1996 was my make or break year in cycling. I 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.
Mono popped open the thermos and poured out the last little bit of espresso for us to share. We were listening to the Bee Gee’s Saturday Night Fever for our own cabin fever, slowly working our way through our combined collection of tapes and CD’s, waiting for the road to open again and for our drive to New Mexico to resume.
We had already been in the car for hours, driving out of the snowy northeast just days after the biggest blizzard in a hundred years. And now we were stuck on the turnpike somewhere in Pennsylvania until a combine harvester could clear the ten foot high snow drifts from the highway.
Then we were rolling again and my old VW – 95,000 miles with a broken speedometer, packed full of our bikes and gear – accelerated back up to 3,000 rpm, roughly highway cruising speed. At least the tachometer worked. We made the Ohio border by dusk.
In Columbus, we ate chicken fried steak for breakfast at a Bob Evans and drove west on I-70, headlong into another snowstorm. We drifted and slipped on the VW’s balding tires. Mono was still learning to drive stick, admittedly nervous as we passed the dozens of cars that had spun out or careened off the side of the road.
“Just keep going straight and keep us out of the ditches,” I told him.
“I’ll try,” he muttered.
By Illinois, the snow had let up. Beck and Radiohead kept us company while I reviewed my program yet again: 4 weeks at altitude in New Mexico, then down to Arizona for Valley of the Sun — the first Fresca Cup race of the season — then California, then Olympic Trials. Then…I’d see what to do from there.
Through St. Louis, we listened to Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. Mono and I talked about how we got into cycling in the first place. How we had both had good results early on. How much we enjoyed the solitude of the bike and acceptance in the subculture of elite racing. We debated and discussed our favorite races: Sommerville, Putney, Tour of the Vineyard, Parkridge, A-to-Z, Niagra Grand Prix (which we had raced together as juniors).
In Rolla, we stopped for coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts, and back on the road, reviewed our ex-girlfriends, described and debated their merits and the circumstances underlying the demise of the relationships, eventually agreeing we were each better off without them. During the final push to Springfield, Mono told me how he had lost his faith in the Catholic church and apologized for hooking me into a group of born-again riders who had tried to convert me the year before.
In Springfield, Missouri, we spent an extra day visiting my old high school girlfriend, eating apple pie and drinking coffee. Mono and I had driven our way into the spring weather. We rode a few hours to loosen up our legs that were cramped and stiff from two long days in the car.
In Oklahoma City, we ate Mexican and stood a solemn vigil by the bombed out shell of the Federal Building. The weather had turned warm, sunny and dry. We had left winter behind us.
We rocked to Garbage and Liz Phair through Amarillo and the Texas panhandle. On a deserted stretch of I-40 beyond Tucumcari, New Mexico, we pulled off the highway, following signs for gas station. We drove a few miles down the road but the station never materialized. I pulled to the side of the road and we sat a moment debating whether we should continue or turn around and head back to the interstate. While we sat there, a white, shadowy form emerged from the scrub of the high desert, loping toward us, then picking up speed as it approached. I floored it, tearing out and back on to the road and leaving a trail of dust behind us.
I turned to Mono, “You saw that, didn’t you?”
He nodded, a shocked and startled look in his eyes.
“What do you think it was?” I asked him.
It looked like a dog, possibly a coyote. “Ghost dog,” he said, barely above a whisper.
We rolled into Albuquerque late that Saturday night and showed up at the house on Mountain Street where we would be staying with the friends of friends. There was a party and everybody had been drinking. We crashed, exhausted, on the bare floor of a spare bedroom. The next morning, we woke up and met Geof, Robbie and Mark, and explained we would be their new roommates.
“We thought you were here just for the party,” Robbie said, confused to find us in his kitchen poking around for coffee.
Mono and I woke up early every day. We ate oatmeal, muesli, eggs, bananas, and lots of coffee for breakfast. We stretched. We watched the weather report. We waited for temperatures to climb. We ate some more. Then we headed out on the bike. Short rides at first as we eased into the altitude and learned the routes, usually finishing up at a coffee shop in Nob Hill, then back to the house to eat some more. Carbohydrates and protein. Pasta. Mexican rice. Tortillas. Pinto beans. Grilled chicken. And more coffee. Then a nap, more stretching or a gym workout.
After a few days, Mono bought a scale to make sure we weren’t overeating. We were burning three to five thousand calories a day on the bike and were eating non-stop. We also bought Beano because with all the food, sports drinks and training, our digestive systems were turbulent.
