By Maynard Hershon
If you ride alone or with friends who may not be as serious as you are, you can misjudge where you fit in cycling’s performance pecking order. Only in racing, where everyone is there for the same reason and ostensibly doing their best, can you tell where you stand.
I found out where I stood on a climb in my first stage race — in 1976.
The four-day event was the La Contienda de las Colinas, the contest of the hills. The first stage was a timed climb up Alba Road in the mountains north of Santa Cruz, Calif. I’d never ridden Alba Road, but I’d heard talk.
Alba, it was said, called for the lowest gear a guy could put on his bike. It was less than four miles long and rose maybe 2,100 vertical feet. No relief, no flat sections and no descents.
In the ‘70s, almost all of us racing types had five-speed gear clusters, generating (with two chainrings) eight usable gears. Typically, in NorCal, we rode 42-52 or -53 in front, and 13- or 14-21 or 23 in the rear.
Because we had so few gears on our bikes, we changed freewheels for different races. A flat race called for a straight block, maybe a 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17. A hilly race might call for a 13-23 or even 13-24. Anything lower and you might be pedaling happily, but you’d be dropped.
In the San Francisco Bay Area where I lived we rode in the hills, but not often in actual mountains or at altitude. If we had, we’d have needed lower gears for long climbs in the thin air.
I’d been riding a couple of years by ‘76, and racing for one of those years. I’d read that stage racing is the true test of an all-’round rider. I never had a sprint but I could climb well, I figured, and roll adequately, so I was two for three. And I was young(ish), fit and cocky.
The Contienda was the only stage race in NorCal at that time, so I decided to enter, Alba Road or no Alba Road. But thinking about that climb scared me. To compete with elite riders I needed a secret weapon. I decided to build a freewheel with gears suited specifically for Alba, a freewheel I might never use again.
The outside two cogs on those freewheels screwed on and locked the other cogs to the freewheel body and they were limited in selection. I used a 14 and 15 there but mounted larger cogs in the inner three positions, the positions that mattered: a 24, a 26 and a 28.
As you can imagine, it was a strange looking freewheel. I’d never seen another one like it, nor had I ever ridden gears so low. I tried it on my bike and sure enough it worked. I thought, “Now I’ll have ratios low enough, even for Alba Road.” I imagined I’d shift up and down among the three low gears as the gradient changed.
As I recall, the Contienda’s four days included the hillclimb, a flatter time trial and two road races. I confess I don’t remember the other stages, only the first...
We started up Alba at one-minute intervals. I’d had plenty of time to warm up. There was a very short flat stretch before the hill pointed at the sky. I left the line in the 42-15 and shifted down as soon as I was rolling. In no time I was in the 28, my lowest gear.
I never shifted out of the 28 on that hill, and never sat down. I stood on the pedals, just trying to get them to turn, all the way up. For four miles I felt as if my cranks had been welded in place; that’s how much they resisted my efforts to turn them.
I tried every trick I knew to lessen the pain. I tried exhaling twice for every hoarse intake of air. I tried to relax my legs to increase blood flow to the muscles. I tried thinking about something else, anything else, besides how much I hurt. Nothing worked.
I was so convinced that I could climb, I imagined that everyone was having the same difficulty. “They’re suffering same as me,” I thought, and going just as slowly. That was a comfort.
But halfway up, a guy passed me. Easily.
He was sitting down, comfortably turning a normal, everyday gear, maybe a 23 or 24. He was not grimacing. He’d already gained at least a minute on me, maybe two, and I was riding as hard as I could, sucking in air, trying to ignore the screaming in my legs riding a 28 and barely moving.
He rolled by and within two or three bends in the road, he disappeared from view. No way could I dream of chasing him. I was going as fast as I could. I kept laboring over the pedals and my legs kept screaming. I didn’t look any different but in that moment my life had changed.
I’d been a big fish in a warm, safe pond, riding with my buddies. That was over.
I kept racing for a few years and even did well at certain events, hill climbs primarily. I was lucky when the cycling federation lowered the Masters category age to 35 the year I turned 35. A couple of years into the ‘80s I quit racing and started writing about racers and the life that goes along with it.
There are many levels of ability and dedication in everything, seems like. We don’t often have the opportunity to see which level we’ve attained at the pursuits we care about on an even playing fields. I did, there on Alba Road.
I’d thought I could climb well, that I had the stuff. I thought that if I’d started younger and learned to descend when I had less fear and learned to ride in large, elbow-banging groups when I still felt immortal, maybe I could have been somebody on a bike. You know, a contender.
I didn’t enjoy cycling any less after my eyes were opened on Alba Road. Maybe, when I saw that there were levels in cycle sport I’d never reach, I adjusted my goals and stuck to competing with my peers, guys approximately my own age with similar riding experience. Worked out well, I’d say.
But the race that remains most vivid in my memory is not one of my few days of cycling glory. It’s the first stage of La Contienda de las Colinas, all those years ago.
Contact Maynard on Twitter @maynardhershon or email him at email@example.com.