Sunday, June 14, 2020

From the Archives - Portrait of the Young Cyclist: Part 3


Introduction

This post continues the tale, from my archives, of how I became a bike racer. In Part 1 and Part 2, I described how my early infatuation with the sport led to actually participating, and the disastrous results of that doomed effort. In this post (and its companion vlog) I go into what changed when I actually learned about training.


By the way, it appears that not a single photo was snapped of me cycling in 1982. My brothers didn’t race the Red Zinger Mini Classic that year, and my dad wasn’t about to go watch. I mean why would he, when I obviously sucked? My brothers and/or mom might have watched a stage or two, but none among them owned a camera. Since I try to include a photo with every post, here is one from around that time. I’m wearing my “Super Dad” pajama top. Why did it say “Super Dad”? I don’t know. Perhaps my mom got a deal on it because it was obviously too small for any actual dad, and not too many kids are real keen on the “Super Dad” graphic. Incidentally, this pajama met a bitter end when it somehow melted in the dryer. It had puddled up and then hardened into a stiff sheet, kind of like fruit leather.


Portrait of the Cyclist as a Young Man – Part Three: The Curse Continues (written in February 2003)

Of all the decisions I’ve made in my life, the decision to keep on bike racing, despite mortifying and utter failure in my first year, on top of my ceaseless failure in all other sports I’d tried, is perhaps the hardest to explain. What could I have been thinking? Given the information I had in front of me, there was simply no reason to go on. It wasn’t like by this point I’d learned a valuable lesson about determination, and commitment, and all those other “values” that would have made for a really good ABC After School Special. I was just a stupid kid, and clung to my bike racer outcast identity despite the fact that any boy of my age plucked at random from any setting could easily have beaten me in any cycling event. Maybe this self identity was too much of a habit to drop. Or maybe I figured my body would catch up somehow, with or without training. (There was some reason to believe this; I was a short, small, frail child, after all.)

There were other reasons I stayed in love with the sport. I got a new bike, having completely outgrown the 24-inch-wheeled Fuji Junior. My mom gave me a Miyata catalog on my birthday, and I was shown the model that my family could afford to buy me at some later date. It was the middle-of-the line 310, with the coveted 1-1/8” wide tires, 27” wheels, working gears, and a really smooth ride. Thrilled as I was at the prospect of one day owning that bike, I was even more enthralled by the bikes we couldn’t afford: the Pro and Team Miyatas, and the 912. I still remember the description of the 310: “Offers the looks and the handling ease of the 912, with a price to fit most budgets.” The 912 was their “entry-level racer,” so the fact that the 310 could share a sentence with “912” suggested my new bike’s raceability. It was a great bike, actually. $265. Light blue, not unlike the Team Miyata, though lacking the flagship’s beautiful golden panels on the head, seat, and down tubes. I loved the 310 even before test riding it at the High Wheeler (aka Thigh Feeler), our favorite shop in town (where all four brothers would go on to work in later years).

I suppose it was a few days after the test ride, though it seemed like months later, that I picked up the bike. Mom wasn’t around that day to drive me, so I rode double on the back of Max’s Univega. It was about six miles, and his seat was just plastic on steel, no padding or even fabric, and I thought my butt would be too sore to actually ride home. We rode back at race pace, and as we sped through the college campus we passed some student who must have felt insulted to be one-upped by little kids, because he jumped on our train. He did pretty well until he failed to negotiate the sharp turn down by Fiske Planetarium, hit the concrete median, and wiped out big time. We stopped to see if he was okay, and this was the first time I saw real road rash up close. I was a bit worried the guy would pummel Max and me, and he was pretty pissed, but he let us go and we completed our glorious ride.

Nine days later I rode my new Miyata to the Morgul Bismark stage of the Coors Classic. By this time, my brothers and I were even further along than we’d been the year before in our appreciation of the sport. The hottest talk about this race concerned the dominant Russian team, famous for their Olympic success. At age 12 I could not only pronounce, but probably spell (though not in Cyrillic), “Sergey Sukhorutchenkov”. Sukho was the leader of the Russian team that dominated the Coors that year. Somehow it didn’t matter to us that Greg LeMond actually won the overall stage race. What we remember was that three or four of the Soviets, in their badass plain red Lycra jerseys (well, one guy in the blue KOM jersey), took LeMond out that day and worked him over, had him on the turnbuckles for the whole day.



