I lost the coupon. My friend became an alcoholic, lost his family, money, home, and friends. Contador became the greatest stage racer in the world, at least for awhile.
“It was a new experience for me. I had to use a 34×30 gear.”
That’s what Alberto Contador had to say after finishing the 2008 Giro d’Italia’s uphill time trial, which finished on a 5-kilometer gravel road that had sections as steep as 24 percent. Contador was in pink, the leader’s jersey. His granny gear was heroic, cool, a symbol not that he was soft but that the race was hard.
When I show up for a ride around here with a 39×25, my supposed friends give me the kind of reception I helped heap on Doyle Rhemel back in Little League that day he cracked a solid line drive into centerfield then ran down the third-base line and stood there grinning until he got tagged out. When I hinted that I might go ahead and bolt in a compact chainring for a little exploit in July I let myself get talked into – roughly 29,000 feet of climbing in two days – the pack performed the verbal equivalent of the veterinary procedure that broke my daughter’s Yorki-poo of the habit of doing what Natalie, in her nine-year-old’s frame of reference, described as “hugging my leg.”
Contador doesn’t need a granny any more than my daughter needed her leg hugged, but he gets to use one because he’s the greatest stage racer in the world right now. I’m one of those guys who really needs to use a granny – but I can’t, because I have to prove that I’m not one of those guys who really needs to use a granny. A lot of experts are blabbing about how doping is bad because it gives some people an unfair advantage. You know what’s really an unfair advantage? Being better than other people.
Sometimes when we line up for the weekly training race, sitting there at the start is Jack Simes III, who rode in three Olympics and eight world championships, and won nine national championships; and there’s his kid, Jackie, a pro riding for Time who’s back home from the six-day circuit; and there’s the Torch, a six-time national champ; and pros Rodney Santiago and Geronimo and Bobby Lea, who once was the national kilo champ; and Marty Nothstein, a gold medalist in the 2000 Olympics and three-time world champion.
There’s me: I won a coupon for a cheeseburger once.
And I’ve never been able to bring myself to cash it in.
I’m just good enough to not be good, and not bad enough to be bad. I used to wonder if I and all the riders just like me were residents of a kind of purgatory, where every ride was an attempt to achieve the impossible feat of proving that we had nothing to prove.
The other night I was busy deciding if it was an illusion or if I was actually bleeding from my eyeballs when one of the local royalty rolled up beside me and snarled: “53-11 Strickland. Should have been in the 11.” His voice is like a rusty cannon shooting gravel at a bass drum.
“But I finished third in that sprint,” I sputtered.
“There are like 90 guys here.”
“And two in front of you.”
“It was Kyle Wamsley and Lara Van Gilder,” I said. I think I might have actually sat up, right there in the middle of the race, and taken my hands off the bar to raise my palms in an indication of disbelief. I think this because I recall some people behind me yelling. I said, “They’re both pros.”
“Van Gilder’s a girl,” he snarled. “You got beat by a girl.” He slipped away, forward, disappearing into the pack.
“She’s a woman,” I said. “A pro.” He was gone. I was talking to myself. I mumbled, “Why don’t you go hug my leg.”
The guy who was next to me, who had pulled into the gap, said, “What?”
I looked over at him. It was Brian, one of my friends. Guy just like me. Middle age. Middlebrow. Middle of the middle of the pack. He said, “Saw you up there. Did you get in that sprint?”
“Third,” I said.
He smiled a big, dumb, genuine happy smile and said, “Alright.”
I said, “I was in my 13.”
“I guess that was enough,” he said. And we kept on racing, the two of us nobodies, chasing the somebodies, getting closer to something we probably never will identify. Maybe, for whatever reason, no matter how dumb it is, I really have ended up being the kind of rider who can’t use a 34×30.
But I can eat a cheeseburger. Just like my damned friend said, I guess that’s enough.
Originally published in the May 30, 2008 Sitting In