Saturday, May 9, 2020

From the Archives - Portrait of the Young Cyclist: Part 2


This post is available as a vlog. You can open a bag of chips, plug your laptop into your TV, kick back, and pretend you’re watching TV. Or, you could plug in some headphones and pretend this is a podcast, and listen while doing your laundry. Or just read it, below. The world is your oyster.


This post continues the tale, from my archives, of how I became a bike racer. What started as an unearned identity became an object lesson in recognizing self-delusion. Things improved a bit from there, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here is how I looked at the time. You can see how hapless I am: my belt is crooked, as is my cap, and I’ve got my shirt buttoned up wrong.

Portrait of the Cyclist as a Young Man – Part Two: The Art of Failure (written in February 2003)

As I was saying at the end of my last post, I took up bike racing mainly because my dad had forbidden it. It’s not that I sought to defy him; it’s that my mom did, disgusted by his attitude. “You boys are too stupid to race bicycles,” my dad had warned. “You’d get yourselves killed.” Hearing that, my mom insisted that we all sign up for the Red Zinger Mini Classic. I submitted my application, and a few days later I brought my bike to the High Wheeler bike shop for its mandatory pre-race inspection. It failed. The tires were completely shot.

Now that I think back, it’s a bit odd that Dad prohibited us from racing for safety reasons, since he let us all ride around all day on unsafe bikes. Dad couldn’t be bothered to maintain our fleet, and was too cheap to pay a shop to do it. So we tried our best to fix our own bikes (so long as replacement parts weren’t required). This didn’t always work out so well.

Once, when I decided my brakes weren’t working like they used to, I thought maybe the center bolt was loose. I tightened the bejeezus out of it, thinking tighter must always be better. In fact, now the calipers were too stiff for the springs, which meant as soon as I applied the brakes, halfway down Table Mesa to King Soopers, they stayed on and my bike ground to a halt. I can still remember dismounting and staring at the brakes in confusion, unable to understand or accept what was going on. Finally I pried the calipers apart and resolved not to use the brakes anymore, at least until I had another crack at “fixing” them.

Whenever my bike got a flat tire, I suffered two consequences. First, my dad would be angry at me, like that was a damn fool thing I’d gone and done. Second, I’d be in bike-less purgatory until one of my brothers, in an uncharacteristic magnanimous mood, got around to fixing my flat. During one of these bike-less periods I borrowed my brother Bryan’s bike (probably on the sly). I was shocked by a violent whump-whump-whump sound the rear wheel made, coupled with a terrible lurching. I jumped off and investigated. It was the tire: Bryan had skidded so badly on it at some point, he’d worn completely through the tread and the casing, and had fixed it with Shoe Goo.

Getting back to the pre-race shop inspection, tires were the only flunk-able safety problem with the bike, but it had other issues. The gears, for example, were a mess. Despite being cautioned against using the gears at all (my dad probably thought they’d distract me and I’d run into a parked car), I had eventually transgressed and started making use of all ten speeds. It was Max who taught/corrupted me, one day riding across town. We were descending a steep hill and he kept dropping me, until he spotted the problem—I was always in first gear!—and advised me to push both shift levers all the way forward. God, what a rush! All of a sudden I could pedal again, and I just flew!

(Both levers forward? Yep. This was a Suntour Spirt front derailleur, that was backwards from every other front mech ever made.)

Unfortunately, by the time I had shifting mastered, Dad changed out my rear cogs and derailleur, to give me lower gearing. This had meant replacing the fairly new components with ancient ones from some other bike, and I could never shift cleanly again. Now I was as clumsy as a surgeon operating in mittens.

I wish the gearing had been deemed unsafe by the High Wheeler, because then maybe something could have been done about it. As it was, just getting new tires on our bikes was a big crisis in the Albert household. You’d have thought my parents were being asked to buy EPO for all four boys. Lots of big sighs from Dad, who apparently was resigned to our participation in the race (probably the economist in him couldn’t handle the idea of our registration fees going to waste).

Worse, the whole ordeal made me look at my tires closely for the first time and realize that they were fatter than my brothers’. I had 600C wheels (roughly 24”), with tires 1-¼ inches wide, to my brothers’ dashingly narrow 1-1/8”. Actually, finding any tires was a chore. I had to make a lot of phone calls to a lot of shops, and nobody was happy to hear from me because skinny 600C tires apparently didn’t exist. Invariably I got a big lecture about how the width didn’t matter, that skinny tires were actually less stable and wouldn’t make me go any faster anyway. At first I assumed I was being told the truth, but I didn’t care because looks trumped everything. And of course it was only a matter of time before I realized that all these bike shop adults were lying out their asses to begin with. Of course narrow tires are better, everybody knows that. You think those hypocrites had fat-ass tires on their own bikes?

