On a Monday in early March 1996, I left Linda in her bed in Albuquerque to make the long drive to Redlands, California. I had pushed off the departure again and again. Another cup of coffee. Another 15 minutes. Back to bed for a little longer. I was hesitant to get on the road. I wasn’t sure when I would make it back to Albuquerque. But I had a long drive ahead of me that needed starting.
Every time I went on the road, I missed her. I missed her obscure Indie rock bands. I missed her ironic Salvation Army dresses. I even missed how she mocked me for spending so much time on my bike. She missed me, too. At least she said she missed me. She was becoming a distraction from the racing. Yet after every trip, when I found myself back in New Mexico and with her again, it all made sense.
Eventually, I got my stuff together, loaded up my VW, and got on the road. I drove out I-40, through the canyons and red rock formations, past Grants and Gallup, into Arizona and across the Painted Desert. At Holbrook, I turned south, onto state highways. It was a shortcut. Off the beaten path. Dry Lake. Heber-Overgaard. Payson. Run down truck stops with names like ‘Gas n’Go’ and stores selling “authentic’ Kachina dolls. I drove through the rugged terrain and pine forests of the high desert. Then the long, slow, twisting descents, the earth dropping away at the edge of the road to the valley far below. Past the rocky outcrops bristling with saguaro, to the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix. From Phoenix, there was the endless stretch of Sonoran desert, hours upon hours of featureless brown, past promising signs for Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree. The desert eventually gave way to the Coachella Canal, a manmade river flowing absurdly through the barren dryness, then the first signs of civilization in Indio and Palm Springs, and finally the orchards and orange groves of Redlands.
It was my first time in California. Everything was incredibly lush and green, especially after New Mexico and the drive across the desert. I was there for the Redlands Cycling Classic, a 5-stage race and the first race in the Fresca Cup. And I was a day earlier than expected.
I sat in the driveway of the host family’s house, waiting for the mom to show up and let a strange cyclist into her house. Then I went out on the bike to spin the long drive out from my legs and to scout the big summit finish of the race. From the high point in Redlands, I could see the haze of smog obscuring Los Angeles.
The next day, the rest of my team showed up. We were spread around a number of host houses. I was rooming with my teammate, Andrew. Our host family was a single mom, Joanne, who taught dance at the local university and pilates on the side. She had a 9 year-old boy and thought hosting cyclists every year for the race would be a good influence for him. We probably made her change her mind. We were eating everything we could get our hands on. She knew better and banished us to Trader Joe’s. I had never heard of Trader Joe’s before.
Joanne fawned over me and peppered me with all sorts of questions about the sport and my life on the road and essentially ignored Andrew. This caused Andrew to complain, “What about me? I’m interesting, too.”
I was reading The Fall and she teased me that I was too young to be depressed enough for Camus. Joanne had a “Reformer” machine in the spare bedroom and she showed me how to use it to stretch out my tight hip flexors. Andrew and I shared the bunk-beds in the boy’s bedroom. At night, I listened to Pavement and thought about Linda in Albuquerque before I fell asleep. It didn’t take long to fall asleep.
Stage 1 was a 5 km prologue, out and back. Climb a steep hill to the top, turn around and come rocketing back down. I finished a dismal 75th. Time trials were not my strong suit, especially one that finished downhill.
Stage 2, a 165km stage with the summit finish on top of Oak Hill, went much better. We rolled out of town flanked by the California Highway Patrol on motorcycles. I had a flashback to watching “CHiPs” when I was a kid and laughed as I raced alongside them, the rumble of their motors competing with the buzz and whir of chains and freewheels.
My legs felt like crap for the first two hours. Then I started to feel better. I hit the foot of the 15km climb positioned poorly but made up a lot ground. I was passing one rider after another, pulling back pros from big teams like Postal Service and L.A. Sherrifs . But I was fighting a tight back from too much time in the car and had to ease up near the top. I finished 27th on the stage and dug myself out from the prologue. I felt like I could have gone much harder. If it hadn’t been for my back.
Day 3 was rough. I struggled through the morning’s stage: a hilly 80km circuit race. My legs were still cooked from the day before. We were nervous and fighting for position for the hill while 150 riders jockeyed through residential neighborhoods. Gaps were opening up and I put in substantial efforts lap after lap just to finish with the field and not lose any time. That evening, we raced a 60km criterium in downtown Redlands. I was tired and hungry; my tank was empty. The course was fast and technical. Joanne was making us dinner that night and I could only focus on the food. She was there waiting for us at the finish line, after the race. And we were recounting the race, swearing up a storm, in front of her and her boy. She wasn’t too happy about that.
On the final day, I had a good warm up on the trainer before the start. The race, 128 km, went from the gun, up a steep ascent to the hilly circuit that we would race for 15 laps, then back down to finish on the criterium course. On the circuit, it all started finally to click. I was riding at the front, and covering breaks and being on the good side of the splits. Riders were dropping out and huge gaps were opening up.
