His foot clipped into the pedal and the pedal was connected to the crank and his leg pushed down and perspiration stung razor burns on the tops of his shins. His 17-pound, custom-made, salmon pink Andy Gilmour hummed beneath him. It was warm out, overcast and murky.
After a few warm-up miles and many stoplights, he spun back around and headed to the team van, where Freddie Z. stood waiting for him. Julian unclipped from his right pedal, rolled to a stop and looked up at his coach, who was holding out a water bottle and a towel draped over his forearm. "Julian," Freddie grinned, "You look ready."
Julian took the water bottle, drank from it, and placed it in the holder on his bike. "Just water and sodium," Freddie said. "That's all you need for today."
Julian nodded and used the towel to wipe sweat from his face.
When Julian first met Freddie Z., he thought the coach was just some giant Ukrainian with a mean face who maybe beat people up for a living or loaded trucks. He had a blocky jaw and a big red nose. Julian learned quickly that Freddie not only offered keen insights into advanced methods of sports medicine and science but he'd already nurtured more than a dozen Eastern Bloc cyclists to Olympic gold medals and lucrative professional cycling careers.
Freddie stared straight into Julian's eyes and said, "Remember, this race is not important."
But it is, Julian thought.
To Freddie, Julian was more than just a teenager with an inexplicable shortage of self-confidence. He was a kid who had little understanding of who he was and who he was going to be. He was just learning to navigate adolescence, one weighed down heavily, and quite importantly for any future world champion, Freddie thought, by his 24-hour-a-day obsession with bike racing. Freddie, of course, wouldn't waste his time on any cyclist who didn't show a will, no, an actual desire, to suffer extremities, to live and die on the bike like a madman. Most riders, even the good ones, didn't possess that will, nor did they expect to come up against it in someone else. Freddie saw in Julian potential world domination. Freddie's concern was Julian's low self-esteem. It played against type.
Freddie continued. "Julian, you are going to be a huge cycling star." Freddie had been telling Julian that for more than a year now, since naming him, at 14, to the U.S. Junior National Team, a spot reserved for a few elite national cyclists under the age of 18. He added, "Don't forget that."
Because Freddie's command of English wasn't too good, he'd often relay what Julian interpreted as sincere instruction mostly through eye contact, which was stealth-like. Once his dark eyes connected to
Julian's there was no escaping them.
"Just stay to front of the field for safety," Freddie said. "It's very dangerous today. Do your best in sprint, and stay away from crashes. Tomorrow is Nest Mountain race. You go for that win tomorrow." He felt Freddie's huge calloused hand come to rest on his back. The hand felt like it belonged to someone's dad, and it comforted him. "This today you need for experience." Julian believed his every word.
* * * *
The bicycle race and the Long Beach Grand Prix Formula One event were each held on the exact same freeway and streets, on the same day, the difference was the bike racecourse was shorted to a one-mile circuit, from its nearly two-mile route used for the autos. The cyclists were to race 65 laps in the evening after the Formula One.
Julian had no teammates his age because there wasn't anyone else in the race under 18. Because he was on the U.S. Junior National Team he was accepted to race among the older guys, the Category One racers and pros, a field limited to 100 of the classiest in the United States. But because Julian was a junior, he had a gear restriction, meaning he couldn't use the giant gears the others had when the race got fast. He'd have to pedal faster to maintain speed, a big handicap on a flat course in a fast race. Julian had to stay in the slipstream of others to even have a chance, staying an inch behind the wheel in front of him. (Slipstreaming offers a slight sensation that you're being pulled along, and can save a third of a racer's energy).
Julian knew many of the adult-age National Team guys from the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he lived on and off in the dorms there. Those guys hailed from far-off lands like Wisconsin and Florida and California and Vermont, and they stressed uniformity, had the same arrogance and everything seemed to come easy to them. They laughed at the same jokes, wore the same clothes, saw the same movies, listened to the same music, had the same haircut. The world was designed for them. They scared him.
