Letting Go: the Tour de Placer Roubaix

Letting Go: the Tour de Placer Roubaix

I’ve more days behind than ahead. That’s even truer as a cyclist than as a beating heart. And because I’m plagued by ambition, I think of the things I’m yet to do, books to write, children to see married. Whatever I was to prove I was as a cyclist, I’ve proven. It wasn’t much and there was so much I never really figured out due to the draws of a job, a relationship, not enough discipline, a taste for wine. That and the fact that the great bulk of my ambition is focused elsewhere.

I often think of who I am to be when I am old. I’ve yet to determine my own personal definition of “old” but it’s not quite yet. What I don’t want to be is that gray-domed racer who still needs to tangle with the young bucks. I don’t want people snickering about me for chasing after something elusive even to those who haven’t celebrated their 40th.

Self-reflection and honest appraisal are said to be marks of wisdom and wisdom is supposed to be the upside to wrinkles. I’ve granted myself a reason to reflect on this self, such as it is. This would be one of those interior processes usually conducted like a hand of poker, but because I’m a writer and history has proven that my most challenging moments continue to be those that best resonate with others, I’m owning up.

I’m not at peace with aging. Aging spaces out the shock of having someone pull a gun on you over a series of years rather than giving you an existential pause all at once. As I’ve got experience with both of these interactions, I’m a reasonable witness to this.

While I can joke over beers with friends that I’m not the rider I used to be, the truth is that when I swing a leg over the saddle, I’m not heading out to be slower. But it’s fair to ask just what I aim to achieve. And it’s an aim, truly. I pick a target and then use all of my limited ability to strike that target and whatever that deviation between an arrow in a red spot and where the arrow actually pierces, well that’s the central issue of aim. I continue to think of myself as harboring abilities of which there is no present-tense testament. I’m not unlike how Steinbeck appraised the poor, who he said saw themselves as temporarily inconvenienced millionaires. To my current community, none of whom have seen me win anything harder than a weeknight training series (in the lowest category, to boot), I’m a guy who rides a bike, but no one who poses the sort of threat that might cause them to suffer.

Yesterday, I rode my first event of the season, the Tour de Placer Roubaix, in the foothills of the Sierra. This was not a race. There were no officials, no numbers, no start or finish line and no timing other than the GPS units we all brought. And yet, so many of us treated the beginning as one who has raced treats the first miles of any race—with an acceleration firm enough to create a bright line between the rest of the morning and the day that would unfold before us. Those of us with the bit in our teeth left the safety of the group like an emancipated teen into a first apartment. For some of us, we may not have been as clear on our ambitions as we were of the fact that the temperature was maybe in the 50s and rain came down like the wildflowers depended on it, and that to stay warm (or even generate warm) we needed to kiss the red zone for a few minutes.

Of my many defects of character, one of the funniest among them is my ability to ride at, if not above, my ability when it is cold and wet. I joke that it stems from my Irish heritage. Most of the races I ever won took place on days when all reasonable cyclists stay in. History suggests that if the day warms no further than 39 degrees (F) and rain blankets the world like so much powdered sugar on a donut, I’ve got a reasonable shot at winning. Or, I did.

While I lost the leaders on the first longer hill, I’d made all the early selections, so when I looked back, I could only see one other rider. From that point on, I played a reasonably zero-sum game of losing a rider here or there, and then passing a rider or two. I ran down riders on the flume trail while making out-of-the-saddle accelerations out of each turn in the trail, despite the slick clay that could easily have sent me into the water mere feet below.

On the descent of Yankee Jim, a dirt road that whitewater aficionados use to shuttle their kayaks, I passed not only two riders, but a pickup. I criticized myself for putting too much pressure in my tires (40 psi when 35 would have been smoother). Twice my tires slid in the gravel and I noted with amusement that I steered into the slides, but never hit my brakes, as PRO a move as I can muster.

The climb back out is steep and unpaved, weaves through a tiny slot canyon (no wonder kayakers love it) punctuated by waterfalls ferocious enough to take the paint off a car. The cruel irony to the climb is that after returning to the road the climb gets even steeper, spending a couple hundred meters north of 20 percent. What I had to be grateful for was forest shielding me from wind.

Rest stop two of the Tour de Placer Roubaix has become famous among my local circle of friends. This is the two Easy-Up operation that cooks up quesadillas with either cheese and barbecue chicken (sweet sauce) or cheese and bacon. I stopped only long enough to eat two and grab a third “for the road.”

