1996: “Loser”, Mad River & Binghampton

 1996 was my make or break year in cycling.  I was single for the first time in a long time.  I had worked the fall and winter and saved up some cash.  I had given up on spring racing campaigns in Europe and decided focus on the “Fresca Cup” which was a national race series for riders without pro contracts.  My strategy was to race as many of these races as I could, place well in them, and finish somewhere in the top 10 overall.  It was an ambitious goal and one that I thought would help me to secure a pro contract.

On a Friday afternoon in early August, I drive out to Andrew’s in Greenwich to meet up with him before we head to the races for the weekend.  Mad River Glen Road Race on Saturday in Vermont.  Chris Thater Memorial on Sunday in Binghampton, New York.

We’ve raced together nearly every weekend since March.  We’ve spent hours in the car together this year.  We’ve roomed together.  We’ve shared the same bed when we were crammed 3 or 4 racers to a room.

When we weren’t racing, we were training together.  Hanging out watching TV together.  Eating meals together.  I’ve spent more time with Andrew than with any of my girlfriends up to this point.  At times, we’re like an old married couple.  We can start and finish each other’s sentences and sometimes we start to wear on each other.

Before getting into the car, we do an easy spin along the shore, past the town beaches and tidal inlets.

“I’m still having trouble breathing,” I tell him.  “Ever since I came back from Superweek.  That ever happen to you?”

“What do you mean? Like when you ride hard?” he asks.

“Yeah, but it’s all the time, really.  It’s like I can’t get that satisfying lungful of air,” I explain.

“Maybe it’s allergies.  Have you taken anything?” he suggests.

“Nothing seems to work.”

“That sucks.”

We ride some more.

“The other day my mom asked me if I’d ever done drugs,” Andrew tells me.

“What did you tell her?” I crack a smile.

“I said ‘Of course not.  I don’t do drugs.’  Then she said, ‘Well, maybe you should try them.  Experiment while you’re young.’”

I’m laughing so hard I almost go off the road.

“It’s a good idea, “ I tell him.  “You should experiment.  Sex. Drugs. Rock n’ Roll.”

“Umm, do you ever get any problems…down there?” he asks, changing the subject.

“What kind of problems?” I’m smiling again.

“Oh, you know… It’s been burning when I pee,” he explains.

“That sucks,” I laugh. “It’s an ‘occupational hazard.’  Think about it… you’re in the saddle all day. You’re dehydrated.  You’re crimping and squishing your plumbing.  You’ve probably irritated something. It happened to me a few years ago in college.  I had all sorts of tests. Nothing. They thought I had some crazy disease.  I had started using a new saddle and it must have tweaked something. But you should get it checked out.  You might have your testicles all twisted up.”

“Should I tell my mom?”

“Are you kidding me?  She’s gonna think you have the clap or something,” I caution him. “At least, that’s what my mom would think.”

“I dunno.”

“Of course…you’d have to have been with a woman for that to happen.”

Andrew had been relationship-free for the three years I had known him.  I had started to joke that he was afraid of girls.  Afraid of their germs.  All season long, women had been approaching him – most recently, Toni, in Milwaukee – and he could care less.  I am starting to get irritated that he can be so detached from it and so focused on the racing.  And I can’t.

Back at Andrew’s house, we shower and pack the car, then start the long drive north to Vermont.  Andrew takes the first shift.  We hit traffic on I-95.  Friday afternoon in the summer.  Families heading to the beach.  Couples running off for romantic weekends.  I’m wondering why we decided to leave so late when we had all day to kill.  I am tired, really sleepy, and appreciate that Andrew is driving.  I doze off.  I can feel the traffic ease up and the hum of the tires increase as we pick up speed.

Then, as I’m floating somewhere between asleep and awake, I feel the car pulling off the highway.  What the hell? I’m wondering.  Maybe Andrew has to hit the bathroom?

The car comes to a stop.  Andrew’s seat belt unclicks.  Then, he reclines his seat.  Within seconds, Andrew is breathing with a slow, nasal rhythm.  He is sleeping.  First the late departure, now he’s sleeping…

“What the hell are you doing?” I grumble without opening my eyes.

“Oh,” he says. “I forgot to tell you.  If somebody is asleep in the car when I’m driving I have to sleep, too.  Only for 20 minutes or so.  Then I’ll be okay.”

