Bike race gives ego a beating.
By Ashley Fantz
NOVEMBER 15, 1999: If my editors weren't tapping their toes impatiently for at least 1,000 words on the all-out assault of my athletic prowess last Sunday, I would just leave it at one perfect, summarizing word:
I volunteered a few weeks ago to bike in the 11th annual Tour de Wolf. Although the last time I had pedaled a bike competitively was four years, a broken arm, and 27 stitches ago, I was confident (arrogant) enough to take on what's known as the best bike race in Tennessee. Arguably, the 6-mile course race at Shelby Farms is the most rigorous in the Mid-South. Serious cyclists, including Olympic athlete Tinker Juarez, can take home about $20,000 in cash and prizes after riding the course five times -- or 30 miles. Experienced but semi-pro challengers come from all over the country. Divided into categories by weight and age, even lilliputian riders ages under 10 years old -- the ones I no doubt should have cycled next to -- create their own proud dust along the countryside.
Everyone was smart enough to know which class they could race. I was not. So I just went with the herd.
About 30 female competitors gathered behind a swarm of nearly 200 men before the race for sport class, a division of talent I assumed would attract mostly skilled, but amateur bikers. I quickly felt like Pee Wee Herman, if he'd taken a wrong turn with his candy-assed red bike and found himself at the Iron Man starting line. If these women performed on the trail as good as they looked, I was in trouble. Each one had the "outfit." The "outfit," I learned, is definitely a necessary investment. Primary colored spandex with any variation of stars, stripes, roaring animals, or repeated geometric pattern is essential. All sorts of attachments for quick liquid consumption give the bikers a ghostbuster-esque professionalism. And their Velcro metal-teeth shoes made my Nike running shoes look like Payless pumps in a Gucci lineup. But Christy, Linda, Diane, and Leslie -- sucking down packets of goop, a gel pack of protein and carbs -- were encouraging.
"You've at least got a nice bike," one of them offered.
The orange Cannondale mountain bike Outdoors Inc. had loaned me was a gem. Race organizer Joe Royer, co-owner of that fine, fine sports mini-chain on Union, Poplar, and Germantown Parkway didn't mention that the bike would turn my apartment into Mecca. Friends visited my apartment to caress the titanium masterpiece for a week before the race, a week I spent never once riding the race trail.
"Have you seen the course?" Linda asked.
Before I could answer no, she was gone.
As I chugged and grunted along, a race monitor cycled behind me. I suppose the piercing whine I made while ascending a steep, gravel-peppered hill had alarmed him.
"Are you going to be okay?" he asked.
That was the spark of embarrassment that propelled me into the last leg of the tour. After traversing this rough wooded area marked by unexpected turns and steep hills, I saw a woman from Oxford whose chain had broken. I stopped to let a pack of guys who were already on their second course speed past. She asked me how long I had been biking. I said, "About half an hour." She thought I was kidding. "I'm a runner," I added.
"This is a whole set of different muscles," she laughed.
The Tour de Wolf participants had my respect from the beginning. But after falling twice and eating six bugs, I bowed to their abilities, especially those of financial analyst Boomer Leopold, Memphis' top racer. He began cycling as a means of transportation in college and now, eight years later, commutes about 35 miles everyday to work.
"It's the speed that does it for me -- the jumping, turning, sliding. You can't do that running," he says. A broken front wheel kept Leopold from finishing in the expert division, one level below pro.
With only a few scrapes and an ego that deserved a good beating, I finished the Tour de Wolf sore but satisfied. Swigging back a Powerade, I talked with a medical technician ready to stretcher anyone who took a debilitating spill. A triathlete herself, she began to say that the day was going smoother than she had expected. A call came in on her radio. A man had fallen and probably broken his collarbone. Minutes later, she was told that he didn't want any assistance. He could walk and he was coming out on his own -- limping and in excruciating pain -- but on his own.
"That's pretty common," she said. "I've seen people ride with broken arms. You just get into it."
My sore thigh muscles and stinging bruises were starting to feel better already.
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