Eventually I found (albeit fat) tires at some shop in Denver, and my bike passed inspection. This was kind of a gift from the High Wheeler, actually, as my bike lacked reflectors. My brothers had removed them, when they worked over my bike for me, adding toe clips and moving the stem-mounted shifters to the down tube where they belonged. They also removed the so-called “chicken levers,” which enabled braking from the tops of the handlebars. Don’t get the wrong idea: my brothers didn’t do this because they were good guys. They did it in case they were ever seen with me out riding—they didn’t want to be humiliated by association if somebody noticed an amateurish look to my bike.

One of the benefits of the Mini Zinger was the bike clinic they gave far all riders. They found some old veterans of the sport who were willing to volunteer and took us on a ride up NCAR—that is, the road leading from my neighborhood to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a mile or two from town. We all met at The Spoke, a bike shop in the Table Mesa center. People I knew from school were there, which in itself was an insult, since I thought I was the only guy around with any awareness of the sport. To make matters worse, they were giving this other kid, Mike Blaney, a hard time because he had a Schwinn. He tried to defend himself by saying, “Yeah, but it’s a nice one, with Quick Release!” This made the other kids laugh even harder at him, and they all started mimicking him—“I have Quick Release!”—which terrified me because my bike could just as easily be mocked. Hell, I didn’t even have quick release.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before some guy went and started making fun of how small my bike was, with its 18-inch seat tube and miniature wheels. The look on my face must have been downright lugubrious, because he actually took pity on me. He lifted up my bike and said, “But it’s so light!” (Of course it wasn’t.) Just like that, the expected fusillade of teasing never materialized. Paradoxically, everyone’s restraint in razzing me became an insult in itself, as thought they knew I couldn’t handle a little verbal abuse.

On our way out of the parking lot, I tipped over because I’d just switched to toe clips and straps instead of mini-clips, and was still getting used to them. So I felt like a complete Fred and the ride hadn’t even really started yet. Things got worse from there. Just getting to the base of the climb almost killed me as I was nowhere near fit enough for the grade. We took a back route, via Stanford Ave and Vassar Drive, which gained about 230 feet but might as well have been Alpe d’Huez. I was totally out of breath and dizzy by time we got to the base of the NCAR climb proper. I thought I might even hurl.

The actual climb wasn’t so steep, so I was able to loaf. It didn’t matter that I’d self-identified as a cyclist for years by this point, or that I’d been one of the first kids in town with a helmet, or that I loved “Breaking Away” … I was dropped immediately and mercilessly. Just like in gym class, I was dead last. The leader of the clinic dropped back and rode next to me, offering up encouragement. He politely suggested I get out of the saddle and go a little faster. This concept was completely foreign to me. The idea that I could choose to pedal harder just didn’t make sense. It seemed to me that if I wasn’t keeping up anyway, there was no point in exerting myself beyond what it took to keep my balance and eventually complete the ride. What this guy was asking me to do was to suffer—more precisely, to inflict suffering upon myself. This just didn’t make any sense.

He left me alone and cruised back up to the group, and as I continued picking my lone way up the road I pondered his words. (I had plenty of time to think.) I eventually began to understand what the old pro was saying. At some point in that ride I finally grasped that what he was suggesting not only wasn’t absurd, but actually made sense. What he was giving me was nothing less than the key to training, to racing, and above all to improvement. Those who went fast, I realized, might not just be more talented. They might actually be working harder, day after day, to service their ambitions.

So did I take the veteran cyclist’s advice? Did I get out of the saddle and push myself a little? Of course not. I understood his tutelage, but lacked the drive to apply myself to it. It would be weeks or months or years before I had the psychological gumption to fully embrace this bold ethos, to locate the will to flog myself vigorously and often in pursuit of betterment. It’s possible today for me to be mistaken for someone with talent, but it has taken decades of suffering to get to this point, all stemming from that day. Not to sound maudlin or anything, but that guy gave me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned. I wish I remember the guy’s name. He deserves to know that, despite all appearances, he did get through to me.

The Mini Zinger itself, a week or two later, was a real eye-opener for our family. Watching my brothers race, it was easy for me to see that gym class was no real indicator of athletic ability, at least for them. At Track & Field in gym class, these guys were slaughtered as badly as I was, but they did pretty well in the Mini Zinger, especially Geoff, who finished somewhere around tenth overall. Here is Bryan toiling away:

And here is Geoff (alas, the best photo I can find):

The difference was the duration of the race: the typical Mini Zinger stage lasted at least 25 minutes, which was an eternity when compared to anything you did in gym class. Geoff, Bryan, and I don’t have a single fast-twitch muscle fiber among us. Our only hope is to wear down our opponents, which isn’t exactly possible in a ten-second running race during a half-hour gym class, of which twenty minutes is spent walking to the park and back.

