My grandfather Jim, who lived to be 89, once told me that the hardest part about getting old was watching all your friends die.
Cycling is kind of the same way, in that people simply vanish from the scene. One day they’re there, present on every ride, never miss a throwdown, and suddenly they’re gone because they took up golf or had a fall or decided to build a house in Hawaii or got tired of riding in circles or decided that life was too short to go around in public with nothing on but your underwear while playing on a child’s toy.
And although sometimes they come back, generally once they’re gone, they’re gone.
The worst is when The Vanished is an icon, a person who stands out and defines an entire region. Stathis the Wily Greek was one such dude, and he followed the trajectory of many: Got his big toe wet, then jumped into the Kool-Aid vat head first. But unlike a lot of other adepts, Stathis got very fast very quickly.
In two years he went from being some dude who rode around in an all-pink Giro d’Italia custom underwear suit to some dude who rode everyone off his wheel. He quickly entered the Cat 1 ranks, and although he never made the mediocre big time in local SoCal semi-sort-kinda-sometimes pro-ish cycling, he left his mark on every single ride that had a bump in it. You know those smears in the road from dead skunks and raccoons? That was you after trying to follow Stathis on a climb.
And of all the climbs he owned, no one ever came close to owning the Donut like Stathis did. Various riders traded fake KOMs, but it was only Stathis who owned the ride, beating every other rider every week every time up every hill. And then, after taking possession of the Donut in fee simple, he brainstormed with G$ and G3 to add in the Domes after the Switchbacks, turning it into the hardest group ride in the country that it is today. It wasn’t simply the fact that he was the fastest, it was the fact that he made a point of no mercy.
No friendship, no teammate, no favor, no kind word would ever get you a free tow on his wheel or a gifted sprint at the end. If you sat on his wheel he eased up and attacked. If you attacked (I never did) he followed you, waited until you were winded, then countered. While the Donut Ride was putting a tramp-stamp on its ass in his image, he was collecting climbing scalps all over the South Bay and beyond.
You knew when he showed up that he was going to beat you. And he knew it. And then he did it. He brought this same clinical dissection to the Flog Ride. Every Thursday there was the workout that he did, and the workout for everyone else. When he stood on the pedals, your workout with him ended and you began doing something else. Your workout, for example. But not his.
Stathis’s relentlessness wore down so many people, simply because most riders have to have some vague hope or fantasy that they will be first in order to show up. For me I always took solace that I got to start with the best and get beaten by the best, and the one time I beat him to the Domes on the Donut I will forever remember, because with him there were never any gifts. You earned it or you lost. I never cared about getting beaten by someone that much better, I just cared about getting beaten, period, and Stathis was the perennial electric rabbit that the greyhounds, or in my case the slughound, was never going to catch.
So when he retired a lot of people rejoiced. Now they could contest the climbs. Now they could actually fake race. Now they could look around and see that they were riding with peers, and I guess that made them happier than having manure smeared in their face.
For me, I was sad when he hung it up. There’s nothing better and more invigorating than a good, old-fashioned beating, and the more vicious the smashdown the more enjoyable the bike ride.
This morning while Kristie and I were riding to the Donut we saw a dude on a bike. He was bone thin and wearing a nose ring, but I knew at a glance it was Stathis. “Dude!” I said. “You’re back!”
He laughed. It was the same old Stathis, but the new one, too. “Just want to be able to hang on,” he said. I could tell from his legs that he wasn’t kidding. He’d been off the bike for a couple of years and hadn’t had more than two full dinners in the interim.
The Donut Ride started, and it went out hot. Stathis was punched out the back before we got out of Malaga Cove and I never saw him again. After the ride I texted him. “How did you feel?”
“Awesome. So great to be riding with friends again.” Did you catch that? He called the people who left him “friends.” Now that, folks, is a cyclist.
Doesn’t his sentiment sum everything up? I think it does. It’s rare when The Vanished reappear, but when they do, it’s awesome. Especially if it takes them a few months to get fit before they start tearing your legs off again.
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