Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Not-so-good Ol' Days

I am sitting here 72 hours away from 50 years old—with an ice pack on the ITB of my left knee after a grueling 8 days of riding. I missed a Saturday in early January for rare weekend work (and am about to miss three days this coming weekend for a state conference) and suffered like the rest of the South through an unexpected and lingering snowstorm.

Don't know why my ITB is throbbing.. .unless you want to take a peak at the suffer-fest initiated by Bruce and Jae (and 9 more of my closest friends) on January 15. This was a serious flogging over the ugly and relentless rollers along HWY 176.

And then UWBL yesterday:


More and more, when I glance around during rides—especially the ones that turn me inside-out and render me nearly silent (I said "nearly")—I start identifying the riders around by age—Brian in his 20s, Wade and Peter about 30, Tim and Wayne nearly a decade younger than I am. . .Well, the lists gets pretty grim for me (thank goodness for Richard White, Paul LeFrancois, and Steve Wagoner).

Steve Verdell is a few years younger than I am, but even when we were young, I didn't really deserve to sit in his draft. So it isn't really about age; except for me, I am riding to the end of my 40s as the strongest cyclist I have ever been—with my three best Assault times (5:57, 6:09, 6:10) all since I turned 46—although that still leaves me out of my league when I ease to the front of UWBL or take all my pulls along the attack zones during the Cancun ride. . .

Which brings me to what old men do. . .tell stories about the good ol' days. But I am going to exercise poetic license here. . .this story, as you will see, is about the not-so-good ol' days.

I started riding about 27 or 28 years ago, and in those early days, I rode alone. My usual ride was a 15-mile out-and-back route from Fairforest to the end of Old Anderson Mill Road (for locals, I considered that road to have two "climbs"). If I rode the15 miles in an hour, I was elated.

Over the next 5 or 6 years, I eventually joined local rides, but as I look back today, I wonder why anyone in the area remained a cyclist after joining one of our organized rides.

Here's a snapshot:

Many years ago, The Great Escape sat on HWY 29, a little above where Taco Bell is now, in a renovated convenience store. Spartanburg had the Bicycle Gallery on the east side as well. The Great Escape ride fluctuated, but was usually on Thursdays once most of us went to the Donaldson Center practice races on Tuesdays.

The route back then went straight out from GE, crossing over I-85 and rolling straight to New Cut Road, where we turned left and headed north to HWY 357 before turning left and weaving in by the Hollywild Zoo and the landfill for a couple finishing climbs including goat hill.

For those accustomed to A, B, and C rides and an interesting concept called "regrouping," the late 1980s and early 1990s had none of that. And "gap" was a word I didn't hear on a ride until the twenty-first century.

The flogging in those days began once a tire rolled out of the parking lot. Riders were even dropped before the railroad tracks at the Hotspot (yes, less than two miles). And if those dropped riders had to stop for the red light, well, we wouldn't see them until the next ride.

My horror as a new and much weaker rider was when we turned onto New Cut Road. Just past the Adidas plant to our right, the road turned up for a gradual incline that appeared to be flat road for many on the ride, except me. Most rides, I watched Verdell, Proctor, Tim (who I started riding with when he was in high school), Art and Andrew, as well as an assortment of riders who have drifted into and out of our local riding core for the past two to three decades, ride away while I gasped for air and resigned myself to once again ride 30 of the 35-mile loop alone.

And the parking lot at GE was empty when I finally got there. No one was heading for Mexican food and beer. In fact, we may have not even spoken to each other during the ride. . .(I was swearing silently to myself, I know, but can't recall much talking otherwise.)

But there is one person I omitted above—Fred Gobillot. He was the primary engine in the flogging. Fred was apt to ride around the pack in someone's yard to our right as we headed out from GE. . .if we weren't up to maximum speed in a few hundred yards, Fred was going to make us or simply ride off alone.

I genuinely don't know why I kept going back for these rides, but I did. And one week when I made it a little farther than usual, after Fred hammered everyone off his wheel, he looped back and told me to sit on his wheel to pull me back to the group. It was much harder to hang on that I believe he understood, but I did it. . .with Fred chewing me out the whole way. Apparently, in order not to get dropped, all I had to do was speed up—this was Fred's blunt and clear message.

After we reached the group, Fred rolled effortlessly back to the front, tightened the screws and popped me off the back again. And this went on for weeks.

I can't recall exactly when it happened (remember I am getting old), but I do recall the week I made it to HWY 357 with the front group without Fred helping. I sucked wheel the whole way, but I was there when we turned left and headed in (with no concern about the riders littered along New Cut Road).

And this is how I learned to ride—partly as a maturing cyclist (getting stronger year after year) and partly psychologically. Not getting dropped is about attitude and fitness.

While Fred was flogging me and berating me on Thursdays, I was also going to Donaldson and making it a little farther each week until I knew when I went to Donaldson that I was never going to win (I finished in the break away once back in those days), but I was never going to get dropped either.

I sit here 72 hours away from 50 years old. I really appreciate the torture Fred and my other cycling friends heaped on me in those first 5 or 10 years.

But this is no reminiscing about the good ol' days. I am glad to be riding still with many of the same people from my first decade of cycling.

But I'll take now without hesitation, and I am hopeful for many more years just like now. . .despite the ice packs and the growing number of riders on local rides who are half my age. . .

Paul Thomas, EdD, Associate Professor
Furman University


  1. I'm 30 days away from 61 and training for my 3rd Mt Mitchell. Wish I was just 72 hrs away from 50, LOL. I'll be thrilled to make the ride in just over 7hrs. If I was 50 again, not a problem. Those beginning years, learning to ride and always getting dropped. Now older and still get dropped on occasions. But that's good because you can always share and encourage younger riders that have been dropped also. It's all in fun, and it gives me a quite laugh to know I'm not alone with younger riders half my age.

  2. Happy Birthday old man! Those were fun days, eh? You captured it well. I remember suffereing from the time we left the parking lot until I got in the shower. Phil Whitman, rest his soul, used to hang in there pretty good too, especially for already being beyond the HALF CENTURY mark you're hitting today. Remember when the old guys seemed really old and now we're as old as they were!


  3. Welcome to the club Paul, and thanks for helping us rookies learn the ropes!