Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Story - Carbon Fiber Upgrade

When I started racing, I was a kid barely into puberty, scrawny, and had very little worldly knowledge. Sure I'd gone through some eighth grade DARE program and I even took sex ed at about the same time.

But in the real world?

Suffice it to say that I was very sheltered.

When I started racing, two things became pretty apparent (other than my distressing lack of speed). First, the races were really far away. Second, there were a lot of "old" people racing.

Along the first topic - for me, even an hour drive was far since it meant lengthy negotiations with my parents, figuring out how to get there (which meant we had to have somewhat current maps as those were pre-online days), and I had to actually get to the race on time.

For everyone involved, each trip to a venue was a new experience. We'd never ventured so far north or east for any family trips, so the drive out to some remote beach airstrip in Rhode Island or the main street of some little town in the middle of Connecticut had a sort of "quest" feel to it.

After the first year, my parents saw that the races were really far, there was nothing to do for non-racers, and there were plenty of my teammates at said events. So when I started asking if I could go with one of my teammates, they figured it was a win-win. I'd get to race and they wouldn't have to drive.

And along the second topic - back then I always thought of the Senior racers as old. Heck, they were so old they were already out of college, something I hadn't even thought of at that point. The Veterans (as the Masters were called) were, well, the same age as my parents. I'll leave it at that.

The old folks - the Seniors, mind you - on the team would kindly drive me to the races my parents couldn't handle. One guy named Jim seemed pretty good about driving this somewhat clueless kid to races. For some reason it stopped shortly after I was checking out a teammate's Mustang (with a V-8 and a stick no less). Jim was futzing around with his bike around the car so I'd asked, gotten permission, and sat in the car. I dreamed about such a car but since they cost a fortune ($5000), it was a pipe dream for me.

The guy who owned it had parked it pointing uphill a bit, and being a non-driver, when I checked it out I pushed in the clutch (to shift the shifter while making vroom vroom noises to myself).

I heard a yelp, a scream, and then I realized the car had rolled backwards about a foot. Hasn't anyone heard of a parking brake?

Anyway, I quickly let go of the clutch, put the brake on, jumped out, and ran around the car.

Jim, it seemed, had been putting his shoes on or something while sitting on the rear bumper when the car suddenly started rolling back underneath him. I found him sitting on the ground with a somewhat panicked look on his face.

He didn't pee his pants so things were okay.

Strangely enough, he rarely offered to drive me after that.

Another racer adopted me until I turned 16, then I got to drive to the races on my own. A speeding ticket slowed me down some, but with my newly found privileges, I tried to return the favor to those that drove me to races. Jim reluctantly agreed to ride with me to a couple events. In the process of blasting out of line to get to a toll lane that just turned from red to green, I managed to scare Jim. When he could breathe again and the blood returned to his face, he commented, "Well, you know, I was young once too."

Yeah, like he was ever 16 years old.

Ultimately that was the last time he ever got in a car with me.

The old ones that drove me (or who I drove), I got to talk to them and learn a bit about what they were doing. Well for training anyway. I never knew what they did for work (except Jim, later) and I never understood that they'd do something for fun other than eat at McDonalds on the way back from a race.

Perhaps because of this, it was the others in the club that fascinated me, the ones of which I knew virtually nothing.

There was a waif-ish woman, probably in her early 20's, blonde, who I couldn't help but fall into massive "crush" with. She had a pink Pinarello, the decals peeling like they all did, to the point her bike read "Pina". About a decade later, I met a woman who had (and probably still has) a pink Pinarello. Interestingly enough it has lost most of its decals - only "Pina" was left on the downtube.

Coincidence? I don't know.

Her friend (the waif-ish one) was a GQ looking guy, friendly, nice, grinned a gleaming white smile, twinkling eyes, and was an all around good guy. For years he watched me "not looking" at his blonde friend and handled a young Junior's awkward attempts to talk to his female friend. To his credit I never felt a bad vibe from him and I always considered him a "good guy".

I was so naive that to this day I don't know if they were dating or simply friends.

Anyway, Connecticut seemed a bit too backwards for that type of successful looking guy and I wasn't surprised to hear that he'd moved "out West".

"Out West", of course, meant mythical bicycle country. Out there the mythical races like the Coors Classic and the Nevada City Classic existed. Icons like Greg Lemond, Jonathan Boyer, and John Howard roamed the pavement. And specific locations like the famous Morgul-Bismark and Tour of the Moon stages, towns like Boulder and Grand Junction existed, in my mind, just for bike racing. Man, if I could get out there...

One of the cool things was the music I could play when I went to races (with my parents in the car, such music took a back seat to more classical selections). One "no parents" song was Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World". I learned of the hit from one of my long time drivers-turned car-pool friend Dan. He was definitely an old guy as he had some kind of job. He told me about this new band he heard - Tears for Fears - and was surprised when I pulled out a tape with their songs "Madworld" and "Change" on it (the latter still generates an adrenaline rush when I hear it). He in turn played "Everybody", and although at first I decried it as a traitorous move to mainstream, eventually I like the song (and its accompanying video).

In fact, the imagery in the video inspired me to plan and execute a four week driving trip around the country. Ultimately I wanted to experience what I thought the clip showed and in doing so I ended up immersing myself in some scenery similar to that in the video. The trip, of course, had to include some of those famous "out West" landmarks.

