"I heard you're trouble," said a kind-faced elderly woman in front of me at the starting line.
Damn right, I thought. They call this the "Merced Mall Fun Ride," but anything with a start and a finish line is all business to me.
I wear an athlete's pedigree.
I pitched a perfect game in the Visalia City League Championship. I once hit three 3-pointers in two minutes to erase an eight-point deficit in a high school basketball game against Lemoore.
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So as I parked my bike at the starting gate Wednesday for a brisk spin around the very same path the Tour of California competitors and their blur of sinewy calves sped off on, I was looking for trouble.
This would be my moment to shine. Sure, I have the fitness level of a three-toed sloth, but I was prepared to leave it all on the pavement (even the breakfast burrito I just ate).
I leaned over to the 4-foot-tall monster on the bike next to mine.
"What's your name?" I said.
"How's it going? What's your name?" I asked again.
"Isiah," he said.
He didn't even turn to look at me. He had the facial expression of a Russian chess player planning his attack.
I gripped my handlebars, peered from underneath my one-size-too-small helmet and placed my right foot on the pedal.
The anheuser yelled through the speakers "...10...9...8...7..."
"Isiah has no idea what's about to hit him," I thought.
I wondered if the second grader was on some sort of performance enhancing drug.
"Nah, not unless there's a new ingredient in Flintstones vitamins."
I pedaled out at a solid pace. I jumped in front of Isiah, and before long I was near the front of the peloton with a cluster of hard-charging little demons.
Maybe I should have slowed down, get a feel for the course and the competition.
But the adrenaline was too much. My tactics went from cool and collected to shock and awe.
I was a little shocked that these rugrats with their squatty bikes could keep pace with my behemoth.
Before long our group of five had taken a commanding lead -- we were the breakaway group.
We made our first few turns and we sped down Main Street.
Pockets of supporters cheered us on -- and I took it all in, picturing the reception I would get when I dusted the competition and drove through the finish line.
The daydream, however, was over when I noticed something was wrong.
Our escort was gone and we were approaching an intersection ... an intersection with cars.
I looked back and there was no sign of the rest of the field, so I pushed on .
We missed the turn?
Where was it?
The next three blocks I weaved through traffic and watched in amazement as the demons navigated the streets like Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I pulled onto the cement hoping to avoid a catastrophe, only to find a family walking hand-in-hand.
Stunned by the rollie-pollie of a man speeding at them on two wheels, they jumped back and I turned my bike onto the nearby grass.
The soil was still soft from two days of rain and my tires sank into the mud. I climbed off my bike and regrouped on the street.
This was officially a disaster.
I choked under pressure like Scott Norwood lining up a chip shot to win a Super Bowl.
Wide right! Wide right!
I pedaled furiously and soon I was back on track. One by one, I passed the demons and I flew through the streets around the old courthouse.
I knew time was short. My hopes of winning this race were fading like the amount of air getting to my lungs.
After the final turn, I put my head down and pedaled. I could hear the cheers from the adoring crowd ahead and it only fueled me more.
When I lifted my head, I was crushed. Several riders crossed the finish line ahead of me, including Isiah.
I passed the finish line barely ahead of the boy riding a bike with a steel sidecar and a female companion. I also managed to beat a woman in her 80s riding the bike she received when she was 10 years old.
They never had a chance.
Tom Price Jr. is a Sun-Star reporter. He can be reached at (209) 385-2459 or via e-mail at email@example.com.