The descent back into town was treacherous. We hit speeds over 90 km an hour. Carrying all that speed, I overshot the turn and was heading straight for the concrete median. I didn’t panic. I didn’t crash. I locked up the brakes on my rear wheel and let it slide out, just enough to put me onto a good line. The bike had become an extension of me. I still can’t explain it. Shortly thereafter, Postal Service rider Mike Engleman came along side me, clapped me on the shoulder, and complimented me on the maneuver — and thanked me for not crashing in front of him. I finished the day in the front group, among only 30 or 40 riders to make it onto the final circuit. At Redlands, I finished 30th overall, one of the top amateurs.
Andrew and I packed up immediately after the race. We didn’t shower but got into the car and started the seven hour drive north to Palo Alto. We had decided to split the drive. I took the first 3-hour shift while Andrew slept. We switched off, but Andrew started to get drowsy after 45 minutes, so I was back at the wheel. The year before, Andrew had dozed off while driving cross-country. He woke up in a cornfield, fortunately unhurt. His inability to drive while others slept would become a recurring issue throughout the season.
We crossed the San Raphael Bridge in the middle of the night and glided into Palo Alto, coming to rest at Stanford, where Andrew was in school. He had forgotten his keys and we had to break into his apartment at 2 a.m., scaring the hell out of his roommate, John.
Andrew and John kept a bathroom scale in their kitchen and would weigh themselves several times during the day, including before and after meals or bathroom breaks. They both hated me because I had trouble keeping weight on while they had to watch every morsel. We had been given a dozen boxes of Mrs. T’s Perogi’s from the Redland’s race and we ate those lunch and dinner until they were gone. I trained with Andrew. We did the noon ride, which was more like I race. I teased John, who put on more weight the more he exercised. He was a good guy, slightly neurotic and self-deprecating and quite funny. He would tragically die in a freak car accident a few years later.
Andrew and John had exams, so I went up to San Francisco to crash at Shaw’s place in the Haight. Shaw was a sketchy bike racer who had suddenly appeared on the New York racing scene out of nowhere, fully decked out in his fuscia-and-azure Italian team kit with stories of racing the Baby Giro. Now he was living one block away from Haight-Ashbury. A skinny bike racer, I was out of place among the neo-hippies and druggies.
I was sleeping on Shaw’s floor and putting in hard rides, trying to carry the momentum from Redlands. We rode through the cold and fog, out over the Golden Gate Bridge, north to Fairfax, out Sir Francis Drake, to Highway One and up and over Mt. Tamalpais. The view from the top of Mt. Tam was spectacular, gazing across the Bay Area, shrouded in the marine layer.
I oiled up my legs and did interval workouts on the Paradise Loop to Tiburon and back over Corte Madeira. I endured the foul weather and felt stronger for it, recalling previous years in France. I did easy coffee shop rides to South Park and Mill Valley. I was feeling tired but trying to train through it. I couldn’t get my heart rate up for the intervals but I ignored the warning signs and kept pushing harder. I was starting to miss the dry altitude of New Mexico.
Then I was in the car again with Andrew for several more hours down I-5 to the Maclane-Pacific Foothills road race. My stomach hurt the entire drive down. I tried to sleep it off in the car. I tried to drink coffee to move things along. In the almond orchards outside of Snelling the trees bloomed with their pink and white blossoms. The air was filled with their perfume and bees. Despite clearing myself out among the trees, I still felt awful. I even considered not starting the 200km race but feared the boredom of just watching it.
The course was a flat 20km rectangle, to be raced 10 times. After thirty minutes, I had to piss from all the coffee. I tried to go off the bike, but the plumbing wasn’t cooperating. I pulled off to the side of the road to finish the job. As I started chasing back, the pace at the front of the race surged. I chased for the next 25km, stuck in the caravan, pounding my handlebars in frustration. I couldn’t believe I was going to get dropped so early for taking a leak. Eventually, a truce was called at the front, the peloton slowed down and I managed to catch back on. I was exhausted from the prolonged chase. And I was pretty sure that was it for me.
But as the race wore on, I started to recover. I was getting stronger as the miles piled up. The pace was picking up again, along with the wind. Each time we hit the crosswinds, the peloton strung out in a long, lonely line. Gaps were opening up. Echelons were forming. Guys were coming unglued. The last 50km were brutal. I made all the selections. The race shattered behind me. I approached the finish line with the lead group of just 18 riders. I sprinted to 13th place, amazed to have anything at all left in my legs…
But I was relegated to the back of the bunch because a race official claimed I had been drafting off the team cars during my chase back. Ridiculous. I lost a lot of valuable points as the top amateur finisher. We covered the 200km in 4 hours and 15 minutes. Of the 157 riders who started, 74 finished. I was feeling tired. But I was starting to feel confident, too.
