October 28, 2013 § 23 Comments
I sat in my hotel room as the warm glow of victory, or something, washed over me. I had just vanquished my foe in the longest running Facebag comment war ever. He had ignominiously ceded the field with the cowardly claim that I was a stalker, a harasser, and that he had therefore reported me to the “proper authorities.”
I couldn’t help laughing at his silly subterfuge as I savored my victory. Sure, it had lopped 27 hours off my family vacation. Sure, my wife was livid. “How come you onna Facebag alla time?”
Sure, my son who we had come to visit was disappointed that every few seconds I would blurt out “You cocksucker! Take this!” And then furiously pound the iPhone’s keyboard, cursing and spitting and rending my breast.
Sure, we got kicked out of a couple of restaurants. And three bars. And a coffee shop. But at the end of the paddle battle, only one Tweetle Beetle was the winner. Me.
The congratulatory messages poured in. “You are the best Tweetle Beetle ever.”
“You own Facebag.”
“That was such an epic paddle battle.”
“Are you off your meds?”
“We are very worried about you.”
In other words, I was really happy, until I heard the knock on my hotel door.
Two burly men in blue uniforms and badges stood there. “Yes?” I said.
“Facebag police,” said the bigger one.
“Violation of terms of service, paragraph 37, section 34(a), page 987. May we come in?”
Without waiting for an answer, they pushed by me. “What’s going on? What are you talking about?”
“You’ve been reported by a user for violating the terms of service I just cited.”
“Who’s ever read those? What did I do?”
“Don’t play stupid. You broke the rule against being mean to cyclocross race promoters from Schenectady.”
“This is a joke, right? I had no idea he was from Schenectady. I made that up!”
The nicer of the two cops sat me on the edge of the bed. “Look, we’ve read the entire thread. Just confess and we’ll put in a good word on your behalf to Mr. Zuckerberg.”
“But I didn’t do anything! He said I was a crashtacular fred and that I should take his skills classes. I called him a newt and a salamander. What’s the big deal? These little Tweetle Beetle paddle-battles happen all the time. It’s Facebag, for fugg’s sake.”
The bad cop grabbed me. “Look, asshole. That wasn’t your ordinary paddle-battle!”
“No, wise guy, it wasn’t!”
“What was it, then?”
They both shouted in unison: “It was a Tweetle Beetle paddle-battle in a muddle in a bottle!”
The room became still as death. “Oh,” I said meekly.
“See?” said the bad cop. “Shit got real enough for ya now?”
The good cop put his arm around my shoulder as I softly sobbed. “It’s okay. Just sign this confession. We’ll both tell Mark you cooperated.”
“But all I did was go over his race resume on Cycling USA and point out what a wanker he was.”
“I know,” said the good cop as he dabbed at my tears.
“And I just said that for a coach he seemed kind of thin on credentials.”
“It’s okay, pal. Sign here.”
“And he called me a fucktard and said I was whacko and called Mrs. WM a ‘mail-order bride.’”
The bad cop was reviewing the comments. “Quit trying to make yourself out as harmless. Says right here you made fun of his second place finish in a road race.”
“There were only six entries!”
“And over here you made fun of all his DNF’s.”
“But he’s a ‘cross expert. Shouldn’t he at least be able to finish?”
The nice cop looked up. “This wouldn’t have been so bad if you hadn’t involved Dr. Knoll.”
“Dr. Knoll?” asked the bad guy. “The stinky foot doctor?”
“That’s Dr. Scholl. Dr. Knoll is the shrink for cyclists. He only gets involved when it’s serious. Or when someone pays. Or when he’s really bored.”
“Look, pal,” said the bad cop. “You signing or not? We ain’t got all day.”
I sighed and took the pen. It was a short confession: “I, Wanky, do hereby admit to having made fun of a cyclocross promoter from Schenectady such that it became a Tweetle Beetle paddle-battle in a muddle in a bottle. I henceforth promise to never do this again. A second violation will result in revocation of my Facebag license and loss of all paddle-battle bottle muddle KOM’s on Strava.”
I signed, and they left. After a few minutes I checked Facebag. “Wankmeister is a douchey crashtacular fred who needs to take my skills class,” read the item in the newsfeed. The writer was a cyclocross promoter in Scranton. My pulse quickening, I opened up and began reading the terms of service.
October 24, 2013 § 44 Comments
There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned, head-first collision with the pavement in excess of 37 mph to make you think about your helmet. Mine was a Specialized Fancyass Racer, a couple of years old, doing replacement duty for a newer Giro Superfancyass Racer that I retired when I backflipped my bike doing a wheelie and cracked my skull and helmet.
