You don’t hear alarms on the bike. Not until you are on top of the moment itself, as you awaken. Otherwise, the risk of speed is drowned out by your breath—a basso continuo in the coursing city and the still wild.
In 2012 Alaska, David Trimble, Pavel Marosin, and I rattle hard down a mountain trail, spun out. The two float just out of my reach, hurtling their cross bikes over wet earth and rock. We are training for the Hatcher Pass Road Race, which David has organized for later in the week in the Talkeetna mountain range, miles from Wasilla, near Denali.
That August, David is quiet, and when he isn’t, terse. He rides next to you up each climb with a scowl, before you’re dropped, if he can possibly make it happen. You don’t know whether he’s in pain and you can get away—the grimace just stays. Sometimes, at the summit, a grin escapes. Pavel is quiet, and when he isn’t, self deprecating. He hides behind his blond bangs. But he’s never shy about finding David’s wheel and has held it, faithful that David will see a line through the rocks. David rarely touches his brakes descending. “More dangerous if you brake,” he coughs. It’s cold; the words hang like smoke.
Alaskan summer sun persists well into the evening, and Dave still has enough light to read the stony maze fluently. I am more at home in New York traffic. Human chaos has patterns.
I got into bike racing via alleycats—street races that replicate the courier experience. To me, good street racers don’t look like they are competing, and smooth themselves into the run of twitching cabs, hulking garbage trucks, and swarming pedestrians. Riding a track bike amplifies the effect: emergencies aside, your body only speaks “forward,” and it’s up to your eyes to perceive the buzzing future as a line. Leaning on an unthinkable risk, your mind is forced into silent clarity: breathe and see.
David was a top street racer. He invented a race format in 2007 that has since spread all over the world: a brakeless track bike race around laps of a twisting urban course. It brought the underground, hard-nosed alley cat race style to a more traditional format and audience. Now, held at night in Brooklyn, Milan, and Barcelona, the Red Hook Crit attracts top international racers for tight cornering at high speeds. Throngs crowd the course for beer, circuses, crashe —and more thrilling—saves: Murphy goes down with Bedzek, gets up, and wins with bloody elbows. An angel skids an upright Martucci around a fallen rider.
Trimble’s race in Alaska—a day-long fight over cold mountain passes—has a more methodical brutality. On our training ride the week of the race, David is unrelenting. The descent down the mountain reaches the edge of what my eyes can track. There is each rock in the trail. Then, only a blur. The rocks, again.
But I’m face up, off the trail, with my breath left in the open sky. Vast. God. The bike’s handlebars are twisted down from the impact through ten feet of brush. My jersey is ripped up and a rib is fractured, though I don’t know it yet. Dazed, I ride after David and Pavel for a multitool, so I don’t lose them and have to clomp downhill in the twilight.
The trail opens up. There’s Dave. Thank God. Jesus. Pavel is on the ground, rolling. Blood all over his face. Half an indecisive moan. The sound means this is happening. David sprints off down the mountain to get phone service.
David’s leap onto the bike is a cyclocross mount—a flailing tamed by unnatural repetition into a human dance step. By whoever had the balls to mute the animal fear of landing and wrestle a wild kick at gravity into a reflex. Someone profoundly irrational or supremely rational. To learn that David’s dad was an early cyclocross rider is unsurprising: he rips at the trail like a pedigreed greyhound.
Pavel is writhing. Dark blood seeps from his broken teeth. His eyes are vacant, but searching. A child flooded by a crowd; no adult. He spits “where am I?” I remember where. A few years ago, I woke up in an ambulance by a stream of cars in New York. Pavel and I both asked our hands first. Argued with rescuers. Can’t. Wrong. Grabbed at memories. Saw the spilling future as a jigsaw puzzle.
Pavel is gone at each moment of those forty-five minutes. His and my arms are around his shoulders. He chants, religiously. “I don't have any teeth. I don't have any lips. I don't have a mouth. I'm going to be that guy without teeth. How am I going to pay for teeth. My girlfriend will leave me. My life is over. I don’t have any teeth.” And again, reciting the human fears. Not home. Don't know. Can’t speak. That guy. No money. No one. No life. “Where am I?” Where is me.
