Friday, August 6, 2010

The Charity Ride: Carnival of the Absurd

Many weeks have passed since my last post, and all I have for an excuse, other than lack of ambition and general laziness, is the fact that Summer is at long last upon us, and thus I have joined the rest of Oregon in spending as much time outside as possible, wriggling about in the sunlight like so many pasty, white grubs exposed by an over-turned log. 

Yes, this is what you might call a "full-release" Summer, where months of dampened enthusiasm is finally freed from its gray prison of road grime spray, 4pm sunsets, and layering decisions. Even by Oregon standards, it was an unusually wet spring. There were reported sightings of moss-covered stones, rolling desperately south as fast as possible. Even the grizzled Oregon roadies who routinely drop me on climbs were scowling more than usual through the mist. Which is why, as delightful as summer riding is, sometimes the best ride of the year comes on the First Real Day of Spring (or FRDS, appropriately).

In the old days, before the liberals created Climate Change, this day would come sometime in March. This year it was late June. But it's always a glorious day. Something comes over the city. Ancient longings stir in the loins of the citizenry... It's Spring! The season of renewal and reproduction is upon us! You can smell it in the sandy smell of drying concrete, feel it in the warm riffle of a breeze over your embarrassingly long and dark leg hair. All of a sudden, in fact, the whole town gets a wild hair. People fly kites, make out in convertibles, pull each other about in wagons in the park or go sailing in bright red skiffs on the Columbia. Freshly-minted hipsters wobble dangerously on multi-colored fixies down to the bar and sit blinking in the sunlight, eating hummus. Everybody smiles and waves. Basically, the whole town turns into an illustration from a Richard Scarry book.

On the First Real Day of Spring I love to go for a long, flat spin through town and out along the river. All the winter slogging pays off, and without a rain-soaked head wind to grit my teeth into, the miles roll by easily. The ride unfolds like one bike-catalog photograph after another, but with fatter people and more sweat. I don't need to resort to all the standard trickery, bribery and cajoling to get myself out on this day, all I need is the prospect of six sunny hours in the saddle without my jersey pockets stuffed like sausages on the plates of cartoon germans, and the promise of a burger grilled outside at day's end.

But, of course, the FRDS isn't much fun if you have 20 extra pounds of winter weight to carry along and the uneasy truce you had with your saddle last summer has fallen apart like a Gaza Strip peace agreement. So that's why, when spring is undeniably impending, but the days are still cold and gray, I need an extra something to get me out of the house and in the saddle. I have to resort to: The Charity Ride.

The Charity Ride gives me a goal, something to train for, at least in part because it offers so many opportunities for humiliation. For example:
  • At some point in every Charity Ride, I am dropped by a middle-aged woman in a day-glo vest who is riding a purple hybrid with slicks and has googly eyes on springs attached to her helmet. She will cheerily wave hello, which burns like acid.
  • I will marvel, first, that someone is actually riding a giant unicycle the whole way. Then I will marvel that they will probably finish before me.
  • I will discover, again, that the guys who wear matching team kit with local sponsors on them are always much faster than me. However, the guys who wear matching kit of the major pro teams are all dentists.
  • I must confront the reality that I will never put together a shorts and socks riding ensemble as stunning as this:
  • And, maybe worst of all, I'm forced to look at this guy while waiting in the endless porta-potty line:

Why he needs a full carbon TT bike with approximately 25 water bottles attached to it to ride a fully supported charity century benefiting lung cancer is beyond me. Perhaps when he starts up the jet-pack attached to his aero seat tube, he needs to be water-cooled. As you can see, he's obviously expecting to encounter considerable friction:

Hideous over-applications of chammy cream notwithstanding, I have to admit I sort of like the circus aspect of The Charity Ride.  I'm always in awe of how all sorts of people can ride all sorts of unlikely and terrible bicycles long distances. I like to see the ecstatic faces of people completing their first centuries, people who have put themselves through an ordeal unlike anything they've experienced before. Suffering is a great leveler, it reminds us we're all human and all the same (except for Cervelo riders, of course).