The moment when your head hits the pavement that hard, shit gets real, or, as they say, “Nothing ever happens until it happens to you.” The blow was so solid, so strong, so sure, so confident, so unforgiving, that in the microsecond before I went into shock I recall thinking, “Wonder if I’m a quad now?”
When you hit the deck your body goes into self-test mode. Start with the extremities. Toes and fingers work? Check. Then you move the head a little. Neck work? Check. Then a few seconds as you wait for the pain waves to wash over, then subside, and in between sets you check other body parts.
“Arms? Fine. Left leg? Check. Right leg? Oh, fuck. That hurts.” Then having identified the first most acute pain, you zero in for further diagnosis. A little or a lot of movement tells you that it’s broken or it’s not, and all the while your friends are staring at you anxiously telling you “Don’t move,” and “The ambulance is coming,” and of course, “Your bike’s fine, dude.”
It’s not until you find out the condition of the bike that you can relax and submit yourself to fate. Of course.
It was luck and it was physics
I’ve often thought that bike helmets were made to protect you in low speed crashes rather than high speed ones. Apparently, it’s just the opposite. Helmets are designed to withstand straight-on, high impact blows that are powerful enough to break apart the styrofoam and absorb the energy, deflecting it from your skull and brain. Lower speed, twisting hits may not be helped by helmets at all, as the force isn’t enough to cause the styrene to absorb the blow, which is instead transmitted directly to the skull and brain.
Bad shit happens after that, and to really understand the science you need to know about rotational acceleration and stuff. But if you don’t really want to understand it just imagine a block of tofu that gets shaken until cracks develop. Oh … the tofu is your brain, and the cracks are your new friend, Mr. Concussion.
If you really want to know more about your brain and its interaction with massive impact, read this excellent article here.
My own helmet was crushed. The exterior still hung together on my head, but the styrofoam was crisscrossed with cracks. Who would have thought that the best way to use a helmet was by smacking your head at huge speed directly on the tarmac? Since the blow, although direct, was slightly off to the left side of my crown, and since I hit at a slight angle, the force went from my head to my shoulders and finally the right side of my body, terminating in my right hip, upon which I came to rest.
I still can’t believe I’m alive, or not in the ICU, or not dealing with (even more) brain damage. But as that clever little FB posty thingy says, “Everything happens for a reason, and the reason is usually physics.” I hit hard enough to break the polystyrene. I hit it straight on as I rolled into a tuck. My shoulder and side absorbed the blow rather than my thin and fragile neck. Despite putting on a great show for my pals, I eventually got back on the bike and rode off to the coffee shop. The day ended with some careful medical treatment by Dr. IPA.
The great anti-helmet revolutionary
I started riding with a hardshell helmet in 2005. Before that I rode with my hair. For a season or two, in 84 and 85, I rode with a hairnet. Then, when the USCF required hardshell helmets for 1986, I rebelled. I wrote several letters to the USCF, which have hopefully been destroyed, in which I argued like a crazy person against hardshell helmets. I can’t remember what silly things I said, but I do remember using the example of not having to use a helmet on a motorcycle. Compellingly stupid stuff …
On my own I refused to wear a helmet, and laughed at all the chicken-littles who were so diffident towards their own cycling skills that they couldn’t stay out of trouble and instead had to depend on a silly helmet. In 2005, when I began riding in West Houston, my appearance on the rides in wool clothes, a steel bike, and no helmet engendered so much anger and hostility that I finally caved in. The helmet became a habit, and with a few notable exceptions (forgetting to put it on one morning before the Donut Ride), I don’t ride without it.
Thanks to yesterday’s massive blow to the head, my tofu may have actually solidified. There’s no universe I can imagine in which I’m on a bike and not wearing headgear. But in the back of my mind, I know it wasn’t all just about physics. It was also about dumb, uncaring, random luck.
October 23, 2013 § 71 Comments
So, yesterday morning I wrote about the dangers of cycling, and a few hours after posting I went out and joined up with the NPR for our twice-weekly beatdown. With a thousand yards to go, a wanker who had sucked wheel and flailed for the entire ride dashed up to the front, grabbed the wheel of the leadout train, touched a wheel, slid out, and knocked down ten other riders.
My head hit the asphalt at 37.4 mph, according to Strava, leaving my helmet structurally disintegrated, but firmly attached to my head. Aside from skinned knuckles, a touch of road rash, a very sore hip, and a blinding headache, I was good enough to saddle up and ride back to CotKU, where Em and Jake bought me a latte. From there I pedaled in to work.
Others were less fortunate. Shattered frames were everywhere. Shredded uniforms. Road rash galore. Stitched up knees. Broken collarbone. Broken wrist. Trashed wheels. I still can’t believe that no one was catastrophically injured. “What,” I wondered, “was it all for? What in the world were we doing?”
