Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Story - Egos on the Road

I read a post about some of the egos out there in cycling. As a sport you'd think that cycling would draw those friendly, outgoing, fit people, and in general, you'd be right. But there are those who aren't quite so friendly. Cycling, for them, has a more immediate meaning - it defines some significant element of their self worth. It's unfortunate because such competitiveness sometimes makes such a rider overlook the joy of simply riding your bike.

It's one thing to identify oneself as a cyclist. I'm one, and when people ask what I do for fun, I say I race bicycles (not "bikes" because then they ask if I race Harleys). In that sense I identify myself, my personality, as "part cyclist". I'm also part auto enthusiast, part musician, and, more minutely, a cook, babysitter, and computer geek. For some though it's not enough - as a cyclist they have to be better or faster or have a lighter bike.

I feel comfortable in the cycling world. I figure I've learned a few things in the 25 years I've been racing bikes - and the few years before where I simply learned as much as I could about bicycles. At the same time I'm human. I make mistakes although I try and avoid them and I'm flat out wrong sometimes. I'm properly awed by some of the big personalities - put me in front of a famous racer and I'll be slack jawed and at a loss for words. Ask me to adjust his rear derailleur and I'd do it and know I did it right.

At one criterium I got to change a National team rider's rear wheel - I was proud of the quick wheel change, of holding him up so he's not leaning, and the fact that the wheel didn't slip when he gunned it to rejoin the race. I think he won but it didn't really matter - my highlight of the race was simply to be there to help him out.

Being at a race and being out on the road are different things altogether. Out on the road you may meet up with riders who place a lot more of themselves in their bikes and their riding. Their egos are intrinsically tied to their bikes, their cycling, and everything that envelops those two topics. If they falter in their cycling, it's personal. You know them - they catch you, pass you when they can, and hammer away from you, all without a nod or a wave. Just grim determination to be better than that other guy on the road.

I suppose I used to be like that, although I'd like to think I wasn't too negative. I liked it when I'd see other riders in front of me, partly because it was fun to try and catch other riders. In fact, if I see someone plodding along it's quite a bit of motivation for me to maintain my effort. I'd catch them, stay 30 or 40 feet behind for a bit, then roll past them, saying hi as I did so.

When you see random riders out on the road you try and judge them by their appearance (it's the only thing you go on until you interact with them). A local team jersey means the rider is probably a Cat 3-5. A local Elite or Pro team jersey indicates a Pro through Cat 2 rider. Non-racing club jerseys typically indicate serious riders who don't race, and generic clothing, those are the hardest to figure out.

Certain indicators do flash like beacons when judging another rider. For example, wearing the Yellow Jersey or the World Championship Jersey is simply a no-no and is probably someone who rides on their own (and doesn't really observe or comprehend etiquette followed by other riders on the road). Until recently I'd say the same of pro jerseys. I, like a lot of my peers, used to make fun of someone kitted out in a pro outfit (and obviously not a pro), especially at a bike race. Now I think of them as "fans of the team". Or a Cat 5 who doesn't know any better (but they quickly learn at a race).

At some point I outgrew the "no pro jerseys" thing, maybe 10 years ago when Mapei was ruling the one day Classics scene. Their riders looked so tough - their Brikos, colorful outfits, Colnagos, and their domination of their target races. One day my friend Mike told me that he and his friend Will were going to buy Mapei kits, go to Gimbles, and destroy everyone there. Ends up that most of us on the team did just that - we all bought Mapei kits, went to Gimbles, and put the hurt on people. It wasn't mean spirited - we just went and rode Gimbles and had a lot of fun attacking and counter attacking. It'd make for a good laugh or three, we had a lot of fun, and we really didn't care how things ended up. I guess that for us the whole Mapei phase was simply a sort of doing a hero worship kind of thing.

A story comes to mind, one that took place in 1993 or 1994, after a certain Lance Armstrong won the Worlds in Oslo. A group ride in Connecticut started catching a solo rider cruising along in a white jersey. As the group got closer they realized that the jersey was in fact the World Championship jersey. Disturbed by this obvious lack of respect of the current World Champion (an American no less!), the group accelerated and caught the offending rider. One of the more outspoken of the riders challenged the imposter.

