The Mid-Week Classic (MWC) gets its name because it’s held every Wednesday. Both the route and intensity are much akin to a one-day Classic. It starts early in the Spring, which often means temps are cold and conditions vary from sunny and warm to instantaneous downpours and the race has little time for pleasantries. The MWC is a bare-knuckle, fisticuffs event complete a “no-rules” policy, which basically states that it’s “game-on” at exactly 5:30 p.m. The course is 40 miles out and back and the terrain varies from rolling hills and false flats to a nasty criterium section complete with multiple chicanes and a rutted series of back roads punctuated with potholes, off-camber turns and some spontaneous gravel in sections.
The MWC makes no apologies and takes no prisoners, which is why it’s a favorite for the local Category ones and twos. I incorporated the MWC into my weekly schedule two seasons ago and feel that it has drastically improved my fitness. I guess if I’m not going to pay a coach to train me, the next best thing is to make sure I show up on the important training rides.
The MWC is an epic event, but one ride in particular was so over the top, that I’ll never forget it.
Last July we experienced a two-week period where the temps were relentless and hovered in the 32°-34°C range. The wicked humidity so common with July helped to create a recipe for a complete and utter cracker! At 5:15 p.m. the ride began taking shape; the usuals showed along with some new faces. At 5:30 p.m. the group was complete (25 of us in all) and we rolled in the familiar fashion up and out of town. Just as we passed the last of the tall buildings, the unofficial gun sounded and it was “game-on”. The attacks began and they were relentless, one followed another and pretty soon, the group was strung out into a single file line, forced into a thin ribbon by the intense pace and strong head wind. Despite the 37°C degree temps the ride was like so many before it: fast, serious, and requiring the A-game.
As we rounded the halfway point and turned to the benefit of the wind, the skies began to cloud over and turn an eerie, greenish black, appearing bruised and angry. As the wind began to increase, so did the dust and debris, unleashed by 14 days of scorching temps and a relentless sun. As the darkest portion of the sky took hold of the MWC’s route, the wind began gusting and the sky began to unleash its fury on the group. First the rain drops were few but large, when they hit your face or legs they stung and they were cold. Very cold. Then came the full brunt of the storm, the sky opened and released all the emotions it had been holding back for two weeks, the rain was so heavy that glasses were a hindrance. The rider in front of you was only a faint silhouette and the cars passing just feet from our shoulders were reduced to a series of red streaks.
The rain quickly overpowered the storm sewers, collecting on the tarmac and puddling in the low spots. The rain absorbed the heat from the pavement and, in turn, felt like tepid bath water as it soaked your clothes and filled your shoes. It remains one of the most visceral sensations I have ever felt while riding bike. The cold front that carried the rain quickly rolled in behind bringing with it an incredible drop in temperature and creating zones of temps varying enough to be felt by your skin. Despite the rain, wind, cold, and zero visibility we continued in a style typical of Wagner, maintaining the aggression and speed of a normal MWC but it was elevated to epic by the rains and the chaos they brought. As quickly was the rain came it receded, pulling with it the heat and humidity, laying waste to weeks of dust and debris and leaving all of us, wet and cold and and even more motivated to keep the pace high and the action strong. As we positioned ourselves for the final sprint of the ride, the sun began to reappear and temps had plummeted to a chilly 21°C, we all knew that we were part of a ride that was truly epic, a day where a line was drawn among the local cyclists. A line that delineated those who were there, and those who were not.
Rooted in the complication of Western society, our daily lives lack the now of our ancestors. Days pass into weeks of restrained existence; days spent where our most definitive stroke may be command-S. Tens of thousands of years of descent with modification in our sapient brains tell us this isn’t what life is meant to be. So we go on vacation. And what do we do? We look for the defining moment. Something to restore life to our life.
In interviews with race car drivers, big wave surfers and overweight corporate raiders climbing Mount Everest, one hears a common refrain: that in their moment of greatest difficulty the rest of their lives ceased to matter. And it’s not that they didn’t care about the job, the family, the dog, the bills, it’s that if only for a moment, they could see life stripped of its complications, they could see themselves in an unencumbered way so that they were no more and no less than a person doing.
