A MORE SIMPLE TIME: How Cycling Saved My Soul
In 1990 I created a weekly cycling column at The Orange County Register that set a new direction in my journalism career.
This book, A More Simple Time: How Cycling Saved My Soul, tells the tale of how I covered the bicycle racing scene in the United States from 1990-96, rising from a simple freelance writer (after I quit The Register to follow cycling) to editor of VeloNews, the most respected magazine covering cycling.
They beauty of cycling in the USA back then was its pure essence. The countless inspiring individuals who shared their journeys with me were racing bicycles for one simple reason: Love of the sport.
Here is an excerpt from the book, recounting the day I realized that cycling offered me the opportunity to practice journalism the way I believe it was meant to be practiced.
HERE IS THE EXCERPT:
[Read a BONUS EXCERPT HERE]
It didn't take long to get a taste of big-time cycling, American style. My baptism came at the Redlands Classic, a short stage race in Redlands, California, that attracted the top bike racers in America — and some of the top racers in the world.
The Russians sent a small contingent to the United States to race in the spring of 1990. They competed at the Tour DuPont in early May, and came to Redlands before heading back to the East Coast for the meat of the US racing season.
I spent countless hours researching everything I could get my hands on to get to know the top bicycle racers, least I ever run into a couple of national caliber cyclists tuning up at some local race. When Memorial Day weekend rolled around, finally, my chance to see them live.
I headed to Redlands as prepared as I could be on all fronts, except one. I had no idea how you actually cover a real bicycle race in person. I talked with the folks in charge of the press — Redlands is completely run by community volunteers — and Tracy Fischer said they would reserve a seat for me in the press vehicle, whatever that meant.
After the prologue, a short time trial stage around downtown, I arrived for the start of the Oak Glen Road Race, a 71-mile adventure that has the biggest climb of the event — 2,200 feet to the 4,883-foot Oak Glen summit. I checked in, got my press credentials, and found the press truck. A pickup truck on loan to the race by the local car dealer. I hopped in the back with a couple of other reporters and a case of bottled water, and began the adventure of a lifetime.
For most of the race, we sat in the pickup looking back at the pack of riders about a quarter-mile or so behind us. Sometimes the officials would let us slow down enough to get closer — maybe 50 yards. Occasionally a rider or two would attempt a breakaway, and get close enough to us so we could see them and read their numbers.
The press truck driver had a hand-held radio. He could get reports from the officials on what was happening with the race. It was cool.
In my mind I could hear "real" sports writers complaining about wasting a day in a pickup, bouncing around highways and roads in the middle of nowhere for four hours, getting tossed to and fro, freezing from the stiff morning breeze, getting sun burned in the afternoon and not able to see anything closeup.
I could only laugh at those thoughts, out loud, as I stood on the side of the road taking a piss with the other two dudes along for the ride. Literally peeing in the ditch while a small army of CHPs on motorcycles whizzed past, escorting the race, ignoring us. I suppose on some level I was marking my territory, like a dog.
This was my reality. Through the acceleration and slowing of the pickup, I could sense the rhythm of the race as we mirrored the racers' pace. When the driver punched the gas pedal to the floor, the wind picked up in intensity, and you could feel what it's like to be out on a bike in the elements when the pace picks up. My heart rate spiked. My senses screamed on red alert.
Slowly, what may have looked like nothing more than a mass of riders in multi-colored splendor, seemed to come alive like focusing a microscope on a drop of water in junior high science. When the pace ratcheted up, the mass turned into a thin line of cyclists speeding through the countryside, taking turns at the front before peeling off and disappearing back into the pack like a ballet in motion. When it slowed, they bunched up and spread across the roadway as wide as they could, each keeping a watchful eye on the others.
The different colored jerseys would spark different reactions from everyone. When a rider or two would burst from the group, and all-out chase would ensue. Sometimes, it would abate, allowing them free reign.
So it went, on throughout the morning. Then came the feed zone, just before the main climb of the stage. Suddenly the side of the road appeared crammed with support vehicles and people handing food and drinks — packed in bags called "musettes" — on the fly, to the riders in the group. The riders would grab a bag, sit up, and begin to stuff their pockets with fresh water bottles and food.
That's when all hell broke loose.
