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Austin Gentleman's Ride
Sunday, July 13th
The morning after was heavy and dull and clouded by dreams: of drag queens; mavens; and track heroes all drilling, 20-odd seconds at time, for gold. And for pride. And to amaze, stupefy and entertain more than 200 spectators. The Austin Rapha Roller Race at Mellow Johnny’s, in all it’s glory and success, was over.
Which brings us to 7:30am the next morning. The outside temperature is near 87 degrees and steadily rising. Still drunk from the night before, I’m riding a borrowed fixie with no brakes, toe straps or cages and I careen across town from my hotel, sweating through a recently acquired fear of lights and hills. I ride up to the beginnings of a fascinating scene, just outside Mellow Johnny’s where we’ll start our 70-mile Gentlemen’s Ride.
What I like most about these rides is how eclectically attended they are – sending an open invitation to riders across all disciplines and riding abilities yields even stranger and better results than one might think. I notice first an older gentleman on a steel Heron outfitted in randoneering racks and bags. Then, two men wearing full team kit and straddling Record Pinarellos. Finally, I see, walking up the steps to the shop’s café, a young, quiet kid wearing a T-shirt, cord shorts and a messenger bag with a non-descript 80’s road bike in his hands. Come one, come all.
Inside the shop, store manager Adam Biechlin has spread on the service counter, an assortment of vitamins, supplements, electrolytes and smart, calorie-rich foods. Though Mellow Johnny’s isn’t yet open, the mood inside is frantic. Our group, Slate, Carey, Trystan and I from Rapha, and Adam, Ted, Chris, Eileen and Andrew, from MJ’s, are locating and prepping our various bikes, bottles and bars. Back outside, the temperature has already crept to 93 degrees. It’s five minutes to 8:00and a crowd of 50 cyclists are awaiting instruction.
Adam provides a quick rundown.
“It’s a simple, 70-mile out and back. In the middle of the ride, at San Marco, we’ll get a wet cool down in the cold spring river running through the campus before turning around. Let’s stay together if we can and let’s get back before one of us spontaneously combusts. Any questions?”
Off the back from the start, I have the benefit of slowly riding through the field as we make our way through town on our way south. My first conversation is with a man in his mid 40’s wearing a white cotton T-shirt tucked into black spandex shorts and a Giro Hammerhead. His old, lugged bike , sporting down tube shifters, hums amidst carbon and Ti. We talk about his relatively recent interest in road cycling and how he’s been riding with various groups and clubs around town.
“When I first started riding with them I would get dropped almost immediately and now, especially if I sit in, I can finish almost any ride. But it’s taken time and some work.”
The ride is flat and hot, with a light breeze out of the flat, arid prairie to the south. The wind, by all accounts, is familiar and reliable, like a friend offering a cool hand on the way out and a nice push on the way back. The landscape is a mix of new developments, Wall-Marts and dry ranchlands. Groves of khaki-green oak line the road for long sections at a time, as does mesquite and various other scrub in the drier spots. Twenty miles in, we leave a lightly traveled B-road for a rolling, broken back road covered in gravel and sand. On the far side, four miles later, we come to a gas station cum-mini mart. A young guy on single speed, who I remember from last night’s party, dodges one of us stopped in the driveway but goes down in the process. He’s fine. Inside, the air conditioning almost hurts and the long line for the ice machine is perverse.
Andrew and Ted, who seven hours ago was dressed head-to-toe in an orange jumpsuit as a ‘party’ Tom Boonen, aren’t looking nearly as good as they did last night while emceeing the roller race. Wilted and green, they organize a small breakaway group to return home just shy of the halfway mark.
Adam and a guy named Ali do all the work. Pulling at an easy 15mph, they keep us safe and headed in the right direction. I’m riding next to Carey and can’t help overhear when she’s questioned about her brazen violation of the Gentlemen’s Ride qualifying criteria. This develops into a fun, albeit strange conversation about what the term implies. Whatever it means to us in Portland, it quickly becomes apparent that it means something totally different ‘deep in the heart of Texas’. Lost in thought, I remark to Trystan, who is happily bringing up the rear of this pack, that Slate is nowhere to be seen. We don’t even remember seeing him among the crowd on the sweat stained sidewalk in front of the gas station.
The last few miles before San Marco drop slowly, into a beautiful valley running parallel to a very dry riverbed that we eventually cross. It’s classic, spaghetti western Texas, a dry, wide, scrub-lined riverbed, the perfect place for your horse to die or you and your wagon to be ambushed by guys in red face paint. The far side of the plain is bordered in the distance by hills, the first we’ve seen all day.
The San Marco River bubbles to life on Southwest Texas University campus. It’s wide and deep and clear. More like a canal than a riverbank, it’s edged in concrete featuring benches and ladders into the water. Trees provide shade here and there, mostly there. Delinquent college kids and locals sunbathe while the university cross country teams do laps around the green lawns and small hills surrounding our oasis. Sweaty jerseys and hot shoes are abandoned while many of us, like a troupe of wrestlers with bad tan lines, take a refreshing dip. We make tasteless, rude and very funny jokes, which I can’t remember and couldn’t repeat even if I could, while we publically wring-out our bib shorts. I try to dress in the middle of telling one such story. My jersey is still hot and stuffed with bars and tubes and my body is cold and squeaky wet. I forget to pull up my bib straps first. Oh well, looks retro and I can’t be bothered so I ride the straps on the outside.
Slate shows up after apparently bringing up the back of the back for the entire first half of the day. Not long after, the group is organized and we all head out for the 35-mile return home. Still bitter with ‘abandonment issues’ and in possession of relatively fresh legs, Slate decides to tear some legs off not 10 minutes later. He sets off a chain of events that he’s only barely willing, or able, to handle himself. The getting-to-know-you, social group ride spirit now goes missing for the rest of the day.
The ride home feels at least 30% faster than the way out. The temperature is well over a 100 degrees and the promised tailwind is broken, or worse, a headwind. For the rest of the ride, I move up to the front with a large guy wearing Mellow Johnny’s kit, a triathlete named Louie and an exceptionally fit, recent transplant from Santa Barbara in a USCB jersey. A few random others yo-yo off the back, including Slate, Carey and Chris. ‘tucked in white T-shirt guy’. They catch up gradually at lights until finally catching us with just 10 miles to go. Stopping at lights brings the temps up another five degrees and causes my head to throb. When I see the lights ahead change to red, I wince. Santa Barbara and Tri Guy who, it should be noted, rode a century the day before, do almost all the work as I begin to cramp. The Mellow Johnny’s guy also begins to fade and everyone else continues to pass on a pull. We roll in happy and hot, our group of six or so.
Back at the ranch, groups of twos and threes begin to arrive five minutes after we land. The already crowded café fills quickly with sweaty wool, Lycra, fresh stories, empty Coke bottles and new friends. Phone numbers and cards are exchanged and ride dates amongst the locals are made. Within an hour, the fractured field has completely returned and a nice post ride group, chatting and claiming and sharing, occupies the loading dock. A gentleman’s – and gentlewoman’s - ride, indeed.