Hot. Hot as hell out. 90 plus. Usually I like it, my muscles thrive on it, but here it’s kind of dangerous (more on that later). West Virginia, that’s where here is. Tucker County. The actual sticks. A miracle I got here at all. When you reach a certain point in this freakish state the road signs disappear. You’re expected to guess. Or just know. Anyway, none of it matters now. I guessed right. I’m here. This is the world. What we’re pedaling over is less than mountains but more than hills. I almost crashed riding to the fucking start line—five serpentine miles at 8-10%. That’s what we’re climbing to the finish line, by the way. That’s what I’m looking forward to. The foot of that climb. Others are dreading it, to be sure. But I could only ever climb. When I’m going well I can climb forever. Today I’m going well.
Today is Saturday. 26 of May. So Memorial Day weekend. Season – my season – started in November. The seventh to be exact. That’s seven months of near pathological dedication to this hobby of sorts. Hobby? More like addiction. Why else would I have driven down here from Buffalo by myself last night? That’s not normal. But then nothing I do is normal. It’s not normal to spend 25 hours on your bicycle in one week. Six hours in one day. Unless you’re making money doing it. (I’m not making money doing it.) Anyway this date was marked from the start. I poured a lot into this. The parcours is supposed to suit the likes of me: the (self-appointed) grimpeurs. Less than two pounds of body weight per inch of height. That’s the rule. I’m there. I’m at 1.845. That means I was 59 kg (131 lbs) last time I checked, Friday morning. Grotesquely lean. Veins in the stomach. Veins in the legs (which are brown). Again, not normal. I’m aware of that. I’m aware of the peculiarity of envying Michael Rasmussen’s physique (look it up). But I still do it. I still stand on the scale every morning—after taking a shit. If I’m “over” I’ll go to bed hungry that night. It’s a delicate process. Dinner is the meal to skip. Nothing after seven o’clock. I’ve got appetite suppressants. Fiber pills. They sort of work.
On the penultimate climb now—the seven mile-long penultimate climb. Where the gauntness comes into play. I squirt water into my helmet and even though it’s practically boiling it feels relieving. How many are left here? I take count. Eleven. Eleven guys from the 50 or so that started. The rest are scattered over the road behind us. Shattered. Chasing like dogs. Some in groups of two or three or maybe four. Some sorry saps going it alone. Long ride to the finish for them. Fuck ’em. I’m studying the grimacing faces around me. Suffering, acid-filled bodies moving in and out of the saddle. Some look rhythmic and nimble, one with the bike. Others like wild animals, torsos hunched and twisted over the bars. The picture of pain. Nobody’s talking now. Just breathing. We’re all fighting gravity. Climbing is about concentration. Myself I’m staying seated. Pedaling slowly. Pedaling steadily. Can’t believe how good I’m going. Can’t even feel my fucking legs. The caffeine tablet numbed them. Best I’ve felt? It’s possible. I’m not suffering. No pain at all. Podium for sure. I’d say victory but I know I won’t beat the little shit on the front of the group. Eighteen-year-old pro mountain biker. He’s only a 3 on the road. That’s why he’s racing me. Five racing categories exist. I’m a 3. So I sneer at the 5’s and the 1’s sneer at me. Get the picture? We’re run-of-the-mill amateurs who may as well be racing up the slopes of the Dolomites in the Giro d’Italia. This is actually my life.
I’m fit at the moment. I got up to 70 last week behind the van on West River pkwy. Spun out my 53×11 (that’s a gear). 70 mph. On my bicycle. Behind my minivan. It’s called motor-pacing. The only way to simulate racing. You ride in a vacuum, within a foot of the rear bumper (you can hit it with your tire if you want, nothing happens). No wind resistance. Especially behind a van. You lose all perception of speed. You pedal your biggest gear, the one you can otherwise scarcely turn over, at 130 rpm. You don’t think about what happens if you pop a spoke. I’d no idea until he signaled frantically to brake. We’d hit the end of the parkway. I looked down and saw triple digits on the screen of the cyclocomputer. Whoa. He pulled off and the wind was like a wall. Brakes don’t work that well at 110 kph. I almost hit the deck. We laughed talking about it for 30 minutes afterwards, me shaking my head and drinking from a can of Coke. Exhilarating is the word.
