Issue 06: Racing through the Maelstrom

By Mark V

For a moment despair and frustration bit into me, but then I bit back even harder.  It’s that sensation you get when you want something in a darkly primal way.  Now I’m on top that gear and moving through the enemies to my left.

For the last twelve years, I have lived in Seattle, this Pacific Northwest city that is synonymous with rain. A month after I moved into the U-District, the rains crept in and took hold. Never had I imagined a weather pattern could be so seemingly mild and yet utterly oppressive. Barely ever did it exist as more than a drizzle, but the wet was unrelenting. The humidity in my studio apartment was literally 100%; at night I fell asleep to the tinkling sound of condensed water droplets splattering the horizontal blinds. The wall next to the window was black with mildew. I didn’t dust; I cleaned the surfaces with bleach. In my past life I had known rain as something else, something more dramatic, something made of wonder. I come from Florida, where rain has real power and presence, not this Seattle passive-aggressive precipitation. Florida rain comes in quick, gets things done, gets the fuck out. Here in Seattle, rain lingers for six months; you can’t remember anything remarkable because it’s always the same. But when you get caught in that angry Florida rain, shit happens and you remember that moment…even decades later.

It was sometime in the mid-1990s, and I had just been riding road bikes for a couple years, racing occasionally while I attended the University of Florida. Most of my friends on the team, who had been racing since high school, were in higher ranked categories. I had raced a few times in collegiate C and perhaps once in regular USCF. So when I chose to enter state road championships, I entered as a Category 5; I’d be racing with all the little fish in the pond. Well, maybe we can’t simply generalize the Cat5s in that race as all rank beginners; a Cat5 race was always a grab bag. Some guys were total noobs who could barely ride a straight line at speed; some were sandbaggers. Some were seasoned athletes crossing over from other sports but lacking actual road racing experience. Almost none had any idea of how to ride in a pack, or perhaps they knew enough not to cause an accident but not enough to use pack-riding to their advantage. And there were about 80-100 of us on a rural state road in the early afternoon heat.

As is customary, there were to be races of other categories on the course concurrently, but started at intervals wide enough to all but eliminate the possibility that the main packs would overlap. Having multiple races happening simultaneously was of practical necessity, because of the permits and costs for holding races on public roads. I think that there were two other categories racing while we were out there, but all I remember for sure is that when we rolled out, somewhere ahead of us there was a field of women’s racers. They were somewhere way, way ahead and unlikely to be caught by us on this 12-mile loop. We were to make 4 laps of this course that had a few long, gentle hills and a freeway overpass as the only features worth noting. That plus one somewhat sharp lefthand turn at the end of a negative road grade.

We had six Team Florida jerseys in the bunch. Two or three of the guys were experienced mountain bikers who were just dabbling on dropbar bikes. Almost all of my meager race experience had been criteriums, and I have never been one for training for endurance. In fact most of my training was more or less accidental: I delivered pizzas on campus, basically turning every delivery into a sprint for a $1 prime aboard my steel Bianchi with a front Spinergy Rev-X aero wheel. Certainly none of us had raced together as a unit on the road, or were capable of developing and implementing a team strategy. We went into this with the assumption that it was every man for himself…same as everyone else in this mob of morons.

It all started well enough. We made it through the first corner, a gentle left, with only one rider crashing. I think he accomplished that by himself too, so we were doing pretty good. The pace was up, then down, then up again; I sat back in the middle of the field as riders lunged for the front, only to quickly burn themselves out. I kept an eye on the riders around me, taking notice of the ones who looked strong. I could tell that we had a couple of triathlete sandbaggers in the bunch because individually they seemed perfectly content to get on the front and motor, never once displaying any real acceleration. They’d just sit on the front and grind for minutes on end, completely oblivious to the fact that they were dragging everyone else with them. The guys that I thought were mountain bikers seemed to ride aggressively enough, sprinting ahead of the whichever triathlete was pacing the field at the time. But once the mountain bikers got a few bike lengths ahead, they just sort of stopped pedaling. The mob just couldn’t form a coordinated breakaway, and so we just scurried down the road in a series of surges, less sprinting than lurching. And we were baking in the sun.

In the middle of a pack, it’s surprising how little breeze reaches you. Your hands swim in sweat atop your brake hoods. You need to hydrate.