Our brother Max had mixed results. He had been a champion swimmer for years, and his bike races always started strong. He’d go straight to the front of the pack, fly high for a few laps of a criterium, be the boss of the peloton for several stunning minutes, and then would inexplicably suffer mechanical problems. His derailleur get stuck between gears, or his chain would fall off. He’d announce the problem very loudly. In one race, a criterium, he came around a corner with his saddle broken clean off. He waved it at us frantically as we lowered our heads in shame. 

Which brings us to my performance. God, what a travesty. I was just as bad at bike racing as I was at everything else. Probably worse. If I’d been a Japanese kid, I’d have been honor-bound to commit seppuku on the spot to save my family from disgrace. The first event was a short prologue time trial, and when I saw the results I couldn’t believe how far down I was. I think I was second-to-last. Last place, at least, would have carried some distinction. Worse, while hanging around after the race I pointed out to one of my brothers a kid with really skinny legs—probably to try to cheer myself up by badmouthing him—and my brother was quick to point out that my own legs were even skinnier, and to my horror I realized my brother was right. I’d just never really looked at my legs before, never realized how spindly I was. Two rude awakenings in one day. How could I handle it? 

The next day was the North Boulder Park Criterium, where my Leisure Time Products teammate John Lynch placed top ten and I was lapped, probably more than once, notwithstanding the rather long circuit. I was second-to-last again, beaten out once again for the Lantern Rouge. I actually remember the kid who always got dead last: David M—. I guess I could have tried to let him beat me, so I could have Lanterne Rouge, but the fact was, I never knew what was going on in the bike race. I knew who was ahead of me, but never really could keep track of who was behind me, if anybody. (Of course it was never anybody except David M—, who was probably actually much stronger than I but always crashed or something, for all I knew.)

Once the pack started lapping me I got especially confused. It was a complete nightmare. I’d roll, snail-like, past my brothers, who would be yelling at me. This wasn’t really cheering, but more like a wailing lament such as you might see at a funeral from some bereaved mother throwing herself across the casket, lashing out at her son’s having been cut down in his prime. Unlike the brief moment of cheering we’d do when watching a Coors Classic stage, this interaction with my brothers would go on for a long time because I was moving so slowly. They’d yell for me to shift up, and I’d put the bike in my highest gear, and barely be able to pedal. They’d yell “No, no, that’s too high, shift down!” and I’d put the bike in my lowest gear and be spinning futilely. I was as awkward as the word “futilely.” Now, don’t get me wrong, my screwed up derailleur and freewheel alone cannot be blamed. I know that I possessed the ability to make that bike shift properly, but facing the humiliation of the race, and the extra pressure from my brothers’ yelling, I was just too flustered to function.

After one particular race, I broke down crying. The race organizer, Eddie Sandvold, a kind man, came running over, asking if I’d crashed. I sobbed that I didn’t crash, that I just lost. He didn’t know what to say. His look said, “Well, what did you expect?” This brought about another epiphany: it was just plain stupid of me to expect any other result. I’d never done well at anything athletic before; why should I have assumed that my knowledge of bicycles (which consisted of knowing that Dave rode an Italian Masi with full Campy in “Breaking Away”) and general cycling arcana (e.g., cycling caps) would make me a successful racer? And what about training? Had I ever done that, after all?

Solving this fundamental problem would have to wait, though. In the short term I had to face the crushing knowledge that my dad had seen me lose. He’d watched the whole thing, watched me get dropped and then lapped, and to top it all off, watched me getting removed from the course by the officials. You see, I hadn’t understand that all riders, including the lapped riders, finished on the same lap. I figured I had at least a lap or two more to complete after the winners were all done, and doggedly stayed out on the course, knowing that I could score three points just for finishing, which was slightly better than nothing. By the time somebody was able to make me understand that I really was done, I was more humiliated than ever that once again, just like with baseball and football, I didn’t even understand the rules. This is what had finally brought me to tears.

On the drive home with my dad, he asked me what I’d had for lunch. I said some bread and cheese. He explained to me that cheese, being a dairy product, took a long time to digest, and that likely I didn’t have enough fully digested food in my system to properly fuel me. I brightened at this suggestion, probably as much out of relief as anything, and trotted it out several times that day to explain, to each of my brothers in turn, and then to my friends, why I’d done so badly in the race. I was able to ignore my brothers’ reaction—after all, they were always trying to undermine me—but after the second or third friend gave me the same knowing, kind of disappointed, look, I recognized it for what it was: a look that said, “Yeah, right, whatever.” My dad had (albeit inadvertently) taught me a valuable lesson about making excuses, and at a young age. Of course, this did nothing to improve my morale. I was a loser, after all.

To be continued

Tune in next time for the unlikely tale of how I persevered in the sport, made a fresh start with a new bike, learned how to train, and went on to endure an entirely new form of humiliation.

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