In 2009, every Donut Ride ended like this: I would be pinned, or near pinned, two-thirds of the way up the Switchbacks. The wankoton would have been blown to smithereens. The only wheels left would be John Hall, Kevin Phillips, Greg Leibert, Craig Leeuwenburgh, and a handful of others.
The old Craig would look back at me, always back at me, and stand on the pedals, and that would be it. One or two others would be able to match his pace. The rest of us would detonate in the attempt.
I wish you knew how hard I tried to go with the old Craig. I tried everything. I tried counting matches and holding a few bullets in reserve until the Switchbacks. That didn’t work. I tried gluing myself to his wheel and following his every move. That didn’t work. I tried attacking in Malaga Cove. That never came close to working. I tried stringing it out in Portuguese Bend. That never worked, either.
Whatever poison I tried, the old Craig had the antidote. He’d look back, stand on the pedals, and bust loose.
Through the sweat and pain and curses and gasps, it was quite beautiful, really. Smooth, effortless, his face set grimly to the tune of “It’s time, children,” the old Craig would look back and then glide away, twisting that enormous uphill gear like it was a piece of soft taffy. It always made me think of that gnarly, raspy, guttural refrain of John Lee Hooker’s: “Boom, boom, boom, boom.”
And then the old Craig died
I can’t put a date on it, but one day the old Craig was no longer there. He was always there, or mostly there, but he wasn’t really there anymore. The big push would come, and I’d whip by him quicker than a twig in front of a 5-hp leaf blower.
People’s lives change, of course. They get busy, or they shift priorities, or they endure tragedy, or they run out of mental fuel, or they just move on. Craig was still around, and always looked fit and fast, but the old Craig was gone.
It would almost make me sad to blast by him on the climbs, if dropping someone can make you sad, which, of course, it can’t, especially someone who has driven so many nails into your coffin, long nails with rusty ends that jab you in the eyes as he pounds them in. There he would go, kicked without mercy out the back, swirling and spinning and sucking down the drainpipe along with all the others. It was weird to see, and unsettling, and somehow it was wrong.
It was wrong because Craig was already in an elite group of athletes for whom the bike was a tiny part of a rather big picture. Craig flies huge airplanes filled with living, breathing people, and his decisions, his actions, his approach each day in his life carries with it the consequences of immediate life or death for tens of thousands of people every year.
The magnitude of that responsibility is one thing, but his behavior on the bike, even after the old Craig had given up the ghost, never varied. When someone flatted, he was the one who pulled over to make sure the tire got properly fixed. Sometimes he could tow the rider back to the group–often as not someone he’d never met before and would never meet again–other times his group ride ended right there on some windy stretch of PCH, left alone to bull into the wind for a few hours.
In addition to always being there for others, with the exception of that harsh, cruel moment when the old Craig would look back and lower the sharpened blade, his kindness was without limit. Gentle, soft-spoken, funny, empathetic, and solid as bedrock…those things never changed despite the early passing of the old Craig.
Crushing that guy and spitting him out the back, rolling over his carcass with a hard kick of the pedals, always felt wrong, even though to do otherwise on the Switchbacks would have broken the code, the law, the iron mandate of the Church of the Spinning Wheel: “Crush today if you can, for tomorrow it will be you.”
How soon we forget
Throughout 2010, 2011, and 2012, the old Craig became a distant memory. He had a new place in the wankoton, and we forgot he’d ever had any other: The new Craig was pack meat.
Today there had been a furious run-up to the Switchbacks. Vince DiMeglio had burned holes in the carpet from the bottom of Trump National, leaving what was left of the hundred-plus holiday pack to consider alternate training methods.
Mark Alvarado jumped hard just after Trump, taking a handful with him. Chain locked onto his big ring, he shot up the first ramp of the Switchbacks, then accelerated all the way to the first turn. I don’t know how many were left; stuck on his wheel I could only count three or four shadows behind me.
We soft pedaled to the second turn and Mark went again after the bend. I took a pull and swung over after the third turn. Jake Sorosky plowed forward. A few kernels in the pan popped, Mark among them, as I gathered what little I had left to hold Jake’s crazy, wobbling, swerving, back-and-forth, uneven wheel.
After the fourth turn, a solid two-thirds of the way up, I stood up and shed Jake, spinning hard, pinned. Then I heard a whining wheel, the sound of accelerating rubber.
It was Craig. He passed me slowly, giving me a half-second to get on. Then he looked back.
It was brief.
It was grim.
It was the old Craig, with vengeance. He kicked so hard I couldn’t have followed without a motorized assist. Then he vanished, vapor, spinning that soft taffy without stress or strain.
I blew and swirled down the drainpipe. There was no other detritus to swirl with.
If you can pin bike blow, I pinned the smear and held it all the way to the top. Steven Ruiz made a come-around attempt, but I fended him off, somehow.
At the summit I only had one breath left. “Good to see you back, Craig.”
He smiled, gently. “Nice job, buddy. It’s been a while.”