Robbed of his eyes. They’re an abyss. My sweat goes cold and is lost in the rain. Dusk threatens. Is his brain under pressure? Seeping blood, like his mouth? Shock? I hold his shoulders, shivering. Fifteen minutes. He chants. Half an hour. Where is David? Phone service, doctors, airplanes, Google.
I am too ignorant to worry about bears. The locals explain later, rattling off aphorisms: the grizzly bears come down to the stream at dusk. Two of you, you are okay, unless they are startled. One of you, bleeding, is a kill. Good thing Pavel was chanting. Once a grizzly has you, you play dead. If a grizzly starts to eat you, you fight back, so he ends it quicker. They don’t give the applicable local rule when friend is lying defenseless in his own blood.
None of Pavel’s teeth are in the dirt. Did you swallow any? Let me see your mouth. Spit. I clean the blood from his glasses in a brown puddle. Horror still saturates his eyes. We argue for a second about whether he has teeth and debate focuses him some. Finally, Dave comes charging back. We wait, wrestle a stretcher through the brush, and Pavel goes up over the mountains in a helicopter toward Wasilla. Far off now.
David’s uncle Fred drives me back to the cabin and scolds me for not bringing grub for myself from Wasilla. He’s right. The nearest grocery store is about an hour away. Shit.
* * *
Dave and I hike up the mountain the next day. I take a photo and review it. Dave's unsmiling mug. Hollow bike racer’s cheeks, fit and unhealthy, with red, shaken eyes. He's been at the hospital all night.
A whistlepig, a big Alaskan marmot, calls danger. Two ptarmigan court us onto jagged rocks, away from some nest. They curl their necks to the left and eye us, posing like humans, speckled feathers at home in the lichened rock.
We reach a plateau and my head clears. Yesterday starts to give way. Then New York. Green, grey, white. The air and each wrinkle in each mountain, miles away. It snows the next day. On a hike, a boulder rolls an avalanche over an outcropping across the mountain. Massive dust billows. Gentle thudding.
Back at the A-frame cabin, Fred Trimble makes “doughs”—sourdough blueberry pancakes from a yeast mother that arrived in Alaska with the earliest gold rushers. The Trimbles rename everything and everyone. Fred is Bud, Steven is Wheat, Sam is Moose, etc. Sons of an army engineer, the Trimbles spread from Alaska across the country, inventing. James and Brendt built the first monocoque carbon bike, founding the Kestrel company. Fred built the cabin and yurt we are staying in by hand. Roo designs zero-emissions vehicles that look like the future, or the 90’s. Ted can take the internal haze out of my 1950’s Leica lens. If it isn't there, sometimes the Trimbles dig in their experience and chart a new route. David started a race on a cobbled stretch near the IKEA parking lot in Red Hook. Races like it now happen in Kuala Lumpur.
Next to the Trimble land is the Gold Cord Mine, owned over four generations by the Renshaws. Abandoned mines dot Hatcher Pass and are found throughout the state, but only the Gold Cord has the intact old equipment that processed over $300 million dollars of gold in the 1930s. Ben Renshaw tells me that miner Robert Hatcher found gold. His lawyer mined it. The mines started to sweep the mountain—the Bullion, Independence, the Brooklyn, the Lucky Shot, up there. When the miners guessed wrong, they went broke. Ben gestures at their clues in the mountains—a faith of glacial carvings and mineral veins. The Gold Cord miners took the wrong line once, went bankrupt, and crashed. The right line is somewhere in the rocks.
Ben gives a tour to three geology students with magnifying glasses, backpacks, and wild eyes. They nod excitedly and spend an hour feeling the rocks on the demonstration table. Being around them puts me on edge. Somewhere, I catch the scent of something that’s my own. Sweat, quitclaim deeds, breathe, easements.
