Thursday, September 3, 2009

Rides of Not(e): Climbing Time

Today I took a long lunch and rode mighty Steakfire out climbing up Logie Trail. Logie Trail rises from the Columbia River a few miles down-river from its confluence with the Willamette. It's an evil little climb, rising nearly 2500' in 2.5 miles with a couple pitches over 18% (or so says the mapping software). Let's see, 2500' over 2.5 miles, makes, um, carry the 3, divide by VO2 max = ow, this is hard. No matter how many times I do it, there always comes a moment near the top, when I think to myself, "shit, I don't,,, think.. I... can... finish... this... fucker.. fucking... fucking... fucker.. .off... (etc.)."

And this comes after I have been shamelessly turning over my lowest granny gear (30x27, the ultra-fred, golden rectangle of gear inches: 30) for some several hundred meters.

I wanted to ride it today because tomorrow LO and I are driving down to our old stomping grounds, the Eastern Sierras for 12 days of backpacking up in the alpine tundra. The first day, always the worst, we climb up 2500' in 2.5 miles, or so. That way, when that usual moment of impending failure looms, I can say to myself, unconvincingly, "you did it last week, but on a bike, on asphalt, with no pack." And then I'll have to sit down and have a light snack.

Backpacking, or long periods spent wandering through places back-of-beyond with a minimum of social interaction, is as big a love for me as cycling. Actually, it's what I enjoy about cycling... drifting along a bucolic back road, lightly anaerobic and under the radar. And it was through BMX that I discovered my love of the outdoors, as you'll see in Part II of my exciting multi-part epic about my early cycling history.

That's what we call in the biz a "teaser." Yo.

Postscript: A couple weekends back LO and I rode out the Gorge, realized we forgot the map for the Bull Run/Roslun Lake return and ended up just riding to Crown Point. On the way back we bought corn from a farm stand and crammed it in our jersey pockets. Later, we both admitted to looking at the corn sticking out of the pocket of whoever was pulling and giggling. Almost anything is funny in a headwind.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

BMX-rated: the Pain of Adolescent Fred-dom (Part I)

While this post is about riding BMX, there’s really no clever erotica tie-in to my title. I’m just hoping to increase hits to my blog. However, BMX, or bicycle moto-cross for those who’ve been hiding under their bed for 30 years (hi Mom!), is the first kind of cycling I did. Before that, I was not aware that there were kinds of cycling. I just rode my bike around.

Thinking about this made me realize I mis-remembered something in a previous post. My first bike was not an orange Raleigh folder. That was my second bike. My first real bike was a light-blue and orange Raleigh one-speed. It had upright bars and hand-brakes. By steadily raising the seat post, I was able to ride it around for a couple of years. “Around” is exactly where I went: since I was not allowed to cross the street, I would ride lap after lap around our London block, waving to shopkeepers and occasionally infuriating stiff British pedestrians. It was a sort of infantile Nascar (or, Nascar) except I went clockwise. To this day I am much better at turning right.

Eventually, I outgrew that little blue bike. Christmas 1973 (I think), found me tip-toeing about on my skinny, white little-kid legs, practically vibrating off the floor with excitement at the prospect of getting a new bicycle. What Santa brought me was the safety-vest orange Raleigh folder. It was a Sturmey-Archer three-speed with chrome fenders, 20-inch wheels and a step-through frame. With a flourish, my dad demonstrated how it folded up into itself. Clearly, Santa was a Fred. I was thrilled. So shiny! So orange! So many levers and gizmos!

A year later, we moved back to the US, to Southern California where my grandma lived. And so it came to be that in the middle of 70’s Malibu, I aimed my orange Raleigh down the steep hill in front of our new white stucco house to go meet the neighborhood kids. Let’s pause the narrative for a moment to fully appreciate this situation. It was the mid-Seventies in Malibu, California. Tanned, blond surfer kids were inventing skateboarding. Steely Dan poured from the eight-tracks at Zuma beach or from the car stereo in daddy’s Porsche. It was down into this vortex of cool that I piloted my dork-tastic Raleigh, complete with pasty white legs, a fey British accent and a pair of snug Swiss shorts with a great number of utility pockets. My cycling experience consisted mainly of circling one square block of London approximately 147,000 times.

