On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 7/1/2015
Levi, Paul, and the Terrible Two
I want to write this month about the 2015 Terrible Two double century, staged recently on June 20. The Terrible Two is an event dear to my heart. I've been Chair or Co-chair of it every year since 1993…23 years. I wrote two articles about the event in this space back in 2006. One was a brief history of the ride. The other was a look at some of the more colorful people associated with the ride.
That was ten years ago. (Really? Where did all those years go?) In most respects, the event hasn't changed much over that decade. It's still a ride of 200 miles over some of the steepest terrain anywhere. Modern bike computers and on-line mapping apps are rating the elevation gain closer to 18,000' than our traditional figure of 16,500'. But regardless of what the numbers say, the legs and lungs say it's brutal.
It's still run by the Santa Rosa Cycling Club with a fantastic crew of over 200 enthusiastic volunteers and superb logistics. Still has a field of between 200 and 250 fairly elite ultra-distance cyclists each year, although we've now added a challenging 200-K option that is proving very popular.
The rosters of riders who take on this big challenge change every year. Many riders come back again and again, some now with over 20 finishes. Others fade away, but new people discover the event. Many are mid-pack enthusiasts, tilting against their own personal windmills. But each year a few newbies hit the road fairly near the front of the field and challenge the established order. Three out of the past four years, the first place finisher has been a rookie…someone entering the event for the first time.
That was the case this year too, but this year's rookie—and first place finisher—was a little bit different from most of the others, and that's at least part of why I'm devoting this month's column to the event. Our newbie this year was retired pro Levi Leipheimer. That in itself would be noteworthy, but it wouldn't be enough to rate a whole column. No, there's more of a back story here, which I hope I can relate to you in a way that will make you appreciate why I think this is a special moment. So bear with me while I digress…
Just a few days before this year's Terrible Two, one of our dear friends in the Santa Rosa Cycling Club passed away. Paul Stimson had been grappling with the grim, incurable malady ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig's Disease. Like the legendary Yankee, Paul had battled the dread disease with unflappable good cheer and courage. He was an inspiration to all who knew him, and in fact, the club presented him with their annual Most Inspirational award at their year-end holiday banquet last December. Throughout the last springtime of his life, Paul stayed upbeat and lively, squeezing every last ounce of beauty and wit and wisdom out of the days left to him. Finally, at the age of 62, he left this life on his own terms, with dignity and bravery.
Paul came pretty close to the classic definition of a Renaissance Man. Not only was he an accomplished cyclist—he completed the Terrible Two five times—he was a rock climber, small plane pilot, sailboat skipper, gold miner…on and on. He had been there and done that. If you didn't know this remarkable man, you can learn a bit more about him by reading a wonderful memorial to him written by journalist and fellow cyclist Clark Mason in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
Everyone who knew him has at least one favorite Paul story. My own occurs on a century ridden by me, Paul, and Del Bogart up in Lake County on a day that would hit 100° in the afternoon. On the long, hot climb of Bottle Rock Road, late in the ride, I bonked. For reasons I've never really understood, my good ride all of a sudden went south. Total meltdown. I had to get off the bike and stand there for long minutes, searching for some energy that seemed to have vanished. Bottle Rock is a big, hard climb, but not a ridiculous monster. I've done it several times before. But on that day, for me, it looked like the side of the Transamerica Pyramid.
Paul and Del were already at the summit when the wheels came off my wagon. After wondering where I was for awhile, Paul coasted back down the hill to find me. And when he did find me—a wretched wreck—he gently coaxed me back onto my bike and shepherded me up the hill, offering tea and sympathy with every slow turn of the wheels. It's a small thing, really, but I think it shows the kind of fellow he was: always looking out for someone in need of a helping hand. That was only a few months before he began noticing some troubles with his legs and coordination. I expect the vicious disease was already in his system the day of the ride, just getting to work on its implacable campaign of destruction.
So there's the bulk of my back story. This excellent fellow, friend and inspiration to many, fights the noble but inevitably losing battle against ALS and then, just a few days before the Terrible Two, he finally rides off the front and bridges up to the big peloton in the sky.