I didn’t understand that by failing to drop him, they actually lost the bigger race. All I grasped was that a strapping Russian guy, Yuri Barinov I believe, won the stage in style, arms in the air but bent 90 degrees at the elbow, kind of a constrained victory salute, with his vaguely sinister grin, and I remember LeMond looking beaten and downcast as he rolled over the line. Okay, maybe these weren’t Europeans per se (and my knowledge of geography, it must be pointed out, was crummy), but the point was, this just wasn’t an American sport, and Americans even lost (or seemed to lose) on home soil. And this seemed right and good to me, appealing perhaps to my backlash against anything normal and upright, such as patriotism.


The other thing I remember about that July day in 1981 was that my new bike got stolen. I wanted to die. I was so upset I didn’t go to the North Boulder Park criterium, the final Coors Classic stage, the next day. My brothers and their friend Thaine did, though, and managed to recover my bike. The thief, a fourteen-year-old, was arrested. It’s a long but not that interesting story. (At one point I told a fanciful version involving a police raid, replete with K9 dogs, on the guy’s house, but the real events were doubtless much more boring and squalid.)

I think I would have ended up never improving at cycling except that in fall or winter of 1981, my best friend J—, who was a nerd like me but did pretty well in the longer Track & Field events at school, decided to become a bike racer. He got a bike identical to mine and started getting me to go out for training rides. I never would have trained otherwise. Even if I had understood the link between training and getting strong, it would have been for naught because I was incredibly lazy. Even when I was made to swim for years and years, dragged to practice every single day, I never worked hard. I guess it was a defect of some kind. As soon as my mom let me quit swimming, I quit that and virtually all other activity. I think I started watching TV at that time. Cartoons, Star Trek, even game shows. I wasn’t a complete nothing, I guess; I read, too, and for a period read for several hours a day. But athletically I was a non-entity.

Cycling was a particularly poor choice of sport for me given its lack of coaching and structure. J— saved me from a childhood of physical sloth. It may be that the first ride I did with him was the first bona fide training ride of my life. I remember the phone call. He was absurdly enthusiastic: “Hey, you wanna ride out to Eldorado Springs with me?” It sounded terribly far away. I’d never been there. I asked my mom if I could go, hoping that she’d say no. But of course she said yes. What could I do? I was supposed to be the big shot racer, after all. So we rode.

I don’t remember the ride all that well; most likely I tried to assume the role of wily old veteran, coaching J— the whole way, but if he didn’t figure it out on that ride, he must have realized within a few more that I had nothing on him. He was probably out-climbing me right off the bat. His willingness to train was not the main reason behind his superiority: he was also very talented. But he dragged me out day after day, and for the first time in my life I gradually became fit. Before long we were riding the Morgul Bismark circuit, which is hard enough that to this day the thought of riding it fills me with a kind of dread. The first few times we rode, we got kind of a late start because he lived a 15- or 20-minute walk from school. So to expedite things, we adopted a system whereby we’d walk to my house together, get my bike, and ride double over to his house to get his. I think this became such a routine we never even discussed whether we’d ride or not. After school we just went. When a big snow came, we kept to our routine but did cross-country skiing to stay in shape. He had the skis, boots, and poles; my contribution was a ceramic jug we’d fill with Celestial Seasonings tea.

The following spring, my junior high school, Baseline, had a program called BLAST, which stood for Base Line Activities Students Teachers. Every Wednesday for a month, the students and teachers would get a half-day, and would do a specific chosen activity instead of classes. These activities ranged from bowling to Hebrew language lessons to restaurant touring, and of course I chose cycling. By this time I was pretty strong, one of the strongest in the group. The strongest was D—, a really nice guy with a kind of crappy but very Euro bike, a Gitane I believe. He was a couple years older. There was another kid, skinny like me, but not as fair skinned and with black hair, by the name of N—. He was only a year ahead of me. He had a nice red SR Semi-Pro, with Campy shifters (a popular and affordable, if pointless, upgrade). He was a newcomer to the sport, though, I could tell: he wore full-finger gloves despite the 80-degree heat. I don’t think he knew how to draft, which I’d learned recently from my brother Geoff. (Geoff and I went on rides together and he’d make me stay just an inch off his wheel; to remind me how close I needed to be he would hold his hand back behind him, fingers held an inch apart, and if I didn’t do it right he’d drop me.)

