Friday, August 6, 2010

The Charity Ride: Carnival of the Absurd

Many weeks have passed since my last post, and all I have for an excuse, other than lack of ambition and general laziness, is the fact that Summer is at long last upon us, and thus I have joined the rest of Oregon in spending as much time outside as possible, wriggling about in the sunlight like so many pasty, white grubs exposed by an over-turned log. 

Yes, this is what you might call a "full-release" Summer, where months of dampened enthusiasm is finally freed from its gray prison of road grime spray, 4pm sunsets, and layering decisions. Even by Oregon standards, it was an unusually wet spring. There were reported sightings of moss-covered stones, rolling desperately south as fast as possible. Even the grizzled Oregon roadies who routinely drop me on climbs were scowling more than usual through the mist. Which is why, as delightful as summer riding is, sometimes the best ride of the year comes on the First Real Day of Spring (or FRDS, appropriately).

In the old days, before the liberals created Climate Change, this day would come sometime in March. This year it was late June. But it's always a glorious day. Something comes over the city. Ancient longings stir in the loins of the citizenry... It's Spring! The season of renewal and reproduction is upon us! You can smell it in the sandy smell of drying concrete, feel it in the warm riffle of a breeze over your embarrassingly long and dark leg hair. All of a sudden, in fact, the whole town gets a wild hair. People fly kites, make out in convertibles, pull each other about in wagons in the park or go sailing in bright red skiffs on the Columbia. Freshly-minted hipsters wobble dangerously on multi-colored fixies down to the bar and sit blinking in the sunlight, eating hummus. Everybody smiles and waves. Basically, the whole town turns into an illustration from a Richard Scarry book.

On the First Real Day of Spring I love to go for a long, flat spin through town and out along the river. All the winter slogging pays off, and without a rain-soaked head wind to grit my teeth into, the miles roll by easily. The ride unfolds like one bike-catalog photograph after another, but with fatter people and more sweat. I don't need to resort to all the standard trickery, bribery and cajoling to get myself out on this day, all I need is the prospect of six sunny hours in the saddle without my jersey pockets stuffed like sausages on the plates of cartoon germans, and the promise of a burger grilled outside at day's end.

But, of course, the FRDS isn't much fun if you have 20 extra pounds of winter weight to carry along and the uneasy truce you had with your saddle last summer has fallen apart like a Gaza Strip peace agreement. So that's why, when spring is undeniably impending, but the days are still cold and gray, I need an extra something to get me out of the house and in the saddle. I have to resort to: The Charity Ride.

The Charity Ride gives me a goal, something to train for, at least in part because it offers so many opportunities for humiliation. For example:
  • At some point in every Charity Ride, I am dropped by a middle-aged woman in a day-glo vest who is riding a purple hybrid with slicks and has googly eyes on springs attached to her helmet. She will cheerily wave hello, which burns like acid.
  • I will marvel, first, that someone is actually riding a giant unicycle the whole way. Then I will marvel that they will probably finish before me.
  • I will discover, again, that the guys who wear matching team kit with local sponsors on them are always much faster than me. However, the guys who wear matching kit of the major pro teams are all dentists.
  • I must confront the reality that I will never put together a shorts and socks riding ensemble as stunning as this:
  • And, maybe worst of all, I'm forced to look at this guy while waiting in the endless porta-potty line:

Why he needs a full carbon TT bike with approximately 25 water bottles attached to it to ride a fully supported charity century benefiting lung cancer is beyond me. Perhaps when he starts up the jet-pack attached to his aero seat tube, he needs to be water-cooled. As you can see, he's obviously expecting to encounter considerable friction:

Hideous over-applications of chammy cream notwithstanding, I have to admit I sort of like the circus aspect of The Charity Ride.  I'm always in awe of how all sorts of people can ride all sorts of unlikely and terrible bicycles long distances. I like to see the ecstatic faces of people completing their first centuries, people who have put themselves through an ordeal unlike anything they've experienced before. Suffering is a great leveler, it reminds us we're all human and all the same (except for Cervelo riders, of course).

In many ways, The Charity Ride reminds me of working in bike shops when I was younger and broker. I worked mainly in small town shops, and it was a great way to get to know the local population. In a small town, everyone comes in at some point or another.