Foremost, we were dressing up in clown suits, riding clown bicycles, and trying to go as fast as we could without crashing. We failed. The queue of motorists could have only thought one thing: “What a bunch of fucking idiots.”
So, there’s the inevitable post-mortem. Choose the one(s) you like best.
1. The Dominic Felde Theory: Everyone who hasn’t raced in Belgium and had 30 years experience racing at the highest levels is a fucking kook. Kick them out of the ride or avoid them by doing your own ride or scream at them until they slink away.
2. The Rahsaah Bahati Theory: This was a teachable moment. We should be patient educators with people who dash up to the end of the lead-out train at the end of the ride and then take out ten people and cause $25,000 in damage because they overlapped a wheel.
3. The Seth Davidson Theory: Bicycling is dangerous. You will eventually fall and get hurt. No exceptions.
4. The Pablo Maida Theory: After a huge crash like that, the one thing we’ve learned is that it’s important to finish the pedal home by strapping your helmet onto your handlebars and ride with the wind in your hair, carefree.
5. The Joe Yule Theory: I have catastrophic crashes all the time, and it’s because of those damned kooks.
6. The Pokey-Kneed Dude’s Theory: Did I do something wrong?
7. The Chris Gregory Theory: What in the world was I doing up there?
8. The David Jaeger Theory: When you are in a group ride winding up to a sprint and you neither know nor trust most of the riders around you, swing over, head to the back, and let someone else take the glory or the road rash, as the case may be.
9. The Peyton Cooke Theory: Make sure you’re going fast enough so that the crash happens behind you.
10. The Eric Anderson Theory: I won. Again.
11. The Marc Spivey Theory: Never go anywhere without your camera and the ability to quickly upload to Facebook.
12. The Damian Stevens Theory: Find the escape chute and let the other wankers hit the deck.
13. The Suze Sonye Theory: Next time I see someone riding like a jackass, I’m chewing his ass. Oh, wait, I already did!
14. The Elijah Shabazz Theory: I was the fastest dude there, except for the dudes ahead of me.
15. The FB Commenters’ Theory: What the fugg were you wankers doing going that hard in October?
16. The Baby Seals’ Theory: Is the ride still on for Thursday?
As a participant to the crash, the only one of the above theories that I can discuss with any intelligence is #16. And the answer is “Yes.”
October 17, 2013 § 39 Comments
I get angry often, despite the beer, but then I remember: Every person has to learn all of human history anew. So, here is an explanation of that most complicated, subtle, and elusive act of cycling, the pull. Commit this shit to memory, yo.
The pull is the essence of cycling. It reveals your character. It defines your ride. It makes you a person or a non-entity. It defines you. So here is what you need to know about the pull. What is it? When to do it? How to do it? Would you like fries with that?
- The Tri-Dork Pull: The Tri-Dork Pull is done at 35 mph until everyone on your wheel melts into a puddle of goo. To paraphrase Yoda, “There is no ‘why.’” There is no reason or rhyme to this pull; Tri-Dork pulls at the front, forever, because he can. Tactics don’t matter. Races don’t matter. Physics don’t matter. You sure as fug don’t matter. Whether it’s five miles or five days, the Tri-Dork Pull is the immaculate conception of pulling. It happens, purely, because it can. It is the Sir Edmund Hillary of pulls: “Because it is there. And because those behind you will quit.” The Tri-Dork Pull plots a declining IQ to infinity on the x-axis, and time on the front on the y-axis. Current practitioner: There is only one Tri-Dork.
- The Thurlow Pull: This pull is done to split the field, to crack the will of the feeble, to demonstrate physical and mental superiority over the herd. It is repeated and relentless. In the words of the Black Knight, “None shall pass.” And none ever do. This pull is only done by the truly cruel. It is knowing, conscious, and designed to ruin. Most often, it is employed on rides like the NPR and Swami’s in order to crush the barking seals and watch them choke on fresh sardines as the split rides away on Lap One. Current practitioners: Rudy, MMX, Ryan Dahl, Brian Zink, Phil Tinstman.
- The Racer Pull: This is calculated time on the front, just enough to make the wanker on your wheel spit up a lung, but not so hard that you can’t catch back on. Do this pull when you’ve been ordered to the front to keep the enemy’s balls in a vise, or when you’re in a break and trying to stay away, or when you’re on the NPR and you’ve been ordered to club a brace of seals before the World Way Ramp. Current practitioners: Josh Alverson, Eric Anderson, Dave Jaeger.
- The Fireman Pull: This is the most noble and complex and difficult pull of all, because it combines ability to go fast with ability to hurt with loyalty to the team in the face of certain extermination. This is the pull that drags a teammate across the infinite empty space to the break, and, once accomplished, you fall to the wayside like the spent undercarriage of a three-stage rocket. This pull is pain with a purpose, perfectly executed. The executioner is held in eternal awe by all who sit on his wheel. Current practitioners: John Wike, Greg Lonergan, Harry Martinez.
