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Peloton X

The Tunnel at the End of the Light

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“The tunnel at the end of the light.” I can’t take credit for that one. That twisted idiom comes from Paul Sadoff, the one-man circus who builds Rock Lobster bike frames in Santa Cruz, California. I think he brought that out one day while I was admiring his ever-growing list of frame orders. He singlehandedly built 100 bike frames last year. No rest for the weary–the 62-year-old will likely do the same in 2018. He’s an expert on looming tunnels.

Words: Andrew Juiliano/Image: Balint Hamvas

Among the thousands of bicycles he’s made over the past decades, he built me my first cyclocross frame six years ago. Without him, I’d have never discovered this whacky sport. I’d have never chased the racing dream to Belgium this past October. I certainly wouldn’t have been doing two-minute intervals up the Hotondberg in East Flanders in mid January. And I would never have performed my first bike throw, after a 23 year racing career.

Mind you, this bike throw was not for a finish line. This one was straight into a grassy ditch. And I didn’t let out a roar of triumph for the fans. It was a profane bellow of frustration that only the onlooking cows heard. I’d been in Flanders for nearly four months. I’d endured 11 total hours of sun in December. I’d graciously accepted the weekly beatings at the hands of the Belgians. I’d struggled to figure out the race day details that would have made life so much easier. Sure those things were tough, and the struggles certainly compounded throughout the season, but they weren’t what ultimately landed my bike in the gutter on that sunny, Belgian day. My legs had finally given up, unable to push any power.

Image: Tomás Montes/ Arriere Du Peloton

Throughout the season, I worried that this day would come, but I tried to ignore it as long as I could. Since August, a chronic stomach condition has progressively dropped my hematocrit, iron and red blood cell counts. By the beginning of January, they approached the levels of an anemic, elderly man, a less than ideal profile of a pro cyclocross racer. Still, I spent the season, pushing through, denying that these poor lab numbers would derail the dream to race ‘cross in Belgium.

Then, two weeks ago, a bout of food poisoning–courtesy of my no longer favorite lunch spot in Oudenaarde–left me 10 pounds lighter. (Calm down, weight weenies that doesn’t improve your watts per kilo ratio. It just kicks your power and fatigue resistance straight in the balls). Besides the digestive exorcism of the evil piece of chicken, I also expelled nearly all the remaining motivation to get back on the bike.

Yet I still clung to a last fiber of hope that I could salvage the end of my season. Four days later, I was back on my bike, ready to once again, rebuild some form, and make it through the last two World Cups of the season. That optimism lasted half way through that interval session up the green Flemish farm fields. I chucked my bike into the ditch. The strength was long gone. My muscles had finally withered. The bike lay there in the gutter alongside my last remaining shred of hope. It was a bright a sunny day, but all I could see was the dark, dark tunnel.

I didn’t ride for a week. I was convinced I was done. But somehow, last weekend, I still got in the car and drove six hours to the Nommay World World Cup in France. Even underweight, undertrained and totally overcooked, I was unwilling to concede. But after struggling through warm ups, I didn’t even line up. I finally realized, an hour before the start, that I was done. I had driven all the way to France because I thought–despite the medical evidence, power data, insomnia and pleas from loved ones–I could still start that World Cup. In reality I had tossed my race season into the ditch alongside my bike.

This season, the Belgian bike-racing dream took me to East Flanders–the place where it went to die. Well almost. I’m already thinking about next season. How to heal up, start training again, and eventually make it back to the cyclocross motherland. I might even pedal back up the Hoogbergstraat before heading home. Might as well salvage what’s left of the dream–no reason to let it rot in that Flemish gutter. Besides, there’s probably just enough of it left to revive for next year as I teeter on the brink of the tunnel at the end of the light.