Saturday, August 22, 2020

From the Archives - Portrait of the Young Cyclist: Part 5


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This post completes the tale, from my archives, of how I became a bike racer. In Part 1Part 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. Part 4 recounted significant progress but, alas, more failure. In this post, the series finale, I describe how cycling mediocrity came to undermine my closest friendships.

Portrait of the Cyclist as a Young Man – Part Five: The Final Insult (written in February 2003)

I took out another USCF license after the 1983 Red Zinger Mini Classic and got thrashed soundly in some more races. One was a stage race in Steamboat Springs, which I did with my mini-Zinger friend Aaron Pickett-Heaps. Aaron, fresh off of his second place overall finish in the Mini Zinger, beat my old friend J— in the Steamboat Springs road race. Aaron was pretty casual about this afterwards, apparently considering his placing to be a natural result of his strength and finesse. Here’s a photo of Aaron and me from that race.

To certain UCSF racers, like my friends N— and J—, who made no effort to hide their contempt for the Mini Zinger, Aaron’s attitude seemed audacious. It apparently didn’t occur to him to fall on his knees and kiss the ring, to plead with the patrons of the USCF Intermediate peloton to accept his result as a complete fluke. J— had a decidedly haughty reaction. He practically chewed me out for my association with this Aaron guy, this impostor, this upstart who thinks he’s fast just because of one top-five finish, this bozo who stubbornly refuses to admit that his result meant nothing. It was like J— was daring me to disagree with him.

I didn’t really know how to respond. After all, they were both my friends. I was tempted to just face the music and stick up for Aaron, and then it dawned on me that probably neither of them actually cared what side I was on. After all, who was I? Just a nobody who hadn’t placed high in the race and barely deserved to weigh in. So I kept my mouth shut, despising myself slightly for my disloyalty and cowardice.

I did a few more races without distinguishing myself, then went bike touring in Canada with my mom and my brother Bryan. Right after getting back—it might have actually been the very next day—I raced Mount Evans and got completely destroyed. It was a bad race even by my own humble standards, and at the time it felt, emotionally, like my poor showing had erased all the progress I’d made since 1981.

I hung out with a group of racers from my category after the finish, with everybody but me telling his war story (because I had no other story than “I went straight out the back as soon as the road tilted uphill”). I felt like an outsider, even though several in the group were my friends. Some guy I didn’t know said, “Hey, I don’t want this energy bar … do any of you?” I enthusiastically said, “Yeah!” He just stared at me with utter disgust, like it should have been obvious that his offer didn’t extend to me. He had said “any of you,” but this didn’t include me because, being totally slow and awkward and obviously uncool, I didn’t actually exist. It apparently pained him that I was blind to this reality.

Fortunately, N— and J— practically tripped over each other going to bat for me, which was really cool since they had such high profiles in the peloton. (I think J— had won the race.) Of course they risked nothing by doing this, since their social status was well assured in this group. Still, it meant a lot to me.

Okay, I had a little fun with that last paragraph. It was pure fiction. In reality, both J— and N— just sat there in the awkward silence as this dickhead stared at me contemptuously and I died of embarrassment. I guess I was such a pariah that even these two thought it best just to hang me out to dry. The least they could have done was accept the energy bar and then share it with me. Who knows, perhaps they kind of enjoyed the spectacle. Maybe this was my punishment for eking out meaningless non-USCF ersatz glory in the detestable little Mini Zinger event.

So my third year of racing failed to provide any real success, only more athletic disappointments and this new phenomenon of my friends becoming too good for me. You might wonder why, given all this, I stuck with this cruel sport. I’ve pondered this at length, and I think it simply had to do with cycling giving me rich experiences that were valuable to me irrespective of my race results. For example, I was learning all kinds of new rides, and completing them faster, and hitting higher speeds than ever before. The range of my training rides was ever-growing; for example, Aaron and I did a 130-mile ride over Trail Ridge Road, the highest pass in North America (details here). Sure, my competitors could humiliate me at the races, but they couldn’t ruin the sport for me.

