Tuesday, May 14, 2024

From the Archives - Guitar Man


In 1986, I took a high school creative writing class. The teacher, Mr. Kroop, wore Jams and played whale music and didn’t do a lot of lecturing; instead, he gave out gobs of assignments. We seemed to have something due almost every day. One day he assigned us a character sketch. I think my effort came to more than that, in its primitive way.

Guitar man – February 3, 1986

Olga leaned back in her chair. It creaked, threatening to collapse. She belched loudly, and then slumped over the little built-in desk. She was in a meeting at an alcohol rehabilitation center, where she had been sent as part of her sentence for shoplifting at a Liquor Mart. Having smuggled in a flask of Jack Daniels, she was too inebriated to pay attention to the lecture that was being given. Plus, she spoke almost no English.

A bearded man came around passing out magic markers and big sheets of butcher paper. Olga assumed they were to write lists of some kind. Goals? Reasons to do better? Excuses? She wasn’t feeling inspired to write anything, and nobody would be able to decipher her Cyrillic characters anyway. So she just slumped at her desk, her cheek resting on her arm, watching the proceedings unfold sideways. The bearded man said something to her which she ignored. Then she happened to spy, on the wall, a framed picture of a man playing a guitar.

Something was weird about the picture. It was sideways. Of course, Olga’s head was turned on its side, so the picture ought to look sideways, she reasoned, but it just wasn’t right. It was, like, double-sideways. She sat up and looked at again, with her head straight. Now it was upside-down! She shook her head a bit as if to clear it. She looked again. Yes, she had been drinking, but not that much, and the picture was definitely upside-down. What was this, some kind of joke? Some kind of trick? Or a result of very haphazard janitorial service? Was this some visual aid, to be used in some group exercise, serving perhaps as some metaphor? Well, it didn’t matter. Not Olga’s problem. And then she remembered something she’d learned once in an art class, decades ago, back in the old country. Something about drawing upside down, and how it helped you draw what you see, not what you suppose something looks like. Olga realized that, with her butcher paper and marker, she was in a position to draw this right now. Upside-down.

She hadn’t drawn anything with a marker in ages (a spray can being her preferred medium), and she held it tightly in her fist like a toddler with a crayon. She drew rapidly, looking at the framed picture rather than her paper. Once in a while she glanced down and was thrilled to see her drawing taking shape and looking, actually, a bit like a work of art. Some of the lines kind of did their own thing, some petered out instead of joining anything up, and she noted with a frown that the guitar player’s right hand looked a little palsied, but all in all it wasn’t bad. Now if she could just not screw up the face! She focused on the lines and tried to forget what they were supposed to be leading up to. Halfway through finishing his head she couldn’t go on—there was too much goodness on the paper to risk screwing it all up. It had to be considered Done.

She turned the paper around so it was right-side-up and gazed upon her work. Had she really just drawn this? How much time had passed? She realized suddenly that the room around her was in motion, chairs scraping back as people stood up. Somebody was collecting the papers. No! Not hers! She started to roll it up but her fingers were fumbling. It was like she’d used up all her skill and had nothing else left for this task. She stood, stepped back, and tripped over her chair. Her arms flew back and she caught herself from falling, ending up in a crablike position. Her contraband whiskey bottle flew from the pocket of her baggy overcoat and spun across the floor. This caused massive commotion—with all the alcoholics in the room, that bottle was like blood in shark-infested waters. Olga lumbered off toward the exit as if in flight, embarrassed and ashamed to have her smuggling operation discovered. The door swung closed behind her, letting out a little sigh.