In the gold mill, Ben Renshaw describes a childhood with his father and grandfather. The mercury used to separate out gold never changed his grandpa, except for a telltale acrid breath. Ben can smell it as he walks by older men in Anchorage. He asks them where they mined. Fairbanks, Juneau, Nome. The Gold Cord mine is dim, and hung with dusted artifacts. A steamer trunk. A waxed Filson jacket—“tin clothes.” I resist the urge to email a photo of the jacket to the new Creative Director of Filson, fashion designer Richard Chai: the Renshaws regretfully mention renting their land for a New York fashion shoot.
The workaday gold muckers lived in a tent city lower on the mountain, and spent each long Alaskan day working up through the circuit of mines. One dollar a day, no weekends. The cooks got paid better, but were under tough scrutiny. A beloved chef was ousted quickly after a petition about his bad food; a talented Nazi sympathizer reigned chef for three years. Ben Renshaw hands me a square inch tab of gold. $9,000. A working lifetime at a dollar a day in the mountains in the early 20th century. Half the price of a helicopter rescue, or maybe some new front teeth.
* * *
Pavel is recovering from the head trauma and surgery on his face. He sits on a daybed in the same position for a couple days with gauze over his mouth. One evening, he makes it upstairs to video chat with his parents. We hear yelling in Russian. From his medication bottle, I learn that Pavel’s real name is Pavlick. He pronounces the Europeanized version “Pavél,” and has stylized his last name as “Marossine” — more French clay court tennis player, less Eastern European immigrant. “Suave,” he explains. I resist teasing him that he should have gone with “Pablo.” He’s described to me the difficulty of moving as a shy teenager to a Hispanic high school in Queens, and always leaves out his Queens cross country championship and the fact that he can run a fifteen-minute 5K. And that he’s handsome under all that gauze. Or was.
In a couple days, Pavel forces himself to chew a bite of hard food. Then he starts refusing painkillers. By the time he’s taken a walk down the valley, he says he’s racing. David growls that he’s not allowed to.
Racers start to roll in. Crit racer Gabe Lloyd proposes marriage to national track champion Casey Manderfield on the climb to the pass, and we celebrate. Todd, who built the prize bike, and his friend Kirk ride in, at the end of a weeks-long tour. Hannah Trimble, driving up, picks up a guy from L.A. who slept in the middle of nowhere last night. Some local racers come. At this point, Dave is relieved at how few racers there are, and he smiles with Pavel, and shows him photos of the helicopter.
We have been laughing off Pavel’s insistence on racing, but when the morning comes, he’s kitted up, bandaged face and all, and he isn’t laughing. None of us has any say.
* * *
The pack is shivering in the rain up near the Gold Cord mine. David tries to put the fear of God in everyone at the start line. But everyone knows their limited control over fight and flight after the start gun. There’ll be a rocky descent, everyone bunched up, relying on each other not to go down. Then, a massive gravel climb up over Hatcher Pass. Ben Renshaw lights the dynamite start signal. It quakes into us. Rocks move. David rips down the mountain.
The pack shudders down from the mine. David sprints between the corners; at the apex of each turn, he’s back on the pedals. With 8,000 feet of elevation gain ahead, he’s ready to make every use of the gap between what madness is to him and the rest of the pack on descents. There are stronger climbers.
Stuck in the back, I push to bridge up on the flat road at the bottom to climb with the leaders but don’t make contact. Dave, Jamie Stull, and, damn, Pavel have already taken off up the brutal mountain climb. The wet gravel is loose and chunky. If you get out of the saddle, you spin your rear wheel. Stull surges past David halfway up the climb, but his body language is labored. It’s the first climb, but it’s devastating the pack already: everyone is redlined at nausea, muscle pain, oxygen debt and gasping at the cold rain.
Pulling on the bars against my pedal strokes, it takes everything not to tip one direction or another on the steep last push near the summit. Coming over the pass, you are first pitched up at the white sky and then down, on a valley of rain. Pavel hammers it over the summit, trying to catch Stull. He doesn’t sit down. David is surveying them both from behind, assessing what to expend when. He catches both racers on the descent.