I headed back to San Francisco. I took a few days really easy for recovery. I visited some friends from college. I visited cousins in Sacramento. I hung out in coffee shops. I messed around with my position on the bike. I ate lots of rice and beans, and burritos so big they stretched out my jersey pockets. I got the call to race the Tour of Uruguay but turned it down for the Fresca Cup races.
I met a girl named Julie. She was a friend of Shaw’s, an ex-volleyball player and at least six inches taller than me. I cooked dinner for her. She said she felt bad that I had to sleep on the floor. She invited me to stay at her place a few blocks away, “Wouldn’t you much rather sleep in a bed?” I quickly realized that when a girl invites you to sleep over, she might have certain expectations. I was becoming unstuck in space, a sudden relationship; promise and potential, the chance to feel anchored for a few days or weeks. It wasn’t without complications because there was still Albuquerque.
Another weekend, more Fresca Cup races. Down to Exeter for the Sequoia Classic, 156km. Each lap, there was a long brutal climb out of the orchards and into rocky, idyllic pastures. Guys were crashing on cattle guards and overshooting the road on the snaking descent. The finish stretch was on pavement that had just been scored for repaving. We raced over it at 50 km an hour and the vibrations went through the bike and handlebars and saddle, into my hands, arms and ass. It got so bad I thought I was going to shit myself.
I was climbing at the front of the group until I cracked on the penultimate time up Rocky Hill Drive. I had screwed up my bike fit and blown out my quads, a stupid mistake of a few millimeters. I rode the rest of the race alone just for the miles. Just to be on record that I finished it.
The next day, recovered and readjusted, I raced the Visalia Criterium. It was a Mountain Dew-fueled trip through twisting city streets with 125 cyclists hungering for a result. I had the speed in my legs to ride at the front and the nerves to jockey for position and hold my own through high-speed turns, while the pack surged and ebbed around me. I sprinted to 22nd place, just outside of the money.
Then, I was back in San Francisco again. I was starting to feel like I had been there forever. Starting to feel like I could stay a while longer. It was nice to be in a real bed. Julie would leave for work early in the morning and let me sleep-in. I would take my time waking up, enjoying the softness of the mattress, the extra room to stretch my legs, her scent that lingered on the pillows.
I did a lot of sleeping there.
And just sleeping.
Then I headed out for training rides.
I saw lots of other racers while out on the roads. We were all part of the crew following the races around the country. No matter where I went, I knew people and could find training partners. I put in an incredible week of training on roads that were becoming more and more familiar. My heart rate was back to its normal high-end. I was doing double workouts, eating well, taking afternoon naps, stretching. Recovering. Getting stronger. Years later, I would move to San Francisco and ride many of these same routes and remember the training and what it felt like to be fit.
Santa Rosa was the last weekend of the California Cup. It was sunny and warm. I raced the 160km Wine Country Road Race along roads that twisted and pitched through the vineyards. I dodged bots-dots while dropping like a falcon down scary fast descents. I rode aggressively. I attacked with conviction. But I couldn’t get clear for very long. A glance over my shoulder revealed the pack in single-file, lead by one of the pro teams, relentlessly pulling me back. I tried several times, without success. In the end, I got swarmed in the sprint and finished a disappointing 25th. I had the legs that day. I really should have gone better.
That night I slept on the floor of a hotel room packed with 6 other riders and teammates. By this point, I was so used to being on the road and sleeping in strange places, it made no difference. I raced the Santa Rosa criterium the next day. Another rider stuck his pedal into my front wheel and tore out half the spokes. I managed not to crash but the wheel was destroyed. I got a replacement but by then my nerves were raw and I sat out the sprint.
At the end of the California campaign, I was ranked 15th in the Fresca Cup. I was off to a good start, coming on form, with several more cup races and the Olympic Trials still to come.
From Santa Rosa, I drove back to San Francisco. One last night in S.F. with Julie. I left her with vague plans for a reunion. It would be two years before I saw her again. I packed up my car early the next morning and headed south. I drove alone down the peninsula. I drove through the filmy fog and rain. My windshield wipers were failing. In Gilroy, where the odor of garlic hung thick and pungent in the air, I used zip ties from my toolbox to hold them together.
I was listening to Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. “Unfair” played like a travelogue of my spring campaign in California. “From Santa Rosa and over the Bay, across the Grapevine to L.A. We’ve got deserts, we’ve got trees. We’ve got the hills of Beverly…Manmade deltas and concrete rivers, the south takes what the north delivers…I’m not your neighbor, you Bakersfield trash.”
I drove Highway 99 down the San Joaquin Valley, through the pouring rain, past Merced, Fresno and Visalia, past all the places I had raced, all the way down to Bakersfield. There, I turned east, away from the valley and climbed into the mountains and the Mojave and the sun. Seventeen hours from San Francisco, across the desert, back to Albuquerque. When I got in, Linda was waiting for me, asleep on the couch.