- The Self-Immolation Pull: This is the top o’ the heap in the world of wanker pulls. The self-immolator knows not why he pulls and blows, and cares not. He only grits his teeth into the wind, the rain, the muck, or the hopelessness of defeat, and makes those behind him wish they were having their livers gnawed out by cannibals. The self-immolator’s single goal is that someone out there hurt as badly as he hurts. Current practitioners: Bull Seivert, Dave Miller, James Cowan, Sven that Dude from Norway Who Has Thankfully Gone Home.
- The Faux Pull: This pathetic effort is barely worthy of mention, except that its practitioners are far better than those human dregs who never even reach the front. The faux pull is a cheap, weak, worthless, infinitely fake “effort” at the front designed only to act as a placeholder while earning some kind of equally faux respect from those who actually pull the train. It is typically done 2-3 mph slower than the rider who swings over. Usually only happens after you’ve been shouted at, cursed, or repeatedly yelled at for doing #8 below. Current masters of the genre: Spivey, Wankmeister.
- The Glory Pull: This piece of shit effort only occurs when there’s a camera, video, or finish line somewhere in the offing. It consists of a feeble, fake, weak, worthless half-second at the front that is designed to garner a few clicks of the camera shutter and perhaps a photo by Danny Munson or Phil Beckman or Kristy Morrow. Current master practitioner: Brad House.
- The Gap Pull: This is possibly the lamest pull of all time. To do it properly you rotate up to the guy who is on the point, then, when he swings over, YOU swing over. This pusillanimous, sniveling, shitass pull puts the person behind you in the hellish position of having to pass two wankers to get to the point, weakens him, and costs you nothing other than the pride you were obviously never born with. You’d be ashamed, but you’re shameless. The only possible redeeming aspect of this awful pull is that, sitting second wheel on a fast ride, you’re at least doing more work than the wankers behind you. Current practitioners: Hockeystick, others.
- The Top 10 Pull: Now we’re getting down into the real shit-pit of wankerdom, and you know who you are. The Top 10 Pull is where you keep yourself in the top ten, usually ninth or tenth, and never move up in the rotation, constantly gapping out, swinging over to catch the wheel rotating back after a real rider has done a hard hit, then sneaking back up again. The benefit to this is that it keeps you out of the Freddy scrum, where tires rub, shoulders and bars bump, and clogstacles tump over at turnarounds and stop lights. It also gives you a pretty sweet draft and, depending on the ride, allows you to pedal with the good riders. The down side is that, done repeatedly, this tags you as one of the worst riders in the group — happy to live off the efforts of others, never willing to contribute, yet refusing to make room for those who are actually trying to move up in the line. Current practitioners: Multiple.
- The Glance Pull: Although this is usually a function of weakness, and therefore not worthy of much scorn, the glance pull is effected by swinging over to the edge of the pack (you’re in the middle), and glancing up the road to see who’s up front. You should be so far back that you can’t see, and this distance justifies your decision to slink back into the scrum, as it would be altogether too much work to pedal all the way up to the point and actually do some work. Current practitioners: Lots and lots.
- The Neverpull: The neverpull is practiced so much by so many that it requires little elaboration. What’s interesting is that people go for years and years never taking a pull. These welfare leeches are often the same folks who vote Republican and who can’t stand it when people in the real world get something for nothing. Yet they hide in the group, day in and day out, refusing to even try to share the work. They always have an excuse for shirking, but no one cares what it is. Current practitioners: Zillions.
- The FB Pull: If there’s anything lamer than the neverpull, and trust me, there isn’t, it’s the Facebag Pull. You execute this move when you’ve been caught out on video or when someone complains about your wheelsuckery on social media. Simply go to your keyboard and tell people how hard you pulled that one time on Lap Three.
Okay, kids, any questions? No? Good. Class dismissed.
October 13, 2013 § 12 Comments
I know we’ve never met, but that’s the beauty of Al Gore’s Internet. I feel like I know you from our correspondence, from your guest post on the blog about bike racing in Belgium in the 70′s, and of course from your wine.
I don’t really drink wine.
I used to, though.
Except for a handful of occasions that I’ll carry in memory as long as I have memory, wine was always above my pay grade. It tasted fine enough, and dog knows I drained my share of bottles, but wine always escaped me. There were a few times in Miami, Texas, when I sat around an old wooden table with my friends the Philpotts and drank wine out of a box. Then, when it was just the wine and the friends and conversation, I could fasten onto the wine properly, get both hands around its neck, so to speak.
Mostly, when friends would stand around and enjoy and discuss and grapple with their wine, I’d just feel like the clod I am.
