Thursday, July 16, 2020

From the Archives - Portrait of the Young Cyclist: Part 4


This post continues the tale, from my archives, of how I became a bike racer. In Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, I described how my early infatuation with the sport led to actually participating; the disastrous results of that doomed effort; and, how even learning how to train failed to vault me to glory, with all my friends easily passing me by. In this post I describe my third season and how my minor triumphs were offset by more salt in the wounds (figurative and actual).

Portrait of the Cyclist as a Young Man – Part Four: Insult to Injury (written in February 2003)

As I described in my last post on this topic, after the 1982 Red Zinger Mini Classic I tried my hand at some USCF races and didn’t really get anywhere. The next year I decided it made sense to race the Mini Zinger again, even if my friends N— and J— had moved on to racing USCF all year. (To refresh your memory, they’d finished first and third, respectively, in the ’82 Mini Zinger, and cleaned up in USCF races for the rest of the season.) Frankly, their absence was part of the appeal: they wouldn’t be around to crush me again and rub my nose in it. (To be fair, I was pretty good at rubbing my own nose in it.) Besides, the Mini Zinger races seemed a bit better organized than the USCF ones. An added bonus is that in the less elite field I could learn some tactics. The 1982 races taught me that strength wasn’t enough and I had a lot to learn. It’s hard to do that when you’re off the back, so why would I want to race USCF all year?

Over the winter I borrowed $750 from my dad and bought N—’s “old” bike, a Mercian Colorado with full Campy. (He’d gotten the pro deal on a fancier Mercian, that matched his teammates’ bikes, and didn’t need this one anymore.) The color of my “new” bike was light brown, which they called “champagne pearl.” It was, more precisely, the color of a perfect young fawn. It was the prettiest bike I’ve ever had. I rode it for a few weeks and then (riding at night without a light) crashed it into a curb, ruining the frame. The down tube got rumpled, the head tube steepened, the top tube creased slightly. Even the fork was bent. I was inconsolable.

My brothers were really sympathetic and rallied around me in my despair. Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. Of course that’s not true. In fact they gave me endless crap, insisting that the frame was defective and I was a moron to have bought it in the first place. They contended that because the framebuilder had used pins to hold the tubes in place while brazing the frame, instead of using a jig for this purpose, that he’d introduced horrible strains into the structure that caused it to be inherently weak. (For some reason, we were all steeped in this kind of lore and knew for a fact that Mercians were pinned.)

My brothers teased me so much I finally wrote to Frank Berto, the technical guru at Bicycling magazine. I described the scenario in detail, mentioning my weight and size and the approximate speed of the impact, and how I hit the curb in a “perpendicular fashion” (I remember this phrase because I had to look up the spelling on “perpendicular”). Frank, or somebody on his staff, wrote me back directly, assuring me that the frame was not defective, that the pins are a widely accepted way of building a frame, and that any impact of that kind would bend any frame made of such lightweight tubing. The letter went on to praise my writing ability. “Sign that boy up!” he’d written.

Naturally this didn’t satisfy my brothers, who shifted their mockery to my letter, making up quotes like, “As I hit the curb, in an exactly perpendicularly fashion, my lightly muscled body slightly tense, a grimace on my perspiring face….” I guess they were paying me back for buying that Mercian in the first place. I had broken some unwritten rule by having a better bike than any of them did. In any case, I couldn’t borrow any more money from my dad to buy a new frame, so Geoff gave me a loan on the condition that he choose the make. He chose Miyata.

So in 1983 I had a Pro Miyata, which should have thrilled me except it was clearly inferior to the Mercian and I now owed money on two bikes. Still, I had to live up to such a cool bike, so I trained harder than ever, still riding with N— and J— much of the time. That year I made a couple of new friends, Spencer Crouch and Aaron Pickett-Heaps, and put together a Mini Zinger team with the two of them along with John Lynch, the good racer (and good friend) from my first year.

Here’s a photo of Spencer and me. I can’t recall what race this was. Look how great his jersey is. That thing I’m wearing? Not even a jersey. I think it may have been a pajama top. Also, note how suavely Spencer is posing for the camera. That didn’t occur to me. Perhaps I was still unaware that, as a teenager, I was supposed to look cool. Emotionally I think I was still like ten. I was just happy to be around. What an idiot.

Before the Red Zinger proper, the promoters held qualifying races to determine who’d be in Division 2 (the slower group) and who made Division 1. The first qualifier was the Kittredge Criterium, on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. I went into the race with high hopes, and for the first time ever, things seemed to fall into place. I got into a four-man breakaway and felt like I was the strongest guy in it. In fact, I started to believe I could actually win the race! Then, with just a few laps remaining, I suddenly didn’t feel so well and totally puked. The barf was bright red and went everywhere, scaring the crap out of my breakaway companions. You can see a smear of it on my lip in this photo. (That’s Spencer behind me.)

John and I had eaten a whole bunch of spaghetti for lunch, at his house, right before the race. The sauce was made with ground beef, which I never got at home, and I totally overate. We lost track of time and had to haul ass over to the race. At least we were warmed up, but it would have been great to have digested our food.

So … surprise, surprise, I did not win the race. You may be tempted to infer causality between the vomit and me losing, but there was none, or little. Granted, barfing was distracting, but I felt better afterward. To be honest, the winner, Allen Copeland if I recall correctly, beat me for no good reason. I think when it came down to it I just didn’t have the nerve to win. For someone stooped in failure, with an upbringing based on the cult of inadequacy, victory would have seemed like overreaching. All the same, I was thrilled with my first podium finish (even though, this being a prelim, they didn’t actually bring out the podium).

