I’m an assistant coach for the Albany High School Cougars mountain biking team. As described in a previous smackdown post, my bike—with its triple crankset—seems, to the Cougars, as antiquated as I am. (More on gearing later—I’ll bet you can’t wait!) Part of my role as coach is to inspire these kids, so I need to convey, through actions alone, that I’m not actually obsolete. This can mean giving them a run for their money which, as you can imagine, gets harder every year. Read on for a white-knuckled (or at least old-knuckled) account of my latest endeavor.
Small cog tale
The weather looked iffy but none of the forecasts matched, so although it had rained all morning, the ride was on. Coach M—, our fastest, was MIA so I got put with the fastest group. As we set out and headed up Thousand Oaks Blvd, I noted that C—, our top rider, was rocking his NorCal League Champion jersey from last season, with the California flag on it. I said to him, “Nice jersey! Where can I get one?”
C— said to S—, “Where’s Coach M—, our fearless leader?”(or something to that effect). S—, who looks like a Pixar superhero, and who almost beat me in two all-out sprints last week, said, “Actually, Coach M— is 0 for 2 this season.” C— asked, “Who’d he lose to?” S— gestured in my direction and said, “Coach Dana.” C— replied, “Oh, shit!” He was surely thinking about the final sprint of the ride, a tradition that, several years ago, was oddly named “VO2.” It’s contested along the final stretch of Wildcat Canyon Road, which descends at 1-2% and winds around like a serpent. The finish line is the intersection with Grizzly Peak Blvd, near the Summit Reservoir where the Cougar ride groups (and those of other teams) tend to congregate before the final (controlled-pace) descent to the high school.
By the end of the first climb a wind had picked up, big dark clouds had rolled in, and the temperature was dropping. We regrouped at the reservoir and then I dragged everyone along Wildcat Canyon Road, heading east. Several times I gestured with a flick of the elbow for somebody to pull through but either I haven’t successfully taught that signal to the riders, or they just didn’t want to help. I was hoping for a team time trial type of group effort, but when I pointedly pulled off and looked at C—, he launched a devastating attack. He totally soloed and S— dropped me too. I overhauled S— on the short downhill toward the Botanical Garden, before the climbing resumed, but never caught C—. We regrouped at Inspiration Point and as the rest of the kids (and the other coach) trickled in, it started to rain.
I decided to lead everyone down Wildcat to where it hits El Toyonal, and back up. Several kids protested but only pro forma … I think we were all electrified by the rain, which increased as I drilled it down Wildcat. Before the ride I’d put a new clear lens in my sunglasses and it worked great deflecting the spray off the road. I could actually (basically) see, though the ridge of hills and all the trees had effectively hastened the sunset. I reached the junction with El Toyonal and turned around. We’d agreed to regroup again at Inspiration Point again after the climb, so I didn’t wait for anyone … they’d be along soon enough.
True to form, C— blew by me with S— dying on his wheel. S— came off and I managed to stay with him to the top. When we arrived C— was jumping up and down to stay warm as he had no jacket and no body fat. Eventually the others arrived, and we turned on our lights and put on all the gear we had as the rain was pounding down now. I loaned C— a spare pair of arm warmers but his arms were too wet and he lost patience pulling them on and chucked them back to me.
A— was still futzing with his gloves when a number of riders rolled out. I yelled at them to hold up. They ignored me—a mutiny!—and ramped up the speed. The cowards! Apparently certain Cougars didn’t want me around to contest VO2. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for cunning tactics, but this didn’t seem very sporting.
Annoyed, I hammered to catch up, moving through our group like in a racecar video game, but it was pretty hopeless. Three of the kids were way off the front, taking turns pulling, fighting the wind together, and I was only one guy. Still, on the downhill toward the Regional Parks Botanical Garden I felt I could close the gap a bit since I’m bigger than these kids and punch through the wind better. But my progress was incremental and not enough.
