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Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home      Greasy Food, Dress Socks and the Mountains      Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home

By Bradley Swink

 The year is 1990; the temperature, a balmy 90 degrees; the terrain, the unforgiving Laurel Mountains of Southwestern Pennsylvania. The author has no idea of what's to follow when he's invited to join a band of roadies for a training ride led by a cyclist/triathlete destined for greatness.

It was raining when I set off from my hometown of Connellsville to the nearby mountains in which we planned to ride. The forecasters claimed the wet weather would abate near nine, so I thought little of the water cascading over my second-hand, Scandinavian beige Volvo sedan. 

With the flat road turning upward, my faithful old car howled and roared with displeasure, and searched for a lower gear. As I continued to put miles between the comforting hugs of home and the then-unknown climbs of the Laurel Mountains, the sky and road finally became a bit kinder. The gentler terrain, though, seemed nothing but a charade, for I felt certain the suffering would soon commence.

Mac Martin waited for me in the parking lot of Indian Head’s only breakfast house, a dirty, smoky joint Mac aptly called the “grease pit.” Though it had been our first meeting, I was already well acquainted with the legend and eccentric ways of William Mac Martin, a bike racer and multi-sport athlete who would later become a multiple World Champion biathlete and triathlete, as well as my daily training partner.

Joe Ross, a mutual racing friend, had the brilliant idea of meeting Mac in the mountains for the training ride. More brilliant still, he also invited me.

Joe and I were lied to and told the ride would be an easy parade through the lowlands of Connellsville with a climb or two thrown in to stretch the legs. Looking back on that ride, I can’t recall even a single pedal stroke turning with any resemblance of ease.

As we retreated to the innards of the restaurant, I couldn’t help but notice Mac’s glaring disregard for popular dress.

He wore navy blue acrylic dress socks, pulled just above the ankle; black and neon yellow shorts from a Mike Fraysee-managed team; a racing top bearing the markings of South American sponsors (at least one size too small, presumably stolen or forcibly taken) and finally a well-worn pair of black loafers. All damn inappropriate, I thought at the time.

Once inside I was overcome by an intolerable wave of hot air, the smell of grease rode its swell. Joe sat near a window fighting off columns of sun and wisely ate as if the meal might be his last. Next to Joe sat a 14-year-old, reed-thin Max Bergholz, who was devouring the largest bowl of cereal I may have ever seen. 

Though quite young and exceedingly timid looking, Max was already a member of Mac’s “Frequent Survivors Club,” a limited band of riders who routinely met with no other purpose but to traverse the region’s many mountain passes.

I put down a coffee-stained menu, ordered and later enjoyed a jalapeno and cheddar omelet, copiously topped with cayenne and Red Hot, black coffee, wheat toast and a handsome pile of Pennsylvania bacon. The breakfast of bloated, soon-to-get-dropped champions, I later thought.

We drove the short distance from the restaurant to Mac’s mountain cabin, filled water bottles, evacuated bowels and bladder and bolted. Max and I rode bareheaded, not uncommon in 1990, despite Mac’s incessant badgering for headgear. 

The tree-less road offered no respite from the glaring sun, as the hard right from Mac’s gravel drive instantly and savagely turned skyward. I immediately gulped the 90-degree air, and easily identified Max as the dangerman of the group. As he effortlessly danced up the day’s first climb, we were collectively left to fight for his disappearing wheel. 

His powerful yet fluid surges were the kind only a pure climber could dole out. Red-faced and sweating like an acre of pigs, Mac answered every attack that came his way, while I was at my limit to sit on. Wearing an unremitting mask of torment, simply sitting on took every ounce of fitness and gamesmanship I had.

It wasn’t until the day’s last major climb, the old ascent out of Ohiopyle State Park, that Max revealed signs of discontent. At the foot of the climb Mac punched hard on his pedals, quickly opening a 10-meter gap. Joe and I looked to a weary Max to chase, but it was obvious his daylong campaign of aggression had finally taken its toll.

In a selfless show of diplomacy, I shifted into my 23, stood on the pedals, and fought my bike, lungs and legs in an attempt to arrest the flyer quickly disappearing up the road. Unfortunately, Mac was soon out of sight, I was near-death, Max was clinging to my wheel and Joe was off the back. Hopeless, I thought, before wisely sitting up.

An hour or so later, as we crested the false-flat leading to the Martin Family Compound, I realized I was utterly pounded. I coughed uncontrollably, had no appetite to speak of, carried a clammy film over my entire body and carelessly threw my new carbon fiber bike in the yard. The curtain had fallen on our day-long ride.

Under pillars of a still unforgiving bloody sun, and above the din of my thumping head, I somehow heard Mac shout, “Same time tomorrow?” Reeling like a drunk on a two-day binge, eager for one more, I couldn’t help but respond, “Sure.”

* * *

Editor note: Recalling his many tough but memorable rides in the mountains with Mac Martin, the writer notes: "That ride, and subsequent mountain rides with Mac, was almost always at least a 100 miles. I suspect we were intrigued by the notion of riding so far and so long on such grueling terrain. The rides would usually last seven or more hours (depending upon the route).  After those mountain rides, we would nap for an hour or two, then run for another two hours. 

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