After that promising start, things got tough again. The more I rode with Aaron, the stronger he got. Same with Spencer, actually, and in fact he bet me $5 he’d beat me in the Mini Zinger. That seemed pretty cheeky because he’d just taken up the sport. But then, this was all par for the course.

So, on to the Mini Zinger. I don’t actually remember that much, other than the podium continued to elude me. Aaron had become super fast and was trading the race leader’s jersey back and forth with this kid named Kevin Smith. Going into the last stage, Aaron trailed by a few points (points being the basis for the Mini Zinger’s general classification, perhaps so a kid could crash out during a stage and start back up again the next day). This final stage was the National Bureau of Standards criterium, an 8-shaped course on a bit of a hill. Thrillingly, I got into a three-man breakaway with Kevin and Aaron, and we seemed destined to stay off. (Kids tended to give up pretty easily in those days, I’d noticed. Until this day, I’d always noticed this from the perspective of the one giving up.)

It started to rain, first soft and then hard. This didn’t bother us a bit, though it’d have bothered me if I’d known better. I’d punctured right before the race and borrowed a wheel from my brothers’ friend Dave Towle. Little did I he realize, he’d glued a track tire to it. That tire surely got great traction on a track, in a velodrome. In the wet? Not so much. Bombing a 90-degree turn on the descent I totally slid out. Game over, man!

I had the good sense to get out of the road before 50 guys ran me over, but then I foolishly slumped on my back on a wet lawn. Somebody summoned the race medics, who went straight to work assessing my injuries. A small crowd gathered, including my brothers, a course marshal, and (I seem to recall) my poor terrified mother, along with a few random spectators with a yen for schadenfreude. The medics seemed to overreact a bit, either because they’d been bored, or because they mistook my shivering for going into shock. Actually, I was just cold, because I was lying in wet grass and had about 2% body fat.

The medics cut my shorts open, which I came to learn is standard procedure for some reason, and as I lay on my back, with all these people looking down at me, I felt my unit fall out from under its flap of lycra so it was in plain view of everybody. I poked it back under there, and for some reason this seemed to my brothers to be damning evidence of my obviously faked injury. They figured that if I had the presence of mind to cover Raulo, I should have been able to get right back up on my bike and finish the race. I suppose a more heroic racer would have done just that, but frankly I was not that heroic racer. I was a thirteen-year-old kid, and it hurt to crash, and when the adults took control of the situation it didn’t occur to me to shrug anything off and get back in the race. I suppose I could have at least told everybody I was okay, but maybe it didn’t occur to me I was okay, at least not at the time.

I was ambulanced to the hospital, and at some point my dad materialized and sat next to my gurney in the ER, helping to fill out the insurance paperwork. He was remarkably cheerful, and he didn’t even take the opportunity to remind me that he’d warned us of this, that the chickens had come home to roost, that my own stupidity had done me in. [If you don’t recall it from Part 1, my brothers and I took up bike racing despite our father having forbidden it on the grounds that, as he put it, “You boys are too stupid to be bike racers. You’ll get yourselves killed.”]

Dad made light fun of the redundant and poorly conceived questions on the insurance form. The form could have simply given a place for the patient or his guardian to write a brief description of what happened, but instead tried to shoehorn him into shaping a narrative out of multiple-choice or short-answer questions. The one I remember best was something like, “Did you/patient encounter an impact with any object?” My dad asked whether I thought “the ground” was an appropriate response. I did. He wrote it down.

Then a doctor or nurse (heck, maybe it was an orderly) came and scrubbed my road rash with a toothbrush. Somewhere there is a photo of this, which would be very handy now because I remember the road-rash as having been the size of an orange. Perhaps I inflated it in the telling so that it became a grapefruit; in any case in my brothers’ telling it started out a tennis ball and in successive retellings became a plum, then a cherry, then a raisin. Ask them today and they’ll probably say I didn’t have any road rash at all. You should totally ask them … they’d love to tell you this story in their own words, especially the part about how I was obviously unscathed because I’d had the presence of mind to cover my male member when it flopped out in front of the hoards of disgusted spectators. I’d be delighted to learn what new, shocking details they’d add to the story now.

So, on the basis of that crash, I dropped from 4th or 5th overall in the Mini Zinger to 7th. I was pretty disappointed, having really thought the podium would be in reach. At least I did beat Spencer, who as you’ll recall had bet me $5 he’d beat me in the general classification. I spent the rest of the summer trying to get him to pay up. Eventually I had to settle for $2 and a little sunglasses leash. (He had an extra.)

But there’s a silver lining! The day after crashing out of that criterium, as I spent the day in bed convalescing, I decided to have lunch brought to me. One of my prizes for the Mini Zinger was a gift certificate at Quizno’s, good for lunch-for-two. I offered J— a free meal if he’d go fetch it. He borrowed my 3-speed and headed out. Well, he was gone a lot longer than I expected, and when he finally returned, he had road rash of his own; the Cokes were pretty much empty; our sandwiches were soaked. On the ride back, going pretty fast despite balancing our lunch (in its cardboard tray) on the handlebars, he’d run over a squirrel and totally stacked. While he was lying there in the bike path, the wind knocked out of him, some typically pro-animal Boulderite stopped to bawl him out for having maimed the squirrel. Shoot, did I say my cloudy Mini Zinger tale had a silver lining? More like pewter or even lead.

To be continued

Check back in a month or so for the thrilling finale: my brave return to the USCF circuit and how my ongoing mediocrity undermined my closest friendships.

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