It’s hard to justify writing about failure. Critics look at facts as excuses. The truth stands, either way, but that criticism can be harsh, hard to bear, and downright unwarranted. After all, what if it isn’t just excuses? We all have days when we’re on, and days when we’re off. Just like LeMond’s “bad peach” at The Tour in ’86, something happened overnight the 21st of August.
Arriving in Missouri, we headed to Springfield to meet up with James Allen, antique cycling aficionado and comic-thriller. James had set up numerous cycles for me to try out, assuring I had plenty to choose from, giving me a shot-in-Hell during the race. I hadn’t ridden an ordinary in years – RAGBRAI 2010 - and I hadn’t been on a high wheel at all (see: Eagle) since April. Ill-preparation is my own blame, but I was training, and felt I was very, very solid competition for the race. Despite being sized up by the front’s larger wheel, like today’s bicycles, each manufacture and model is different. A 52″ Columbia Expert from 1883 will undoubtedly ride different than a 52 Expert from 89. I tried many different bikes, from various eras, creators, and sizes. I went in with ideas to ride a 52″ Edlee extra-light roadster – a new-age reproduction out of New Zealand. Said bike weighs in around the same as my road bike, but rides far sketchier. The spoke count is cut down by 3, on both the front and the rear. Every bit of the bike that could be shaved off, has been. Most steel replaces aluminum. The bike rode like it too. Despite the fact that I could really get it moving, it was just too sketchy to consider racing.
Onward and upward. Trying. Testing. Tabulating. Then to a 54″ G&J. Push, push, push. Up. Down? I failed to mount it, which was a shock. Another try; that had to be a fluke. Another fail. There’s times when the moment at hand is the only thing in your mind, and the fact that my ordinary at home, which I’ve ridden, is a 54″ Columbia. There’s also the additional fact that I’m taller, with a taller inseam than Rick, who would be racing a 56″ Victory. None of these facts registered though. “You failed to mount a 54, you mustn’t be able to ride one” was all that went through my mind. I downsized. The 52″ I rode was solid, but an original, and felt less stiff than the 50″ Spillane that I ended up with.
So mistake #2: an extra small bike. But just like not riding a high wheel in months, technically years, I should be able to overcome.
6:30am, race day: Awoken by great abdominal pains, some trickery was afoot. 10am: I pass on breakfast at Ihop, opting for fresher, healthier alternatives from the organic grocer across the street. A short ride to Brewer’s Alley for the pre-race meeting, I knew no-good was up to itself. Hundreds of smells wafting from the kitchen…something was definitely wrong. Sparing many intimate details, no food was digested that day. No water stayed in my body. I rode back to the hotel before the race for a nap, hoping that would be enough – it wasn’t. Back at the room, I had decided to not even race. I couldn’t fathom the 4 mile ride back to the track, plus a warmup, plus the race. I was shaky, having no nutrients since the prior afternoon, and couldn’t even keep down water.
But I came all the way to Maryland for this race. All the way across the entire country for this. Even if I couldn’t ride my best, I had to at least show up. I could throw the flag after a few laps. Two parade laps, after 10 minutes in the sun doing a high wheel stack, after waiting an extra 10 minutes for Tour de Frederick to show up. I was feeling pretty bad – the sun was a awful instigator. Just talking to the numerous questioneers was a task. Let’s try not to have an accident on one of them. Just stop talking to me, please, just this one time! I’d just ride 15 minutes.
Bang! The gun goes off, and we start out. If I’m going to quit early, I just as well get the party started. Starting in the back, through the first two turns, Rick and I weave toward the front, at a good, but calm pace. Then that thought hits me: give them a show if you have to give up. A sprint. Sprinting through the lumbering wheels, toward the front. Through the home-stretch of the first race lap. Wham: energy crash. I was at the front, but it was all I had, literally. No reserves, no energy, no carbs, no sugar, no water. That was literally all I had besides a steady pace of 10 miles an hour. I’d crawl into a slow pace, and do the next 14 minutes, and then throw in the towel. But 15 minutes goes by, and while I’m feeling no better, I begin to pick up the pace. I’m thirsty, but is that a mistake? I’ve kept no water down, all day. I reach in my jersey for my bottle. Fire races down my throat. This isn’t water at all…! It’s 100 degree vodka lemonade. Where I thought Rick had done me a kindness and filled up my bottle, I never made the connection to check it before the race! I’ll do another 15. Then at 30, it’s only a half hour of riding to go! Still sluggish, I agree I should finish, even if I was already ashamed of my energyless spin. 15 minutes: I can’t go any longer. I’ll quit at the end of this lap, sit in the shade, watch the show.