They'd taken to calling him Dickweed because he listened to stuff like Johnny Thunders and cut his own hair into a fuckedup spiky mess. He was forced to listen to his blaster after his Walkman had died—on The Clash's "Death or Glory"—and that's when he discovered punk rock rankled the big, tough, world-class racers in the dorms, even at low volume in the middle of the day with doors closed. Julian never understood enmity from other cyclists; especially those who understood the suffering this sport required. Why make it worse, Julian wondered, on a fellow National Team member?
After Dickweed began dropping those older guys in the mountains outside of Colorado Springs, they regarded him with a kind of gape-jawed contempt and lobbied to have him tossed out of the OTC.
Julian left his coach and hit the racecourse to warm up. The crowds that hadn't dispersed looking for over-priced hot dogs and beer sat bored or drunk in temporary stands erected along waterfront streets. Palm trees and glass buildings rose behind concrete blockades and tall chain link fences topped with barbed wire.
The race circuit began a on flat section of closed-off freeway. Two right-hand hairpins, each decreasing in radius, followed slightly curved straightaways including four lanes of Shoreline Drive, and the six-lane freeway, whose midpoint was the start/finish line.
These streets were not his streets in his desert town. These streets smelled mainly of Formula One roadkill and racecar excrement—seared fiberglass and rotisserie meat, and motor oil, pit stops and armpits. Crash soot on freeway walls looked like big calla lilies.
The race organizers didn't clean the course too well after earlier racecar crashes, which spewed oil and gasoline everywhere. Bike racers called these long oily slicks "invisible death," and the little dome dividers between lanes were even more deadly from it. If you happened to clip one, forget it, your front wheel would skitter out from under you, a dozen riders would slam into you and asphalt would sear thighs, torsos and faces. Scarred for life.
Julian watched bike-racing stars from dreamland burbs like Menlo Park or Newport Beach or Los Altos pull up in Volvos and Audis. The surfer-blond untouchables with perfect skin, concrete bodies and celebrity grins, who grew up admired by others and enjoyed parents who supported them through teen cycling years with money and love, invested time and energy, and the best pro racing bikes and coaching. Each had the physiological swagger of dudes who knew they were enviable to others and regularly traveled well beyond any measured biological constraints. Many had frightening beauty on their arms, women with bewildering bodies and wrist tattoos and modeling contracts who cheered their winners on at races and adored them and gave themselves over to them. There was a vast psychic and economic distance between Julian and them, and they were fast.
He was outclassed before landing in Long Beach. Outclassed on the drive in to Southern California two days prior as a passenger in a car driven by an older racer from his Arizona hometown, a desolate, impoverished blip called Sierra Vista. The moment they hit that run of sprawling cities and bloated houses and giant malls and beautiful mountains and lush foliage and churning industry, which begins at San Bernardino if you're heading west on I-10, they knew they'd entered a kingdom full of promise and hope accessible only to others.
Julian was still wearing shirts that once belonged to his older brother. His bike-racing gear—the jerseys, shorts, bibs, wheels and tires and bikes were professional standard, provided by his team sponsors because he was great at racing road bicycles.
The Pacific Ocean was a few blocks west and visible over barricades, and its cool brackish breeze only reinforced his unease that Southern California was wholly disinviting in its beauty and impossible to roll into and take part of. Nothing about this coastland calmed.
Before heading to the start/finish, Julian stopped at a table in the sign-in area and leafed through a race program. He read several bios of the day's top contenders, which only magnified his lowliness. He was their Dickweed at the OTC:
Al "Deluxe" Box
Team: Strada-Ford Automobiles. Box is two-time U.S. Criterium Champion, placed second at last year's Pan American Games in Men's Team Sprint. The cyclist has countless domestic road and track wins, including the Tour of Redlands, the Grand Prix of Trexlertown, and the California Criterium. Box turned professional this year, is 22 years old and splits his time between Ghent, Belgium and Holmby Hills, California. He is a member of the U.S. National Team.