“Where,” I always wondered, hopelessly, “is the beer?”
Those are some mighty thought-provoking books
The last time you mailed me a couple of bottles of your wine, they came shipped to my office as books. I took them to a party and my friends who are good wine wrestlers and who pronounced them “really good.” I thought they were really good, too, but couldn’t get much of a chokehold on them. Someone had brought beer, which I’d already gotten into, and your wine didn’t mix all that great with my beer. The minute I tried to put it in a half-Nelson, it flipped me on my back and pinned me pretty easy, then escaped.
The handful of times I’d wrangled wine and been the pinner instead of the pinnee it had been in France or up in the Panhandle. In France it had been around a big family table with my wife’s friends. The wine wasn’t a focus, it was a foundation, like the foundation to every great building. You might have thought about it a little, but mostly it tied together what you were eating and what you were saying. Nobody talked about it. Everybody knew it was there.
So when you sent me a couple of bottles of your private reserve Syrah last week, I was grateful and I had a plan. I wasn’t going to drink it anywhere but home. And even though I don’t know what a “private reserve” or even a “Syrah” was (I assumed it wan’t a “sirrah,” but wasn’t sure), I knew this: we’d drink it on our terms.
The nose knows
My wife’s nose is beautifully sensitive. Mine isn’t. She gets shades and undertones and riffs and syncopations of smells. I can basically tell “portapotty” or “not portapotty.”
One of my favorite dishes is her spicy minced Thai chicken with white Japanese rice. It’s great beer food, and probably not listed anywhere as “Goes great with Yellow Dog private reserve Syrah.”
Since we only have one wine glass, a bowl-thing with no stem, we had to share. We got it as a gift, like the wine you sent us. There’s something romantic about drinking from the single wine cup in your cupboard with your single love. We drained most of the first bottle. It was truly beautiful. Yasuko had many discerning comments to make about the wine’s flavor and about how good it was. I can’t share them because I don’t remember them, only I’m pretty sure none of them were wine bottle label adjectives. Never seen “I love you” on the back of a wine bottle.
All I can say is that it washed down the dinner with a confidence and finality that made the meal a thing it couldn’t have ever otherwise been, or imagined being. And of course I thought of you and your wife, strangers but not, actually, with every single sip.
Your stranger pal,Seth
October 9, 2013 § 32 Comments
Several baby seals, confused by the vicious clubbing and strewing of brain matter about the Parkway, have sent me emails requesting to know the “rules” by which the NPR is organized. Although the typical answer to such inquiries is a vicious blow to the head and skinning, I’ve decided to answer. Here they are.
- There are no rules.
- There is no off season.
- If you didn’t go to the front repeatedly until you aspirated your own shit, you didn’t do the NPR.
- First wanker to cross the plane of the starting point of the third island on the fourth lap wins.
- The group must obey all traffic laws.
- The break must break all traffic laws.
- If you are repeatedly towards the front but rarely on it, you are a baby seal, worthless except for clubbing.
- If you are towards the front and don’t pull through, you are a baby seal, worthless except for clubbing.
- If you won the sprunt and didn’t take at least five shit-aspirating pulls, you are a baby seal, worthless except for clubbing.
- Do not let your head droop, lest you become a baby seal, worthless except for clubbing.
- NPR is terrible training, therefore you must do it to win or to aspirate your own shit.
- One point for the win; most points by the annual South Bay Cycling Awards is crowned Champion of the NPR.
- The noblest NPR win is solo.
- The second noblest win is out of a break.
- The third noblest win is by beating another team’s leadout train.
- The most ignoble win is by following wheels.
- All wins are equal.
- On the NPR, Strava is for shit.
- Better to dig, blow, and get shelled than to follow and finish with the group.
- Everyone knows the wheelsucks.
- One all-out effort at the front equals an entire year of FB wheelsuckery.
- The nastier the weather, the greater the cred.
- The highest form of NPR-ism is pushing the weak when you’re gassed.
- Advice is better spoken than screamed with flecks of spit and snot dribbling around your mouth.
- No one forgets.
- NPR-ists always forgive.
- Thou shalt never brag about taking a pull. Those who matter saw it. Those who didn’t, think you’re a lying sack of shit.
- The only thing lower than a baby seal is a shrimpdick who chops a chick’s wheel.
- If you “join the group” after the bump up Pershing, you are a baby seal, worthless except for clubbing.
- If you reach World Way Ramp without having aspirated your own shit, you are a baby seal, worthless except for clubbing.
- When in doubt, go to the front.
That is all.
October 8, 2013 § 29 Comments
Sometimes I work on my bike. This means I take a bucket, fill it with soapy water, and clean the frame, wheels, and chain. It’s very satisfying, working on my bike, even though I can’t adjust the brakes, wrap the bars, adjust the derailleur (still have no idea what those screw doohickies do), put on new hoods, replace the bottom bracket, mount anything, or take anything off without ruining it forever.
