This post goes well beyond the 160-character length of an SMS text, not to mention the 180-character limit of a tweet. Since I cannot reasonably expect anybody to read more than that in a single sitting, I have made this available as a vlog. Here:
If, on the other hand, you cannot stand to look at my face for 13 minutes, either close your eyes throughout the video playback, or read the text below like I originally intended.
As I wrap up 2020, I’ve made a challenge for myself: can I finish the year with more cycling miles than I logged in 2019? This means riding the rollers six days in a row, which at my age feels nearly impossible. But this self-directed age-shaming is a bit silly, really … of course I can keep right on cycling hard, well into middle age. It’s not like I’m in the NFL or something.
My defeatist thinking goes way back. I felt utterly washed up as a cyclist as far back as 1998, having no idea back then how much glorious hammering still lay ahead. The following Big Ring Tale, from my archives, showcases this self-delusion. (To put this story in context, I was just 28 years old at the time, living and working in San Francisco, and I’d quit racing—temporarily, as it would turn out—about six years before.)
Marin Headlands Big Ring Tale – April 28, 1998
I was outbound on Greenwich street, half a mile into my ride, when I passed a bike messenger with a huge, stuffed-full messenger bag. It was a windy evening, a headwind, and I figured if she wanted to slip in behind me for a draft, I was fine with that. She’d probably had a hard day dodging cars, etc. I was vaguely aware of her presence on my wheel most of the way through the Presidio before he passed me—that is, someone besides the messenger; a racer-type who had traded places with the messenger somewhere along the line. He was a tall guy, with a US Postal Service jersey, a Dura-Ace equipped Serotta, and shaved legs. By this point I was sick of the headwind myself and dropped in behind him. He was setting a good pace.
We cruised pretty fast through the rest of the Presidio, and on the Golden Gate bridge kept up the pace, taking turns pulling. I was grateful for the help since I didn’t have all that much time to ride before dark. A third of the way across the bridge I was trying to predict whether this guy was riding into the headlands, like me, or turning off toward Sausalito after the first short, steep section of the headlands road. A lot of guys who go fast over the bridge do so because they know they have a long coast into Sausalito afterward. They kind of irk me because they can afford to hammer and I . . . well, I guess I can afford to, too, but it’s not a great way to start that longish headlands climb.
This guy looked pretty legit: decent form, back pretty flat, reasonably relaxed on the bike. His pedaling was smooth too, but frankly too fast, as though he were a modern fitness cyclist who reads Prevention magazine, takes antioxidants, and worries about his knees (even though he was a fair bit younger than I). It was like he was slapping at the wind instead of throwing big punches. And yet, something about him was just a little too fresh, a little too springy. He somehow wasn’t brittle enough; he seemed like the ‘98 model, freshly minted. Whatever a crusty old veteran is, he wasn’t.
I thought about how I must look on the bike. Let’s face it, I’m a mosher. I stay on top of the biggest gear I can (on principle or because I have no patience for a high cadence). There’s not much sparkle in my eye. I’m visibly worn. Not just my clothing, either—although it’s pretty sad these days, the side panels on my shorts going translucent, the once neon jersey now completely pale. But as I said, it’s not just my clothing. My form is fine, my position right, but I think I probably look tired most of the time. My pedal stroke is smooth enough, but surely looks unenthusiastic somehow. I don’t pop out of the saddle—I drag myself out of it. I think I must give the impression of an old, beaten-up Dodge Dart; not zippy like those new Neons.
Perhaps as a reflex against feeling intimidated, I began to make judgments about my companion, and probably unfair ones. I mused that although he certainly seemed fitter than I, he didn’t seem the type to have deep wells of guts, either. He seemed the kind of rider who might cave in at the first sign (be it real or a ruse) that he’s outgunned. It dawned on me that I was doomed to mix it up with him—my motivation mixed up between the foolish aggression of aging prizefighter and the detached eye of a scientist conducting an experiment.
I decided to take the last long pull just before the final section of the bridge. The last stretch is always super windy, and can cut your speed significantly, enough to make you feel weak and worthless. Thus, I wanted to make sure this guy had to lead through it, not me. I wanted to arrange it so he pulled good and hard there, so I could hope to demoralize him on that short, steep rise before he (presumably) turned right towards Sausalito and I turned left toward the headlands. When I took the lead for my last pull, I accelerated slightly, upshifting noisily. I hoped this would make him feel slighted, like his previous pull hadn’t been fast enough, and thus shame him into expending too much energy on this last flat bit.
Well, he took the bait, and hammered through the last section of the bridge, while I did my best to achieve cardiovascular hibernation in his draft. Just as the climb started, I punched it. A foolish pace given the length of my climb, but I couldn’t bear to let this guy dust me at the end before his cowardly downhill turn. Well, it worked, and I got a pretty decent gap by the top of that first rise, but then something terrible happened. He turned left, too, to follow me up the hill. He’d planned the same headlands loop I had, all along.