I was ready to just call it a day—I mean, who cares, really?—when I remembered my mantra: “I … WILL … NOT … LOSE … EVER.” I guess it’s not really my mantra in the sense that I came up with it or anything; I stole it from some rap song. Plus, it’s kind of disingenuous because I actually lose all the time. But “I … LOSE … ALL … THE … TIME” is not a suitable mantra, and when I’m slaying myself on the bike in a dim rainstorm with possibly toxic levels of adrenaline coursing through my system, I sometimes become pleasantly delusional and can pretend I never lose. But how could I possibly manage to prevail now, when already so far off the back?
Ah, I thought. There’s always the “I hate pain” hill.
The “I hate pain” hill is the short, somewhat steep (perhaps 9%) climb between the Botanical Garden and the Brazil Building. My wife gave this hill its name, back when we were first dating. She rode over it and said, “I just learned something about myself. I hate pain!” I can usually do this one in the big ring, after getting up as much speed as possible on the downhill before. For some reason, the mountain bike team always goes around it, via Anza View Road, even though they’re young and strong and fearless. Probably the coaches set the standard ages ago and nobody ever thought to change it up. Well, on a previous showdown, during a ride with my road team that a former Cougar had attended, I’d had a chance to do a little A/B test. He’d dropped our entire group including me and, not knowing any better, went around the hill while I, in desperate pursuit, went over it and discovered that up-and-over is actually faster. So now I figured that maybe, just maybe, I could make up enough time to get back in contention.
Well, it worked perfectly. I came over the top, and as the road dipped down again I could just see the top three riders rejoining the road ahead. I gave it full gas and managed to claw my way across and latch on to the back. I hung out there for a bit, recovering, and before long the last of the three, G—, looked back and saw me there. Haha! Surely they’d looked back several times and confirmed I was nowhere in sight. It must have seemed like I came out of nowhere.
C— was on the front driving a furious pace. I was getting a pretty good draft off G— (who must have grown three inches since last season) but he was dying and letting little gaps open, so riding behind him was unwise, like getting too close to a drowning victim. To G—’s credit, it took me a few tries to take S—’s wheel away from him. As I’ve taught the riders, you look at the wheel you want, not at the rider who’s on it, and you just have to kind of insinuate yourself onto the wheel. Eventually I had S—’s wheel but he’s not such a good draft. I was bent way over the bars, but I’ve got this giant Camelbak stuffed with the tool set, the first aid kit, every size of inner tube, extra clothes, and other bulky stuff so I wasn’t very aero.
The pace was relentless, and pedaling was even harder than usual because my shoes, being absolutely soaked, seemed to weigh about five pounds each. The chamois in my shorts was also sodden and droopy … is this what it’s like having a full diaper? I sensed S— starting to tire … so it was time to move into second. He didn’t seem to mind when I came past him; he knew he’d get a sweet draft off of me and have plenty of time to recover, so he could try to come past at the last second. (He’d come so very close to pulling it off last week, after all.) So now I was right on C—’s wheel and he’s just as lithe and wiry as a greyhound, blocking the wind even less than S—. It was absolutely brutal staying in that draft at that searing pace. C—’s rear tire sprayed up a rooster tail of water right in my face, but my clear goggles protected my eyes, and the water hitting my mouth, though befouled with grit, was almost refreshing. Meanwhile, C—’s unrelenting verve was inspirational, and as I clung to his wheel for dear life I tried to conjure up a plot to defeat him.
This kid had been pulling ever since I’d caught up, and probably almost the whole way from Inspiration Point. Sure, he’s the League Champ, but he’s not invincible … possibly I could come off his wheel with like 100 meters to go and punch his ticket. I was actually more worried about S—, who was just sitting perfectly in position behind me, and who’d have a pretty good idea of when I’d launch my sprint. I decided I had to go early, for the element of surprise.
There’s a spot maybe 300 meters from the end where the road curves around and the downhill gets just a bit steeper, from like 1% to 1.5%. It’s subtle, but the perfect moment to take advantage of my 11-tooth cog. I guess that’s not really such a tiny cog by modern standards—after all, my daughter’s bike has a 10—but that’s because most kids are running the so called “one-by” setup, with only one chainring, which is typically a measly 32-tooth. My triple crankset has a 42-tooth big ring, giving me a 20-30% higher gear than they have, and at a high enough speed, it’s like having nitro or something (if only my legs can manage to push hard enough).
