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By Agnetti Sheldrake, Team TIAA-CREF-5280
“You may as well call us Team Money.” Who ever said cyclists were humble? And why should we be? We deserve recognition, respect, sex, rock stardom, little poodles with American bandanas and Gucci booties. Yeah, and trading cards and tanning beds and … and … and leather pants and capes – it all comes rushing to the head like the initial stroke of a sprint, full of commitment and devoid of thought.
Looking inside the head of a cyclist is like fracturing a carnival sky with the hands of an innocent child and scattering the pieces in waving strokes of glory. For the cyclist is a legend in his own mind, as we were reminded when Team TIAA-CREF headed west for its first race: the McLane Pacific Cycling Classic in Merced, California.
When we arrived at the Ho Jo Inn, we were greeted by a half-naked, pale figure. “Who are you?” he asked, lip sturdy, legs oily, ribs protruding. “Who are you?” I replied. “Who are you?” he asks again. After this productive interaction of egotism, he finally broke down, coughed up a name and team affiliation, and added: “You may as well call us Team Money.”
“Oh yeah, why’s that?” I inquire. “Because we have the ex-Baby Giro champion, and we have two DVD players in our van,” he amplifies, straight-faced and staring deep into my cranium. If he was even a sprig more focused on anything other than his bloated mask of sport he probably could have read my thoughts with that stare, but who needs to think when you’re a rock star, right?
My lip quivers with hesitation, and I ask, “Does that help you ride faster?” “Well, it’s more comfortable,” he replies. Anyone close to the pinnacle of this sport knows that comfort is not necessarily advantageous, and is usually degrading to the fight-or-flight mechanisms of insecurity that fuel the demonic fire of fury and primal rotation of skin-wound pistons. So we didn’t let Team Money sour our innocent taste buds. We wanted to show that 20-year-olds aren’t just post-puberty hormone junkies – we are beautiful, honed specimens, ready to throw head butts at Gordo or Lucio or Bortolami or Johnny Salami or even Team Money.
So we suit up, plaster our faces, give each other a little schtoink in the groin to appropriate the manliness, and head off. We can barely contain ourselves. “Yeah, we’re gonna take Sayers to the gutter.” “We’re gonna sprint squad this beast.” “Who’s ready to dee-stroy?” These are moments of ecstatic youth, togetherness, complete and holy; we are comfortable in the laurels of our eccentric culture. This is who we are and what we live for. It could all be taken away by the drooping eyelids of a drowsy, chaw-gnawing truck driver, but for now we are free and heading to unperverted glory in the natural arena of the criterium.
The air is sticky and humid. We gradually open to the nervous energy as time creeps and the start approaches. The more we tool around the outskirts of the race, the more out of our element we feel. The faster a cyclist goes, the more comfortable he feels in his skin, for speed is the catalyst for balance, and our minds are wobbly until the gun fires.
The big hitters are called to the front and the crowd is engaged. Hairs are raising and goose-pimples are forming; blood will soon pump through our bodies in voracious, exhausted spurts. After the stars are announced, the residual hope clutters to the line, bumping and electrified. The gun smokes and we’re off.
The first two laps make me wish I hadn’t eaten baklava an hour before the race, as every team is driven to get the first- and second-lap primes. The race never settles; though, and my comfort theory proves true. I’m throttling on the tip of my saddle trying to sift through clusters of riders while negotiating the serpentine nature of the course. I approach the Italians on Team Monex and salute them, “Porco dio e proprio un casino, eh?” “Si e vero,” one replies before drifting to the inside of the chicane, missing the wheel in front of him by inches. Every two laps I hear grinding metal, screeches, yelping, yodeling. It sounds like a load of squirrels thrown into a Dumpster full of broken glass and burning newspaper.
Barely any breaks go off, and Health Net seems to have a stranglehold on the race. Jelly Belly makes an effort to overthrow their train, but Gord and Sayers are too drilled, and Fraser wins. Nathan Mitchell and I move to the front and finish off with two top-30’s, not quite up to the standards to which we had aspired, but not too bad for a couple 19-year-olds. The sprint squad is still hungry.
Now we’re off to Pomona, and visionary team manager Ben Turner has planned a little field trip through Yosemite. You may as well call us Team . . . .
Agnetti Sheldrake is the team diarist for Team TIAA-CREF-5280.