There isn't much talking when the Department of Justice Cycling Team launches on a 30-mile power ride. That would be an unnecessary discharge of energy.
The moment they enter the American River Parkway, the office men and women transform into a phalanx of cyclists strung together in tight line formation, all pedaling in sync, tires nearly touching, heads down, shoulders tucked – 16, 20, sometimes 30 miles per hour. The leading rider acts as the eyes of the group and yells out to his vying cyclists as they fly past golfers, noontime walkers and other hazards of the road.
"Walker up," he shouts.
"Walker up" parrots the pace line, as the draft leans left to make the pass.
That's about the extent of conversation during a ride.
But once the bikes are locked up, and the buttoned shirts tucked backed in, the "Cat 1 Junkies", as they call themselves (as in "category 1, the highest level of professional cycling), are happy to explain the secret wisdom of lunch-break road racing.
"It's not just a team, it's a family," says Michelle Steele, staff services analyst. "We get pushed over the limit. Sometimes I reach a point where I don't think I can do it. I want to throw up on that bike. … But the training builds character. You get to a point where you're training yourself for life. That's what this whole team is about."
"It helps focus me," says John Appelbaum, deputy attorney general. "It clears my head, and (when I step back into the office), I have a fresh take on whatever I'm reading or writing. I think it makes me a better attorney."
"It's a nonstop flight," explains Carlos "Cat 1" Casillas, the leader of the DOJ crew.
Nonstop indeed. Since starting the team with a few friends and co-workers several years ago, Casillas has seen his group grow into 12 steadfast riders, several of whom have graduated to the semi-professional racing circuit. The team rides together four days a week, with a fifth day devoted to cross-training – stair climbing, push-ups and lunges.
The ultimate race day is Thursday, when the team pedals up to 30 miles per hour, heart rates raging at 170 beats per minute, for as long as they can handle the intensity. The top tier splinters off in the last 15 miles for a final showdown. Casillas, who has raced competitively for more than 20 years, always wins. But the improvement of the other riders is transparent, and Casillas says he feels them gaining on him a little more each week.
"I encourage (my team) and stretch them to better heights," he says. "It's neat to see that transformation. I like seeing the light come on with people, when they see something they didn't know they had."
"Biking is like the fountain of youth," he continues. "It allows me to balance everything. It's like going into a Jacuzzi and having a glass of wine."
Reflecting on the team leader's explosive style of road racing, the metaphor of a day-end soak in a luxurious whirlpool isn't exactly the first image that comes to mind. But the statement's inherent irony is lost with his omnipresent enthusiasm.
Casillas says he couldn't handle his schedule if he didn't ride. He averages 60 miles a day on his $6,000 Ventana custom. On weekday mornings, his alarm goes off at 6:09, kicking off a rigorous day that includes eight hours glued to case laws and statutes, four hours of combined cycling and three hours of law school each night.
His favorite part of the day is the lunchtime ride. He gears up the group with a mid-morning e-mail, a daily athletic report of sorts, plotting the day's itinerary: where the ride will be, the length, and the suggested speed.
It was on a Wednesday that this reporter decided to join the Cat 1 Junkies for a "ride" (it's only fair to place the word "ride" in quotes, because over the course of the 90-minute workout, I kept pace with the team only for about 15 minutes – and five of those were spent watching as the group strapped on gloves and tuned up bikes).
The moment we passed the entrance to the American River Parkway, I knew I was in trouble. I pedaled mightily in my lowest gear, but I could feel invisible spears being thrown into my legs – my quads were searing. Slowly, I began to fall back, out of the pace line.
"I'll catch you on the way back," I choke.
"We lost the reporter," I hear one of the men say.
I don't know if the others said anything. By that point, they were already half a mile away.
I let my bike dwindle down to a leisurely pace, and began to take in the ancient oaks, green grass and sycamores growing along the "jewel of Sacramento," as coined by the Sacramento Parks Department. The paved 32-mile trail has a long history within the Capitol community. In 1895, a flock of bikers calling themselves the Capitol City Wheelmen solicited Sacramento merchants and citizens for funds to create the path. One year later the route opened as a vital passage into the city, when commuter options consisted of little more than horse, train or bicycle. With the onset of automobiles in the early 1900s, the trail slowly fell to decay.
In the early 1970s, a group of young park rangers and cycling enthusiasts set out on to reassemble the parkway, paving over the overgrown path with asphalt. Thousands of cyclists enjoy the park each year, but few groups are as serious and competitive as the DOJ team.
"The bike trail is a fantastic resource," says Stephen Pass, deputy attorney general. "This particular area is just a hotbed of cycling. There are a lot of team riders and a tremendous number of recreational riders of all shapes and sizes."
The Cat 1 Junkies are some of the big dogs of the park, joined by other top-brass clubs with names like the Sacramento Bike Hikers, the Sacramento Wheelmen and the Sierra Express Bicycle Club. As a UC collegiate athlete, I thought I could easily stay in pace with a pack of men and women ranging up to 30 years my senior – but that notion was naive, and my legs are still sore. Fortunately, I'm allowed to return any time I want to get serious: An unwritten law within the group is that a person at any level is allowed to ride with the team, as long as they show a commitment to improvement.
"Some people will come out and want to be a part of us; you won't see them again. They just don't have it," says Steele. "But if you keep showing up, you can be on the team. That consistency shows Cat 1 character."
Some of the dedicated riders on the team have adopted a more philosophical approach to their sport. Sounding more enthusiastic than hokey, Casillas talks about the mental high associated with that level of physical exertion, a mental levitation produced after 30 minutes of blood and oxygen surging to the brain.
"Its kind of like church," says Casillas. "It changes you. There's a calmness and extra energy that you didn't know you had. The brain and body work as a machine, and if you run them properly, you can train and go to law school and work all day and not be tired."
A couple years ago some women on the team made up T-shirts that read "Cat 1 Addicts" on the front. On the back was a black outline of an open hand. It's an icon of the physical inspiration given by their team leader: When a struggling rider begins to fall out of the draft, Casillas splits from his position in the pace line and sinks back to help out. Placing a hand on their back, he gently pushes them forward, offering
encouraging words until the ailing cyclists' wheels re-enter the draft, where the vanguard's wind shield offers 30 percent less effort than riding alone.
"It's like life: When you fall off, somebody pushes you and helps get you back to where you were," says Steele, a single mother raising two boys on her own. "I can't live without this."