Our group is stretched out, snaking down the other side of the hill. I’m struggling to stay in contact. I’m afraid of crashing. The pavement sucks. Cracked and broken. Gravel all over the place. Sweeping bends in the road every 50 meters. Serpentine. I’m doing it all wrong, braking in the turn instead of before it. Taking the wrong lines. Novice shit. Really mucking it up badly. Guys are flying by me on either side, shouting obscenities. “FUCK OUTTA THE WAY!!” I’ve already heard three tires explode on this descent. 90 degrees + lots of braking = overheated braking surface = blown tires. Or, in my case, melted glue. Even worse. My tires are glued on. If the glue starts to melt the tire’ll peel off the rim. I don’t want that to happen. I’ve seen the Joseba Beloki clip (watch it). So I’m being overcautious which makes everything worse. Just get down this fucking hill. Then make up the deficit on the final climb. That’s the idea. What good is going up if you can’t come back down? I keep glancing down to check my tires. They feel too soft. I do it again. I look back up. Hairpin turn, coming really fast. I’ve got the wrong line, too much speed. Nothing can be done.
There are two kinds of cyclists: those who fall, and those who are going to fall. You know the risks. You’ve heard the horror stories. Cracked steerer tubes, sheared-off forks, facial reconstructive surgery. You know how vulnerable your body is. You know your ticket’s going to be punched. But it almost certainly won’t happen today. What are the chances? It’s like an allegory for death. You always have one more day, one more hour. You’ll always have one more second. Put it off till tomorrow. Put it out of your mind. It can’t happen now. That’s unconscionable. I don’t even train with a helmet on. Why not?
“They imprison my thoughts.”
– Marco Pantani
When I come to there’s a paramedic in my face, asking me the date. My helmet’s off. My face is wet. I’m sitting in a ditch. I’m dizzy. I hear something about deep lacerations. There’s no pain, just tingling. Bright red drops land in front of me, contrasting sharply with the green vegetation. Why is blood so chameleon? Sometimes dark, dark, dark, saturated, like a glass of Shiraz. Other times intense, bright, like a fire engine. Like now. “Bike race,” I’m saying. “Somewhere in West Virginia.”
In the ambulance I tell them my blood pressure might be high. “Just relax,” she says as the cuff tightens. “Just sit back and relax.” I lean back and close my eyes. I fucked up. That’s my thought. This is no joke. I actually fucked myself up this time. I can’t believe it. How could I let it happen? And so close to the finish. Everything for nothing. Everything… The radically strict diet… The ten o’clock bed time… The scale every morning. Five bananas a day. Counting calories. Teetotal. Celibate. Living like a monk. Social life? What’s that? Hours upon hours torturing myself on the stationary trainer in the basement. Burying myself week after week. Riding myself into the ground. Fighting on my bike the wind, the rain, the snow, the heat, alone. Cursing myself for it, hating myself for it. Shaving my legs every other day. Dropping out of school. Working at a bike shop. Living at home. Concerning my parents. Pissing money away on tires and wheels and bib shorts and entry fees and shitty hotel rooms. Destroying my van with constant travel. Drafting race schedules. Keeping training logs. Studying training books. Nutrition books. Researching doping. Actually considering doping. Pasta for breakfast. Pasta for lunch. Pasta for… Baby-oiling legs for a deeper tan. The most intense tan lines you’ve ever seen. Pride in that. Resting heart rate in the 40s. Arms like pipe cleaners. Every rib visible. Five-hour rides. Six-hour rides. Seven-hour rides. Getting stranded. Running out of food 50 miles from home. Crawling inside and passing out on the couch with my cycling shoes still on. Saddle sores. Muscle imbalances. Bad race results. Harder training. More bad race results. Subsequent depression. Illusory hope that there’s actually talent hidden somewhere in those legs. Obstinate maintenance of that hope. Refusal to acknowledge the limits of my mediocre ability. Refusal to part with delusion… Living a fantasy… Putting off reality that little bit longer…
And now it’s all over. I don’t know it yet, but in just over a year I’ll be done, through, retired. I’ll have quit. Walked away. The bicycle won’t mean a thing to me. Incredible. Unthinkable just this morning. Unthinkable now. I would say I had a good run, but that just wouldn’t be true. I put everything in and got nothing out. A rotten investment. This is how things end, I’ve learned. I think this is the way things are supposed to end. A better outcome presupposes a miscalculation of nature. A better outcome belies reality. This is reality. Sitting alone inside a stifling hot ambulance in a remote crevice of West Virginia, hurt, bleeding, concussed, face torn apart, back and neck thoroughly traumatized, brooding over the missed opportunity to finish in the top three of an anonymous, worthless, joke of a bike race. Meanwhile time crawls forward. And the world keeps turning. And stars keep collapsing.
© Michael Howard
[This piece was selected by Dan Malakin. Read Michael’s interview]