No excuses now.
The problem is, come that next Saturday morning, I wake up late, and so get there ten minutes after everybody has gone. Still, I wobble my way to the Silver Strand bike path, and set off south, the virgin road-racer rider. Truth is, I’ve never ridden a low-slung handlebar, 18-whatever multigear racing road bike in my life. With all the levers, it’s like someone tossing you the keys and saying, “Go fly my Cessna.”
Here’s what I discover. It’s incredibly tiring on the muscles just above the knees. And your butt gets real sore on the little butter dish they call a seat. Most of all, your hands, between thumbs and forefingers, where you’re leaning all the weight of your upper body, get weary. Of course, technically, you have plenty of time to admire the scenery. It’s great to have the water’s edge on your left, with the white herons staring down and fish leaping up. To the right, you have the Navy Seals’ training towers and the helicopter shells where they practice warfare. But the fact is, you’re head down, trying to keep a pace up, experimenting with those damned derailleur gears, and trying not to collide with oncoming hotshots, probably the team you’re supposed to be part of. After a while you ask, I’m riding all this way, busting a gut, because…?
But, eventually, I do get into a zone, where the rhythm of the pedaling becomes hypnotic, and in a twisted, enjoy-the-burn way, fun. The nods from passing racers, who take me to be a pro like them — yellow Specialized brand helmet and all — has to be worth some of the pain.
It seems an age, but finally I’m down heading east across the southern tip of San Diego Bay. The bike path along the Silver Strand has been extended around the shallow lagoons where the bay meets I.B. The path runs beside an ancient railroad track. At around 13th Street in I.B., I realize two things. I have come too far (I should have turned where 7th Street meets the bay), and if I want, I can continue east past the salt evaporation ponds to National City, and then all the way up into San Diego itself. But, nuh-uh. A man knows his limits. I turn around, take five, and head home.
By the time I get back to the donuts and coffee on leafy Margarita Avenue, there are still a couple of dozen riders standing ’round chatting, plus two donuts and a few slurps at the bottom of a coffee urn. I stagger in like an old man who’s just come from the pub. I count 95 minutes for the purported 40-minute ride. But I definitely feel like Ironman because, hey, I did it.
Then I meet Frank Ingram, bending the coffee urn to get its last drops. He’s a regular on these rides, a retired professor of Russian Literature from Michigan State. Has to be in his 70s. The guy has ridden his bike clear across the United States and around Australia. “I biked to work every day of my life,” he says.
Suddenly, my 15-odd miles don’t seem so spectacular.
“Alright!” Sean Burke’s voice echoes around the empty stadium. The acoustics are such that he doesn’t need a loudspeaker. “We’re going to do 20 laps. First ten on the blue line, moderate speed, all right?” Sean is the professional down here, at the open-air velodrome in Balboa Park. It’s around 7:00 on a Wednesday night. The velodrome is near the tennis courts and municipal pool in the park’s northeast corner, and the amazing thing is that anybody can come here and train, even absolute beginners. The city supplies Sean to train you (currently the cost is $120 for six weeks), and equipment, like “fixie” racing bikes, borrowed from the city’s collection for free. If I’d realized, I would’ve brought gear. The circuit is 333.3 meters long, and has these exciting 27-degree banks on the corners, which is where the strategy is played out. Wednesday is training night. It’s been a bit worrying for Sean and the riders: a fine rain has swept through and left the concrete track slippery. Nobody wants to crash at 30 mph, but counterintuitively, Sean says speed helps. A dozen riders stand with their fixies, waiting for starter’s orders. “There’s a little bit of dampness,” Burke shouts, “so don’t ride super slow. You might fall down.”
I have come here because of Conrad, from Holland’s Bikes. He was talking about the “fixies” they race on here, single-speed racing bikes with pedals directly linked to their back wheel. No gears, no brakes, no coasting. The pedals keep turning round. They’re identical to the bikes used to race the very first Tour de France, back in 1903. These are the retro bikes that have taken off in trendy urban bike areas like South Park and North Park, and the chic quarters of San Francisco, Boston, New York. For street riding: go figure. It seems people love the challenge, and even more, the return to simplicity. In the bike trade, they’re calling it the “fixie revolution.”
“So, do your one-lap pulls on the blue line,” Sean is saying. “The last lap is going to be a sprint lap. Do not, do not, do not pull up on the last lap! Or you’re gonna cause a crash.”
It’s quite a collection out there, from young, compact Conrad to Tom Kindberg, a big-shouldered, muscular hardbody of 51. “This is the beginner group, but Tom’s the fastest in the group,” says Sean. “He’s done plenty of racing.”
“What separates you here from other races is how much you’re willing to go into pain,” says Patricia Ortiz, a German girl who’s the only woman racing tonight.
But why fixies? “One, you’re actually faster,” Sean says. “Two, it’s safer. When nobody has brakes, nobody can slam on the brakes. You can always speed up or slow down, but very gradually.”
While we’re talking, Tom, Conrad, Patricia, and her American husband, Roger, and the others thrum past, doing their elliptical circle around us at 30 mph or more. A few more rounds and Roger’s hanging in there in the lead. Patricia can’t catch him, even though she’s in his “draft,” sheltering behind him.