In my early teens I was convinced that I would play professional baseball. Preferably for the Yankees. I was a pretty good catcher and my Rawlings Johnny Bench model mitt was my favorite possession. I still remember the satisfying smell of its leather mixed with glove oil and the home plate-area dirt it had absorbed.
Of course, I was delusional. The reality was I wasn't much of a hitter and my catching skills were barely good enough for high school and American Legion ball. Turns out being an All Star in the Hudson Little League -- go Bucks! -- and Babe Ruth Baseball is no guarantee of professional stardom, fame and wealth.
I got a shockingly clear understanding of how pedestrian my baseball skills were when I was 13 or 14 years old. My father took me to see the team he loved and I hated, the Mets. From our perch in the second deck of Shea Stadium (hold on, an airplane is flying over and I can't hear myself write...okay, better now), I watched the Mets warming up on the field below. I was horrified. They could throw a baseball great distances -- 150, 200 feet or more -- on a line with seemingly little effort. They were sometimes talking and laughing as they did this! I knew I would never come close to throwing a ball that far even if I had a running start and I was throwing it down a steep hill.
My baseball dreams were over.
I had a similar shock recently when I spent a few days in the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina riding my road bike with professional cyclists. The inclines were murderous and the temperatures merciless -- 100 degrees with high humidity. Now, I never had delusions that I could be a pro cyclist but I thought, maybe I could hang for a while with the pros on these tortuous climbs. It would be a story I could tell the kids.
Reality again was cruel. On nearly every ride, I was what cyclists call the "Red Lantern," the last rider in the group (the phrase comes from the red lantern hung on the last car of a train). Sometimes by a lot. Sometimes I'd fall behind even though others were doing things like taking phone calls while riding. Sometimes I caught up only because the group stopped for water. I'd see them ahead lounging in the shade of pine trees and wonder if they were talking about me.
I'd dismount and break out the excuses: "Did I mention I'm 56 years old?" Or, "Hey, I've had five knee surgeries." And "It's never this hot in Connecticut." They responded only with their eyes.
Actually, they are all great guys and they often hung back with me to provide encouragement and instruction. But clearly I am not made of the same stuff as them. You can see it by just looking at the photo below. I am the shorter guy with the unshaved legs among three retired American cycling titans: Christian Vande Velde, George Hincapie and Bobby Julich.
Let me be more specific about the differences between these pros and me:
- Body: Even in retirement, these guys are lean and, I am, well, gelatinous. I figured I had about 30 pounds of fat on these guys. That's like strapping an average-sized English Cocker Spaniel on my back, although I don't know why anyone would do that.
- Frame: They are all legs, like Vegas show girls. I am no legs, like a Corgi.
- Skills: They could cook a five-course meal while riding. I couldn't order take out.
- Experience: They have competed in the world's great races such as the Tour de France against and with Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Fabian Cancellara. In a recent charity ride, I got passed by a guy pulling a bike trailer with two kids in it.
Dreams are hard to give up and hills are hard to get up. I did both on the rural backroads of South Carolina.