I remember coming back from Redlands in the spring and how he slept most of the way and I had to drive.  Now we’re facing a 4-hour ride – longer with the traffic — all the way to Burlington because that is where Andrew has booked us a room at the Super8.

Burlington is at least an hour beyond the race start in Waitsville and it means that we will have to wake up extra early to get to the start on time.  Plus, Andrew has “secured” the reservation with a credit card so we have to show up, otherwise we will still be charged for the room.

“Jesus Christ,” I complain.  “We have a long drive ahead of us.  Why didn’t you just tell me?  I could have taken the first shift.”

So I drive instead.  Andrew sleeps for two hours. I glance at him from time to time with envy while I thread our way through New Haven and Hartford, where I stop to get a coffee. The little things are starting to wear on me:  my breathing problems, the late departure, Andrew falling asleep in the car, the hotel reservation…

Andrew wakes up just before we reach Putney, Vermont.  We stop at Curtis’ BBQ, off exit 4 on I-91.  Curtis’ is the self-proclaimed 8Th wonder of the world.  They serve Southern-style barbecue out of two old school buses on the side of the road.  We usually hit this spot coming or going to races up north.  The barbecue is good and the portions are large.

We sit at the rough picnic tables.  We split a chicken and ribs, with baked potatoes, corn and beans.  Andrew is eating a lot since it is a race weekend.  During the week, he’s been fasting, trying to train his body to use as little fuel as possible, and to fool it into dropping weight.  He normally weighs north of 160 lbs but he’s been down at 145 following this program, and riding stronger because of it.

The week before, I watched him eat five pieces of chicken, three baked potatoes and an entire bowl of salad in one sitting. It was like he ate two additional meals after we had finished the first.  I wondered where he was putting it all.  When I asked him how he could eat so much, he said, “I have no sense of feeling full.”  Back in the spring he was eating a gallon of yogurt a week and subsequently made himself lactose intolerant.  After eating the super-sized meal, Andrew would eat next to nothing on the following days.

“Dude, do you think you might have an eating disorder,” I asked him.

“Maybe.”

Andrew drives, all the way up to White River Junction, crosses over to I-89, and drives us through the Green Mountains, along the highway that climbs and dives, through the vast darkness.  There are no streetlights.  Very little traffic to describe the road ahead.  It’s late when we roll into Burlington.  We get to our room.  The bathroom is old and mildew stained.  I’m afraid to touch anything.  I climb into bed and sleep like a log.

We get up early.  It’s still dark out.  I grab a sorry cup of coffee at the front desk.  We don’t have time for a proper breakfast so we eat PowerBars and bananas in the car.  Along the way we pass numerous bed-and-breakfast’s tucked into cozy forest groves. Each one irritates me a little more when I consider the extra hour of driving each way… and the breakfast, too.

“Look, we could have stayed at a nice romantic inn,” I chide Andrew.

The list gets a little longer:  my breathing problems, the late departure, Andrew falling asleep in the car, the hotel reservation, the gross bathroom, no breakfast…

We stop at Grampy’s country store because Andrew can’t hold it until we get to the race venue.  I expect he will be awhile so I start swapping out my gears for the day’s race.   One less thing to do when we get there.  There are two major passes on the route — Middlebury Gap and Appalachian Gap — plus a number of smaller, steep hills.  I’m not taking any chances and I put on the 25-tooth cog.

In the middle of assembling the cassette, Andrew comes rushing out.

“We have to go,” he exhales.  “Now!”

I look up slowly from the work on my bike, “What’s going on?”

“I was taking a grumpy…and I clogged the toilet.  Now it’s overflowing,” he quickly explains.  “We have to go.”

“Don’t you want to say something to the clerk?” I ask, taking my time to make sure the lockring is good and tight. “Maybe let him know you had a problem with a grumpy at Grampy’s?”

“No.”  He’s not laughing.

He jumps in the car and starts the engine.  I slowly pack my race wheel in the trunk.  I collect all my tools.  He revs the engine.  I clean my hands.  I check the area to make sure I haven’t left anything behind.  I take a look back at the store, wondering if the clerk has discovered the mess Andrew has left for him.  Eventually, I slowly and gingerly climb into the passenger’s seat.  Andrew speeds off to the race.