In the grand scheme, I believe that each time a person takes a timeout to reset their minds and bodies back to now something good is achieved. The more we pile layer and layer of mortgage, car payment, market fluctuations, long commutes, disconnected job roles as well as the awkward negotiation of family roles at home, the more we struggle to keep straight our life’s priorities. And as our priorities and roles abuse our sense of self each day, we struggle to find happiness or even peace. But such vacations can clear the smoke of a day’s stress by rooting us to a moment.
That said, I mistrust the urge to drive ever harder in our off-time, as if the trite, “work hard, play hard” makes anyone a better, more balanced person. What I find more problematic is the need for the Ordinary Joe to climb Mount Everest or undertake any activity that possesses what could be called “a statistically significant rate of death.” There’s something supremely selfish about fathers walking a knife’s edge between success and death.
As cyclists, you are already aware that mortal peril is not a prerequisite to stripping away the demands of the day. Obviously, you don’t need the sales pitch for why cycling is an ideal path to self-discovery. Rather, what encourages and mystifies me are the multitude ways that cycling can strip the day away.
I’ve gone so hard on climbs I couldn’t have told you my name at the top. Most of the greatest descents I’ve undertaken I recall as silent films—sound ceased to exist during those moments. Whole races have gone by where what remains etched is the sound of 100 chains playing over gears. The sound of rubber sliding, spokes breaking and metal gnashing can refocus your eyesight before you are even aware, causing you to look not for the line to follow, but for the hole, the escape route to safety. Any time I see a gap open there is nothing else on my mind other than putting a finger in that dike.
We can find those moments even when there isn’t effort involved. Who can take a leisurely spin at dusk and not be glued to the sunset? That we can strip the complications away so easily (not to mention inexpensively) can keep even the most type-A sort on a more even keel for all four seasons. We needn’t risk life to figure out that our families matter.
For those who manage a morning ride before work, there’s a benefit beyond the camaraderie and effort we show up for. As we spin the small chainring home we compile the day’s priorities: shower, family, work, oh—a few bills. Following a first hour spent rooted in now, the others seem much easier to understand.
If the course is the star and the racers the drama, then the chain lube that keeps the whole shebang moving is provided by the volunteer. In the annals of thankless jobs, the race volunteer ranks just behind Congressional Paige and just ahead of Poet Laureate. The tasks are rarely fun (unless you get your jollies from telling the locals that they can’t drive home right now) and the contribution is quickly forgotten (unless something goes wrong).
It’s little wonder they are so hard to recruit.
Tougher still to find are those who volunteer on behalf of the teams. They are to soigneurs what amateurs are to PROs. It’s all the passion, a fraction of the know-how and none of the compensation. How anyone can be recruited week after week to help a team’s racers survive under the acetylene torch rays of the sun, pinning numbers, handing up feeds, tending to the wounded and very often driving vanquisher or vanquished home to bed.
They don’t make a sunscreen strong enough to make those days comfortable.
In the Old Country, when numbers were made of silk and saved after each race, the mamas would come out to sew them onto the jerseys for the riders before the start. Such local town support is more than we can hope to experience in community races, but it’s an accurate reflection of how bike racing is received by most towns, even those in New Belgium.
While course marshals and registration volunteers are as necessary as the course, it’s the feed angel who gets tapped week after week and without whom the complexion of a long road race or hot crit can change utterly. Unlike the registration table where an extra five minutes won’t kill anyone, feeds have no margin of error; miss one and the race is effectively over unless it’s a crit. Combine that stress—imagine being on the receiving end of all the yelling that happens when a bottle is dropped—with the week after week need of a team in the middle of its season and it’s a miracle that any team can keep its racers from bonking.
From time to time you’ll find the nonpartisan feed angel who will hold bottles for anyone wearing a number. It’s a special person who understands the race should be decided on legs, not on the level of support the riders can recruit.
Over the years I’ve seen feed angels who handle their duties with the brutal efficiency of a gas station attendant. Others seem overwhelmed by the rush of bikes and grabbing hands. But the best are those who can turn four or five hours into a barbecue at the beach. They can make you crack a grin when joy or humor seem as remote as $1 gas.
Racers have but one task when in the heat of competition. However, it’s the small kindnesses that can show our real gratitude. It’s a topsy turvy world where the racers cheer for the volunteers, but showing gratitude when it should be hardest to conjure could be the best thanks of all.
