slogan was “By, for, and about kids.” It looked like an incredibly cool event, and my brothers and I got our registration packets all together, and a kid named Scott M—, who had seen me riding around and saw my caps, even recruited me to be on his team, along with his friend and next-door neighbor John Lynch. There was only one problem: getting permission from Dad. Remember, this is the guy who didn’t want me to know about gears, lest I ride headlong into the back of a parked car.

We were all terrified to approach Dad. He was often grumpy, especially when we wanted something. He also never “got” sports and so far as we knew had never tried one. Mom supported the idea of us racing, but either she wanted to teach us assertiveness or she was as terrified as we were, because she refused to ask on our behalf. We boys all discussed the matter together and decided that Max, being the black sheep of the family, was in enough trouble with Dad already that it wouldn’t matter if he pushed our old man even further. Max wasn’t in a position to refuse his mission, because if he did, either Geoff or Bryan could beat the crap out of him, so with the two of them together he wouldn’t have a chance. Heck, I would have happily piled on myself, to dole out whatever I could add to the beating. Okay, I guess I’m exaggerating about the threat of actual violence, but anyway the matter was decided. Max would ask that night at dinner.

What a solemn occasion that was. The room was deadly silent through the whole meal as Max attempted to summon his resolve. This was very strange, because normally dinner time was an open forum for just about any subject, or at least any scientific or technical subject, and normally our table was abuzz with conversation (or at least my dad lecturing us while we nodded our heads and pretended to understand). The whole meal went by in awkward silence, the rest of us boys glaring at Max while he sweated bullets. Finally, just after dessert was served, Max finally cleared his throat and took the plunge: “Um, Daddy, um, I was wondering, er, actually, my brothers and I were wondering if, um, there was any way that we could, um, enter this bike race, that’s just for kids, um, because it’s really good exercise and would be good for us.” (Something like that.)

Dad didn’t even hesitate. “No. You boys are too stupid to be bike racers. You’d get yourselves killed.” I knew it sounds improbable that he actually said this, but I am quite certain I have it verbatim. My brothers remember it as well, and all our versions jibe. That was it. Nobody said another word for the rest of dessert, and immediately afterward Dad went back to work and nobody ever spoke to him again on the subject.

I guess I was relieved at his refusal, because I’d been pretty ambivalent about the idea myself. Not so much because I’d get myself killed, though I’m sure that worried me too, but the fact is, I was no athlete. I’d swum for years, first lessons and then the swim team, and I basically sucked. The best I ever did was third in some backstroke event (that loss-leader stroke), and that was only third in my heat—I ended up fourth overall, and that was only summer league. I was as undistinguished a swimmer as ever floated on water (or, more to the point, practically sank). I remember when our coach, Paul S—, got some video equipment and filmed us so that we could watch the footage and analyze our stroke. His main criticism of me was that I didn’t stay in my own lane. I’d kill for that footage today: sure enough, halfway through a lap I actually wander out of my lane, under a lane line, into the path of an oncoming swimmer. I tried to explain that I had to swim with my eyes shut because my goggles leaked so badly. Maybe the only guy everyone laughed at more was John W—, who swam freestyle with a butterfly kick.

And yet swimming was my best sport! At school, in Track & Field, I was always dead last in everything. I wished I could throw like a girl—it would have been an improvement. Every aspect of PE class was a source of humiliation. It was assumed that every boy knew the rules of football and baseball. I did not. I had no idea what was going on. Football was the worst. Offense? Defense? I didn’t know the difference. As far as I was concerned my job was to stay out of sight. Baseball? Just sit there and don’t swing, I told myself: if you don’t swing, you can’t strike out, and might get to walk. And yet the teacher kept calling strikes! I thought it was because I wasn’t holding my bat still enough, that the teacher must have thought she saw it move. I had no idea about a strike zone. I just stood there, as motionless as a statue, as the strikes were counted. I was uncoachable; teachers assumed I knew exactly what was going on and was simply demonstrating my complete contempt for the sport. Utter humiliation. Why would cycling be any different?

I guess I have my dad’s prohibition—and moreover my mom’s reaction to it—to thank for the fact that I ended up becoming a bike racer. Mom all but insisted that we all sign up for the Mini Zinger, on principle. I remember this well. The day after Max crashed and burned on our behalf, I was in the kitchen, hanging out around the stove while Mom cooked, and she asked me if I was entering the race. I reminded her what Dad said, and right there on the spot she basically made me commit to signing up. It wasn’t a long conversation, and I don’t remember her argument, but after that I was fully committed. I submitted my application, and …

To be continued

Tune in next time for the wretched tale of my flunked bike inspection, and—worse yet—the bike racing clinic where, for the first time, I felt bad about being a talentless loser unwilling to make himself suffer properly.

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  1. God you were always such a nerd... Kind of adorable tbh

    1. Should probably mention this in Alexa, not some internet weirdo