The bearded man shook his head and strode toward the abandoned whisky bottle, which was still half full. Nobody raced him for it, but all eyes were on it. Suddenly there was motion again at the double doors, a struggle from the other side, and they started to open together. Olga staggered through, a look of fierce determination on her face. The bearded man practically sprinted for the bottle, but to his surprise Olga marched right by him. There was a large sheet of curled paper near the chair she’d overturned, and she snatched it up, rolled it into a tight scroll, and—flashing a defiant and satisfied look—strode off, in her galumphing way, back out through the door.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2024

My (Hypothetical) Post-Race Interview - NBS Criterium


If you’ve ever read my “biased blow-by-blow” reports of pro bike races, you’ll have noted that I like to put words in the racers’ mouths when covering their post-race interviews. This is because they so often have so little to say (either because their brains have been too deprived of oxygen, or they’re just camera-shy and/or vapid to begin with). Since the bike races I’ve done myself over the decades haven’t had media coverage to speak of, I have had very little opportunity to try fielding reporters’ questions myself. But what if I did?

Here’s how I might have described a certain race I did as a 15-year-old, had the press seen fit to interview me about it (and had a lot of time and patience in doing so). Note that, unlike in the case of actual interviews that I take liberties with on this blog, what I recount in this hypothetical interview really happened as I describe it, to the extent I remember everything accurately (which I do). Naturally, I needed to put words in the mouth of the fictitious interviewer, so I had some fun with that.

Note: the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in Boulder, Colorado is now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) and is the home of one of America’s atomic clocks. Note also: the photos in this post aren’t from the race I recount, but from the final stage of the Red Zinger Mini Classic on the same course later that year.

Interview – NBS Criterium – Spring 1985

INTERVIEWER: What does it mean to race here at the National Bureau of Standards?

DANA: Well, it’s a very cool course; any time you have a figure-8 shaped criterium on a hill it’s gonna be exciting. And I guess the Bureau is a pretty important place for, like, scientists.

INTERVIEWER: I understand your dad, a rocket scientist, works here and was out watching you race today. Did that make this race extra special?

DANA: You heard wrong. He doesn’t work here, and it wouldn’t have occurred to him to watch me race. He did drive me to one race last year, but he didn’t have a very good time because I got my ass kicked. I think he was ashamed of me. It was a very quiet, uncomfortable drive home. It’s too bad he wasn’t here since things obviously went better today.

INTERVIEWER: Walk me through the race. It really looks like you had a solid plan and executed it.

DANA: No, not at all, that was an illusion. Things actually started off really badly. My mom drove me to the race but had run out to do some errand first, which took longer than she thought, so she got me there too late and I couldn’t race in my normal division. Fortunately they let me race with the men later in the day, but of course I wasn’t nearly as confident in that group. I was pretty furious, because even though I’ve historically kind of sucked at this sport, over the winter I finally hit puberty and was riding well, and was really pumped to have a go here. But going up against grown men … that’s another thing entirely.

INTERVIEWER: Were you excited to have your big brother in the peloton with you? Did you guys work together?

DANA: Not at all. Several times this season he’s come in second to the same guy, and of course it would make sense to help each other out to try to finally beat this dude. But my brother naturally assumed I’d be useless. In fact, when we were suiting up for the race in a restroom here at the Bureau, he advised me that if he got in a breakaway, he wasn’t going to wait for me, I was on my own. I was thinking, like, thanks for the support, asshole.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me about your big attack. It really seemed perfectly timed.

DANA: Actually, it was totally spontaneous. I was staying up near the front watching for my brother or his nemesis to make a move, kind of waiting to see how things shook out. Although I was feeling really good, my breathing was pretty loud—I have some seasonal allergies which can make my respiratory system a bit noisy. So some douchebag with a mustache says, “Jesus Christ, kid, are you about to collapse a lung or something?” It just pissed me off so bad, being spoken down to like that by this complete stranger who just assumes, like my brother, that I’m a hopeless case. I wasn’t going to take that, but then I couldn’t figure out a clever response, so I just decided—very spur-of-the-moment—to attack the shit out of him, and of course everyone else in the process. It was a very unguarded, uncalculated move, born of pure anger and adrenaline, and I think I caught everyone—including myself—completely by surprise. When my attack blew the pack apart and only two guys were able to join me, I was stoked, especially since the two were my brother and his nemesis, both of whom had done well all season, so I knew they were super strong.