With the drive across country, Mono and I had filled the seats with so much funk it stayed frozen in there until the spring. Months later, I had a girl in the car with me. She plopped down into the passenger’s seat and fluffed out the stale stink, then moments later screwed up her noise and looked at me accusingly. Mono! I thought and helplessly tried to defend myself.
The Beano was the only way we would all remain friends.
In the evenings, I tried to read in the bedroom. I had Camus, Pynchon and Eco. Stuff I had read – or was supposed to have read — in college. I was still thinking about grad school, wanted to keep my mind sharp, but those plans were quickly fading.
Sometimes Mono was there, stretched out on his sleeping bag, writing in his training log or calculating the number of calories we had burned or the time spent in which heart rate zone, and listening to music through his headphones.
There were always people coming by the house, too, and lots of laughing out in the living room and usually a little beer drinking. So I shut the books and hung out with everybody instead. We watched Melrose Place, 90210, Friends, Seinfeld. It was way more fun than Pynchon.
There was always somebody with a smart-ass comment that would crack everybody up. During commercials Mark would jump up onto the furniture, pretend the floor was made of lava, and leap from couch to coffee table to countertop on his way to get another beer, usually loosing his balance on the kitchen stool and tumbling to the floor in dramatic fashion. Geof would look out the back window, smack the blinds against the frame and suddenly clutch his head in agony, causing concern for everybody in the room before they realized that, once again, he was faking it.
And there were girls there, too. I didn’t need the distraction from training. But it would eventually find me.
Mono and I laughed along with everybody else. We chatted up the girls, too. And drank a little beer. But once the shows were over and the ladies had left, it was back to the bike and it was all business.
The first week in Albuquerque, Mono and I rode 500km.
We rode the Finger Climbs, up Tramway and Juan Tabo, to where the road dead-ended in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains and we stopped and looked out across the wide, endless expanse of the Rio Grande Valley, the sky a deep and pure blue, the air thin and clean.
We did the Lobo ride: a flat, fast 100 km in a large group which left from the University of New Mexico’s campus. We were vetted by the local riders – Frey, Waz, Bart, Sean — and we passed approval. Toward the end of the ride, Mono and I made some efforts and split the group apart. The guys who could stay with us were thrilled. Others were pissed.
We rode up Tijeras Canyon, fighting a headwind the entire way to Pine Crest and North 14, and got cold and hungry and struggled at the 7,000 feet altitude. We stopped at a coffee shop and split a “frontier roll” which was a cinnamon bun with half a stick of butter melted on top of it. On the way back, coming down the canyon with the wind at our backs and the sugar in my blood, I rode Mono off my wheel. I sat up and waited for him and when he caught back up, all he said was, “You’re going to peak too early.”
We rode down to Belen, 163 km in five and half hours, in a group of fifteen or twenty, lead by Frey and Bart. Towards the end, when I would normally start cracking and suffering, I still felt strong.
Week two was over 600km. We did some easy recovery rides. We did some medium distance rides with intense efforts. I had reached the point where I could crank out a 3-hour ride without getting tired or hungry, without having to eat.
On Saturday, we climbed into the Sandia Mountains, North 14 through Madrid and all the way to Santa Fe. We did some sprints. Just past half-way, we ascended at race pace the biggest climb of day, up to 8,000 ft. I looked at Mono and he looked at me. Then he backed off. I admired his restraint. I kept it in the big ring, dug myself deep without concern for the rest of the ride, and stayed right at the front.
In Santa Fe, we fueled up on apple pie, Gatorade and bananas, then rode a double paceline on the shoulder of I-25 all the way home. After 187 km and six and half hours, my legs were tired but resilient. I felt stronger than ever before. I felt like a machine.
Our longest week – nearly 1,000km – ended with a 210 km ride out to The Tunnels near Jemez Springs.
It was just four of us: Mono, Frey, Bart and me. I was riding behind Mono, staring blankly at the Colnago logo on the back of his Mengoni jacket, watching vaguely for potholes and debris along the desolate state highway.
In the Tunnels, we rode the narrow file of road cut into the red rock cliffs. Inside the Tunnels, it was cold and dark and we struggled to see. Outside the tunnels, our skinny tires cut thin ruts through the snow-covered roads and we slipped and slid until the snow got so deep we could go no further. The sky was incredibly blue and the rocks a deep, rich red. Then we turned around and started riding back.
