To Slay the Beast
And he said, "You'll never crank up Fargo Street again like you did before your heart attack."
Fargo Street. It's only 1/10th of a mile in length. It's also the steepest street in Los Angeles, with a 33% average grade that reaches 36% near the top. If snow ever blanketed the street, it would make for an expert ski run.
I've participated on the Fargo Street Hill Climb, an event sponsored by the Los Angeles Wheelmen bike club, almost every year since 1978. The only person who's participated in the event more than me is my brother, Dan, who first witnessed the event in 1977. He brought me with him the next year, and we keep coming back. We were young men when we made that first ride. Now we're old men.
Of the hundred or so people who tried to pedal up the hill that day so long ago, less than half of them succeeded. Most humans don't have the strength or the stamina that's required to summit the hill. I was so nervous just before my turn at the hill that my body tingled. Dan and I, though, completed the climb.
I'm not sure why I've come back to the hill, year after year, although, as I've probably mused on this blog before, it may be to prove to myself that I'm still alive. The hill has always served, in a way, as the great Other, a thing greater and more dangerous than myself, a leviathan, the great white whale, a Frankenstein's monster that I need to face and slay each spring, renewing and proving myself in the process.
(To the right: My brother Dan, who rode straight up the hill this year, makes it look easy.)
Yet at other times, the hill at times has also seemed like an old friend, welcoming me back, letting me connect with it in an intimate way, transmitting the feel of its rough concrete, with its bumps and little indentations and cracks, up through my tires, to my legs and my arms.
Most years, just once up the hill is enough is enough to slay the beast, to renew our acquaintanceship. For a while, though, I was king of the hill, with more runs up to the top of Fargo Street in one day than anyone else.
Last year, twelve days after my ride up Fargo Street, a clot formed in one of the little stents, which are tiny tubes holding my coronary arteries open where surgeons had cleared out a dangerous build-up of plaque.
I thought I might die, as I lay writhing on the ground, 30 minutes or so after I'd enjoyed a ride on my bike. Luckily, I made it to the hospital fairly quickly, and the blocked stent was cleared of the clot, and my heart attack was halted. Not before the lack of blood did some serious damage, according to my ex-cardiologist.
"You'll never crank up Fargo Street again like you did before your heart attack." Not only did I not want to hear those words, I knew I would challenge them in a year's time.
The earth has circled the sun once after that visit with my ex-cardiologist. And so it was time for another ride up Fargo Street, on another Sunday in March, time for another annual rite of passage, the rite that affirms my belief in myself.
I know I can't live forever. And I feel I done most if not all of what I've been put on earth to do. Yet I was a little worried my ex-cardiologist might have been right, that I wouldn't be able to push myself up Fargo Street as I had in years past. And I was a little worried that the effort might just kill me. My mood wasn't helped by the storm clouds that were building to the west, either.
My choice of bike could have been my mountain bike, with its very low gearing. That would have made riding up the hill, if not easy, a certainty. It wasn't certainty I was after, though. It was the challenge, with the possibility that I might not be up to it. So, exactly as I did the year before, I chose to pedal my road bike, with it's gears much higher than those on my mountain bike. Just in case I failed in my first attempt, though, I asked my brother to let me borrow his mountain bike for a second try.
There's not much to say about the ride itself. My body wasn't tingling. I had to dig deep within myself to keep pedaling. And when I reached the top, I knew I'd been on a serious bike ride. Until I reached the top, Fargo Street this year was more foe than friend.
One time up the hill was enough for me. And once again, and for the next year, I am king of the hill, at least in my own mind.
I never like to be told what I can or can't do. That's as good a reason as any that I'll continue to try to ride up Fargo Street. I'll come out to Fargo Street until I can't get on my bike any longer. That day, whenever it arrives, the beast will have its victory, a friendship will end. In the meantime, I've got an appointment with my new cardiologist scheduled for later this year, and a lot of miles and a lot of hills to ride to stay in shape for my my next trip up the steepest street in the City of Angeles.
And now you know why my cardiologist is my ex-cardiologist.
Note: click on any image to see a larger version.
Below: Marco Pantani on the climb to Courchevel, during the 2002 Tour de France, with a song about Pantani – Rimini – by Les Wampas.