INTERVIEWER: You seemed to work really well together.

DANA: Yeah, we knew the break had a chance to survive so we were all motivated to share the work and really commit. In my case, less was expected of me since I’m just this scrawny-looking kid, right?

INTERVIEWER: It seemed like you were actually dangling at the back quite a bit, like you might even get dropped.

DANA: Yeah, it really sucked because the last time I raced here, I crashed out and was hauled off in an ambulance. Everything had been going great—this was the last day of the week-long Red Zinger Mini Classic and I was in a 3-up breakaway with the GC leader and the guy in second overall—but it started raining, and got a bit slippery. In my case it was especially bad because I’d punctured during my warm-up and borrowed a wheel from a friend. Unbeknownst to me and probably to my friend, he’d mounted a track tire on there that was not designed for wet conditions. So on the fastest corner, in the descent, I slipped right out and that was the end of that. My shorts were so badly ripped, my junk was hanging out as I lay on my back being attended by paramedics. All these spectators were crowding around, including my brothers, who gave me endless shit afterward for reaching down and tugging the ripped Lycra to cover my johnson. Their point was that if I’d really been injured, I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to do this. Whatever, dudes. Anyhow, I was really spooked by that crash, and my mojo was shot, so I couldn’t keep up on the downhill today. Every lap I’d lose ground and have to chase like a madman on the climb to catch back up. So that kind of sucked.

INTERVIEWER: Did you figure you were doomed, then? How could you possibly go for the win if you’re always gapped like that?

DANA: Well, in the end I managed to use it to my advantage. The other two were so sure I wouldn’t be a factor, they only marked each other. With a couple laps to go I realized that if I could possibly get my head together and not get dropped on the downhill on the final lap, I’d be in perfect position and have the element of surprise. So I just gritted my teeth and willed myself to just bomb the last descent and not get gapped, and it worked! I was tucked right in as we made the final corner! Heading up the hill toward the finish, seeing my brother and this guy watching each other, I decided to go early and see if I could get a big enough gap to hold it. So I went right up the fucking gutter and totally caught them napping—it must have seemed like I came out of nowhere. So now I was just going for the line, absolutely all-out, kind of channeling into my effort a lifetime of sibling rivalry and being bullied, so I didn’t care a whit if I pedaled so hard I ripped myself in half, and I was watching that finish line approach and just kind of begging it to come closer before I got caught. And to my shock and pure delight, finally I was over it and nobody had come around.

INTERVIEWER: Your victory salute was really something … a whole lot of whooping and punching the air. What was going on there?

DANA: To actually win, and against my big brother, and all these men, after having been so distraught at missing my start earlier, and to have success after so many fruitless years in this sport, particularly after my friends had kind of abandoned me since my sucking at racing apparently made me a dork … there’s just so much satisfaction in winning here, such a feeling of absolute vindication. It surpasses my wildest dreams. And now I get to give my brother so much shit, for the rest of our lives. I just wish I could go find that dickhead with the mustache and give him a hard time for bagging on me. I’d love to tell him, “I hope the rest of your race went better, not having to hear me breathe anymore because I dropped your ass.”

INTERVIEWER: I think you’d better head to the medical tent. You’re showing signs of acute testosterone poisoning.

DANA: Naw, I think I’m okay. I’m a teenager, these levels are normal for me!


So, forty years on, is it the case I’ve given my brother endless shit about having beaten him in this race? Well, yes, but it hasn’t been quite as satisfying as I’d hoped: he maintains that he doesn’t remember it. At all. I find this astonishing. I mean, if I never brought it up until recently, yeah, that kind of makes sense, but I feel like I’ve reminded him a great number of times! I guess at the end of the day, this was just an unimportant local bike race, not any kind of championship or anything, so nobody would bother to remember it at all, much less care. Except me.

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