Meanwhile, I knew I could expect to improve dramatically if I ever managed to hit puberty. “Just wait until your hormones come in,” my mom told me. True enough, most of my competitors already had leg and arm hair, visible musculature, and low voices. I was stick thin; my skin was as smooth as a Barbie doll’s; and my voice was like Mickey Mouse’s. It seemed like a pretty good deal to keep at this, knowing that Mother Nature still had something in store for me, a magic bullet I’d one day get, which my competitors had already used.

As for the social aspect, I had a few good reasons to cut my friends some slack. We were of junior high age, after all, when kids are like desperate free-floating atoms hoping to glom on to the right molecule, lest they get dragged into some distasteful compound. You take a talented, charismatic guy like N—: he was a respectable element like carbon. Diamonds are made out of this stuff! He felt he could be part of something cool, like steel. Perhaps he saw me as a much less substantial and more common element like hydrogen … and if carbon mixes with that, you get stinky methane. So I doubted my friends really begrudged me my athletic shortcomings per se. Rather, because I wasn’t fast and thus lacked the social confidence that would have gone with that, I was a social liability. N— and J— were still fairly new to this USCF cohort and you could never be too careful.

Now, acknowledging this was one thing, but I wasn’t going to suck up to them. Bike racing was supposed to be a rebel’s sport anyway, right? All the ball players shunned us; why mimic their snobbery in our own little pond? Instead of falling in line and subordinating myself to my friends—who had once been my social equals, after all—I went my own way.

I’ll share two recollections that illustrate this. First, in the spring I got a new helmet. My old helmet was destroyed when it was run over by my mom’s car. (How it came to be placed right behind the wheel was never explained; at the time I was sure one of my brothers was involved.) My mom was good and pissed off but, being a mom, dutifully drove me to the bike shop for a replacement. Alas, they were all out of the Bell Biker, which was the old standby, worn by virtually everybody in those days (the outliers being the occasional Skid Lid or Bell Prime). All the shop had was the new Bell Tourlite, which was supposed to be fancy but was actually the nerdiest-looking helmet Bell ever made. It had sharp-edged, narrow, stylized vents and a dopey looking visor that extended about an inch and a half and was made of tinted clear plastic.

Plus its name had “Tour” in it, and everybody knew tourists were major dorks. The helmet cost $55 (which was more than the Biker and a fortune in those days), and I knew even at the time that if I made enough of a fuss and/or argued the financial perspective my mom would take me elsewhere and get a Bell Biker.

But somehow, after pondering the knowledge that this Tourlite would offend my friends’ aesthetic and social sensibilities, I decided to go for it. I got it home, read the package insert, and learned that I could remove the visor, which made it a lot less nerdy looking. My brothers, riding me incessantly about my ugly new helmet, begged me to ditch the visor, for the good of the family name. I thought over how this would be a step in the right direction, socially, and … I left it on! Take that, “cool” friends! I dare you to be seen in public with me! I double-dog dare ya!

The first time I wore that helmet, I was riding down the Broadway bike path and saw J— riding up the other way. He stopped dead, and called out. I stopped, and he asked what was with the new helmet. He was horrified. I might as well have had a cartoon penis tattooed on my forehead. I could have pleaded innocence, and talked about how it was all the shop had and that my parents made me get it, but I simply said it was my new helmet. He asked why I didn’t get another Biker, and I just shrugged.

(I did eventually remove the visor, or maybe it broke. You can see the horrible helmet sans visor in the first photo of this post. Look at the raised ridges at the very front: that was so you could ratchet the visor up and down.)

The other example of my mild rebellion was an incident that occurred during a training ride with J— and N— and a couple other guys, on the Morgul Bismark circuit. We saw a lone rider coming the other way. We recognized him as a random Mini Zinger guy none of us knew very well. When he saw us he turned around and, after sprinting to catch up to us, rode right up to me, and said, “Dana, I just wanted you to know that my sister is totally in love with you.”

