Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Trainee, and memories of Mr. Rat

Days after our summer part-timer departed for his real grown-up job in the far north of New York, a young racer in town was suddenly inspired to apply.

Where the departing rider was the classic 54cm-frame kind of roadie, this kid is more on the lines of Miguel Indurain. He's 6'2" and says he started riding at age 8. This actually gives him two years' head start on Big Mig, whose Wikipedia write-up says he started at 10. Now he's a junior in high school, and has achieved some level of mentorship, if not sponsorship, with actual coaching.

Listening in on his interview with upper management, I gathered that his duties may include inventory stuff on the computer rather than only mechanical work. But he said that he loves cleaning bikes. He will find plenty to do with the cruddy messes that people drag in for our attention. He's the closest thing to a shop rat* to come through here in years. He's more of an enhanced shop rat, but at least he doesn't think he's too good to sweep a floor or empty a garbage can.

This being New England, his other sport is cross-country skiing. If he sticks around, he will spend a lot of time with the waxing iron. With luck, he'll be slinging a lot of rentals, as well.

His first day went well. He put in some time out front with the computer system and in back with the grime. And he actually came back for a second day. Now he's been at it for a couple of weeks.

The fact that the management makes up for the chronic low pay and cruddy work by letting employees buy at wholesale is a powerful attraction for regular riders, especially young racers thrashing their equipment in hope of making a name for themselves while they're still young enough to  matter. His team affiliation does not extend to a gravy train of equipment. He's practically a privateer.

His recent race results have ranged from a first place finish in the A group in the nearby training series -- on a day when the biggest guns were not on hand, but still an A group victory -- to a humbling last place in a stage race in Vermont, where the insanely fit and well supported teams showed up. I'm sure this kid could have dropped me like an empty water bottle even when I was in my prime. But that's the cruel revelation of racing. You meet the people who are impossibly faster than you are. You think you're training to your limit, and you come up against these people from another planet. It literally happened to the best of us when Art the Dart, dominator of the Virginia District of what was then USCF, went to the nationals and was anonymous field fodder. There's always someone to chase, until you get to the very tip of the peloton, where everyone is chasing you.

Mechanically, the trainee is hindered by a teenager's tendency to overlook details, and the unfamiliarity of certain basic tool and mechanical principles. But he's a willing pupil, so he has that in his favor. I was much more of an idiot at that age, and for a depressing number of years thereafter. He has already started to broaden his perception of the universe of bikes by having to put a wrench on stuff that was made before he was born, and on cheap department store crap, not just on the bikes he owns for competition.

*Some might think that the term shop rat is a pejorative, or at least demeaning of the unskilled aspirants who often fill the role. I actually came up with the title when I worked in a shop where the young helper was named Jeff Mraz. He would sign his name in a rapid scrawl, first initial and last name, so that it looked like J. Mr. Rat. I started calling him J Rat. He was a very talented BMX rider, who liked to do tricks on and off the curb edge around the shopping center where our shop was located. He especially liked to do tail whips into trash cans, until we pointed out that he'd bent his frame doing that. Then he took an interest in road racing, built himself a road bike, and competed as a junior a few times. I don't know what he did after that. He was developing mechanical skills, and had an interest in custom auto body work, as I recall. Only later did I notice that the term "shop rat" was already in common usage. Just another example of parallel evolution yielding a widely duplicated result.

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