In Waitsfield, we line up for the 100km race.  From the start, we fly down route 100 to route 125.  The race is on before we’re ready for it.  A break goes clear.  Then it’s gone.  We can’t let the race go up the road like that.  I find Andrew and we conclude it’s my job to bridge up to it.  I attack and get clear.  I join to two other riders, work with them for a while, then discard them and solo the rest of the way to the lead group.  I’m surprised by how easy it is to cross the gap.  No huge efforts, never in trouble, never in the red zone.  My breathing even feels good.

We climb up and over Middlebury Gap.  It’s a tough climb but I am never out of my comfort zone.  The descent is crazy fast and I go all out, taking the sweeping turns by instinct.  I spin out my 53 x 12.  I’m off the front by the bottom of the hill.  But there is still a long way to go before the final climb to the finish.  So I ease up and the lead group comes back together.

I’m feeling good at the bottom of Appalachian Gap.  Andrew bridges up with a small group, bringing the front of the race to 15 riders.  I’m relieved to see him.  It means we’ll be able to work together on the final climb.  I  ride along side Andrew and we talk strategy.  We’ll take turns attacking and covering.  Make sure one of us stays with the head of the race.

On the lower slopes of the climb, attacks come and go.  There are some strong riders here from Quebec.  We don’t know them so it’s hard to tell if they’re for real or if they’re just going to blow up after a few hundred meters.  I attack twice, getting caught each time.  Andrew counters my second move and goes clear with four riders.  His group sticks and I watch them slip away.  The remaining riders look at me.  I look back at them and shake my head.  They attack and leave me.  I’ve spent everything.  It is a death march the last 5km to the top of the Gap. I am wondering if it will ever end.  I finish 11th, one place out of the money.

Andrew places in the top three, which means we’ve won some money, but that we’ll have to wait for the payout.  So we wait.  And wait.  Hours.  The race officials can’t get their shit together for the results.  This is ridiculous for a race that finishes on a climb – it should have been a simple matter to place riders finishing one or two at a time.

We load the bikes onto the car.  We wait some more.  There are other racers waiting and I’m giving Matt, a young rider on the Merlin-SRP team, a hard time about his cute girlfriend.  I ask him all sorts of crude questions about his sex life – or lack thereof.  Matt isn’t sure what to say in response.

Andrew, listening in, frowns, “Just tell him you’re joking already.”

I walk away.  He follows me.

“You never let them off the hook when you joke like that,” Andrew says.  “When I do stuff like that, I always say ‘I’m just kidding.’  But you never do.”

I’m hungry and there’s still no sign of the results. I tuck into a post-race staple:  granola, rolled oats and rice milk, stored in a large blue cooler in the back seat.  I would prefer regular milk, but Andrew will only travel with rice milk because of the lactose intolerance.  Andrew follows suit, filling a large, stainless steel mixing bowl to the top and starts eating.

He’s sitting on the hood of the car and some of the other riders look on.

“Is he going to eat all of that?” one of them asks me.

We watch Andrew.  Spoonful after spoonful.  Chewing resolutely.  And waiting.  We still have a 5 hour drive to Binghampton

“Let’s just leave,” I suggest.  “They’ll send us the money.”

Andrew keeps chewing.  He’s in no rush.

More items for the list:  my breathing problems, the late departure, Andrew falling asleep in the car, the hotel reservation, the nasty bathroom, no breakfast, the clogged toilet, the waiting, the lactose intolerance, the chewing…

Eventually, we get the payout:  175 dollars that we’ll split with each other.  It is mid-afternoon when we get on the road.  There’s no easy way to from here to there.  We’re navigating the back routes and state highways with a road atlas.  The traffic starts to increase as we approach the toll bridge to Ticonderoga, New York.

Andrew is driving along the back roads but he’s set the car to cruise control and he’s using just the steering wheel controls to adjust his speed.

“What the hell are you doing?” I ask him.

“I’m saving my legs for tomorrow,” Andrew explains.  “This way, I can keep them relaxed.”

At first, I think he’s joking but he keeps driving like this.  It becomes a sort of contest, how far he can go without touching the gas or the brakes.

“You’re going to have brake now,” I tell him as a dump truck pulls out in front us.

He just shakes his head and holds down a button on the steering wheel and the car slows to a crawl.

Then he unbuckles his lap belt.

“What now?”