I was speechless. This announcement hit me like a 50-foot wave. No girl had shown interest in me in years, not since I’d gone to the shed with L— when I was eight. That said, this guy’s statement actually confirmed something I’d already suspected. (I’d met the sister at a Mini Zinger qualifying race, where I’d done well, so I was in my element, feeling more confident and sociable than usual.) And she was really cute. I pondered this information silently for awhile, while the brother became more and more uncomfortable because nobody else was saying anything to him either. In fact, I think I had just enough of a view outside my adolescent girl-pondering haze to detect a bit of the cold shoulder coming from the others. “Anyhow, I just thought you should know that,” he said, and then turned around again and rode off.

We pedaled on for a bit, and then J— rode up beside me and said, “Uh, Dana, I hate to break it to you, but that isn’t a guy we really associate with.” Again, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Who was “we,” anyway? Since when was there a Board of Admissible Cohorts? J—, thinking maybe I didn’t understand, continued, “So you really shouldn’t hang around him.” This almost sounded like a threat. By this time I’d figured out a pretty good defense: I’d actually never hung out with this kid in my life, didn’t even know him, hadn’t encouraged the interaction, and was minding my own business when he decided all on his own to circle around and come tell me about his sister. I could have said all of this, but I was irked at the implication that I should.

I either said nothing, or the 1983 equivalent of “Whatever, dude.” J— seemed a little cool toward me for the rest of the ride (or at least I perceived that he did). I don’t think he appreciated my apparent lack of interest in playing by the new rules, and accepting his role as social gatekeeper. Maybe he thought I was being insolent, refusing to accept his dominant position in our pecking order. Certainly he saw me as drifting dangerously toward being one of those guys “we” don’t really associate with.

In fact, I was drifting in that direction. How far did my drift take me? Well, it is true that J— and N— associated with me less and less. It was perhaps fortuitous that J— and I went to different junior high schools, so he never had to decide whether to be seen with me there. N— kept me at arm’s length and even explained his position, which was that I was just a bit of a “social outcast.” That was the term he used. It become kind of a joke between us, but I was the butt of it. He was a year ahead of me, so in the fall he was no longer at the same school anyway. (Was he himself a big man on campus? Not that I could see, but then I didn’t fancy myself an expert.)

The next year (fall of ’84), I headed to high school where J— would once again be a classmate. We completely ignored each other there, which was weird since we’d been friends since first grade. We literally never even greeted each other in the hallways. We still rode together occasionally, and on one such occasion I lamented the erosion of our friendship. J— replied, “Hey, we’re still friends … you’re like my confidant!” Fair point, but of course the reason he could confide in me is that he no longer cared what I thought of him. He’d moved on.

None of this would have bothered me—I mean, friends do drift apart—except that as far as I could see, nothing had changed except this pecking order within the cycling realm … a realm that nobody at our high school could have cared less about. It really did feel, at the time, like my place in the sport had cost me these friendships.


What you have read above (and in previous installments) is all I managed to finish back in 2003 when I originally wrote this memoir. After that I kind of ran out of steam and felt like the tale was just getting depressing. Notably, things got much better after my fourth year, but that wasn’t a tale I ever felt compelled to tell.

Now it’s time to give you the rest of the story, lest you come away thinking this sport broke me. That was not the case. In fact, it’s truer to say the sport made me.

I kept racing. The next year (1984) was a disaster. I was a bit distracted by my parents’ divorce and changing schools, but I basically stayed at it, doing my first all-UCSF season. In 1985, miracle of miracles, I finally hit puberty, and suddenly all those miles I’d put in over the years suddenly paid off. It was like I’d spent four years winding up a huge spring, and it suddenly sproinged. Lo and behold, I was pretty fast!

I returned to the Mini Classic circuit (it was now a three-stage-race series) and started making the podium regularly. I befriended the winner of the Mini Zinger, Peter Stubenrauch, and he remains one of my closest friends. (We still get together for epic rides, like this one last summer.) I finally found success in the USCF ranks as well. Collegiate racing went even better, in terms of both results and the friends I made. After graduating and joining the workforce, I’ve continued to race here and there, and I never stopped riding. For the last five years I’ve coached high school mountain bike racers in the NICA program.

