That summer, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now had been released, and being a die-hard Joseph Conrad fan with a prematurely dim view of humanity, I was keen to sneak into the neighborhood theater for a viewing. Sam and I were still smarting from being unceremoniously tossed from said theater a few months earlier, having purchased tickets for Breaking Away (for the nth time) but instead snuck into Manhattan. We’d had pretty good luck with this game when our teammate Johnny was working the box office, making it into Alien and several Bruce Lee films (and usually using stubs from previous showings). But now Johnny had been flown off the Belgium – the first of us to experience what our coach used to refer to as “the wake up call,” a season of cyclocross racing with his brother’s elite juniors team based in Ghent. Johnny was four years older than me, and the best cyclist I knew. He’d gotten me the job at the bike shop, and before he left, had loaned me his beautiful aluminum Alan cyclocross bike. “It’s a bitchin’ sport,” he said. That I could barely straddle a 52cm at the time did not dissuade me from training on, and eventually racing, this 57cm beast.
With Johnny gone, Jean-luc was put in charge of the juniors. Jean-luc was an exchange student from France – probably a better cyclist than Johnny at the time, but since I didn’t really know him, I would not have ranked him better. Jean-luc was smelly, stern, and very European. He was incredibly strict with us, and had a coaching personality seemingly built upon schadenfreude and sadism. But he was the only person over eighteen years old that I could think of to ask, and so I did.
“Jean-luc, do you think you could help Sam and I buy some movie tickets?”
“Because you don’t deserve it.”
“I’ll clean your bike this weekend.”
“What’s the movie?”
"Apocalypse Now… it has Marlon Brando in it…”
“Never heard of it. I need some rims cleaned and my tires re-glued, and I need it all done before Sunday morning. If you come to the race with me on Sunday and win your category, I’ll buy the tickets.”
OK, maybe he wasn’t so bad. But despite having a year of road racing under my belt, I knew next to nothing about cyclocross. And Sunday’s race was not only a cyclocross race, but a particularly difficult, hilly one at that. I would be racing against riders five years my senior, and I was pretty sure I didn’t have a chance. I spent the next few days cleaning and detailing Jean-luc’s bike (also an Alan), stripping glue from his Mavic SSCs, and gluing on a fresh set of Clement knobbies. An hour before dawn on Sunday morning, we piled into the VW and drove far up the coast and into a forest for the race.
It was too early in the season for mud, but there was a thick blanket of dewy humus over much of the course. Although these were the days before mountain biking, the course today might be considered half single track, with all sorts of ridiculous natural barriers: fallen Redwoods, gigantic, slippery roots, sections of pebbles and slate, and a meter-deep creek to ford! I’d decided to wear my lucky Gitane-Campagnolo cap, Bata Bikers, and blue (wool) team kit made by Castelli.
I really don’t know how it happened, but I won the race in the end. It might have been thanks to the sharp kit. But more likely, it could have been the crash that took out half the field and sent two of the area’s top juniors home with significant facial lacerations.
Sam and I had a great time watching Apocalypse Now that night. For the next week, he’d greet everyone with by announcing, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” at the top of his lungs. But I was especially taken by the scenes with Brando/Kurtz: his lumpen form, the dark shots, the snail on the razor’s edge imagery, and The Horror…
Buoyed by my perfect cyclocross racing record, I entered the following Sunday’s race. Every day after school, I rode Johnny’s Alan to the beach and practiced sand barriers until dusk. Jean-luc said that it would be another hilly course, giving me a chance at placing well. But he thought that I could use a little help.
“You are too small for this bike.”
“I know, but it has a shorter stem now… it works.”
“No, you are too weak for it. It needs to be lighter.”
“We should drill it!”
And thus an unfortunate series of events were set in motion. That night, we carefully drilled out the Alan’s brake levers, chainring, and shift lever. We swapped the Brooks Professional out, and replaced it with a (drilled) plastic Kashimax. And we glued my super light road wheels up with Clement knobbies. The bike probably only dropped half a kilo, but the psychological effect was great. I was going to win again!
Sunday’s course was beautiful: situated in a grassy valley next to a mountain lake, we arrived to discover a thick, impenetrable blue fog. There were five run-ups, including an absolutely ridiculous ski hill! The descents did look a little hairy, but I figured that the fog would allow a few of us to quickly escape off the front. Tiny cotton-tailed rabbits were seemingly everywhere, and I nearly wrecked on the warm up, trying to avoid a particularly stupid one that tried to dive into my front wheel.
There were about two dozen of us on the start line. Both of the fast kids were back, and one of them had a very large white bandage over his nose, reminding me of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.
“She’s my sister AND my daughter!” I said, nudging Sam.
“Gittes didn’t say that,” Sam said.
The first lap was pretty furious, but as expected, three or four of us broke off the front after the first climb. It was at this point that I realized something might be wrong with the bike. The brakes felt softer than I remembered them, so in my adolescent mind I decided to compensate by not braking at all on the descents. For the next couple of laps, I would get gapped on the flats, bridge to the guys on the climbs, and then massively drop them on the descents. The bell rang, and there were still four of us left off the front. I looked back, but couldn’t find Sam, so no teammate. The final third of the course was made of of twisty but flat switchbacks, and the guys had been throwing elbows all day. Outweighed by 10kg, I figured that elbowing back wouldn’t do much good, or provide me any sort of position for the final sprint. So I figured I’d attack on the ski hill climb, and pray.
Sure enough, the attack worked. I looked back after cresting the hill, and saw that I had a ten second gap – possibly enough to hold on. I whipped around a tree at the top, and cleared the dangerous double barriers right before the long descent. With a quick flick, I dropped the rear mech into the highest gear, shifted my weight off the back of the saddle, and braced for the first hard corner. Unfortunately, it came much too fast, and I panicked, braking hard just at the apex. SNAP! The front brake lever had broken, and before I knew it, I was hurling off the trail and into a prickly gathering of Madrones.
SNAP! Actually, I don’t think my clavicle made a sound as it fractured, but to this day, I have a very visceral memory of this crash, and in my memory the bone broke with a very loud and cartoonish SNAP! As I sat there, wondering what I had broken, gazing at Johnny’s mangled frame, nursing a dislocated thumb and generally feeling sorry for myself, I began to cry a little bit. Catching myself and worried that a teammate would see me, I wiped at my eyes, only to discover a new shock: bloody, bloody gloves. For a moment, I thought that my tears were made of blood, and I began to mumble, “The horror… the horror…”