Of course, there’s nothing like a gift card to a day spa. We may not get treated like PROs, but that’s no reason to neglect them.
Suppose you owned and ran a massively successful and beloved sports-nutrition company. You live in Napa Valley where you can run and ride horses and bicycles through heaven itself in your free time. What else could you want?
That’s the funny thing about entrepreneurial sorts. For most of us, we know Clif Bar’s Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford as the people responsible for creating an energy bar that tastes like real food and for growing the company so that we can find their products as readily as Moon Pies when we’re in a 7-Eleven.
To be sure it took them both—Gary the visionary/mad scientist of the kitchen and Kit whose natural sales ability could disarm and cheer Dick Cheney. The potent combination they present is a recipe for success in any endeavor.
Those familiar with Clif’s long list of products are probably also aware of the number of organic and natural ingredients used in those products. Gary and Kit are clearly pleased to think that every time someone eats a Clif product it is a victory for sustainable farming practices and natural foods.
At their farm in Napa they raise horses, goats, turkeys and chickens in addition to a garden and grape vines they planted. To say Gary and Kit live close to the land is something of an understatement; they embody the Slow Food Movement in a way that most of us can only dream about.
To hear them tell the story, it sounds like a love for organic food and new business ventures are occupational hazards for the pair. Living in Napa has resulted in many friendships with people in the wine business. And because the wine business attracts successful entrepreneurs the way starlets attract paparazzi, the pair wondered what they might be able to bring to the table. For them, the real attraction was in the intersection point between good wine and sustainable farming. The challenge was on.
An introduction to winemaker Sarah Gott was the final ingredient needed for the new venture—Clif Bar Family Winery. Gott is known for her work with Joseph Phelps and the winery she started with her husband, Joel Gott Wines. For some years she has pursued making wines from grapes from organic or at least sustainably farmed vineyards.
Before meeting Gary and Kit for lunch, I’ll admit I struggled to get my head around the idea that the people responsible for go fast foods could also be the force behind a new winery. But they are charming, dedicated and passionate; even a short conversation reveals that. Listening to Kit talk about preparing dinner from ingredients in her garden made me feel I was missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.
She believes their drive to deal with farms that engage in sustainable techniques even if they aren’t certified organic can help those farms bridge that gap by encouraging them to complete the transition. Kit says that certified organic is less important than employing sustainable practices.
Gary spoke of how his love of wine grew as a result of cycling tours he did in Europe. After finishing a long day’s ride he would enjoy a leisurely dinner with a bottle of wine.
Clif Bar Family Winery has released four wines. As we tasted them over lunch Kit and Gary stressed that they weren’t interested in releasing another $100 bottle of Cab, but rather wines that represented a good value to be enjoyed by people who appreciate the experience of a good meal.
There are two wines titled The Climber, a red and a white. The white is a blend, mostly Sauvingnon Blanc with some Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Muscat that retails for $12.50. Its citrus and grapefruit flavors and crisp finish make it the perfect antidote to a hot afternoon. Think of it as lemonade for grownups. The Climber red is a wild blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Merlot. At $15 you’ll swear someone is getting gipped. It’s got the spice and bright fruit to stand up to any rich meal.
In lesser production are Gary’s Improv and kit’s killer cab. Gary’s Improv is mostly Zin with just a dash of Petite Sirah; it would be fun with hard cheeses, pizza or spicy sausage, but it’s best application may be at a dinner party when you want to make your guests say, “Wow!” And for those who want a great Cabernet to go with a NY Strip but don’t want the wine to cost 10 times what the meal cost, kit’s killer cab has the luxurious fruit and structure of a great Cab without having so much tannin that it will need to be laid down until electric cars are in common use. Gary’s Improv is $32 while kit’s killer cab goes for $35. It would be easy to pay twice as much for a lesser wine.
Kit and Gary have stories as rich and varied as Paul Newman’s and their drive to do good with their company while enriching the lives of their customers and living an enjoyable life is tragically rare. Given they run an impressive business, live a great life and seem to be having a positive impact on the planet, I wonder what sort of dreams you have when you can sleep that well.
Clif Bar Family Winery