“I have to pee.”

“Why are you taking off your seat belt?”

“In case we get hit.  I don’t want to rupture my bladder.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Andrew explains.  “If we get into an accident, the pressure from the seatbelt on my full bladder might cause it to burst.”

“Maybe if you drove normally we wouldn’t get into an accident?”

Finally, we make a pit stop.  We switch drivers.  Now I’m using Andrew’s cruise control technique.

“Actually, this isn’t bad,” I admit.

“I told you.”

We’re on the long road to Binghampton.  Andrew has his feet up on the dashboard, jiggling his calves.

Things are gonna change. I can feel it,” he says.

“Why we can’t have a normal conversation,” I ask him. “Can’t we talk about something interesting?”

He looks at me, his face devoid of expression, and repeats, “Things are gonna change. I can feel it.”  He tries to say it like the guy in the Beck song “Loser”.

And like that Beck song, I feel like we’re a couple of losers, on the road again, going from town to town, part of the bike racer circus.

It’s been hours – days — that we’ve been in the car together, accumulating a string of petty annoyances:  my breathing problems, the late departure, Andrew falling asleep in the car, the hotel reservation, nasty bathroom, no breakfast, the clogged toilet, the waiting, the chewing, the lactose intolerance, the long drive, the cruise control, the full-bladder seat-belt thing, the ‘things are gonna change, I can feel it’…

On I-88, somewhere around Oneonta, we argue about where to get lunch.  I want a quick stop, then get back in the car and on the road right away.  Andrew insists on stopping.  Taking our time.  We settle on the Athena Diner.  Because Andrew believes he can get a big salad there.

The waitress comes and takes our order.

I get my typical post-race indulgence:  cheeseburger, milk shake, fries, side salad.  Mostly fat and starch.  Andrew orders “a big salad, what’s the biggest one you have?” and bread.

I watch the waitress as she walks away after taking our order.  She is cute, with tan legs peaking out from beneath the hem of her uniform.  She looks familiar because I’ve seen waitresses like her all over the country, from the Golden Corral in Tulare to the Waffle House in Charlotte.  All looking cute and hinting at a potential relationship that will never materialize.

Andrew starts wiping down his fork and knife with his napkin.

“What are you doing that for?” I sigh.

“They’re dirty,” he grumbles.

“If they’re dirty ask for clean ones.”

“Germs are everywhere,” he counters.

“What makes you think the napkin is any cleaner?”

He pauses a moment, seems to realize how ridiculous it is, then mutters, “Shut up.”

We eat.

I’m starving.  I devour my food and shortly I’m sitting before an empty plate.

Andrew continues long after I’m done, slowly chewing his way through the salad.

“Is salad enough after that race?” I ask him.

He looks at me, with his mouth full of salad, chewing slowly. Taking his time.

“I like salad because I can eat as much of it as I want,” he mumbles.  “Maybe you should get some more food.”

I had opted for concentrated calories and fat and basically inhaled it.  Andrew is going for endurance, slow and steady.

Ugh.  My breathing problems. The late departure. Andrew falling asleep in the car. The hotel reservation.  No breakfast.  Nasty Super8 bathroom.  The clogged toilet.  The waiting. The chewing.  The lactose intolerance. The long drive.  The cruise control.  The full-bladder seat-belt thing.  The ‘things are gonna change, I can feel it.’  The germaphobia. The big salad.  The chewing.  The waiting…

Back in the car – finally – I start to tell Andrew about my plans for next season.

“I just need a contract and some structure.  I can’t do another season scraping by like this.  Even something on a small team would do as a building block.”  I’m trying to get his reaction, trying to get his advice.

As a junior, Andrew was a national champion and raced with Team USA in big races all around the world.  He had the rare honor of having Phil Liggett announce his name as he went on the attack at the Tour of Hawaii.  His skill and experience dwarves mine.  I can always tell that I’m having a good race if I’m racing alongside him.

I’m looking for him to offer me some hope for the future season.  A contact.  Some encouragement.  Reassurance that there’s reason for another season and a step up for me.

I’m afraid he’s going to tell me there’s no point.  If he hasn’t been able to break through with his pedigree, what chance is there for me?

But all he says is, “Things are gonna change. I can feel it.”

In Binghampton, we attend a welcoming party the night before the race.  We drink a beer and try to talk to girls.  But the women there are mostly girlfriends of racers and are decidedly not interested in talking to us.