All the way home, we rode side-by-side, taking 20 minute pulls, then switching off. Just below threshold. Mono and Bart were comparing downhill skiing stories. Frey was talking on about time trial bikes or something. At four and half hours, I was feeling shitty and having a hard time pulling through. I had eaten all my food but still fished through the wrappers in my pockets for some scraps. All I had left was half a bottle of chocolate protein drink. We still had another three hours to go. The others would be pissed if they had to slow down for me. Or, they would leave me. I wasn’t sure I would be able to find my way back home.
But at 5 hours, it all turned around. The endorphins kicked in. I felt good again. I took some hard pulls on the long grinding uphills. I held the pace high and steady. I could see the other guys suffering, the fatigue etched into their grimy faces, but none willing to back off. Then the fatigue turning to respect as I pulled off and went to the back to recover.
As we rolled into town, cooling down and easing our way through stoplights, Mono and I talked about what we were going to eat when we got home — giant chorizo-and-egg burritos from Los Betos, or all-you-can-eat-pizza from Cici’s . We were high from the endorphins, from the magnitude of the distance we had covered, from riding hard and splitting the work equally with two stronger riders.
After the Tunnels, we had a recovery week. We cut back the distance and intensity but it was still almost 500 km. We did easy rides, spinning along the bike path or riding on the trainer. Extra long naps. Stretching. Eating. And more eating.
At the end of the recovery week, we did the first race of the season: the Route 6 Road Race. This was supposed to be a low-key warm-up race but all the pro riders in the area showed up and all the college teams came down for it. So we raced against Shaklee and Saturn riders, against old friends from New England now in school out west, against aspiring riders on programs similar to ours who had come from training camps in Colorado Springs, Flagstaff and Tucson.
The race started out fast and it was hard to hold back. I rode alongside Mono and Bart, marked the moves they marked , and tried to keep my efforts to a minimum. I was hitting the redline in the final 10 km and kept telling myself to back off. But I couldn’t resist tapping into the good form and going deep. I told myself that I was holding back, but the way Mono took off after Bart… I had no response. He had been pacing himself for the last four weeks, never going too hard or too deep. And when it mattered, he turned on the juice and was gone. Nonetheless, I was happy with my 5th place finish, just behind Kevin and Bart, who would win the day.
We went to the Frontier after the race to celebrate. We ate Western-style hash browns and breakfast burritos with green chili. The racing season had begun. In two days, we would leave for the Phoenix training camp and the Valley of the Sun race. It was the last time we would all be together: me and Mono, the guys from Mountain street, and a few of the girls we had met along the way.
The GTI, packed up again with bikes, gear and music, struggled up the long I-40 grind out of Albuquerque and west towards Arizona. Mono and I had done the Grim Reaper, a lunch-time training ride lead by some guys from the Air Force base. It was done at race pace and if you were dropped or crashed or had a flat, you were left for dead. Our legs were still sore and cramped and we had 7 hours of driving ahead of us.
I didn’t want to leave Albuquerque where the training had gone so well, where I was seeing such good progress, where I had started to feel comfortable. I didn’t want to leave the guys on Mountain Street who had become good friends. And some of the girls, too. But most of all, I knew that Mono and I would part ways in Phoenix and that I would be on my own from there.
For the past four weeks, we had lived identical lives, eating the same food, breathing the same thin air, riding the same roads, sharing a room, sharing our plans for the coming season. Drinking coffee together.
The season would endure and so would our friendship. We would reunite in Charlotte at the Olympic Trials in June and, when Mono’s new team went bust, he would join me on Kissena for the rest of the season. I would end my racing career with him on Breakaway Couriers.
After I retired, I would watch Mono race and cheer him on. Mono would go on to get that pro contract . He would win two National Criterium championships and deliver on all that promise he showed as a junior and during that winter on the roads of New Mexico.
We’d have New Year’s Eve on the Upper West Side and barhopping in the East Village and Lower East Side. When he retired from racing, he would call me and ask how an ex-bike racer is supposed to get a job.
When my infant son died, Mono would make the long drive up from Connecticut to be with me.
Eight months later, I would read a Neruda poem at this wedding.
Our kids would play together.
When we saw each other — which was never as often as we would like — we would ditch the wives and kids, get on our bikes and ride.
But that it would take years for all that. And we still had to get through the rest of this season.
As we drove into Arizona and the Painted Desert, listening to the Gipsy Kings, I started to feel drowsy.
“It’s time,” I told Mono and he cracked open the thermos and poured us some espresso.