I’d never had specific goals for this sport (I’m not a big “goals” guy in general, as detailed here), but setting aside the godawful slow and frustrating start you’ve so patiently read about, cycling has been very, very good to me, surpassing anything I could have hoped to get out of it. And actually, those frustrating first years were probably the most important ones of all. After making it through that much failure, I didn’t have much fear … competitively, socially, or otherwise. For me, cycling is not about winning races or being popular. It’s about showing up, riding, staying fit, and never quitting.

In lieu of describing bike racing years 5 through 39, here are some photos and captions.

Horsetooth Mini Classic, 1985, 2nd in the criterium. That’s Peter on the top step.

Red Zinger Mini Classic, 1985, 3rd in the NCAR hill climb time trial. Pete won again; second was David Anthes, who went on to win the Collegiate National Championship road race in 1989.

Red Zinger Mini Classic, 1985, 2nd in the Old Stage road race. David and Pete again. My purple jersey is for the King of the Mountains competition. (Pete was the real KOM but he already had the leader’s jersey, and the race organizers wanted all the jerseys out on the road.) I ended up second overall (behind Pete) and David was third.

Here are a couple of my teammates in the ’85 Zinger. That’s Andy Caplan on the left and Mark Syrene on the right. Funny story: the race director hated me, so after the preliminary qualifying races, he stacked my team roster with riders who’d barely made the cutoff for Division 1. During the two weeks between the prelims and the actual Mini Zinger I took Andy and Mark out for some rides, to get to know them and help shore up their skills where possible. I’d known Andy from swimming so I knew he was a good athlete. They both rode really well in the Mini Zinger and we ended up winning the overall team competition. The next year, the organizers broke the 15-16 age category in two since there were so many riders. Andy landed in one age group, Mark in the other, and they both won their categories!

Pete didn’t race the 1985 Denver Mini Classic, and I won. (I discovered that it felt much more awkward to be on the top step of the podium … my arms seemed too long.) I always assumed Pete’s parents made him skip this race, to leave some glory for the other riders. But actually, as Pete told me recently, his parents just hadn’t felt like driving him to the race. I owe them one!

I don’t have many photos from my collegiate racing years, but I did get this cool award.

In 1990, I was on the UC Santa Barbara team that won the Collegiate National Championship team time trial. Details here.

This is the penultimate switchback on Alpe d’Huez in the 2006 La Marmotte “cyclosportif.” I raced this twice; details are here and here.

At an early season mountain bike race in 2018, I made the podium. This was pleasantly novel … it had been 27 years since I’d last stood on one. Details are here.

The Albany High Cougars team I coached won the Division 2 title for the 2018-19 season. Coaching these kids was a total blast, and I’m happy to note that everyone got along swimmingly … nothing but support, goodwill, and camaraderie.

It’s funny how well I remember that first season as a wannabe bike racer, after so very many intervening years.

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1 comment:

  1. I've always said you're a great writer, Dana. Without a doubt you remember ten times more than I do from bike racing as a junior in Colorado in the '80s. I do remember doing some of those races you recount, but I have no recollection at all of how any of us did. Maybe that's what interests me - the things I remember from my junior high years vs. what others remember. What I remember is being very unpopular - a geek with a bad haircut and cheap clothes - and having people I thought of as friends reject me for not being cool. I think this might be a universally shared junior high/middle school experience. It's also possible that there are some now-fifty-something people out there in the world who think back on how poorly you treated them in junior high. I'm not one of those - I only have fond memories of hanging out with you and your brothers, riding bikes, working at the High Wheeler, flying RC gliders, eating all-you-can eat spaghetti and the whatnot. But there might just be someone out there who thinks that you treated them poorly, and you have totally different memories of your friendship with them than they have. I very much apologize for any immature junior high era mistreatment I might have doled out to you. Please do keep writing, vlogging, riding and sending us your holiday letter. N-