I had planned ahead and brought three water bottles full with me, two in the cages and one stuffed uncomfortably into my back jersey pocket. The course had a slight uphill about a quarter of a lap in, and the organizers had designated it as a feed zone. On our second pass, I decided to jettison the mainly empty bottle in a cage so I could replace it with the full one in my pocket. Beside the road I saw a line of people, in particular two of my teammates who, having finished their category races earlier, were relaxing and cheering us on. I’m not sure if any of us Cat5 racers actually attempted to take a feed. Unlike our higher ranked compatriots, our Cat5 race wasn’t that long to necessitate more sustenance than we could carry off at the start, and it was probably a bad idea for any of us to try to snatch an item while careening across the road on a bike anyways. But I figured that I could certainly toss an empty bottle to the road’s shoulder where my teammates could retrieve it, right? I called out their names and gave the bottle a smooth, underhand toss. I pulled it a little so that the bottle wasn’t going to hit them in the face; perhaps they could even catch it in mid-air. My failure was that I didn’t adequately calibrate for my own forward vector. The bottle tumbled twice in the air, overshot my teammates by five feet, and absolutely nailed the next dude down the road in the nads. He folded like a lawn chair.

Category 5 racers: we’re not just a danger to ourselves; we can bring misfortune to spectators too. Team Florida, bitches! It was right about then that I heard the first rumble of thunder.

It is amazing how fast those thunderstorms pounce on you in Florida. The treeline beside the road had obscured our vision to the east, from whence the black clouds had sailed in like an armada. One moment the sun was blazing on us like a heat lamp over stale french fries, and the next we are all wearing sunglasses that were suddenly too dark. Then the winds hit, and they were startlingly chill. All the classic signs of an impending thunderstorm were present. Soon big, fat water droplets were pelting us at increasingly shallow angles.

Nowadays I am still bewildered at how Seattleites get in a tizzy just because it rains a little hard here occasionally. Okay, I’ll grant you that Seattle gets those windstorms that last all night, however the max rates that water falls from the sky aren’t really in the same league as Florida. But what really stands out is the violence of thunder and lightning. Every child in Florida grows up counting Mississippis between the lavender-white flash and the deep, bass rumble to know how far away the lightning stalks. This is something parents and schools teach from a young age, because Florida ranks number one in deaths by lightning strikes…more than double any other state. I have seen trees and telephone poles literally explode before my eyes from strikes. With that in mind, you learn to not even notice thunder that you can hear only, but you pay attention when you can feel it. And when you can’t slip in a Mississippi between the flash and a concussive force you feel in the center of your chest, shit has gotten real.

Rain was drilling us hard as we swept across the start/finish line for the third lap. There was shouting from the side of the road, but in the chaos of wind, wheels slicing water, and thunder I couldn’t clearly make it out. I don’t think anyone else did either. Everyone was shouting.

What did they say? I thought there were two laps to go? Why were they ringing a bell? Does anyone know? Is this the last lap? Is that official? It’s gotta be the lightning, right? Who’s in front? Who got dropped? What the hell’s going on? Is this the last lap?

The rain began to get painful, stinging the skin. I had to keep wearing the dark sunglasses to protect my eyes, and riders began to drop out simply because they couldn’t see. Half the team was unaccounted for. Those damned triathletes seemed to show the same indifference to rain as they did to wheelsuckers. Two of them had gotten a gap as the mob lost all focus. I had carefully, craftily spent almost all the race near the front without actually being on the front for more than a few seconds at a time, but now I was watching the race walking away from me. I thought for a moment about trying to bridge the gap solo, but I really couldn’t play a card like that with my endurance. The way the race was unfolding, I knew that those guys might disappear up the road before half the mob realized what was going on. That’s about when I went into full combat mode.

There’s something about chaos and natural disasters that I love. There’s that moment when you realize that the sky is falling and you get to choose what’s most important, to hell with everything else. That surge of adrenaline that comes with having a purpose. That’s what was so addictive about delivering pizza by bicycle. It wasn’t because I liked the food industry, though perhaps it did have a little bit to do with the tips. But tattered George Washingtons alone wouldn’t have been enough to launch me into the traffic and darkness for 6 hour shifts of full-on sprints. Through harried hours of sweat and food stains, what moved me was a fleeting sense of purpose…or maybe something more than that. Where everyone else was just a pedestrian or a drone in a vehicle, I had a MISSION. One that I could see and achieve if I lunged for it.

As the storm assailed the Cat5 riders, I decided that I was going to change the race. Shouting, I swept to the front to take a hard pull. I swung off, and kept yelling, “It’s the last lap, and there’s a break up the road! Let’s get on this, fuckers!” After about my third pull, the front of the mob got in the mood to race. We were slowly closing the gap, like wolves loping after deer. We were on them before that last tight turn. By then the rain had become moving walls of water driven by the gusting wind. On the false flats, the shoulders of the road were fast moving rivers of water with white caps. Did the road slope down or up? Who could tell? I could have sworn the rain was hitting us from below horizontal. Each time the wind hit abeam, we were pushed a couple of shoulder widths sideways, me especially since I had that stupid Rev-X front wheel. We were all over the lanes.

