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or, HOW THE AUTHOR WANDERED OFF THE TRACK
OF COMPETITIVE CYCLING, NEVER TO RETURN
 

by D. Patrick Miller

 

 







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As a lifelong touring cyclist, I wasn’t shocked or dismayed at the disgracing of legendary athlete Lance Armstrong — or Floyd Landis — or any-name-here in professional cycling. Anyone who knows the history of the sport knows that performance-enhancing substances of some sort — cocaine in the 19th century, testosterone in the 21st — have been coursing through pro cyclists’ veins since the beginning.

I think this tradition owes to another dirty little secret of professional bicycling that no one wants to admit: the sport is just too damn hard.

I learned this decades ago when I entered my one and only time trial back in my North Carolina homeland. Not the sporting type myself, this bright idea owed to my pal Jack. Since we had met a couple years before in high school, Jack had been my bicycling mentor, inspiring me to graduate from a trusty but lumbering Raleigh three-speed to a lighter and more temperamental ten-speed Gitane. We had taken a number of rides together, during which I was always left in the red-clay dust by Jack’s superior pedaling power. The legs on his six-foot-plus frame nearly equaled my total height, or so it seemed as I typically watched him receding in the distance ahead of me, his ponytail fluttering in the wind and his skinny rump elevated skyward by the extra-long seatpost he had devised for the largest bicycle frame he could find.

The truth is that we were both too big for bicycle racing; the sport favored those with jockey builds and competitive dispositions. The race that Jack suckered me into was not competitive in the usual sense, being a struggle against the clock over twenty miles or so in which each cyclist left the starting line separately, about two minutes apart. Rankings would be determined by comparing racers’ total times on the course. The staggered starts meant that the cyclist ahead of me would be out of sight by the time I lurched forth, which would prove to be the decisive factor in my sole time trial experience.

At 9:30 a.m. on that not-so-fateful morning, standing aside a rural road near Monroe (locally pronounced munn-row) in the waiting line of aspirants, I already felt like a sweaty, oversized fool. For several nights beforehand I had been overhauling, cleaning, and trying to shave weight off the Gitane, imagining that bringing its poundage from 28 to perhaps 26 would make all the difference in a field of competitors that I thought would comprise only local yokels on the 40-pound, fat-saddled one-speeds they had just dragged out of the garage for the first bike race ever held in the local holler.

So I was properly chagrined when we arrived at the staging ground to see several professional cyclists with their customized vans, support teams, and flighty, 18-pound steeds virtually neighing and pawing at the edges of the melting tarmac. Realizing that I was hopelessly outclassed only added to my general feeling of unwellness, seeing as how it was already 85 degrees in the shade with an easily matching percentage of humidity. So I was feeling sick before I’d even put foot to pedal. Somehow I was supposed to crank like a madman for an hour — probably a bit more — in the thin hope of achieving a ranking in the company of these lighter-than-air purebreds who looked like they were born to wear clingy nylons splashed with corporate endorsements.

But as I stood in line that morning all I could think about was surviving the brief but death-defying excursion that lay ahead. I was already wiping my brow frequently and swilling the single pint of water I carried on the bike’s frame, inwardly cursing my decision to save weight by depriving myself of hydration. I had reasoned that I could cut down on water intake by pacing myself from start to finish, but standing in the starting line I could see that every participant was taking off like a madman, including Jack, who launched just a couple riders ahead of me. So my strategy was obviously wrong, and I was going to have to take off that way too and crank furiously at least as long as anyone could see me. That meant I’d go through my water in no time. It was dawning on me that I had no instinct for bicycle racing, and should have signed on as Jack’s support team instead. That way I wouldn’t have had to stray far from the ice chests of water bottles and soft drinks seductively arrayed all around the starting line.