The first time I rode with the BLAST group, I stayed on D—’s wheel and we dropped N—. The second time, one week later, N— kept up. The next time, he and D— dropped me. Probably by the last BLAST ride, N— was dropping D—. I don’t know: I was too far off the back to see what they were up to. This, after what happened with J—, began a pattern I would see for years and years: I’d meet somebody, get him excited about cycling, and then he’d pass me up on the way to greater things.

That year I came to the Mini Zinger much better prepared. I must have grown a bunch, because I fit my much larger bike pretty well. Of course the main difference was that I was physically fit, and knew how to draft, and could shift properly, and even had some basic suffering skills. The first event was the Boulder Mall Criterium; it was a qualifying race a week or two before the Mini Zinger proper, to determine which of the two divisions each rider would be put in. There was a good crowd, and a photo finish camera, and I was completely amped up.

From the gun I went straight to the front, just like my brother Max had done the year before, but instead of having a suspicious mechanical problem after a few laps, I was able to keep up the speed, lap after lap. For about five laps in a row I was on fire, feeling like God, leading the race. I was right at the very front, every lap. And I knew what was going on! It was absurdly simple: nobody was ahead of me, and everybody was behind me. If anybody wasn’t close behind me, that person didn’t matter, just like I hadn’t mattered the year before. All I had to do was hold this position, and I would win the whole race!

Of course it dawned on me, eventually, that I couldn’t stay at the front forever, and that every single guy behind me was benefitting from my draft, and that I would need somebody else to take the lead. But I couldn’t get anybody to do it. I’d move to one side, and the rest of the pack moved right along with me. So finally I slowed up just a bit . . . the horror! A huge long line of racers went streaming by. I felt like Wile E Coyote when he looks down and realizes he’s walked off the edge of a cliff and is standing on thin air. The pack had simply used me, taken advantage of a strong but dumb guy, and now it was all I could do to find a place in the pack. I finished somewhere between tenth and fifteenth—a huge improvement over the previous year, but the guys I trained with, N— and J—, finished first and second, respectively. I rode home by myself, bound and determined that I would never attempt anything again, ever.

There was more to embitter me that year, too. I’d assembled a great team for the race, consisting of N—, J—, myself, and a kid named G—, who’d finished second the year before. (Was there a fifth rider? I can’t remember.) I even lined up our sponsor, Fiske Planetarium, where my brothers’ friend’s dad was the director. We were to be called the Fiske Flyers, and would be in contention for the overall team title. It hadn’t been easy figuring out who our fourth guy should be, and it took all the assertiveness I could muster to approach G—, a complete stranger. Everything was perfect, until the race directors, led by Eric Sandvold, decided after the preliminary races that our team was too good, and so he split us up. He kept J—, G,— and me together, but put N— on a different team. I was pretty mad about that, but at least I was still paired with my best friend.

But almost right away, J— and N— had a private conversation following which N—, right in front of me, phoned the race promoter, Eric Sandvold (a teenager himself) and negotiated a change so that he and J— could be on the same team. It bugged me how syrupy sweet and glib he was on the phone, and it bugged me even more how utterly confident he was, like he and Eric went way back (though they didn’t) or like N—  was a made man with no chance of being turned down. It seemed like he did the phone call in my presence just to show off, and perhaps to rub my nose in it.

So I lost both of my best teammates, and endured a major smack in the face: because N— was faster, J— preferred to be on his team, even though J— had been my best friend for years, and though I’d started him in the sport and put the whole team together in the first place. I was left with only G—, who was plenty strong but crashed in about half the stages. The team with N— and J— on it won the overall, and my team wasn’t even in contention. I ended up finishing eleventh overall, and endured a lecture from my brothers about how I lost due to my own stupidity.

Later that year, we all got USCF licenses and N— and J— were recruited to the Flatirons Velo Club and got cool jerseys and bikes at cost, and went on to win many races. I continued to lose, and my only consolation was one race when J— crashed out and cried in front of his mom afterward. She was visibly embarrassed, and told him it wasn’t that big a deal, that there would be other races. He sobbed that it wasn’t the loss of the race that was making him cry, but that he was in pain. I knew this was a load of BS. He was crying because he couldn’t stand to be out of the limelight even for an afternoon. But what about me? I was training plenty, on my own, now, but it seemed I would never see the limelight at all. So even the pleasure of seeing J— getting peroxide in his wounds and bawling in front of his mom was short-lived. For me, bike racing was still largely a depressing thing.

To be continued

Check back in a month or so for the thrilling finale: how I learned the ropes, endured another tragedy, hurled in a race, and was abandoned by my closest friends.

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