As a tribute to Paul, many riders in the field wore matching jerseys, with the motto: ALS Sucks!…Never Give Up!…Never Forget! Included among those wearing the jerseys was his friend Levi Leipheimer. The Terrible Two is not the sort of ride Levi would have or could have tackled during his pro career. But he's retired now, at age 41, and he has the opportunity to look around and consider new challenges. (He hasn't lost much fitness since retiring: he's still riding an average of 21 hours and 383 miles a week. His power output is still near pro level.) Levi knew about the Terrible Two. He was a friend of Paul's and he heard about the riders planning to ride in the ALS kit to honor their fallen friend. He wanted in. He wanted to do the ride for Paul.
I saw his registration logged a couple of months ago, and then heard, on the local grapevine, that he hoped to break the course record of 10:50, again, in honor of Paul. He certainly could break the record if he wanted to. That time of 10:50, shared by Mr Terrible Two, Brian Anderson, and Mark Reidy, has stood for 14 long years. As impressive as it is to most of us amateur pluggers, it equates to an average speed of 18 mph. A stage of the Tour of California through those same west county hills averaged 25 mph. You do the math.
As one of the directors of the ride, I was concerned that Levi might go out so fast he'd be arriving at our rest stops before they were open. So a few weeks ago, I sent him an e-mail to discuss his agenda vs our logistics. That began what has become a continuing and cordial conversation between us. Fortunately, his proposed splits and our time windows were in sync. He didn't plan to go out that fast, he said. That is of course relative. His not-that-fast tempo worked out to 30-mph pacelines along the valley roads and speeds few others could match on the climbs…and on the many technical descents as well.
But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Rewind to the start of the ride… As I do every year, I held a rider briefing in the minutes ticking down to the mass start at 5:30 AM. This year, I devoted a good chunk of my allotted time to a tribute to Paul. I said a few words about him and pointed out all the ALS jerseys in the field. And I said: "If at some point today you're suffering; if you hit a tough spot and it all seems too much, think of Paul and how he would have loved to be where you are today. Rejoice in the fact that you are here today, alive and kicking, fit enough to be riding a bike along the beautiful back roads of Northern California!"
With that, we waved them off, 244 eager, hopeful riders, heading off into a lovely, rosy sunrise. Over Trinity Grade and down into Napa Valley, the lead group stayed approximately together, setting a brisk pace, while the other less ambitious or less gifted riders trailed off behind them, like the tail of a comet.
Midway through the first century, with the help of some racer-boy rabbits he'd enlisted, Levi started to kick it a bit. He still had one rabbit left when he rolled into the lunch stop at mile 111. It was 10:45. Average speed: 21 mph. The next riders to arrive, who in any other year would have been duking it out for first place, didn't appear for another 21 minutes. Levi and his companion were in and out in a couple of minutes, headed for the grueling chutes and ladders of Skaggs Springs Road…the part of the course we call the Killing Fields.
A few miles into Skaggs, the last rabbit gone, Levi took off on a solo hammer to the finish. The 200-K riders were on the second half of the course ahead of the full doubles riders, and we had reports from some of them of him whizzing by at absurd speeds. He stopped briefly at our later rest stops—Rancheria, Fort Ross, Monte Rio—where he was always polite and pleasant with the workers. He arrived at the finish in Sebastopol at 3:30 PM, exactly ten hours after the morning departure. Average speed: 20 mph. The record was broken. Those same fast riders who chased him into lunch didn't cross the finish line for another 1:19.
I was there to greet him at the finish. After swilling down a cold drink, he asked if we could have a private moment to talk. In a quiet voice choked with emotion, he talked about his ride and about his friend Paul. He said not even a strong rider can stay on top of his game over 200 miles of such challenging terrain (on a day when bike thermometers were reading as much as 108° out on Skaggs). He said he had moments that were a real struggle, and when he hit those spots, he thought of Paul. He echoed my invocation of the morning, about embracing the moment and rejoicing in being alive and riding through this wonderful world on a beautiful June day.
Out there in the rugged west county hills, on his long, lonely, solo journey, he thought constantly about Paul, and he came up with what he felt was a brilliant idea. (You know how it is on long, solo rides: your mind drifts into almost a dream state, a flow state, and you think big thoughts that seem so lucid and right. I think that's where Levi got to.) His big idea was put to me as a request. He wanted us to remove his own name from the results list and from the new record and insert Paul Stimson's name instead. He was entirely serious. Caught up in the brilliance of his great idea for honoring his friend, he kind of forgot how difficult it would be to explain to the world that the first-place finisher had been dead for over a week.