Finally it was my turn to trundle up to the race official holding a stopwatch, and while an attendant held the bike up, I cinched my toe-clips (of course, the pros were virtually melded to their pedals with authentic racing shoes & cleats) and put on my best race face. When I was given the “Go!” I grunted with impressive effort and sprang forth into the warm, soupy air of mid-morning Monroe with all the grace of a grasshopper trekking across a sea of molasses. When I was over the first rise and out of sight of everyone milling around at the staging ground, I abruptly slowed and began shifting my race strategy from time-shaving to life-saving. Already I had no illusions about achieving a rank; my only concern was completing the circuit and getting home without a heat stroke. I was also wondering if there was any way to bum some water off any of the riders launched after me, sure to pass me in short order. I decided that would be bad form.

As luck would have it, my lack of racing savvy turned out to be my saving grace that day. While standing in line each competitor had been given a chance to preview a roughly drawn map of the race circuit, which included a few turns to hook the last leg of the race back to the same stretch as the first leg. Since we were assured that all the turns were also marked with little yellow arrows, I didn’t pay much attention to the map.


Hence, when I arrived at the first yellow marker after the first two miles and saw it indeterminately pointed toward the woods beside the road, I was flummoxed. The wind couldn’t have turned it, because there wasn’t even the slightest breeze about; had some previous racer stopped just to throw his competitors off their timing? I tried to apply deductive reasoning, concluding that a marker wouldn’t have been posted at every intersection, just the places where there was a turn. Besides, the road straight ahead went slightly uphill and the right turn looked flat. That must be the way.

So I turned, and after sweating through another couple miles in fifteen minutes or so, I was beginning to have doubts about my navigation. For one thing, no one had passed me yet, and there had been one of those tiny, shrink-wrapped pros in the starting line-up behind me. Surely he would have gained two minutes on me by now! Also, the road was looking less and less like a race route; I had traveled into a rural neighborhood criss-crossed by country lanes with nary a yellow marker to be found. I was also having to slow down for the occasional car, which didn’t make sense. The race route had been chosen for light through traffic on a Saturday morning, and automobiles were supposed to be diverted anyway.

When I rolled up to a solitary stoplight hanging over an intersection next to a country store, I knew the jig was up; I was definitely off the course. A standard-issue old cuss sitting in front of the store peered at me through gimlet eyes across the way, trying to make sense of a sweaty bicyclist with a number on his chest rolling into his reality. As there was no explanation I felt like making, I just gave him a silly grin and said nothing as I rolled up to the store and dismounted. I was very glad that my touring-cyclist habit had trumped my race consciousness for the day — meaning that I had brought along my wallet, when most of the other competitors had left their valuables and other superfluous weight in safekeeping at the starting line.

The store was blessedly cool and musty inside, the way a country store should be, and I lingered longer than I needed to make a judicious selection of junk food. Thirty years later, I don’t remember what I grabbed exactly — but I’m sure it was in the general class of an RC Cola and a moon pie, the latter being a confection of marshmallow filling between two graham wafers, all coated with chocolate, that formed a mainstay of my diet as a kid. My mom used to buy them by the dozen in big white boxes that went in the freezer, and often I ate them rock hard even though they were meant to be consumed cool and mushy. It’s a Southern thing. Do they still make Royal Crown cola? I don’t know. One thing’s for sure: if I hadn’t started changing my diet when I became a Californian, I’d probably be dead by now.

I took my feed out to the front of the store and dropped into the other rickety seat near the old guy keeping an eye on the intersection. He looked me over sideways once before making a safe prediction:

“Gawn to be hot as hell today.”

“Yup,” I replied sagely. “Already is.” Then silence reigned. Country-store custom dictates that no one asks too many questions or gives unsolicited answers; your typical store-sitting retiree prefers to speculate silently about any odd things he’s witnessed, then gossip about it later with the regulars. As with modern-day bloggers, too much information gets in the way of a good story. I was definitely in the running to be Topic A for the day.

Given the scintillating repartee I could have stayed and partied a while, but I knew most of the racers would be across the finish line in a half hour or so. If I left soon I could probably see Jack come in, and I was going to have to get back anyway and confess my routing error to the proper authorities. I consoled myself by assuming that others must have made the same mistake, even though no one else had arrived at the country store by the time I left. Nor did I encounter any other wrong-way riders on the way back to the correct course.