Needless to say what you’re reading here isn’t technically a Big Ring Tale, because we’d all already been in our big rings, and/or our highest gears, for several minutes before the denouement of our battle began. For me, the battle came down to the cog. All last season I couldn’t use my smallest rear cog because it was worn out and skipped like crazy. This season I finally got around to addressing it—but I couldn’t find the new cassette I thought I had somewhere. I ended up finding some random, lone 11-tooth cog floating around in my big bin of extra parts. I had no idea where it came from or what kind of shape it was in, but to my delight it works great—no skipping at all. So instead of setting up the climax of this yarn with the standard convention of “I threw ‘er in the big ring,” this is the part of the story where I get to tell you “I dropped ‘er in the small cog.” (Who knows, perhaps with the growing popularity of these one-by setups, and mountain biking vs. road, the term “big ring tale” will become obsolete, and “small cog tale” will take its place.) Now, full disclosure, I might well have already been in the small cog, but that’s immaterial … the point is, now I launched the big move that demanded the 42x11 gear. I was going to spin that gear all the way up or die trying.
Well, the good news is, I did succeed in taking both kids by surprise and quickly got a good gap. The bad news is, with the rain and the dark and my somewhat fogged-up goggles I’d totally misjudged where we were; maybe it was wishful thinking that we were finally close to the end. I’d gone several curves too early! No wonder my sudden move had been so effective: you’d have to be a fool to go from that far out! O my god, what had I done? But there was no way to change my plan now … if I let up at all, both kids would fly by and that would be the end of me. There was nothing to do but try to make the move stick. I had that 42x11 turning pretty well now. (Having gone back and done the math, I can tell you my cadence was just under 100 rpm, which isn’t so fast for a track racer, but pretty much perfect for a mosher like me.)
I died over and over again with every pedal stroke, and the wimp in my brain was chanting its usual defeatist litany, notions like “It’s over, you went too early, you’re doomed, just sit up, these kids are in their prime, S— looks like a Pixar superhero, C— is the reigning League Champ, there’s no shame, you gave them a good run for it.” Fortunately the song in my head (there’s always a song in my head), which was “King of Pain” by the Police, was drowning out the inner voice. Going early had not been the plan, of course, and yet I seemed to be following a familiar script. There seemed something so inevitable about the excruciating suffering I was going through once again: the blood-taste in my mouth, the turbine-like whoosh-whine of my breathing, the white-hot burn in my legs. It could be no other way and I wasn’t going to let up for a second until I’d won or lost. No looking back, either—I cannot fathom why pro racers in solo breakaways so often look back; it’s like the kiss of death. Just face forward, face the music: “I will always be King of Pain!”
I was around the final curve, out of the saddle now, thrashing, feeling like I had a bear trap clamped to each leg. This twisty road with the tall trees around it, and the dark and gloom, with sometimes even a bat or two, have often made me think of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and now I felt very much like Ichabod Crane dashing madly toward the final bridge, the Headless Horseman hot on my tail. The end in sight, I flogged myself like it mattered, and less than 50 meters from the finish still no kid had flashed by. With 25 meters to go I finally looked back. C— was there, of course, but well behind me, not even in my draft, and S— was nowhere to be seen. I’d pulled it off! Something like a wicked laugh fluttered to life deep within me but couldn’t make it anywhere close to my mouth, not with all that sucking wind and other respiratory havoc. But the feeling that flickered there was real and joyful. Can you imagine it? Actual joy, at my advanced age?
Needless to say my triumph, for all the thrill of the moment, was actually meaningless, a matter of pure trivia, something to be forgotten almost instantly (were it not for the stubborn persistence of this text). Surely C— didn’t much care. It’s just one more sprint of many, and like every coach I’m just a stepping stone on the kid’s way to greater things, if even that. But hey, that’s what I’m here for … my glory days were over thirty years ago and the point here is the current crop, the Cougars. When, some weeks from now, an actual race—a sanctioned NorCal mountain bike race—comes down to a final sprint, and C— wins it through timing, tactics, and grit, I will be stoked to have played any role at all in helping him reach that level. As for myself, I’m just glad to still be in the mix.