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However far up cycling's career ladder they've climbed, all riders started at the bottom, racing in local club events and being helped and coached by older, wiser riders. When Velo Club LaGrange meets for its annual ride and dinner, club alumnus and U.S. Postal rider Tony Cruz returns to his roots to thank the club that got him started.
By Josh Horowitz
It's 7:15 am and I've already been on the bike for two hours when I pull up to the narrow state park that overlooks the beach along Santa Monica's Ocean Street. There, a crowd of close to 100 red and blue jerseys have gathered for Velo Club LaGrange's annual photograph, group ride and banquet. As we begin to set up for the first set of photos, another red and blue jersey pulls up. This one however, instead of bearing the logo of LaGrange, one of Southern California's oldest and largest cycling clubs, bears a striking resemblance to one we saw most recently on the podium of the Vuelta and the Tour de France. On another day, one might think, 'who does this guy think he is, dressed in U.S. Postal gear and riding a Trek?' However, then one might remember that even the best riders have to start somewhere, and this particular one, Tony Cruz, started right here in the outskirts of Los Angeles racing for this very club.
For the last two years, on the request of club founder Raymond Fouquet and club president Claude Innocenti, former Saturn racer and current Postal team member Tony Cruz has graciously accepted an invitation to come and pay respect to the community that brought him up.
Cruz willingly poses for several photographs and then leads the group on a ride through Santa Monica, Brentwood and into the Hollywood Hills. As we wind up the Mulholland Pass, I ride over and introduce myself. Tony and I had climbed Malibu's torturous 10 mile Latigo canyon at last year's gathering and he says he remembers me for my fluid and natural climbing style. I immediately wonder how much of the club's treasury went towards paying him to dole out such gracious and unexpected compliments.
With an inflated ego and sudden notions of glory, I drop back to let some of the other club members pick his brain for a while. Tony generously speaks with each one, offering advice, sharing anecdotes and posing for more photographs. He keeps the pace slow in an unspoken act of courtesy which is unfortunately not shared by all as some of our more stubborn club racers tear ahead up the road, completely missing the point of this processional Sunday ride. Nevertheless, as we continue to climb out of the valley, most of the recreational riders have fallen off the pace and I once again get a chance to chat with Tony.
I ask him about his season and compliment him on proving the skeptics wrong who accused him of being purely a sprinter and incapable of finishing a major stage race. Having both done our first stint of European racing this past summer, we trade anecdotes and horror stories and discuss issues such as the less than ideal living situations for riders and unfortunate rampant drug use. He tells me about his training for the Vuelta and how he is excited to have some new locally based teammates (although he is having a hard time picturing David Klinger out of his Festina Gear and into the eagle adorned Postal duds.)
As we descend Sepulveda Boulevard back into Brentwood, I ask him half jokingly whether or not he is earning an appearance fee and he responds genuinely that his time is completely voluntary as he owes this and much more to the club for which he raced as a junior and ultimately helped him grow the roots that he stands on now. Again, jokingly, I suggest that next year after he's ridden the Tour, his fee will surely go up, but again, quite seriously, he responds that he could never ask for money for something he enjoys and looks forward to so thoroughly.
Back in Brentwood, Tony joins the rest of the riders for coffee and later meets the group back at Beverly Hill's elegant Maple Drive restaurant. After a delicious meal and awards presentation, Tony is asked to get up and say a few words. In a, dare I say it, tearful speech, he thanks the club for everything they've done for him and without a blink of an eye, provides that he could not be where he is today without their support. He receives a standing ovation.
Afterwards, as the group begins to shuffle out, I approach Tony one more time. He had previously mentioned that he would be doing most of his winter training in Southern California and I am wondering if (gulp) he would need an occasional training partner. Not wanting him to think I am some sort of bicycle racer groupie, I ask him merely for his e-mail address. Instead he provides me with both his cell and home phone numbers. I look forward to being his tackling dummy for some long cold winter rides and once again entertain my own dreams that someday it will be me standing up there thanking the club for everything they have done for me.
Hopefully we will get to ride this winter and I will get the chance to pick his brain about racing, training, making it as a pro, and what ratio of carbs to protein I should consume after a ride. But if not, perhaps I have already learned the most important lesson from him: never forget where you came from and the people who helped you get to where you are. Thanks Tony, for once again showing us the human side of cycling and proving that there is still goodness in the sport we love.
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