Some of my favorites from over the years include:

SeƱor Lunchy: this 832 year-old Mexican gentlemen would always come in around lunch time and greet me with "Hey, amigo, que pasa? Good lunchy?" This was his way of letting me know that his hideous Wal-Mart mountain bike had, yet again, failed in some way he could not repair with duct tape and bits of wire. After I put down my sandwich and completed the repair, typically using the bike shop equivalent of duct tape and bits of wire (i.e., zip-ties),  I would always tell him, "Okay, Amigo, quatro dollars." (our posted minimum labor charge). This was, apparently, my way of letting him know how much I appreciated him. He would beam broadly and deposit some change and pocket lint on the counter, laughing infectiously the whole time.
He put so many miles on that Magna he wore his tires down to the threads and patched them with, of course, duct tape.

Mr. Moots: this 832 pound homeless guy inexplicably rode what was once a very nice Moots touring bike. I don't think it was stolen, it was too intact and it fit him too well. It was laden with all the usual homeless person accessories: milk-crate rack, tied-on plastic bags of foul clothing and cans, old phone books, and an eye-watering odor that combined decades of human sweat with moldy Bud Light cans. He never helped me lift this 100lb. monster of a rig into the repair stand. On a few occasions, the bike needed major surgery and I would ask him to leave it for a while. This made him nervous and angry (well, more so than usual). If I was lucky, when he returned to find his headset rebuilt, he would pass a damp $1 across the counter like a challenge and glare at me.
Despite the fact that he looked like a homeless, pissed-off Santa, Mr. Moots rode through the high desert to his "home" in the reeds of the Owen's River twelve or so miles away every day. He would make this 25 mile round trip in 110 degree heat and through snowstorms, stubbornly pedaling his 100lb., titanium bicycle along the breakdown lane of Highway 395.

Ralph: When I knew him, Ralph was a frail, weathered, patchily-bearded man in his 80's. He could handily drop me on any of the major climbs in Bishop. And in Bishop, mind you, the climbs rise 6,000 feet in a dozen or so miles, and top out as high as 10,000'. There I would be, sweating, grunting and grinding away, sunscreen burning in my eyes, when I would hear a familiar swik-swik of bike tires, and Ralph would steam by, paying no more attention to me than you would a dried chipmunk carcass. I would watch his skeletal ass get smaller and smaller before vanishing in the haze above. And I would curse him, deeply and roundly, in my mind.

Ralph had raced in the Olympics, I think back in the Fifties. He still rode several hundred miles a week, despite having been hit and hospitalized several times and contracting, and subsequently treating, a seemingly endless parade of cancers. I think the chemo made him stronger. He was salty and surly, and hung around the shop way too much. He was also very generous and would drop off boxes of cool old books and jerseys, I think in part to make up for the fact he was also a compulsive shop-lifter. (See below for an update on Ralph.)

Despite characters like these, after a while, customer after customer, you start to recognize a life-story by a customer's bike and kit, and you can add up those stories to see how they make up the social strata of a town. I suppose it's a kind of reverse "market research", that I can tell from the upright bars and comfort saddle that this Trek Navigator belongs to a recently retired pediatric nurse who took a spin class to lose weight and now wants to give Reach the Beach a shot. I can admire her pluck, and probably sell her a pair of SPD touring shoes.

The bikes and riders on a Charity Ride provide the same window into the lives that make up a community. And, not to get all mushy, but like working in a shop, the Charity Ride provides inspiration by showing me that all kinds of people can find the wherewithal to ride all kinds of bikes over long distances. If Mr. Moots and the purple hybrid lady can get out and put on some hard miles, so can I. And, of course, the Charity Ride lets me provide the kindest charity of all: someone for all the good riders to point at and say, "I could be faster, but at least I'm not that guy."

Now I've got to get back outside. It will be raining again soon.

UPDATE: My friend Tony sent me a photo of Ralph riding in Italy, in the fifties. That's him in the shades:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Caution: Politics Ahead

For months now, I've been living under a shadow, the specter of pending unemployment. I have a very modern, American, white-collar job in high tech, which is to say I am office equipment rented to a large corporation (their initials are HP) by a slightly smaller corporation. I'm not complaining (I am), I'm well compensated for my efforts. But what is particularly "modern" about my job is the fact that I have little to no job security, laughable health "insurance" by any current, Western standard outside the US, a retirement fund that consists, apparently, of inscrutable Keno tickets being played by drunken chimps, and a cubicle that is literally being down-sized on the basis of the number of hours that I occupy it.