True a wheel? False.
Still, squatting down on my balcony and scrubbing away grit so that when the bike is re-oiled and dry and clean, well, it feels good. It’s therapeutic. My mind is, for once in the day, going faster than the events surrounding it. It’s a moment for reflection.
Two kinds of bikers
There are only two, you know. Those who can work on their bike, really work on it. And those who can’t. In the old days it didn’t make any sense to talk about a pro cyclist who couldn’t wrench his own bike. They all could, and did. Watch the old Eddy movie, La Course en Tete, and you’ll see him building up his own frame, even putting on the decal. Find a pro cyclist today who can wrench his own bike and, well, you’ll find a rarity.
Growing up there was always that same divide, except there was no such thing as a boy who couldn’t work on his own bike. The distinction was, instead, kids who were good at it and kids who sucked. Thrift is the mother of mechanics, and what kid had money to have his bike worked on? But the ones who were good soon enough gravitated to lawnmowers, then 50cc motors, then dirt bikes, then cars.
There was always an aura around a kid who was a great mechanic. Jeff Little was the one in my elementary school. His dad had a car shop, and Jeff lived in the shop, he lived the shop. I was the kid whose bike always creaked and wobbled and was never quite bolted together right. One day Jeff came up to me, with his pals all standing around. “Hey, I can get you a good part time job,” he said.
“Oh,” I answered, sensing a nasty trap, since I wasn’t old enough to work and since he’d never given me anything except the occasional beating.
“Yeah. Pays ten bucks an hour.”
That was outrageous. Ten dollars an hour? Impossible. But I couldn’t resist. “What kind of job is it?”
“Changing spark plugs on diesel engines. You’d be great at it.” The other kids started to laugh.
I knew there was a joke there somewhere, but couldn’t figure out what it was. It might be the wage. Ten dollars was outrageous. Nah, that was the hook. So it had to be something about the spark plugs. Were they really easy to change, and by saying “okay” I’d show I didn’t know how foolish I was to think someone would pay me for something that easy? Or were they really difficult to change, so that you had to be a grown man with years of experience to do it? I pondered it all, time standing still in that funny way it does when you’re a kid. Or maybe you couldn’t put a spark plug in a diesel engine. What the hell was a diesel engine, anyway? I knew they belonged in trucks. That must be the catch. “Really?” I said. “Must be a pretty fancy diesel engine if it takes spark plugs.”
I had guessed, wildly, and hit the mark. Jeff’s face screwed up. “You’re a punk,” he said, and pushed me into the dirt. Even if your joke fails, when you’re a kid car mechanic and tough you can always make up for it with a beating.
A bike shop is for parts
I spent my formative years around Midwestern bike racers. Fields, Dogbait, Scott Dickson, they never, ever had anyone work on their bike for money. They were utterly contemptuous of paying a mechanic, and they were cheap. The two concepts went hand in hand. Why pay someone for something that, with a modicum of effort, any fool could do for himself? If they went to a bike shop, it was to buy a part, and even that took some doing, as they viewed spending money on bicycles a kind of foolishness and wastefulness unsuited to real men.
Even my roommate Robert Doty, no genius with a wrench, did every bit of wrenching he could on his own. In those days, bikes could be taken apart and put back together by anyone with a small brain and modest amount of determination. I lacked both, though, and was a constant patron of the bike shop. It was in the bike shop that the mechanics’ contempt, usually subtle, was at its most blatant. Here were things so simple and basic and idiot-proof that anyone could do it except for you (and all the people like you), and so other grown men would have to do for you what a child should be able to do. For money.
I still remember how, chimp-like, I would stare at Uncle Phil as he magically built wheels, clearly bored out of his mind, or how Mike Murray would sigh at the day’s workload of having to build up a dozen frames or more. They were grand physicists unlocking the secrets of the universe as far as I was concerned. I felt stupid, but didn’t mind it, in part because I could always reclaim part of my dignity on the weekend hammerfests.
The bike as a child’s toy
The great mysteries of the bicycle were revealed to me when I met Dan Gammill. A mechanical engineer with a degree from Rice University, he was a towering intellect. For Dan, the bicycle fit on the scale of mechanical complexity right down there with the workings of a hammer. In addition to being able to completely rebuild and refinish pianos, he built airplanes, built and rebuilt car engines with his eyes closed, designed buildings, poured slabs, framed houses, did electrical wiring, and performed each of these things with the skill of a master craftsman who, you might think, had dedicated his life to that and nothing else.
I would call him a genius except that it might detract from the incredible amount of labor he did to hone all of his engineering and mechanical skills. He explained it to me like this.
