Life Begins on the Other Side of Despair
I’m not really sure what’s fashionable these days for introverted, Europhilic wanna-be teenage bike racers. But at 14, I’d have to rank Gitanes, bulemia, drillium, Bauhaus (the band, not the movement) and Jean-Paul Sartre as my greatest interests. Of course at 14, I knew nothing in general, and even less about French philosophy, but that hardly stopped me from spouting off at all hours about death consciousness, anticolonialism, morality, existentialism. Needless to say, I wasn’t a very popular child in elementary school. And needless to say, I wasn’t a very popular teammate - particularly on long training rides.
It was my second summer with the program, and I would be vying for one of only three spots on the traveling squad. We’d do a couple of stage races in the Rockies, some crits in the Midwest, and then on to New England for circuit racing, then back home. With the spring campaign completed, we all piled into a cargo van and drove out to the Eastern Sierras for a five day training camp. It would also be the final test, one final chance to make the selection and impress our coach and the elder riders. I packed a copy of Nausea, ten cigarettes, five film canisters filled with table salt, and my lucky size 42 Adidas Eddy Merckx kicks.
We arrived in a small town, our first basecamp, around noon. It was located along a fairly high ridge overlooking Badwater Basin, where, we were told, temperatures would reach 50°C. It felt that hot at the basecamp, but I didn’t say anything. I just laced up my shoes, filled my tires with air, grabbed a copy of the cue sheet, and rolled out with five others. About an hour into the ride, just at the base of our first significant climb of the day, I flatted. Knowing that I was one of the better climbers, and confident in my ability to quickly replace my tire, I waved on the other guys, and off they went. I remember the smell of sulphur just then. I remember the smell of sulphur, and the punishing bright sun, and what at the time I imagined to be vultures flying overhead, although they probably were just crows. I peeled off the tire, uncoiled the spare from under my saddle, and was back on the bike before long.
The climb was a series of switchbacks, and the foothills was littered with weird brush, tall enough to obscure my view - so I wasn’t sure where the guys were. I settled into a rhythm that I figured was pretty fast - fast enough to catch them after a few kilometers, anyway. Stopping had caused me to sweat a lot, so I removed my cap and dabbed my face, then stuffed it into my jersey pocket. Soon, the vultures were gone. Everything was real quiet, and all I could hear was my heartbeat and the bzzzzzzzz of my tires on the tarmac. Turn. Turn. Turn. Turn. Still no sight of the guys, so I hastened the pace a little. Is my cadence right? I asked myself. Are my tires too low? I checked: Nope, they looked fine. I approached a large boulder on the side of the road and noticed a fat looking lizard doing push ups. It had a green body and a dazzling purple chest. I couldn’t do a single push up when I was 14. But I could climb, or so I thought.
Eventually, I reached the first crest. The switchbacks met up with a long false flat section that would dump me over the ridge and into a forested area. Still no sign of the guys. I ripped through the false flat and dropped into the forest, pedaling furiously. Where could they be? There weren’t any forks in the road, so… Exiting the forest, I stopped at a clearing and consulted the cue sheet again. Another short climb, and then the road would descend into the valley, where we’d make a large 30km arc, before ascending the next series of climbs. Surely I’d either catch them, they’d wait up, or at the very least, I’d be able to spot the gruppetto in the distance. I reached into my pocket and grabbed a small baked potato, eating it with about a teaspoon of salt. And look! The vultures returned.
Finishing the valley arc section, I started to get concerned. There was still plenty of light left, but I had over 80km to go and really wasn’t excited about finishing the ride solo. I took the second set of climbs at pace, counting six lizards doing push-ups along the way. At this point, I was pretty resigned to finishing the ride alone, so I checked my bidons: only a little over one bottle left, 2.5 hours to ride, and it sure as heck felt like 50°C. I hit a clearing and stopped for a nature break, smoked half a Gitane, and continued on. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that at that moment, I’d taken a wrong turn.
Two hours would go by before I consulted my Analog Seiko. The cue sheet either wrong, I thought, or my ride had gone pretty pear-shaped. The sun was beginning to set, the wind was picking up, and… what’s that in the brush? Is that a coyote? I ate my second (and last potato), drank the last of the water, and… decided to turn around, retracing my route. Hustling up the first (fifth? I’d lost count) climb, a new worry popped into my head: would today blow my chances to make the traveling team? Would coach see me for the dunderheaded kid that I was? Was my failure to catch my teammates on one single, stupid ride enough to derail my Pro dreams? I noticed a lizard doing push-ups, and noticed his long shadow.
As night fell, so did the temperature. Rapidly. I reached into my pocket for another potato: Nope. Reached into the other and resignedly grabbed my cap, and put it on - tight and low, as unPro as possible. Had they forgotten about me? Were they eating pasta with mushrooms? Was I that insignificant, that unimportant? In the moonlight, I noticed another lizard. But he wasn’t doing push-ups. He was looking right at me. He was looking right at me, and then he opened his mouth as if to eat an insect, but instead he spoke to me!
“Life begins on the other side of despair.” he said.
I shook my head in disbelief as I rolled by. Having trained at elevation, and in the desert before, I knew hallucinations. I knew how dehydration and fatigue caused me to hallucinate. But usually my hallucinations were simply of food, like giant stalks of broccoli, or tarmac turning into rivers of chocolate milk. I’d never had an anthropomorphic hallucination before. I reached for my bidon: Empty. So I rolled on.
Finally I started to recognize the terrain. There would be one final climb to to the ridge where the basecamp was located. I thought about how I’d deal with things. Would I roll up, real cool, like, and say, “Hey guys. I decided to do an extra three hours.” And then collapse on the floor? Would I go all Hinault on them? Or would I just apologize for not being able to stay with the group, and promise to do better in the morning?
I could see the little town in the distance now, and I could see the dim orange glow of out motel’s vacancy sign. My tongue felt real cottony, my lips like sandpaper. Salt peppered my forearms, and my skinny ass legs were wobbly and cold. And then I heard something behind me: a car maybe? No. It sounded like an animal. A dog? I instinctively reached for my Silca frame fit. There were only a few minutes left now, a few minutes of excruciating climbing left. The grade just before town was very steep, maybe 16%, but a steady 16%, for about a kilometer. I could still hear something following me, so I looked back. And it was that lizard: the first lizard! The one with the sparkly purple chest.
“Life begins on the other side of despair.” he said, shuffling behind me, urging me on, like a scaly tifosi on L'Alpe d'Huez.
I returned my gaze to the flickering motel sign up ahead, stood, and shifted into a larger gear.