(No, they haven't yet found a way to automatically reduce the size of a worker's cube by biometrically measuring the amount of human occupancy over time, but I promise you there is an HP engineer, or rather an engineer in Kiev or Beijing contracted to HP, who is working on this very "problem." In the meantime they just send around an intern with a clipboard to see if you're at your desk. I wonder what that intern is learning?)

The other modern, and particularly American part of my job is that the over-seers who make the large-scale decisions about who works where and how are completely removed from both the circumstances and consequences of their decisions. As a result, I see worker after worker whose job performance has been praised by colleagues and supervisors alike, and whose loyalty has been impeccable for decades, get fired, transferred, and down-sized. It's a through-the-looking-glass world, where no matter how hard you work, no one pays any attention and you instead find yourself being gazed through in favor of animated numbers dancing on a spreadsheet. Apparently, the happy cartoon numbers are telling some nervous MBA that my job should be done by someone in Boise, or possibly not at all, even though I'm twenty percent of a team that has successfully built software for literally millions of customers.

In this world, getting out for a hike or a ride feels like encountering reality, a fresh, cold splash of reality. (It's been raining here non-stop since 1997 or so.) It's 2010, and it appears what we've accomplished as a society is to create a life where the way to escape from a surrealistic, absurdist job is hard, physical labor. At least when I'm working on the bike I can see immediate results from doing good work, and I can "reward" myself for it (yum, a Clif Shot!). On the bike, anyway, the management is rational.

That's not to say that cycling doesn't also involve being treated badly by faceless douche-bags with power beyond their intellectual ability. That's right, I'm looking at you, other road users. For no matter how much better run it is than your typical Fortune 100 company, navigating the public road-way can also be an exercise in abuse, indignity and life-threatening incompetence.

So, since I'm crabby anyway, I'd like to try and clear a few things up for my fellow public roadway users.

  1. A motor vehicle is not an appropriate tool for "making a point." You may not believe that I should cycle on the road, but that is a belief, an opinion, not a fact. Passing inches from me in your porcine Ford Excursion is not an appropriate way for you to communicate this opinion. It is an appropriate way for you to end up in jail.
  2. Similarly, try to understand that the concept of "sharing" involves more than other people giving you stuff.
  3. No matter how long you were stuck behind me, during most of your drive you were stuck behind another car. They are the ones really slowing you down, not me.
  4. Is there really any good reason for a cyclist to run a red light in city traffic? No. So stop it. You're not helping. Learn to track-stand, work on your sprints or just pause and scratch yourself absent-mindedly. Trust me, that will annoy the motorists just as much.
  5. Cycling is not a partisan issue. For any number of reasons, you should ignore the shouting/crying man on the TV or radio and just look around. People on bikes are from all walks of life and are riding for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. That shirtless guy smoking a cigarette riding his ten-speed stuck in one gear with the tape-less handlebars tilted skyward? He doesn't give a fuck about the environment; he hasn't driven, or voted, since his third DUI.
  6. No matter how red-faced mad you get, people aren't going to stop riding their bikes. Ever.
  7. Unless you are talking a cub journalist-amateur pilot through the landing procedure for Air Force One after the real pilot is killed by terrorists and/or snakes, you should probably go ahead and hang up that phone.
  8. No, I don't think I'm Lance Armstrong. I'm much, much slower and have only been married once. But where exactly do you think he rode his bike while training to shame the French on their own turf for seven straight years? You people like shaming the French, right? Go home and see if you can learn the name of another American cycling pro (tip: one rhymes with "shrink-wrappy"). While you're at it, ask yourself who looks more ridiculous in a helmet and skin-tight lycra, a 350 lb. lineman for Tampa Bay, the WWE "wrestler" in his mullet and camo onesie, or Michael Rasmussen? Okay, the answer is Rasmussen, but you see my point.
  9. If you're really concerned about wasted tax dollars, look into something called the Defense Department. Once we've trimmed the fat from that, we can talk about the cost of striping bike-lanes.
  10. There are things on the side of the road that can kill me. You can't even see most of them from your car. Ever had a six-year-old fling open the door of a Suburban in front of you while you're riding at 20mph with only a styrofoam hat for protection? Sometimes the right side of the road is about as safe as the highway to the Bagdad Airport. That's why I'm riding in the middle of the lane. I'm not making a political statement and yes, thank you, I am aware of the laws of physics and the irony of being "dead right." It's just for a moment. I'll get out of your way as soon as I safely can. Calm down.
There, that's enough for now. I know all of you are occupied with texting your BFF, eating Egg McMuffins and fiddling with the GPS, so I won't add your to your mental case load. Meanwhile, to the clean white guy in the power suit, driving the Lexus SUV while emailing PowerPoint slides from your smart-phone? It's enough that I'm invisible to you when I'm at work, but please keep an eye out for me on the road.