"Who do you think you are, Lance Armstrong?"

You can guess who turned and looked at him.

It took me a while before I learned that it really doesn't matter how you ride when you're just training - it's the races where you decide who's who. I've been on recovery rides and been passed by very competitive looking guys who refuse to acknowledge my existence.

Okay by me. Look, if their egos prevent them from saying hi, it's their problem.

It's gone the other way too, where I was riding hard but got caught off guard by riders much better than me. On one of the Gimbles rides I was sort of tooling along, checking out the mood of the day's ride. A good sized group as usual, perhaps 100-150 total riders. There were some good racers around (ex-pros, a couple domestic pros, and a smattering of Cat 1s and 2s) so I lurked in the background. Some of the not-so-experienced racers were launching attacks here and there but with such horsepower covering moves, no one got away.

Unusually all that strong horsepower didn't do very much - they just kept things together. Normally when you get such talent together they hammer at the front until they've split away from the group and you don't see them until you pull up to the convenience store at the end of the ride.

As I'd mentioned there were those who were not pros or Cat 1s. One stranger was an obvious rabid Rabobank fan - he had the long sleeve jersey as well as the tights. I happened to be riding near this tall fan when I realized he had also bought the Rabobank Colnago frame. A really expensive frame - quite the fan I suppose. I noticed too that he had Spinergy wheels.

The Spinergys had, you guessed it, Rabobank colored decals.

He had a lot of money tied up in that bike.

My Spidey Sense started to tingle - I looked at his gloves - Rabobank - and his hat.


The only weird thing I noticed about his "riding" was that he stuck his 20 ounce bottle of Coke upside down in his cage. He looked slim, fit, and pedaled with a fluency which echoed a lot of miles in the legs.

I drifted away, looking for my friend who raced pro in Europe. I found him chattering away nearby and rode up to him.

"Who is that guy in the Rabobank outfit?"
"That guy?", he pointed.
"Marc Wauters"
"Who's that?"

My friend turned and looked at me.

"You don't know who Marc Wauters is? He did the Giro, 15 World Cup races, Worlds..."

I looked at him like he'd just sprouted fifteen eyeballs. "What the heck is he doing here?"

"He's here on vacation, knows John C."

I digested this information. Apparently he's friends with this ex-pro from Portugal who does the ride regularly. And when the ex-pro started hollering stuff in some European language and Wauters started chasing things down, I figured out the plot. Wauters would use his insanely strong Euro Pro strength to keep things together and lead out the Portugese ex-pro for the two sprints.

Since Wauters didn't know where the lines were, leading out would be a lot more straightforward. I've been in situations where people are trying to tell me where the line is while we're sprinting - it makes for awkward sprinting when you've jumped and you're still trying to listen to your leadout guy's instructions, the poor guy hollering from 50 meters back.

"The line is just past the big tree - that tree, not that tree.. by the sign.. not that sign, the white one... it's.. man, you just passed it."

Anyway, with Wauters leading out in comfortable oblivion (those World Cup legs would be able to leadout for a while - exact details of things like where the line was wouldn't be critical), the ex-pro could go and annihilate the others with a good sprint.

I love when I can figure these things out.

Knowing someone else's tactics makes it much, much easier to determine your own course of action. I figured I could keep tabs on Wauters, fight for his wheel (no one fights too hard on Gimbles), and use him to lead me out. He wouldn't know me since I don't do the World Cup circuit and I'm just some Hack 3 on Gimbles. The ex-pro would probably sit on my wheel, thankful for a little more draft (or he'd fight me for Wauter's wheel in which case I'd give it up gladly and stick on his wheel).

We started approaching the first of two sprints - the Route 120 sprint. It's my favorite sprint - a long, slightly downhill leadout for a couple miles (a couple rises thrown in there for fun) followed by a reasonably long, slight uphill sprint. The terrain favors a strong jump and lots of power rather than all out speed and anaerobic endurance.

