My competitive spirit was still very upfront when I got into cycling. I wanted to keep up with the strongest, by that I mean fastest, riders. I was in decent shape from my years playing basketball, but I quickly learned cycling was a different sport and used different muscles. Some of the physical characteristics that were assets on the basketball court – such as being over seven feet tall and weighing close to three hundred pounds – posed a great disadvantage on a bicycle. That’s how it felt at times. Most of the fastest cyclists I knew were shorter, weighed much less and could change directions on a dime. Being a giant among riders, I changed course with the same speed and agility as the Titanic.
Still, I vowed to improve, and followed the advice by the world-famous Belgian cyclist, Eddy Merckx, who when asked about advice on becoming a better cyclist, uttered the simple words “Ride! Ride! Ride!” So I did. I rode my bicycle – my bikes were improving as quickly as I was – every chance I could. I rode with different groups of cyclists. I learned many of the fastest riders rode with Dominick Chellino, so I joined his rides. At first I got dropped a lot, but as I learned the skills needed to ride in a pack, and put in the miles of training, which were essential, I improved substantionally.
We are all different physically. Most cyclists who race have an abundance of fast-twitch muscles, which allow them to sprint faster than most people. I have long, stringy, slow-twitch muscles. If I was an automobile engine, I would be the diesel put into large trucks, which I realize aren’t automobiles, but go with me for a moment. Most cyclists, being smaller than your average NBA player, would be like the four cylinder engines used in Hondas. The smaller engines rev higher, quicker and get better gas mileage than… Sorry different analogy. My point is once I reached a level of fitness to ride with the fastest guys (and ladies) I knew, there was still a difference. It took me a little longer to get up to speed, but once I reached it, I could pound along – like a diesel engine – for long periods of time. Or to put in into cycling context, I could sustain a high speed and rides for miles without getting tired.
The group of riders I rode with on the weekends would normally ride eighty to a hundred miles on Saturdays and Sundays. Each day, not a total of the two days. It takes speed and stamina to ride a couple hundred miles every weekend.
One of the group’s favorite routes started in Shorewood and made its way along the country roads through Kendall County. We searched out all the hills we could find because nothing tests a rider’s ability to stay with the pack like a steep hill. In those early days of my cycling adventure, I would usually stay with the group until we got close to the finish line. At that point, the strongest and more focused riders would pull away. I would make my way to the end of the ride and listen to the stories of who won the sprint at the end. I so longed to be able to share in those anecdotes, and occasionally, tall tales.
I kept riding and slowly adapted my body to the sport of cycling. No, I couldn’t lose six inches of height, but I could lose weight and I did. When I got married, I weighed 140 pounds. I was as skinny as a broomstick. There was no way I could get down to that weight again, but I got down to a more cycling-friendly weight.
One of the guys in the group drove a fire truck on the East side of Joliet. He had been an athlete his entire life. He played baseball, ran competitively and played other sports simply for the enjoyment. Gordie Carrier was older than me by ten years or so, but he looked younger. He was able to ride with the fastest guys in the group without appearing to use much energy. He was one of the best examples of a cyclist I knew. He would help slower riders and encourage them to improve.
I remember a specific ride through Kendall County. I don’t remember the date, or exactly how many miles we rode that day, but I do remember the last few miles. We ended up on Caton Farm Road somewhere near where it ends (or begins). Close to Route 47. Give or take. Anyway, the group dwindled down to three riders as we rode ever closer to the hill that always separated the weak from the strong. I was one of the three riders! For once I hadn’t been dropped. I made it to the hill with Gordie and Ruben Medina, who along with Gordie had a racing license. But more importantly, I made it to the top of the hill with them.
I made it to the end of the ride without being dropped. My confidence was as high as a 747. If I could keep up with Gordie Carrier, I could ride with Merckx, LeMond, Hinault and all the other pros I watched and admired. Gordie always called me ‘McGee’ and while I don’t remember his exact words to me at the end of that ride, they were probably both a slight dig as well as complimentary. He had a quiet way of encouraging me to become a better cyclist.
Thank you, Gordie, for all the memories of rides, races and restaurants through the years. You might not remember that dash up the hill on Caton Farm Road, but I still get a thrill every time I think about it.