Friday, February 12, 2010

BMX-rated: The Pain of Adolescent Fred-dom (Part III: The Whitney Challenge)

Hyper-critical readers (hi Mom!) may have noticed that in my recent post about setting goals I did not actually set any athletic goals for the coming year. I cleverly skirted the issue by re-directing your attention to my goal for 2013, sort of like when Sarah Palin says "freedom" every third word to distract you from the fact that she's not answering the question or even, technically, speaking English. Since I am not a highly paid "pundit" but only a poor blogger, I can't get away with abusing my readers or the truth this way.

So it's time to come clean and announce this year's riding goals, starting with The Whitney Challenge, a charity ride I invented. This ride is actually a segment of the Everest Challenge, providing a delightful 10,000 feet of climbing in the White Mountains, a desert range in Eastern California. The Whites are a fine place for me to ride a bike, in large part because there's virtually no one there to see me. I see this as a good thing, since my climbing form generally resembles a cross between an epileptic baboon and an early steam engine. Unlike participants in Critical Mass and Mario Cippolini, I prefer to be out of the limelight. In fact, out-of-the-way wilderness has been my preferred place to ride since childhood.

Back in Seventies Malibu, as I learned the theory and practice of BMX, I tried hanging out with the neighborhood kids, doing tricks. I learned to bunny-hop and how to fly off of jumps without auto-neutering myself anymore. I picked up a bunch of ludicrous surfer lingo and a shaggy haircut. But I never really got good at the fancy stuff, the "cross-ups" and "kick-outs" that lend a jump style and grace. It's a congenital failing, where Fredliness starts at the sub-conscious level. Doing tricks implies you want someone to watch. Freds never want anyone to watch. That's why so many of us ride recumbents. Watching a middle-aged man ride a recumbent is so painfully embarrassing most people would sooner listen to John Ashcroft sing or undergo treatment for fecal impaction in a hotel lobby. No, Freds are most comfortable when everyone looks away in horror.

As for pre-pubescent me, I soon tired of never being as good as the other kids, and began to gaze beyond the corner lot where we piled and re-piled mud and plywood into jumps and berms, staring out into the dusty gold of the Santa Monica mountains. I don't recall the first time I summoned up the nerve to pedal my Schwinn up the fire road and into the hills, but once I did, I was hooked. I had a little canvas rucksack with leather straps and buckles which I would fill with water bottles and a PBJ or sometimes, being a former Brit, a can of baked beans. A crumpled stash of vile homegrown (good pot hadn't been invented yet) and a pipe made out of a film canister provided courage. And of course I always had my trusty Swiss Army Knife, in the event I should need an emergency toothpick or fish-hook remover.

Thus equipped, I would venture out for hours at a time, riding old fire roads, trails and deer tracks deep into the sun-baked hills. I discovered all manner of marvels: a sandstone boulder shaped like a breaking wave, a burned-down cabin full of fascinating rusty things and tattered porn, ticks. I found a giant pour-off for a creek that no longer flowed and once had to bunny-hop over a rattlesnake. I learned about flat tires, specifically, that they suck. Relatedly, I learned that a pair of Vans make very poor long-distance hiking boots. I got hot and thirsty and sweaty and tired. I damaged myself on a number of occasions when gravity got the upper hand, one time concussing myself on a boulder so hard that my vision went all swimmy and I had to ride home with one eye closed. In short, I discovered cycling.

Other than a brief and spectacularly unsuccessful flirtation with baseball, cycling soon started to consume most of my leisure time (not that a 13 year-old has any other kind of time). I began doing things that cyclists do: poring over maps to create improbable routes, reading technical reviews about brake-shoes in tiresome magazines, seeing food as fuel. Here I am carb-loading at a barbecue at my Grandma's house. (This is the first and last time I would have what could be called a "climber's body.") Note the pre-SPD sandals. Sharp.

No, that's not a podium girl. That's my sister.