Suddenly the Russian contingency exploded from the group. While the rest of the racers bellied up to the buffet, the Ruskies busted a move.
Three of the Russians — Evgeniy Berzin, Dmitri Zhdanov and Vladislav Bobrik tore the race apart. A lone American hung with them, a young rider from Colorado by the name of Clark Sheehan. The foursome attacked the climb up toward the Oak Glen summit.
We watched from the back of the pickup as the Russians took turns challenging the young American. The whine of the pickup's engine trying to accelerate on the pitch let me know when things got steep. Sheehan fought and battled to hang with them up the climb. I got sucked into the pure athletic battle waging right before my eyes. It reminded me of the only time I covered an actual boxing match, sitting ringside watching Tommy Hearns fight. I'd watched countless boxing matches on TV, and oohed and aahed at some punches. Seeing them landed live, in person. Wow. Nothing compares. Same here. This climb, long and challenging, had to burn. I've been there on my bike. Hurting. Yet not competing. Imagine being pushed. Fighting to keep up. Cliche as it seemed, we watched the robotic Russians working over a young American full of vigor and dreams. I wrapped my mind around the poetry. Then, suddenly, without warning, an official on a motorcycle cruised up to the driver's side of our pickup that crawled up the mountain about 5 mph.
"GO GO GO GO!" he screamed, "Get outta here. Get over the top!"
We flew to the tailgate as the driver planted his foot to the floor. The engine screamed as it tried to roar up the mountain. The riders quickly disappeared behind a switchback.
We flew over the summit at Oak Glen, past the wonderful apple orchard and pies for sale that eventually would become the mountaintop finish for this stage, and began racing down the other side of the mountain to Yucaipa, through the sharp switchbacks, with tires squealing around each turn. We hung on for our lives, getting thrown back and forth about the bed. I thought they were exaggerating the stunt on my behalf. It was like a great roller-coaster ride.
We laughed and hung on. I looked at the side view mirror, occasionally catching a glimpse of the driver. He was enjoying his opportunity to speed like a maniac on the backroads of Redlands. We raced past CHPs on their motorcycles, who were the support vehicles for the race. When do you get the chance to do that?
Then I saw the driver's eyes pop open in terror. The pickup jerked forward, tossing us backward again, as he lunged again on the gas. I turned to look. Holy shit.
The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!
Gaining quickly on us, but still a switchback or two behind, were the Russians. They were flying down the mountain like superheroes on a Saturday morning cartoon.
I squinted my eyes to get a better look. Then again to actually believe what I was seeing. The Russians had nearly half of their bodies thrust forward, hanging out over their front wheels. Their hands, gripping the handlebars tightly, were wedged somewhere around their waists. It appeared impossible to displace that much weight over the front without tumbling over. Yet, that's exactly what they were doing. On tires about an inch wide. At more than 50 mph.
I know the speed, because I lunged forward like a panicked pilot checking his gauges just before a crash. If it were a cartoon, my eyes would have popped 10 inches out of my head. Through the back window I could see the speedometer bounding between 45-50 as we screeched around the corners.
"Here they come!" one of my fellow journalists screamed with a high-pitch wail like a little girl in a horror movie. In my entire career of sports writing, I never experienced a rush of sport like this. I couldn't breathe. Breathless.
What transpired in the next minute or so seemed surreal. They got within 50 feet of the truck, and blasted forward in our draft like three missiles. That's when time seemed to slow.
I sat in the back of that pickup truck, watching the background fly past me in a blur, tires screaming as the G-force tossed us about in the turns, listening to the engine roar as we accelerated out of turns, all with three bike racers literally within arm's length of me — the American Sheehan keeping a safer distance back. There were moments that the pickup deviated from its steady line, and I'd watch a hand — yes, one of the hands holding the handlebars — calmly rise and gently touch the side of the pickup to keep a cushion of safety.
Then they moved to the outside like the Blue Angels in formation when we hit a straightaway, and bolted past us in a blur. The pickup screamed to a halt at the first pullout, skidding in gravel as the tires locked. I looked in the side view mirror. Our driver was white as a ghost. Sheehan flew past in desperate pursuit. I doubt there was a dry pair of undies in the truck. My heart pounded out of my chest. I knew at that moment the only way I'd ever return permanently to the world of pack journalism would be kicking and screaming.
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