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They race, I type

Or, Coffee in Modesto

Modesto, it’s day three. At least I think it’s day three. Already the days run together, a blurred streaming video of hotel room, minivan, freeway exit, team bus, start line, finish line, more minivan, more freeway. A bike race runs through it.

Today the race is running down map on a dead-straight road. They have a tail wind. It stretches the flags and makes them snap. It makes the bike race fast. There’s a break of five or six up the road. They have a gap of more than three minutes. They’re working together, the teams in the field are working together. Thirty kilometers down the road, the race will turn across the wind. But for now, it’s tranquilo, piano, all those bike racing words that mean there’s nothing much going on. I need a coffee.

“Go up one block, turn right. It’s really good,” they tell me. I can’t decide whether to be skeptical or hopeful.

In the Central Valley the towns are built on grids, the letter streets run east-west, the numbers run north-south. I’m standing at the same cross-streets as yesterday. Yesterday was a different town whose name I’ve already nearly forgotten. Today there’s a band playing, men with long hair and guitars, almost too much of a caricature to be real. Maybe I’m dreaming. I walk up a block, ascending the grid, and turn.

The cafe is on the right, and I almost miss it. It is in a old retail shop of the sort common in the 1960s. It has a big front window and a small door. The espresso machine sits in the back, and the counter is rough and ready plywood. A small display case probably had pastries earlier in the day, but by now, they’re long gone. This is a good sign. Never trust a cafe that still has pastries left by the late afternoon.

“Double espresso to go?” I ask.

“We don’t serve our espresso to go,” the woman behind the counter tells me.

Out of all of Modesto, out of the entire, flat expanse of the Central Valley, with its farm lands and fruit orchards and John Deere tractors and freight trains and freeways, I’ve found a cafe who won’t give me an espresso in a paper cup. A den of coffee snobs who would never drink an espresso out of a paper cup. I sit at the window and imagine a mannequin posing in a house dress. I drink my espresso. Then, I drink another.

Back at the bike race, it’s nothing doing. Still the break is up the road, still the field is chasing. I step out to take a phone call that won’t wait. Of course, then everything changes. That’s always how it always goes. You go to the bathroom, get a sandwich, make a coffee, and everything changes. The bike race, like life, doesn’t wait around.

I come back to two riders up the road. Where did the others go? Maybe they were eaten by the bogeyman. The gap is also down to around a minute. It’s no longer tranquilo. A friend fills me in. There was no bogeyman, just a sprint line and a cheeky attack. It’s good to have friends.

The race turns the corner. The wind blows across their right shoulders and soon the bunch is spread across the road. Groups split off the back as they hit the gutter and run out of road, nowhere to hide, the wind pushing hard across their shoulders, blasting their faces. I type, they race. It’s blown apart, they turn into a headwind, it’s back together, they turn into a crosswind, it’s blown apart. They race faster, I type faster. I have to finish when they finish. One more time into the crosswind, the race blows apart. Back into the tailwind, it’s all back together.


With the tailwind, it’s screaming fast, and now they’re nearly on the finishing circuits, how many kilometers to go, I’m not sure, and then suddenly they’re on the circuits just a few blocks from where I’m sitting which is almost the same block as where I sat yesterday but it’s not, and riders are crashing, and there’s a team at the front but I can’t see who they are because the video is blurry, and now it’s dropping and the commentary is out of sync, and does anyone know what’s happening, and it’s the bell lap now, and someone crashes hard because the paint in the crosswalk is slippery, and Jens Voigt goes down with him even with shitty video I recognize Voigt, but now it’s on to the sprint and they’re under the red kite, and someone else crashes, who is he, I don’t know, and someone is trying to lead-out and someone’s coming up on my left which is their right, and the lead-out, he just keeps going, and going and going, and oh, he’s won and who’s that in second, it’s a green jersey I think, maybe he was third, does anyone have the results, and what happened there on the last lap and I’m still typing.

They’re done racing now, and someone won, and they’re in their buses and they’re going to the hotels, and I’m not done typing. I’m hurrying, they’re done and I’m not. Good thing about those espressos.

That night, the hotel is between the freeway and the freight train. Modesto is cattle and croplands and somehow all those things have to get to market, which means freeways and freight trains. We order a pizza. More typing. There’s no internet, so I’m using my phone to check the database. Who is that rider? What has he won lately? I finally finish the story, save it to my phone, walk it across the room. My friend has a magic card, and sends my story off, bytes cast off into the world stream. Tomorrow, we do it all over again.

The passing cars echo in the night. A freight train rumbles by.

The espresso was amazing.

  1. ever the wordsmith .. now on the road.. how do you do that.. very well i’d say! yay…

    3 June 2011
  2. I enjoyed this. You made this dusty dump of a town seem wiltingly evocative – a rare skill.

    3 June 2011
  3. jen #

    Thanks. I don’t know, any town that has coffee like that has at least one redeeming quality. It was the something-something Social Club on maybe J Street. Made my day.

    4 June 2011
  4. Beautiful Jen! We all have days like this, moments like this…but how many of us actually write them down? Thanks for sharing!

    4 June 2011
    • jen #

      Thanks Beth! Glad you had a chance to stop by. Will it ever stop raining?!

      5 June 2011
  5. I really enjoyed that! Never heard the journalists’ side of the story…very interesting. Thanks for sharing

    5 June 2011
  6. Enjoyed “seeing” the bike race through your journalist’s eyes. It’s interesting and fun to read your perspective on the reporting side of bike racing, especially as you take the reader through your day.. Happy you found some espresso! This piece made me smile. :)

    9 June 2011
  7. Alissa #

    Sweet gig!

    24 June 2011

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