I took off down the hill and soon exceeded my personal best speed record. I had to shift all the way to Gear 3! Fortunately, with judicious braking, I was able to navigate the sweeping turn at the bottom of the hill with hardly a wobble and with my wee undershorts mostly dry. Around the curve, the street turned south towards more suburban homes. On the left side was a hill covered in bright green iceplant, with a view that fell away to the aquamarine Pacific. On the right was an empty lot with what looked like an obstacle course winding around it. A bunch of shaggy, loose-limbed, tween-aged boys were hanging around, their bikes strewn about them. I introduced myself. Politely and grammatically.

They stared at me like I had just unscrewed my own head. Then they proceeded to cap on every aspect of me, my clothing, my accent and my hapless Raleigh.

Fortunately, I was too clueless, and their surfer lingo too impenetrable, to know how thoroughly I was being ridiculed by these strange, tan-colored, long-haired children. That and I was too busy being amazed by their bikes and the things they did with them. Their bikes had mag wheels, reinforced frames and knobby tires. They were covered in pads. They looked like a cross between construction machinery and exercise equipment. Heretofore I was not allowed to touch either of those things. Of course those kids wouldn’t let me touch their bikes either. But they did challenge me to try my own bike on the BMX track they had built in the empty lot.

I had never seen, nor even imagined that you could ride a bike the way these kids did. They swooped around banked curves and flew through the air like Hang Ten-clad clad swallows. Yes, their bikes actually flew. And hopped, and jumped and spun about in mid-air. So while I was more than terrified at the prospect, I desperately wanted to learn to do those things on my bike.

I eyed up a jump made of packed dirt on the weedy edge of the lot. It was approached by riding down the street and up a piece of plywood ramping over the curb (or kerb as I pronounced it then). With the blood roaring in my ears, I pedaled up the street what I thought was a prudent distance. My new friends shouted encouragement, I pointed the Raleigh downhill and pedaled for all I was worth. I’m pretty sure my eyes were closed when I hit that plywood ramp, barreled up the jump and launched into the air. Like a Comet (the underpowered Mercury, not the celestial body), the Raleigh and I traced an arc across the deep blue Malibu sky before landing, front wheel first, in the classic “endo”. My feet flew off the pedals and I was launched off the saddle directly into the large lever on the stem that released the folding mechanism. In the local parlance, I “totally racked my ‘nads.

It hurt more than anything I had yet experienced. I knew at that moment that any hopes of a career as an adult film star (a popular Malibu choice of employment) were to go unrealized. But, miraculously, outstandingly, I did not fall off my bike. I sort of awkwardly came to a stop Flintstones-style, my little black Clark slip-ons dragging through the dust as I gripped the bars like a college freshman holds on to a shred of reality in their first bad experience with psychedelics. Stranger still, and despite the wrenching fire in my groin (but much like that freshman the first time they took psychedelics), I was giggling uncontrollably. I’d never experienced anything so crazy, dangerous, wild and fun.

I was still beaming when one of the kids pointed to my bike and said, “hey bro, you like totally thrashed your fork.” Not having any idea what that meant, I looked where he was pointing and, sure enough, the front fork of my prized Raleigh was bent forward twenty degrees and was cracked at the crown. Possibly, the designers at Raleigh had not anticipated that a folding commuter would be used for powered flight. This was a seminal moment in the making of a Fred: it awakened, deep within my soul, a profound desire for new, and better gear. Sweet, sweet gear.

I pointed the Raleigh back up the hill and started pushing it home, walking gingerly as if trying to hold an egg between my thighs.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Rides of Not(e): Tour de Couch

For me, motivation is a zero-sum game. I only have so much of it, and if it's spent on something off the bike, I don't have any left for rides. Such has been the case for the last two weeks, which has seen most of my free time spent on La Musette, the "temporary restaurant" we put on during the Tour de France.