I had to gently walk him back from that idea. I had to remind him that although we may not be the Tour or the Giro, we still do take our own results and records seriously. But I certainly appreciate the deeply felt sentiment behind his request, and I assured him his humble, self-effacing—no, self-erasing—gesture would not be forgotten. Paul's wife Mary Jane showed up at that point, along with Levi's wife Odessa, and we all had an emotional moment together. It was heartfelt and moving, and it wasn't hard to imagine how much Paul would have delighted in it. It wasn't hard to imagine that Paul was there with us.
Now that the dust has settled and the results have been published, we've heard a few grumbles about how it's not fair that a pro should take the record away from the gifted amateurs who have to work day jobs and can't train 20 hours a week, etc. Some suggested we should put an asterisk by Levi's name or create a separate category for pros. I do understand that point of view and have some sympathy with it. But I pointed out that Levi is not the first pro to have ridden a double century or to have set a record doing so.
For years, the course record at Davis was held by the tandem of Otis Guy and Joe Breeze, both former pros. When that record was broken, it was by another pro, Steve Larson. Steven Cozza, a good euro pro, set the course record at the Mt Tam Double. The best woman finisher at the TT one year was Karen Kurreck, the professional women's World Time Trial Champion. Victor Czech, who finished first on the TT twice and still holds the long-course record, may not have had a pro contract, but he competed at the pro level and did well in those races. Those are just a few examples I can think of off the top of my head.
And how do you decide who's a pro? If some hotshot gets a free bike and kit from a team but no salary, is he a pro? What if the rider has a pro mountain bike contract? What if they're a pro triathlete, like Mike Pigg, the US National Champion, who finished first on the Tour of the Unknown Coast? There are tons of "amateur" riders who get some financial or technical support...little sponsorship deals. Do we count them? How old and fat would a retired pro have to be before he no longer warranted that asterisk? What a can of worms we'd be opening if we tried to make such distinctions. For years, they tried to draw a line between amateurs and pros for the Olympics. Not any more. Now people think we should do it at the Terrible Two? Get serious! Or better yet, stop taking this whole subject so seriously.
You may recall that, a few years ago, Lance Armstrong did the Leadville 100 mountain bike race and set the record. Levi did the ride the next year and broke Lance's record. That's an ostensibly amateur race, although there are plenty of pro or near-pro mountain bikers in the field. Doing that ride for a guy like Levi is not much different from doing the Terrible Two. When I was chatting with Levi a few days after the Terrible Two, I said he'd set the bar pretty high at the TT now...going to be tough for anyone to touch that. And he said, "Well, someone just broke my Leadville record." Records are made to be broken. The record Brian and Mark set at the Terrible Two stood for 14 years. That's an eternity for a sports record. A whole lot of very good riders took shots at breaking it. Now, finally, someone has. Who knows when someone else will come along and raise the bar again? Will it stand for another 14 years? I kind of doubt it.
All that said, when we next reorganize the TT website, we're going to redesign the Course Records section. Instead of just listing the current record holder, we will list perhaps the past five records, showing how the bar has been raised over the years. That way, anyone reading the results will see not only Levi's name, but Brian's and Mark's and all the other recent record holders…a pantheon of elite long-distance stalwarts. Anyone can read those names and times and draw their own conclusions, based on their own notions of fairness and correctness.
All of that is a discussion worth having, but it bothers me a little that it overshadows what was a very classy gesture from a very decent man. Levi did that ride for his friend. He rode for the record as a tribute to Paul, and if he could have had his way, he would have stepped aside and given all the glory of the fast ride and the record to him. I'm not entirely sappy or naive about this. I have no doubt Levi is an intensely competitive person. You don't do as well as he has done in his chosen sport without having the sort of drive that pushes all the greats. He very much wanted to be first, and by a wide margin. But the lion's share of his motivation—his vision—was to throw down this monster ride in honor of his friend. He wanted to do something special for Paul, and this is what he knows how to do.
All of that—the back story about Paul, the big ride, and the humble gesture—is why this story rates a full column. I was glad to be have been there to witness it, and I'm glad I've had this opportunity to share the story with you.
Bill can be reached at email@example.com