The pass has separated the racers. I’m in the middle, and the lead group is gone when I descent. Kirk is now flying down behind me. We yo-yo for a bit on some rollers and shorter descents, and once it flattens out, start to work together. Kirk tests out descents, attacking the wet soil downhill with his fatter tires; I tow him on flats. His pulls don’t build our pace, but give me a chance to rest every couple minutes. I worry that the group up the road is organized and moving farther out of reach by the second.
Up ahead, David yells to Stull that he’s most worried about the chase group of Bernstein, Gabe and Pavel, and suggests they work together. But David drops Stull on a descent and finds himself hurtling into the cold rain alone. Stull’s wife drives between the minute gap between the two racers, giving time information.
Kirk and I put in about twenty rolling miles together, sometimes past heavy machinery combing the potholed hardpack into marshmallowy dirt, and finally hit a paved section. Still no racers. I take a long break so I can give us a good effort. Finally, we see a rider. Three would be real nice. I get legs and sweep forward, head down. Rhythm, breathing. Finally, I check back for Kirk. Shit. He is way back, not on my wheel. Todd is just ahead. I bridge up, and try to pull Todd. He is in rough shape, and sends me on after a bit with a push.
I start moving, feeling stronger. Toward the turnaround, David and Stull ride by the opposite direction, having made it to the turnaround. David is on Stull’s wheel, punishing him for attacking at the halfway point. Then Pavel and Gabe. I get happy, cheer on Pavel and build speed into the halfway point.
Euphoria; I’m back in the game. Dante and Jordan are stopped, filling up on food and water. It wasn't too long ago I saw Pavel and Gabe. I look down at my water bottle and feel some food in my back pocket. It’s raining and 45 degrees. The support car will ride back through with water and food, I assume. How much water will I need in the next couple miles. Pavel and Gabe can’t be far. Maybe I can tack on and do this. I sprint out of the saddle and hope to see them up the road. And then I feel around more. Panic. Tubes, not food. Just two sugary Shot Blok cubes. I’m way up the road, but I think about heading back. Too late now. Wait for the support car. I ride past Todd, Kirk, and L.A. going the other way.
But the second half is nothing like the first half. Even if the change in grade is subtle, the way back is all uphill. Still, for a long time, I’m exhilarated. The wind isn't terrible. I am whipping through it. No one is behind me. But I never see the leaders. Stull opens up a hard attack on the first big road climb, and brings David and Pavel along working together for miles in tough pursuit. Stull doesn’t get away.
I ride up on Bernstein, a stronger rider, on a roller, and exchange a pull, but he seems tired, and I press up the road. Miles of flats and rollers go by. A couple big climbs. A ton of wind and no one to hide with. In the lead group well up the road, David has begun to test Stull, taking strong pulls and accelerating away from him and Pavel. But they stay on his wheel.
Somewhere, I hear my body say “food,” very quietly. I shove the thought out of my mind. There are still rough climbs and pillowy dirt to push through, but nothing miserable, I pretend. I hear “food,” again, and eat the first Shot Blok. Jordan and Dante move toward me quickly on a roller. They tell me to tack on, but I've been working too hard alone, and it’s clear that I can’t climb with Jordan. I wave them on. One gulp of water left. For a while, they remain in view, and sometimes, the distance seems too narrow. My muscles crave shelter from the wind, and I keep pushing, exhausting myself in the rain. The call for food starts to seep through my head. Now water. Finally, the duo climbs out of view. My whole body feels the loss.
When the climbing toward Hatcher’s Pass starts in earnest, my mind only knows food. Losing focus with wandering daydreams is a respite. The word “bonk” floods the emptiness. I try to bail it out. Nowhere to go. That word has been living somewhere in cyclists’ heads since the 1950s. It means your muscles are done. No glycogen. You can’t turn over the pedals. Don't panic, the support car will come. More wet climbing. My legs slow to a crawl, and I begin to shiver. The rain settles in for good. I stick the second Shot Blok in my cheek and tell myself I’m eating, dissolving the sugar over a few miles.