So basically, I discovered bikes and the joy of wild places at the same time. And while I was already markedly un-gifted at riding a bike, I was very well suited to being left alone in the woods for long periods of time. Visiting the wilderness satisfies a number of requirements for Freds: it requires the accumulation of gear like specialized pants and altimeter watches, it can be done with only minimal amounts of athletic ability, by definition it calls for little in the way of social skills or personal hygiene, and of course, an unkempt beard full of dead bugs and ramen noodles is de rigeur.

Small wonder then, that my bike expeditions soon led me to backpacking and climbing. I was introduced to these, only somewhat against my will, when my parents shipped me off to Camp Unalayee one summer. Initially resistant, I quickly warmed up to Camp when I discovered there two things I would enjoy my whole adult life: the Trinity Alps and girls. I'll talk about those things, and more about Camp, in later posts, I reckon. For now, suffice to say that amongst the strange and wonderful people at Camp, I found kindred spirits and amongst the peaks and pines of the Trinities I found a place in the woods that felt like home. Also, there were girls.

So it should come as no surprise that I've stayed involved with Camp U over the decades, and why I decided to create the Whitney Challenge as a fund-raiser for it. If Camp had not helped me cultivate a love of outdoor athletics, while helping me understand that being unskilled is both okay and ineluctable, I would not be riding a bike today. It's more likely I would be this guy:

So this post will end with a plea: if you can, visit the Facebook Cause or the Camp website and make a small donation. You'll be propping up my rickety motivational abilities while sending some lucky kid, possibly a Fred, to camp.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Joy of Gear

The combination of late winter and long posts about my childhood can only mean one thing: I'm dwelling on my mortality. (I believe the rent-a-doctors on TV call this Seasonal Affective Disorder). Sure enough, it seems to happen regularly around this time of year, but even more so since I started the process of re-building myself athletically a couple of years ago. That's because this is the time of year when I set my fitness goals and athletic events for the coming year and, of course, muse fretfully about my accomplishments, or lack thereof, in the past year. So, no, thank you, I'm not going to "ask my doctor." Pills can't fix athletic ability, at least not any pills I can get my hands on. Besides, I much prefer performance-degrading substances.

Obviously, late winter is the best time to address goals, because by February I have typically forgotten what it's like to suffer in the summer on overly ambitious bike rides like a german tourist on a Tagwanderung in Death Valley. Thus, I can come up with all sorts of schemes for improbable rides, in which I recall only wildflowers, widdle bunnies and the endorphins that come after 6,000 feet of climbing in a day, completely forgetting the 6-8 hours in the saddle slowly turning over the pedals with numb, rubbery legs, the bleary, ongoing nausea, the surprisingly vile weather and the occasional weeping. Not to mention the saddle sores, which would be gross.

This year in particular I've been thinking of rides and mortality because I've decided to get a new bike. Slogging through the sleet recently I realized, at 46 years old, that I only have another fifteen or twenty years of good riding left in me. (By "good" I mean "not on a recumbent.") Twenty-five years is about the life of a good steel frame, so my next bike is my last one.

As a Fred, buying new gear is very important to me. In fact, it's one of the defining characteristics of Freds, at least according to some definitions, that we own and obsess over gear whose performance and quality is massively beyond our abilities (which are typically somewhere between Napoleon Dynamite and George W.). For me, new gear is a form of bribery, it's the currency in the grim capitalism that drives the market of my motivation. In other words, I always ride more after buying a new toy in order to prove I needed it. This at least has a self-limiting effect; I can't buy a lot of really, crazy high-end, fancy-pants stuff because that would force me to ride at a level I cannot possibly hope to attain thereby unmasking me forever as truly, irredeemably a poser. I'd rather let my riding ability do that, not my gear.

But it's not just about the bribery, there's also the lust. I love beautifully made things like a vegetarian loves bacon. As my marxism professor said once, "Capitalism sucks, but you gotta love the toys." (For the record, I am a post-structuralist marxist, which is an expensive way of pointing out I am both under-paid and over-educated.) And it's true, I do love a shiny, precise, CNC-machined or Imron-coated plaything, especially if it comes with a long manual and requires programming and a torque wrench. Since I got that first BMX bike, I've enjoyed ogling my bikes almost as much as riding them. I have nick-names for them and sometimes, when sloth has overtaken me and they have hung on their hooks in the basement for too long, I apologize to them and give them a little pat. God, help me.

Let's not think about that. Let's think about my new ride: the Last Bike. The frame will be built by Paul Sadoff, who runs Rock Lobster bikes in Santa Cruz, CA. I've known about Paul for years, and he seems curmudgeonly and slightly jewish, which are admirable traits in my book (granted my book is an unpopular tome that is equal parts judgmental ranting and arcane technical specifications). He's going to build a frame based on faithful Steakfire, but with his own refinements and ideas.

A custom steel frame is something I've lusted after for years, ever since I lucked into a mountain bike with a frame built by Keith Bontrager back when he was working out of his garage, rather than the glistening corporate headquarters of Trek. In one of those small world moments, Paul used to work with Bontrager and he actually fixed that old MTB's frame after my friend Rich borrowed it and crashed it into a small cliff at a high rate of speed, bending the down- and top-tubes at the head-tube and possibly also damaging Rich in some less interesting way.

Despite my proleterian protestations above, I'm well aware that a custom frame is a disgustingly bourgeois thing to buy. Hey, lust isn't pretty. Just look at Roman Polanski (but not for too long or you'll feel grimy). I justify this to myself as most folk do, by pointing out that it could be worse and I could be spending three-times as much for one of those disposable carbon-fiber wonder bikes that are so popular with urologists and, similarly, actors.
(By the way, I'm very pleased to see Mr. McConaughhey is employing the Full Fred elbow-lock posture for maximum ability-to-bike contrast.)

Also, I have imposed draconian new anti-clutter rules in my life, so by statute I have to fund all new purchases with Ebay sales of old, useless stuff. I've already sold enough bike parts to buy an analog oscilloscope! I'm confident I'll be able to find enough forgotten possessions and castaway projects to fund my new frame. That makes it less like self-indulgent consumerism and more like recycling, right?

Issues of bourgeois buyer's remorse thus easily dispensed with, I'm left with the question of what I'll have to ride to justify the purchase. It was thinking about my own mortality that gave me the idea: in 2013, the year I turn 50, I'm going to ride the Everest Challenge. Not the race mind you, just the course. I'll be riding the new bike by then, but I guarantee I'll be suffering enough to wish I was dead several times over. And that's the kind of dwelling on mortality I can live with.


Exciting Reader Poll! Do you prefer links to open in new windows or in this window? Or do you prefer I not have them at all because they are dumb, and often juvenile. Let me know in a comment.

Friday, January 15, 2010

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

Well, it’s winter. There’s no denying it. For me, winter is not so much a season as it is a time of affliction. Its influence is too pervasive and malevolent to be caused by something as trivial as the earth’s tilting axis, or floating point unit or whatever they call it. So while I’m not particularly religious (technically, I’m a completely reformed Jew insofar as I’m an atheist), when it comes to winter I am willing to believe in gypsy curses and/or the malevolent power of desecrated Indian graveyards.

As a psychic force of life-sucking malevolence, so far this winter has been Giant Marshmallow Man and Floating Sigourney Weaver-grade.

To wit: Two days after returning from our amazing trip to the Sierras, I caught my first in a series of colds. A nasty, dripping, damp, sucking cold. Wrapped in sweaty blankets on the couch, I watched the last gorgeous week of the year slip by. Sure enough, as my health returned, the rains came, cold and hard. For ten days I didn’t ride much. By the time the infection was done my bronchial system was more like the NYC subway system. My hard fought, end-of-season fitness, complete with high altitude lungs, melted away like an alcoholic’s New Year’s resolution.

When the rain let up a little, I made a few timid steps into getting my winter on. Though I’ve lived here for more than 10 years, I’ll never be one of those robust Oregonians who dive confidently into the dark, damp mess that is a Pacific NW winter like they’re Tony Montana in front of a pile of coke. It takes me a while to screw up my motivation and point my handlebars into the 43 degree sideways sleet I’ll be riding through until April. Just getting out of the house is an ordeal, I hem and haw about which bike to ride, change my jersey a dozen times to "get the layers right", and for some reason I always have to pee six times in 30 minutes which, given bibs, tights and the all the layers of jerseys, is itself a lengthy, technical procedure.

But now it’s mid January. Despite being sick 25 of the last 50 days, I’ve managed to lash myself hard enough to log a few 100+ mile weeks, so maybe I’m over the hump and getting in the winter groove. Plus, I’ve remembered that in winter it’s okay to go hiking and snow-shoeing instead of biking.

This is a decision based in part on basic instincts of self-preservation. Riding out to Crown Point a few weekends ago, L and I took the back way out along Woodard Road. Climbing out of the saddle in a shady section, my back tire spun out on a patch of ice, almost propelling me onto my top-tube for the kind of involuntary tea-bagging I’ve been practicing on my bike since quite early on. In fact, it immediately put me in mind of the early BMX experience I wrote about awhile back.

Since it was cold, and we still had about 30 miles to ride, it was pleasant to think back on those early days in sunny, smoggy Southern California when I was just discovering the joys of mangling my bike and personal parts…

After that fateful day in 1974 when I destroyed my Raleigh folder, I had to explain to my parents that I needed a moto-cross bike in order to participate in the neighborhood activities. Since I had only learned about moto-cross in the last few days, and since my parents were intellectuals who had been living in London for the last eight years, they had absolutely no idea what I was on about. They deduced I wanted a bike that looked like a motorcycle.

To this day, I dislike motorcycles and I’m sure that’s in no small part because of the bike Santa brought me that Christmas. An off-the-rack number from Montgomery Wards, it was built with all the quality and refinement for which mid-seventies American manufacturing is noted. It had a large plastic gas tank, fake springs (bad suspension forks had not yet been invented) and number plates. It weighed about 45 pounds. It lasted me one day.

A stubborn child, I had immediately ridden this creaking monstrosity over the jump that had killed the Raleigh. The results were nearly identical: bent frame, crowned fork, “personal” injury. The other result was that this was the last bicycle my parents bought me. I started walking around the neighborhood and saving my allowance.

Time passed. My savings accumulated slowly, especially after I discovered two more Southern California staples: pot and LP’s. My parents' fortunes similarly dwindled (possibly for the same reasons) and we had to move to Topanga Canyon. Walking around my new neighborhood, I noticed all sorts of intriguing trails leading into the Santa Monica mountains. There were bike tracks on those trails leading deep into the scrubby yellow and brown wilderness.

I took a job assembling circuit boards for a friend’s dad who ran his medical electronics manufacturing business out of his garage. In retrospect, it seems questionable to sell hospitals cardiac-monitoring equipment assembled by a weed-addled 13 year-old, but that didn’t matter since I quickly earned enough to buy a decent used BMX bike. I started combing the classifieds and eventually my eye was caught by a blue chromoly Schwinn with a sweet set of Lester Mag wheels.

The ad said the bike’s seller could be found on Jupiter Street, in a questionable neighborhood in L.A. Surprisingly, my parents had failed to generate any increased appreciation of BMX, so I conned my friend’s mom into driving me there. Mrs. H. was a large, Roseanne Barr-style woman, whose outlook on life had not been sweetened by the slow growth of her entrepreneurial husband’s garage-based, teen-staffed electronics business. She drove her baby-blue Dodge Charger as if making up for all her lost time. Riding with her was more fun than puttering about in my parent's Volvo wagon anyway.

We got to L.A. in short order, but then ended up driving around the neighborhood looking for the street. After a time, Mrs. H pulled the Charger over to ask for directions. I rolled down my window and inquired of the young black man, with just a residual trace of British accent, “Pardon me, where can I find Jupiter?” He stared at me, silently. For a long time. Once the discomfort reached Larry David-esque proportions, Mrs. H. peeled out and we resumed our search.

Eventually, we found the address, where a bunch of gangly black kids were riding bikes around and doing tricks. I got out and after more awkward inquiries, I found the kid selling the bike. He fetched it from the house. Mrs. H stayed in the car, working on her scowl and her gum.

The bike was gorgeous: metallic-flake blue paint, cro-mo diamond frame and those sweet mag wheels gave the bike the air of an airbrushed, custom van. If the saddle had been covered in orange shag, the look would have been complete. I rode the bike up and down Jupiter street, spastically popping tiny wheelies and swooping about in a manner that I felt would make it look like I knew what I was doing. Kindly, no one laughed. They simply stared at me like the guy I had asked for directions. I stopped riding. I handed over my cash. We loaded the bike in the back of the Charger and drove off with hardly another word. All in all, for a young Fred, I considered it a very successful cross-cultural social interaction.

Given its provenance, and the time it had taken me to save up for it, I loved that bike like an autistic kid loves his blanky. When I first got it home, I just sat in the garage cross-legged and stared at it, heart pounding. I’m not sure when I first got up the nerve to ride it out into the neighborhood, but I do know when I did, a new chapter in my life began.

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.