La Musette serves a multi-course meal with dishes and wine chosen from the regions of France the Tour is passing through on a given Stage, which we show on a big screen in the garage. It's a great show-case for LO's amazing culinary skills and an excellent opportunity to generate about seven million dirty dishes. We run the restaurant out of our crappy, 1970's era kitchen and seat about 30 people in the backyard. Everyone loves LO's food, there are kudos all round and everybody has a jolly time eating and drinking and watching the pros race each other at speeds that seem, to me, entirely implausible.

On the downside, putting the thing on requires vast amounts of time and energy, things I lack in the best of times. As a result, I haven't gotten many miles in on the bike and my fitness is steadily going backwards. It has taken me the last two years to get my average speed up by about 1.5 mph. But for some reason, I can lose that ability in just two weeks. I think my body's natural condition is a gelatinous pool, sort of like the liquid metal Terminator only more fat-ass than bad-ass.

In fact, I've been so fried by all the Musette-ing I've spent most of the last two Sundays on the couch, catching up on the Tour stages on the Tivo. When it comes to performance on the couch, I am more Jens Voigt than Fred. I have the strength, stamina and will to remain on the couch through the most grueling, longest stages, no matter the weather. My technical skills with a remote are legendary: I can program the Tivo in the pitch dark without looking once at the buttons and my speed at skipping commercials, when I'm on my game, is unmatched. Still, like Jens, I must admit that age is starting to catch up with me. Protracted sitting hurts my old back and hip joints and I can no longer drink hard enough to produce a hangover with the potency to elicit a couching session over 14 hours. Still, I soldier on.

(Speaking of Jens, I want to wish him a speedy recovery from the injuries he suffered in a horrific crash during a descent at the end of Stage 16. It seems even Jens can have moments of Fredness.)

Over the last two Sundays I reckon I put in a solid 12-14 hours on the couch, watching over 400 miles worth of skinny guys pedaling a bike through spectacular countryside deprived by the evils of Socialism of the freedom to post Stuckey's billboards every 20 feet.

I did notice one up-side to this marathon of sloth. Riding to work, I found myself staring at my knees while I unconsciously visualized the typical three-quarter profile shot of tour riders, their legs pumping as smoothly and efficiently as the pistons of a german sedan, probably a Mercedes. Sure enough, my cadence was higher than my usual 85-90. I think I had watched so much cycling that I had lifted my cadence to match that of the pros in the image burned into my memory registers like that 5th grade science lesson where you put a leaf or Star Wars action figure on a piece of photographic paper and then set it out in the quiet part of the school yard, over by the Special Ed trailers.

This week, when I ride, I will try to use Jens as my little plastic Obi Wan.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ask A Fred: Riding Rollers

It occurred to me that other Freds (and Wilmas) looking for advice, or real athletes looking for a laugh, might appreciate some of my training tips and techniques. I'm hoping to make "Ask a Fred" a regular feature of the blog and so, dear readers (Hi Mom!), feel free to send me your questions about cycling, athletics, and the life of surly sub-competency.

Onto today's topic: riding rollers. By "rollers" I mean short, undulating hills, not the bike treadmills that send the inexperienced flying across their garages in countless YouTube videos. After my last post, you may be surprised to learn that I really enjoy riding rollers. Rollers are the only time I get to experience what it feels like to go fast uphill. Since I was born with an upper body, I have a physique poorly suited to climbing well on a bike. I don't float uphill, dancing on the pedals (unless you mean dancing in the Wozniakian sense). Instead, I usually grind up a climb in a 30x25, making a noise like Thomas the Tank Engine about to burst a boiler. But rollers, when I get them right, can feel like flying.

The key is building and conserving momentum. Here's how I do it. When you spot a roller up ahead, klaxons and spinning red-lights should be going off in your mind. At this time you need to take charge of the cockpit like you're Richard Baseheart in Voyage to The Bottom of the Sea and the guy who looks kind of like Nixon just told you that a giant squid is in hot, tentacle-y pursuit. Right. Get to work.

