Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Manly Motivation

My husband has been a serious cyclist since high school, getting more regimented about riding once we moved to northern California, where world-class cyclists train on the roads just a few miles from our house. When he first began riding with a local bike club more than ten years ago, he would come home and tell me that the guys - no women in this group - suggested he needed to lose weight, buy a new bike, and get better bike clothes if he really wanted to be any good.

"They sound awful," I'd tell him. " You don't need to go out with them again."

"Are you kidding?" he'd respond. "It was awesome. They're picking me up tomorrow morning at 5:30."

I had completely missed the point, that the secret coagulant to male bonding is a healthy dash of insult. It's what the Brits call "taking the piss" - cutting someone down to size with humor, the more sarcastic the better.

Over the past decade I've come to trust and cherish Andrew's bike buddies. Like the Marines, they never leave one of their own behind with a flat or a dropped chain, and they goad each other into achieving things they'd probably never even attempt on their own. An annual highlight is when they all ride in the Gran Fondo race in Santa Rosa, which was held last weekend. Pro cyclist Levi Leipheimer leads 6000 riders over 103 miles of gorgeous Sonoma County roads, with 8,500 feet of climbing, all of it to raise money for local charities.

I am a bad wife. Last year the house that we stayed in during the race was so nice that the other bike wives and I never left the deeply upholstered chairs around the infinity pool with a view of the vineyards to cheer on our men. So sue me.

But this year one of Andrew's cycling buddies, Paul, has the quintessential cyclist injury - broken clavicle, thanks to a SuperShuttle van that decided to use him as a hood ornament a few months back. He offered to take us to a spot where he knew the cyclists would be coming by slowly and could use some encouragement - Coleman Valley Road, which starts right next to the Pacific Ocean and seems to climb straight up to the clouds.  

I've never felt the urge to call a hill ugly before - especially not one covered in tall, golden grasses with a view of the Pacific - but this was u-g-l-y . Here's a video from last year's ride - if you skip to 4:53, that's exactly where we stood to watch the cyclists making the grueling climb. It was hot, and a bit windy, and by the time the cyclists reached us they had already gone 75 miles. Most of the riders were staring straight down at their handlebars in prayer position, appealing to whatever power would help them finish the climb. My nine year old daughter was walking uphill faster than a lot of the cyclists were riding it, and the cyclists' entreaties for her to give them a push were only half in jest. 

photo: Louisa Tallarida
I come from what I once heard actress Jamie Lee Curtis refer to as the "Good Climbing Johnny!" school of encouragement. She was deriding parents who praise everything their kid does, including how they scale a backyard jungle gym. But I figure in life I'd rather cheer some effort than sit silently by expecting greatness. So I stood roadside yelling things like "Looking strong!" and "Way to go!" and "You can do it!" Even if the riders looked like they were going to have a coronary or had been training for the previous six months by lifting meatball subs to their mouths, I at least said, "Hey, nice jersey!"

It didn't seem to do much. When I said, "Hey, you're almost there!" many of the cyclists snapped "No, I'm NOT!" and then I felt ill-informed and kind of mean.

Paul, however, knew what these men really needed to hear. "Levi is only a half-hour ahead of you! Of course, he's only riding with one leg - his bad one!" he'd yell. If they were wearing a cycling jersey with a college logo on it, he'd immediately shout "Go (whatever that college's main rival was)!" A race photographer pulled up and Paul began  to call out, "Hey, what are you complaining about, if this hill was hard they wouldn't have sent a race photographer out to take your picture here!"

That nonstop flow of insults seemed to work better than a Gu shot at kicking the rider's energy up a notch. Some even got enough of a second (third? fifth?) wind to hurl insults back at Paul. "Easy for you to say, standing there by the side of the road!" shouted the lead rider of one weary-looking bunch.

"Yup, that's me, just standing here drinking a nice cold Pepsi!" he roared, tilting back the can dramatically as condensation dripped down his hand. That whole group of overheated riders shot by, rocket-fueled by pique. Paul knew exactly what he was doing.

I can't pretend to understand the male penchant for insults-as-encouragement, but I'm sure I can emulate it. And as for you three-speed riding, flabby whiners with substandard alma maters, when you see me midway through the Coleman Valley Road climb next year, I am going to motivate you like never you've never been motivated before.


  1. Chris from Santa RosaOctober 13, 2010 at 10:01 AM

    Um... I vividly remember a young woman on Coleman Valley Road, shaking her exquisitely sculpted booty at us cyclists, and making... um... *suggestions*. That wasn't you, was it?

  2. Well, Chris, you had me 'til you said "young." Hope you had a good ride!

  3. Having ridden with Paul plenty I've not been the object of his abuse for some reason. However, I have another friend, let's call him "Jeff" since that's his name, who trash talks cyclists during rides. Usually, this happens when he passes as they grovel up hills. He does this in a fake Euro accent, sometimes British, often Italian or German. I wonder how I'd react were I the exhausted object of his well-natured derision. I may strike out with my pump at his collarbone. Watch out, Paul :-)

  4. I'm sure Jeff does it out of love, BRS...and if you have the energy to hit someone with a bike pump, surely you have energy to pick up the cadence. Focus!

  5. And I thought you really liked my pink jersey.

  6. Brian - I loved it. THAT time I was sincere.

  7. Let's hope that scenario remains hypothetical, as Jeff hasn't trash-talked me. Anger makes men do strange things, including whacking a friend with a pump instead of pedaling faster.

  8. Hmmm...I think that sounds like some misplaced ridicule. When I did the GF I found it to be a big lovefest -- tons of hugs and goodwill from fellow riders and townsfolk (and, for that matter, from Levi himself). But if you need a spot to throw down some good heckling, come out to a cross race -- now that's conducive to "taking the piss!"


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