Monday, June 10, 2013

Cycling in the 60s: The One I Won

Official Photo from the 1996 Columbus Day Race

I have previously opined that, although I was bicycle racer in my youth, I was a very bad one, a judgement by which I stand. I can remember winning one intermediate sprint, receiving as my prize something unimpressively modest like a water bottle, but that's about it. There was one exception, not one that changes my status as a bad racer, but one that, as a bizarre turn of events, provided me with a unique memory.

I say "unique memory", but in fact my memory is so bad it is only by digging through the fragmentary artifacts I have from that era that I can actually reconstruct what happened. Within the last year or two, I had occasion to chat with my dad about this race. "It occurred the first year after I turned from a junior rider (less than 18 years old) to a senior rider (18 and over)" I told him "and was at Lake Merced in San Francisco." My dad is 91 years old, and has started to worry a bit about his memory, so he said with some trepidation "Wasn't it at Lake Merritt in Oakland?" I assured him he was wrong and promised to document that when I got back home. He was right. Jeez, 91 years old and his memory is better than mine! Not only that, the race took place when I was 17 years old and still a junior rider. Nonetheless, we were racing with the seniors, presumably because this was a handicap race, and I guess the handicap was supposed to take care of the junior/senior distinction. According to the newspaper report1, this race took place one year to the day from when the Modesto Roadmen first started racing.

Because I was so bad, I was in the maximum handicap group. I knew I was going to get dropped (part of the reason I was such a bad racer is that I had a bad attitude) but when the maximum handicap group took off like a bat out of Hell, I frantically stuck with them. Getting dropped is one thing, getting dropped on the first lap is quite another. One of the riders seemed to be taking charge and was lashing us forward, not as if he was trying to drop us, but as if we were a team. As it turns out, we were - he had a plan. He had figured out that if we rode that first lap as fast as we could, we might be able to lap the zero handicap group, and then draft them to the finish, winning the race. Is that even legal? In general, drafting a lower handicap group is forbidden in bicycle racing. However, it had not occurred to the race organizers that lapping the leaders was possible, so they had failed to make this against the rules, an oversight which was firmly corrected in all future years. But that one year, what my fellow rider planned to do was technically legal, and his plan succeeded. We came around the last curve just as the zero handicap riders were just starting. The guy who had planned the whole thing, who lashed himself forward mercilessly in service to his plan, was all in and dropped out of the race, urging the rest of us to make his plan a surrogate success.

Is this the maximum handicap group catching the zero handicap group? It looks like it. I am third rider from the left. Note the helmets, strips of soft padded leather. That is what we wore back in the day, and we only wore them to race, never for other rides. Photo by LJS, "Father of the Zombie."

By that time, I had figured out the plan, so glued myself to the back of the zero handicap group. I had no idea who from the maximum handicap group was still with us, I just held on for dear life. Somehow, the zero handicap group had not figured out what had happened, and so did not realize that I was a lap ahead of them. They did figure out pretty quickly that I was not doing my share in the pace line, and I got a lot of grief for that. About half way through the race, I could hold on no longer and got dropped. Were there other riders from the maximum handicap group still with the leaders? Would the leaders manage to retake the lap that I was ahead of them? I didn't know as I time-trialled my way to the end of the race. Somehow I must have figured out that I was ahead of all the other maximum handicap riders because as I crossed the finish line, I threw my arms in the air in a victory salute as I had seen the European bicycle racers do.

Having been dropped by the zero handicap group, I am time trialling to the finish.  
Photo by LJS, "Father of the Zombie."

I can't remember the name of the second place finisher, but it was one of the major names in cycling at the time. He had no idea that he had not won the race when he won the sprint, and as he crossed the line, he threw one arm into the air. He was not a happy camper when he was told that his win was in fact a second place finish. Everyone involved in the race was unhappy with the strategy that I had not instigated but which I nonetheless benefitted from to win. Although this strategy was not against the rules, ironically, crossing the line with both arms in the air was (for safety reasons.) That is why the sprint winner raised a single arm. It would have been an obvious solution for the race organizers to disqualify me for the relative technicality of raising my arms to balance the technicality that nobody had remembered to outlaw drafting the leaders, and as I understand it, this was seriously considered in the moments after the end of the race. In the end, however, I guess the organizers decided that the benefits of letting the underdog win overbalanced the frustration of how he won, so I was given the victory after being sternly warned about raising both arms in a victory salute, something I never again had to worry about.

My illegal victory salute. The two riders with me are one lap behind.  
Photo by LJS, "Father of the Zombie."

Update: (November, 2014) When I first published this post a year and a half ago, I claimed that I was the only one of the Modesto Roadmen who had decided to compete in this particular race, and made up a whole morality tale on the value of showing up. Since then, I have reconnected with some of the the Modesto Roadmen, and they have corrected my memories. There were at least two other Roadmen in that race. They are actually shown in the picture above and I should have recognized them. What happened was that, of those of us who attended, I was the only one who managed to catch and then stay with the no handicap group and as a result lapped my fellow Roadmen. When I was no longer able to stay with the no handicap group, I asked them to help me stay ahead until the finish by forming a pace line, which they did. That is why they were with me as I crossed the finish line. I hereby take this opportunity to thank my fellow Roadmen for their help in making my one victory in bicycle racing possible!

All three of us Roadmen were all relatively equal in ability, so I have no idea why I was able to stick with the no handicap group and they were not. Maybe I was having a particularly good day, maybe we made different tactical decisions during the race, who knows? A year and a half ago, I wrote: "Winning this race taught me an early life lesson, just showing up is a huge part of success." That was the wrong lesson, it never happened that way. But what is the right lesson? Maybe it's this: "It just goes to show you, it's always something - if it ain't one thing, it's another."

Left to right, me, the Columbus Day Queen presenting trophies, and the guy who would have won had our handicap group not used the strategy we did. That trophy still sits in lonesome splendor atop my bookshelf. Photo by LJS, "Father of the Zombie."


1) Yes, there was a report of this race in the local newspaper, the Modesto Bee. What can I say? I had a good publicist. When my family moved to Modesto, a neighbor took an interest in me. He tried to get me involved in Boy Scouts, which I did not enjoy at all. When, independent of adult involvement, we formed the Modesto Roadmen, he involved himself and did a tremendous amount to help promote our club, including getting this article in the newspaper.

2) I promised last week that this week I would discuss my MAF tests. As it happens, it makes more sense for me to delay that discussion and to continue my pause of MAF test postings until I have more data and have done more research. Once I have a better idea what is going on, I will devote a post to recent MAF tests. If you have no idea what a MAF test is, that's fine, just stay tuned.

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