Little did I suspect that I would shortly face an ethical dilemma. As luck would have it, I rejoined the race route without being seen; all the starters had passed the first junction by now, and it happened that no one was in sight as I turned back onto the first leg of the course, which also served as the last. In ten minutes or so I was nearing the starting line again, as sweaty and exhausted as if I’d completed the 20-mile course instead of completing only eight or nine plus a snack. My returning pace could best be described as a saunter, which surprisingly caused a stir among the spectators strung along the approach to the finish. I started hearing shouts of “Don’t give up now!” and “Sprint! Sprint!” Someone with a clipboard took note of my number and yelled out, “Go! Go! You’ve got the third best time!”

That’s when I understood: since no one had seen me take a wrong turn or rejoin the course, it appeared that I was completing the full route in excellent time. I considered dismounting right then and there and walking in, but instead I halfheartedly picked up the pace as I considered the moral challenge at hand. If I kept my mouth shut I could claim the third best time over a gaggle of those skinny pros and probably even Jack, as I didn’t see him in the crowd ahead. I’d be a winner in my very first attempt at bicycle racing!

If I’d had time to think it through I would have realized that questions would be asked by racers I would probably have had to pass to get such a time. But I can honestly say that I wasn’t propelled toward coming clean by the prospect of being found out. Rather, it was the realization that if I achieved a come-from-nowhere ranking among professional cyclists, I’d be expected to compete again. And there was no way in hell I was doing that.

So when I rolled across the finish I dismounted and immediately told the timekeeper that I’d wandered off course and replaced the last twelve miles with an RC Cola and a moon pie. There were some sniggers and smart remarks to endure, but considering the condition of the incoming racers who had actually completed the course, I’d gotten off lucky. Everyone looked just terrible, flushed and gasping from what had proved to be more of an endurance test than a time trial. The pros who came in were immediately tended to by their helpers in the shade of their vans, and the other amateurs like myself sat slumped on the ground, mopping their faces with wet rags and listening to warnings from a couple volunteer nurses about not drinking too much water too fast.

When I next looked down the road I saw Jack coming in toward the finish, and he didn’t look good at all. He was trying to sprint, but the extra effort was wasted because he wasn’t traveling in a straight line. His bike was wavering so much that I was worried he would pitch off the road into the ditch, but somehow he kept on coming until I could see his half-lidded, watery eyes narrow at me as he passed by. I don’t know if it was just the awful heat, or the added shock of seeing me on my feet at the finish, since I would definitely have had to pass him to get there. Whatever the cause, Jack rolled across the finish with a delirious groan and promptly keeled over, his long legs entangled with the clattering bike frame by the side of the tarmac.

“Jack!” I yelled as I rushed over and helped a couple other people get him free of the frame. Then we propped him up and someone undid his leather strap helmet, the pointless head protection we wore in those days before the advent of foam shell helmets. One of the nurses, a young buxom Florence Nightingale in short-shorts and a thin t-shirt, sat down behind Jack and gently lowered his head onto her lap, soon commencing to wipe his face with a wet rag and squirting small jets of water into his open mouth from a water bottle.

Soon it was clear that Jack wasn’t out cold, but he wasn’t all there either; he moaned insensibly a few times and his head rolled around a few times before the nurse started cradling him with one hand while clearing his long, sweat-soaked hair from his forehead with the other. She was leaning over him and intoning, “It’s all right now. Let’s just cool off a little. You’ll be fine.” In a few moments Jack’s eyes snapped open wide, locking briefly onto the nurse’s face just above him. With his head nestled between her breasts, he turned slightly to look at me and smiled, weakly yet wickedly, before asking in a stage whisper, “Am I in heaven?”

That’s how Jack found a little bit of paradise in the midst of hell that day. And that’s how I committed to the MO of the touring cyclist, who never pits himself against the clock and considers every country store a worthy waystation on the journey of life.

 


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