Tuesday, March 24, 1998

Sundays are for schnoozing (or is it sweating?)

By Jason L. Ables
Golden Gater Writer

This is the time of year that tries a man's soul.

Every spring, a new calendar having turned, I have to acknowledge that, like it or not, I am a year older. The days of adolescence, when skateboarding and the pangs of cheerleader-awareness ruled the day are no longer recent memories. Instead the big 40 looms not so far in the future and the phrase '401k' is popping up in my friends' conversations.

Time keeps ticking away - and it is dragging me kicking and screaming.

So this spring, just as in most of the springs before it, I am destined to reassess my life. (Well except for all the important parts, like finishing school and joining the outer world). I will be forced by some internal voice (be it a demon's or an angel's, I know not) to ask myself, "To race? Or, not to race?"

Whether 'tis nobler in my Guinness-abused brain to suffer two hours of gut-wrenching, heart-valve popping, pedaling, panting and climbing, or whether by staying at home, turning on the tube and sitting on a couch, I can fool myself into thinking that bicycle racing matters not.

Bike racing, just thinking about it gives me chills. Bombing down a mountainside trail, or climbing a steep grade, you feel more alive in five minutes than in the average month - of course you feel more pain too. The bright colors of the jerseys dazzle the eyes and the strange mechanical-bee like sound, which can only be generated by a large pack of cyclists, pleases the ear. After a race it is not uncommon to see some guy with a scraped up arm or leg. With a bit of trepidation, I would ask them how they were doing. Inevitably a giant grin breaks out and they usually bark out, that was fun! Yep, bike racing and all its sensations have an allure that seeps into my blood. The happiest semester I have had at SF State was the one I took off to go ride five days a week.

So you might think it would be easy trying to decide whether or not to race and certainly for many other cyclists it is. They are either so gung ho that to not race is out of the question, or so at peace with themselves that the idea of competition is anathema to their cycling identity.

But for me the seemingly small question of whether or not to wake up early on a Sunday and go racing quickly mushrooms into a debate about the meaning of life itself - philosophy 101 via 21 speeds and two wheels. If life is meaningless, then ergo, would not racing be meaningless too? So why race? But if life is meaningful, then is not human endeavor? So why not race? And regardless, which view is it exactly that can weigh the $40 entry fees against the cost of a six pack of beer and a good nap?

If only a ghost would call from the fog of my mind, impart to me an answer and reveal my destiny.

Back at the end of my teen years there was no question about whether or not racing should be pursued. My friends were cyclists. We talked about the Tour De France and Campagnolo components. We wondered at a boyish amateur who spanked the Russian Olympic squad in Colorado - his name was Greg Lemond. We spent more money on our bikes than we did on our cars and we gathered on our lunch hours to eat cheap Chinese food in the back of a bike shop - as if surrounding ourselves by bikes and posters of bike racers would by osmosis somehow make us faster. I remember one date I went on. When the girl saw my apartment, with no furniture to speak of, but a motorcycle and four bikes lined up against the walls, the first date became the last.

Back then bicycle racing was an unknown sport, a nerdish tribal gathering of strange people wearing tight black shorts. The word Lycra had yet to pervade pop culture and I recall with laughter a kid in the back of a pickup truck, who upon seeing me climbing a hill in 100 degree heat, shouted to his folks that I was wearing a wetsuit. But with anger, I also recall the jerk who threw a beer bottle at my head on that same hill because I had the audacity to actually ride a bicycle on a public road. Each of my buds had similar stories and one of the great joys in life is swapping tales after a ride or race. (And of course like any great fish-tale, the hills get steeper and the weather hotter with each re-telling).

And the camaraderie and quirkiness of the sport made it a natural choice for me. Back when almost all of the people you met on the road (mountain bikes were unheard of) were cool. If you saw someone out riding their race bike, you just knew you had found a friend. Some of that is still present in bicycle racing, it is part of its appeal and it coaxes the internal voice to prod, "Hey go race."

But on the negative, a $500 dollar bike is really about the bottom in the racing world. Sadly, and there is no denying it these days, cycling is a money sport. Prices skyrocket from the $500 level up to the $5,000 and $6,000 range. I love cycling, but let's face it, if not in serious contention for an Olympic berth, who in the world can afford a $6,000 bike?

All too often, jerks. That is who.

Those yuppie scum who cut you off on the freeway in their Beemers and Lexuses while talking on cell phones, well, unfortunately, cycling is full of them. They are the classic Type A personalities who see everybody else as inferior. You can pull right up next to one at a stoplight and say, "Hello, nice day for a ride ain't it?" and they will not even acknowledge your existence. I always think, "Too bad they did not throw in a personality with that specially imported titanium seatpost." Their presence in the two-wheeled world is cycling's dirty little secret. They coax the internal voice to shout, "No! Do not race. Buy a gun!"

I suppose the biggest question mark in my consideration of racing is my health, or actually, my perception of it. I suffer from panic attacks and the rigors of racing and training do a marvelous job of triggering attacks that mimic sensations akin to heart attacks. On training rides I have seen my pulse climb to a temple- throbbing 185 beats per minute. It is one of the areas that the philosophy 101 comes back in. Do I want to race and feel like I might die, or do I want live like a pedestrian and feel like I am already dead?

Maybe I should flip a coin. Maybe I should just watch TV after all. I could get some beer, go to the video store and rent "Breaking Away."

Ah, spring. Here we are again. To race or not to race?

- Jason L. Ables is the Opinion Editor of the Golden Gater