This must be what the dog feels like when it finally catches the mailman. What now? Well, suffer, stupid! It would be humiliating indeed to falter now, and besides, I had the psychological edge. He must have felt pretty outclassed to let me open up such a gap, and so quickly, and he probably had no idea how hard I was going. My heart rate was 189, which isn’t high at all for an adrenaline-engorged junior, but for me that zone is almost off-limits, like that far wing of the house you close off to save on the heating bill. I decided that pacing myself would give him too much hope and he might close the gap—or worse, counterattack me. It’s sure happened enough times before; one time, my assailant had a Fuji Road Look saddle, or seemed to. It’s a humiliating thing. So I decided to stretch out my lead by really kicking it in the guts. A foolish plan, but such recklessness had gotten me this far, hadn’t it?
I rounded the first bend at the Golden Gate Bridge Lookout overlook (not very scenic today, with the bridge engulfed in fog) and the wind switched slightly, now in my favor. This cheered me up a little (luckily, since my body may have been planning a biological mutiny), and I humored myself with the notion that my nemesis was still facing the headwind. Through the next section I cranked up the pace even higher, my throat getting raw and bloody-tasting. Towards where the road flattens out in the twisty section, I really started to bog down. The wind was now against me once again, and I was starting to pay for my ill-considered aggression.
This shallow part of the climb is normally where you can throw her in the big ring, and indeed the propriety of calling this a “big ring tale” demands that I did. But I couldn’t do it. My pace was slowing and I didn’t dare look behind me. I could just picture my opponent seeing my weakness and gliding by me with that jaunty springiness of his. So, despite the apparent impossibility of honoring the gesture, I did put her in the big ring.
It was to avenge the widespread demise of thousands of losers like me that I dug even deeper now, with the pathetic desperation of Ichabod Crane in his final flight from the Headless Horseman. My opponent was a winner: clean bike, clean jersey, shaven legs, real fitness, verve and vigor incarnate. He was probably chuckling at the earnest, flailing efforts of this ragged, washed-up has-been. Well, he could chuckle all he wanted, but he was still behind me. I pushed the big ring all the way to the four-way intersection where you head left toward the summit. By the time I had to go back to the little ring, something important had happened: I had become sick.
Not physically sick, mind you (though that didn’t seem far away). No, I became psychologically sick. This is a dark and disturbing place, the point at which my opponent no longer mattered, my pace no longer mattered, my vital signs—heart rate, speed, rate of vertical gain, elapsed time—all ceased to matter. All that mattered was that I increase the suffering. Some switch had been flipped, some crazy trip-wire had been tripped, some natural system had been deeply subverted. Sometimes a lioness washing her cubs loses track of normal biology and begins actually eating her young instead, and this quirk of nature couldn’t be far from the strong need I had now to increase my own suffering. Like a junkie who craves more and more of what is killing him, I now increased my effort.
You know how some athletes are described (or describe themselves) as having the ability to “turn off” pain? Well that’s total bullshit. Whoever says that just doesn’t get it—the extreme athlete learns now to turn on the pain, how to hurt himself badly and seem to thrive in the process. I was tapped into something sick and wrong, and exhilarating. (How come I so rarely found this spot back when I used to race? Astute tactics tended to get in the way.)
This near-frenzy didn’t last long, but it didn’t end abruptly either. It mellowed out a little; I came off the rush. I came to realize how awful I sounded—my breath a horrible, rattling wheeze. In all the excitement I forgot to look at my heart rate. I finally looked behind me, and . . . my rival was just plain gone. My pace had now dropped a bit, but I was close to the top now [the blue dot in the map] and victory was assured. But what a hollow victory it somehow seemed now; all that hyperbolic effort and near-psychosis, all wasted on an opponent who wasn’t even in sight. And when I reached the top and checked my stopwatch, my time was an unimpressive 10:12. My record is 8:54 … so what happened? Did I misgauge the size of my effort, and the strength of my opponent? Did I just beat up a fifth-grader with a bat?
No, I reassured myself—I had suffered dearly. I had simulated actual fitness, which isn’t easy to do. And by the bottom of the descent on the backside, after it no longer mattered, my rival had caught up with me. (I’d convinced myself my rear tire was half-flat and took the corners wide.) He couldn’t have been that far behind to catch me so quickly.
As if to further reassure me he was a legitimate Goliath, he dragged my sorry ass up the short climb on the backside [not shown in the map above, but heading back to the four-way intersection]. I was too proud to fall off his pace, but too blown out to try anything else. This was normal, regular suffering, and I was back to disliking it. At the intersection, he turned right to do another lap.
Yes, he was the better cyclist—thus I’d scored an (albeit pyrrhic) victory for lesser men everywhere when I shelled him on the first climb.