It was never an option to not saddle up and not go it alone in the rain, cold and wind, or in 100-degree heat with a group of toned and mad-eyed masochists. You hit an 80-mile training ride before strolling late into third-period chemistry class with no notebook or pencil, nor any interest at all in being there, and find a desk at the very back with the stoners and retreat into the sweet endorphin overload that washes over you. That was, basically, your high school life until that day in 10th grade when you strolled out of there for good.
You learn there's nothing like, say, descending Colorado's mighty Independence Pass on your racing bike at 50 miles per hour, heading straight for Aspen, at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in May when your fellow high schoolers are back in that chemistry class, bored right out of their skulls.
Then comes summer and that's when the bike-racing season really begins. And little compares to Los Angeles in late May, especially racing in a category for 17- and 18-year-olds when you're all of 15. Southern California is to you an elevated existence of oceanside utopia, an untouchable idea of life where images of TV shows you grew up on reappear like ghosts on palm-tree-lined boulevards that disappear into hills strewn with vine-covered Spanish homes and gated driveways. What is this place? It's like Raymond Chandler, but colored in with soft lines and edges. You long for the Cali girls whose beauty is so rich and well-bred that it produces an ache in your gut that stays for weeks. You wonder: Will that interfere with my performance?
Worse, the California cyclists are bankrolled and arrive behind the wheels of German cars; they look cooler than you, and always, always have super-hot, sparsely clothed chicks from west L.A. on their arms. You're outclassed even before you saddle up. They win.
There's something inside you that's winding itself up. The race begins and you long to prove how an obsessive bike-racing kid can be put together like a pro cyclist. You feel alive. Your legs feel great. So you fucking go for it and attack after 35 miles. You're on the day's second climb and you still have 30 agonizing miles of fighting the road's elements — and yourself — to go. But you manage to stay clear of the 60 riders. You cross the line more than a minute ahead of second place.
Later, the 18-year-old So Cal cyclists are stunned and humiliated to learn your age, but they want you on their teams. Yet their perfect summer girls, and the incalculable number of beautiful chicks, never look at you. Don't even acknowledge your presence. It's a pain as great as that which you suffer on the bike.
You soon learn of the adrenaline from the frightening chaos of alloy and bones crashing to asphalt. You're in the midst of a bloodbath in downtown Long Beach. Some promoter had the bright idea to stage a massive bicycle race on closed-off, fuel-and-oil-slicked freeways during a break in the Long Beach Grand Prix. You understand quickly that the course wasn't mopped up after the last Formula One contest. Shoulder-to-shoulder, figures in your periphery collide and crack. On a lethal hairpin curve one rider clings desperately to your jersey before he nails the concrete siding, and you just catch that fierce look of absolute panic on his face. Christ! Another lap and you see that guy strapped to a gurney getting loaded into an ambulance. His face and body parts are raw hamburger.
One hundred starters; 30 finishers. By some inexplicable fluke you stay upright, finish top five.
Another summer and you learn there's nothing like negotiating the slick, rain-wet turns on streets in downtown Green Bay, flat-out hammering — heart rate a steady 160 — legs, lungs, arms, back cramped with ache and sting. You're soaked, streaked with the mud spinning off rear wheels ahead of you. But you're sick of the splatter so you risk the street's edges; you bump other riders, slide on corners, nearly eat shit, but it pays off. Suddenly you're doing the lion's share of the "work" in a three-man breakaway that could stay clear of the group to the finish. You're taking insane chances because you're racing in Cat. 1, the best of those over the age of 18, and you're only 16. You've only read about a lot of the guys in the main group behind you. You want the pain and the race to end but there are 10 laps left. Anguish displaces fear displaces nerves. You single-handedly keep up a pace to ensure that your three-man break stays clear to the finish line — only to get edged in the sprint finish for the win. But still. Second place. You could be home learning to be a teenager.
There's nothing like leading a group of chasers by 25 seconds over a final climb in Utah. That is until a deadly pothole crosses your path, snaps the top of your forks so it's impossible to steer. But you continue on, and then things go blank. You wake up hours later in a hospital. The road burns on one side of your body between chin and ankle look like a medley of raspberries and roses. You're told you have a concussion. All you think about is how you lost the event.
You keep racing because this is your career. But girls get to you. Their mere presence hits you like blows to the abdomen, and why can't you touch them? By the end of the next summer a woman finally touches you. Not a chick, a much older woman. She's in love with your sinuous lines, and a physique reserved only for those with 4 percent body fat. She can't get enough. You're cooked. Your cycling coach and teammates do everything to save you. No such luck. You got a taste and it ended your cycling career in less than 48 hours. You sell off the bikes, tires, wheels, shoes ... anything to remind you of what regret might one day feel like. Besides, you now need the money.
A few years later you're surrounded by your bandmates in a dismal rehearsal space in ugly downtown L.A., a cramped space that doubles as living quarters for you, your teenage wife, your band and their girlfriends. The room's a fairly accurate approximation of how you picture hell. You're drunk on Colt 45 and watching the Summer Olympics on a tiny black-and-white TV with a coat-hanger antenna. You're surrounded by your drunken, weed-huffing bandmates, who haven't a clue what could possibly be going on inside you. No way to even begin to explain. But you're haunted in the worst way when the Olympic cycling road race comes on. Especially when your ex-teammate fills the screen, the one with whom you raced, lived and traveled, who told you to "slow down" during an important two-man time trial in the ghost-town hills of the Southwest because he could barely hang on. He was your cycling twin, a little older but equally as obsessed. Back then.
There are but a few moments in life when you're suddenly and painfully aware what a single heartbeat of a bad decision can do.
That drunken Olympic day in downtown L.A. was one such moment. You watch your ex-teammate represent your country and win the Olympic gold medal in cycling.
That was hard. Harder still is watching another friend win the Tour de France many times in the years to come. You learn that your only options are, as one smart English writer once said, kill yourself or get over it.
But that was before.
Now, it's summertime again. A million summers later. You finally got yourself a soul mate. Maybe you should get a bike, just for the hell of it.
Brian Smith is managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]