Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Great Moments In Fred-dom: Brush-off with Greatness

As a Fred, I've had the opportunity to be dropped by all sorts of cyclists over the years. For you non-cyclist readers (hi Mom!), being "dropped" refers to the experience of being over-taken and then left behind by another cyclist as if you are no more than another cardboard sign shilling zero-down mortgages or a crisp, flattened possum pelt. Typically, the person dropping me is a generic D.U.I-cyclist wearing dirty jeans, smoking a cigarette and riding a 70's ten-speed stuck in too high a gear with the tape-less bars turned skyward. But sometimes I have the opportunity to get dropped by more interesting folk...

In college, one of my favorite kinds of cycling was the long day tour. I would load up a pannier with a tupperware full of macaroni, a sweater, an extra water bottle and a poncho in case of rain and I would pedal my faithful Specialized Expedition slowly around the landscape of Santa Cruz, California for 50 to a 100 miles. I'd creep to the summit of the coast range and wobble back down the hair-pins of Something-Creek Road or I would wend my way along the spectacular Pacific coast-line, along the cliffs and redwoods you see in car ads where a middle-aged guy with all his hair pilots his BMW crisply through a series of deserted s-curves. In reality, this never happens on the Coast Highway. More typically, it is choked with rental RVs, guys from San Jose with gelled hair tailgating in lowered Nissans equipped with $3000 exhaust systems, and white-knuckling triathlete wives of software engineers shuttling their broods to the city in immense Volvos bristling with air-bags and environmental stickers.

On this particular trip, I was riding the 40 or so miles from Pescadero back to Santa Cruz, where I lived. I had ridden up to spend a wholesome weekend at my friend's "family estate" (an old crappy house made out of driftwood by some hippies. Hi Mom!). We harvested apples from the over-grown orchard which we sold in cider form to the passing traffic of irritable, thirsty returning beach goers. It was pretty good money and we could drink Coronas all day and still be more coherent than most of the customers.

Given all those Coronas, I was in surprisingly good form riding home that Sunday. As I spun along one of the vast, sweeping curves that make the Northern California coast so fun to ride and show in car commercials, I saw ahead, against the great grey-green, the colorful form of a small peloton in matching team kit. (A peloton is a tight group of riders who are faster than me. Hi Mom!) At the time, what I knew about bike racing consisted of the following:
  • The handful of articles I had read in grease-smeared issues of VeloNews left on top of the toilet in the bathroom of the bikeshop where I worked.
  • Eddy Merckx!
  • French people do it, except for in the Olympics.
  • Those racer guys never look at me when they pass me.
This group of pro-looking guys was maybe a mile or so ahead of me but, astonishingly, I appeared to be gaining on them. It was pretty flat, and I had a healthy tailwind, so I put the hammer down (shifted into my big chainring. Hi Mom!). I got in the drops and lowered my giant Bell helmet into an aerodynamic tuck as sleek as a couch pillow. Sure enough, in a few minutes I found myself at the back of the pack, trying not to breathe noisily.
"Hey" said the guy whose wheel I was sucking. "How ya?".
"Great... great..." I sputter back. Up until that point my actual contact with road racers had consisted of staring at their shaved legs at the shop when they brought in bikes I was not allowed to work on. So this was a momentous occasion for a Fred. More surprisingly, he kept chatting. "Where ya been?"
"Oh, heh, heh, I'm just coming back from Pescadoro," which at this point was an impressive (Hi Mom!) 30 miles away. "Where'd you guys go?"
He responds with a string of roads that I'm vaguely familiar but, at the moment, am too anearobic to assemble into a route. "Oh," I say, "Cool."
We ride along in silence for a time and my heart-rate settles down along with my flapping form in the draft of my new best friend's wheel.

We ride in silence for another time. I get to feeling pretty good so after the pack bunches up a little at a narrow spot, I stand up on the pedals, call out "have a good ride" a little too loudly, and smartly propel myself past the peloton.
"Ha! My summer of cycling is paying off and I'm getting good," I think to myself as adrenaline fuels my "sprint" long enough to open a gap of several hundred yards. A few seconds later, I sit heavily back on the saddle and start to concentrate on maintaining this amazing, improbable gap. I stare at the fog line and my mind starts to drift as I try to divide my rate of speed into the distance to the shower.

When I near the bottom of a roller (a small hill. You still here, Mom?) my reverie is interrupted by the swick, swick, swick, swick of bike tires being dug into the road by someone riding smartly out of the saddle. In a blur, the whole group, including the chatty guy, drops me as they start the climb. None of them looked at me when they passed.

Standing in the shower that evening, staring at my feet, I realize the route they were just finishing was 120 miles or so with a hearty 8,000' of climbing. The next weekend I recognized several of them as members of the 7-11 team when they set up Eric Heiden for a dead easy win in the Capitola Criterium. The chatty guy was probably Bob Roll.