Step one is to rev up the engine and attack the roller (squid). Make sure you're in the big ring, drop down a couple of cogs, and start pouring on the gas. I like to pretend I'm riding along an imaginary line that cuts directly through the roller like a "Manx Missile" equipped with a bunker-buster warhead. You should hit the bottom of the hill with a full head of steam, which you are now going to try and conserve until you get all the way up and over.

As soon as you start to feel resistance from the incline, get out of the saddle and crank hard to maintain as much speed as possible. As the hill scrubs off more of your speed, keep shifting up, one cog at a time, so that you maintain a high cadence without losing too much momentum. The trick is to keep putting in a good effort, but not so much that you will blow apart before you get to the top. You'll want to carefully meter how much energy you dose out, think control-freak soccer mom distributing juice-boxes to her brood rather than Keith Richards on his 21st birthday. Try to alternate between cranking out of the saddle, and spinning hard while "on the rivet."

When you get it just right, you'll pop over the crest of the hill like the Seaview doing an emergency surface or Floyd Landis on that one TdF stage where he totally didn't dope. Try not to let yourself fade at the top but keep cranking all the way up and over. If you take your eyes off the prize too soon and sag back into the saddle, one of gravity's long tentacles will slither up and start sucking at your wheel. Trust me, I speak from experience when I say it's no fun to try and ride fast with a large cephalopod adhering to you.

Postscript: If these tips help you ride rollers better, avoid the urge to pass on the advice to your wife as you ride by her. She will just yell at you and then drop you on the next real climb.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Rides of Not(e): Corbett spin

Occasionally my rides are epic affairs: sometimes they are epics of procrastination, guilt and avoidance, remarkable for the effort that goes into making nothing happen, others times the ride itself becomes something worthy of recording on a clay tablet with a cut reed (all proper epics are originally written in cuneiform). I thought it would be fun to intersperse regular blog posts with ride reports whenever I undertake a Ride of Not(e), wittingly or not.

Last Saturday, for the third Saturday in a row, I failed to motivate myself to ride up Larch Mountain. I hemmed, hawed and prevaricated until it was too late for a ride that long. I decided instead to go for a climb in the West Hills, but by the time I got across downtown the hills were swaddled in rain-clouds. My desire to climb anything swirled away in the mist and I turned around. Then I got mad at myself and ended up doing the mostly flat 70 miles to Corbett and back as fast as I could. It was windy and rainy and briefly I felt tough. Nonetheless, my average speed was a very fredly 16.5 mph. I also wondered, for the 8 millionth time, what drivers expect you to do when they honk when they're caught behind you on blind corner. Do they expect me to stop and dismount, possibly throwing my jersey across a puddle a la Sir Walter Raleigh? My usual response is just to move out into the middle of the lane, since if they're honking I know they have seen me so now they can run interference for whoever else comes up behind.

When I got home my knee hurt.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Great Moments In Fred-dom: Brush-off with Greatness

As a Fred, I've had the opportunity to be dropped by all sorts of cyclists over the years. For you non-cyclist readers (hi Mom!), being "dropped" refers to the experience of being over-taken and then left behind by another cyclist as if you are no more than another cardboard sign shilling zero-down mortgages or a crisp, flattened possum pelt. Typically, the person dropping me is a generic D.U.I-cyclist wearing dirty jeans, smoking a cigarette and riding a 70's ten-speed stuck in too high a gear with the tape-less bars turned skyward. But sometimes I have the opportunity to get dropped by more interesting folk...

In college, one of my favorite kinds of cycling was the long day tour. I would load up a pannier with a tupperware full of macaroni, a sweater, an extra water bottle and a poncho in case of rain and I would pedal my faithful Specialized Expedition slowly around the landscape of Santa Cruz, California for 50 to a 100 miles. I'd creep to the summit of the coast range and wobble back down the hair-pins of Something-Creek Road or I would wend my way along the spectacular Pacific coast-line, along the cliffs and redwoods you see in car ads where a middle-aged guy with all his hair pilots his BMW crisply through a series of deserted s-curves. In reality, this never happens on the Coast Highway. More typically, it is choked with rental RVs, guys from San Jose with gelled hair tailgating in lowered Nissans equipped with $3000 exhaust systems, and white-knuckling triathlete wives of software engineers shuttling their broods to the city in immense Volvos bristling with air-bags and environmental stickers.

