Seth Davidson / Yuzuru Sunada
My adventures in the South Bay of Los Angeles actually began a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In March 1985, Johnny Weltz and some of his Danish national teammates had come to Austin to race the Tour of Texas. Most of the foreign teams stayed at the Villa Capri, a cheap motel nestled cozily in the shadow of the elevated lanes of I-35, and in the morning they would do various training rides as they readied for the stage race which started the following week.
The Villa Capri, like so many other awful things about Old Austin, got torn down so that we could think fondly about it now that it’s no longer there. I wish someone would do that to the Erwin Center.
It was incredible to see the cream of the amateur peloton right there in Austin, before it was ATX, before it was SXSW, before it was anything other than a college town with lots of hippies and the state legislature, back when it was “thirty square miles surrounded by reality” and the only airplanes that flew into Bergstrom were military. I’d been desperate to go on a training ride with one of the Euro groups, and Fields, sick of the whining, said “Just do it. Show up. Roll out when they roll out. What are they going to do, fire you? It’s not ‘Breaking Away,’ you knucklehead.”
Does anyone here speak English?
I picked a group that turned out to be the Norwegian national team. They were riding with some of the Danes, and Johnny Weltz was one of them. The group was ten riders strong, and they all spoke perfect English. “Where are you riding to?” I asked.
“We want to do some miles so we are going out to the town called Burnet on the road called 183 and coming back on the road called 1431.”
“Do you mind if I come along?”
The Norseman looked at my poorly developed legs.
“It will be a long ride.”
U.S. 183 had a wide shoulder and hardly any traffic back then, especially once you left town. The team car followed us. I was the only local freddie who had crashed the ride, and my addition resulted in an uneven number of riders, so I was paired with someone different every few minutes. In the rotation, everyone took paired five-minute pulls and then swung off. After a couple of hours I started to get hungry, and this was long before Clif or GU or Stinger or anything remotely like it. This was the era of banana or PB sandwich if you had the sense to pack it, or, most commonly, the era of “Pray for a convenience store.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that these guys would ride for three and a half hours without stopping. In a three-hour ride, The Violet Crown gang I normally rode with would have pulled over by then for the fifth time by a low-water crossing on a dirt road in order to smoke their tenth joint of the ride. The Euro dudes weren’t stopping or smoking or doing anything except pedaling, and pedaling fast.
I started praying. As usual, my pleas went unheeded and my bonk began for real. I started to drift off the back, resigned to quitting before we’d even hit the halfway mark. Damn and triple damn.
A little encouragement goes a long way
The team car drove up. “Hey,” the driver said. “You been riding strong. You are hunger knocking, eh?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I have a lot of food in the car.”
My face said everything in reply.
“But I can’t give you any. It is for the team.” He kept staring at me as my spirit went from breaking to broken. “But still you should not give up. We are two miles from the Burnet. There is a store there with the water and the food. You can make it.”
I forced myself back up to the peloton and somehow made it to the Burnet, where we pulled into the convenience store.
The driver got out. “You did okay. That was hard for you.”
Nobody rides for free
Once inside the store I realized I had no money. Of course I didn’t. No one goes on a 125-mile beatdown with the Norwegian national team carrying money. Pride wouldn’t let me ask for any and neither would pragmatism. If they wouldn’t share their food they sure as hell weren’t going to share their money. They were all talking in Norse anyway, and looking at me and grinning. I knew what they were saying.
“He wanted to ride with the team. He don’t look like wants to ride so much now.”
“Let’s see how long it takes him to beg. I bet you ten kroner he will beg in two minutes.”
“You think he’s broke? I think he’s broke. Look, he don’t have any money! Har!”
By now the bonk was profound. I went to the back of the store and looked around. There was the coffee pot, but I didn’t drink coffee and didn’t have any money for it anyway. Next to the coffee pot, though, was a giant glass sugar dispenser. It clearly was meant for the coffee, but it didn’t have a price tag on it.
I took the sugar dispenser and filled up my water bottle with most of the sugar. Then I went into the bathroom, turned on the tap and added hot water to dissolve the massive amount of sugar. I took a sip. It was the taste of life. I drained half the bottle, went back out and filled the bottle up again with more sugar. Suddenly, RR 1431 with its endless hills and winding tarmac wasn’t looking so daunting.
Crime doesn’t pay
As I headed for the door, the large gentleman covered in tattoos behind the counter yelled at me. This was before people got tattooed for fashion, and instead got tattooed as a way of saying “I’ve been in prison.”
“Hey! Where do you think you’re going?”
The Norsemen and Danes stopped and looked. The color drained from my face as my mind raced, trying to think of what to say. I’d been caught in the act. “Yeah, I’m talking to you,” Mr. Tattoo said. “Think you can come into my store and steal all my sugar and walk the fuck off? This ain’t fucking
Russia or wherever the fuck you’re from.”
It was the “Russia” part that saved me.
“Excuse to me?” I said in my strongest fake Euro accent.
“I said you can’t fucking take my sugar. Pony up, pal!” His red face had darkened redder.
“So sorry me, not good English. How problem?”
The Norwegians were doing all they could to keep from cracking up. Johnny Weltz came over and said in his perfect foreigner English. “We’re very sorry to you, sir. He’s from the Belgium, he’s not so good on the English. The Belges are a little slow in the head.”
“Well if he tries ripping off any more of my shit he’ll have a .38 caliber hole in his skull to speed up his stupid fucking thinking. Get the hell out.”
We got the hell out. The moment the door closed everyone burst out laughing except me, who was madly sucking down the warm sugar water. Johnny came up to me. “Hey, you sound like pretty good stupid Belge!”
“Stupid comes natural. I’m from Texas.”
We’re almost home
If you’ve never done RR 1431 from Burnet to Austin on a hot March day with the Nordanian national team, it’s no use me telling you how manly and epic and heroic it was. But I will tell you this: The sugar rush was so intense that on the first several climbs I rolled to the fore and pushed the pace so hard that Johnny rolled up beside me and said, “Easy, Texas. There’s no more sugar water between here and the motel.”
They dropped me hard on the giant wall where 1431 widened into four lanes, but I managed to catch back on, and of course they took the hilly route into town through Volente. My apartment wasn’t far from the Villa Capri. I peeled off on Speedway, beaten to a pulp. After I recovered, I told the whole story to Fields.
Later that year Fields called me up. “Looks like your training ride got those weakling Danes into shape,” he said.
“Yeah. John Weltz just got silver at the amateur world road championships. Isn’t that the guy you rode with back in the spring on that death march?”
“Yeah! It was!” I hung up the phone and thought about it, not quite sure any more. “Was it?” I said to myself. “Oh, well. It is now.”