WITCH BIKE: Riding With Eric

I first met Eric at a spring training race in central Pennsylvania. At that time I had no idea he’d impact the way I considered the world, but he did. Even though he didn’t mean to.

Eric was a local kid, but when I met him he hadn’t been around in a while. After spending a few years in the mid-1990s in West Virginia riding mountain bikes, he wandered around working various jobs in places he found interesting, usually near some location where he could cross-country ski, kayak, sail, or other such thing. The previous summer, after having ridden his Krylon-repainted steel mountain bike from Alaska back to Central Pennsylvania, he promptly used the same machine (set up with a basic suspension fork and minus the slick tires) to win several local races against some pretty well-known talent. At our first introduction, he was straddling a mid-grade red Olmo road bike under his wiry frame, sporting ridiculously hairy legs, a visored helmet, SPD pedals, a stained green jersey over a long-underwear top, and (of course) lug-soled mountain bike shoes. A hippie hanging out with the college Republicans might have looked less out of place. 

From the first it was easy to tell that Eric was physically gifted and had plenty of fortitude, but it was apparent that he also had the craftiness that makes for a successful road racer. That spring he was the strong dumb guy that you wanted to have in your break because you knew you could sucker him. By August you could tell he was reading the little groups of upper category riders he’d always be able to work himself into, doing sneaky stuff like taking up the position behind the best sprinter so that he could subtly soften them up, or driving just that little bit harder into the cross wind to hurt people without overplaying his strength. Midway through the next summer he was featuring prominently in the local elite races, still riding his red Olmo with a few upgraded components he had won or bought used from other racers. Although he wasn’t quick about it, the transition included the cautious adoption of actual road racing attire, so at least he looked the part.

Of course, Eric’s liveliness wasn’t just limited to his athletic endeavors. More than a few times he’d show up on an early morning training ride still malodorous from the previous night’s carousing, Once you started pedaling that suddenly didn’t seem to matter. Eric liked to attack, he liked to ride hard, and he had a natural ability to tell when people were vulnerable. He also became one of my favorite people to train with. Long miles were essential for the road races that I loved, and Eric was always game for a half-day jaunt through the ridges of central PA or down to the Maryland border. I’d often harass him for his tendency to get hairy, and he’d make fun of me for getting grumpy after being forced to ride a few miles of some unpaved road he’d thought looked interesting. It worked though, riding with Eric was nothing but a boon to my fitness.    

The following summer I spent a good deal of time training with Eric, and it was also a successful one for racing. While I didn’t win anything notable, I managed to weasel my way into the prize list at many local races that didn’t revolve around a 1-mile or shorter circuit. That August I got an interesting phone call: A regional team whose members had been winning many of the mid-Atlantic’s elite criteriums had gotten an invite to a prominent event. While the race was amateur-only, it was a showcase with a big bank sponsor; a claimed prize list which was a significant fraction of six-figures, and the participation of several specially-invited European teams. The team’s problem was the course: It started with 60 miles of racing through the hills of the Delaware river valley, followed by 13 laps on an in-town circuit in front of the sponsor’s offices. There was little chance that the criterium sprinters who made up the normal weekend start list would be able to finish, and several weren’t even interested in starting. The team had secured the per-diem services of a good road racer named Rob from Philadelphia, but still needed to fill two other openings to field a full roster and make a good show of things. I was happy to accept the offer, and suggested that they also consider Eric as a guy who had a skill set that matched the course. They were open to the idea, and Eric, Rob and I were on board as mercenaries for the gig.

The atmosphere at the bigger bicycle races that I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in usually bordered on surreal. The excitement of seeing a town center shut down for an athletic event is energizing. But that energy always added to the vague, looming pre-race dread rising from the knowledge that the next few hours would be spent suffering near my physical limits. After the slightly ostentatious send-off that invariably accompanies a bank-sponsored affair, the race played out in mostly predictable fashion: The pace and hills did their thing, and the field was down to less than half of the 200 or so starters by the time we got back to town. Every lap would see more guys getting popped, most of them coming off on a short but stiff little climb right before the feed zone on the circuit’s back end. After a series of attacks from the field, half a dozen or so riders cobbled together a break with about 20 miles to go. They caught the remnants of a now-disintegrating group that had been out front for the majority of the race, and their gap quickly went up to over a minute.

By that point the field was down to about 30 racers and it was pretty clear that the break was going to stick. Although with plenty of prize money still on the line, including $1,000 for the best local rider, the racing remained animated. Any pre-race ambitions that I had to get a good result were quickly fading, but both Eric and Rob were still there, looking strong and clearly motivated by the chance at a grand. While they were covering moves and trying to force another split. I was doing my best to remain in contact, if not relevant, clawing my way up every rise and trying to hold off the cramps that would end my day if they struck.

With three laps to go the feed zone was closing, and the scene at the top of the circuit climb was even more chaotic than previous. It’s funny how memories replay notable events as slow motion, but I clearly remember a rider lurching for a bottle and putting his rear derailleur directly into Eric’s front wheel. The sound of scraping and failing metal was heard and, although he avoided going down, Eric was immediately off his bike and standing. At this point in the race, service vehicles for the field were no longer a priority, so the chances of a timely wheel change were slim. Despite my effort-induced numbness, I couldn’t help but reflect on the crappiness of a forced abandonment so close to the end of that kind of event.

The finish of the race was the typical animated scene, complete with a Pennsylvania announcer shouting and whipping the crowd up for riders contesting the remnants of the prize list. A quarter mile from the line, thinking I was in the was last place in the remaining field, I noticed another rider on my left in a red jersey just like mine. Of course it was Eric. He rolled through the finish right behind me, front brake fully open and rubbing slightly with each revolution. The feed zone incident had ripped three spokes from his front wheel. He had gotten off his bike, removed one, wrapped each of the other two around its neighbor, then gotten back on for the chase. Brake rubbing and riding solo, he had closed a gap of at least a minute in the last 6 miles of a race that averaged the better part of 30 mph. The list of finishers that day had many of the names that we’d expected, and a few guys (some of questionable character) got to stand in front of a cheering crowd. For me the ride of the day was done by Eric. Not many people had noticed what had happened, but I did and was impressed. In truth, though, I wasn’t really surprised.

As circumstance would have it, that was the last race that I remember doing with Eric. The next year he didn’t really ride much. He ended up starting his own home improvement business. We ended up taking a few weekend mountain bike trips together with some other friends over the next couple of years, but he always seemed a bit distant, and it was pretty clear that he was drinking more than was healthy. After a falling out with his family, he ended up drifting back out West, and I (along with many others) lost track of him. A few years later, he was found in a van where his demons finally caught up with him. The service I attended the following week was surreal: I distinctly remember the huge table of pictures, the bike on which he’d done his trans-Canada trip on display, and all the friends and family that he’d left. For a long time I was angry with him, assuming that the pain was largely his own creation, and that he’d had the power to spare everyone of the torment of his passing. Now I’m not so sure, and I’ve since come to believe that most people eventually go down with their own fingerprints on the weapon. Some sooner, some later and perhaps less directly, but all leaving behind a long list of might-have-beens. 

And so, as they say, it goes. But in the end I guess I’m grateful that we had a chance to ride.  

Check back for a new Witch Bike every third Monday of the month starting in November.

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  1. DaveinME says

    Damn Brian, that is sad. I am sorry to hear about your friend’s passing. I’ve long felt that endurance sports like cycling attract a good chunk of folks who don’t quite have everything in their head dialed in quite right. I write as one of those people. In riding some solace is afforded but sometimes things come undone to the point of no return.

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