My friend Colbert had inveigled his way into a preferred start and thus had no need to park the Pig Tank at the start line, sleeping in compartments with ingenious little portable stove burners and a refrigerator and a chemical head. My wife on road trips used to think of variations on what the abbreviate “RV” stood for, these reflected her low opinion of them when we were stuck behind one on a long climb up say the Wind River or Monarch pass, like “rancid vomit” and “really vulgar,” but I know now that was wrong and culturally bigoted, and besides Colbert’s Pig Tanks are always ingenious – the mid-70s Winnebago, high-torque diesel and wall to wall carpet the color of watery Ovaltine and window screens and breakfast nook was a hoot -- and I envy him for having always y’know the right tool for the job. I mean, the dude carries two spare Dura-Ace chains in his immaculate toolbox at what, like $160 a pop. But since he was preferred, he’d be parking at the cabin with us, Dawn and Adam in there with him, and that meant an early wake-up call for me, alone, at a fallacious 4 a.m. – fallacious, because no bikes down on main street until 5 a.m. officially but that was OK because I still had to get oatmeal—easy on the stomach, traditional—and Gatorade—Cytomax too expensive, wallet too light, planning too shoddy; my first race in many years without some sort of intentional, expensive astronaut food in pocket— and milk at the 24 hour grocery. When my headlights raked the staging area, and there were a few dome lights on, but nobody yet stirring, maybe a lanky guy in sweatpants and adidas shower sandals fitting a front wheel into a fork, but basically no one making a move yet, I UE’d on Main, worried around the new chicane at where Main connects with the Armory street (I mean this is another one of those WTF civil engineering questions where y’know the people who plan the streets of Hayward have apparently not yet gotten the memo that one of the nation’s largest mass-start bike events takes place through the heart of their fair city once per year, roughly second week of September, even three days after 9/11 with much conflicted rationalizing about how the terrorists weren’t going to stop our fun, dang it, and even checking IDs at the door of the Armory of the 99.9 percent Caucasian male crowd in many cases breaking only the rules of good taste by wearing just a thin layer of lycra and clownish velcro shoes and bulbous helmets and little backpacks filled with sugared water, and even the most obsessive dudes cutting their number plates into little trapezoids to fractionally cut down on wind resistance. But so anyway, in the years since then, they’ve added a beautiful and deadly concrete median, with steel signs, where Railroad feeds onto 77, that must this early in the race split the squirrelly hairy legged peloton into at least two long strings and almost always forces a wheel touch, sometimes much worse at the originating event, the sick smell of burned rubber, skin, the hollow sound of aluminum grinding into concrete, bodies hitting bodies and bikes pinwheeling in the air, the terrified cries of riders fallen, falling, or barely shooting into new lines, the sympathetic/selfish bellowing of rider down, rider down! exaggerated finger-pointing and hand-waving from those with experience riding in a pack indicating where to go, where not to go with alarming signals and gestures. So the city seems hell-bent not so much on accommodating these events—which, true, if you’re standing as a pedestrian at Railroad and 77, last about 1.5 minutes per 365 days, you’d be surprised how long it takes 2000 cyclists moving at a pretty good clip, say 18 MPH at this point, before the gutter-to-gutter redlining that takes place on the 77 run out to Rosie’s Field—but with impeding them, or at least keeping things interesting.
So yeah. New chicane that starts at the back of preferred staging, so while most people are still sort of pedal stepping for the first 60 seconds as preferred rolls out, then there’s also a bottle-necking going on, literally making the first 1 miles of the Fat Tire Festival the most treacherous and nervous and nausea inducing and maybe the best justification and explanation for the normal run of diarrhea that attacks many racers, as they queue up in the dozens at the long row of green plastic biffs, sitting down over the blue water and disbelievingly take yet another paltry, watery crap and hope to God once the bib shorts are up this time, and the jersey zipped and arranged, and the Camel-bak in place, and the door slamming behind you as you look into the middle distance and avoid eye contact with the masses of similarly bowel-challenged cyclists patiently waiting their turn, trying not to move too much, a little rictus on each face, a clenched/clenching look, you don’t want to look too deeply into anyone’s eyes, although, true, there are plenty of hardbodied women who simply have to pee, but you don’t look at them because you’re not supposed to.)
So I go back to Marketplace, walk the aisles, they’ve got half the lights on and a guy in a moustache reading PEOPLE at one lit-up checkout, get the stuff, hear a floor buffer whining. And at 4 AM, I suddenly need to make a visit to the public restroom between the liquor store and the pharmacy, and I quickly goosestep into a stall, and drop trow, and I’m thinking this is not the normal pre-race, revving metabolism skitters, this is something a little more insidious, something I’ve been sorta monitoring all week. I go through the indignity, which you can skip by going to the next paragraph, and the weird thing is my whole ass feels really hot, potentially wet, and I think my God, what just happened? and I tentatively reach down there and lightly pat around, but things are dry and copacetic, and it turns out that the plumber has routed the hot water line to the toilet, and it's almost boiling hot, and the whole bowl has sort of steamed my butt, which I suppose would feel kinda good, in a spa sort of way, if I weren't feeling rather sick. For the third year in a row I seem to come down with something the week of the FTF40, and it’s a low-level gut thing but it also fatigues and worse than anything posits that big question mark over your head: So like no personal record this year or anything, but should I just bag the race entirely? Can’t do it.