“Why don’t you go talk to her,” I point out one of the women in the room.

“She’s the bartender,” he declines.

“What about her?” I persist.

“Not my type.”

“I’m going to talk to this one,” I gesture to a brunette across the room. “I’m going to tell her you want to buy her a drink.”

“Don’t.”

So we end up talking to each other until we retire to our hotel room.

We do an easy spin the next morning.  The race isn’t until the afternoon.  I buy allergy medication at the pharmacy and load up on antihistamines and pseudoephedrine. I hope that I didn’t take too much and that there’s no drug testing at the race.

“How are your lungs?” he asks.

“We’ll see,” I tell him.  “How about your balls?”

“Ugh.”

The Chris Thater Memorial is a big money criterium.  All the pro teams show up in force. It’s just the two of us, Andrew and me, and there is little we’ll be able to do in terms of tactics.  We agree to split prize money evenly, instead of the usual half in-half out.  We decide to freelance and try to take advantage of the efforts of other teams. We talk about one of us leading the other out in the sprint.  But neither of us has the speed to compete with the sprinters and their lead-out trains.

Within the first three laps, I go up the road in a break. They’re driving hard and I’m digging deep to keep up with them.  I quickly realize that I won’t be able keep up if they continue at this pace, not for the full 75km.  So I make a calculated decision.  I gamble that the break won’t stay clear, and I sit up.  Recover.  Catch my breath.  I drift back to the pack.  Andrew rides up next to me, says something about being smart and sitting in.  Eventually, the break is brought back so I feel I’ve saved myself a ton of energy that would have been wasted.

Ten laps to go.  We start to set up for the finish.  We each pick one of the pro team leadouts and try to catapult our way into the paying positions.  I make a run of it, bumping elbows and leaning on riders going into the sprint, looking for the last-minute opening, trying not to think about crashing.  To my right, I can see Andrew doing the same.  In the final run to the line, I’m oxygen starved and can’t get enough air into my lungs.

We both finish in the money, but only in the 20’s. Still, it’s better than going home empty handed.  We didn’t win, but we feel pretty good that both of us placed.

On the way back we hit traffic in and around NYC.  We crawl through the interchanges and overpasses, bumper to bumper with the weekenders, sunburnt and satisfied, returning home.  My legs are sore.  My ass hurts from sitting in the car for so long.  I can’t get comfortable.  I’m too exhausted to sleep.

It’s been a long weekend with my breathing problems, the late departure on Friday, Andrew falling asleep in the car, the hotel reservation that forces us to drive extra, the nasty bathroom, missing a decent breakfast the day of the road race, Andrew clogging the toilet, waiting for the race results, watching Andrew eat the big bowl of cereal, the rice milk, the chewing, the long drive across Vermont and New York, Andrew driving with only the cruise control, his fear of his bladder exploding, his germaphobia at the Athena diner, his big salad, his chewing, and his chewing, his girl-phobia at the party, my breathing problems, his ‘occupational hazard’, the race results, the traffic…

Andrew drives, quiet, calm at the wheel.  There is still another hour to go before we get to Andrew’s house.  At some point along the way, he undoes his lap belt.  And I do the same.  I’m happy that he’s there driving. That I’m there with him in the car.  That we’ve become good teammates and that we’re looking after each other in races.  Even with all of our quirks wearing on each other.  In this manner, we will forge a lasting friendship.  Over the years that follow, we will live and work together in NYC.  We’ll have many interesting conversations – unfortunate that we couldn’t have had at least some of them on long car rides like the one to Binghampton.  We’ll hang out in bars and Andrew will date girls.  We’ll get married – not to each other, of course – and have children.  We’ll end up living on different continents and not see each other all that often.  But when we do get together, we’ll recount these same stories and laugh our asses off.

Back at Andrew’s house, I climb into the bed in his spare bedroom.  I’m too tired to drive back home.  I still feel like I’m climbing out of the basement since Superweek.  My body is still not 100 per cent.  But it’s getting better and I can still come back and secure that top finish in the Fresca Cup.  There are still Nationals, the Tour de ‘Toona and the Killington Stage Race for some results.  There is still some hope.

I’m winner.

I’m a driver.

Things are gonna change.

I can feel it.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s