This was originally written as a chapter for Ten Points. When I figured out that the book needed to be 20,000 words or so shorter, I got about 8,000 of the way there by lifting out the story of the Donut Derby. I knew right away that the book was better without it, but I also knew I’d let a pretty good story go to waste. One week I got stuck without a decent story for Sitting In and was searching my notes for something — anything — and stumbled across a Moleskine that had a couple sketches and impressions I’d written right after getting home from the race. I remembered the chapter, retrieved it, edited it for length and I had a column.
It was a lark, the Donut Derby, a race decided by who ingested the most Krispy Kremes, a hilarious and clever send-up of the severity of real bike racing. So we immediately began to take it way too seriously.
The owners of South Mountain Cycles, our local shop in Emmaus, figured that winning the Donut Derby, one of the premier events here in the Lehigh Valley, would be great publicity. The charity ride’s 30-mile route was divided by two rest stops, which were stocked with thousands of glazed donuts. Every donut a rider ate was worth a three-minute deduction from the finish time.
At some point we’d decided that our strategy, just like an authentic racing team, would be to sacrifice the whole squad for the leader. Except instead of sheltering our legendary campionissimo from wind and crashes across hundreds of miles of European cobbles, or setting a blistering pace to the base of the Alps, where our angel of the mountains would launch a pack-breaking solo attack up the cruel peaks, we would all work together to pull a designated donut eater.
Our high-powered domestique crew included me; Bowman, one of the shop owners and a guy who, in a former incarnation as an amateur racer a decade earlier had been voted rider of the year at the Lehigh Valley Velodrome; our friend Markus, a wall of a man who was visiting from Germany and had raced all around the continental birthplace of bicycle racing in his teens; and Ken, the fastest man on earth in white tube socks (and down-tube shifters). We figured that if we focused on speed and forsook donuts, we could average 20 mph. All we needed was a leader who could eat 20 donuts and wallow in our draft. In secret meetings, we chortled about how our strategy would end up revolutionizing an event that was typically triumphed over by a plodding glutton who could keep down 35 donuts or so.
That’s how it came to pass that I began my Labor Day morning by flicking two elderly women on mountain bikes, with underinflated tires, out of the path of the rushing train that was our team, for what had to be the fastest start ever of a race associated with fried dough.
Our leader, Taylor, had no experience riding in a paceline, let alone a race, but he seemed the most likely among us to be able to hold all those donuts down, simply by virtue of his quirkiness. Left to his own preferences, he rode single-speeders or fixies on the road. He had a fascination for funky handlebars — moustache-shaped bars, chopper bars, bullhorns, priest bars — and fenders and bells. He sometimes did sixty- or seventy-mile rides in jeans and tennis shoes.
We strung the Donut Derby out.
About four miles in, a rider streaked past us on the left, pulled away, and was gone. He’d been in full time-trial gear, stretched out on an aerodynamic handlebar that jutted low and forward over his front wheel, wearing a skinsuit with long sleeves and full legs, a teardrop-shaped helmet and even skin-tight booties over his shoes — the full, pro team kit for cheating the wind.
I felt as if I’d been punched. My team was supposed to have the most ridiculous strategy for the Donut Derby, and here was this Aero Donut Dude doing something more insane. And there was something else. Something I really didn’t want to admit: I’d figured I’d be the fittest guy here.
I was in the middle of the most important season of cycling of my life. For a year, I’d eaten like a cheerleader. I’d regularly gotten up to ride before sunrise, and I’d ridden with saddle sores, and in the rain, and snow, and dust, and scorching sunshine, and sopping humidity, and with cicadas pinging off my face. I’d thrown myself under the wheels of massively strong, skilled, gifted riders, and I’d let pokey weekend riders smugly pass me when I needed to do recovery rides, and I’d drank awful substances and choked down chalky powders and stuffed myself with supplements and fueled myself with gels and bars and blocks. I’d left work early at least once a week to ride, and abandoned friends who didn’t ride, and to get enough time on the bike I’d been either intensely focused or selfish, depending on who you asked.
There was no way I was getting dropped at a Donut Derby.
I dragged Taylor up to Aero Donut Dude, who, sensing some disturbance behind him, craned his head around and looked back. When he saw the tail he’d grown, he snapped his head forward then doubletaked back at us again and jumped. But he couldn’t jump much. We’d been doing 33, and by giving all he had to snapped up to 35. I smoothed across the distance and checked for Taylor and sat in, and waited for Aero Donut to look back again.
When he did, and didn’t jump again, I knew we could settle in for a good long session at this speed, while he tried to see if he could burn us off by sticking it at 35. I eased myself down into the effort and then took a good, long look over my shoulder to see who’d crossed the gap with me. There was Taylor, and Markus, and Bowman and Ken, and some kid I didn’t recognize, shaking and wobbling and heaving. Behind the kid: road and sky. I felt a little twinge of regret that we’d lost the other members of our vast team — including my wife, Beth. But I told myself I’d done the right thing according to the fundamental principles of road racing.
At a little rise in the road, I had to slip a hitch into my stroke to keep my wheel from bumping Aero Donut’s. I played the road back in my head and realized I’d been doing this for a half a mile or so, ever since we scampered onto this section where the road curved up and down like a school of jumping dolphins. We weren’t slowing enough to even change the speedometer, but I could feel it. I blew snot between my arm and thigh and grinned, and on the flat twenty feet before the next rise I eased my bike to the right and dragged the paceline past Aero Donut Boy.