I’m strange that way, obsessive – between the Birkie and the FTF40, they're like my secular high holidays, and I’d feel terrible about bagging rather than at least touring the thing. Why should it bruise the ego to finish the thing feeling OK and down by about 100 places, when I’m only ever middle-of-the-peloton cannon fodder – muzzle pack, wadding -- anyway? No where near challenging for position or arguing for preferred and all the rest? I won’t go into the metaphysics here, but suffice to say I like the event and the course for reasons other than what my time at the finish line is, though that hangs over everything else like an albatross for sure, but OK, the metaphysics of it is this: I never otherwise ride that hard for that long, and while it sucks, it also evokes a certain sort of irreproducible ecstasy too, and besides, I always like to say that my goal is to ride smart for sure. Ride fast if possible, but ride smart at any cost, and the FTF40 is great for that, because not only can you strategize where you want to pour on the coals and where you want to conserve and not pointlessly burn matches, but also taking incidental advantage of fast trains when they come by, sucking wheel behind a huge Clydesdale-class dude on a hardtail driving behind a snowplow, then pulling through. And I get that right in some parts, wrong in others every year, but it’s still a fun internal chess match against your own body. D’oh, why do I always try to bridge on Telemark Road right before the rocky rollers at Lake Helane? Gain three places to lose 10 &c. So, I’m feeling like crap, go back to the start line, drop the Stumpjumper off in the second row – I’m not convinced the dozen yahoos now milling around with their ghostbikes actually know where the line will be drawn though one fellow with an unlikely huge beer belly seems to know what he’s talking about, seems to have done it in the past, and there’s a sort of comraderie among this small crowd of guys, and even a couple loyal wives putting bikes down for slumbering fantasist husbands in their dreams pistoning through chainless to a top 100 finish and a supposed ticket to preferred, though one local guy is saying to another guy in spontaneous conversation that Gary didn’t give him preferred even though he finished in the hallowed top 100 last year, he’s not bitter about it, I mean here he is at 4:45 AM with his bike on the line, effectively at the back of preferred start anyway, so what’s to be bitter about anymore? So there is a certain honor in being up this insanely early to put your bike down, and there is a superangry bandit patrol dude in a red pinny who will show up later to be the instrument of righteous indignation for anyone who shows up even at 5:30 or 6 AM and tries to thread through the already astonishingly huge crop of upturned wheels and aimless pedals, the mine field of bikes turned upside down on saddles, to cheat a place they didn’t earn with an alarm clock and a nervous disposition. The bandit patrol dude will publically and loudly excoriate anyone caught doing this, belittle you, may even get in your face and make contact. One of the dudes is talking about how last year this bandit patrol guy ran over a woman who was trying to weasel her bike over the plastic fence. “Unctuous,” is the word he was using, a great word.
But so back at the cabin, Colbert and family are sleeping still in their RV, bikes and wheels littered around the driveway, and I sneak back into bed and fitfully piece together a few more half hours of sleep, and then up alone by 7:30, start to get things together, it’s high 50s and grey, looks a little like light rain, there’s a little chop on the lake, a SSW wind which is a tailwind if you’re riding from Hayward to Cable though you won’t feel it in the woods, put on a base layer and longsleeved BPB jersey, I’ll be the only one from the team this year since everyone else is working or parenting or splitting loyalties with LCR or POS, hit the road on the crossbike for the 7 miles to Hayward, another inscrutable tradition even when I have to do it alone and even after countless offers of a ride in an auto or an RV, bringing everything I’ll need in the mess bag that will barely fit inside the cheap plastic drop bag the hempy string of which will always always tear free of the bag and make the whole thing useless. A couple years ago, I had like 10 pounds of air in the crossbike’s wheels, and flatted less than three blocks from the cabin, pinch flatted on a huge rock in the middle of the well paved road because my mind was already rolling out, and Hartney laconically said, “no problem, plenty of time,” as I sweated through a quick change, thanking God I had a spare 700c tube in my bag. The real race – who among the pros and local heroes—really have a chance at a podium is never further from my mind, and won’t come back to mind until hours after the race is over for me, if at all. Selfish, of course, we’re all the stars of our own movie right. Some years, I’ve been home for days, my singed lungs and sledged legs fully recovered, before I think to look up the official results to parse through the first page to see whether Matter or Hall or Tilley or Swanson managed to repeat, whether local new blood like Gaier broke through, or whether the occasional carpet-bagging pro stops by for some cherrypicked regional glory that will still look good on the race resume.
Tomorrow: Part 2: Can Pinchie keep his breakfast down and his dirt up? Where was last year's winner? Who is this year's winner? Despite the legion of singlespeed racers, can another SS ever win the FT40 again? And other erudite observations, excuses, complaints, and situations
An Amusement & Diversion for The Genteel Cyclist. Daily.