Bonk. It takes over. I’m the opposite of Pavel: my brain is done with the future, and is clenched on the empty present. Groping at what the muscles know. I move into fantasy. After a few miles of pride, I resort to a “water” gesture whenever I see a driver go by. My bottles are empty. A slurpee in a van. A milkshake, I think. Bonk. Polite nods. At least they don’t seem to think the gesture is offensive. I am barely moving, and consider pulling over and getting help. But I masticate stubbornness, instead. Revolving mills. Balled metal, ground down over weeks, by old miners, harder than me. Worse lives. Longer times. Climbs up the pass in tin clothes. Pans. Ore. Circles. Bonk. I throw my eyes as far they can reach, over the air and mountains, and try to forget my body in the rock. Finally, the far-off switchbacks over the pass appear in front of me.
Bernstein rides up on the climb. He looks great. A different rider than I dropped miles ago. I kick myself for leaving. He greets me with a smile and offers me Gu. I ask him about beaver fever. We are headed over the treeline. If you drink the water below it, bacteria from beaver shit poisons your intestines for months. But I don’t look good, and he tells me to drink at the next moving stream we see.
Gold rush fever: you go after it and never find it. Hypothermia fever: they find you naked after you’ve stripped your clothes as you overheat in the cold. Beaver fever: it finds you and lives there. Bonk fever: you’ll do anything to get out. I'm ready to drink and gamble; you get a day before you find out.
Bernstein methodically rolls away up the mountain. I see a stream on the next switchback. The water is freezing, but I chug it hard. And start moving again. A passerby in van sees me and asks if I am with the other racers, and tosses me a Clif bar from a big bag. I rip into it, and it’s gone. But my legs start working again, still upwards. Finally, I see photographer Brian Vernor, and get happy. At the top of the climb, I see Hannah, David’s sister, with some food: “Clif Bar!” She has a big smile on her face, cheering on the racers, and laughs at how I’m always smiling; it’s my pain face, sucking air through the widest opening.
I rocket down the long descent on the other side, shuddering on the rocks and potholes. I haven’t been thinking about the cracked rib at all—too much feeling everywhere else, but the rattling on this frozen downhill brings it to the front of my mind. Just stay conscious. I crawl up the steep ascent to Gold Cord Mine and collapse in the rain.
* * *
Pavel is there at the top, beaming. Like mine, his body was in survival mode at the end of the race. On fumes, no one knows exactly what your gut has left. Rock climbers use the word “dyno” for the leap they are forced into the end of a natural path—your choice is to jump your exhausted fingers higher into the rock. A moment’s wager on the body. Deep sea divers drop just to the point around 1,000 feet down where they bet they won’t pass out on as they surface.
Smelling a gap, Pavel climbed away from David and Stull. Cresting the pass, he elevated himself into an athlete’s madness: this is the only living. The last way to use breath. Fuck brunch. Bloody marys. Ft. Greene flea markets. A contorted face, screaming a mute laugh at the mountain. Pounding up it. Euphoria, alone at the top of Hatcher Pass, veins streaming gold.
Bike racing is that exhaling petite mort, and the rest gasps at a familiar, circling hell—limbo in the peloton; lust at breaking away; gluttonous, violent ripping the pedals on attacks; the fraud of masking pain; and the darkest point, the treachery of working with someone for miles, waiting for them to blow up, and then burying them. A blues recursion: unheard things illuminated by silence. Crumpled stories smoothed against the tabletop. At home and soaked in the body’s exposed secrets, repeating breathe, and inevitable sweat.
Pavel feathered his brakes on the shivering descent, scared of another crash. David descended like a kingfisher, catching Pavel at the bottom of the final climb. With no solid food for four days, hours of powering into the frigid rain, now caught, Pavel was cracked. David climbed off his wheel to the cabin, and fell onto the finish line, face to the rain.
I crash in a yurt next to a fire and miss the awards ceremony. When I wake up, Pavel’s face is still a healing mess, but his stare is more straight and peaceful than I’ve ever seen it. And David is at home in his grin. We eat doughs until we bonk again.
The Red Hook Criterium is in its eight season. Recently, David texted the author “let’s go--we are too old. need more danger,” before racing a major street alleycat, where he and Pavel took second and third of three hundred racers. The author declined, went to the boxing gym, and cracked his damn rib again. @julianandjulian