With a few miles to go, Wauters, true to plan, started actively chasing things down. All the various racers were going for it now and usually he or the Portugese ex-pro would go rocketing after them, everyone else scrambling to stay on their wheels. It was pretty exciting - I felt like I was in the last kilometers before the end of Worlds when all the racers are just attacking one after another.

Wauters hit the front with about a kilometer or so to go, his legs churning steadily. I was on his wheel. I had no idea where the ex-pro was but it didn't matter - I would go when I'm ready and I knew I could get to the line once I committed. The only thing was that I wanted to wait for the speed to top out - I prefer to jump from 38 mph, not 28 mph. And we weren't going much faster than 28 at that moment.

I waited, tensed, ready to go. Wauters kept rolling - now under the bridge where the leadouts usually start.

Still he rolled.

He cruised around the last, slight bend.

Rolled up the start of the sprint.

He wasn't accelerating.

The ex-pro must have told him to keep the leadout slow or something.

A non-racer guy took off, struggling fiercely to escape the clutches of the soft pedaling bunch.

Still Wauters rolled.

Another guy went. And another.

Finally we were inside 300 meters, well inside the sprint. I realized that Wauters wasn't doing any leadout, no ex-pros were going to sprint, and they were just having fun riding their bikes.

I stood up and released some of that nervous energy by standing and pedaling past Wauters. When I looked back I saw every guy I'd consider a good sprinter on the ride doing the same thing behind me. One of them, a good friend of mine and a friendly rival sprinter, called out to me.

"Hey, Aki, why didn't you sprint - I was waiting for you to go."
A chorus of "Me toos" and "Yeah" and less polite phrases ("What the eff was that?") came up from the riders around him.

I pointed at Wauters.

"I was waiting for him but he never went!"

Wauters looked at me, pointed to himself. Laughed.

"I'm tired, I've raced enough. I'm just riding for fun now."

We all enjoyed a good laugh.

I talked a bit with him afterwards. I didn't know him from Peter Pan so drilled him on some topics. In the middle of describing why I don't race road races, he turned to me with an experienced eye.

"You must be a good sprinter..."


Marc Wauters, without ever seeing me sprint, knew I was a good sprinter.

I must be exuding "I jump" talent or something. Maybe it's my pedal stroke. Or my fluency on the bike. Perhaps he can simply see it in my legs - 11 tooth smashing power. Yeah. Images flashed through my head - track sprinter, Nationals, crit championships... But then he finished his sentence.

"...because all Japanese riders are good sprinters."


My fast sprinting ego hit a proverbial rock, flipped over its proverbial handlebars, and landed on its proverbial face.

What did I take away from that ride? Sticking a 20 ounce Coke upside down in your cage is more secure than trying to put it in right-side up.

Sometimes you get a chance to be good, to be nice or supportive to someone else. Take them because, well, just because you should.

One day I'd gone out for easy ride after work. I did a 8 or 9 mile loop around my office a few times, trying to be a nice, steady, disciplined rider. Normally I go sprinting after everything and my easy rides end up killing me, so this ride exercised my self control. On one particular false flat, the site for many a blow-up, I churned away in the small ring, being a good rider, disciplined, on an easy day. I avoided the temptation of the big ring, the 15, of pulling on the bars like I was trying to peel the cork off of them, of stomping on the pedals trying to snap bottom bracket axles and warping my chainrings.

At the top of the false flat, I stopped at a light - a car blocked the shoulder so I couldn't make the right on red like I normally do. It was a bit disappointing since it's a steep climb and a rolling start to it helps a bit to take the edge off the effort - this would help keep me in the "recovery" zone and exercise my self control.

Suddenly I heard panting behind me.

I turned around. A guy on a bike, in all probability not a racer, pulled up and put his foot down.

"Man, I can't believe I caught you. I've been chasing you for a couple miles now. Man, my wife is not going to believe this. Wow. Hey, do you race?"

I smiled. It's so unusual to see such unbridled enthusiasm. Maybe in an eight year old it's normal. But not for an obviously grown man.

