It is Day Three of Black Armband Day in Orange County and MKA’s gotta weigh in.
I raced with Meeker. I was on his team. Drove with him in his rent-a-Porsche. The night before a big race I watched his tongue grow a deeper shade of purple as he put away the bottles. Saw him turn on the charm, hug and kiss everyone, man or woman, ugly or pretty, way into the wee hours.
On nights of such debauchery I questioned whether Meeker would be able to get up in the morning, let alone compete. But get up he did, and more often that not, he not only competed, but he won, easily, off the front, with little actual help from me or his other teammates. After the race, I admired the way he doled out thanks, congratulated the competition, and collected his prize money with an awe-shucks humility.
In short, MKA bought in. I drank the Kool Aid. Meeker was a rock star, and I was along for the ride. When Meeker pulled up in his shiny new Mercedes, or Lexus, or Porsche, smelling of expensive cologne, and shed his designer jeans and Italian loafers, and suited up, unsheathing those marvelously ripped and latticed calves, the party was on.
One Man Rock Show
He didn't ask any of his minions for a lead out. He didn't need one. We knew that. Oh, we talked about team victories. And we wanted badly to believe that we contributed. After all, Meeker was always the first to split up the winnings. I even felt bad a few times about taking my cut, meager as it was, as I knew in my heart that he would’ve won even if I had been working against him.
How do I know that? Answer: because I did try to work against him. MKA wanted to win. MKA trained hard. MKA prided himself in training harder than anyone. Not a good climber? Find a steep hill and do it 50 times, alone, in the rain. Not a good sprinter? Plot out a 1 mile stretch and do it 10 times, out of the saddle, into the wind, madly.
Why did MKA train hard? Because as much as I enjoyed the show, the statistically improbable unbeaten streak, the back stage pass, the entourage, the spread, and the sycophants, I suspected it was phony. All a dream. Larger than life. Too good to be true. He didn’t just place top 3, he triumphed. Tops. Every time. The audacity.
Meeker’s a smart and savvy crit racer, but he wasn't known for having an exhausting training regimen. You know that Russian wrestler who carried logs uphill in the deep snow in Siberia? Meeker wasn't like that. He used to say that the reason he was so fast was unlike other masters he didn’t over train. He wasn’t overzealous.
Trouble in Paradise
Like everybody else reading this, I suspected. How could a beach boy from Corona Del Mar who didn't do uphill intervals go uphill so fast at altitude in the mountains? I had my questions. Did I bring it up? No. Absolutely not. Why? The answer has to do with three things: toughness, expectations and audacity.
First, I never condoned doping, but the suspicion that it was pervasive never bothered me too much. One time, as a sponsor of the Cascade Cycling Classic, I paid a little extra to advertise and implement a drug control in the masters races. I mainly did it to see who wouldn’t show up. It was simply a deterrent.
As one of the founders of the Dana Point Grand Prix, I priced the cost of doping controls, which turned out to be very, very expensive. In the end, as a non-profit operating on a shoe string budget, we simply couldn't afford the nut. We gladly paid the drug testing surcharge imposed by the USAC, but we didn't go above and beyond. We weren’t willing to bankrupt our race to ferret out the cheats.
As a competitor, I was pretty much OK with dopers. In a twisted way I even needed them. They motivated me. Back in the day, my old buddy and mentor Chris Hipp used to laugh at Chris Carlson, the model of Aryan perfection. Carlson, aka Blue Chip, had all the best and latest equipment, his employer (EDS) paid him to train, and he was pampered by a small army of dieticians, soigneurs and coaches. Hipp didn't care. He’d cackle: “The more you train, the more advantages you have, the more ENJOYMENT I’m going to have beating you.” And beat him he did, because Hipp was one tough bastard.
It was easy to dislike Blue Chip. He wasn't affable, gregarious and charismatic like Meeker. He was ultra serious, high strung, and rigid. He didn't get drunk on wine the night before a race and suggest wife swapping or swinging. Meeker wasn't a prick, far from it, but I still wanted to beat him.
Vive la Difference
It didn't bother me that the playing field was “uneven.” When was it ever even? Some humans are faster, stronger, better looking, more intelligent. Some sing, or paint, or play guitars better. Some are born into wealth, others into poverty. When you pay to watch a ballet, you want to see the divine dancers soar gracefully through the air. As Vonnegut pointed out in “Harrison Bergeron,” you don't want to see the best, most gifted and elegant dancer weighted down by a 50 pound lead belt, strapped on by a government determined to make sure that everyone’s equal, that nobody has an “unfair advantage.”
As an amateur athlete, you need to get comfortable with the idea that your competition may not only be better but unbeatable. You need to accept that your adversary may have gotten better by using illegal drugs. You have to tell yourself that you don't give a fuck, you’re still going to train hard, you’re not conceding anything, you’re going to tap into the force, and you’re not going to let the official results measure you’re self worth.
It’s like in “Raging Bull,” the boxing movie. De Niro, as Jake LaMotta, lost several fights to his nemesis Sugar Ray, who was easily a quicker, faster and more elusive fighter. LaMotta didn't care about how the judges scored the fight, which he usually lost. “You never knocked me down, Ray,” LaMotta would taunt Sugar Ray after a decision, blood streaming down from his swollen, half-crazed eyes. LaMotta created his own standard of excellence, his own measurable. He didn't care about the judgment of others, or belts, or titles, or prize money.
