Before the race G3, who won it the year before, told me that “It’s the hardest race you’ll ever do.”
The Hun, who was driving, nodded savagely. “Absolute fucking hardest,” he said.
When two good friends, experienced road racers, and all-round tough guys tell you that it’s the hardest race you’ll ever do, my (obvious) reaction was to discount everything they said because they were such soft little cream-filled cupcakes.
“So what’s so hard about it?” I asked, bored and hoping they would fill the rest of the 2-hour drive to Desertmethtrailerville with epic lies about their awesomeness and somewhere along the way I could pick up some good intel that would help me attack my teammates and cover myself in glory at their expense.
“Wind,” said G3.
“Fucking wind,” said the Hun.
“Incredible wind,” said G3.
“Wind so fucking bad you gonna cry your mommy,” cursed the Hun.
“The wind is so ferocious it will destroy everyone who doesn’t have a wheel the entire race.”
“Fucking wind gonna break your balls and you gonna quit right away you don’t ride smart.” He cast a sideways glance indicating that “ride smart” wasn’t something he necessarily credited me with.
We got to the course outside Lancaster, which is part of California, but not the good part. I had made sure to fuel up on a Burger King double bacon cheeseburger and fries when we stopped for gas, so although I was properly nutritionized I was not prepared for …
On the course, way over in a field, four Big Orange teammates were fighting with a team canopy that had blown several hundred yards into the middle of someone’s dirt and plastic trash orchard, where this year’s crop also included used syringes and not-brand-new condoms.
By the start-finish, all the port-a-potties were lying on their side.
The paperwork at registration was on the ground, weighted by thirty-pound rocks.
Everyone was covered in sand, grit, and anger. Lots of anger.
I got on my bike to warm up and unwisely pointed it with the tailwind. Without pedaling I quickly hit 30 mph, then 35, then with a pedal stroke or two was doing 40. By the time I turned around I had gone so far that returning to base camp took almost thirty minutes and I was already tasting bacon.
Head Down James had just finished racing. “How’d it go?”
“Breezy,” he said.
“How was the climb?’
“Headwind. Three miles. Not too steep. You’ll do fine. But watch the downhill.”
“Straight as an arrow with a couple of gentle curves you can hit without touching your brakes. You’ll easily hit 55. Watch out for the potholes and cracks, and big pieces of cactus blown onto the course, and of course the trash and there’s one place where a load of logs spills out into the road. If you hit one of those at speed it won’t be good.”
“No,” I agreed.
“One guy in our race did and took down five other people.”
“Is that what those five ambulances were for?”
“Yes. No one died though.”
“Yeah, and watch out for the puppies. There are so many puppies and people have all driven up from LA to photograph them. Gets dicey at 55 with people running back and forth across the highway and pulling over.”
“Yeah. They’re gorgeous but watch out.”
“How’d you La Grange guys do?”
“We swept the podium.”
At that moment a blast of sand swept in and covered us, sticking to James’s sweaty face and my sunscreened one.
Our race began straight into the headwind up the 3-mile climb, with about twenty very old, very tired, and very apprehensive fellows engaged in a fierce competition to do nothing but hide. Contemptuously I went to the front half a dozen times and tried to up the pace.
G3 pedaled up alongside. “Dude,” he whispered. “Hide. You don’t know what you’re doing.” I spat in reply.
We crested the climb, having culled a few of the weak, sick, and mentally infirm, did a short easy downhill, and then made an easy right-hander. In front was a short 200-meter bump. This was the bump where G3 had warned me to “Be at the front because it’s short and easy but they will race over it and if you have even two bike lengths between you and the group you will never see them again because the second they crest it they will be going 60 with a huge tailwind and your day will be over.”
“More silly exaggeration,” I had thought as I saw the leaders begin to accelerate. “But just in case …”
Horribly positioned at the very back I sprinted with everything I had, which wasn’t much, and just latched on as the leaders crested the bump. The four riders who were a few wheels back were never seen again. It was that instantaneous.
The fear was awful, the chug holes in the road were abysses, and everyone except me seemed fine with the idea of dying, if that’s what it took, to get to the bottom quickly. Before long we began rocketing through corridors of cars and SUVs parked on the road side, with city folks wandering randomly across the road.
“The fucking puppies,” I thought. “The puppies. Where are the puppies? All I see are giant orange fields of poppies.” Then it dawned on me. “Puppies. Poppies.”
Tucked into the back of the group we made a right turn into the worst cross-wind in history. The leaders punched it hard. If you were in the first six wheels you had a draft; everyone else was shoved against the double yellow line in a vicious echelon with no shelter.
The moto ref helpfully yelled and honked at us to “get off the yellow line,” which only made us move farther to the left such that the giant mirrors of pickups passing in the opposite direction at 75 came within inches of our heads. Gaps opened and I began having to close them.
If you’ve never had to close a gap in an echelon with a howling cross-wind, it is like being Sisyphus but instead of pushing a giant rock up a hill you are pushing a giant rock off your head only to have it fall back and spatter more brains when the next gap opens.
I closed four gaps and then almost ran over the red cones before the next turn, a right-hander that went straight into the wind, back through the start-finish and up the climb. After two minutes of sitting at the back cursing the dirt, the puppies, the poppies, G3 and the Hun for telling the truth, the wind, the tumped-over toilets, and praying the moto ref would DQ me, I gave up.
One lap, quit, wobbled into the start-finish area where I was cheered by no one except my good friend Kristie. “What are you quitting for?” she said. “Finish the race!”
“I double flatted,” I said.
“Oh my dog! That’s terrible!”
“Yeah,” I said.
She looked at my tires. “Your tires are fine, Seth.”
“Yeah, but it was a right flat and a left flat.”
Two small children who were there to watch their dad race quizzed me in great detail about my weakness, why I had quit, why I had come if I only rode one lap, whether I usually quit, whether my kids also quit, whether quitting was okay (their teacher said never quit), did I like quitting, did my dad know I had quit, did I know their dad wasn’t gonna quit, had I ever beaten their dad and if so how come I had quit and couldn’t beat him today, and did I want to try and beat them playing Gorgonzola Space Destruction Zombie Catchers.
Next, I got to sit on the side of the road for another hour and a half and watch the miserable faces of the racers come by in gradually reduced numbers until they slow-motion sprunted across the line, faces caked in salt and grit and misery. “One lap to go!” I shouted as they finished, Cruelty Thy Name Is Bicycle Racing.
G3 got second and the Hun got third, which was awesome because before they even dismounted I demanded my share of their winnings. “You couldn’t have done it without all that work I did on the first lap.”
Too tired to resist, they staggered to the car and deflated, thousand-yard stares pasted on their drawn faces while the wind howled and moaned.
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