But 15 minutes is only a bike ride to work. I can do one of those. So I get back into an average stride. Then finally, one minute to go. Let’s give them something to talk about. I kick into a sprint for the last lap or two. Through the home stretch. Screams and cheers burst louder and louder as I pedal harder and harder, wheel tipping from side to side. Turn one. “On your left!!!”, but connection is made from pedal to spoke, and we tumble downward.
No one likes excuses. I’m the first in line. But this day, while Rick had an excellent, I had an awful. Bouting a food poisoning worse than any I’ve ever experienced, on limited reserves, on a wheel smaller than useful, and incurring a crash, I had as bad a race day as you can have. I missed everything, all the excitement, the celebration, and even the competition. I guess it comes with the territory.
My good friend, Rick Stumpff of Galena, MO, won the Frederick MD Clustered Spires High Wheel race. He had it going on – he rode in the zone. The conditions were right, and he took that advantage, lapping the field twice, and cruising to the finish. My race was plagued from the start, but more on that at another time. Celebration for Ricky Man!
I met an unfortunate fate with another rider toward the finish of the ride.
Informed to ride fast left, slower right, the race was going seamlessly. Riders were more or less aware of their surroundings, and incident-free the race appeared it would end. Not to say everything went as perfect as one may hope (more on that later too), but it was solid. As the crowd of thousands cheered on the last final laps, speeds increased, minds grew weary, and legs ached of close to 2,000 rotations, varying from 150 to nearly 200 gear inches per stroke. The course, strangely rolling, allowed for strange riding. The home-stretch, flat. Turn one, uphill. Turn two, a slight downhill. The final leg, fairly downhill, into the final turn, allowing a decent speed through the home stretch, where the majority of encouraging onlookers plopped their feet for an hour.
But that first turn is where things went sour, near the end of the race. Calling ahead, as most had been doing the entire race, two riders ahead in the first curve challenged a wreck-free inaugural race. One rider backs off and to the right, hearing the calls…the yells, “On your left!”. One rider doesn’t, or doesn’t adjust quite as much. A sharp turn, at a good speed, but not enough room. A curb-to-curb left turn nearly impossible at speed, atop a wheel greater than four feet tall. Both of us riding the center line, essentially – one just left, one just right. Pedals meet spokes. I soar over the other, landing roughly 8 feet from where I was riding, nearly ending up in peoples’ laps, bike tumbling behind. The other racer sliding into the curb, faring quite worse, was in the hospital a few days; I’m glad to hear of recovery. I suffered a minor fracture in my pinky and wrist, and a little bruised and bloody, but nothing too major.
Races (of all kinds, bike or not) go hand-in-hand with wrecks. It’s just a shame it had to happen the way it did.
Greg LeMond signed high wheel
Aerospoke penny farthing
So it begins. Early morning from Phoenix to Branson.
From there we visit Mr. James Allen, and his trove of bicycles.
Indy tonight, Maryland tomorrow, Clustered Spire High Wheel Race on Saturday! A penny farthing race in historic Frederick, MD, that begins at Brewer’s Alley, held in conjunction with Tour de Frederick, where Tour de France winner and World Champion Greg Lemond will be making an appearance? Yes please!
Tandem ride from Phoenix to Tempe
… get on your bike and ride. Have a good time. Smile. Let the wind wrestle with your hair as you soar down a winding road. Take in that sun that you’ve neglected this work-week. Burn those calories you packed on while you were too busy to get out and exercise. Just have a good time, and remind yourself how great is it to power yourself to your destination.
In less than two weeks, numerous riders from around the country will be racing their penny farthing bicycles in a first annual criterium (a closed-course, timed race) around Frederick, Maryland - just 50 miles from the capital of the USA. It’s interesting the competitiveness that the Olympics kind of creates just before this race occurs. No event quite like this has occurred in the US since the end of the 19th century. England has Knutsford once every ten years; a famous antique bike race that started in 1980. The Southwest Pacific (Australia, NZ, Tasmania) has the Evandale National Penny Farthing Championships yearly, since 1983. Beginning this year, America will have its own reoccurring race, the Frederick Clustered Spire High Wheel Race.
While most riders are indeed from the Maryland area, some are traveling from as far as Texas, Missouri, and Arizona. I think it goes without saying who the rider from Arizona is.
All that said, as much as I’d like to win the race, I haven’t been on an ordinary in three years, and I haven’t been on the Eagle since April. Additionally, I have not been training, besides my four-mile to-and-fro work five times a week. It should be fun, but it makes me sad to have missed RAGBRAI this year in exchange for competing in this first annual high-wheel race.