MKA never cared too much about the money, or the trophies. MKA cared about getting the most out of his mind and body. (Well, he did like winning the occasional jersey). He didn’t use supplements, unless you count caffeine, which MKA guzzled liberally before races. He did use an artificial hip joint, which certainly enhanced his performance.
Train it, Tap it, Walk Away
Looking back, after a long 23 year quest, MKA finally got the most out of his mind and body in 2012, on the final climb to Mt. Bachelor at the masters nationals. MKA trained, plotted, and visualized fiendishly for that race. Multiple repeats. MKA choreographed when he was going to launch, how far, what gear, even down to when he would sit back down in the saddle. MKA didn't win that day. Got third. But MKA was satisfied. He left nothing on the table. Metcalf won, a genetic marvel, and untouchable. Meeker took second, a dominant crit rider, with an asterisk.
There was a time in MKA’s youth when “the Board was all.” Over time, MKA began to learn that winning was a state of mind. If you did your best, with the tools you were born with, including the ones that wore out and needed replacing, that was enough. That’s the “lower your expectations” part of this essay.
The final part has to do with our fascination with audaciousness. When Meeker was winning everything, and the whispers grew louder, did anyone ever “do” anything about it? I didn’t. I wasn’t against “doing” something. It just didn't rank in my book as the kind of atrocity that warranted a call to arms.
In truth, I wasn’t outraged. I was both amused and fascinated, in a clinical way. How did he do it? And keep doing it? Didn't it bother him that he looked freakish and won with freakish ease? Why did he have to win every time? Couldn't he have doled out a few wins to others, now and then, just to placate his naysayers and confirm his mortality? Did winning all the time get boring? Why didn’t he want to race against the pros? Meeker had become a superman, an uber racer, merrily flapping his wings made of wax within a few miles of the sun, with no fear of melting.
MKA posits that nobody did anything in protest, including me, because we loved it. We secretly wanted him on that wall, so to speak. He was living the dream for us. Not just any dream, a dream on steroids. Bigger’n God. Larger than Life. We praised him. We envied him. Some may have even idolized him. We knew that one day it would all come crashing down - as Landis lamented about Lance, “I hate to be the one to tell you, but there’s no Santa Claus.” And when it did, we would pretend to be either bamboozled or outraged. But in any case, we’d mount our soapboxes and roundly condemn him. For what? For crushing our dreams.
I don’t get the outrage. We demanded, and Meeker delivered, over the top, bell curve busting, black swannish outlier entertainment. Anybody ever not bought a record, novel, painting, or sculpture because the artist used drugs? Or refused sex because the suitor was mildly under the influence? Or turned down free tickets to an NFL, NBA or MLB game because a player was most probably using drugs?
If the answer is “yes” to any of these, more power to you. Enjoy your untainted life. But MKA prefers a ballad that was inspired by LSD. Or a poem that was scribed by a malcontent shutting out the bullshit with cocaine and coffee. Or a slightly boozy gal who’s willing to let go and experiment. I personally don’t do drugs, except alcohol, but I can appreciate how certain drugs, in the hands of adult rock stars and writers, can liberate one’s muse. I could be wrong, but I’m thinking that for artists like Hendrix, Lennon, Richards, and Morrison, drug use wonderfully enhanced their respective performances. And that’s the downside. Drugs can enhance, but they can also kill.
In the end, remember what Hipp Star taught: bycycling is a stoopid sport, dominated by dreamers and idiots, full of bangers and adrenaline junkies, who rush and crash about for brief moments of glory and mementos which over time fade and collect dust. Any amateur who races for trinkets, or for cash, or for the adulation of the herd, is an imbecile. Any amateur who would put winning at any cost above the joy of simply going hard and doing your best, is an imbecile. Meeker may be guilty of all of that, and if so he’s been paying the price for a long time.
But for Pete’s sake don’t let the Meekers sour you. Let them motivate you. Let them entertain you. Let them help you put into perspective why you ride a bike. If you want to mobilize an effort to raise the money to catch the drug cheats, then do it. But for fuksakes don’t use the Meekers as an excuse to condemn the sport or quit it.
As a special return to the blogosphere, here’s a bonus parody from my hero the Right Reverend Billy Stone, sung to the tune of A Few Good Men:
Son, we live in a world with steep hills.
Whose going to climb them with the skinny ectomorphs?
You, Mr. Clodhooper? You Mr. Heavy Legs?
I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.
You can’t handle the truth because deep down in places you talk about on Cougar Island you want to stay up with those angels of the mountain.
And Meeker’s fall from grace, while tragic, probably saved the sport.
And Meekers existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you of the flailing class probably kept you racing.
Because deep down in places you don’t talk about while sipping triple shot moca lattes on Cougar Island you want superpowers in racing.
We use words like transfusion, birth control pills, and centrifuge as the backbone of a training regime of winners.
You use them as calumnies.
What I can’t tolerate is you who live in the very 12K Dream World Meeker showed you is possible and
Then curse the means by which he illuminates the deep recesses of your wet dreams.
I’d prefer you just say thank you for the hay ride. Or I suggest you go play cyclocross or mud running.
Either way, I don’t give a damn whether you ever show up and race.