Monday, March 17, 2008

A special request from my old friend Mark Manson

This story ran in Winning Magazine in the mid-'80s. It's adapted from an old Jewish joke about a guy like our Phil and a tailor named Moishe. The brands named are of fine old wool Italian cycling clothing. "Vest" is British English for undershirt; In the US, we call shoe-plates "cleats." Magni, Derrigade and Bartali were pre- and post-WWII cycling heroes. Oh, a Euro size 1 was a small, a size 5 an XL.

Mark and I hope you like the story...

Desperate Measures

Phil started getting terrible headaches. He hurt so bad he could hardly ride his bike. He had no appetite and he snapped at people often; his friends quit calling. He took lots of aspirin and tried every remedy suggested to him. Nothing worked.

Doctor after doctor tried and failed to cure him. He kept riding his bike, shorter and shorter distances; the awful headaches made it hard to concentrate on the road. Soon he had to give up the bike. Phil decided then that time had come for desperate measures.

He flew to a world-famous clinic in the Midwest and checked in for an exhaustive examination. Several renowned surgeons spent expensive hours with him in small, clean rooms. After two days there, he sat in a joyless gray cubicle, waiting. A young but serious-faced physician brought the news.

"Phil," the doctor said, "the staff here has decided unanimously that your problem is testicular in origin. We urge you to consider surgical removal. I’m aware, Phil, that you are a young and active man; this action may seem awfully final. We believe you will find that, given proper therapy and medication, you will be able to lead quite a normal, satisfying life."

Phil told the doctor he would have to think about it. He said he would be in touch within a week with an answer. Heavy-hearted, he flew home.

Phil tried to resume his life. He began daily short rides on his bike. Immediately he found he couldn't cope with his pain. He failed to speak kindly to his mom, with whom he lived, or his friends. Worst of all, he soon couldn't ride his bike even a mile.

Phil felt his life was scarcely worth living in such continual pain. He'd been home only eight days when he called the clinic and scheduled his surgery.

After the operation and a short period of bed-rest, Phil flew home, the headaches completely gone. He found he had deep misgivings and remorse. Some days he would only sit and stare out a window at the beautiful late-spring countryside. His bike hung neglected in the garage, a cobweb forming in the spokes of the front wheel.

The May issue of his club newsletter arrived. Phil read in it that his old hero, the famous Italian coach and team director, was to visit the town. The club had invited the old man, usually photographed hugging a classic winner or emerging from the roof of some team car, to a special dinner in his honor. The newsletter said the old man had accepted.

Phil knew that opportunities to meet legends like this old man were rare. As he reread the newsletter, his phone rang. The club president called, saying the officers had taken it upon themselves to schedule a private appointment for Phil with the Italian coach and his interpreter. As a kind of get-well gesture, the president said. They'd hoped Phil might become inspired to get back on his bike.

He told Phil to bring his bike to the meeting. The great man has offered to set Phil up on it, Italian pro-style, suggesting saddle height, stem length and so on.

Phil said he was grateful for his old buddies' consideration. He agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to attend the dinner meeting and his audience with the fabled visitor. He took his bike down from its hooks and pumped the tires, but he did not ride it until the evening of the event.

He pedaled to the restaurant, sat down and ate his dinner with his bike club friends. He couldn't hear a word spoken by the guest of honor or his interpreter. Phil could feel the famous man's presence in the room, though; an unmistakable aura of authenticity surrounded the stocky gentleman. Here, indeed, sat the real thing. Phil began to get excited about his personal interview.

The three men met in an adjacent room. Phil leaned his bike against a wall. He turned to face the interpreter and the man who had been the confidant of three decades of cycling superheroes. Phil asked the interpreter to express his respect for the old man and his delight at meeting him and enjoying his undivided attention.

Words were exchanged in soft Italian. The interpreter asked Phil if he would walk a little, back and forth, in the room. The coach watched Phil take a few tentative steps and had Phil sit on his bike. He spoke to his translator.

"You are good climber," the coach asked.

"I was, I guess," said Phil.

"The bicycle, it is one and one-half centimeters too small. And one centimeter too short in the horizontal tube," the interpreter translated. "Like Darrigade, when he started. You know Darrigade?"

Phil nodded yes, he'd heard of Darrigade.

"The stem should be 11 centimeters," said the interpreter, "with the shorter horizontal tube. And the saddle, the master says, should be higher, perhaps two centimeters higher."

Phil shook his head, amazed. How could the man know all these things? He needed no tape measure, no plumb line. He hadn't even asked Phil to pedal the bike. Phil was astonished.

"You have trouble with the knee, the left knee," the interpreter continued. "The toe clip is too short; the shoe-plate angled inward too acutely. Magni, yes Magni, too, had the same."

Phil's unbelief turned to awe. Hardly anyone knew about his occasional knee pain. How can he know these things, he asked the interpreter. As the question was relayed, the two Italians laughed.

"He is the greatest team director: the maestro, for 30 years," the answer came. Phil nodded, not knowing what to say.

"You wear the size 42 shoe, yes? Buy the 41 and soak it in water the first three rides. The 42 is too large," the interpretation continued.

"You wear the wool vest under the jersey, yes? And the size three Vittori Gianni shorts?"

Phil said no, he wore Sergal shorts, size two.

"No, no," said the interpreter, "you wear the size three Giannis."

"No, sir," Phil explained, "you got it all right but that. I wear size two Sergal shorts."

"No, you must wear the size three Giannis," translated the interpreter, "like Bartali. Bartali, he, also, wore the size two Sergal short instead of the size three Gianni. Pinched his balls. Gave him terrible headaches.”