After the rest stop there was a long descent coated in fog. Volunteers warned us that conditions would be dangerous. It was thick enough that cars had the ability to outrun the visibility, but I’ve ridden fast enough in both the dark and in fog to outrun my field of vision; I know what that looks (and feels) like. I accelerated repeatedly and never reached that speed, so I hugged the shoulder, traded pulls with a few other riders and battled my way over the rollers. Then we turned off the road and the next fire road really plummeted. It reminded me of the exposed canyon down which Decker Canyon roads. The steep road and loose surface felt reassuringly familiar and due to the way it hugged the canyon wall, I got periodic looks down and could see where cars (both of them) were in their climbs.

Near the final climb I hooked up with an RKP reader and Red Kite Ronde et Vous attendee named Alex. The final ascent, called Stagecoach is quite literally an old stagecoach road. My imaginative powers are unable to summon a mental picture of horses pulling a coach up those grades. It was on the opening steep pitch of rough-hewn granite that proved to be the only time I stopped against my will. I’d powered through everything else, but this time the combination of coarse surface, steep pitch and cascading water stopped my front wheel which resulted in me spinning my rear wheel. I cursed for the next minute, first above breath, then below it. After leading for much too long, I faltered and Alex pulled through to set the pace; it was all I could do to keep him close. By the time Alex and I topped out into a residential neighborhood fewer than two miles from Victory Velo, the shop hosting the ride on behalf of the local NICA team, my quads were sore.

When I rolled into the finish, that voice that can kneecap all my best efforts, can find failure in a perfectly risen soufflé, finally shut up. I was calm, even at peace. I looked at the Wahoo’s assessment of my cafe time, and was able to tell myself that most of the 21 minutes I was stopped came prior to the ride or after I finished. I was stopped out on the course possibly fewer than five minutes. I permitted myself a smile.

I am a bag of contradictions. I’m a shy and cloistered writer. I like having an audience for my writing, preferably as wide an audience as possible. I train more than some professional athletes (not cyclists, haha). I think of myself as someone who is active, but not fit. I love to shred myself on hard rides. I can also shred my confidence into so much confetti, to the point that at least one medical professional considers me at risk for shredding something both more material and more deeply personal. More to my original point, I say I want to age with grace, but I’m still lining up for bike events. I remain unsure of the middle path.

In a post-event comment a friend, a guy fast enough to get call-ups in ‘cross races, and who has always been unfailingly nice, but I can’t ever recall being spurred to compliment my riding, paid me one. I caught my breath, swallowing to choke back the hitch in my throat, and I squirmed under the satisfaction that he’d seen someone I remembered, someone I miss.


Action image: Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal.


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  1. TreyH

    I’m 52. I’m an okay athlete. I felt like you were describing my own reckoning with aging and derving meaning from this cyclo-pursuit. Thanks for that.

  2. Davo Queen

    Well done Patrick. Your writing is a gift to the sport of cycling.
    Anyone worth their spit has grappled with the denial, aches, suffering and sobering reality of aging. After a couple years of setbacks and moderate goals, I am all in for 2019. This June brings me to the start of a five day gravel race without a safety net. It had been too long since I had signed up for something that intimidated me. It feels good. With age comes wisdom. Doing something dumb means you are still young right?
    Keep up the excellent work.

  3. Tom Milani

    “I caught my breath, swallowing to choke back the hitch in my throat, and I squirmed under the satisfaction that he’d seen someone I remembered, someone I miss.” Grace notes like this are why I read Red Kite Prayer.

  4. Tom Moore

    As I approach my 68th birthday, i long ago bid farewell to the 16*-18 mph club rides and now consider my self lucky to trundle out @ 12-14 mph rides. I pick my challenging rides more carefully, leaving more time to recover.

    But to paraphrase something: i will give up riding my bicycle when they pry it out of my cold dead legs.

  5. YLAndy

    Your opening line reminds me of a recent Buffalo Tom lyric:

    Seems like I was just a kid not so long ago
    So many arrivals
    So many lows
    Now my time behind is greater than my time ahead

    As your piece so eloquently echoes, we can choose to how look at this stage of life – is our past greater in quantity or quality?

  6. Neil M Winkelmann

    The great thing about getting older is that although you may struggle to be as fast as your younger self, you are getting way faster than your non-cycling, non-active peers. The gap between my levels of activity and fitness, and those of the people I work with that are of the same age grows every year.

  7. Steve in Halifax

    OH man. I’ve been sitting here looking out the window at -12C weather wondering if my cycling this hear is going to be slower than last. It will, but reading this put me at ease. I no longer need to prove I can drop anyone and the fat tires on the gravel bike aren’t for racing anyway, just to smooth the ride.

    Thank you for your writing, it clearly means a lot to us in the over 50 categories.

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