“When I was about seven, my dad took me out into the garage and showed me how to take apart and rebuild a lawnmower engine. I did it twice. Then he said, ‘Okay, you’re in business.’”
“In what business?” I asked Dan.
“Lawnmower repair. My dad started bringing me lawnmowers to repair.”
“Where’d they come from?”
“Our neighbors. And I asked him how come adults would let a kid fix their lawnmower. And you know what he said?”
“He said, ‘Son, the average man is a complete fool and couldn’t change the oil in his car if his life depended on it. Remember that, and you’ll never go hungry.’”
My other big revelation about the simplicity of bikes was the year when my friend Sue Kidwell was going to do the Tour of the Gila. She and Fields were staying in Oklahoma, and I’d gone up to OKC for a race. They were staying at Sue’s team manager’s house. His name was Mark White. He was ordinarily a car mechanic for his dad’s auto race team, but was managing the bike team over the summer.
Watching a professional car mechanic work on bicycles communicated the incredibly boring, stupid, and simple nature of the bike as far as real mechanics were concerned. The thing that to me was one of the universe’s great mysteries was so stupidly simple as to be an insult to anyone who even pretended to be a real mechanic.
So I learned, forever, that I wasn’t simply stupid, I was on a mechanical level equal to that of a bacterium, or lower. A triathlete, even.
Boneheads love company
Thankfully, as bikes have gotten electrified, and disc brake-ified, and carbonified, fewer and fewer people can actually work on their own bikes. So the stupid class has increased in numbers, giving job security to the mechanical class. It’s much less of a humiliation now to say, “I have no idea what to do with this thingy” than it was thirty years ago, when you had to sneak into the bike shop under cover of darkness and beg for a derailleur adjustment in order to avoid the public shaming.
But even though all I can do, really, is clean my bike and oil my chain, it still feels good to look at my hands and see gunk on them. It’s productive, cleaning the bike. “Productive? How?” you ask. Well, it wrote today’s blog.
October 6, 2013 § 17 Comments
I took a spill yesterday and have healed up nicely. It happened when I popped a wheelie, then turned it into a backflip.
When I did the Donut Ride today, I noticed something funny. Every time I thought about popping a wheelie, or even doing a bunny hop, I got intensely anxious.
Then I thought about previous accidents I’ve had and about how the following day there has always been a fear that lingers, sometimes for a little while, sometimes longer. I thought about friends like Ron Peterson, David Worthington, and Andy Jessup, all of whom had catastrophic accidents that left them with serious physical injuries. Each one mentioned, in varying degrees, that the injuries weren’t just physical.
The Internet revealed that motor vehicle accident-related trauma is common. One web site had an article that discussed ways for cyclists to “get back on the bike” after an accident, or even after a hair-raising close call. It’s easy to see why bike crashes create trauma. The act of falling reinforces what we already know — that despite the safety of cycling, when you go down you’re vulnerable. Our hips and elbows, joints that have no padding, often bear the full brunt of the impact.
Even when you’re only “banged up a bit,” the moment you slip back into the group, you become keenly aware of things you hadn’t noticed before.
“Wow, we’re really close together.”
“Shit, that guy’s a dangerous wheel.”
“Damn, that car came by fast.”
“We’re hauling. If something were to happen now … “
You had noticed these things before, but you had filed them away in the “not happenin’ to me” folder. You’d accepted your immortality, and the crash put you back on notice that you’re mortal and damned fragile, too.
Cyclists and PTSD
Since we’re all aware of the inevitability of crashing, and since it happens with regularity, we have a hardened attitude towards accidents. We are there for our friends with sympathy and resources, but we’re also there with no small measure of tough love. “Get back on the bike and get over it. You think you fell hard? Talk to John Velez.” And our favorite way of cajoling our pals back onto the bike is good-natured ribbing.
“If you haven’t mastered wheelies by twelve, maybe you shouldn’t be trying at fifty.”
“At least you hit your head, instead of something important.”
I caught my share of flak, and I received my share of genuine concern from those who were with me after the accident, and those who heard about it. But the best words of all came from Victor Sheldon, in a Strava comment. He understood my shame at having tried and failed to master a child’s bike trick.
“Don’t ever grow up,” he said. “And keep trying.”
It’s the last part that, subtly, rubbed salve on the psyche. Get back on the bike. Keep trying. Don’t give up. And Trey Smith’s offer of free 10-speed wheelie lessons?
I’ll take him up on it.
October 5, 2013 § 6 Comments
Any awards ceremony that begins with a big mahogany penis wearing a hula skirt, and finishes at midnight with various lovely drunken people licking white cake icing off the end of the wooden dick is an awards ceremony that you won’t soon forget. Nor will you likely want footage of it shown to prospective employers or potential spouses you’ve met through “It’s Just Lunch.”