In many ways, The Charity Ride reminds me of working in bike shops when I was younger and broker. I worked mainly in small town shops, and it was a great way to get to know the local population. In a small town, everyone comes in at some point or another.

Some of my favorites from over the years include:

SeƱor Lunchy: this 832 year-old Mexican gentlemen would always come in around lunch time and greet me with "Hey, amigo, que pasa? Good lunchy?" This was his way of letting me know that his hideous Wal-Mart mountain bike had, yet again, failed in some way he could not repair with duct tape and bits of wire. After I put down my sandwich and completed the repair, typically using the bike shop equivalent of duct tape and bits of wire (i.e., zip-ties),  I would always tell him, "Okay, Amigo, quatro dollars." (our posted minimum labor charge). This was, apparently, my way of letting him know how much I appreciated him. He would beam broadly and deposit some change and pocket lint on the counter, laughing infectiously the whole time.
He put so many miles on that Magna he wore his tires down to the threads and patched them with, of course, duct tape.

Mr. Moots: this 832 pound homeless guy inexplicably rode what was once a very nice Moots touring bike. I don't think it was stolen, it was too intact and it fit him too well. It was laden with all the usual homeless person accessories: milk-crate rack, tied-on plastic bags of foul clothing and cans, old phone books, and an eye-watering odor that combined decades of human sweat with moldy Bud Light cans. He never helped me lift this 100lb. monster of a rig into the repair stand. On a few occasions, the bike needed major surgery and I would ask him to leave it for a while. This made him nervous and angry (well, more so than usual). If I was lucky, when he returned to find his headset rebuilt, he would pass a damp $1 across the counter like a challenge and glare at me.
Despite the fact that he looked like a homeless, pissed-off Santa, Mr. Moots rode through the high desert to his "home" in the reeds of the Owen's River twelve or so miles away every day. He would make this 25 mile round trip in 110 degree heat and through snowstorms, stubbornly pedaling his 100lb., titanium bicycle along the breakdown lane of Highway 395.

Ralph: When I knew him, Ralph was a frail, weathered, patchily-bearded man in his 80's. He could handily drop me on any of the major climbs in Bishop. And in Bishop, mind you, the climbs rise 6,000 feet in a dozen or so miles, and top out as high as 10,000'. There I would be, sweating, grunting and grinding away, sunscreen burning in my eyes, when I would hear a familiar swik-swik of bike tires, and Ralph would steam by, paying no more attention to me than you would a dried chipmunk carcass. I would watch his skeletal ass get smaller and smaller before vanishing in the haze above. And I would curse him, deeply and roundly, in my mind.

Ralph had raced in the Olympics, I think back in the Fifties. He still rode several hundred miles a week, despite having been hit and hospitalized several times and contracting, and subsequently treating, a seemingly endless parade of cancers. I think the chemo made him stronger. He was salty and surly, and hung around the shop way too much. He was also very generous and would drop off boxes of cool old books and jerseys, I think in part to make up for the fact he was also a compulsive shop-lifter. (See below for an update on Ralph.)

Despite characters like these, after a while, customer after customer, you start to recognize a life-story by a customer's bike and kit, and you can add up those stories to see how they make up the social strata of a town. I suppose it's a kind of reverse "market research", that I can tell from the upright bars and comfort saddle that this Trek Navigator belongs to a recently retired pediatric nurse who took a spin class to lose weight and now wants to give Reach the Beach a shot. I can admire her pluck, and probably sell her a pair of SPD touring shoes.

The bikes and riders on a Charity Ride provide the same window into the lives that make up a community. And, not to get all mushy, but like working in a shop, the Charity Ride provides inspiration by showing me that all kinds of people can find the wherewithal to ride all kinds of bikes over long distances. If Mr. Moots and the purple hybrid lady can get out and put on some hard miles, so can I. And, of course, the Charity Ride lets me provide the kindest charity of all: someone for all the good riders to point at and say, "I could be faster, but at least I'm not that guy."

Now I've got to get back outside. It will be raining again soon.

UPDATE: My friend Tony sent me a photo of Ralph riding in Italy, in the fifties. That's him in the shades: