It was still dark outside in Paso Robles. Greg and I were milling around in the kitchen of our rented cottage drinking coffee. We already had on our matching red and black wool jerseys. We warmed up leftover pork medallions in mustard sauce with mashed potatoes for a breakfast du champions. Our friends Chris and Terah had stocked the fridge with the pork, along with some delicious organic dill pickles for a distinctly French-feeling morning meal.
We hatched the idea for a French-themed team at the first Eroica California in 2015. Greg told me that of the hundreds of different vintage bicycles he had worked on, he thought Lejeune bicycles were a sleeper brand with great ride quality. Was the workmanship great? No. Was the finish beautiful? Hardly. But according to Greg, in addition to the usual French quirks, Lejeune bicycles had a reputation for wonderful road manners and comfort on an all day ride. Another advantage (also true of a few other French production bicycle brands), was their relative low cost. A few months after that conversation, I found a complete but sun-faded 1969 model for just a bit over $400. Greg had a late 1970s Lejuene frameset that had come to him for a mere $75.
Since we both had the bikes, we thought that Team Lejeune was a lock for Eroica 2016. That is, until Greg broke his collarbone on his mountain bike a week before the event. The curse of Team Lejeune began. In 2017, I was on the receiving end. One week before Eroica I went out on a training ride and got right-hooked by a minivan. I got lucky, and walked away with just a few minor cuts and bruises, no broken bones, and no concussion. My poor Lejeune had a bent Mafac lever, and needed her wheels majorly trued, but was otherwise mostly unscathed. Following that mishap, I came down with an upper respiratory funk that sidelined me for the rest of the week and had me doubting my ability to pull off a 129 mile day by the weekend.
On the last day of March, Greg sends me a text saying that he just finished a century ride that gives him “about 800 [miles] for the month.” The news of Greg’s monster milage concerned me. I mentally totaled my March rides: a 200k brevet, a century, and a few 70-odd mile rides, and couldn’t get to a total much north of 400 miles.
Our bicycles were mostly the opposite of concours (show) bikes. They were a little ratty, with lots of paint flaws, signs of use, overuse, neglect, and perhaps some abuse. We decided that our team name should be: L’Équipe des Deux Jeunes Rats (Two Young Rats) since our bikes were kind of the French “rat rods” of the event. Of course, I’m only speaking about the cosmetic aspect of our bikes. As avid riders and mechanics, our bikes were greased, aligned, and adjusted to spec and ready to be put through their paces.
Greg is the best mechanic I know and also someone who could also audition for the next Dos Equis “the most interesting man in the world” campaign. He is known for wearing kilts, growing French mustaches, singing in a gospel choir, and racing a vintage Bianchi on the velodrome. When he shows up for a weekend cycling event, he is likely to be packing a ridiculous diversity of tools. At Eroica 2017, he brought 20 different freewheel removers, a dozen headset and BB wrenches, seven spoke wrenches, a dishing tool, four crank pullers, three third hands, two different peanut butter wrenches (TA and Campy) a Campy Anniversary pedal cap remover, and even some frame facing tools (!). Also, I know of no other cyclist who brings his own Jeanie Pro heavy duty electric massager along for the weekend.
We rolled our two red bikes out the cottage door into 38 degrees, and pedaled through the chill to the starting line later than most of the other long route riders. Always a spartan dresser keen on old-school ways, Greg had lathered some sort of liniment of the sort veterinarians use on horses on his legs in lieu of leg warmers. I went with some standard knit arm and leg warmers. Our passports stamped, we departed with some of the coastal route riders, then turned away from them toward Cass winery. Going out of town, we rode no-handed with our hands tucked under our armpits as often as we could. Before we knew it we were alone in the rolling hills, reeling in stray riders on some of the rollers, feeling our oats.
I felt much better than I had hoped considering my car-collision and sickness earlier in the week. However, it was clear from near the beginning that I wasn’t 100 percent. Greg was riding strong, and from early on, I had to stay on the pedals to keep him from pulling away. There was one of those moments early in the ride, when we were powering up one of the longer rolling hills in our big rings, riding shoulder to shoulder, when our bikes disappeared underneath us, and we felt more like 20 year olds than two 50-year-olds with grown kids. Before we knew it, we had arrived at Cass winery, where we were handed a swig of red wine in a water bottle. We pedaled on toward hot olive oil fries, olive tea, and bread at Olea Farms. By the time we rolled into Halter Ranch, we were ready to sit in the barn and enjoy a bowl of hearty Tuscan bean stew, sticks of pecorino cheese, and a titch of red wine.
The next leg of the journey was the hardest of the route. We’d be crossing the Santa Lucia range, and specifically climbing Cypress Mountain. I was feeling okay until the first pitch of 15 percent or so, and Greg stood on his 42-26 gear and rode ahead up the hill. He looked surprisingly light on the bike. I jammed it into my 42-28 and did my best to stay on top of the gear, but I wasn’t feeling it, and saw Greg disappear up the road ahead. I stopped once to catch my breath and slow my heart down, then remounted and got up the summit where I knew a Coca-Cola awaited. Greg was waiting and after a short rest, we started the Mr. Toad’s wild ride descent to the coast. The air was crystal clear, and there was the Pacific. Down we went, speeding along the serpentine dirt, then choppy pavement.
We met up with two other guys in matching Atala jerseys, Andy Speier, from Seattle, and his buddy Glenn Pinson, who was riding a beautifully restored Specialized Expedition. They were experienced riders who were fun to ride with and with a tailwind we rolled into Cambria, then down to Cayucos with them. The traditional bottled coca-cola and dark chocolate-dipped strawberries were served on the Cayucos pier.
We had one last big climb up to Santa Rita Pass before the mostly downhill run back to Paso Robles. I got a bit of a second wind up Santa Rita and the long switchback dirt road climb. At the top, we caught up with fellow riders Joe Bunik (on his Nishiki), Phil Smith (on his white Jack Taylor). On the way down the dirt road, we were going fast and pushing the limits, “getting with the program” as Greg said, when my rear tire flatted and Joe and Phil came back by us. With my flat fixed, we pushed on, but about eight miles out of town, there wasn’t much of anything left in my legs. Even the Atomic fireball candy Greg swears by didn’t do much. Greg gave me a sesame seed bar, and did my best to stay on his wheel the rest of the way in.
As we approached the park, we noticed that Joe Bunik and Phil Smith were stopped by a red light about 100 yards from the finish. We came up behind them just as the light changed and leap-frogged them at the line, a dick move that I felt obligated to apologize for later, which gave us all a laugh. After getting out last passport stamp, Chris and Terah congratulated us, and we basked in a little of the post-ride euphoria that surrounded the incoming riders.
I have a recurring dream of living in a place with nearly empty roads that wind through mountains to the ocean, of a little town where bicycles are celebrated and welcome at outdoor cafes. A place where cyclists dress stylishly and all the bikes are interesting old machines with stories to tell. For one weekend each April, Paso Robles becomes that place. Merci, Eroica California.