On this particular trip, I was riding the 40 or so miles from Pescadero back to Santa Cruz, where I lived. I had ridden up to spend a wholesome weekend at my friend's "family estate" (an old crappy house made out of driftwood by some hippies. Hi Mom!). We harvested apples from the over-grown orchard which we sold in cider form to the passing traffic of irritable, thirsty returning beach goers. It was pretty good money and we could drink Coronas all day and still be more coherent than most of the customers.

Given all those Coronas, I was in surprisingly good form riding home that Sunday. As I spun along one of the vast, sweeping curves that make the Northern California coast so fun to ride and show in car commercials, I saw ahead, against the great grey-green, the colorful form of a small peloton in matching team kit. (A peloton is a tight group of riders who are faster than me. Hi Mom!) At the time, what I knew about bike racing consisted of the following:
  • The handful of articles I had read in grease-smeared issues of VeloNews left on top of the toilet in the bathroom of the bikeshop where I worked.
  • Eddy Merckx!
  • French people do it, except for in the Olympics.
  • Those racer guys never look at me when they pass me.
This group of pro-looking guys was maybe a mile or so ahead of me but, astonishingly, I appeared to be gaining on them. It was pretty flat, and I had a healthy tailwind, so I put the hammer down (shifted into my big chainring. Hi Mom!). I got in the drops and lowered my giant Bell helmet into an aerodynamic tuck as sleek as a couch pillow. Sure enough, in a few minutes I found myself at the back of the pack, trying not to breathe noisily.
"Hey" said the guy whose wheel I was sucking. "How ya?".
"Great... great..." I sputter back. Up until that point my actual contact with road racers had consisted of staring at their shaved legs at the shop when they brought in bikes I was not allowed to work on. So this was a momentous occasion for a Fred. More surprisingly, he kept chatting. "Where ya been?"
"Oh, heh, heh, I'm just coming back from Pescadoro," which at this point was an impressive (Hi Mom!) 30 miles away. "Where'd you guys go?"
He responds with a string of roads that I'm vaguely familiar but, at the moment, am too anearobic to assemble into a route. "Oh," I say, "Cool."
We ride along in silence for a time and my heart-rate settles down along with my flapping form in the draft of my new best friend's wheel.

We ride in silence for another time. I get to feeling pretty good so after the pack bunches up a little at a narrow spot, I stand up on the pedals, call out "have a good ride" a little too loudly, and smartly propel myself past the peloton.
"Ha! My summer of cycling is paying off and I'm getting good," I think to myself as adrenaline fuels my "sprint" long enough to open a gap of several hundred yards. A few seconds later, I sit heavily back on the saddle and start to concentrate on maintaining this amazing, improbable gap. I stare at the fog line and my mind starts to drift as I try to divide my rate of speed into the distance to the shower.

When I near the bottom of a roller (a small hill. You still here, Mom?) my reverie is interrupted by the swick, swick, swick, swick of bike tires being dug into the road by someone riding smartly out of the saddle. In a blur, the whole group, including the chatty guy, drops me as they start the climb. None of them looked at me when they passed.

Standing in the shower that evening, staring at my feet, I realize the route they were just finishing was 120 miles or so with a hearty 8,000' of climbing. The next weekend I recognized several of them as members of the 7-11 team when they set up Eric Heiden for a dead easy win in the Capitola Criterium. The chatty guy was probably Bob Roll.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

