Like the National Football League, cyclocross spans three seasons. For both, training has to start in the brutal heat of mid-summer. Some of the early races take place in these somewhat oppressive conditions but as the season gets into full swing, we are usually racing in the sometimes-perfect weather of autumn just like the big boys who wear a lot of padding and get the crap knocked out of them. However, the most serious part of the cyclocross season is the National Championships, which take place in the depth and chill of the January winter, fairly close in time to when the Super Bowl is played except now they usually play the game in some balmy southern location.
When I was a fifth grader in 1965, one of my best friend’s fathers was an assistant coach for the New York Jets. John and I would oftentimes be allowed to accompany him up to the Jet’s training camp at the Peekskill Military Academy and hang out both on the field and in the locker room. As fate would have it, this was also the year of Broadway Joe Namath’s rookie season. He arrived each day in a fancy sports car, surrounded by the press but also accompanied by his Irish Setter, Pharaoh. On our first day there, Joe came walking by on his way to the locker room, trailed by photographers as John and I stood by watching. Joe handed us the leash and asked us if we’d take care of Pharaoh while he was busy with practice. Are you kidding me?
The days of their training camp were similar to the hot and humid days we’ve been having in Massachusetts the last few weeks. When the players broke for lunch, they would all walk into the locker room where they immediately encountered two drinking fountains. One was a normally functioning one while the other was turned off and the basin filled to overflowing with yellow salt tabs. The players were supposed to grab a handful and wash them down with a lot of water. I loved salt then as I do now and would frequently pop a few, imagining myself as an NFL star. Around this same time in the garage of my friend Jeff who lived across the street (and now a bank president and a member of the Federal Reserve Board), we would hang out and suck on rock salt crystals from a bag his dad kept for ice control. Apparently this didn’t mess too much with Jeff’s career path, as I’ve never read anything about his edema or hypertension.
The other vivid memory from these hot days in Peekskill was also in the locker room. At the time, the Jets had an offensive lineman named Sherman Plunkett. I assume this was before the days of steroids, EPO and HGH. Most football players were big but certainly not by today’s artificially induced standards. Sherman Plunkett was the biggest football player of his time, weighing in at around 350 pounds. I was a pipsqueak, literally having to stuff my pockets with weights in order to be allowed to play football in my hometown where there was a minimum weight requirement of 60 pounds. Walking into the locker room and seeing a naked Sherman Plunkett (or roughly 6 of me) was an image that will not ever leave my memory, in spite of my best efforts.
As I try to get into peak cyclocross racing shape again this year, in this heat, I think back to the New York Jets, in full gear on a completely unshaded, exposed football field, dropping salt tabs by the fistful. Riding a bike, largely on singletrack back in the woods with two or three bottles filled with scientifically balanced energy and electrolyte drink, I have to remind myself that I’m not roughing it like they were. I know that cooler days will be upon us soon and winter lurks not too far behind.