Up ahead, a county squad car had been leading our race around the roads still open to the public. As we approached that left hand turn, the intersection was submerged. The squad car shot ahead to block the other lanes of traffic, sending up roostertails of spray and getting more than a little sideways while hydroplaning. We couldn’t even see the where our wheels were going. I think I heard some guys go down, but it was getting hard to process everything that was going on. It was hard enough to watch the front of the race.

There were about 10 or so animators at the front and maybe 30-40 other riders clumped behind us. Riders started feeling froggy, and then they started jumping. With less than a mile to the line, it was knives out. The attacks flew fast, but there was no cooperation to be found. As soon as someone leapt, two riders would be on his heels, and then they ‘d drift back to the mob, which was still being pulled along by those cyborgs masquerading as triathletes.

I was sizing up the guys who had were showing good accelerations, trying to figure out how I could get on their wheels at the right moment. I tried not to appear too aggressive, keep my cards close. I figured that I had a good enough sprint to place ahead of the field, but chasing all these attacks was going to dull my edge. How close to the line? Lightning lit the sky from one horizon to another, and through the curtain of rain I could see the cluster of trees that bracketed the finish line. Now came the final surge from the mob, like the wave that gathers itself up to crash on the rocky shore. We were all together now, with all the previous maneuvers rendered meaningless, but I still had good position near the front. If we launched the final sprint at the right distance, the mob wouldn’t be able to come round us.

Teeth gritting in the elements, we put our heads down and drive hard. Thunder shakes the heavens, ragged breaths erupt from our chests, and our heartbeats pound like machine guns……and that’s when we hear the car horns. We look up to see three cars parked askew in the road. Then we see bike racers on the deck. They’re women riders; we’d caught the back end of the women’s field that had started before us. Why are there cars in the middle of the road? Was there a crash in their field? Was a civilian car involved? WHY ARE THERE CARS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD?!! BRAKES! BRAKES! BRAKES!!!!!

Everyone is screaming, brake pads are howling on rims, there’s that clownish clatter of bikes hitting the asphalt. We were going almost 30mph an eye blink before and now we are at a walking pace. I pick my way through the bodies and cars like I’m delivering pizza through a drunken homecoming post-game riot. I’m third through the bottleneck, and my legs are driving hard. At first I’m over-geared like a motherfucker. The two guys ahead are walking away, and then two more bastards are moving up on my left. For a moment despair and frustration bit into me, but then I bit back even harder. It’s that sensation you get when you want something in a darkly primal way. Now I’m on top that gear and moving through the enemies to my left.

I reach for the next cog on the shifter. Ka-CHUNK! Push on, push, PUSH! I’m even with second place, shift up! Ka-CHUNK! I’m moving through him! Eyes up, what do I see? It’s the first rider, and I want to maul him. He’s reached his terminal velocity, but I’m still gaining speed. There are no other challengers. Lightning dances above the tunnel of trees branches, a line of headlights on the finish. I’m devouring the gap with each pedal stroke. Now I’m on his flank and still surging. I’M AHEAD.

I lunge into a full bike throw, and in that brief moment after I cross the line I am overwhelmed. I can’t hear anything, see anything, I don’t know where I am. I couldn’t call it a state of grace, not a moment of clarity….it was more like I was shellshocked, climbing out of a bomb crater.

And then the world returned. I was wet and spent and filled with the urge to vomit. Riders were coasting down all about, the rest of my team were nearby soaked, and officials were herding us off the course. What the hell happened? Did I win? What about the my Cat5 teammates who dropped off? Did any of my guys crash? Does anyone have something to eat?

I lunge into a full bike throw, and in that brief moment after I cross the line I am overwhelmed. I can’t hear anything, see anything, I don’t know where I am. I couldn’t call it a state of grace, not a moment of clarity….it was more like I was shellshocked, climbing out of a bomb crater.

And then the world returned. I was wet and spent and filled with the urge to vomit. Riders were coasting down all about, the rest of my team were nearby soaked, and officials were herding us off the course. What the hell happened? Did I win? What about the my Cat5 teammates who dropped off? Did any of my guys crash? Does anyone have something to eat?

Sadly, not all of these questions were ever answered. Most importantly, I did not officially win. According to the results, I wasn’t in the top twenty. One of my teammates who didn’t even finish was credited with sixth; he’d lost his sunglasses and stopped because he couldn’t see. Apparently the weather fouled all the officials equipment including the finish photos. No one knows how they derived those results, and the rules back then didn’t have an option of protesting more than 30minutes after results are posted…even though they didn’t even post the results until a week later on line. I’m sure that wouldn’t have happened with the timing equipment available today, but never underestimate the chaos that the weather can wreck when you’re too stupid or too riled up to stop riding in it.

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