First Mis-Steps: A Fred is Born

I can't say exactly when I became a cyclist, but I do recall first learning to ride a bike. It was London, around 1970, when the training wheels came off my little orange Raleigh. I'm sure I was terrified. Like the pope or an old dog, I've always distrusted changes in the status quo. The order in which I wash my body-parts in the shower has not changed since I grew the full complement of body-parts that come standard with a skinny white kid.
Anyway, it all happened in the usual way: my Dad jogged alongside holding the saddle and then suddenly, unexpectedly I was riding on my own, balanced on two wheels. Our Chelsea street had big, wide sidewalks and wrought iron fences that started flashing by at an impressive rate.
The wind in my face, the tingling sense of speed, the exhilaration of doing something new and hopefully dangerous, the ever-increasing distance from my father... I loved all of these things at once. I transported myself into a Mary Poppins-esque fantasy of pedaling effortlessly through the neighborhood and up over my school, soaring, laughing high above the school-yard and buzzing all the mean kids who mocked my abilities at cricket, but always refused to tell me how the wretched game was played. Then I came to the end of the block.

Certainly I knew how to work my brakes and steer, but that was when the training wheels were still on. My mind, which had already been shown to be unreliable, simply froze up like an old PC running Windows 95. With my elbows locked out straight, a death-mask etched on my face (this, incidentally, describes my riding position to this day), I crashed directly into the light-post that had mysteriously materialized in front of me. I was only 6, but I had become a fully-fledged Fred.

Nearly 40 years later, these moments of acute Fred-dom have become all too familiar. Time slows down, my limbs cease their spastic thrashing and go rigid while the closest thing to anything useful in my brain is a neon sign slowly blinking "What the fuck are you doing?" I don't care. While I've taken a few breaks from it over the years, I've never really stopped loving to ride my bike.

The most recent of those breaks began in 1999 when I was at last able to afford a house. $123k saw the purchase of an elderly North Portland "Fixer", as the Real Estate Agent-bots like to say. For the next seven years and two new mortgages, I was owned by that house. I re-modeled, re-built and removed pipes that had been pooped in since 1910. When I came up for air in 2006, I had amassed a large collection of drill bits, high-blood pressure and 35 extra pounds of Fred. The house was 70% done.

Then one day, with income from a new job, I impulsively bought a road bike I had always lusted after: a Bontrager Road Lite. It had been more than five years since I had been on on my old roadie, an aluminum Trek 1220 so harsh I could have rented it to old "nipple-clamps" Cheney for use in "enhanced interrogations." Almost immediately, I felt buyer's remorse for my indulgent purchase and so to justify it to myself I decided I would get back on the road in earnest. And this time, I would try to to over-come my fredly ways and try to learn to be fast. Well, faster, anyway. 

Is it bad timing to try this at 45? Yes. Yes it is. Bad timing is one of the hallmarks of the unskilled athlete. And I've been displaying my lack of skills since I was first launched down that Chelsea sidewalk and into a life-long affair with poor cycling.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Point and Laugh: That's Why I'm Here

I am not a very good cyclist. To make matters worse, my name is Fred.

Amongst the slew of reasons I am a poor cyclist is that I have little self-discipline. Fans of my cycling hero, Jens Voigt, claim that his will can substitute for an anvil, should the need arise for an anvil. My will, on the other hand, more closely resembles a gym sock full of old herring. The need for a gym sock full of old herring very seldom arises. Saddled with this flaccid, vile-smelling will, I am forced to resort to trickery, to con myself into riding my bike enough to meet my athletic goals. (Yes, you can have goals without will, a sad state of affairs this blog hopes to document.)

Some of the tricks I've been forced to employ over the years include: signing up for charity centuries, not having a car or even a license, taunting my younger, fitter wife and now, five years after everybody else, starting a blog. I'm hoping guilt over not posting will force me to go on rides, so I have something to post about. Every week that goes by without a post, I imagine, my legions of fans, hungry for more fascinating tales of slow, middle-aged guys riding their bikes clumsily around and around north Portland, will clamor for the sweet, sweet nectar of my firm, supple prose.

More likely, I'll lose interest in this project in a month or two. This blog will end up in the guest-room closet, with my recording studio, D & D miniatures and my breeding pair of Devon Rex cats.

But until that time, behold! Behold the glory that is nearly four decades of cycling mediocrity: the too short khaki touring shorts, the locked elbows, the tube socks, the giant Bell helmet and unkempt beard. Behold The Fred!