The 23-year-old Howard is a rare breed who can sprint, time trial and climb. He does well on both the road and on the track. He came up on the Junior National Team, took 2nd in the UCI Junior World Championship road race and won the Madison race on the track. Last year he won both the Winston Salem Cycling Classic and The Glencoe Gran Prix and placed second in the Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb. He spends his downtime perfecting violin skills. Howard hails from Neenah, Wisconsin. He is a member of the U.S. National Team.
Team: LeMond-Taco Bell
Ostensibly a track specialist, Manhattan Beach's 25-year-old Springerville is a monster in the final sprint, and has won more than two-dozen top U.S. criteriums in the last two years. He placed second only to Al Box in last year's U.S. Criterium championship. Note that Springerville is the current World Track Champion in the Men's Sprint category and today he'll be wearing the vaunted rainbow jersey, which can only be worn by the one who has proven that he's the best on earth this year.
Julian tossed the program aside, mounted his bike and zigzagged carefully to the start line through noisy throngs of spectators, fans, teams and associates.
The entire peloton was lining up under the roadway-spanning banner that read "Long Beach Grand Prix" in large block letters alongside a dozen corporate-sponsor logos of sports drinks, beer and motor oil.
Jittery with palms wet on brake levers, Julian wheeled slowly through the assembling cyclists and managed a position in the second row, near the podium and beneath the elevated announcer's booth. He'd soon be rubbing shoulders and elbows at high speeds with these men, careening into corners and praying everyone kept their line. He felt tiny and terrified alongside giants.
He kept both feet locked into his pedals and stayed upright by touching the handlebars of an acquaintance named Lon lined up on his right side. Julian figured he'd gain a bike length or two on those around him when the gun sounded because they'd be clipping their shoes to the pedals. He'd be at the front of the group when the pace picked up. Like Freddie said, you don't ever want to be caught at the back of the peloton on a fast, slick course like this one because if the group splits you'll likely never make it to the front and you'll be fighting constantly for the wheel—the slipstream—of the rider in front of you. And if you're caught in the back during a crash, you'll most likely go down too.
Julian knew Lon from the OTC. He was a classic rising Southern California star with golden locks and a hot girlfriend. He even smelled sweet, like wintergreen oil and oranges. Lon looked over at Julian, and shook his head. "Yeah, hold yourself up," he said. "You shouldn't even be in this race. You won't last two laps. Dickweed."
Sometimes you're able to see yourself from outside yourself and Julian could see himself from the elevated vantage of the start/finish podium, his team's colors and sponsorship logos, pink bike and fuckedup complexion. He was just a teenager known to some for his abilities in the mountains, not on closed flat courses that go around and around, these "criteriums," which favor the broad-shouldered sprinters with fast-twitch speed and fearless bike-control skills. Julian's spindly legs resembled weed stems next to the few hundred oiled hypertrophic legs around him.
Julian heard but ignored the distorted mumble of last-minute race instructions from the racecourse referee and reached down and took a swig from his water bottle and returned it to its holder. He trembled and longed to be anywhere else on earth and he needed to puke.
* * * *
Julian was barely 12 years old when he first shaved his legs, and there was blood all over the bathtub. A trail of blood he'd hoped would lead all the way to the European pro cycling ranks, five thousand miles away. His sisters weren't allowed to shave their legs until they were 15. His parents had no idea Julian shaved his legs, and anyway, they never really knew what their kid was up to most of the time. They knew he rode his bike, but they didn't exactly approve of competitive cycling.
His parents' marriage had gone off the rails before Julian was born. Mom couldn't stand Dad who couldn't stand himself. Dinner table conversations were non-existent, only tired grunts from a dad intolerant to the sound of his children; tense silences interrupted by the sound of slow, reluctant chewing of canned green beans and such Dad-cooked specialties as mushroom soup over thawed waffles from the freezer. Mom rarely made it home after work. She'd occupy any number of mid-town barstools and hotel rooms with her married boss from the downtown office where she worked.
By never congratulating his racing or even acknowledging it—like when he was named to the U.S. National Junior Cycling team—his mom and dad discounted his every living moment. By then he'd traveled to races all over the United States.
Dreams just don't work out, son. You'll wind up flipping burgers.
