Chasing The Beaver

26 07 2015

Todd 3It’s the final day of the 2015 Tour de France and it looks like Christopher Froome is going to mount the podium for the second time in his career. Only two other riders from the British Isles have won the Tour de France: Stephen Roche (Ireland) in 1987, and Bradley Wiggins (UK) in 2012. The Tour has long been dominated by an impressive and intimidating field of Europeans, with riders from France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Spain taking the bulk of the wins since the first Tour in 1903. From wherever they hail, Tour de France winners scare me like no other professional athlete.

Even non-professional serious cyclists are intimidating, and they seem to know this. Many bike shops, in my experience, are staffed by snooty, hip, casually abrasive tyrants. If you happen to innocently wander in without displaying the plumage and markings of a grim, suffering velophile fresh off a century ride, you’ll be treated about as well as Rosa Parks asking a member of the Ku Klux Klan for his seat on the bus.

Maybe I’m exaggerating, but most casual cyclists will have at least one bike store experience that made them consider trading in their bike for a suicide note. If it happens more than once, you tend to get a little defensive whenever you cross the threshold of a bike shop, especially if you’re in a particularly hip part of a very serious cycling town.

May 2015, Portland, Oregon

You can’t go to Portland without visiting Powell’s Bookstore. It’s a full city block of books, new and used, of every variety you can imagine. It isn’t just a bookstore, it’s an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s a biblioverse of epic proportions. It’s spectacular. Even so, the cycling section of the store is a little disappointing, especially for a town so committed to the bicycle as Portland.

I was looking for a good book about the Tour de France, and I was a little perturbed that the overwhelming majority of Tour titles were about the Lance Armstrong scandal. It seemed like every other book about cycling was about the ‘Armstrong Lie’. Eventually I found one that seemed like an interesting read. Slaying The Badger is the story of the 1986 Tour de France in which Greg Lemond beats teammate and five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault, aka The Badger. I’d never heard of the book and was only vaguely aware of Greg Lemond in the context of the Armstrong affair as he was one of the many people smeared by Lance in his savage pursuit of glory. I’d never even heard of Bernard Hinault, nor his well-known animal alias. Since then I’ve read much on the subject of the Tour, and am quite familiar with the big names of the sport, but just a few months ago my grasp on the subject and its lexicon was pretty fragile.

The day after my Powell Books visit, my wife and I were wandering around the Pearl District and decided to check out a cool-looking bike shop, somehow forgetting everything I’d learned about cool bike shops and the evil martinets that lurk within. While my wife looked at outrageously-priced cycling garments for uber-hip twenty-something assholes, I browsed the limited array of saddles, looking for a specific design that a friend of mine recently bought. When the tall, skinny kid came over to find out if I was as stupid as I looked, I was forced to try and describe the seat. The first time I saw it on my friend’s bike, I mockingly called it the Camel Toe because of the tuning-fork slit straight up the front of seat. When the child-fascist clerk asked me what it looked like, I said, playfully, “It kind of looks like a camel toe.” He stared at me like I’d just stepped on his tail, then asked me in a withering tone, ‘What kind of riding do you do?’

It just so happens that I was a newly minted member of my local velodrome cycling club. On top of having accomplished some century rides on the road (the term for a ride of a hundred miles or more), I was also a bona fide track rider. It doesn’t get any more real than that, ladies and gentlemen. Track riding incorporates all that is sacred in the rarefied world of cycling: speed, racing, suffering, and, best of all, fixed gear bikes. Fixed gear bikes, or ‘fixies’, are the holy grail of snide, hipster douchebags. They are also undeniably awesome. Which makes me undeniably awesome. What kind of riding do I do? Well… you’re about to find out, you little shit.

Filled with the sudden pressure of being cool, my ballooning ego breathed in helium and spat out a high-pitched, over-eager answer to his question.  ‘Mostly I’m a road rider but I also ride track our city has a velodrome so I have a track bike and I mostly ride track these days but you know when the weather gets better I’ll be back on my road bike but the saddle I’m looking for is for my track bike a friend of mine has one he’s a pretty serious rider I wish I knew the name I just call it the camel toe ha ha.’

Shit. I was supposed to be impressive. I was supposed to invoke respect. I was supposed to put this stupid kid in his place. Instead I was at even more of a disadvantage than before. He looked me up and down doubtfully. Track riders come in two types: sprinters and endurance racers. The former are all muscle and power with piston legs, while the latter are lithe, lean and agile. I am neither of these. If someone were to guess my sport, they would probably pick darts or bowling. One might guess that I could ride a bike, but would never think I did it with any sort of usefulness.

‘You ride track?’

‘Yes, we have, there is, I’m close to a track it’s the only indoor track in Western Canada. And I’m a member. Of the track.’

‘Cool. What’s it called?’

At this point, the creepy little bastard actually walked over to his Apple laptop and opened up Google. Clearly he didn’t believe me and he was determined to call what he clearly assumed was my bluff. I told him the name of the track, and to my relief he’d heard of it. I felt something approaching redemption, but I could still see that he didn’t quite believe that I was cool enough. or skinny enough, to ride track. I can’t explain why, but for some reason I needed this personality-disabled kid’s acceptance, so I tried to impress him with my knowledge of his own town and mentioned my visit to Powell’s the night before.

‘Yeah, it’s too bad there are so many books about the Lance Armstrong scandal, and so few about the Tour de France. I found a good one, though. It’s called… it’s called, umm…’ I faltered for a second. The miner inside my head swinging a pickaxe at my memory just could not find that golden vein. I knew there was a verb and an animal in the title. Searching… searching… got it!

‘Oh yeah, it’s called Chasing the Beaver. It’s about Lemond and [mumbly incoherence]. Looks like a pretty good read!’

The kid almost laughed, but that would have been uncool. Instead, he sarcastically pretended that I got the title right.

‘Oh yeah, I know that one. It’s about Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault. That’s right, they called him The Beaver. Yeah, they made a documentary out of the book. I think it’s also called Chasing the Beaver. Yup. Good book. Have fun at your track.’

I caught up with my wife and I went back to our hotel thinking, ‘Well that went well. Not sure why he suddenly brightened up at the end there. Seemed almost a little too chipper. Oh well. He must have suddenly realized that I’m the real deal and that he can’t judge a book by it’s… dammit!. It’s called Slaying the Badger!’

The upside to the story is that I coined a new personal expression. ‘Chasing the beaver’ is what I’m doing whenever I try to impress someone out of insecurity. If I’ve gleaned anything from the long, storied history of the Tour de France it’s that cycling is about suffering, perseverance, and, more often than not, humiliation and defeat. In the spirit of the latter, I’m a seasoned pro.

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