"Yeah, I race. You've been chasing me for a couple miles?", I replied.
"Yeah, from that one intersection. I was killing myself to try and catch you. Man I didn't think I'd catch you but I went as hard as I could and I can't believe it. Wow."

He took a swig of water so I decided perhaps I could say something.

"Well, that's a really hard stretch of road. I'm impressed. Do you race?"
"Yeah that uphill is really hard. No, but I've been thinking about it."
"Well, racing is a lot of fun. Find a club, ride with them, and I think you'll have a blast."
"Yeah, maybe I will. Man, I can't believe I caught you."

The light turned green.

"I'm turning right", I told the guy with a questioning look on my face.
"I'm going straight. Later man!"
"Later", I called out, "Have a good ride."

I could hear him as he rolled away from the intersection, obviously stoked from catching a "racer".

"I can't believe I caught him."


Il Bruce said...

We had a Marco Serpelini imposter at out club rides every now and again for a few months.

Had quite a few people fooled until I showed them a photo.

The fact that he spoke perfect English, drove a car with CT plates and rode a Serotta in RI while the real Marco was racing in Europe didn't convince them.

Odd duck. Strong rider but nowhere near pro strong let alone pro smooth. Smooth is more impressive to me than strong.

I've ridden quite a bit with an Irish ex-pro. Even when he is footie fit and not riding much he is just Smmoooove. A joy to watch.

Anonymous said...

Another great story - always like hearing the one about LA on the CT ride. And the Wauters story is priceless. That was a good thing you did for that club rider. Hope he decided to race after all.

josh said...

what was la doing in our great state?

and how do you not know who wauters is?


Aki said...

LA was visiting someone - apparently he knew someone in the Cheshire area. From what I hear the next day a hundred or more people showed up on that group ride. No LA though.

Gimbles - one day Phil Anderson rode (he dated Shelley Verses - 7-11 soigneur - for a while, she lived in Stamford - and someone else on Long Island, so he was around at least once). Word got out and the next day a couple hundred riders showed up. No Phil.

And Wauters... in the late 90s I stopped following pro cycling - stopped buying velonews, it was, no tv (I haven't had cable/etc for at least 10 years now). Only bike racing I watched were old tapes (mid 90s and prior) and whatever my friend Sean taped off of tv (usually formula 1, not bicycles).

I'm embarrassed to say that I've since bought DVDs of races and he features prominently in many of them. If I knew then what I know now, I'd have asked him different questions instead of asking him about Holland.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing this story, aki. i've been told about few pro's showing up on the g-ride (hincapie back in toga days and such) but this is the first time i've heard about marc waulters. did you ever race against pineda brothers back in the days? oscar pineda came out few years back while he was still with team 7-up. we were doing the long ride and on the 3 kings of rt. 22 i saw him struggling much to my surprise. "i guess even the pro's hurt on this climb", i thought feeling mighty fine about my relative ease to stay with him all the way up the climb. then i made a terrible mistake of looking down at his gearing. you guessed it. 54x11. apparently he was doing the whole ride in that gear. then i made another mistake of asking him why he was in that gear. oscar answered "oh, that? i do that for fun from time to time".

Aki said...

At my gimbels "peak" I got to sprint against those guys - sometimes I'd beat them, more often they'd simply be in a different group far ahead of me. When it was all together though it was really spectacular - a bunch of 3s thinking "This is the only chance I have to beat this Pro in a sprint!". That's some motivation for us 3s. For them, probably not too much motivation.

Although I can't claim to be close to the Pinaedas, we had mutual friends so I got to talk to them after some races now and then (which reminds me - an excellent story just popped into my head lol). We even drove to their place a few times.

Once I was sprinting for the 120 sprint, my preferred sprint, and I thought that although I was struggling, I'd gotten a decent jump and felt like I might be able to pull it off. Suddenly, a Bud Light jersey tore past me, the Pinaedas in tow. He managed to lead them out from about 15-20 guys back, maybe 300-350 meters, and beat them.

Later I found out it was a good friend of mine - his "kit" was so foreign I didn't recognize him. lol.

MLF said...

Thanks for the great story. Cheers me up.

Aki said...

Thumbs up!