That way of teaching violence, from father to son, filled the living room with fear, rage and dread. The knuckle-to-bone terror that only a father can administer to his son. But the beatings served a greater, deeper purpose. They were a reward, an offering, a lesson in silent vengeance, and therefore strength, which served to feed Julian's bike-racer fantasies of becoming hard as rock and tough as fuck and fast as the speed of sound.
It meant freedom. The only rules were those dictated by the amount of suffering Julian could tolerate. The suffering cured despair. He'd complete 80-mile solitary training rides on desert and mountain roads before 9:30 a.m. eighth-grade homeroom class.
When word traveled through junior high that the playground-detached Julian shaved his legs and dug punk rock he stomached interminable torment from confounded jocks and cheerleaders and nerds and teachers. It was the same abhorrence reserved for the one lisped kid in school who smelled like piss and made a habit of reaching into his pants and fiddling with his dick.
Fiddler was Julian's only school friend, and they had zero to talk about. But quiet lunches and the smell of piss helped with the isolation and loneliness.
One day an oversized seventh-grader, a Little League baseball hero named Kenny O'Hanion, caught Julian near the tetherball courts on the far edge of the playground. Kenny's dad was a mean alcoholic fireman with forearm tattoos—in an era rare for dads to sport tats unless he served his country or did prison time. Kenny was growing into his dad and in a few years they'd be the same guy. The punches landed hard and fast. The black eyes didn't fade for a week.
The shit-giving continued in high school and Julian's unruly hair and pimples didn't help. He'd endure faces of students, girls and boys, moving toward him in hallways, watch their heads shake and mouths twist into sinister smirks as they approached, and hear contemptible snickers and names like "faggot" and "buttfucker" as they passed. He'd shortcut home through private desert land to avoid schoolyard punches and hassles, but he'd never run or even jog because his legs and body were in endless recovery mode from training—he was either suffering on the bike or recovering from the suffering—and he couldn't upset that delicate physiological balance. No champion ever would. But he'd walk fast, and the distance between home and school wasn't too bad, maybe less than a mile.
Julian dropped out of school in tenth grade. His parents had given up on themselves.
Julian had heroes not parents. This was the age of bike-racing innocence, before Lance Armstrong's exceedingly macho and drug-stained American boot stomped so much power and beauty out of the sport. Nine years old back in his bedroom, imitating everything his bike-racing big brother did, and through pictures he cut carefully from old Euro cycling magazines and plastered over his bedroom walls and ceiling, he longed to take on and beat the world's all-time greats.
Julian's heroes were mostly the spindly Spanish cyclists who consistently placed Top 5 in the grand world tours like the La Vuelta España, the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. Real-world champs from tiny villages with tomato farmer dads who Julian read about when he was barely strong enough to pedal up a hill.
Big-lunged and power efficient, they were obstinate and reserved, with zero body fat. They earned sulcate sinews and graceful form after having pushed their bodies 100,000 miles. Julian dreamed into their skin and into battles on the Alps and the Pyrenees and the Dolomites. These Spanish crown princes had mad fans throughout Europe, but they suffered for that adoration, some leveraging their bodies far beyond championships and into early graves.
He was 15 when the U.S. Olympic cycling coach informed him he was to be, without question, a true cycling star. Said to just keep his head down and trust him. By that time the kid had already cultivated his darkly competitive attitude and developed scary physical traits. His metabolic efficiency was through the roof, superhuman for a teen. His resting heart rate was 30, and his lung capacity matched older cycling superstars. His young body burned its fat stores first and preserved its limited carbohydrate stores so he could motor faster, harder and longer on races with sustained mountain passes, dropping top racers a decade older and in their physical prime.
It's an addict's need, this yearning and learning to live on risk and pain. Winning teaches you how greatness lurks down deep inside, and quells childhood beat downs that said you don't ever belong anywhere. And that joy of winning—there's something about that kind of joy, it's hard-earned because it rises from a place of pure agony. Hums like the perfect song, the perfect prose, the perfect painting, and your shoes can hold you up above the earth and you're able to walk like that.
Micro-short film for "The Grand Prix":