I was nervous as we drove to Naja’s for the Inaugural South Bay Cycling Awards, or the South Bay Oscars, or, more simply, the “Wanky Awards” as they were proclaimed by a giant spray-painted bedsheet draped over a 50-keg stockpile of beer. The nerves came from uncertainty. I had set the time and place, sent out several hundred Facebook invites, and done little else.
The week before, Derek urged me to call the bar to see if they could even accommodate us. “They might not be expecting 150 people to show up on a Thursday night, take over the bar, set up a PA, start playing music, and then conduct an all-night awards ceremony.”
He had a point, so I did what all great leaders do. I delegated. “Why don’t you call ‘em for me?”
In addition to not knowing whether a thirsty and award-hungry pack of cyclists would descend on Naja’s and be turned away, causing the whole party to flame out, I was terribly anxious about my bow tie, which I’d lashed to my neck after several hours of intense YouTube “how-to” video study. As part of the ceremony, I’d committed to donning a tux in order to match the sexy little black dresses of Chris & Sherri, my award hander-outers.
Would the bow tied stay tied?
Would it stay straight?
If it untied, how many hours would it take to re-tie?
These were the important questions that swirled in my head.
And of course, how would Brad take being awarded Wanker of the Year?
The day after
The following morning I awoke with no headache. Awards had been given. Wankers had been recognized. Stuffed seals had been clubbed with a toy hammer. A birthday cake large enough to feed a hundred people had been devoured. Amazing quantities of Strand Brewing Co. beer had been swilled.
Heartfelt words had been spoken in that cyclist way: Brief, oftentimes shy, always appreciative and happy, except for the Wanker of the Year, who bragged about his whack-off skills and left the audience with a horrific mental image that most could only erase with beer.
In celebratory style, I went for a morning bike ride with several of the crew. Trey raised his front tire and rode a wheelie all the way up the first hill. “That’s cool!” I thought.
When they stopped for coffee I continued on. Going up Forrestal, I practiced a few wheelies. Then, as I approached a walker and a yard crew, I raised the front wheel. They looked on in surprise, not used to seeing a wheelie on a ten-speed.
Their surprise increased as the wheel raised way up and tossed me onto my back. My skull hit the pavement with a crack and my back absorbed the full impact of the backflip. I made that horrible death-rattle that you make when you’ve had the wind knocked out of you, and the bystanders rushed over, sure I was dead.
My wife drove me home, sore and bruised and bleeding at the elbow and suffering from a monstrous headache. Mrs. WM had been recognized the night before as the most-suffering spouse in the South Bay.
Wanker of the Year, indeed.
October 2, 2013 § 22 Comments
Every day I climb it on the way home. I know it intimately, its cracks, its pitch, where it flattens out, where it leaps up at its worst, the manhole cover with the fissures around it, its little traps, curbs, streets and driveways that empty onto it, its stoplights, the color and texture of its pavement.
On a good day, this hill sits with a kind of passive obstinacy, opposing me but shrugging when I surge up it. On a bad day it thwarts every pedal stroke and makes me feel small, human. On a terrible day it dares me with pangs and searing stabs to ascend so much as a foot.
There are no wonderful days on this hill.
This hill’s drivers are of a certain character, hurried, a bit rude, vaguely contemptuous of my efforts. “Why don’t you drive?” they think. “It’s faster and a whole lot easier.”
Still, a few of them marvel. I can feel it through the windshields of their cages. “I couldn’t do that,” they muse. “He is in great shape,” they admit. “I wonder if … ” they wonder.
If they ever slowed down to ask, I’d tell them, “I’m not. You can.”
The hill doesn’t admit of ever being conquered. Some days you go up faster, some slower. That is all. As an inanimate beast it doesn’t engage you., you engage it. My best time and best effort is as meaningless to the hill as my slowest time, my weakest climb.
The hill is a bad relationship, it gets in my head early in the day and won’t leave until we have it out. Then I can forget about it until the next day, when I have to go down it, my thrill at the speed dampened by my glum realization that the fun of the descent is never equal to the misery of the return.
But like a bad relationship, the hill and I stay together because one of us needs the other, and the other doesn’t care. If the hill only cared, it would be a good relationship, even with the pain. I must have the hill in order to climb into my beer and drink my bed. The hill doesn’t need me at all.
Yet there is a secret behind all the complaining, just like the bad relationship. In my quietude I don’t simply need the hill. I like it. With a twist of the ignition it would be easy to obliterate the hill entirely, erase it with internal combustion horsepower. If the hill were really that bad, I’d leave it, easily, behind the wheel of the great-great-great-great grandchild of Henry Ford.
And that’s the secret, in a nutshell. The hill exists, impervious to me. And I impose myself, briefly, upon it.