At the first donut stop, as Taylor ate, Bowman walked over to me and said, “Strickland, you dropped your wife.”
“But,” I said, “the fundamental principles of road racing dictated –”
“Whatever. You dropped your wife, man.”
Beth rode in with some of her friends, walked over to the donut table and picked up a Krispy Kreme.
“Chew!” Bowman screamed at Taylor, as our friend Dave compressed donuts to make them easier for our leader to eat.
Beth walked past me and said, “I’m heading out,” then got on her bike and rolled out with Steak and Christine.
“I can’t leave our leader,” I shouted after my wife. “The fundamental —”
She was gone.
It turned out that Taylor sucked at filling his gut with donuts. It was one of those character flaws most of us would not discover about ourselves during our entire lives, yet there our leader was, barely halfway through his biggest race of the season, confronting the ugly truth. His jaws slowed to an abysmal pace and his chewing style grew sloppy and ragged, like the embarrassing pedal strokes of a blown crit rider. He kept pausing for drinks of water between ever-smaller bites, and rider after rider stopped at the park, ate fistfuls of donuts and left while we watched our leader lapse into a cholesterol stupor.
“Eat,” Bowman barked. “Your stomach’s not even bulging yet.” For emphasis, he snapped his index finger against Taylor’s midriff.
The lady handing Pryor donuts shook her head.
Taylor put down ten.
We rocketed our way over the course. Taylor hung off the back, never taking a pull, looking as if he were seasick on a rowboat in a storm. Every once in a while he’d lose focus, drift sideways and the wind would catch him in full and blow flakes of donut and sugar off his face. We slung into the second, and last, donut stop.
Taylor let himself be escorted to the donut boxes by Bowman. I stood in place and turned, looking for Beth. She wasn’t there.
I looked across the park at our leader, forcing a five-minute deduction into his mouth by bracing his hand against a fence rail while he spread his lips around the donut and dropped his head down upon it. Bowman gave me a thumbs-up.
Beyond them, I saw my daughter, Natalie, playing on the swingset. Her babysitter had brought her out to see us race. I duckwalked over in my cleats, and when Natalie saw me she jumped from her swing and shouted, “Daddy!” and ran to me and hugged my thighs.
“Mommy was here,” Natalie said, stepping away from me and raising her arms for me to pick her up. “She left.”
“I know,” I said. I picked her up and walked us back over to the swings, then set Natalie into one and said, “Push?”
“Yes,” she said. “Mommy played with me, too. Higher.” I pushed her harder, and Natalie said, “Mommy ate a lot of donuts. Are you eating a lot?”
“No, Boo,” I said. I pushed. “Daddy’s the strong man for the Donut Derby team.”
“Okay. Mommy’s way ahead of you.”
Taylor was suffering like an espoirs in the final week of a Grand Tour, unable to stand under his own power, swaying as he was supported by Pryor, Bowman and Markus. If they let him go, he’d drop to his knees. A viscous, glazing stream of spit and sugar spilled from the left corner of his mouth and steadily ran off the bottom edge of his chin. He blinked his eyes as if in continual surprise that each time he opened them anew he was where he was.
We rode it in hard, still passing everyone, by far the fastest group in this Donut Derby, if not in the history of Donut Derbies worldwide.
There was an award ceremony in the parking lot. Taylor got third in his age group, nothing in the overall General Classification, but that was good for a prize of a dozen donuts and a bronze medal that hangs in the bike shop today.
Beth won her age group and third overall for women. Her face overrun by a goofy, embarrassed but unmistakably proud smile, she walked up onto the plywood stage to accept her prizes — three dozen Krispy Kremes and a trophy of a ponytailed cyclist spinning across a gold-plated donut.
Afterward, I lay down next to Beth on the warm asphalt, the two of us stretched full out, letting the escaping heat massage us. Natalie jumped across our bodies, onto our stomachs, made us jerk our legs out from under her when she poked an elbow or knee into our thighs.
We didn’t talk for a long time. Finally, I said, “Can I have one of your donuts?”
“Yeah,” said Beth.
But I didn’t want to sit up to get one. I lay there. Blindly, I groped for the box, found it, wrapped my fingers around a donut, but didn’t bring it to my mouth. “Geez,” I said. “You only lost the overall by 30 seconds. You could won the whole thing if you’d had one more donut.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Beth. “I was just having fun.”
We lay there.
Beth said, “I guess I could have won, too, if I hadn’t played with Nat for fifteen minutes at the last donut stop.”
I rolled my head to the left to look at her, the profile of her face set against the chain link fence of the velodrome.
Bowman appeared above us, and said, “I can’t believe you dropped your wife.”
As I started to say, “The fundamental principles —” Bowman spoke at the same time, and our voices ran over each other, garbling out.
“What?” said Beth.
Bowman repeated himself: “Next year I’m riding for Beth.”
I brought Beth’s prize donut up in front of my face, and looked into the hole, through the hole, up at the sky and all that lay beyond it. And I said, “Yeah. Me, too.”
Originally published in the June 12, 2007 Sitting In