So anyway the GQ guy went to find his good fortune. Jim also moved out west - I think he ran the fledgling Shimano shoe division for a while - I ran into him at one of the first trade shows I went to, but after that, I don't know what happened with him.

Fast forward about 15 years. By now, I'd grown up a bit. Gained weight - I weighed in at about 140 pounds (how I dream of those days.. but I digress). I knew a little more about the birds and the bees, I had actually consumed alcohol (the first time was after my Senior Prom), and I was one of the "old" guys (i.e. done with college) with a Junior or two tagging along.

My steel Basso with its Excel Rino components (except for a Campy derailleur and shifter set) had given way to an aluminum Cannondale with a new Campy Ergopower group. I still had a favorite tan Cinelli saddle, my 42 cm crit bars, and, as always, about the longest stem you could buy. I also had a plethora of wheels and it seemed I had a front wheel and a back wheel for just about any riding condition out there.

I went to one of my 50 or 55 races I did each year with a friend and teammate of mine. He and I trained together when we could, we ended up at the same races, and we even hung out off the bike now and then. We shared car interests, both of us in a VW A1/A2 chassis kick, and he had a VW Scirocco II, a car I thought ruled the roost. Eventually I ended up with an '87 GTI, a really fun car to drive. To get a ride with him was the best and as a bonus, the race was about two hours away. More time to talk about cars and racing.

Once there, we struggled to get the two bikes ready (the drawback of a low hatch car), registered, and got dressed. We warmed up on a closed section of road (a straight road that led to one of the race's turns). Like any area suitable for warming up at a race, other racers had the same idea and did the few hundred yard loop with us.

One such racer caught my eye. He had a generic blue jersey on, nothing special about that. He wasn't any heavier or lighter than anyone around. He had a generic enough bike that I don't even remember if it was steel or not.

What caught my eye was some carbon fiber he sported.

This was back in the day where the only carbon fiber you'd see at races were the glued flexy fliers by TVT, Vitus, and Alan, and usually you'd see them under racers like Sean Kelly, not some hack Cat 3 in the middle of New Jersey.

This guy in blue though, he sported the carbon fiber elsewhere.

His forearm.

It was apparent he'd lost part of his arm. His shoulder and upper arm looked strong so it seemed like the limb loss occurred unnaturally. Interestingly enough his carbon fiber forearm was shaped a lot like his other arm - muscular, sort of like a super hero's arm.

I'd been exposed to missing limb individuals, however briefly, as one of the guys who worked out of the shop near school (meaning college) had lost an arm. So I didn't shy away from him, and in fact, I was a bit curious about how he braked and shifted. Compared to the guy near school, the blue jersey rider had a lot of arm left - the school area guy lost his arm at his shoulder. At any rate, I nodded to the guy, fingers lifting in greeting from the brake levers.

At some point I felt the need to get back to the car and sit inside of it. I don't know if I was changing my jersey or simply getting out of the sun. But whatever the reason, I sat in the Scirocco sometime before my race, admiring the car, thinking some random thoughts, when a guy rolled up next to the car.

I looked up, expecting to see my friend, the owner of the car. But it was someone else - the guy with the carbon fiber arm. I wondered what was up - maybe my bike fell over into the street and he wanted to let me know.

He looked at me through the stylish sunglasses he wore.

"Hi," I replied back.
"You wouldn't by chance be Aki, would you?", he asked.

Taken aback, I responded in the affirmative.

"I don't know if you remember me, but my name is..."

He pulled down the stylish sunglasses.

I realized that I was looking at Mr. GQ himself. A little grey around the temples, more tan than his normal tan, and sporting a few extra wrinkles, but it was him, twinkling eyes and all.

"Wow! How are you doing?! What are you doing here?", I said, trying to recover from the multitude of messages pummeling my brain.

We chatted for a bit. He had thought it was me, but after so many years, with different glasses, bike, and even having grown some, he wasn't sure. So he came over to ask.

Like I said before, he's a friendly guy.

From my side, there was one glaring new thing about him. When I last saw him, he had two biological forearms.

I looked at his arm questioningly.

He looked down. "Yeah, it's hard not to notice. This happened a long time ago in Colorado. Climbing accident."

I nodded like I knew what he was talking about.

"It was hard but I managed to recover and started racing again. I even got it upgraded to a carbon fiber arm with titanium hardware!"

His eyes twinkled.

For all he went through, whatever happened, he was fine.

We told each other good luck and he rolled away. I saw him a couple times in the race but it was one of those races that ended in the hospital for me so I don't know what happened to him.

I've never seen him again, and although we live in the age of Google, I can't remember his last name.


Il Bruce said...

So, the one armed dude at the bike shop, was it Jim in Willi?

I worked at Rainbow the summer of 1989 (as well as at Nassiff's)

We are having a ride to Willi next month, last year I went by the shop to find it turned into a taco stand.

Aki said...

Jim would be the one. I watched him do one of his last 'cross races at Mansfield Hollow - about 1989 actually, about the time Jan Weijak (a.k.a. "that Polish guy") showed up and slayed all. Jim crashed every lap on a short drop - riding one handed simply didn't give him the control necessary to hit bumps and not lose his bars.

hobgoblin said...

Thanks for the video links! I had forgotten how seriously cool that Austin Healey MkIII was in "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."

suitcaseofcourage said...

Wow Aki - another wonderful post. It's hard to believe we're about the same age - you've certainly had a much richer life, if you stories are any indication. Thanks so much for sharing them with us.